In the Nicki of Time – again!

Lighthouse Whitehaven 2I started this blog in 2014, my 50th year, having set myself the challenge of reading 50 books and seeing 50 films in one year.

By the end of 2014, I had not achieved my goals. I toyed with the idea of closing down the blog, shutting up shop and going home. But I recalled one of my children telling me that the man who patented lightbulbs tested thousands before found the one which would work. I’m not sure if the tale is true, but it sparked a lightbulb moment of my own! I don’t want to give up – failure is a learning opportunity and so I’m going to try again in 2015. 50 books and 50 films in one year.

Do have a good look around and come back soon!

Films Nos 27 & 28 (2015) : Finding Nemo and The Lion King

lion king nemoThe Scandinavians embrace a concept known as ‘hygge’. It doesn’t translate well into English, but a rough approximation is ‘cosiness’. Hygge is probably easier to grasp with some examples – sitting in a log cabin with a roaring fire, drinking mulled wine and playing cards with friends. Snuggling up on the sofa, surrounded by candles and watching an old movie. Walking in autumn leaves, wrapped in woolly scarves and heading home for warming hot chocolate. Get the gist? Well for me and my family, watching a Disney movie together engenders a deep sense of hygge. We don’t watch to discover a new plot together, as we know the stories inside out. We watch to have a shared experience, something we can still all enjoy as a family.

My daughter always cries when Mufasa dies and Simba tries in vain to rouse him. My son and husband can quote huge chunks of Dory’s exchanges with Marlin. We can all sing ‘The Circle of Life’ with realistic passion and I still laugh at Bruce’s ‘Fish Are Friends’ meetings.

‘The Lion King’ is my favourite Disney movie and ‘Finding Nemo’ is my husband’s. My preference for the African saga is largely due to the music, but also the way in which the film captures loss, and our longing to remain connected to those who have passed away. ‘Finding Nemo’ explores the same themes of parental devotion and family bonds – I would certainly swim to Australia to find my children if they were swept away and they know that. Disney reminds us about what is important in these busy lives of ours.

If you read more about ‘hygge’, I am sure you will agree that Disney movies are an essential ingredient. Togther with popcorn, of course!

Book No 43 (2015) : The Blue

the blueFate must have been having a laugh when she gifted me with an innate love of the sea, coupled with debilitating motion sickness. As a child, twenty minutes on the 441 bus with my Nan, up Egham Hill to the Great Park was enough to leave me retching. So as I can’t be a real sailor, I have to take my sea-faring pleasures vicariously. Hence my choice of books such as Lucy Clarke’s ‘The Blue‘.

This intriguing thriller tells the story of Lana and Kitty, two best pals who have their own reasons for wanting to leave the UK. With a random spin of the globe, they head for the Philippines. The girls join the glorious yacht ‘The Blue’ and its eclectic crew. Although they have never sailed before, Lana and Kitty soon adapt to the idyllic life on board; swimming, snorkelling and camaraderie. They try their best to abide by the on-board rules of Aaron, the skipper, and form friendships with the rest of the crew – Joseph, Shell, Heinrich and Denny. But their trip starts to turn sour after a night of heavy drinking, when one of the crew members goes missing at sea.

Lucy Clarke is clearly a traveller. She captures the lure of the sea and adventure beautifully, transporting the reader to the clear blue waters of the ocean, but also describing the menace of stormy weather. I could feel the warm sun and smell the tang of salt in the air. As the mystery within the novel begins to unfold, I was drawn deeper into the story, keen to see the secrets of ‘The Blue‘ revealed. If, like me, you are an armchair mariner, this book will probably float your boat. It did mine.

Thank you to NetGalley for my copy of this book.

Film No 26 (2015) : Vanilla Sky

vanilla skyWhen I first started my blog, aiming to watch 50 films in a year, I asked a real film buff what his favourites were, and what he would recommend. ‘Vanilla Sky‘ was in his Top 10 movies, he said. It’s a weird one, that’s for sure.

David Aames (Tom Cruise) is a handsome chap and is worth a few bob as well, having inherited a successful publishing company from his father. He lives the life – fast car, beautiful women. Somewhat unkindly, his best friend interprets David’s relationship with Julia Gianni (Cameron Diaz) as that of ‘fuck buddies’. After his own birthday party, when David is introduced briefly to the beguiling Sofia (Penelope Cruz), Julia confesses that she is actually in love with David. When it becomes clear to her that he doesn’t feel the same way, she rather spectacularly drives her car off a bridge and into a wall. Julie dies, but David survives, albeit with his face severely disfigured. Now he has lost his looks, will everything else disappear as well?

This part of the story is told in flashback, because David is recounting his life to a psychologist, Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell). David has been arrested for murder and the Dr. is preparing a report on Aames’ mental state for the courts. There is clearly something wrong with David as he keeps having terrible dreams and nightmares, seems not to be able to distinguish reality from imagination. The reasons for his twisted perceptions are revealed – and it does take a bit to get your head round it! I found the ending ambiguous, probably deliberately written to be so, but that wondering always leaves me feeling a little dissatisfied. I prefer my ends tied up.

I think Tom Cruise’s reputation has been damaged in more recent years, following his marriage breakdowns and involvement with the Church of Scientology. Nevertheless, he made his name as an actor and whilst I don’t think ‘Vanilla Sky‘ is one of his best performances, he’s still good. Cruz, on the other hand had me utterly transfixed! With her lilting accent, gamine figure and expressive eyes, I thought she was wonderful (not that I am prone to girl crushes!). However, my critical skills have taken a bit of a bashing, as I discovered that her appearance in ‘Vanilla Sky‘ saw Penelope nominated for a Golden Raspberry ‘Worst Actress‘ award. I console myself with the knowledge that I am in good company in thinking she’s cool – Cruise dated her for 3 years after they appeared together in ‘Vanilla Sky‘. Surely Tom Cruise and I can’t both be wrong?

Film No 25 (2015) : Rush

RushMotor racing has always seemed like a slightly pointless spectator sport to me; standing about waiting for something which whooshes past as quickly as Harry Potter on his Nimbus 2000, then waiting for it to come around again. I am obviously missing something and can’t help thinking that the whole experience may be enhanced were I to be in the company of an up-and-coming racing driver, like James Hunt. He was apparently as passionate in the bedroom as he was on the track and Hunt’s unconventional behaviour is part of F1 folklore. One of his favourite racing-suit badges read: ‘Sex. The Breakfast of Champions’.

The film stars Chris Hemsworth as Hunt and Daniel Brühl as his competitive rival, Niki Lauda and chronicles the rivalry between the two drivers during the 1970s. There is some archive footage at the end of the movie which shows just how well the actors captured the physical appearances of their subjects, as well as their characters. Whilst Lauda was technically- minded and focussed, Hunt seemed to have a much more opportunistic approach to achieving success. The film obviously has lots of very fast and exciting race scenes and ‘Rush‘ was nominated for awards for its editing, sound and stunts.

Aside from the racing though, the main focus of the story is the relationship between Hunt and Lauda. Although rivals, their circumstances brought them into contact with each other regularly and the pair were firm friends. Niki Lauda was severely burned when his Ferrari burst into flames following a crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix. Even though I am not a race fan, this piece of F1 history is well-documented and I did find myself anticipating the accident throughout most of the first part of the movie. Lauda’s recovery was excruciatingly painful, yet he was spurred on by his need to beat Hunt and was back on the track just 6 weeks later. He didn’t win that Italian Gran Prix, but the race was nevertheless a triumph.

Niki Lauda retired from racing in 1985. James Hunt was only 45 when he died of a heart attack. Asked about ‘Rush‘, Lauda reflected upon his friend; “The sad thing is that he isn’t here now. I wish he could have seen the movie because I know for sure he would have enjoyed it.” I think that is a very positive endorsement.

Book No 42 (2015) : Dolly

dollyI was in the unfortunate position of having had to spend some time in the Minor Injuries Unit of our local hospital over the weekend. It turned out that it was long enough for me to be able to read the whole of Susan Hill’s short ghost tale ‘Dolly‘. (Actually, I was sitting there long enough to have read ‘War and Peace’, but that is a different story!)

The narrator is Edward, who recounts time spent at Iyot House, the home of his great-aunt, Aunt Kestrel (fabulous name!), and her dour maid, Mrs Mullen. The trio are joined by Edward’s cousin, Leonora, a flame-haired, unfathomable young girl with a foul temper. She both bewitches and confuses the young Edward, although Aunt Kestrel is more kindly and pragmatic in her approach to her great-niece, believing her to be over-indulged and spoiled. From the numerous gifts sent to Leonora by her mother, it certainly seems as if the youngster is used to getting her own way. But her heart’s desire is a doll, and although she knows exactly what she wants, her mother never sends the Indian Princess dolly. When Edward takes it upon himself to make sure that Leonora receives the gift of her dreams, his decision has frightening lifelong repercussions for everyone.

As I turned the last page of this book, the over-riding question in my mind was ‘why’? The plot just didn’t seem to conclude satisfactorily, as I was left wondering. In any novel, there is often ambiguity, leaving the reader to consider several options as to what might have happened, and this can be interesting and fun. But the ending of ‘Dolly‘ felt unfinished, as if Hill ran out of ideas before she had to meet her agent’s deadline. I was disappointed with ‘The Small Hand‘ last year and feel that maybe ‘The Woman in Black‘, which I found genuinely unsettling, remains unsurpassed.

Book No 41 (2015) : The Summer of the Bear

summr of the bearJamie’s Dad, Nicky Fleming, was a diplomat based in Bonn and he died when he suffered a fall. The family members he left behind – wife, Letty, and teenage daughters Georgie and Alba, as well as Jamie, are trying to re-shape their lives to accommodate the gaping hole that Nicky has left. He wrote what might be a suicide note but Letty is sure that he would not have deserted his family. An investigation ensues and gradually a version of the truth begins to emerge.

When I was 7 years old, I lost my Dad. He was only 29. Only ‘lost’ is a euphemism of course, because actually he died. My Mum told me that he had had an accident and was dead. But although I thought I understood, I really didn’t. My memories of waiting for him to come back from Canada (the farthest away place my 7-year old mind could imagine) are very vivid. What I had failed to grasp is that dead was for ever. It is obvious to grown-ups, but it wasn’t obvious to me. My desperation when the truth hit, many months after my father’s death, was as crushing as the original news.

My own experiences came flooding back to me as I read Bella Pollen’s stunning novelThe Summer of the Bear’. Jamie’s mother tells him that his Dada has gone for a long, long time. Jamie knows that as Dada is lost, he will be searching for his family, even as far as the remote Hebridean  island where Jamie now lives with his Mum and 2 sisters. So Jamie throws lots of messages in bottles into the sea, each one containing a hand-drawn map with the location of the family’s house clearly marked. This image moved me to tears; in their efforts to protect Jamie, whose mind works in mysterious ways, the adults had blurred the edges of reality to such an extent, that the little boy comes to believe that his father has been re-incarnated into the body of a grizzly bear which has escaped on the island and so far evaded capture.

The narrative moves from Bonn to East Berlin, Ballanish in the Outer Hebrides to London, taking in the experiences of not only Letty and her children, but also the escaped bear, the Cold War and a suspected radiological contamination. Only an exceptional talent could weave together such disparate threads as these, to produce a tender, compelling and imaginative novel. I found it completely captivating, such was the power of Pollen’s characters; the islanders with their fears and fairytales, the commandeering Ambassadress, Nicky’s faithful friend Tom, and Ballanish itself.

Such is the scope and sweep of ‘The Summer of the Bear‘ that even if you have never been bereaved, or set foot on a Scottish island, or read the (true) story of Hercules the bear, there will be something in this book to seduce you. I will definitely be hunting out Bella Pollen’s other work.

Book No 40 (2015) : Valentine Grey

valentine greyWe caught sight of Sandi Toksvig once, sitting under a tree at Simon and Garfunkel’s Hyde Park concert 10 years ago.  British reserve and politesse prevented me from disturbing her peace, although I have long been an admirer of her considerable talent and versatility as a journalist, writer, presenter and, more recently co-founder of the extremely important Women’s Equality Party. She has written several books and ‘Valentine Grey‘ is a work of historical fiction.

Valentine has spent her childhood as a free spirit in Assam, raised by her father and allowed to ride horses, shoot and run barefoot. All rather unseemly for a young woman and in 1897, when Valentine is aged 15, her father is persuaded that she should be sent to England. Once there, she struggles with the constraints of not only her clothes and shoes, but the restrictions of London society. Relief arrives in the form of her cousin, Reggie, a spirited young man who embarks upon a homosexual affair with a beautiful, flamboyant theatre performer. Valentine, Reggie and Frank are enjoying life, until Reg’s father signs him up to defend the British Empire in South Africa. Unwilling to leave Frank and totally unsuited to a soldier’s life, Reggie is looking for a way out. And so, disguised as a man, Valentine takes Reggie’s place. Embarking upon the adventure of her life, Valentine faces the horrors of war, but forms enduring relationships with the men of her Mess.

Judging by the extensive bibliography, the author undertook a huge amount of research into Victorian life and attitudes, together with the facts of the Boer War. The result is an utterly convincing novel, with the feisty Valentine at its heart. It examines the prevailing attitudes towards women and gays, views which Valentine herself seeks to influence and change.

I was enthralled by this book and read it in one sitting. It made me laugh and cry in equal measure. It also has one of the best closing paragraphs I have ever come across in a book.

Book No 39 (2015) : The Best of Times

best of timesAlthough generally a law-abiding citizen, I got caught for speeding a few months ago. Twice. As a result, I ended up attending a Speed Awareness Course, part of which involved watching a video reconstruction of a terrible motorway pile-up. The 1991 accident happened on a stretch of the M4 in Berkshire, when a van driver skidded into the central reservation.Within 19 seconds, 51 vehicles were involved, leaving 10 people dead and 25 injured. I found the video sobering and whilst discussing it with friends, they told me about the Penny Vincenzi novel ‘The Best of Times‘ which centres upon an M4 crash.

Various circumstances conspire to bring the cast of the book’s characters to the motorway on the 22nd August in question. Jonathan, a successful hospital consultant is with his lover, Abi. Mary is on her way to a reunion with a wartime sweetheart. Georgia hitches a lift with Paddy, a van driver whilst Toby and Barney are pulled over for speeding, late for Toby’s wedding. From above the motorway, William Grainger watches as the motorway horror unfolds. The novel follows the characters through the crash to the subsequent investigations and hospital treatments, as everyone affected tries to re-build their lives.

At almost 900 pages, ‘The Best of Times’ is quite a commitment. It could be an enjoyable read, but for several things. Firstly, and probably most importantly, the characters are totally unlikeable and overtly stereotypical: the men, almost without exception, are lying, cheating bastards, leaving behind them a trail of embittered women. The female characters are equally disagreeable, ranging from needy teen Georgia, to the arrogant and argumentative Linda to doormat Maeve. Secondly, the plot and sub-plots are almost twee, predictable and uninspiring – there was no real drama or surprise, everything turned out pretty much as it would in a fairytale. Thirdly, the book is way, way too long, resulting in me whizzing through the last 100-pages to tidy up the storylines. Had I not been writing a review, I honestly wouldn’t have bothered.

In the right hands, this could have been a skilful and sensitive exploration of the devastation caused by road traffic accidents. But, done the Ms Vincenzi way it was, well, a complete car crash of a book. I would definitely swerve to avoid this one.

Book No 38 (2015) : The Paying Guests

paying guestsThis book reinforced the main reason why I fell in love with reading in the first place. I grew up, like so many youngsters of my age, on Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfeild and CS Lewis. During school holidays, rainy days and weekends, I would lose myself in a book, much to the frustration of my much more active sister who was always urging me to ‘do’ something! Reading was the gateway to other places and it still is. Sarah Waters’ ‘The Paying Guests‘ did what I love in a novel, which is to draw me into another world.

It is the 1920s and Frances Wray and her mother have been left in debt. Once a busy home, with two sons and servants, their Camberwell house is now echoing and lonely. Although only in her mid-20s, Frances has become a drudge, behind with the latest fashions, often with only her mother for company and lumbered with all the household chores. To make ends meet, the Wrays decide to take in lodgers, or ‘paying guests’. Lilian and Leonard Barber are a young married couple, whose presence brings the house to life. Frances and Lilian strike up a cautious friendship which develops into a passionate, illicit affair. The couple long to be together but are constrained by their situations. Then, one night, a terrible accident takes place which threatens to wreck their future. Can Lilian and Frances’ love survive this ultimate test?

Until I got a few chapters into the novel, I had forgotten that Waters writes about lesbian relationships and, in this instance, the setting is at at time when such romances were not publicly acceptable. The gender of the protagonists in ‘The Paying Guests‘ adds an extra twist to the novel; Frances Wray is complex and unconventional, with a past history of political activism. The setting is full of contemporaneous details such as fashion, decor, social expectations etc. London is unsettled in the wake of war, with veterans out of work and families grieving their lost men.

Part romance, part thriller, this book kept me engrossed throughout; the author achieved that very clever feat of keeping me rooting for the bad guy. I was even tempted to sneak it under the covers with a torch, just to find out what happened next!

Film No 24 (2015) : Girl, Interrupted

Girl,_Interrupted_PosterAnother 127 minutes of my life that I won’t get back.

Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie star in this 1999 film about a young woman who is admitted to a mental hospital after she has taken a bottle of aspirin washed down with vodka. Susanna (Ryder) claims that she was only trying to get rid of a headache, but her actions are interpreted as attempted suicide. Once inside Claymoore, Susanna begins to form relationships with other patients, many of whom seem to have far more serious mental health issues than her. Amongst these is Lisa (Jolie) who is rebellious and spirited, inspiring devotion from many of the women, including Susanna.

Jolie won a Best Supporting Actress for her role in the movie, but I felt as if she was over-acting. I found it hard to empathise with either her character or Susanna’s, who seemed like a self-obsessed, indulged young woman rather than someone with serious mental health issues. ‘Girl, Interrupted‘ is the film adaptation of an autobiography; I suspect that in the written word, themes such as sanity and madness, institutionalisation, the treatment of depression etc. were explored more fully: in a film, it is very difficult to successfully convey what is going on inside someone’s head. A mental hospital is never going to be a cheery setting and my over-riding feeling throughout the film was one of unending dreariness.

According to internet reviews, the film received a mixed reception. I know what that means. It means quite a lot of people thought it was rubbish. Instead of the few weeks stay intended for Susanna, she ends up staying at the hospital for almost two years. I think the movie was filmed in real time, as I felt every minute of that two years. Seriously, just don’t bother.