The Cactus by Sarah Haywood

One of the best thigs about summer is that I seem to fit a lot of reading time in. Therefore, I discover some gems which have been on my ‘to be read’ pile quite some time, and ‘The Cactus’ was one such title.

I had seen a lot of love for ‘The Cactus’ on social media and in the bookshops, so I was quite excited to give it a go when it became the next book to read.

‘The Cactus’ is such a charming book, full of warmth and humour throughout, even as it tackles some tough subjects. Susan Green has always thought she is fully in control of every aspect of her life; a strong, independent and very organised lady. She does not need anyone else, and enjoys her own company. That is, until she is 45 and life appears to be changing, in ways she can not control – in fact, was it ever as she thought it was?

This book creates characters you can really warm to, and probably represent people we all know. You really find yourself rooting for Susan as she embarks on a journey of self-discovery she didn’t know she needed. In fact, by the end, it is almost as if she has become a new person.

This is a novel that fans of ‘The Rosie Project’ or ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ will enjoy. Not sure I could rank them, as they are all marvellous in their own way – but if you have not read ‘The Cactus’ yet, make sure you do soon.

Rose, Interrupted by Patrice Lawrence

When I spotted that ‘Rose, Interrupted’ was out in the world I knew I had to read it. ‘Orangeboy’ and ‘Indigo Donut’ had both been books which I adored and I could not wait to read more from the pen of Patrice Lawrence.

I did not even read the blurb to this novel because I was convinced that, whatever the tale may be, I was going to enjoy it and I did. Patrice Lawrence again tackles some key topics that become entwined in the fascinating tale of Rose and her family.

Rose, and her brother (Rudder) and their mother are now part of the ‘real’ world after leaving a strict religious cult which their father is still part of. However, neither Rose or her brother, are really fully equipped for some of the modern dangers that young people face everyday with our internet world. So, they may now have more freedom, but does that also mean more danger – was the world with their father safer after all? Or does it have dangers of its own?

This book does not just tell a fascinating tale, but handles the ideas of liberty, identity and internet safety really well. It educates the reader as well as engaging them in the story of Rose and Rudder.

This is a YA book that I would recommend all young people and adults should read, as I think we could all learn a lot from such a wellcrafted tale.

I hope that there is more to come from Patrice Lawrence because I have enjoyed every book that I have read so far, and would love to read even more.

Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard

This was a book I knew nothing about other than that I had seen it in the bookstgram world. Oh my word, I am glad that I had found it in the real world, because it was quite a read.

The brilliant thing about YA fiction is that many of the authors have the confidence to tackle some topics that, not so long ago, people may have considered a little taboo. ‘Beautiful Broken Things’ tackles the subject of mental health, which is something that is becoming much more talked about – and rightly so.

When new girl Suzanne arrives in Brighton and becomes friends with Rosie and Caddy, she turns their lives upside down. Is she new and exciting? Or is there something deeper that appears to fuel this fun-loving girl? As the story unfolds, and clues to Suze’s past begin to be revealed, Caddy and Rosie are forced to reflect on themselves and their friendships – and how far do things have to go before things go too far?

Sara Barnard creates characters that are relateable and reflect experiences many people have as teenagers, especially that difficulty many have in finding their identity. However, the bond of friendship is often the strongest, and young people are often far more willing to see past the potential character ‘flaws’ in others and support those around them to offer strength.

The subject of mental health is handled well, with great sensitivity, but is also makes it accessible as a subject. The great thing about books is that they start conversations and remove the stigma from some topics.

I can’t wait to read more of Sara Barnard’s work, as I could not put this book down. Have you read any of her novels? What are your thoughts?

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

July’s pick for ‘Maidens of Murder’ bookclub was ‘Destination Unknown’; one of the only works by Christie not to have been brought to life on the screen – big or small.

This has more the feel of a thriller than Christie’s usual works. A standalone novel set against the early days of the Iron Curtain it is a tale of secrets, science and suspicion. There is, of course, a hint of murder, but it is not quite as central to the tale as it would be with some of Christie’s more well-known works. However, it is enjoyable to read something that is not traditional for Agatha Christie, and that really reflects the post-war era she was writing in.

However, it is a little worrying that a novel that is 65 years old is still relevant today or seems to be as we live through some turbulant times. Certainly thought-provoking.

So, thank you again ‘Maidens of Murder’ for encouraging me to read a Christie I would never have picked up otherwise. As always, looking forward to next month’s pick.

Sir Ian McKellen

Sir Ian McKellen is currently on tour to celebrate his 80th birthday. Also, his aim is to raise money for the arts, allowing theatres and companies to decide what the money raised will be spent on.

I have been a fan of Sir Ian McKellen as long as I can remember. He is someone who I rank with many of Britain’s great classical actors such as Dame Judi Dench, Sir Michael Gambon, Sir Patrick Stewart, the list is endless. And when the opportunity came up for me to see him on the stage of the RSC theatre, I was over the moon. It has been on my theatre bucket list to see Sir Ian McKellen on the stage, and what better place than Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s home town?

From the moment he took to the stage, the audience was fully captivated. Especially as he opened with a passage from ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’. McKellen held the audience’s attention as he told tales about his journey to stardom. There was so much humour and emotion as he took us on a tour of his career, we were even given the chance to see his Dame Twanky. I was grinning all the way through the first half – and possibly a little starstruck.

The second half was a wonderful nod to Shakespeare and all his plays. Sir Ian McKellen told anecdotes of productions he had performed in, as well as performing extracts from plays – he must be one of the only actors who can create a Shakespeare medley. In fact, I may have shed a little tear when paid tribute to some of the family and friends he has lost over the years. It was beautiful.

An evening in the company of Sir Ian McKellen is one of the best moments I have spent in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (and that’s a bold statement). Everyon around me was also having an amazing time, which was a true tribute to the talent of the star that is Sir Ian McKellen.

The Taming of the Shrew

Well, a rather cutural weekend in mid-July started with a trip to my happy place (The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, for any newbies to the blog). The play of choice was the latest version of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ from the RSC.

This was an interesting adaptation of the classic tale, as the roles were gender-reversed. Kate and Bianco were the focus of the tale, men who came to the attention of the powerful women of Italy. However, still set in Shakespeare’s day, and the matriarchy of Elizabeth I. To begin with, I fully embraced the idea of strong females playing the game, having all the skill and focus to tame the men and achieve what they want. However, as you watch it, you realise that it is actually not a particularly friendly tale (as it is often romanticised as), but actually a tale of manipulation.

Now, this is a sign of a good production, as it makes you reflect and think about the tale that is unfolding in front of you. And maybe, as a female I was more aware of the tale as the women took the lead.

This was an excellent production. Purists may not enjoy the change of genders, but this does not take away from the tale at all. There is comedy and emotion in the production, and you are invested in the tale from the moment it begins. Bianco is fabulously vain; Kate is fabulously rough and ready, but goes through the transformation like a butterfly, and Claire Price makes Petruchia her own.

There was, of course, everything else you would expect from an RSC production. A simple but engaging set and a great use of music and costume to bring the tale to life. A clever reflection of past and present, I would recommend catching this porduction if you can, as I think it will lead you to reflect on this story a little differently to before.

Although, I have to admit that this experience was probably enhanced by spotting Sir Ian McKellen in the audience which will conviently lead to my next post…

Our House by Louise Candlish

Sometimes you just need to read a thriller book, unfortunately, this book was not as much of one as I would have liked.

There were all of the ingredients of a successful thriller; however, somewhere a little something was missing to make it as thrilling as it could have been. The idea of someone’s house being sold without their knowledge and the motive behind it was fascinating – the method of telling the story was brilliant, as it tapped into the current fascination with true crime stories. Also, the narrative allowed the victim and the perpetrator a voice. However, the characters were difficult to warm to or engage with. And one of the ‘twists’ is visible from the moment it starts.

Don’t get me wrong, I still read the novel until the end but it is not a book I would pick up again. If you like the pacer thrillers this won’t be a book for you, but I do think it would be a good beach read if you are ready to unwind. And you may well be left questioning who you should trust.

The Choice by Edith Eger

I have just returned from Krakow, Poland. The purpose of this visit was to visit Auschwitz and educate young people on the past, present and future of the Jewish community of Europe. After all as the quote from George Santayna states, ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

One of the greatest ways for us to understand the tragic events of the Holocaust is from the testimonies and memories of those who sadly had to experience them. One such survivor was Edith Eger, and has put pen to paper to bring us a true story of hope in her work ‘The Choice’.

I knew nothing about this book until a friend had read it and passed it on to me, as she wanted a History teacher’s view of it. And she could not have timed it better to coincide with my trip to Poland.

Oh my – what a book – what a life. I am so glad that Edith Eger felt she could tell her story as part of her attempt to release herself from her past.

Edith became a prisoner of Auschwitz when her family was sent there along with thousands of Hungarian Jews. She talks about her experiences in the camp – even her encounter with Doctor Mengele. However, this is not the sole focus of the book; this is about the choices she consciously makes to survive. And these choices are made by Edith every day, from the moment she was taken to the camp right up to now.

Edith Eger comes across as an extremely strong woman who did not want her past to define her, but to allow her to become the woman she is today. Now, she helps others to make the choices they need to, for them to become the best versions of themselves. Edith does not want others to make the mistakes that were made in the past.

This book is one that is almost impossible to put down, as you follow Edith Eger through her life story. It certainly made me consider the choices I make a little more carefully as, ultimately, we are the only people in control of our future and we do not have to rely on others or events beyond our control to take over.

This book is an inspiration and certainly made me look at my trip to Krakow a little differently to those trips I had made before.

What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

My final title for my ‘Reading with Pride’ month was ‘What If It’s Us’. I had seen this book around a few times and have read other titles by Becky Albertalli, so I thought it would be a good read. And, oh it was!

This is a perfect book for any teenager who has struggled with first love and friendships, and all the complications that come with them.

This starts in the most ideally perfect romantic fashion. Boy meets boy but neither boy actually makes sure that they can see each other again. Although that does not put Arthur off searching for Ben using his best detective skills. Luckily, the universe intervenes and they embark on the adventure of a relationship and all that comes with it.

It tackles all the usual angst that comes with being a teenager, especially one starting a new relationship. Arthur has never had a boyfriend before and has quite a romantic view of life. Ben seems to be so much more experienced with his handsome ex, Hudson. But, really, they are both just boys finding their way in life. They just need confidence, their friends, family and, of course. each other to get them there.

This is a brilliant book, as it simply tells a wonderful LGBT+ love story. And this is totally how it should be in the 21st century – these stories should be mainstream and readily available for all to read. The range of YA fiction is brilliant and I am a little sad that there was not so much when my generation was growing up, because books can be so much support for so many people.

Hobson’s Choice

Many years ago in Mrs Dove’s English class, a group of students (including me) studied the play ‘Hobson’s Choice’. We also watched the wonderful black-and-white film with Charles Laughton and Sir John Mills. Therefore, when I saw that the Birmingham Royal Ballet was putting on the ballet as part of the summer season, I knew it had to be a treat for me and my Mum to go.

It was perfect! A fairly modern ballet as it was first composed, choreographed and performed in 1989. It is absolutely magical, totally reminiscent of those old silent movies. The story is told completely through the music, the choreography and the perfect expressions all the dancers performed. And, any ballet that can get ’10 Green Bottles’ into its score is good fun. Every dancer on the stage performed their character with great humour and emotion, and it really brought the whole story to life. The whole ballet was completely engaging and the audience were enthralled. There was even a little sing-along too.

‘Hobson’s Choice’ is such a delightful story which actually has a very strong female lead in the guise of Hobson’s daughter Maggie. This could be considered quite unusual for its time. But she is certainly the one behind sorting out her father and helping Will Mossop to really be appreciated for the talented boot maker that he is. She was performed brilliantly by Beatrice Parma.

Although, this may not be your traditional ballet tale, it was wonderful and I would absolutely love to see it again, as sometimes it does not feel like you can take it all in when you just watch it once.

Do you enjoy the ballet? Do you have a favourite?