I remember 1984. I was a student at Uni, we were dancing to Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Wham. It was nothing like George Orwell had predicted. At least, not in Deptford. Big Brother wasn’t watching me and, even if he was, I was probably too drunk to notice. But whilst I was idling away my life, I was more or less oblivious to the political landscape around me, including the miner’s strike. The only time it ever impacted on me was when my dear Grandad was taken ill and in his dying days, ranted about how Scargill would bring the country to its knees. I’m rather ashamed to admit, I don’t think I even knew who Arthur Scargill was.
‘Pride’ depicts events in 1984, when how Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) and his friend Mike Jackson (Joe Gilgun) founded a support group for the striking miners. Unambiguously, the group was called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) and it did what it says on their collecting tin. The Group raised money to support the families of striking miners and made contact with a Welsh mining village, which benefitted from the LGSM’s fund-raising. With a wonderful British cast including Imelda Staunton, Dominic West and Bill Nighy, the film depicts the ways in which two apparently disparate groups of people united for a common cause. The LGSM understood persecution, so they understood the plight of the miners.
The film is vibrant and funny, shot through with contemporary music and fashion, blended beautifully with the harsh realities of prejudice and hardship. It brought back a flood of memories about those early Eighties, including the scary media coverage about a new epidemic. AIDS. I was saddened but not surprised to learn at the end of the film that some members of the LGSM were affected by the disease. It somehow made what was achieved in a short life, all the more poignant.
Netflix can be a bit random sometimes, as it offers very few real blockbuster successes, but plenty of less well-known films. I took a chance on David Koepp’s 2004 thriller ‘Secret Window’, primarily on the basis that 96 minutes of mostly Johnny Depp couldn’t be bad. Actually, I was right as it wasn’t bad and, in some places, it was really very good. The film is an adaptation of a novella of the same name by Stephen King, which formed part of his ‘Four Past Midnight’ collection.
Depp plays Mort Rainey, an author who has separated from his wife and who retreats to a remote log cabin in order to write. Although he is struggling to get anything down on paper, Rainey is still not pleased to be interrupted by a visitor, who introduces himself as Shooter and accuses Mort of plagiarising his own publication, “Sowing Season”. Mort is surprised to see that there are striking similarities between “Sowing Season” and a story called “Secret Window” which he had published a few years earlier. The next time Shooter calls, Mort promises to provide him with the evidence that he had written his version first. Events take a nasty turn for the worse when Mort later discovers that his pet dog has been killed by a stab wound inflicted by a screwdriver. As Mort’s estranged wife begins to put pressure on him to finalise their divorce and the pressure to produce evidence of his work for Shooter, Rainey’s life begins to implode, with shocking consequences.
One of the things I love about Johnny is his ability to do quirky; Willy Wonka, Edward Scissorhands, Jack Sparrow. Mort Rainey is equally idiosyncratic; suffering from writer’s block, he is a slob, sleeps on the sofa, talks to himself and tries to hide his cigarette-smoking habit from his cleaner. As the links between Shooter and Rainey are revealed, the tension in the film really racks up and there are several ‘jump in your seat’ moments. Given that it’s Stephen King, I was prepared for a certain amount of suspense and gore and the movie delivered on both of those. In spades. Quite literally at one point.
Anne Blackman’s novel ‘Prisoner of Night and Fog’ was our Book Club choice this week. I’d left it a bit late to get started on the text, but luckily this was not a difficult read. In fact, I noticed that whilst the story has a very strong plot with lots of activity, there seemed to be a lack of emotional depth to the characters. All was revealed when I discovered that this was actually written as a Young Adult novel. But don’t let that deter you, as this book has a lot to offer.
It is 1931 and Gretchen Muller lives in a boardinghouse with her brother, Reinhard, and her mother. Her father was killed protecting Adolf Hitler from gunfire during the Beer Hall Putsch, a failed attempt by the National Socialist Party to seize power in Munich. As a result of Klaus Muller’s sacrifice, his family has enjoyed the patronage of ‘Uncle Dolf’. Gretchen does not question the view of the world which Hitler has painted for her: the Jews are a scourge, the Aryans a pure race. When a young newspaper reporter, Daniel Cohen, tries to convince Gretchen that the circumstances of her father’s death were not what they seemed, Gretchen’s loyalties are put to the test. Whom should she believe?
This seemingly far-fetched plot actually has its basis in fact as many of the key characters were real people: Rudolf Hess, Ernst Rohm, Eva Braun, Max Amann and Ernst Hanfstaengl amongst others. The author has cited an impressive bibliography, evidence of the huge amount of research which must have gone in to weaving a story around a framework of real events. The result is impressive and readable, an interesting presentation of Hitler’s rise to power.
There is to be a sequel to ‘Prisoner of Night and Fog’ which, judging by the high number of positive reader reviews for this book, is bound to be seized upon eagerly. Whilst I found this novel slightly unsatisfying, I would absolutely recommend it for the young adult audience at which it is aimed.
Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) is deposited into The Glade, a community of boys which appears to be self-sufficient but whose existence is dominated by The Maze. The massive stone structure opens every day, allowing an elite group of boys, known as ‘The Runners’ to explore its labyrinthine corridors and try to identify a way out. But not everyone who goes in to the maze comes out unscathed; in fact, not every Runner comes out at all. The Maze is guarded by Grievers, vicious, mechanical creatures with a devastating sting. Thomas and a group of Gladers enter the Maze to try to break its codes once and for all. But as Thomas begins to regain his memories of his life before The Glade, the truth about his knowledge of the Maze and its creators starts to be revealed.
The action is fast-paced and there is an impressive line-up of accomplished teenage actors: Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter and Aml Ameen all star. Dystopian storylines are in vogue at present and this adaptation of James Dashner’s book has no doubt appealed to fans of ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Divergent’. However, even though it is exciting, I don’t think ‘The Maze Runner’ is as interesting as other current films in this genre.
I want to confess one thing though; this film scared me. There were moments when I was watching through my fingers, in the same way as I used to watch the Daleks when I was a kid. Apparently, ‘The Maze Runner’ was rated 15 when it was in the cinemas; however, by removing or reducing a mere 43 seconds of ‘threat, violence and injury’, it was rated 12A for theatrical release. Hence why it appeared on Sky as a 12A. IMHO (this is a teenage movie, got to get with the lingo!) 43 seconds was not enough.
On my blog I have whinged a few times about how critical acclaim for a book rarely guarantees my own enjoyment of it. However, in the case of Helen MacDonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’, I get it. Dear Mr Critic; I totally get it. This book was a presence in my life for the two days it took me to read it and even afterwards it has left a resonance.
When Helen’s father, a journalist and photographer, dies suddenly and unexpectedly, she is plunged into grief. Her misery isolates her; she retreats into herself and in to the training of a goshawk, Mabel. This training requires total dedication and throughout the memoir, the author references a book by another author who undertook to train a goshawk, EH White. Helen finally acknowledges that she is suffering from depression and she seeks help; as Mabel takes flight and struggles to assert some independence from her astringer, so Helen’s spirits slowly begin to rise.
Reading this book seemed to me rather like eating a very rich, dense chocolate mousse. There aren’t many bubbles of light relief and every now and again I had to stop and digest what I’d read, before delving in again. The language of this autobiography is rich, vibrant and intelligent. MacDonald has the ability to bring nature to life as she describes Mabel in intricate detail and transports the reader to the Cambridgeshire countryside. I know that ‘H is for Hawk’ won’t be to everyone’s taste, but this beautiful book has left an indelible impression upon me.
Sue Monk Kidd’s novel is told from two alternative viewpoints; Hetty (Handful) is a slave and Sarah is her owner. Both are opposed to slavery and whilst this would be what you would expect from an enslaved young black woman, it is more surprising that Sarah has the same innate hatred of the system. When Sarah is presented with Handful as a gift for her 11th birthday, Sarah vows that she will one day set her free. Despite the laws prohibiting it, Sarah teaches Hetty to read and write.
This book made me reflect a great deal upon those of us who are thinkers, and those of us who are doers. I am sure some are both, the two qualities are not mutually exclusive, but Sarah is dissuaded from action for many years. She succumbs to the social expectation of women at the time, and gives up on her dreams of becoming a lawyer. It simply wasn’t done. Later though, she takes courage from her more outspoken younger sister and they begin to take a proactive stance against slavery and the oppression of women. Handful and her mother, by contrast to Sarah, are more courageous. Within their limited means, they fight the system. The novel made me feel uncomfortable; if I am honest, I know that whilst I would have had a moral objection to slavery, my fear of being ostracised by my family would have prevented me from speaking out.
I was delighted to discover from the author’s notes that whilst Hetty is a fictional character, Sarah and Angelina Grimke are not. Their story is inspirational, and Monk Kidd’s novel tells their extraordinary story in an absorbing and thought-provoking work.
Tigers have been a bit of a recurring theme recently; after my experience with ‘The Night Guest’, here comes a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker; he impressed me rather more than Ruth’s imaginary big cat. I read Yann Martel’s ‘Life of Pi’ many years ago and whilst only the outline of the story has remained with me, I distinctly recall becoming immersed in the novel, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else for a couple of days. Directed by Ang Lee and released in 2012, the film version of ‘Life of Pi’ won 4 Oscars and was nominated for 102 other film awards (winning 75 of them). All totally fitting for the screen adaptation of a Booker prize-winning novel.
Pi’s childhood is spent in Pondicherry, where his parents run a zoo. He is raised a Hindu, but elements of the Christian and Islam faiths also appeal to him, so the young lad resolves to follow all three. When Mr & Mrs Patel decide to make a better life for the family, they pack up the zoo, including all the animals, and set sail for Canada. Following a tumultuous storm, the ship sinks and Pi finds himself alone on a lifeboat. His only companions are a hyena, a zebra with a broken leg, an orang-utan and Richard Parker. Of course the film is allegorical; the director explores issues of faith and belief, co-existence and truth, but it still delivers as entertainment.
It is a glorious movie, with stunning special effects: I wish I had seen on it on a big screen as the spectacle was somewhat diminished on my household TV, even with its 42″ screen. The 3D must have been awesome. In true nerd fashion, I played the ‘additional features’ section of the DVD, which revealed the trade secrets behind the creation of many awe-inspiring scenes. Watching the painstaking and time-consuming efforts which went in to crafting the changing sea, the movement of the animals and the algae island which Pi discovers, made the Lee’s achievements even more impressive. The film enveloped me in pretty much the same way as the novel did; my only regret was having waited so long to see it.
From my childhood, I remember the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, where the vain emperor is conned into parading the streets wearing a suit of clothes which is invisible to anyone either unfit for office, or ‘unusually stupid’. Of course, the ruler is actually stark, bollock naked and only one little boy speaks up, primarily because he is too young to understand the significance of not keeping up the charade. Reading ‘The Night Guest’ by Fiona McFarlane reminded me of the story. Only, I am not sure if I am the child in the crowd or an idiot! As with other books I have found which are preceded by pages of plaudits and praise (there are 21 reviews in the front of this paperback), I wonder if a couple of critics thought it was great, then everyone else joined in so they didn’t look daft!
Ruth is an elderly widow living alone in a house by the sea, with just her two cats for company. Her two grown-up sons speak to her infrequently by phone; their mother seems to be ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ At night, Ruth senses a tiger prowling around in her house. Being aware of Ruth’s obviously precarious grip on reality, the reader should be pleased when a government carer named Frida arrives to assist Ruth in her own home. But in fact, Frida is rather a dodgy character, and I was suspicious of her from the outset. Sure enough, as Ruth depends more and more upon Frida, the carer’s behaviour and actions become increasingly sinister.
As a narrator, Ruth is unreliable. Her short-term memory is clearly fading (she forgets to wash her hair) but her recollections of her youth in Fiji are more vivid. She is lonely and isolated, things get confused in her mind and these are presented in well-crafted prose: the author drops subtle hints like a crime thriller writer. I was able to pick up on the inferences and deduce what was actually happening but for me, the writing totally lacked tension. The conclusion of the story was not a psychological cliff-hanger, it was unsurprising. The book hasn’t haunted me. It ‘stalked the mind’ of Sebastian Shakespeare from The Tatler; it just followed me around for a bit. More of a homeless moggy than an awesome big cat.
As you will have figured, I just didn’t understand the hype surrounding this debut novel. As my teenager would say; ‘meh’. Just as Ruth’s tiger is elusive and only shows up at night, so the charms of ‘The Night Guest’ remained largely hidden to me. Don’t trust me on this one; I am obviously totally unfit for the office of amateur blogger!