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Sunday, 21 February 2021

Electricity - Book review


Victoria Glendinning’s second novel Electricity was published in 1995. It is an excellent piece of writing narrated in the first person beginning in the period 1883.

Charlotte is reflecting on what has happened to her in the last couple of years with wit, candour and growing self-realisation. The narration is so credible the reader feels a privileged confidante.  

A twenty-one-year-old stranger, Peter Fisher, was due to stay at their London suburb family home by arrangement with a relative for a modest rental. The acquisition of a lodger was timely since the father of the house had lost his job. Charlotte was eighteen. An attachment developed in the close confines. It transpired that Peter was a young genius fascinated with electricity, working with a Mr Ferranti, ‘the coming man’.

Soon after Charlotte’s Aunt Susannah came to stay at their house too. And Charlotte had to share her bedroom…

All of the characters are well-drawn, whether it’s the positively creepy father, the put-upon mother, the querulous Aunt, or the electricity-obsessed Peter. Of all these, Aunt Susannah is the most amusing and memorable.

Glendinning’s descriptions of the period, down to the finest detail of the way they lived, put the reader deep into the story. There’s plenty of humour and indeed poignancy, sadness and tragedy. Many subjects spark interest, such as animal magnetism, Mesmerism, electricity itself, dress-making, precious and semi-precious stones, English apples, séances, electroconvulsive therapy, infidelity and duplicity, all expertly woven into Charlotte’s tale.

This is a believable slice of life in the 1880s, and very well told. 

Saturday, 20 February 2021

A Safe Harbour - Book review


Benita Brown (1937-2014) published almost two dozen novels. A Safe Harbour was her thirteenth novel, a saga set in the Northeast of England. 

This well-written saga is set mainly in Cullercoats, in 1895. Eighteen-year-old Kate Lawson has striking Titian hair and is known to be bright and a worthy catch for any local man, but she has chosen Jos, a fisherman. Unfortunately, shortly before their wedding, Jos dies at sea due to a foolish accident. When her drunken father discovers she is pregnant, she is banished from the family home. Kate has to rely on the kindness of her aunt.

Richard Adamson, the handsome owner of a fleet of steam trawlers, is not popular among the fishermen as his new boats are more efficient and claim bigger catches. Despite her family’s enmity towards Adamson, she falls in love with him. Yet she cannot reveal her shame to him or anyone else in the community. The best she can hope for is to move abroad, heartbroken, to be confined with a relative in North America…

Brown was a north-easterner and it shows in her characterisation and depiction of the area and period. Many of the places named are familiar to me, not least Cullercoats, Tynemouth, Whitley, Jesmond, Newcastle, and Monkseaton. There is a smidgen of Geordie jargon, but nothing that is too incomprehensible. A family doctor figures, too, by the name of Phillips; which reminded me of our Whitley Bay family physicians, Doctors Phillips and Vardy, both of whom sported bow-ties!

Adamson is made from the broadcloth of Victorian heroes, and Kate is his equal in her strength of character.

Highly recommended.

Friday, 19 February 2021

The Wayward Tide - Book review



This was Alison McLeay’s debut novel, published in 1990. An extensive biography of her can be found in her entry in Fantastic Fiction: https://www.fantasticfiction.com/m/alison-mcleay/, a resource which I recommend. There followed six more books before her demise at the relatively young age of 39 (1949-1988).

McLeay was meticulous about researching her books, whether fiction or non-fiction, and it shows in The Wayward Tide. It’s rather sad that this book has only one review on Amazon. Of course the author died before Amazon took off. In fact the book became an instant best-seller, and was labelled ‘the most stunning fiction debut in years’ by Publishers' Weekly in America, where the first print run reached an astonishing 100,000 copies. The American version was titled Passage Home. The Wayward Tide was published in ten different languages.

McLeay travelled to many parts of the world to carry out research for her books. ‘If you are going to have the feel of the place, you have to go there,’ she once said.

It’s good to have a break from crime and thrillers and sagas such as this certainly immerse you in their author’s world.

The Wayward Tide is a first person narrative by Rachel Dean, beginning with her childhood in Newfoundland in 1827. Her parents are not particularly loving towards her; she tends to escape into the world of nature – until a shipwreck brings Adam Gaunt to their community, where he resides in the Dean household. There’s a big age difference; so Rachel merely has a crush on him. When her mother learns that Adam once had a native Indian wife, her attitude alters markedly and soon Adam Gaunt has left the family home. Rachel’s coming-of-age is amusingly and touchingly revealed, including her infatuation with another lodger, Francis Ellis, who proves duplicitous. Both Gaunt and Ellis keep popping up in her life in the future.

It would be a shame to reveal more, save that Rachel is made of stern stuff and faces hardship in the American wilderness as a young wife, as a saloon singer, and as a mother. Her eventual move to Liverpool, her family’s ancestral home, brings fresh changes and a new husband.

McLeay captures the period, the lifestyle of frontiersmen, the squalor of Independence (Rachel’s wilderness home), the deprivation of the bustling Liverpool, and the burgeoning shipping business of the time.

A very satisfying read.

The cover artwork is excellent; the back cover illustration reminds me of a still photograph of James Stewart, probably from the film How the West Was Won.   


 

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Blue Moon - Book review

 

Lee Child’s 2019 blockbuster ticks all the usual boxes. Readers have come to expect certain things, and Child always delivers. 

Travelling on a Greyhound bus, Jack Reacher notices that a passenger is taking an unhealthy interest in an elderly man further up the aisle. When the old man gets off, so does the apparent stalker. Reacher’s instinct kicks in and he follows, preventing a serious mugging. The old man was carrying a fat envelope crammed with dollar bills. He’s grateful but doesn’t want Reacher to get involved. He won’t reveal why he is carrying so much money. Reacher helps the old man get home, and slowly the backstory of old  Mr and Mrs Shevick.

Meanwhile, two rival factions, Ukrainian and Albanian, are at each other’s throats. There is a connection between them and the old man. And Reacher doesn’t like it. As he sees it, ‘This is a random universe. Once in a blue moon things turn out just right. Like now.’ (p44)

This time Reacher enlists the help of a plucky waitress Abby and a couple of musicians; as if he needs help…. While first meeting Abby Reacher listens to a band’s rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Killing Floor’ (p89) – a neat reference to Child’s first Reacher novel. The love interest is there, but not laboured. Of late, I reckon that Reacher had become excessively more violent. The body count is very high. No matter: the bad guys get what they deserve…

As usual, not a lot happens,  except in a few brief violent scenes but Child keeps you turning the pages in order to get to the bloody end.

The formula works. Why knock it?

 

 

Friday, 8 January 2021

Classic Westerns - book review


 CLASSIC WESTERNS

Collected and introduced by Peter Haining, published 1998.

Haining brings together twelve Western short stories, many of which were the templates for movies.

Among these are: Three-ten to Yuma by Elmore Leonard, Stagecoach by Ernest Haycox, Hondo by Louis L’Amour, The Misfits by Arthur Miller, and A Man Called Horse by Dorothy M Johnson.

Other stories feature characters who subsequently appeared in TV or film: The Cisco Kid, Hopalong Cassidy, and The Virginian.

My favourites, besides those film titles above are ‘The Caballero’s Way’ by O. Henry, ‘Dust Storm’ by Max Brand,  ‘The Great Slave’ by Zane Grey, and ‘One Man’s Honour’ by Jack Schaefer.

There’s a good amount of fine prose to be found amongst this selection of mostly moral tales.

Thursday, 7 January 2021

Brown on Resolution - Book Review


C.S. Forester’s novel was published 1929 and judging from the title you’d be forgiven to think that this concerns a hero on a ship named Resolution. However, the blurb will correct that: Resolution is an uninhabited barren rock in the Galapagos Islands, and it’s 1914, the early days of the First World War.

The entire narrative is from the omniscient point of view. It begins by telling us that Leading Seaman Albert Brown lay dying on Resolution. Not auspicious. Why read on? And yet Forester’s style draws you in; a short two-and-a-half pages for the first chapter. Then Chapter Two takes us ‘more than twenty years earlier’, with a Lieutenant-Commander Saville-Samarez, RN sharing a train carriage with twenty-nine-year-old virginal Agatha Brown, who was leaving her father and siblings for five days sojourn with a family friend in Ealing.

The descriptions throughout are excellent: that morning at breakfast her father, ‘with the newspaper propped up against the marmalade jar he would bring his mouth down to his fork rather than his fork up to his mouth, and he would open the latter alarmingly (which was quite unpleasant when, as was usual, he had not quite swallowed the preceding mouthful) and thrust the fork home and snap down his big moustache upon it… He drank his tea noisily through his moustache…’ (p9)

Thereafter, the pair spent three delirious days in a hotel… and then parted amicably. Agatha gave birth, to the distress of her family, but made the best of it and managed to support herself and her boy Albert, inculcating in him the desire to join the Royal Navy: ‘the sprouting of the grain she was sowing in such seemingly inhospitable soil’(p47). As the years passed, she kept abreast of the latest naval developments, the building programme, and the advancement of a certain officer named Saville-Samarez.

There’s a humorous interlude when Albert’s headmaster courts Agatha, ‘the widow’. Until he reveals his true nature and political beliefs; the man leaves, deciding Mrs Brown is mad.

Sadly, she is assailed with incurable cancer. ‘Agatha’s life went out of her while she floated above a vast grey sea sombrely tinted with  silhouettes of battle squadrons, the grey craggy citadels of England’s glory and hope. Their funnel smoke swirled around her, veiling the worried freckled face of the child of her sin, and she smiled happily.’ (p58).

After his mother’s tragic death, Albert fulfilled her ambition for him and following training joined the newly commissioned third-class cruiser Charybdis.

The war began. The Royal Navy was on the lookout for the German warships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. One of the German escort ships was the Ziethen commanded by Captain Von Lutz. Charybdis engaged Ziethen but was sunk. However, Brown survived. The engagement had left the Ziethen seriously damaged and its captain determined to seek refuge anchored in the concealing bay that the island Resolution offered.

Aware that the British fleet were scouring the Pacific, Albert Brown set out to prevent the Germans making Ziethen seaworthy. Then it’s a battle of wits and indomitable courage.

A gripping and at times quite moving account of lives well lived – and sacrificed.

And an excellent cover painting.

Editorial comment:

Word repetition didn’t bother Forester – see the above quotation: ‘quite’. It doesn’t matter.

He was fond of ‘myriad’, used often.

The apparently cold calculating analytical narrative works very well. The omniscient viewpoint was necessary to convey the truth of the story.

 

 

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

A Dangerous Fortune - Book review


 Ken Follett’s family saga, published in 1993, is yet another of his fast-paced satisfying historical novels; the 596 pages simply sped by.

Set in the period 1866 to 1892, the saga revolves around the Pilasters, a banking family. Young Hugh harks from the ‘unfortunate’ side of the family; his father committed suicide on being ruined in a financial collapse not of his making. Yet Hugh is bright and quick to learn, unlike Edward, his cousin, who is incompetent, cowardly and unimaginative. Also affected by the financial disaster is Maisie: her father loses his job, so she and her brother run away to save their parents from worrying about them.

The story begins at private boys’ school when an illicit absence of a small group turns into a drowning. Among those involved are Hugh, Edward and Micky Miranda. To cover up the tragic death and ostensibly protect Edward, Micky lies to Edward’s mother, the powerful attractive Augusta. Over the years Micky inveigles himself into the Pilaster family and once leaving college he is taken into the banking fraternity. Meanwhile, Hugh works his way up from a lowly position in the London bank.

Hugh meets and becomes enraptured by the wilful Maisie, who has grown into an enchanting woman desired by many men in London society. His brief liaison is discovered by Augusta and rather than he be exposed and bring scandal upon the family, she arranges for Hugh to be transferred to the American branch of the bank.

However, as the years pass, Hugh makes a success of his transfer and finally returns to London to acclaim from his seniors. Unfortunately, Micky has meanwhile been plotting to indulge his brigand of a father by arranging dubious loans to his country, Cordova in South America. Exposure of this scheme would ruin the bank and the Miranda family’s chances of a coup against the incumbent dictator. The stakes are raised.

All the characters are well drawn, and either evoke sympathy or anger as they contend with events out of their control. The period is shown in its finery, its sordidness, and the hypocrisy of the times. Some of the sex scenes might distress those of a ‘sensitive disposition’ but I believe they’re true to the period. Above all it’s a story of international finance, the establishment’s complicity in shady dealings, the betrayal of friends, the manipulation of weak men and women, multiple murder, and, above all, love and honour.

There are enough twists and turns in the plot to keep you reading to find out what happens next. I’ve yet to read a bad book by Ken Follett, and this is no exception.

Monday, 28 December 2020

STAGECOACH - The BFI Classics book

 


This 95-page appraisal of the classic 1939 John Wayne/John Ford film (published in 1992) is written by Edward Buscombe, who is also the editor of The BFI Companion to the Western.

Seven of producer Walter Wanger’s pictures for United Artists hadn’t made a profit. So Wanger was told to rein back his budgets. Ford’s project to film ‘Stage to Lordsburg’ appealed: ‘a talented, tested and prestigious director, relatively unknown and therefore inexpensive stars and a type of story which, even if Westerns were not fashionable, was nevertheless of proven appeal.’ (p17).

The filming lasted about two months. But due to Wanger’s financial situation, UA wouldn’t agree to filming in colour, which was a great shame, considering the spectacular vistas presented by Monument Valley. At that time colour added about 30% to production costs. The film came in under budget, costing about $531,000. The salaries of some of the picture’s stars were Claire Trevor, $15,000; Andy Devine, $10,000; Thomas Mitchell, $12,000 (and he won an Oscar for the part too!); John Wayne, $3,700, considerably less than four other travellers in the stagecoach! (p18)

Essentially there are two narrative strands to the plot: first, a journey through dangerous terrain, echoing The Odyssey; second, revenge, which is as ancient as the Greek myth. The latter is ‘driven by the hero’s sense of personal honour, an inner compulsion rather than an external threat.’ (p25) And the theme emphasises that good prevails over evil.

One of the reasons for the film being a classic is the canny juxtaposition of the nine travellers in the stagecoach, and how they rub against each other, revealing their characters. The driver Buck, the whiskey drummer, Peacock, meek in character and temperament (played by Donald Meek), the Southern gambler Hatfield who is not quite the gentleman he likes to think he is, the disdainful and felonious banker Gatewood who is anxious to abscond, the wan wilting flower of womanhood, Lucy, keen to join her cavalry officer husband, well-oiled Doc Boone, evicted from the town for drunkenness and not paying his rent, escaped jailbird Ringo Kid, joining the coach a short way outside town, shotgun rider Sheriff Wilcox (who promptly arrests Ringo), and Dallas (who ‘is never actually named as a prostitute, but only the young and innocent Ringo does not instantly recognise her profession’[p37]).  

Between the lines, Ford reveals that ‘respectability and morality are very far from being the same thing.’ (p37)

Needless to say, screenwriter Dudley Nichols had to considerably enlarge upon the original short story. Lucy, the army wife, is not pregnant in the story; Nichols’s injection of her gravid state and the subsequent birth seem ‘expressly designed to give the film appeal to a more mixed audience.’ (p54)

Due recognition is also given to stuntman Yakima Canutt: ‘his contribution to the film was considerable,’ with examples. (p67)

Interestingly, Orson Welles confessed he learned to be a director by watching John Ford’s films: ‘John Ford was my teacher. My own style has nothing to do with his, but Stagecoach was my movie text-book. I ran it over forty times.’ (p58)

The book concludes with details about the press releases, the film’s overwhelmingly positive reception, and John Ford’s subsequent career and status. Throughout, the pages are interspersed with black-and-white stills.

An excellent insight into a piece of cinematic history.

There are many other BFI Classic books available; check them out on Amazon – search for ‘BFI Classics’

 

* BFI = British Film Institute

Monday, 30 November 2020

Downton Abbey - The complete scripts - Season Two


Published 2013.

This book follows the same format as the first season scripts, offering asides and insights from the author Julian Fellowes, plus text that had to be cut for various reasons, usually overrunning time.

These pages are very useful for budding writers of fiction, students of film, and  the many fans of the TV series itself. This series, then, as Fellowes states in his Foreword, ‘sees our characters face the ultimate test of war. Some are strengthened by the ordeal, a couple are defeated, but all of them are changed.’

In one of the footnotes Fellowes reveals that he borrows ‘my friends’ names relentlessly.’  The intended of Matthew is Lavinia Swire, for example. He used a Northamptonshire friend’s name Lavinia in her memory. The surname Swire is filched from his friend Hugo, MP, whose wife recently gained notoriety from her memoires!

So many of the footnotes hark to Fellowes’s memories of family and friends, for example his great-aunt Isie commented at the end of the war ‘Sometimes it feels as if all the men I ever danced with are dead.’ A poignant vignette (p21).

On reading the scripts it is evident that all of the actors involved add richness and depth to Fellowes’s script. And he is unstinting in praise in several footnotes. And it’s not only the main actors, either. ‘The hall boys and those maids who have no lines take their contribution very seriously and we are lucky that they do. In fact they do a superb job. These parts may not have much in the way of lines, but they are very important to the show.’ (p452) In one case he was sorry that a hall boy’s line had to be cut.

As mentioned in my review of Season One’s scripts, the footnotes also cover historical and sociological issues, all of them of interest. An aside regarding the use of the Marcel waver, regarding long hair being ‘a sign of bondage’ – a statement of femininity but also impracticality: ‘in the Forties so many women were imitating Veronica Lake’s hairstyle and their hair was getting caught up in machines. So ‘she cut off her long seductive locks and with them, I’m afraid, her career.’  (p144)

There’s an amusing aside about working with dogs and children. Not because they will steal the scene. The actor has to be perfect in each take, in the hope that in one of them the dog or child will perform correctly, and only that take will be used. (p163) Another instance is that it is ‘bred into an actor’s bones that when some potential employer asks you if you can do something, you must always say yes and then go off and try to learn to do it…’ (p239)

What is also fascinating is how Fellowes views his characters, ascribing motivation: ‘I don’t blame Mary for failing to see that straight away.’ (p207)

There are a great number of sad scenes, and again some are inspired by the tales from Fellowes’s relatives. One poignant story is about a female relative being coerced into a marriage with a shell-shocked survivor, doing the honourable thing,, and in effect tragically wasting her life. (p285)

When writing about the Titanic incident (which actually started the first season), Fellowes is critical of the trendy modern perspective of viewing the past through the distorted prism of today’s sensitivities: saying of the people on the ‘unsinkable ship’, ‘they were so unbelievably brave. The modern historian is usually a miserabilist and is only happy when reporting how badly everyone behaved, but if he tries this with the Titanic he will be disappointed. I’m not saying nobody behaved badly, but very few did. And in all three classes there were so many examples of staggering courage.’ (p329)

Inevitably, Fellowes regrets some cuts that had to be made. Yet, to be fair, which he always is, he can also appreciate that in many cases they were valid: ‘I think I was wrong and they were right.’ (p359)

The Spanish ‘flu epidemic of 1918-19 tragically figures in the storyline. Bearing in mind this was written in 2012/2013, Fellowes says: that epidemic is ‘almost forgotten today.’ (p435) How times change; since Covid-19 was unleashed from China in 2019 there have been dozens of articles and TV programmes about its more serious precursor!

What shines through these scripts is the author’s empathy for all the characters. Sometimes people are petty, but then they surprise with an act of kindness; others are generous with their time; while some rail against change but have to face its inevitability. And virtually all of these character drawings are conveyed through dialogue (enlivened by flesh and blood actors).  These scripts are a masterclass in drama – and history, in fact.

Again, there are stills from this season (in black and white) and cast and production lists.

Highly recommended.

Monday, 9 November 2020

The Thursday Murder Club - Book review

 


Richard Osman’s debut novel (published 2020) is a delight. Most of the action takes place in a peaceful retirement village Coopers Chase in the heart of the Kentish Weald of present-day England. As we know, many developers don’t go in for apostrophes, so this one is no exception. The land, which once belonged to a convent, was purchased from the Catholic Church; the convent is now Willows, a nursing home for the village. Nearby is the graveyard, crammed with interred nuns.

A variety of clubs have been formed by the residents. Among them is the Thursday Murder Club set up by Elizabeth and Penny: here they discuss cold cases. Penny had been an inspector in the Kent Police and acquired the old files before retiring. ‘After a certain age, you can pretty much do whatever takes your fancy. No one tells you off, except for your doctors and your children’ (p18). [This was written before Covid-19 lunacy, of course. Now it seems police are quite content to handcuff septuagenarians for the slightest of reasons.] Other Murder Club members are Ibrahim, a psychiatrist who hails from Egypt; Ron, a trades union official who ‘never believes a single word anyone ever tells him’ (p19); and Joyce, the newcomer, an ex-nurse who has taken Penny’s place since the latter was now in Willows.

However, a brutal murder occurs – a bludgeoning – that warrants this quartet’s involvement. Much to the initial chagrin of DCI Chris Hudson and PC Donna De Freitas, they begin to uncover salient clues… Before long there is a second murder, and a baffling cold case becomes a bone of contention also.

The character of each club member is distinct, and all have something useful to add to the case. Elizabeth is the natural leader; she was something important in secret intelligence during the Cold War and has many useful contacts, reminding me a little of  Mrs Pargeter.

There are plenty of red herrings and some clever misdirection, none of it seeming contrived.  The over-riding feeling on reading this is one of quiet pleasure. There are moments of poignancy, as you’d perhaps expect in this kind of environment, but also humour and even farce.  One of the quotations the publishers used is ‘Robert Galbraith meets Tom Sharpe,’ which is absurd. The humour is gentle, witty and kindly meant. If I had to reference comparable writers, I’d opt for Henry Cecil, Richard Gordon and Simon Brett (the Mrs Pargeter novels), though Mr Osman’s style and wit are definitely his own.

Among the many potential quotations that give a flavour of a sense of heartfelt kindness that flows throughout, I’ll simply offer two:

‘Many years ago, everybody here would wake early because there was a lot to do and only so many hours in the day. Now they wake early because there is a lot to do and only so many days left.’ (p42)

As Joyce says, ‘In life you have to learn to count the good days. You have to tuck them in your pocket and carry them around with you.’ (p88)

The book is written in the third person present tense from an omniscient point of view, interspersed with first person diary entries by Joyce. And it works exceedingly well.

A sequel is already planned for publication for next autumn.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Book of the film - LAST STAND AT SABER RIVER

 


Written by Elmore Leonard in 1959, my copy is published 2005. Leonard is famous for both his crime novels (Get Shorty, Mr Majestyk, Glitz, and Out of Sight) and also westerns (3:10 to Yuma, Hombre, Valdez is Coming, Joes Kidd, and The Bounty Hunters) and many of his books have been filmed.

Last Stand at Saber River took almost forty years to be filmed, as a TV movie starring Tom Selleck, Suzy Amis, Haley Joel Osment, Keith Carradine, David Carradine and David Dukes.

The film and the book differ mainly in the beginning and end sequences.

The film starts earlier than the book, filling in background that is flashbacked in the book. The Civil War still rages. Reported killed in action, Paul Cable is a Confederate veteran returning home to surprise his wife Martha and two children (they lost a third to disease while he was away fighting; though in the book the child is alive [economising on young actors]). His family has been staying with her parents but now he is going to take them to their homestead in Arizona, which they left during his absence. However, in the book it begins with them arriving at the trading post which is near to their homestead. But the owner has passed away and it is now part owned by Janroe who lost a hand in the war.

Cable soon learns that a Union-sympathising family has assumed control of Cable’s homestead and land. This is the Kidston family: Vern, his brother Duane and his daughter Lorraine. Some of the Kidston cowhands are staying at the homestead. Cable chases them off. Thus begins an ongoing feud between the two families. In the book Cable suffers two brutal beatings at the hands of the Kidston crew and Duane (the film doesn’t impose this on Selleck, he is tougher and not averse to killing in self defence).

Janroe harbours a powerful hate for the Union and all who supported the North. He is intent on engineering further conflict between the two families, even while both Vern and Lorraine are about to talk rather than fight with Cable and Martha.

It is all brought to a head in the final pages and is taut and tense, as one is accustomed when reading any Elmore Leonard book.

However, the film moves beyond the book, stretching out the suspense, determined on inserting more action and conflict.

Both endings work for their different media.

If you like the actor Tom Selleck, then you should enjoy this film. If you like a novel with conflict, strong characterisation and a moral core, then you’ll enjoy the book.