Browsing Category:

Five Star

A Station On The Path To Somewhere Better

Posted in Books, Five Star, Reviews
on March 25, 2018

I received a free ARC version of this book from Simon and Schuster UK Fiction in return for a fair review.

For twenty years, Daniel Hardesty has borne the emotional scars of a childhood trauma which he is powerless to undo, which leaves him no peace.

One August morning in 1995, the young Daniel and his estranged father Francis – a character of ‘two weathers’, of irresistible charm and roiling self-pity – set out on a road trip to the North that seems to represent a chance to salvage their relationship. But with every passing mile, the layers of Fran’s mendacity and desperation are exposed, pushing him to acts of violence that will define the rest of his son’s life.

I hold my hands up. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book very much. This was something I’d chosen based on the very fact that it was so different to anything I would normally pick up. (Apparently, just reading the same five books over and over again doesn’t make for a great book blog – who knew?).

And I am so glad I gave it a go. This blew me away. This is such a well written book. It is a novel of two parts: the first, a thriller, of the lead up and description of the traumatic event, the second, a more psychological take on the after effects of witnessing something so awful, and Daniel’s attempts to craft a life from the fragments left behind. A shift in narrative and pace like this could throw a lesser author off, but Wood handles it very well.

The story builds and escalates as you read. We learn that, from the beginning, Daniel’s mother is not keen on the idea of her estranged husband taking Daniel on this roadtrip. But we assume that this is for no other reason than because he is a flakey father, he has let his son down numerous times before, and that he can’t be trusted not to take Daniel somewhere unsuitable. And the first part of the novel is just that; we start to see the unravelling of Fran’s lies –  he takes Daniel to a seedy pub, he feeds him junk food. Because we are seeing the story through Daniel’s memories (or indeed, his interpretation of his child-self’s memories as an adult who has already had to recount this story numerous times, to police, to relatives, to therapists…more on this later), dark hints are laid throughout the narrative that the worst is still yet to come. We know, almost from the offset, that something terrible is to happen, and that Daniel himself will survive it, but the other ‘twists’ are, in effect, told to us far in advance of them happening. It adds a terrible sense of foreboding to the narrative, everything becomes heightened and claustrophobic. It is very powerfully done.

The narrative style is worth a comment. It is a complex mix of the childhood naivety of the young Daniel, combined with hints to the emotional damage of the older Daniel, the sense that he’s had to recount the story many times before, and a fear that he’s forgetting, or misremembering. There are times when his guilt comes through, when he tries to justify his behaviour or the fact that he didn’t realise what was going to happen. This is very much the story of someone still in the grasp of PTSD – which becomes evident as we hear of Daniel’s life post the road trip. It is very cleverly, and sensitively handled.

That Daniel is a fan of the programme his father works on is no coincidence. He listens to the audiobook of it at first to pass the time in the car, but it soon becomes apparent that this isn’t the only work of fiction that he is listening to. Once the lies and inconsistencies from his father first start to reveal themselves, they steamroll. There is something very poignant in the description where Daniel, desperate to distract himself from what’s going on, makes calculations as to how long the battery on his walkman will last. It is a moment of stark contrast; reminding us how young and childlike Daniel is, and yet how terrifying and adult the situation he finds himself in is.

The prose is beautifully written, and quite often as I was reading I found myself outrightly admiring the writing style. It may be the English nerd in me, but I really appreciate the way that Wood handles language. It is rich and brilliant, and also chilling in parts. On the one hand, there is the description of the physical geography of the road trip, which carries a preciseness with it that fit’s Daniel’s attempts to recreate the story as accurately as possible. On the other, Wood manages to capture the uneasiness a bad gut feeling which creeps across Daniel and the novel, until you are certain that the only outcome can be tragedy.

The ending, for some, could be seen as slow paced, but personally I enjoyed the shift in tone. We see the enduring effects those fateful days have had on him, and how he lives under the shadow of his father – a man who he is terrified of turning in to. This is not quite a story of healing – that would be too simplistic – but there is something almost like hope at the end. It is a realistic hope, it is not the fairytale kind, there is still work to do. (Work has already gone on, of course, there is mention of his coping mechanisms, therapists, the things he has done to counteract the wrongs of his father, but as in life, there is no magic solution, these are all just stations on his path to somewhere better.

Overall, this is a very strong, dark, thriller. Not for the faint hearted, it doesn’t shy away from trauma and the aftershocks in a way that stays with you long after you’ve read the last page. I couldn’t tear myself away, and I would thoroughly recommend to anyone.

Five Stars

For never was a story of more woe

Posted in Five Star, Reviews, Theatre
on February 21, 2018
Romeo And Juliet

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo…

 

I had the chance to see Guildford Shakespeare Company’s Romeo and Juliet this week, and, my gosh what a treat.

I have it on good authority* that the GSC can be relied upon for exceptionally good interpretations of the marvellous bard. I’m glad to say that, even with a play that by rights should have been forever tarnished by GCSE English, my boyfriend and I had a thoroughly good time, and spent a merry evening unpacking all its cleverness. Yes, that’s right. My boyfriend, the engineer who has only ever read one book in his whole life** actually wanted to discuss Shakespeare with me. I really don’t need to write any more of this review, surely that is testament enough?

To set the scene: the production takes place at Holy Trinity, a large Georgian church situated in the middle of Guildford. Director, Charlotte Conquest, has taken inspiration from these surroundings to set her Romeo and Juliet in 18th Century Verona – and the audience is transported to this decadent and dangerous period. From a visual point of view, the play is extraordinary. There is some clever silhouette work at the beginning, and the use of red lights at key moments in the play adds drama. This is a very visually impactful production, and it is clear that the staging has been well thought out.

The masked ball, where our doomed lovers meet for the first time, was a beautiful piece of theatre. As the two teenagers tried to connect, the adults found ways to block them. Seemingly innocent, there was an undercurrent of something else not far from the surface. With perfect timing, and exceptional choreography, in the dance, the sinister side of this world revealed itself, exacerbated by the red lighting that would used. The two young lovers are not as free to move as they might think, they are trapped in their world which may seem glamorous and opulent, but that masks an ugliness and danger.

This theme is carried through, particularly through Lord Capulet, who is on one hand seemingly reasonable, personable and kind – but on the other terrifying and formidable. Gordon Cooper and Sarah Groban convey this well; the latter’s reactions to Lord Capulet are well worth noting as it is she who really gives the audience a clue as to his private demeanor. Her flinches and trembles give subtle nod that he is a character that cannot be defied – and that Juliet would be wise to behave.

Lucy Pearson’s Juliet is a fireball. She is, in parts, awkward, stroppy, shouty, determined, stubborn – the list goes on. She is absolutely teenage and all that goes with it. Clearly they’ve had fun with this interpretation. A very talented actress, her heartbreak is tangible when Romeo is exiled, and so raw – in the way that only teenagers can be. This is her play, she will heed no advice, she decides so forcibly on Romeo that she simply will not have it any other way. And Ricky Oakley’s Romeo plays off this so well. Again, so tangibly teenage, this production does not shy away from the fact that his affections begin elsewhere. But he is happily to be latched on to by Juliet. The accent was at times distracting… Overall his guache affections and slight bashfulness at the receipt of Juliet’s love had charm to them. He carries the more serious speeches of the play well, and there is a youthful vulnerability to his last words which reinforces the tragedy of the play.

The supporting cast must also be mentioned. Harriet Thorpe’s Nurse is a joy to behold. She stole the stage with every scene she was in; streetwise and hard, but with soft edges and a very motherly and protective streak towards Juliet. She added must needed humour – as did Benvolio and Mecutio (Robert Elkin and Jack Whitham respectively) who played off each other beautifully. And anyone who wasn’t touched by Noel White’s Friar’s remorse must have a heart of stone.

Overall, a truly fantastic production, with good casting, staging, lighting and music. Only occasionally, were the limitations of space felt, but the strong cast and wonderful direction made up for this elsewhere. There were no weak links in the cast, no falterings and try as I might I cannot pick fault.. The creative team should be congratulated on what they have achieved in this production.  

This alone was worth moving back to Surrey for.

5 stars.

Guildford Shakespeare Company

*my parents.

** And I’m not even sure if he finished that. I know. It’s a sore point. I’m working on it.

A Girl In London: An American In Paris

Posted in Five Star, Theatre
on March 30, 2017
souvenir programme

I was in London at the weekend – I was actually staying in Westminster. It felt a little odd going to Westminster for frivolous reasons given the tragedy that unfolded last week, but I really was heartened by what I saw.

I’m not going to turn this into a political blog – don’t worry about that. I just want to express my overwhelming feeling of pride in my fellow countrymen.

On Saturday there was a protest about Brexit (or Brexshit as perhaps it would be better to refer to it as). Parliament Square was heaving. People, they were out there in their hoards to use their democratic right to protest and freedom of speech. Recently I have found myself frequently being the ‘outsider’ point of view – so it was reassuring to feel that there are others who share my opinion, and are still prepared to fight for it. The best bit? Everything was peaceful, well formulated and respectful to those that had lost their lives only a few days before.

On Sunday things were very much back to normal around Westminster and Parliament. The bridge was heaving with tourists, as people snapped photos of the area and generally went along their business. Why am I mentioning this? We are not afraid. We haven’t stopped visiting places out of fear. am very proud of how we, as a United Kingdom, have united together over this.

You’re probably wondering when I am going to get to the point. It’s now.

The reason I was in London in the first place is because my boyfriend extraordinaire, got me tickets to see An American In Paris. The film version of the musical – starring none other than Gene Kelly – is one of my favourites.* I deliberately didn’t re-watch it before seeing the stage musical for fear that I might spend the whole time comparing it in my head. Now, I know it was silly to even think that as they are very different.

 

The stage version of An American In Paris contextualises the story in a way which the 1951 film doesn’t. This is understandable – in 1951, people did not go to the cinema to be reminded of the war which they had just lived though. As one of the characters in the musical remarks – if you can make people happy through your art, that’s what you should do. The film exists in this almost timeless era, where only the clothing and set design gives you an insight into the period in which it is set. Conversely, the stage version starts with the Nazi swastika being replaced with the French tricolour, and a dance sequence where you can see the French reclaiming their country. Throughout the stage version too, is the underlying feeling that this is a country which is repairing – there is a little bit of suspicion about those families who seem to have profited from the war, and nobody quite knows how – there is a sense of obligation to the American soldiers which you don’t quite get from the film.

Seeing a stage version of a film is a very different experience. Everybody knows how impressive Gene Kelly’s ballet sequence is – it’s what the film is famous for after all – but seeing (very different) ballet sequences on stage is something else. As someone who has two left feet, I was amazed by these sections of the musical. They were so beautifully choreographed, and so well complimented by the staging.

It’s hard to pick out the best moments of the musical, it was stand out from start to finish, with high energy and high impact throughout. (Even my boyfriend who has never seen a musical before, and expected to have fallen asleep before the interval said ‘I finally understand why you love musicals so much’.) Gershwin’s music, of course, is so opulent, exciting and wonderful. The score really comes alive when performed with such passion. My favourite moment of the show was ‘I Got Rhythm’. It won’t spoil anything to say that this was an ensemble moment done with aplomb.

I realise I have a tendency to gush a lot on this blog. I think it’s probably because I’ve decided life is too short to waste on things I don’t enjoy (I mean, I used to finish every book I ever started, and now I have much more patience). I’m trying my hardest not to gush here, but it’s so difficult because it was such a wonderful production. If I was being extra picky I suppose I might mention the French accent which sounded a little more German – but that is really very minor. All in all it’s an extravaganza.

This is the sort of musical that I adore. Perhaps controversially I have no interest in seeing things like Aladdin, the Lion King, Wicked – musicals of that ilk. Instead I prefer these golden oldies. They’re old fashioned, they’re understated (the staging and set for An American In Paris was stunning but it’s not the pyrotechnics you might get at one of the musicals I’ve just mentioned), they’ve got some great – and enduring – sing-a-long songs, and some iconic dance numbers. I also like the cheeky humour you tend to get in these musicals – Cole Porter’s would be another example of this.

If you’re expecting to see a remake of the film than this is not that. If you’re excited by a re-imagining of the story, then go. Go in your droves and enjoy. Because it would be impossible not to. A

Once again – it’s five stars from me.

Magpie Murders: Anthony Horowitz

Posted in Books, Five Star, Reviews
on December 11, 2016
Review of Magpie Murders

I was a little stuck as to what to include a picture of here. For starters, as I listened to the audiobook, rather than reading it, I didn’t have the actual book to snap. My next issue was the lack of magpies loitering around my flat. My final problem was that any other prop I could think of (or would be likely to have to hand) would probably give too much away.

And that is the problem I’m facing writing this too. Finally I understand why my mum (endless resource of knowledge and book recommendations that she is) stayed pursed lipped and would only say to expect ‘twist after twist after twist’.*

Horowitz is a prolific and hugely talented writer – as his Wikipedia page will attest – and he is most at home when unravelling a mystery. Magpie Murders allows him to showcase his talent, and his versatility as an author.

Let us start with the official description from Horowitz’s website.

When editor Susan Ryeland is given the tattered manuscript of Alan Conway’s latest novel, she has little idea it will change her life. She’s worked with the revered crime writer for years and his detective, Atticus Pund, is renowned for solving crimes in the sleepy English villages of the 1950s. As Susan knows only too well, vintage crime sells handsomely. It’s just a shame that it means dealing with an author like Alan Conway…

But Conway’s latest tale of murder at Pye Hall is not quite what it seems. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but hidden in the pages of the manuscript there lies another story: a tale written between the very words on the page, telling of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition and murder.

This is a book within a book: a mystery within a mystery. On the one hand we have the story of Susan Ryeland and Alan Conway in the modern day, and on the other hand we have a fantastic pastiche of the Golden Age crime novel. Horowitz, writing as Conway, borrows heavily from Christie (Pund is clearly modelled on Poirot) and produces a wonderfully cosy, old school detective novel. Nothing in the world of Saxby-upon-Avon is hurried, the detective has time to piece his thoughts together and you are reassured that Pund will solve the mystery, break it to the villagers and everything will work out in the end. In contrast, in the modern day, the story revolving around Susan Ryeland, is a much more uncertain world. You wonder how she will work out the mystery, if she will do it in time, and how there can possibly be a resolution where everything works out for the best. Pund’s world is much smaller than Ryeland’s – he is focussed in Saxby and, as a reader, you feel confident that everyone he needs to speak to is there. Ryeland, meanwhile, has to travel across England to get her answers, and you’re never quite sure if that final answer will elude her grasp. Needless to say, Horowitz negotiates both worlds extremely well.

Horowitz is never a lazy writer, and takes delight in the fine detail that other authors may skim through. Not only are we treated to a whole novella in the form of Conway’s Magpie Murders, but we also get treated to chapters and segments of Conway’s other books. There are 9 crime novels in the Atticus Pund series and Horowitz has considered them all. They all have titles, character names, plots – which we learn of through Susan. It is impressive, and delightful – and very Horowitzian. It has been years now since I read any of his children’s novels (Stormbreaker, Groosham Grange, Horowitz Horror and the like..), but a characteristic that still stands out to me about them is his love of – for want of a better word – Easter eggs planted throughout the text. Little nuggets of exquisite details which give the reader an added thrill – and make you want to re-read it all to see what else you missed.

What you can really see in this novel is how much Horowitz loves writing. You can tell that he enjoyed putting this novel together and you can equally see how much he enjoys the study of literature – the deconstruction of narrative, story, character, and words. Wordplay is frequent throughout Magpie Murder, and you quickly learn to look at any character/place/chapter/title name carefully to try and figure out what it is a reference to, anagram of, sound-a-like of…  He uses his main character, Susan Ryeland, and her skills, to examine Conway’s manuscript closely, looking for clues and trying to decipher the double meaning. Her observations, and knowledge of Conway, give us, as the reader, the clues we need to try and piece together the real mystery in this book. She also helps us realise just how cleverly written the whole thing is.

The only slight negatives I can think to mention with Magpie Murders is that the second half of the book is a little slow to get going, and there were quite a few moments of repetition. Susan explained a couple of things to us one too many times, drawing our attention back to them so that they’re always at the forefront of your mind. I think this is something that is much more noticeable when you’re listing something rather than reading it – I did find myself saying ‘Yes, Yes Susan you’ve said that!’ on a few occasions. It’s just a small niggle – it’s certainly not a big enough annoyance to make me even half think about knocking a star off.

This is a gushing review. I’m not being paid for it, I just really loved the book. I could quite easily write another 1000 words on it – but I will stop now for fear I give away any details of the plot. My only regret is that I listened to it rather than reading it. Not to worry, as soon as I can get my clammy little paws on a hard copy, I’ll be thumbing my way through it, searching for all those clues I missed the first time.

Rating:

An unequivocal five stars.

*Alas, I don’t own a copy of Twister either, as that might have perked the picture up too.