The Empire by Michael Ball

Not too long ago, it was the ‘Stratford Literary Festival Winter Weekend’, and when I spotted that Michael Ball was making an appearence, I knew I had to try and visit. Especially as my last attempt to see him in ‘Hairspray’, not long after theatres began reopening after Covid, had not quite gone to plan.

Michael Ball was attending to talk about his new book, ‘The Empire’. A novel set in the inter-war years, this is a love letter to theatre – clearly, I am sure we all realise, a subject close to the heart of the author. And this became even more obvious as Michael Ball spoke to the audience at the festival about his career, book and writing process.

I am just going to get straight to point: I loved this book. It was (a favourite phrase of mine) a hug in a book. This is a great comfort read, especially for these cold and dreary winter days as you are transported to all the glamour of The Empire. You meet such an amazing cast of characters (I mean, there is literally a cast list at the start of the book), who are all thrown together and connected by their love of the theatre and, especially, the Empire.

But what is really fantastic about this book is that it is also a story with a heart. It touches on key issues such as mental health and the attitudes of society at the time that make it such a thought-provoking read, too. Each issue is carefully handled and is accurately woven into the story, and it all adds to a rich tapestry, rather than seeming like any kind of token.

And, well, the drama throughout the book is such perfection – I was not expecting quite the number of twists and turns that the reader encounters, but it was brilliant and definitely creates a page-turner.

So, if you are a fan of a charming piece of historical fiction, which is full of life and fun, then this is the book for you – especially as a little escapism for the cold winter months.

The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

The Book Taster has given us such a treat as the November book pick in the form of ‘The Paris Apartment’ by Lucy Foley. This has been on my wishlist for quite some time, so the fact that ‘The Book Taster’ granted that wish, and that I get to read this book with so many of my fantastic book buddies, makes it even more of a joy.

So, when it is a thriller, it can be so hard to write a post because I absolutely refuse to risk giving spoilers. So, please excuse me if this is not a particularly long or detailed post. However, I can tell you that I really enjoyed this book. The start is sufficiently creepy, which makes it an instant page-turner. You just have to know what happens next and if Jess can find her brother Ben.

Then we are led all through the mystery, from the eyes of many different characters, with twists and turns galore. Until a conclusion that I was not expecting – but one that was very well done.

I enjoyed this book a lot, but I am not sure it is my favourite of Lucy Foley’s books. It was just a little longer than I think it needed to be in the middle – but that could be more the fault of how tired I have been when reading it, rather than the fault of the book. I mean, I was still keen to pick it up when I had the chance to read it and find out where the story was going, so it is not a huge criticism – and I will definitely be recommending it to those who enjoy a thrilling read with a strong female lead.

The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary

Miss W kindly lent me ‘The Road Trip’ by Beth O’Leary to read, and I am ashamed to say that it has been on my shelf since April, which really is not good enough. When I was politely reminded that I had not yet read it, I ensured it became my next read (if only picking my next read was always this easy).

Now, ‘The Flatshare‘ and ‘The Switch‘ were both fun reads. I really enjoyed both of them and their lighthearted but meaningful escapism, with ‘The Switch’ just coming out on top for me.

However, I found ‘The Road Trip’ a little harder to get into when I started it. I liked the idea, people thrown together on a road trip and all that entails, mishaps and more. Yet, this was just a little slow for me (as the rather awkward road trip was for the characters) and the characters were a little harder to engage with than in the previous books. I was not sure I was all that fussed what would happen, or what had happened in the past.

And, then, I suddenly hit a point where the book really picked up. Once you did know what had happened in the past, and why exactly it was as it was between the characters, I started to find it harder to put the book down. ‘The Road Trip’ did go on to handle an incredibly difficult event with sensitivity and heart, and brought to the fore exactly how important consent is, the tragic impact it can have on someone when they feel that it is very nearly taken from them, and how relationships can be changed as a result. Alongside dealing with the subject of the mental health of another character.

This will not go down as one of my favourite books, and maybe it could have been a little slicker, which may have held my attention a little more, as I whizzed through the final third once I felt that I had engaged with the story and the characters. But, it did very nearly become a DNF for me, which would have been a shame as I would have missed the best bit of the book.

Two for Tuesday – Childhood Favourites

I have been so lucky to have recently seen two of my childhood favourites on stage, and I felt it was time to share how much I enjoyed both of these shows (especially as my theatre posts have been slightly neglected recently).

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – The Gillian Lynne Theatre, London

In October, I was lucky enough to go to London to see the latest stage adaptation of ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’. And, I have to be honest, I was so flipping excited. The Narnia stories have been some of my favourites since I was young. I still remember when I first unwrapped the seven books for my birthday one year, and I have treasured them ever since. So, a chance to see another way that they had been adapted was just such a treat.

This production is absolutely stunning – fans will not be disappointed at all. The characterisation is fantastic, the White Witch is as spooky as you would hope, Aslan is as brave as you would expect, and the Pevensie children become the heroes of Narnia you have always hoped for (even if Edmund does not have the most positive start, as we all know).

The staging is also incredibly clever, a minimal set that transports you directly to Narnia. As well as the fantastic costume design that brings all the residents of Narnia to life – good or bad. I was just as nervous of Maugrim in this production as I am in any other, and the book.

So, I feel it is safe to say that the current West End production is a must see for all Narnia fans, young or old, as you will feel like you have really stepped through that wardrobe and been on the adventure that you have always imagined.

Strictly Ballroom – Birmingham Hippodrome

In, contrast, another favourite of mine, which I remember my Mum introducing me to, was Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Strictly Ballroom’. A film that I adored and would watch over and over again, especially if I needed a little bit of comfort viewing. So, as soon as I found out that Craig Revell-Horwood had developed a production of ‘Strictly Ballroom: The Musical’, I knew I had to see it – which of course I did.

And what an amazing celebration of the film it is. It has everything that you would expect: the music and songs from the film (plus some shiny new songs), the dramatic costumes and the fantastic characters. By the end, we were dancing in the aisles to ‘Love is in the Air’ – so, as you can imagine, it is amazing fun.

Maisie Smith is an absolutely wonderful Fran – with all her determination and slight awkwardness that makes her such a brilliant character. Kevin Clifton is quite the Scott Hastings – the rule-breaker extraordinaire, with (let’s be honest) all the moves, as you would expect.

Together they are a fantastic pairing – but they are also supported by an extraordinary ensemble who bring everything you love about the film to the stage – especially the fantastic subtle humour that makes the story such a joy.

If you are a musical fan, a fan of ‘Strictly Ballroom’, or just a general theatre fan, then I would really recommend catching this production if you can, because you will come out singing and dancing, and feeling like there is at least some joy in the world.

In fact, that is exactly what both these stage productions did for me as they transported back to so many happy childhood memories – as well as being a chance to make even more fantastic memories.