Today’s Art (30th November 2019)

Well, I was still in the mood for “retro” art. Although to my surprise today’s digitally-edited painting was set in the 1950s. In short, I was initially inspired by a novel set in 1950s Britain that I was reading – but, for some bizarre reason, the painting ended up being set in a highly-styled version of 1950s San Francisco instead (probably due to reading this sci-fi novel a week or two earlier).

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Tram Car 1953” By C. A. Brown

Review: “Seventh Heaven” By Alice Hoffman (Novel)

Well, it’s been a while since I last read an Alice Hoffman novel. So, I thought that I’d take a look at the second-hand copy of Hoffman’s 1990 novel “Seventh Heaven” that I found online a few weeks earlier.

If I remember rightly, I chose this novel because the premise vaguely reminded me of a hilarious comedy movie from the 1980s called “Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark” and because I’m a fan of Hoffman’s writing style.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Seventh Heaven”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2003 Berkley (US) paperback edition of “Seventh Heaven” that I read.

The novel begins in the Long Island suburb of Hemlock Street in 1959. The street is an idyllic and perfectly ordered place until old Mr.Olivera dies and his wife moves out of town. Slowly, their empty house falls into disrepair- attracting a flock of crows and filling the vicinity with a strange stench. Eventually, a few of the local residents decide to fix up the house and convince Mrs. Olivera to put it up for sale.

The house is bought by Nora Silk, a recently-divorced mother of two. However, it soon becomes clear that she doesn’t quite fit into the prim and staid world of Hemlock Street. Meanwhile, local cop, Joe Hennessy. is feeling a sense of dissatisfaction with life after being promoted to detective and experiencing his first serious case. Local teenager Ace McCarthy learns that his brother Jackie is running some kind of scam involving their father’s garage.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is a really atmospheric and well-written historical drama novel that is filled with excellent characters, I slightly preferred the other two Alice Hoffman novels that I’ve read (“Turtle Moon” and “The Ice Queen” ) to this one. Even so, it’s still a really good novel.

Unlike the other Hoffman novels I’ve read, this one is more of a diffuse “slice of life” drama novel than a story with a single clear plot. Although there are several interesting, dramatic, romantic, depressing, cheerful and/or poignant sub-plots, this novel almost feels more like a disguised short story collection at times.

Yes, there is sort of a main plot, but this novel feels more like an interesting window into a time and place than a traditional novel. Still, it’s a really interesting one that also takes a little bit more of a “realistic” approach to the plot (eg: some things are left unresolved, there isn’t really any “deus ex machina” morality etc..).

Still, this isn’t to say that the novel is without Hoffman’s traditional magic realist elements. Even so, these were a little bit more understated than I’d expected. Yes, there are a few psychic moments (which are just treated as ordinary) and a couple of moments invovling ghosts and/or magic, but these are more background elements than central parts of the story.

For the most part, this is a slightly more “realistic” drama novel and this is also reflected in the novel’s writing – which, whilst still expertly-written, doesn’t contain quite as many of Hoffman’s signature vividly magical descriptions as I’d expected.

The novel’s historical elements are really well-handled, and the novel contains a vividly atmospheric version of late 1950s/early 1960s America that almost feels real.

Like most historical novels about this period of history, it shows the tension between the idyllic popular image of the time and the problems (eg: abusive relationships, bullying, crime, ostracism/snobbishness and, briefly, racism) lurking beneath the stiflingly pristine and polite surface. Yet, unlike some more modern historical novels, the story makes it’s points subtly and credits the reader with enough intelligence to make their own moral decisions about what is happening and about the story’s characters.

Amongst other things, one theme in this novel is the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s. The novel handles this in all sorts of interesting ways, such as setting the first half of the book in 1959 and the second half in 1960.

In the latter half of the book, many of the characters become a little bit more friendly towards Nora, loveless relationships begin to end, characters change gradually in other ways etc.. Even so, it is interesting how the segment set in the 1950s still contains a few subtle hints of the 1960s (eg: one of the teenage characters trying marijuana for the first time etc..). It shows historical change as a gradual thing, with the late 1950s and early 1960s being both similar and different.

Likewise, this is a novel about dissatisfaction. About how the pristine idyll of Hemlock Street is as much a prison as a sanctuary. How many of the characters dream of better lives, repress their feelings and/or hold secrets from each other. You really get the sense of tension between reality and fantasy when reading this novel and it is both poignant and fascinating.

In terms of the characters, this novel really excels 🙂 This is very much a character-based novel and, although Nora is possibly the main character, you’ll get to know many of the residents of Hemlock Street extremely well.

All of the characters come across as realistic people with quirks, flaws, hopes, feelings and dreams. Seriously, I cannot praise the characterisation in this novel highly enough. Although the story’s plot is a bit diffuse, the characters are one of the main things that will probably make you want to keep reading it.

This, of course, brings me on to the writing. Hoffman’s third-person narration here is as excellent as ever. This novel is written in the wonderfully flowing and vivid style that you’d expect from an Alice Hoffman novel. However, whilst this novel still contains the brilliantly imaginative, magical and evocative descriptions that you’d expect, the narration here can also often be a little bit more “mundane” or “down to earth” than you might expect.

Given that this story is a slightly more “realistic” drama, then this was probably a deliberate dramatic choice. Even so, the narration still flows really well and there are enough of Hoffman’s brilliant moments of description here to give the story the kind of atmosphere you’d expect (albeit in a slightly more understated way).

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 255 pages in length, the novel feels neither too long nor too short. Likewise, whilst the novel has a fairly “slow paced” kind of plot that focuses on everyday life and more small-scale drama, the story itself still moves at a reasonable pace thanks to Hoffman’s expert narration that just flows really, really well.

As for how this twenty-nine year old novel has aged, it has aged excellently. Thanks to it’s historical setting and the very slightly more modern perspective on said setting, this novel feels like it could easily have been written any time within the past couple of decades. The characters are still as interesting as ever, the setting is still atmospheric and the writing is still really good.

All in all, although this isn’t the best Alice Hoffman novel I’ve read, it’s still a really good novel. If you want a story with an interesting historical setting, well-written characters and lots of atmosphere, then this one is certainly worth reading. Yes, it is slightly more of a “slice of life” drama than a traditional novel and there aren’t quite as many of the quirky magical realist elements as you may expect, but it is still a really well-written and interesting novel.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Short Story: “Haunt Of The Horror Comics” By C. A. Brown

It’s not that bad, darling. It isn’t as if they’re going to ban them.‘ Mary placed her hands on her hips and stared out at the row of comics. In the dim light of the corner shop, the garish covers almost seemed to glow.

Her eyes settled on the latest issue of The Haunt Of Fear, the cover showing an Egyptian mummy looming large over some gaunt unfortunate who was searching an old crypt for treasure. Beside it, another comic cover proclaimed CRIME DOES NOT PAY above a picture of a handsome gangster tommygunning his way out of a bank vault with sacks of cash under his gun arm. His other arm was, of course, around the shoulders of a beautiful cabaret dancer.

Beside her, Clive let out a sigh: ‘They are banning them in America and that’s the problem. Of course, we get them a few months later. So, we’re fine for now… I think‘ He leant over and opened a comic.

A full-page spread proclaimed THE HOUSE OF DEATH in dripping red letters above an illustration of the Grim Reaper towering above a bucolic landscape whilst a couple, not unlike Clive and Mary, calmly strolled towards a crumbling manor house.

They’re banning them in America?‘ Mary stuttered ‘I thought they were just putting an age limit on them like parliament are going to.‘ She permitted herself a small laugh ‘As if people somehow grow out of these wonderful things when they turn sixteen.

It could be that we’re a little immature, dear.‘ Clive chuckled, as he picked up another horror comic. The strapline proclaimed THE BARONS OF EVIL and, to his delight, he noticed that the cover showed no less than three giant Grim Reapers standing tall against the midnight moonlight.

Does this mean that we’ll have to buy the Telegraph or those awful gossip magazines now?‘ Mary frowned ‘I’m certainly going to miss comics.

Worse.‘ Clive sighed ‘By my guess, the only comics that will be left are The Beano and those ones with people in silly costumes. Of course, no-one reads those.

To prove his point, he knelt down and rifled through the rows of comics until he found one and plucked it out. The cover proclaimed ACTION COMICS # 1 and showed a strongman in blue overalls holding a car above his head. As Mary leaned closer, Clive tapped part of the cover.

Mary raised her eyebrows and smiled: ‘1938?

Rather proves my point, doesn’t it?‘ Clive sighed. ‘The only comics that will be left are these children’s ones. Once they don’t sell, old Beale and a thousand others like him will decide that the shelf-space will be better served with periodicals, almanacks and journals. Our comics, my dear, will die a slow and painful death.

An impish grin flickered across Mary’s face, followed by a sombre frown: ‘It’s kind of fitting, I guess.

Clive tried to think of a witty retort, but he couldn’t. She was right. If popular comics were going to die, then it was only fitting that they went out in a grasping, drawn-out fashion with the Grim Reaper cackling loudly in the background. Or, for the glorious gangsters that graced the covers of the crime comics to be gaoled for life in a cardboard box in a warehouse somewhere, before unceremonious burial in a rubbish tip.

Mary dipped her hand into her bag and opened her purse. Coins clinked in the silent shop. Finally, she said: ‘I’ve got six shillings to spare. You?

Clive rifled his pockets ‘Four and sixpence. I must save the rest though.

Their eyes met and they smiled. Like the last page of every crime comic, they were ready to go out in a blaze of glory. One last triumphant hurrah of comic-buying, before the implacable, zombie-like forces of law and order closed in on them. This was going to be a trove of comics to remember, a purchase of such magnitude that the memory of it would be whispered about in news-stands, tobacconists and corner shops for years to come.

But, they just stood there. Finally, Mary turned to Clive and said: ‘I’m sorry, darling. I just can’t choose. If it’s our last time, then it matters so much more. Whichever ones we leave behind, we’re sure to regret it.

Clive let out a sigh and put on his best Hollywood gangster movie accent: ‘Yeah, doll. Me too.

Review: “Brighton Belle” By Sara Sheridan (Novel)

2017-artwork-brighton-belle-review

Well, it has been way too long since I last wrote a book review (I think that the last one was in 2014!).

So, I thought that I’d take a look at a rather interesting detective novel called “Brighton Belle” by Sara Sheridan that I got as a Christmas present last year (along with two other novels by the same author), and finished reading about fifteen minutes before I started writing this review (which was originally written quite a few months ago).

So, let’s take a look at “Brighton Belle”. However, I should probably point out that this review may contain some moderate PLOT SPOILERS:

This is the 2016 reprint (published by Constable [London]) that I read. I'm not sure if the original 2012 printing of the book used this cover art, but it looks really cool.

This is the 2016 reprint (published by Constable [London]) that I read. I’m not sure if the original 2012 printing of the book used this cover art, but it looks really cool.

“Brighton Belle” is the first novel in Sheridan’s ‘Mirabelle Bevan’ series – a series of self-contained detective novels set in Brighton during the 1950s. Mirabelle Bevan is a former military intelligence officer who ended up working in debt recovery after the end of World War Two.

“Brighton Belle” takes place in 1951 and it begins with a pregnant woman called Romana Laszlo arriving in Brighton. It soon turns out that she has run up some fairly large debts in London and, with Mirabelle’s boss off sick, it is up to Mirabelle to find her.

After talking to a Hungarian priest that she knew during the war, Mirabelle learns that Romana has died in childbirth. Although Mirabelle initially thinks that all she has to do is to make a formal claim against Romana’s estate, something seems slightly off about everything. So, she begins to investigate….

One of the first things that I will say about this book is that, although it gets off to a bit of a slow start, it’s fairly compelling. Sheridan’s third-person narration is slow-paced enough to allow for descriptions and characterisation, but fast-paced enough to remain interesting. “Brighton Belle” isn’t the kind of book that takes weeks to read, but it also isn’t the kind of lightning-fast thriller novel that you pretty much have to read in one sitting.

In other words, it’s the kind of wonderful book which you can read at your own pace. You can enjoy it in five-minute bursts or, like I did, read half of it within the space of about three hours. Another thing that helps to make “Brighton Belle” more readable is the fact that it’s a reasonable length too. In an age where virtually every novel seems to be a 400+ page doorstopper, it’s good to see a modern novel that is a streamlined 243 pages in length.

The mystery at the heart of “Brighton Belle” is, as you might expect, filled with all sorts of clever twists and turns. Whilst I’m wary about giving anything away, it’s one of those novels where several of the plot twists will initially seem slightly contrived until later in the story, when they begin to make sense. There’s also a well-placed red herring or two too.

However, despite all of the clever plotting, some parts of the ending seem a little bit rushed. Likewise, one part of the story seems more like something from an American detective novel than a British one.

At one point in the story, a character gets away with shooting an unarmed criminal in the back, with barely any questions or repercussions from the police. In an American detective story, this would hardly raise an eyebrow. But, in a story set in Britain, it just seems a little bit unrealistic and out of place (at the very least, there would have been an arrest and probably a trial).

Although I’d initially expected “Brighton Belle” to be more of a “Poirot” style detective story, it’s probably slightly closer to the hardboiled detective genre. Throughout the story, Mirabelle meets an assortment of shady characters and, like any good “film noir” detective, uses various extra-legal methods in her investigation. This is made especially interesting by the fact that Mirabelle isn’t really a typical hardboiled detective character.

In fact, despite working in wartime intelligence, she had little to no experience of fieldwork during the war. So, she often has to rely on information she remembers from military manuals, her instincts and things that she heard from people she worked with. This helps to add an extra element of suspense to the story, since she doesn’t really come across as the kind of experienced detective that is common in the noir genre. But, at the same time, she’s intelligent and tough enough not to come across as being too out of her depth either.

The other characters in this novel are all fairly well-written too. The main villain of the story is chillingly mysterious and, apart from a few intriguing hints, we never get to learn too much background information. The best supporting character is probably Vesta, a clerk in the office across from Mirabelle’s who ends up getting drawn into the mystery too. Although she mostly ends up being Mirabelle’s sidekick, she also becomes the closest thing that Mirabelle has to a friend and there’s also a good amount of contrast between the two characters’ personalities.

One slight problem with this novel is that, although the historical elements of the novel come across very well, I never really got a vivid sense of place. Even though it’s been a few years since I was last there, I’ve visited Brighton more times than I can remember and, yet, when I was reading the book, I found myself imagining the setting as a generic seaside town. This didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the story, but I’d have liked to have seen more descriptions of the narrow lanes, the ornate pier, the coast etc..

All in all, despite my occasional criticisms, “Brighton Belle” is an enjoyable novel. The characters are interesting and the mystery becomes more and more compelling throughout the novel. It’s very readable and short enough that you can read it over a few days or in one 5-6 hour session. If you like the “film noir” genre, or enjoy historical crime drama shows like “Boardwalk Empire” or the old ITV adaptation of “Poirot”, then it’s worth taking a look at this book too.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.

Today’s Art (14th September 2016)

Well, today’s digitally-edited painting was inspired by a random mental image/ emotion that appeared in my mind when I was looking through a pile of old books about art and old books of cartoons. I’m not sure when this painting takes place, but it’s sometime between the 1950s and 1970s, I guess.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Retro Intellectual Moment" By C. A. Brown

“Retro Intellectual Moment” By C. A. Brown

Today’s Art (15th March 2016)

Well, I was still fascinated by vintage “film noir”-style photos and, after a bit of searching, I found this really cool public domain photo by Nickolas Muray on Wikimedia Commons. So, I just had to make a digitally-edited watercolour painting of it.

From everything I’ve read on both Wikimedia Commons and on Flickr, the source photo for this painting seems to have been released into the public domain by the George Eastman House Collection.

Although the source photo is clearly in the public domain, it doesn’t fall into one of the obvious public domain categories (eg: due to it’s age, due to it being produced by the US Government etc…) so, I’m going to err on the side of caution – as such, this painting will NOT be released under a Creative Commons licence of any kind.

"Fan Art - After Nickolas Muray" By C. A. Brown

“Fan Art – After Nickolas Muray” By C. A. Brown