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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.