A Christmas Wish by Erin Green

It’s a slightly unusual time of year to read a book with such a festive title, but I can make an exception when I am lucky enough to call the author of this book a friend. It is, also, her first published title, so I could not wait to get started.

This is a beautifully written novel with a great collection of characters. Flora, the central character, has one main wish for Christmas: to find out who her birth mother is.

This one main mission leads her on quite an adventure, starting with head butting a policeman, and introduces her to a whole host of colourful characters, as well as turning village life upside down. This book is a real page turner as you follow Flora (and others) on a voyage of discovery about themselves and the people that they love. You will be rooting for a happy ending for everyone – even Veronica.

There is a real humour and warmth to the writing, but you will shed a tear as you move to the conclusion of the story. Also, make sure you read the dedication, author note and acknowledgements in this novel, as it is as much a part of the story and the journey that Erin has been on writing this gem of a novel. (And there is another one coming in 2018.)

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter – whatever the time of year, we should all enjoy ‘A Christmas Wish‘ (and very likely reread at Christmas time).

The Wind in the Willows – Musical

Growing up, The Wind in the Willows was one of my favourite stories. So, when I spotted that a musical adaptation was heading to the London Palladium for the summer holidays, I had to grab a slice of the action.

The Twitterverse had also dropped so many hints about the show that, by the 3rd of August, my excitement was off the scale. Stiles and Drewe were providing the tunes, Julian Fellowes had written the adaptation, and Rufus Hound AND Gary Wilmot were starring – Exciting!!

Our seats were at the front of the upper circle; my favourite seats in the theatre. They give you a perfect view of the stage and it is easy to dodge the safety rail.

From the moment the first note was struck, you were transported from the city of London to the Riverbank. I and everyone around me had a massive grin on their face as we met the inhabitants of the Riverbank and Mole met Ratty.

The story unfolds as you would expect with Mr Toad and his speedy adventures, and the love of his friends, resulting in a very happy ending. Via some incidents with the Wild Wooders, and scrapes with the law, of course.

The performance of each member of the cast was wonderful. Fabulous singing and dancing all round and everyone looked truly happy to be on that stage. However, there has to be some special mentions for the amazing Mr Toad, played to full comic potential. Badger was a true mentor to all the creatures that he encountered. And Chief Weasel was the perfect baddie that you love to hate (well, only a tiny bit); he does also seem to have the catchiest tunes. Overall, though, it was a true team performance that had the audience enthralled.

In fact, it is all so fabulous that the cast recording has been on repeat since seeing the show. I cannot get enough of the songs and memories of this wonderful show.

This really is a musical for all ages, and if you have a chance to catch it, I would really recommend it – it is one of the best shows I have ever seen. Thank you to every single member of the cast, orchestra, creative team and theatre staff who made the whole thing such a wonderful experience.

 

Conclave by Robert Harris

Having lived in Italy during the election of Pope Benedict XVI, this title immediately caught my eye. I think we are all probably a little intrigued about what takes place during the Conclave and how such an old tradition continues to have a place in the modern world.

Of course, as Harris clearly states at the start of his novel, this is a work of fiction, but he has clearly researched in great detail the rules, regulations and traditions of the Conclave. However, he has also brought this story bang up to date with reflections on the troubles that the religion (not simply the Catholic Church) has in the twenty-first century. The lead character, Cardinal Lomeli, often reflects on the struggles between his faith, the modern world and unsettling the order of things, which leads the tale on some twists and turns. It is possibly an unusual setting for such a thriller, but Harris has managed to keep the reader guessing until the end and the twist, for me, was quite a surprise – but one that again really reflected an issue of the modern age.

It can be hard to write a post about a book that has a level of mystery and intrigue to it, as you do not want to spoil it for others. So, I just want to let you all know that I could not put this book down; I was always keen to pick it up and find out what was going to happen next, or who had a secret that was going to be discovered (and if, how, why that secret would make it out and what that would mean for the tale). This has certainly reignited my interest in the novels of Robert Harris, so now I just have to decide which to read next.

The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

I do my best to try new authors as much as I can and not necessarily rush to read the same authors in quick succession. However, very much like Patrice Lawrence, I discovered the writing of Kiran Millwood Hargrave earlier this year when I read ‘The Girl of Ink and Stars’, and when I spotted ‘The Island at the End of Everything’, I knew I had to give it a go.

The attraction of this book is that (very much like her previous book) the adventure takes place on exotic shores, and there is a strong female lead who does not let anything hold her back. In fact, Ami uses her experiences to make her the strong and independent young lady that she is, even though, for many of us, her experience could be beyond our imagination. For me, there was a strong Dickensian feel to this story, as the cruel Mr Zamora arrives and changes her life for ever. Along the bumpy road of life that unfolds, it is love that is central to her motivation and determination. As the reader of the novel, you go through a roller coaster of emotions – always rooting for a happy conclusion.

A very clever feature of the story is the use of the butterfly; to describe this in too much detail could spoil the read for others (similar to oversharing the setting), but it is such a clever link throughout the tale. For me, it is mainly a reminder of the importance of the fragility of life and the sheer beauty that the adventure of life can be.

This is a beautifully written story that will keep you gripped from start to finish – you will not be able to stop yourself from getting drawn in.

Miss ‘Standing Ovation’ Saigon

I love a musical and therefore could not pass on the opportunity to see Miss Saigon when it landed at the Birmingham Hippodrome this month.

Now, I am going to be honest, I was not fully aware of the details of the story. I had an idea that it involved the Vietnam War and it was famed for a helicopter (the way that Les Mis is famed for a barricade), but that was about as far as it went. And I am, in fact, glad that was all I knew, because nothing could have prepared me for the intensity of the love story that unfolded before my eyes – and the powerful ending.

I was mesmerised from the moment the first note was struck. The performances were stunning by every single individual on the stage at all times. You felt the emotions of every character as the story develops. The songs are so powerful, almost choral in places, and are a real attraction of the play.

The set was unbelievable and so versatile. I fully understand why the helicopter is such a talking point, as it really adds to the passion of the one moment that changes the paths of Kim and Chris forever…

The show fully deserved the standing ovation, as everything was wonderful: the performers (with special mention to the leads), the musicians, the lighting – the whole thing! In fact, I have not stopped thinking about Miss Saigon since I left the theatre; I can certainly see why it is a favourite of so many theatre-goers.

So, is Miss Saigon one that makes it onto your favourite musicals list?

 

 

Indigo Donut by Patrice Lawrence

Having read the award-winning ‘Orangeboy’ earlier this year, I was excited when I realised that ‘Indigo Donut’ would be published in mid July.

First of all, how can you not be intrigued by the title? It is a fabulous name for a book and a great way to be introduced to the lead character, ‘Indigo’. She is a fascinating character and, despite all the complex paths she has taken through life, has become a stronger fighter. However, it is the friendship of Bailey that makes her realise her true self-worth. It is a fascinating study of human nature and how we have a desire to know where we come from and what makes us ‘us’.

There is, similar to ‘Orangeboy’, a clever use of music and the love of music (in this case, a lot of Blondie), entwined in the narrative. I certainly need to find a copy of ‘Parallel Lines’ now and blast it out. (I am sure the neighbours wouldn’t mind.)

When, reading this, I laughed, I cried and I reflected on the importance of all the bonds and ties we make through life and how family can mean so many different things to so many different people.

So, go on, give this wonderful book a go.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

If you are a regular reader of the blog, you’ll know that I love Shakespeare. I cannot quite quote the Bard, but I am a huge fan of the stories and the characters that he created for us – so, when I found out about the Hogarth Shakespeare project that was opening up the opportunity to give some of his most beloved plays a modern twist, I knew I had to read them.

So, I have started with ‘Vinegar Girl’ by Anne Tyler. This is a modern take on ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies, and Tyler’s writing certainly keeps the light-hearted charm of the tale. This version is set in America, with the lead character, Kate, doing her best to look after her father and sister, and keep her ‘expressive’ mouth and face under control.

Kate has not quite had the life she may have imagined, but is a little taken aback when her father suggests she should marry his lab assistant, Pytor, in order to secure his green card. There is a clear exploration of the relationships between the characters and how small things can lead to big changes. Image is also central to this story: the image that people try to portray, sometimes even leading to surprising discoveries about the ‘real’ people.

There is a charm to this book that does make it very difficult to put down. You find yourself rooting for almost every character as they almost haphazardly make their way through day-to-day life. And there is a happy ending, even if it is not a fairy tale.

This has certainly inspired me to have a go at all the others – the question, however, is which one?

The Girls by Emma Cline

I was convinced that this book was not for me – I did judge it by its cover, and all the hype over the last 12 months, and was absolutely convinced that it was not a book for me. However, when it came up as the #BookClub140 read on Twitter I thought I had better give it a go and not judge a book by its cover.

As soon as I picked it up, I was hooked. There is something so compelling about this book; I am not sure it is a comfortable read, but it is a book you certainly can not put down. The atmosphere that is conjured up on every page is mesmerizing and really draws you into the story. Told in reflection of a balmy summer in the 1960s, which to most of us would probably be a romantic image, but it holds a dark secret that will haunt Evie for the rest of her life. In fact, it more or less follows her wherever she goes as she gains unintentional fame. There are little hints throughout the story about the events that haunt her and you can not help but turn the pages to find out what exactly took place.

This tale also offers an interesting study of human nature. What exactly makes this collection of ‘misfits’ tick and why is it that they are willing to follow the lead of Russell, even if it has devastating consequences? It strikes a level of fear in you that people can be so vulnerable and so easily led, and that they may not consider the impact of any of their actions outside their inner circle.

This is a book that really makes you think and you may not be sure if you should enjoy it or not, but it is one that I really recommend you should add to your to-be-read pile this summer. You could even join the #BookClub140 chat on twitter at the end of the month.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This is a title that I had spotted in the bookshops many times but had never quite got around to picking up. However, not so long ago, a lovely friend handed it to me and simply said ‘You need to read this, you’ll love it.’ And she was right! (Don’t you love having friends who know you so well they can pick books for you?)

I won’t lie, I was mildly concerned about the length of the novel, as I am not usually one for weighty historical fiction. However, a huge part of the charm of this book is that it is written in short, sharp chapters that allow you to process the story and keep you turning the page.

The two central characters are so wonderful, you fall in love with them as soon as you start seeing their story unfold. Marie-Laure is a wonderfully strong female character. She shows that, against all odds, people find strength to survive and achieve their dreams. Werner, meanwhile, is a boy who clearly finds himself torn between the desire to do the right thing and to grab opportunities that will give him a ‘brighter’ future.

One of the real skills of this storytelling is the clever way that the stories of these two characters cross over. Ultimately, a random series of events but almost shared experience draws Marie-Laure and Werner together. We also see that there is always kindness and the desire to do the right thing, whatever side war may put you on.

The novel certainly has an emotional conclusion, but it is wonderful that it shows the power of happy memories and the kindness of strangers.

Have you read any books that you have found to be a real surprise with how much you loved them?

Vice Versa – The Royal Shakespeare Company

As you may have realised if you are a regular reader of this little blog, I am quite a fan of The RSC and their work. Usually, it is all about their adaptations of Shakespeare, but recently I have decided I need to give some of their other work a chance (after all, ‘Wendy and Peter Pan’ and ‘Matilda’ are two of my favourite shows and they were brought to life by The RSC). So, when a friend asked if I fancied going to the theatre, I jumped at the chance to see ‘Vice Versa’. And, how can you say no to £16 tickets?

Vice Versa has been created as part of the Rome Season (which sensibly includes ‘Julius Caesar‘, ‘Antony and Cleopatra‘, ‘Titus Andronicus’ and ‘Coriolanus’) and it is an absolute joy of comic theatre. I can say without reservation that we laughed from start to finish, and were rather delighted that, despite being set in Ancient Rome, it was in modern English.

Vice Versa is ‘a new Roman comedy by Phil Porter, inspired by the plays of Plautus, and it is sheer comic genius. The cast, with their epic comic timing and clear enjoyment of being on the stage, bring this play to wonderfully raucous life for the audience. The tale is mainly told by Dexter, a slave, played by Sophia Nomvete (a wonderful comic actress) as the farce unfolds to ensure that the ever-so-vain General Braggadocio gets his just desserts after kidnapping Voluptua (played by Ellie Beaven – I slightly fan-girled at this, being of the generation of ‘The Wild House’ and ‘Down to Earth).

The laughs just keep coming all the way through the play; it reminded me of the good old-fashioned comedy of the Carry On films, as there are some slightly cheeky jokes. However, it has also carefully observed the current world around us to make some very pertinent comments about the madness that is the world we live in.

The musicians are also a brilliant part of this play, especially as several end up on the stage during a wonderful scene with the monkey (I’ll say no more…), as they provide the wonderful atmosphere and sound effects for the comedy that unfolds on stage.

This is really one of the most feel-good productions I have ever seen. Everyone involved is incredibly talented at bringing all the joy of theatrical comedy to the audience – the laughter was infectious in the theatre. I do not believe that anyone there did not leave without a huge smile on their face – because we certainly did.

Vice Versa is playing at The Swan in Stratford-Upon-Avon until the 9th September, so catch it if you can!