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Monday, 30 April 2012

Book Review: Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

I've been looking forward to reading Jane Harris's second novel ever since I read her first, The Observations. I have to say that I wasn't disappointed. In fact I think I enjoyed this one even more - and that's saying something.

Harriet Baxter, sat in her London flat in 1933, is putting pen to paper and writing a book about artist Ned Gillespie. Back in 1888, we follow Harriet as she encounters the extended Gillespie family for the first time: Ned and his wife Annie; his two children, Sybil and Rose; his mother, Elspeth; his brother, Kenneth; and his sister, Mabel. Her first meeting with Elspeth is hilarious as she saves the old woman from choking on her own false teeth. Humour is peppered throughout the first third of the book but it does get very dark very quickly. Young Sybil is proving to be a difficult child, playing pranks and showing off to her grandmother. However, as the family scatters, disaster occurs and Harriet supports the family through it. Things then take a turn for the worse. Back in 1933, the elderly Harriet is dealing with her growing suspicions about her companion, Sarah. And that is all I will say on the plot! You really have to read this one and I'm not spoiling it if I can help it.

Gillespie and I is as meticulous in detail and tone as The Observations was. The two sections are neatly juxtaposed but the voice remains the same. There are also numerous small touches that combine to make this a perfectly plotted (and written) novel. The Gillespie family as we first encounter them are vividly drawn and reminded me of the family characterisation in Westwood (Stella Gibbons), which can only be a compliment as I enjoyed that book immensely. Another excellent aspect about Gillespie and I is, quite simply, the surprise factor. I challenge you to guess what's coming next.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable novel, both subtle and compelling. I couldn't recommend it more.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Classic Film Review: Bringing Up Baby (1938)

I was astounded to learn that Bringing Up Baby was a commercial flop on release but relieved that the hilarity has since been recognised in numerous 'Best Film' lists. It's certainly going on mine. Like Monkey Business (1952, reviewed a few weeks ago), this film stars Cary Grant as a scientist, this time a zoologist called David Huxley who's about to take delivery of a very important dinosaur bone. Oh, and he's getting married to the rather prim Miss Swallow as well. A chance encounter with odd Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) on the golf course sets off a chain of events that involve chasing a tame leopard (the 'Baby' of the title), David trying desperately to cling onto his promised funding from Susan's aunt and chasing around a dog with a bone (yes, the priceless dinosaur bone). It all makes for an hilarious film that had me laughing from start to finish.

Grant really excels as the irritable yet chivalric David. He might not like Susan but when he thinks she's being clawed to death by a leopard he rushes to her defence. That sets him off on one of the craziest paths I've seen in film. However, one of my favourite moments of the film has to be close to the beginning when David accidentally rips the back of Susan's dress and tries to cover her up. Another is when he sees Baby for the first time and learns that the leopard's favourite song is 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love'. Well, what leopard wouldn't love that song?

The film is full of twists and turns, some expected and some not. I could tell as soon as the dog was introduced that he would take an interest in the bone but I didn't anticipate Cary Grant with a butterfly net over his head. The ensemble cast is excellent and, despite Hepburn apparently having no comic practice prior to this film, she brings it off marvellously. Susan is an eccentric character, not a purposefully comic one so I think the lack of experience helped rather than hindered. I didn't see the chemistry between Susan and David as that of lovers, they came across as more of exasperated friends but they certainly sparked off each other in this film and that's what matters. A fantastic script, a wonderful cast and a laugh-out-loud film I want to see again: perfect!

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Book Review: 22 Days In May by David Laws

I've wanted to read this one for some time but thought it might be a little heavy for the 'fun' reading I tend to do away from my PhD. I was right. However, I still enjoyed the in-depth look at the first general election I really paid attention to and the ramifications of a hung parliament and coalition negotiations. I came out of this book with my positive thoughts towards Laws himself intact (yes, I know I'm in a minority along with David Cameron here) but generally disliking the Liberal Democrats more than I had before.

What comes across in this book is the sheer importance that the Lib Dems put on voting reform as a condition for joining any coalition, either with Labour or the Conservatives. As someone who was opposed to AV in the 2011 referendum on the subject, I find this immensely amusing considering the scale of the defeat. Of course, the negotiating Lib Dem team did have admirable goals - and they did seem to be focused on the deficit as much as their own interests - but reading this two years on from the general election means it's easy to see how assumptions have been smashed and solid relationships have broken down. The Lib Dems were perfectly aware of the impact going into coalition would have on their poll rating but I think they were confident they could win an AV referendum and so maintain some representation in the House of Commons in coming years. I think the scale of discontent both within the party and the public was vastly underestimated. Looking at everything agreed within those negotiations with hindsight is remarkable and I'm certainly glad I waited to read this.

However, the book tended to cement my opinion of one of the government's major problems: communication. David Laws was an effective communicator during his brief time in ministerial office. I can't help but wonder how the government image might have fared if he'd been involved in relaying decisions to the public.

This one's definitely a book to read if you're interested in British politics but I wouldn't read it as relaxation!

Monday, 23 April 2012

Classic Film Review: A Night To Remember (1958)

Like many in recent weeks, I've been saturated with fiction and fact surrounding the sinking of the Titanic as we hit the centenary. I reviewed Julian Fellowes's mini-series last week (not entirely positively) and I've also re-watched two other adaptations of the story. I'd never seen A Night To Remember though, despite it being widely regarded as the most factual adaptation out there. Certainly, it came across that way.

Stripped down to the bare details about the sinking, there are a few characters highlighted but the focus is well and truly on the events of the sinking - as they were then known. The person who has the most to do is Second Officer Charles Lightholler (played by Kenneth More) and he serves as an anchor (pardon the pun) throughout. The film has the feel of a thoroughly British one - this comes through with almost every scene - and portrays the sinking in a very British stiff-upper-lip manner. That doesn't mean it lacks drama, however, because the events of 1912 are dramatic enough not to need elaboration. But the drama is based on the sheer horror of over 1500 people dying at sea, not on the fates of one or two characters.

Of course, the effects of the sinking are not as good as the 1997 film but the claustrophobic scenario of being on a sinking ship remains. There are some good artistic touches throughout - the drunk who manages to survive being one of them - and the realism is there. Some of the dialogue is clunky and perhaps too much time is spent on the 'ship that never answered' across the water. However, since that was always one of the most intriguing aspects of the Titanic disaster for me, I didn't mind it so much. The scenes on the Carpathia as they sped to the rescue were excellent and intertwined well. Equally, the focus on the engine room and the Marconi room were woven into the narrative and gave the best example I've seen of the cross-section of class and crew.

The lack of fictional sub-plots do make this one difficult to cling onto at times. Still, it's worth a watch to see the story done without melodrama and sentimentality.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Upstairs Downstairs Axed

As many people will have heard, Upstairs Downstairs has been axed by the BBC after only two series of the 'new' version (link Daily Mail, don't click if you hate it!). The second series apparently opened with 6.5m viewers but lost a couple of million as the series went on. However, using the final episode figures of 4.45m as justification seems mighty underhand - the last episode clashed with the first episode of Titanic on ITV1. Nor was this the only time Upstairs Downstairs was played around with in the schedules - one week it was pushed back to 9:30 to fit in with an extra Coronation Street episode on another channel (yes, the logic irritates me too). The point is, schedulers generally know what they're going to be up against. The key is to keep it consistent and try to respect your viewers by not pitting popular drama against popular drama. And you know what else? Take into account that people are as likely to record programmes and catch up later on iPlayer as they are to watch it live. Viewing figures are no longer what they seem.

Oh, I know Upstairs Downstairs wasn't perfect. I only actually watched the second series (but fully intended going back to watch S1 at some point) and it had its fair share of sensational stories and incredible situations. But, then again, so does Downton Abbey and we don't complain so much about that. There were some characters who were more three-dimensional than others but I don't think there was too much wrong with it that couldn't have been fixed. That, though, is the BBC's problem - they wield the axe so quickly that no one sees it coming. 6.5m viewers are not to be scoffed at and programmes are easily capable of appealing to new audiences as they go on. Drama on 'proper' television these days is so limited that it needs clinging onto when it arrives. Especially when it isn't a detective show. Don't get me wrong, I like Vera Scott & Bailey (yes, both ITV1) but occasionally you want to see something else apart from death and misery.

The BBC will no doubt argue that Upstairs Downstairs was too expensive to make. I notice they still have money to buy in expensive reality television shows and copious amounts of sport. Despite being a tennis fan, I can't help but wish they'd pay more attention (and money) to drama and less to sport. And don't leave a house just at the break-out of WWII and never return to it. That isn't fair on your viewers. You could've at least commissioned one more tie-up episode you stingy sods.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Television Review: Titanic

Like most people, I imagined that Julian Fellowes's crack at the most famous shipping disaster in history would be excellent. After the success of Downton Abbey in the same era, I didn't think it could go too wrong. However, Downton Abbey and Titanic are two very different animals and, while I came to enjoy three out of four episodes of the latter, I do have some opinions on why it wasn't entirely fantastic.

Firstly, while I understand that non-linearity was one way of making the Titanic story fresh and new, I have to say that hitting the iceberg four times took the spectacle out of it. I would've been happy with the rather remarkable moment when John Batley (Toby Jones) looked up and saw it towering over him. That was perhaps one of the most memorable moments of the entire series for me. While the non-linearity allowed for personalities to be gradually unveiled, and gave more of an opportunity in a single episode to explore just a few characters, it irritated me a little. I can't even say for definite why, just that it seemed to hinder the storytelling from my perspective rather than enhancing it.

Secondly, I came to the conclusion that episode one set things off on a bad note. I felt it focused too much on personalities that Fellowes enjoys writing about but who had very little substance to them. For instance, Lord Manton (Linus Roache) only became interesting when he asserted himself in the third and fourth episodes. His extra-marital dalliance was a neat little secret but badly used in my view, again this could be related to the non-linearity. The rigidity of first-class and the class differences is possibly what drew Fellowes to the Titanic story but I'm not sure he focused on the right people from the off. The characters that most interested me had their full stories told in later episodes. These were John and Muriel Batley (Maria Doyle Kennedy), Mabel Watson (Lyndsey Marshal) and Barnes (Lee Ross) and perhaps Jim Maloney (Peter McDonald), though without his wife in tow.

Thirdly, it relied too much on speedy romances. Paolo Sandrini (Glen Blackhall) proposing to Annie Desmond (Jenna-Louise Coleman) before the ship even hit the iceberg was a little mad, however intoxicating she was. Equally, in first-class, the romance between Georgiana Grex (Perdita Weeks) and Harry Widener (Noah Reid) was fairly unsubstantiated. And don't even get me started on the odd instant-attraction in steerage between Mary Maloney (Ruth Bradley) and Peter Lubov (Dragos Bucur)! One lesson from Downton Abbey is that Fellowes excels at lengthier love stories, these things need time to build. That's why Matthew and Mary are as popular as Anna and Bates: their stories both have a heart. What came across on Titanic is that Fellowes knew he had limited time to tell heartfelt stories and they suffered for it. The two that didn't? The marriage between John and Muriel Batley and the unspoken respect/love between Mabel and Barnes and both of these involved people who had long-standing relationships. Truly, I was moved to emotion by the conclusion of those two entanglements and no others.

I'm not trying to suggest there was nothing good about Titanic. It certainly picked up after the first episode and kept me guessing until the end about who the survivors would be. And I was in tears at the end of it. There was some excellent acting, some good writing (excluding the doom-mongering that you expect from a piece about the Titanic and also excluding the bad romances) and I think almost every character was put in peril only to be rescued from it. However, I feel the 'snapshot of life' was a bit cruel to the viewer: what happened next to the survivors? Actually, I'd better not ask that because I fear I'm better off not knowing.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Getting To Hate You

I keep coming back to this - if I enjoy anything in my 'working' life (yes, I use that term loosely because I lot of people believe I do nothing all day) then I'm doing it wrong. Simple. Oh, I'm perfectly willing to enjoy the flush of a first draft or the first reading of a fairly good Victorian sensation novel but I shouldn't enjoy the rewriting process or the actual cobbling of ideas into an argument. I shouldn't be happy in those circumstances; I should be banging my head against a wall in frustration.

I've been thinking about this a fair bit recently. I've read two Edmund Yates novels in a row that made me want to throw myself into a river without preamble. My problem is, I don't know if they're actually bad novels or whether I've just hit the point that I believe everything related to Yates has to be categorised as 'bad'. I read his name or I think about any of my research and I want to bury my head in something else. That 'something else' is frequently politics, which has implications for my sanity as well!

As far as writing goes, I've been working on a new first draft which I loathe. I'm writing it from compulsion and am therefore not really enjoying it. In fact, if I didn't think it'd haunt me for the rest of my days, I'd do my best to ignore it. I've also been writing to some competition deadlines that I became aware of fairly late in the cycle so they were unfortunately rushed and unfortunately more of a chore than a pleasure. But isn't that the part of writing we're supposed to trumpet? When the going gets tough a lot of writers get going. The rest of us knuckle down and get on with it. Our hopes and dreams are more important than some momentary discomfort.

I need to edit (again) a novel I last fiddled with perhaps a year ago. I know what I need to do with it but the actual process of going about it is intimidating me. It's also tricky to justify editing that when I've got so much else to occupy my time. What to do? I suppose sleep is an optional extra in life.

When things lose their glossiness and fun it's easy to push them away. Unfortunately, when I feel that urge coming on, it just strengthens my resolve to get on and do whatever I have to. I dislike my stubbornness sometimes.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Classic Film Review: The Gentle Sex (1943)

The Gentle Sex tells the stories (I use that phrase very loosely) of seven woman who decide to do their bit during WWII. They all end up in the same railway carriage, train together and end the film together. Essentially, this film serves as war propaganda and little else.

Focusing on seven characters meant that the film would appeal to the broadest audience possible, showing the public that these women were just like them. However, it meant that the characters were little more than puppets with only a few flashes of decent characterisation shining through. Some were more striking than others, my own favourite being Joan (Barbara Waring). She's a no-nonsense recruit covering up her shyness by distancing herself from everyone else and generally being a bit of a jobsworth. Some of the other girls actually transfer to get away from her but that doesn't work - she follows them! I was dismayed to find that Waring only made a handful of films because she was certainly the most striking actress of the piece for me. Other bigger names include Lilli Palmer playing a Czech refugee and Joan Greenwood in one of her first screen roles. However, none of the characters have real journeys as such - one character participates in a doomed love affair but that's pretty much it.

The film doesn't pretend to be anything it isn't but it fails to live up to the potential of the premise by looking at too many women. Equally, very little actually happens in the film. It's disjointed, barely held together by seeing the familiar faces, and, while some of the explosions are the end are impressive, there's not much to recommend this one. However, if you watch it as a slice-of-life documentary kind of thing instead of a piece of entertainment, you might be more satisfied.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Book Review: The London Train by Tessa Hadley

The London Train is split into two sections. The first half concentrates on Paul who has just lost his mother and travels to London from Cardiff in search of his missing eldest daughter, Pia. As soon as he finds her he realises why she's lost contact - she's pregnant. Sleeping on her sofa, Paul lingers in London when he should really be going home to his family. The second half of the novel focuses on Cora, a woman who moved from London back to her childhood home in Cardiff after the breakdown of her marriage. What forces her back to London once again is a call to say that her husband has disappeared.

I'll admit I was underwhelmed by the first half of this book. Paul is not the most likeable of characters - he's a selfish man who disappears off to London and leaves his two young children and his wife without a clue about his whereabouts. His thirst for a different life to the one he's found himself living is an understandable one and his journey is well-written but I couldn't bring myself to like him until the final pages of his story. Conversely, there were things that attracted me straight away about Cora. Working as a librarian, trying to carve out a life after being someone else for twelve years, she comes across as a woman very much living in the present and avoiding thought of the future. Her past is explored as and when it becomes pertinent and this slyly slow reveal is one of the things I most enjoyed about the book. Aside from the deliberate interweaving of the two stories, there are also deliberate touches that draw parallels between Paul and Cora, notably the death of their mothers which indirectly kick-start their stories. Paul would not have gone in search of his daughter if his mother hadn't died; Cora would not have inherited a house and moved back to it had her mother not died.

This is an atmospheric book with some vivid descriptions. A few lines about the death of Cora's mother produced a lasting effect on me, for instance, and there is a minor character (Bar, an old flame of Cora's husband) who is so unique that the novel is worth reading just for the few pages about her. My favourite passage came towards the end of the book when Cora contemplates the point of memories:

"Once, Cora had believed that living built a cumulative bank of memories, thickening and deepening as time went on, shoring you against emptiness. She had used to treasure up relics from every phase of her life as it passed, as if they were holy. Now, that seemed to her a falsely consoling model of experience. The present was always paramount, in a way that thrust you forward: empty, but also free. Whatever stories you told over to yourself and others, you were in truth exposed and naked in the present, a prow cleaving new waters; your past was insubstantial behind, it fell away, it grew into desuetude, its forms grew obsolete. The problem was, you were always still alive, until the end. You had to do something." (p312)

Tuesday, 10 April 2012


As I write this I'm sat waiting for a housing association plumber to arrive to fix a problem we first reported over a year ago. Aside from mucking up the repair in the past (including a month of scaffolding disruption while they decided to fix the roof tiles for no apparent reason), they were supposed to arrive between 8:00am and 12:00pm today. My father took the morning off work in order to make sure they got it right this time. Unfortunately, they haven't yet arrived and he's gone to work.

I'm not unreasonable, I know that sometimes things happen that prevent appointments being kept. However, a phone call doesn't cost a lot. What I hate most is being left in limbo, unable to do anything because I'm waiting for somebody else. Unreliability irritates me more than I can articulate when it can be eased by just a word or an apology during the wait - I think this applies mainly to companies who should really know better. Perhaps it's because I wouldn't dream of keeping people waiting if I could help it. I used to work on the switchboard for a company and frequently had to deal with customers angry that a promised call had not materialised. Mostly, I was on the side of the customer - if you're going to promise something then adhere to it most of the time, not some of the time.

When I look at my characters I see that they all err on the side of reliability, even those indulging in affairs which seems rather odd to me! I think I need to mix it up a little, create an unreliable protagonist somewhere down the line. However, as things stand, it's easier for me to get inside the head of a murderer who keeps their appointments than a pleasant person who doesn't. That may say something profound about me...

I'll ponder that while I wait. And wait. And wait. Until 3:00pm. Then I'm out of here.

EDIT: He turned up in the nick of time but can't touch it because it's a heating-related issue. That sound was my head exploding.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Book Review: Across the Bridge by Morag Joss

Firstly, I have to say that I was given this book via a giveaway and, due to my remarkable idiocy and goldfish-memory issues, I can't remember who was kind enough to offer it up. If someone wants to jog my memory in the comments I would be very grateful!

Across the Bridge deceived me with the blurb. It's much more than the description on the rear of the book, involving more protagonists than it suggests. 'Annabel' is presumed dead after a freak occurrence topples a bridge into a river. Pregnant and told to get an abortion by her new husband, she seizes the chance to start a new life but her dismay about the father/daughter pair she sold the car to leads to her returning to a trailer on the side of a river. There she meets Silva, waiting patiently for the return of her husband and child, while Annabel knows the truth about their fate. Ron - a wanderer also running away from his past - has been helping with the salvage and rebuilding of the bridge and helps the duo move across the river to a safer cabin.

The most compelling aspect of this book is the intense attention to setting and description. It's full of sparkling images that stay with you after you've put it down. Equally, Annabel is a good character to follow, especially as her pregnancy moves on. The difficulties of being invisible in society are documented, as are the ghoulish tendencies of people to treat disaster as a spectator sport. We've all noticed that in recent years. Silva and Ron are both different prospects but both are viewpoint characters as well. Ron is perhaps the most objective of them all and he's perhaps my favourite character for that reason and various others.

While I enjoyed much of this book, I had a few reservations about the ending. The climax the novel built to was natural, stemming from all that had come before it and an overwhelming description of grief taking hold. In that respect, perhaps, it was predictable but I didn't dislike it for that reason - if something stems out of good characterisation and foreshadowing then I don't think it's an unreasonable conclusion. I just felt the novel ended too quickly, that the climax hit and very little else followed. While I appreciate the ambiguity and excellence of such endings, I felt slightly cheated that I had no firm idea of Annabel's future. However, I still found the book to be a good read for the reasons mentioned above. Here's one of my favourite passages:

"I turned and walked out into the night air. Cars trickled past me, their headlamps sparkling ahead into blackness. The night was damp and cold. Suddenly I felt I was down there at the bottom of the dark river with the fish, their thick, flat, muscular sides quivering past me, swimming past those poor drowned people and flicking their dead faces, sending pulses of dark water into their open mouths and pulling silky fins through their waving, frondy hair." (p82)