Monday, December 19, 2016

I Watch TV: Private Eyes

(For this review I shall award a (+) for things I like and a (-) for things I don't. Some of these will be explained and some won't.)


Private Eyes(-*) is a Canadian TV Crime show(+) whose first season had ten episodes in 2016. Jason Priestley is a charming ex- Ice Hockey player called Matt Shade(-) nicknamed The Shadow(+) who gets caught up in a mystery while scouting for new players(+). After solving it with some help from a private detective his Dad knows he decides that the world of Ice Hockey is too dirty for him(+) and instead teams up to solve crimes with Angie Everett (Cindy Simpson) (+).

Shade lives with his Dad and also his daughter, who is blind. This dynamic should be familiar to viewers of Castle(+-**). His ex-wife makes her appearance about halfway through the run leading to possibly the funniest scene in which Shade accidentally finds himself roped in to auditioning for a TV show with her, Exes For Breakfast(+).

So if this is a Castle clone, what does it bring to the table to differentiate itself? Firstly, as a Canadian show it is set in Toronto, which is a nice change(+). Sadly other than the waterfront and shots of the CN tower there's little to differentiate it from other North American cities I'm unfamiliar with(-***). There are a few particularly Canadian touches; the first time Angie and Shade go on a stake out she has a sleeping bag to keep warm while he is inevitably cold. Each episode touches on a particular place, scene, or crime in Canada(+), sometimes with actual Toronto celebrities who I do not recognise at all. Many of these are sort of generic(-) others kind of interesting (I mean I didn't know Toronto has a hip-hop scene(+) but obviously it does, and now I do know).

As Private Eyes* they see a lot of different crimes(+) a lot of thefts and missing persons and so on(+) with of course the occasional murder(-****). They work sometimes with, and sometimes at odds with the police(+) who only have two detectives available, but this is Canada I suppose(+). Sadly they are not Mounties(-).

The starting theme tune is the Hall and Oates song Private Eyes(+) but it is a cover of some sort(-) but the end theme is different each episode, usually a good choice and relevant, so the first episode has the original Hall and Oates version(+).

Watch This: For a slightly quirky amusing crime show exploring the seamy underside of Toronto
Don't Watch This: If charming protagonists making light hearted fun about crime in a slightly formulaic manner is not your thing. Or you can't bring yourself to watch a show about private eyes called Private Eyes.
Final Score:
(+) 20 including 3 that were actually for Castle
(-) 11 with 3 of those for Castle.




* Ugh, title.
** Look, I liked Castle(+++). But the premise was dumb(-) and it went on to long (is it still going on? No, apparently it finished earlier this year. Ho hum) so it became formulaic(-) and the will-they-won't-they kept getting reset(-).
*** Full disclosure: I visited Toronto for about five days twenty five years ago.
**** Murder is of course the greatest crime (that you can make a serial show about) but also a specialised one that private investigators shouldn't get involved with. Of course both the police and (mostly) Angie agree with that principle, but they deal with it anyway(+) because television.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Six-Gun Cheesemonger

Against my better judgement I have published an e-book called Six-Gun Cheesemonger.

John Deere Chuckwagon circa 1885
It is about 9000 words long (Amazon estimates the equivalent of 35 pages) and as the cover suggests consists of 6 very silly Western stories involving cheese. It makes no pretence to be historically accurate and is probably a big waste of everybody's time.

It is for sale now at Smashwords (various formats) and also at Amazon for the Kindle.

It is however very cheap so it has that going for it.


I will now return you to the regularly scheduled silence of this blog.



Friday, October 14, 2016

Horses of Courses

I have written a novel, The Inexplicable Affair of the Mesmerising Russian Nobleman, a comedy-crime story set in 1902. It is available now exclusively as a e-book from the Amazon Kindle Store. This is the last exerpt for the moment; if this interests you, then why not click on the link and buy a copy?

He drew up his feet to sit cross legged on the straw bale, straightened his back and put his hands on his knees. He breathed in, deep and slow. He would have liked a book or paper to read but lights would give him away. A cigarillo would have been nice, but he had been told that smoking was strictly forbidden in the stables due to the risk of fire. Pushed back on his own resources he sank into meditation.

It was the second night waiting here. He hoped that his overnight presence had not been noticed yesterday and passed on to interested parties. If so his watch might be long and futile or, worse, short and violent.

Time passed as he sat alone with his thoughts, poised but resting. At last there was an unexpected noise from outside in the stable yard. Consciousness and alertness returned to his mind and body. He estimated that it was relatively early, not yet midnight, but racing stables, like many country establishments, ran their schedules according to the clock of the sun. The stable lads would all have been in bed for hours.

More noise, now some quiet conversation. Schneemann rose, stretched a little. His arms and ribs seemed to be healed from the damage done to them in his earlier exertions. He undid his overcoat, brushed straw from the hem. He adjusted the carnation in the buttonhole and picked up his cane. Footsteps came up to the door. From outside he could hear some words. “It’s this one.”

The door opened and two men dressed for rough work were discovered standing there in the light of their lantern. Schneemann smiled. “Good evening gentlemen. I do believe that you have opened the stable door after the horse has gone.”

“Who’re you? Where’s Gabriel’s Trumpet?”

“I am terribly sorry. The horse you are looking for has been removed.  The exact details of your scheme are somewhat complex and, turning as they do on the minutiae of the British racing and bloodstock businesses, are opaque to a foreigner such as myself. Something to do with identical appearing horses of differing abilities, racing under each others’ names to confuse handicappers and gamblers, followed up by selling an inferior horse for stud for an inflated sum? I think that may be the heart of it. However once discovered, some very wealthy people with no sense of humour when it comes to racing and their stables will become most unhappy.”

They stared at him, struck dumb. He sighed. “We know what’s up. The horse is gone. Time to quit while you’re ahead.”

The one without the lantern swung a short piece of rope threateningly. “Where’s the horse? You’ll tell me if you know what’s good for you.”

Schneemann shook his head, gestured with the cane. “Gabriel’s Trumpet is concealed amongst eight similar looking horses in a field on another farm, some miles from here, watched over by several large men who used to be rough riders in a cavalry regiment. Even if I were willing to tell you where to find him, you will not succeed in absconding with him.”

The one with the lantern nodded to his partner. “Get him.”

“Oh for pity’s sake. Listen to me. The jig’s up. Friends of mine have copies of the accounts of the gambling syndicate you are part of. If I am not in contact with them tomorrow morning they will be sent to the Jockey Club and the Police. As off-course betting is illegal in this country you will be arrested if you continue to pursue this affair.”

“What is this? What do you want?” The one with the lamp seemed to have finally got a grasp of the situation.

“I am warning you off. You stop with the scams. Make and take bets if you want, but from now on you are honest bookies. No fixing races. No shuffling identical horses. No selling nags for the price of champions.”

The one with the rope was unconvinced. “I say we beat where the ‘orse is out of him, then send ‘im back to ‘is friends as an ‘int to stay mum.”

“I don’t think that will convince them. For that matter, the police are not the only people interested in your activities. Some much nastier fellows will hear about what you’re up to.”

The one with the lantern nodded. “This ain’t the end of this mister. You’ll hear from us again.”

Schneemann smiled broadly. “Well done. I knew you wouldn’t look this gift horse in the mouth. I look forward to hearing from you anon.”

Thursday, October 13, 2016

In Which I Am Wrong About Edwardian England

I have written a novel, The Inexplicable Affair of the Mesmerising Russian Nobleman, a comedy-crime story set in 1902. It is available now exclusively as a e-book from the Amazon Kindle Store. Meanwhile here is a short piece explaining why my fictional Edwardian England is not the same as historical Edwardian England.

My version of Edwardian England is wrong.

I don’t say this because of the handful of deliberate anachronisms, or the things I’ve ignored to make a scene clearer, or the liberties I’ve taken because I thought it would be cool. I’m not even talking about the fact I am basing my novel more on the fiction of the Edwardians and late Victorians rather than the history, or (less authentically) the fiction based in that period that came later. These are the tools of a storyteller; most of the time the constraints of history and reality are part of the skeleton of a work, directing and supporting it, yet sometimes you have to ignore them for the dramatic moment, the clever twist, or even the funny punchline. A good joke at the right time can outweigh several pages of well researched description. But these are not the wrongnesses I’m talking about.

What I mean is that I have half a dozen histories and reference books for the period that I keep by me (and more that I have read or consulted) and attempting to derive or make a coherent structure from these is beyond me.

Some examples:

- The Edwardian Age was a frivolous time, obsessed with celebrity, entertainment and fashion. Led by King Edward, society was interested in image and glorious surfaces, with pleasure and enjoyment. Wearing the right clothes was more important than saying the right thing, and one could do as one wished behind closed doors so long as one said the right thing in public. Yachting, horse racing, and shooting at the top end, music hall, football and gin at the other; the start of the twentieth century was all about passing time amusingly.

- Edwardian England was a very serious time and place. While the British Empire was reaching towards its peak it had already begun to dissolve as the Dominions achieved full internal self-government. Efforts to reform the Empire as a cultural and trading bloc fell apart against the dogma of Britain as a centre of free trade. The House of Lords and the House of Commons had their final showdown, leading to the current constitutional settlement with the Commons supreme and the Lords advisory.

- The Edwardian’s were serious about money, and even more so when it intersected with their entertainment. Much time and effort was taken up with the issue of payment of players for football and cricket, with the gap between amateurs and professionals, or Gentlemen and Players, ever narrowing the more closely it was policed. Meanwhile as the Labour movement began to elect Members of Parliament, it became clear that the social bar to politicians was also an economic one; the nascent Labour Party had to pay it’s representatives so they could maintain themselves while serving their constituency.

- It was a peaceful age, the most peaceful of the Twentieth Century. It was a violent time, the Boer and Russo-Japanese wars giving poorly recognised warnings of things to come. It was an age in which citizens believed it was their duty to be soldiers, in Britain forming territorial regiments the Government barely knew what to do with, and volunteering for the Boer war in great numbers. An age when powerful warships sailed on and beneath the waves, and the first warplanes began to take to the sky.

- It was a time of great social mobility with educational possibilities available to all classes. It was a period of social unrest, with poor working men, and women too, demanding the vote. It was a great age of class divides, with new money buying into old blood so their children would be accepted into the upper crust.

--

My point, such as it is, is that Edwardian England cannot be summed up in a single sentence, paragraph, chapter or book. The half dozen references I note above give a bare outline of a time and place. How then can my novel, more interested in entertaining than enlightening, possibly mirror it in any meaningful way? It cannot. It is, of course, wrong.

Still, I hope that I give at least the correct flavour of the corner that I look at, as I’m pretty sure I’ve got a few things right.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Sales Pitch

I have written a novel, currently available exclusively from the Amazon Kindle Store as an e-book. This is the post in which I attempt to sell it to you. If you need no further convincing then click on the link above. If you have read it, then congratulations, and also have you considered leaving a review?[1]
Not a clickable link

The novel is called The Inexplicable Affair of the Mesmerising Russian Nobleman, a surprisingly long name denoting a comedy-crime story set in 1902. It features a protagonist named Heinrich von Schneemann, gentleman adventurer, who lies, cheats, steals and generally is a complete reprobate in a generally good cause. It is clever, witty, amusing, and mostly light-hearted with a few darker touches. If you don't mind some minor spoilers, this synopsis from two years and two and a half drafts ago will tell you approximately what happens in the story. In addition I am posting two extracts this week, one on Monday and one on Friday which should give you some idea of the flavour of the book. Or you can click on the Look Inside feature on the Amazon page to see what's going on there.

Rear: Fu Manchu. Front: Not Raffles
If you need any further encouragement, then I direct your attention to the earliest review on the Amazon UK page from a completely disinterested critic[2] which claims the book "delivers like an amphetamine fueled pizza delivery boy. The protagonist Schneeman leaps from the page like the love child of Raffles the Amateur Cracksman and Fu Man Chu." (I was aiming more for the wit of Dorothy Sayer and the clever plotting of Agatha Christie, but one does what one can).


Their child would have great facial hair

It is nearly 100,000 words of period drama, convoluted crimes, entertaining characters, clever jokes, silly jokes, uncomfortable gender and class roles being poked for fun and profit, twentieth century crime tropes being given new (and old) twists, and a big old fashioned Edwardian style villain, Count Andropoff, the Russian Nobleman of the title.

If this sounds of interest to you yet an e-book from the Kindle store does not meet your needs for some reason, please let me know as I am considering other outlets.

This concludes my direct appeal for you to pay me for my work, other than to note that if you really like it, the second draft of a sequel is on my hard drive and will one day see the light of day.



[1] If you have no interest in being sold to then feel free to leave by any means you consider suitable, or possibly via this link.
[2] My brother, who has made some previous appearances on this blog.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

This Book Is Criminal

I have written a novel, The Inexplicable Affair of the Mesmerising Russian Nobleman, a comedy-crime story set in 1902. It is available now exclusively as a e-book from the Amazon Kindle Store. There will be posts all this week with extracts, details and, like here, short essays in which I over-explain some of my foolish opinions on fiction writing. In this particular case I talk around this question:

Are There Any New Crimes?

The truth of the matter is that most crimes are petty, sordid, uninteresting. Banal even. Someone takes something out the till and takes it home. Someone snaps and punches someone else. Someone lies to get another person to give them small amounts of money.

It's not that you can't write good, exciting, even great stories from these sort of incidents. Such stories, rooted in the mundanity of life, lean heavily on character, fine description (or production values for TV and movies) and relationships. All good things, needed in every tale. Yet they may not scratch the itch for convoluted plot or clever storytelling. There simply aren't that many interesting crimes, which is why writers keep coming back to the classics.

I've written before about how Dickens describes a very detailed Ponzi scheme in Martin Chuzzlewit (38 years before Charles Ponzi was born). This is a complex crime, and not in the same way as a locked-room murder mystery or an elaborate serial killer's plan. In those cases you have a dead body and need to find out who killed them (also, sometimes, how, why, where etc.) With fraud you need to explain what has happened and how it is a crime. At one edge fraud looks a lot like incompetence, at another edge like hard bargaining. Proving that it is neither of those is not always a simple matter.

Which is not to say that such schemes don't make satisfying reading. But there's a reason I put the usual heists, murders, blackmail and weird mysteries to the fore, and cons and frauds on the sidelines of my story. If I fail to explain properly, or the reader doesn't want to bother to figure out the details, then they can still follow the clear path in the middle. Someone has done this bad thing and we will try to deal with it.

This is why, if you spend a lot of time following crime drama, you see the same ideas coming back again and again. Although there are a lot of interesting crimes to use as models, there are so many stories being written that they all get used multiple times. So they are reworked into new settings and backdrops, new characters, and new twists as they are turned inside out and upside down.

It's also why crime writers get excited when there's a new and interesting crime; see in this post where John Rogers talks about how the Leverage writing team reacted to the Wired report on the Antwerp Diamond Heist. It's worth noting that bits and pieces from that story showed up in at least half a dozen different shows I saw over the next two years.

Every time there was a new sensational report about the Hatton Garden Robbery I could imagine TV writers (especially those on American networks, churning through 22 episodes a year) rubbing their hands with glee.

None of this stops me or anyone else from reading, watching, listening and sometimes even playing in the crime backyard. Still, a genuinely new take is a rare thing, and, sadly, that's not really what I've done. But I hope that by taking modern ideas, projecting them back into the past and giving them a few subtle (and some not so subtle) twists there's at least a little novelty in my novel.

Monday, October 10, 2016

A Sisterhood Of Assassination

I have written a novel, The Inexplicable Affair of the Mesmerising Russian Nobleman, a comedy-crime story set in 1902. It is available now exclusively as a e-book from the Amazon Kindle Store. There will be posts later this week with more details. Until then please enjoy this extract, which takes place the morning after the death of Lord Allenmore at his isolated country home.

--

Having previously tried to stop them leaving, the constable now attempted to prevent Schneemann and Edward from re-entering the house. Before the argument got out of hand, he was distracted by the Braddocks bursting into the Entrance Hall in the middle of a high volume argument.

“I had some topics to discuss with her ladyship! I don’t see what business it is of yours.” This morning Mrs Braddock was in a black jacket and skirt, tightly tailored to show off her fashionable corseted figure. Her hair was bound up on top of her head. For once there were no diamonds on display.

Colonel Braddock’s face was red, although not quite the same shade as his tunic. “What business is it of mine? I think it is very much my business when my wife wanders the halls of a strange house in the middle of the night. What about your reputation? What about mine?”

She turned on him, eyes narrowed. “I was in the company of Lady Allenmore. If you think that she is not respectable enough for my reputation, I wonder why you thought it fit to accept her invitation.”

“It was not Lady Allenmore I was concerned...” Becoming aware of the audience, Braddock forced himself to a stop.

“Oh, Mr Allenmore,” said Mrs Braddock, taking Edward's hand. “Such a tragedy. So terrible. I don’t know what to say.”

“Perhaps you shouldn’t say it then,” said the Colonel. Everyone ignored him.

“Thank you madam. Thank you. How are you, yourself? You have had an awful experience. Truly awful. Should I call the doctor?” Edward seemed to be reviving, his usual personality returning. It was not a completely positive change.

“No, no. I won’t say it wasn’t shocking. But I am a soldier’s wife. I must be able to cope with injury and death. Mustn’t let my husband down. His reputation, you know.” She gave him a sly glance from under lowered eyelashes. He seemed to be calmer now.

“Mrs Braddock, there’s something... that is to say could you tell me.... no, what I mean is...”

Schneemann stayed in the background. Edward was clearly a terrible interrogator. His blundering obviousness would let his interviewees tell whatever story they wished. So be it. He would listen to the stories and see what they added up to.

Mrs Braddock was revealing her version of events, in which she had an important, urgent and very private conversation with Lady Allenmore at one o’clock in the morning. The subject of their talk was vague – the mere mention of feminine business was enough to stop Edward from pursuing that question – and so was the length. In the end, however, it appeared that Lady Allenmore wanted to consult her husband on some matter. So the two ladies had walked through the connecting door between the dressing rooms and discovered his lordship’s dead body.

Her voice lowered and stumbled to a halt. Schneemann would have put a guinea on it being at least three parts artifice. The rest of the audience was convinced by the performance; Edward assured her she did very well, the Colonel took her hand and the constable offered her his handkerchief.

Still, in outline at least, the sequence of events was plausible. Lady Allenmore was a witness to most of them. It seemed Mrs Braddock could be removed from the list of suspects unless the two women were conspiring. But that would be completely crazed. Only an imbecile would take such a theory seriously.

There was a scream of outrage. Everyone froze. Then Lady Allenmore’s unmistakable voice again filled the house. “How dare you sir! How dare you!”

The party rushed down the corridor and into the Egyptian Room to find Inspector Osprey standing facing her ladyship. A maid – Annie, Schneemann noted in passing – stood by her mistress, shock on her face. Randall sat unnoticed in a corner, pencil flashing across his notebook.

“What’s going on here?” blustered Braddock.

“This... this person had the audacity to suggest that I killed my husband!” Lady Allenmore’s voice overwhelmed their ears, threatening to cause actual pain to the listeners. “I demand that he leave at once.”

“But this is nonsense,” said Edward. “Mrs Braddock was with you. How could you have done anything with her as a witness?”

“Please, I...” said Osprey.

“That was the most extraordinary part of his outlandish hypothesis! He claimed that we had conspired together, formed a cabal, a sisterhood of assassination. He thought that my marriage was a fraud and a sham and, and... I can hardly say it.”

It took remarkably little encouragement to get her to say it. “He said that I wished my husband dead for the inheritance! To be sole mistress of the house. Ridiculous!”

“Madam, I apologise...”

Braddock gave a disapproving frown. “What conceivable motive could there be for my wife to join you? It is arrant nonsense.”

“He thought that his lordship had insulted Mrs Braddock in some fashion. So we made common cause. Oh it is sheer madness. My husband was a gentleman.”

Mrs Braddock took her arm. The two ladies glared at Inspector Osprey, joined in their disapproval of the fantastic notion that they would plot together.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

I Read Books: Dawn by H Rider Haggard (1884)

Dawn by H Rider Haggard

1. Extra Textual facts.

Haggard is best known for writing adventure novels of the "Lost World" sub-genre, especially King Solomon's Mines (1885) (which introduced Allan Quartermain, the quintessential fictional British explorer) and She[1] (1886) and their various sequels. Dawn, his first novel is not that; it's a very English crime/romance story with some scenes set in Madeira. According to the Wikipedia page, Haggard and his wife saw "a singularly beautiful and pure-faced young lady" in church and decided to write fan-fic about her. It was 1882; one had to make one's amusement where one could.

2. What is it like?

Dawn is Haggard's first novel. On a line-by-line and even chapter-by-chapter basis the book is very fluently and clearly written, with characteristic Victorian prolixity. Yet it's pretty awkward as a novel. It's nearly 200,000 words, which is far too long for the plot and characters to carry the story. It spends the first fifteen chapters on the rivalry between cousins, issues of inheritance, jealousy, a secret marriage etc. etc. all of which are okay I guess, but this means that we wait nearly a quarter of the book for our heroine Angela[2] Caresfoot to be born.

Then we skip forward twenty years and finally the story gets going. The various schemes the elder generation have been gestating for that time start to come together and our hero Arthur Heigham arrives to fall in love with Angela. There follows a rather complex plot in which Angela's cousin[3] attempts to split them apart so he can marry her, which her father passively accepts in order to regain the lands his father alienated from him, at a 75% discount.

3. What is there to like?

It has all the concerns of class, property and propriety that upper middle class Victorians swam in, but has a bit more self-awareness of the tensions these created than most of the other ones I've read. There's a good dog and a bad dog[5]. Mostly a serious, even melodramatic, story there's a tiny bit of comic relief. I don't think it's intentional that both ladies who travel to Madeira without a gentleman escort bring with them an older and stouter companion who is a bad sailor, but it amused me. Mildred Carr, rival for Arthur's affections, reports a marriage proposal from Lord Minster in the following manner:

He stood like this, with his hands in his pockets, and said, 'I am now a cabinet minister. It is a good thing that a cabinet minister should have somebody presentable to sit at the head of his table. You are presentable. I appreciate beauty, when I have time to think about it. I observe that you are beautiful. I am not very well-off for my position. You, on the other hand, are immensely rich. With your money, I can, in time, become Prime Minister. It is, consequently, evidently to my advantage that you should marry me, and I have sacrificed a very important appointment in order to come and settle it.'"[7]

She turns him down. Later he explains his political philosophy which mirrors this in a much less amusing fashion.

Believing Arthur dead, Angela agrees to marry George, but insists on this as a pre-nup:

"I, George Caresfoot, hereby solemnly promise before God that under no possible circumstance will I attempt to avail myself of any rights over my cousin, Angela Caresfoot, and that I will leave her as soon as the formal ceremony is concluded, and never again attempt to see her except by her own wish; the so-called marriage being only contemplated in order to enable me to carry out certain business arrangements which, in view of the failing state of my health, I am anxious to enter into."

Haggard characterises this as "...surely the oddest marriage contract which was ever penned..." I'm going to guess he's wrong on that one.

The various pieces all come together satisfyingly in the style of the-final-act-of-a-farce and the novel very nearly becomes a tragedy, but it turns out there are twelve or thirteen more chapters to wrap everything up and give us something a little happier.

4. Does it have any adventure-type bits like in his later novels?

There are a couple of genre-type bits. Almost irrelevantly to the plot, deputy villain Lady Bellamy reads the stars and claims to have really powerful magic which can only work if you give up all passions; she offers her knowledge to Angela at very nearly the end of the novel. Angela turns it down to go off and marry Arthur.

Angela also has this dream which is pretty cool:

First, it would seem to her that she was wide awake in the middle of the night, and there would creep over her a sense of unmeasured space, infinite silence, and intense solitude. She would think that she was standing on a dais at the end of a vast hall, down which ran endless rows of pillars supporting an inky sky which was the roof. There was no light in the hall, yet she could clearly see; there was no sound, but she could hear the silence. Only a soft radiance shone from her eyes and brow. She was not afraid, though lonely, but she felt that something would presently come to make an end of solitude. And so she stood for many years or ages—she could not tell which—trying to fathom the mystery of that great place, and watching the light that streamed from her forehead strike upon the marble floor and pillars, or thread the darkness like a shooting star, only to reveal new depths of blackness beyond those it pierced. At length there came, softly falling from the sky-roof which never stirred to any passing breeze, a flake of snow larger than a dove's wing; but it was blood-red, and in its centre shone a wonderful light that made its passage through the darkness a track of glory. As it passed gently downwards without sound, she thought that it threw the shadow of a human face. It lit upon the marble floor, and the red snow melted there and turned to blood, but the light that had been its heart shone on pure and steady.

Looking up again, she saw that the vault above her was thick with thousands upon thousands of these flakes, each glowing like a crimson lamp, and each throwing its own shadow. One of the shadows was like George, and she shuddered as it passed. And ever as they touched the marble pavement, the flakes melted and became blood, and some of the lights went out, but the most part burnt on, till at length there was no longer any floor, but a dead-sea of blood on which floated a myriad points of fire.

And then it all grew clear to her, for a voice in her mind spoke and said that this was one of God's storehouses for human souls; that the light was the soul, and the red in the snow which turned to blood was the sin which had, during its earthly passage, stained its first purity. The sea of blood before her was the sum of the scarlet wickedness of her age; from every soul there came some to swell its awful waters.

At length the red snow ceased to fall, and a sound that was not a voice, but yet spoke, pealed through the silence, asking if all were ready. The voice that had spoken in her mind answered, "No, he has not come who is to see." Then, looking upwards, she saw, miles on miles away, a bright being with half-shut wings flashing fast towards her, and she knew that it was Arthur, and the loneliness left her. He lit a breathing radiance by her side, and again the great sound pealed, "Let in the living waters, and cleanse away the sins of this generation."

It echoed and died away, and there followed a tumult like the flow of an angry sea. A mighty wind swept past her, and after it an ocean of molten crystal came rushing through the illimitable hall. The sea and the wind purged away the blood and put out the lamps, leaving behind them a glow of light like that upon her brow, and where the lamps had been stood myriads of seraphic beings, whilst from ten thousand tongues ran forth a paean of celestial song.

Then everything vanished, and deep gloom, that was not, however, dark to her, settled round them. Taking Arthur by the hand, she spread her white wings and circled upwards. Far, far they sailed, till they reached a giant peak that split space in twain. Here they alighted, and watched the masses of cloud tearing through the gulfs on either side of them, and, looking beyond and below, gazed upon the shining worlds that peopled space beneath them.

From the cloud-drifts to the right and left came a noise as of the soughings of many wings; but they did not know what caused it, till presently the vapours lifted, and they saw that alongside of and beneath them two separate streams of souls were passing on outstretched pinions: one stream, that to their left, proceeding to their earthly homes, and one, that to the right, returning from them. Those who went wore grief upon their shadowy faces, and had sad- coloured wings; but those who returned seemed for the most part happy, and their wings were tipped with splendour.

The never-ending stream that came flowed from a far-off glory, and that which returned, having passed the dividing cliff on which they stood, was changed into a multitude of the red snow-flakes with the glowing hearts, and dropped gently downwards.

So they stood, in happy peace, never tiring, from millennium to millennium. They watched new worlds collecting out of chaos, they saw them speed upon their high aerial course till, grown hoary, their foundation-rocks crumbling with age, they wasted away into the vastness whence they had gathered, to be replaced by fresh creations that in their turn took form, teemed with life, waxed, waned, and vanished.

At length there came an end, and the soughing of wings was silent for ever; no more souls went downwards, and none came up from the earths. Then the distant glory from which the souls had come moved towards them with awful mutterings and robed in lightning, and space was filled with spirits, one of whom, sweeping past them, cried with a loud voice, "Children, Time is dead; now is the beginning of knowledge." And she turned to Arthur, who had grown more radiant than the star which gleamed upon his forehead, and kissed him.

Then she would wake.

Finally Mildred has an interest in beetles, and also mummies. This doesn't really drive anything, but her Egyptian antiquities cellar does give her a cool and thematically appropriate place for her final despairing scene.

5. As a Victorian novel does it have a slightly heavy-handed moral?

If it does then it seems that men should only marry women of supernatural beauty, absolute virtue and an education in Classics and Mathematics[8]. Otherwise, just become the toyboy of a rich widow.

Everyone goes through the wringer in this one, good or bad. Everyone who loves Angela suffers; everyone who tries to do her harm suffers more. Mildred, who sacrifices her own love and happiness for our hero (and his heroine), she gets her reward in the final line of the novel:

And Mildred? She lay there before the stone symbol of inexorable judgment, and sobbed till the darkness covered her, and her heart broke in the silence.

Brutal.

Read this book: If you want a maybe-better-than-average Victorian melodrama, are interested in H Rider Haggard, or anything I've said above sounds intriguing.
Don't Read this book: If long Victorian prose turns you off, or badly structured, slow moving stories annoy you, or grim and unpleasant deaths make you unhappy.
The good news: Published in 1884 (Haggard earned £10 for it) it is out of copyright and available for free online. Also it was made into a film in 1917 (during Haggard's lifetime. Maybe I should try and find out what he thought of that!). My half-hearted attempts to find the film leave me questioning whether it still exists or if it's simply a catalogue entry.

[1] Which popularised the name She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, re-popularised and re-contextualised in John Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey.
[2] Angela was also the name of Haggard's eldest daughter.
[3] Angela is the daughter of Philip, the son of Old Devil[4] Caresfoot. George, who wishes to marry her, is the son of Old Devil's idiot brother and a kitchen-maid who seduced him (the relationship described in the book as a mesalliance), making him Angela's First Cousin Once Removed.
[4] Not his actual name.
[5] They fight and the bad dog dies, which is a pity as he, Snarleyow[6], was the most interesting part of the three chapters he was in. Also the good dog dies as well, defending Angela. Sorry about that.
[6] Named after a novel by Frederick Marryat; ON THE LIST (now)
[7] I do like an awkward marriage proposal; this is one is great for the total lack of self-awareness. Say what you will for one that lists the mutual societal and material benefits with not a single nod to love, passion or affection, they're straightforwardly explaining what each party will gain from it. Lord Minster has no thought for what Mildred might want.
[8] I don't think there are any easy parallels with Haggard's life here.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Sharknado: The Fourth Awakens Review

The Sharknado series has a somewhat convoluted, if not especially complex, continuing storyline. Fortunately this film does not require you to know that. Rather, it prefers to trade off celebrity cameos, classic film references and pop culture jokes for scenes that require more than guns, sharks, wind and chainsaws.

The story is nonsensical, being a simple and efficient way to string together scenes of action and disaster. The acting is mixed, especially in the case of The Hoff who swings between obviously-the-best-actor-in-the-room to wooden-plank-phoning-it-in-from-the-bathroom, occasionally in the same scene. None of this is important. The film is an excuse to create as many CGI shark action set-pieces as possible, with a few nods to creating stakes for character and audience and pacing so that we are not exhausted by chainsaw-shark interactions before the first ad-break.

If the film has anything to say apart from warning us of the danger of flying sharks, it may have a couple of evergreen messages. Firstly that billionaire scientists and technology can't save us from unexpected threats. Secondly, in their use of the media; as each tornado encounters something new they give it an exciting name boulder-nado, oil-nado, lightning-nado. As these storms travel across the US wrecking cities, towns and national monuments, they seem to cover it with all the urgency of regular news. Is this commentary, or simply a way to deliver the names for all the cool CGI tornadoes to the audience? I don't know.

So what is there to say? I enjoyed it. It did not keep my interest very well. There were a couple of good jokes. 7/10 Game of the Year.

Watch This: If you like stupid action shark stuff.
Don't Watch This: If compelling character dynamics or clever plotting or anything that doesn't involve exploding sharks and D-list celebrities being squashed are important to you.
Learn More About Sharks: I was going to put a link to a BBC documentary series, but it broadcast last year and seems to be unavailable so you'll have to do your own research.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Deccenial

This is the 10th anniversary of this blog. It may well be the longest-lived commitment I've ever made, which since it's been dormant/sporadic since 2013 is kind of sad. Maybe it's kind of sad anyway.

I could go back and look at some of the stuff here, and how it's changed, and how I've changed, but I won't. Partly due to laziness, and mostly because I'm still sticking to my original mission statement. Here's the bit I quote every time this blog has some sort of milestone, as true today as in 2006:

Hopefully, this blog will never have anything of interest in it, and, even if I make a mistake and it does, only three people will ever read it.
Pretty much. See you in ten years.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Meet-Fight-Team Up

Thinking about Superhero team ups and movies for no particular reason, here are my over long thoughts on Avengers Assemble. Unfortunately there's some background to get through first.

Meet/Fight/Team-Up

One of the classic superhero team up plots goes like this: One hero tracks a villain to the city of another hero. Learning that a terrifying masked apparition is beating people up, the second hero confronts them. They fight, then work out their differences and get together to defeat the villain. In shorthand it's known as Meet, Fight, Team-Up, for obvious reasons.

(The most common conflict is territorial with another hero coming to, say, Gotham City which Batman considers entirely his, but other disagreements are possible such as thinking Spider-man is a menace or not wanting anything to do with those dang mutant X-Men.)

This works because we get the fun of seeing the two heroes facing off (that's why we're here) coming to a grudging respect/friendship, and the even-more-fun of seeing them use their separate strategies and abilities to take down the villain.

Three Act Structure

The three act structure for stories works like this: In the first act we are introduced to our characters and situation. A change or problem occurs in the second act, forcing our characters to respond. In the third act they work out what they need to do and resolve things to the satisfaction of, if no one else, the audience. In brief, Introduction, Complication, Resolution.

As well as progressing the plot, most stories will also seek to change (or reveal) the characters as well. For example in Act One of Die Hard, John Mclane arrives in Los Angeles seeking to reconcile with his wife. In Act Two the building they are in is taken over by terrorists and Mclane must use his cop skills to survive. By Act Three he has transformed into a ruthless killing machine who does not spare anyone, even himself (or his feet) in order to defeat the bad guys.

There's a plot twist in there too.

Pre-Credits Action Sequence

Action films often open with an action sequence. (Notably Die Hard doesn't). It serves as part of the introduction; telling us that this film contains excitement and violence; we may be about to spend a bit of time explaining plot and presenting character, but don't worry, there will be some fighting and chasing to come. It's also like those silver age comic covers where something outrageous and wacky is there. Hey kids, we're going to spend some time (about four panels usually) setting the scene, but don't get bored. Lois Lane is totally going to punch a gorilla!

That's the end of the boring theory stuff.

Disclaimer

I have no particular knowledge of how Avengers Assemble was made, so this has all been put together from watching the film and reading a few interviews. Still, here's some of the things the film does that I think must have been part of the plan from the start:

- Cram as many Character vs Character fights and confrontations in as possible.
- Give each of the main characters* an arc (either a change or a reveal), even (especially) the villain
- Give EVERY character a moment to shine (this is a particular Joss Whedon flourish)
- Mix this up a bit - have character beats in action sequences and reveal important plot points in talky character scenes

That last might be making a virtue of necessity as we've got a whole bunch of characters to (re-)introduce, give action and character scenes to and on top of that put a plot together.

* The main characters: The six Avengers, Nick Fury, and Loki (and arguably Coulson)


The Fights and Confrontations:

Pre-credit sequence

Loki vs Fury (more of a confrontation)
Maria Hill vs Hawkeye and Loki (and a bunch of mind-controlled SHIELD agents)

Act One

Black Widow vs Russian Arms and Antiquities Dealers
(Black Widow vs Bruce Banner) (Confrontation)
Captain America Vs Loki in Stuttgart ending with...
Iron Man vs Loki
Iron Man vs Thor; and
Thor vs Captain America (this scene with the three of them is the purest Meet-Fight-Team-up of the film)

Act Two (I like to consider Act 2 to take place entirely on the Heli-Carrier for unity of place. If you're not into that and prefer you can have the complication begin in Stuttgart. This means that we don't introduce the Thor/Loki relationship until Act 2 though that doesn't really matter)

(Black Widow vs Loki) Confrontation
Hawkeye vs the Heli-Carrier and SHIELD
Black Widow vs Hulk
Thor vs Hulk
Coulson vs Loki
Thor vs Loki
Black Widow vs Hawkeye
Hulk vs a fighter jet

Act Three

Iron Man vs Loki
Thor vs Loki
Fighter Jet vs Loki
Giant Complex Battle including
Hulk vs Loki

And Now The Character Beats

The most obvious one is Tony Stark. He is all about himself. He wants to skive off from working with SHIELD and make time with his girlfriend. When he turns up in Stuttgart he upstages everyone, introducing his own soundtrack. Loki's influence turns both his best and worst traits against the rest of the team, making him the catalyst for everyone's doubts and fears.

Then he has the conversation with Steve Rogers after Coulson's death. Rogers shows some sympathy, realising that this is the first time Stark has lost someone. And in that moment Stark realises that Rogers has lost everyone and is still carrying on.

This finally plays out when Rogers' earlier speeches about sacrifice pay off and Iron Man carries the nuke through the portal.

Steve Rogers is adrift. Loki spots this when he refers to him as "The Man Out Of Time". (Loki is good at weaknesses). When he turns up in Stuttgart he begins by mentioning the war, never really a good introduction in Germany. When he spars verbally with Stark he continually comes off second best.

He finds his role. First in the scenes where he helps Stark fix the engine, then when he talks him down, gives him focus, and probably more important than it looks, the moment when Clint offers to fly the plane, Natasha vouches for him and he accepts it without question. So he's all there when they get on board the jet and he tells the guard "Son. Just don't."

Natasha has just one moment and it goes by quickly. What she says to Loki when she interrogates him is not made up of whole cloth. She really does owe Clint. She gets the call during the attack on the heli-carrier, and she hesitates for just one half moment, and then she goes out to fight and possibly kill him. If she has to. And in the moment she stops being an assassin and becomes a superhero by taking the risk of knocking him out rather than trying to kill him.

Clint Barton's arc is almost all external. He's mind-controlled by Loki and becomes even more ruthless. Then he's un-mind-controlled and seeks revenge.

Banner doesn't want to be the Hulk. (One classic template for a Hulk story is that of a were-wolf story). He's right to fear it as the Hulk goes bonkers under Loki's influence. But (inevitably) he picks himself up and goes back to confront Loki again. And it turns out he's always angry, so that's a thing.

Thor's is quite straightforward. He confronts Loki on Somewhere-in-the-Atlantic Island, but their conversation is interrupted. He confronts him again when Loki escapes his cell. And he does it a third time on Stark Tower. Each time he says, give it up. Give it up and come home. And each time Loki says no.

Loki, of course, has the mirror image of Thor's arc. He's offered a way out three times. And every time he rejects it. But there's more; every action of Loki's either has two objectives (in Stuttgart he both gets the iridium and fights the Avengers) or has two possible outcomes that benefit him (if he beats Fury's response team in Stuttgart then game over, no one on Earth can beat him; if he's taken prisoner he gets into the SHIELD base and tears the team apart from within). In fact his whole plan works that way, right up to the end. Either he ends up king of Earth or he's captured by Thor and taken back to Asgard, both of which are superior to being left to Thanos. (In fact even being dead or in a super-secret SHIELD torture-laboratory are probably better results than failing Thanos).

So What? Or My Conclusions.

There are a LOT of intra-team fights jammed in this film. Yet they work and don't feel forced because the entire film is about the team trying to form, despite 1. their different approaches and problems; 2. Nick Fury's morally compromised position while putting them together; and 3. Loki's mystical and other efforts to lever them apart. Thor and Iron Man fight because Thor acts like the protagonist and grabs Loki, and Iron Man is pissed off that his prisoner has been stolen. Thor and Hulk; Widow and Hawkeye fight because one member is mind controlled in one way or another.

Meanwhile everyone gets their character arc (and a lot of them get to put a cap on it during that enormously long final sequence). But with so many characters they mostly don't have a three stage arc, but a two stage one. It's still satisfying and everyone gets one because Joss Whedon's team have figured out where they can cut corners on this without losing impact.

So why have I spent 1500 words on this? Because this is my benchmark for Superhero team up films. This works in ways that Fantastic Four(s) didn't, and is a step forward from the X-Men films. It's better than Age of Ultron and I intend to go into why I think so at some point.

So anyway. Meet, Fight, Team-up. Introduction, Complication, Resolution. Avengers Assemble!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Anthropomorphising Spring

1. Last October I sent in my entry for the National Poetry Competition. Although they have not yet announced the winners I have been contacted to tell me that I have not been successful. Apparently there were nearly 13,000 entries so even someone as egotistical as I must admit that there were probably a couple of hundred worth comparing to mine.

2. Since it is out of the competition I can now publish it elsewhere without it being eliminated. This seems to be an appropriate day:

Persephone’s Dance

The Greeks used to call her Persephone
Personification of the season
She’s had six months in hell (there are reasons)
Now celebrating her liberty

Remembering on this cross quarter day
Promises of summer and winter that’s passed
Is it festival or is it a fast
Somebody else will be leading the way

Gathered in a field we start to sing
Air and land no longer silent and still
Maybe she won’t and maybe she will
Join us to dance on the first day of spring 

3. Since I wrote the poem last spring (for May Day in fact), sent it in October, and deliberately ignored it since then, I had actually forgotten what I entered. I had thought that I hadn't actually written any poetry since then, but it turns out that's not right. I wrote the lyrics for a (fictional) song called Robot Lover for another piece, and also...

Well, this poem was for a creative writing class. Later in the term we were given the task of taking something serious we'd written for the class and making it funny. As some of the other students thought that this was a tender and beautiful poem* I went out of my way to spoil it with this comic version:

Dance, Persephone, Dance!

A Goddess arrives at our May Day fair;
The Greeks used to call her Persephone.
Celebrating her seasonal liberty
(She really has the most beautiful hair).

Maiden’s white dress decorated with beads
Promises of Summer, Winter has passed.
Is it a festival or is it a fast?
Turn down the salad with pomegranate seeds.

Her skin’s so pale I’m a bit concerned
She’s had six months in hell (there are reasons)
Personification of the season;
Without Factor 50 she’ll get totally burned

Out at last from the underworld hole
Remembering on this cross quarter day
She follows us as we lead the way
Frowning at the symbolism of the Maypole.

Maybe she won’t and maybe she will
Join us as we celebrate spring.
We gather together to dance and to sing,
She’s lying in the grass looking pretty chill.
4. These together mirror two views of the Greek Gods. The first has them as primal powers, existing in the hearts and minds of people and the new life of the season. The second as powerful, but human-like, the personification of spring hanging out at a May Day festival like a slightly bored teen, or maybe a disapproving young woman.

*Air and land no longer silent and still was admired which is amusing as it was entirely there for the line that follows.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Academy Award For Best Original Song: 1935

The 8th Academy Awards, for 1935, took place in 1936. This was the first year the statuettes were called "Oscars" and also the first year for Best Dance Direction Award, of interest for reasons that maybecome clear. More details at the Wikipedia link.

So what were the nominees for Best Original Song? I'm glad you asked.

"Cheek to Cheek" from Top Hat – Music and Lyric by Irving Berlin
"Lovely to Look At" from Roberta – Music by Jerome Kern; Lyric by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh
"Lullaby of Broadway" from Gold Diggers of 1935 – Music by Harry Warren; Lyric by Al Dubin

So again we have two songs from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films, and this time a solo from another big song-and-dance musical. What were they like, what did the Academy choose and how wrong were they?

Cheek to Cheek
So here's the thing; this is a song about dancing and comes with a dance routine (or two in fact). If we ignore the dance we're left with a pleasant enough Irving Berlin romantic song. But by ignoring the dance we lose the whole point of it, that it's about the moment of dancing with someone you love. Anyway, on it's own it's inoffensive and moderately amusing lyrically. Both Astaire and Rogers sing well, but their voices are not first rate, which is just as well as then they would be aggravating over-achievers.

Lovely to Look at
Oh, that's a lovely dance, her dress is great and he really does wear the tails well... what we're judging Best Original Song not Best Dance Direction or Best Art Direction[1]? Well then. This is another dance tune that trips along pleasantly. It is neither exciting nor depressing.

Lullaby of Broadway
Well this became something of a classic, an anthem to New York, or Manhattan, or just Broadway or something. And it's a bit of an old-fashioned show tune but it's a full-bodied show tune with confidence in itself. It has no problem just coming in, declaring that Broadway is great and clearing off. (The singer is Wini Scott). Probably the only thing that would improve it is if about a hundred tap dancers came on and danced to it.
Hmm.

Who won.

Lullaby of Broadway won, and I can't argue with that. Fred and Ginger and Top Hat in particular may have had a greater longevity in the public consciousness, but Gold Diggers of 1935 and Lullaby of Broadway are not forgotten. Is this an example of good taste by the Academy or was this the effect of an Oscar Winner helping make it more than a historical curiosity? Difficult to untangle at this historical distance. Perhaps worth noting that Best Dance Direction went to neither Busby Berkley for Gold Diggers of 1935 or to Astaire's collaborator Hermes Pan, but to Dave Gould for the (to me) forgotten Broadway Melody of 1936 AND Folies Bergère de Paris. Big hits at the time but now obscure.

Next Time

Six songs? Well, can't argue with a larger field although it may take me a little longer to get around to it.

Youtube Playlist

[1] Best Costume Design was not introduced until 1948

 

Monday, February 29, 2016

Academy Award For Best Original Song: 1934

Following the mixed reaction to last night's winner of Best Original Song I wondered how well the Academy does with this category which, although obviously part of their remit, is not at the core of their expertise. Clearly there's only one way to find out and that's start at the beginning.

Note: I'm just diving in, so will make mistakes. Also I'm only going to consider those nominated because anything else is too much like hard work. I'm effectively like one of the lazier busier members of the Academy who don't nominate and just votes on the final shortlist.

1934 - 7th Academy Awards

Musicals took off as soon as talkies did. The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length talkie, had six songs in it. The next year (1929) Wikipedia records almost sixty musicals.

However Best Original Song and Best Original Score were first awarded in 1934 (as was Best Editing). The wikipedia article for the 1934 Oscars is here.

Three songs were nominated. They were:


"Carioca" from Flying Down to Rio – Music by Vincent Youmans; Lyric by Edward Eliscu and Gus Kahn
"Love in Bloom" from She Loves Me Not – Music by Ralph Rainger; Lyric by Leo Robin
"The Continental" from The Gay Divorcee – Music by Con Conrad; Lyric by Herb Magidson

So two songs from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films at the start of their dance partnership and one of Bing Crosby dueting with Kitty Carlisle. Let's have a listen!

Carioca
Now this is a Latin-American flavoured dance tune for a big song and dance number. In theory we should ignore the visuals (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers first on-screen dance. Although they were not given top billing for the film it did lead to them being the stars of a film called The Gay Divorcee which I may have more to say about) so let's just say I liked this in a slightly unimpressed way. It has a little excitement and rhythm to it which lift it out of it's slightly blandly over-happy rut.

Love In Bloom
This... this is not my thing. This duet is long, slow and dull. Bing and Kitty put on a kind of old-fashioned, over-mannered voice that I'm not a fan of. The interruption and comedy is pretty good.


The Continental

There is a classic dance routine that goes with the tune and at this distance I'm not really able to disentangle the song from the dance which is superb. It is a (ballroom) dance tune, giving it a bit of pace, the lyrics are okay and it's pleasant enough.

The Winner

The winner was The Continental. I didn't like Love in Bloom and not knowing a lot about music in general and film music in particular for 1933 so can only state that from the choices I find this satisfactory. I can't help thinking that it was not the song itself which swayed the Academy but instead this:
Anyway next time songs from 1934. Will it be song and dance again or two people sitting at a piano crooning? Find out when I get around to it!

Youtube Playlist