Book No 40 (2014) : The Sunrise

the sunriseI tore into Victoria Hislop’s latest novel with the kind of excitement and expectation usually only reserved for my Christmas stocking. It is Mrs Hislop’s fourth novel and her previous offerings – ‘The Island‘, ‘The Return’ and ‘The Thread’ are all books I have devoured in days. Oh, but the anti-climax once I’d got the wrappings off ‘The Sunrise’: after all the anticipation, it was like discovering M&S sensible briefs when I was hoping for Victoria’s Secret lingerie. Plain, uninspiring and so disappointing. Back to earth with a bump.

All of Victoria Hislops’s works have a Mediterranean setting and ‘The Sunrise’ continues the theme, being based on Cyprus during the early 1970’s. It follows the fortunes of Aphroditi and Savvas Papacosta, owners of The Sunrise, a swanky new hotel on the beach at Famagusta. Aphroditi is glamorous and beautiful but when her entrepreneur husband begins to neglect her in favour of renovating another hotel, she is increasingly drawn to Markos Georgiou, the nightclub manager at ‘The Sunrise’. When Turkish forces invade the island in 1974, the Papacostas are forced to evacuate, leaving the hotel in Markos’ care. With 40% of Cyprus in the control of the Turks, Famagusta is left deserted. But two families remain – one Greek, one Turkish. The Georgious and the Özkans are pulled further together by their circumstances, and by the need to survive the devastation around them.

At the beginning of  the book, there is a brief summary of the period in history which the fictional account covers; maybe that should have sounded a warning bell, as I am not a great fan of works which require me to be able to remember and understand historical details at the same time as following a fictional plot. At times the narrative was no more than a reportage of the actual political and military events which took place in Cyprus, rather than an imagined interpretation. Maybe its a left brain/right brain thing? I can’t do two things at once? Whatever the explanation, this book left me feeling dissatisfied. There was not the same sensitive evocation of place that the author has managed to achieve previously and the characters felt thinly-drawn and stereotyped.

Oddly enough, when I first saw the cover of this book, I mis-read the title and thought it was called ‘The Surprise’. It turned out to be two surprises; firstly, that it is called ‘The Sunrise’ and secondly, that I didn’t enjoy it very much.



Film No 36 (2014) : Captain America, The First Avenger

Captain AmericaLast night I was watching Piers Morgan interview Bear Grylls. It occurred to me whilst watching “Captain America:The First Avenger” with my son this afternoon, that Bear Grylls may actually be Captain America. Not that the Captain sleeps in a camel carcass or shits on his camera crew (you need to watch the interview), but he does possess an impressive musculature and displays an extraordinary knack for surviving the dangers of the Arctic. I didn’t hear Bear mention his all-defence vibranium dustbin lid, but I expect he does keep one hidden away on his London houseboat.

Captain America, played by Chris Evans (not to be confused with the other Chris Evans, geeky host of ‘The One Show’), is called upon to save mankind when a megalomaniac villain (Johann Schmidt – Hugo Weaving) harnesses the power of the Tesseract to create weapons of mass destruction. As part of the Scientific Strategic Reserve project, Captain America is infused with a magical scientific serum (it looks a bit like blue WKD) which floods his body with ‘vita rays’ and gives him the superpowers he needs to take on the baddies. Set during World War 2, with the Nazi party as a backdrop, the film is action-packed and full of special effects. Hayley Atwell is the personification of cool as the officer Peggy Carter, the Captain’s love interest. There are some fabulous one-liners and a schmaltzy sub-plot as Captain America goes all-out to rescue his best buddie, fellow soldier ‘Bucky’ Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Dominic Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones also star.

There were parts of the plot which were a bit unclear to me, specifically the destructive capabilities harnessed by Schmidt when he gets his hands on the Tesseract. I’m sure someone says that he has created the weapons by harnessing the power of thought. That may or may not be what the script says, but that is the interpretation I prefer. This is purely for the reason that I can see many positive applications for such a weapon. The thought of obliterating the whole of the BT helpdesk staff just by silently cursing from afar, is tempting.

Captain America has been around as a Marvel comic books character since 1941. I have no doubt he has entertained and inspired generations of young and not-so-young kids, and ‘The First Avenger’ will clearly continue to keep the superhero alive.

Book No 39 (2014) : The Light Between Oceans

lighht between oceansLighthouses have fascinated me for years. In fact, I am such a lighthouse nerd that I subscribe to the Trinity House bulletin, so I can keep up with all the latest pharology news. Whilst all the other kids in my childrens’ classes swap stories of summer holidays in EuroDisney and Torremolinos, my offspring have had to put up with being dragged to beacons in remote areas of the UK. My favourite lighthouse porn is a slim volume entitled “Lighthouse Accommodation Britain and Worldwide” by Joy Adcock, which allows me to feed my habit, planning both real and imagined lighthouse journeys.

So with this interest, ‘The Light Between Oceans‘ would have to be a pretty awful book for me not to like it. I read it for a Book Group discussion and although I’d read it before, I didn’t have to have my Fresnel twisted to read it again.

Tom Sherbourne, returning from fighting in WW1, finds his way to Partageuse in Western Australia. Looking for a quieter life and time to heal, he accepts a posting as a temporary lightkeeper on Janus Rock, a remote rock lighthouse situated where the Indian Ocean meets the Southern Ocean. Whilst on shore leave, he meets and marries Isabelle, a schoolteacher’s daughter who accompanies him to the island. Life seems idyllic, but the Sherbournes happiness is marred by the fact that Izzy seems unable to have children, and sadly suffers three miscarriages. One early-morning, a boat washes up on the island’s shore. Inside the boat are a dead man, and a crying baby. The discovery forces Tom and Izzy to make a momentous choice.

I have yet to meet anyone who has read this book and not liked it. The writing is engaging. examining a highly emotive and moral issue from all viewpoints. At one stage I was firmly on the side of one character, until the author flipped the narration, so I found myself siding with someone else. Now that the nights are drawing in, M.L.Stedman’s novel will really light up a dark evening.

Film No 35 (2014) : Before I Go to Sleep

before i go to sleepThis film is an adaptation of the thriller written by S.J.Watson (who, incidentally, is a man. In case you wondered).  The premise of the story is straightforward: Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) has survived some kind of trauma, but has been left with a specific form of amnesia. Every night whilst she sleeps, her memory is erased. Every morning her husband, Ben (Colin Firth), has to remind her who she is, who he is, how they met etc. By the end of the day she begins to piece together more recollections, but forgets them by the next morning, when the whole cycle begins again.

We begin to understand some of the frustrations of Christine’s memory loss as Ben leaves lists pinned to the wall to remind his wife to carry out certain tasks. A montage of photographs provides a pictorial record of the couple’s life before tragedy struck. It seems as if this endless cycle of remembering, sleeping and forgetting would remain unbroken, but the audience learns that Chris has secretly been seeing a neuro-psychiatrist, Dr Mike Nash (Mark Strong). With Dr Nash’s help, Chris begins to recover and retain more memory, using a video diary to re-cap on what she knew the previous day. But as she emerges from her brain-fog, questions begin to arise about whom Chris she can trust. Suspicion falls upon Ben and Chris is forced to unravel some disturbing mind-games before the truth of her situation is finally revealed. There is undoubtedly tension throughout the film, heightened by some shockingly violent scenes, making you wonder what other dangers are lurking.

One striking thing about the cinematography is that it is almost totally devoid of bright colour. Clothes are drab, the exterior of the Lucas’ house is monochromatic, the effect accentuated by the white bark of the silver birch trees which surround it. Interiors are stylised and stark, as is most of the background scenery. Much of the action takes place in semi or total darkness. In contrast to this subdued lighting, it is only when Chris’ memory is at its most acute, when there are periods of optimism, that light comes flooding in.

It was extremely difficult to be objective about the film when I already knew the ending, in that Bruce Willis ‘Sixth Sense’ way. My feeling is that it may be quite difficult to tie up some of the flashbacks, memory relapses etc if the plot was unfamiliar. There is no doubt though, that the intricacies of the psychological battles and demons which Chris fights, have been greatly simplified within the film, and I think this is to the detriment of the movie. Given a choice on this one, I’d go with the written version.

Coming out of the Picture House though, I had a sense of what it must be like to have one’s memory wiped overnight, as I experienced that alarming feeling of having absolutely no idea where I had parked my car. But that happens to me 9 times out of 10. I park, I lock the car, I go about my business, only to return to wander aimlessly about the sea of silver Ford Fiestas and abandoned shopping trolleys, hoping that some feature of the landscape will prompt me to recall the whereabouts of my battered Passat. Multiplying that sensation to not being able to remember where I left my husband, or children – or even who my family members are, would be seriously terrifying. I’m not even sure that waking up every morning and seeing Colin Firth on my pillow would compensate for that kind of distress!

Film No 34 (2014) : Begin Again

begin againKeira Knightley does something really annoying with her jaw. Had I been the girl’s mother, I’d have whipped her off to the orthodontist years ago! Her agent probably thinks the frozen grimaces and wonky teeth add to her authenticity, but the weird mandibular activity bugs the hell out of me. No doubt I am being unforgivably spiteful; Knightley is, after all, a highly acclaimed actor, with many successes to her name.

In ‘Begin Again’, KK plays Gretta, the girlfriend of an up-and-coming rock star, Dave Kohl (yes, as in the eyeliner, only not as black). She accompanies him to New York for a recording session and tour, but his infidelity prompts Gretta to end their relationship. Heartbroken and lonely, Gretta is comforted by fellow ex-pat Steve (James Corden), who persuades her to take to the stage in a local bar’s ‘open mike’ session. There, her rendition of a song she wrote, attracts the attention of record-label executive Dan Mulligan (played by Mark Ruffalo – not to be confused with Gruffalo, although he does look strangely like one). Dan likes Gretta’s composition and he persuades her to record an album. But will her talent and new-found confidence, help win back her man?

Whilst I was supposed to be concentrating on the movie, I confess my mind did wander a bit. I ended up thinking a) music is not very important in my life now, although it was in the past. I prefer silence these days and also b) I miss having male friendships. I mean, I know that I have friends who are men, but they are all attached to my friends who are women. The number of male friends I have ‘of my own’, could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Or, more truthfully, on one thumb. Conversations and socialising with men give a different perspective, but my life is very female-orientated. That’s what I was musing about.

‘Begin Again’ was directed by John Carney, who also brought ‘Once’ to the big screen. ‘Once’ is the tale of a vacuum cleaner repairman-cum-musician who falls in love with an odd-job-woman who happens to be a rather excellent pianist. Together the couple make beautiful music. With a few tweaks, I think ‘Begin Again’ and ‘Once’ are the same film!

The soundtrack to ‘Begin Again’ was entertaining at the time, but instantly forgettable. Not a single bar remained in my head the next morning. Actually, the only ear worm I had was –

There was an old man named Michael Finnegan
He grew fat and then grew thin ag’in
then he died, and had to begin ag’in
Poor old Michael, please don’t begin ag’in

Please don’t begin again, ‘Begin Again’.

It wasn’t awful, but ‘Once’ was enough!

Film No 33 (2014) : The Blues Brothers

blues brothersThe Blues Brothers‘ came out in 1980, the days when pretty much the only way to see new movies was to pay to go to the cinema! I didn’t see it 34 years ago, I’d always had it pegged as a boys’ film. In some way I still think that, especially after basing my judgement on having seen it, rather than watching my 16-year old mates  go in to the Odeon as normal kids, but come out wearing shades and tripping their heels to Sam’n’Dave. I can see the movie might get you like that, in the all-encompassing, dressing up, let’s-go-to-BB-conventions way.

When Jake Blues is released from prison, he and his brother (Elwood) pay a visit to the Catholic orphanage where they were raised. When they learn that the home has to pay a massive tax bill or face closure, the Blues Brothers decide to reform their previous band in order to pay off the debt. It’s a ‘Mission from God’.

Woven into the story of the band are cameo appearances by great blues singers; James Brown is the priest in church, Aretha Franklin a café owner, Ray Charles an instrument-store proprietor. The music is essential to the storyline and to the film, giving rise to ‘flash mob’ dance routines and virtuoso performances.

It can’t be a coincidence that the two central characters, brothers Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood (Dan Ackroyd) look like Laurel and Hardy, and much of the humour of the film derives from a slapstick-type humour. There are a few witty one-liners, but mostly the laughs are all about the visuals – thrilling car chases ending in massive pile-ups, weird-looking characters and the Blues Brothers own deadpan delivery.

I suspect most people saw this eons ago and many might see it as a lifetime top-ten film, its influence has clearly been enduring. It’s not likely that I will be rushing out to buy dark glasses and a fedora, but if ever the need arises for me to entertain a mob of teenage boys on a wet Saturday afternoon, at least I now have one weapon in my viewing armoury.