Book review – Exquisite

Where does imagination stop and reality kick in? How blurred are the lines between fact and fiction? How closely does art sometimes imitate life…..?

I’m asking myself all these linked questions a few minutes after turning the final emotional page of Sarah Stovell‘s striking debut novel, the psychological thriller Exquisite, published by Orenda Books.

Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name.

Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend.

When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops…

Or does it?

Breathlessly pacey, taut and terrifying, Exquisite is a startlingly original and unbalancing psychological thriller that will keep you guessing until the very last page.

Bo and Alice embark on a passionate affair that threatens to undermine the outwardly stable family life Bo has established in idyllic Grasmere. But do they both have the same perceptions of their relationship…and is one more damaged and needy than the other?

Author Sarah Stovell lives in Northumberland, where successful author Bo leads the Creative Writing retreat and first meets  damaged and vulnerable Alice, herself an aspiring writer. Sarah is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Lincoln University. Bo was born in 1977, just like Sarah….

I enjoyed Exquisite. The juxtaposition between Alice’s chaotic life in bohemian Brighton and the calm family existence led by Bo in the beautiful Lake District is stark, but ultimately deceptive. The way the story is told separately through the eyes of both Bo and Sarah, from the initial mutual passion to eventual destruction, is skilful and deeply engaging.

Alice’s own debut novel was about her all-consuming relationship with Bo.

I wonder what Sarah’s next will be about….

 

Book review – The Talented Mr Ripley

Read the book first, then see the film is the usual advice, right?

Well, I saw the marvellous adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley soon after it was released back in 1999, but hadn’t read the book until now.  The film version was beautifully crafted by Anthony Minghella as both Screenwriter and Director, and perfectly acted by a stellar cast, including Matt Damon (Tom Ripley), Jude Law (Dickie Greenleaf), Gwyneth Paltrow (Marge Sherwood) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Freddie Miles).

So how would Patricia Highsmith’s novel, a psychological thriller written in 1955, compare?

Tom is a feckless freeloader, struggling to make a living in New York City. He grabs the opportunity offered by wealthy shipbuilder Herbert Greenleaf to go to Italy and coax his spoiled son Dickie back to face his responsibilities in the US.

But Tom is soon as much enamoured with the languid self-indulgence of life in Mongibello as Dickie. One fly in the Italian ointment is Marge, a fellow American who has clearly fallen for Dickie, though more than he for her.  And later there is also the irritating problem of Freddie Miles, a friend of Dickie’s, who is becoming suspicious of Tom’s motives.

The plot develops around exotic Italy, from Mongibello to San Remo, Rome and Venice, with the devious Tom using his many talents to ensure he can pursue as sybaritic a lifestyle as Dickie.

“Underneath he would be as calm and sure of himself as he had been after Freddie’s murder, because his story would be unassailable. Like the San Remo story. His stories were good because he imagined them intensely, so intensely that he came to believe them.”

Ms Highsmith’s writing style is as languid as a day on the beach at Mongibello. Her real strength lies in the ability to make the reader engage with Tom Ripley’s character, even though he is clearly deeply flawed and – based on any objective analysis – largely amoral.

Ambiguity is at the heart of this classic novel, including the sexual inclinations of the main protagonists….just as they were for the author.

I enjoyed reading about Tom’s undoubted talents, but is it literary sacrilege to admit that – on this occasion, at least – I preferred the adaptation on the big screen?

Film from Paramount Pictures. Image courtesy of Into Film.

 

 

Movie review – Dunkirk

Between 26th May and 4th June, 1940 almost 350,000 British soldiers were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, in northern France. They were what was left of the British Expedition Force after the disastrous first foray by the Allies in WWII.

Operation Dynamo – men wait in an orderly fashion for their turn to be rescued. Image courtesy of the Daily Mail..

Most of the evacuation – with German forces closing in and the Luftwaffe wreaking havoc from the air – was effected with the help of a hastily assembled flotilla of 800 small boats. Pleasure craft, fishing boats, yachts, lifeboats and merchant marine boats answered the call in our hour of need.

A failure, but a glorious one in terms of morale and future war efforts. As Churchill said at the time: “we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”

What a shame then, that such an infamous episode in our military history has been reduced to something of a Boy’s Own epic yarn of a film in the current Dunkirk movie.

Directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception and Interstellar), the story is told from 3 different perspectives and over 3 different timescales.

  1. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is the only one of his section to survive German gunfire as they retreat through the streets of Dunkirk. Over the next week, we follow his efforts to find safety as he suffers a series of terrible mishaps.
  2. During the course of a single day, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), together with son Peter and young helper George, joins the flotilla to help with the evacuation. On the way, he rescues a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy), clinging to the hull of a sunken British ship, and who is understandably reluctant to return to the fray.
  3. In cloudless blue skies, three Spitfire pilots try for an hour to stem the damage being wrought by the Luftwaffe on the helpless troops on the beach below. The Squadron leader is soon killed. One of the pilots is shot down, but is rescued by Peter, just as water fills his cockpit. The 3rd pilot lands on French soil, and is captured, but only after the Spitfires have helped with the evacuation.

Some of the set-pieces in the film are technically brilliant, but I’m afraid the acting and plot left me underwhelmed, rather than awe-inspired.

A real shame. Such a momentous episode from WWII deserves to be more gritty than glossy.

Image courtesy of History vs Hollywood

 

Sleep well, old friend

I lost a friend today. A good friend.

I only met him 20 years ago, and we probably only saw him two or three times each year, but for 15 years or so one of those occasions would be for a week’s skiing.

There were 8 of us in the gang. We stayed in catered chalets across Europe, and revelled in making the wish list as challenging as possible for whoever had the onerous task of finding somewhere that ticked all the boxes that year.

But once we all met up at the airport, something magical happened. It was as though we had just finished the previous year’s final run, and we all slipped effortlessly back into the same warm camaraderie as before. We knew a great week of snowy escapades, excessive food and drink consumption, banter, laughter and friendship would follow, as surely as an Alpine lunch is vastly overpriced.

Our friend was the oldest in the group, but probably also the most fearless. He was the one who first embraced helmetdom, but his excellent value  protective head wear from Lidl didn’t prevent him seeing stars after a heavy fall on a packed piste. And in flat light in Zermatt one year, he failed to see the edge of the groomed piste and performed a spectacular somersault into fresh powder, leaving his skis way behind him. Blood still gushed from his nose as we boarded the funicular back into town, but he had a demonic look of quiet satisfaction etched on his craggy face.

Our snowy pilgrimages started off in middle age, and we were all sliding inexorably towards old age, when he became ill. Unable to ski, we spent a memorable autumnal week in Dorset instead, renting a house to try and replicate that ski chalet ambience for one last time. We enjoyed a lovely Sunday lunch at  River Cottage, a brilliant piece of theatre in Lyme Regis – he loved Nina Simone – and he even managed to play golf for the first time in a while.

He was fiercely intelligent, with a wit as dry as his glass after a long lunch. He was sociable, and yet intensely private. He was a special person. His only flaw was that he supported Manchester United and Wales.

We might all ski again, but it will never be the same.

You have left a big hole, old friend.

Sleep well. And when we all meet again, it’s your turn to find the chalet….

 

Dull, Bland and Boring

I am indebted to Burny, head gardener and Gill’s boss at beautiful Loseley Park, for passing me the Times’ article announcing the new alliance of Dull (Perthshire, Scotland), Bland (Australia) and Boring (Oregon, USA).

The road sign in Dull, Perthshire, has become something of a tourist hotspot

Dull and Boring have been twinned since 2012, but now Bland is getting in on the act in the interest of tourism. This new – and exciting – relationship will be celebrated soon, when Dull councillors will host a civic reception for the Mayor of Bland Shire and his New South Wales delegation.

But that got me thinking….which other places could form well suited and entertaining relationships?

I went to school in Sandwich, one of Kent’s cinque ports, and famously a neighbour with the tiny village of Ham.

RS 5129. Sign Post, Kent, England

Perhaps they could could also team up with Cheddar (Somerset) and Branston (Staffordshire) to make a tasty union. No prizes for guessing what they’d serve for lunch.

Less predictably, perhaps the makers of Durex should hold their annual meetings in Erect (North Carolina), Climax (Georgia, USA), Accident (Maryland, USA) and Come by Chance (New South Wales, Australia), and hope the locals show up.  Or just preach to the converted in Condom (France).

I’m not so sure the civic receptions in Bitter End (Tennessee, USA), Lake Disappointment (Western Australia) or Dismal (also Tennessee) would be a barrel of laughs.

But perhaps the most lucrative global tourism collaboration would be when the good folk of Jackpot (Nevada, USA),  Money (Mississippi, USA), and Poundsgate (Devon) sign on the dotted line. And then they should probably try to hold their meetings in Smug (Poland).

Thanks, Burny. Got any other suggestions…..?

 

Book review – Fierce Kingdom

Fierce Kingdom tells the story of a couple of alienated young sociopaths on a shooting spree in a zoo park, somewhere in gun-friendly USA.

But really this book is all about a whip-smart, feisty young mother’s relationship with her 4 year-old son, and what she’ll do to protect him when faced with every family’s worst nightmare.

Joan is cajoling Lincoln out of the zoo at closing time, when she realises that the balloon-popping noise nearby was deadly gunfire, leaving bloody corpses strewn around the park.

Do they run, or do they hide? How long will it be before help arrives? Can she trust any other survivors?

The action takes place in real time, from 4:55 pm until 8:05 pm but the author cleverly paints a vivid picture of the dynamics between mother and son in a deft series of flashbacks.

His crying always starts with words. He tries to talk through the weeping, and the words stretch into wails, and then the words evaporate and the tears come, and once they are falling down his cheeks he has passed into something monotone and rhythmic like the ocean, only more grating.”

Joan and Lincoln are forced to leave their first hiding place, introducing them to danger and to other desperate fugitives, talkative young Kailynn and older Mrs Powell, once a teacher of one of the shooters. But will this help, or hinder, their chances of survival?

Author Gin Phillips has written a compelling psychological thriller, pulling the reader through the narrative as breathlessly as if trapped in a tiger’s cage. But it is the mother’s feral instincts to protect her son that will linger after the last page has been turned.

“Make yourself disappear”, she says, already standing, taking an extra second to put her hand on his head – the precious curve of it – as she lets the branches fall. He disappears except for his feet, so she reaches under and bends his legs slightly.

Fierce Kingdom is not without its flaws – would Joan really have thrown her phone away? Why don’t the police arrive earlier? Would a 4 year-old really be so damned clever? – but Ms Phillips has crafted a well-written, high-octane novel, which is also a warm tribute to her own son:

“To Eli, who has entire worlds inside him.”