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.

You can follow my blog to make sure you don’t miss any postings – just use the WordPress, Bloglovin’ or email links on the left. No spam, I promise!

Do have a good look around and come back soon!

Book No 24 (2015) : Shoes for Anthony

anthonyEmma Kennedy is an attractive blonde, born in Corby and educated at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. As far as I can tell, she has never been an eleven year-old boy. Which makes her first fiction novel for adults quite an achievement; Anthony’s schoolboy perspective is insightful, sensitive and amusing.

In WW2 Wales, Anthony’s Mam has more to worry about and pay for than shoes for her youngest child. With her pitworker husband and two sons, as well as daughter Bethan, plus Anthony and herself, there are a lot of mouths to feed on wartime rations. So Ant has to make do with hand-me-down wellies which make him smell like a ‘mouldy log.’ But Anthony doesn’t mind too much, although he does hoard a picture of his dream brogues. Times are tough but Ant has his mates, a group of lads from the village with whom he spends time scrapping, hanging out in the den, climbing, exploring and getting into boy scrapes. But everything changes the day that a German plane crashes into the mountain overlooking Treherbert. Its occupants are all dead when the villagers arrive. But they soon discover there was a survivor.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from the book as the only other thing I have read of Kennedy’s is the hilarious ‘The Tent, The Bucket and Me.’ ‘Shoes for Anthony‘ is quite different. The author herself describes it as a thriller, but that is not immediately apparent from the relatively slow start. However, the pace gradually picks up until one minute I was laughing and the next crying. This was a genuinely moving read, beautifully recounted and with a very special human touch. I thoroughly recommend it.

Even if your usual style is more Givenchy than galoshes, you are guaranteed to be captivated by Anthony and his wartime community.

Film No 20 (2015) : Spy

spyWell, who’d have thought it? Fat people can be good at their jobs. Amazing isn’t it?

What’s more, they can fall in love with beautiful people, like CIA agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Jeez, talk about Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) punching above her not inconsiderable weight. Don’t worry though, just in case anyone in the film audience might be misled into thinking that the most corpulent member of the CIA office team may be able to make a positive contribution to the protection of national security, we will put her into an array of unflattering, stereo-typed and ridiculous characters when she goes undercover. Tell you what, we will also contrast her with several stick-thin actresses just to push the point home. Yet, Susan Cooper still comes out on top. Despite being a lump.

Do I sound scathing? More than a little. My co-viewers accused me of over-analysing. Maybe I am a little hyper-sensitive being of the chunky monkey variety myself, but my son did concede that ‘Spy’ would not have worked, been anywhere near as funny, had Susan Cooper been a breadstick.

Susan Cooper is the voice in Fine’s ear. Using advanced technology, she is able to track and monitor the agent’s precise location and direct him out of danger. When Fine is killed in action, Cooper persuades her boss Elaine (Alison Janney) to let her go undercover to hunt out the villains. The mission takes Cooper to Paris, Rome and Budapest as she is sent to track and report on the movements of Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) and Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale). Having not been out in the field for some time, Cooper’s skills are rusty, but she grows in confidence and before long is wielding pistols and hanging off helicopters with the best of them.

I am not daft enough not to be able to see the comedy value of the film. It has a smart script, peppered with witty one-liners and quotable moments. It also has an array of glorious characters, particularly the wonderfully ambigious Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz) and egotistical braggart Rick Ford (Jason Statham). The settings are glamorous and some of the action sequences nail-bitingly brilliant; notably, a fight between Cooper and Lia (Nargis Fakhri) in a hotel kitchen, where the choreography is stunning, a decent car chase and several exciting punch-ups. Miranda Hart stars as Nancy but to my mind, she is one of those actors (along with Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy and Billy Connolly) who just play themselves all the time.

‘Spy’ will make you laugh. I just couldn’t get over the insidious underlying messages. To me, laughing at fat people is a cheap gag.

Book No 23 (2015) : Song of the Sea Maid

song of the sea maidPersonally, I am not a big fan of fridge magnets with twee mottos, but there is one I do like. It says: “Well behaved women never made the history books“. If Dawnay Price, the protagonist of Rebecca Mascull’s second novel had been a real person, she would definitely have made the history books. In fact, she would probably have been writing them.

Dawnay (there is an explanation for her odd name, but I won’t spoil it) has a rotten start in life in mid-18thC London. A homeless ragamuffin, she lives a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets until a chance encounter sees her taken in by an orphanage. Once there, the young foundling risks being despatched to the workhouse by secretly teaching herself to read and write. Her efforts do not go unrewarded as when local benefactor Mr Woods agrees to educate a child, Dawnay is chosen. Under the dedicated tutelage of Mr Applebee, the naturally gifted Dawnay thrives. Intelligent, curious and determined, she is drawn to the wonders of the natural world and resolves to travel abroad in order to explore and develop some of her ideas about the origins of life, amongst other things. Achieving her ambition to see beyond the shores of Britain, Dawnay secures a passage to a small group of Portugese islands known as the Berlengas. A passionate love affair, natural disasters and the risk of being ostracised by polite society do not deter Dawnay from her chosen path as an explorer, scientist, philosopher and writer.

Firmly rooted in history, but not at all dense, this is an absorbing read. Dawnay reminded me just how much we take for granted in the West, including women’s education, free speech and some semblance of equal rights (although we still have a way to go!). Unfettered by social conventions, which were extremely rigid in the 1750s, she forges her own path in life. Her ideas are heretical yet she refuses to be subdued. This book is a testament to self-belief, intellect and hard work. With Tim Hunt’s comments about #distractinglysexy women in laboratories recently, ‘Song of the Sea Maid‘ explores some extremely topical themes.

I can wholeheartedly recommend this book; it is published today by Hodder & Stoughton. Although not a YA book per se, it would make a fantastic gift for any young female who is struggling with identity and finding her place in the world. ‘Song of the Sea Maid‘ is a positive affirmation of what it is to be sexy and smart; the two are not mutually exclusive.

Film No 19 (2015) : Saving Mr Banks

saving mr banks 1PL Travers, the creator of magical nanny Mary Poppins, needs to raise some cash. Her agent therefore suggests that she renew negotiations with Walt Disney, who has been trying unsuccessfully for many years to acquire the rights to turn the Mary Poppins stories into a film. Travers is not keen, as she is certain that her characters will not be interpreted faithfully. Nevertheless, she makes the journey to Los Angeles to meet Mr Disney. Once there, she agrees to be involved in writing the screenplay for the movie, but she has many stipulations about it; no red, no animation, no whimsy. Her relationship with the other writers is strained as they fail to grasp the extent to which Travers’ creations are personal to her, plus she is disdainful and dismissive of Disney’s fantasy worlds. After a troubled journey the film version of ‘Mary Poppins’ is finally released. This story is interspersed with flashbacks to Travers’ past as the daughter of an alcoholic, growing up in the Australian town of Allora. It is through these recollections that the autobiographical nature of Travers’ characters becomes apparent, explaining her deep emotional attachment to them.

I bought ‘Saving Mr Banks‘ from the bargain bucket at the supermarket. Having watched it, I wish I’d kept my £3. No doubt that sounds harsh, but this film, based loosely around a true story, did nothing for me at all.

Emma Thompson is one of my favourite actors, but I found her portrayal of PL Travers to be contrived and over-acted. Reading around the subject of the real Travers, I have discovered that the author was probably not a likeable person, but in ‘Saving Mr Banks’ she appeared as a collection of exaggerated personality traits rather than a complete person. It was also difficult to associate the young Travers, a pretty and engaging young girl who adored her father, with the socially inept, bossy and lonely person she became as an adult. Notwithstanding the traumatic effects of childhood events, an adult as weird as PL Travers must have been a pretty odd kid! Tom Hanks puts in a credible performance as Walt Disney but it was stretching the point to expect me to believe that after 20 years of discussions, the difficulties between himself and Travers were resolved after his one visit to the UK.

So, a big disappointment. Rather than a spoonful of sugar, I felt as if I needed half a bottle of whisky and two tranquilisers to help this movie go down!

Book No 22 (2015) : You

you 1Joanna Briscoe’s novel ‘You‘ has an innocuous title but it is by no means a wishy-washy read. The book weaves together the stories of a mother, Dora, and her daughter, Cecilia. Both embark upon illicit affairs; Dora with Elisabeth, an art teacher at the school where they both teach and Cecilia with Elisabeth’s husband, James. Both relationships are passionate, obsessive. When Cecilia falls pregnant, Dora arranges for her baby to be adopted. Years later, Cecilia returns with her own daughters to the wild Devon house where Dora raised her family, to be near her mother as she recovers from cancer. As the women’s lives come together again, Cecilia and Dora liaisons reverberate intensely.

Usually I care a bit about what other people thought of a book, it matters to me whether others loved or hated it, in case too wild a deviation from the norm highlights some kind of eccentricity on my part. With ‘You‘, I really don’t care: I’ll nail my colours to the mast and declare this book to be amazing. I lived and breathed it for the time it took to read; I was certain I knew Cecilia, could visualise Wind Tor and hear James’ voice. Briscoe’s prose is artful, her conversation realistic in that it is not purely a device to progress the plot – it reflects the clumsy tools that words can be in our efforts to communicate with one another.

I went to an all-girls school right the way up to sixth form; as I recall, there was only ever one male teacher in all the time that I was there. It would therefore have been impossible for me to have an affair with a tutor of the opposite sex. There were more opportunities at Uni, but I was not in lectures often enough for anyone to remember my name, let alone seduce me. But reports of teacher/student relationships appear often in the press, almost always provoking outrage and debate. Parents are shocked the abuse of trust and power, others suggest that a girl over the age of 16 can make her own choices and ‘leave them alone, age doesn’t matter when you are in love’. If ‘You’ were to be your next choice as a book club read, I am sure it would provoke a lot of discussion, not only about the novel itself but around the key themes.

Book No 21 (2015) : Sleepyhead

Sleepyhead 1Mark Billingham’s ‘Sleepyhead‘ was published in 2001 and I downloaded it from Amazon onto my Kindle for 99p. A bargain, considering this was a Sunday Times Bestseller.  Crime fiction is not really my thing, but I am always tempted by the blurbs promising thriller reads.

Tom Thorne is trying to trace a killer who has committed his crimes by using pressure in a specific part of the victim’s neck, followed by a couple of swift manipulations, to cause a fatal stroke. He tries to kill Allison Willetts as well, but fails. He leaves her alive but trapped, by Locked-In Syndrome. DI Tom Thorne thinks she may know the identity of the killer, but she can only communicate by blinking one eyelid. By the time she and her doctor have worked out an effective form of communication, time is running out. Thorne discovers the real reason behind the killer’s attacks and identifies a prime suspect; but can he prove who the killer is before yet another mistake is made?

Wait for it. Wait for it. Fanfare. Drum roll. I guessed, I guessed! For probably the first time since I figured out that Pauline was nothing but a common girl in ‘Claudine at St Clare’s‘, I correctly identified the killer before the big reveal. To my mind, this is a Good Thing. Nothing frustrates me more than reading through 300-or so pages of a crime novel, only to discover at the end that the murderer was the chap painting the Police Station fence at the end of the first chapter. Knowing that the author set down a trail of clues which I, the astute reader, managed to pick up on and collate made me feel pretty damn smug. Of course the DI works it all out as well, but I was there before him!

I can recommend this as an easy, passing time on a journey kind of book. You may also learn how to induce a stroke (there are some pretty graphic descriptions), should you feel the need to acquire such a skill. Not a book for the faint-hearted.

Film No 18 (2015) : Fast and Furious 6

FF6 2I am a bit behind the curve with the ‘Fast and Furious’ series, seeing as how this was the first one I’d watched and it was number 6! I’m tempted to say that it doesn’t matter because they are all the same etc etc, but I think it would have helped me to understand the plot a bit more quickly, in particular the relationships between the gang members and how they came to be living in all quarters of the globe, if I’d seen the first 5. I had to keep asking my co-pilot (teenage son) for background details, which no doubt hampered his enjoyment of the movie more than it did mine.

So the Fast and Furious (which sounds like my old Classics teacher on a fruitless search for my homework!) crew members are recruited by Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to track down a widget in very small, grey metal case. This undefined widget will become the means by which the entire world is obliterated, if it falls into the wrong hands. A hunt develops as Hobbs and the FF gang (lets call them the Goodies) try to catch the other people who have the widget (lets call them the Baddies). As an added complication, a former girlfriend of one of the Goodie gang has somehow become involved with the Baddie gang, but has lost her memory and shoots the guy she used to love. (It turns out she still loves him, but has forgotten). The FF crew will try to get the widget back as long as they are allowed back into the US without being prosecuted; so they must have committed crimes in previous movies.

The main part of the film is then taken up with hunting down the Baddies. The operation is masterminded from a dingy control centre which looks like the cockpit of the Starship Enterprise, even though it is only tracking five individuals, all of whom probably have ‘Find my IPhone’ enabled anyway. There are car chases, fist fights, karate kicks, shooting with bigger and bigger guns, more car chases. It all culminates in a master chase involving people hanging off a Jumbo Jet, ending with the whole thing exploding into flames and someone walking out of the inferno alive and clutching the metal case with the widget inside. I hope I haven’t spoiled the ending.

Special effects and stunts-wise, the movie is extremely accomplished. I couldn’t help paying special attention to Paul Walker though, knowing that he died in a car smash in 2013. He was the passenger in a car which hit a lamppost at over 80 mph. Although movies like ‘Fast and Furious’ provide all-action fun and entertainment, Walker’s appearance is a stark reminder that those metal boxes need to be treated with respect. In real life, people don’t walk away clutching the key to the universe in their hands.

Book No 20 (2015) : Secrets of the Lighthouse

Secrets of the Lighthouse 1I love lighthouses. Over the years I’ve read about them, visited and photographed them, stayed in keepers’ cottages and dreamed of owning a light and turning it into a cafe/museum. So, if there is a lighthouse-themed novel, I’m there.

Santa Montefiore’s (she is Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s sister by the way, never knew that!) ‘Secrets of the Lighthouse‘ attracted me because of the pharology connection. Unfortunately though, it was not enough to sustain my interest in the book.

The lighthouse at Connemara is the scene of the death of the beautiful Caitlin Macausland and is now a burned-out ruin. Ellen Trawton is a Londoner, daughter of a Lady and engaged to a man she doesn’t love. Feeling the need to escape, Ellen heads for Ireland and discovers a whole new family of which she was unaware. She falls in love with Caitlin’s widower and as she starts to feel at home on the Emerald Isle, the reasons for her natural affinity with Ireland are gradually revealed.

Caitlin’s spirit voice is one of the narrator’s of the book as she describes her attempts to contact her children and influence her husband’s love life from her place beyond the grave. That set my teeth on edge to start with – I didn’t warm to the dead narrator in ‘The Lovely Bones‘ and I didn’t here either. Aside from that, the plot is mediocre and the character development quite poor; everyone seemed wooden and stereotypically Irish – broad, dark-haired, Guinness-drinking musical pub-dwellers. I finished the book to find out what happens, but this is not an author I would read again in a rush. For beach-book mental floss, my preference is for Lucinda Riley.

It did set me off on another train of thought though. I wonder how much lighthouse fiction there is, as I can think of quite a few novels….

Film No 17 (2015) : White House Down

white house down 1 When in Rome…so when it’s half term and you are with your teenage boy, you watch outrageous action movies on Netflix. ‘White House Down’ stars Channing Tatum as Cale, a would-be secret agent who gets trapped in the White House with his 13-year old daughter when it is invaded by a violent gang. It turns out that the gang has help on the inside of the White House, but the plot is so thin I won’t spoil it by telling you who the traitor is.

Needless to say, Cale becomes almost single-handedly responsible for delivering the White House from evil. He has to hide, shoot, hide in elevator shafts, bring down helicopters and save President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). Oh, and rescue his daughter who has been taken hostage by the gun-wielding maniacs.

It is all so outlandish and ridiculous, that I watched it with the same suspension of belief that I would if I was watching ‘The Hobbit’. The stunts are daring and well-executed, the acting mediocre, the storyline even worse. But it’s fun. I wasn’t surprised to see that the film won the Teen Choice Awards Summer Action/Adventure movie. I have a teen and this film was just the ticket for passing a couple of hours in the company of my offspring!

Book No 19 (2015) : We were Liars

we were liars 1Cadence Sinclair is part of a beautiful, privileged family that spends its summers on a private island. In her own voice, Cady tells us all this, and also how she fell in love with Gat in summer fifteen. There was a group of teenagers on the island, three cousins (Cady, Johnny and Mirren) and Johnny’s friend, Gat. They spent long days in the sun, fooling in the water, eating, talking. Occasionally they would spend time with their respective mothers, (three sisters), or their wealthy grandfather from whom their parents stand to inherit a fortune, or their smaller cousins ‘the littles’. Cady tells us all about it, but there are gaps in her recollections, bits she can’t quite recall because one summer she had an accident on the island. Now her head hurts all the time and her memories don’t quite fit together properly. Maybe Gat, or Johnny or Mirren can help her piece them together again?

It has been a long time since I was 16. But I can remember the summers when we all hung out, recovering from exams, drinking, being lazy and falling in love. I expect our parents wondered if we would ever morph into fully-functioning adults. We weren’t liars, but we were languid and detached, breaking away from our childhoods. E Lockhart captures that time beautifully in this book. Cady’s narrative is flawed, but somehow that makes her more credible.

I did have one criticism, which was the use of an allegorical fairy tale woven at intervals throughout the text. It seemed clumsy and unnecessary. With the author’s obvious talent, I’m sure she could have found a more effective device. Nevertheless, this was an engaging read which I really enjoyed. Internet reviews are mixed, but I loved it.

The book is apparently in the ‘Young Adult’ fiction genre   So, if you are looking out of your window and can see a teenager mooning dreamily in a hammock, you could do worse than chuck her (or him*) a copy of ‘We were Liars’. It will be the perfect accompaniment to a coming-of-age summer. Stand by with tissues though, as there is a twist which may end in tears.

(*tbh I am not sure if this is a teenage him kind of book, but I may be wrong).