Review: Bugles at Dawn

So, lots of things have happened since I last blogged.  I undertook an internship at Legend Press, have now got another lined up for the summer with Endeavour Press and more applications pending left, right and centre. Unfortunately writing’s taken a back seat of late, but more importantly I have read some terrific books. One such is Bugles at Dawn by Charles Whiting, and I thought I’d write a bit about it.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, and, rather pleasingly, the cover used is one of my favourite paintings: Lady Butler’s ‘Scotland Forever!’. But this is not simply another novel set against the backdrop of the conflict. While Whiting’s narrative does start at the close of the battle, events swiftly conspire, with a little assistance from Wellington, to send our hero, John Bold, to India, and this is where the meat of the yarn unfolds.

Bold goes from being a subaltern in the 52nd Regiment of Foot to the armies of the East India Company, at the head of his own irregular cavalry troop (Bold’s Horse) in a dangerous struggle against a beautiful and deadly Princess who wants to see the British out of her country. One should bear in mind that in the age of purchasing commissions, it was not unheard of for officers to have served in infantry and cavalry regiments.  This is a clever touch, because it allows us to see how the cavalry were trained as Bold adapts, and we learn about India under Company rule as he does, through his social and military escapades.

The battles are well crafted affairs, and the small details inserted really give you a taste of the age.  Whiting has a flair for the military adventure story, and his descriptions bring the words to life in your mind. You get a sense of the dusty plains, the dense jungle, the vibrant sights and the crash and speed of the onslaught.

There were moments I thought of Flashman, and others of Sharpe: John Bold sits well beside them.

While it is a tightly plotted romp, and Whiting keeps the adrenalin up for the most part, the ending feels abrupt and lacking. Threads are left hanging, and for those with an interest in the history of India will wonder whether Bold is destined for the Gurkha War or Burma. Edit: I should say that a little research shows that Whiting did indeed write a sequel, entitled Sabres in the Sun, set in Burma. The educated guess in this case is bang on! Now, where to find a copy…?

You can read Bugles at Dawn on Kindle, and given there’s the mobile app it’s pretty difficult to use the ‘I don’t have a Kindle’ excuse. This is definitely one for the fans of Bernard Cornwell and George Macdonald Fraser, and brightened up a dreary train journey.

 

 

 

P.S.

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Review: The Gospel of Loki

It seems fitting that my first, and admittedly belated, blog post of 2015 is a book review. Especially as its on a book I ended up waiting a year to get, having got really excited about it when I first heard about it: The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris. Having not read her other Rune books I wasn’t sure what to expect, but once I started I was hooked.

Loki, our humble narrator and the famed trickster of Norse mythology, is one of those characters who are a joy to follow; the first person viewpoint here is a triumph. As you read you can see him in your mind, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes as the tale unfolds, a smirk etched upon his face.

You know deep down that you should take everything with a pinch of salt, but you don’t want to. The narration is obviously biased, perhaps dramatically so; at times it is dark yet full of wit and sarcasm and little asides; in all honesty, you want Loki to come out on top. He is one side of the mirror, Odin the reverse, and you root for him despite any preconceived notions or knowledge of the figures. Loki and Odin could almost have been cut from the same cloth. He’s brought into Asgard by Odin as a brother, although recruited seems a better word, and tries to play the game according to the rules. But he is not welcomed as promised, and so he starts to play the game in his own way, a struggle between Loki and Odin, each playing the other, culminating with Ragnarök.

Rather than twist and turn through the poems, the Edda, Harris has created a linear sequence of adventures (misadventures?) for us to follow with ease, recounted gleefully by Loki while remaining true to the poems. For instance, I was familiar with the episode regarding Thor and Loki dressing as a bride and handmaiden to recover Mjölnir, already amusing I hasten to add, but this was an absolute hoot of a passage, vividly brought to life. In fact, the whole story was.

Though Loki and Odin are the most fleshed out of the characters, none want for depth. We know who each is and what they’re like, through both their actions and their speech, and as such each individual sticks with you. Yes, there are a number to remember, but not once did I have to go back to the list of characters provided to double check who they were. Not once. Even with the warning not to trust any of them. Like I said, they stick with you.

As does the grinning, sly, compellingly roguish narrator.

 

 

P.S.

 

 

 

 

 

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NaNoWriMo, and beyond

NaNoWriMo this year was particularly challenging. Having got off to a great start, my laptop met a long overdue end at the beginning of the second week, as I mentioned last month.  As such I ended up on the back foot somewhat, and with an interview for a Christmas job at Waterstones (which I got – hence the late reflection on NaNoWriMo) and going away staring at me on the 28th it was an uphill struggle. I don’t like giving up, and across a variety of devices, and on paper, I continued writing when I could; what really drove me on though was the support in the NaNo Kent facebook group.

Now, truth be told, I set out hoping to participate more in the community side of it but aside from a few posts on the web forums, I did not. But in the odd moments where I found a sticky patch in my plot, or trouble with tying things together or a character refusing to play ball, scanning the group was wonderful. So much encouragement given to others was there, instilling belief and confidence to continue, and to see such camaraderie gave me the boost I needed at times. I may not have posted it, but this is my “thank you” to you all. And on top of that, it has spurred me on to what I am doing now: reading back through, and editing, my 2014 effort, which I titled The King Under The Mountain. How long that title stays I cannot say, but I rather like it, and the motif reflects the story, so far at least, very well.

This time, at the last minute as well I might add, I changed my mind in what I wanted to write. I shelved the thoughts I’d been planning, which I made reference to in September, deciding that for this I wanted a new challenge. I may well kick myself in the long run for it because I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much, and now I really want to see how far I can explore it. And I have Kent-dwelling author Angus Donald to thank for my inspiration.

His Outlaw Chronicles are superb, a brutal, gangster-ish Robin Hood for those unfamiliar with them, and a new take on the legend we think we know. His hero is whoever he needs them to be within the story, weaving myth with history and creating a plausible figure, and his books just get better and better. As a child, I think I probably read more of the myths and legends than I did anything else. Robin Hood, King Arthur, the Hound of Ulster, Beowulf, the Greek heroes et al have all stuck with me through my life. I am, what you might say, a sucker for them, just like I am those glorious swashbuckling romps produced in the Golden Age of Hollywood. I decided to take one of my favourite legends and tell my own story, following in Mr. Donald’s example; not Robin Hood mind, I did that once as a short story, a few years ago and now lost courtesy of ye olde laptop and my own mistake. My protagonist had been Brother Tuck, a Templar, and was huge fun to write, but here, as then, I’m aiming to create something tangible within the realms of myth.

People groan because legends get reinvented or remade so often, but in many ways each generation ends up with their own version of the heroes in their minds. It’s like the oral tradition, where over generations the tales grow, taking on new elements while losing others. I have discovered what an absolute joy it is to write my own version of one, however much work it does need. I don’t normally make resolutions at New Year, but I think this time it might be different. After the end of this year, and the way things are now heading in next (an internship with an independent publisher), I do believe I want to finish this.

And all due to witnessing the encouragement given to others. Cheers!

 

 

 

P.S.

 

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One Last Time

It’s happened: Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth saga has drawn to a close.

And what a concluding film it was.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is unique amongst the other instalments in the series for a number of reasons. Instead of a prologue we are thrown straight into the action, with Smaug descending upon Laketown in a blaze of fury, and what follows is the shortest instalment yet. If rumours are true, even the extended edition – which for the record I cannot wait to see – will keep it in that position. And it almost pure action: from Smaug attacking Laketown and Bard’s feats with his longbow, we go to the White Council’s attack on Dol Guldur, and from then on comes the building of the titular struggle before Erebor; finally, in a lovely little sequence, we return to Hobbiton. In all this, Peter Jackson sets the link between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings firmly in place with wonderful simplicity.

It is not perfect. While I think Ryan Gage’s Alfrid was a fantastic foil to Stephen Fry’s Master, I couldn’t help but feel he was used for one gag too many in this film. Beorn was also cruelly underused, and I only hope that, as with Desolation of Smaug, he gets his just time in the extended edition when it is released on DVD next year. And while Elves are light of foot, Legolas might just have been pushed that bit too far in his ability: it’s a real shame, because it has been fun to watch, although I should say it is only one instance I’m thinking of here. And a few missing pieces to the plot at the end – those who’ve read the book will notice it too, although there is enough to hazard guesses if you haven’t. To be honest, the majority of my gripes here stem from the fact that it has had to be trimmed for the cinema. These films need the space to breath, to flow in their own time.

But, and there is a but here, it is an enjoyable romp. A very enjoyable romp. In the midst of all the action, a plot has been constructed and runs through it with surety. The cliff-hangers, the questions, they are answered, giving us a clean ending. Bard comes into his own in magnificent fashion, Thorin’s descent and ultimate redemption is incredibly intense, and Bilbo… Bilbo is as brilliant as Galadriel was terrifying. Every expression, every emotion, every little quirk, Martin Freeman could have been born to play that role. He is Bilbo. I cannot imagine anyone else doing what he does here.

When I wrote about the extended cut of Desolation of Smaug,  I wrote about hoping this would be the transition for certain things, and so it has proved. Bemoan Tauriel all you want, but she has been a great addition. I also applauded the use of the appendices, and do so again. I enjoyed the little references throughout, and the White Council sequence was truly memorable: note Saruman here. Awesome.

I left the cinema feeling somewhat moved after the spectacle, but also impressed on another matter. Yes, Billy Connolly was outrageous as Dain, brilliantly so, but it was the way his army from the Iron Hills had their big moment. They formed a shield wall in the face of attack. A proper, shields locking together, shield wall. To some this is a tiny, perhaps even unworthy thing to comment on, but not for me. In An Unexpected Journey, we saw the traits in Thorin of the heroes in the great sagas of old, but here we see the oldest tactic of battle: the shield wall may have turned into the thin red line by the age of horse and musket, but the underlying principle is the same. Like I said, that little touch impressed me – it might not have been for long given the structure of the battle and the way it was built up, but it’s great to see such a grounding in real history visualised. I applaud those who designed, and indeed decided that the Dwarves of the Iron Hills would react as such. It is such influences that make watching the appendices of the DVDs so rewarding, and I look forward to watching this particular process.

When I have another day off from temping I reckon I’ll see it again. You know, #OneLastTime. For old time’s sake.

 

 

 

P.S.

 

 

 

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Word on the grape vin

Last night my dad and I finally got around to something we’ve spoken for years about doing: attending a wine tasting, at our local Majestic, and it was an enjoyable evening, with some wonderful discoveries.

During my second year at university I lived next door to one of the best men I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and the two of us would share many a bottle of wine or ports or sherries, each of us introducing to the other our preferred bottles. As one can imagine it made for a fantastic year, a friendship blossoming from the foundations of a shared appreciation of the finer things. And last night there were truly some fine things to appreciate, and of the dozen tastings, here are those I enjoyed most.

For me, the most exciting find was the A Sticky End Noble Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Marlborough. It reminded me of Tokaji, another dessert wine, but less syrupy. The nose had a very subtle nuttiness accompanying ripe peach, and then on the palette there was a slight citrus note that enhanced the honeyed flavour. Oh so good, and will definitely be buying bottles in the future.

The Chapel Down Brut NV, England was another eye opener. My sister spent time at Chapel Down a few years back, but this was the first time I had sampled one of their bottles; it was also the first taster of the evening. It has a very yeasty flavour, but is well balanced, zesty and quite literally dances around your mouth. Being a Kentish boy, a local vineyard producing such quality on the doorstep is fantastic, and is one that I feel will give Champagnes stiff competition.

Crossing the Atlantic provided the third revelation, and until we learnt where it was from proved tricky for us to work out. It had a full bodied flavour, a nice oakiness to it, and was reminiscent in many ways of the old-style Spanish whites that are more akin to a Fino. While I particularly enjoy the old-style, I suppose you might say “they are not in vogue”, production having come to a halt it appears. So for the Saintsbury Chardonnay 2012, Carneros to evoke such thoughts was an unexpected pleasure.

I tend to drink predominantly Spanish reds, or with particular meals possibly a French, and our wine cupboard has some suitably aged bottles. My feeling when I tasted the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2013, Reserve de Capouliers was that while it had a nice depth to it, the black fruits and hints of liquorice and tannins full, it needs to age a little for it to be truly magical. Personally I’d choose to store it for another five years or so before drinking, but that’s me.

And the Calvados at the end was on another scale altogether!

 

 

 

P.S.

 

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May I have this dance?

For those of us who are addicted to the Saturday tea-time feel-good joy that is Strictly Come Dancing, the half way point has been passed. It’s sad in in its own way, because we know there will be the best part of a year before we get it back on our screens, but it’s also brilliant as we can look forward to some incredible dancing over the forthcoming weeks.

I’ve watched Strictly from the start, at the beginning because it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and even predicted in a winner in Tom Chambers when he competed… in hindsight it’s a shame I wasn’t involved in a sweepstake. Winding forward the clock to late 2009, at an Explorer Scout meeting (which I’d missed due to being at a school event) they decided that, for that term anyway, we’d try Ballroom and Latin Dancing. The rest, as they say, is history.

Wind forwards five years, to the present day. In the intervening years I’ve been to university and continued with it, even becoming Club President in my final year, competing at competitions, performing in shows, demos, tea dances and choreographing the Capulet Ball in a production of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I’ve also developed a soft spot for Fred Astaire musicals, happily losing afternoons to watching him work magic with his feet alongside Ginger Rogers or Rita Hayworth. Gene Kelly’s quite the joy as well – it was only recently that I twigged that it was he, the Gene Kelly, in the 1948 version of The Three Musketeers that I’d watched so often when I was little. Swashbuckling dancers… now that’s something to aspire to.

As many people do, occasionally you get a song stuck in your head, and you suddenly find yourself dancing. This happens to me every now and again while I’m working in the shop during quiet spells, and occasionally customers walk in on me, as happened this morning. The eyes say everything, begging the question “why?”; while I was at university, and a couple of times since graduation when people have caught me at it, I’ve been asked the same thing, what made me take it up in the first place?

The honest answer is simple: I tried it on a whim, and fell in love with it.

There, I said it. But as a friend pointed out, saying something like that isn’t necessarily going to convince any blokey-bloke who enjoys being seen as macho to try it out.

But having learnt to dance, I can safely say it’s something I think all people should learn. My father, reflecting back, has said that he wished he had the opportunity to do so. It’s not just learning how to look good on the dance floor, but so much more. With the group I was learning with at university, they have become my closest friends, and we are like a family – some people won’t get it, but those who know the feeling will understand just what I mean. It’s social as much as it is competitive, it’s wonderfully timeless, and as with anything, the more you put in, the greater the reward.

On top of that, the looks on the faces of DJs or bouncers when you’re in a nightclub and suddenly break out into a Cha-cha, or a Salsa, or a Jive, or… oh, you get the idea, but the picture is priceless. While older music gives a real magic to some of the numbers, it is not restricted to It which some people seem to forget. It’s a fantastic skill to have as well, and let’s face it, it’s a great talking point. Deep down I’m a Ballroom Boy, much as I love the Latin, and part of me wishes I’d tried it out sooner.

So go on, give it a twirl! And don’t forget, if you want to dance you have to go up to someone and ask that elusive question…

 

 

 

P.S.

 

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The Tolkien-Jackson Equation

It’s been a while. Yes, life has been getting in the way – sort of; yes, it is day 10 of NaNoWriMo – definitely; BUT, my laptop also died – bugger. Not just technologically, or spiritually, but physically. If you recall an earlier post, I remarked on how a lot of my time is spent writing graduate job applications, or researching for novelling, and at the moment should be NaNoing. Really I should. But I’m not able to, to the extent that I wish, which saddens me. While I should have a new one at the end of the week(ish), I’m trying to use various other machines/my phone, and I’ve gone back to the old-fashioned method for some. I also found the time to watch a DVD in this, which I should be talking about instead of this preamble.

This past week has seen the new trailer for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies go online, and the release of the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I have never made it a secret that I adore Tolkien’s work, and how much love I have for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but sometimes I am bemused by the less warm reception for his The Hobbit adaptation that exists in some circles. I can see the gripes people have with it’s higher resolution/greater defined image on screen, computer-game like as I have heard said by many, but it adds to the fairy-tale nature that was The Hobbit when it was published. Strangely, I think it might have been worse were it the same style as LOTR, it wouldn’t be quite so, well, magical. The bottom line is, I really do like PJ’s adaptation. Seriously.

Tolkien’s work was huge, a rich tapestry of characters and cultures, language and art, history and legend. For those who have, as I do, the three volume Harper edition of LOTR, you will probably be familiar with the treasure trove that is the appendices. They are as fascinating, if not more so, than the main narrative story, because they add depth, they make things clear that you might have thought “Huh?” to when you first read it. It also gives insights to why characters disappear only to reappear unexplained/unexpected. Much like the Journey (sorry). There are sections in the appendices that you do think would be great were they actually integrated, giving the more rounded story for the serious fan while not taking away from the more casual. And this is where my first true applause comes in.

Like Tolkien when he revised The Hobbit to fit a little better with the darker Middle Earth of LOTR, although some revisions were deemed too dark and so rejected, PJ has followed a similar path. To make references in the original trilogy fit into place, to unify the entire series (other than cast, crew and characters), he has – quite rightly in my eyes – raided the appendices and brought relevant sections to the screen. Huzzah! And this is why the Extended Editions are the superior product, however enjoyable the cinema cut is at Christmas time: it takes us deeper into Middle Earth, and colours in what was left an outline. The Elves of Mirkwood fit into this to an extent, because they have their one chapter as foes, then reappear later as a foe before becoming a friend. The film simply expands this, making it make sense to us. For example, the appendices tell us who the Elvenking at the time was (Thranduil), and tell us when his son Legolas was born; well before the events of The Hobbit, so it’s not too much to assume he might be present. Tauriel is an interesting case, and I suspect for many she is a “Marmite character” – you love her or you hate her. I love her. With the wonderful scene between  Thorin and Thranduil, we see two proud dynasties at an impasse, trying to push one another’s buttons, to make them yield. Legolas has some of Thranduil’s traits (obviously), but Tauriel is the voice of reason to act as a foil to them, and it seems to me (and I hope it proves so in TBOTFA – already booked my ticket(!)) that her wisdom will be a bridging force between the “Do not think I won’t kill you Dwarf” Legolas of TDOS to the less grudging Legolas of TFOTR (despite Gimli, no doubt thinking of Gloin in Thranduil’s cells), the more bantering Legolas of TTT and then to the “side by side with a friend” Legolas of TROTK. Tauriel is giving us an opportunity to see the enmity of the Dwarves and the Elves thaw, more widely regarding Legolas and Mirkwood with the wider world and, of course, with the added Kili plotline. On top of that, she has some truly memorable moments. And kicks ass, as they say across the pond.

But PJ has done more than that, and this is my second true applause: there are moments in the films that are lifted from the Norse mythology that influenced Tolkien so heavily, and are so beautifully rendered. A particular standout moment is at the end of An Unexpected Journey, where Thorin, who could have stayed on the fallen tree, rises to his feet to face Azog despite how forlorn it appears, like the heroes in the old sagas. Those better acquainted with this mythology will understand it better than I can explain it, but it felt so right for the character. And yes, I appreciate that Azog dies at the Battle of Azanulbizar at the hands of Dain, but I can live with that change. Somehow it gives credence to the hatred of the Dwarves for Orcs, and gives us a belated/shifted – depending on your point of view – War of the Dwarves and Orcs as a driving force, an ongoing struggle if you will. A change made for film-making purposes I assume, like the Elves of Lothlorien effectively standing in for the Grey Company in TTT for reasons of economy and not confusing the viewer,  but like I said, I can live with it. Why? Because PJ is still telling us a great story: not a good one, but a great one: his one. When we read books when we are younger, we often have this image in our minds of how we see it. I believe this is PJ showing us how he imagined Tolkien’s story when he read it. And sometimes you make additions that may not be there originally to bridge changes that might be too significant to believe, or increase the fantastical nature of it – much like the oral tradition in centuries long since gone.

The Extended Edition is also great because Beorn finally gets the glory that was lost when DOS was originally cut for the cinema release: along with Gollum’s riddles and Smaug’s playing, Beorn’s house is one of the great passages Tolkien wrote, and I was really excited about seeing it realised, so thank you PJ! I won’t go into it, but as a politics graduate I also appreciated the commentary on government and leadership running through the film, cleverly slipped in alongside some of the touches of humour – like the best children’s stories, there is the face value product for the younger generation to enjoy, but an added subtext that increases the pleasure for the older. Stunning: I think that might be the adjective I’m looking for.

I really hope that TBOTFA isn’t going to our #onelasttime, as like many Tolkienists I have a favourite amongst his works I would love to see realised on screen: in my case, it’s The Children of Hurin. For me it’s the darkest, most tragic and utterly compelling of his Middle Earth works but also one of the most powerful. But if TBOTFA is to be the end, then I believe it will be such an end as to be worthy of song. Roll on 12th December.

And then the Extended release.

And then…

 

 

 

P.S.

 

 

 

 

 

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