Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Books of the Year 2013

Top Titles

In 2013 my reading slowed down towards the end of the year as my studies started, sure I am still reading but now it is a lot of chapters from books or article journals rather than whole books from cover to cover.

That being said in 2013 I did still manage to read 218 books, a fair chunk of these were non-fiction and very few were re-reads. I think I read the least children's books ever this year too!

Picking my top reads was actually very hard - the top two came easily but after that I had to pour over my reading journal to narrow it down, and even then I had to cheat!  Please note that these lists are simply the best books I read this year and *not* the best books published this year!

Top 10 Fiction:

  1. The President's Hat by Antoine Laurain
  2. The Yohnalasse Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani
  3. Wars of the Roses: Stormbird by Conn Iggulden
  4. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
  5. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
  6. Austerlitz by W G Sebald
  7. The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber
  8. Longbourn by Jo Baker
  9. Fortunately the Milk by Neil Gaiman
  10. Stoner by John Williams
Some of these choices surprise even me...I read Disclafani's book back in January and thought it was brilliant, but never expected it to stay in my top 10 let alone in my top 2 - it set the bar very high for all other books this year!

The Marlowe Papers is a book in verse and about the idea that Shakespeare's plays were written by Marlowe, I should have loathed it but instead found it gripping.  Equally I've not got on that well with many of Neil Gaiman's books (to the horror of my reading group) but yet this deceptively simple book has really stuck with me.

Top 5 Non Fiction:

  1. An Astronaut's Guide to Life of Earth by Commander Chris Hadfield
  2. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
  3. The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane
  4. One Summer: 1927 by Bill Bryson
  5. White Hart, Red Lion by Nick Asbury
Honorable mentions in the non fiction category have to go to the 12 short books published by Penguin to celebrate the 150th birthday of the Tube especially 32 Stops by Danny Dorling about the Central Line which was a real eye-opener.

So far I've not seen many lists of books that are to be published in 2014 and so I don't know what to expect - I'm just hoping that the next Conn Iggulden book will be out soon, but as yet there is nothing on his website. 

Monday, 30 December 2013

Theatrical Review of 2013

Favourites from 2013

A bumper year for theatre visits this year as I saw 34 productions live plus a handful of 'as lives' in the theatre.  Some things didn't live up to my expectations - People and Mojo spring to mind instantly for this category.

I met a play that I actively loathed - Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios, but luckily the version staged later in the year at The Globe reminded me that I do like the play when it is done well.

In no particular order my top five theatrical performances from 2013 are:

  1. The Color Purple at the Chocolate Menier Theatre
  2. Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake at the Theatre Royal, Norwich
  3. The Henry VI trilogy at The Globe
  4. The Merchant of Venice at Norwich Cathedral
  5. Blue Stockings at The Globe
Near misses from my top 5 included Privates on Parade, Proof, and The Snowman!

In 2014 I am already looking forward to visiting the new Sam Wanamaker Theatre, seeing King Lear with Simon Russell Beale at the National Theatre and all of the summer season at The Globe.

I'm also hoping that there is a revival of Journey's End soon as I really want to see it again and that the trope of having a toilet/vomiting on stage soon vanishes!

Monday, 23 December 2013

Theatrical Interlude 34

The Snowman, Peacock Theatre, London. December 2013.

My love of theatre is possible spreading too far as on this outing I was accompanied by my dad, my sister and my 3 1/2 year old nephew.  Who in their right mind would take a pre-schooler to London, to the theatre, five days before Christmas...

I'm pleased to say that we had an absolutely brilliant time at this production. It is sensibly formed of two 45 minute acts telling the simple, well loved, story by Raymond Briggs. In the first half the little boy builds the snowman, he comes to life and they explore the house. Just before the interval the boy and snowman fly off the stage to the famous song We're Walking in the Air.

After a decent 20 minute break we come back and the duo are still flying but quickly land at the North Pole and have their adventures with Father Christmas and the other snowmen.  There are two added plot lines here as the Snowman falls in love with the snow queen and then has to fight Jack Frost for her love.  For once additions to a story fit completely and really do add to the tale.

Just like in the book and on the film after the pair fly home there is a thaw and the inevitable happens - which left the three adults in our party with a huge lumps in our throats.

Oh - and all of this is a ballet, not a word is uttered.

Unsurprisingly the audience was full of children at our matinee and I'm happy to say that they mostly behaved better than adult audiences at other plays I've seen! As for my nephew - he was pretty much on the edge of his seat throughout with his eyes like saucers in wonder. In his words, and echoed by us all, it was "magical".

I think that we'd all like to see this again next year but hopefully MummyNorfolkbookworm won't be poorly and she'll be able to come too...

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Theatrical Interlude 33

Richard II, RSC at The Barbican, London. December 2013.

This play is one of the ones that I've looked at in a little bit of detail this semester and so for the first time I went into the auditorium with some insight into the play. For which I am quite glad.

Whilst this was a good production, with actors who were clearly at home speaking Shakespeare's words clearly - as if they were normal dialogue and not something special -  the start of the first half to me seemed a little unclear.

From the reading I've done I knew why the King behaved as he did but I didn't see that on the stage. In fact the start of the play was only explained in the last half of the last act...

On the plus side other scenes that I'd read in the play but that hadn't made an impact on me for their importance did make a lot more sense on seeing them on the stage, but even then to make them stick out perhaps they were over played a little for some light relief in a dark play?

The plot of Richard II is very similar to that of Edward II (history does repeat itself after all!) and having seen both plays in quick succession I can say that while Edward II was quite frankly a little too experimental at times I found it was easier to understand why that King had to be deposed. In Richard II he was a little wishy-washy, vague and had too much self importance but the real reasons why his nobles felt he should go didn't come across. I know that in general it is better to show than to tell but in this case I thought we needed a little more of both!

I'm very pleased to have seen this production as David Tennant was very good but apart from his hair and the overall impression of the play I don't think anything else from the production will stay with me - it was a nice way to spend an afternoon but not a standout production for me.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Making an exhibition of myself?

The Georgians Revealed, The British Library, London. December 2013.

A recent training day at the British Library has become one of my work highlights of the year.  We're going to be working on a very exciting project next year in conjunction with the BL and as a pre-Christmas treat 2 colleagues and I got to spend the day getting to know the library a little better.

We had a brief tour of the library including into one of the Reading Rooms and from that I now really do want to spend one day there during my MA if at all possible, although it is possible that I will find the silence too oppressive for good work!

After the training we had a couple of hours free and very kindly we were given free tickets to the latest exhibition in the library, all about the Georgians.  None of us knew much about the era but by the end we all wanted to read/reread the novels, go to a ball and try on the costumes.

The exhibition starts with a wonderfully innovative time line putting the period into historical and political context but then the main exhibition is all about the social side of the era using books and artifacts to illustrate this.  It was incredibly interesting and informative even with no real prior knowledge of the time and it would be easy to spend hours in the exhibition pouring over everything.  I was incredibly taken with the books about the formal dances, including the foot plans for people dancing a quadrille.  I have two left feet and could see I'd have been no asset at a ball.

The real highlight for the three of us was the 1799 map of London that has been turned into flooring just as you leave the exhibition. We spent ages working out where modern buildings were and what we recognised from today.  Also the chance to say we walked right across London is too good to miss!

The exhibition is on until March and even at £9 is worth every penny, I'm tempted to go back.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Theatrical Interlude 32

Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Norwich Theatre Royal. November 2013.

Another great London production on tour in Norwich and this one came highly recommended by mum and dad - they saw it for their 40th wedding anniversary!

It has been a long time since I've watched the original movie but I think that this was a pretty good adaptation even if at times it did feel a little too fast so that the tension and pathos didn't have time to build. I don't think that this is the point of the show however as it is just a vehicle (pun intended) to showcase some good singing (except Jason Donovan's on the night we saw it!) and some amazing costumes.

The whole production was slick and shiny but for some reason I didn't quite come out with the full-on feel good factor I was hoping for, and that other musicals have left me with.  I wasn't humming any of the songs, and while I did enjoying myself on the night there are no stand out moments replaying themselves in my mind.  It also didn't manage to convey any of the coy naughtiness that I thought it might - but that may be because I saw an Alan Bennett play earlier in the day and that was rude!

I did enjoy my night but there is nothing in this musical that makes me want to see it again, which is a shame as I can see that it was a really good production! Mr Norfolkbookworm and I had seats in the stalls this time and although not sold as restricted view seats we did miss some of the action to the side of the stage, I'm wondering if all the really good bits happened there?!

Friday, 29 November 2013

Theatre at the movies (again!)

The Habit of Art, National Theatre Live (Encore), Cinema City, Norwich. November 2013.

After seeing a few plays by Alan Bennett, and always feeling slightly annoyed that the original History Boys passed  me by, I was really pleased when the National Theatre announced that they'd be broadcasting The Habit of Art as part of their 50th birthday celebrations.

Once more I went in without knowing anything about the play but as ever this didn't matter because the story was totally accessible and the plot comprehensible.  I quite like plays within plays and so from the off I was predisposed to like this one I suppose.

Like everything Alan Bennett writes this was very funny, very rude and very sly - I don't think I've laughed so much in public since I saw Noises Off! There wasn't quite the poignancy in the script as in more recent Bennett works, but that was provided by seeing the late Richard Griffiths on stage.  I do wish that I'd seen him in something live before he died - c'est la vie.

This was a great way to spend a cold, wet winter Monday and I am really pleased how many NTLive performances (as well as those from the RSC and Donmar Warehouse) have already been announced for 2014. Much as I like going to London seeing fabulous things like this in Norwich is a real treat.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Theatrical Interlude 31

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, Theatre Royal, Norwich. November 2013.

Last year I tried opera for the first time and found that, at least the one I saw, wasn't for me. Since then I've been thinking about ballet and trying to find one to see.  The version of Romeo and Juliet choreographed by Macmillan has been recommended but I'd also heard a lot about the Matthew Bourne's staging of Swan Lake, thus when I found out it was coming to Norwich I knew I had to see it.

Now before seeing it I knew nothing about the ballet or the story at all (I've not even seen Black Swan) and I decided that I wouldn't  look it up. I wondered if a whole story could be told completely through music and dance only.

I'm pleased to say that it really can, well at least in this version it really can. From curtain up in act one right through to the end I was spellbound, and by the end I did have tears rolling down my face. How talented are the dancers that I really forgot I was watching men on the stage but just saw swans gracefully moving and then violently reacting?

I know that some people who read my blog are going to see this later in the tour and so I'm not going to say much more - I want the impact for them to be as great as it was for me, but I am looking forward to talking with them about it afterwards!

I shall be eagerly scanning the theatre guides looking for more Matthew Bourne productions and equally really searching for a ballet to see at the Coliseum in London complete with live orchestra. Suggestions of what to see gratefully received.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

A space sensation

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth - Chris Hadfield

I think that regular readers of my thoughts will realise that I have three main interests - reading, the theatre and manned space flight.  When two of these combine it is a real treat.

Commander Chris Hadfield was the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station during his nearly 6 months in space earlier in 2013. In that time his use of social media to share his experiences made him probably the best known astronaut since Neil Armstrong.

Just 6 months after his return to Earth, after spending the preceding 5 months in space, Hadfield has published his autobiography. I am guessing that perhaps he'd been working on it prior to flight as nothing about it feels rushed or incomplete, it is just a delight to read from cover to cover.

I've read a lot of astronaut (and cosmonaut) memoirs and this is easily in my top three.  Hadfield decided he wanted to be an astronaut in July 1969 as he watched Armstrong and Aldrin walk on the moon and set out in a very single minded fashion to make his dream come true.

However he is Canadian and despite this determination he seems unable to be nasty as he achieves his dream.he always comes across as a very nice person, Throughout the book recognises that he must have talent and ability but he remains humble and charts his mistakes clearly and gives tips for how he thinks a person should behave to get ahead and remain well liked.

The book doesn't contain too many technological details but I did learn a lot more about the other aspects of training, I also know more about going to the loo in space than I did before.  Hadfield drops tiny tidbits of gossip but never names names which just makes me want to read more, he is also far more open about his health problems before, during and after flight than I've ever known an astronaut be before.

If you only got interested in the space programme thanks to following @Cmdr_Hadfield you won't be disappointed in the book, and if like me you have a deeper interest I don't think you'll regret reading this book for moment.

Now if you'll excuse me I am off to haunt the website to see if I can meet Commander Hadfield when he is in the UK next month but I do urge you to watch his version of Space Oddity - the book tells you just how the video was made!

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Theatrical Interlude 30

Mojo, Harold Pinter Theatre, London 2013.

I've been delaying writing this theatre visit up as even a few weeks on I am not sure how to do so fairly.

Rebecca and I were lucky enough to secure tickets to the very first preview performance of this revival and so in many ways this was like seeing a work in progress and it doesn't seem kind to write about it.


It was a really interesting experience to see something that no one else had before, it had a stellar cast that threw everything they had into the performance and the first act was brilliant - fast paced, tense and just enough black humour to counter balance that.  It didn't matter that as an audience member I didn't really know what what going on - I've come to realise that it what I was supposed to feel as it is what the main characters on the stage are also feeling.

Act 2 wasn't as great, for me it was overlong with less humour. This time not really understanding the characters' motivation really meant I felt too far at sea to enjoy the experience fully.

However this was the first public performance and I am sure that if I was to revisit some of these points, especially the run time, would have been addressed. Sadly I just didn't like it enough to want to look out for the chance to see it again.

I do think that the problems I have with Mojo are all my own, many of the reviews I've read are much more positive and I must stress that there wasn't a weak link on stage. Perhaps I'm just too immersed in 450 year old plays at the moment to appreciate a modern play?

Mojo 'opens' on November 13th and I think that it will get pretty good reviews and with a cast including Ron Weasley, Merlin and Q from Bond it is always going to find an audience!

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Theatrical Interlude 29

Edward II, Oliver Stage, National Theatre, London. October 2013.

So much for not having so much time to blog - well I suppose I am reading less for fun currently and don't have so many book reviews to share.

This past weekend Rebecca and I had another of our London binges - this time two plays and two museums in the space of 36 hours (37 if you count the end of BST!). We were joined by another friend but she has more sense than us and just came for lunch and the first play - Marlowe's Edward II...

This was a mix of styles in performance as some of the actors were in period costume and others very much in modern dress. The same followed through with the set and staging and after a few moments to understand that this was the style I found that it didn't bother me too much. The swapping of genders for participants also took a while to settle in but the actors were so good this did also cease to be an issue.

The play itself is also a little bit of a mixture as it has a deceptively simple story line - bad king makes bad decisions and his lords rise up against him. However as plotting to overthrow a monarch is something best done in private how to show this, and all of the bad decisions, on stage...

This production used handheld cameras to follow the actors into less visible areas and at times there were two stories being told - the actors at the front of the stage and then the projected video feed on the walls to the side.

I think it worked.

I came away being bowled over by the quality of the actors and the power of the story but slightly less convinced on the staging.  The Oliver theatre has a wonderful revolving section and in my mind I'd imagined that being used to switch between parts of the story.

A lot of Edward's downfall comes about because he advances his (male) lovers politically and the existing nobles,naturally, don't particularly like this usurpation of their power. For me this play wasn't about their homophobia - when the king kisses his favourites (which he did a lot) the lords aren't shocked by this, or repulsed. It is the behaviour of the lovers as they flaunt their wealth, power and influence that enrages the establishment.

Gaveston (the King's lover and one cause of his downfall) was seated in the audience at the start and when he leapt from his seat and started talking to the stage I did wonder if there was an unhinged audience member. While this use of the whole theatre works at The Globe it felt a little awkward in this performance and made me long to see this either done in a more 'straight' fashion or actually at The Globe with full groundling participation.

This all sounds more negative than I actually felt on seeing the play as I enjoyed it a great deal.  It also makes an interesting comparison with this week's set uni text which is Richard II - another poor king who loses his life.

picture of the whole cast and crew of the play tweeted by the National Theatre and taken just after the curtain fell on the matinee that we saw.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Theatrical Interlude 28

The Cambridge Greek Play 2013, Arts Theatre, Cambridge. October 2013.

Three years ago a friend told us about a version of Agamemnon that was being shown in Cambridge, intrigued we went and had a nice time. Intrigued because this is company that only perform every three years and when they do so it is in the original ancient Greek.

The trip didn't start well, one of the party couldn't make it and the main road from Norwich to Cambridge was shut but eventually Mr Norfolkbookworm and I met Rebecca at Cambridge station and set forth to the city. The run of bad luck seemed to continue as a phone stopped working and all the restaurants were full when it came to needing lunch. However we found sustenance and all seemed to be going well.

We had great seats in the theatre, lots of leg room and soon settled in for what we'd told Rebecca was a great experience, yes the plays might be in a dead language but that didn't matter - there were surtitles, no different than a foreign language film...

This cycle two plays were performed Prometheus before the interval and The Frogs after, tragedy then comedy.

Prometheus wasn't to any of our tastes although I can see that if you know the play/Greek it offered a lot more.   The plot was simple Prometheus has helped Zeus to over throw his father but then has helped out the human race and angered Zeus. Who has him chained to a rock.  The next 55 minutes or so are all about why he is there. With singing.  I can see from my studies into theatre why this is considered a good play and I can also see a lot of the aspects of drama that I've been reading about and I mean no offence to the cast when I say on the whole we didn't enjoy this one.

After the interval it was a different matter. The Frogs, and especially this version, is bonkers. The god Dionysus has decided that there are no longer any good jokes being written so he is going to have to go to the Underworld and bring Euripides or Aeschylus back to life in order to have some amusement.  The god is however a coward and this leads to much humour, oh and some ancient Greek politics (not that different from our own really!).

You really did have to be there to appreciate how funny and truly mad this play was, the jokes translate from stage to blog about as well as they do from ancient Greek to English - it really was all in the staging.  My mind melted when Charon and Dionysus are sitting in a row boat singing in Greek to the tune of O Sole Mio but the surtitles are showing the words to Row, Row, Row your Boat. Oh and apparently Greek frogs say brekekekex koax koax not ribbitt.

The day turned out to be great fun after all and I think Mr Norfolkbookworm and I will try to see the next play in 2016 but this really has reinforced to me that tragedies are my least favourite style of play overall, it isn't just Shakespeare!

Friday, 18 October 2013

An honour

Meeting Captain Alan Bean, astronaut (retd)

This past weekend I was in the presence of a truly great and inspirational man. Thanks to the efforts of Ken Willoughby, and Space Lectures, Mr Norfolkbookworm and I had the opportunity to go and hear one of only 12 men to walk on the moon speak.

It may have been a little crazy to drive from Norwich to Pontefract for a 90 minute talk but in the week that we lost another space legend (Scott Carpenter - fourth American in space) it seemed like the right thing to do.

Captain Bean flew on Apollo 12 and also on the second Skylab mission but his talk was not a dry "we did this, then we did that" lecture it was profound, poignant, fascinating and funny. One of the other audience members has done a wonderful job transcribing the event and if you'd like to see what caused me to have a huge lump in my throat and to join in a spontaneous standing ovation I reccommend having a read. It isn't a dry nerdy thing at all and you need no particular knowledge of the space programme to enjoy it.

After the talk Captain Bean signed autographs for the audience and spent a few moments with everyone in the queue - all 470 of us...

I felt as start stuck as a teenager meeting One Direction!

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Theatrical Interlude 27

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare's Globe, London. October 2013.

I was beginning to think that I was never going to see this play at its best as once more the weather forecast was dire for the day Rebecca and I headed to London.  Luckily the rain band seemed to sweep right round Southwark and we stayed mostly dry.

This was the first Shakespeare play I'd seen since starting my MA and it just so happened that the first unit was all about outdoor theatre and the staging of Tudor plays in their original environment.  I was very glad that I had seen this play earlier in the season as at least for the first half I was a little distracted by putting the things I'd read earlier in the week into context.

As ever with the Globe I couldn't stay distracted for long as the quality of the acting just had me spellbound and I really did feel that I was in the middle of a fairy inspired dream/nightmare.  My last minute seat was a restricted view (more so than some others at the theatre) and I couldn't actually see much of the mechanicals' scene. This reinforced to me something that keeps coming up in my reading - people went to hear a play in Shakespeare's time. I may not have been able to see the slap stick action but I didn't miss a second of it thanks to the writing!

The Globe 2013 Season of Plenty closed on 13th October, I'm already haunting the website for hints as to what is coming next year but also I can't wait for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to open in January so I can see how the Jacobean indoor theatre would have worked!

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Sporadic Posting Possible

I'm hoping that this won't be the case but there is the chance that postings on here may become fewer and may just be limited to theatre reviews until next summer as 18 years after I started my undergraduate degree at the wonderful University of East Anglia:

I am about to start an MA with the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham:

Expect lots of reviews of Shakespeare (as well as others when I can squeeze them in) but possibly not quite so many book reviews until I can treat myself to another book binge break!

Monday, 30 September 2013

Everyone was tweeting about...

Stoner by John Williams

Rediscovered classics are a weakness of mine and over the summer everyone seemed to be tweeting about Stoner and so I was looking forward to reading this on holiday.

It was another book that didn't disappoint although it is one of those books that it is hard to sum up for in a way the fact that not a lot happens is the point of the book.

It is well written, detailed and a real snapshot into academic life from the first half of the twentieth century but at the same time it is quite bleak and not what could be called an uplifting book.  None of the characters are entirely nice or easy to engage with but the story is so realistic that I found it to be a real page turner.

I'm very pleased I read the book, I will look out for more of William's novels but I'll know that they are books to read when I am in a calm, relaxed, happy state of mind otherwise I can see that the realistic settings could depress me.

This is a book I recommend but to whom I am not 100% certain!

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Reading around the play

Wars of the Roses: Stormbird by Conn Iggulden

Earlier in the year I had my mad but thoroughly enjoyable day at The Globe watching the three Henry VI plays all in one day. The day was great and the plays have stayed with me since the viewing but they did make me realise just how little English history I know.

When Net Galley offered advance copies of Iggulden's new book I had everything crossed that I'd be allowed to download it ready for my holiday as it covers the exact period of the plays. I know from having heard Iggulden speak about his other books that he researches thoroughly and that I'd come away knowing a lot more accurate history of Henry VI's reign than that given by Shakespeare in his plays!

From the start I was thoroughly involved in the plots, deceptions and politics of the time and found I could see everything that was happening - books that play visually as I read them don't happen that often and those that do are often the books that become my favourites.

Iggulden doesn't create black and white characters, all of those in the book have shades of grey to them even if they are the traditional good/bad guys.

My one problem with this book is that because I read an early copy of this book I am going to have to wait even longer for the next instalment.

Conn Iggulden is coming to Norwich very soon to talk about and sign copies of this book - sadly I am working but it will be a great evening if you can make it.

Monday, 23 September 2013

It is a truth that I need to acknowledge...

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Here comes a big confession from a bookworm who has worked in the book trade for fifteen years - I've never read (or watched and adaptation of) Pride and Prejudice.

I feel better for saying that out loud.

However while we were away I did read and thoroughly enjoy Baker's retelling of the story from the servants point of view - if the Bennett sisters think that they have a hard life that is nothing at all compared to the 4 people who keep the house running.

Having not read the source book I can't comment on how accurate to the story it is, or how well this book sits with it but as a stand alone book I found it compelling*.  There were enough little twists in a fairly predictable plot that made the story a great escapist read. The servants came alive in the writing and Baker painted some wonderful images for me, while I was reading the book I did feel I had travelled in time.

Who knows I may now read the original...and that is something that even Colin Firth in a wet shirt hadn't inspired me to do!

the copy of Longbourn that I read was an electronic proof from Net Galley

*I've just read a long awaited final book in a series and was very disappointed in it - mainly because you had to have (recently) read the other books in the series to understand any of the plot. Prequels and sequels are all very well but they have to work as stand alone books for new readers.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Book Binge

Mr Norfolkbookworm and I have just come back from 2 glorious weeks in Crete. We did a little sightseeing and a lot of relaxing, eating and drinking.

In fact over the course of the holiday I finished 25 books - this might actually be a record for me and once more I am grateful for the existence of eReaders as due to luggage weight limits and a lack of English books in the book swaps I'd have been stuck without it!

The books I read:

  1. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont - Elizabeth Taylor
  2. When You are Engulfed in Flames - David Sedaris
  3. Wars of the Roses: Stormbird - Conn Iggulden (eProof)
  4. Flowers of the Field - Sarah Harrison
  5. A Flower That's Free - Sarah Harrison
  6. Stone - John Williams (eProof)
  7. Instructions for a Heatwave - Maggie O'Farrell
  8. The Old Ways - Robert Macfarlane
  9. Dear Lupin - Roger Mortimer
  10. Longbourn - Jo Baker (eProof)
  11. Life After Life - Kate Atkinson
  12. Canvey Island - James Runcie
  13. Why be happy when you can be normal - Jeanette Winterson
  14. Big Brother - Lionel Shriver
  15. A Time of Gifts - Patrick Leigh Fermor
  16. Testament of Mary - Colm Toibin
  17. The Suicide Shop - Jean Teule
  18. Hector and the Search for Happiness - Francois Lelord
  19. Harvest - Jim Crace
  20. Ranger Confidential - Andrea Lankford
  21. Lucy Maud Montgomery - Mary Henley Rubio
  22. Neither Here Nor There - Bill Bryson
  23. Anne of Green Gables - L M Montgomery
  24. The Interestings - Meg Wolitzer
  25. Transatlantic - Colum McCann

I did start a couple of others but they didn't capture me after 70 pages - I'm not sure if they just didn't fit my mood or if they aren't for me...I'll give them a go again sometime to make a decision.

Of the 25 my favourites were Longbourn, The Interestings, Stoner, Stormbird and A Time of Gifts. When we first got back I included Life After Life in this list but since then the feeling of enjoyment has remained but the plot has faded.

Just to finish this post off this is the view from where I did most of my reading...

Monday, 9 September 2013

Hats Off!

The President's Hat by Antoine Laurain

My friend and colleague Jon (who blogs here) recommended this book to me recently and when it became eBook of the day shortly after I decided that I really should read it.

A few years ago I read a few other Gallic Press books and enjoyed them so I was looking forward to starting this one and a long train journey gave me the chance to read it all in one go.

It was a delight from page one - it is a strange, whimsical tale about how one simple black felt hat can change the lives of all who come into contact with it, even if they don't come by it strictly legally...

I don't know how to talk about the book without spoiling it for you but this book has jumped to the top of my favourite reads of 2013 and I think everyone should read it.  And then when you've finished it go and find another Gallic Press book - The Suicide Shop - which is equally bizarre but equally enjoyable!

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Backlog of books

Over the past few months there have been loads of advance copies on the download Net Galley service.  I've been approved for lots of them but have only recently had time to read them.  I'm saving the rest for my holiday and for light relief as I work through my uni reading list.

The first book I 'opened' was Last Launch by Dan Winters this is a beautiful photographic book dedicated to the last 3 flights made by each of the Space Shuttles before they were retired a couple of years ago.  I viewed this one on my PC as it wasn't Kindle compatible and as a proof it worked completely as I fell in love with the pictures and have added the book to my wish list.
The advance copy gave a nice flavour of the book but there really is no substitute for a nice coffee table book.

Next I came to The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan and this book was in equal parts informative, interesting and totally frustrating. I knew a little of the history of the Manhattan Project but not a lot and this book did give me an overview of how the decisions were made and how 'the Gadget' was put together in various factories throughout the USA.
It was also nice having the focus on the women workers on the project rather than the scientists, like so many war time industries it was quite a female dominated industry.
But...and you just knew this was coming!
The book chopped and changed from history to science to biography so rapidly that I never felt I got to grips with any part fully and disappointingly it was the biographies of these fascinating women that lost out the most.
The book doesn't set out to discuss the rights and wrongs of nuclear weapons, it is just supposed to be a personal take but the lack of follow through on the stories left me frustrated at the end.  These were people who worked in a highly dangerous, unregulated and unexplored industry and we don't find out how they coped after the war - were there illness etc?

I wanted to really love this book - social, thought provoking personal histories are just my thing but I left feeling disappointed by this one.

Lastly I had a copy of Fortunately the Milk by Neil Gaiman. I have a love-hate relationship with Mr Gaiman's books and recently at a book group I was the only one in a group to not like the book we'd read. This one however was great fun - mum's away and the milk for cereal runs out. Dad goes out to get some more and is gone for ages, when he gets back it is with a wonderful tall tale to explain the delay.

The plot, when mixed with Chris Riddell's fabulous illustrations, was a delight from start to finish and I can't wait until my nephew is old enough to have me read this to him!

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Books by post

Lots of the books I've been reading and enjoying lately have come from very small, independent publishing houses and a lot of them have also been books in translation.

While the books can be found in mainstream book shops and of course in the library I decided that I wanted to support these publishers in a more direct way than just reading the odd book.

Both And Other Stories and Peirene Press run a subscription model.  Like a magazine you subscribe to them and every time they publish a book it is sent to you - generally slightly in advance of the book being available on the general shelves.

Both publishers have produced books that I've enjoyed a great deal, and even when not quite my cup of tea the books have been thought provoking. I don't subscribe to any magazines and so unable to decide which publisher to support I threw caution to the wind and joined both schemes.

I've had at least one book from each scheme now and it is a great feeling knowing that quality books are going to be delivered regularly to me and a little bit before many readers will discover these titles.

The books from Peirene also have the advantage that they are all novellas so this means that as I have less time in the autumn thanks to returning to study I won't have to feel guilty for reading new books rather than the set texts!

Friday, 30 August 2013

Theatrical Interlude 26

Blue Stockings, The Globe Theatre, London. August 2013.

I'd given up hope of seeing this play as it had so few performances and even fewer matinees but sometimes luck works in my favour and Mr Norfolkbookworm agreed that we could go on our wedding anniversary and he'd drive us home afterwards as he had the day after off work.

I'm so pleased that we could see this as a play about the struggle that women had in the past for the right to vote and for an education ticked so many of my personal boxes.  I went to an all girls school where it was expected that most of us would go on to university and take a degree but little was made of the fact that this expectation was a recent phenomenon. I certainly didn't know just how much of a fight women just 100 years before I took my undergraduate degree had to even attend lectures let alone graduate.

We saw the second performance of this new play and from the very beginning I was swept up in the story, the conflict between the male and female students, the conflict between the classes and the conflict between the desire for an education and a love life all came to life before my eyes and it really did feel like I was seeing history rather than a fictitious story.

Today women may be able to attend university on the same grounds as men but the fees are making it as hard for some to gain an education now as it was for women 100 years ago and this parallel made the play even more poignant to me.

I think that there were two things about this play that stood out for me - firstly the story focused on women trying to obtain science degrees (and being better at science than the men) not typically female 'arty' subjects and secondly that there were many sly digs at either Shakespeare or the topics (i.e. the French) that he typically made fun of which linked the play nicely to the setting.

This was the first modern piece that I'd seen at the Globe and it has made me keen to see more of the plays commissioned for the space - I wonder if I can fit in a trip to see The Lightning Child?

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Theatrical Interlude 25

War Horse,New London Theatre, London. August 2013

There are some plays that are so good that seeing them multiple times is a treat and seeing War Horse for the third times was as moving and fantastic as the first time.

I was joined on this trip by my mum and my aunt and all of us were spellbound.  We sat in the circle and the view of the stage was great - we could see all of the small details as well as the projections and peripheral action clearly and even being further back the horses were 'alive'.
It didn't matter that this was the third time I've seen the play - I still jumped, laughed and cried and I still managed to forget that the horses on stage were puppets and not 'real' animals.

All three of us agreed that in many ways this is a brave play - mixing animals, folk music and dialogue in French and German whilst creating a play that appeals to an audience from 8-108 is no mean feat, especially when there are 6 or more performances a week.

As the centenary of the outbreak of WW1 approaches this play is only going to get more popular and more poignant and I am sure that I will go and see it again.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Advance excitement

Wake by Anna Hope

Twitter can be a source of many things but for me this week it was the cause of a late night and tears.  Not because I was a victim of Internet bullying but because of a book sent to me by the publicist @alisonbarrow from Transworld.

Despite knowing that I had a long day at work ahead once I'd started reading Hope's Wake there was no way that I could stop reading it until I'd got to the end. Compelling and a war story - sleep didn't stand a chance!

The main action takes place in the week leading up to the burial of the Unknown Warrior on Armistice Day 1920, but to tell the story we go back to the action in World War One.

I've read many books set during WW1 and many of them stop as the guns fall silent and then pick up the story many years into the future, if they go beyond that at all. The idea of seeing how people coped in the few years just after the war was a fascinating idea and handled so much better than in another recent proof that I read.

At first I didn't warm to the female characters, I couldn't see at all how they could be connected realistically but slowly and cleverly the story unfolded and I was sniffling several times during the novel.

It sounds glib to call this an easy read but it managed to get the tragedy of fighting and dying in a war, as well as the tragedy of surviving a war, across without needing a lot of description of the horrors.  What is left unsaid is more effective than detailed description.

The descriptions of some of the post war activities mean that this is still definitely a book for adults despite the lack of violence/horror, and it is going to appeal to women more than men but they are my only less than positive comments for what was a great read.

It is a brave move to bring out a book about the end of the First World War in the year that we commemorate 100 years since the start but I hope that the book (and author) get the attention that it deserves.

**Although this review is for a book I was sent to read/review I haven't been paid for this blogpost and the views really are what I felt for the book.**

Monday, 19 August 2013

Theatrical Interlude 24

Barnum, Theatre in the Park, Chichester. August 2013.

Mr Norfolkbookworm and I had a new companion for our outing to Chichester this past weekend as we went with his aunt - who had also kindly treated us to the tickets as well.

I think that it is fair to say that this wasn't a musical that we'd probably have chosen to go to of our own choice, and that after reading some of the reviews and blog posts we were actually quite nervous about. It really seemed to be pushing us both out of our comfort zone, however our companion was very keen and waxed lyrical about the show so we went with open minds.

And very quickly had those minds blown.

Barnum isn't the strongest musical out there - the 'plot' is wafer thin and the songs not that memorable but thanks to the energy that the cast brought to the performance and sheer talent that the cast showed it was a delight from the metaphorical curtain up.

The musical is a version of P T Barnum's life as a showman, manager, politician and then showman again and as Mr Norfolkbookworm said afterwards it was like they'd actually trained a circus cast to act a little in support of the main roles for the rope work, juggling, tumbling and choreography was faultless and breath taking.

Circuses with animals and freak shows are pretty frowned upon now but the clever staging meant that no one was mocked and we were treated to theatrical humbug of the highest order! Who'd have thought that you really could get a elephant into the temporary tent theatre at Chichester so convincingly!

I can see that this may not be to everyone's taste - lets be honest I didn't think I'd enjoy it a fraction as much as I did but this is no turkey of a performance. As the theatre was full on the Saturday afternoon with people of all ages - all of whom had a smile on their faces as it ended - I'm pleased that people trust the CFT and aren't listening too much to the reviewers!

Chichester is a long way from Norwich so I don't know how often I'll make it back but from flicking through their brochure for the rest of the season there's already 2 things I am hoping will transfer or tour.

The theatre tent in the distance across the lovely park

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Theatrical Interlude 23

A Change of Heart, The Blakeney Players, Blakeney. August 2013.

Once more Mr Norfolkbookworm and I headed to the Norfolk Coast to support the Blakeney Players and as ever the evening was a total delight.

This was another original play that managed to poke fun at London based multi-national companies and the Blakeney Players themselves whilst including some terrible puns and plays on words involving Shakespeare.

As ever the plot isn't the point of the play but the story was funny and the choreography and singing was brilliant - I dread to think how long it took them to learn the routine to All That Jazz but it was better than a lot of entries I've seen on 'find a star' TV shows.

I was pleased to hear that the Players are already thinking of their Christmas show - I can't wait to see it!

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Theatrical Interlude 22

The Color Purple, Chocolate Menier Theatre, London. August 2013.

Every year at the library where I work we run promotions to tie in with Norfolk's Black History Month and the ALA Banned Books Week.  In 2013 we are linking the two promotions and focusing on two books that are important for both - The Color Purple by Alice Walker and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

After the initial planning meeting I was pleasantly surprised to find that my hobby and my job had once more coincided and that in the summer of 2013 both books would be adapted for the London stage.  I didn't manage to see the version of To Kill a Mockingbird at the open air theatre in Regents Park but four of us travelled to London to catch a performance of The Color Purple.

I haven't yet re-read the book ready for our events in October and I could only remember the bare minimum of the plot in advance but I think that this was ideal as I then wasn't suffering from 'adaptation-itis' and wincing at changes from the original. This was echoed by my companions who all agreed that it felt 'right'.

This was a musical version and while very occasionally I found the music a little too loud for the venue and was unable to hear the singing but overall I was swept away from the instant the cast appeared on stage.  The Menier Chocolate Theatre is a pretty small and intimate place and thanks to the staging I felt that I was almost part of the cast - this was helped by actors leaving the stage and shaking hands with the audience in the opening number.

The Color Purple deals with some very heavy issues - rape, racism and abuse to name a few - but the genius of this production is that none of these themes is either over written or dealt with flippantly. As in life there are moments of humour even in the bleakest scenes.  Being a musical the tone so easily could be 'off' and the poignancy of the story lost but that doesn't happen at all. There pretty much wasn't a dry eye in the house as Celie sang the penultimate song 'I'm Here.'

The staging was very simple for the play, a huge thrust stage with chairs hanging on the wall. These chairs were used as seating, as props, for dancing on and for creating height on stage. There were no stagehands and these chairs were moved and used by all of the cast so smoothly that they were almost like another person on the stage. The lack of interruptions for scene shifting kept me thoroughly engaged in the play and constantly marvelling about the talent of the actors.

Apart from the very occasional moment when the orchestra drowned out the singing this was one of the best things I've seen at the theatre all year.  Much of the cast played more than one role but I really have to single out Sophia Nomvete playing Sofia and Cynthia Erivo who played Celie.  Erivo manages to convey a scared, pregnant teenager, downtrodden wife and also a woman of her own means just by changing her posture. Her voice is no less impressive!

I came out of this play wishing I could go straight back in and I am now hoping for a transfer to the West End so that I can see it again and talk everyone I know into coming with me.

The cast towards the end of the play, Celie is in the white blouse and Sofia in the green trousers.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Theatrical Interlude 21

The Hush. The Shed at the National Theatre, London. July 2013.

In London for the weekend and with open return train tickets what were Rebecca and I to do but squeeze a fourth play into our brief holiday...

Even we admitted that we didn't think we had the stamina for a full length play - although Amen Corner looked very tempting - so we decided to try the new temporary venue and a 55 minute play.  The free drink was also welcome on a warm afternoon!

The Hush isn't getting great reviews from either the press or other bloggers but I enjoyed it a lot, and the more I think about it the more happy I am that I saw it.  It is a simple play with just two speaking characters, one male and one female.

The characters enter a room called The Hush, the man is recreating noise for a scene (but you never really know if he is writing a play or recreating a memory) and the woman is listening to recordings created by her (dead?) father.

The stars of the show are the Foley editors. On a balcony above the set are two people creating the majority of the sound effects in the play - from showering to turning over in bed.

I found it very clever and with no script the impact of noise became very clear and when a cold wind was played I did get goose bumps and I now have immense respect for those who create all of the sound effects for radio plays.

There was no real story and through the use of sounds the audience is left to create a narrative, I can see that some would find this pretentious but for me the chance to try something so different was a treat and I am glad that we went.

The Shed - a temporary stage while the Cottesloe Theatre is being renovated to relaunch as the Dorfman

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Exhibition Oddity

David Bowie is... Victoria and Albert Museum, London. July 2013

While Mr Norfolkbookworm and I were enjoying the Pompeii exhibition earlier in the summer Rebecca was queueing at the V&A museum securing us tickets to this summer's other sell out exhibition.

I wasn't at all sure about this trip at all. Apart from Under Pressure, Space Oddity and Ashes to Ashes I wasn't sure that I knew any Bowie songs and I'd not been that inspired to look any more up in advance of our visit.  I didn't own up to this while we were waiting for the museum to open however as there were probably a couple of hundred people desperate for tickets - as soon as the doors open they took off at a run for the ticket desk and I feared for the safety of the statues in the corridor!

I was in for a nice surprise as I found I enjoyed the exhibition more than I thought I would.  Bowie is an interesting character and there is a lot more to him and his music than the flamboyant stage persona.  On entering the area everyone gets an audio guide, but this isn't giving a dry talk about the exhibits but is in fact loaded with sound clips and music that start playing as you walk around.

Bits of the exhibition (probably the bits that Rebecca liked the most!) left me cold but sitting in a cool space listening to Bowie's music through a good sound system while watching concert footage was brilliant - people were dancing or toe tapping but as everyone had headphones on it was like being at a silent rave.

A real experience and I will be looking for more Bowie music to add to my iPod before we go away.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Theatrical Interlude 18, 19 and 20

Henry VI trilogy, The Globe, London. July 2013

I think it is fair to say that The Globe Theatre doesn't have the reputation for being the most comfortable theatre. Deciding to see three plays in a day there had lots of people laughing very hard at Rebecca and I as we planned our weekend.

The thing is that if a play is good you forget your surroundings entirely and any discomfort fades away totally.

I'm pleased to say that the Henry VI trilogy fell firmly into the second category and for over 9 hours on Saturday I was living in the world of Henry VI totally.

A small cast acted their socks off all day.  Apart from Henry VI himself all of the actors doubled/tripled/quadrupled up and we travelled from France to all areas of England, fought battles, saw treason and experienced the struggles of the throne.

I was spell bound from start to finish, the use of the stage was clever and with simple tabard changes actors became French, supporters of the House of Lancaster and then supporters of the House of York. Simple application of face paint made it easy to identify the sides in battle scenes.

Although almost the simplest part to play I found the way Graham Butler played Henry VI captivating. At first he was like a child - at the sign of conflict he would scamper to protected places or climb high on the set to avoid the trouble.  When meeting his bride to be for the first time he is shy and while she is waiting for a meaningful kiss he puts an embarrassed peck on her forehead.  Later on his love for her has grown but he is weak enough that he's content to be lead by her and by the end it is clear that all he wants is to be left alone with his religious works.

My other favourite was Brendan O'Hea who played Richard Plantagenet through the three plays and then in the final play created a stonking Lewis XI, but all of the cast were so good it does feel wrong to praise any of them above the others!

The body count in a play about almost civil war was high but as in Macbeth there was very limited use of stage blood - to the extent that in the one place it is used I was incredibly moved and had a lump in my throat.

Seeing 3 plays in a day was in some ways insanity but with plays of this calibre it was in fact a treat. My one wish...that Richard III was still being performed as this trilogy lead perfectly into that play and I'd love the chance to see it again!

being a good Norfolk girl I did of course like seeing Suffolk's head being chopped off!

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Snow in midsummer

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

This book has been sitting on my Kindle for quite a while, a few people told me how good it was but for some reason I just hadn't got round to reading it.

After a conference in London where the publicists of the book gave a presentation on the publishing history of the book I was intrigued and following a few prompting tweets I finally got round to reading it.

I started reading the book in the middle of the longest heat wave we've had in Norfolk for years and being transported in to snow Alaska was heavenly - it cooled me down no end and when I emerged from the book I kept being surprised that it was sunny and summer!

The book is wonderfully lyrical - an older couple have moved to Alaska to try their hand at farming as they are finding it too hard to live back East where all of their relatives seem to have the families that the couple can't have but so desperately want.

Alaska is a hard, unforgiving place and it almost breaks the couple but the appearance of good neighbours and the mysterious snow child turn their lives around.

I can see why this book was such a success - I found it a magical read that totally transported me to the wilds of Alaska about 100 years ago.
I do wonder if reading it in the winter just past would have been a different experience but in the height of summer it was wonderfully escapist!

Monday, 8 July 2013

Theatrical Interlude 17

Macbeth, The Globe, London. July 2013

After my experience with Macbeth earlier in the year I was feeling very unsure about going to see this.  It also turned out to be the hottest day of 2013 so far - were we mad going to see a traditionally bloody play in such heat?

I'm pleased to say that once more the Globe as a venue didn't disappoint. We are quite canny with our seat choice and luckily we remained in the shade throughout yesterday which did make the whole day more enjoyable!

The first play we saw at the Globe was Much Ado About Nothing starring Eve Best and this version of Macbeth was her directorial debut - and for me it was a success.  The play came in at just under 2 hours 30 but told me the story far more clearly than I could have hoped.  Thanks to the daylight and staging it was easy to keep the characters straight, and rather than this version being awash with blood the violence was so restrained that when it did occur it was all the more effective.

There were Scottish actors in the play but the accents weren't too heavy and the speech clear so that not a word was lost. Humour was added to the play through facial expressions and the character of the Porter but it remained clear that this was a tragedy. Lady Macbeth is the driving force of Macbeth's actions and slowly their ambition drives them to insanity.  The ending with Macbeth's (erroneous) confidence that he cannot be beaten is wonderfully realised.

I don't think that Macbeth is ever going to be my favourite play but this version has proved to me that it is still a good play and reinforced my opinion that I prefer my Shakespeare in the open air, performed as it would have been originally.

Despite the heat London was lovely - it felt like the Olympic spirit all over again as you heard the cheers from outside bars where people were watching Wimbledon. Strolling around St Paul's eating ice cream made a perfect end to another great day at the Globe.