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Wednesday 31 October 2018

Review - Mystery Weekly July 2018

This monthly magazine is published in Canada – both e-book and paperback – and contains six mystery short stories and a puzzle tale in its 78 pages.

For writers, it’s a paying market –

For readers, it offers an interesting selection of crime tales, some with humour and wit, others with a darker tone. Nothing too graphic. 

While I enjoyed all the stories in this issue, I particularly liked the cover story ‘Fader’s Crates’ by Caroline Misner, a fairly long poignant tale with good description and style. Leslie Elman’s ‘No Quarters’ offered up a suspense story set in a laundromat, cleverly done. Peter DiChellis’s ‘Locked Tight’ was a locked room (though not quite) mystery laced with humour.

Available from Amazon here

Sunday 21 October 2018

Book companion to TV Series VICTORIA

Victoria & Albert – A Royal Love Affair

A sumptuous official companion to the TV series, this book (2017) is a pleasure to own and to read.

Co-written by Daisy Goodwin (the series’ excellent screenwriter) and historian Sara Sheridan, the book covers in 303 pages the relationship between the two royals and the many individuals who came into their orbit. It is complemented by many still photographs from the two seasons of Victoria and the Christmas special.

The TV series is not a historical documentary but a dramatised rendering of Queen Victoria, her husband Albert and others, and as such it does tinker with historical fact for dramatic effect; and the book highlights these divergences – whether that’s the close bond between Victoria and Lord Melbourne,  the actual age of the Duchess of Buccleuch (Victoria’s contemporary, not as depicted by Diana Rigg), or the good Dr Traill (Goodwin’s great-great-great-grandfather, in fact) who didn’t actually meet the Queen, and so on...

There are several behind-the-scenes insights, whether that’s the sets, the language used,  the costumes or the food

In addition there are articles on all manner of aspects Victorian: Sex for Sale, Racy Victorians behind closed doors, the language of flowers, pregnancy and childbirth, drug use, corsets, drinks, etiquette, beards, the railways, poverty, the Corn Laws, the Chartists, and the Irish potato famine.

In my view there is only one blemish, which a vigilant editor could have excised: a misguided statement by Goodwin. ‘One thing I feel quite sure of is that Victoria would have been appalled by Brexit. Victoria and Albert tried to create their own informal European union through strategic marriages of their children. Victoria may have been English to her fingertips, but she understood the value of a family of nations.’ (p247)

I would suspect that the truth would be the opposite. Victoria was proud of her Empire and would have loathed the fact that her country’s sovereignty had been discarded due to Prime Minister Major’s infatuation with the Maastricht Treaty in the 1990s. And of course Britain already had a family of nations – the Commonwealth – whose trade had to be adversely affected by membership of the European Union.

A superb book for anyone who has enjoyed the Victoria series.

Saturday 20 October 2018

Writing - elusive errors

Having just finished reading Vanity Fair, I was fascinated by the observations of the editor of my 1983 Penguin version. Besides providing helpful notes at the end of the novel, J.I.M. Stewart offered an entertaining and enlightening introduction.

This may be of interest – or, indeed, may offer some amusement – to writers (as well as readers!)

Thackeray wrote the book in serial form, which was quite normal for the times – the 1800s. Often, the author may have been writing one installment while the previous episode was being published, a veritable production line with tight deadlines. This did, however, present problems.

As Stewart observed, ‘strange inadvertences were sometimes its consequence. Characters change their Christian names and even their surnames as the book goes on; they turn up at impossible times in impossible places; they even turn up alive after being dead.’ (Vanity Fair, p9)

Naturally, most of these discrepancies can be corrected when the serial book is collected into a novel for subsequent publication. Thackeray revised his novel’s text in 1853, addressing inconsistencies of place and time and other errors.

It’s worth noting that even modern classics persist in containing errors. Henry James’s The Ambassadors was published in 1903 with two chapters in reverse order, and the error remained undetected until 1950! My copy of To Kill A Mockingbird was a reprint dated 1997; and it had been reprinted no less than 42 times in this paperback format. There are easily thirty typing errors in the text – even one on the first page – yet no publisher considered correcting them in all those years. A shameful way to treat a modern classic; it looks as though later editions have been re-scrutinised, thankfully.

Self-edit until you’re satisfied, then hope the publisher’s editor will spot anything you’ve missed. But don’t expect the finished published product to be without error. Sadly, some errors prove to be very elusive indeed. But take heart, you're not alone...

Thursday 18 October 2018

Book of the film - Vanity Fair

I watched the DVD of the TV six part mini-series Vanity Fair (1998), Andrew Davies’s splendid adaptation of William Thackeray’s classic tome, mostly while reading this version in the Penguin English Library (1983) edited by J.I.M. Stewart. The series featured Natasha Little as Becky Sharp, Frances Grey as Amelia (Emmy) Sedley, Philip Glenister as William Dobbin, Tom Ward as George Osborne, Nathaniel Parker as Rawdon Crawley, and the ubiquitous Anton Lesser as Mr Pitt-Crawley, among others.

For many a year I’d been meaning to read this ‘landmark in the history of English fiction’ (says Stewart). It seemed a daunting task, all 766 pages of it. As it happens, it wasn’t onerous at all. Possibly my reading was helped by the dramatisation; it was fascinating to detect swathes of speech used by Davies in his excellent screenplay.

Vanity Fair appeared in monthly numbers of an episodic novel from January 1847 to July 1848; it was published in book form in 1848 (revised 1853). He was thirty-four when he began the book.

Vanity Fair’s sub-title is ‘A novel without a hero’. However, as Thackeray writes, ‘… at least let us lay claim to a heroine. No man in the British army which has marched away, not the great Duke himself, could be more cool or collected in the presence of doubts and difficulties, than the indomitable little aide-de-camp’s wife.’ [i.e. Becky] (p353)

The term “Vanity Fair” is adopted from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, suggesting a never-ending fair along the pilgrim’s route, loosely a playground of the idle and undeserving rich: a microcosm of several nineteenth century lives. ‘Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions.’ (p116)

Rebecca (Becky) Sharp is penniless, cunning and attractive: ‘Green eyes, fair skin, pretty figure, famous frontal development…’ (p235) ‘She gave a sigh, a shrug with her shoulders, which were already too much out of her gown…’ (p734) She is also ‘a hardened little reprobate’ (p763) To begin with, she is determined to make her way in society. On leaving school (under a cloud) Becky joins her friend Emmy (Amelia) and stays with her family in London. Emmy is good-natured but na├»ve, and ‘the consummate little tragedian’ (p765). Her brother Jos is visiting and is attracted to Becky, but the potentially fruitful courtship is stymied by George Osborne, the suitor of Emmy, after an outing at Vauxhall. George’s best friend William is secretly in love with Emmy, but appreciates that she does not consider him in any kind of romantic light; he seems doomed to sustain unrequited love.

Throughout, Thackeray intrudes as the author – or puppet-master. He can be forgiven, for usually his asides are amusing or even insightful. ‘The novelist, who knows everything...’ (p389) And sometimes he has to pull himself up – ‘… But we are wandering out of the domain of the story.’ (p453)

‘… my readers must hope for no such romance, only a homely story, and must be content with a chapter about Vauxhall, which is so short that it scarce deserves to be called a chapter at all. And yet it is a chapter, and a very important one too. Are not there little chapters in everybody’s life, that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of the history?’ (p88)

Thackeray discloses his intent more than once, sometimes blatantly, sometimes subtly: ‘Such people there are living and flourishing in the world – Faithless, Hopeless, Charityless; let us have at them, dear friends, with might and main. Some there are, and very successful too, mere quacks and fools: and it was to combat and expose such as those, no doubt, that Laughter was made.’ (p117)

Thackeray employs omniscient third person point of view and author intrusion with good effect. (Though I was surprised he used the phrase ‘thought to herself’ (p229): the ‘to herself’ is superfluous, after all.)

Having failed to land a husband in Jos, Becky takes her leave of Emmy and finds employment at the dilapidated stately home Queen’s Crawley as a governess of the two daughters of Sir Pitt Crawley, a rather crude fellow (played with gusto by David Bradley); this character is the father of two sons, the cleric Pitt (to confuse matters!) and Rawdon. ‘The elder and younger son of the house of Crawley were, like the gentleman and lady in the weather-box, never at home together – they hated each other cordially.’ (p129)

Their aunt, spinster Miss Matilda Crawley, is rich and they all lust after her wealth so seek her favour… Her favourite appears to be Rawdon, however. Unfortunately, when she discovers that Rawdon has secretly married Becky, she turns against them both.

In the meantime, Amelia’s father has hit hard times and becomes bankrupt. When Dobbin encounters him, it is a sorry sight: ‘His face had fallen in, and was unshorn; his frill and neckcloth hung limp under his bagging waistcoat.’ (p240) There are many instances where the writing evokes sympathy and empathy: ‘He covered his face with his black hands: over which the tears rolled and made furrows of white.’ (p631)

I was amused to see that there was a Mrs Captain Kirk in the story… (p320) Long before Star Trek, of course! And later, we have none other than Reverend Silas Hornblower, ‘who was tattooed in the South Sea Islands.’ [A painful area of the anatomy, I imagine!] (p392)

With the help of William Dobbin, George marries Amelia but is disinherited as a result. When called to battle, he is grateful to be gone from her side [the cad!] (p355)

With the conniving help of Becky, George lived well (from his gambling prowess and by not paying his debts). Thackeray castigates his kind, who take advantage of honest traders, always promising payment, never paying it. ‘I wonder how many families are driven to roguery and to ruin by great practitioners in Crawley’s way? How many great noblemen rob their petty tradesmen, condescend to swindle their poor retainers out of wretched little sums, and cheat for a few shillings? … When the great house tumbles down, these miserable wretches fall under it unnoticed.’ (p438)

There are many memorable turns of phrase used: ‘Time has dealt kindly with that stout officer, [Colonel Sir Michael O’Dowd] as it does ordinarily with men who have good stomachs and good tempers, and are not perplexed over much by fatigue of the brain.’ (p506) Another – ‘If sarcasm could have killed, Lady Stunnington would have slain her on the spot.’ (p601)
And he has fun with names, too: Mr Wagg, Duchess of Stilton, Duc de la Gruyere, Marchioness of Cheshire, Comte de Brie and so on… (p589) and Rev. Felix Rabbits (whose wife birthed thirteen sisters! (p697)

The relationship between Amelia and Dobbin is laid bare, finally. ‘She wished to give him nothing, but that he should give her all. It is a bargain not unfrequently levied in love.’ (p776)

Despite her ‘wild and roving nature’ (p755), Becky gave Rawdon a son (though she could not bear to be with the poor boy). Amelia too had a son, named George, whose teacher was a Mr Veal: ‘And whenever he spoke (which he did almost always), he took care to produce the very finest and longest words of which the vocabulary gave him the use; rightly judging that it was as cheap to employ a handsome, large, and sonorous epithet, as to use a little stingy one.’ (p655)

Thackeray was aware of women’s plight in the man’s world he inhabited. ‘What do men know about women’s martyrdom? We should go mad had we to endure the hundredth part of those daily pains which are meekly borne by many women. Ceaseless slavery meeting with no reward; constant gentleness and kindness met by cruelty as constant; love, labour, patience, watchfulness, without even so much as the acknowledgement of a good word; all this, how many of them have to bear in quiet, and appear abroad with cheerful faces as if they felt nothing…’ (p659) Later (p663) he alludes to the ‘women for the most part who are … hospital nurses without wages…’ – in short, family carers. Still topical today, even…

Political leaks are nothing new, either. ‘When one side or the other had written any particularly spicy despatch, news of it was sure to slip out.’ (p732)

And perhaps Thackeray was cognizant of those who are easily offended (the nineteenth century sort, not the twenty-first century snowflakes): ‘… it has been the wish of the present writer, all through this story, deferentially to submit to the fashion at present prevailing, and only to hint at the existence of wickedness in a light, easy, and agreeable manner, so that nobody’s fine feelings may be offended.’ (p738) [My italics.]

The book has endured as a true classic, for many reasons, but not least because Thackeray made his characters seem real, complete with their faults. Nobody is wholly likeable, none are actually evil, but several are driven by greed, lust, or prejudice. In effect, he has shone a light on the human condition.

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Book review - Forest Dancer

Susan Roebuck’s novel Forest Dancer (2018) is an unashamed romance and  none the worse for that.

Flora is a ballerina with back trouble who, having failed an audition, goes off to Portugal to claim the village cottage left to her by her late father. 

The book has all the ingredients to keep the reader turning the pages: interesting and varied characters, an exotic setting, mystery, corruption, humour and conflict.

While waiting for her flight from London to Lisbon, she finds herself in an overcrowded airport lounge, ‘so she sat on the floor and whiled away the time watching knees go by, trolleys bashing into each other, and braiding pieces of her hair, a habit she’d had from childhood. If she did it for long enough she ended up looking like she’d plugged herself into a light socket, and she was halfway there now' (p18). Here, she meets a handsome Portuguese man, Gil Morais, the darling of daytime TV in his country. ‘Latin Lothario, she decided.’ (p19)

We will meet Gil again, frequently, as he evolves a crackpot plot to ensnare Flora… 

Flora’s arrival at the cottage is a surprise to the people who are living there: Dina and her young daughter Raquel. Reluctant to turf them out, Flora finds accommodation at a nearby bed and breakfast place run by an English woman, Elizabeth. The only other resident is Sally, an old widow with a pet blue bird, Boris, who is partial to biting the columella of people’s noses – enough to bring water to the eyes!

Another person of interest is Marco, a strong silent type working as a Forestry Commission warden. He’s not keen on men in Armani suits, particularly if they’re investigating the viability of setting up a fracking plant in the forest.  An Armani suit: ‘First sign of a villain, in his opinion.’ (p23)  He also does odd jobs for Elizabeth and seems to have an attachment to Dina...

Apparently, there’s a saying in ballet: ‘Work to impress. Dance to express.’ (p121) And Flora does just that, taking on the task of teaching the local school children to dance in a tableau that involves protesting against the proposed fracking.

Gil’s crazy ideas about the local standing stones suggest a threat to Flora but in fact provide light amusement instead. Raquel is endearing and her plight, when revealed, is touching.

Inevitably, Flora and Marco are drawn to each other, yet misunderstandings and deceit muddy the waters for most of the book; and thus keep the reader turning the pages!

I enjoyed the humour and the affectionate descriptions that brought the characters and the village to life.