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Thursday, 27 December 2012

A Note About the Downton Deaths (Spoilers)

In the middle of series three of Downton Abbey I was one of many shocked by the sudden death of Lady Sybil following childbirth. I'll admit I was in floods of tears, then and the following twice I watched the episode. But, following the Christmas special that saw Matthew Crawley crash his car and die on the road, I was left a bit...cold actually. Luckily, I can easily ascertain why.

Sybil's death was sudden, yes, but it was as foreshadowed during the episode as Matthew's was. We saw her loving conversations with Tom, Mary and Cora; we knew the pompous doctor was going to lead to a dead end - possibly quite literally. But this foreshadowing didn't ruin the surprise because there was always a chance she'd pull through. After all, they'd be pretty stupid or brave to kill off such a popular character so swiftly. Whereas, with Matthew, the rumours about Dan Stevens's departure had been circulating for months. It was so damn obvious that he was going to bow out - if not in the Christmas special then in the early part of series four - that the emotion was sapped from the moment. It became all about the actor while Sybil's death was all about the character. I don't seriously believe that the cast and crew couldn't have kept silent if they'd really been induced.

Perhaps the most important aspect of any character death is emotional resonance. During Sybil's actual death scene I was invested, yes, but I didn't cry. What actually set off the tears were the reactions of the staff. Once Thomas started blubbing I did too. The difficulty with Matthew's death is that we had the 'event' but no emotional resonance afterwards. Okay, we saw Mary with her baby conflicting with the harsh images of her husband lying dead but there was no moment of revelation. There may be in the opening scenes of series four and, if there is, that will make it better but the actual death will have lost much of its emotional resonance by then. I can't help feeling that the audience has been let down a bit. There is, of course, the credible chance I'm in a minority on this one.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Classic Film Review: Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (1957)

Heaven Knows, Mr Allison tells the story of Corporal Allison (Robert Mitchum), a marine who drifts to shore on a Pacific island to find that the only person there is Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr), a nun who has just buried the priest she accompanied to the island. They make plans to escape the island but these turn sour when Japanese troops turn up to make a base on the island. They are forced to seek refuge in a cave and see what happens next but the close proximity causes its own problems.

There are a few similarities in tone between this film and The African Queen (1951, reviewed here) but any notion of a love plot is complicated by Sister Angela's habit. The romantic tension between Mitchum and Kerr works a little but can't last. Essentially, we have to care about their survival and not any hope of a romantic conclusion. The film achieves this, in part, by making Cpl Allison a good, down to earth man who has no pretensions of intelligence. This role was the first of Mitchum's that I've had no problems with but it suited him perfectly. As for Kerr, her Irish accent did get a little grating at times (and some words got lost) but her best moments came as Sister Angela finally cracks while a drunk Allison is arguing with her. The veneer of calm she's managed to maintain throughout makes this moment all the more compelling.

The third star of the film is undoubtedly the setting. Beautifully directed and filmed on location, the island comes to life, playing an important role as the film progresses. Heaven Knows, Mr Allison is a decent film hampered partly by a bad title. It's worth a watch as an excellent Robert Mitchum film and as part of Deborah Kerr's catalogue of good performances.

Friday, 14 December 2012

A Classics Challenge: December Wrap Up

Well, I technically failed this challenge, reading only six classics throughout the year when the target was a minimum of seven. I think we'll blame this on Charles Dickens since the challenge ended up being 'The Charles Dickens Classics Challenge With Two Other Books Thrown In'. So what books did I manage to read as part of the challenge?

  • I started off in January with Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (review here, prompt post here). 
  • In February I took a hiatus from all other books to indulge in Bleak House which is by far my favourite Dickens novel (review here, prompt post here).
  • I think Bleak House exhausted me. I came back to the challenge in July with another Dickens book - The Old Curiosity Shop (review here, prompt post here).
  • In August I stepped away from Dickens for the first time and read Jane Austen's Emma (review here, prompt post here).
  • In September I moved onto Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge (review here, prompt post here).
  • Finally, my December read - actually started with all good intentions back in October - was another Dickens novel, Little Dorrit (review here).

Four Dickens, one Austen and one Hardy. Not too shabby for the year, especially when you look at the lengths of Bleak House and Little Dorrit. Of course, there were some books I listed on my original challenge post that didn't get a look in: Mary Barton (Gaskell), The Mill on the Floss (Eliot), A Farewell to Arms (Hemingway) and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Sterne). That's a shame for them but, honestly, this year deserved to be dedicated to Dickens. 

If I had to pick favourites I'd say it's a tie between Bleak House and Emma. I loved the depth of the former and the humour of the latter. Two very different texts but enjoyable for different reasons. That said, I didn't dislike any of these books. If I had to pick my least favourite it would probably be Oliver Twist but that's just because I enjoyed all of the others immensely. 

I'd like to thank November's Autumn for hosting this challenge and making me push myself a little. It's been great fun and I'd urge you to go read some of the other wrap-up posts listed over here to see what other people have been reading this year. 

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Book Review: Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Although it doesn't have the depth of Bleak House (reviewed earlier in the year here), Little Dorrit has an array of characters and subplots that are enough to make your head whirl if you let them. The title character is a young woman who was born in the Marshalsea prison and has lived her life there - with certain excursions outside of the walls to make money for her family. When, eventually, her life changes beyond belief she finds herself whisked away from not only the home she knew but the man she's come to love - Arthur Clennam.

Little Dorrit contains an impressive collection of truly Dickensian characters. For instance, there's Flora, Arthur's childhood sweetheart, who has been married and widowed and now comes complete with 'Mr F's Aunt', a batty woman who announces random things and has taken quite a dislike to Arthur for no tangible reason. Flora reminds me irresistibly of Miss Bates from Jane Austen's Emma (reviewed here) - you feel like you need a sit down after all of her appearances as she rabbits on and confuses even the most attentive reader. Other stand-out characters include the grotesque Mr Flintwinch, Arthur's mother's business partner, and the excellent Mr Pancks, a man who has been content to do 'difficult' work all his life because that's just what life is but the worm eventually turns. I have to admit, I was actually cheering when it happened. Such a Victorian 'comeuppance' but satisfying to the reader nonetheless.

On occasion, the subplots of this novel become a little blurred and take up too much time. That's a pitfall of serial publication but Dickens's prose style kept me interested throughout. Of particular amusement were the descriptions of the Circumlocution Office - a timely reminder that bureaucracy is a needless waste of resources and we'd be well advised to take the same lesson from that satirical depiction as the Victorians were encouraged to. As with most Dickens novels, the parallels between his era and ours are startling but they do focus on enduring human characteristics: people will cheat, manipulate, have a change of fortune, become jealous, fall in love and hide it for all eternity and perhaps it is those qualities which make Little Dorrit as readable today as it was in the 1850s. Add to the characterisation and plot the amusing depictions of London and, most poignantly, the depictions of the Marshalsea and you have an excellent book on your hands. This wouldn't make a good introduction to Dickens for those who haven't read any of his work before but it's certainly a good addition to the canon.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Pesky Inspiration

That'll teach me to detail all my writing projects. The post I wrote about them yesterday gave rise to an evening of rereading and pondering that, finally, this morning led to a breakthrough. Trouble is, this wasn't the one I was supposed to be working on. It wasn't even the one I had a recent 'lightbulb' moment about!

The offender is number two in the list - 'Danni'. I said yesterday that it needed 'something' and I finally figured out what it was by reading through the abandoned first draft. There was a heck of a lot of background material in there (pivotal to the central relationship) that I'd simply discarded when I changed the plot around. Well, obviously I'm not just going to lump it back in but it does give me back the character insight I was lacking in more recent drafts.

Secondly, I knew part of my central hypothesis was weak. This was already the second incarnation but roll on number three. I know exactly what to change. I don't quite know how the change will affect every little thing but I've got a good grip on the basics.

So what now? Well, I'm knee-deep in editing 'Lily' after consultation with my agent and I need to finish a draft of my current thesis chapter by Christmas (my supervisor then 'persuaded' me to take Christmas week off from it). I'm also seeing quite a bit of my nieces and nephew and there's that whole Christmas thing itself to get out of the way. Does that mean this is a project for the New Year? Looks likely. And I think I have to bump it up the priority list. 'Lily' then 'Danni'. Going to be a busy January.

Monday, 10 December 2012

In Which I Discuss All My Major Writing Projects...

It occurred to me yesterday how much better I've become at completing drafts. I remember when I first started my MA we were asked what we particularly wanted to get out of the course - my answer was to finish something. Of course, an MA isn't the best place to do that (I have two unfinished projects from that year) but it provided some of the tools and my stubbornness provided the rest. My first complete manuscript actually came from my first NaNoWriMo. That idea of fighting with myself (and a certain friend, she knows who she is) was the push I needed. But since then I've morphed into a writer who likes to damn well complete first drafts when I've got them off the ground. The problem now is that I have a stack of things to redraft and precious little time to do it in.

Here's a list of my current projects that I consider 'off the ground'. There are countless others that are languishing on the top shelf of my musicals DVD bookcase glaring at me every time I want to watch The Wizard of Oz or Funny Face but we'll continue ignoring them for now or my brain really will melt from overwork. Note: I call all my novels by the name of my protagonist until I can actually come up with titles. I hate titles. That's a rant for another day.

  1. 'Lily' - The most developed of all, this was the novel I wrote and completed for my first NaNoWriMo. Since then it's gone through two and a half further drafts before I aborted the half and started afresh. I'm about 31,000 words into the fourth/fifth draft now. 
  2. 'Danni' - Apparently this has been through four drafts, though I can't remember all that pain. One thing I do know is that I just opened the first draft for a peek and spotted some characters I can't remember. That's a good thing, means I managed to change it beyond recognition but I may be at the point where the first draft will help me plot where I go next. It needs...something. I just to figure out what. The fourth draft came in at around 69,000 words. 
  3. 'Liz' - One first draft finished and I have decent plans for the second. Obviously needs beefing up a little at 55,000 words but this one did start out as a novella so... 
  4. 'Lauren' - Another NaNoWriMo victory, this time from 2011. Had a lightbulb moment about this one very recently (two days ago) so this is definitely ready for work. Again, it needs development at 54,000 words. 
  5. 'Max' - The least said about this one, the better! I didn't want to write it in the first place but I was...compelled. No doubt I'll be compelled to write the second draft too and, unfortunately, I do have some ideas about development. It needs it, coming in at 51,000 on the first draft. 
  6. 'Vic' - My most recent NaNoWriMo victory. Very short at around 51,000 words (again!) but I like this one. Definitely needs work but definitely has potential. 

When I write it out like that it almost looks impressive. Of course, there are still the more major ones that got away. 'Rosie', my first MA project, got me my highest MA mark and the first few chapters comprised of about 10,000 words. I keep meaning to go back to that and I do have a full plan. However, not the time! My second MA project, 'Freya', was the piece I used for my dissertation and is around 19,000 words long at the moment. It's a bit of a departure for me, a fantasy novel of sorts. But I have it on decent authority that it worked so I really should go back to it. A little something out of the ordinary is good for the muse - or so I just made up. 'Mervyn' is something that's been hanging around me for a few years in various forms but so far I've only got it up to 4,000 words. It deserves more and I swear I'll get back to it...some day. 

So much to do and so little time. It's probably not surprising that juggling this heap of stuff with my PhD sometimes gets a little overwhelming. But maybe that's the fun of it. I like to be challenged, at least in this way. However, I wouldn't say no to a few weeks off! I'm melting...

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

A Funny Thing Happened While Watching Black Narcissus

I've watched some cracking classic films this year (so far - it's not quite over yet and my hard disk recorder is full of them). However, along with All About Eve (1950), Indiscreet (1958), Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Monkey Business (1952), one of my favourites was Black Narcissus (1947) which starred Deborah Kerr, David Farrar and Kathleen Byron. Something happened while I was watching it that was a little bizarre but I didn't relate at the time - it's not really the kind of thing you put into a film review and I forgot to write a follow-up post about it.

Anyone who's familiar with Black Narcissus will know that it's a deeply atmospheric film with the constant sound of wind blighting the convent that sits high up in the Himalayas. Just as things were getting very interesting, I heard a squeaking coming from the kitchen. Shaken, I hit the pause button and glanced sideways. The dog was fighting with what I thought was a mouse. I yelled at her and she dropped it under the utensils trolley. There was a long moment then the thing reared up, bounced across the room making the most hideous noise and went straight into the crate of paperwork we have stored under the table.

Now, being a brave and mature girl, the first thing I did was call my father down from upstairs. I think I garbled something like - 'dog mouse will you - just get down here!'

He came downstairs, a little disgruntled because he still didn't know what I was babbling about and proceeded to have a look under the table. All the while, the television screen is fixed on a terrifyingly dark vision of a desolate convent.

It wasn't a mouse, it was a baby bird. That explained, perhaps, why the noise had been so violent (squawking not squeaking) but raised the question of how the dog had got hold of the creature in the first place. She's a docile little thing, scratches you by accident occasionally but doesn't have a vicious bone in her body. She wouldn't have pounced which means the poor thing must have fallen.

Anyway, my father took it outside and I waited a good few minutes before I put Black Narcissus back on. The rest of the film was seen with the memory of a dying squawk in my ears - it certainly added to the tension.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Classic Film Review: Kiss Them For Me (1957)

Kiss Them For Me is the tale of three decorated Navy pilots who wangle some leave in San Francisco and try to make it last as long as possible by getting some other 'war work'. Crewson (Cary Grant), McCann (Ray Walston) and Mississip (Larry Blyden) are very different men but all are likeable in their own way. They come across various characters including Alice Kratzner (Jayne Mansfield) who has vowed to kiss every member of the forces she sees and Gwinneth Livingston (Suzy Parker), an engaged woman who Crewson likes the moment he sees.

Perhaps the main problem with this film is that it can't decide what it's supposed to be. On the one hand, it's a light comedy with the boys trying to avoid going back to war but, on the other, there are some deeper moments that depict the realities of war. Case in point: while out with Gwinneth, Crewson encounters an old friend he knew who was invalided out. The man's so thin and decrepit that Crewson doesn't recognise him and only has weeks to live. This scene doesn't sit well with the amusing ones that precede it - and it's not an isolated occurrence.

I have to say, Jayne Mansfield's character got a tad grating at times, though she was better when paired with Walston's married McCann, who is hoping to win an election and is in constant contact with his wife, than with Grant's Crewson. Equally, although Suzy Parker began the film in good form, she didn't work as the woman who speedily fell in love. The aloof persona she adopted so well in the early scenes (and the reason I warmed to her) disintegrates as she's forced to indulge in a typical Hollywood romance. My favourite performance ended up coming from Ray Walston (whose next film would be the excellent South Pacific) whose likeability shone through a difficult script.

This is not an excellent film, though I suspect it suffered from being badly adapted. However, there are several amusing moments (if you want to watch it on that level) and several more serious ones (if you want to watch it on another). Some of the dialogue feels preachy and some of it gets too slangy than necessary but, overall, a decent film to waste some time with.