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.

Re-Visiting An Old Art Instruction Book

2015 Artwork Revisiting old art guide article sketch

The day before I wrote this article, I ended up getting another copy of an art guide that I read for the first time when I was a kid. This is a book called “How To Draw Anything” By Mark Linley and it was first published in 1989 (although both the paperback copy I remember and the copy I got recently were published in 1995).

I can’t remember exactly when I first got a copy of this book, but I remember that I was a kid and I found it in a bookshop somewhere in either Portsmouth, Waterlooville or Southsea. At the time, I used to draw lots of little cartoons and I was insterested in making them look better -so, this drawing guide was naturally quite interesting and thankfully, my parents bought it for me.

But, although I was impressed by all of the illustrations and examples in the book – I didn’t know what the hell I was supposed to do. I read as much of the text as I could, but it somehow never occurred to me that I was supposed to copy the examples in order to learn more about the techniques used in these drawings. Not that I really knew how to copy things by sight back then anyway.

So, the book ended up being nothing more than a random curiosity – a book full of interesting cartoons, portraits, natural landscapes and nude drawings that were way above my skill level.

At some point, it ended up getting lost amongst my many other books. I have a vague idea where my old copy of it is, but I’m probably wrong – since I’ve re-organised my books more times than I can remember.

Flash forward to a few months ago and, as I said earlier, I found myself in possession of another copy of this book. So, I decided to take a look at it once again (with about three years of regular drawing practice behind me) and my reactions to it were totally different.

In short, I still spent most of the time looking at the pictures – but, this time round, I actually found myself studying the pictures properly. I found myself actually analysing them to see exactly what Mark Linley had done in each picture to make it look more realistic.

I’d look at a picture and think either “I can draw this“, “I might be able to draw this” or “Ha! Not a chance!“. But, even with the “not a chance” pictures, I found myself carefully looking at each line to see what he had done in order to draw that particular picture.

In fact, I even attempted to draw a few practice copies of some of the illustrations (from sight, of course) just to see if I could. I don’t know if I can include them here, so I’ll err on the side of caution and leave them out of this post.

But, in short, I learnt a little about how to draw trees (or, rather, I learnt a few techniques for shading trees more realistically). In fact, I was able to incorporate these techniques I learnt into a painting that I made a while later. The painting as a whole didn’t turn out very well, but at least the tree looks quite good:

"Practice Park" By C. A. Brown

“Practice Park” By C. A. Brown

But, trying to copy some of the nude illustrations this book also made me realise that I still need to learn how to draw human anatomy and proportions properly. I could copy some of these drawings very well, but I had no clue how to do anything new or original with the techniques shown in the examples. So, I should probably read this chapter more closely.

This book was interesting in that it showed me more about what I didn’t know, than about what I knew. It was also quite telling that I instinctively skipped the chapters about drawing animals because I’m absolutely terrible at drawing animals and probably need more practice than I’m willing to admit.

But, most of all, this experience showed me a lot about how to learn how to draw. In other words, it reminded me that the most important skill that an artist should have is being able to copy things from sight alone.

The trick here is to look at the actual outlines of things and to be able to visualise three-dimensional objects in a two-dimensional way. If you have to learn this by tracing other people’s drawings, then do this – but don’t do it too much because tracing is cheating (and you’re only cheating yourself).

Once you’ve learnt how to do this, you can learn how to draw literally anything. But, the only way to learn how to do this is through practice – so, don’t be afraid to try copying everything interesting that you see. Yes, you will fail again and again – but, eventually you’ll start getting better at it.

The other skill that is worth learning is being able to visualise things in three dimensions. Although copying an example from a book will teach you how to draw that one picture, it won’t teach you how to do anything else with it. But, being able to visualise things in three dimensions means that you’ll be able to do all sorts of new stuff.

Once you’ve learnt these two things, then drawing guides will be a lot more useful to you.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “A Clash Of Kings” By George R. R. Martin

Yes, it's time for an intelligent literary critique...

Yes, it’s time for an intelligent literary critique…

Well, since I finished reading the second book in G R. R. Martin’s “A Song Of Ice And Fire” series, I thought that I’d review it. I should probably also point out that these books need to be read in order. So, if you haven’t read “Game Of Thrones”, then you should read that before starting “A Clash Of Kings”.

This review will contain major SPOILERS for the first novel and possibly some spoilers for “A Clash Of Kings” too. You have been warned.

Anyway, as you may expect, “A Clash Of Kings” picks up where “Game Of Thrones” left off. Joffrey is still king, Westeros is divided and several noble families are still vying for the crown.

Daenerys Targaryen is still in exile across the narrow sea and trying to raise an army. King Robert’s brothers (Stannis and Renly) believe that the crown should have passed to them and are separately amassing armies to claim it back.

Meanwhile in the north, Robb Stark has declared himself “King In The North” and rides for King’s Landing to battle the Lannisters and avenge his father’s death. Up on the wall, Jon Snow still has no news of his uncle and seeks to join a party of rangers who are going beyond the wall to investigate several mysterious events that have been reported.

Whilst all of this is going on, Arya Stark is still on the run from the Lannisters and has finally found herself in the middle of an adventure of her own.

As you may have guessed from the title and some of these descriptions, the whole novel is spent building up to a spectacularly large battle – which doesn’t disappoint in the least. I won’t say who wins or loses, but it’s worth getting through the first 500-600 pages of the novel just to see the epic battle.

Like with the first novel, the writing and the characters in “A Clash Of Kings” are as excellent as you would expect – the plot moves at a fairly decent pace (even though this novel has a slower pace than most thriller novels do) and the settings are just as atmospheric and interesting as you would expect.

G.R.R. Martin has an absolutely brilliant turn of phrase too and there are lots of interesting descriptions that still stuck in my mind after I finished this book.

It might just be my twisted sense of humour, but I loved the alliterative phrases Martin uses about King Joffrey in some of the dialogue and I wish that Martin had included more of these.

My two favourites are “put him down for a dose of Joffrey’s justice” and “He has adopted a faun some of my men brought home from a hunt. He had one before, he says, but Joffrey skinned her for a jerkin“.

I don’t know why but, like with Jeff Lindsay’s “Dexter” novels, there is both something strangely amusing and wonderfully melodramatic when alliteration and villainy are mixed together.

As you would expect, “A Clash Of Kings” is also a gigantic tome of a book. The UK edition of it that I own is just over seven hundred pages long and the print is fairly small too, so this isn’t really something that you can read in a single afternoon. Still, if you keep a copy of it near you when you’re doing anything else, you’ll quickly find yourself being distracted by it on a surprisingly regular basis.

If you’ve seen any of the TV adaptation of this series, then “A Clash Of Thrones” should correspond roughly with the second season of the show. However, even though I already knew what was going to happen in this novel before I read it, I was surprised by the number of differences between the book and the show.

I think that “A Clash Of Kings” is where the TV show and the books really start to diverge from each other slightly. Whilst there are no gigantic changes, quite a few scenes in the second half of the book take place in different ways to how they do in the TV show.

For example, the scene in the TV show where Jon and Ygritte chase each other through the snow isn’t in the book – although they still meet each other. Likewise, the Battle Of Blackwater Bay takes place during the day and a few details of the battle are different too (and are more epic than in the TV show).

One other cool feature of the novel is that it explains some characters’ motivations (eg: Theon Greyjoy) in a lot more detail than the TV show does. So, if you’re confused by any parts of the TV show – the answers can usually be found in the books.

All in all, “A Clash Of Kings” is as good – if not better than “Game Of Thrones” was. If you’ve read “Game Of Thrones”, then you’ll know what to expect – if you haven’t, then read that book first. Seriously, it’s amazingly good.

If I had to give “A Clash Of Kings” a rating out of five, then it would probably get a six.

Since I haven’t seen the third season of the TV show, I’m really eager to see what happens in the third novel (“A Storm Of Swords”). So, no doubt, I’ll be reviewing both halves of this book at some point in the future.