Contact me at because I'm always up for a natter about anything. Well, mostly.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Book Review: The Comedienne by V.G Lee

The Comedienne is a rather episodic book about Joanie Littler, a woman who struggles through a selection of unequal relationships before inventing a lover to allow her back into the world. From her days caring for her mother - who disapproves of her first lesbian relationship - to finally 'breaking up' with Freddy and opening the door to new possibilities, The Comedienne covers two decades in Joanie's life.

This is a genuinely funny novel in places and I laughed out loud a few times. The conversational first-person tone of the narrative is pretty engrossing and the characters really do spring from the pages. At the beginning, Lee depicts the intense irritation that living with a parent as an adult can induce. Her mother's interference in her relationship with Susan leads to one of my favourite moments of the book and it involves slippers.

All the imaginary girlfriend stuff was amusing to start with but, I have to say, by the end I was wondering why Joanie had carried it on so long, considering how little she got out of the whole thing. It allowed for on-going humorous and tricky situations but condemned her to the loneliness she was hoping to avoid by inventing a girlfriend and gaining access to couples' dinner parties. It left me a bit ambivalent.

The episodic nature meant that some scenes were included while others weren't. I was rather disappointed that we got a full depiction of Joanie attending one old woman's funeral but not her own mother's. I felt like I wanted the circularity of that in the novel as a reader. Similarly, I wasn't sure about the ending for opposite reasons. All that said, I enjoyed it for the amusing book it was and I'll know what not to do next time I invent an imaginary girlfriend.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Book Review: The Incredulity of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton

Despite owning all the Father Brown stories, I'm taking my time reading them because I enjoy them so much. You can find my reviews of Innocence and Wisdom here and here but Incredulity is the third collection and feels as though it goes in a slightly different direction.

Location plays a big part in these stories with Father Brown encountering different cultures and, significantly, several of them are set in America. I like these explorations and it's amusing how Father Brown is never a fish out of water - he blends into the background of any community.

I enjoyed all the stories in this collection. However, some are more enjoyable than others, of course. 'The Resurrection of Father Brown' is the first story and begins with the cleric's death. It's a charming little story, made all the more enjoyable by his irritation at becoming a celebrity. 'The Arrow of Heaven' deals with the murder of a millionaire, a circumstance that 'is, for some reason, treated as a sort of calamity'. Chesterton, naturally, then proceeds to include three dead millionaires in his story. In 'The Oracle of the Dog' I was tickled by the resolution and the peculiar murder of Warren Wynd in 'The Miracle of Moon Crescent' had me completely perplexed for a time. While I enjoyed the sensory details and depictions in 'The Curse of the Golden Cross', that might've been the weakest story in terms of progression, for me anyway. 'The Dagger with Wings' is one of the more atmospheric pieces, although I was slightly disappointed with the ending, probably on grounds of personal preference.

The final two stories in the collection are my favourites. 'The Doom of the Darnaways' takes the old trope of a decaying British manor with a foreign heir and creates a memorable story revolving around a photograph. In that story, the last lines are typical of Father Brown and, perhaps, that's why I enjoyed it so much. Lastly, 'The Ghost of Gideon Wise' really kept me on my toes with an atmospheric look at the murders of another three millionaires. That Chesterton still has the ability to startle me after three volumes of Father Brown stories is delightful.

These are gentle mysteries that visit the hard edges of humanity. If that sounds like a contradiction then that's probably because you're unfamiliar with the central character. There are lengthy dialogue digressions which won't appeal to all but I like being made to think as well as follow a mystery to its conclusion. I'll ration myself again before I read the fourth collection, The Secret of Father Brown.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Quite a Week

To say last week was interesting would be a bit of an understatement. I'm used to the ups and downs that life (and my anxiety problems) tend to throw at me but I rarely have as many blips, bumps and jumps in one short period as I did last week.

My Monday began with computer problems and rapidly escalated with some frustrating family stuff. I escaped to my writing haunt and had a burst of inspiration about the direction of my WIP (I wrote about that here). By the time I got home I was all energised then there was some more family stuff that triggered this response:
On Tuesday I had the delight of a few hours to myself then it all fell apart again. Normality ensued as I dragged myself in the rain to get some shopping whilst having a mini panic attack. However, as I was walking home I received a text from a Yorkshire First colleague of mine about the meeting later that night and I was back in positive mode. That meeting was excellent and I came away as energised politically as I had been in the creative sense the day before:
For me, that's pretty successful. So, despite a concerted effort by some people in my life to bring me down, I prolonged my positive mood into Wednesday - then the fun really started when I went to co-working at my writing haunt. Hearing "that's not a customer, that's Lucy, she's part of the furniture" set things up nicely along with an epic breakfast. I was in the writing zone anyway but getting an email confirming that I'd won third prize in the latest Fabula Press competition set me singing in public. That story will be published at some point so I'll let you know when it's available but it's one I'm very proud of.

I dragged my father to a couple of stops on the Artwalk that night, which I thoroughly enjoyed (and picked up a couple of souvenirs below), then came home for a celebratory singalong. Treating myself after every bit of success is proving to be very pleasant and reminds me that I'm probably not completely rubbish.

On Thursday I was meant to be having a freelance meeting but that turned into a six-hour meeting interspersed with checking on a poorly six-year niece. Making her smile was more important than any work, though some of that got done as well. The night ending with me tipping a bucket of filthy water over my legs wasn't the best thing that could've happened however. My trainers still stink.

Then Friday... Well, I'd just sat down to lunch when I heard that my grandmother had fallen face-first out of her chair at her residential home and was bleeding quite badly. They called an ambulance and, while the details of what happened that day aren't something I should share on a public forum, suffice to say there'll be a complaint going in to the NHS about the treatment. Fortunately, she's going to be okay, even if she looks like someone ran her over and she's got a broken cheekbone. At 92, she should really know better than to chuck herself over the room like that. It certainly gave us all a scare and, as a consequence, I spent the weekend hibernating and watching tennis. Britain winning the Davis Cup was the appropriate end to a wacky week.

I'm drowning in work this week and my priorities are all over the place. A little stability and time to work without the bumps and jumps would be a good idea. Then again, I did rather enjoy last Wednesday immensely. I'd better write some more short stories, huh?

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Peril of Naming a Walk-On Character

I've written a bit recently about attacking the fourth draft of my WIP 'Max' (by recently, I mean Friday!). Funny how just when you think you're on track with a project it decides to surprise you all over again. You see, this one follows a mother and a daughter (from the perspective of the daughter and the mother's lover) and I'd pretty much accepted the fact that the interactions that needed fixing in this draft were the ones involving the lover. Apparently not.

I was in my writing haunt yesterday afternoon warming through with caffeine and clutching my editing rock for inspiration (don't ask) while I was reading the detailed notes for the rewrite of chapter eight. The location needed to have greater significance so I began wondering why my character chose that cafe out of all the others and a waiter trots into the scene. Fine, I thought, let's give him a name. Big mistake.

As soon as I named him and he started talking to my viewpoint character, I liked him. Disaster. The love interest for this character is a little bit square and boring and, ultimately, they don't end up together. But this guy... Well, he comes from a completely different background, he's cheeky and he has connections with her past that the other lad doesn't understand. In short, he's perfect for her and, what's more, it fits the overall narrative of the parallel plot of the mother.

Now, I may be stuffing a new character into my novel for no reason. I may have to extract him from the fifth draft with tweezers. However, I think it's definitely worth a shot. It's going to mean some exceedingly careful consideration of the rest of the novel. To be fair, though, that was already necessary anyway. The extensive notes I marked up for the fourth draft aren't obsolete as much as complementary to the notes I'm keeping in my head about new directions and backgrounds. What I really need is to get this written down. And, in the meantime, Ed's here to stay. As is my editing rock.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Television Review: River

It's been a long time since I published a television review on the blog. In fact, checking back through the list, the last one was Happy Valley in June last year. I suppose it's only right that my review this time should be the outstanding hit of 2015, while Happy Valley was undoubtedly the 2014 equivalent.

River begins as a typical crime drama. There are two officers in a car, vastly different in personality but very at ease with each other. It turns into a chase with a suspect that results in the young man jumping from a balcony. Then, ten minutes in, the twist emerges and you realise this isn't your typical crime drama with a love story thrown in for good measure: it's so much better than that.

The twist is that DI River (Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd) is talking to a manifestation of his dead partner DS 'Stevie' Stevenson (Nicola Walker) as he attempts to find the person who brutally gunned her down in the middle of the street. From childhood, River has struggled with these manifestations, a recurrent one being the nineteenth-century poisoner Thomas Cream (Eddie Marsan). River is quick to point out to his therapist Rosa Fallows (Georgina Rich) that these aren't ghosts he sees and this is evident in the narrative - Stevie never gives River fresh information that aids the case but we see her reacting to the secrets he uncovers about her life in a way that says more about him than her. It's exquisitely clever and, from the pen of Abi Morgan who also wrote The Hour, I expected nothing less. 

At the heart of River is an eccentric man trying desperately to solve the murder of one of the few people in the world who he ever allowed himself to be close to (though not close enough). It's a love story about closing the chapter with Stevie but it's also about him opening up to other people in his life such as Rosa, DCI Chrissie Read (Lesley Manville) and DS Ira King (Adeel Akhtar). While the twists and turns of the actual murder investigation held my interest, the focus on River himself was far more riveting and the entire cast is phenomenal.

Ultimately, while River startled and unsettled me at times, it also made me smile. The final minutes of the first and last episodes are stunning and I'm not ashamed to say I ended this one in tears. It was one heck of a rollercoaster ride over six weeks and I loved it. 

Friday, 20 November 2015

Interlocking Projects

Since I decided to knock NaNo on the head, I've felt a little more in control. Keeping up with an arbitrary word count wasn't for me at the moment and anybody who seeks to rub their 'success' in my face can honestly save their time. At the end of the day, it's better for me to be editing a project that's captured my heart instead of fighting an imaginary battle. I'm just not in the mood for it.

The truth is, there are three things at the moment that are feeding into one another. It's created something of a fire storm in my head - I'm always thinking of one or other of these things and, fortunately for me, they're proving productive.  

The first of these is the novel fourth draft I'm working on - 'Max'. It's amusing in some respects. When I wrote the first draft I remarked that, 'The least said about this one, the better! I didn't want to write it in the first place but I was...compelled.' Thinking about the second draft, I wrote, 'I know how I want the rewrite of this to pan out but the thought of writing it makes me feel queasy.' I finally got round to writing the second draft late last year, adding a second viewpoint and making the 'antagonist' a little more well-rounded. My goal, as I explained, was to delve into the characters: '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.' So the second draft twisted things a little and I ended up with a happy ending. The third draft earlier this year removed some secondary characters and replaced them with others who complemented the overall plot. And, once again, my antagonist got a bit nicer. In this fourth draft, she's not quite wearing a halo but it's not far off. I understand her. I understand why she makes some terrible decisions and why she comes across as completely selfish and the work I've done on my protagonist to explain why she reacts the way she does has helped. All in all, I think I'm really getting somewhere with this one. 

My epic fan fic venture is another thing keeping me occupied. Now, I know people have varied opinions about fan fiction but I've always found it keeps my mind focused on writing and I can tell stories I want to for my own personal amusement. If it also helps me unwind then that's no bad thing. This story I'm telling at the moment, though, is one that I've needed to write for a decade and it's consuming me a little - I haven't done a complete word count lately but I suspect we're over the 400,000 word mark. So much for a hobby! However, I'm enjoying writing it and I'm enjoying reading back over it. For me, that's the most important thing. 

The third thing that's feeding into my mental state at the moment is Once Upon a Time. I won't go into details but, for those of you who haven't watched the show, it's a retelling of certain fairytales that has a pretty important 'friendship' going on between two female characters. I'm drowning in fan fic and gifs - again, a hobby, but one that's aiding my productivity on the novel draft and the fan fic.

You see, there's a good reason these three things are coexisting in my life at the moment. All of them have family at their root. I learned during the second draft of 'Max' that it was the integral theme of the novel and that's only strengthened as time's gone by. In the fan fic, it's emerged as the defining theme and, well, Once Upon a Time is meant to be about family, even if it's not always clear that the writers know what they're doing. The novel draft, the fan fic and Once Upon a Time all have two parents (one not blood-related) and a complex familial relationship at the heart of them. And, perhaps, that's why everything's working so well at the moment.

There's no doubt in my mind that writing this fan fic and getting overly involved in Once Upon a Time is helping my novel draft. Call it a waste of valuable time if you want but I don't believe that - you can't write before you've learned the value and cost of a particular story or theme. Slowly, I'm figuring that out. 

Friday, 13 November 2015

Classic Film Review: Angel Face (1952)

Angel Face stars Robert Mitchum as ambulance driver Frank Jessup who becomes embroiled in the schemes of Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons) after being called out to a report of gas in her stepmother's room. Mrs Tremayne (Barbara O'Neil) is wealthy and supports her stepdaughter and novelist husband Charles (Herbert Marshall) but when Frank's employed as Tremayne family chauffeur, he really doesn't know what he's getting involved in. The cast also includes Mona Freeman and Leon Ames.

From the beginning, this is an atmospheric film and I enjoyed it much more than I expected to. My attitude towards Robert Mitchum swings between love and hate (as other film reviews on this blog attest) but in roles where his usual moody and impassive demeanour work with the plot he excels. Angel Face is one of those films. You never quite know what Frank's thinking and that adds an extra layer to the film. Similarly, Jean Simmons plays the inscrutable Diane to perfection. The shock of the plot comes not from her intentions towards her stepmother but the unexpected consequences.

This one didn't progress as I thought it would, clipping along faster than I'd expected and throwing up a couple of surprises along the way. It was difficult to care about Frank and Diane but that was rather the point and, unlike most films of this ilk, that fed into my enjoyment.

There are some memorable moments, which I won't ruin for you, but I ultimately enjoyed this film a fair bit. Although there isn't exceptional chemistry between the leads, there's a good deal of manipulative chemistry and that's more useful in a film like this. As for the ending... Well, I wouldn't have wanted anything else.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2015: The Time for Doubts

Well, I started brightly enough.

Day one and two, I hit the word count goal. It helped that chapters one and two perfectly fit the target so it didn't feel like I was stretching myself too much. Day three, I only did a little and slipped behind but I made that up on day four and got a bit ahead. However, my goal of hitting 10,000 on day five took a battering when my writing time was interrupted by a friend's dad. We had coffee together at my writing haunt and my mojo seemed to disintegrate. I ended the day with five chapters written and a couple of hundred words under 10,000. On day six, though, I felt the need to hibernate and wrote nothing. On day seven, I was out for the day - which proved a traumatic experience in itself - and didn't manage to get any writing done. And then I started thinking.

I like the idea. It's got the potential to be a good novel and I like what I've written so far. The characters are pretty distinctive and, as far as early portions of first drafts go, it scrubs up favourably alongside my previous NaNo drafts. However, I'm not feeling the get-up-and-write motivation I need to do this.

For the last couple of months I've been trying to work on the fourth draft of 'Max'. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that it could be a good novel if I can pull it together. I marked up all the edits and started implementing them before realising I'd need to break off for NaNo. The trouble is, I'm missing it. I feel as though I need to be doing that work now because I've got too many first drafts and not enough of my ideas have progressed further than that. A lesser point is that I've also been writing something for fun to switch off in the evenings. It's one thing to spend some time editing during the day and then to unwind with 'fun' writing at night. It's quite another to dash off a load of NaNo words during the day and expect to do the same with the 'fun' stuff later. For me, at least, my brain can only create so many words in a day with the state I'm in. So why not forget the 'fun' stuff? Well, no. That is keeping me going and, trust me, I need that right now.

It seems like I've completely made up my mind to pack in NaNo for this year, doesn't it? However, week two is a good time to have doubts. I'm going to take a few days off and focus again on my editing, see whether I feel better.

Exactly five years ago today I wrote a post signalling my defeat in that year's NaNo. That time it was planning failure I blamed but I think this year it's more down to me being me. Which, alas, seems to be an explanation for far too many screw-ups in my life.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Some Sad News

I recently learned the sad news that my friend and political mentor Rodney Willett had died. He'd been ill for quite some time but, of course, that doesn't make it any better.

It's no exaggeration to say that, without Rodney, I wouldn't have become so politically interested and motivated. We encountered each other online several years ago and teamed up on a political website along with several other contributors. The difficulty was making it more than a few people shouting in the wind and Rodney's ill-health, along with several other factors, prevented our dreams becoming a reality. However, I'm deeply indebted to Rodney for helping shape my ideas and allowing me a platform to speak long before I had anything useful to say.

In April, having seen his bad news, I emailed to say that I'd passed my viva and to thank him for his influence as I prepared to stand for Yorkshire First in the local elections. When he responded I was deeply, deeply touched by his words. In fact, as I recall, that email made me cry.

He did offer to exchange emails and ideas with me but, whether it was right or not, I didn't want to take him up on that. I felt he had far more important things to do with his remaining time so I left him alone, and I do hope he interpreted that the right way. His friendship and his advice meant a lot to me over the years and I never felt the age gap between us or the physical distance. It's very rare you find people who are truly on your wavelength and I feel privileged that I got to witter on about politics with him quite as often as I did.

In his email he told me that he was devoting time to creating an online companion to his wife's novels (Marcia Willett) and I'd take it as a personal kindness if some of you glanced over that blog. You do get a flavour of Rodney's personality from his prose and he was a very engaging and generous man. I owe him a lot.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2015: I'm Late, I'm Late

You can tell exactly how frazzled I am by the fact that I'm writing my first NaNo post less than two hours before kick-off. Last year I started my plans mid-October and the idea had been percolating much longer than that. This year I've been behind on everything and NaNo is no exception.

I came up with an inciting incident a while ago: a woman is accosted at knife point in her car. Beyond that, I was a little lost but now I've got a working premise. It's not a car, it's a camper-van. My protagonist's called Jess and she's taking her niece away for the summer while she does a few gardening jobs. And the woman who holds a knife to her throat? That's Naomi. And there's a very good reason why she's been driven to desperate ends. The thing is, Jess and Naomi have never met before.

I've managed to do some character work and I've got a few launching points. Beyond that...I'm winging it. I certainly think that's going to make for an interesting November.

The thing, writing 50,000 words in a month isn't a challenge for me these days. Provided the idea's good then I can run with it and get the first draft written. Perhaps that's what aiming to be a professional writer does for you. Someone pointed out to me last week that I'd managed to complete NaNo four times while doing a PhD at the same time. That should make this year a piece of cake.

I'm exuding arrogance. That probably means I'm riding for a fall but we'll see. Let's NaNo.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

It may come as something as a shock to find I've got to this ripe old age without reading Jane Austen's most famous novel. I'm also not proud of having watched the 1940 film adaptation before reading the book (review here)! However, in my defence, I wanted to read as many of Austen's works as possible before turning to Pride and Prejudice. Alas, I still find that I prefer Emma and Persuasion (reviews here and here). I'm sure that makes me a heathen in some eyes.

Pride and Prejudice tells the story of the Bennet sisters and their marriage prospects. Under the domineering influence of Mrs Bennet, the girls are pushed towards eligible bachelors, though the second-born Elizabeth is determined not to marry anyone just for the sake of marrying. She takes an instant dislike to the haughty Mr Darcy who disapproves of his friend Mr Bingley's affection for Jane Bennet. However, that dislike turns to something else.

So did I enjoy Pride and Prejudice? Yes. I particularly enjoyed the witty dialogue exchanges between various characters, including Mr and Mrs Bennet, Elizabeth and Mr Darcy plus Elizabeth and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. As with other Austen novels, class and respectability are key themes, but also what it means when they become preoccupations.

Again, as with my other forays into Austen, I found myself wishing she had used more dialogue tags. It was sometimes tricky to work out who was talking, particularly in conversations between the Bennet sisters.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Book Review: Brick Mother by SJ Bradley

Set in a secure psychiatric unit, Brick Mother follows art therapist Neriste and care assistant Donna as they deal with some of the most troubled patients in an understaffed environment. Both are drawn to Nathan Rivers, an affable patient who committed a serious crime years ago but is now intent on rehabilitating himself into the community. Some don't think he's capable of rehabilitation but when there are ping-pong bureaucracies to deal with, logic gets lost.

Bradley evokes the alien setting of a psychiatric ward skilfully. The despair of both patients and staff comes across achingly well and the restraints that everyone's kept under feel almost claustrophobic for the reader. Particularly effective are the descriptions of Neriste's art therapy cabin, which serves as a metaphor for the unit as a whole.

I enjoyed this novel as a peek into another world. Occasionally, I struggled with the viewpoint switches but that's a personal thing. It's a very down-to-earth novel with touches of humour in amongst the despair and some characters you can really root for. It's certainly a book that's going to stay with me, not least for the last quarter where things pick up speed and explode. That said, the characters that have stayed with me aren't any of the protagonists but some of the additional patients trying their best to survive in a hostile world. Their despairs and hopes come across more clearly than anything else.

This book was read as part of the 'Women' reading challenge, details here.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Book Review: The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann

The Echoing Grove tells the story of two sisters spending their first night under the same roof in many years and then explores the intricacies of their estrangement. At the heart of this is Dinah's affair with Madeline's husband, Rickie, which fractured their lives and is recounted in lengthy flashbacks which include all three parties.

This is a tricky book to read. I was wondering whether I was the only one to find it difficult but then I read this excellent post at Miss Darcy's Library which articulates some of my problems with the novel. I really enjoyed the opening portion of the book. The brittle conversation between Dinah and Madeline is very intriguing and there's an exceptionally vivid scene with a rat that's haunted me since I finished reading. However, once the book begins toying with chronology, things become a little more difficult to follow. It doesn't help that you dip through one memory to another and get a little disorientated in the process.

The themes of the novel - adultery, marriage, family - are explored well and Lehmann's makes good use of the time period, particularly in the scenes set in the Blitz. However, I didn't find any of the three characters especially easy to like. Rickie, particularly, came across badly but that may be my feminist instincts kicking in. That said, all of them are very realistic and products of their time. In that sense, The Echoing Grove is an exceptionally skilful novel, but it's very dismal in tone. There's no way you can come out of this book feeling uplifted, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. 

I can't say that I'll reread this novel but I am glad I read it in the first place. I do also think I'll be reading more of Lehmann's work in the future. 

I was provided with a free copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Book Review: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister ed. Helena Whitbread

This is a book that's been on my shelf for quite some time and what put me off reading it was the bitty nature of it. I suspected that, whether I was enjoying it or not, this would be a book that would slow down my reading schedule and I wasn't wrong. However, I'm certainly glad I got round to it in the end.

Anne Lister lived at Shibden Hall in Halifax in the early 1800s and kept a diary for most of her life. The diaries in this volume span the years 1816-1824 and document her everyday existence in Yorkshire - along with her same-sex relationships and attractions. Anything that Lister wrote in her famous 'code' are separated from the rest of the text by italics, making it easier to keep up with when she's discussing her sexual relationships with, and desires towards, women.

Certain parts of these diaries can feel quite mundane but perhaps that's the attraction. They provide a fascinating description of life as a well-off woman and the daily trials of life. However, Lister was certainly a unique woman in many ways, making her diaries an interesting juxtaposition to similar surviving documents of the era. I enjoyed reading the domestic passages, although parts do get a little repetitive - a peril of such a lengthy set of diaries.

Lister was a snob and this comes through very clearly in her writing. Her use of the term 'vulgar' gets old quite quickly, losing some of its effect by the end of the book! Alternately, I felt sympathy for her isolation, given her intelligence and sexuality, and exasperation at the way she behaved to those who wanted to be friendly with her.

These diaries are expertly edited by Helena Whitbread, including just enough contextual information without overloading the book. While the main interest may lie in Lister's descriptions of her lesbian relationships, the rest of the diaries are equally as compelling - if at times incredibly exasperating.

This book was read as part of the 'TBR' reading challenge, details here.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Book Review: Murder on a Summer's Day by Frances Brody

Murder on a Summer's Day is the fifth book in the Kate Shackleton mystery series that I so adore (the previous four have all been reviewed on this blog). Set in the 1920s in Yorkshire, this series follows a private investigator and, in this novel, Brody brings a touch of India to the Yorkshire countryside.

Kate is asked by her cousin to travel to Bolton Abbey to help find Maharajah Narayan, a distinguished visitor who disappeared while hunting. When she arrives at the scene Kate finds puzzle after puzzle blocking her path and it soon transpires she's involved in yet another murder case. Superstitious locals believe shooting a white doe was the reason Narayan died but there's a missing diamond and an unsuitable local girlfriend waiting in the wings. Kate keeps coming up against brick walls, despite the aid of her partner Jim Sykes and housekeeper Mrs Sudgen and the mystery builds gently as the book progresses.

I thoroughly enjoyed the layering of Indian culture on the Yorkshire setting. It added a new dimension to Brody's books, which are already uniquely enjoyable (for me) because of the three key ingredients of a female detective, period setting and the base in Yorkshire. The mystery itself ties together the English and the Indian aspects of plot with plenty of twists and turns along the way and some completely believable characters. There are a couple of especially memorable scenes, specifically one involving a snake and another involving a fire, both of which have lingered with me since I finished reading.

In fairness, I don't think Frances Brody could write a Kate Shackleton novel that I didn't enjoy but that doesn't mean this one isn't worth reading. Once again, Brody refrains from neat conclusions and, beyond that, I seriously hope the question she posed in the last line of this book is answered in the next. It's a frivolous fangirly question but I still care nonetheless.

This book was read as part of the 'Women' reading challenge, details here.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Classic Film Review: Heavens Above! (1963)

Heavens Above! stars Peter Sellers as an irreverent minister posted by accident to a snobbish parish. A name mix-up means that Reverend John Smallwood transfers from being a hapless prison chaplain to a complacent town where he proceeds to stir things up in his own gentle style. He sticks to the Bible rather than the Church, which causes a few problems. This satirical look at contemporary life also features Cecil Parker, Ian Carmichael, Eric Sykes, Miriam Karlin and Isabel Jeans.

I enjoyed this one, though not as much as I expected I might. It's amusing seeing the mix-up between the two John Smallwoods and watching the 'wrong' one's introduction into the village. Peter Sellers plays the idealistic minister perfectly - not once do you get the impression that the poor chap knows what on earth he's doing. His influence on Lady Despard (Jeans) is entirely realistic at first, as are the progressions of the other major stories. For instance, after seeing a large family evicted from their plot of land Smallwood invites them to stay at the vicarage with him. In this film everyone but Smallwood has an ulterior motive, even Lady Despard who is desperate to save her soul. As such, things don't exactly work out well.

There are moments of brilliance, including when the food bank established to help the poor begins putting the local tradesmen out of business. It's an excellent examination of good intentions gone awry but the film itself begins to lose its way in the last third with a plot twist that's memorable for all the wrong reasons.

In truth, when I think of this film I'm likely to think more of the bizarre ending than anything else, which is a shame. Heavens Above! makes some good points, perhaps as relevant today as they were then, but it loses its effect somewhat and I wish a more plausible ending could've been found.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

After All, It's a Step in the Right Direction

I've been excessively silent on this blog recently and I apologise for that. I'm still lagging behind with my book and classic film reviews but hopefully I can get those up to date soon. The sad truth is that I haven't had much time to read and watch anything or, really, to do much apart from react to things going on around me. It's not the most rewarding of existences and it certainly isn't healthy for me personally.

So where are we at? Well, last Friday I delivered what I hope is the last piece of my PhD puzzle. My thesis corrections have been uploaded and outstanding paperwork delivered so, theoretically, that should be that.

In other news, I was delighted to be short-listed in the 2015 Exeter Story Prize with my short story 'Pongo'. That's one I'm particularly proud of and I'm glad all that hard work paid off. One of the things that drew me to that competition was the ability to submit longer short stories. Sometimes you need the extra space and I don't think 'Pongo' would've squeezed in to a more constrictive word count.

I'm also standing for election again in the Pontefract North by-election on the 24th September for Yorkshire First. Politics is still something I'm passionate about, though I don't go into it much on this blog. However, in fairness, I haven't had much time to go into it on my politics blog either! The last post I managed over there was badgering the previous councillor to resign and, lo and behold, now I'm standing for her seat. Isn't life a funny thing?

My priorities have, quite naturally, shifted with waving the PhD goodbye. Top on the list is trying to look after myself a little better than I have been doing in recent months. Beyond that, there are always other things in the pipeline. Here are the headlines.

  • Back in July I developed a priority list of novel drafts. I've got cracking on the fourth draft of 'Max', marking up all the necessary edits and starting on the nitty-gritty of actually implementing them. This is going to be a long process and it may derail the other projects I want to work on before the end of the year. However, I'd still like to get to 'Danni' and 'Izzy' before the end of the year. I'm also working on the assumption that I'm going to be participating in NaNoWriMo this year, though by this point I've usually had a big idea and I'm working on refining it. I need inspiration to strike. 
  • On the short story front, I need to get back into the groove. For instance, I currently have four in need of a second draft and another four that I've decided need a complete overhaul before I resubmit them. At the time of typing, I only have three short stories out at submission but there are another two I'm content enough with to send out so I need to get on with that. My aim is to make my co-working day with Wakefield Jelly the main day for short story paper edits again. That's worked very well in the past and it's a dedicated day for escaping to edit short stories (in addition to a dedicated hour of escape each weekday to actually write them). Incidentally, if anyone's around on Wednesday 23rd September, pleased stop by at Create and join us Jelly folk. The group has been going for two years now and, amazingly enough, I've been going since the start!
  • I'm also hoping to take on some tutoring work for A-Level students and above. I had some success in this quarter earlier in the year so, if you know anyone who needs a little help with their English studies please ask them to contact me. Hopefully there'll be more on this in the future. 
  • Freelance writing and project management is also another string to my bow and is taking up a chunk of my time at the moment. 
There, that's perfectly manageable, isn't it? Who said anything about slowing down? Besides, it takes my mind off the fact I'm essentially flying without navigation at the moment. But, as Angela sings, it's a step in the right direction, after all...even if I don't know quite what direction I'm going in. 

Monday, 17 August 2015

The Week Ahead: Corrections and Short Stories

If I went into detail about why I'm despairing at the moment it'd take a while and nothing else would get done. Suffice to say, just when I thought things couldn't get worse, they suddenly did. The last year of my life has been a lesson in this so I'm not sure why I'm so surprised. Alas, tolerance levels are eroded beyond recognition. If there's one thing going right in a life perhaps the rest can be accepted as necessary balance but that's not the case. However, I apparently have to carry on so...

I've got a month before my thesis corrections are due and, really, I wanted them finished two weeks ago. I've planned all the edits and I'm halfway through implementing them now. All I need to do after that is write two brief appendices and get them checked over. Then the thesis is done and... Well, it's done. Full stop after that one.

My other task for this week is to work on some of the short story drafts I've neglected. Three need a complete rewrite, though I've been putting it off because the novel drafts seemed more important. I want to rewrite them this week for editing at Wakefield Jelly next week. In theory, let's see how that goes.

Next week I'm cat-sitting for my sister. During that quiet time away I'm going to focus on the fourth draft of 'Max'. I've already had a read through of the third draft and I know what needs to be done. A couple of major fixes and thousands of minor ones. I want to make a dent in that.

Little steps...

Monday, 3 August 2015

Book Review: The Accidental Mother by Rowan Coleman

The Accidental Mother tells the story of Sophie Mills, a successful party-planner in a prestigious company. She's surprised to one day receive a visit from her social worker who says she's been named as guardian to her old friend's two young children. Sophie finds her life turned upside down by the arrival of Bella and Izzy and makes it her mission to track down their errant father before she loses her shot at promotion and everything she's worked for.

This book has been languishing on my shelf for quite a few years, mainly because it's a little lighter than the novels I generally go for and I've been submerged in seriousness for quite some time now. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it, the first half in particular. Sophie's attitude towards the children is your typical fish-out-of-water scenario and it works wonderfully. She's a high-powered, commitment-phobic workaholic and the disruption the girls cause to her well-ordered life is acute and amusingly depicted. The inevitable thaw towards the children, also, is well-handled and it's good to see Sophie going through all those things parents do - for instance, idly wondering why the three year-old is screaming her head off now instead of rushing to help like a woman possessed.

The novel started to lose me a little in the second half with the introduction of Louis, the girls' father. Although, again, I suppose this facet of the plot was inevitable, I didn't really like it and it drew me out of the book somewhat. However, for the most part I enjoyed this novel and I laughed out loud at certain lines.

This book was read as part of the 'New Author' reading challenge, details here.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Book Review: Here Be Dragons by Stella Gibbons

Since first reading Westwood in 2011 (review here) I've been slowly reading the Gibbons novels I can get my hands on, savouring them in the way that I savour Frances Brody's Kate Shackleton mysteries. Both authors have the knack of distracting me from the real world and making me smile - albeit for different reasons. So when I added Here Be Dragons to my 'Women' challenge reading list this year it was inevitable that it would be one I'd make sure I read.

The novel tells the story of Nell Sely, a young woman who moves to Hampstead from Dorset following her father's lost of faith and resignation from his parish. Nell and her parents end up living in a house owned by her father's sister Lady Fairfax, a television personality, and she becomes entwined with her bohemian cousin John and his crowd. Nell's also aware she needs to start earning money to support her family and initially starts work as a secretary. However, she soon decides she'd rather be a waitress and finds she's rather good at it.

Here Be Dragons works, like other Gibbons novels, as a study of London life during the 1950s. Hampstead springs to life once more with vivid detail, particularly with the suggestions of urban change peppered throughout. One of the most interesting characters in that respect is the aristocratic Miss Lister who lives in a cottage at the bottom of Nell's garden and has an unexpected role to play in the plot.

The infatuation Nell has for John isn't something that I completely understand, due to him being a horrible character, but the act of infatuation is something infinitely relatable and it permeates the novel in various guises. Gibbons's representation of another troubled relationship in the form of Benedict and Gardis is interesting, demonstrating further the breaking down of barriers in the post-war world. However, for me the most intuitive aspects of the book came in the descriptions of the loss of Martin Sely's faith, which he cautiously comes to terms with during the novel and fashions a faith of his own. The exploration of his thoughts is one of the things that has lingered with me, along with the depictions of Hampstead and the depiction of some very unsettling relationships.

Here Be Dragons meanders a bit at times, with some characters feeling superfluous but generally making a point, and won't be to everyone's tastes but I thoroughly enjoyed it. My delight in reading a Gibbons novel apparently hasn't diminished.

This book was read as part of the 'Women' reading challenge, details here.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Book Review: 800 Years of Women's Letters ed. Olga Kenyon

This book brings together dozens of letters from various points in history, separating them into the following categories: 'How Women View Their Roles', 'Friendship', 'Childhood and Education', 'Love and Sexual Passion', 'Marriage and Childbirth', 'Housekeeping and Daily Life', 'Work', 'War and Alleviating Suffering', 'Travellers and Travelling', 'Illness and Ageing', and 'Political Skills'. It's an excellent collection, allowing the voices of the letters to travel through time with minimal interruption (though there are useful notes and biographies included).

Quite naturally, the letters I enjoyed most came from women I was already familiar with. For instance, I found Charlotte Bronte's letter to a friend at her publishing house following the death of Branwell Bronte particularly moving and Millicent Fawcett's account of sitting down for dinner with an MP who had previously vilified her was amusing. The wonderful thing about this book are the various changes in tempo. You do emerge from it feeling as though you've just done a crash-course in women's history.

The extraordinary is mixed with the ordinary though, inevitably, it's the tales of women in exceptional places that linger, making the 'Travellers and Travelling' chapter one of the most memorable of the book. I also found the 'Illness and Ageing' chapter fascinating, not least because of the letters of Queen Victoria included there. In a similar vein, the letters of Elizabeth I included in this collection are excellent little pieces of national and private history.

There are too many excellent letters in this collection to name. Although it took me quite some time to read this book, I'm glad I did. I find myself thinking about snippets of the letters in my daily life, especially those between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. If I had to pick one letter from this collection as my favourite it would likely be Woolf's comments to Sackville-West following the premature death of Katherine Mansfield. The observations of a literary rivalry are extremely poignant and touching, all with Woolf's natural style. That letter will live with me for a while.

This book was read as part of the 'TBR' reading challenge, details here.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Just Write

It's been a funny old year on the writing front.

The last time I wrote one of my periodic 'writing goals' post I had a six month plan that stretched from December to May and was ambitious to say the least.  Unsurprisingly, it didn't pan out, though that had more to do with the thesis work I had to do and a lot of other rubbish that overtook me.

It's true that I spent December working on the second draft of 'Max' (which refused to behave, see here) then I polished 'Lily' in January. I then started work on the close edit of 'Danni'. That's where I ran into trouble. The place I had to put myself mentally in order to work on that particular draft was painful and I blogged about it here. Ultimately, for all my good intentions, I faltered with that draft and it's languishing at 54,342 words. Nor did I work on any of the other novels I earmarked for work before June.

So what did I do? Well, I worked on the third draft of 'Max' when the urge took me. I completed that two weeks ago and then I started a new work 'Phoebe'. This is based on my experiences at the election night count and I originally envisioned it as a novella. However, part one (of three) came to over 20,000 words so I'm not quite sure what it'll end up as. I'm trying not to be rigid, I just want to get it down on paper. At least I'm not aiming for that mythical 50,000 mark with this one.

I need a plan of attack though; a draft priority list if you will. I know I look like a first-draft machine but it's just because it's been easier to do that while I've been shuffling through my PhD (besides, I think the fact that 'Danni' has been through six drafts so far refutes that anyway). In terms of which novels I'm ready to work on and in which order they should be approached, here's the list:

  1. 'Phoebe' - First thing is to finish this draft, however long it turns out to be. It's currently sitting at 23,733 words.
  2. 'Max' - Then I want to work on the fourth draft of this which is essentially a close-edit and general tweak. I'm pretty happy with the structure and characterisation of this one now, the third draft improved it massively. That opinion is, of course, subject to change. 
  3. 'Danni' - Perhaps by then I'll be in the right place mentally to finish this. I paused the seventh draft with 24 out of 31 chapters written. I did the hard stuff, the difficult rewriting. From that point onwards the narrative is essentially the same as in the sixth draft (with the exception of the final chapter) but it needs a close-edit. 
  4. 'Izzy' - I had an epiphany about this one a while ago which involves the alteration of much of the plot but keeps the characters. This needs detailed planning but I know the core of the story. It remains to be seen whether it keeps the ambivalent ending of the first draft though. I'm a sucker for happy endings these days. 
  5. 'Kathy' - This is currently an unfinished first draft from 2013 which I decided needs to be in first person instead of third. So I need to rewrite the 10,000 words already written then see where the story takes me for the rest of it - I have a tentative plan.
  6. 'Liz' - I've neglected this one for too long. This is a second draft and I'm a third of the way through it but I hit a brick wall, possibly because I was rewriting it in Scrivener and I can't get to grips with it.
  7. 'Vic' - There's a fair bit of planning to do ahead of the second draft. I want to change the premise slightly but the characters and their relationships work. 
  8. 'Carys' - Again, there's planning to be done ahead of the second draft but a lot of stuff in this works. I know what I want to change in terms of the main plot so I'll see where the new plan takes me. 
  9. 'Lauren' - The second draft of this was another experiment with characters I've been toying with since I was sixteen. The whole thing gels quite well now but I need to approach it carefully to make sure I'm not just saying it's better when it's not.
  10. 'Mel' - This was my 2014 NaNoWriMo novel so it's pretty low down the list. I need an epiphany to hit on this one. 
  11. 'Lily' - It seems strange to put this one at the bottom of the list when I've had positive feedback on it and advice on how to improve. However, I feel that I need to look at the others first. This may well get boosted back up the tree but, for now, I want to focus on the others. 
This is quite a list, isn't it? There'll likely be a new NaNoWriMo draft in November to go along with it. Let's see where I am by the end of the year, eh?

Monday, 20 July 2015

Book Review: Hild by Nicola Griffith

This book takes a woman about whom very little is known and fashions a highly intricate historical novel around her. Hild certainly lived and was born around 614 but little else survives from her biography. Griffith seeks to fill this gap.

We meet Hild as a child and follow her as she grows into womanhood. She is brought into the court of Edwin, King of Northumbria, as his seer, all the while knowing that one false prophecy could result in her death. It's a brutal world, made more dangerous by the machinations of her mother and Edwin's hunger to rule the entire country. Hild's circle of trusted friends becomes more important to her the older she gets but there are things she needs to keep from them too.

I read this for a book group I'm a part of and, truly, I struggled with it. I think it was perhaps out of my comfort zone - I needed to refer too much to the family tree, map and glossary at the beginning of the novel and it really is a chunk of a book. That said, I do think the issue was down to me. It's exquisitely written with evocative descriptions that conjure up a lost world and the tenuous place of people within it. There are some brutal passages that have lived with me and I do feel like I came out of this book with a better understanding of life 1500 years ago.

Another aspect of the book that I really enjoyed were the questions of religion. Christianity is spreading and the conversations about faith which spring up are fascinating. I much preferred these conversations that the occasional data-dumps by the narrator which were, unfortunately, necessary given the type of novel this is.

Rather perversely, I enjoyed this book more once the pressure of reading it for the book group had been taken away (I only finished half of it before the session). It certain picks up a bit and I felt more able to get to grips with the characters in the second half after spending so long working out who was who. Ultimately, I do think my difficulties with this one were down to me as the reader and not the book itself.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Classic Film Review: In Search of the Castaways (1962)

In Search of the Castaways stars Hayley Mills as Mary Grant, one of a pair of siblings determined to find their missing sailor father. They are aided by Jacques Paganel (Maurice Chevalier), who finds their father's message in a bottle, and Lord Glenarven (Wilfred Hyde-White) and his son John (Michael Anderson Jr). In an adventure that takes them from South America over to Australia and involves a flood, an avalanche, pirates, savages and a volcanic eruption (amongst other things), the quartet search for Captain Grant (Jack Gwillim). The film also features George Sanders as Thomas Ayerton and Wilfrid Brambell as Bill Gaye.

I found that this one requires concentration - if only because so much happens that you could find the group having lurched from one disaster to another and you missed it because you blinked. They switch continents quite quickly, managing to come out on top under the direst of circumstances. My favourite sequence was perhaps the flooded tree one, where the strange extended family get into a spot of bother when a big cat takes refuge alongside them.

The quest to discover the whereabouts Captain Grant only really takes shape when they land on the right continent and there George Sanders appears to do his dastardly devil routine. He's so good at it but, despite seeing it in so many films, I can't help but think of him opposite Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam (1953) - that's the peril of me having a musical mind!

Hayley Mills is as endearing as ever in this relatively lightweight piece. This is the fourth film of hers I've reviewed on here, though my favourite probably remains The Trouble with Angels (1966, review here). The brilliance, however, comes from Wilfrid Brambell as the loopy Bill Gaye. He's the stand-out in a loopy film and it's worth watching him for the volcano scenes alone.

Monday, 6 July 2015

I Hate July

I think it's something to do with July being my birthday month but this time of year always gets to me. It makes me miserable, looking back on the last year and seeing how little I've accomplished and how little has changed for the better. In 2015 it's even worse. The last twelve months have arguably been the most difficult of my life - and that's saying something.

It makes me laugh that at the end of June 2014 I wrote a post entitled 'Pick Yourself Up...', utilising a little Fred and Ginger to convince myself things were going to get better. They didn't. That was the first in a series of posts where I tried to force myself to look on that so-called 'bright side' (see also 'Taking Stock' and 'Escaping the Reeds') and, honestly, it hasn't worked.

In past years, I've tried to force myself over the bump in the road by planning ahead. There were things to be done, things that I felt confident of being able to do. For the most part, it's the second aspect of that holding me up now. Literally the only thing I have confidence in at the moment is my writing ability and if that takes a knock who knows where I'll be? But so I can write - so what? That makes no difference to anything, it changes nothing. The things I can't do are weighing down the scales on the other side and I'm not making enough headway with my writing to keep me afloat. So...what? Well, I don't know.

July's symptomatic of the wider picture, it just brings it into focus. In the twelve months since my last birthday I've ostensibly achieved some things but, arguably, I'm a more pathetic specimen of a human being than I was this time last year. There's no changing that.

As I sit here writing Judy has piped up on the iPod with 'It Never Was You'. It's such a mournful song, full of lost hope. It feels apt but, then again, Judy always does. In lieu of any positive conclusion to this post, any lightning strike of inspiration or happiness, any miraculous reduction of my anxiety, I'll leave you with her...

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Book Review: Murder in the Afternoon by Frances Brody

Murder in the Afternoon is the third book in the Kate Shackleton series of mysteries that I've become rather addicted to (see reviews of Dying in the Wool, A Medal for Murder and A Woman Unknown). Set in Yorkshire in the 1920s, this novel blends the personal with the professional for amateur detective Kate. In the middle of the night she is visited by Mary Jane Armstrong who asserts that her two children found the body of their father at the quarry where he works. However, the body has since disappeared and the police aren't taking the matter seriously. Kate's discovery that Mary Jane is her sister leads not only to her taking the case but also visiting the mother who gave her up for adoption as a baby. Once again, Kate is determined to solve the mystery but this time there's more at stake.

Something I've enjoyed in previous books - the intimate descriptions of the Yorkshire locality - jumped to the fore in Murder in the Afternoon. A large proportion of it is set in and around Wakefield and I was thoroughly delighted to be following Kate through areas I know so well, allowing me to catalogue the differences a century can make. There's something about finding a book with locations you recognise that makes you feel closer to the text and it's definitely contributed to my overall love of the series.

As for the mystery itself, the familial tinge makes this novel different to the others. Kate's interactions with her hitherto unknown niece and nephew are particularly interesting, as is the contrast between the life she's had and the one she could've led. To offset this biological family there are more appearances than usual by Kate's adoptive parents in some amusing scenes involving their house being used as bait in a matrimonial trap. All this gives Murder in the Afternoon a distinctive flavour, while there's still a mystery at the heart of it.

Did I guess the killer this time? I suspected, but only because Brody wanted me to I think. I was nowhere near the 'why' and the unravelling at the end of the book was enjoyable in that respect. However, what I ultimate took from this book was a greater sense of Kate Shackleton the character - along with some brilliant depictions of 1920s Wakefield.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Book Review: Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell

This novel follows Sylvia Robson, a farmer's daughter, as she grows into adulthood in Monkshaven (a fictionalised version of Whitby) against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Although loved by her cousin Philip Hepburn, Sylvia falls for the charms of sailor Charley Kinraid, However, despite their urge to be married he has to first return to his ship and disaster strikes. Much more information would ruin the twists and turns of this book for anyone who hasn't read it so I'll refrain.

Perhaps the first thing to say about Sylvia's Lovers is how visually evocative it is, from the bedraggled farm distant from the village to the coastal paths that play such a pivotal role in the story. The setting is irrevocably woven into the narrative - without the stench of fish hovering around Sylvia the main points of the novel just couldn't occur. Gaskell draws vivid connections between character and setting and, in truth, the latter is more memorable than the former. Something also to note is that there is a lot of regional dialect in the book - I'm from Yorkshire and I was having difficulty with it so I don't know how others might cope!

This novel is a tragic story, there's no question of that. It begins in the shadow of the press-gang and the gloomy atmosphere pervades the novel. However, it is a little uneven. Gaskell spends a lot of time building up Sylvia and Kinraid's relationship then the conclusion feels a little haphazard. Similarly, the perfunctory ending of Hepburn's story jarred with me. One thing I did appreciate about the novel, though, was the way I see-sawed between who I wanted to succeed in the battle for Sylvia. That said, she's a very limp character, who only felt interesting to me when she was resisting something. The cautious friendship between her and Hester Rose (Hepburn's colleague who is in love with him) is fascinating and certainly proved to be one of the elements that kept me interested in this one.

Ultimately, everything's wrapped up a little too quickly in Sylvia's Lovers for my liking. Even so, the scenes of Monkshaven will stay with me, as will the fates of some of the smaller characters who captured my interest.

This book was read as part of the 'Women' reading challenge, details here.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Book Review: Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

First published in 1973, Rubyfruit Jungle is a bawdy romp through one woman's childhood, adolescence and early adulthood as she explores her sexuality and tries to find her place in America without making any compromises. Molly Bolt is the adoptive daughter of a poor couple, a disappointment to her mother, and aware of her sexuality from an early age. This leads to problem after problem but Molly refuses to fit into any mould - she doesn't want a relationship or to settle down, she just wants to get on with her life.

I had mixed feelings about this one. I probably wouldn't have read it if it hadn't been for the reading group I'm a part of and Molly's philosophy isn't really one I'd ever subscribe to. As a critique of contemporary views it works quite well with homophobia and attitudes towards sexuality in general thoroughly examined. However, I did start to lose track of who everyone was as Molly flitted from one relationship to the next. In that sense it's a very episodic narrative, though I appreciated the loop around at the end that grounded me a little more as a reader.

It's an easy read that whooshes along quite rapidly. It's also evocative, particularly the childhood sections before Molly's conquests started to blur for me. While I doubt I'll be rereading it, I'm at least glad I came across it and thanks to my reading group for that.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Classic Film Review: Kismet (1955)

Kismet tells the story of Hajj (Howard Keel), a beggar poet who finds himself in favour with the Wazir (Sebastian Cabot) whilst unwittingly scuppering his beloved daughter Marsinah's (Ann Blyth) romance with the Caliph (Vic Damone). Complicating matters further is the fact that Hajj is himself attracted to the Wazir's wife Lalume (Dolores Gray). How will he get out of this situation alive?

On the surface, this film has everything: a brilliant cast, luscious costume, vivid sets, Vincente Minnelli at the helm with help from Stanley Donen and it came out of the illustrious Freed Unit at MGM. However, there's something missing. Perhaps the problem is that the film meanders and, while it has a few amusing moments, there's a lot of dross included. Howard Keel is at the height of his powers but it doesn't translate to a brilliant film. The two songs that have endured from this score - 'Stranger in Paradise' and 'Baubles, Bangles and Beads' - are easily the best of the bunch. Some of the dance sequences are over-long and add very little to the plot and Vic Damone is no prize-winning actor. I would say, that Ann Blyth and Dolores Gray make up for these deficiencies to some extent. In my time-honoured fashion of finding actresses who only made a handful of films the most engrossing, Dolores Gray captured my heart and all of my favourite scenes contained the character of Lalume.

Maybe it's me. Maybe to others Kismet is a brilliant film. However, I just got the sense that it was made by numbers, with all of Minnelli's artistic flair but without the love that you need to make that work. I wanted very much to like this film but I just couldn't.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Book Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters's sixth novel returns to the complexities of historical lesbian romance, set this time in the years following the Great War. While some people complained that her last novel The Little Stranger didn't have any lesbian characters, I rather enjoyed it. However, I did appreciate the intricacies of The Paying Guests and I put off reading it for quite some time to prolong the pleasure. I always remember one comment on Fingersmith saying that there are some books you envy people for not having read yet - I think this is another one from Waters.

Frances Wray and her widowed mother are forced to take in lodgers when their once-majestic home on Champion Hill becomes unaffordable. These 'paying guests' are Lilian and Leonard Barber, injecting life into the house that Frances and Mrs Wray find difficult to deal with. Against expectations, Frances and Lilian strike up a friendship. This, however, leads to complications which, in turn, leads to something so unexpected that I almost put the book down to applaud before going back to marvel at the foreshadowing.

To say I enjoyed this book would be an understatement and I don't want to say too much about it. What I will say is that the atmosphere built in this novel teeters on the right side of claustrophobic and the characterisation is brilliant, from the protagonists down to the incidentals. The Paying Guests is a sumptuous novel and, yes, I do envy those yet to read it.

This book was read as part of the 'Women' reading challenge, details here.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Book Review: Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature by Emma Donoghue

This fascinating non-fiction book examines the representation of desire between woman in literature in six section: 'Travesties', 'Inseparables', 'Rivals', 'Monsters', 'Detection' and 'Out'. While it's full of detail and so will please any scholars interested in the subject, Inseparable is also an easy, sometimes amusing, read for non-academics. Donoghue infuses her non-fiction analysis with the same edge of humour that I enjoy so much in her fiction. Though, for me, this subject could never be dry and boring, she ensures it isn't so.

The 'Travesties' section looks at cross-dressing within texts from 990 onwards, including brief discussions on Shakespeare, Margaret Cavendish and Theophile Gautier amongst others. It examines the recurring depictions of 'The Female Bridegroom' and 'The Male Amazon' in a chapter that looks at the causes and consequences of cross-dressing and its heyday in the drama of the seventeeth century.

'Inseparables' begins with the Biblical account of Ruth and Naomi and covers the representation of love based on similarity. As this is one of my areas of interest, I perhaps found this chapter the most interesting, particularly the discussion on Charlotte Bronte's Shirley. It also highlighted some works I want to read, both for pleasure and study - as every chapter did.

'Rivals' is a fascinating analysis of what happens when a woman and man compete for the same love. It starts with Sappho and goes through Shakespeare, Richardson and some rather brilliant-sounding French texts before moving on to discuss what happens when the rivalry bubbles over. It examined some texts I was already familiar with, such as The Rainbow and The Fox, but, again, the ones I found most intriguing were the ones I've yet to read, most notably The Bostonians.

Perhaps the chapter on 'Monsters' contains the themes most familiar to observers of fiction about desire between women. It's interesting to see the texts these stereotypes stemmed from then we take a short tour through Dickens, Hardy and others. This is quite an uncomfortable chapter, though I particularly liked the section on ghost stories.

The fifth chapter on 'Detection' provided me with plenty of books I want to read somewhere down the line. Again, desire between women is a theme pretty familiar to readers of the crime genre and it looks at writers including Ruth Rendell, Agatha Christie and P.D. James. Given my sensation fiction roots, I was also pleased to see a discussion of The Woman in White in this chapter followed by an examination of two novels by Sarah Waters.

'Out', the final chapter, looks at the 'awakening' motif in texts from George Moore onwards. It's a nice shift in tone from the other chapters, looking at declared love instead of coded texts, but it also highlights the complexities of modern life. There's a section here on 'first love' which covers several texts I was already familiar with and, once more, a number of works mentioned in this chapter are now begging to be read.

Ultimately, Emma Donoghue has written a book that is both informative and fascinating. Her subject knowledge is exemplary and her style engaging. I've already referred back to Inseparable for academic work and I have no doubt I'll be doing that again fairly frequently. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Classic Film Review: Funny Lady (1975)

The sequel to Funny Girl (1968), Funny Lady continues the story of Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand) and depicts her relationship with showman Billy Rose (James Caan) following her divorce from Nicky Arnstein (Omar Sharif). During the Depression she struggles to find work but she and Rose work together, reigniting her career and teaching him a few things in the process. The film also stars Roddy McDowall as Bobby Moore.

Given how wonderful Funny Girl is, this sequel was always going to struggle. However, for me, it does a good job in many respects. Streisand's portrayal of Brice as someone matured by her experiences with Arnstein is compelling, as are the scenes where she accepts that she still loves him. Perhaps the best scene of the film comes when Brice is ruminating on her relationship with Rose while singing 'Isn't This Better?' As an acceptance that a marriage/friendship that works is more useful than a passionate love, it's a poignant moment. I also enjoyed the big numbers, especially 'Let's Hear it For Me' and 'How Lucky Can You Get'. Like the original film, Funny Lady switches gear between comedy and tragedy rapidly, and manages to pull it off.

James Caan as Billy Rose works very well. His interactions with Streisand before their marriage are brilliant and snippy, especially when he believes he knows best. For example, the catastrophic opening night which has scenery crashing everywhere and Brice trapped in her dressing room is comedic gold. The chemistry works in that it has to be one-sided - Rose adores her but Brice is still in love with Arnstein. It was also good that Sharif returned to hover in the background of this film. He was a link to the first film along with the brief appearances by their daughter, and I like that sort of grounding. Actually, I was a little disappointed that Brice's mother didn't make a small appearance since she was a memorable part of Funny Girl.

Ultimately, this is a bittersweet love story that showcases Streisand's talents and, as far as sequels go, it's a pretty good one.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Book Review: The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse by Piu Marie Eatwell

If the title of this book sounds baffling, it's nothing compared to the true story it relates. In 1897 a widow called Anna Maria Druce applied for permission to exhume her father-in-law's body. She claimed that Druce, a furniture dealer, had really been the alter-ego of the 5th Duke of Portland, an eccentric man who was reclusive in nature and delighted in tunnelling under his country estate. Mrs Druce claimed that the Duke had faked the death of Druce in 1864 and that the coffin would be found empty. This kicked off one of the most intriguing cases of the late Victorian era which captured the public's imagination and rivals the best tales contemporary novelists had to offer.

Although this is a riveting story to start with, it needs someone of Eatwell's talents to bring the disparate strands together. It may start with Anna Maria Druce but that's far from the end of the case and Eatwell does an excellent job of juggling the various aspects of it. The book is split into three 'acts' - 'Burial', 'Resurrection' and 'Revelation', a partitioning that works well for the most part. For me, the intrigue didn't disintegrate at all throughout the book - while one mystery might be 'solved' there were still things to be explored, creating layers of intrigue that lasted until the final pages.

Eatwell's research is exemplary and she's been fortunate enough to have been granted access to some very interesting things, which she relates towards the end of the book. Equally, her knowledge of the major and minor players in the tale is excellent and she shares just enough relevant information without the narrative becoming swamped. Her ability to recreate the atmosphere of late-Victorian London is also brilliant. This isn't a dry book that simply recounts facts but an engrossing one which attempts to put you in the shoes of the major players. When a writer does this successfully they can bring history to life and Eatwell is one such writer.

Ultimately, this is a thrilling non-fiction book which will appeal to fans of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and other high-quality works of that type. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was sad that the rollercoaster ride of the 'Druce-Portland' case had to end, though not, I'm sure, as sad as some of the protagonists.

A review copy of this book was given to me in exchange for an impartial review.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Book Review: Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth

The inspiration for the hit television series, this is the first of Jennifer Worth's books about her experiences as a midwife in 1950s London. Written in episodic chapters, this is an engrossing memoir that is informative, moving and amusing in places.

One of Worth's strengths is the ability to explain without being condescending. Yes, by the very nature of the subject matter, things do get a little gory at times, but this tempered by moments of sheer beauty. Worth manages to conjure up her youthful self brilliantly and isn't afraid to highlight her own inexperience, naivety and, occasionally, prejudice.

The tales in this book have been used to a greater or lesser extent in the television adaptation. Even so, I heartily recommend reading the book for the subtle differences that are sometimes more enjoyable for being true. Perhaps my favourite of these is Worth's recounting of how involved Sister Julienne got in trying to encourage handyman Fred's pig-breeding activities. I laughed out loud, partly from the situation that ensues and partly due to Worth's expert recounting of it.

Several tales in this book span multiple chapters, maintaining the compact feeling of the book while allowing expansion on the stories of certain people. The story of a young woman coerced into prostitution is particularly dark, fitting into a wider analysis of the trade in East London at that time. Equally, the case of Mrs Jenkins and her experiences in the workhouse is heartbreaking.

There's a reason that this book is a best-seller and has been adapted into a hugely successful television series. Quite simply, it's well-written and heartfelt and I'm looking forward to reading the next book very soon.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Whoa? Whoa

I think, after the last few days, the word I'm looking for is definitely 'whoa'.

The big news is that on Friday I passed my viva with minor corrections. The extra-special viva playlist obviously worked. It contains all my magic powers and if I ever go anywhere without it I'll lose my doctorate... Fortunate that my headphones are surgically attached to my skull then, isn't it?

Five minutes before my viva I was having a major wobble and, unsurprisingly, music dragged me through it. These two songs got me in the lift and through the door. Betty Blue Eyes and Merrily We Roll Along - who'd have thunk?

Thanks to everyone for helping me on Friday, especially my dad, Sal, Claire and my brilliant supervisor. A few drinks were in order and, to celebrate, I even had a pink cocktail. This is me, said cocktail and Edmund, my present from Sal:

So after all that excitement on Friday, I was wondering why I'd agreed to read a short story out at the Jackanory event on Saturday. The piece I regaled them with was 'Shredded Timbers', my prize-winning story from a few months ago. I think the reading went well though, I have to say, I was still a little bit bemused from the day before!

However, the twists and turns of life may have thrown something else in my path. Let's just say that if I was looking for the reason why I made the rather silly decision to attend Jackanory the day after my viva, I found it. As ever, Sondheim says it best...

"We're opening doors, singing, "Here we are!"
We're filling up days on a dime.
That faraway shore's looking not too far.
We're following every star,
There's not enough time!"

Friday, 24 April 2015

What's In a Playlist?

Me and music is one of those long-lasting affections. It'll outlast all my relationships, mean more to me than most things in this world and keep me going through troubled times. Usually, it perks me up, reminds me that there's something worth carrying on for. In compiling this playlist - designed to keep me positive - I had to dispense with many songs I consider favourites because they're so sad. You'd expect there to be more Judy here, for instance, but Judy invariably breaks my heart.

So here is my extra special playlist, split into categories. I realised pretty quickly that anything connected to Jerry Herman and Stephen Sondheim needed to be in its own categories. Those two masters of the musical have a lot to answer for. My adoration of Merrily We Roll Along, in particular, is on display.

Classic Musicals 

'A Step in the Right Direction' - Bedknobs and Broomsticks
'Finale' - Call Me Madam
'Cactus Time in Arizona' - Girl Crazy
'Processional' - The Sound of Music
'Golden Ticket' - Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
'If My Friends Could See Me Now' - Sweet Charity
'Portobella Road' - Bedknobs and Broomsticks
'Substitutiary Locomotion' - Bedknobs and Broomsticks
'The Turnable Song' - Something in the Wind
'Put On a Happy Face' - Bye Bye Birdie
'Rosie' - Bye Bye Birdie
'It's a Lovely Day Today' - Call Me Madam
'That's Entertainment' - The Bandwagon
'Pick Yourself Up' - Swing Time
'Moses' - Singin' in the Rain
'One Brick At a Time' - Barnum
'If I Ruled the World' - Pickwick
'Thank You Very Much' - Scrooge
'Stereophonic Sound' - Silk Stockings
'Come Follow the Band' - Barnum
'The Colours of My Life Reprise' - Barnum
'Museum Song' - Barnum
'Out There' - Barnum
'I Like Your Style' - Barnum
'On How to Be Lovely' - Funny Face
'No Way to Stop It' - The Sound of Music
'Leave It to the Ladies' - Blitz
'Down the Lane' - Blitz
'The Roses of Success' - Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
'I Don't Care' - In the Good Old Summertime
'Ten Minutes Ago' - Cinderella
'Impossible' - Cinderella
'Join the Circus' - Barnum

Herman and Sondheim

'A Parade in Town' - Anyone Can Whistle
'Open a New Window' - Mame
'That's How Young I Feel' - Mame
'Suffragette March' - Mrs Santa Claus
'Whistle' - Mrs Santa Claus
'Bosom Buddies' - Mame
'Put On Your Sunday Clothes' - Hello, Dolly!
'Before the Parade Passes By' - Hello, Dolly!
'Some People' - Gypsy
'Mame' - Mame
'Chin Up, Ladies' - Milk and Honey
'Side by Side'/'What Would We Do Without You' - Company
'I Am What I Am' - La Cage aux Folles
'Something's Coming' - West Side Story
'Everybody Says Don't' - Anyone Can Whistle
'Just Go to the Movies' - A Day in Hollywood
'It's a Hit' - Merrily We Roll Along
'Tap Your Troubles Away' - Mack and Mabel
'Someone Woke Up' - Do I Hear a Waltz?
'Do I Hear a Waltz?' - Do I Hear a Waltz?
'Overture' - Merrily We Roll Along
'Now You Know' - Merrily We Roll Along
'Old Friends' - Merrily We Roll Along
'The Hills of Tomorrow'/'Merrily We Roll Along' - Merrily We Roll Along
'Our Time' - Merrily We Roll Along
'Opening Doors' - Merrily We Roll Along
'Ever After' - Into the Woods

Modern Musicals

'Human Again' - Beauty and the Beast
'Just Around the Corner' - The Addams Family
'Where Did We Go Wrong' - The Addams Family
'Walk Through the Fire' - Buffy the Vampire Slayer
'This Is My Life' - Bad Girls: The Musical
'Once We Were Kings' - Billy Elliot
'This is the Moment' - Jekyll and Hyde
'I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do' - Mamma Mia!
'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' - Spamalot
'Bruce' - Matilda
'When I Grow Up' - Matilda
'One Normal Night' - The Addams Family
'One' - A Chorus Line
'Who's That Boy?' - Soho Cinders
'Steal the Pig' - Betty Blue Eyes
'Another Little Victory' - Betty Blue Eyes
'A Star is Born' - Hercules
'Nobody' - Betty Blue Eyes
'Anything Can Happen' - Mary Poppins
'Naughty' - Matilda
'You Can't Stop the Beat' - Hairspray
'Finale B' - Rent
'When I Find My Baby' - Sister Act
'Raise Your Voice' - Sister Act
'Sunday Morning Fever' - Sister Act
'Spread the Love Around' - Sister Act
'Come So Far (Got So Far to Go)' - Hairspray 
'You Shall Go to the Ball' - Soho Cinders
'Long As I'm Here With You' - Thoroughly Modern Millie
'How the Other Half Lives' - Thoroughly Modern Millie
'For Now' - Avenue Q

Jazz, Easy Listening Etc

'Take a Look' - Alison Jiear
'Don't Fence Me In' - The Andrews Sisters and Bing Crosby
'In the Mood' - Bette Midler
'Zing a Little Zong' - Bing Crosby
'Walkin' My Baby Back Home' - Bing Crosby and Judy Garland
'Don't Rain On My Parade' - Bobby Darin
'Taking the World By Storm' - Bonnie Langford
'I'm On My Way' - The Cliff Adams Singers
'High Hopes' - Doris Day
'Something's Gotta Give' - Ella Fitzgerald
'I've Gotta Be Me' - Glee Cast
'The Way You Look Tonight'/'You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile' - Glee Cast
'In the Mood' - Glenn Miller
'American Patrol' - Glenn Miller
'Five Little Miles From San Berdoo' - Jane Russell
'I Concentrate On You' - Judy Garland
'Just in Time' - Judy Garland
'Who Cares?' - Judy Garland
'You've Got Me Where You Want Me' - Judy Garland and Bing Crosby
'New York, New York' - Liza Minnelli
'Hello, Dolly' - Liza Minnelli and Judy Garland
'Chicago' - Liza Minnelli and Judy Garland
'Gonna Build a Mountain' - Matt Monroe
'Dearie' - Ray Bolger and Ethel Merman
'Hey, Look Me Over' - Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby

Bits & Bobs

'That's Me' - ABBA
'We Didn't Start the Fire' - Billy Joel
'You May Be Right' - Billy Joel
'Birdhouse in Your Soul' - Kristin Chenoweth and Ellen Greene