Tuesday 28 February 2012

Book review: Alchemist of Souls...

Night’s Masque Volume 1.
By Anne Lyle.
Angry Robot.

In the shadowed streets of Southwark, sword for hire Mal Catlyn and his loyal friend Ned try to figure out how to earn some money. Mal has a sick brother to care for and Ned is a struggling actor. Seeking solace in their local London pub their peace is soon shattered by the appearance of the Tower Guard, and unfortunately it is Mal they are looking for. Panicked, Mal flees, but the guards are hot on his trail and he is captured and taken to the forbidding Tower of London.

Lucky for Mal his visit brings opportunity rather than death and he finds himself the recipient of a commission from no less than the Queen of England herself. With his instructions and a happy retainer in hand, Mal spends a frivolous last free night with Ned before he begins his duty as bodyguard to a foreign ambassador.

The skraylings are a strange race from overseas, tall with patterened faces and silver-streaked hair. Upon arriving in the skrayling settlement everything seems uncomfortably familiar to Mal and strange dreams convince him that there is more to his own history than he knew. But what the dreams mean or whether they are indeed real elements from his past is not something Mal is sure of just yet.

The political situation in London is precarious and Mal finds himself in the middle of it all; being a bodyguard forces him to take on more than he expected. Not only does he now have political plots and religious intrigues to concern him, the reality of his brother's condition has become more pressing. Sandy has a demon inside him that no amount of doctoring has ever been able to solve and, now Mal is under threat, his twin beomes an unwitting pawn.

Coby works tirelessly in the theatre in preparation for the special performance in honour of the skrayling ambassador. She lives under the radar judiciously performing her duties without question and without drawing unwanted attention to herself. But Coby speaks the Tradetalk language that is essential for communicating with the skraylings and is recruited to aid Mal in his mission. This brings both good tidings and bad, and her closely guarded secrets are in danger of being revealed.

Alchemist of Souls contains just the right balance of pace and action, magic and mystery, tension, betrayal and intrigue that you would expect from historical fantasy. Lyle takes us to an alternate London where the threat of a strange and foreign race is but one of the problems the rulers face, and issues of gender, faith and control are explored in an engaging narrative. Throuhgout the book the intrigue increases and the threads of the story converge to a satisfying climax, the end promising even more in book two.

I am always interested in debut novels and Alchemist of Souls caught my eye long before it was due out, mostly because of a clever online campaign introducing the protagonist through an entertaining and informative Twitter feed, so I felt like I was immersed in Mal's world before I had even opened the book. Though the usual elements of fantasy are there, the story has a unique feel and for that reason I think it will stand out from other releases this year.

Elloise Hopkins.

Sunday 26 February 2012

The emotional sponge...

Also known as myself. I’m not sure whether I am hyper-sensitive or if everyone is like me, but I seem to absorb other people’s emotions. I am totally unable to switch myself off from being affected by the moods of those around me. If someone else is sad, I feel sad. Likewise if someone else is angry, I feel angry. I can’t switch it off;  if I knew how I probably would.

Last week was a highly charged week emotions-wise. Frustrations, stresses, anxieties of those around me bled so far into me that I felt utterly miserable and inconsolable when in fact personally I’d had quite a good week beforehand and should have been feeling a sense of achievement and contentment.

Today I find myself feeling desperately melancholy. A friend of mine has had some bad news and now faces months of watching the inevitable deterioration and eventual loss of someone very close to her. When we found out, everyone in the room was respectfully understanding, and understandably subdued, but still, days later, I find myself choked by the profound sadness of it all.

The only way out for any of us is to look on the bright side and make the most of what the couple have, and have had together, and remember that there are others much worse off, alone and without the support and thoughts of anyone to help them through difficult times.

So today I am seeing my sponge-like quality as a positive. I will tell myself that my ability to see and feel other people’s suffering to such a degree shows an honesty of feelings offers a sharing and support of that situation, and will hope that they recognise it as a sign that I care.

And so I chose Spongebob to accompany this post to bring a smile to my sorrow. And it could be worse... I could have square pants.

Elloise Hopkins.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

The Art of Distraction…

Or possibly driving me to it if the phrase is anything to go by. I recently met a man who is potentially the most distracting person I have ever encountered. No, not in the way you think. There is no crush, no crazy lusting or other feeling skewing my vision. This is plain, platonic, distraction i.e. his every word, movement and habit totally distract me from whatever I happen to be doing at the time – which is usually concentrating on some tricky problem – and not in a pleasant manner.

First of all, when he answers his mobile phone, he walks around the office speaking very loudly on his phone, almost in the style of Trigger Happy TV, calling attention to himself and the brilliance of his conversation. It is almost like ‘look at me, I’m so popular, someone phoned me’ – wow. So I get concentration bleed i.e. I end up typing his conversation rather than what I’m attempting to concentrate on.

Secondly he eats all day long, at his desk, hot food. Yes and it smells. Seriously, where does he put it all? Aside from the constant waft of hot food and breakfast rolls (bacon sandwich aka the vegetarian’s downfall anyone?) it is very distracting when someone talks to you with their mouth full all day and constantly sweeps crumbs off the desk onto you.

Thirdly? Well he is one of those frantic movers. You know the ones. Every movement is faster than it needs to be, and it makes me jump! Yes it might sound like a moaning session but I have never before met anyone who is capable of distracting me with every movement and sound they make. As a character study it is extremely valuable, so I may well moan about it but it has its plus sides too and I am filing it all away for some future character. Art imitates life.

Elloise Hopkins.

Sunday 19 February 2012

When performance is too familiar…

As theatre and the performing arts evolve and modernise, are we blurring the line between performance and reality a little too much? Audience participation, taboo themes, breaking the boundaries of traditional performing space and things like the renewal of ‘exclusive’ and ‘private’ performance and living room theatre are becoming more popular.

Recently; however, I attended a performance in which the trend had become too trendy for its own good and real life became an intrusion on the performance rather than a clever echo of it. Gone was the enraptured audience, silently and respectfully engaged with the action. And sadly it is not the first time I have been witness to such behaviour.

A series of short performances were delivered to an intimate audience and were all well executed, visually exciting, planned, choreographed and united through common themes.

Unfortunately, the setting of this so named ‘living room theatre’ became intrusive to the point where it discouraged rather than invited the audience’s engagement with the material. The distractions of a meowing cat and a violently growling dog were shocking – unexpected – but more shocking was that they were not removed from the performance space, but encouraged, petted, rewarded. Add to this the fact that the very make up of the room itself, and its impossible conversion from house to theatre, became a barrier to the performance.

My admiration goes to the performers who despite the varied and challenging disruptions continued in a professional manner and still managed to put on an impressive and interesting show.

It seems in our desire to break from tradition and experiment, we have let the boundaries slip too far and in seeking to excite our audiences and involve them more fully in performance, we have in fact added distance and created a larger gap between performer and observer. Where will the trend go from here?

Elloise Hopkins.

Monday 13 February 2012

Book review: Echoes of Avalon.

By Adam Copeland.

Patrick Gawain has always found it hard to hold onto his friends and loved ones. He thinks he has a curse on him that drives away any he dares to become close to. His only solution is to keep to himself and never again search for a true love like the one he once lost. The Irish nobleman, back from the Crusades, suffers the after effects of a time of hardship and war. His shipmates whisper about the silent Patrick. Throughout the journey to Avalon all he does it sit and stare as though there is a demon watching him. It is unnerving and the crew is already wary of anyone travelling to Avalon.

Little do they know that Patrick really is staring at a “creature of nightmare”, his own personal Apparition that no one else can see. It never harms him; it never speaks to him, just hovers out of reach and watches him. Patrick has no explanation for the demon. He has been suffering from fever and once thought the Apparition a banshee, come to herald his death. But still Patrick lives, and now he sails for the mythical island of Avalon to serve as a soldier in a different kind of army.

Recruited into the reserves of the Avangarde, a special order of knights that dwell on Avalon and provide protection and education to foreign nobles, Patrick finds himself drawn farther and farther into the fey myths that still exist in the mists and forests that surround Greensprings Keep. As time goes on his inability to make friends and find love become more poignant, and later more of a hindrance, once an evil god has set his sights on Avalon. Unwittingly Patrick ends up in the way and his only option is to face his own demon along with the rest.

For me the most powerful aspect of this book is the use of description and the strength of the visual imagery. Avalon and the strange elements of the fey that abound on the island are the perfect ingredients for creating powerful portrayals of the action as Patrick journeys and encounters demons more dangerous than his own Apparition. As the action progresses, the tension increases and the story, which perhaps felt a little slow in places near the beginning where back story and legend were revealed, dramatically unfolds to a final confrontation with a slowly-developing antagonist that really comes into his own.

The historical background of the Crusades and the medieval feel of this book are certainly fitting with the rising trend in fantasy towards historical fiction, and Echoes of Avalon has much to offer. With a protagonist that definitely grows in strength of character and becomes more likeable as the story progresses, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys myths and legends wrapped up in a fantasy narrative.

Elloise Hopkins.

Saturday 11 February 2012

Winter is Coming…

No, not just in Westeros, and thanks to George RR Martin I have been saying ‘winter is coming’ on repeat for the last several weeks. It is cold. At the end of September I was walking around Brighton in the sun with only a t-shirt on. Even December was mild and sunny, January pretty much the same. Now, February, I am huddled in winter coat, scarf and gloves. And that’s only inside. We have had the tease of snow for a few measly hours but no satisfying winter blanket across the landscape that lasts and inspires for the time we are enduring the minus temperatures.

But really the point of this blog was to wonder; just how do phrases such as this become so quickly ingrained in our vocabulary? It’s only been a few months since I watched Game of Thrones and re-read the books, but suddenly I find myself lapsing into Ned Stark’s gloomy ‘winter is coming’ mood at frequent intervals.

It must be true that life really does imitate art as well as the other way around. The human mind is a sponge for repetition and I will be thinking of this as I write my novel. I wonder if one day I will have a phrase that makes its way into everyday dialogue. Here’s hoping right? Be positive!

Elloise Hopkins.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Happy Birthday Charles Dickens…

Last night I celebrated Dickens’ 200th birthday with the Central Regions Arts Club in Birmingham, an organisation stemming from the Open University, of which I am a member. CRAC organises events throughout the year and the Dickens celebration was an eye opener for me – someone who has watched adaptations, read a meagre handful of his works and didn’t really know anything about his life.

The small but friendly group in the CRAC gathered on a cold winter night to mark tribute to a man whose legacy lives on long after him, and more unusually became a legacy while he still lived. There were readings from peoples’ favourite stories and audio clips from the new OU collection available from itunes – just search for Dickens.

The main theme of the evening was a study of Dickens’ portrayal of children in his works and indeed a reading from Pickwick Papers drew an extremely close parallel with the rare extract of his own writing about his childhood that was eventually published by way of his executor. It was strange to hear Dickens speak of himself in almost the same voice as he did of his characters. Most memorable was the exploration we made of his description of the children in A Christmas Carol with the Ghost of Christmas Future: ignorance and want as a reflection of Scrooge’s attitude and the wrongs of humanity.

We probably remember Dickens most for his fantastic portrayal of characters, his lingering descriptive passages and vast array of novels. We likely also consider him greatly for his reflections on society and his seeming desires to illustrate the shortfalls of the world around him. But do we remember him for the man he was? Enough detail of his life exists to know him as a man who was enthusiastic and relentless about his work. He had ten children but is notoriously known for then leaving his wife, near abandoning the children and absconding with a young actress.

Or do we remember him as the actor, the public speaker, who during the latter years of his career made an enormous success and vast fortune by carrying out rather extravagant public readings to audiences that we would be proud of today. He even toured America twice and in his own lifetime was exceptionally popular despite his behaviour in his private life and his obvious disparagement of so many elements of society.

Last night, however, we remembered him with words and memories and birthday cake, as a man that poured the essence of who he was into his art so passionately, furiously and with such vigour, that he burned himself out on his enthusiasm and dedication to performance, to die an old man before his time when he was just 58. Even now his words are poignant and he must be hailed as one of the lasting greats.

Elloise Hopkins.

Sunday 5 February 2012

The errant apostrophe...

With the decision by Waterstones to remove the apostrophe from the company name, this particular punctuation mark is on our minds more than ever. But it is not usually the omittance of the apostrophe that causes outcry but the misuse – what I like to call the errant apostrophe – when it is placed at an incorrect place in a word or added where it is not necessary.

At my company we receive frequent corporate communications announcing changes of process and the like. Apostrophe misuse was happening so frequently that we now play a weekly game – spot the errant apostrophe.

The frequent offenders are things like “and protect our clients’.” Note the full stop after the word clients – no apostrophe required. I think the one that gets the top prize though is “to effectively manage our risk’s and comply with best practice.”

It may be too late for some already but please cry out for grammar lessons to be compulsory for all before the apostrophe becomes permanently errant and stop it from tormenting those of us in the know (or close enough to it anyway).

Elloise Hopkins.

Thursday 2 February 2012

Ice Maiden…

I just got called ‘Ice Maiden’ by a colleague. Wow. Is that good or bad? This is possibly the first time in my life this has been used to describe me. “Look at that,” he said, “if looks could kill…” In fairness I was responding, playfully I thought, to some regular office banter. It seems I turned my evil eye on him a little too harshly (usually reserved for my fictional characters rather than real life). Withering!

Then I started thinking about the description Ice Maiden and thought hang on a second, isn’t that reserved for people who are cold, unapproachable and quite frankly only worthy of admiration from a safe distance? Is that really how people see me? I started spiralling into the depths of my self-conscious soul.

Am I cold? I don’t think so though certainly there are moments when I have little tolerance for certain aspects of human behaviour. Am I unapproachable? Again I don’t think so but maybe the fact that I spend so much time in my own little world inadvertently isolates me from reality. I certainly don’t want to come across as cold and unapproachable. I can be quite friendly at times you know. Honest.

Anyway enough of looking at the bad side. I’m choosing to take it as a compliment and style myself as a cartoon character for the day. The Ice Maiden (not sure if she exists already but for the purposes of this blog… she doesn’t!). She is cold in a cool, quirky sort of way. I’m making geek chic baby! She tolerates no fools and has no time for petty, inane problems. She’s too busy saving the world in a sexy, lycra-clad, utility belt, special powers, re-programming the universe kind of way. Sounds awesome right? I think I need to go shopping… I’m thinking silver boots and electric blue heels? Too cliché?

Elloise Hopkins.