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Friday, 30 May 2014

Writing Projects - Planning Ahead

'Year of the thesis' is taking its toll. Not just on my sanity (though I am rather worried about that) but also on my writing. When I said I was taking a 'writing break' two months ago part of the reason was that I just didn't want to write any more. I'd lost the spark, it had been smothered under thesis work and personal problems, and I couldn't force it to come back with everything else going on. I'd said I'd see how I felt in the future. Well, I know how I feel now. I want to damn well write. Only problem is that I can't.

The kick I needed was a short story acceptance (I'll tell you about that next week) which gave me some confidence in my writing again. Then I had an epiphany about the first novel I ever completed and has been through four rewrites already. I know what to do with it. Suddenly the writing bug was back.

But - but - but... The thesis is killing me. I need to focus on it and I need to finish it as soon as possible. In addition to that, I'm giving papers at three conferences in the next six weeks and that in itself is causing me some considerable anxiety. There's no time for writing novels to fit into this. I've consoled myself by working on short stories longhand but it's not the same and it's not really what I want to be doing. So I've decided that, if I'm telling myself I can't write, I can at least plan. Then when I can write again, I'll be off like a shot... In theory. So here's the list of how my projects are looking and what planning I can do about them until that luxurious moment I actually get to write them again. These are in order of when they were written:
  1. 'Lily' - This is the one that prompted the epiphany. As I consequence I've been sort of secretly working on a plan for the sixth draft which I finished the night before last. It details the major changes in each scene and, of course, there will be many minor ones too. I'm raring to go on this one.
  2. 'Danni' - I'm actually happiest with this novel. I finished the fifth draft earlier this year and I don't think there's major work to be done, just tweaks. So this is the one I want to submit (and I know where to) once this pesky PhD is done with.
  3. 'Liz' - I stopped working on the second draft of this in March when I was about a third into the rewrite and thesis work started to take over. The good thing is, I've also got a scene-by-scene breakdown of changes written for this. Just a case of implementing them. 
  4. 'Lauren' - I mentioned back in January that I've changed so much with this that the second draft is essentially another first one. And, to be honest, the draft's nearly there. I've got two of the six sections left to complete and one of them is completely planned out. So I just need to plan the last section to get that ready for work.
  5. 'Max' - There are massive changes to be made to this first draft, including switching from one POV to two and doing some serious characterisation work on the two protagonists. That all needs to be planned out. 
  6. 'Vic' - There are changes to be made to back story on this first draft and more characterisation work to be done. I can plan that out. 
  7. 'Izzy' - This first draft needs major change and I need to work out what those changes are going to be. I've started some protagonist characterisation work so I need to finish that then plan the new progression I guess. 
  8. 'Carys' - My most recent NaNoWriMo success obviously needs major work. I have no idea what form this is going to take so I need to think about that.
  9. 'Kathy' - This unfinished draft needs rewriting from third to first person and then planned from there to the end. That's doable. 
So there we go. There's a lot of planning I can get my teeth stuck into there, as long as I resist the temptation to actually write the drafts. Hopefully by the time I'm finally allowed to indulge, I'll be chomping at the bit. Though when that may be...who knows? 

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Classic Film Review: Double Dynamite (1951)

Double Dynamite stars Frank Sinatra as bank teller Johnny Dalton who desperately wants to marry Mildred 'Mibs' Goodhue (Jane Russell). Unfortunately, he believes they can't afford it and Mibs storms off. On his way back to work Johnny stops a bookie being beat up by his rivals. The bookie rewards him by putting some money on a horse for him and soon Johnny finds himself with more money than he could possibly dream of. However, when he gets back to the bank he learns they've discovered a shortfall in the accounts and he'll be prime suspect, unable to prove he got the money from the bookie. He turns to his friend Emile J. Keck (Groucho Marx) for help but it all gets very messy.

Frank Sinatra's at his wholesome stage here, playing the same kind of role he played in Anchors Aweigh (1945) and On the Town (1949) (incidentally, this one was filmed in 1948 but held back from release). He plays the uncertain and anxious Johnny well enough, particularly when he's bouncing off Marx as Emile. Marx himself is excellent, stealing every scene.

My problem, surprisingly, was with Jane Russell. She was completely miscast. The character was weak and soppy for the most part without the attitude and humour I associate with Russell roles. She might've been billed first but it's easy to see this was a Sinatra vehicle and Russell didn't have much to get her teeth into until the last fifteen minutes or so.

The plot itself is flimsy and it only contains two songs but 'Kisses and Tears', the duet between Sinatra and Russell (see below) is quite good. Without the presence of Groucho Marx, though, I suspect this film would be much less enjoyable than it is.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Book Review: The Telling Error by Sophie Hannah

This latest psychological thriller by Sophie Hannah deals with the murder of hated journalist Damon Blundy who has fashioned a career out of offending people. He's been tied up and killed with a knife - but there are no stab wounds - and 'HE IS NO LESS DEAD' is scrawled on the wall. It's a confusing case for the police, especially when so many people had a reason to want rid of Blundy. What does Nicki Clements have to do with the murder and why does she panic and do a U-turn to escape being stopped by the police at the scene? And what does her internet dating have to do with anything?

Sophie Hannah's books nearly always wrong foot me and this was no exception. There are so many strands, so many fascinatingly horrible characters, that I was rather disappointed I didn't get to learn more about them at the end of the novel. Human relationships are the core of psychological thrillers and The Telling Error certainly gives us copious representations of bad ones. For instance, the relationship Nicki has with her parents, brother and sister-in-law was something I found very interesting. Equally, two of the marriages at the heart of the book are quite creepy, though I won't spoil it by giving any details.

I did enjoy this book but it left me uneasy - I suppose that's the mark of a good one. The world of internet relationships and internet hate springs to life and gets very tangled. I also had to sit for a few minutes after finishing it to recount everything in my head and re-evaluate the novel from the new perspectives that been introduced in the final pages.

On the police side of things, DC Simon Waterhouse is as difficult as ever but the real 'mystery' this time is what's going on with his sister-in-law and colleague's affair. That's something I'll look forward to understanding in the next book hopefully. Oh, and I have to thank Hannah for making me laugh out loud with some of DI Proust's lines. I can never get enough of him and he lightened the book at some very opportune moments.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Classic Film Review: Hobson's Choice (1954)

Hobson's Choice stars Charles Laughton as Henry Hobson, a drunkard bootmaker in nineteenth-century Salford with three daughters. The eldest, Maggie (Brenda de Banzie), is the shrewdest, an effective salesperson who can make a customer buy boots when he didn't come in for them. Her sisters, Alice (Daphne Anderson) and Vicky (Prunella Scales), are less useful and want to be married but Henry doesn't want to lose his free workers. He offends Maggie by saying that she couldn't find a husband anyway at her age so she sets her sights on his best bootmaker, Willie Mossop (John Mills), and aims to teach her father a lesson.

This is an hilarious film, thanks in part to the brilliant source material but also the central three performances which are downright fantastic. My first Charles Laughton experience in They Knew What They Wanted (1940, review here) wasn't a pleasant one but this role was seemingly him at his best. The domineering drunkard who regales his pub companions with stories of his dictatorship at home is perfectly suited to Laughton's talents and he's nothing short of hilarious when he's 'following the moon' from puddle to puddle whilst in a drunken haze. Also brilliant is John Mills as Willie Mossop, the character who undergoes the biggest change throughout the film. The scenes between Willie and Maggie when she tells him they're engaged and coaxes him into marriage without him having a say in it are brilliant. However, unquestionably, the star of Hobson's Choice is Brenda de Banzie. Though little known, she outshines both Laughton and Mills, stealing almost every scene she's in.

There are too many funny moments in this to mention but there are also moments of tenderness. Personally, my favourite scene was the day after their marriage when Willie and Maggie are preparing for the day in their new shop. Willie's eyes have been opened by the wedding night and he shows his first true affection towards Maggie in a surprisingly sweet moment. Then it's back to work.

Ultimately, Hobson's Choice is about backbone - both when to grow one and when to let it crumble. The story might have been familiar to me (I saw a stage adaptation of it last year) but the excellent performances made it worth watching. I laughed out loud many times and I'm sure a rewatch would have the same effect - this is one film that I doubt will get old.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Book Review: Valentine Grey by Sandi Toksvig

Valentine Grey tells the story of a girl who has been raised in India but returns to England for a visit and is forced to stay when her father dies. She moves in with her father's brother, Charles, and his wife, Caroline, but struggles to adapt. When Reggie, her cousin, comes home she finally has someone on her wavelength but Uncle Charles wants his son to volunteer for the Boer War. Reggie is gay and knows full well he wouldn't survive the battlefield and, besides, he wants to stay with his actor lover, Frank so Valentine secretly goes in his place.

I was surprised how much Toksvig crammed into this book. Not only do we get a proper picture of Valentine's attempts to acclimatise to London life but the war itself is vividly evoked, from the journey over there to the actual battles themselves. Nevertheless, the reader isn't overwhelmed with detail. Toksvig is economical and it seems to be the best approach.

Valentine is an excellent protagonist and certainly one who develops over time. Her reasons for going to war are much more complex than I thought they would be and the relationships with her fellow soldiers are intriguing for the layers to them as they obviously believe she's a man. There are several scenes of pure horror, not just related to battle, and one loathsome character who lingers long after you put the book down. The plot goes to places I didn't anticipate, showing various facets to war and dealing far more in reality than idealism.

Something that also surprised me was that Toksvig kept one foot in London with Reggie and Frank. This created an entirely different strand of the novel that I wasn't expecting and worked as a good contrast at times, though at others being in battle seemed preferable. Reggie's characterisation - and his fears - were both real and imagined and I think I actually preferred him to Valentine most of the time, possibly because Valentine was having to pretend to be someone else throughout.

While I won't spoil it, the novel builds to a good yet melancholy conclusion. The lessons I took from the final pages could easily have been lessons from the last fifteen years in the modern world.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Classic Film Review: Enchanted April (1935)

Enchanted April tells the story of two women who meet in a women's club and decide to rent a castle in Italy to get away from their respective husbands. Lotty (Ann Harding) persuaded her husband Mellersh (Frank Morgan) to write a book under a pseudonym but then he moved to a studio and she barely sees him any more. Unbeknown to her, he has been getting close to Lady Caroline Dester (Jane Baxter), coincidentally one of the women who comes to join Lotty in the castle after she puts an advert in the paper. When Mellersh finds out where Lady Caroline has gone, he resolves to follow her, not knowing he's also going to see his wife. The woman Lotty initially sets off to Italy with is Rose (Katharine Alexander), married to the opinionated Henry (Reginald Owen). Henry also sets off to join Rose while the fourth woman of the bunch is Mrs Fisher (Jessie Ralph).

That preamble may make it seem like a packed film but, really, very little happens. It's only just over an hour long but it felt twice that. It's full of little scenes which might have worked well in the book or in the stage play this was adapted from but on film they just feel disjointed. There's very little real conflict during the main body of the film, aside from Mrs Fisher's skirmishes with Lotty and Rose but even those are resolved far too weakly. Despite that, I have to say that Mrs Fisher was probably my favourite character. When Mellersh arrives, I rather feel that the writers missed the opportunity to make the awkwardness more effective. There was no real climax, no proper fallout. I came away wondering why I'd spent any time with these characters.

Most important, perhaps, is that some of the actors are incredibly ill-fitted in their roles. Ann Harding's performance is disastrous: while she attempts to Lotty as a dreamy, ditzy woman, it's completely over-played and she just comes across as silly. I didn't particularly care about the shock coming her way. As for Reginald Owen as Henry... Well, I just wanted to slap him. There's a fine line between an amusing character and the most irritating thing on screen but he leapt over it, sadly enough because I know he's a very good actor under other circumstances. The bath scene was amusing but it would've been better had it been slightly under-played. Every time he came on screen I wanted to switch off.

Enchanted April had an excellent premise but didn't deliver in terms of script or acting. There were some funny moments but it was practically devoid of tension. Better performances may have saved it but maybe not.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Book Review: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bringing Up the Bodies is the sequel to Mantel's brilliant Wolf Hall (reviewed here) and tells the next part of the Thomas Cromwell story as he assists in the downfall of the woman he helped, with so much difficulty, to marry King Henry VIII. We all know how the story goes: Anne Boleyn doesn't manage to cling onto her husband and is tried and executed. The king goes on to marry Jane Seymour but, as the book ends, Cromwell's machinations may have put him at risk from his enemies.

Once again, Mantel creates a compelling protagonist in Cromwell. It's very easy to slip back into the period, though I was grateful for the cast list that I referred to several times over the first hundred pages or so. As with Wolf Hall, I found the present tense jarring on occasion, especially when it required Mantel to qualify that it was actually Cromwell speaking or doing something. For the most part, though, it was easy enough to acclimatise to. I also liked the flashes of Cromwell's life and relationships, especially with his family and staff. Weaving them into the narrative worked extremely well, creating a sense of the man away from the politics without hammering it into the reader's face. Also, the way the late Cardinal Wolsey haunts both Cromwell and the pages is extremely effective.

For a while at the beginning of the book it felt as though nothing was happening. Despite this, it was still fascinating and, really, it was just a case of getting all the ducks in a row. The Tudor court is evoked as a hotbed of rumour and scandal but Cromwell's interaction with it interesting. My favourite scenes came when he is interrogating Anne's supposed lovers and, behind it all, there is a personal score he has to settle. I appreciate those interrogations, not only to continue the story of Anne's downfall but also as a tangible link back to Wolf Hall and to show a little more of Cromwell the man.

Of course, he wasn't a good man, bringing down queens at the drop of a hat and ransacking monasteries but Mantel creates a personable figure who leaps from the pages. And perhaps the most unsettling thing is how well he seems to fit into a twenty-first century mindset, despite the centuries of distance.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Classic Film Review: Suspicion (1941)

Suspicion stars Joan Fontaine as Lina, a woman living with her parents who, rather unkindly, label her a spinster within her hearing. She has encountered Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) on a train and he pursues her. They swiftly elope and have an excellent honeymoon but when they return to Britain Lina has to confront the fact that Johnnie a chancer, a gambler who is adept at manipulating people. Her worries deepen when she suspects he means to kill his friend Beaky (Nigel Bruce) to procure money but is she correct about his intentions?

This is an excellent film, winning Joan Fontaine a much-deserved Oscar for her performance. The development of Lina from a bright but in-love heroine to a fearful wife who is petrified about the potential ruthlessness of the man she has married. Fontaine's a very subtle actress, sometimes the slight lift of an eyebrow is all that distinguishes an emotion, but she's very effective. A combination of an excellent script and her wonderful control of the role created a heroine who wasn't weak but didn't know exactly what to do with her suspicions either. The consistent use of her glasses throughout not only worked as a metaphor but added to the overall tension. Cary Grant works very well in a darker role than he is known for. The flashes of anger that punctuate the film create a sense of unease, encouraging the viewer to share Lina's beliefs rather than trust in Johnnie. There are some excellent scenes, showing Hitchcock's matchless talent for creating tension, for example, the long-shot of Johnnie delivering an odd-looking drink to his sick wife.

Ultimately, though, as gripping as the rest of the film was, I feel that the ending let it down. It wasn't true to the characters, nor very satisfying for the audience. I understand that the ending of the book was altogether different and this is yet another instance of executives interfering with story-telling. Nevertheless, Suspicion is an excellent film, worth watching for the Oscar-winning performance from Fontaine alone.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Classic Film Review: Becket (1964)

Becket is based on the true story of the assassinated Archbishop of Canterbury (Richard Burton) and his relationship with King Henry II (Peter O'Toole). It follows his promotion first to chancellor then to archbishop and the impact that has on his close friendship with the king. The conclusion of the story is, of course, no surprise, but the interplay between the two makes this an exceptional film. The supporting cast includes John Gielgud as King Louis VII of France, Donald Wolfit as Bishop Folliot, David Weston as Brother John and Sian Phillips as Gwendolen. 

The basic facts of the Becket story remain the same but quite a bit has been simplified. The main reason for the initial fracture between Henry and Becket becomes one criminal clergyman when, in reality, the reasons were much more complex. Still, the simplicity works because the main attraction of the story is the relationship between the two protagonists and Burton and O'Toole are nothing short of brilliant. Burton's performance in one particular scene, praying for guidance because he feels trapped between his king and his new role, deserves acclaim. Equally, O'Toole's stand-out scene comes when he, deliberately or otherwise, orders Becket's execution. This isn't to say that their scenes together aren't memorable and effective, just that their individual torture is captivating.

I suppose a common criticism of this film might be that it's rather stagey. It shows in places but this is tempered by some of the external scenes which give a sense of a wider world. The sets are excellent and the costumes beautiful. For the most part the dialogue is effective but, again, the simplicity of argument the film relies on renders it unrealistic in places. Some of the alterations, most notably labeling Becket as a Saxon when his lineage was Norman, are done for dramatic effect and to highlight the peculiarity of the strong relationship between king and friend. On the grounds of historical accuracy it fails but on the grounds of memorability it certainly passes. Becket is another one of those excellent historical dramas of this period to be ranked favourably with A Man for All Seasons (reviewed here).

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Book Review: Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

First serialised from 1838-39, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, to give it its full title, is exactly what it purports to be: the story of Nicholas Nickleby, a young man who loses his father and his home and travels to London with his mother and sister to throw themselves on the mercy of his father's brother, Ralph. However, Ralph hates Nicholas and his 'help' consists of finding him a job in the worst place he can think of at the time. Nicholas duly travels to a terrible school in Yorkshire while his sister, Kate, is left at the mercy of Ralph.

For the most part, I enjoyed Nicholas Nickleby, although I do think it drifted off on occasion. There are some deliberate filler-scenes, such as the travelling stories in the inn, which draw you from the main story, and I was rather impatient for the Portsmouth sojourn to end. That's not to say that some of characters and situations there weren't entertaining, just that it seemed to be a contrivance for keeping Nicholas out of London.

Nicholas himself is a very morally good character, though one humanised by his touches of temper. However, some of the smaller characters are much more memorable; for example, the rates-collector Mr Lillyvick, who is ensnared by an actress, and Miss La Creevy, the first friend the Nicklebys make in London. A few characters just irritated me personally, including Mr and Mrs Mantalini (although I liked Miss Knag) and Mrs Nickleby. Her comic silliness became very annoying and, to be perfectly honest, I didn't want her to survive the novel - or the chapter, come to that.

This is Dickens so there are some excellent societal commentaries peppered throughout. The most potent of these probably comes from one of the novel's most famous characters, the Yorkshire headmaster Wackford Squeers who mistreats the boys under his care quite viciously. However, Ralph Nickleby is a font of wisdom, betraying the dark thoughts of the fortunate in relation to the less so. I found Ralph to be a far more interesting character than the hero, particularly when humanised by the affection he develops for his niece. For me, he was the central character and I cared less about Nicholas in the final pages than I did the supporting cast. Perhaps this was because Nicholas's love for Madeline felt ridiculous in places. I cared less about them marrying than I did about, say, poor Smike's unrequited love.

The characters from this novel who'll live with me are Smike, Squeers and Ralph Nickleby - not much of a commentary on Nicholas himself!

*This book was read as part of the 'Chunkster Challenge 2014' - details here.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Classic Film Review: The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)

The Glass Bottom Boat stars Doris Day as Jennifer Nelson. At work she begins a relationship with the head of the aerospace research lab, Bruce Templeton (Rod Taylor), but their relationship becomes complicated when he starts to suspect she's a Russian spy out to steal his latest invention. The cast includes Arthur Godfrey as Jennifer's father, Dick Martin as Bruce's colleague and friend, Zack, and Paul Lynde as Homer Cripps, security guard.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that the glass bottom boat of the title only plays a small part in the film. Yes, it makes for a catchy title but that's about all, aside from some laboured metaphors that you really have to reach for. The action really takes place at the research facility, documenting Jenny's romance with Bruce and how his colleagues come to suspect she's leaking secrets to the Russians - it is rather suspicious to make phone calls several times a day and never speak to anyone but that's the way Vladimir the dog gets his exercise. It's also unfortunate that her father communicates with her via radio instead of phone. It all adds up to a pretty funny farce that really comes alive in the last half an hour or so.

Doris Day is excellent as widower Jenny while Rod Taylor works well opposite her as Bruce. The gems are the supporting cast though, with many others aside from the ones mentioned above putting life into little characters. For me, though, the highlight of them all is Paul Lynde, if only for his drag escapade to entrap the spy. The party that forms part of the climax of the film is full of hilarious moments and if the entire film had been at that pace it would've been brilliant. However, setting up all the dominoes early on seems to take far more time than it should've done and, unfortunately, the attempts to create a plausible romance between Jenny and Bruce take too much time for a farcical comedy. There are little interludes, such as the trip on a boat using electronic controls that goes disastrously wrong. There's an element of technology-gone-wrong about the film that works very well. And, strangely, watching Doris Day interact with a dog-like vacuum cleaner isn't that different to watching her interact with the real animals in the film.

Nonetheless, this was very funny and definitely worth watching. It might not be all about the glass bottom boat but it is all about Doris Day being brilliant and I could never say no to that.