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 in 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 what 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.