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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...