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!

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.

Film No 23 (2015) : What We Did On Our Holiday

what we did on holidayThere was no way really that I was not going to enjoy this film. Set in Scotland (including beach scenes from Gairloch) and starring both Billy Connolly and David Tennant, it would have to be pretty dire for me not to have liked it. Thankfully it is not dreadful and, even if you are not a fan of all things Caledonian, I’m sure you will find plenty to make you smile in this gentle film.

Abi (Rosamund Pike) and her husband, Doug (David Tennant), are living separately and negotiating their divorce via lawyers, after Doug was unfaithful. Their three children are aware of their Dad’s infidelity but when the whole family travels North to stay with Doug’s father, everyone is sworn to secrecy about the situation. Gordie (Billy Connolly) is approaching his 75th birthday but has terminal cancer; as this birthday celebration will probably be his last, Doug doesn’t want it to be marred by the news of his son’s marital problems. The family manages to keep up the pretence for a while once they arrive in Scotland, but the children are not great liars and before long they have inadvertently let slip the whole story. As the preparations for the birthday party gather pace, managed with military precision by Doug’s brother, Gavin (Ben Miller), Gordie escapes to the beach with the children. Chilling with his grand-kids, Gordie is clearly relaxed and happy. But when he is taken ill, Lottie, Mickey and Jess take some decisions which show they are more in tune with Grandad than the grown-ups are.

Directed by the makers of the TV series ‘Outnumbered’, many of the film scenes involving the children are improvised rather than closely scripted. This results in some hilarious comedy as the young actors ignore social conventions and say what they think. Equally telling are the adults’ reactions to the dialogue and I rather got the feeling that in several of the scenes, they have forgotten that they are acting and react spontaneously to the children. I’ve never met Billy Connolly so I don’t actually know what he is like, but during ‘What We Did On Our Holiday‘ my guess is that he wasn’t doing much acting at all; he was getting paid to be himself! His delight in the children, and the affable way in which he ridicules the vanities and pretences of his family greatly contribute to the charm of this film.

There is a message at the core of the movie, about being true to yourself and making the most of the opportunities that life presents. Nothing ground-breaking, and the audience is rolled along in the genial sway of the story without a sense of being preached at.

In undertaking the 50/50 challenge this year, I have found it difficult to find films that seeped into my pores the way that some books have. But  ‘What We Did On Our Holiday’ is one of the rare ones that has and I know I will be returning to it time and time again.

(Film available on Netflix.)

Book No 37 (2015) : The Last Pier

the last pierRoma Tearne’s sixth novel is set against the backdrop of the last few days of peace before the Second World War was declared. Only 13-year old Cecilia’s life is not all that peaceful, amongst the comings and goings of Palmyra Farm. Her elder brother, Joe, is in love with Franca. the daughter of the Molinello family which runs the ice cream parlour in Bly.  At night her sister, Rose, climbs down the honeysuckle bush out into the dark, whilst her mother seems distracted. Added to the fact that Selwyn, her father, is often kept away from home by his various responsibilities and her Aunt Kitty seems to have taken against Rose, Cecilia’s life is complex. Pinky Wilson is surveying the land for war use, Bellamy the farm hand is always hanging around and Tom has already been evacuated from the city to Palmyra. Cecilia eavesdrops a lot, listening in on the conversations around her, trying to make sense of what is going on.

29 years later, Cecelia has returned to Palmyra, haunted by fragments of the past.   Rose is dead; she died during that 1939 summer, in tragic circumstances. As Cecilia pieces together her own recollections and finds some long-hidden family documents, the truth about Rose’s death is gradually revealed.

I’ve been mulling over my review for a couple of days since I finished ‘The Last Pier‘. On the one hand, I can appreciate Tearne’s exquisite writing; she has a turn of phrase which is often arresting and unexpected, but perfect in the choice of words she uses to convey a fleeting moment, a glance or an emotion. Her writing has an ethereal quality to it which is almost dreamlike. However, I found the writing almost too subtle. It was difficult to follow the plot, the threads joining together the elements of the story were very finely spun in some places, leaving me uncertain even at the end about what had actually happened.

In conclusion, all I can say is that ‘The Last Pier‘ didn’t really hit the spot for me. However, I would not want to put anyone off reading the novel, as its literary qualities are clearly not in question. I only hope that as Roma Tearne lives in Oxford, she doesn’t recognise me in Broad Street one day and deck me. Mind you, judging by her prose, she is far too elegant to do such a thing: she could probably knock me for six with a single, well-chosen sentence.

Thanks to NetGalley for my copy of the book.

Film No 22 (2015) : Amazing Grace

Amazing GraceDue to the vagaries of the English education system, I actually didn’t study History beyond the age of 14. Up until that point, we had ‘done’ Mesopotamia, Iron Age man, Henry VIII, The Industrial Revolution and WW2. As you can see, there are some fairly significant gaps in my historical insight: I’m not sure if I should really admit in public that I do attempt to shore up my pitiful knowledge by watching films such as ‘Amazing Grace‘.

This 2006 production, directed by Michael Apted, tells the story of William Wilberforce, the 18th Century parliamentarian who campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade. ‘Wilber’ is played by Ioan Gruffudd, supported by an impressive British cast including Michael Gambon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Albert Finney  and Rufus Sewell. Romola Garai plays Wilberforce’s wife – you may recognise her as ‘Sugar’ from the TV adaptation of Michel Faber’s ‘The Crimson Petal and the White.

The passage of Wilberforce’s Parliamentary Bill to abolish the slave trade was not a smooth one, as the interests of merchants were not best served by the prevention of slave trading, particularly in coastal port towns. Despite first-hand accounts of the cruelty of the trade, from both former slaves and sailors, together with petitions and the input of anti-slavery activists, there was still opposition to the Bill. It was not until 1792 that Parliament passed a Bill calling for ‘gradual abolition’.

Incidentally, the film takes its name from the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ which was penned by John Newton and published in 1779. Newton was himself the captain of a slave ship and although he continued to invest in the trade after his retirement, he did eventually denounce the inhumanity of slave trading. Wilberforce looked to Newton for spiritual guidance and also used Newton’s accounts of the slave trade to support his political campaign.

With its combination of classical actors, the great oratory and period setting, this film felt to me more like an elaborate stage production. As with most period dramas, I am always impressed by the attention to detail that goes into depicting the clothes, decor and customs of a bygone era and ‘Amazing Grace‘ was no exception.  Maybe not a stunning film, but definitely interesting and worth watching. Added to which, I also supplemented my meagre historical background, which can’t be a bad thing.

Book No 36 (2015) : The Children Act

children actIan McEwan’s is a Masterchef whose key ingredients are all carefully selected. With ‘The Children Act’ it’s as if the author has taken a much longer book and drained it through a sieve. All the wishy-washy, watery stuff has been siphoned off and the resultant literary reduction is smooth and palatable, but also deeply satisfying.

The book’s central character is a female High Court Judge practising in Family law, but the novel opens at a key point in her personal life rather than her professional one. Julia’s husband is contemplating an adulterous liaison with a young statistician and asks Julia to sanction the affair, on the basis that she and Jack no longer have a mutually fulfilling sex life. Julia is side-swiped by the request but clings to the belief that her marriage is worth saving. Whilst she is facing this intense personal challenge, the Judge is also dealing with her usual heavy workload. Divorce cases, access to children, the separation of conjoined twins, Julia has to rule on serious and life-changing cases. When the case of Adam Henry comes before her, there is not much time for a decision to be reached; Adam is opposing life-saving blood transfusions on the grounds that the procedure conflicts with his religious beliefs. At 17, is he mature enough to make the decision to refuse the treatment which will safe his life? That judgement is for Julia to make, and it is literally life or death. She gets to determine.

The Children Act’ examines not only the legal aspects of caring for families in society, (there are carefully-researched references to several landmark rulings), but also the immense skill required in the correct application of the law. McEwan explores ethics, religious belief and parental influence; as a reader I began to develop an appreciation of how difficult it must be to negotiate the complexities of the law and apply legal principles soundly. Within the book, because of the emotive nature of Adam’s situation, it is so easy to get side-tracked by moral or medical issues, when what the Judge must be concerned with is the law. The role of music and poetry is also important within the book; these art forms contrast with the formality of the law, providing outlets for self-expression, release and shared experiences.

I read ‘The Children Act‘ pretty much in one sitting; it is an interesting and thought-provoking read which succeeds on both emotional and cerebral levels. I put it down really feeling as if I had learned something. Quite an achievement for 224 pages. I’ve struggled with McEwan’s work in the past, but I am tempted now to re-visit some of his other work. A great read.

Book No 35 (2015) : The Daughter’s Secret

daughters secretHalf way through reading Eva Holland’s novel I dreamed that I had killed my baby: she had got too hot, so I wrapped her in cling film for warmth. Unfortunately though, I left her outside a lift and she died. The reason I mention this, is because ‘The Daughter’s Secret‘ tapped into that deep seam of anxiety which comes as part of the package of motherhood. Most of us are able to suppress it most of the time, telling ourselves that serial rapists, ravaging fire and motorway pile-ups are the exception rather than the norm. We push our fears to the back of our minds and get on with the school run. But Rosalind, mother of Stephanie, struggles to keep her anxiety under control at the best of times. So when her daughter goes missing and is found to have disappeared in the company of her Geography teacher, Nate Temperley, Ros’ worst fears are realised.

The novel opens at the point where Ros discovers that Temperley is about to be released from prison. Stephanie is struggling to cope at University, resorting to alcohol to blot out her pain and so her parents bring her home. Desperate to protect her daughter from her abductor’s influence, whilst battling her own personal demons, Rosalind is once again caught in a spiral of distress. The author exposes secrets and lies, as well as the role of instinct and desire within her character’s lives.

This thriller was the winner of the Good Housekeeping Novel Competition in 2014, an accolade which may send out a subliminal message that it is cosy, chick-lit fiction for women. But it is certainly not a comfortable read, concentrating as it does on the tensions of motherhood; as we try guide our children safely into adulthood, we crave to pull them back when they are threatened. The writing is taut and incisive, keeping me occupied for several hours and lingering in my mind even when I wasn’t reading. A great debut, although probably not for you if you tend to worry about your kids!

Thank you to NetGalley for my copy of this book.

Book No 34 : The Girl On the Train

Commuting is a tiresome business. Squashed, sweaty, no seats, same old, same old. Rachel travels in to Euston every day, but instead of doing something useful like reading a novel or teaching herself Mandarin, she stares out of the windows. The main object of her scrutiny is the street where she used to live with her husband, Tom. He still lives there but with his new wife, Anna and their baby, Evie. A few doors down Blenheim Road lives another young couple, Jason and Jess: Rachel watches and notices things about them, sees them out on their terrace together. Only they aren’t called Jason and Jess, that is just Rachel’s fantasy; their names are actually Scott and Megan. When Megan goes missing, Rachel may have seen something which could help find her. The difficulty is that Rachel drinks; and she drinks so much that sometimes she can’t remember exactly what she did see.

The novel is narrated by three alternate characters; Rachel, Megan and Anna. As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that the three women are interlinked in more ways than were obvious at first. Despite the immense hype around this thriller, comparing it to other successful publications such as ‘Gone Girl‘ and ‘Before I Go to Sleep‘, I was not taken with it. Characters don’t have to be unfailingly kind, generous and witty for me to enjoy a book, there is a lot of enthralling literature about dark and evil people. But the cast of Hawkins’ book is perpetually gloomy; the females are unreliable and untrustworthy, the men are duplicitous and violent. Even the baby grizzles. As the narration itself is well-suited to a suburban London setting i.e grey and repetitive, the plot needed to be extraordinary to lift the novel out of the doldrums. Sadly, I didn’t think it was as although there is a twist in the end, it was predictable.

Two-thirds of the way through reading ‘The Girl on the Train‘, I pondered what I would do if the book was swept out of my hands by a huge tidal wave: would I be so desperate to discover Megan’s fate that I would swim against an oceanic tide to recover it? Sadly not, I concluded. I would have been quite happy to let it drift away. Hardly a recommendation, I know, but life is too short to be a trainspotter.

Book No 33 (2015) : Lillian on Life

lillian on lifeI’ve had a lifelong dread of being the first one to fart in a relationship’, says Lillian. Really? I don’t believe that is true; it sounds like a smart thing that someone might say in a book, to make the reader smile or laugh. And so it was with the KY jelly, the sleeping penis and the matches to dispel bathroom smells – I wasn’t disgusted, just uninterested in these revelations.  They didn’t feel deep or meaningful, just mundane. Who wants to read about farting?

Lillian is the invention of author Alison Jean Lester, and her life is described in short chapters. We learn about her disapproving mother and the Poppa to whom she is devoted. Once she leaves the USA, Lillian lives an independent, sometimes glamorous life, taking jobs in several European cities. She never marries or has children, but each city brings new liaisons. Lillian’s love affairs are recounted truthfully; the love of her life is a married man and one male forces himself upon her. Lillian has got wiser as she has got older and her recollections reveal her current stage of life. As a middle-aged woman, Lillian contemplates her choices.

This book reads like a memoir rather than a work of fiction; I maybe would have found it more interesting had it actually been autobiographical, possibly of somebody famous. As it was, I just found this book tedious – 86% of people who rated the book on Goodreads liked it so I am in the minority but I was one of the 14% who didn’t. I’m not proud of being a fourteen-percenter in this case, but this book left me completely cold. In a week’s time, I think all I am likely to remember is the cover, which is gorgeous.

Thank you to NetGalley for the copy of this book.