Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Total Recall and Star Wars

We watched the remake of Total Recall a couple of nights ago. Colin Farrell does an excellent job, not just as an action hero, but as a man with  depth to his personality. I think I've seen the Arnold Schwarzenegger version, but can't remember anything about it. My gut feeling is that Farrell presents a much more interesting character than Schwarzenegger would have. The two women in the story, Kate Beckingsale, who plays Farrell's seemingly indestructible and villainous 'wife,' and Jessica Biel as his true love, are both equally good. Apart from the excellent acting and the tense action scenes, it's the design of the movie that stands out most: the hemmed-in feeling of an overcrowded city, the washed-out colours, the extraordinary structures and much more. 

In the end they whole thing is far-fetched to the max, but surprisingly survives its innumerable plot holes. By all accounts fans of the original movie were highly offended by this one; be that as it may, I think it stands up well as a decent action movie on its own. 

Last night we went and saw the latest Star Wars. Don't ask me what it's subtitle is: I long ago gave up trying to remember these, since they all seem similar. Wait, it's The Force Awakens. Okay. Spoilers follow...

Well, the first thing that can be said is that it's back to the original, almost faultless style. Gone is the super seriousness of the middle three prequels; the humour, action and storytelling are all on a par with the first episode. (Number IV, I think that actually means. Good grief.) Many of the original characters turn up (not until the very last scene in Hamill's case) but there are plenty of newcomers, not least a wonderful new droid, BB8. His name doesn't have quite the catchiness of R2D2, or CP3O, but he's full of charm, and beautifully presented, both vocally and in terms of his movement. Harrison Ford gets into his stride within a few moments of appearing, and Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca actually gets some decent moments for a change. Carrie Fisher plays a much matured Leia; she has a warmth that wasn't quite so evident in the early movies. 

But these actors are supporting artists really, in this movie, in spite of the fact that three of them get top billing. Bit odd, when you think that Mark Hamill has one scene, one in which he doesn't even speak. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega play the leads and swing through all kinds of emotions in the process. Whether they'll survive into the next episode is anyone's guess, but they deserve to: by the time the movie ends they're fully-fledged characters. 

Adam Driver plays Kilo Ren, the main baddie. (Kylo Ren? Many of Lucas' characters have oddball names that don't work for me: this is one of them, along with Poe Dameron, Maz Kanata, Unkar Plutt (Simon Pegg gets landed with this monstrosity), and Supreme Leader Snoke. Snoke? Is that really a name for a villain, apart from the difficulty of pronouncing it. Max von Sydow plays Lor San Tekka. Come on, George, give people names that sound like names, as you did with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker (a brilliant name) and Princess Leia. 

Maz Kanata, incidentally, is one of the more interesting characters amongst the smaller roles: played by a normal-sized human being - the Kenyan actress y - she appears on screen as a pint-sized woman with enormous glasses almost set into her head, and a couple of slits for nostrils. Andy Serkis is in the cast too, though as usual he's unrecognisable. He plays the Supreme Leader who only appears as an immense hologram, his face beginning to disintegrate and his longevity obviously telling on his body. I don't know how he fits into the scheme of things, though no doubt there are hundreds of fans out there who could tell me. And presumably, being broadcast from somewhere else in the galaxy, he survives the holocaust near the end. 

The visual effects are endless, but remain within the realm of plausibility. The John Williams score is hugely varied, as always, with familiar themes appearing at appropriate times, and plenty of new ones. 

I went expecting to be underwhelmed, after the last three mostly awful pieces, but it's great to see the series back on form. 










Sunday, December 27, 2015

PDP

pdp apparently stands for performance designed products. I'm not sure what a product not designed for performance would look like.Wouldn't that be a counterproductive, non-performance, undesign?

Don't ask me. I'm assuming that something that is performance designed means (a) it will actually work, which immediately makes it better than many products on the market today; (b) it will be produced to a decently high standard - I'm assuming that, of course, otherwise it would just be classified as a designed product, thus putting it in the same category as pretty much every other product on the planet.

The problem with acronyms, to change the subject somewhat, is that they don't mean the same thing to every person. Looking at Wikipedia on the subject of PDPs, for instance, you find that there are umpteen (well, maybe not umpteen; more like thirty) other interpretations of these three simple letters. I haven't got room to go into all these, though it might make an interesting post sometime, and anyway it's late at night and I need to go to bed.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review of Prostate Wimp

The following review appeared in Readers' Favourites, and is by Java Davies

Like many people, I'm sure, I thought that all prostate issues were due to cancer. Reading Diary of a Prostate Wimp by Mike Crowl showed me other types of prostate issues. Mike Crowl wasn't kidding about this being a diary. It's a combination of diary entries on his blog, entries from other men suffering from prostate issues, and letters to God, whom Mike refers to as "Dad," in the style of Jesus referring to God as Dad in Aramaic. While the title of this compilation is Diary of a Prostate Wimp, these men carried themselves with strength and humor for the most part, with some fear and doubt thrown in the mix on occasion.

At the very beginning, Mike Crowl warns people that the squeamish shouldn't attempt this book, and the warning is well advised. Mike doesn't flinch when discussing the pain of catheterization and its side effects of peeing on himself in public when the catheter dislodged, having irritation at the penis tip where the catheter can rub, discomforts along the sexual front, exhaustion, leaving home for a vacation, and even weight gain from the inability to exercise regularly. Mike also talks about different levels in the quality of medical care, and the lack of information from the doctors when you don't know what to ask. Frequent visits to doctors and clinics made me wonder what the healthcare system is like in New Zealand. According to Wikipedia, it's a combination of private and public provision, depending upon the illness or injury.

I was intrigued by the frequent references to Celia, Mrs. Crowl. She and the rest of the family seemed to be very supportive during the long months of catheterization, the prostate scraping surgery, and the slow recovery. Throughout, the author talks about the things he misses and can't wait to get back to. I was rooting for his eventual, successful recovery. If the reader, or someone the reader knows, is suffering from prostate issues, I recommend this book.

A footnote to this review: Davies is correct in that the NZ Health system is a combination of public and private. Due to increasing delays in getting treatment through the public system, many people now opt to pay for health insurance, in order to be able to be treated more speedily in the private sector. Ironically the doctors often work in both areas. Still, for all its failings, the health system in New Zealand is still better than in many places in the world. 

Mumbersons reviewed

The following review comes from the Readers' Favourite site, and is by Michelle Stanley:

The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret (Grimhilderness Book 2) is a children’s fantasy by Mike Crowl and Cherianne Parks. A haircut turned into an ear cut when Billy Mumberson went to the barber. Things got more peculiar when a bedraggled looking elderly couple barges into his home, claiming to be his grandparents, and takes over running it. A text from his father asks Billy to meet him at the factory, but when Billy and his friend Olivia arrive there, they walk into a trap. The barber who had nipped his ear forces him into a room to extract more blood. Quick thinking Olivia rescues Billy, who wonders why his blood is in demand. They soon learn that the Mumberson family are in more danger, especially when Grandpa decides to sell his diamonds and the villains find out.

The Mumbersons and The Blood Secret is the sequel to Grimhilda! by Mike Crowl and Cherianne Parks. It is a charming story with magic, action, and a nice mystery that will keep children engrossed. I think the first chapter is very interesting since it gives readers a perceptive look into Billy’s character, his family, and Olivia’s too. The authors are creative in their writing and they seem to enjoy keeping readers in suspense since almost everyone that Billy meets and events that occur always appear suspicious. I like the main characters, Billy and Olivia, but found the others amusing, given their descriptions, attitudes and conversation. I highly recommend this fantasy book.

The Disenchanted Wizard heads for the finish line

Blog posts about the book I'm writing have been few and far between recently, mainly because I've been writing. (#amwriting, as the Twitter hashtag goes...)

The latest posts on the topic seem to be here, and here. However, such has been the nature of this particular beast, that what I say in one blog post seems to get sideswiped by what I say in a later one, because this book has changed so many times.


It started life as a NaNoWriMo exercise, you might say, though I'd had the idea for the book in my head for some time before that. The NaNoWriMo version is so different to the draft I've been working on today, that you might almost say there's no comparison. The hero took second place to a heroine and the couple who were going to be the reason for the book's existence have vanished entirely. Though I regard it as the third in the Grimhilderness! series, there's no mention of Grimhilda or anything else to do with the place: there was, but even that got excised. 

A good character got shunted out and a bad character who'd had a very small role took his place. Dogs became wolves, to avoid confusion when reading the book aloud (something I hope will be done!). Those who were wizards in the first version stopped being wizards and became ordinary human beings...and then one of them became a wizard again! One character who played an ambiguous role in the original version, changed sides several times before he settled down to being a 'good' character. Soccer was intended to play a big part in the story, was reduced to almost nothing, and now plays a big part in it again. And certain people flying was an exciting idea I had originally which got abandoned, and now plays a big role in the current version. 

My 'beta reader' as you might call her - her name appears on the first two books in the series - has finally deemed that we're getting to the point where the structure of the book is working. Now it's down to the nitty-gritty of detail, which is what I've been working on today. 

I've predicted that I was nearly finished this book at least twice before, and ended up with egg on my face. This time I think you can save the eggs for eating. I hope!

If you haven't read the first two books in the Grimhilderness series, these are the details: 

Grimhilda! - a fantasy for children and their parents. Kindle or Smashwords
The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret. Kindle or Smashwords

Both books are available on iTunes, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and a bunch of other sites. Just search for the titles on these. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Two Maori movies

We watched two recent New Zealand movies over the last few days, firstly The Dark Horse (2014), with Cliff Curtis and James Rolleston, and Fantail (2013), with Sophie Henderson - who also takes the lead role.

Fantail, for my taste, is rather too slow in its set-up. There's a kind of dreamy quality about the first half hour or so, and you begin to wonder when the story is going to appear. Henderson is terrific in her role of a young girl working all night in a petrol station while caring for her invalid mother in the daytime. Her younger brother (Jahalis Ngamotu), who's plainly Maori - while she's plainly white - is likely to go off the rails, and does. The daytime worker, played by Stephen Lovatt, is a fatherly figure who cares a lot about Sophie's wellbeing. It's possible he is her actual father, though we never find out. And then there's the 'regional manager' a loser trying to impress. This is a comedy role, played nicely enough by Jarod Rawiri, but it's sometimes at odds with the rest of the movie, which heads deep into drama territory.

The film's basic story is strong enough, except there's just not enough of it. Too much of the movie's weight is loaded onto Henderson's shoulders; we certainly get to know her, but the three supporting roles seem a bit underwritten. The small budget means there are few other characters, mostly seen only briefly. It's a bit of a puzzle why this petrol station needs someone working there all night when there are hardly any customers, and when the customers appear to prepay to get the petrol (a couple don't, which is one of the inconsistencies). It seems highly uneconomical. There are other inconsistencies too; none of them are major, but they film loses credibility as a result of them. And the ending, which is certainly dramatic enough, isn't quite believable. I won't say what happens, because the movie is worth seeing; it just felt that a bit more tension might have been useful.

The other film has a bigger budget, a top-notch star in the main role, and a bunch of strong actors around him. Cliff Curtis eschews his normal good looks, and appears here padded with a pot belly; he walks oddly, and is missing some teeth and hair. Rolleston, who is excellent, has a smaller role, but some vital scenes. This young man seems born to the screen.

The story is (loosely) based on the true story of Genesis Potini, a brilliant chess player who had mental health issues most of his life. He was in an out of institutions much of his adult life. In the movie, his older brother, Noble, (Kirk Torrance) who taught him to play chess as a child, is officially in charge of him now that he's out of the hospital, Noble isn't interested in looking after him (Potini winds up sleeping rough); he's even less interested in seeing his son yearning for the kindness and gentleness that Potini exudes. Noble is also a longstanding gang member, and wants to initiate his son (Rolleston) into the gang. Meanwhile, Potini has seen potential in a bunch of kids from poor backgrounds who are part of a chess club formed by an old friend, and decides he can help. It's also a way of his staying sane, though whether the idea of taking them to Auckland for a Chess Championship is sane is another matter.

The format of the story is by no means new, but it's given plenty of energy and life by the actors. The gang scene is portrayed as a vicious dog eats dog world where the only way to keep alive is to be as bad as everyone else. Drugs, alcohol, loud music abound (as they do in a sequence in Fantail), and violence is common. This is possibly a world many pakeha (white New Zealanders) don't know a lot about, particularly at my end of the country.

Dark Horse is a two-hour movie that might have done with a bit of trimming. Nevertheless, Curtis and Rolleston keep the screen alive throughout.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Prisoners: morally ambiguous

Prisoners is a disturbing movie, less for its subject matter - the abduction of two little girls - than its moral ambiguity. Are we really supposed to believe that a father who prays the Lord's Prayer before he allows his teenage son to shoot a deer, and who much later prays the same prayer with a great more difficulty, would become such a vigilante character as to beat a suspect almost to a pulp? And I mean 'pulp'.

Another character, supposedly once a Christian, also goes on about doing her now evil work in order to make people stop believing in God. At least I think that's what she said. Sorry, run that by me again? It sounded like a last minute motivation pulled up out of the hat.

There are also some rather iffy plot-holes by the end of the movie, and quite honestly I almost lost my own plot when late in the piece there was lots of stuff about mazes and snakes, neither of which, as far as I could tell, had much to do with the overall mystery.

Okay, gripes over and done. Hugh Jackman is terrific in his role of the ambiguous father. I couldn't much believe in him as a Christian, but I could understand a great deal of his pain and frustration as a father. Jake Gyllenhaal (whatever happened to movie stars having pronounceable names?) is his opposite number: just as determined to solve the case but only through legal means, and frustrated that those legal means can sometimes cause unintended dire effects. Gyllenhaal always seems to bring great integrity to his roles, and here, even though he plays someone who mostly keeps his anger at bay, he's extremely effective. In fact I thought he was the star of the movie; it's actually Jackman who gets top billing.

The rest of the cast are excellent iu their own quirky ways. The black couple who also lose a daughter aren't made of such tough metal as Jackman's character; you long for them to bring integrity and honesty to the brutality that Jackman is imposing on the suspect. When they continually wimp away from this I found it frustrating: why don't they speak out against from Jackman is doing? He's obviously not the friend they'd thought him, and worse, he's likely to get them all put away in jail.

The production values are terrific in every way. Some have complained about the music score; personally it never intruded at any level for me, so it obviously did its job well. I think the movie is overlong. Over half an hour before it finished I was beginning to wonder: how long is this going to go on? There were plenty of places where judicious cuts could have been made, which would have made an already suspenseful movie into an even tauter one. But, this is the movie as it stands, at nearly two hours. There are plenty of great moments along the way.




Sunday, November 08, 2015

A Nigerian movie, and an old Hitchcock

Last night had a bit of a splurge on movies, watching two, one made in Nigeria in 2013, and the other made in Hollywood way back in 1954. 

The first was B for Boy, a movie by first-time feature director, . Apart from being drawn-out in some places, and having an ending that arrived abruptly - leaving the viewer to decide for themselves what happened next - this a very moving film about a difficult subject. 

In Nigeria, even amongst Christian families, it's still deemed acceptable to bring in a second wife if the first wife doesn't produce a boy child. Amaka (Uche Nwadili) and Nonso (Ngozi Nwaneto) are a happily married couple, and as well off as many Westerners. Their home and workplaces are little different to those seen in Western homes, but there are some scenes set in Nonso's village that hark back to a different age. 

In spite of Nonso's mother introducing a very young and naive second 'wife' into the picture, Nonso refuses to have anything to do with her. He's in love with Amaka, and won't be ambushed into adding to his spouses. The trouble is that the couple don't have a son, 'only' a girl of between eight and ten. Amaka has had two miscarriages, and now, nearly forty, is expecting again. Is it a boy? At first she refuses to have an ultrasound because she's afraid of finding out that it's another girl. When she does have an ultrasound, her brother-in-law dies suddenly the same day, and from there everything spirals out of control for her. It's a complex story, made more so by people not talking when they should talk, and thus missing out on information that would change the course of their lives for the better. As so often happens in real life, the needed conversation is put off for one reason or another, and in this story, the consequences are drastic. 

Nwadili is wonderful in her role as a somewhat imperious mother and wife, one who's admired by her staff, even though she's plainly a fairly tough employer. Nwaneto plays the husband with great compassion and gentleness, and it's not entirely his fault that things go so awry. To tell you more about what happens would spoil the story; suffice to say, even given some shots that seem to be held for rather too long, this is an absorbing story. Anadu makes a bit too much use of hand-held cameras, I felt: sometimes a shot seems unnecessarily jumpy, even on a smallish screen, and occasionally it's as if the camera hasn't quite caught the person or object it should focus on. This apart, the direction is excellent, and the script, which has an air of presenting real life, is well-constructed. 

The second movie was that Hitchcock masterpiece, Rear Window. I"ve seen it at least twice before, and thought it might have lost some of its lustre, but it stands up brilliantly. The story concerns a professional news photographer, played by James Stewart, who's holed up in his apartment with a broken leg; so broken that the cast goes from thigh to foot. Bored by being cooped up when he's used to adventure, shooting photos around the world, he fantasizes about some of his very visible neighbours, making up stories about them. This leads him into thinking that his neighbour across the courtyard has murdered his wife. At first we believe this to be possible, although there's one tiny shot that causes some doubt, and then Stewart and his girlfriend (the girlfriend of all girlfriends, Grace Kelly, whom remarkably, Stewart is only half in love with), after having convinced themselves that they're right, convince themselves that they're wrong again, when an old detective friend (Wendell Corey) not only pooh-poohs their amateur sleuthing, but shows that all their 'facts' could easily prove a completely different scenario. But something else causes them to shift gear again, and this builds to a wonderfully exciting climax. 

Thelma Ritter plays the insurance nurse who comes in daily, and who also gets involved in the climax; always a wonderful actress, she's so in tune with her role here that you never question that she could be anything else. The only disappointment in the film, I think, is Raymond Burr, who, like most of the neighbours, is seen for most of the film only at a distance, or through a telephoto lens. Burr, who plays the possible murderer, seems not quite a home in the movie: it may not help that he barely gets any actual lines to speak, because he's always too far away to be heard; but it just seems that he isn't quite sure of what role he's playing. 

Being far away from the camera doesn't stop the various actors and actresses playing the other neighbours from giving real life to their roles: the pirouetting musical comedy dancer, the female sculptor, the newly-married couple, the dog-owning couple who sleep out of the fire escape because of the heat; the love-song composer, and 'Miss Lonelyhearts', the woman who nearly commits suicide in her loneliness. Ironically, this is visible to us, but Stewart and co are so concerned with their 'suspect' that they nearly miss seeing it happen.  

Scene from Stewart's 'apartment'; showing some of the
other dwellings. 
The enormous set, which is four storeys high and surrounds a courtyard, was built in the studio. There's a busy street just visible through an alleyway, with a working restaurant, and cars and trucks driving past. Pedestrians walk and delivery men deliver; birds fly around. There's even a downpour that sends the couple sleeping on the fire escape scuttling inside. We know that these various apartments aren't real, from the skimpy bed-sit to the room big enough to take a grand piano, but they become real for us as we share Stewart's voyeurism. 

The organisation of the movie is scrupulous in its details (including Hitchcock himself winding up a seven-day clock in the musician's apartment at one point). And the sense of claustrophobia is maintained until the end. Then there's the script, which is wonderfully articulate and full of great lines; Stewart at his best, Kelly at her best and Hitchcock somehow providing all this magic in his apparently casual way. 


Friday, November 06, 2015

News from a country not yet visited.

Another quote from The Narnian by Alan Jacobs, page 314. These are C S Lewis's words. They were read  at Kenneth Tynan's funeral. 


The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things  - the beauty, the memory of our own past - are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard; news from a country we have never yet visited. 

At risk of adding to Lewis's excellent words, this should encourage us that what we write is always more than we know. 


Begin with images

I don't often repeat posts from one of my blogs to another, but in this case this extract is not only apt for Christians, but also for writers in general. Alan Jacobs, in his book, The Narnian, a biography of C S Lewis as well as an overview of his books, shows how much effective a story is if we start from images rather than 'themes' or theories. 

"Everything began with images," he wrote: "a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a
magnificent lion.  At first there wasn't even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord."  There was not, he says over and over again, an evangelistic plan in the making of Narnia, no apologetic scheme: "Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child-psychology and decided what age-group I'd write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out "allegories" to embody them. This is pure moonshine. I couldn't write in that way at all."

Or perhaps he could have, but knows that it would have been a dreadful mistake, a giving over of his imaginative life to the "expository demon." What he has to do instead is trust the images that come into his mind - or, more accurately, trust that he is being formed as a Christian in such a way that the images that come to his mind are authentic ones, ones that lie at, or at least near, the centre of his soul. He can do this only if he rejects not only the market-driven questions of modern authors and publishers ("What do children want?") but even the more morally sound question of the Christian apologist ("What do children need?"): "It is better not to ask the questions at all.  Let the pictures tell you their own moral.  For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life."


This is a terrifying, or liberating, word: liberating in that one need not expose oneself to the sanctimonious drudgery of drawing up lists of Christian truths and hammering out allegories that will meet the desires or needs of children. But terrifying because as those images rise from your mind you discover what you are really made of: you discover whether you are one whose moral and aesthetic responses have been shaped by the Christian narrative or whether you remain a person "without a chest," lacking in true spiritual formation.  Trusting the images, you find out who you are.

Pages 243-4 The Narnian. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

More lasting than themselves

I'm writing notes for a programme for the ladies' choir I conduct. Something that strikes me over and over again is how often a published but extremely minor poet, a poet who is now all but forgotten (except perhaps on Wikipedia), has managed to survive longer into the future than might otherwise have been the case, because one or two of his or her poems were set to music. By a much more famous composer.

The songs I'm thinking of are mostly from the British art song period - from the very late 19th century into the first few decades of the 20th, but the same thing applies to much German lieder. The composers are remembered, and there's information about them online - often at length. But the poets are almost entirely forgotten, in spite of having produced reams of poetry, or twenty or thirty novels, or various other writings in their lifetime. And even if the poets are still visible online, their work is forgotten: a mere list of names of books that few libraries would have copies of.

Billy Collins wrote a delightful poem called Marginalia, about the sorts of things that people scribble in the margins of books. In one stanza he writes:
Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoriajotted along the borders of the Gospelsbrief asides about the pains of copying,a bird singing near their window,or the sunlight that illuminated the page -anonymous men hitching a ride into the future on a vessel more lasting than themselves. 
Those last two lines are apt for what I've written above: like those Irish monks, the names of the poets would be forgotten if it wasn't for the vessel, the composer (or perhaps the song), being more lasting than themselves. 



Thursday, October 22, 2015

Don't sweat the small notes....

I attended a singer's singing lesson yesterday, and a particular phrase the teacher said stuck in my mind. I thought I'd make a note about it here, in order not to forget it. 

It's wisdom, and yet it's simple enough. 

During the course of the lesson the singer, whom I'll call B, was getting frazzled by a particular note in a phrase. The teacher, J, gave her a technical way of approaching it, and that helped immensely. She did more: she pointed out that a strong physical gesture at the time of the note being sung would help B to have a sense of pushing the note out to the listeners. 

And then when B was still feeling somewhat unconfident, the teacher said - 'Make friends with it!’ That is, (and these are my words) be comfortable with this particular bar in the music and don't let it become a kind of bugbear that jumps out and frightens you in advance each time you approach it. 

Almost every piece of music, even the simplest, has at least one spot where you have to work much harder in order to play or sing it as easily as the rest of the piece. I've found this over and over in learning pieces. Even recently, in playing a relatively simple Mozart accompaniment for a clarinettist, I found a bar where the left hand had to go running down an awkward phrase. It wasn't an ordinary scale, and it wasn't something that you'd come across normally: it was just one of those phrases that ran oddly across black and white notes. 

My left hand has never been as adept as my right, and as soon as it comes across anything tricky, it insists on hours of practice or else it won't play it at all. Well, I did practice this piece, made sure I knew what the fingering was and got it running smoothly without qualms. In fact, the left hand felt quite good about itself for being able to play it evenly and without hesitation. 

Some of the time. Each time I came back to the piece, up until the day of the performance, the left hand would find itself approaching that phrase and the tension would appear. It was like going into a dark bedroom and not being quite sure what might jump out and frighten you. 

I reassured the left hand that it knew exactly how to play this phrase, and all it had to do was relax and play it. But as the singing teacher had pointed out, we get nervous about a difficult moment in a piece of music and it becomes our whole focus, and unsettles our brain. If the brain is unsettled, the fingers become unsettled, and before you know it, you've stumbled over the phrase, much to your annoyance. 

I've known what to do about this for a long time, so I was already doing my own form of J's 'Make friends with it'. I told the left hand that it knew exactly how to play this phrase and that it was very clever for doing so, and would be exceptionally pleased with itself when it performed it without concern on the day, or even the next time we ran through the piece. And on the day of the performance it breezed up to the phrase, ran down it without blinking an eyelid, and carried on, congratulating itself for being so clever. 

At the end of the day, however, flubs in performance are essentially unimportant. I once saw a professional musician stop completely in the middle of Debussy's La Cathedrale Engloutie; I think she must have had a memory lapse. The audience stopped breathing for a moment, and then the pianist carried as if nothing had happened. I only remember it because I knew the piece quite well. Most of the audience will have long forgotten the incident. And I read somewhere recently that in a professional orchestra the musicians make, on average, seven mistakes a minute. (I don't know how anyone would have calculated this, but...) Do we notice? Probably not. 

I often say to other singers and musicians: just enjoy it. If we don't enjoy what we're singing or playing, then all our time is spent worrying about technique and correctness and, worst of all, perfection. Few musicians achieve perfection, and if they allow themselves to be upset by the odd wrong note or underperformed phrase, they'll only make things worse for the next difficult phrase. You just have to keep moving ahead in music, or else you destroy the whole thing. 

It concerns me when a child (or even an adult) comes off stage after a good performance in a competition or concert and immediately fusses about a wrong note or two. Why do it? The notes are long gone, and wrong ones can be fixed for next time. Focusing on them and not on the overall good performance undermines confidence in your ability. Better to say: I did well with that. Sure, some things might have gone better, but I enjoyed doing it, and the audience enjoyed hearing it. 

We can get too precious about performance, too concerned about perfection. Far better to be keen to show the audience how much you love the piece by performing it to the best of your ability. 

99.99% of them won't notice the errors anyway. 






Saturday, October 17, 2015

Giving up on books

I love Goodreads and think it's a great site for all manner of things related to books. I enjoy being able to keep track of what I read (previously I just made a list of titles for each year, which was okay, but didn't have any detail), but I find one aspect of the 'My Books' section a bit frustrating.

I've always been one of those people who doesn't finish every book he starts, but Goodreads doesn't seem to like this idea much. You almost get the feeling you should finish everything you begin. Well, sorry, Goodreads, I just can't. Some books get to the point where they're either overtaken by something more interesting, or where I've got the general idea and find the author's just repeating him/herself, or where they just fail to keep on grabbing me. This can happen early in the book, or late, but there comes a time with some books when finishing them is just wasted effort for me.

This can include 'classic' novels like le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which, in spite of its stylish writing, just failed on a storytelling level for me. Not just confusing, but almost opaque. I got about halfway through it before giving up.

So what do I do with books like that? You can make up your own category: Books I Failed to Finish if you want, but they'll still show up as books that aren't done with. (In fact I do have two categories along these lines: one's called 'Put aside for the time being'  and the other is 'Giving up on'. 

But the books in these can't officially be put in the 'Read' category. Well, it looks as though I'm going to have to pretend I've finished them, and put a note (mostly for my own benefit) in the review section to say that I couldn't get any further with a book. And why.

I've started doing that, but feel as though I'm being sneaky and that Goodreads will catch up with me soon, and give me a slap on the hand.

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Weight of Elephants

The Weight of Elephants is an odd arthouse-type movie filmed in Invercargill, New Zealand, by first-time feature director, Daniel Joseph Borgman. Borgman is a New Zealander, though most of his earlier film work has been done in Denmark, where he has made several short movies.

The great strength of the movie is the outstanding performance by Demos Murphy, an 11-year-old first-time film actor. Murphy brings all the vulnerability and depth of a lonely boy to the screen, a boy on whom the weight of the world (let alone of elephants) seems to have landed. His mother has left (there's no word of a father); his grandmother is bringing him up with a lack of warmth that's hard to credit; his live-in uncle is chronically depressed; he's bullied at school and even his reasonably close friend betrays him, preferring to side with the macho boys in the school.

Even the girl next door, who's a little younger - she's played by Angelina Cottrell with considerable intensity - seems to want to boss him around and hone in on his tenderness. Only her little sister is open and warm towards him.

All of this angst is beautifully filmed in a recognisably semi-rural New Zealand.

That's the plus side of the movie. The negative is that there's no story: bits and pieces float along together, but form no cohesive whole. The mystery element (three small children go missing) is mishandled and left hanging. Such incoherence might convey how Adrian, the boy, feels about his life, but it's an unsatisfying experience for the viewer. Given a child who can act with such depth of feeling as Murphy can, it's a shame to have almost wasted him in a part that seems to go nowhere.

The script cries out for someone to pull all the elements together; unfortunately this hasn't happened, and we're left with a half-story with lots of long reflective pauses that finishes up stopping in the middle of nowhere. Just before the screen suddenly went dark, I was thinking: the writer has painted himself into a corner. And he has. Borgman himself is the writer, and he's loosely based his movie on a bleak Australian story by Sonya Hartnett, a story bleaker than this movie by all accounts (!)

To his credit Borgman provides the kids mostly with dialogue that rings true. However, a number of the lines given to Nicole, the girl from next door, might ring true in the mouth of an adult. In the mouth of a child, they just sound false.


Thursday, October 08, 2015

Secrets and Lies re-viewed

It’s rather puzzling that I don’t appear to have ever mentioned seeing Secrets and Lies, the one Mike Leigh both my wife and I enjoyed on first viewing ˗ and watched again last night. It was made in 1996, before I was blogging, and perhaps I've talked about it in one of my older journals, which exist only in print, and aren't easily searched. 

The story is about factory-worker Cynthia (played by Brenda Blethyn) a fortyish mother of a sour-faced 21-year-old illegitimate daughter, Roxanne (Clare Rushbrook), and, as it turns out, also the mother of Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), an optometrist in her late twenties. Hortense was adopted at birth and never seen by Cynthia (who was only 16 at the time). Cynthia is not surprisingly shocked when she discovers that her first illegitimate child is black, and has been brought up by black parents (both now deceased). 

A second set of related characters, Maurice and Monica (Timothy Spall and Phyllis Logan) live out a sour marriage. He's a photographer and is also Cynthia's brother. But Cynthia and Monica don't get on so he doesn't often see his sister. Roxanne has a boyfriend, a seemingly-drippy scaffolder (who redeems himself with one line towards the end of the movie). And the eighth main character (though she only appears infrequently) is Maurice's assistant, Jane (Elizabeth Berrington)

Second time around, the movie seemed somewhat overlong: there are some irrelevant scenes (in particular, the one where the former owner of the photography business turns up drunk, out of the blue, utterly negative about life), but the acting is terrific, and Leigh allows his actors just to get on and play out scenes without filmic fuss. Thus the long scene where Cynthia and Hortense get to know each other is played with the camera square on, no distraction of extras in the background, and just two actors doing a wonderful several-minute scene. Leigh does the same thing with all eight main actors later, at the birthday barbeque, when the camera just watches them zipping dialogue back and forth and doing all sorts of business. It’s a brilliant scene, perfect cinema, in spite of there being no camera movement. 

Both Spall and Blethyn were new to me when we first saw this, and both have gone on to much bigger things. But every actor in the movie is excellent, right down to the innumerable people being photographed in Maurice's studio - a number of whom appear for only a few seconds. (Included among these are some quite familiar faces.)

The movie is quite dark for much of the time, though there's plenty of comedy within that, but by the time we've reached the end, with its wonderful uncovering of all the secrets, and its reconciliations, a huge corner has been turned into the light. 

Leigh's well-known approach to filmmaking of allowing the actors to create their characters from scratch works superbly here, though obviously there has been much refining in the finished film. But this method means that the actors have thoroughly inhabited their characters and bring a great deal of subtlety to even the smallest of scenes. 






Friday, September 25, 2015

Great review!

One of the best reviews I've had of any of my books relates to Diary of a Prostate Wimp, and was recently posted on Amazon.com. It's not only an enthusiastic review, it helps tell people why the book is worth reading. 

What would anyone find in a book about experiencing prostate problems?
Here - you'd find a lot! Not that these are my problems, I hasten to say. So why read it, why review it?
Because I enjoy reading about process. My favourite quotation is The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. I like and learn from reading the first and subsequent steps of any journey.
So this book fitted the bill perfectly. The process of dealing with prostate problems.
I found it thoughtful, sensitive, insightful and poignantly amusing.
One of the best things about the book is Mike's openness - he is dealing with what we normally don't discuss, penis-es, urine samples, peeing, overflow...the less discussed problems. By writing so openly about these issues he is in fact normalising them, making them understandable and acceptable. He introduces friends with the same problems, and uses their narratives to support his own descriptions, and he uses the greatest friend of all, God, whom he happily describes as 'Dad'. His communing with Dad I found the most touching part of the book. Also touching was his openness about the support of his wife, and the issues of intimacy.
By the end of the book I felt more understanding and empathy with a variety of health processes, not just those dealing with prostate issues.
Well worth a read.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

An integrated shackle for the tack

I've always loved the idea of a gooseneck holder. It's one of those things that sound much more interesting that you think. I know now, whereas I didn't once upon a time, that it's a piece of equipment musicians use, but before I knew this I imagined all sorts of possibilities, not the least of which was literally holding onto a goose by its neck in some sort of prefabricated holder. 

I suspect this isn't as easy as it sounds, however effective the holder is. Geese aren't by nature the most amiable of creatures, and even if you managed to catch one in the aforesaid holder, it's likely its mates would be onto you in a flash, pecking away at whatever body part they could aim most directly for. 

The holding of the holder might be short-lived in such a case. 

Courtesy: Joel Bradshaw
Goosenecks don't just appear on geese, of course. Nor is it only musicians who deal with them. A gooseneck appears on a sailing boat and is, according to Wikipedia, the swivel connection on a sailboat by which the boom attaches to the mast. The boom moves from side to side and up and down by swivelling on the gooseneck. 

This gooseneck may be a two-axis swivel, in fact, with an integrated shackle for the tack. These are common. Something about the first sentence in this paragraph strikes me as having a poetic shape:

This gooseneck may be a 
two-axis swivel, with an 
integrated shackle for the tack. 

Don't you love that last line: an integrated shackle for the tack. I have no idea what it means, but no doubt Wikipedia would inform me if I was a mind to find out. Here's another version of the verse:

A two-axis swivelling gooseneck
has 
an integrated shackle for the tack. 

Getting better all the time. It just goes to show you where a bit of creative meandering on a topic will lead you...



Two steps forward, one step back

I wrote last month that I was intending to work on sorting out the chapter order of the second half of my latest children's book, The Disenchanted Wizard.

That was the plan, and I did it. But then along came my co-author, and her opinion of the second half of the book was that it wasn’t at all on a par with the first half. (In fact while she wasn't rude about it, she might as well have been.) I could only agree: there were weak spots, the climax was merely a repeat of an earlier episode with a bit more drama, and the characters had gone round in a circle to come back to where they started when they should have been moving forward.

Quite disheartening, and for a few days I couldn’t see a way forward. However, I began doing something an author called Peter Elbow had suggested in a book (Writing without Teachers) that I’ve had for many years: write and keep on writing even if it seems total nonsense, because at some point in the writing you’ll start to find ways forward again.

Well, I did do this, and it worked up to a point, and then I felt as though it was getting sticky all over again. I tried several creative approaches, things suggested as ways to get the brain functioning in just such a situation, and out of these emerged an idea of discussing the book with one of the characters. In this case, the villain himself.

This proved productive (when he stopped sulking about not being the hero), and more progress was made. And then when he seemed to want to go off and do something else, I began talking to a ‘person’ I called the ‘Outliner’, that is a person who prefers to write books by working them out in advance. (I tend to be a writer who likes to write and see what happens...)

The Outliner and I are still discussing things, and bit by bit solutions are coming to light. My co-author and I (yes, she’s a real person!) will get together and start discussing these things face to face and hopefully will make real progress, working out how the second half is going to function.

Her perennial phrase to me is: You Can Do Better. And she’s right. So that’s what I’m aiming to do currently.
 
Onward and upward.

Where writers go wrong

Last year I read most of a book by Sol Stein, called Solutions for Novelists. I read it rather randomly, skipping back and forth between the chapters, but one chapter in particular struck me enough to make quite a few notes, and so I'm including and edited version of these here, since they're helpful for many writers, I think. They relate mostly to a chapter entitled, Where writers go wrong. I've laid them out here as bullet points, just to keep them a bit more readable.
  • Try summarizing the book in one page [that's easier, I'd say, that Blake Snyder's one-sentence approach - Blake Snyder of Save the Cat fame]
  • Break the draft down into scenes [Stein recommends doing this before the draft is written, unlike some of the others I've read recently who opt for just writing and then pulling it together. Both methods work. However he also quotes both Malamud and Fowles on page 142/3 who talk about writing the first draft to find out what the novel is about. See comments from them at the end of this post.]
  • Then check if the order of the scenes is right for full emotional experience for the reader.
  • Stick with one protagonist - two or more means the writer hasn't worked out whose story it is. [Although, that said, there are some books with more than one protagonist that work perfectly well.]
In the rewrite of your draft keep an eye out for: 
  • Sentences that are out of order [this also applies to phrases within sentences]
  • Authorial asides [I noted one of these in the chapter I was writing at the time in The MumbersonsGrimhilda! had a number of them because it's part of the style.]
  • Adjectives that aren't necessary. [And of course adverbs, which, by the way, are still essential in their place.]
  • Things that only the author can know...these have to go if you're focused on your protagonist's story.
  • Unimportant. or too early, appearances by minor characters. [Just finished reading UnderMajorDomo Minor, by Patrick de Witt. He ignores this advice by interrupting the main story to write about minor characters in a way that's irrelevant to the main events.]
  • Descriptions of the way a piece of dialogue is said [he whispered] are often better before the dialogue.
  • Be clear to the reader as to who the protagonist is.
  • Didactic stuff that isn't part of the actual story [don't think The Mumbersons or Grimhilda! are guilty of this.]
  • Delete words that soften the pace. And cliches - find fresh ways of saying things.
  • Too many antagonists? [Note how I originally had trouble with dwarves as well as witches as antagonists in The Mumbersons, until finally one of the two had to go.]
  • 'Beats' - those little bits of 'business' that characters do within a dialogue scene. They need to be relevant, and give the scene actual action not just pretend action. [I remember the awful 'business' in the popular Christian apologetics book The Case for Christ where Lee Strobel broke up long conversations with real people, by always having them crossing their legs, or standing up to make coffee.]
  • Don't bring in backstory late in the book [Amazingly that's exactly what a novelist who was also supposed to be an editor did - terrible muddle of a book - the book is The Accident, by Chris Pavone.]
  • 'Point of view of the person is most affected by what is happening.' In other words it's not necessarily always the POV of the protagonist, though it helps to keep them in focus. In The Mumbersons, Olivia gets some POV too, because she's an identifying character. POV doesn't mean seeing it from their perspective necessarily, but focusing on what's happening to them without interrupting it with another character's POV.
  • Avoid cartoonish cliche characters; the sort that often appear in TV series, especially US ones. {Note how there's often the 'funny' character, the geek, the wacky secretary and so on in crime series: they're always unbelievable to me.]
  • An antagonist can be given his or her due by the writer seeing both the protagonist and the antagonist as equal antagonists. Interesting thought.
  • Pets can humanize a character. [Snyder is strong on this idea: the title of the book Save the Cat applies to the hero doing something that puts him onside with the audience - rescuing a cat, for instance. Even the most unpleasant ‘heroes’ need this kind of moment to make the audience have some empathy with them, and of course antagonists often have animals accompanying them.]
  • Be careful with names that have similarities, or use the same initial letter, or even how you feel about a character...though perhaps this isn't so applicable in a kid's book where fun names are more usable. J K Rowling is as good as Dickens when it comes to naming her characters.
  • Phone conversations shouldn't be used often.
  • Trim down any fat in a tense scene - in terms of detail that's not relevant enough.
  • 'We know' - means the reader already knows this and doesn't have to be told again - or rather doesn't want to be told again. This is different to a stage play where audiences have to listen and can miss things, and may need them repeated.
  • Be particular about details - the three-wheeled car [in The Mumbersons] can actually have its brand name, for instance. [Not being good with cars, this was something I had to research for that book!]
  • Omens are good...
  • Characters do the same things too often: he smiled, she shook her head, etc. [In one book I read in the last couple of years, characters kept showing their 'incisors'. Really? This seems to me a difficult thing for them to do.]
  • Don't throwaway an important event, such as the finding of a body.
  • Confrontations, not discussions.
  • If action seems confusing then work out things in sequence - like those picture boards they use in making action movies.
  • Make sure the action word is doable...you can't sprint across the average office.
  • In a realistic novel don't do melodrama. Keep it sensible to real life. 
  • Make sure the readers know who is who...name the characters as you go. Too many books leave the reader in the dark as to who is talking.     
Bernard Malamud notes: First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about. Revision is working with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to re-form it. D H Lawrence did seven or eight drafts of The Rainbow. The first draft of a book is the most uncertain - where you need guts, the ability to accept the imperfect until it is better. Revision is one of the true pleasures of writing.

John Fowles (who wrote The Collector in a month) says: During the revision period I try to keep a sort of discipline. I make myself revise whether I feel like it or not; in some ways, the more disinclined and dyspeptic one feels, the better - one is harsher with oneself. All the best cutting is done when one is sick of writing.  

     
     

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Learning piano

Someone asked me the other day about when I began learning the piano. It's so long since I began - something like 63 years - that I have no memory of learning how to move around the keyboard, or of learning to read the notes. Somewhere along the line I found I was able to sightread more readily than some musicians, and that led me into a career (professional for a short time, but mostly amateur) as an accompanist and repetiteur. Not everyone goes this way: there are just as many, if not more, musicians who learn to play more by ear than by reading. It has its advantages and disadvantages: once you've got the notes under your belt you can sit down and play most popular music with relative ease, but it also means that you never quite learn to read as comfortably as you might.

I don't envy anyone beginning piano. Though children are more natural at learning than many adults, learning the piano is still a major undertaking. Instrumentalists who play only a single note at a time, look on with wonder at pianists (or organists, or anyone who plays a keyboard instrument) because there are so many notes going on all the time. Pianists probably often wish they had only one note to play at a time: by comparison with what they have to do, this would be a piece of cake!


Friday, September 04, 2015

The migrant problem

What is it that's sparked off the sudden angst about the refugee crisis? Refugees from Syria have been struggling to find homes in other countries for three or four years. Migrants have been invading Hungary for at least a couple of years (to such an extent that there's now a fence along the Hungarian border), and Sweden has been absorbing migrants for much longer (and is now struggling with the cultural difficulties of a people who won't assimilate).
Australia has been dealing badly with boat people for I don't know how long, and has been virtually imprisoning them on Nauru in appalling conditions.
Boat people have been pushing into Italy for more than a couple of years, or drowning in the Mediterranean.
Is it that we've reached a tipping point? Has a photograph of a small boy drowned on a beach triggered off something particular? It's hard to see why this is different to the photos of hundreds of people on leaky boats hoping against hope that they'll be saved before they drown. And the thing is that there are a number of European nations who are actually doing good work in helping such people.

I think it's amazing that 10,000 Icelanders are prepared to house refugees; but how long for? And where will the refugees go once they want to have their own homes, or when the Icelanders find they're struggling to house them?
Germany is talked about taking in tens of thousands of refugees, and being admired for it. Where exactly is Angela Merkel planning to put all these people? What will it do to the structure of German society?
In the light of the great difficulties the UK is already having with hundreds of thousands of Muslims living in its midst - a number of whom are threatening the fabric of British society - how will they cope with even more? It's become a huge difficulty in Britain - a country with Christian roots - to find that a people living in their midst are denigrating the foundations of their society.

I certainly don't think NZ's immigrant quota is large, but presumably there are people from other nations besides those with refugee status who want to make their homes here. We have taken in large numbers of people before: I can remember during the Hungarian Revolution that a number of Hungarians arrived. And there were many Dutch immigrants arriving when I was a child. And later on Cambodians and Vietnamese began arriving.
As a country we certainly have room for more people; in fact part of our problem is that in some ways we are just a little too small for our own good. I don't have a problem with increasing our quota. I am troubled, however, by the way in which people from a Muslim background have tended not to assimilate in the countries they've gone to. Perhaps this will work out over a couple of generations and the mix will work. But Britain is one of the strongest examples of it not working. And I feel uncomfortable about the possibility that it may not work here either.


Thursday, September 03, 2015

Reading kids' books

I read kids' books quite often, and by kids' books I don't mean those aimed at any particular age group but ones ranging from delightful full-colour picture books to books that just come in just under the young adults' age range. I've read some YA books too, but usually they're romances or gloomy apocalyptic things, and I'm not so strung out about those.

I had a real go at Diana Wynne Jones' books in 2011, when I read eight of them (they vary in quality but are always imaginative). I read a couple more earlier this year. Her books are in the same kind of fantasy genre as mine, though of course, so far, she's been considerably more successful than me in terms of a wide readership and lots of sales.

However, in the last month I've read a couple of other books I'd like to mention. The first is Speed. Speed is a word with several meanings of course, and Grant uses that ambiguity in her title and in her book. But it's also something of a speed read, because she piles on the angst and the action. I'm not sure if anyone's yet invented an equivalent of the phrase 'page-turner' for e-books, but whatever the correct phrase is, it applies to this book, which I read on my Kindle.

It's probably aimed at young teens: the hero was around 14, if I remember rightly, and proved to be a pretty tough character by the time he'd got himself through dealing with his parents dying and lying policemen and houses burning down. This book is by the Kiwi writer, Dawn Grant (although she writes under D C Grant). It's the first in a series and I wrote a brief review on Goodreads: The book races along at a great pace with the young hero gradually getting himself deeper and deeper into difficulties. Along the way there's a good deal about coping with grief as well as making the right decisions even if they may cost you your life. 

The second book was one I finished today. It starts off a bit more slowly than Speed, is aimed at a slightly younger age range, and is written by someone living here in my home town, someone I haven't met face-to-face but have corresponded on email with. I'd written to her husband on a few occasions - he writes a column in the ODT called WordWays - and it was he who introduced me to his wife and told me about her book. 

This author is called Beatrice Hale, and she's written an exciting adventure called Ice Escape. (You can see my review on Goodreads here.)  This book has two young narrators, both boys, and while initially it's a bit of a puzzle as to why the second narrator is there, it soon becomes evident that the two lads' lives will connect. 

The story is about a family embarking on a long flight together, on a flying boat. It's set in the 1920s and their adventure is meant to take them around the world. Of course, this being an adventure story things don't quite according to plan. The characters are straightforwardly-drawn, and the adventure itself is exciting enough to make you keep turning pages again. But the interesting thing is that a great deal of information about flying, and living in a perilous situation, and being rescued, and working on a fishing boat is included. There's no sense that it's there just because the writer thinks it's interesting, but because it's integral to the story. 

I probably won't write a thriller like Speed or an adventure story like Ice Escape. But each book you read shows you better how to write your own - quite apart from the sheer enjoyment involved in sharing the adventures of fictional characters. As poet Billy Collins writes in One Life to Live
...this is the only life I have and I never step out of it, 
except to follow a character down the alleys of a novel...


Monday, August 24, 2015

Disenchanted Wizard takes another step forward

My latest children's book, The Disenchanted Wizard, has now been revised again, and is about to go before my editor/structural advisor/picker-upper of errors and inconsistencies...

It was nearly ready the other day, I thought, and then just as I was about to send it off, I realised that I could improve the ending considerably. This took some rewriting of a couple of chapters and reshuffling of more. However, the result was worth doing, and I think the thing is better altogether for it.

This story has a brief reference to Grimhilda!, so it can justifiably be considered as part of the Grimhilderness series. I'm even thinking of a sequel to it (already) which will tie up its links to Grimhilderness still more. But that's not quite ready to get up and running yet.

The story concerns a 12-year-old girl, Della, whose cousin, Harold, has just received a new map - it's his hobby to study maps. This map is a bit unusual in that it has some badly drawn pictures around the sides. Which would be all right, except that one of the pictures moves...

It turns out that Della's father was involved in a very strange event about fifteen years before, and is now in danger. And of course, he's not the only one.

Anyway, that's just a taster of what's in it. I'm hoping to have it e-published before the end of the year. It's taken a lot longer to write than I'd expected, so I'm not promising that it will actually appear in 2015, but let's hope so!

Video splurge

Had a bit of a video splurge yesterday. Didn't start out that way, but circumstances just brought it about. I decided to see what Hitchcock films were available on You Tube, and found Notorious, with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. It's one of Hitchcock's less action-packed films, relying on the subtle interplay of character, and has only one really big scene: a party hosted by Claude Rains, a Nazi-sympathizer living in Brazil after the war. The characters are vividly drawn, and the dialogue full of sub-text: the love story that underpins the suspense is the main focus of the movie in many ways. I've seen it a couple of times before, but had forgotten some of the story. It stands up well after fifty-plus years.

After tea my wife and I carried on watching the Australian legal series, Janet King, which is apparently a spin-off from some other earlier series about a legal firm. We're up to about episode five or six, and I think I haven't seen a series that's so full of improbable legal stuff in a long time. Because the Attorney General seems to be able to command that people do what they're told, for her own political reasons, the Department of Public Prosecutions (where most of the story is focused) jump and go through ridiculous hoops trying to prove cases that are unprovable. Added to that is the detective and his boss who seem to think that building a murder case on the most flimsy of circumstantial evidence is good police work, and you have a series that while it's full of solid characters requires them to do absurd things. The police seem not too fazed about producing witnesses who tell lies; the legal team seem careless about ethics, and so on. If it wasn't actually interesting, it would have been dumped by now. The main character is a lesbian, living with another woman and their twin children, who are toddlers. The lesbian angle seems to be just that: another hook to throw odd bits of storyline onto.

In spite of all this we actually watched two episodes last night, which goes to show how something that's well done can get away with plot-hole murder.

Puccini
Finally, after having written in one of my other blogs about a production of Puccini's opera, Gianni Schicchi, that I was involved in when I was at the Opera Centre in London in 1969, I decided to see if that was on You Tube too. It is, in at least three versions, and thankfully I picked the best-directed one to watch. The other two were okay (I checked out a minute or two of each) but the 2004 Paris version directed by Laurent Pelly, containing a very mixed European cast, was the one that I stuck with.

The opera, which runs for just on an hour, is a total ensemble piece, with a cast of fifteen or sixteen, nine of whom are on stage the entire time. There's no chorus, just larger and smaller roles (one lasting about two minutes). It's a piece of nonsense about a man, Buoso, who's died and left a very unsatisfactory will - that is, he hasn't left anything of substance to his relatives. They plot to bring in the cunning neighbour, Schicchi, and he, being even more cunning than they've thought, winds up replacing the original will with his own version, in which the bulk of the proceeds go to him.

The cast played the thing in a style verging on the comic grotesque, and there were even some surreal moments (a kind of ballet involving the moving around of the bed which features prominently). It's a lot of fun, and requires the main singers to do a huge amount of work. Those who are on stage all the time have to keep up particular characters constantly: there's no let up. Very enjoyable, even if it was sung in the original Italian with French subtitles....some of which I understood and some of which I probably misunderstood.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Milner and Bacchus

Some time ago we watched a number of episodes from both Inspector George Gently and Foyle's War. We've been watching them again on Netflix recently, and catching up with ones we missed.

They're two similar series in many respects: both set in the past (the first in the early sixties, and the second during and after the Second World War); both featuring an older and wiser senior detective with a sidekick. The older detective is always on the button, even when things flummox him, and in both cases he has a liberal point of view: not racist, not fazed by people's foibles, and - more in Foyle's case even than Gently's - he is inherently just, which sometimes means letting certain people off the hook. However episodes in both series often end with a hanging.

The biggest difference is between the two sidekicks. Foyle's man, Paul Milner, who was injured in the war and retired from duty, is an earnest, quietly-spoken, almost invisible character who, like a straight man in a comedy duo, asks all the pertinent questions, so that Foyle can pontificate. He's as dull as ditchwater (no fault of the actor, who's given an almost colourless character to deal with). There's another offsider, a young girl who starts off as Foyle's driver, and in the later series is the wife of an aspiring MP. She's a bit more interesting, though she often gets Foyle into difficulties by being too willing to take risks. Milner was eventually retired from the series: he moved to a different station, but even then Foyle came along inopportunely, and solved his cases for him (!)

Gently's sidekick is a Detective Sergeant called John Bacchus. He's presumptuous, arrogant, cocky, racist, chauvinistic and frequently wrong-headed. Even though he seldom solves much on his own, unlike Milner, he has personality in spades (it perhaps helps that he's played by Lee Ingleby, one of TV's top notch actors) and however much he trips up you can't help liking him.

Martin Shaw plays Gently, very quietly, only occasionally raising his voice, and even less often getting angry with someone who's blatantly trying to con the police. Shaw was 62 when he began the series in 2007; he's now 70, and doesn't move any faster than necessary.

The superb Michael Kitchen (who's three years younger) is Foyle. He can take a basic line and give it such emphasis, or surround it with pauses, that you think he's delivering Shakespeare. One of the delights of Foyle's War is Kitchen's acting. And his wry humour. I don't enjoy Shaw so much, though he has the measure of his character, and provides plenty of subtlety within a relatively quiet frame. Sometimes he seems to be given just a bit too much of the older, wiser stuff (though Bacchus can be such a dolt it's not hard), but he seldom overplays it.

The stories vary in intensity and interest. In general the supporting casts in the Gently series seem better than those in Foyle. But it's probably a moot point. There are plenty of good actors in both series, including some now famous faces in the earlier episodes, including David Tennant (Dr Who) and Emily Blunt.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Popular post

I have a bit of a thing about stats. I'm not trained as a statistician, but I've done quite a bit of reading in the subject, and also worked in a job late in my working life that involved some stats. But apart from the work angle I've always enjoyed finding out what the stats are about all manner of subjects - and checking the original stats have been correctly interpreted.

That's the wider view: just now I was having a look at the stats on this blog, and in particular which post has had the most visits since it first appeared. It turns out to be one that was written on 13th February, 2011, called Commonplace Post. It's fairly random, taking as its topic insurance and riffing on about the topic by using a few paragraphs I'd found in my Evernote file.

The interesting thing is that this post has had more than three times as many visits as the next most popular post. At this point that's 9923 to 3295. Nearly ten thousand visits to that post alone. That seems extraordinary for something as random as this. Check it out, you'll see what I mean.