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Monday, 31 March 2014

Book Review: London Lore by Steve Roud

London Lore is a compilation of legends and traditions stretching back centuries which make up the eclectic base of London. It includes local superstitions and rituals with a good sprinkling of ghost stories and some out-and-out craziness thrown in too. It's organised by area of London and the introduction has a nice little section on how to spot folklore, which will come in handy for anybody interested in local history of any variety. On the whole, though, this book is about the underbelly of London and there are some real gems in its pages.

I found myself interested most in the ghost stories, particularly the unusual ones, such as the novelist Winifred Graham's numerous encounters with the occult. There are many point-of-death ghost stories and some excellent tragic tales which have mostly been appropriated to fit a supposed sighting - or a supposed sighting has been appropriated to fit a tragic tale, for instance, Jane Seymour at Hampton Court Palace. The short section on Hampton Court was one of the most interesting of the book for me. What Roud does brilliantly is, wherever possible, try to track down where the rumour or traditional originated. The speculation, although often it is only that, is enjoyable and it's good to see how local lore percolates and then expands.

Throughout the book, though, I was a little vexed by the construction. Going by area effectively meant that you were flitting around all over the place thematically. That said, sorting by theme may have resulted in a stagnant book that threw huge chunks at you that you weren't interested in. At least this way, there's a little variety. I completed reading not really sure whether I was happy with the construction as it was or whether I would have preferred a thematic compilation. Nevertheless, there is a good index to help you track down individual tales.

This is certainly a book to dip in and out of when the mood takes and to consult in moments of inquisitiveness. I tried reading it through in one go and it made it a little arduous, mainly because some of the stories about grottoes, ghosts and legacies all melded into one after a while, and that's a shame. Roud is strict about naming his sources wherever possible and that makes for an informed book about a subject that is, by its very nature, based on the uninformed.

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

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Thoughts on Death in Paradise

Running a little behind on this one but I've only just managed to watch the final episode of series three. As I wrote last year on hearing the news of Ben Miller's departure, I wasn't sure that the show could survive without him. Well, it survived and has been commissioned for a fourth series but is it as good? I'm sorry but nope, not nearly as good.

Let's start with the way they dispatched DI Richard Poole (Miller). It was disrespectful to the fans to treat him like just any other murder victim, not allowing him any closure with Camille (Sara Martins), for instance. While I liked the fact that he solved his own murder from beyond the grave, it was wrapped up far too neatly and he was literally never mentioned again. I know this is light and frothy murder but the death of your superior officer, especially one you were falling for in Camille's case, has to have after-effects. It made the rest of the series seem like an exercise in brainwashing: DI Poole never existed, look - here's Humphrey!

What of DI Humphrey Goodman (Kris Marshall) himself? Well, I suspected the fish-out-of-water scenario would disintegrate and it did. Instead, the hook they hang everything on is Goodman's accident-prone nature. It might've been funny the first few times but it's already a trope - I dread to think how tiresome it'll feel by the end of the next series. When he's not appearing ridiculous, Goodman's not actually too bad a character but he's bland, very bland. It feels like his accidents and his riddles are the only glimmers of personality allowed to him. Oh, apart from the Camille thing...

Perhaps this is the part I most resent. Pushing a romance between Goodman and Camille was stupid but it was evident all series. It disregards Camille's will they/won't they romance with Poole and gives the impression that the writers just had to have a potential couple as their leads. They didn't. A friendship would've worked very well on its own, which is why I actually screamed when Goodman's wife decided not to join him in the first episode. It was being shoehorned into the plot and, quite frankly, it felt stupid. Maybe if they'd given it a few series the relationship would've developed properly. As it is, when Goodman revealed his feelings to Fidel in the final episode I just rolled my eyes.

So, to recap. If you kill off your protagonist, don't pretend as though he never existed afterwards. If you have cultivated a relationship between two characters and one dies, don't pretend he never existed then either. Create characters using more than a few bullet points and do not devalue your fan base by forcing romances to develop. Oh, and as an extra, I know that the thrill of murder mystery shows is working out who did it and how but I figured it out within the first few minutes on three occasions this series - not an incentive to keep watching.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Classic Film Review: The Bride Walks Out (1936)

The Bride Walks Out stars Barbara Stanwyck as newly-wed Carolyn Martin. Despite knowing his views on women and work, Carolyn marries Michael's Martin (Gene Raymond) in a very hurried ceremony and settles down to live on his $35 a week. She met a handsome playboy, Hugh McKenzie (Robert Young) in court on her wedding day (don't ask) and he begins to fall for her. When Carolyn finally realises that they can't survive on Michael's wage, she is forced to secretly get a job, which may spell the end of her marriage. The supporting cast includes Ned Sparks and Helen Broderick as Paul and Mattie Dodson and Hattie McDaniel as Mamie.

The 'family values' in this film are a little hard to stomach for a modern viewer. It's not so much Michael's desire that his wife shouldn't work but his pig-headedness when it turns out she has to. As a consequence, he's not a very sympathetic character at all and I found myself rooting for Hugh McKenzie instead. Not because he was rich and could give Carolyn everything she wanted from life but because he listened to her and seemed to derive happiness from her happiness. Of course, the resolution depends on a Carolyn/Michael reconciliation, one that feels completely out of place. Domestic bliss gone awry stories can work but this was too run of the mill with a boring and stubborn husband. The thing that really frustrated me was the scene at the very beginning where Carolyn and Michael argue about their potential life together before they get married. At this point Carolyn seems like a sensible person but she marries him anyway!

Barbara Stanwyck did a reasonable job with a thin character, though her scenes with Robert Young and Helen Broderick were much more preferable to her scenes with Gene Raymond. They really didn't fit together as a couple at all and Raymond couldn't inject much sympathy into what is essentially a stupid character. Ned Sparks provided decent comic relief but, to be honest, my favourite performance was from Robert Young. However unrealistic his drunk scenes were, I enjoyed them and the film only ignited when he was on screen. The furniture repossession scene - where everyone gets drunk - is probably the funniest of the film, if only for Helen Broderick laid on top of a piano.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Book Review: The Emancipated by George Gissing

First published in 1890, The Emancipated tells the story of a group of English people who encounter each other in Naples. Miriam Baske, a young and recent widow, has travelled abroad with the Spences to regain her health. Also in the area is artist Ross Mallard, an under-appreciated landscape painter. During his stay, his ward and Miriam's cousin Cecily Doran arrives with her chaperone, Mrs Lessingham. It soon becomes clear that Mallard has feelings for his ward but tries to battle them by remaining aloof from her. Also arriving in Naples, though, is Miriam's brother Reuben who immediately takes a shine to the new and improved Cecily. He is a useless young man who hopes to make a career in literature but has no definite plans. Mallard tries to steer him away from Cecily but this proves hopeless and matters are taken out of his hands.

There are a few things I found difficult with this novel. Firstly, the scope is off-putting. As well as the characters mentioned there are various others we are introduced to, and share the lives and thoughts of, including the Denyers - a mother and her three daughters who she has made as pretentious as possible. They are searching for husbands. Madeline has a potential suitor in another artist, Clifford Marsh, while Barbara is cultivating a friendship with the older Mr Musslewhite. Gissing diverges far too much from his main plot to deal with these situations, and to little effect. The novel would have been better if it had been more compact and focused solely on the thoughts and feelings of the main players. The Denyers do create a neat contrast to Cecily, though, and what happens to Madeline in the second half of the book makes her marginally more interesting.

However, all that said, Cecily is a rather boring character with little personality, especially in the first half of the book. She's a typical nineteenth-century woman, attractive to three of the men in the novel in an almost tiresome way. Far more interesting is Miriam, a Puritan who battles with her religious devotion and struggles at first to immerse herself in the beauty of Italy in case she is betraying her values. Her alteration throughout the novel is measured well by Gissing and she is by far his most successful character in The Emancipated. Ross Mallard is a reasonable creation and it's his growing relationship with Miriam that fascinated me most.

Another issue I had with the book was the fact that the first quarter seems to be a travel guide to Italy. After saying that the beauty of Naples is so well-known that it needn't be described, Gissing spends a lot of time describing it. This means that the story doesn't feel like it gets going until later on. Actually I pinpointed this on the Kindle copy I was reading from as 44% of the way through - at that point I began to want to know what would happen next. This desire didn't kick in properly, however, until three-quarters of the way through the book. I was glad I persevered with it but I know many people probably wouldn't bother.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Classic Film Review: Morning Glory (1933)

Morning Glory stars Katharine Hepburn in her Oscar-winning performance as Eva Lovelace, an aspiring actress who travels to New York trying to get her big break. When she arrives she meets producer Louis Easton (Adolphe Menjou) and writer Joseph Sheridan (Douglas Fairbanks Jr), beginning a life that will at first disillusion her then offer her success. Rounding out the cast is C. Aubrey Smith as Hedges, the first friend Eva makes in New York, and Mary Duncan as Rita Vernon.

If the plot sounds remarkably similar to one I've reviewed recently - Stage Struck (1958, reviewed here) - that's because they're adapted from the same source. As a consequence, it's really difficult not to compare them. I described Susan Strasberg's performance as 'abysmal' in that and, while the character is annoying in places, Hepburn brings a little more maturity to the part. Eva is still incredibly naive and a little bit of a chatterbox but Hepburn doesn't overplay it. Because I've seen Hepburn in similar fast-talking roles, it's not a stretch to believe Eva is real. That said, there are moments of complete over-acting, particularly in the final scene that ricochets away from believable towards the end.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr is very good as Sheridan. The scenes where he reveals his feelings for Eva, first to Easton then to Eva herself, are delightful. Equally, Menjou is good as Easton. The interactions between the three major players are very solid.

Where the film falls down a little is the length. As a relatively short film, it has to cut out a lot of 'superfluous' stuff. As a consequence, Eva disappears from her own film for a bit and the romance between she and Sheridan misses out on the development it gets in Stage Struck. Bringing her out as an alternative to the star may be a neat way of surprising the audience but it didn't work for me - I wanted to see how they got to that point.

Ultimately, this is a much better version of the story and Katharine Hepburn sparkles. It meanders a little during the set-up and rushes itself towards the end but it's a good film to spend seventy five minutes with.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Book Review: The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah

This book opens with Louise visiting her neighbour to complain about his loud music, a regular habit. To her dismay, he adds choral music to his repertoire, just to mock her. Her husband, Stuart, is frustrated with her inability to ignore it but there are other things at play - their seven year old son is at boarding school, against the wishes of his mother. In order to be in a prestigious choir, Joseph has to live at the school. Louise misses him terribly and wants him home, but home has become a building site as Stuart has insisted on sand-blasting their house. When an opportunity to buy a second home in a gated community in the country comes up, Louise jumps at the chance, eager to take Joseph there over the Christmas holidays. However, the choral music, sung by children, follows her there...

For the most part, I didn't find The Orphan Choir as scary as I thought I would, with the exception of a few creepy scenes. That all changed with the last eighty pages or so. At that point, the novel got extremely claustrophobic and I needed to get to the end before I could rest. I finished this over a week ago and yet it's still haunting me - and, yes, I mean that literally. I've been unable to stop thinking about it.

Louise is a good protagonist, stationed somewhere on the margin between believable and losing it. The pressures on her at the beginning of the novel are neatly examined and make complete sense. Perhaps that's the major strength of this book - there's a logical reason for each step and it isn't until the final pages that the reader understands where these have led to.

I won't say any more because I don't want to ruin the story. However, it is a very good read, short enough to devour in one or two sittings. Recommended as an example of Sophie Hannah's versatility. 

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Grandmother Difficulties

Yesterday was lousy for so many reasons but perhaps the one that will linger longest is the Wednesday grandmother visit. In the middle of January I wrote about how she wasn't really settling into her new home because what she has an issue with is the idea of being in a home, despite the fact it's a very good one. Since then, things have been a little more even. She was still miserable and moaning but she wasn't crying - I took that as a good sign. Last night all that changed.

When we arrived she was sitting in the alcove by the door. We keyed in the code and the moment the door was open she started wailing. I mean that in the most literal sense - it was nothing short of hysterical. For a while we couldn't get any sense out of her. She was disparaging the staff very loudly ("oh, her, she's not a good one") and screaming "go away" at another resident who stopped to watch the hysterics. When that woman reappeared a few minutes later my grandmother warned her, again very loudly, that if she didn't go away she was going to "clunk" her. I assume the weapon of choice would've been her walking frame, which could've caused quite a bit of damage to the little old lady. All the time, my grandmother's weeping, asking us to "do her in" and generally making no sense.

The story, when we finally got it, seemed to be this. For weeks she's been pestering my aunt to take her to a hairdresser she likes. She doesn't want to look like the rest of the permed women, she says, and she's got a long-standing relationship with this stylist. So my aunt has arranged it for Friday. The trouble is, I don't know what she told my grandmother but at 6:00pm on Wednesday evening she was sat in the lobby afraid that it was "too late" to go to bed because my aunt would be coming. I think this was the trigger for something else, something that's been building since she moved in there. What hasn't helped is that she had an accident a couple of weeks ago when she tried to avoid disturbing the staff by stepping over the pressure pad in the middle of the night and consequently going face first into the bedside cabinet. She has a black eye and a damaged shoulder which can't be helping her mood.

The half an hour visit was just a nightmare. We couldn't get her to calm down and she kept insulting the staff. My father threatened to walk out, which I gently said was not a good idea: it would've left her in a worse state and that wasn't fair on anyone. But then she started troubling the woman who was delivering the pills about the bathroom and my father insisted on making a break for it. Who knows what we left the staff with?

I hate that she's so miserable but, like I said before, there's nothing we can do about it. This is what she chose and her care needs now make other options redundant. But screaming at the staff and other residents is so unlike her, it's alarming. And this talk of suicide is getting more and more frequent. I know the staff there are good but they can't watch her every minute. All it would take is one staircase and there are two near her room... I don't know what we can do. And while it's probably more irritating my father and aunt more than anything else, it's physically hurting me. I got home last night and wept myself. It's a nice circle me and my grandmother are going round, isn't it?

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Classic Film Review: Mogambo (1953)

Mogambo stars Clark Gable as Vic Marswell, a big game trapper in Kenya. His equilibrium is disturbed first by the arrival of Eloise 'Honey Bear' Kelly (Ava Gardner), a woman who arrives for a safari only to find the man she was meant to be meeting has stood her up. An immediate attraction springs up but Vic is determined to get rid of Kelly on the next boat and get back to normal. However, that doesn't work when the boat is shipwrecked. In the meantime, married couple Linda (Grace Kelly) and Donald Nordley (Donald Sinden) arrive for their safari. Demure Linda also catches Vic's eye, causing tensions as the group travels up to gorilla country.

Ava Gardner steals this film from Gable. Every scene in which she doesn't appear is lifeless. She brings an energy to the screen that's sadly lacking in the rest of the film. Kelly's fish-out-of-water tendencies are brilliant, especially her introduction to Joe, the camp snake, and her 'cute pussycats' moment near the big cats. However, her scene with a baby elephant and a baby rhino is probably the highlight of the film. Grace Kelly isn't boring as such but the character is. There's never a sense that Linda and Vic belong together, making their romance very difficult to stomach. On the other hand, Kelly's boisterous nature is in complete contrast to Vic with his work ethic, creating a very well-suited pair. Equally, the supporting character of Brownie (Philip Stainton) works well in scenes with Kelly.

The other major character in Mogambo is Kenya. The time spent on location was certainly worth it, creating vivid and memorable scenes. However, the difference between the location shots and the studio ones are so obvious at times that it's off-putting. Like many films of this era, it treads a tightrope between location and studio and sometimes comes up short. The inclusion of native tribes creates some odd interludes with no bearing on the plot but which, I suppose, add to the overall authenticity of the film.

What makes Mogambo exciting is, quite simply, Ava Gardner. What diminishes the power of the film is the lacklustre relationship between Vic and Linda and Donald Sinden as Nordley, who is either completely miscast or the character is just flat and useless. Every memorable moment in this film comes from Gardner. Apparently John Ford was irritated about having to cast Gardner in the film and yet she turns out to be one of the only highlights - how amusing!

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Book Review: The Disgrace of Kitty Grey by Mary Hooper

Coming in at around 270 pages, The Disgrace of Kitty Grey is deceptively short yet so much happens that it could easily be a book three times that length. Hooper economises where other writers would have expanded and, for the most part, that works very well.

Kitty Grey is a contented milkmaid in Devonshire in 1813. She has control of the model dairy, supplying milk to the household, and is being courted by the local river man, Will Villiers. However, one day he disappears leaving his five year old sister Betsy in Kitty's care. Eager to find him, when the opportunity arises to run an errand for one of the young ladies of the house, she takes it and she and Betsy travel to London. However, the moment they step off the coach, their bag is stolen...

I must admit, the novel started slowly and I wondered whether the troubles of 'the family' were really necessary. However, everything links in nicely at the end of the book, giving that sense of a whole, coherent narrative that is sometimes lacking. The plot itself is enticing once the disappearance of Will occurs. Prior to this, it all feels very idyllic and calm. Then it moves along so quickly with disaster after disaster that I didn't have a clue how it would all wrap up before the end of the short novel.

Despite the relative brevity, Hooper manages to invoke the early nineteenth century remarkably well. There are three incredible sections which I felt I was living through but, for spoiler reasons, I'd better only mention the first. The stagecoach journey from Devon to London was so richly described that I was disappointed when it ended. There are touches of that genius throughout, creating the landscape of nineteenth century life with ease yet without pushing it in the reader's face.

All in all, this is a very good piece of historical fiction that focuses on telling an interesting story rather than risk becoming a nineteenth century textbook. Kitty is a very good protagonist, mature in some ways but not completely wise to the world. The presence of Betsy throughout added an extra layer of tension. I often thought 'she could do this' but she was hampered by the child. Although the ending was a little quick for my liking I would certainly recommend The Disgrace of Kitty Grey.

Monday, 3 March 2014

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

Published three years after Hepburn's death, this lengthy biography attempts to debunk some of the myths that have sprung up about this legendary actress without diminishing her achievements and drive. It's a biography that focuses as much as possible on the woman, not the actress. As Mann notes, the films are used as illustrations of Hepburn's own myth-making and how they feed into the overall picture of her. This is really an in-depth biography that can't be summarised easily. However, one thing that is worth noting is the relish with which Mann approaches his subject. His ability to decode and hypothesise where necessary is balanced by the (sometimes anonymous) sources he's managed to consult, creating a rounded picture of Hepburn. He points out that this kind of book wouldn't have been published while she was still alive, an indication of how thorough it is, looking into places Hepburn would likely have been uncomfortable with.

The book doesn't run completely chronologically, usually taking a pivot moment at the beginning of a chapter then stepping back and seeing what led up to it. In this way, it manages to signal what a chapter will cover and what you can expect from it. For example, chapter twenty four starts with some visuals and dialogue from The African Queen, thus setting the scene for her comeback from Communist rumours. It's a good way of grounding the reader because, although there are numerous indications of where you are in the timeline, it's still easy to get lost. That's partly down to the detail amassed in the book, and that can never be a bad thing.

A lot of time throughout is spent analysing Hepburn's various relationships, especially with Spencer Tracy, and trying to pinpoint how much sexual contact this entailed. This also applies to the relationships Hepburn had with her female friends and makes for some surprising conclusions. When he doesn't have concrete information, Mann says so, but his speculations always hold the ring of truth about them, gained from his intimate research into Hepburn's life.

For me, reading slowly at the beginning then devouring the book in large chunks, one of the most painful times for Hepburn was perhaps the suicide of her older brother in their teens, when she found his body the next morning. Reading through the rest of the book, and seeing her relationships with alcoholics and the way she dedicated herself to getting Tracy sober, Tom was the person I kept returning to in my mind, even though he was barely mentioned again due to the stoic nature of the Hepburn family. More than seventy years later, following the death of their sister, Hepburn surprised another of her brothers by saying she wanted her ashes buried next to Tom's. And they were. I have no idea why that touched me so much but it brought me to tears.

Ultimately, this biography is detailed and well-constructed. Where necessary, Mann supplies brief biographies of the people involved in Hepburn's life. He debunks many of the myths that made her America's sweetheart whilst still imparting the image of a formidable woman with talent and, most of all, the will to succeed.

*This book was read as part of the 'Chunkster Challenge 2014' - information can be found here.