Book review: G.M. Malliet’s The Haunted Season

As you know, I’ve been avidly reading my way through the pile of books that I happened upon thanks to my building’s internal facebook-group-of-sharing-all-the-things. This was book three of this haul, and I’ve read another two and a bit of the remaining ones. This book, as I found shortly into the first chapter, is actually the fifth in a series (yes, I flipped it over and saw the back cover, which told me it was not the first… “the handsome vicar’s talent for sorting through clues to solve a murder is once again called into play”.)

Cover ruthlessly stolen off Amazon, as per usual.

So, half a chapter committed to this new story, I had a moment of doubting whether to continue or whether to find book one, but on realising that this was largely an activity in reading what was available, I dug in and got going.

Non-spoilery synopsis

The book tells the story of a dishy vicar (#keepingupappearancesreferences) who lives in a small town that seems to be beset (unfortunately) by murders. Thankfully only one per book, but it draws a bit of an eyebrow-raise from his local bishop, to say the least. The main character, Reverend Max Tudor, seems to live an interesting small-town life that bears witness to several previous books’ worth of dramatic conflict (falling in love with the local New Age shop owner, etc.) The town is full of some stereotyped characters who are officious at parish council meetings, or are eccentric and extremely wealthy. When the local lord of the manor is found murdered, Max and his friend, Detective Cotton have to figure out who would have the motive to do such a terrible thing. They eventually pull the pieces together of some family drama, wrap the plot, and avert a last-minute crisis in Max’s church.

Cozy mysteries and their challenges

So, this book is pretty solidly in the cozy mystery category. I read it with interest, having actually read very few that didn’t feature Poirot or Marple. What I felt while reading it was that it tended a little towards a pastiche of typical mystery tropes and the Vicar of Dibley – down to the personages on the parish council and the unusual vicar (this one having spent some time in MI5). I looked up the author some way into the book, because it gave me an odd impression of writing an imagined version of England. “Baaden-Boomthistle” as a surname is a bit too far a reach for even the lord and lady of the manor, and everything was just a little too… post-cardy. I found she’s American, but spent some time in the UK at Oxford. Aha! This made sense to me, because I have previously tried to write (plotted and nearly started) a similar book, taking place in a small English village somewhere (such a good setting), except I felt like I didn’t really know enough about the workings of the setting and its people to get into it. I would have been writing what I didn’t know. And, while I think it is quite an enjoyable story, I get the same feeling from this book too.

The denouement that is such an important part of a mystery novel lacked some clarity for me; I ended up going back a chapter to re-read because I thought I’d missed something. After this, the last few pages of the book featured further dramatic tension and action, which I read as a possible other ending – it could have been the climax of an entirely separate book, and didn’t seem to connect to the main plot line at all. I understand that subplot exists, but I sorta didn’t feel it gelled well as a subplot either.

I may just be being horribly picky, because after all, I read it and enjoyed it – even if I got a bit confused towards the end.

Worth it?

Yeah, sure. Kind of fun, lots of escapism. I feel like it would make pretty good bad TV if that makes sense – another small town murder series, but a light-hearted one. As I said, the novel has some things that give me pause as a writer, and the last few chapters feel confusing, but if I were to find books 1-4 in the library, I’d read ’em. The characterisation is good, the escapism is fun, and that’s the whole point with this type of book, isn’t it?

Book review: Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s

So I said, ‘What about Breakfast at Tiffany’s’?

I think I knew a lot more about the movie starring Audrey Hepburn, or the song by Deep Blue Something than I knew about the book, and even that, well, my knowledge was limited to the classic shot of black dress and beehive hairdo, pearls and a cigarette holder.

This was another find from the building’s books-and-goods swap facilitated via the facebook community. I’ve been reading through the pile, and I’m now reviewing a book or two behind where I’m reading, thanks to a little blog-post hiatus. (Will post a blog about life-stuff that led to the break, and honestly, I’ve been really poor with writing anything over the last three weeks).

Cover thanks to Google, and it actually is the correct one. A thin little book.

Characterisation

The whole point of the rather plot-light Breakfast at Tiffany’s is its characterisation. The central character of Miss Holiday Golightly (played by Audrey Hepburn in the movie – which I’ve not seen). She is capricious, inconsistent and manipulative of those around her. Not particularly for any reason of bad behaviour, but just because she wants to step up in the world. She is flighty in a way that makes the narrator fall in love with her, or at the very least, fall under her spell. Holly Golightly, it becomes clear through the story, is not of the Boston Golightlys – not of any proper society family at all. She is a plucky kid, who has wound her way into society by means of learning a little elocution and a lot of enticing rich men to pay her way. While she isn’t really a nice person, she is a sympathetic character. Her interactions with her cat, more than with people, show this.

The narrator’s characterisation is less over-the-top than that of Miss Golightly. It feels like a self-conscious portrait of being a little-published author in New York, not really knowing where you fit in and how to break in. As the story is told in the first person, it is pretty easy to conflate Capote himself with this narrator/author character. The narrator voice blends well with the setting, which is a rickety building containing several flats, including his (above) and Holly’s (below).

Capote

The main thing I knew about Truman Capote before reading this book was that he was friends with Harper Lee, of To Kill a Mockingbird fame. So, I assumed that he was American (yes, decidedly so), and that he may have spent time in the south (yes, born there). Things I’ve learned: he was also openly gay, and had several romantic encounters with various men, including allegedly some that were supposedly heterosexual. He had a high pitched voice, and was known for his odd dress-sense. He wrote several short stories and novellas, and several novels. He was also involved in various other popular media, such as film.

Worth it?

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is published as a novella and three short stories. I can see why they are studied in various literature courses around the world.

Honestly, it’s not my usual taste, and I read it more to have read it.

I prefer the song.

We didn’t start the fire

This song is my husband’s party trick.

I’m being serious. He knows every single word, and can recognise it from the first split second of the track starting. I don’t really know why that is, aside from having heard a lot of Billy Joel at some point in his life, but it is a fact that he is rather proud of. We listened to a lot of Billy Joel in the early days of our relationship when I was not yet used to the heavier stuff that has sort of become the norm when his music is on, and I kinda hadn’t figured out that it’s totally okay to not listen to the same stuff all the time. Or even most of the time.

When we had been together a few months, we wanted to introduce our parents to each other. We had the very clever idea of getting everyone together at Mitchell’s at the Waterfront in Cape Town. It was a Tuesday night, so we came straight from dancing. Mom and Dad (on both sides) were going to meet us there. We walked in and found a nice six-seater table and waited for the parents. A late-ish supper for us, starting at about 8.30pm.

What we didn’t realise was that Mitchell’s hosts a karaoke at 9pm on Tuesdays.

As a friend said when I related it to him, ‘It’s like the romcom fairy smiled on you.’

The parents tucked into what we confidently said were the best burgers in Cape Town (they’re not, but which ones are is still up for debate), and the best onion rings in Cape Town (this one is true – I requested one as an engagement ring at our next visit to Mitchell’s, about seven years before getting engaged at the Waterfront, if not at Mitchell’s).

Then, came all the regulars to yowl their renditions of ‘And IIIIIIIiiiiIIIIIIIII will always love YOOOOUuuuuuUUU’ or various other classic karaoke numbers.

Cue bemused parents.

At some point, the crew from the ballroom society arrived and started signing up for various Spice Girls tracks and so on. Alex and I signed up to sing ‘We didn’t start the fire’, which they put on duet mode, and I got all the bits I didn’t really know… Well, eight years later, I know all the words too, but perhaps a little less confidently than my darling husband.

Later, as a second round of Mitchell’s finest pints were brought to the table, I overheard my mom lean over and ask Heather ‘So, do you guys come to karaoke often?’

Needless to say, we definitely laugh about it now, and I don’t think either set of parents has been back on karaoke night since.

Lightning blog 62.

Writing song:

What an interesting music video

Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)

There are a number of songs that conjure incredibly strong memories of particular people, routines and instances from my student days when I was part of the university’s ballroom and latin dancing society. As a society, we started staging showcases as a form of fundraising, or so we told ourselves – in truth, they usually only broke even through creative accounting, what with glitter and spraypaint totally counting as assets…

This song in particular reminds me of 2015 (I think, maybe 2016), when we had to relocate our showcase from the university’s big hall to a smaller amphitheatre stage at a local high school due to significant student protests. It was a time of much general anxiety, though I hadn’t realised what that tightly wound feeling actually was; I was doing my MA and teaching some undergrad seminars, but thankfully I was no longer running the society as I had before. The showcase usually worked because various people brainstormed and choreographed and did endless hours of unpaid admin, and then executed their visions with a crowd of volunteer dancers who had to be cajoled into attending rehearsals. We all spent weeks of evening and weekend practices to put forth the production, and while the result was very good, the process was a source of great frustration for lots of the participants.

Some memorable hits include a very beautiful, if fernickety piece that required explainer videos with buttons marking the positions of all the couples, some large-scale numbers where we tried to squish everyone onto the stage, and a few that were basically all about getting people into slinky costumes. Always, there would be a couple of non ballroom and latin bits, mostly to keep it a show that everyone could enjoy and invite their parents, friends, colleagues and so on to. Lots of big numbers with keen beginners – and they were always fun and full of energy, which I think makes for better showcase than lots of technique. This one sticks in my mind, and I only have to hear a very little bit of Backstreet Boys (any song, really, not even just this one) to immediately think of the friend that choreographed it, and his lovely partner, who was largely responsible for the showcase that year going ahead as planned.

“am I sexual? (yeahhhh)”

Lightning blog 61

Writing song:

Project Songbird: Week 5

This has been a week of doing lots of things that weren’t writing my novel, including an online course, reading, doing some editing work, and maintaining some reasonable exercise habits. So I almost didn’t post today, because it almost isn’t worth the update, but I thought I would anyway, just to keep my wordpress streak going for a little bit longer (yes, yes, the wordpress streak has my soul, I know, and it’s not even a reasonable obsessive tendency). In 3 days’ time, I’ll reach 80 days of my streak, and thereafter, will stop posting daily and focus on the main thing a bit more. It will be a relief – I think to me and to the few people who regularly read the blogs.

Vital statistics

  • Word count: 24973 (29%)
  • Words this week: 2134 (see? barely anything)
  • Best day: Monday, with the vast bulk of that. Basically the only day I did much/any novelling.

Challenges

I got very stuck in getting to my 25% plot point. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, and it just kept getting wordier without getting there. I eventually sketched some ‘must happen’ bits and carried on.

Wins

I’m enjoying the plotstormers course? Does that even count, because I’m working on a different novel with it? I’m using plotstormers to plan my NaNoWriMo effort, so when November comes along, I can churn out the goods at a cracking pace.

Win this week was breaking into Act 2 of the novel, even if I did it kicking and screaming. From tomorrow, I will start interspersing the Plotstormers thinking with some initial crime scene investigations. Exciting, and a bit scary.

Second win: realising (and being told by a very good external sounding board) that my daily posts had proved their point, and I needed to move on with the more substantive writing instead of faffing just to maintain a streak.

Goals for next week

Write at least 4000 words of (this) novel by next Sunday, and stay up to speed with the course.

Gif of the week

Book review: Howl’s Moving Castle

After reading the rather intense and historical Mr Peacock’s Possessions, I turned my attention to one of the books that I found through our building’s system of ‘abandon crap I’m otherwise donating to the charity shops outside my door for a couple of hours to see if I can avoid the trip to the donation box’. (Yes, that was very succinct. I love the system. I’ve got a pile of books, a new coat with label still on, the best jeans, a big Pyrex dish and a washstand through this system.). So whenever someone posts that they have some things, I go check it out, and this time I got a small pile of books for my trouble. Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle has been on my radar for a while, because of the Miyazaki film version. Despite her prolific writing, I don’t think I’ve read anything else by her. Adding her book The Tough Guide to Fantasyland to my list, to buy and to read. I’m definitely going to need to buy a new bookshelf at some point.

This is the audible cover. It would be interesting to listen to, and I think it would make a good story to read aloud to children.

Unspoilery Synopsis

The story follows Sophie Hatter, a young woman who works in her parents’ hat shop until she is rude to a customer who places a curse on her. The curse ages her in an instant, and newly 90-year-old Sophie runs away. She takes shelter in the moving castle of a much-feared wizard called Howl, where she becomes his cleaning lady, forges a friendship with the wizard’s fire demon, and slowly awakens to her own magic.

Characters

The main characters are Sophie and the titular Howl. Their interactions are supported by a surprisingly large cast of secondary characters, including Calcifer the fire demon, Michael, Howl’s apprentice, and various bewitched scarecrows, dogs and of course, the Witch of the Waste.

Sophie’s internal grumbly monologue makes up a large part of her characterisation. She is sort of resigned to her new self, even though she aged substantially in an instant. She makes the most of being old, especially in how her age seems to give her more social clout. Before she is cursed, she is shown as talking a lot to inanimate objects, which, it turns out, was part of her magic.

Howl’s chief characteristic is probably his foppishness; he spends hours in the bathroom prettifying himself with spells, and throws plenty of little tantrums when things don’t quite go his way. He comes across as spoiled, but also rather generous. Michael, his apprentice, mentions having to hide some of the money they make so that Howl doesn’t just go and spend it all. It’s really interesting to see his growth and development over the course of the novel, and I think his character arc would make for excellent discussions in early high school literature classes.

Fantasy-land

A lot of the magic of the moving castle is not just in the fact that it moves… oh no, dear reader! It also has a door that can open into different locations depending on where the doorknob dial is placed. This means that Howl and his crew serve a variety of locations with their magical services, as Pendragon or Jenkins, or whatever name he decides to adopt. One of the places that Howl and friends end up in through the magical door to multiple places, probably the most odd of the parallel places, is, well, Wales. The characters pop through the door to modern-day Wales, to where Howl becomes Howell, and he has a nephew who plays video games. It’s very interesting, and I can totally hear the valley accent creeping in while I’m reading it. Howell even comes back home drunk after a visit to his Welsh rugby club reunion. So weird, so cool, but also really incongruous with the rest of the plot, to be honest.

Comparison with the movie

So, as I mentioned up top, there is also a very well-known movie of this narrative, by the Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. It’s the only anime-eque thing I’ve ever intentionally watched, and I do have other Miyazaki movies on my list after this past rewatch. I think lots of the common praise of his movie-making include the romance and charm of everyday things, like cooking and being cozy at home.

There are some major differences in the Miyazaki version to the original novel, and I don’t think that all of them are great, but some of them do work towards making the narrative better suited to the medium – I’m happy for some changes to be made in the adaptation to movie format.

In terms of the characterisation, the movie takes a bit of a different attitude towards Howl. He’s definitely more of a drama-queen in the book than in the movie, in which he is more aloof and mysterious (if notably vain). On the other hand, Calcifer is much more outspoken and (dare I say it) has more character in the movie. So you win some, you average others out.

Miyazaki adds a whole new narrative arc of the war between kingdoms into the tale, which adds some narrative tension, but kind of messes with the other dynamics between Howl, the Witch of the Waste and the other magic users. I think that the movie’s approach to the Witch of the Waste (and consequently the crux of the plot in the book version) is not my cup of tea.

As much as I think it’s still a great movie, and if it is the only version of the narrative that people consume, that’s fine. It sets up different tensions, different conflicts and different consequences for the characters, even if the key plot knot is the same. (Plot knot? is that a literary thing? It totally should be – like a twist, but like, the keystone instead. The sine qua non of the literary exercise that is a novel.)

I love the movie’s emphasis on Calcifer, and the deft shifts between old-Sophie and young-Sophie at narratively significant moments.

Oh, and the soundtrack is wonderful.

Worth it?

Yes! Read it, watch it, compare the two.

As I said earlier, I think it would make a great setwork for early high-schoolers, because you could talk in depth about the character arcs, foreshadowing, and the differences in interpretation between the book and movies.

Mercy

“Yeah, yeah, yeah!”

Aside from being an excellent chacha that I’m pretty sure was on the list for so many medal tests I scribed for, danced, ran the music for… and so on, this song is really excellent for its fabulous seventies styling in the music video.

It also contains one of my favourite ever mondegreens, as first noted by the comedian Peter Kay in his stand-up routines. A mondegreen is the official term for misheard lyrics, such as Taylor Swift’s “starbucks lovers”, or Hendrix’s “kiss this guy”. I know lots of people spend time trying to get to the hidden messages behind lyrics, and most of the time, it’s just a crossed connection in the brain. People are so good at pattern recognition, and when a pattern isn’t quite complete, your brain sometimes goes in and fills in some details to make it more sense.

Anyway, this song’s mondegreen?

“You got me begging you for bird seed”.

Or not 😀

My other all-time favourite inaccurate lyric may not so much be misheard as intentionally mis-directed: “Who you gonna call? THOSE BASTARDS!”. I challenge you not to sing that whenever you hear Ghostbusters going forward.

Do you have any favourite misheard lyrics, or ‘family versions’ of well-known songs?

Lightning blog 60.

Writing song:

It must be love

When this song came on, I had an immediate flashback to being about fourteen, and being so very cool.

And by cool, I mean, not at all cool, not even connected to the right century of music for my classmates.

Dad introduced me to the music of his youth, including Madness (Our house… in the middle of our street). Because I was going through this very _edgy_ ska phase that I thought was just the best, I lapped it up. All the two-tone stuff, all the checkerboard vans, everything. Much eyeliner. In reflection, and in reviewing those early facebook photos, I realise that I didn’t really get the whole ska aesthetic – I tended to pair my checkerboard vans with multicoloured hippy pants.

Also, a note on _edgy_… I was never edgy. I was too much an excitable puppy of a human to go through an emo phase (my dad used to wind me up a bit by calling it emmo), and too much a people-pleaser and nerd to act out. Honestly, one of the things I regret most about high school was sticking to the rules too closely. I didn’t drink as a teen, even at that one infamous party after a school play that was a wall-to-wall disaster. I attended… for all of about fifteen minutes, before I went to sleep over at my equally nerdy friend’s house. I think we were the only people in the grade who got more than six hours’ sleep that night.

Madness has a nostalgia to it. Full of interesting people, interesting dance moves, interesting clothes. Having the heavy heavy sound of madness, or House of Fun blaring… what an excellent jam. 🙂

Lightning blog 59.

Writing song:

Hold my hand

“Standing in a crowded room” – sheesh. Nothing like six months of behavioural conditioning and anxiety to make something that seemed so natural seem so damn strange. Early on, I watched movies and got upset because the characters weren’t keeping their distance. It was so weird. Now, I wonder what the hangups are that we will have for years to come. For example, having recently come from the Cape Town water crisis, in which we were limited to 25l per person per day, and got, erm, creative with hygiene and flushing the loo, to very rainy (famously very rainy) Manchester, Alex and I still find it difficult to shake some of those waterwise habits. According to the water company, we use less water than they estimate for a single person, and there’re two of us. So, bearing that in mind, will we find ourselves in years to come using feet and elbows to press buttons and push open doors?

I was part of a writing webinar last night, and someone asked the speaker how she thinks we’re going to cope with 2020 in our writing, films, series and other art forms going forward. Are we going to just collectively ignore the year? Or are we going to turn it into crazy suspense? Like, the gripping anxiety of the early phases really could be a sci-fi movie, but they never really get into the long-term ground-down phase. I suppose war movies don’t either – the battles are the questionable ‘glamour’, and you don’t get scene after scene of living life on rations or building a bomb shelter in the back garden.

“Hold my hand” – I’ve also been thinking through the importance of social processes through lockdown. I’ve been really thankful for incredible friends and family members who keep me going, even when we’re so far apart. Nothing like a little call home, or call to my sister or a friend to perk me up out of the depths of despair.

This is song number one on a 100 Upbeat Songs list on Spotify. I feel like I’ve got my evening’s kitchen mosying a soundtrack. There’s nothing like a good little kitchen boogie.

Think about songs you like, that give you that kitchen boogie feeling, and stick one on. If you need inspiration, here’s that Spotify playlist. Dance your lil heart out. Go on, it’ll make your day better.

Lightning blog 58.

Writing song:

A horse with no name

I’m really looking forward to going on an adventure. I officially felt incredibly cooped yesterday. I’ve been going through waves of coping better and then worse by turn. I am sure I am not the only one, and this turns into a bit of a maudlin reflection on being a badly-behaved little moaner, so if it’s not what you need right now, please click away.

The song’s weird, and not exactly upbeat. I feel like it’s musically similar to “Ex’s & Oh’s” by Elle King, or rather that the later song is similar to it.

Anyway, I’ve been a bit down about the challenges of being stuck at home, even though I have a lovely home, and share it with a lovely human. I’ve just got a feeling of needing to go on an adventure, and expand my horizon a bit. I’ve been holding very fast to the idea of getting a car, and soon, because it will give us so much more space we can go and see, even if we aren’t ready to go into a pub or anything.

In that direction, I’m going to plan a cycle adventure on my bike (that has a name) for this weekend or sometime soon, and I’m going to cycle through to town, or down to Chorlton to the library, or maybe down the Salford arm of the Bridgewater Canal. Or maybe even up to the University to have a look at work from the banks of the River Irwell, and visit the beautiful space of Peel Park.

I should be thankful for this time that I’ve got at the moment, and the lack of adventures. Yesterday, between having strop about one thing (the dishes) and another (disagreeing over workout music – yes, I was a real nightmare yesterday), I managed to get a sizeable chunk of writing done, and do some of my plotting course. I’m really looking forward to making some writerly friends through it 🙂

Other achievements for the week: got a Tesco delivery (which is the delivery bloke’s achievement), but it contained some cheapish wine that I don’t feel like I have to hang onto for a special occasion. I can just decide to have some wine because I feel like it. I’m sure all the South Africans must be really chuffed that they can now too. Other achievement: scrubbed the ceiling of the bathroom with some magic cleaning stuff, and it is now mostly spotless and shining and smelling like bleach. Gotta celebrate the little things, if you don’t see any big things to celebrate on the horizon.

Goal for the day: Milne, you gotta keep yourself going with a burst of endorphins in the form of exercise, and then, well, probably congratulate yourself with a biscuit.

Lightning blog 57.

Writing song: