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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

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

This Saturday: Jackanory at Mocca Moocho

You may be interested in an event which I'm appearing at this Saturday (25th April) in Wakefield.

Several writers will be reading their work at Mocca Moocho from 3:00pm to 5:00pm. My slot's expected to be about 3:40, but why not come for the whole thing? That cafe does some of the best hot chocolate I've ever tasted, even if it is almost summer now. Full details of the event can be found on Facebook here.

What I'm reading is still up for debate. I was hoping to read something new, but with my viva the day before I may be pushing my luck. Anyway, I'm looking forward to it and I hope to see some of you there on Saturday.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Classic Film Review: The Red Pony (1949)

The Red Pony stars Peter Miles as Tom, a rancher's son who longs for a pony. When he's given one, however, he learns sharp lessons about responsibility and pain. The cast also features Myrna Loy as Alice Tiflin, Shepperd Strudwick as Fred Tiflin, Robert Mitchum as farmhand Billy Buck and Louis Calhern as Grandfather with a brief appearance from Margaret Hamilton as a schoolteacher. Also watch out for an eight year old Beau Bridges as one of Tom's friends. Based on an episodic novella by John Steinbeck, the screenplay was also written by him.

This is a gentle film where, really, very little happens. It hinges on Tom and, fortunately, Peter Miles does a very good job as the boy. Rather surprisingly - for me anyway - Robert Mitchum has a good rapport with Miles, making their scenes together some of the best of the film. While I enjoyed Mitchum, Loy and Calhern, it felt as though they were all bigger than their parts. The same couldn't be said for Shepperd Strudwick, who feels tacked on as an afterthought, both in terms of character and actor.

It does a very good job of grounding the story in its time and location and it's delicately shot. There are moments which feel a little outlandish - Tom imagining leading an army on the way to school, for instance - and it's fairly obvious from the outset that disaster's going to strike. If you don't have a high tolerance for films with child leads then you won't like this one. However, as part of Robert Mitchum's filmography, I found it fascinating. Probably not one I'll watch again, but I'm glad I saw it.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Big Week Ahead

I've been pretty absent from this corner of the internet for the last few months. There's a practical reason for that - it's difficult to review books or classic films when you can't find time to read and watch them. That epic reading challenges list I decided to undertake this year is taking a hammering, though I'm hopeful that I can catch up when things settle down. I'm due a lull, you see.

This week is pretty important in the grand scheme of things. I have my viva on Friday. And I'm just going to leave that there, because otherwise I may start flapping again. Judy and Fred say no.

So, what else is going on? Well, I've been officially nominated as the Yorkshire First candidate for the Wakefield North council ward. Campaigning is enjoyable yet time-consuming and I just hope I don't disgrace myself on the ballot paper on May 7th. On the work side of things, I've mainly been fire-fighting. I feel like I'm playing a lengthy game of Whac-A-Mole. Viva prep: bam! Political leafleting: bam! Article research and writing: bam! Short story work: bam! Everything begins to calm down after the election. That, however, brings its own set of problems. I think I prefer playing Whac-A-Mole to be honest.

It will be good to return to novel work. I've had to set my plans aside to focus on the things that have popped up in the meantime, but I miss those drafts. Hopefully I can come back to them refreshed and make some headway.

For now, though, I've got to get through this week. I've got everything crossed...

"Maybe I can do - don't laugh - good,
Maybe I can do - don't laugh - well,
Maybe you could be - who knows - proud,
All right so laugh...but not too loud..."

Monday, 13 April 2015

Book Review: The Warden by Anthony Trollope

The Warden is the first in Trollope's 'Chronicles of Barsetshire'. The warden of the title is Mr Septimus Harding who oversees Hiram's Hospital, an almshouse which supports twelve bedesmen whilst allowing Mr Harding and his younger daughter Eleanor to live very comfortably. Unfortunately, local reformer John Bold takes up the case of the bedesmen, arguing that the legacy has been mishandled and the men are still living in relative poverty while Mr Harding lives well. Adding another dimension to this disagreement is the fact that John and Eleanor secretly love each other.

This was my first Trollope (yes, I know, naughty Victorianist) and I think I picked well. Though the book really does take a while to get going, once I was a quarter of the way in I was hooked. The story's a very simple one, there aren't any big shocks and all the drama stems from the characters, of which there are some memorable ones. Chief amongst those is Archdeacon Grantly, Mr Harding's son-in-law, who is opinionated and a bit of a bully when it comes to what his father-in-law should do about the dispute. I'm looking forward to following him and other characters further in Barchester Towers.

I did find the book dragging a little when the narrative moved away from Barchester and followed Mr Harding to London in his quest to solve the problem. While some of the descriptions there were evocative, the section seemed in contrast to the rest of the book which was tightly-wound around Barchester.

Ultimately, The Warden proved to be a good introduction to Trollope for me and I'll certainly read more. As with much good Victorian fiction, the issues it raises are as potent today and, it has to be said, no more easily resolved. What shines through in this novel for me is Mr Harding's overwhelming niceness. Not a bad impression to be left with perhaps.

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

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Short Story Publication - Autumn Plunder

A couple of months ago I shared the news that a short story of mine had been accepted for publication. It has now been published in the latest issue of Popshot Magazine, which collects pieces based on the theme of 'the outsider'. My story, 'Autumn Plunder', tells of a woman who goes to extreme lengths to feel like she's fitting in for just a few weeks of the year.

You can get a preview of the issue and purchase it here.