Film No 32 (2014) : Divergent

divergent filmNew York, New York – so good they named it twice.

Divergent, Divergent – so good we watched it twice! Seriously, we viewed it twice in 2 days.

The 2014 film adaptation of the novel features Shailene Woodley as Tris  and Ansel Elgort as her brother, Caleb (the pair are also cast opposite one another in The Fault in our Stars). Four is played by Theo James (a local-born lad, went to Aylesbury Grammar) and the movie also stars Ashley Judd (Natalie, Tris’ mother) and Kate Winslet. Directed by Neil Burger, it is a faithful adaptation of the novel, although the book goes into far more detail about the friendships and tensions which develop between the Dauntless initiates. I also found that, somewhat surprisingly, the violence in the written version was more graphic than on-screen. This film has a great soundtrack, with Ellie Goulding, Snow Patrol and Kendrick Lamar.

Even if you have not read the book, this is a great action movie, with plenty of food for thought. When I was younger, I don’t remember watching many films aimed at teenagers which made me think that deeply about anything – there was not much between ‘Midnight Express’ and ‘Grease’! Tris’ tests as part of the Dauntless initiation certainly made me reflect upon my own attitudes to fear, whether mental or physical. I’ve never been in a situation where I faced real physical danger (unless you count getting snow-bound in my Ford Fiesta on the A90 in Forfar), mental fears are more my forte. I’m frightened of failing, of exposure, of humiliation, frightened to even try sometimes. Beating our inner demons seems to require far more courage than overcoming more tangible ones.

Dauntless never give up. Tris makes the cut, but I am not sure I would.



Book No 38 (2014) : Last Days of the Bus Club

bus clubI tell you, if you have yet to discover Chris Stewart, you are in for a treat! ‘Last Days of the Bus Club‘ is the latest in the series of auto-biographical works which began with ‘Driving Over Lemons‘.

Chris, together with his wife, Ana, upped sticks and moved to Las Alpujarras in Southern Spain. The first book tells the tale of their early years in ‘El Valero’, a remote farm. Surrounded by orange and lemon trees, sheep and peasants, the couple begin to carve out a life for themselves. A life, it turns out, full of major and minor disasters, colourful characters and endless optimism. 3 books later and by the time of ‘Last Days of the Bus Club‘, Chris and Ana’s daughter, Chloe, is leaving home for University in Granada, opening up a new phase of life for her and her parents.  The Stewarts make their living at Casa Ana from organic oranges, farming and writing, plus various diverse activities such as hosting walking tours and cookery classes.

Now I don’t think that Chris Stewart’s life is any funnier than mine. It’s just that he spins a great yarn; he would make a fabulous dinner-party guest! His descriptions of the characters he encounters, landscape, journeys, wildlife, conversations are filled with rich and endearing details which bring everything sharply into focus. On top of which, Chris’ writing is hilarious. Well, to me it is. I understand that humour is subjective but I defy anyone not to laugh out loud as he recounts time spent on a building site with a load of uncouth louts, of trying to find a 4B pencil in Granada and of the visit from the Critchley Road kids. The author is not laughing at other people, though – his humour is self-deprecating, poking fun at his own shortcomings. If you are not sure whether you are tempted enough by my review to buy a book, I suggest you check out Chris’ own blog, as it gives you the idea of the way he writes.

The book also has photos – mostly of sheep and oranges, but they break up the text nicely!

I note that there is an audio version of the books and I honestly cannot think of a better source of entertainment for a journey, particularly if the destination happened to be Spain!


Film No 31 (2014) : Sunshine on Leith

sunshine on leithI used to live in Edinburgh; we had a small flat just 5 minutes walk from Leith, overlooking where the Royal Yacht Britannia is now anchored. As well as some of the saddest, I also had some of the happiest moments of my life in Scotland’s capital, including meeting my husband. Scotland is (so far!), my favourite place in the whole world.

In order to add authenticity to my viewing experience of ‘Sunshine on Leith‘, I borrowed a real-life Scottish person to watch it with me. True, she does hail from the Outer Hebrides, islands which are rather a long way from the historical port of Edinburgh, but her soft burr was the perfect accompaniment to the film!

Directed by Dexter Fletcher, this is a musical, in the style of ‘Mamma Mia’. The storylines are woven through with songs – not, in this case, the music of Abba, but of the two-man band, ‘The Proclaimers‘. The film tells the stories of Davy and Ally (George MacKay and Kevin Guthrie respectively), young soldiers returning to their families after a tour of Afghanistan. The lads have to figure out what to do next, and the film is set against the background of Davy’s parents silver anniversary year and his sister’s tug-of-heart about whether to settle in Edinburgh or see some of the world.

The marriage of music and plot often felt contrived – my canny pal foresaw the opening bars of ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)‘ appearing on the horizon of the storyline at least 10 minutes before they arrived! But the Reid’s tunes are jaunty toe-tappers with intelligent lyrics. The film was saved by the undoubted talent of  the key actors – Jane Horrocks and Peter Mullan in particular.  (The singers themselves actually feature in a short cameo, wandering out of a pub!)

There are great views of Leith and the city; part of the fun was yelling at the screen, ‘I know where that is, do you remember….?!’. If you don’t feel any great affinity for Caledonia, The Proclaimers or Edinburgh itself, there is probably not a great deal to draw you to this film. But for me, who’d love to be an honorary Scot, it cast some happy rays over my evening!

Book No 37 (2014) : Divergent

divergentDivergent‘ was released on DVD on 5 August 2014 and although I’d heard of it, I’ve neither read it nor seen the film. Having said that, quite a few teenage bookworms have raved about it to me, so I wanted to see what the fuss is about. Typically for me, I decided to read the book!

In a dystopian future, society is divided into five factions, the members of which epitomise Selflessness (Abnegation), Bravery (Dauntless), Intelligence (Erudite), Honesty (Candor) and Peacefulness (Amity). Beatrice Prior has been born and raised in Abnegation but, like all teenagers, there comes a point when she has to decide whether to remain in the faction of her upbringing, or forsake her family and join another. The decision is hers, but she is subjected to an aptitude test to identify her natural inclinations and so guide her choice. Beatrice’s test results are inconclusive. She will not fit neatly into any of the pre-defined boxes. This fact marks her as Divergent – unconventional and uncontrollable. A threat to the faction rulers.

Comparisons with ‘The ‘Hunger Games‘ is inevitable and most agree that Katniss and her contemporaries are more inspiring than Beatrice (Tris) and hers. I am not about to disagree, however that may be because the ‘Hunger Games’ came first? I enjoyed ‘Divergent‘. It is a bit gruesome and violent in places, but Tris is a gutsy heroine; there is a bit of love interest as well as a coming-of-age perspective, conspiracy theories and power struggles.

Once I’d finished the book, I felt compelled to take the online aptitude test to discover the faction to which I would belong. My instincts told me I would be dyed-in-the-wool Amity, but was I surprised by my result….

Book No 36 (2014) : We are All Completely Beside Ourselves

beside ourselvesUsually I wait a couple of days after finishing a book before writing my blog, so that I can mull over what I have read and see what my lasting impressions are. I turned the last page of the Karen Joy Fowler’s Booker longlisted novel ‘We are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ about 3 days ago. Now all I seem to be able to remember is that it has a bright yellow cover! There must be more, there must be more – this is a book whose main text is preceded by no fewer than 42 rave reviews, spread over 5 pages. There must be more to it than yellow!

Rosemary is at University and tells her story by moving between her current student life and flashbacks to her childhood. Raised in a highly academic family (her father was a professor and researcher), Rosemary is haunted by the sudden disappearance of both her siblings; Fern, a sister, vanished when Rosemary was 5 years old and their brother, Lowell, 6 years later. The emergence of the truth about where Fern went and what happened to her subsequently, together with the sudden re-appearance of Lowell, cause Rosemary’s past and present to collide.

The book tackles some highly emotive and also divisive moral issues, but the novel seemed to me to be unhelpful in persuading the reader to one view or another – in that sense, it lacked depth. It was also clumsy in the way the key scientific theories were explained e.g. by means of a lecture delivered by one of Rosemary’s professors or explanations of her father’s methods. My over-riding feeling was that the book couldn’t quite make up its mind what it was – too theoretical to be an imaginative tale, too lacking in plot to be a page-turning read.

I will be watching with interest to see how this work fares in the Booker Prize awards. Judging by the number of plaudits, its got to be a front-runner. As for me, unfortunately I am not Completely Beside Myself with excitement about it!

Film No 30 (2014) : Dead Poets Society

dead poetsDead Poets Society‘ has been my favourite film for a long time. Watching it again hasn’t changed my mind. Sure, it’s sentimental and full of quotable soundbites, but its message is still important.

Mr John Keating, played by Robin Williams, encourages his young male students to think for themselves, achieve their full potential, seize the day (‘Carpe Diem‘). Using an imaginative mix of poetry, music and humour, Keating draws out even the most reluctant of his pupils. His methods are frowned upon by the school’s head and staff, who try to discourage John from developing free-thinking individuals. Nevertheless, his classes inspire the boys of the revived ‘Dead Poets Society’ to chase their dreams. But when Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonardlands himself the lead role in a local production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, against the wishes of his overbearing father, Mr Keating’s liberal lessons are called in to question.

I would have liked to have been a teacher – English to ‘A’ level. That is because I would have liked to have been the kind of teacher portrayed by Robin Williams in the movie. Education is about so much more than pumping children full of facts – Dickens knew that when he wrote ‘Hard Times‘ way back in 1854. Somehow  though, we don’t seem to have learned very much about what our young people need to know in order to make their own way in the world.

My guess is that most people who go into teaching do it with the intention of inspiring their pupils, touching their souls in some way. What a pity then, that these remarkable individuals have their talents reduced to pushing our kids through the system like sausages, churning out results which only have value if they can be measured and counted. Courage, kindness, creativity, humility, determination and may other important life qualities are not on the numbered scale.

Robin Williams has taken his own life. A cruel irony for a funny man. For me, it’s not Mrs Doubtfire or Aladdin’s genie which linger in my mind; it’s the inspirational Mr John Keating, teacher extraordinaire.

mr keating

Book No 35 (2014) : The Husband’s Secret

husbands secretThe back cover of the book tells you that Cecelia reads a letter written by her husband, so I knew she was going to peruse it at some stage. But by the time I’d got to Chapter 18, page 167, I was beginning to wonder if she was ever going to open the damn envelope or just accidentally suck it up in the Dyson. But accidental hooverings-up wouldn’t be Cecilia’s style at all. She is Superwoman; Tupperware consultant extraordinaire, PTA fund-raiser, faithful wife, loyal friend and devoted mother. Her life is a well-oiled, slick operation. Until the day she opens the envelope.

This novel is artfully plotted, each short chapter places another piece of the puzzle in place. There are essentially three threads – Cecilia and her family, Tess O’Leary who leaves her husband when he reveals his extra-marital affair and Rachel Crowley, mother of the murdered Janie. The characters are humane and credible, and Moriarty is witty. With wry humour, she captures the social tunes to which we all dance. However this is a book with emotional depth, at its heart exploring how the difference between right and wrong can be a grey area when it comes to protecting those we love.

‘The Husband’s Secret’ kept me very hush-hush for a couple of days.


Almost 50:50

I am a law-abiding person. I never drop litter or drive in bus lanes, download pirate movies or place an unexpected item in the bagging area. But there is one rule which I consistently break, and it’s the unwritten one which says that once you start a book, you have to finish it. Lets face it, if a meal is congealing on the plate, you skip to dessert. If the TV is rubbish, you channel hop. So why on Earth go through the motions of finishing a book which fails to intrigue, amuse or educate?

As I set myself the task of reading a book a week this year, I haven’t had time to faff about with ones which really didn’t light my fire.

These are the ones which I started but I didn’t finish :

  • Siri Hustvedt : What I Loved
  • John le Carre : A Delicate Truth
  • Howard Jacobson : The Finkler Question
  • Jonas Jonasson : The 100 Year Old Man who Climbed out the Window
  • Neil Gaiman : The Ocean at the End of the Lane
  • Chuck Palahniuk : Fight Club

Does anyone want to persuade me I should have persevered with any of these?!

hustvedtdelicate truthfinkler100 year old manocean at the end of the lanefight club


Book No 34 (2014) : Island Wife

island wifeIf Judy Fairbairns were to watch me alighting from the ferry onto the Scottish island where she lives, she would be able to tell a lot about me – by looking at my shoes. Clarks they are, brown leather, strong elastic strap. Sensible shoes. But Judy knows. “I have met many women over the years with the dream dying in them. I know them instantly. They are sensibly clad in stout shoes..”

‘Island Wife’ is a personal journey of someone whose dream almost died as Judy cooked, cleaned, raised children, ran a working farm, hotel, holiday cottage business, recording studio and helped her husband found a still-successful whale-watching business. Her autobiography is moving, often funny but also searingly honest. Her husband’s dream was not always her own, but she signed up for marriage, was in for the long haul. Mixed with laugh-out-loud anecdotes involving children, mud and weather, are meaningful insights into how women become tamed, domesticated. An inspirational read. Uncomfortable maybe, but written with a deep understanding of the dilemmas faced by women.

Towards the end of the book, the author asserts that once we have an awakening, a realisation that we can be more than we have allowed ourselves to become, women will find themselves a guide. You heard it here first. When I write my first book, or sell my first photograph, Judy Fairbairns will be right there in the Acknowledgements.