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Friday, 31 December 2010

... Onwards to 2011

I don't want to call this a collection of resolutions. Those are broken too easily. Neither will I call them pledges. The connotations of slimy politicians attached to that word are too potent for my liking. So let's call this a list of decisions. Something a politician has yet to make satisfactorily. (Putting the claws away now)

I have decided to work at my PhD until my eyes blur and give in from over-use. I will not try and figure out ways of getting around the work and I will be the most coherent and widely-read student I can be. I love my subject and I'm not half-bad at it. Come 2012 I will have been upgraded from MPhil to PhD status.

I have decided to focus on revising the unpublished novels I have waiting around before starting something new. One in particular has tremendous potential and with a restructure of plot I think it could really be something. By 2012 I will have revised this and (hopefully) submitted it.

I have decided to continue with my good form of the last few months as far as submitting short stories goes. I will submit at least two a month to various competitions and aim to write a new one at least once a month. (I realise that doesn't add up but deal with it)

I have decided to be the best friend I can be and be there for people who I know would be there for me in a heartbeat. I've got some great people around me and I need to appreciate them more. Also in this area, I will contact some old friends and family members I've neglected for too long.

Finally, I have decided that 2011 is the year to let go of the dreams that cannot be and focus on the dreams that can. I envisage this being the difficult one but I'm up for the challenge.

Happy New Year to one and all.

Farewell 2010...

I must admit, at first I had some difficulty in establishing what had changed in my life this year. After all, I'm still living in the same place with my father and I'm still in the same relationship I was twelve months ago. Yes, I'm doing a PhD but I was reading so many books before that I really can't tell the difference...

The truth is, though, I've accomplished more than I thought I could, at least on a personal level. I've left two jobs of my own accord and devoted myself entirely to a subject whose depth astonishes me on a daily basis. I now have two full-length manuscripts vying to get themselves revised and published. I've also come on leaps and bounds with my confidence in the creative sense. Generally, I feel better about that aspect of my life.

I owe thanks to a lot of Twitter people for helping me out this year, whether by posting links to massively informative and inspirational blog posts or just responding to my own ramblings. And, of course, a special shout-out must go to the (old) stalwarts: Claire, Laura, Nicola and Sal who have all egged me on this year to the point where I want to strangle them. Thanks!

Since I started this blog back in April I've made 71 posts. These have been on subjects from politics to coincidence, but mainly concentrating on the world of writing and entertainment.

2010 saw the triumph of Downton Abbey, for instance. I was reluctant to watch it at first and allowed four episodes to build up before I started. Of course, then I sped through it. It's escapism, I think that's why it's so popular. Plus, it's well-written, it's coherent - both exceptional things in the world of modern television. Read my series review here.

As for the rest of the television world this year, I haven't really been into much. I've taken to watching American import, The Event, which I'm hooked on. It could be said that I've watched Glee religiously but there are gaps in the plot and characterisation on there that the Titantic could squeeze through. Coronation Street hit 50 and I tuned in for the special tram crash week. Aspects of the soap really make me want to keep watching as another form of escapism but I may put my fist through Kate Ford's face. We'll have to see what 2011 brings on that score.

I haven't read many books this year, many that aren't directly related to my degree anyway. I'm swimming in Sensation Fiction which is fine because I seem to have developed an adoration for it. However, several of the new books I've read this year I've managed to review: The Good Doctor, Tell It To The Bees, Nights At The Circus and The Haunted Hotel.

All in all, it hasn't been a terrible year. I've learned more than I thought and lost less than I should have.

I went to places I would never have considered going twelve months ago. I've met new people, reconnected with the old, and tried to be a decent human being. That's not a bad sum total for a year.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

LGBT Reading Challenge 2011

I've been skimming over the various challenges doing the rounds for the swiftly-approaching year and avoiding them through a sense of self-preservation. After all, I don't have time to participate in any old thing, not with the mound of work already climbing up to insurmountable heights before the first of the year.

However, I do need some relaxation time and if that time is earning me a tick on an imaginary list then all the better. So I'm going to take part in this challenge, use it to inspire my own writing, and discover some excellent books along the way.

I doubt I'll manage one a month but I'll stick that down as my goal.

For more information about the challenge go to this address.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Remembering Those We Lost In 2010

Every year we lose some remarkable people and their talents from the world. One of the sad rituals for me used to be watching the lists of people who had died in the last twelve months. I remember sitting there one year as Donald O'Connor flicked over the screen feeling absolutely heartbroken.

2010 feels like it's been a rollercoaster of obituaries and several have kicked me right in the stomach. For me, some of these announcements remind me how little our modern 'celebrities' offer. Unless they do it quickly some of the modern tripe won't be remembered when they die. So I just wanted to put together a brief list of people I'll particularly miss who have passed on this year.

Lena Horne
What do I think of when I think of Lena? Well, words that stem from her singing - feisty, sultry, sexy - and maybe have nothing to do with her as a person. But the public persona she held was unbelievably powerful. It came across in her famous renditions of Stormy Weather and Love Me Or Leave Me but also her lesser tracks. She had a great knack for telling a story through a song, she had an exceptional close and conversational style. My personal favourite song of hers is Poppa Don't Preach To Me, about a woman who finds a postcard from a girl to her father and (naturally) reads it. It's a wonderful number and it makes me smile every time I hear it.

Leslie Nielsen
I'll admit, I wasn't a fan of all his type of humour but he certainly had a way on camera that was incomparable. Personally, I remember him in one of his more sentimental roles, Chance of a Lifetime playing opposite Betty White. Oh, he still got the chance to flex his comedic muscles but it was the kind of movie I could watch with my grandmother and us both enjoy it equally.

Blake Edwards
I'm not familiar with much of Edwards' work. However, as he directed one of my favourite films, Victor/Victoria, it would be remiss not to mention him. That movie alone was beyond compare as a piece of cinematic pleasure. Add Breakfast at Tiffany's to a resume and that's a legacy without question.

Rue McClanahan
I adored Rue. Along with the other Golden Girls she was a foundation of my childhood. Again, I watched her with my grandmother. In the days when Living had a double bill on a Saturday morning I would listen for the theme music and pray it woke me up. I have memories of galloping down the stairs just in time to see four women sat around their table talking. Rue's character, Blanche, wasn't my favourite at the time but I don't think I was old enough to quite get her. After writing an essay on her and Dorothy I began to realise how fantastic a character she was, and Rue played her with such warmth. There were moments of genuine pain in The Golden Girls and they all pulled them off marvellously.

I realise that all my choices are from the world of entertainment but those are the deaths that have touched me this year. Of course, I've experienced jolts when other names have popped up in the obituaries but these four represent a loss to me.

So... RIP.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Why I Don't Use Unfollow Tools On Twitter

There are several applications out there that allow you to see who has unfollowed your Twitter account recently thus giving you the opportunity to unfollow them and get back to the real business of networking. To be honest, I find this distasteful to say the least.

When I follow someone on Twitter I make sure to look at their recent tweets and interests (and their website/blog if they have one). I like to be sure that the person I'm following is interesting to me and that I may even learn something from them. If someone has followed me then I'm pleased by that fact but I won't automatically follow them back just out of obligation.

There's no denying that Twitter is an excellent marketing and networking tool for writers. It allows people to come into contact with people they would otherwise have no chance of communicating with. It helps them develop the craft of writing and spread the word (in moderation) about their latest projects. It gives people the opportunity to recommend other tweeters that their followers might like and retweet stories that may be interesting to their followers. Twitter is very much a network of give and take.

Perhaps that's the very reason unfollow tools have become so popular. If someone isn't giving you anything (reading your tweets) then why should you give them anything (reading their tweets)?

Unfortunately, for me, it's not that clear-cut. If someone unfollows me I don't take it as a personal affront or a reason to get rid of them. I may be a little miffed that they didn't enjoy reading my tweets but that doesn't negate the reason I followed them in the first place and the enjoyment I get out of their tweets.

At the end of the day, that's what Twitter means to me.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Beware Character Amnesia

So your character has made a momentous decision. He/she is leaving their partner. They have decided to quit their job or move to the other side of the country or leave their children with no intention of ever seeing them again. That's sorted then: decision made and onto the next problem.

Not quite.

Characters are designed (hopefully) to be as realistic as possible. If you suddenly decide the person you love is no good for you (perhaps because they're a criminal or an expert manipulator) then you might make the choice to distance yourself but in reality it is not simply a case of drawing the line and sticking to it. We human beings constantly analyse our decisions and most of us dwell on the past at regular intervals. If your character leaves their children in chapter three then they will return to it in their heads at a later point - unless they have a very good reason for not doing so.

Of course, your viewpoint plays into this. If you have a first-person narrator then you may have to be a little more explicit than a third-person narrator would have to be when describing the after-effects of such a choice. Demonstrating internal conflicts can be an integral aspect of first-person narration and it's something that shouldn't be forgotten.

The key point here is that you must be prepared to deal with the consequences of killing someone off, moving someone out or making an altogether different life-altering choice. It cannot ever just be a means to an end. If your protagonist ditches his wife in chapter one and goes off to search for oil without ever mentioning her again, you have to wonder whether he should have had a wife to begin with. If she was simply a springboard for the main storyline to begin then maybe she could be replaced with something else which wouldn't baffle your readers when they failed to hear of it again.

It is irritating as a reader to come across something which you think will play a vital part in the ongoing plot only to realise it was a device that was utilised then abandoned. When that happens I lose faith in the author; not the book, because I've usually finished it before I realise what has (or hasn't) happened. But it would make any repeat business from me unlikely.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Coronation Street at 50

It may seem strange for a twenty three year-old to say that the era of Corrie she identifies as her favourite is the one during the decade before she was born.

Thanks to the wonder of now-defunct channel, Granada Plus, I spent most of my childhood caught up in the lives of Elsie Tanner, Ena Sharples, Rita Fairclough and company. The world of the contemporary Corrie was the period before the axeman, Brian Park, took hold. It was slightly boring and nothing at all like the episodes I idolised.

As Coronation Street celebrates fifty years on television there are a lot of people reminiscing. Indeed, ITV have Victoria Wood narrating a 'Top 50' moments as part of the celebrations. I was one of the many who voted in this and I wonder if I was the only person annoyed by the prescription of the exercise. After all, a drop-down box with a list of events that we had to pick ten of required somebody to narrow down what they thought were 'noteworthy' storylines. The number of modern ones included obviously pandered to the modern audience. We'll get a couple of classics in the top ten, I'm sure, but I would've liked a system of choosing half from the prescribed list then selecting some of their own. I'm sure some would've cropped up often enough to be included in the list.

No one denies that times have changed in the television world. The Barlow family sitting around the table throwing dismayed looks over the sauce bottle won't cut it in a world that wants action, action, action and non-stop emotional drama. Hence why a tram just crashed into the Corner Shop and dropped its rear end on Rita Sullivan's head. To be fair on Corrie, it doesn't indulge in enormous events as often as Eastenders and Emmerdale do. Of course, you get the disproportionate number of murders, fires and affairs, but very rarely is a huge slice of the population put in danger.

One of the reasons I stopped watching Coronation Street regularly about five years ago was the swelling size of the cast and the introduction of characters I couldn't be bothered to care about. I think that's still a problem. If I went in tomorrow as another Brian Park style axeman I would take out a number of characters without hesitation. John, Kirk, Cheryl, Russ, Chris, Lloyd, Steve, Janice, Dev, Sunita, the Windass family and Julie are some of the characters immediately on my hit list (this disregards any deaths from the tram crash as I'm avoiding spoilers like the plague for this one). My favourite current characters are some stalwarts and some new legends: Eileen, Rita, Emily, Peter, Carla and Sophie. It's no coincidence that five of them are women. Strong female characters are what Corrie has always done best.

However, if you look at the names on the cobbles now and compare them with the Seventies, for instance, there's no comparison. How do Elsie, Annie, Hilda and Ena stack up against Gail, Eileen, Becky and Leanne? The former wipe with the floor with the latter any day of the week. In another fifty years I don't know how many of the modern crop will be remembered but Elsie Tanner won't be a name easily forgotten.

It was while watching the first episode on Monday that I realised how good it once was. Pat Phoenix lit up the screen, Violet Carson made you smirk, Doris Speed made you feel faintly uncomfortable. I don't know if you can ever recapture that success; I don't even know if a modern audience would want to try.

There's a lot of talk that Corrie could continue for another half-century. Unfortunately, I don't think the appetite for good television will last that long. Coronation Street has already changed beyond recognition and you have to wonder how much further the soap can bend.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Book Review: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

I'm currently reading a lot of non-fiction books related to my PhD - cultural guides and the like - but this is the only one I've tried to read in one sitting and have been thoroughly engrossed by. Summerscale knows her subject impeccably. It's tremendous to think of the research she had to put into a three hundred page book, though the meticulous notes and select bibliography help give some indication of the extent of the undertaking.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House is the most recent analysis of a crime which transfixed the Victorian public in 1860 - the murder of toddler, Francis Saville Kent, who was stolen from his bed before his throat was cut and he was cast down an outside toilet. His half-sister, Constance, was investigated by Detective Inspector Jack Whicher but he failed to find any evidence to connect her to the crime. Five years later she confessed to the murder of her own free-will and served twenty years in prison for it.

Those are the facts of the case. What Summerscale does magnificently, however, is recreate the 'detective fever' that the murder inspired around the country. The story was picked up by every major newspaper and they, along with the police themselves, were inundated with amateur theories. Due to the incompetence of the local police (and the worry concerned with violating the 'private sphere' of the family), Whicher was not brought to the scene until two weeks after the murder occurred. He was later vilified by the press and public for his accusations towards Constance Kent, with the wider world more inclined to believe rumours of a sexual nature involving father, Samuel Kent.

Summerscale's analysis is succinct. She rarely refers to speculation unless it is directly from the mouths of the witnesses, newspapermen or police officers involved. Her analysis of the wider issues of detection and sensation in Victorian England is both necessary and informative. It opens up the book to people who have no prior knowledge of Victorian crime and culture whilst reminding those who do of key concepts and people.

I found the final few chapters about the lives of the main players after Constance's incarceration (and release) especially fascinating. Again, Summerscale refrains from over-zealous speculation, though her theory about the 'truth' of the murder is sound and based on a credible understanding of the family and their history.

In parts this book is a little gruesome, especially in regard to particulars about the corpse of the child. However, Summerscale strives to create a vivid and whole account of the crime, making such descriptions necessary. There is a sense at first that she is wasting too much time introducing the 'characters' as she herself puts it, but her introductory chapters feed into the whole to such an extent that they shouldn't be discounted.

This was recommended as useful reading for my PhD and it has been extremely helpful in that respect. However, the intricacies of the crime and Summerscale's unflinching analysis of it are likely to be the aspects which stick with me for some time to come. I would recommend it to both Victorian scholars and those interested in a good read of the non-fiction variety.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Book Review: The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut

I picked up this book from one of the tables in Waterstone's, proving that sometimes they put a gem amongst the popular autobiographies that drive me up the wall. The Good Doctor was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003 and the consensus amongst critics seems to be that iy should certainly have won. After reading, I can only agree.

Galgut approaches his setting delicately. The barren landscape which he imprints onto his reader could easily have been over-described but he highlights detail impeccably. The trees are 'ragged', the fountain is 'dry and full of old sand at the bottom'. Nor does he fail in creating a complete picture. By the end of the novel the town is a vivid image, solidified in the reader's head by a vast array of details, most of which exuded a brown murky colour into my imagination.

Indeed, in many ways this is a colourless novel. It deals with change: aversion to it, reaction to it, pursuance of it. In a nutshell, the narrator, Frank, works at a hospital which is unused and desolate. It was built as a symbol and remains one, even as the people supposedly working there see their lives passing unnoticed. The status quo is upset by a new arrival, Laurence, who sees the emptiness and, in a rather idealistic fashion, wants to create a functioning hospital from what is currently an empty shell. That's the main plot, although Galgut skilfully weaves in subplots and incidental characters whose reverberations contribute to the book as a whole.

It's a relatively short book at just over two hundred pages, but easily one that could be completed in one sitting. I allowed myself to be swept away by the simplicity of Galgut's prose whilst marvelling in his ability to take on massive issues and convey them without lecturing. It's a strength of his characterisation that at no point does the novel feel like a history lesson. Statements that could feel like sermons from a lesser writer slip easily out of the mouths of his characters.

For such a small book it's packed with information and detail. No sentence feels superfluous; no description incidental. There are scenes that I feel end too soon but that's as much about personal preference as any serious reflection on the book.

Simply put, this is one of the most thought-provoking and haunting novels I've read in a long time and I have a feeling I'll be revisiting it soon.

The Good Doctor is available here.

A Touch Of Isolation

The weather here in Yorkshire is atrocious.

It's currently snowing quite heavily, the public transport system is at a standstill and my attempts to get to a supervisory meeting have failed before they began. I'm arguing with people, trying to persuade them not to leave their houses, while I panic about where the cat got to. It's a scene playing out up and down the country as people debate the meaning of an 'essential journey'. I'm not of the opinion that works counts personally, and heaven forbid I get into another debate on how ill-equipped the British road and rail network is to deal with something that is fast becoming a regular occurrence.

But, gripes aside, the bad weather had given me a perverse sense of peace. There is nothing quite like sitting cosily before a window watching the world disappear under a blanket of untouched snow. There is the flip side of the coin - the accidents, the anxiety - but for me, at a particular moment last night, the whole view instilled a feeling of isolation into me. There are very few things in this hectic modern world that slow you down long enough to realise how quiet a place is. I picked up my pen and started writing.

What ended up on the paper wasn't a homage to snow. In fact, the setting was far removed from the winter weather taking root in my garden. I was reminded of my visit to Austria last summer and how a thick mist descended on top of the mountains, shrouding everything. The only sound clearly audible was the ringing of bells as the cows moved around the mountain-top. Everything was so quiet and heavy. You could easily imagine being the last person in the world up there; not too dissimilar to how many people feel walking in this weather.

I may not appreciate the travel disruption and the inevitable anxiety about family and friends but I am grateful for the inspiration the weather has given me. I wonder how long the sense of peace will last for...