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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

...Onwards to 2015

Writing this has proved to be tricky. That's probably symptomatic of my general apathy and, really, I have no idea how the next year will play out. I'm dreading it to be fair, with no reason to suspect things are going to get any better in the near future. But let's see if I can pinpoint some specific things that I'd like to achieve in the next year.

In a few weeks I submit my thesis and so, hopefully, in a few months it'll all be over. My plans after that are, quite obviously, dependent on things beyond my control so we'll see where I am at the end of the year.

Regardless of the above, I want to attend a few more conferences this year and also work on at least two papers - I'm trying to set manageable goals but I hope I end up with more than two.

On the novel side of things, the key word this year is 'submission'. At least two novels are about in a fit state to go on their travels and I've done my research about potential publishers so it's just a case of putting them out there. I always said that once my PhD was done with I'd focus on my writing for a little while and that's still the plan.

As for the actual writing, I've already got a five month plan which involves working on five novels. Part of this involves finishing 'Kathy', a draft from 2013 that needs rewriting in the first person and then I'd also like to complete another NaNoWriMo draft in November. We'll see what the rest of the year holds but if writing's all I've got then I'd better make it count.

Equally, I'm enjoying writing short stories at the moment and I'd like to work on a lot more of them and submit plenty in 2015. This isn't really a quantifiable goal but here's hoping for a little more success in this field.

I've signed up for five reading challenges in 2015 because I'm desperately trying to occupy my mind as well as wanting to get through some of those books I've neglected for far too long. The details on all five can be found here, though I'd be amazed if I complete the huge list. Still, that's what challenges are for, right?

Whatever lies ahead in 2015, I can guarantee that I will be spending a lot of time in this lady's company. It's a sad song but, unfortunately, it does sum things up perfectly...

Farewell 2014...

Well, if I thought 2013 was bad... Seriously, there has to be a point where things do actually hit rock bottom and I start climbing towards that pinprick of sky discernible miles above. A good post about the crumminess of this year was written in September called 'Taking Stock' and, I have to say, things haven't exactly improved. The only thing that's improved is my ability to roll with the punches a little more. So, on a personal level, 2014 stank but what about those goals I set myself? First are links to a few successes before we get into more failure.

Short Story Publication - 'To Catch a Fly'

Short Story Publication - 'Aldgate Echoes'

A Wakefield View of Westminster - Available Now

1. 2014 is, barring catastrophe, thesis submission year. It's been a long time coming and, I have to admit, the light at the end of the tunnel is frightening. Completion will bring its own set of problems but if I look towards them I'll panic and flee. So, let's just focus on finishing writing, submitting, the viva and... Actually, let's just think about the writing aspect. Everything else is too scary.
Does submitting two weeks into 2015 count as 'catastrophe'? That's the plan anyway and my only excuse is that, the number of times I've despaired of the thesis in the last year, it's a miracle it's getting submitted at all. And that light at the end of the tunnel? Even more petrifying now. 

2. Some more conferences would be a nice idea - either just attending or giving papers, ideally the latter.
I gave papers at three conferences this year, taking me to Oxford, Nottingham and London. A review of those can be found here but, on a personal level, I'm particularly proud of making it through the Nottingham one due to some incredibly difficult anxiety issues on the day. Taking good from bad, that was a triumph for me this year. 

3. I want to work on at least three academic articles/papers this year. Since I have four ideas already, that shouldn't be too difficult...right? We're going with optimism here.
Erm, misplaced optimism. Although the paper I gave at the VPFA in July is still ripe for expanding into a full essay and that will probably be my first academic task once I've submitted my thesis.

4. On the writing side, I don't want to promise too much. 2014 is the year of the thesis, remember. However, if I don't write then I go a bit batty so there will be work. What work? Well, I have eight novel drafts to play with. I want to do full-scale edits on, say, three of them (and I know which three, which is always good). I've already started putting the polished two out into the world. We'll see where that goes this year. A NaNoWriMo draft is on the cards too, along with finishing 'Kathy' (the novel I failed to complete this year) and maybe another draft about something close to my heart. I'm almost certain no one else could write this idea with the truthfulness required. The question is, do I have the courage? We'll see.
Novel-wise, I've added a NaNoWriMo draft to my bank, although I didn't manage to finish 'Kathy'. I've completed two second drafts and I'm partway through a third. The two novels that are in the best condition, having been through five or six drafts each, were refined in 2014 and I'm ready to submit them. I think. Not great but not bad considering.

5. I'm taking part in two reading challenges this year: the Chunkster Challenge and the TBR Challenge. I've picked out the books so just need to read them now. Easy...
I failed at both of these, as I summarised yesterday.

6. I want to continue going to the gym 2-3 times a week, at least until my membership runs out in August.
Until my membership expired, I managed this one. 

7. I've asked for driving lessons as a birthday present in July. Whether this comes off is still undecided but I do need to learn and this year might be the year. Keep off Yorkshire roads in August.
Given my mental state around my birthday, it's probably lucky this one didn't come off.

8. I've been saying for four years I want to learn a little Italian. I don't really know why but it's a deep-seated thing I do intend to do at some point.
Ha. Nope.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

2015 Reading Challenges Master List

In a bid to make up for my lacklustre attempts at reading as many books as I'd like to in the last few years, I've signed up for five separate reading challenges for 2015. While I could place books on two lists, I haven't done that. The idea is to read as many books as possible and broaden my horizons a little bit. I'll probably fail miserably but I'm going to have fun trying with this lot.

New Author Challenge

Hosted by Literary Escapism, this challenge does what it says on the tin - you have to read a set amount of new authors in 2015. I'm opting into the lowest rung of fifteen novels which may make me a bit of a wimp but I want to try and complete it after all. I've listed the precise books I intend to read and not just the authors because the rest of the lists will look like this and I'm nothing if not methodical. It's a reasonable mix of modern novels and older stuff. 
  1. The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
  2. After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry
  3. The Failed Assassin by Richard Pierce
  4. Dead to Me by Cath Staincliffe
  5. The Accidental Mother by Rowan Coleman
  6. Heresy by S.J. Parris
  7. The Bawdy Basket by Edward Marston
  8. The Lost Abbot by Susanna Gregory
  9. The Heir of Redclyffe by Charlotte Yonge
  10. Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert George Jenkins
  11. The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni
  12. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume
  13. King Solomon's Mines by Henry Rider Haggard
  14. The Angel of Terror by Edgar Wallace
  15. The Bartlett Mystery by Louis Tracy

Women Challenge

Hosted by Peek a booK!, the idea is to get people reading more books by women. While that's probably my default position anyway, it can't hurt to make it official and, besides, it's setting in stone that I need to read some of those classics I've so far neglected. I'm opting for the second level which is six to fifteen books and aiming for the higher end of that category.
  1. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  2. Brick Mother by S.J. Bradley
  3. The Lovels of Arden by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  4. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
  5. Here Be Dragons by Stella Gibbons
  6. Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
  7. In the Days of My Youth by Amelia Edwards
  8. Murder on a Summer's Day by Frances Brody
  9. Mathilda by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
  10. Camilla by Fanny Burney
  11. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  12. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
  13. Nancy by Rhoda Broughton
  14. Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant
  15. The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner

TBR Challenge

Hosted by Roof Beam Reader, this is the challenge I failed miserably at last year, only getting through five of my choices. As a consequence, several of these books are appearing on the list for the second year running and I'll try to do better this time. As per the rules, all of these books have been waiting to be read for at least a year and there are twelve books on this list. 
  1. Author, Author by David Lodge
  2. Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi
  3. Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John by Sally Cline
  4. The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins
  5. The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister
  6. 800 Years of Women's Letters
  7. Collected Stories by Dylan Thomas
  8. Henry Dunbar by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  9. The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins
  10. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
  11. The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
  12. Witch Stories by Eliza Lynn Linton

Victorian Bingo Challenge

This one, hosted by Becky's Book Reviews, is rather fun. You have to complete a row, line or diagonal on the bingo board and, again, I'm using this challenge to read books I should've read already. I've gone across the top, mainly because I wanted to avoid some categories that would likely put me off the challenge and there are five books involved in this one.
  1. Book Published in the 1840s - Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
  2. Male Author - The Warden by Anthony Trollope
  3. Female Author - Charlotte's Inheritance by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  4. Book with a Name as the Title - Felix Holt, the Radical by George Eliot
  5. Book Published in Serial Format - The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade

Reading England Challenge

Hosted by Behold the Stars, this challenge is to read books set in different parts of the country. I'm opting for level two which is four to six books and aiming for the higher number again. I've deliberately filled this selection with classics too, probably because I'm a glutton for punishment.
  1. Berkshire - Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  2. Essex - Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
  3. Derbyshire - Rookwood by W.H. Ainsworth
  4. Nottinghamshire - Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
  5. Somerset - Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore
  6. Lancashire - Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

2014 Reading Challenges Round Up

In 2014 I attempted two reading challenges - and I failed them both! However, it's been that kind of year all round so I'm trying to look on the positive side of things and say that at least I read the books from the challenges that I did.

Chunkster Challenge

My aim for this was to read five books of more than 550 pages and, in the event, I only managed three. However, that's still a lot of pages and I thoroughly enjoyed two of those three books. 
  1. Shirley by Charlotte Bronte
  2. Kate: The Woman Who Was Katharine Hepburn by William J. Mann
  3. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

TBR Challenge

Again, I failed miserably at this, only managing five out of my list of twelve books. On the plus side, two of those five made it onto my 'favourite books of 2014' list so I'm certainly glad this challenge encouraged me to get round to them. 
  1. Die a Dry Death by Greta van der Rol
  2. The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell
  3. Room by Emma Donoghue
  4. London Lore by Steve Roud
  5. Quicksand/Passing by Nella Larsen

My Favourite Books of 2014

When I look back at 2014, books aren't really the aspect that sticks out, which is a terrible shame. I haven't read that many - at least not as many as I feel I should've - so this list was actually very easy to compile. I think it's certainly eclectic anyway. My complete book review list for 2014 can be found here.

Jill by Amy Dillwyn

This delightful romp was something I picked up in Gay's the Word in London and turned out to be my spontaneous book purchase of the year. This is a funny book that alters tone later on and proves to be memorable for several reasons. My full review can be found here

The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell

As the last book I read in 2014, this is obviously fresh in my memory but, from the moment I started it, there was no question it would make this list. Funny, grotesque, realistic, haunting: pick almost any word of praise and you can apply it to this novel. My full review can be found here

The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah

I'm not normally one for scary books but, as Hannah is one of the few authors I make sure to buy, I thought I'd give it a go. I was very impressed with the build-up and the haunting ending that stayed with me for weeks afterwards. I'd revisit it but I'm worried about being unsettled again. My full review can be found here

Die a Dry Death by Greta van der Rol

Speaking of unsettling, this one fits that category as well. Based on a true story of a shipwreck, it is both painful to read and utterly riveting. Again, it stayed with me for a while and, though not a book to take lightly, it's certainly one worth reading. My full review can be found here

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Although I'll admit that the exposition at the beginning of this one irritated me a little, the rest of the novel more than made up for it. Filled with Austen's witty dialogue and sneaky examinations of life, this is possibly my favourite Austen to date. My full review can be found here

Monday, 29 December 2014

Collected Book Reviews 2014

For reference, here's a complete list of the books I reviewed in 2014. It's been a pitiful year all told - must do better. So many books I want to read before I die so I'd better get a shifty on.

New Grub Street by George Gissing

Quicksand/Passing by Nella Larsen

Yorkshire Villains: Rogues, Rascals and Reprobates by Margaret Drinkall

Starlight by Stella Gibbons

Intersection by Nancy Ann Healy

Kate: The Woman Who Was Katharine Hepburn by William J. Mann

The Disgrace of Kitty Grey by Mary Hooper

The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah

The Emancipated by George Gissing

Die a Dry Death by Greta van der Rol

The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet by Burton E. Stevenson

The Aspern Papers by Henry James

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Valentine Grey by Sandi Toksvig

The Telling Error by Sophie Hannah

Restless by William Boyd

The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable by Carol Baxter

The Wisdom of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton

The Odd Women by George Gissing

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Jill by Amy Dillwyn

Dying in the Wool by Frances Brody

Tinseltown by William J. Mann

Love Alters ed. Emma Donoghue

Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

Room by Emma Donoghue

The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell

Book Review: The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell

In 2012 I read J.G. Farrell's Troubles (reviewed here) and it rapidly became one of my favourites. Its mixture of humour and tragedy, often within the same sentence, was intoxicating and that's also a combination used to great effect in The Siege of Krishnapur. This one's a book I bought for my undergraduate degree and never got round to reading. It tells the story of, as might be guessed, a siege in Krishnapur where the British community is living a serene existence. Only the Collector, Mr Hopkins, senses the danger ahead but he's dismissed as a crank until violence sweeps closer.

Once again, I adored this book. It's a strange mixture of light and dark, using the macabre to great effect. I was a little impatient for the 'real' story to get going, the scene-setting of people and places might have been important but I wanted to delve into the stress of the siege. However, everything we'd learned earlier played a part in the later scenes of despair and tragedy.

Description is one of Farrell's strengths and he uses smell to particularly good effect in this novel. Days after finishing reading it I'm still captured by the unseen bodies lying beyond the walls and the starving dogs tied up and forced to survive any way they can. Most of the characters are distinctive and there are little ongoing skirmishes which add to the overall effect of civilisation in peril. The two doctors, for instance, have on-going rows which, as with most situations in this novel, come to a darkly comical conclusion. The Padre, as well, goes around trying to convert everyone in the midst of battle. Two of the scenes that linger from this book, for me, come from this character: firstly, the battle scene where he is preaching and preaching even while the cannons are firing around him and, secondly, the scene where he's trying to convert one character while digging a grave and the corpse almost ends up going in vertically by accident. Yes, macabre but extremely memorable.

The Siege of Krishnapur is an excellent book, not for the squeamish perhaps but certainly beautifully written and evocative. It is full of reality drawn from contemporary sources about the Indian Mutiny and woven into a stunning novel that I really found it a pleasure to read, despite the horror it was detailing. That's quite a feat and I remain in awe of Farrell's literary ability.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

Room is an entrancing story about Jack, a boy who's just turned five and lives in a locked room with his Ma and believes that they are the only things that are real at the things in Room. Through the eyes of this little boy, the reader experiences an unimaginable situation that he perceives as normal. Then his Ma tells him the truth - that everything he sees on the television screen is real and that there's a world outside of Room.

What a draining book this is to read. With a book as lauded as this, you sometimes doubt it'll be as good as they proclaim and perhaps that's why it's been sat on my shelf for years. However, it was well worth the wait and is one of those books I'll envy others for still having the opportunity of coming to it fresh. It certainly isn't a happy book so I can't say you'll 'enjoy' it in any conventional sense of the word. Nevertheless, it's extremely well-written and engrossing and I can't think of a negative aspect of it. The detail of Room is astounding. Every action and situation is carefully thought out and depicted through Jack's eyes, with the reader able to interpret both the situation itself and the frustrations of his mother. Donoghue spends just the right amount of time in that stasis situation before altering it and the rest of the book is engrossing for very different reasons.

It's difficult to review a book like this without explaining everything and it's also very difficult to appreciate it if you haven't lived for at least a few pages in Jack's company. So I'll leave this review as a short one, just saying that Room lives up to every fantastic thing ever said about it.

This book was read as part of the TBR Challenge 2014, details here.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Classic Film Review: The Constant Husband (1955)

The Constant Husband stars Rex Harrison as a man who wakes up one morning in Wales with no recollection of who he is. With the help of a professor (Cecil Parker), he tracks his life down to a swanky house in Hampstead and learns that his name is Charles Hathaway. However, when he is kidnapped he learns that he has a trail of wives behind him and that the police would like a chat. Kay Kendall also features as the Hampstead wife, Monica, and Margaret Leighton stars as council for the defence.

This is a gentle comedy which, once you know the premise, holds very few surprises. Harrison is perfectly cast as the bemused 'Charles', particularly in the opening scenes where he's trying to get his bearings. He also has a good rapport with the ever-dependable Cecil Parker as the professor. Their scenes together throughout the film are a highlight. I've adored Kay Kendall since watching her in Genevieve (1953, reviewed here) and The Constant Husband occupies a special place in her biography as it brought her together both personally and professionally with future husband Harrison. This adds an extra layer to their scenes together, especially for the film buffs like me. 

I think this film's problem is that it spreads itself too thin. Although we only really encounter Monica and Lola (Nicole Maurey) as 'Charles's' wives, the court scenes are diluted by the fact that we're focused on many women and not just one or two. Of course, that adds to the comedic effect but I always like a bit more character with my comedy. I did enjoy Margaret Leighton as the defence counsellor though, again, she was used more as a satellite to Harrison than anything else. 

Ultimately, this is a steady film to enjoy once and then rewatch perhaps for choice scenes. It's not awe-inspiring but Harrison puts in a congenial performance as the central character confused by the actions of a self he doesn't remember, tying the judge in knots as he tries to understand the peculiar 'defence' the bigamist puts up. It's all solid fun, though I watched it more for Kay Kendall than anything else. 

Friday, 19 December 2014

The Best Laid Plans...

A few weeks ago I came up with some tangible goals for those ten (how'd it get to ten?!) novels I've got in various states of...undress, for want of a better word. It requires motivation on my part, which I've currently got in spades, and sticking to a fairly rigorous schedule.

December's plan is to write the second draft of 'Max'. I'd been trundling along quite nicely with it, although I was still running behind schedule (but since I'm planning on working Christmas morning and possibly evening, I doubt it matters). However, the other night I realised that the chapter plan I'd sketched out back in September was failing me. The first half was fine but one character has evolved to the point where my initial plan doesn't work any more. This is a pretty good example of character development kicking a writer in the shins but I'm not complaining too much. The fact that I had to stop and think is evidence that the pieces of this novel are falling into place and that can only be a good thing.

Of course, I wasn't so congenial about it yesterday. Actually, I was really angry because I still wanted to stick to my December rewrite strategy. Fortunately, I had to do a Sheffield trip for a supervisor meeting and, in a bid to distract myself, I focused my mind on fixing the problem. A new end-point flashed upon me, making perfect sense, and I spent the rest of the day working back from there. The chapter plan is rough and needs some depth but the sequence and development works.

I'm wondering, though, if this issue is symptomatic of something else. You see, this novel wasn't going to have a happy ending. It was about pain and realising something wasn't meant to be (sort of fitting considering my mental state when I wrote the second draft plan). However, that just didn't work. Way back in 2010, I wrote a post called 'So Much For My Unhappy Ending' about one of my other projects (which has since been through a metamorphosis of its own). After planning a dismal ending, I couldn't follow through on it. Is it just that I don't want to make my characters miserable? I don't know. But if a happy ending is remotely possible, doesn't everyone, fictional or otherwise, deserve a crack at it?

The current state of my WIP is 33,704 words and my projection calculator has me completing the draft on the 7th January. Now that I have my new plan, maybe I can get back on track.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Classic Film Review: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

An adaptation of Tennessee Williams's play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tells the story of a troubled Southern family, led by Big Daddy Pollitt (Burl Ives). He is unaware that he's dying of cancer and has returned home on his 65th birthday determined to take the second chance he thinks life has offered him. But he's concerned by the fractured relationship between his alcoholic younger son, Brick (Paul Newman), and wife Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) while his elder son, Gooper (Jack Carson) is plotting with his shrew of a wife Mae (Madeline Sherwood) to take over the business properly and shut Brick out of the equation. Rounding out the main cast is Judith Anderson as Big Momma Pollitt.

This is a stunningly strong film. You need to concentrate while watching it because the dialogue is so complex that it merits full attention. That said, the plot isn't difficult, centring around Brick's alcoholism and the trickling out of the secret about Big Daddy's health. The action is static but the performances are so brilliant that everything else does simply become a stage for them to stand on. Firstly, Elizabeth Taylor shines as Maggie and the decision to film this in colour helps keep attention on her though, really, it's difficult in scenes between her and Newman to decide who to look at. They are both captivating. Judith Anderson, equally, deserves a mention for her role as Big Momma, particularly in the wonderful scene where Gooper and Mae are trying to intimidate her. While the relationship between the matriarch and patriarch is strained, the way this develops throughout the day, with the revelations about Big Daddy's health, is very subtle and Anderson handles a difficult character with aplomb. Similarly, while character of Mae is the most odious, irritating person I've encountered in film for a while (along with her brood of kids), Madeline Sherwood does a fine job with her.

However, this film unquestionably belongs to Burl Ives. From about a third of the way through it becomes apparent that you're watching one of the best performances committed to film probably ever. There's a brilliant extended scene between Big Daddy and Brick, later joined by Maggie, which is one of the most charged moments of the entire piece but the conversation between father and son in the basement is the highlight of the film. It's just exquisite and left me in awe.

That direct references to Brick's homosexuality were cleansed from the adaptation is unsurprising and, to be honest, I don't think it makes a difference but perhaps that's just because I watch everything with an eye to the subtext anyway. Ultimately, this film is a simple story told using outstanding dialogue and some compelling actors. I lost myself in it and was genuinely surprised when I realised I'd sat transfixed for so long. It's not a film you can easily stop in the middle of a scene, one of the highest forms of praise there is in this day and age.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Edmund Yates and Dickens's Postbox

Maybe this is something that only people researching obscure or at least lesser-known figures will understand but, while reading an article on the BBC website the other night, I got slightly giddy. It's not very often I see references to Edmund Yates on anything apart from the papers piling up on my desk. In fact, when I woke up the next morning I was pretty sure I'd dreamed it (come on, I'm not the only one who dreams about Victorian authors...right?) but, nope, in an article about Charles Dickens's postbox at Gad's Hill hints that Yates helped him obtain it.

I like that. One of the less-complimentary references to Yates I've found came in a biography of Dickens from the 1940s where the author called him 'sycophantic' in his attentions to his mentor. Now, while I think that's a little unfair, it does have a ring of truth to it and that's why I find the idea of Yates rushing to discuss postboxes with Dickens rather enticing. After all, it's not very often your day job at the post office means you can be useful to one of your living heroes.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Classic Film Review: The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)

Based on the lives of two dance icons in pre-war American, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle stars Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the title roles. It deals with their marriage and struggle for success, then the tragedy that hits just a few years after their marriage. The cast also includes Edna May Oliver as agent Maggie Sutton, Walter Brennan as Walter the servant and Lew Fields as himself.

This is an altogether more serious film than other Astaire/Rogers collaborations I've seen. As a biopic, closely superintended by Irene Castle herself, it means fewer fun and games which, in turn, means the film is probably more memorable than some of their fluffy pieces. Rogers, of course, excels in dramatic roles, though the modern era has pigeon-holed her somewhat as Astaire's dancing partner. Two of the earliest films I reviewed on this blog were Kitty Foyle (1940, reviewed here) and Primrose Path (1940, reviewed here) which served to cement Rogers as one of my favourite actresses and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle definitely feeds into that.

There are, though, plenty of humorous moments early in the film. I adored Vernon and Irene's first meeting as they both dash to rescue a drowning dog then Vernon's horror at Irene's attempts to show off her dancing skills on a makeshift stage at her parents' house. Once the action shifts to Paris and Edna May Oliver is introduced as their agent, there are many hilarious moments. She never fails to lighten up a film but there are moments of wonderful seriousness from her as well. There's a gorgeous moment on the train as Irene is travelling to see Vernon where a simple movement betrays the strength of relationship that has sprung up between them all and it's a nice touch. Walter Brennan, too, is excellent, particularly in the final moments of the film.

Ultimately, this isn't about the dance numbers, it's about preserving a legacy and it does that very well. As the last Astaire/Rogers film at RKO and the only one based on a true story, it occupies a special place in their history - as it should.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Some Solid Writing Goals

Now I've completed my 2014 NaNoWriMo draft, my thoughts have returned to setting up a clear schedule of writing goals for the next few months. These are, of course, subject to the vagaries of my PhD completion timetable and sanity. I have found, though, that I've got a renewed sense of determination and passion. And plus, y'know, focusing on my writing lets me ignore the shambles of everything else so...we'll roll with it.
  • December - I'll spend December working on 'Max', the second draft of a novel I wrote back in mid-2012. I replotted this in my week of despair in early September but, despite that, I think the plan works. I've added a viewpoint and some other characters along with lengthening the time frame and making it a bit more serious. The first draft was an exercise in cleansing my mind; now I know more of the characters and I'm ready to create something a little better. 
  • January/February - The first couple of weeks of January will hopefully be spent polishing 'Lily' to perfection. That's the novel I spent September and October with and, right now, the plan is to read it aloud and see how it sounds. After that, I want to work on the tweaks I need to do to 'Danni'. When I did the last of these planning posts back in May, I said that's the novel I'm happiest with. I still maintain that but I want to give it a thorough sweep which may or may not take six weeks. 
  • March - I know what I should do in March. I should get back into 'Liz' because it's a very good story and the first draft was brilliant. I've got a scene-by-scene breakdown for the rest of the rewrite but I can never seem to get back into it. This possibly stems from the fact that I worked on this redraft in Scrivener and I've decided it's not for me. However, the novel is still plugged in there. Why not just export it, you say? Well, I'm a pest and the two benefits of Scrivener as far as I can see are the split-screen functionality and corkboard. Those are the two things I'm actually using. We'll see. There may be another reason why I can't finish this novel but we'll see in March, won't we?
  • April - I have a tentative plan with a friend in April to work on first drafts together. In which case, mine would probably be altering the first 10,000 of 'Kathy' into first person then finishing that novel draft. 
  • May - Here we reach a conflict where I'll probably either work on the second draft of 'Vic', my 2012 NaNo novel, or 'Izzy', the first draft I wrote after it. Both need planning work done before I can crack on but 'Izzy' needs more so that may be the tipping point. Better see what planning for these I can insert into earlier months. 
That all looks a bit gruelling, doesn't it? Lucky I'm determined. The novels that leaves outstanding are 'Lauren', 'Carys' and my latest NaNo success, 'Mel'. Let's see where we are in May. Right, Gene?

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Classic Film Review: From Here to Eternity (1953)

From Here to Eternity stars Montgomery Clift as Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a soldier who has taken a demotion to move to a new unit in Hawaii. His new colleagues, headed by Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober), want him to resume his boxing career to help them to glory but Prewitt steadfastly refuses and is subjected to vicious treatment because of it. He finds an ally in Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra), a hot-headed soldier who has also made himself an enemy in the form of Sergeant Judson (Ernest Borgnine). Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) has his own problems as he embarks on an affair with Captain Holmes' wife, Karen (Deborah Kerr). And, though none of them know it, the attack on Pearl Harbour is inching ever closer...

This is one of those classics that I really ought to have seen already but, while it lived up to its reputation, I don't think it's going down on my list of favourites - that may just be because of the after taste of the ending, I'm not sure. Certainly, Montgomery Clift gives an excellent performance as Prewitt, reaffirming my belief that he was one of the best actors of his generation. Similarly, Frank Sinatra's lobbying for the role of Maggio paid off, easily his best acting performance as far as I'm concerned. Where I struggled, I suppose, was with Burt Lancaster who, really, doesn't inspire much in me. Deborah Kerr, whilst effective in the second half of the film, was a struggle for me too. It wasn't because she was playing against type, perhaps just than I was far more interested in the Prewitt/Maggio aspects of the story and oould've dispensed with the Warden/Karen strand, famous kiss in the surf or not.

There are a few scenes that linger with me from this one. Prewitt's confession scene to Alma (Donna Reed), when he explains why he won't box any more, is particularly riveting, as are his scenes following the drama with Maggio and Judson. The stand-out, though, has to be his morning wake-up call to the troops that brought tears to my eyes. Sinatra almost steals every scene he's in but the drunken wandering stands out as one of his best moments, adding a little humour to a dire situation. The aerial battle scenes are also excellent and a fitting end to the film where Lancaster finally looks comfortable.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2014: Draft Complete

Due to a sudden burst of determination, I completed my NaNoWriMo draft within November, with it coming in at 59,325 words, 3,541 of those written last night. Most of those, to be fair, were written during a rushed hour where my determination overtook my sense and I just had to finish it by the arbitrary deadline.

Overall, this goes down as another successful NaNo, though it still doesn't feel that way. However, it's another first draft in the can and I already have ideas about the alterations which need to be made. One of my secondary characters flip-flops throughout the novel and I need to work out how accurate that is or whether she was just dancing to my tune. As well as that, some of the care home residents emerged as much stronger characters than I'd anticipated and I should really cling onto them in the second draft. More about my future writing plans later in the week though.

November was tricky, as I knew it would be. I haven't been feeling very bright and most days I've either burst into tears or sat staring despondent at the wall for an hour. Add to that the fact that I've been battling with the final edits of my thesis for the last two weeks and you've got a pretty draining month. I spent most of last week in a cafe with a 190 page thesis and marker pen in front of me because doing that work at home with my father still off sick from work is nigh on impossible. This blog has suffered this month, I've got some freelancing work ongoing and there's some proofreading I need to do for something else which I'll tell you all about shortly. When I see it written down like that, I'm not surprised I've woken up to the first day of December with a stonking headache. Nevertheless, I won... Here's my celebratory banner and one of my favourite songs of the moment, guaranteed to make me sing and smile - for a few minutes at least.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2014: Hit 50,000

Funny, isn't it? I crossed the 50,000 word mark just before midnight last night and, just like last year, I could barely bring myself to care. Didn't even smile. Last year I hoped the euphoria would hit when I completed the draft but it didn't so I don't expect much of a fanfare in the coming days either. Not quite sure what's wrong with me - or, rather, what on the roulette wheel is wrong with me right now - but I'd have appreciated a little celebration somewhere along the line.

So...I've got one and a half chapters planned and I think there are about three more after that to bring the novel to some resolution so, probably, the draft will come in around 60,000. It's unlikely it'll be finished by Sunday but you never know.

Write a story about someone with your problems, she said. Give them a happy ending, she said. I think my logic was fundamentally flawed...again. Here, have a little Ella...

Monday, 24 November 2014

Classic Film Review: I Married a Witch (1942)

I Married a Witch tells the story of a politician whose family is plagued by a curse from a sorcerer and his daughter they burned at the stake centuries earlier. Wallace Wooley (Fredric March) is the latest member of the family to suffer by the curse but with an added twist - thanks to a lightning strike, the tree where the ashes of the sorcerer and the witch were housed has been shattered, setting them free. Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) and Jennifer (Veronica Lake) aim to make Wallace suffer further on the eve of both his wedding to Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward) and the election for state governor. They create a love potion but, when it backfires, Daniel and Jennifer find themselves on opposite sides of the argument.

I loved this whimsical fantasy. It doesn't take itself too seriously and includes some laugh out loud moments along with brilliant performances from the cast (even if - or perhaps especially because - March and Lake didn't exactly get on). This was my first experience of Lake and, I have to say, I was impressed. Her sultry performance is stunning and she fits the part perfectly, even in the scenes where just her voice is heard. I'm struggling to think of an actress who could've played this part quite so well. March, too, is well-cast but it's definitely Lake's film. The smaller parts are taken by accomplished actors, including the ever-reliable Robert Benchley as Dr Dudley White and the equally-excellent Robert Warwick as Mr Masterson. Watch out too for Helen St. Rayner in a brief, comedic appearance as a wedding singer. It was her only credited role so IMDB tells me and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

At 77 minutes it's fairly short but that means it doesn't have too much slack to become boring. The fire scenes near the beginning are amusing but I much preferred the quiet interplay between March/Lake and Lake/Kellaway. The special effects, too, are good enough for 1942, especially the taxi ride and the broom activity. I thought the resolution was pretty neat and the little epilogue was cute, if only to see Veronica Lake as a matronly housewife for a few short moments.

This is a lovely little comedy that deserves a little more attention. I'll definitely be delving into more of Veronica Lake's filmography.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2014: Getting a Wriggle On

I seem to be in a hurry. Last night, when I should've been chugging along around the 35,000 mark, I actually crossed the 40,000 barrier then promptly collapsed in a heap. I do believe this is the best position I've been in on day twenty and, with ten days to go, barring catastrophe I'm not only going to win but actually finish the first draft within the month which is excellent.

The last week's been interesting to say the least. Battling with severe toothache, apathy towards life and some finicky bits of my thesis that refused easy solution, I'm pleased that I managed to stay on track. We'll put that down to my stubbornness, especially since last night I literally couldn't see straight at one point.

And how's the novel shaping up? Well, as with all first drafts it needs a lot of work. I think my protagonists have stepped out of their boxes a little in recent chapters in the name of furthering the plot but it's fine, I'll fix that later. The trouble is, they could've got so bogged down in the rut they were in, I might've spent 200,000 words trying to get them to talk properly to each other. The alteration needs work but an alteration there needed to be.

Things pick up from here on in. They're no longer going to be fighting themselves and each other but something beyond their control. I suppose this is the part where my novel becomes really therapeutic. If the first half was about slaying some of my own demons, the second half is slaying someone else entirely. That should sustain me for the final 10,000 words and beyond.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Things I'm Looking Forward To Post-PhD

Since trying to make any 'proper' goals at the moment isn't happening on account of me reverting to being an anxiety-ridden reckless wreck of a human being, I decided to focus on the more immediate repercussions of finally submitting my thesis in the not-so-distant future. What can't I wait to do?
  • Rip the colour-coded rubbish from every page of my sensation fiction and criticism collection, primarily from my poor copy of No Name that looks like it bickered with a rainbow. I wrote about it here a year ago and it's still that colourful, as are my copies of The Woman in White, Man and Wife and The Law and the Lady amongst others. 
  • Put all my books back on shelves. There is a tottering pile of sensation fiction novels on my office floor that I repeatedly shelved then got out again until I just thought 'sod it' and left them on my desk. Then I moved my desk (part of me trying to fix myself) and put them on the floor and... Yep, that was two months ago. 
  • Have the top of my document tray devoted to something other than illegible notes on Edmund Yates and Wilkie Collins. I could put soft toys in there, have company at my desk. 
  • Sleep more. 
Anything I've missed? 

Friday, 14 November 2014

Classic Film Review: The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

The Glenn Miller Story is, unsurprisingly, a biopic of the legendary band leader starring James Stewart in the title role. It documents both his professional quest to find the perfect 'sound' and his relationship with his wife, Helen (June Allyson), and includes cameos from stars such as Louis Armstrong and Frances Langford.

This film gets off to a slow start, as many biopics are forced to do, and it's a bit of a stretch to believe Stewart as a young Miller but this becomes less important as time passes on. The first half documents Miller's struggles with his music while focusing a lot on the love story between Miller and Helen. Stewart and Allyson are pretty brilliant together, with an easy rapport that makes their relationship feel natural. In addition, Allyson has some excellent scenes without Stewart which give her the chance to flex her sarcastic muscles a little more.

The second half of the film is essentially what happens to Miller after he finds that perfect 'sound' and the success both before and during the war. Naturally, this part of the film is full of Miller's most famous numbers and it becomes toe-tappingly good very quickly. The performance of 'Moonlight Serenade' where everything finally goes right sent shivers up my spine.

Of course, everybody knows the end to the Glenn Miller story and, yes, I'll freely admit to shedding a few tears at the end. That this film was made only ten years after his disappearance probably accounts for the sentimentality of it but, nevertheless, it's a film that lovingly depicts one of the great musicians of the twentieth century. My favourite scene is probably the anniversary where Miller and Helen both surprise each other. In that scene the strands of Miller's story are intertwined completely and it's beautiful.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2014: Hello Halfway Point

I say this every year I think. In 2011 I wrote the perfect mid-point post which involved Dumbo - you can read it here.

Now, to say something new... Well, I'm running a couple of days ahead of schedule, which is very good considering I'm still aiming to finish the whole draft of this novel, however long it turns out to be, before December. My average is just over 2,000 a day and, really, I'm keeping up the pace by late night sprints. It's lucky my characters have finally started talking to me. Last night, for instance, my chapter plan involved one of my protagonists walking into chaos at the residential home and the words just sprang from my fingers - over 2300 words in an hour and a bit. Given the pressures I'm putting myself under every day, I'm proud of keeping ahead here.

So what next? Well, I have another four and a bit chapters planned out then, beyond that, another pivotal problem has to occur. The hurdles for my protagonists up to this point have primarily been internal but an external force is going to cause merry hell for them - and I'm looking forward to it. I don't have a sense of how many chapters this whole thing's going to take but I'm currently on chapter eight and have planned up to chapter twelve. It's all very exciting. And, by 'exciting' I mean draining.

I tell you what'd be good though - if life would stop chucking rocks at me for the duration of NaNo. I'm struggling to keep my head above water and the short, sharp shocks aren't helping much. On that note, I need to go to Sheffield for a supervisor meeting...

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Book Review: Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

Shirley tells the story of the titular heroine and her community during the Napoleonic Wars. Shirley Keeldar is a woman of independent means while her new friend Caroline Helstone is not. Caroline loves her cousin, Robert Moore, but he's aware that he needs money to keep his mill going during the problems caused by the Luddites and the war so his attention becomes fixed on marrying Shirley. For her part, Shirley has a secret love of her own which may upset Robert's plans. Surrounding them are vicars, curates and disgruntled mill employees, all struggling with their own problems as the country remains in turmoil.

I'm certainly not alone in saying that I found Shirley difficult. It's very episodic and starts at a dinner of curates, who we hear very little about for the remainder of the novel. Bronte jumps around from person to person, spending a tantalisingly short amount of time with some of them before leaping onto the next. It added up to a very tricky novel to follow but, on the other hand, it meant I could put it down and not be too confused when I got back to it. That's perhaps why it took me over a month to read it - the impetus to continue was sadly lacking.

What I'm left with after reading Shirley are fragments, flashes of events, which may well be what Bronte was aiming for. Certainly, there are some memorable moments within the novel that have lingered with me. The attack on Moore's mill, skilfully told from the point of view of the women and not the attackers or defenders, is one such moment, as is the amusing scene where one of the curates finds himself on the wrong side of Shirley's faithful dog. Some of the early conversations between Shirley and Caroline are fascinating, though I became frustrated by their lack of contact in later chapters. Equally, while there is one conversation between Shirley and Louis Moore that I thoroughly enjoyed, some of their other interactions are far too lengthy. There's a sense within this novel that Bronte is examining political and social debates through the mouths of her characters. While this, of course, common, it certainly feels more prominent in Shirley - the sheer amount of information and opinion Bronte seeks to impart is overwhelming, prolonging the novel far beyond the length its story would take it to.

Ultimately, Shirley is a complex work which could easily alienate readers in the first few pages. I'm glad I persevered and the introduction in my Penguin edition by Lucasta Miller was most helpful. I enjoyed, also, joining up various opinions in my mind with those of Bronte's family, especially her father. I'm still gradually wading through The Brontes by Juliet Barker and it's nice to make those connections.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2014: Of Word Counts and Secondary Characters

Despite my slow start, over the weekend I managed to pull ahead and my current word count, with nothing yet written for today, is 18,021. For reference, that's practically where I need to be tomorrow so I'm building up a dinky little cushion.

Much of my weekend spurt can be put down to attending a write-in with the Leeds NaNoers on Saturday. I fought my usual shyness and won, spending three hours there and getting 3,000 written. And I had lemon cheesecake - always a plus. Hopefully I'll get there again before the end of NaNo. It was a nice environment to work in and I chatted with some good people.

So how's the novel going? Well, I think I'm about a third of the way through which suggests this first draft will be longer than my usual ones (they usually come in at around 55k, so NaNo plus a bit). However, my determination that the whole draft will be finished in November essentially gives me a little more work to do. I want this novel 'out of the way' so I can focus on rewriting another during December so I'm going to have to get on with it. Coupled with PhD stresses which I could really do without, NaNo is making November my most stressful month since...well, September. Overall, this has not been a good year and ending it with a work rush like this is asking for trouble. Nevertheless, we are where we are. My new mantra for when I make stupid decisions.

When I started writing the mother of one of my protagonists took on a bit of a life of her own. She isn't based on someone as such but I have met a woman who does the job she does and I've transplanted a personality onto her. So far, she's one of my favourites to write. I mean, one of my protagonists is snotty and work-orientated and the other one's completely absorbed by her anxiety issues so this woman is a delightful diversion. I am having trouble keeping track of all the residents of the care home though. Perils of having a large cast but it'll be necessary in the end.

My 'reward' films over the weekend were Summer Stock and South Pacific. I can't really be classified as a 'cockeyed optimist' in anything but my writing you are anyway.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2014: And I'm On My Way

Well, I got started last night, only a day behind schedule but, because I hadn't planned on starting till today anyway, I didn't push myself into achieving anything substantial. So I start day three with only 600 words and a few concerns. 

I'm hoping that my current problem is that my protagonists haven't yet been thrown together. That'll happen in the next scene after some preamble and I'm hoping that, once they're in the same room, things will kick off and the story will run away from me. It probably doesn't help that I'm coming off the back of writing in first person for two months and the first character I've introduced is in third person. I've got my fingers crossed that'll I'll get going properly once I finish my full novel plan but there is one ground rule:

  • No actual NaNo writing can be done before six pm on weekdays (unless I'm at a write in). PhD still takes priority and I've got plenty of little finicky bits of that to deal with. 

I must stick to that which'll make my evenings more interesting. Not Calamity Jane type interesting but interesting nonetheless. 

Friday, 31 October 2014

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2014: Reviewing the Situation

Don't worry - this isn't me throwing in the towel before I've begun. However, I am having to do a little more juggling than I would've liked and admit that I'm going to be starting from behind.

For the last month or so I've been rewriting my 2009 NaNo novel ('Lily') for the fifth/sixth/seventh time (honestly, pick a number, it's been through so many drafts and half drafts that I'm dizzy with it). I blogged about my process for rewriting this at the beginning of the month but I'm afraid things have got a little out of control.

The last draft of this thing came in at just under 80,000 words. So I started on the 19th September and happily trundled towards the finish line, trying to write about 2,000 words a day to hit my target. It was tricky but I was managing it and the novel is so much stronger thanks to my additions and small alterations. Everything has been tightened up and I'm proud of it. Except that when I reached 75,000 words the other night I realised that I was still a distance from the finish line. So I checked the last draft to see approximately how many words I had left to go - more like 14,000 than 5,000. I whimpered a bit, realised I couldn't write that many good words in two days alongside a Sheffield trip and other work and decided I needed to adjust my goals.

I don't like the idea of getting behind on NaNo but, I suppose, the beauty of being me is that I'm stubborn as hell. I might start from behind but that'll make me work all the harder to catch up. I'm not sacrificing the chance to make 'Lily' the best it can be ready for submission and I'm not missing out on producing a 2014 NaNo draft with these characters who have been haunting me all year. I'm just not. If I'm going to drown in work, I'll at least be fighting till the end.

See you all again after I managed to get going.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2014: Tense Troubles

I wouldn't say all is going swimmingly with my NaNo planning. I'm snatching a few minutes here and there to figure out my characters and their connections but my chapter plan is still non-existent and I only have four days to at get at least the first few chapters plotted out so I can dive in and make a dent in my word count on Saturday.

In the meantime, though, last night I hit a mental landmine. It suddenly occurred to me that, though I know my characters, their relationships and pretty much where I'm going with the novel, I hadn't spared a thought for how I was going to get there - specifically, how I'm going to tell the story.

Quite a few of the short stories I've been working on lately are written in the present tense. I'm growing to like it after years of practically hiding away and holding garlic up at it but I couldn't do a Hilary Mantel and write a whole novel using it. Not now and especially not for NaNo - it requires too much concentration from me for a start. However, the fact remains that I need two distinct viewpoints in this novel, and they need to coexist within chapters (I think, I'm still debating that point).

So I thought of Sophie Hannah's effective technique in her crime novels. She uses first-person present tense for her 'ordinary' character then switches to third-person past tense for her police procedural aspects. It works well as a differentiation tool once you get into the rhythm and now it's one of the things I like best about her books.

This technique would actually suit the novel I'm writing. I need immediacy for one of the characters as I get into her head and describe her rather unique set of circumstances. The other character - not so much. Of course, she still has an important story to tell but I feel I can tell her tale in my comfort zone of third-person past tense.

I'm not under the impression that this switching about lark is going to be easy but it's the right choice for the characters. Now all I have to do is finish my NaNo planning. Oh, and finish the novel I'm trying to redraft before NaNo starts. And write the first draft of my thesis conclusion. And do some other work... All before Saturday. Oh, goody.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Bit By Bit, Putting It Together

It's scary, this PhD lark, isn't it? While I wait for something beyond my control to click into place, I'm beavering away at my thesis and, in all immodest honesty, not finding it half as bad as I thought it was. The bits are all there. They need polishing and, in a few cases, joining up so you can't see the creases but, on the whole, it's looking very thesis-shaped.

The main thing I've been doing lately is analysing my thesis by paragraph, making sure that each paragraph has an argument and leads onto the next etc. Now, I know I borrowed this idea from someone and I can't remember who - that's what four years of a PhD does to your brain! If anyone has any clue, let me know because it's incredibly useful and I'd like to credit them.

I'm also attacking those place holder subheadings I've been avoiding for years - and that's before I even get on to significant chapter titles. Have I mentioned I hate titles? Not this month on this blog, I'm sure.

Then there's the little monster scratching in the corner - the conclusion. At the moment, it's the size of a friendly household rat. He's perfectly happy over there, he's not angsty, he doesn't feel I'm neglecting him and he's pretty sure I'll make a good attempt at it. However, if I keep him waiting, he'll mutate. Imagine a thirty-foot rat towering over little old me. Let's try and evade that possibility, shall we?

And continue, bit by bit, putting it together...

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Short Story Publication - Aldgate Echoes

It's nice to finally be able to share with you that I was shortlisted in Saga Magazine's ghost story competition and was then lucky enough to be one of the 15 shortlisted entries to be published in their anthology.

Like the publication of my other story this year, "Aldgate Echoes" is a piece I wrote a while ago and reworked for submission to this competition. I still have vivid recollections of the story coming to me while I was walking through a desolate London with a friend. Moments like that are moments writers wish we could bottle!

I'm very proud to be part of this anthology, though keeping the news to only a few select friends until I could be sure was tricky. I found out I'd been shortlisted while I was, ironically enough, back in London for a conference and I was on my birthday trip when I found out I was being published. I like that kind of symmetry - and so does Shamrock!

So the current price on Kindle is £0.51, not shabby for a short story collection. You can buy it here and let me know if you like it!

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Classic Film Review: The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The Lady Vanishes tells the story of Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) and her fellow bunch of travellers who are stranded overnight in an inn before their train gets started the next day. Before she gets on the train, Iris has an accident and is looked after by Miss Froy (May Whitty). After a nap, Iris wakes and discovers Miss Froy has vanished and none of her fellow passengers claim to remember her. Iris reluctantly enlists the help of Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) and they try to unravel the mystery of Miss Froy's disappearance. The cast includes Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as the cricket-mad Charters and Caldicott, Paul Lukas as Dr. Hartz and Cecil Parker as Mr Todhunter.

This is the third version of this story I've now seen. I reviewed the 1979 film starring Angela Lansbury last year and, though I watched the 2013 television adaptation, I didn't review it. However, Hitchcock's interpretation of the story is delicious and outstrips the others, no question. It's atmospheric and witty without being overblown. The scenes on the train, particularly, are well-executed despite the confined space.

The cast is practically faultless. Michael Redgrave's first appearances as the irritating Gilbert in the hotel felt like a flamboyant sideshow, but once they settled into their double-act 'Sherlock Holmes and Watson' personalities on the train, the relationship between him and Iris was one of the highlights of the film. In addition, Radford and Wayne are excellent in their supporting roles and everyone down to the nun played by Catherine Lacey fulfil their parts properly.

After seeing three versions, it's very difficult to come to the story fresh but it still kept my attention for the most part, mainly due to Margaret Lockwood as the heroine. It's a completely different role to to her partnership with Redgrave in The Stars Look Down (1940, reviewed here) and, as such, demonstrates the versatility of both. Their chemistry sees the film through with able support from everybody else.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2014: Once More Unto the Breach

I'm crazy. I mean, this is common knowledge and everything but it's being reiterated by the fact I'm actually attempting NaNoWriMo this year. I'm (hopefully, don't press for details for this) submitting my thesis in the next two months which (again, hopefully) means running around like a headless chicken making sure everything in it is damn near perfect. Much of this headless-chicken activity will (theoretically, again with the not asking) be taking place in November. So why the hell am I contemplating throwing NaNoWriMo into the mix?

Well, for starters, I've got an idea. When I wrote my usual list of 2014 goals, I said that there was an idea only I could write. I still believe that and, over the months, it's solidified. Instead of the abstract prospect, it's now rooted in a place and my second protagonist came to me with a flash. It's going to be difficult to write but I think I'll feel better for it.

There are other reasons I'm determined to participate. I love the online camaraderie that goes with it and I relish pushing myself to reach the 50,000 goal. In addition, I need to push myself in other ways this year, hopefully attending the write-ins properly instead of just hiding in a corner. Plus, I think the distraction of NaNo in the evenings after arguing with my thesis all day will prove beneficial. At least my novel is under my control... Until the characters take over anyway.

So what can I tell you about my NaNoWriMo novel for 2014? It's typical me so lesbian romance with twists and turns and it's set in a residential care home. That's all I dare share.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Classic Film Review: Swing Time (1936)

Swing Time tells the story of Lucky Garnett (Fred Astaire), a dancer who is forced to leave his fiancĂ©e Margaret (Betty Furness) to go out and raise $25,000 so that her father will let him marry her. When he and his friend Pop (Victor Moore) get to New York, they encounter dance instructor Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers). Lucky tricks Penny into 'teaching' him to dance and they have the potential to be successful but conductor Ricky Romero (Georges Metaxa) wants Penny for himself and Lucky realises he's getting far too close when he should be itching to go home and marry Margaret. The wonderful Helen Broderick rounds out the main cast as Mabel.

I absolutely adored this film. It's rare that a musical of this era has numbers which are not only entertaining but also further the plot and characters. The score by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields is exquisite, including such gems as 'Pick Yourself Up' when Penny's trying to teach Lucky how to dance and 'A Fine Romance' when they're trying to resist each other in a gorgeous snow scene. Astaire's rendition of 'The Way You Look Tonight' is sweet, enjoyable for its sentiments and not the strength of his singing voice. The pinnacle of this film, though, is the majestic 'Never Gonna Dance' near the end. It not only serves as a visual representation of Lucky and Penny's romance, from their first walk around the dance floor to the Penny's walking away, but it's also a deeply sensual and passionate representation of love as a whole. I could easily watch it for hours and those dozens of takes it took to produce such brilliance was well worth Ginger's poor bleeding feet.

There are plenty of comic moments in this one, plenty coming from Victor Moore and Helen Broderick as Pop and Mabel. I enjoyed Broderick in the generally lacklustre The Bride Walks Out (also 1936, reviewed here) and she reasserts her comedic credentials in this one. In addition, Astaire and Rogers bounce off each other so well that every one of their scenes in a delight, from Lucky's first pursuit of Penny down the street to retrieve his lucky quarter to the finale. The plot, though light, is at least coherent and there are several link backs and pointers that demonstrate that the film was conceived as a whole, for example the trouser gag which begins and ends the story. Perhaps there was too much focus on Lucky's friends at the beginning, but once he got to New York, all that was forgotten.

Ultimately, if a film makes me smile just thinking about it then it's a good one. I haven't stopped smiling while I've been writing this review so take that as your recommendation.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Book Review: Love Alters ed. Emma Donoghue

Love Alters: Lesbian Stories, previously released as The Mammoth Book of Lesbian Short Stories, includes 29 stories split into the categories of 'Child's Play', 'Present Tense', 'Family Values', 'Past Times' and 'Possibilities'. These rough categories allow for some distinction as you go through the book but, really, the stories are generally wildly different to each other. It draws together authors from across the world with some brilliant stories, both heartbreaking and humorous, which analyse the finer points of life. The overarching banner may be 'lesbian short stories' but there's far more to this collection than that.

There are two stories that stick in my mind. The first, 'Self-Deliverance' by Elise D'Haene, is a checklist compiled by a dying man, Teddy, and his two friends, Alf and Ginnie. Meandering back and forth, D'Haene creates a story that's both rooted in the immediate problem yet tells you all you need to know about the characters. The second story, 'Did'ja Ever Hear of a Goolieguy?' by Anne Cameron follows a woman fleeing from her suffocating life with her partner who travels back home. Part myth, part reality, this one really struck me for reasons I can't define. Perhaps it was only that everything the narrator experiences is a thought-provoking metaphor for something else.

The 'Past Times' section throws up some interesting work. 'The Catherine Trilogy' by Ingrid MacDonald, the longest piece in the book, follows the life of a woman who passes her life as a man in 18th century Europe. I was hooked by the first part, endured the second and enjoyed the third, though I see the need for all of them. Also in this section was 'The Burning Times' by Sara Maitland, a potent tale of jealousy in the time of witchcraft trials, Emma Donoghue's 'The Tale of the Kiss' which tells of another 'witch' in a cave and the captivating 'The Woman Who Loved the Moon', a story that defies simple analysis.

Of course, there were stories in this collection that didn't take my fancy as much but I found something in most of them to appreciate. For example, Madelyn Arnold's 'See You in the Movies', about a woman going on a trip with her new partner and kids, made me laugh out loud while Dorothy Allison's 'River of Names' is a haunting look at the tragedies around one woman which she tries to share with her partner. Finally, one of the early stories 'Pamelump' is similarly thought-provoking, as it examines a girl and her disabled friend, utilising the simplicity of children to analyse very adult notions.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed this collection. I don't think anybody would love all of these eclectic stories but that just means there's something in it for everyone.