The Girl Friend by Michelle Frances

Thank you again to #BookClub140 for introducing me to a title that I may not have picked up otherwise. It is honestly the best thing about a book club community: they allow you to try something new.

The Girl Friend is a traditional psychological thriller that leads you on all sorts of twists and turns and makes you consider people’s motives. Although you get a good insight into all the characters, you can not help but turn the page to find out what trickery is to come next to allow Cherry to get her way. There is an interesting study of family relationships within the tale too; when and how do you make those decisions about who you trust or where your loyalty lies?

I am not sure that you necessarily invest in any of the characters, as they all seem to have clear faults – that almost leads to the tension between two of the central characters, Dan’s mother Laura and his girlfriend Cherry. In fact, it is Cherry’s mother that most of my sympathy lay with, rightly or wrongly.

If you want a good page turner, this book really does keep you turning the page from the moment you start, as you want know how the prologue was reached and what will happen next. And, if you enjoy a tense conclusion that does still leave a little question mark in your mind, then this is the novel for you.

Have you read any good thrillers recently that you think I should pick up and give a go?

Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham

Like so many, I am a huge Gilmore Girls fan, so when I spotted that Lauren Graham – aka Lorelai Gilmore – had written a memoir, I had to give it a go. I managed to find a copy in The Works at a bit of a bargain price, so I had to grab a copy.

I will be honest: other than that iconic show for so many and a couple of film roles, I did not know an awful lot about Lauren Graham so I was looking forward to finding out a little bit more about her. You do have to take a moment to get your head around the writing style as never has a title been so apt for a book; she is certainly talking as fast as she can (which appears to be something that has come from working on the Gilmore Girls, as there are some epic speeches in most episodes).

This is clearly an honest reflection on the journey that she had on becoming a star, the ups and downs that come with such a career, however, she does seem to take most experiences for their positives and rarely seems defeated. She speaks with such fondness about stars she admires, such as Carrie Fisher and Betty White, and their successful careers. Of course, she acknowledges the chances that the Gilmore Girls gave her and what a great cast she worked with during this show, originally and for ‘A Year in the Life’.

Once you start this, you are hooked. It is like reading words from a friend; you will laugh and you will cry sometimes at the most unexpected moment, but it does give you some faith that not all things Hollywood have a dark side.

Fan of the Gilmore Girls or not, I think that we could all take something away from this memoir – even if it is just to be a bit more positive about the paths our lives take, because there is always a silver lining!

Titus Andronicus – Don’t eat the pie!

The Rome Season from the RSC so far has been incredible, with their productions of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, so I had very high hopes for Titus Andronicus. My excitement levels had also been building since it had been announced that David Troughton would be taking the lead role. There are two reasons why this is big news for me: 1. (confession time) I am a huge Archers fan, and 2. (a more grown-up reason) he had been brilliant in King Lear as Gloucester, really making you believe that his eyes had been plucked out.

It was with great excitement that I arrived at the theatre; I was keen to see where this adaptation would take us. As it happens, it more or less brings us bang up to date – maybe a little worryingly so, considering the current situation in parts of the world, but the story does move seamlessly into the 21st century.

There are of course themes of conflict, power, wealth, deception and revenge; in fact, it is a very hard-hitting tale and maybe not one for the faint-hearted. The acting throughout from the whole cast was stunning; you were mesmerised by what was unfolding in front of you, even if at times it is slightly uncomfortable viewing. For me, it does contain one of the best acts of revenge in any Shakespeare (and possibly in any tale) but so as not to spoil it too much, I will simply warn you not to eat the pie – especially if it is being served to you by Titus himself!

This production was again a credit to the whole Royal Shakespeare Company and all the people it takes to bring such a production to the stage. It was truly brilliant and an excellent third installment in the Rome Season and a thoughtful reflection that the issues in modern-day society are not that far removed from those of thousands of years ago.

Coriolanus is the fourth part of this Rome Season, and I am excited to see what that has in store for us later this year.

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?