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Tuesday, 31 December 2013

My Favourite Books of 2013

Picking five favourites out of my list of collected book reviews for 2013 was much easier this year than it was last. I struggled last year, having read so many good books that my head burst with them. This year a certain few rose to the top and, while there were about eight that deserved a place, narrowing it down wasn't too tricky. So here we are! Something interesting to note is that all these books were read in the early months of the year - they must be potent to all survive and be on this list.

Tom-All-Alone's by Lynn Shepherd

A very clever book that draws on Bleak House by Charles Dickens and centres on Charles Maddox, a private detective, who is employed by the infamous Edward Tulkinghorn. An excellent book I want to read again soon. My full review can be found here.

Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise by Sam Irvin

I didn't read much non-fiction in 2013 but this biography was brilliant. Thompson was an incredibly talented yet self-destructive individual who was at the centre of Hollywood but very rarely in the public eye. The what-ifs of her story are so tantalising. My full review can be found here.

Elijah's Mermaid by Essie Fox

I realise this is the second year in a row Essie Fox has made it into my favourites list and I make no apology for that - Elijah's Mermaid is an entrancing book. It follows Pearl, a web-toed 'mermaid' who has lived her life in a brothel and Lily and Elijah Lamb, twins who live with their grandfather. Much more than that would be spoiling it so I'll say no more. My full review can be found here.

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

This is an incredibly dark book centred on a group of survivors in a lifeboat whose hopes of being rescued are slim and rely on the capacity of the boat being diminished. What follows is an excellent tale relayed by an unreliable narrator. This is probably the book that stayed with me longest once I'd put it down. My full review can be read here.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Reading Anne Bronte for the first time made me realise that she is my favourite Bronte, no question. This book, although quietly understated, deals with themes far ahead of its time. A woman, married to a drunkard and an adulterer, leaves her home in order to protect her son. The narrator, Gilbert Markham, falls in love with her, giving rise to an incredibly complex situation. A brilliant book in my view. My full review can be found here 

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Reading Challenge: TBR Challenge

This challenge is hosted by Roof Beam Reader over here. The goal is to read twelve books from your To Be Read pile that have been there for over a year. My TBR pile is overflowing so there were plenty to choose from. These are the twelve I settled on:

  1. The Art of Fiction by David Lodge
  2. Die a Dry Death by Greta van der Rol
  3. Author, Author by David Lodge
  4. The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell
  5. Room by Emma Donoghue
  6. Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John by Sally Cline
  7. London Fields by Martin Amis
  8. London Lore by Steve Roud
  9. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by The Countess of Carnarvon
  10. Quicksand & Passing by Nella Larsen
  11. Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi
  12. The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders

I think there's a decent mix of fiction and non-fiction there, with six of each. I certainly need to read more non-fiction in 2014 and this is a good start. All of these books are literally dusty, definitely been on my table a while waiting for me to get to them. Here's hoping I do!

Reading Challenge: Chunkster Challenge

This challenge is hosted by Vasilly over here. There are no set levels for participation but you have to set your own number of books ahead of time and try and stick to it. A 'chunkster' counts as more than 450 pages in this challenge and e-books are allowed. It also says you don't have to list your books in advance but I know me - if I don't make a list and stick to it, I won't complete the challenge. I'm only going with five 'chunksters' for this. It might not seem a lot but it adds up to over 2200 pages so it doesn't sound that shabby. These are the five books:

  1. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell (464 pages)
  2. Shirley by Charlotte Bronte (608 pages)
  3. Kate: The Woman Who Was Katharine Hepburn by William J. Mann (532 pages)
  4. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (530 pages)
  5. Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope (708 pages)

Poor Katharine Hepburn is a bit of an anomaly there, isn't she? But I have a sneaking suspicion that'll be my favourite from this list, although I have decent hopes for Mary Barton. Can You Forgive Her? will be my first Trollope so we'll see how that one plays out. Hopefully it'll all be cool... And porkies are flying past the window. 

Monday, 23 December 2013

Watchalong: Merrily We Roll Along

Yesterday, I eagerly downloaded the Digital Theatre recording of Merrily We Roll Along (the one that was shown in cinemas a few months ago) and participated in the watchalong that began at 5:00 pm. For the next couple of hours I devoted myself half to the screen and half to the #MerrilyOnScreen hashtag on Twitter and you know what? It was brilliant.

I saw this production in London in July and then saw it in cinemas too. However, the beautiful thing about Merrily is that it doesn't get old. The more you watch it, because of the fact it runs backwards, the more you understand it and the more you can pick up from it. What helps, of course, is that the central performances from Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell and Damian Humbley are fantastic, and the supporting cast are brilliant too. Everyone makes you care about their characters, even when they're horrible human beings - yes, Josefina Gabrielle as Gussie, I'm looking at you.

What was so enjoyable about yesterday was the sense of community. Someone tweeted that we had the ability to fall apart because we weren't in public but, really, we kinda were. It's just that we were with truly like-minded company and not with people just after a night out in the West End or at the cinema. The chronology of Merrily also makes it a perfect musical for discussion. Even when we knew what was going to happen because we'd already seen it, we're willing it not to. For example, one of my tweets:
I got steadily more emotionally involved as the show went on - by the reprise of 'Not a Day Goes By' I was a gibbering wreck.
The delight of the third viewing was picking up on things I hadn't noticed before. For example, when Frank first meets Beth in 'Opening Doors' and Mary's watching them:
I can't articulate how good this show is. Now it's available for rent or purchase on Digital Theatre, I'd heartily recommend it. The songs are gorgeous but only really make sense in the context you see them. For example, on this third time around, 'Like It Was' in the first act got to me because I knew how things went.
There was a nice little discussion going on about whether Frank's life would've turned out differently if he had married Mary instead of Beth - would he still have gone off with Gussie, which was the bit that broke everything? I say that he wouldn't. Mary said it herself at opening night - sometimes you don't have to trust them and you need to keep an eye on them instead. I think that would've stuck. But maybe I'm just a romantic at heart.

If you want to take a look at the Storify for the watchalong, it's here. I'll leave you with one of the (many) beautiful lines Mary has throughout the show:

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Classic Film Review: Ann Vickers (1933)

Ann Vickers stars Irene Dunne as the title character, a social worker who falls pregnant following a dalliance with an officer about to go off to war. With the help of her aunt, Malvina (Edna May Oliver), she procures an abortion (though this is never explicitly stated) then throws herself into prison reformatory work. She becomes very successful but meets Barney Dolphin (Walter Huston), a married judge whose complex past may be her downfall once again.

I felt the film was too short for everything it tried to include. You got a lengthy set-up between Ann and Captain Resnick (Bruce Cabot), only for it to be merely the catalyst that throws her into prison reform. Her experiences observing the women are potent but they're glossed over far too easily. My opinion was that a few more intimate conversations with the prisoners would've been more helpful than the scenes in the background while a distressed Ann watches. However, this was 1933 so the reticence has context. Ann's affair with Barney is handled more openly, although the romance between them does feel rushed, as much of the film does.

Irene Dunne's performance is, as usual, superb. She handles the scenes after Resnick's betrayal well and you do get a sense of the character developing and maturing as the film progresses. However, my favourite scenes were the ones between Irene Dunne and Edna May Oliver as Malvina, though that may be because this is the second Oliver film I've reviewed this week. The evident warmth in their relationship offset the somewhat shallow relationships Ann has with the male characters.

Overall, I found this film undeniably rushed, detrimentally so. Too much time was spent building up characters who later played no or very little part in proceedings and the central romance didn't feel authentic at all. However, Irene Dunne is excellent in the role, particularly in the scenes following the abortion and when she is forced to make a big decision about her job later on. There are some twists, yes, but nothing you wouldn't expect if you were paying attention. A little formulaic, perhaps, but entertaining nonetheless.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Work Diary Gone Awry

Back in July, I wrote about the benefits of the work diary I'd been using for a year at that point. I'd found that it made me feel like I'd accomplished something and keeping track of the various projects I was working on allowed me to see which ones I was neglecting. Amusingly, however, in recent weeks it's been the diary itself that has been neglected.

You see, November was a tad hectic. I explained about my other November commitments alongside NaNoWriNo at the end of October and, to be perfectly honest, it all ended up being much worse than I'd anticipated. This year has quite possibly been one of my worst and November was the iceberg that sank me.

My last decent work diary entry was on 31st October: 'Wrote 800 words of Downton essay'. For the next two weeks there are spasmodic references to work accomplished but with no detail - I say I worked on my thesis, for instance, but don't say how many words I got down on paper or whether I was editing or crying over the laptop. Not much of a reference tool for how much work I'd done. Since 14th November I haven't documented a single thing. I think my head was in too much of a whirl.

I was juggling essay edits with my firm determination to complete NaNoWriMo and a thesis chapter that was intent - and still is, I think - on not fitting together properly. In addition, some personal problems finally got the better of me and I spent much of late November in a haze. I woke up, tried to cope with whatever my inbox was throwing at me, worked until my brain gave up then collapsed in a heap. It's possibly no surprise that as soon as my final, final, final essay rewrites were done I succumbed to that monster cold that's been going around. I'm still not completely better now, which is a mark of how hard something had to hit me in order to force me to slow down. There's a lesson in there somewhere but I'm not sure it's one I'm ready to learn.

So what of the work diary? I'll try and pick it up again in January, though I'm not sure if I'll be successful. If I get back to the point where I'm too all over the place to document what I'm doing then I fear 2014 may be as tricky as 2013 has been. And that, dear reader, is a frightening prospect.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Classic Film Review: Murder on a Honeymoon (1935)

 Murder on a Honeymoon is the third in a series about amateur sleuth Hildegarde Withers and is the last of the films to star Edna May Oliver as the protagonist (I previously reviewed Penguin Pool Murder, 1932, here). Miss Withers is travelling to Catalina Island on a small plane with a few other passengers but when it arrives at its destination one passenger doesn't disembark - he's dead. Learning that the dead man was an informant against a gangster, Miss Withers' old sidekick, Inspector Piper (James Gleason), hops on a boat to help her out of what could be a sticky situation. There are plenty of twists and turns and some serious peril for our heroes in this one.

As with Penguin Pool Murder, I thought this was just wonderful. Edna May Oliver and James Gleason bounce off each other perfectly, with the mutual affection between Miss Withers and Inspector Piper coming through in their own grouchy ways. The characterisation of these two is ideal. Piper isn't the brightest and he also tends to rush into things whereas Miss Withers will hold her tongue and watch from a distance. Even so, her beliefs do put the pair of them in danger towards the end of the film and, even before that, she ends up tied up in a closet for getting too close to the truth. Although I had no real fear either character would be killed, there was the sense that some damage could easily be done in the final scenes.

The supporting cast is mostly unremarkable, with Lola Lane as Phyllis La Font probably the best of the bunch. There's a heavy reliance on stereotypes with the island doctor and police officer but since they're incidental characters it doesn't really impede the film much. The focus is on Miss Withers and her friendship with Piper as they solve the murder.

I can't help but think it's a pity this was Oliver's last portrayal of Miss Withers. The potent partnership between her and Gleason could've lasted a long time.

Monday, 16 December 2013

RIP Joan Fontaine

With all the discussion of Peter O'Toole's death, announced yesterday, it would be easy for the death of another Hollywood star to go unnoticed. The wonderful Joan Fontaine died yesterday aged 96, a brilliant age, perhaps, but why did I still get the feeling she'd been taken too soon? The Hollywood stars of the 40s and 50s that I adore are so fresh in my memory that it's still a shock when one of them dies and Joan has become one of my favourites.

The first film I saw her in was A Damsel in Distress (1937) with Fred Astaire. It was an odd film with a screen play by PG Wodehouse and songs by the Gershwins but, while Astaire's charm and dancing ability was ever present, I was more interested in his beautiful colleague. Although not Astaire's usual kind of co-star, there was something about her that pulled me in: maybe the eyes, maybe the smile, maybe just the sense that I was to see her in better things - which I did.

I've since reviewed three of her films on here: Rebecca (1940), Jane Eyre (1943) and Born to Be Bad (1950). In the last of these, she plays a manipulative woman determined to outsmart those around her to get what she wants. It wasn't the kind of role I'd come to associate with her but she pulled it off remarkably well, revealing another layer to an excellent actress. However, she's at her absolute best in Rebecca, engaging throughout and a brilliant co-star to the titan Laurence Olivier. If there's one film I think she'll be remembered for, it's Rebecca, and rightly so.

There are many more Fontaine films out there for me to discover and enjoy. Hours of pleasure from an actress I don't think has been properly appreciated in recent years. Maybe her death'll change that. RIP Joan and thanks for the wonderful legacy.

Friday, 13 December 2013

My Musical Memories

I got to thinking, as I was not sleeping in the early hours of the morning, what a huge impact musicals, their songs and their stars, have had on my life. A lot my memories are tangled up with particular songs, albums are connected with specific moments in time, some good, some bad. I felt like sharing. This is practically chronological, though there are some jumps.

I remember seeing the stage show of Singin' in the Rain not long after I started secondary school, sitting in the third row and getting wet at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It took a long time for me to 'condescend' to see the film. What a mistake that was.

I remember buying the Summer Holiday cast album on CD, bringing it home and my mum demonstrating how to dance along to 'Foot Tapper', one of my final positive memories of her.

I remember the triumvirate of albums that sustained me for what felt like an age but was a mere few months - film cast recordings of The Sound of Music and Grease and the Michael Ball production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I loved the song 'Teamwork' in the latter and miss it since my CD broke and I haven't been able to replace it. 

I remember nearly breaking my ankle jumping over a sofa at a friend's house while listening to The Sound of Music. The friends were in another room, away from my racket. I realised in that moment I didn't belong anywhere near them.

I remember ordering The Harvey Girls on VHS having once seen it on television. It arrived at my Grandma White's house and I told her she could watch it. Jealous, and having had a row with yet another friend I shouldn't have been friends with, I was walking around Wrenthorpe and I called her. She told me she was up to 'It's a Great Big World' and the idea of being with 'friends' when I could be watching that beautiful scene instead made me indescribably sad.

I remember skipping college to watch Pal Joey. And On the Town. Maybe that's something to blame Frank Sinatra for.

I remember buying a book on MGM musicals and taking it to college so I didn't have to talk to anyone all day.

I remember doing an A-Level language project on musical songs in the 1940s and 60s. It stank.

I remember terrorising the neighbours with the Thoroughly Modern Millie Broadway cast recording with Sutton Foster. While dancing along to 'Forget About the Boy' I jumped on a chair and it fell over, sending us both crashing to the floor. Lesson not exactly learned.

I remember persuading my Grandma Brown to buy me three films for £20 in HMV - Singin' in the Rain, Little Shop of Horrors and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. She thought I selected the last one just to make up the three so I took my laptop round to her house and made her watch it - she soon changed her mind. Then there was me dancing the 'Barn Dance' along the corridor in that bungalow, scaring the life out of both my grandparents.

I remember countless Sundays  in my Grandma Brown's kitchen, listening to Elaine Paige on Sunday and writing fan fiction in thick spiral bound notebooks.

I remember taking walks down the backs near my Grandma White's house with a musical compilation recorded onto my Walkman. I danced along stones wedged into the shallows of a lake singing 'All That Jazz', Claire Sweeney's version.

I remember that after getting the Wicked soundtrack I went up a hill near my Grandma White's house and sang along to 'Defying Gravity' at the top of my voice while jumping between a rock and a bench.

I remember the thrill of listening to 'Processional and Maria' from The Sound of Music and how that piece of music still has the power to make me smile and conduct along.

I remember walking to my Grandma Brown's and making sure I was listening to the London cast recording of Mary Poppins and the song 'Jolly Holiday' for a particular stretch along Aberford Road. There was singing, lots of singing.

I remember getting through my first year at uni by taking long walks past midnight with my MP3 player. Particularly, there was a set of steps that headed up to the main road. I danced up and down those, frequently to 'Avenue A' from Mrs Santa Claus, waving at passing cars.

I remember the first time I ever watched A Muppet's Christmas Carol with my flatmate and pausing halfway through to take a call that made me smile more than I had since I got to university.

I remember sitting outside McDonald's near uni listening to 'When the Children Are Asleep' from Carousel and thinking how pleasant that scenario sounded.

I remember the first time I watched Call Me Madam. I was at my Grandma Brown's, my grandfather was in hospital and my great aunt called halfway through the film. I was upset that the phone call stopped my grandmother watching Donald O'Connor dance in 'What Chance Have I With Love?', one of his best performances.

I remember meeting someone and being gutted that The Sound of Music had recently toppled from the head of her favourites list. If only I'd spoken to her a month earlier.

I remember listening to 'It Really Doesn't Matter' on YouTube, learning all the words to distract me from the fact I was living in a fifteen person house I despised.

I remember annoying the neighbours when I lived in Middlesbrough by singing along extremely loudly to 'Do You Hear the People Sing?' three or four times a night.

I remember working to rule in Bradford, sitting in my dad's car until just before clocking-in time singing 'Once We Were Kings' from Billy Elliot loudly enough to irritate anybody in the car park.

I remember after a particularly bad supervisor meeting listening to 'A Star is Born' from Hercules and managing to make myself smile before I left Sheffield.

I remember seeing Liza Minnelli sing 'Maybe This Time' live and thinking that nothing could possibly beat that for me.

I remember seeing Idina Menzel singing 'No Day But Today' and the audience around the Royal Albert Hall joining in to create an electric atmosphere.

I remember sitting in the third row watching Merrily We Roll Along and never wanting it to end. I got a similar sensation when I watched the cinema showing, though I bawled my eyes out at a different song.

There are more, many more. A lot of songs associated with bad moments too but those I'll keep to myself. The point is, while most people say they 'like' music, I really couldn't live without it. These songs are what keep me going and not a day goes by (thanks, Mr Sondheim) where my earphones don't help me blot out the real world, just a bit.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Perks of Being Unwell

I've been struck down with that cold that's doing the rounds, though it had the decency to hold off until my final, final Downton Abbey essay edits had been completed. I think submitting that gave me permission to collapse and my body took the invitation without much hesitation. So here we are.

Fortunately, I have found some upsides to this being ill malarkey. Most of you know I don't exactly slow down but I've been forced to do just that and I'm actually relaxing for a change. I was already rereading Aurora Floyd slowly as part of my thesis work but I've finished that pretty speedily, thanks to waking up at half four this morning and having a three hour reading session. I'm going to indulge in some 'fun' rereading until I recover. I don't much have time to reread these days and there are some books on my shelves I really want to revisit such as Sing You Home (Jodi Picoult), Carol (Patricia Highsmith) and All Passion Spent (Vita Sackville West). I'm hoping to get through those three at least by the weekend.

I'm not entirely resting though - I'm incapable of it. I'm still working on some novel edits but the pressure's not there because I'm just doing as much as I feel like. And the rest of my free time is being spent with these lovely ladies because that's what I do when I'm unwell...

Friday, 6 December 2013

Classic Film Review: The Velvet Touch (1948)

The Velvet Touch stars Rosalind Russell as Valerie Stanton, a Broadway star who wants to break from her long-term partnership with director Gordon Dunning (Leon Ames) because she wants to star in a serious play and she's also fallen in love with Michael Morrell (Leo Genn). Dunning is unwilling to let her go and she accidentally kills him when he threatens to make up lies to tell Morrell to split them up. A flashback sequence shows how they got to that point and then the police investigation starts up. The primary suspect is the woman who truly loved Dunning, Marian Webster (Claire Trevor). She found the body and picked up the murder weapon but she's in a catatonic state. What will happen when she comes round?

I thought this was an excellent film. There were a few shaky moments acting-wise but Leon Ames played the villain to perfection, giving Valerie every reason to attack him in the opening scene. The moments that follow that, as Valerie makes her way back to her dressing room in a daze are exceptional. Russell plays that entire sequence perfectly and really, from then on, she's completely absorbing. She battles with her guilt and her fear but ultimately uses her acting skills to good effect to keep the truth under wraps. However, she may have underestimated Captain Danbury (Sydney Greenstreet), an affable police detective who adores the theatre and investigates the case.

There are some brilliant scenes that have stayed with me. The hospital confrontation between Valerie and Marian - and Valerie's subsequent breakdown in Captain Danbury's office - is tense, with Claire Trevor giving a very good performance throughout the film but especially in this scene. Really, though, this film is Russell's alone and she makes good use of it. The final sequence of her opening night in Hedda Gabler builds to a climax where you're unsure what the outcome will be. Ultimately, I think the ending worked but the alternate scenario would have been equally as good.

Highly recommended. It's a psychological thriller that leaves you wondering when Valerie will finally break - because break she must.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Grandmother Misery

In the middle of October the 'family' (if you can call us that in any sense of the word) finally relented and put my grandmother in a residential home. It was against my wishes and, to make things worse, during the actual transition I was away on holiday. I said at the time that I didn't want to be proven right but I couldn't help believing it would make her more unhappy. Well, I have been proven right.

I think the home is shabby but, then, it was only ever picked for proximity to one side of the family and had bugger all to do with what was best for her. The home that my grandmother wanted is currently undergoing renovation work to build an extension. The capacity will no doubt be increased and she's already at the top of the list so she should be able to move there - in April/May. I'm not holding out hope for her lasting that long.

80% of my visits have been soul-destroying. What happens is, we ring the bell and sign in. My dad signals my grandmother in the lounge and she slowly makes her way across to us. Then we head down a long corridor to her room. What happens in that corridor is that she starts sobbing and continues sobbing all the way down to her room. Then she collapses in her chair and sobs some more. When we finally get words out of her, it all boils down to the same thing - she hates that place. As I knew she would. Being right doesn't feel good in this case; it feels downright awful.

So what does she hate? Well, let's start with the physical aspects of the home. Her room is shabby with peeling paint and a lack of hot water at the sink unit. There's also a draught at the window, which they overcompensate for by turning the heat up to tranquilliser levels. More problematic is the fact that this place isn't en-suite (something me and my father were determined on for her privacy). There's a toilet nearby but they're more than happy to make her use the commode, which they then proceed to leave for hours. They're storing things in her room, hoists and the like (and, yes, I trust her on this one, because I've seen the rest of the place). The food isn't up to much and they're not giving her enough - for a small woman she's always eaten lots and the weight is literally dropping off her. She doesn't seem to be getting enough water either - the problem with her dry lips is back with a vengeance after we'd almost fixed it.

There are other things that are getting her down. We went one day last week to find her soggy trousers that no one had tried to change her out of. The way she took this suggested to me it wasn't the first time that had happened. The staff to resident ratio seems to be lacking too. There's a man two doors down from her who wails for staff for ages (something else I've experienced first-hand) and they've had a couple of women with Alzheimer's who haven't been supervised properly. The first one, there on respite, was regularly going into rooms and taking things, including a picture of my late uncle's wedding and two stones, about the only things of emotional value she's got in there. Again, I witnessed this first-hand. The second woman with Alzheimer's seems to enjoy watching people getting undressed and this has upset my grandmother. My question is - are the carers not shutting the door or are they just not stopping the woman getting in? I think there needs to be a closer focus on high-dependency residents, for the sake of all.

It's not the end of the list by any means but it'll do for now. It's all conspired to make her utterly miserable and there's bugger all I can do about it. She found out the other day that my dad and my aunt have to 'get her out' if she wants to leave (am I the only one getting shades of a Victorian asylum with this place?). While I can exert pressure on my dad to try and locate another, less shabby place, my aunt is having none of it. My grandmother says she literally turns her back on her when she tries to discuss it. How the hell can you have that attitude to someone who so obviously suffering? My grandmother told me the other day that when she realised this was it until the end of her life, she couldn't take it. Neither can I, in all honesty.