Monday, 8 September 2014

To Kill a Mockingbird at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

There is something about the classic coming-of-age story, the bildungsroman, that we just cannot get enough of. Whether it's Charlotte Bronte's brooding Jane Eyre, CS Lewis's magical tales of Narnia, or Suzanne Collins' modern dystopian answer to the genre with The Hunger Games trilogy, the concept is something we can all relate to on one level or another. Whatever age, wherever we live, whatever class we're born into - we can all remember a moment, series of events or time in our lives when childhood seemed to slip from our grip and the murky, less black-and-white (excuse the pun...) adulthood showed itself.

For a friend of mine, Harper Lee's
To Kill a Mockingbird is her absolute favourite example and I can completely see why. For those who don't know, the novel is a touching, loosely biographical tale that follows Scout and her brother Jem as a series of events unfold in their hometown in Alabama during the Great Depression. A young black man is accused of raping a young white woman and their father is the defence lawyer and Scout is suddenly thrown into the town's bitter brawl.

It has since won the Pulitzer Prize and been added to the curriculum in schools all over the world but what do you do when you want to adapt a book that well-read, that well-loved?

The answer, for me, was at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre this summer and luckily for anyone who missed it - it's going on tour!

Sat in the audience wrapped up in my blanket and hoodie on the sunny but chilly September Sunday evening with my hot chocolate, I won't lie that I was a bit taken aback when a middle-aged woman in a mac and scarf stood up on her chair in the row in front and started speaking to the audience in a distinctly Northern accent, not Deep South America by any stretch.

'Oh god,' I whispered, 'they're going to try and mix it up and set the story in a council estate in Manchester aren't they?' Luckily, I spoke too soon. A few minutes in and the stage comes alive with children and trees and invisible picket fences, the village all cleverly brought to life with some simple props, a few pieces of chalk and a man floating in and out of scenes strumming an atmospheric soundtrack by
Phil King (which, I might add, I bought on CD and is now playing in my car - recommended).

The cast is brilliant, the staging spectacular, and all in all it was the perfect way to spend a late summer evening. My snooty anxiety that 'you can't successfully adapt a truly good book' was put to shame and instead, I've gone away and curled myself up with the novel itself. Success story (pun intended this time) I think you'll agree, and all tied up very nicely with an on-site barbecue dinner and subsequent hot chocolate.

Friday, 22 August 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

When a troubled model falls to her death from a snow-covered Mayfair balcony, it is assumed that she has committed suicide. However, her brother has his doubts, and calls in private investigator Cormoran Strike to look into the case. Strike is a war veteran - wounded both physically and psychologically - and his life is in disarray. The case gives him a financial lifeline, but it comes at a personal cost: the more he delves into the young model's complex world, the darker things get - and the closer he gets to terrible danger ...

When Robert Galbraith’s debut novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, was released it received excellent reviews for a first-time writer, including a stellar quote from Scottish crime queen Val McDermid. Just the result, I reckon, that JK Rowling was looking for when she first decided to write her new crime series under a pseudonym in an attempt to be judged honestly, with Potter set aside for one moment. 

Sadly the secret came out too early for me to read it without knowing it was JK who had penned it, and arguably yes, it may not have read it if her name wasn’t attached, but I enjoyed it so there. There aren’t any gimmicks here, just good classic crime with a troubled crime-fighting protagonist in the brilliantly named Cormoran Strike and his trusty red-headed (had to throw that in, obvs) sidekick, Robin.

As a Londoner, I loved the setting. The novel taps into both London’s seedy underbelly and the glitz and glamour of its celebrity elite. It walks you from Strike’s dingy Denmark Street office through the sounds and smells of Chinatown to the wide streets and beautiful homes of Mayfair.

In the celebrity-obsessed world we live in these days, the idea of a famous model falling dramatically from her balcony doesn’t seem that unlikely... I can almost see the tabloid headline now. Rowling isn’t rubbing it in our faces by any means – she isn’t saying, ‘hey, look how ridiculous we all are’ but I sensed some satire here, which I like whether it was deliberate or not. It’s there for the taking if that is how you choose to read it but either way it’s a good story.

I’m not going to say that this is the most exciting, genre-busting novel of the 21st century but it’s not supposed to be. All in all, this is going to be a fun series to get involved in. Like the best crime novels, this can be consumed quickly and leave you with an appetite for the next one.

As ever with JK Rowling, she doesn’t let waffle get in the way of a great plot and solid characters. In her central female character, she has created that perfect combination of intelligence and heart, strength and vulnerability… but I’m going to restrain myself from comparing her to any other of Rowling’s strong female characters… In short, I’d get into these now before there are 100 of them – next stop, The Silkworm!


Thursday, 7 August 2014

Where'd You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Bernadette Fox is notorious.

To Elgie Branch, a Microsoft wunderkind, she's his hilarious, volatile, talented, troubled wife.
To fellow mothers at the school gate, she's a menace.
To design experts, she's a revolutionary architect.
And to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, quite simply, mum.

Then Bernadette disappears. And Bee must take a trip to the end of the earth to find her.

For me, I have to be really in the mood for comedy for me to enjoy it. Arguably you could say that about any other genre but it’s particularly the case with humour. As a result, this novel has been started and restarted a number of times but I can now tell you I have finished it. I know you’ve been waiting for that piece of news and you feel SO great right now that you can read this review.

If someone asked me whether they would enjoy this novel, I would ask ‘Did you enjoy Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen?' The book that is, not the film. If you were one of those people that absolutely hated that book DON’T PICK THIS UP.

What do I mean by that? Well it’s true that the plot couldn’t be more different. Where Yemen has a distinct lack of water, Seattle has its fair share, there’s no real romance in this – the main relationship you’re interested in is that between mother and daughter. Where'd You Go Bernadette? for me, however, had a very similar tone and sense of humour. Slightly wacky and off the wall while remaining brilliantly observant and it has that scrapbook quality where we gather the plot from a series of different perspectives and through a variety of different mediums – newspaper cuttings, emails, post-it notes, log books etc.

I did enjoy it and I would recommend it to people. If you don’t enjoy embracing the quirky (I made the mistake of recommending When God Was a Rabbit to a friend thinking it was a gentle tale only to be told how VERY WEIRD it was…), don't read this but if you fancy something a little different to break up your usual reading habits, do give it a go – I think you’ll appreciate it. I generally think that our favourite novels are rarely comedies because the ‘heart’ is so often sacrificed. I think that happens here too. It does all get a bit silly by the end and, as the Observer describes ‘[the book] is constructed from a collection of self-absorbed perspectives’, but the heart is there somewhere and if you were feeling particularly hormonal, you may even well up a bit at the bonds made and broken and the dreams surrendered… I wasn’t feeling emotional so that didn’t happen for me but it’s a laugh, easily above average and worth a read: 6.5/10.

Other reviews:
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

Monday, 4 August 2014

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision at the NPG

I’m always trying to find fun ‘cultural’ things to do, be it an exhibition, a gig or concert, some literary event etc. I do enjoy them and deep down somewhere I probably think that they are a necessary part of my self-improvement. They’re also great small-talk fillers. Problem is, that when summer hits, the requirements of small-talk often goes up as everyone becomes more sociable when the sun comes out, but the number of cultural conversation pieces goes down because I stop looking for cool things to do. The one drawback of actually having a British summer this year is that I’ve done almost nothing but sit outside, eat a lot and do a hell of a lot of people watching. So this weekend I decided to try to fill the void at least a little and headed off to see Boyhood (incidentally people watching for the cinema-goer) and went to the Virginia Woolf exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery (hoorah, I finally got to the subject of this post).

Love a bit of Virginia Woolf and I know that there is a Woody Allen sequel to Midnight in Paris (which will be aptly named Midnight in London) waiting for me to snatch the lead role from Owen Wilson so that I can hang out with the Bloomsbury set for 90 minutes. I mean seriously, these are the people that started up their own publishers and printed TS Eliot’s The Wasteland. The Woolfs got to hang out with Sigmund Freud, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, EM Forster and Lady Ottoline Morrell. Can you imagine having so many and such an eclectic group of intellectual minds – writers, artists, economists, psychologists, poets.

Such life envy, with the exception of the whole going mad and killing yourself bit… not so great.

The exhibition is a must for anyone vaguely interested in this time period. It included photos of the Woolf’s home in Tavistock Square before and after the bombing that destroyed all but its end wall the mural Virginia’s sister, Vanessa Bell, designed for the couple.

Vanessa’s artwork was dotted about the exhibition and the front covers of early editions of Woolf’s work were on display, each designed by Vanessa Bell.

There were handwritten love letters (including one from Leonard Woolf to Virginia which did nothing for my futile belief that he would make a great husband… for me… I told you it was futile), personal photographs, extracts from Virginia’s family newsletter that she wrote with her brothers.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Virginia Woolf became, like so many, very interested in the Spanish Civil War but I didn’t know that she had been so heavily involved in an event at London’s Royal Albert Hall that was started to raise money for the Basque children. She was also a patron for the campaign to bring Picasso’s epic anti-war painting Guernica (1937) to Britain (the exhibition leaflet was included in the exhibition) and her nephew, Quentin Bell, apparently tried to get Picasso to come along himself. While he didn’t turn up, the exhibition included one of his drawings ‘The Weeping Woman’ which Picasso was said to have donated to the cause in lieu of his own attendance.

Anyway, I’ve written a ridiculously long post but there’s so much to see and learn. Even if you don’t really care about Viriginia Woolf, it’s a wonderfully detailed snapshot into a very interesting group of people at a pivotal moment in modern history. It’s only £7… You can even drop in at the BP Portrait Award for free at the same time.

Relevant Posts:

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Books About Town

If you live in London you may have noticed that some weird benches have started popping up everywhere. Always surrounded by flocks of tourists, it’s taken me a while to find out what it’s all about… so just in case you too were all wondering what they are I thought I’d do a post.

The project is called Books About Town and was set up by the National Literacy Trust, which for those of you that don’t know is a charity working to increase literacy in disadvantaged children and young people in the UK.

For 10 weeks this summer BookBenches will be placed throughout London. There are four areas or Trails where the benches will be focused on – Bloomsbury, Riverside (around London Bridge), Greenwich and the City - and each bench is crafted to look like an opened book and decorated with visual art from local artists within the theme of a well-known classic.

Now London has no shortage of benches but these do look pretty cool and there’s always our inner child that likes the idea of a good old fashioned treasure hunt. Ok, maybe ‘treasure’ is not a great word but these BookBenches are out there to be found and collected.

At the end of the 10 weeks, the Benches will be auctioned off to raise money for the National Literacy Trust At the end of a literary summer of discovery, creativity and enjoyment our unique BookBenches will be brought together in a final display and auctioned off to raise money for the National Literacy Trust. Have a look at some of the benches below and see if you can guess which books they're from... (not meant to sound like a primary teacher...). Or, alternatively, you could take a look at the website to see which benches are out there and get any more information:

Thursday, 24 July 2014

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

In this brilliantly perceptive novel, a middle-aged professor living in California is alienated from his students by differences in age and nationality, and from the rest of society by his homosexuality. Isherwood explores the depths of the human soul and its ability to triumph over loneliness, alienation and loss.

'He strikes a note of great intimacy with the reader as if with a close personal friend, and a sense of total honesty is sought. This style - witty, observant, nostalgic, exact - was Isherwood's great contribution to modern literature' Financial Times

'Very sad and yet at times wildly funny' Daily Telegraph

I picked up A Single Man again a few weeks ago. I love this novel but to describe why is so difficult. Not because I can’t put my finger on it, but because my reasons are so boringly clich├ęd.

It’s just beautifully written and brilliantly immersive; you really feel you ‘get’ George. You can place him, you can place his neighbours and his academic colleagues. You know who he is, what he’d do next – you can paint a very good picture in just the 170 pages that make up this book.

It of course helps when painting said picture (I didn’t actually paint… just to be clear…) that you’ve seen the film. Which I have. Three times. Also, extremely good. I mean Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode and Nicholas Hoult are never going to disappoint but director Tom Ford brings his relentlessly cool style to the table that gives it that extra summitsummit. I suppose you could maaybbeee say that Ford’s direction fills the void of Isherwood’s writing in the film.

While making the story visually striking, I also think Ford gets across George’s moments of detachment that Isherwood creates so beautifully in his novel. Ishwerwood’s decision to describe everything from George’s perspective helps illustrate how George, for the most part, is removed from his community. He is secretive and aloof – a deliberate decision, I think, to protect himself, which he enjoys but all the while he unconsciously yearns to be included, be social, be loved. Probably a bit of that in us all…

In short, though, he’s a softie who is wonderfully screwed up. As a child from the Harry Potter generation, I was brought up with Snape, Lupin, Dumbledore, Harry himself, and so feel I am now always destined to fall for screwed up male characters (hopefully just in books…).

Being so short, there is absolutely no excuse not to read this. Even if you hate it. Which I hope you don't… and if you do, watch the film. I give you permission.


Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Fault In Our Stars - John Green

Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel's story is about to be completely rewritten.

Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw, The Fault in Our Stars is award-winning author John Green's most ambitious and heartbreaking work yet, brilliantly exploring the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love.

I first bought this book for my cousin, having seen it decorating every bookshop for several months. Looking at the blurb, though, I didn't really have any urge to read it myself - young love, cancer? It all sounded a little pre-teen, a little American.

At this point I slipped into the kind of person I have despised for so long - a literary snob. Blghrrrr. So after seeing it's huge success and hearing nothing but high praise for this novel, I decided I really should have a go and damn it, it really is good.

Sure it is a little teenagery but it's done with such heart (and not the gooey fluffy kind, grittier and more painful than that). The protagonist, Hazel, has all the wonderful grumpiness and pretentiousness of that breed of teenager but she is not a caricature and I feel that must have been extremely important for Green when writing her. She's funny, she's intelligent, she has things she likes and things she doesn't, she's desperate to be understood but also desperate to be misunderstood, and she gets into grumps like any other person, teenager or otherwise, but actually has a *reasonably* decent excuse. The love interest, Augustus, is perhaps a little too perfect. But that's ok. Why? Because if Hazel is me, then in my little moment of escapism, there's an Augustus for me too. It's as simple, as cheesy and as sugar-sprinkled as that.

There is something about going through something awful like a serious illness, death, war, whatever it may be, that is very dreamlike; you don't ever believe it will happen to you, even when it has. Therefore, while my cynical side rolled its eyes at the seemingly perfect love story, the other part of me felt that it all kind of fits - cancer, love - they're pretty much both dreams, albeit opposite ends of the spectrum. Ok so now I sound like the pretentious teenager with very poor vocab but I hope you see what I'm getting at.

One of the best things about this book, and I think what makes it feel all the more real and not what I would call 'cancer-schmultz' is that Green and his characters are not afraid of humour. Nothing like a bit of black humour when everything is going wrong. Sure, it isn't for everyone, but it sure as hell is the drug for me.

By the end, though, I have to say I felt angry. Not at having wasted my time or anything - this was a beautiful book, it was funny and touching, enlightening and well-written - but because I felt manipulated. How dare Mr. Green make me feel emotional. Streaming with black mascara tears at various intervals, it felt like I had been drugged by Nicholas Sparks and that I was getting emotional against my own will. But actually, if I'm honest, sometimes that is exactly what I want - to be able to get in touch with those emotions in a safe environment. And there's no better way than reading this book. And it's not trashy, either. It's good quality, literary YA fiction that should be read by everyone. Ultimately, kids books do things that adult books can't. I can't put my finger on it but this book is surely a perfect example.