A new series with rapid reviews about great movies
See end of review for assessment:
A must see on the big screen, Good show, but matinee would suffice OR Watch movie, but wait for DVD
Dunkirk is the war movie’s war movie. Set in Dunkerque, France in 1940, it depicts the aftermath, in part, of the fall of France and the Low Countries, whereupon British and French troops find themselves surrounded by German armies, virtually sitting ducks as they await rescue from across the English Channel. With the Luftwaffe bombing the beach and water, ships and men go down by the hundreds each day.
Director, screenwriter and producer Christopher Nolan tells their story from the perspectives of sea, land and air as small, private British vessels are commandeered by the Navy to travel across the Channel, able as they are, to reach past points the larger ships cannot. As this journey is underway, we witness the three perspectives mostly via the actual experiences of the individuals living them. There is very little dialogue and the music score syncs in time to events, large and small, often acting as conduit to communication and where things are headed, and it is riveting. Between the cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema and Hans Zimmer’s score, my back never touched the cinema seat.
As the movie opens, we are already at war—there is no leading up to it. Three headers meant to give us timing information might have been better utilized with dates: “One Week” didn’t tell me if this means there is a week of enduring some plight, for example or, as I later realized, the action was happening one week before the last day of rescue, June 3.
Apart from minimal dialogue, we see very little growth of the individuals populating the film though, and it’s difficult to overstress this, there is a specific reason. Dunkirk is not about any one person and we never learn any significant background details on any of them. The picture’s spotlight is the battle itself, and Nolan spends a great deal of focus on developing events and action within that. The conflict is the main character, and viewers see it grow from a small street fight, branching out to other pockets of resistance, take on more consequence as we observe aerial shots of soldiers queuing in the water while they wait for boats, many of whom have already been bombed and torpedoed right before them, and a larger picture as the three perspectives converge with the singular aim of their goal to bring the men back to Dover.
Some movie reviewers concede the point: the battle is the focus, yet they continue to gripe about character development, and my feeling is you can’t have it both ways. Either one understands the real focus and does not downgrade the film for character growth, or they knock off a few points and leave off pretending to recognize the singular role played by the Battle of Dunkirk itself.
The cinematography and direction of Dunkirk—which includes cockpit views that turn upside down any stereotyped cliché about breathtaking aerial shots—are both set in place for Oscar 2018. While I enjoy movies as much as the next guy, it is very much not my habit to run home and write reviews about each one I watch. That I felt the inclination to share my thoughts on Dunkirk speaks volumes, and I know I will be re-visiting in thought and discussion much about Dunkirk in days, weeks and months to come. Additionally, I believe people will be talking about this film for years, because it possibly is the best war movie ever made.
Readers of this blog know of my lifelong love affair with Merlin, in particular the version of him presented in Mary Stewart’s best-selling novel The Crystal Cave. However, I haven’t really mentioned Stewart’s other works so much—perhaps not at all— and this month is a wonderful time to rectify that, as it marks the 100-year anniversary of the novelist’s birth. Stewart’s bestselling novels were renowned for merging romance with mystery and suspense, and presented determined and capable heroines who didn’t shy away from dangerous situations.
While Stewart herself never endured any of the experiences her heroines did, she didn’t shy away from keeping on through adversity, adjusting when needed, but also grabbing life by the reins, taking chances on what she believed in.
Born September 17, 1916 to parents who cherished the spirit of adventure—her father was a vicar who sailed around Cape Horn and brought a New Zealand bride back home with him—Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow was a reader and writer from very early on, publishing her first poem at age five.
Following the end of World War II, she met the future Sir Frederick Stewart and distinguished geologist at a war victory celebration. The pair were married within three months, though it was not until 1953 that Frederick Stewart persuaded his wife to submit her first novel, Madam Will You Talk?, which was an immediate success.
A lover of Roman history, Stewart took full advantage of her husband’s travels to pursue observations of her settings, the details and research informing her novels, rich with descriptive landscape and natural environment. Despite its outdated use of semi-colons substituting for commas, the strength of her prose is such that it remains eloquent and mesmerizing. From My Brother Michael, set in Greece and on the Crime Writers’ Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time:
All along the Pleistus—at this season a dry white serpent of shingle beds that glittered in the sun—all along its course, filling the valley bottom with the tumbling, whispering green-silver of water, flowed the olive woods; themselves a river, a green-and-silver flood of plumy branches as soft as sea spray, over which the ever-present breezes slid, not as they do over corn, in flying shadows, but in whitening breaths, little gasps that lift and toss the olive crests for all the world like breaking spray.
Thunder on the Right, set in the French Pyrenees—the first Stewart novel I ever read, at age eleven—is one she “detested and [was] ashamed of.” A criticism of the novel is its adjectives, though one reader counters this with her defense, remarking that she “always wonder[s] what people have against adjectives. To me they represent the difference between colour and black and white television.” It is also of note that certain activities in her books, such as smoking, a character often tossing the butt down and grinding it into the ground, frequently dates or diminishes the appeal of various works. However, Mary Stewart has invested so many other timeless and intriguing angles to reel readers in, that these images become more like time capsules into a world that was.
The author went on to publish a catalogue of other mystery romance novels and it is curious to note that her publisher didn’t even want anything to do with Merlin, when she broached the topic. “Publishers never want you to change; if one horse is doing well, they don’t want you to change horses.” Stewart herself confesses medieval times never appealed to her, though she had always wanted to write an historical novel. Upon reading through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain one day—she had no idea why she would be doing that—she found her story. Setting the medieval knight Arthur back in Roman Britain, and re-inventing Merlin—given his full name of Merlin Ambrosius, she wrote Ambrosius in to be the wizard’s father—she invented nearly all the series’ details, though writing the books one at a time. That is to say, she never set out to create a trilogy. In the end she felt Mordred had “been given a jolly hard deal as a character,” a perspective resulting in The Wicked Day, capping off the quintet.
Given the time in which Stewart wrote all her books, it is unsurprising she would have used a typewriter, though many fans likely don’t know the agony she endured to get it all done. Dictating and sending to a typist’s was the easy part—as were subsequent revisions, four in all. An ordinary portable “wrecked” her wrist, and at first she was terrified of a new electric. Later she developed spinal arthritis, but wrote through the agony, maintaining her sense of humor, quipping with a thematic link back to her war era mechanic qualification that “All this makes me sound like a proper old wreck. The chassis may be, but the engine is fine.”
Stewart also maintained a humility about her craft, stating that “You can learn much about the craft of writing, but you either have the story teller’s flair or you don’t. It’s no virtue of mine. It’s just there.” Also not one for labels, she perhaps brushed off her status as a groundbreaker in the same way she did the stylization she acquired after her husband was knighted: Lady Stewart never used the title. However her work may have been categorized, she maintained, “To my mind there are really only two kinds of novels, badly written and well written.”
It’s clear to me which one of these Mary Stewart’s books are, though she herself would likely just have repeated a previous plea: “Can’t I say I just write stories?”
Yes, dear lady, you certainly may. You wrote stories that captured the imagination of readers the world over and in subsequent generations who continue to drink up your words and hope you don’t mind that we kind of adore you. You are a writer’s writer, not threatened by an admission that you hadn’t the energy to pursue a particular idea, gracious in response to those inspired in their own work by yours, secure enough to have a chuckle at your own expense. It is in human DNA to want to hear a story, and you answered this call, thrilling us, keeping us on edge, making us guess. We have lost you in this world now, but you are there for all time.
Mary Stewart’s last book was Rose Cottage in 1997, and her beloved husband, Fred, passed away in 2001, after which she stopped writing, for he had always been her first reader.
Continuing the journey, I’d like to play my small bit by reviewing Mary Stewart through the month, which also will be a bit of reminiscing for myself. Each week I will revisit a novel with a brief review and commentary about how I remember reading them the first time. Tomorrow’s installment, for example, brings me back to a book that, when I picked it up recently, I knew I barely remembered. Re-reading it reminded me how our memories can play tricks, for I recalled a musing, on the part of the protagonist, that I seem to have invented! There is one scene that could be what stuck in my mind, however flawed the settling in was. Nevertheless the journey continues in earnest and I hope I can persuade you to re-visit or acquaint yourself with the world of Mary Stewart, which is sure to enchant yours.
Von Behren, Diana Faillace. “Stormy Locale Packs a Wollop.” Review of Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart. Amazon. amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R326X91CN955C9/ref=cm_cr_getr_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0060747463. Accessed August 31, 2016. Accessed August 10, 2002.
Note: This post was updated to include a link to the next installment in the “Month of Mary Stewart” series.
Gang Warfare: As War Clouds Tower Sweets Turn Sour
(Book II of the Gang series)
by Peter St. John
See the trailer for the newest Gang novel here or below!
The Blitz over London, one of the most infamous events of World War II, inspired countless works of music, art, film and literature, fiction and non-fiction, and while we know many details are shrouded in the mysteries of time lost and faded, there nevertheless is so much documented it has filled studios, libraries, museums—and more—all over the world.
Yet somehow the children of this era don’t seem to have quite the audience as do other people and events that have grabbed the spotlight in urgency, horror and remembrance. In general terms, we do know that childhood was much less regulated than it is today: children could travel far and stay out late; they played in gangs and made up stories created from a space within their own experiences and imaginations. Like children of today, their play often reflected a need to make sense of the world, whatever the circumstances.
Author Peter St. John draws on his own childhood to give us a closer glimpse of the world of one group of children during this time, particularly an orphan evacuee come from London to live with his auntie. Impatient and no-nonsense, she rarely believes what he says or upbraids him when she does.
The narrative centers around what becomes a colossal misunderstanding, initiated when a school bully knocks a bag of allsorts from the boy’s hand, leading to accusations from the bully’s mother—who also is the school caretaker—that her son was the victim. As the trivial incident’s aftermath gains speed, one sorry event leads to another and the boy finds himself in trouble or having to answer to peers and adults alike for more than his share. Grown-up rivalries intensify as the entire village begins to fragment: legal proceedings result in the formation of factions, church memberships and volunteer activities suffer, and a huge fight erupts at a fund raiser followed by the loss of all proceeds. Later, a catastrophic event occurs that has the capacity to further disintegrate relationships or bring everyone together.
Throughout the novel, St. John’s protagonist, named but once in the story, speaks to God, another way he tries to make sense of it all, offering statements and asking questions as to why certain events happen or on the nonsensical nature of their outcome. True to children’s tendency, the boy displays a wisdom often lost on many adults:
“You know—when I think about it really hard—I don’t think You work like that at all. You don’t come galloping up like the US cavalry to help this person or that person, just because they’re in trouble or they pray the loudest. It’s more like You’re there all the time ready to advise. But even Your advice is no good if nobody’s listening.”
The author does an absolutely marvelous job of portraying children’s lives, whether seeing them and their peers through the eyes of one character, of creating an understanding often lost as we grow, as to why this or that means so much to them. It’s a funny thing, sometimes, to observe what children perceive as important and valuable, and what they will do to maintain or protect it. All the while, their vulnerability shines through and we realize how crucial it is to allow them these custodial roles in preparation for responsible and compassionate adulthood. That St. John so succinctly communicates this via those with the least voice in society is a testament to his expertise in character development and plot continuity.
Indeed, as events move forward we see that, true to life in any era, the boy’s path is host to other episodes even as he maintains singular goals: keeping out of trouble, saving enough money to buy the village idiot a pair of pajamas, for example. Though told in first person, the narrative also honestly gives voice to other characters and our protagonist judiciously weighs what he sees, hears and experiences, captured so poignantly by St. John’s keen eye for personality and detail.
A note about appeal: The book’s blurb reads in part that “Gang Warfare is a novel for all readers from nine to ninety-nine.” I couldn’t agree more with this assessment (except perhaps to expand these parameters a bit): events portrayed, while focusing on the village’s children, include many ages and a variety of temperaments. Readership might include the curious, young or old; those who lived through the war (or any other) or had relatives who did; early childhood educators; schoolchildren; people of all ages interested in childhood in different eras; lovers of historical fiction—and the list goes on.
St. John’s style also captures the imagination and flows so smoothly it is easy to read large chunks at a time without feeling the need to put the book down. In fact, it is so engaging I often found myself struggling to do just that in order to attend to other tasks. This is especially telling, given the accented speech of a couple of characters, Jenno in particular as she appears more often, whose presence made me wonder before I started to read if that would detract from the experience. It doesn’t, and that may be because St. John follows the “less is more” ideal, resulting in a character whose persona and what she has to say take the stage, rather than how she says anything. And while there are occasional phonetic spellings, the result remains a delightful rhythm with no need for author micro management. St. John has created a character who speaks for herself, with the dual result of readers enjoying her speech and marveling at what a clever girl she truly is.
“Oi reckon that were about the biggest tree in the village. Old Farmer Catchpole’ll ‘ave a roight ‘ard job clearin’ it away—nearly all ‘is workers are called up in the army.”
“Maybe ‘ee’ll get some women ter ‘elp,” suggested Jenno.
“Don’t be daft,” said her brother scathingly. “That ain’t women’s work.”
“Soon women will ‘ave ter do everyfink,” contradicted Jenno. “Mark moi words. Just as soon as there ain’t enough men ter go round because of the war. An’ that’s now already.”
Gang Warfare is an absorbing read, perhaps more so because St. John’s story includes all of us: we’ve all been children or are at this time, and most of us have learned or are learning about the war years. Children might find some respite from the grind of daily misunderstandings and the tale takes grown-ups back in time, perhaps recalling when they didn’t have the words they needed and experienced injustice because of that.
But it is also a lively story filled with the magnificence of childhood and its attendant activities, performed in war as well as peacetime, many illustrated in colorful pictures (some superimposed on photos) with a delightful childlike vision. Adding that view to the evacuee’s tale brings even more dimension to it as we come to understand, really, it is our story as well.
I can hardly recommend Gang Warfare enough, except perhaps to say that although it is a standalone in the Gang series, the others must certainly be experienced as well. Peter St. John had created a tale for all people, of all people, absolutely not to be missed.
About the author…
Peter St John was born in London. The orphanage where he lived was destroyed in 1940 by Hitler’s blitz. He was evacuated from the ruins to the countryside.
“Grammar” school was “Granpa” school: young men at battle replaced by oldies. As an eager Air Force pilot, Peter navigated the winds, envied the birds, and learned the “arts” of war.
Back in Civvy street, Peter discovered marriage, fatherhood and Australia. He studied engineering and put letters after his name.
Aimed for the moon at Woomera, but hit the rusty desert instead. Then came Sputnik, and the Cold War space-race. Peter rocketed to lend a hand in Europe, and discovered Paris, languages, and ELDO (the long-defunct European Launcher Development Organisation). An office on three continents; one in sweltering French Guyana. Who’d volunteer for Devil’s Island except to rocket into space? But Europe’s leap to orbit was crippled by political irresolution (subsequently re-activated as the European Space Agency).
So back to Australia where Peter now daily took “the liberty boat from shore” to reach the Navy’s concrete HQ “ship” in Canberra. But the project for which he strove never saw the sea. His ship was again scuttled by politics. Disgruntled and unemployed, Peter set off for Parliament House, where he was offered a job helping senators peer critically over government’s shoulder, and bring Parliament’s Standing Committees to the people. And then the PM asked him to join his staff!
But soon the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva called, requesting participation in strengthening parliamentary democracy around the world. Six challenging years for Peter…
And so to fiction, with his first novel published in 2007. This has been followed by eight more.
Peter lives in France where he is active in the promotion of creative activities. He has a son, two grandsons, a great-grandson and a great-granddaughter.
On Monday August 8, the seventh book in the Gang series, Gang America, is scheduled for release. Be sure to check out this and the rest of Peter St. John’s fabulous-looking books at Amazon and elsewhere!
All images courtesy Peter St. John
The blogger was provided a complementary copy of Gang Warfare: As War Clouds Tower Sweets Turn Sour in exchange for an honest review.