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Thursday, 19 October 2017

‘See the world’ – naval reminiscences

Fifty-two years ago today, I joined the Royal Navy.

I was seventeen-and-a-half and had been working in Newcastle Upon Tyne as a Junior Clerk (an office boy) for a shipping and transport firm; handling bills of lading, calculating charges, traipsing from dockside offices to the bank to the airport. The managing director, whose office was down the corridor, lived in my home town of Whitley Bay; I remember my mum saying, “Why don’t you ask him if he’ll give you a lift to work?” I didn’t, of course. I did ask for a pay rise when everyone else received one, but I was told I hadn’t been there long enough. The job was “dead man’s shoes”, so I looked around for an alternative place of employment.

I applied for a creative artist job with a Newcastle firm, but although my samples of artwork were highly praised in the interview, I didn’t have appropriate qualifications or experience. At the time I left school with two GCE O levels, the University changed the admission requirements for their course in Art & Design; I didn’t have enough GCEs, even though one of them was Art (distinction). The other GCE was Geography. Yes, I failed English!* (Perhaps I spent too much time writing a novel instead of studying or learning to pass exams…)

One lunch time, I walked past the Naval Recruiting Office near the main rail station, and then popped in on the off-chance, out of curiosity. Two of my cousins were in the RN, and my uncle had been in the Merchant Navy during the war. I lived close to the sea. Maybe some of that brine was in my blood.

My parents were naturally ambivalent about my joining the navy. It meant leaving home. But it offered what was then considered a secure career. And all the adverts said I’d ‘see the world’. I applied, sat the fairly basic exams in the Newcastle recruitment office and within a short while was accepted and given notice when to join.

I joined HMS Raleigh (Torpoint, Cornwall) on 19 October, along with several other raw recruits. I was a Junior Writer. Thus began my six weeks’ basic training – Part I training. Part II training entailed going to HMS Pembroke in Chatham, Kent . Here, I trained in secretarial (my score: 96%) and Pay (96.5%) disciplines; I also learning to touch-type (96.5%, 25wpm). I passed out from there to join HMS St Vincent in Gosport, Hampshire as ship’s company and on my birthday became a Writer. The latter establishment is now a college.  The touch typing has certainly been useful! Incidentally, part III training is reserved for submarine recruits.

As the adverts predicted, I was fortunate to see quite a bit of the world in my time. I believe that is no longer the case for RN recruits these days. They get to see the sea, mostly. There aren’t enough ships…

Here's a picture of me with a couple of Arab horses in Bahrain in the late 1960s, just before a race. Camel racing followed...

Fifty-two years. Blimey. Where’d the time go?

* I subsequently passed several GCE O and A levels and obtained an OU degree.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Greatest Action Movies Ever

If you’re a fan of action movies, then here’s a magazine to buy, featuring no less than 54 films that ‘defined the genre’.  This is the first in a series from Empire magazine (UK): Empire Classics.

Much of the content is evident from the cover. There are films in several action genres such as: tales of adventure, adrenaline rush, comic book heroes, war, wild west, spies and history.  

Apart from the generous assembly of stills, interesting, humorous, and even enlightening essays accompany each chosen film.

Inevitably, there may be some selected here to the exclusion of your favourite within a particular genre. Still, the span is broad – from Yojimbo to Duel, from Zulu to High Noon, from The Adventures of Robin Hood to The Ipcress File.

I’ve found the selection enjoyable (and, thankfully, the swearing is kept to a minimum, which is a pleasant change for an Empire magazine). I found that I’ve seen 40 of the 54!

Monday, 16 October 2017

Book of the film - Wonder Woman

Novelizations of films have been around a long time; one of the first being King Kong (1933). In the 1960s and 1970s they became very popular. What’s the appeal? Before the advent of home video (VHS and then DVD), a novelization was often the only way to re-experience the film. And yet, even now, when DVDs are available at very reasonable cost, there's still a commercial market for film tie-in novelizations.

It's no mean feat to write a novelization. Bear in mind that the usual length of a film script is much shorter than a novel; my film script for my vampire crime thriller Chill of the Shadow came to 120 pages, 22,500 words, while the book’s word-count was 80,000. Those additional words provide the reader additional visuals, backstory, and characters’ introspection.

The main problems for the writer of a novelization are that they may be working from an early script and they have a very tight deadline, possibly as little as a week or two. Novelizations are invariably published prior to a film’s release. This can be seen in Dewey Gram’s version of Gladiator, an excellent book: there were scenes in his novelization that did not appear in the theatre release, though ultimately they were reinstated in the Director’s Cut. 

Prolific author Nancy Holder has done a sterling job with her Wonder Woman novelization. 

The book begins, as does the film, in the present, in Paris, where Diana Prince, the Curator of Antiquities worked in the Louvre Museum. She receives a package from Wayne Industries, a sepia photograph – ‘a moment of triumph frozen in time, shared by the four unsmiling, heavily armed men who bracketed her. Though the monochrome photo couldn’t show it, the eyes of the man standing to her right had been intensely blue, as blue as the sea that surrounded Themyscira, the island of her birth…’ A hundred years ago. When Wonder Woman came into being.

Then we travel to the past, to Themyscira, and the childhood of Princess Diana, a wayward child who is fascinated by the history of the Amazons, the inhabitants of the island, a place where no man lives. Long-lived, they train as warriors in order to combat the last surviving god, Ares. Holder evokes humour and mischief as Diana, the only child on the island, grows into young womanhood.

Scenes shift neatly, until Diana witnesses something other than a bird plummeting from the sky and falling into the sea. She dives to investigate – and rescues the pilot, Steve Trevor, from a sinking airplane. Happily, the Amazons are fluent in many of Earth’s languages. The interchange between the pair is of wonder on both sides, leavened with mystery and amusement.

It transpires that Steve is a spy, fleeing from German General Ludendorff and his warped scientist, Dr Maru. This evil pair has concocted the means to prolong the War to End All Wars at a time when Germany is seeking armistice.

Diana joins forces with Steve to combat this menace, and in the process witnesses the inhumanity of war - and also the selflessness and bravery exhibited.

Skilled actors can convey emotions and to a certain extent their character’s thought processes. And in the movie they do just that. Holder then gives their thoughts and fears life on the page, whether that’s the naivety of Diana or the pure evil of Ludendorff and his acolyte. 

If you haven’t seen the film and yet are curious about the character, then this book will offer an intriguing and adventurous tale, well told. If you have seen the film, then this provides further insight for several characters, not only Diana, and as you read you will visualise again many of the scenes.

An exciting story, told with pace, wit and affection. A pity about the poor editing.

Editorial comment
As stated above, it’s highly likely that a tight deadline was set for the book, so in the rush a large number of errors have not been corrected. Considering it would only take a couple of hours to read the book, I still find the quantity inexcusable. To begin with, I glossed over most typos, but eventually I felt compelled to highlight some; the following should have been spotted:

‘Diana moved passed it…’ Should be ‘past it’. (p78)

‘So let’s you and I remind them, shall we?’ Should be ‘you and me’… (p95) [Drop the other subject (you) and what are you left with? So let I remind them, which is silly; So let me remind them, however, works.]

… she didn’t feel the cold as he died. (p144) Should be ‘as he did’.

‘Steve leaped off his horse…’ and then 11 lines further down, ‘He swung down from the saddle…’ (without having remounted!) (p209)

‘… she gripped the horse’s mane and pressed her things against its flanks,’ (p211) Instead of ‘things’, it should be ‘thighs’

‘Diana gave the horse a nudge with her spurs…’ (p211) Where’d she get her spurs from? She’s wearing Amazon boots under her misappropriated dress and at no time did she fasten on spurs. ‘Nudged with her booted heels’ would work.

‘…Every sense fired as she the truth crashed down on her.’ (p237) That rogue ‘she’ should have been excised.

‘The weapons were being stored back in the aft (of the plane)…’ (p242) ‘back aft’ or ‘aft’ would suffice.

‘The team’s objective had just spit into two…’ (p242) That ‘spit’ should be ‘split’.

‘… and he ran them hand along the magical rope.’ (p253) ‘them hand’ probably should be ‘his hands’ or ‘those hands’.
Note: There is also a DC Icon young adult novel about Wonder Woman, Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo, which has received good reviews on Amazon.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Billy Bookcase

Readers invariably possess books - even those using e-readers!

Books cry out for bookcases.

In  my youth, when first serving in the Royal Navy, my books were kept in boxes; since I was only visiting home maybe two or three times a year, that made sense. However, once married and living in our own home, wherever we moved to, I've put up book-shelves. Some of the paperbacks go back to the early 1960s. I love to browse the shelves; some books bring back fond memories; others have yet to be read!

I was intrigued to read that IKEA's Billy Bookcase sells at a rate of one every ten seconds. Worldwide, that's 60 million. It was designed and came onto the market in 1979. The main attraction is that the bookcase can be added to as one's collection of books expands.

The popularity of the Kindle et al has not affected sales; in fact, sales of bookcases have increased - as, reportedly, have printed books.

Books decorate a room.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Book review - gothic novella

The Strange Fate of Lord Bruton 

E-books have breathed new life into the novella narrative form. Some stories are too long to be short stories yet they can be told in less than a novel length. This is a prime example, packed with atmosphere and compelling storytelling.

Lord Bruton is, as his name implies, a brute. 

Despite the narrator knowing him, he retains a fascination for the flawed man. 

It begins when Bruton hires the butler Ellery, who seems impervious to his lordship’s extravagant behaviour. It was as though Ellery possessed a mesmerising ability. Indeed, slowly but surely, as the story unfolds, Ellery seemed to become the dominant player in the relationship.

This is an excellent gothic tale, revealing a battle of wills between two fascinating and well-drawn characters. 

There may be an echo of Rob Maugham’s The Servant (1948), but the tale still retains its originality, and grips you until the very end.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Book review - A Good Day to Buy

The fourth in the cosy mystery series by Sherry Harris, A Good Day to Buy is a welcome change from the gritty, raw goings on related by my earlier read, The Treatment.

This is a first-person narrative, sometimes self-deprecating, told by Sarah Winston who is arranging a garage sale. Sadly, before it can begin she discovers her clients lying on the garage floor; Mr Spencer is dead and his wife is unconscious. Sarah’s estranged brother Luke shows up out of the blue and is immediately considered a suspect. Her ex-husband Chief of Police CJ is angling after them getting together again, which seems ripe since he cheated on her in the first book, apparently.

There’s light humour and no gore. Sarah is a likeable plucky woman and a bit of a busy-body. She may be the ex-wife of the Chief of Police, but she does seem to take liberties in the various investigations. There are a number of red herrings, which you expect in this kind of book. Sarah is certainly familiar with the trappings of smart phones and computers, even if her interest leans towards antiques! The subsidiary characters are well drawn; the deputy sheriff is nicknamed Awesome (don't ask). I felt some of the incidents were contrived, and the predicaments Sarah found herself in were not quite believable. And the explanation for the death of Mr Spencer was a bit of a let-down.

An easy read, an escape into small town America.
Editorial comment
The paperback I read was an advance uncorrected proof. Even so, most of the errors I spotted shouldn’t have been there. I’ll ignore them, apart from mentioning that the author persisted in writing ‘I’ instead of ‘me’:
            ‘Awesome looked over at Stella and I…’ (p49)
            ‘… why the heck they found James and I so interesting.’ (p162)
            ‘… when he saw Herb and I sitting together.’ (p165)
            ‘… where they’d stashed Luke and I…’ (p289)
            ‘I pictured CJ and I working side by side…’ (p302)

It isn’t rocket science. If you can remove the other subject from the sentence, does it make sense? The usual answer is ‘no’ –
            ‘Awesome looked over at I…’
            ‘… why the heck they found I so interesting.’
            ‘… when he saw I sitting ...’
            ‘… where they’d stashed I…’
            ‘I pictured I working side by side…’

Replace ‘I’ with ‘me’ and they work just fine.

Screenwriters and TV script writers also tend to get this wrong.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Dark echoes

Reading my western Coffin for Cash, you might think there is the odd echo or two from some of Edgar Allan Poe’s work. And you’d be right.

The Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles westerns were created by Edward A. Grainger, who has generously allowed other writers to embellish his characters’ lives in separate self-contained novels. They are noir westerns, so I believed it would be fitting to absorb some aspects of Poe for Coffin for Cash, the twelfth book in the series.

To begin with, I wanted to start the story with a life-threatening event for Cash Laramie. Finding himself buried alive seemed to fit the bill. The Prologue then, inevitably, has the title Premature Burial. Poe’s short story ‘The Premature Burial’ was published in 1844.

Poe’s 1835 story ‘Berenice’ is one of the few tales where the narrator is named; director Eric Rohmer made a short film of Poe’s story in 1954. Berenice is the narrator’s cousin and she is buried alive. Chapter 1 of Coffin is titled Berenice: Berenice Rohmer, an heiress who seeks the help of Cash in locating her missing brother, Horace.

“Hello, Marshal Laramie,” Berenice Rohmer said as he approached. She looked at him, her golden brown eyes shining brightly, appraising. Boldly, he returned her scrutiny. She was probably in her mid-twenties, buxom, curves pressing alluringly against the green velvet jacket; a matching hat sat askew atop her long red hair that was done up and tamed by jewelled pins. Beneath the skirt, her legs were crossed; she wore black lace-up boots with a high heel. Thin pale red lips parted slightly and then finally formed into a smile.(p4)

Gideon Miles is Cash’s closest friend. He’s at Fort Bridger to escort an accused murderer for trial, Vincent Raven, a black settler. Raven has been accused of murdering the postmaster, Mr Edgar Clemm. A local lawyer, Rufus Wilmot, saw Raven standing over the body.

Poe married his first cousin Virginia Clemm in 1835 – he was 27, she was 13 though the documentation stated she was 21. Virginia’s mother, Maria Clemm (née Poe), lived with the couple. Their relationship has been debated over the years: was it ever sexual, or were they living virtually as brother and sister? Nobody knows. I melded Poe with Clemm; it seemed apt. As for Wilmot, I decided to use Rufus Wilmot Griswold’s first two names; anthologist and editor Griswold was castigated by Poe the critic and yet perplexingly Poe chose him as his executor. After Poe’s death Griswold attempted with some success to destroy Poe’s reputation, yet hindsight confirms that Poe is remembered through his work while Griswold is not.

By now, you can see that several influences or names permeated the writing of Coffin. Chapter 2 is titled Raven. Poe’s poem ‘The Raven’ was published in 1845.

“Well, sadly for Raven, he was found in the town’s post office standing over the slain postmaster, Mr Edgar Clemm. Packets of opium were strewn about. He denies it, naturally, but the postmaster was still warm, according to a lawyer, Rufus Wilmot, who entered moments later. Sheriff Arnold Royster brought Raven here for protective custody, before he could be lynched. There’s bad feeling about him in the town, as well; Mr Clemm was a greatly liked citizen of Green River.”(p11)

The sheriff is named after Sarah Elmira Royster who was Poe’s sweetheart, but they became estranged, until years later she was engaged to Poe shortly before his death; she may have influenced his work.

Cash’s trail leads to The Bells, a strange hotel run by a brother and sister team, Roderick and Madeline Allan, who keep a black cat. ‘The Bells’ was one of Poe’s last poems, published in 1849 after his death; ‘The Black Cat’ short story was published in 1843. Coffin echoes the theme found in this story. The name Roderick is high-jacked from ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839); Roderick Usher has a twin sister, Madeline.

In Chapter 6 titled Amontillado, we find that there is a Monsieur Valdemar staying at the hotel; he supplies the establishment with wine. Poe’s stories ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ (1846) and ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ (1845) lent themselves to the plot and characters.

The chapter headings Pendulum and Pit and Tell-Tale Heart owe their existence to Poe, too. There are several other allusions to Poe’s life and work; none dominate the story, which is essentially a gothic western.