Thursday, 15 January 2015

Elizabeth Peters' glorious Amelia Peabody series

Question of the day - how come I, with my long-standing archaeology obsession, didn’t discover Elizabeth Peters and the glorious Amelia Peabody before? (Scratches head). There is an upside to my tardiness, though, as I am halfway through A River in the Sky, and I’ve got that delicious tingly feeling associated with discovering a great book for the first time, and the will to hunt down all the others. And there are a lot of them. That’s a New Year’s Resolution I can stick with.

For those of you who don’t know, A River in the Sky is one of a series of murder mysteries featuring the formidable Egyptologist Amelia Peabody, who reads like a cross between Gertrude Bell and Indiana Jones (you know, if he were female and knew how to speak to servants).

Peabody, as her equally sharp-tongued husband Emerson, calls her, is the matriarch of a decidedly unconventional clan, who glory in such names as Nefret and Ramses. You could, it appears, get away with a lot in 1910 if you were smart and scholarly and adventurous.

The plot begins with the arrival of two guests for tea, an event to cause Peabody some misgivings at the best of times, given Emerson’s taste in acquaintances - 'Arab sheikhs, Nubian brigands, thieves of various nationalities and one or two forgers.' The story stretches from the idyllic Kent countryside to the ancient sites and dusty excavations of Palestine, as Peabody and Emerson attempt to stop a dubious fellow by the name of Morley from embarking on a catastrophic excavation. Meanwhile their son Ramses, also in Palestine, overhears something he shouldn’t.

The book is a delight to read, full of wit and some laugh out loud moments. There are some great descriptions. Mrs Finney, the proprietess of the White Boar, for instance, was “shaped like a cottage loaf, very tight around the middle and very full above and below.” And, so far, I’ve got a soft spot for the biscuit loving Reverend Panagopolous, whose name is, understandably, a challenge, so much so that the other characters take to calling him Reverend Plato.

There is a bittersweet element to the book, given its setting and the weary realisation that not much has changed. Palestine is still in “a dangerously unsettled region” in 2015 as much as it was in 1910.

Published in 2010, A River in the Sky is the last in the series (of 19 books, yay!), and some have criticised it as being not up to the standard of the other books. That is always a danger of a long-running series, I think, but if you’re coming to it as a total newbie, like me, it shouldn’t take you long to be totally absorbed.

So, over to you - what do you think of the Amelia Peabody novels? And do you have any other fun series to recommend? Let me know!

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Re-reading The Year of Living Dangerously, by Christopher J Koch

This brought back memories!

Newbie foreign correspondent Guy Hamilton arrives in Jakarta in 1965, the year of living dangerously. Left adrift by his predecessor, keen to avoid the ‘geriatrics’ ward’ of the Sydney news-room, he is befriended by Chinese-Australian cameraman Billy Kwan, and together they become quite the team. Both hybrids, both outsiders, the tall Anglo-Australian reporter and the dwarf cameraman cover events across Indonesia, a country descending into chaos under the charismatic, eccentric leadership of President Sukarno.

Narrated by self-effacing veteran correspondent Cookie, The Year of Living Dangerously is an evocative, thrilling read, bringing a country and a culture to vivid, adrenaline-spiked life. This is the Indonesia of dizzy nationalism, of Konfrontasi, or Confrontation; an Indonesia about to go undergo violent, bloody change.

The writing is sharp and thoughtful and occasionally beautiful. Award-winning Australian writer Christopher J Koch brings to life the pressure cooker world of the foreign correspondent, a world full of grand, flawed and sometimes pathetic characters.

The book was made into a film in 1982, directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson (before he went peculiar) and Sigourney Weaver, along with, most memorably, Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan. Koch co-wrote the screenplay, which received an Oscar nomination, as did Linda Hunt for her extraordinary performance. She won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the role in 1984.

The Year of Living Dangerously was an overdue re-read. First bought while travelling in Australia a few years ago, it has travelled well, ending up on my mother’s bookshelf in Italy. She enjoyed it, as did my brother. I read it again when I last visited, temporarily transporting myself from cold Friuli to the steaming streets of Jakarta. It was an absorbing journey, and it always makes me want to write. I should probably read it more often, in the hopes that something of its absorbing prose will rub off!

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Novella and Book to Movie Adaptations

the third man orson welles

Movies adapted from novels often turn out to be disappointments. Film-makers have been known to take breathtaking liberties with their source material, changing the setting, the era, and the characters in the process. Sometimes this works, but more often it doesn't. Such impertinence can usually be guaranteed to elicit howls of protest from fans of the books in question.

When you read a book, you have your own movie running in your head, and chances are when you come to see the film version, it is quite different from the version you imagined. You can't help but wonder why they decided to cast that particular actor, and what the hell happened to your favourite scene? Who thought that was a good idea?

One of the main problems is that so much has to be cut if the film version is going to have a reasonable running time. And you can guarantee your favourite character/scene/dialogue is going to end up on the cutting room floor. That was my main gripe with the adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. It was a great film, but I lamented how little the character of Kip was featured.

Which is why, very often, the most successful film adaptations use novellas and short stories as their source material. Novellas are notoriously difficult to define, so let's just say they are longer than a short story and shorter than a novel. The stories are more streamlined and spare than you normally find in a full-length novel, their plots less susceptible to movie interference.

Here are some of my favourite short story and novella inspired film adaptations.

The Third Man, by Graham Greene

The Third Man is a unique case, in that Graham Greene wrote the story as a treatment for the film, so the two versions are intimately intertwined. His close association with the film - he also wrote the screenplay, with uncredited contributions from Orson Welles, Alexander Korda and director Carol Reed - ensured the film stayed faithful to his vision. All the classic Greene elements are there - intrigue, loyalty, betrayal - in a tense post-war Vienna, enhanced by moody black and white photography and a catchy score.

Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King

Stephen King seems to have cornered the market in successful film adaptations of his novellas. I also loved the film Stand by Me, which was adapted from his story The Body. The film version of The Shawshank Redemption stayed pretty faithful to the original story.

The Dead, by James Joyce

This short story by James Joyce, often called the greatest short story in the English language, was beautifully filmed by the late, great John Huston. It was his last film, and did justice to a delicate and melancholy story.

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

A riveting tale of obsession in the Congo in the nineteenth century was transplanted to the Vietnam War in Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now. This adaptation shows that some things can be drastically changed from book to screen without losing the power of the original. It's rare, but it happens!

Do you have any favourite book to film adaptations?

Friday, 2 January 2015

Rubicon, by Steven Saylor

 I do love a good mystery set in the ancient past. And Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series, about the adventures of Gordianus the Finder, are among the best. Saylor somehow manages to combine a scholar's eye for detail and accuracy with a fine grasp of storytelling. The books read like an ancient Roman noir.

Rubicon is the seventh book in the series - somehow I can never manage to read such things in the right order - and it's a strong entry, set against the background of the Roman Republic and the increasing enmity between Caesar and Pompey. Civil war looms.

Gordianus the Finder, an ancient Roman private eye, likes to keep out of politics. Life is much safer that way. But he finds himself embroiled in events anyway, when a kinsman of Pompey dies in his garden. For good or ill, Gordianus has earned himself the reputation of 'the most honest man in Rome', and Pompey charges him with finding his kinsman's killer.

Caesar has crossed the Rubicon, Pompey is preparing to flee south, and Rome is awash with rumour. Saylor paints a vivid picture, as people rush to leave the city and fires are lit on Rome's hills to warn of an approaching army. Despite his best intentions, Gordianus finds himself in the thick of it, with his son a trusted aide in Caesar's camp, and his son-in-law taken as hostage by Pompey to ensure compliance.

So he looks for the killer, but first he must find out the secret the dead man was carrying if he is to save his family.

The ending is that rarity in popular fiction - both satisfying and a genuine surprise.

You can expect more Steven Saylor reviews in the coming months!

Rubicon, by Steven Saylor
Published by Constable and Robinson
ISBN: 9781841191249

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Desert Queen, by Janet Wallach

A fabulous story, shame about the prose.

Outside of historians of the Middle East, Gertrude Bell is not a name known to many. Given that she was an adventurer, archaeologist, diplomat and spy, and a female at that, it seems curious. Perhaps she was simply overshadowed by T E Lawrence - it would be hard to step out from the shadow of a movie like Lawrence of Arabia, certainly. Plus, she wasn't one to court publicity.

This may change as a film based on her life is due for release in 2015, starring Nicole Kidman. While it is unlikely to be a brilliant epic like Lawrence of Arabia - I've learned to lower my expectations when it comes to Hollywood biopics - it should give Bell some long overdue attention.

Which brings me to Desert Queen. The book recounts her life from her far from humble beginnings in northern England, the daughter of tycoon Hugh Bell, to her influential position as the person who helped found the state of Iraq in the 1920s. As that sentence implies, hers was an extraordinary journey. Young ladies in her situation in Victorian England - she was born in 1868 - usually confined themselves to doing good works and marrying aristocrats.

Bell had other things in mind. The first woman to gain a First in Modern History from Oxford University, she became by turns, mountaineer, archaeologist, explorer, writer, spy and diplomat. Her expeditions across the deserts of Arabia gave her an intimate and nuanced knowledge of the region's tribes and politics, a knowledge which was put to the test in the aftermath of World War One when the French and the British set about carving up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. It was only in the East that she could escape the constraints of Victorian and Edwardian society.

The book details all of this, unfortunately in a rather overblown style. Wallach is partial to outbursts of purple prose, and the writing gets a bit melodramatic at times, especially when it comes to Bell's love life. The imperious Bell would surely not have approved.

Including footnotes and index, Desert Queen is a hefty 419 pages, and the florid style makes it seem rather longer at times. I finished the book feeling Gertrude Bell deserved better.  

Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell
Written by Janet Wallach
Published by Phoenix Books
ISBN: 9780753802472