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Friday, 29 January 2016

Book Review: The Complete Package by Ann Roberts

The Complete Package tells the story of Lenny Barclay, mayor of a sleepy Colorado mountain town, who hasn't been able to pick herself up following the death of her partner. Estranged from her son and having let her business go to pieces, nothing seems to touch her any more. When a corporate planner, Sloane, arrives intent on changing the face of the town forever and buying her business, Lenny gets a bit of her bite back, but it turns into far more than a professional battle.

As a romantic read, this one ticks most of the boxes. Lenny and Sloane develop an entirely realistic antagonistic relationship and both are difficult to like at times. There are some genuinely funny moments - for instance, the log incident - and it builds to a satisfying romantic resolution that doesn't dodge the issues of the two characters. Equally, the use of location in this novel is superb. The landscape is integral to both the plot and Lenny's characterisation and it's definitely another character in itself, maybe the most important one. Something else I liked was the twist towards the end, entirely in keeping with Sloane's character.

However, there were aspects of this one I didn't like and they're probably more personal preferences than anything else. I'm not a fan of giving animals viewpoint chapters in the middle of adult novels and those chapters took me out of the narrative a little. Similarly, some of the sex scenes might've been indicative of character but they took time away from other things in the book I found more important.

Ultimately, The Complete Package, is a nice, easy read that deals with universal themes of grief and greed. It might build to a expected conclusion but it's nice getting there. For all the emphasis on Lenny in the narrative, though, it's Sloane who's stuck with me since I finished this book.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

One-In One-Out

Don't you just love it when a writing project develops legs and waddles in a completely different direction to the one you'd carefully plotted out for it?

Back in November, I wrote about the perils of naming a walk-on character in the fourth draft of my current WIP. One of my protagonists had walked into a cafe and started chatting to the owner. It's very unusual for me to actually want to write heterosexual romances into my novel drafts but these two just clicked. So I began hastily thinking about rewriting that protagonist's arc a little bit. Fine. It was going to be tricky but I could do it.

But something else was niggling. My other protagonist becomes embroiled in a fling halfway through the novel that doesn't add much that couldn't be taken on by another character. The more I thought about it, the more I had to concede that my novel was operating a one-in one-out policy of its own accord and I'd be foolish to argue. For all the good reasons it threw at me to bring in Ed, there were correspondingly sound ones to remove Selina.

This character extraction is proving a little trickier. I've been working from a heavily marked-up third draft with notes that are now completely obsolete as I rewrite entire scenes from scratch. To combat that sensation of being adrift, I've created a chapter check list about what needs to be added/removed in each chapter. Once the fourth draft is done some earlier chapters will need ironing out to remove stuff that's now irrelevant. Yet it's all perfectly doable.

The fourth draft's currently at 31,170 words and I'm making slow and steady progress. I'm labouring under the assumption that the novel knows what it's doing. Let's hang onto that for as long as possible, shall we?

And the good news? At least I'm writing again.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Classic Film Review: The Dark Mirror (1946)

The Dark Mirror stars Olivia de Havilland as twins Ruth and Terry Collins. A man is murdered and the woman suspected is Ruth. However, thanks to some complex legal wrangling, neither she nor her twin sister Terry can be convicted of the crime because no one knows which of them did it. Lieutenant Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) is determined to solve the case and asks psychiatrist Dr. Scott Elliot (Lew Ayres) to work out whodunnit.

My Olivia de Havilland education is sadly lacking with The Dark Mirror only my third film of hers (see reviews of Government Girl (1943) here and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) here). However, it's not as though I'm unaware of her excellence and maybe her centenary year is the right time to delve further into her career. Certainly, she is the reason why The Dark Mirror is so interesting. The psychological discussions seem a little dated now but the nuances of character that de Havilland brings to both women are excellent. She plays a nice woman and an evil one with such subtlety that, even when you're clued in on what's going on, it's a thoroughly enjoyable spectacle. It's not difficult to see how the special effects of de Havilland playing both parts was managed but it doesn't have to be complex, it just has to work, and it does. If you didn't know there was only one actress involved, I doubt you'd be able to guess.

It's an atmospheric film and I'll admit I was getting nervous the closer I got to the end. There's a twist that I was both expecting and hoping for and the reasoning behind the murder comes across as refreshingly human in the end. Ultimately, I was gripped by this one and my tiptoeing into the films of Olivia de Havilland is going well.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Farewell 2015...

You know, every year I seem to write in these posts that things got worse when I thought they couldn't. Guess what? Yeah, same goes.

Quite frankly, I'm a mess and there's no way of fixing me. Thanks to my anxiety, my world has continued to shrink all year until I'm capable of doing very little beyond sitting in this chair. That makes a celebration of 2015 a little redundant and it certainly doesn't bode well for 2016.

So, yes, I finally completed my PhD in 2015 but so what? It's not like I can do anything with it. I can't apply for the jobs I want or volunteer for teaching experience so, essentially, I've wasted my time.

People in my life like to point to the PhD as a sign of success in the same way they talk about the short stories victories I've had this year and the fact that I twice stood for local election. What they don't seem to understand is that it's all pretty irrelevant when you can't build on it. After all, the intention wasn't to get a new certificate to brighten up these four walls.

And what about the writing? Well, back in July I wrote this: 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. It still stands. Writing is one of the only things I've got left but I can barely bring myself to focus any more. The sad thing is, there are all these stories I've written or partly written and I'm the only one who can work out how they should ultimately look but I can't do it. I've been writing primarily for myself for a while now but maybe there just comes a point where happy endings don't come easy. And my characters... Well, they deserve happy endings.

Ultimately, I don't think this is my fault. I tried this year and I pushed myself hard. People who suggest otherwise don't know a thing about it. The things I can't do are the things other people do without thinking and it isn't just vague anxiety stopping me - it's acute and it's debilitating. Faced with that, what do you do?

There won't be a traditional companion piece looking forward to 2016 because I can't write one. However, I do have some positive memories of 2015 before things got quite this bad. Viva day was enjoyable, as were London and York, plus all the afternoons spent with my nieces watching Disney films on repeat. Election night was great and I met some wonderful people this year, both politically and otherwise. Thanks to them, primarily for putting up with a hell of a lot of rubbish when other people wouldn't have bothered. Have a little Carol Burnett from me...

2016 Reading Challenges

Given that I failed miserably with reading challenges in 2015, I've decided on a new approach for 2016 that doesn't require me to commit to external challenges. Maybe this is another sign of me regressing but it's the only way I'm going to put together a 2016 challenge list so que sera sera.

There are three categories in my personal reading challenge with all books identified beforehand. I might have more success with these categories and the first two will at least attack my TBR pile. There'll be individual reviews for the books in those categories then one master post detailing my thoughts on the rereads of the third category.

This post will be updated throughout the year with links. Theoretically.

Challenge One - TBR Pile

Twenty books taken from my TBR bookcase. Only stipulation is that they can't be classics - they get a list of their own.
  1. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
  2. Collected Stories by Dylan Thomas
  3. Pages for You by Sylvia Brownrigg
  4. Author, Author by David Lodge
  5. Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire
  6. The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens ed. Jenny Hartley
  7. Love Game: A History of Tennis by Elizabeth Wilson
  8. Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth
  9. Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd
  10. The Debs of Bletchley Park by Michael Smith
  11. Events, Dear Boy, Events: A Political Diary of Britain 1921-2010 ed. Ruth Winstone
  12. The Walk by Robert Walser
  13. Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard
  14. Underworld London by Catharine Arnold
  15. The Bletchley Girls by Tessa Dunlop
  16. Virginia Woolf by Mary Ann Caws
  17. Cathedrals and Castles by Henry James
  18. The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders
  19. Too Many Mothers by Roberta Taylor
  20. The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson
Challenge Two - Classics Challenge

Twenty books taken from my TBR classics Kindle list and bookcase. I should really have read some of these already and several of these have been on TBR lists for the last few years.
  1. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  2. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  3. Tono-Bungay by H.G. Wells
  4. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
  5. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
  6. Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
  7. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens 
  8. Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
  9. The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins
  10. Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
  11. The Europeans by Henry James
  12. Mathilda by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
  13. The Evil Guest by J.S. Le Fanu
  14. Born in Exile by George Gissing
  15. The Whirlpool by George Gissing
  16. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume
  17. Charlotte's Inheritance by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  18. Henry Dunbar by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  19. Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett
  20. In the Days of My Youth by Amelia Edwards
Challenge Three - Rereading Challenge

I don't reread enough and I want to. Reorganising my books a few months ago reminded me how many fantastic books I have that I'd like to read again. This list is longer than the first two for a very good reason - Harry Potter has seven books in itself!
  1. Tell it to the Bees by Fiona Shaw
  2. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  3. The Green Mile by Stephen King
  4. The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
  5. Westwood by Stella Gibbons
  6. Wicked by Gregory Maguire
  7. Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
  8. Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult
  9. Emma by Jane Austen
  10. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
  11. Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald
  12. Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee by Meera Syal
  13. Man and Wife by Wilkie Collins
  14. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  15. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling
  16. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
  17. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
  18. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
  19. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
  20. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
  21. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
  22. Little Face by Sophie Hannah
  23. Hurting Distance by Sophie Hannah
  24. The Point of Rescue by Sophie Hannah
  25. The Other Half Lives by Sophie Hannah
  26. A Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah
  27. Lasting Damage by Sophie Hannah
  28. Kind of Cruel by Sophie Hannah
  29. The Carrier by Sophie Hannah
  30. The Telling Error by Sophie Hannah

2015 Reading Challenges Round Up

Well, I failed quite spectacularly at all the challenges I attempted. No surprise there but the books I did manage to read are linked below.

New Author Challenge

I suppose, in my defence, I read other books by 'new to me' authors so this looks worse than it was. Out of the three I got to, Dead to Me was my favourite and I'll be reading more of Staincliffe's work in the future. 
  1. The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
  2. After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry
  3. The Failed Assassin by Richard Pierce
  4. Dead to Me by Cath Staincliffe
  5. The Accidental Mother by Rowan Coleman
  6. Heresy by S.J. Parris
  7. The Bawdy Basket by Edward Marston
  8. The Lost Abbot by Susanna Gregory
  9. The Heir of Redclyffe by Charlotte Yonge
  10. Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert George Jenkins
  11. The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni
  12. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume
  13. King Solomon's Mines by Henry Rider Haggard
  14. The Angel of Terror by Edgar Wallace
  15. The Bartlett Mystery by Louis Tracy

Women Challenge

I did a little better with this one and, again, I read other books by women not related to the challenge. Thoroughly enjoyed the Frances Brody novels I read this year and Stella Gibbons is always a favourite. 
  1. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  2. Brick Mother by S.J. Bradley
  3. The Lovels of Arden by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  4. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
  5. Here Be Dragons by Stella Gibbons
  6. Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
  7. In the Days of My Youth by Amelia Edwards
  8. Murder on a Summer's Day by Frances Brody
  9. Mathilda by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
  10. Camilla by Fanny Burney
  11. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  12. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
  13. Nancy by Rhoda Broughton
  14. Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant
  15. The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner

TBR Challenge

Failed at this before and failed again. The Lazy Tour was rather good though. 
  1. Author, Author by David Lodge
  2. Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi
  3. Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John by Sally Cline
  4. The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins
  5. The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister
  6. 800 Years of Women's Letters
  7. Collected Stories by Dylan Thomas
  8. Henry Dunbar by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  9. The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins
  10. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
  11. The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
  12. Witch Stories by Eliza Lynn Linton

Victorian Bingo Challenge

Er, yes, failed miserably. However, both books I read from this challenge have found their way into my favourites so it can't be all bad. 
  1. Book Published in the 1840s - Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
  2. Male Author - The Warden by Anthony Trollope
  3. Female Author - Charlotte's Inheritance by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  4. Book with a Name as the Title - Felix Holt, the Radical by George Eliot
  5. Book Published in Serial Format - The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade

Reading England Challenge

Alas, not a page turned. 
  1. Berkshire - Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  2. Essex - Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
  3. Derbyshire - Rookwood by W.H. Ainsworth
  4. Nottinghamshire - Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
  5. Somerset - Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore
  6. Lancashire - Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

My Favourite Books of 2015

One benefit of not reading enough is that the good books I've read stand out that little bit more. Interesting thing? I read all of these in the first seven months of the year. You can find the complete list of books I've read this year here but these are my top five, in no particular order.

Dead to Me by Cath Staincliffe

The first book I read in 2015 is still one of my favourites. A prequel to the Scott & Bailey television series, this was an excellent read and the plan is still to read the next novel when I get a chance. My full review can be found here

Felix Holt, the Radical by George Eliot

It's taken quite a while for me to find an Eliot book that really got me but Felix Holt  turned out to be it. Almost a year later I'm still thinking about the evocative riot scenes and this is one of those rare novels I remember exactly where I was when I read it, down to the bumps on the track between Wakefield and Sheffield. My full review can be found here

Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature by Emma Donoghue

My favourite non-fiction book of the year, this is an excellent analysis of same-sex desire that has provided me with so much potential reading material that it's already paid for itself ten times over. My full review can be found here

Murder in the Afternoon by Frances Brody

My infatuation with Kate Shackleton doesn't seem to be easing but who cares? Out of the three Brody novels I reviewed in 2015, this one is my favourite thanks to the Wakefield setting. My full review can be found here

Here Be Dragons by Stella Gibbons

Here's another author who I could read forever. No matter what I think of a Gibbons plot, the settings are evocative and the characters memorable. Here Be Dragons is another excellent examination of post-war London and it struck a chord. My full review can be found here

Collected Book Reviews 2015

Every year this list seems to get smaller and every year I wish I'd read more. Alas, 2015 is no exception. Here are the books I managed to read this year.

Dead to Me by Cath Staincliffe

Felix Holt: the Radical by George Eliot

The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens

A Medal for Murder by Frances Brody

Four Stories by Alan Bennett

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth

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

Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature by Emma Donoghue

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell

Murder in the Afternoon by Frances Brody

Hild by Nicola Griffith

800 Years of Women's Letters ed. Olga Kenyon

Here Be Dragons by Stella Gibbons

The Accidental Mother by Rowan Coleman

Murder on a Summer's Day by Frances Brody

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister ed. Helena Whitbread

The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann

Brick Mother by S.J. Bradley

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The Incredulity of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton

The Comedienne by V.G. Lee