Film Review:

1917

 

The madness and futility of the First World War has been the inspiration for many fine films, beginning in 1930 with Lewis Milestone’s version of the Erich Maria Remarque novel, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, which was a daring story for its time, in that it showed the horrors of war from the perspective of German infantrymen.

In Sam Mendes’s ‘1917’, it is the British with whom we sympathise, but in other ways, the themes are similar - incompetent and ego-driven officers, and troops who are treated as cannon fodder. Mendes, however, also gives us officers doing their best in impossible circumstances.

This film is based on a story told to Mendes by his grandfather, Alfred, to whom the film is dedicated. In that respect, it is a very personal project.

But what makes ‘1917’ unique is the way it is filmed as a continuous shot or, at least, the illusion of one. We literally follow the two lance corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), on their mission to cross no man’s land and reach the Devonshire battalion in order to warn the colonel that they are heading into a German trap and they should call off their attack. For Corporal Blake, this mission is deeply personal – his brother is a lieutenant with the Devons.

We follow Blake and Schofield as they weave their way through the British trenches and then cross the battlefield, avoiding bomb craters filled with water and rotting bodies. Eventually they reach the abandoned German trenches, where a nasty surprise awaits them.

There are heart-stopping incidents along the way, as well as a poignant encounter with a young French woman who is caring for an orphaned baby, a scene which reminds us humanity can exist in the hell that is the Western Front. Possibly the most moving moment of the entire film is the scene involving the hymn ‘Poor Wayfaring Stranger’. It brought tears to my eyes.

‘1917’ does not have leading men in the traditional sense. The two protagonists are little known* actors; their very anonymity makes the viewer’s identification with them much stronger. There are some ‘name’ actors in the film – an almost unrecognisable Colin Firth as the general who sends the boys on their mission, Andrew Scott (Moriarty from ‘Sherlock’) as a world-weary lieutenant who couldn’t give a damn, and the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch in a brief but nuanced performance as the frazzled colonel in charge of the Devons.

‘1917’ is a moving story of the horrors of war. It has already won a Golden Globe for Best Drama and you can expect an Academy Award to follow for the film and its director.


*George MacKay plays a tortured Ned Kelly in 'The True History of Ned Kelly' (2019)  alongside Essie Davis and Russell Crowe.

Deborah O’Brien

26 January 2020

The ‘Camille Dupré’ Songbook

 
Charles Trenet portrait

Charles Trenet, French composer and singer 

 

Whenever I’m writing historical fiction, I try to play the popular music of the period in the background because it evokes the mood of the era better than anything else.

For ‘Mr Chen’s Emporium’, the soundtrack included Strauss waltzes and the work of Stephen Foster (1826 – 1864), including his poignant ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, which became Charles Chen’s theme song.

When I was writing ‘The Rarest Thing’, which is set in 1966, the playlist was the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, the Hollys and the Easybeats, among others. In almost every chapter, there seems to be a Sixties song that defines the heroine Katharine’s state of mind at that particular moment.

‘Camille Dupré’ is set in the 1930s and ’40s, which just happens to be one of my favourite periods in popular music. In 1930s’ France, the vibrant cabaret scene produced many stars including a young Edith Piaf, Tino Rossi, Maurice Chevalier, Jean Sablon, ‘Mireille’ and the amazing Charles Trenet.

But even though the French loved their home-grown stars, they also listened to American songs on the radio, just as they went to see American movies at the cinema.  That is, until the Nazis banned American music, particularly ‘Swing’ and jazz, which they considered the most subversive genres. During the Occupation, Camille was one of many who continued to listen to banned radio stations such as Radio Londres.

Here are some of the songs that form the soundtrack to Camille Dupré's story.

 

‘Boum!’

In 1930s France, one of the most talented musical stars was Jean Trenet whose double-breasted suit, smart fedora hat and jaunty manner were his trademark. His biggest hit was ‘Boum!’ (1938), a sweet, playful song that compares falling in love to the heart going boom. Although 'Boum!' is filled with joie de vivre, the irony is that Trenet wrote it at a time when the world was heading towards war.

With different lyrics, the song went on to be used by both the occupying Nazis and the Resistance as a rallying song. Trenet, a leftwinger who hated the puppet Vichy regime, refused to socialise with the German officers who attended his concerts.

If you've seen the film 'Amélie' starring the delightful Audrey Tautou, you'll recall 'Boum!' providing the soundtrack to the scenes where the heroine falls in love. The song has also been used in World War II documentaries about Occupied France.

You can see Jean Trenet performing the song on YouTube.

 

‘Long Ago and Far Away’

This song was composed by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Ira Gershwin – you couldn’t find a more talented duo.

At one point in the novel (I can’t be more specific without giving away too much), Camille finds herself listening to this beautiful and poignant American song. In many ways, it sums up her situation.

You can listen to the original 1944 version by Jo Stafford on YouTube. Since then, the song has been recorded by just about everyone, from Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé to Rod Stewart (who actually does a very good version of it).

 

‘I’ll Be Seeing You’

Composed in 1938 by Sammy Fain with lyrics by Irving Kahal, this song resonates with yearning for a lost past. It wasn’t until 1944 that it became a hit when it was featured in the film of the same name starring Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotton.

 

‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me’

Created in 1937 by those immensely talented brothers, George and Ira Gershwin, ‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me’ was sung by Fred Astaire to a tremulous Ginger Rogers in the 1937 film ‘Shall We Dance’. Although Astaire’s dancing was far superior to his singing, his version of this song is absolutely captivating.

 

 

Deborah O’Brien

22 May, 2020


 

Proverb Bookmarks

 

A GIFT FOR YOU

 

 DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE BOOKMARKS

USING THE LINK AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE

Skippy final CD bookmarks w butterfly 

 

As a reader, you can never ever have enough bookmarks, especially if you’re the kind of person who has several books on the go at the one time. 

So I’ve designed a range of bookmarks for you to download and print, featuring proverbs about hope and happiness from my e-novel, 'Camille Dupré'. Yes, I know it's a digital book, but print books still predominate and I, for one, am glad of that. I love a glossy embossed cover and the smell of printer's ink, but sometimes that's not a viable option.

At the end of last year I finally finished a manuscript I'd been working on for years, set during the Nazi Occupation of France. But before I knew it, the coronavirus had struck and it dawned on me that we were facing our own deadly battle, but against an invisible enemy. That was when I decided to release the book free with the request that readers might consider making a donation to a COVID-19 related charity. There was no question of producing a print book. It had to be an e-book, something that could be formatted quickly and easily accessed during lockdown.

Although most e-books look rather plain, I was able to incorporate some decorative touches you won't find inside typical digital books (such as coloured text), but technical constraints forced me to remove some of the more exuberant features that had appeared in my original file but wouldn't convert smoothly to the PDF format.

Bookmarks are another story. There are no creative constraints when it comes to making and decorating them. Below are a few ideas for embellishing your bookmarks. But, if you'd prefer, you can simply print them onto photocopy paper and cut them out - they will be flimsy but will serve the purpose.

If you have some paper that's a little heavier than normal photocopy paper but can still safely run through your printer, you could try that. Otherwise, if you want to make a sturdier bookmark, you can print on ordinary 80gsm photocopy paper, cut out your bookmarks and glue them to coloured cardboard. These personal touches make for a very smart bookmark, particularly if you add a mini-tassel or a decorative split-pin like the heart-shaped one in the photo. 

 

Three bookmarks 600

 Ideas for finishing and decorating bookmarks.
I designed these for the release of  'A Place of Her Own' in 2014.

 

Keep the bookmarks for yourself or give them to family and friends. They're also perfect for sharing with your book club.

 

Download your 'Camille Dupré' proverb bookmarks here.

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Deborah O'Brien

27 May 2020

Researching ‘Camille Dupré’

 

Deb Carcassonne cropped

 Author at Carcassonne, 1992

 

Writing historical fiction can be a balancing act between creating an interesting story and indulging the writer’s fascination with the facts they’ve discovered during their research. An author can easily overload a book with chunks of historical detail that are likely to slow the pace of the story and bore the reader. In literary jargon, this is called ‘information dumping’.

I remember sending the draft of my first historical novel to an assessor for an appraisal. When the manuscript came back in the post, whole sections had been crossed out with a highlighting pen. Yes, you guessed it – those sections contained unnecessary historical material which was disrupting the flow of the narrative. To this day, that particular book remains in the proverbial bottom drawer, but I did learn an important lesson. 

Ever since then, I've tried to picture the historical framework of the book as the infrastructure of a house. Like the wiring and plumbing, the historical component needs to be in the background quietly doing its job, but we don’t need to see the wires and pipes. 

 

Deb Sunflowers 1992 800 width

In a field of sunflowers, Languedoc 1992

 

If you’ve read the ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of ‘Camille Dupré’, you’ll know I started this project a very long time ago and it has been informed by my background in French and German language and history, as well as my travels in Europe. 

I’ve always loved southern France, especially the area around Montpellier, and it seemed the obvious place to set the story. I have to confess I didn’t do a lot of geographical research because I was already familiar with the location. In fact, I had walked almost every street in the city centre, getting lost on occasion in the labyrinth of mediaeval alleyways at its heart but eventually finding my way out, often emerging into the vast, sunlit square known as the Place de la Comédie.

Montpellier is an ancient city with wide Paris-style boulevards and narrow laneways. That makes it particularly intriguing. It’s also home to one of the oldest and most respected universities in the world, whose courses have attracted international students for hundreds of years. All those elements were perfect for the storyline I had in mind.

 

Avenue Foch

 Rue Foch, Montpellier - echoes of Paris
(Photo: D.O'Brien)

I was fortunate to find a map of Montpellier circa 1945 (below), which became my guide as I worked on the story. You can see the Place de la Comédie towards the righthand bottom corner. The Hôtel de Ville (town hall) precinct where I located the lending library is almost at the centre just south of the Cathedral de St Pierre. The Jardin des Plantes is in the top left corner.

The Prison is situated north of the Arc de Triomphe (map reference 8X) next to the Palais de Justice. At the centre of the western edge of the map is the magnificent Promenade du Peyrou and the Château d'Eau.

On the Rue Foch, just opposite the Préfecture is the Place des Martyrs de la Résistance, created after the Liberation of France to memorialise those who died resisting the Nazi regime in the Montpellier area (map reference 8Y). This square is now considered the centre of the city.

 

carte mois de mai 4 reduced 600

Michelin Map of Montpellier circa 1945.

 

Jardin des Plantes map 1942

Jardin des Plantes (Botanic Gardens), Montpellier, 1942.
The Sunken Garden is in the centre overlooked by the artificial 'mountain'.

 

Not far from the city itself there are picturesque vineyards and olive groves, which provided the perfect place for Camille to live.  (After all, the literal meaning of her name is 'Camille of the Fields'.)  I had to paint a picture of life at the Domaine St-Jean-de-la-Rivière without going into too much technical detail about winemaking. Old black and white photos from 1930s' France, depicting rustic scenes such as a horse pulling a harrow or grape pickers filling wicker 'comportes', inspired the passages where the family are tending the vines and harvesting the grapes.  

 

Snippy champagne

Vintage poster for Bichat Champagne.
This is mentioned in Chapter 34.

 

As an artist who writes (or vice versa), I’ve always been inspired by all things visual. When researching a particular era, I seek out the realia and ephemera of everyday life – objects, posters, signs, advertisements, maps, photos, clothing catalogues, recipes and, of course, newspapers. Thanks to the internet, we're able to view many of these items online.

Newspapers from the early 1930s were particularly important in informing the scenes where Camille's father shares a bottle of Merlot with Kurt and they discuss the news of the day at a time when political unrest and economic instability are increasing at a frightening pace and the spectre of Hitler's growing power is already casting a shadow over Europe. 

 

 
Carcassonne poster

Classic railway poster designed by E. Paul Champseix in 1925.
This is the poster that Kurt sees on the train to Montpellier
and which inspires the day trip to Carcassonne at the end of summer in 1931. 

 

Snippy cropped Count of Monte Christo

Film poster: 'Le Comte de Monte Christo'.
 Camille and Kurt go to see this film at the Gaumont cinema in Montpellier
in June, 1943, just after its release.
The 1943 French production was made under Nazi supervision
but still managed to convey a message about overcoming tyranny.

 

I’m a movie buff, which means films seem to play a big part in my stories. Initially, I didn’t know much about French cinema in the 1930s and early ’40s, but I soon found myself watching a variety of old French films on YouTube. Not only do films with contemporary themes capture the spirit of the period, they also give you a feel for how people dressed and spoke, the vehicles they drove, the houses they lived in.

Citroen AC4 Berline 1927

Citroen AC4 Berline 1927.
This is the car (but in black) that Kurt hires for the day trip to Carcassonne.

 

You will find details of my other reference materials in the Author’s Note at the end of the novel.

Finally, I must offer a disclaimer. Even though I like the factual details and timelines to be correct, I don’t purport to be a purist. Sometimes there has to be a compromise for the sake of the story. After all, this is an imaginary tale in an historical setting, not a work of historical non-fiction.

 

You can download the free e-novel here. 

 

Deborah O’Brien

15 May, 2020

 

My Top Three Tips for Aspiring Authors

 

DOB Styled 2

Pic: DOB

 

Let me preface this article by saying that I’m always reluctant to give advice because every writer has his or her own approach. Nevertheless, here are some general tips to get you started on your writing journey:

 

1. Write from the heart.

Don’t be afraid to work from your emotions – you can always edit later, if necessary. Here's what Wordsworth had to say on the subject:

 ‘Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.’

 

 

2. If you really want to be a writer, don’t put it off.

Even though your life might be too busy to contemplate penning a 100,000-word novel, there are other possibilities such as blogs, short stories or even a novella. George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans), who was arguably the greatest Victorian novelist, once said:

‘It’s never too late to be what you might have been.’

And equally, it’s never too early to start!

 

 

3. Revise, tweak and polish your manuscript until it shines.

You can never do enough revisions. Don’t consider sending off a manuscript to an agent or a publisher until you know it's the very best version you can produce.  A big mistake that first-timers make is to send their manuscript too early – I know because I did it!  

Always ensure the ‘infrastructure’ is correct – the grammar, syntax and spelling. Proofread the text thoroughly for mistakes (and don’t just rely on the Spelling and Grammar Tool on your computer). 

Reading the manuscript aloud is always helpful in the checking process, not just for spotting typos, but also for checking the flow of the text and identifying clunky language.

I always read the final proof of every novel aloud – it takes about a day but it’s worth the effort because I’ve found mistakes that all of us, the structural editor, line editor, proof-reader and yours truly, have missed in just silently reading the pages.  

 

pen

 

Deborah O’Brien

20 March, 2020

 

Adapted and expanded from part of an interview I did with the wonderful Jodi Gibson.

READER’S DIGEST Interview with Deborah O'Brien

about MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM

 

 Amy Readers Digest18154

© Reader's Digest (used with permission)

 

Were there any Reader's Digest books in your family library when you were growing up, and if so, did you enjoy them?

 

Although we didn’t have any Reader’s Digest books ourselves, we used to visit friends who did. One day they allowed me to borrow a volume containing Catherine Gaskin’s Sara Dane. It became my first ‘grown-up’ read, and an historical one at that!

 

 

Which six must-read books would you suggest to a teenager who is just starting to get interested in fiction?

 

So hard to choose! I’m a big fan of Jackie French’s historical novels such as A Rose for the ANZAC Boys. In terms of the ‘classics’, I would suggest L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. For older teens, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl.

 

 

Apart from living in different centuries, your heroines have different impulses: Amy copes with the daily toil by using her imagination; Angie copes with the complications of her life by pondering about the past. Did you find equal enjoyment in writing about both women?

 

 Yes, I would write a chapter in Amy’s life and then decide it was time to move on to Angie and see what she was up to. I never became bored because I was constantly moving between their differing perspectives. At the same time, I was aware that they were both facing the universal constants of love and loss which endure, no matter what the era.

 

Do you think you're more like one than the other?

 

I share many interests with Angie – art, cooking, reading, gardening and renovating. We’re much the same age, and I too have made a tree change, but on a part-time basis.

 

 

Do you predict that there will always be an historical element in your novels, or is your second work along quite different lines?

 

At the moment I’m working on an historical novel set in 1885, but I also have a couple of other projects in progress which are contemporary stories.

 

 

Your story suggests that there are fascinating human secrets behind the façades of even the shabbiest-looking town—was there a particular secret that started you thinking about MR CHEN'S EMPORIUM?

 

There wasn’t a specific secret as such. But I have always been intrigued by the tales my grandmother used to tell me about growing up in the country at the start of the twentieth century. They provided the inspiration for Amy’s story.

 

 

 

Text © Reader’s Digest 2013