Book No 14 (2014) : Last Bus to Woodstock

woodstockConsidering I have lived in Oxford for the best part of 20 years, it has taken me an inordinately long time to get around to reading an Inspector Morse mystery. ‘Last Bus to Woodstock’ was given to me as a birthday present by a friend, to help with the 50/50 challenge.

To start with I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to read the book without constant flashing images of John Thaw as Morse and Kevin Whately as Lewis, as per the TV series. But that didn’t happen at all – because the characters I imagined were completely different from Thaw and Whately. My Morse was tougher, sexier, more vibrant – and my Lewis was nowhere near as insipid as his ITV counterpart.

Sylvia and her friend are waiting at the bus stop one night, but decide instead to hitch a ride. Sylvia is later found murdered, in the back yard of the Black Prince pub. Morse and Lewis john thaware assigned to the case and eventually uncover the truth behind the events leading up to the death.

The plot to the murder mystery is intricate and tightly woven. However, I had some severe misgivings about the book. Firstly, I found it extremely frustrating that the clues were not planted throughout the narrative to allow me to work out whodunit. I don’t think I am a particularly dense reader, and the perpetrator turns out to be a character that has paid a fairly minor role in the drama. Morse has the details worked out by the end, and all is revealed in the last 20 pages. But, how frustrating. If there is no way to figure out the mystery, it just makes Inspector Morse (and Colin Dexter) seem like smug, supercilious know-it-alls.

dexterWhich brings me to Colin Dexter. Notwithstanding the fact that ‘Last Bus to Woodstock’ was published in 1975 and social attitudes may have changed, Dexter’s portrayals of women are at best disparaging, at worst verging on the misogynistic. Females are either angels or whores, Morse is attracted to a young nurse in uniform and there was an uncomfortable sense that some of the characters felt that young Sylvia may have been ‘asking for it’ based upon what she was wearing.

Colin Dexter’s work has been highly praised but, if this book is indicative of the rest of the series, I am not a fan.

One thing I would add is that this actual book is of a beautiful quality. This edition, published by Pan, has smooth, creamy white pages, super-clear font and a lustrous cover. A joy to hold in my hands.

Films Nos 11 – 18 (2014) Harry Potter Series

HP & The Philosophers StoneTo coincide with a visit to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour, we watched all eight of the Harry Potter movies. That is approximately 19 hours of watching a nerdy boy with glasses cast magical spells.

I doubt there are many amongst us who have not had any encounters at all with the wonderful students and staff of Hogwarts and its associated company of wizards, witches, goblins, dwarves, giants, elves and monsters – not to mention the all-powerful Dark Lord, Voldemort. Harry Potter has become part of our popular culture, a publishing and marketing phenomenon.

Watching the earliest films, ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ and the ‘Chamber of Secrets’, what struck me most is that without the context of the later stories and movies, they are simply excellent films. The characters are young and the stories have more of a fairy tale, action adventure air about them. If I were a younger viewer, they would have transported me in my imagination to another world. But J.K.Rowling’s genius is the development of the plot and its cast – in particular Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny and Neville. The whole premise shifts almost imperceptibly from a fun idea, into something much more sinister and encompassing than sticking a wand up a troll’s nose!

The death of Cedric Diggory in ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’ is pivotal within the development of the plot and its players.cedric All of a sudden, the power of magic becomes more than a useful tool and its full potential is realised. As the characters move through puberty and into adolescence, their whole emotional maturity grows as they grapple with grief, guilt, responsibility, loyalty, love and jealousy. The fearless trio seem to battle as many demons inside their own minds as they do outside of them.

Excuse the terrible pun, but I was spellbound! The lure of the imaginary world and the detail of the plot are more captivating when watching the films in close succession. Occasionally I got lost in the twists and turns of the storyline and its 200+ characters, but that’s OK, nobody likes anything too simple.

emmaAt the end of the final film (‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II’) I was left with just one burning question.

How did Emma Watson grow up into someone so good-looking?

And Daniel Radcliffe, well, so…not?

Incidentally, the Warner Bros Tour is amazing. You don’t have to be a raving HP fan to enjoy it, I think most people would enjoy seeing how they manipulate Computer-Generated Images and construct animatronics. The facilities are excellent, and even the refreshments are reasonably priced. Butterbeers and Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans all round!

Book No 13 (2014) : The Universe vs Alex Woods

alex woodsI suggested that my book buddies read this for our March meeting – so, if you are in my book group, look away now! It was recommended by a friend who raved about it and I have to say I agree with her view that it was one of the best things we had read in ages.

Alex Woods is a young lad who, following a freak encounter with nature, develops a form of epilepsy. This, together with his social awkwardness, leaves him isolated and without many friends of his own age. Circumstances throw him in the path (well, actually it’s the garden shed) of an elderly neighbour, Mr Peterson. The two form an unlikely friendship, despite their age difference. When Mr Peterson starts to develop some disturbing health problems, he and Alex make a controversial decision which alleviates the older man’s worries about living with a degenerative condition.

The joy of this book for me was Alex’s character. I do not want to label him, but he does display many of the characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome. He is extremely literal, has to work hard at banal pleasantries and is disconcertingly honest. He is also compassionate, observant, intelligent and has an enquiring mind which allows him to seek out and remember facts about a wide range of topics. These vary from astronomy and neurology to Kurt Vonnegut and Alex’s diverse knowledge is the source of a great deal of the warmth and humour of the book.

One criticism I did have though, is that the novel starts with the ending of the story. I wished this had been different; although the conclusion starts to become clear, I think I would have preferred the revelation to have been at the close of the narrative.

But, to be honest, I’m being picky. I defy anyone not to enjoy this heart-warming read. Whether you like Kurt Vonnegut or not!

Book No 12 (2014) : Everything and Nothing

everythingEverything and Nothing’ is a ‘Hand that Rocks the Cradle’ plot. An efficient nanny joins the chaotic household of Ruth and Christian, to take care of Betty and Hal. Betty doesn’t sleep and Hal doesn’t eat, but Agatha manages to resolve these issues within weeks of arriving. She brings order to the household and gradually makes herself indispensable. Her employers, facing their own personal demons, take scant interest in their new helper, until her behaviour starts to cause concern – just who have they allowed into their family?

Now at this point I do not have to confess that I have never written a published novel, nor am I likely to. That fact alone should probably convince me to proceed with caution when criticising others’ efforts. But in this case, I just can’t resist quoting what must be amongst the clumsiest descriptive writing I have ever come across:

‘Her hair was as insipid as over-cooked spaghetti’spaghetti

‘She felt as see-through and inconsequential as a lace nightdress’

‘He felt as insubstantial as an evaporating puddle on the floor of a forest’

Although the plot moves along smoothly, this book lacks dynamism. It felt flat and predictable with few surprises. All of the characters were clichéd; Ruth, working mother wracked with guilt, Christian, misunderstood husband engaged in an extra-marital affair, Agatha the psychopathic nanny.

I think a better title for this book might have been ‘Something and Nothing’.

Film No 10 (2014) : Grease

Grease is the word
Is the word
Is the word
Is the word
Is the word
Is the word
Is the word
Is the word
Is the word

grease 1Grease was released in September 1978, the start of my 4th year at secondary school. It was the soundtrack of my mid-teens, sandwiched between Meatloaf’s ‘Bat out of Hell’ and Springsteen’s ‘Hungry Heart’. I’m not sure whether it has ever really gone out of fashion, as it has also been playing repeatedly in the background of my daughters’ teenage years (although her tastes also encompass the somewhat incongruous Eminem!).

The screening of ‘Grease’ which I saw was a Sing-a-Longa performance. For the uninitiated, the concept is really very simple: A host introduces the movie and explains the contents of the ‘goodie bag’ on each seat; a flag to wave at Thunder Road, tissue to accompany ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ etc. Audience members parade on stage to show off their ‘Pink Ladies’ and ‘T-Bird’ costumes and it is staggering to see the lengths to which some folk go to appear as the sexiest Sexy Sandy and coolest Kenickie. As the film plays, the lyrics of all the songs appear on the screen, tempting even the worst singers to join in. Audience participation is encouraged, often with hilarious results.

The film continues to appeal to the teenage girl in lots of us. Of course it has dubious morals – Rizzo has unprotected sex, everyone smokes and Sandy finally wins over her man on a promise of surrendering her virginity. But I’m prepared to sell my feminist principles down the river for the sake of a couple of hours of fun. grease 2

I was surprised to realise that even after 36 years, the words came flooding back. Even the ‘We go together like ramma lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong,  Remembered forever as shoo-bop sha whada whadda yippidy boom da boom’. Shame I can’t remember what I had for breakfast though!

Book No 11 (2014) : The Thirteenth Tale

13th taleOnce I’d got used to the idea that this book was actually not about the Amish (I got that impression from the two little girls in white cotton petticoats on the front cover!), I settled down to enjoy it.

Margaret Lea is a solitary character, spending her time helping in her father’s bookshop, where she lives above the shop. Having published a short biographical essay, she is approached by a celebrated contemporary author, Vida Winter. Ms Winter asks Margaret to chronicle the truth about her life, telling the story of her childhood and upbringing at Angelfield, the family home. As you would expect from such a tale, Vida is reclusive, eccentric and ready to reveal her secrets.

The author of ‘The Thirteenth Tale’ has been accused of being pretentious, as the book has a Gothic feel together with references to several classics, most notably ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Rebecca’. That was not my impression. It’s an interesting take on the rambling house/skeletons in the cupboard/family saga and the plot had enough twists to keep me interested throughout.  The book was adapted as a TV movie, starring Vanessa Redgrave as Vida Winter – perfect choice.

I rather wished I was Margaret – bookshop inhabitant, wanderer of old houses, budding biographer!

Book No 10 (2014) : The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

lemon cakeTo be honest, I just didn’t ‘get’ this book at all. In fact, it was so frustrating that I hunted down an online web chat with the author, to see if she herself could shed a light on the mysteries of ‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’.

Rose Edelstein has a peculiar gift. She can taste in her food the emotions of the person who prepared it. This insight turns out to be rather a curse, as mealtimes lose all their pleasure and she discovers that her mother is hiding a secret. chairRose also has a brother, Joseph who is, frankly, a bit weird. He begins to undergo unexplained disappearances, withdrawing for varying periods of time and then re-appearing. When he fails to achieve a place at his preferred university, he moves into a flat on his own and eventually vanishes altogether. Only he hasn’t actually vanished. Joseph has morphed into a chair. In case you think you have read that wrongly, I repeat – Rose’s brother turns into a chair.

My main frustration with the book (apart from the lack of speech marks) is that Rose’s family’s so-called talents are completely pointless. The knowledge Rose gains is not put to any use, either good or bad, it merely seems to be a strange strand to an otherwise fairly ordinary American teenager’s diary. The premise of the book is exciting, but the book just doesn’t deliver. It felt as if the author could see an idea in her imagination, but can’t convey her vision clearly. If it is intended as ‘magical realism’, it’s rather skimpy in the ‘magical’ department.

So, how does Aimee Bender explain her work? Turns out she couldn’t really, claiming that she liked the ambiguity of the ending: ‘I’m not really sure what [Joseph’s] gift was’. A deeply unsatisfying read, which I probably would have discarded half-way through if it wasn’t for not wanting to waste the time I’d invested thus far!

Film No 9 (2014) : La Vie en Rose

La Vie en RoseA stunning biopic of the life of Edith Piaf, powerful French chanteuse who was at the height of her fame in the 1960s. Marion Cotillard won no less than seven ‘Best Actress’ awards (including an Oscar) for this performance and it’s easy to see why. The film is full of power and pathos, Cotillard’s portrayal of the troubled and mercurial Piaf is utterly mesmerising. The film is in French with sub-titles but, for me, the performance in Piaf’s native tongue added to the drama of the movie.

The film traces Piaf’s life from her early days as a the young Edith Gassion in Paris. When Edith is abandoned by her mother, she is taken in by her paternal grandmother who earns her living as the Madame of a brothel. The young Edith is cared for by the prostitutes before being taken away by her father on his return from World War 1. Louis Gassion is a contortionist, but it is his daughter’s idiosyncratic and powerful singing voice which draws in the spectators. A chance meeting with nightclub owner Louis Leplée in 1935 sees Edith proverbially plucked from obscurity – her rise to fame had begun. It was Leplee who gave Edith the stage name La Môme Piaf (‘The Little Sparrow’), later to become simply Edith Piaf.

By all accounts, Piaf was not a conventionally beautiful woman, neither was she easy to work with. It was all about the voice; haunting, melancholic and edith piafpowerful. A combination of drug addiction, illness and personal tragedy took their toll on Edith. She died of liver cancer in France aged just 47.

 I don’t want to give away too much more of the singer’s life story here, as the film depicts it passionately. As to whether the film is accurate in terms of events, I have no idea. But I thoroughly enjoyed the movie – and Marion Cotillard is rather better at impersonating Edith Piaf than I seem to remember Esther Rantzen being!

Film No 8 (2014) : Blue Jasmine

blue jasmineDirected by cinema veteran Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine is not a film you watch for the plot. The story line is straightforward – girl meets rich boy, lives enviable luxury lifestyle. Boy turns out to be a philanderer and a crook and is punished for his crimes. Girl loses everything. Cate Blanchett stars as the delusional Janette, alias Jasmine, trying to rebuild her life after her husband’s imprisonment. With no money or skills, she moves in with her sister and tries to make a new start. Ill-equipped as she is for life without luxury and privilege, Jasmine’s attempts are not entirely successful.

Blanchet’s depiction of Jasmine is flawless. She runs the gamut of emotions from hope, desperation, confusion, embarrassment and rage – wearing her heart on her sleeve, her facial expressions are the window to her soul. It’s obvious that Jasmine has been misguided in her choices, ignoring the myriad warning signs that all was not well with her charmed life. Nevertheless, I was rooting for her to find a way back to the security she craved, even if she didn’t deserve it!