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Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Collected Book Reviews 2011

For ease of reference here is a complete list of the books I reviewed in 2011.

* This book was read for the LGBT Reading Challenge 2011

Book Review: Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clarke

I don't think it will come as a great surprise to regular readers of this blog that my latest indulgence has been a Judy Garland biography. I adore her but, for whatever reason, I'd never read a book solely about her. Something to do with heroes and pedestals perhaps. However, Clarke's account, while being as close to truthful as one can get when dealing with Judy, is touching and left my adoration fully intact.

What Clarke does to great effect within the four hundred or so pages is raise all those questions that dictated the progression of Judy's life; the 'what ifs' that seem so heartbreaking to a modern reader. Judy's tragic life is one of the reasons she's remembered but - and this is important - the primary reason she's remembered is because she was a gifted entertainer. Nevertheless, the 'what ifs' are compelling to read.

  • What if Judy's loving father had lived longer? (He died in 1935)

  • What if her mother hadn't started giving her those pills to keep her going?

  • What if her first husband hadn't agreed with her mother and encouraged her to have an abortion?

  • What if Judy had gone to Broadway in the mid-forties as had been her ambition?

Those are four of many 'what ifs' that popped up during my reading of this biography. Clarke's detailed interviews with his various sources have produced a text that is well informed but not over-saturated with information. Where one example of Judy's behaviour - or behaviour towards Judy - will suffice he doesn't clutter up his book with two. What we're left with is a concise and, I think, representative biography that finds the person behind the star as well as anybody could hope to.

I won't lie - on occasion I wanted more information on some scenarios and people she was acquainted with but, all in all, this book was very good, quite possibly excellent. It shows Judy the trouper, Judy the vulnerable, Judy the mother and doesn't gloss over the bad bits. However, the message I came out with was that Judy loved singing, loved entertaining, loved her audience. I just think it's remarkable that forty two years after her death people still love her with the same intensity they did when she appeared on screen. That's some legacy.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Television Review: Case Histories

When I first noticed the Kate Atkinson books were being adapted for television I was quite happy. Jackson Brodie is a hero for modern times, complete with the result that he's never quite on top even when he wins. Although I've only read one of these three novels (When Will There Be Good News? which was the basis for the third of the two-episode arcs) I still had high hopes. And, yes, I was proved right. I really enjoyed the three weeks.

Cutting the three novels into two-hour arcs was a good decision. Usually there was enough going on to hold audience interest, although I did hear some frustrated rumblings on Twitter about the repetition of Brodie's childhood flashbacks. It seemed like padding at times but I suppose from the producer's point of view they were necessary to give context to whatever was going on at the time. The story is never just 'the criminal story': it's how Brodie relates to it. I'm aware that they've altered things a fair bit from the books (regarding aspects of his personal life anyway) but I'm not certain how much liberty they've taken. I'll have to read the first two books to be sure. Either way, it worked as a bit of television which was the important thing.

The first two episodes, based on Case Histories itself, were a decent introduction held together by a stellar cast. Although linking several cases together works more simply in a book I don't think it translated onto screen all that badly. Admittedly, the first few minutes of episode two were a crash course of remembrance but once I grounded myself again I was fine. Most importantly, I think, the episodes were enjoyable, maybe a little predictable in parts, but good viewing nonetheless. Jason Isaacs managed to instill a fairly mute character with pain and recognisable emotion. One of the criticisms I read was that Brodie was difficult to comprehend and the reviewer wished for a voice-over. I certainly don't think that would've worked in the context and it didn't need to: Isaacs communicated well enough for me.

Episodes three and four - One Good Turn - were possibly my favourite, just because of the friendship that springs up between a middle-aged woman and a Russian dominatrix. Again, the episode was helped by an exceptional cast, although it dragged in certain places. One of the cast highlights was certainly Millie Innes as Brodie's young daughter. The relationship between father and daughter is one of the mainstays of the six episodes and it definitely worked to make the tough guy a little more vulnerable. The novelist in this episode, Martin Canning, was the kind of bumbling nervous character I can't help but love.

Episodes five and six - When Will There Be Good News? - showcased the acting talents of young Gwyneth Keyworth as Reggie, the girl who saves Brodie's life after he's involved in a train accident. She's definitely one to watch out for the in the future and helped make these episodes my favourite. That probably has something to do with me having read the book for it also. However, it felt as if it ran a little more smoothly, in comparison to the other two arcs. I think it had less going on and so didn't confuse as much. Plus, it also signalled a shift in attitudes between Brodie and his ex-colleague, Louise, who worked fantastically together on screen. I was also crying at the end of episode six, which probably means the acting and script did its job correctly.

Overall, this was a television treat as far as I'm concerned. The Edinburgh setting was used to great effect and the personal was mixed nicely into Brodie's professional life. The number of injuries he ended up with were unbelieveable though and the slightly graphic violence suited the occasion, if making a squeamish person like myself a little uncomfortable. Jackson Brodie emerged from it all as an excellent character, not anywhere near as wooden as I'd expected him to be. If I have one more criticism it must go to the BBC for their Sunday night/Monday night scheduling. It's just a way to drag in ratings and, yes, it means the story is fresh in mind without festering for a week, but it's frustrating to assume that the people who watch television on a Sunday are equipped to do so on a Monday as well. I don't know what the ratings were but I'd imagine this dual-night aspect put some people off. Not me...I taped to watch later.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Hepworth Wakefield

I read today that having been open for just five weeks the new contemporary gallery in Wakefield has welcomed 100,000 visitors. Admittedly, that's not a bad figure. I went for a nosey round on Thursday and thought I'd document my experience.

Firstly, a little background. The building has been a touchy subject in Wakefield since the first designs began to surface. People thought it would be a blight on the landscape. I'll freely admit I was one of them. Particular concern was raised because it was across the road from the Chantry Chapel, one of Wakefield's most beautiful buildings of heritage. Nevertheless, unlike my family who were content to criticise without seeing, I thought it best to take a look around before judging. Hence the trip.

I still held a certain distaste for the outside of the building. This was reinforced by the gaudy bridge used to cross the river: the gallery doesn't seem to nestle in its environment at all - but I'm guessing that's what the architects were going for. No doubt it looks impressive to someone visiting Wakefield for the first time but for a majority of permanent residents I'd imagine it's still regarded as a bit of eyesore.

The donwstairs consists of a shop, cafe, auditorium, offices and a learning centre for school parties. It's very bright and airy and I was greeted by a guide within ten seconds. The galleries are upstairs (with lift access, of course) and are well lit naturally by the huge windows that cut into the building. I did rather go around the rooms backwards but I was being modern, wasn't I? The first thing I'd say is that I'm not a massive Barbara Hepworth fan, something of a pitfall when visiting a gallery bearing her name. However, I found some of her work to be interesting enough. I may as well put it plainly: while I respect the artists for crafting these complex and intriuging works, I despair of the snob who stands in the corner tapping his chin and pretending to read a thousand things into it. Art is meant to be enjoyed, yes, but I'm expecting The Hepworth Wakefield to foster more elitism than it battles against. Modern art tends to do that to people.

I did enjoy the guest exhibition by Eva Rothschild. It felt more relevant than Hepworth - for me, at least - and as a big kid I appreciated the use of colour. One particular piece had me scratching my head about how it was suspended from the ceiling. Exceptionally fine wires which were practically invisible really added to the illusion of that piece.

By far the best room from my perspective was the Yorkshire room. By coincidence, it was also the fullest. Many of the paintings and sketches in there are of the Chantry Chapel and there is a window with a beautiful alcove for sitting in so you can gaze across the road to the chapel with the river rushing underneath you. That was quite an experience.

Downstairs, the shop was well stocked with books and a table aimed particularly at children. I bought a tote bag which is a little flimsy but will come in useful nevertheless - and for £2.95 I wasn't going to say no. The cafe next door was as bright as the rest of the building and on a par with your normal upmarket coffee shops in price. They do prepare hot food but I settled for a pot of tea (lovely) and a slice of blueberry cake (absolutely divine). The atmosphere in there was very relaxed and the staff, as around the entire building, were helpful and all-smiles.

Overall, I enjoyed the experience but I wouldn't go again just to see the permanent Hepworth works. I'm much more of a paintings kind of girl and I am interested to see how they rotate the works of the old Wakefield art gallery which they inherited. I'd go back just for the blueberry cake to be honest but I have a couple of other reservations; primarily that the parking facilities just aren't adequate. Although I walked in I noticed that the car park was far too small for the expected number of visitors. Equally, Wakefield Kirkgate Railway Station is a menace and until they rebuild and staff it (which they're hoping to do) it's downright dangerous to visit using that station. You can go to Wakefield Westgate and get the free bus down to that end of town but I'm not sure if that will feel like too much of a trek for some people. One further thing: the part of town which leads down to the gallery is dilapdiated. Kirkgate needs some serious regeneration and, if the council is eager to get people walking between the new shopping complex Trinity Walk and The Hepworth Gallery, something will have to be done about that whole area. I don't know how the gallery will fare in the long term and I'll wait and see before passing judgement. It entices people in with free admission but it remains to be seen whether it will have a complimentary effect on the rest of Wakefield.

Learn about The Hepworth Gallery here.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Book Review: The Missing by Juliet Bates

There's something very frustrating about finishing a book and being unable to specify why you found it to be an utterly absorbing read. Perhaps it's because this book is smooth (and fairly succinct at just over 200 pages), or because the characters are so lightly documented that it feels as though Bates has taken seriously the old advice of showing rather than telling. Whatever the reason, I found it to be a captivating read.

The Missing follows journalist Frances Daye as she investigates another woman reported to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Set in 1958, it documents Frances's trips to London and then Paris as she investigates Ania but also recalls fragments of her own life in the process. The result is a deliciously descriptive book that questions the notion of memories and the idea of believing what you want to believe. It also includes some haunting scenes in passing that make you stop and think about humanity - the rape of a girl, the crushing of a mouse underneath a boot. The latter I just have to quote:

It must have been the silence that made Dagarov look round. Perhaps he no longer heard the boy's breathing or the turning of pages for he looked towards the bed and saw the boy's face and his focused eyes. He followed the boy's gaze right down to the floor beside his own feet where the baby mouse crouched with the tobacco delicately balanced between its two front paws. Then without saying one word, Boris Dagarov lifted his foot encased in its heavy boot and smashed it straight down on the animal.

Looking up, he saw the boy's astounded face, and he laughed. He laughed so violently that he made the water pipes rattle and the light bulb swing. The boy stared back at Dagarov's grotesque face, and he smelt the foul stench that belched from the pits and crevices of the store room manager's open mouth. Then the boy looked down at the corpse of the flattened animal, and he felt something harden in his heart. (151)

There are several narrators in the novel and several stories. However, for all that, it isn't difficult to follow. The one criticism I had was that between parts two and three we skip many years only to work our way back to where part two left off. I found it to be a little disorientating on first reading, I have to admit. That said, I understand why Bates chose to do this in the context of the story.

All in all, this is a book I would certainly recommend. But, please please please, if you do buy it, purchase direct from Linen Press. This blog on the subject shows how difficult it is for this small publisher to survive in an Amazon-dominated world.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Charlotte Winsor and Joanne Fraill

In 1865 Charlotte Winsor killed the baby of a local woman, allegedly on her request, and both women were put to trial for it. However, the second woman (Mary Harris) was later acquitted on the proviso that she testify against Winsor. The really interesting aspect of this case comes in the manner Winsor's conviction was delayed due to the way juries were treated at the time. It occurred to me earlier this week, while reading the articles about Joanna Fraill's eight month imprisonment, that the prospect of locking juries up in a room until they made a decision and not allowing them to go home was ingenious then - and could still work now. Fraill, for anyone unfamiliar with the story, was sentenced to eight months imprisonment for contempt of court after contacting a defendant via Facebook and conducting her own Internet research in the case she was supposed to be viewing impartiality. The age of the Internet poses its own problems to the jury system - as do the so-called human rights of those sat on a jury - but surely we could withdraw jurors from society for a period of time? Perhaps I'm joking, perhaps I'm not.

Winsor's trial was curiously interrupted by the occurrence of a Sunday and the commencement of the Cornwall assizes on the Monday (Winsor's trial was being held in Devon). It was the custom at the time to deprive juries of "meat, drink, fire, and even candlelight" during the length of their deliberations. This undoubtably led to some rushed decisions for men eager to be rid of such a situation. However, in Winsor's case the struggle to fit to the prescribed schedule caused the judge to discharge the jury. Winsor would receive a second trial. The London Review noted later: 'There were three other courses open to him. He might have locked up the jury until the Monday morning, which would have been inhuman; he might have carried them with him to Cornwall in carts, which would have been grotesque; or he might have received their verdict on Sunday, which, to say the least of it, would have been a proceeding of very doubtful legality. Here therefore wisely adopted the expedient of discharging them after ascertaining there was no chance whatever of their agreeing, an in so doing acted in pursuance of modern practice, although in contravention of ancient precedent." Winsor's death sentence was later commuted in consideration of the period of time her trial had been extended for.

Trials today are much more complex than those of 1865. There is usually much more information for a jury to process and more complex information at that. With the advent of sophisticated post-mortem examinations and other improved technologies there is usually much more for the jury to absorb. That said, I would maintain that our current trial system is unnecessarily convoluted. I do believe in the trial by jury system to an extent, but that is primarily because I do not believe in the honesty of the judiciary in our fine country. But juries are made up of human beings and, in an age where information is itching at our fingertips, some of those human beings must be controlled.

Oh, we won't go back to locking juries up without food or water until they make their decision. The European Court of Human Rights would have a field day with that (and that's a rant for another post). But the idea of monitoring jurors, especially their Internet habits, has to be considered. My primary fear is that the cost of this spying would be seen to vastly outweigh the benefits given by it (and would 'Human Rights' even allow such a process?). The outcome of the Joanne Fraill case could be further-reaching than anyone understands if it adds fuel to those arguments searching for juries to be dispensed with altogether.

*All quotations relating to the Charlotte Winsor case are taken from The London Review of Politics, Society, Literature, Art and Science; 27 Jan 1866.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Books I Couldn't Read

As some people may know, today is Bloomsday. With that in mind, the Internet is awash with people either congratulating themselves on having blundered through Ulysses or demonstrating their wisdom by happily pointing out they've never tried to read the thing. Personally, I've read it twice. It was one of the set texts on my undergraduate Modernism unit. I remember hating it the first time I tried then giving it a second shot and actually... well, I don't think I loved it but I certaininly hated it less. In the exam we had a choice of focusing on the novel or Eliot's The Waste Land. I don't think many people focused on Ulysses but I did. I felt it owed me a pass! Anyway, Bloomsday prompted me to take a look at my own bookshelves and those books I haven't yet read. This isn't including my ever-increasing TBR pile, which includes everything I intend to read in the next six to eight months. Nope, these are the ones I'm not so sure about ever reading. All advice gratefully received.

A Passage to India, E.M Forster
Bought for my Colonialism and Post Colonialism unit but never read.

Scenes of Clerical Life, George Eliot
Immensely difficult to get into. Bought a cheap version on a whim.

London Fields, Martin Amis
Purchased for some unit or other. Have since developed a dislike for the man which puts me off reading it.

The Time Traveller's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
Was in a 3 for 2 and never got around to reading it.

Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell
Recommended text for my Victorian unit but couldn't find time to read it.

True Tales of American Life, ed Paul Scott
Recommended text for one of my units. Never got round to it.

A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe
Bought on a whim, never found time to read it.

The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot
Fancied reading more of her work after finishing Silas Marner but it failed to grab me.

Adam Bede, George Eliot
Has the distinction of being the first classic I bought of my own free will. Alas, I never read the thing.

The Waves, Virginia Woolf
Exceptionally difficult to get into, even for a Modernist text. I gave up after a few pages.

So...what do you think? Any books in the list I should bump to my TBR pile? Oh, and as a final note, for years my dad's copy of Ulysses (never read) came in useful as just the right thickness to keep the dresser without a foot from wobbling. All great books have their uses!

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Book Review: Carol by Patricia Highsmith

This was originally published under a pseudonym in 1952 as The Price of Salt. Highsmith's mainstream publishers didn't want a lesbian novel and so it was finally published by a small press. When it came out in paperback a year later it sold almost one million copies in America. The edition I have includes a foreword by Val McDermid and an afterword by Highsmith herself, added in 1989.

I loved this novel. Although it's almost sixty years old the emotions are still the same. Those are universal and Highsmith touches on them with such a deft hand that you can be forgiven for wishing the book was double or even ten times the length it actually is. I certainly didn't want it to end. The book deals with a sales assistant, Therese, who is working at a department store to earn a little money before Christmas. A woman comes in to buy a doll for her daughter and suddenly Therese's life changes. The woman, Carol, is in the midst of a divorce battle but much of the action hinges on how far her estranged husband will go to get full custody of Rindy.

It's easy in a modern, more accepting (though in some cases not accepting enough) world to be distanced from the struggles faced by previous generations who just wanted the opportunity to love each other. If you've read too many books around this theme then Carol may not appeal to you but it's not just a story about unacceptable love: it's also a joy to read. Highsmith's prose is lusciously fluid, bringing out the right level of detail without over-describing anything. Some of the most memorable scenes actually don't involve the two lovers. During the first chapter Therese encounters Mrs Robichek, a woman struggling to live day to day. I found this portrait so poignant (and she's referred to later in the novel as well) that it stuck with me for days afterwards.

Perhaps the novel doesn't develop the character of Carol as well as it could have but this is primarily Therese's story, Therese's reaction to Carol. We know what frustrates Therese about Carol, what attracts her to her, why she's willing to believe bad of her on occasion. And, in that respect, Highsmith created quite a novel. I do love it and I went into it thinking I was going to love it. That might have biased my opinion in its favour but I will certainly be reading it again in the future.

I read this book for the LGBT Reading Challenge 2011 - see sidebar for details.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

A Logical Conclusion to a Grandmother-Shaped Mystery?

One of the most amusing things about my grandmother moving into sheltered accommodation is how she's adjusting to it. After all, this is a woman who has lived independently for plenty of her 87 years. For instance, as her hearing diminished she grew accustomed to turning the television up just that little bit more. Living in a corner bungalow that was fine. Living in sheltered accommodation...maybe not so much. The other evening my dad came upstairs laughing uncontrollably to give me the phone. It was my grandmother on the other end - and she'd caused a bit of a problem.

A few weeks ago she got new hearing aids. Last weekend when we picked her up from the flat I noticed there was a buzzing in the room but I didn't mention it, wanting desperately to get away and not have an hour's debate on the issue. Still, when we dropped her back off my dad noticed it as well and she confirmed it was her hearing aids. They hadn't buzzed at all while we were out so my dad and I privately deduced it was down to some electrical interference somewhere in the building. We didn't mention to her; we didn't want her fretting.

Apparently, though, on Monday the buzzing became too much for her. She took the hearing aids out, closed the door between the living room and the hallway to block the noise and turned the television up to a volume she could hear without the hearing aids. At around half past nine she turned the television off and realised there was someone banging on the door. When she answered it the warden was stood there...with four firemen beside her. I think it was then my grandmother realised the fire alarm above her head was going off.

Well, the firemen and the warden checked all over. Absolutely nothing on fire. She'd eaten around six so the cooker was ice cold. The most she'd done in the last hour was boil the kettle. Everyone was baffled but were sympathetic with the situation - an elderly woman's hearing aids hurt so she took them out, she closed the door so she wouldn't disturb the neighbours and therefore didn't hear the fire alarm going off. The actions of someone trying to be conscientious. This was the first time the sheltered accommodation had ever had the fire brigade out. Quite a feat for my grandmother considering she's only been in there a couple of months. Anyway, the warden put the false alarm down to a fault before she and the firemen left.

After we'd stopped laughing me and my dad talked it over. Something in the flat, and the building in general, was interfering with my grandmother's hearing aids. Isn't it plausible that the something was the fire alarm system? And, if that is the case, isn't it plausible that, working along the same frequency as they obviously were, the hearing aids caused a sudden glitch in the fire alarm system?

Ah, this all conjecture. But, as I mentioned, she moved in less than three months ago. The flat was given a full safety check before then. Odd the fire alarm sprung a fault just as she'd begun to get buzzing in her ears, though, eh?

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Book Review: The Scent of Cinnamon by Charles Lambert

A few months ago I blogged about reading more short story collections and how it was really something I should do. However, instead of picking up one of the collections I already had unfinished, I went and bought Charles Lambert's The Scent of Cinnamon, available from Salt Publishing. My basis for the choice? The description on Salt's site along with an intriguing cover design. I was quite impressed that the design actually suited one of the stories too and wasn't there for pure eye-catching value.

These sixteen stories beg to be read again, particularly the title piece. The problem is, as much as I want to tell you about them, I want you to read them yourselves. Admittedly, the ones more to my taste were at the beginning of the collection and my favourites are probably 'Moving the Needle Towards the Thread', 'Girlie', 'Soap' and 'The Scent of Cinnamon'. I loved the narrative voices of them all and the progression that made me sorry they had to stop. Lambert plunges you into a situation and drops pertinent information as he goes along. That's the way short stories work best but it's not always how it materialises. He has an eye for a revealing detail and, in a short number of pages, manages to convey character better than some novelists.

Lambert lives in Italy and there is a definite Italian influence on the stories. Indeed, several of them make use of the scenery and sounds of the country. I would advise anybody with the slightest homophobia (or not keen on sometimes graphic male sex scenes) to steer clear of this though. I found the stories containing homosexual characters to be refreshing, primarily because they fitted in so well with the rest of the collection. I particularly love the ending of 'Air', a story so reminiscent of relationships in general that it struck a chord with me.

I'd recommend this book to anyone searching for extremely readable and thought-provoking stories. Buy it direct from Salt Publishing and read an excerpt from the title piece here.