Saturday, March 29, 2014

last ride

I have had an exceptionally busy few weeks.  And I have not been reading much, unfortunately.

But I did get a chance to watch an Australian film from 2009 called Last Ride, which was pretty much forced on me by a colleague who said he knows that I don't like being forced to read or watch things but that in this case the movie was so good that he was not giving me a choice.

Last Ride stars Hugo Weaving and a kid called Tom Russell, who play a father (Kev) and son (Chook).  There are a few other incidental characters here and there but the film is very much focused around this relationship.  The film is based on a book called 'The Last Ride', by Denise Young.

The film begins in the early hours of the morning, with Chook waking, in the car, somewhere in rural Australia.  He and his father are on the run.  It will take us some time to find out what from, and why.

It is a really beautiful movie - wonderfully filmed, well conceived, excellently acted, well paced and plotted.  It had all the best elements of fiction going for it, but it also gave me the impression that it was entirely real.  The two main actors (and indeed everyone else touched by the storyline) were really superb - nothing made me think 'what skill, what soulful acting' because I was far too busy being engrossed in their reality.  They were heart-breakingly three-dimensional and human.

Characterisation, in fact, is what makes this film sing.  No one is a monster, but everyone is flawed and broken.  In the midst of all this brokenness, relationships are fragile and yet resilient.  I suppose it is a tragic story.  I know that I couldn't sleep for hours after watching it, just lying in bed thinking about those characters.

I highly recommend this movie.  Normally I'm reluctant to watch "tragedies" because I feel manipulated by them.  In this case, there was nothing manipulative about the way this film was put together.  It's just a superb piece of story-telling which will stay with you for a long time.  Five stars from me.

If you need any further convincing - see Roger Ebert's review here.

Monday, March 3, 2014

what I did on my holidays (part the third)

On my final full day in England, I got up and drove to Winchester, Hampshire.

This is not my own photo, because for some reason I didn't take one from outside of the cathedral which is basically the central point of Winchester:

Image via Panoramio
 It didn't really look like that on the day, being December in the northern hemisphere, and in England no less - but it did look rather beautiful.  It happened to be a day of Christmas markets!

Christmas markets are a happy thing.

What I was really there to see, though, was the interior.

Winchester Cathedral
 In particular...

The slightly weird thing about visiting Jane Austen's grave is that it's just another slab in the floor which you're clearly not expected to refrain from walking over.  In this photo, you can even see the leg of one of the cathedral chairs placed artistically (or maybe not so artistically) over the gravestone.

Never mind.  Here was the gravestone, and I am thankful that it still exists, unlike so many of the things which used to prove she existed and now are gone forever.  Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think we are extremely lucky to have as much as this grave, because she certainly wasn't drastically famous when she died, and we probably owe our luck to the fact that she had a rich brother.

It wasn't until later that they installed a stained glass window for her in the same cathedral (of which I got no good photos), and this gold thing:

From Winchester, it was off to the tiny town of Chawton, where Jane Austen lived for the last eight years of her life.  This house was a part of her rich brother's estate - he had been adopted by his aunt and uncle when he was small, as they could have no children of their own, and his own parents recognised it was a good opportunity for him.  In fact, his riches meant that Jane, her sister Cassandra and her mother did not have to have a drastic lifestyle change after the death of her father.

The Austen women and a family friend, also a single woman, lived in this red brick house in Chawton:

Jane used to sit in the parlour, writing at this very table, and hiding her sheets of paper under a blotter when people entered for visits:

This was the place she edited Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey before they were published.  This was the place she wrote Emma, Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

She and Cassandra shared a room upstairs, looking out over the back of the house:

It was absolutely lovely to visit this place.  They had a few items of real interest, like the writing desk, although most items were objects of a similar kind to what the Austen family might have had in their home.  Walking round someone's house, though, you get a sense of the way they lived, and can visualise their lifestyle in a new and interesting way...  I found it quite moving and I also found myself thinking extremely conceited thoughts like "We would have been best friends!"  Slightly wishful thinking but that was the direction my thoughts went in.

This really was a wonderful note to finish my time in England on.  (If I were being really honest I would admit that I actually finished my time in England in the nearby town of Basingstoke and then flew out of London Stansted, neither of which is in any way romantic or exciting, but I'm going to pretend I ceased to be in England when I left Chawton.)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

"Would you like an adventure now...

... or shall we have our tea first?"

Is what Peter Pan said to Wendy, John and Michael.

And our latest (26th!!!) issue of Halfway Down the Stairs is out now, themed "Adventure".

 We really hope you like it.

If you are something of a wordsmith, you might like to consider submitting some work to us.  Submission guidelines are here.  Our next issue (June 2014) is themed "Possession" - should be interesting seeing what comes our way!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

novel or fanfiction?

I should have learnt my lesson last time I hunted down a continuation to Jane Austen's unfinished novel The Watsons.

And then Book Depository recommended this for me... Joan Aiken's 'completion' of Jane Austen's fragment: The Watsons & Emma Watson.  Of course I had to have it.

The last time I tried John Coates' continuation I was disappointed, even though it wasn't a bad book, simply because I loved the original fragment so much that it would be hard for anyone else to satisfactorily complete it.  But I wondered if maybe this would be better.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn't... not really.  Again, it wasn't a bad book.  It was fairly readable.  It was somewhat higher quality than most of the fanfiction I used to obsessively read.

But it certainly wasn't Jane Austen.

It would be asking a lot to expect that.  Nevertheless, it's sad.  I actually think the author here bit off more than she could chew - normally, with fanfiction, you can start a new story, featuring a new perspective, and so the comparison is not so transparent.  In this case, the reader has to read Jane Austen's unfinished text right at the beginning, and the new part needs to seamlessly flow on from that.  It did not.

The main problems:
  • Characterisation - The characters we had already met changed slightly, and subtly modernised.  New characters introduced into the story were pretty two-dimensional.
  • Odd and unnecessary plot twists - Aiken chose to kill off some critical characters - Jane Austen herself indicated to her sister that one character would have died if she had finished the book - but the others, I think, were completely unnecessary, and it just didn't feel like the sort of decision Austen would have made for the plot.
  • How the book ended - The ending raced to its conclusion in an oddly unsatisfying way.  I also think that the author should have paid slightly more attention to Austen's own intentions for the book.  I get that you have to do what works for the story as you actually write it, but the inspiration for this book did not belong to Joan Aiken, and yet she chose to send the book in a different direction than Austen said she would have.
  • Period detail overkill - The author was way too keen to include period detail, as if to say, "look, look, I've done my research!"  It was all detail that I can't see Austen getting into - she didn't need to include it because her readers would have understood.  I guess your opinion on this might differ based on your expectations of the book - I expected to see a "completion" of Jane Austen's manuscript, not a new book directed at modern readers.

Having said all that... the book's not bad.  It's a pretty good effort at fanfiction, in my opinion, as fanfiction attempts go.  But it's quite a big claim to make - that you are "completing" a Jane Austen novel - and I'm afraid I was consequently slightly more judgmental than I might otherwise have been.  Two stars from me.