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Saturday, 27 August 2016

Book review - Rogue Male

Geoffrey Household’s classic novel Rogue Male was published in 1939, which gives it immediacy for that time. The unnamed narrator, a British aristocrat, has just failed to assassinate the tyrannical leader of a European country – whether it’s Hitler (probable) or Stalin is not explained. He is captured by secret service men and tortured and questioned but tells them nothing. They believe he is working for the British government; he insists he is a private individual and was simply hunting near their leader’s House.

The first implausible plot-point then arrives. Instead of killing him as an inconvenience, they engineer an ‘accident’, throwing him off a cliff with his belongings. ‘British aristocrats meets with unfortunate demise while hunting’. But, naturally, our resourceful narrator survives the fall (or we wouldn’t be reading the story) and, though seriously injured, sneaks away before the local police can ‘find’ the ‘unlucky tourist’.

The survival and escape from pursuit are Household’s strengths in this tale. He describes the difficulties well, and we can empathise.

To begin with, we don’t know why he should have set out on this mission. As he says, ‘I am not an obvious anarchist or fanatic, and I don’t look as if I took any interest in politics.’ (p1) I have to wonder how does someone look who is interested in politics. The first clue to his motivation is here, however: ‘One can hardly count the upsetting of one’s trivial private life and plans by European disturbances as a grievance.’ (p9)

The ploy to use an unnamed narrator is to bolster the feeling that this is in effect a true story. ‘Lest what I write should ever, by accident or intention, become public property, I will not mention who I am. My name is widely known.’ (p8)

More than once, Household’s narrator appears to judge people by appearance, attributing base motives. While hiding in a field, he fears he may be detected. ‘There were several peasants on their way to the fields. I could only pray that they wouldn’t enter mine. They would have had some sport with me before handing me over to the police; they seemed that sort.’ (p22)

Where Household’s narrative falls down, and thus diminishes the ‘believability’, is in his description of the characters he encounters during his escape. They are virtual cyphers, without colour in their eyes, without facial features of note. ‘Mr Vaner received me in his cabin. He was a dashing young man in his early twenties, with his cap on the back of a head of brown curls.’ (p35) Plenty of writers don’t over-describe, arguing that the reader can visualise the character however they like. But in a novel that purports to be ‘real’, every tiny detail adds to the verisimilitude. The intimacy of detail lends credibility.

As a thriller, it succeeds in several aspects: the chase, the suspense engendered by hiding and the risk of discovery. The action, when it occurs is muted, reported rather than visualised. There is little ‘show’, only ‘tell’. The deathly struggle in the Underground is without visuals; fine, it’s dark, but there’s no visceral feeling of being there. (p55) The dramatic moment is lost.

Writers must observe, and Household was a keen observer, and described the world well: ‘… wandered through the quiet squares which smelled of a London August night – that perfume of dust and heavy flowers, held down by trees into the warm, well-dug ravines between the houses.’ (p57)  And, another: ‘I have noticed that what cats most appreciate in a human being is not the ability to produce food – which they take for granted – but his or her entertainment value.’ (p76) Yes, there is humour, despite the tense situation. And, surprisingly, considering the beginning of the novel, ‘To be shot from ambush is horribly unnerving.’ (p105)

The narrator decides to go to ground – literally – and constructs an under-earth burrow, stocking up with tinned goods. ‘Space I have none. The inner chamber is a tumbled morass of wet earth which I am compelled to use as a latrine. I am confined to my original excavation, the size of three large dog-kennels, where I lie on or inside my sleeping-bag.’ (p118) The description of the construction of his lair is well done, to make it very real and claustrophobic. Here, in a hedgerow (there were a lot more in England in 1939!) he makes the acquaintance of a cat. ‘We live in the same space, in the same way, and on the same food, except that Asmodeus has no use for oatmeal, nor I for field-mice.’ (p119)

One of his persistent pursuers goes by the name of Quive-Smith and the final confrontation with him is quite suspenseful. Here, we learn from Quive-Smith that ‘It’s the mass that we are out to discipline and educate. If an individual interferes, certainly we crush him; but for the sake of the mass – of the State, shall I say?’ (p136)This might indicate the Soviet frame of mind, rather than that of the Nazi. Hence, the leader could conceivably be Stalin, not Hitler; it matters not, both were worthy of assassination, as millions of dead souls would testify.

It is only when we get to p143 that we glean the motivation behind the narrator’s abortive mission. A nameless woman, his only love, put up against a wall and shot by followers of the leader. This section is woolly. We don’t know why she was done to death, though it’s likely she objected in some manner to the leader’s creed. And we certainly don’t see her in the narrator’s mind’s eye; so we have no empathy.

The story is told in three chapters, originally scribbled in an exercise book, which he posted to his solicitor friend, Saul (another character without description).

Reading this now, we know that whatever the narrator’s intention at the end of this written record, he failed. [However, there is a sequel, Rogue Justice (1982), in which we follow the narrator on his subsequent killing spree against Nazis.]

This book has been considered superior to Buchan’s The 39 Steps (1915), but I don’t believe it is. Certainly, it employs much that became familiar in thrillers – long flight and pursuit and the resourcefulness and pluckiness of the hero as exemplified by Buchan’s novel. They are both books of their time, and indeed both have inspired future thriller writers. If you’re a fan of thrillers and you haven’t read either of these, now is a good time to remedy that omission.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Film review - Song for Marion

This is a ‘feel-good’ movie with accolades such as ‘Wonderful and heart-warming’ and ‘A film to fall in love with’.

Song for Marion is a small British film that’s all about character.

Grumpy pensioner Arthur (Terence Stamp!) is distressed by the ailing condition of his wife Marion (Vanessa Redgrave). One of Marion’s outlets is performing in the local choir, the OAPz,  run by Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton). It’s not really a spoiler, since the title gives it away: Marion is determined to perform in a choir competition, but unfortunately she dies before that can happen. Arthur shuts himself off from the world, won’t talk to his estranged son (Christopher Eccleston), and wants to grieve in his own way.

Stamp shows in his minimalist acting how to deliver a character with a broken heart who is incapable of seeking solace. Elizabeth subtly worms her way into Arthur’s orbit and through guile and charm, she begins Arthur’s life affirming journey, a journey that is at times amusing, often poignant, and beautifully told.  The acting honours are shared equally by Redgrave, Arterton and Stamp; he’s a revelation.

This could so easily have been Hollywood schmaltz, but instead it’s grounded and sensitive. Music is the international language, the language of love, indeed.

Worth keeping a tissue or two to hand.

Footnote: revealed in the credits: surprisingly, although the film is set in London, it was mainly filmed in Newcastle upon Tyne and Durham.

Released 2013, 90 minutes run-time

Monday, 22 August 2016

Book review - Rhapsody in Black

Second in Brian Stableford's sequence of six Hooded Swan novels, Rhapsody in Black (1973) doesn’t quite work for me, though it’s still worth reading for the humorous aspects, the banter between ‘the wind’ and the anti-hero Grainger, and to continue his adventures. Clever titles like this are music to my ears...

Stableford jumps into the action at once, Grainger on the run from miners on the planet Rhapsody. We don’t know why he’s in this predicament, but it will be revealed in flashback. Rhapsody is one of ‘God’s Nine Splinters’, isolated worlds with a religious bent, the others being: Ecstacy, Modesty, Felicity, Fidelity, Sanctity, Harmony, Serenity, and Vitality. Life on Rhapsody is lived underground, the denizens only comfortable in darkness or semi-darkness; hence the title. They’re constrained by their leaders who are strict; as one stated, ‘There’s a lot of life in the old dogma yet.’ As a pun, it’s not bad, I suppose.

Why is Grainger here? As the indentured pilot to the owner of the Hooded Swan, he goes where he’s told. The owner, Charlot has heard there’s something valuable on the planet, and he wants to negotiate for it. To further his aim, he has co-opted some exiled people from the planet to help. Unfortunately, on arrival the religious indigents imprison them all.

They escape and then the chase goes on through the mine shafts.

The characters from Halcyon Drift, Eve, Johnny and Nick hardly enter the story. Grainger’s mind-parasite – which is a symbiote, it insists – does not figure greatly either, though he comes to the fore when needed. The Hooded Swan isn’t in the story much, either.

I don’t know at what point Grainger the pilot became an expert on biological forms, but he spends three pages giving a breakdown on three interlinked types of organism. Of course, Stableford has a degree in biology and lectured in sociology – both treated in the closed society of the book. As the Tribune review stated in a review, ‘Stableford… has one of the best lines around in exobiology.’

He misuses ‘he hissed’, one of my pet hates since it was pointed out to me decades ago by sci-fi author Ken Bulmer, but he’s not alone there among popular authors.

There’s a twist at the end. The series obviously survived through popularity, so I’m sticking with it. 

Pan books maintained the cover design for the six books, which must have gladdened the author's heart. At the time, all Pan sci-fi featured the same silver oblong box; this boldly identified the author and the genre, though I'm sure it created visual issues for the artists!

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Film review – Robot & Frank

Some films are small but have big hearts and this is one of those.

Robot & Frank is set in the near future. Frank (Frank Langella) is a retired burglar who now lives alone. He’s suffering from the onset of dementia, but he’s in denial, to the frustration of his son Hunter  (James Marsden)  and daughter  Madison (Liv Tyler) who have their own lives to lead.

Against Frank’s wishes, his son buys a walking talking humanoid robot to help around the house, preparing meals, essentially fulfilling a carer role. Robot: Hello, Frank, it’s a pleasure to meet you. To which Frank replies, How do you know?

The robot attempts to improve Frank’s lifestyle, by by getting him to eat healthier food and going on walks.

Robot: Frank, that cereal is for children. Eat this grapefruit.
Frank: You’re for children, stupid.

The voice of the robot is Peter Sarsgaard, exuding patience and solicitude regarding curmudgeonly Frank; he also has some of the best lines. Yet this undoubtedly Langella’s film, though he is ably supported by the rest of the cast. Langella performs a master class in conveying his character’s confusion, stubbornness, and compassion. Susan Sarandon underplays Frank’s only friend, a librarian. There are plenty of amusing scenes and lines, including the interchange between Frank’s robot and the robotic library assistant, Mr Darcy.

At the heart of the story is the growing friendship between the robot and Frank, especially when Frank realises that he can utilise the robot’s unique abilities to perform another heist.

There’s a poignant twist, too, which alters much that we thought we knew.

The film deals with dementia in a non-sentimental but honest way.

Paradoxically, the friendship between man and machine extols humanity.

A moving, thought-provoking little gem.

Released 2012, 89 minutes

Friday, 19 August 2016

Blog Guest - Jo Walpole aka Terry James

Jo Walpole is a published writer of four westerns – under the pen-name Terry James.

Welcome to the blog, Jo. I have a few questions that I hope you can answer, so I’ll kick off with this. It is said that ‘A life without books isn’t a life.’ Do you know how many books on average you read in a year?

Sadly, I know exactly how many I read because I keep a list in my journal then add them to a spreadsheet year-on-year. This helps me keep track of what titles I’ve read, as much as anything. On average I read between 26 and 36. In 2016, I’m already up to 30. It’s poor, I know, but I’m a bedtime reader so I read 1-3 chapters a night depending on when I fall asleep.

It's not sad, it's sensible, Jo! My wife and I do the same, keep a record (though not on the computer!) What are you reading at present?

My last remaining BS Dunn book Long Trail To Redemption. I’ve been hanging on to it because I didn’t want to run out of things written by him. He’s such an enthusiastic storyteller and his pacing and action are so good that I find my output improves when I read his.

What book would you take to a desert island?

That’s a tricky one, actually. My immediate thought was To Tame A Land by Louis L’Amour but it wouldn’t last long so maybe Bitter Eden by Sharon Salvato, a wide-sweeping and emotional historical that I haven’t read for 35 years.

What book gave you the reading bug?

The Janet and John books when I first started school. I remember racing through them in class and I’ve always loved reading so I would guess that’s where it started.

What book left you cold?

I had to think about this but the answer, when it came, hit me like a sledgehammer. It has to be Rogue Male (1939) by Geoffrey Household. I was forced to read it as part of the school curriculum. All I can remember is that I hated it, mainly because it didn’t have chapters and there was no logical place to stop. I’ve thought about rereading it as an adult, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.

That’s often the case with books one’s ‘forced’ to read when young; maybe the first-person narrative didn’t help. Rogue Male is in my TBR pile, so I will be intrigued to see how I take to it! I’m planning an updated variant of the story, too…

In most cases, writers are also avid readers. Some readers stick to a particular genre of fiction, or even eschew fiction and prefer non-fiction. Besides westerns, what do you read?

I read a lot of news and current affairs on a daily basis. In the way of fiction, I enjoy Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes when I’m looking for a break from westerns, but on the whole I’m an avid reader of westerns and they form the bulk of my reading list.

Writers were readers first. Then they decide to write. What drew you to writing westerns?

Easy! Alias Smith & Jones. I used to love watching them, and still do. I think it’s the perceived romanticism. Although I was only about 6 years old, I’d make up episodes for my mum. Added to the boys, I’d say old western movies with Richard Widmark, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Bo Hopkins and the like. As I got older, I visited the library to see what was on offer in the genre. At that time the shelves were full of Louis L’Amour, JT Edson and Zane Grey. Louis L’Amour is my stand out favourite and his writing nurtured my interest and enthusiasm.

Yes, this rings bells for me too. TV series can have a profound influence. 

Do you ever hanker after writing any other genre fiction?

I have dabbled in contemporary shorts incorporating humour with a twist and, by popular demand, I published some on Amazon this year under the title Life and Laughter: A Look at Life On The Light Side under my own name. 

The genre I’d really like a crack at is pure sci-fi. I say pure sci-fi as it would be for my husband who believes that the genre has been overrun with fantasy and according to him that isn’t the same thing. However, since I don’t enjoy reading (and often don’t understand) sci-fi (by the likes of Isaac Asimov and Harry Harrison) I don’t feel I’m in a position to write it. I’d like to do it as a challenge at some point though.

Agreed, fantasy is a separate genre these days.

Where did your pen-name come from?

I thought that to have some credibility in a male dominated genre, I should adopt a male pseudonym. I toyed with turning Joanne into John and keeping my surname but I wanted a name that meant something to me. I was going to use Tim Francis, which was my beloved father-in-law’s name, but it didn’t seem to fit, which was a shame because he was my biggest advocate. In the end I chose Terry James, which are my husband’s first and middle names, and gives me another opportunity to show my unerring affection for him.

Can you describe your writing process? What comes first, for example – the character, the plot, or a central theme or idea?

To be honest, I’m not sure. It’s a bit haphazard. With my current WIP, the main character came first. I wanted a stereotype (gunfighter) with a quirk (panic attacks). However, whilst listening to a Dierks Bentley song recently, I came up with a plot for my next book, then the character to carry it and then a couple of key scenes and associated allies and villains. Once I have an idea of these things, I put it together with twists that will ramp up the stakes.

Do you plot the whole book or go where the story takes you?

I used to write off the cuff with just a beginning and end in mind. Having been stuck on my previous book for about 3 years, a friend (author Lee Clinton) suggested I write a plan of each chapter from start to finish so that I could work to it, plough on and keep track of where I was in the scale of things. I attribute finishing that book to Lee and to that method. That’s the process I’m still using but it is flexible and I am changing it as I go within the general framework.

You write about strong female characters in your westerns. Who is your favourite character from one of your books and why?

I like Ros West from Long Shadows. She’s tough and capable with a dry sense of humour. I recall you previously mentioning in your review one piece you liked: ‘Beats me how I hurt my hand when I stopped the fall with my face’. That demonstrates perfectly her humour and the fact that she gets knocked down but she gets back up.

Where do you find inspiration?

From books, films (any genre), the news, songs (I listen to a lot of country and western – there’s plenty to go at in the lyrics), people I meet (usually their quirks and mannerisms).

What are you working on now?

My current WIP has a working title of Gunman’s Bounty. As I mentioned earlier, the main character is a gunfighter who having almost died in a shootout now suffers panic attacks when faced with a showdown. As with all my books, it’s a story about friendship and loyalty between people thrown together in extraordinary circumstances that include murder and kidnapping and ends in an exciting and bloody finale. Along the way the plot is fairly complex with several twists and turns but the conclusion will tie up the loose ends and provide reader satisfaction.

I like that title!

On your FB page you selected twelve authors that you feel influenced you and stick with you. In no particular order, they are:

01. Louis L’Amour
02. Sharon Salvato
03. Kathleen E Woodiwiss
04. Shakespeare
05. Rosemary Rogers
06. C S Lewis
07. Roald Dahl
08. Daphne Du Maurier
09. Robert Louis Stevenson
10. Charles Dickens
11. Wilfrid Owen
12. TT Flynn

It’s an eclectic mix, with only two western authors! Can you give us an insight, perhaps by letting us know which book (or poem) by the above stands out for you?

Sorry to be difficult but, no. There are three that I can’t separate. The first would be To Tame A Land by Louis L’Amour. I read this book every year without fail. Rye Tyler is by far my favourite western character. It’s the story of his young life and has a superb twist at the end. The second would be Bitter Eden by Sharon Salvato. I read this when I was about 12. I bought it for 5p from the library. Back then it was falling to bits and now it’s held together with brittle, yellowing tape and treated with kid gloves. I wouldn’t part with that copy though because it was pivotal in me wanting to write with real emotion and depth. The last would be The Wildest Heart by Rosemary Rogers. Although as time has gone by I have come to dislike certain aspects of the story (some of the sex scenes verge on rape), the characters and the unexpected twists have stayed with me since I read it about 35 years ago. For me, all the aforementioned things make a good book great.

Thanks. I agree, this is a tough ask at any time. I have so many favourite authors, I’d be hard-pressed to limit the number. As for influencing me, none consciously, though I’m sure several have done subconsciously!

Do you have a favourite quotation?

Lots of them but the one I’ve had since secondary school is: It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.

If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be and why?

I’d like to live in the US, possibly Virginia. It’s such a huge, diverse country and Virginia is a beautiful state. I’d spend my life exploring and knowing I’d never run out of vastly different destinations to experience and enjoy.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Good luck with the latest tome, Gunman’s Bounty!

Jo at windswept John O Groats!
No, thank you for giving me a place on your blog.

Jo’s books on Amazon:

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