Friday, 26 May 2017

Bailey's Book Prize book six

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant.

My reading order of the six Bailey's Prize books has been totally random - it really was just the way they came out of the box - but this book was possibly the one I'd have either read first or saved until last through choice.

I've read and enjoyed other books by Grant and the blurb of this book really made me think it would be up my street - a post war historical fiction set in a TB sanatorium in Kent. I've been a long time fan of the Chalet School books by Elinor Brent Dyer and the plots of many of these books (at least in the early days) focus around TB and cures.  I also love Betty Macdonald's The Plague and I which is her autobiographical account of her time as a TB patient. There was much to look forward to in this book...

It lived up to all my hopes, I raced through it and quickly became invested in the lives of Miriam and her twin Lenny both in London and on their transfer to Kent. It was a real page turner and from chapter to chapter I never knew which way the plot was going to go - it was as unpredictable as the disease itself.

The depiction of post war antisemitism was a shock to me and as a modern reader hard to read as it was just accepted and not commented on.  I've read books about racism post war following the arrival of the Windrush but I was taken aback at the anti Jewish sentiment - in my naivety I'd have thought that news of the concentration camps, and the cinema newsreels, would have stopped this.

However now I've finished the book I feel a little empty - like after you've had a Chinese meal, you are full at the time but then hungry again just a little while later.  There were lots of plot strands and I'm not entirely sure that they all worked out - I can see that they were all necessary to build the tale but after the half way point they all felt rushed and unexplored. I didn't lose track of anyone or any story which is a positive thing with so many strands but I am left wanting to know more about all of them.

I really enjoyed the story here but I am greedy I wanted much more from it.  Another great read but one that is far more disposable than many of the others.

Now to spend some time thinking over the six shortlisted titles and pick my own favourites...

Monday, 22 May 2017

Bailey's Book Prize book five

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

I started this book with the assumption that I wasn't going to find it a top read.  It is set in Nigeria and one of my favourite books of all times, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has this setting and I just thought that such a slender volume couldn't match that favourite.

I was so happy to be proved wrong by this one.  It grew on my with every page turn and at times I felt I was actually in the room with the family as events unfolded.

I've read lots of reviews with spoilers and I am glad I didn't see them before I started as this book really played with my own thoughts, prejudices and assumptions.  Something would happen and I'd draw a conclusion and then a few pages later some more information was given and my thinking changed by 180 degrees.

By the end my heart was breaking for all of the characters, so much about them couldn't be changed but just talking could have saved so much.

If I have any criticisms with the book it is that at times I found it a little hard to keep track of who was narrating each chapter - although after a few lines I always worked it out. I also wanted to know a little more about the politics in the background. Here they were important only in how they touched the story but the tidbits of information were interesting and I'd have liked a digression, this would have changed the style of book however and it is just perfect as it is.

I thought that I'd found my best Bailey's Book with Do Not Say We Have Nothing but this is running it close, and I can certainly see me convincing more people to read this than the epic Do Not Say. An added plus for this book is that Adebayo has links to Norfolk!

With only one book left to read on the short list I am so pleased to be involved in this project - I've been challenged with all the books and discovered some new favourites.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Eighteen - Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Globe, London. May 2017.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. From the sublime The Ferryman in the afternoon to this... It will be clear to regular readers that The Globe is one of my favourite theatres and that I am rarely disappointed by what I see there.  I've even tried to stick up for the decisions in direction made by Emma Rice over the past 18 months - I'm not against modern innovations in the traditional spaces - last year's Two Gentlemen of Verona was a great watch with lights and pop music. But this was just awful.

I don't really want to write about this show. I am all for exploring what you can do with a text but I'm really not sure that semi naked dancers with nipple tassels, a man pretending to be a dog, women giving birth to coffins and a radical re-write to the ending was just all too much for me.

My other niggle is with the Globe itself - this production used strobe lighting and at no point did I see any warning for this.  I was lucky that this time I was able to shut my eyes and not end up unwell watching this but the same wouldn't have been true if I'd come with my mum. The Globe say they do warn about the lights and to some extent this is true - it is mentioned on their website and in the email they send out before a performance BUT in small text buried in other information. You do not expect this style of lighting at the Globe and strobe lights are a real health issue so this should be made much clearer - big letters on the top of the webpage, signs on the wooden doors before you enter the theatre...

I hate writing a hatchet job like this, especially for one of my favourite places and especially after seeing the wonderful Nell Gwynn just a few days before but I am now very nervous about the rest of the season.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Bailey's Book Prize book four.

The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan

This thick tome was the fourth book I pulled out of my box and is possibly the one I approached with the most trepidation - it was over 500 pages long and about horses!

It has taken a long time to read this, well a long time for me anyhow - but I still don't know if I liked the book or if I even enjoyed it.

I was compelled to keep reading, the story for the most part was gripping and I wanted to know how it was going to play out. I liked the weaving of all of the threads together from the Forge's story, Kentucky history through to Allmon's modern experiences - they did all work together well. Even the parts about horses and horse racing were mostly interesting.

Here comes the but... the prose was so flowery at times that I lost interest in what was being written as I scanned to get to the next part of the plot. Sometimes this worked - especially in the scenes with Allmon and Scipio but for the most part it felt a little too showy.

By the end however I found it to be a bit rushed and all that slow build was just wiped away too quickly. I'm not sure I believed in the main character twist either.

I felt like I was watching the story through a window - I couldn't get close to any of the characters and while I see that the casual racism and sexism was integral to the story I found it all a bit too much - it felt the most real part of the narrative and that bothered me.  I know that neither 'ism' has gone away but as they did feel so real I worry that these are the truest part of the book for Morgan.

I'm glad this book was shortlisted for the Bailey's Prize as I'd never have read it otherwise and I don't begrudge the time I spent on the book, ultimately it just wasn't for me.

Next up is Stay With Me - again a book I'd not come across before.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Seventeen - The Ferryman

The Ferryman, Royal Court, London. May 2017.

A few year's ago Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem was the big 'thing' in London theatre and for some reason Rebecca and I missed this. We saw his Mojo on opening night and could see that it would be a good play when it settled down into the run so when The Ferryman was announced we pounced on tickets.

Apart from seeing that it garnered dozens of five star reviews and that it was a family drama set in Ireland I knew nothing about this play and I think that this was the right way to approach it - which means I am going to write nothing about the plot here.

This was a clever piece of theatre as it drip fed information to the viewer and I made assumptions and guesses as to how the story was going to go and every time I was wrong - but what we got was better. At the end I felt stunned, it was such a powerful piece of theatre. Both Rebecca and I were on our feet for a standing ovation, whilst wiping the tears from our faces.

It feels wrong to have such a short review for such a fantastic 3 1/4 hours in the theatre but even now a few days on all I can say is 'wow!'

This is transferring to the West End next month and I am hoping to convince Mr Norfolkbookworm to see this. If this isn't in my top 3 plays by the end of the year then I will be surprised and so happy that 2017 has been a fantastic year of theatre!

Friday, 12 May 2017

Bailey's Book Prize book three

First Love but Gwendoline Riley.

The third book I picked out of my book prize box was First Love and my initial impression was how minimalist the cover appeared. Then when I opened it and saw both the line spacing (lots of white areas on the page) and the length (short) I wondered just how minimalist the tale was going to be!

In general I read very fast and book of this length usually wouldn't have taken much longer than my lunch break to read. As this book has been  shortlisted for the Bailey's Prize I made a deliberate decision to read this slowly, to read each segment and then take a break to think about what I'd read.

I think that this was the right decision as at first glance this is a slight book, Neve is in a bad relationship and the story charts this but in reading it slowly I also read behind the lines.

Again if I talk about this too much I am aware that I could spoil the book for other readers but I know that if I'd read it at my normal speed I would have come away with only one story from the novel. By reading it slowly I got a more rounded story, but this did change my sympathies entirely... swings and roundabouts I guess!

At first I wasn't sure that such a slender story was in the same league as the other books on the shortlist but this one really has got under my skin and while Do Not Say We Have Nothing remains my favourite read of the year so far this one is a worthy contender for the Bailey's Prize.

Now from the compact to the epic - the 545 page Sport of Kings was the next book out of the box!

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Sixteen - Nell Gwynn

Nell Gwynn, Shakespeare's Globe, London. May 2016.

I am so pleased that this has come back to the Globe. In 2015, when it first played, I also didn't see it when in came to Cambridge in the hopes that it would return to the Globe like the rumours had suggested. When the day of the play came around it has to be said that my heart wasn't in it entirely - the lovely warm weather of April had morphed into some really cold, unseasonable, weather in Norfolk and the idea of sitting in an open air theatre wasn't appealing.

I am so glad that we went (this will be Mr Norfolkbookworm's only trip to the Globe this season). From the moment the play started I had a happy smile on my face and this just didn't slip for the entire performance.  The story is slight in many ways but it has a lot to say about the Nell's time and our own - Swale seems to be the mistress of making history speak to us without over doing it, while at the same time knowing that you can write with a broad brush for performances at the Globe.  The lines about how important the arts are and Brexit were utterly played to the audience but yet some of the quieter lines making similar points resonated just as well.

It is hard to write about a piece of theatre that I loved so much, I wanted to watch it again instantly and I am worried that if I write too much about it I will lose the magic. This was the ultimate in a feel good show and has set the bar high for the rest of the Globe's Summer of Love season.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Bailey's Book Prize book two

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Next out of my Bailey's Prize box came The Power by Naomi Alderman and I didn't have such a great relationship with this book. Part of the problem was probably the 'book hangover' Do Not Say We Have Nothing left me with.  After falling in love with a book so completely the book that comes after it always suffers I find.

The ideas behind The Power all made me think that the book was going to be for me.  All of a sudden girls (and women) get a new power that makes them the dominant gender and the way the world is run gets turned on its head. Sort of.

The premise of the book is that here is a devastating event and all history before this new power is lost, the book presents as a piece of academic research charting what happens in the run up to this event and the resetting of history. It is told from four alternating points of view, three female and one male and eventually all four characters interact.

To say more will spoil the book and I found bits of it very clever, I didn't have a problem with the way the narrator changed so frequently but I never felt like I was a part of the story. This could have been intentional as the start and end do remind you that this isn't supposed to be novel but is a piece of 'academic research' although I confess I did lose sight of  this while I reading.

I also didn't have a problem with the authors idea of how history (and people) would unfurl after such an event. There were also some killer lines, especially the very final one! I didn't like the author writing herself into the book but that is just a personal peeve. I've been thinking about this book for several days and I can't quite explain why this book didn't hit the spot for me.

To be fair I can't say that in the end I really disliked this book, a few days after finishing it I am still turning over the ideas presented and I loved the ideas at the heart of it...but...I also can't say I liked it hugely. It didn't feel particularly new to me and even reading the ending of the main part of narration twice I am not 100% certain quite what happened.  My overriding feeling is that this would have made a great short story.

Oh dear - I really don't like writing about books that don't quite hit the mark for me but I did promise to write about all of the Bailey's Book prize books honestly. On to book three...

Friday, 5 May 2017

April Reading Round Up

After the great reading month that March gave me I didn't find April to be so good for the main part - although becoming a Bailey's Book Prize ambassador at the end of the month was really exciting.

I 'only' read 15 books in April and four of them are worth mentioning here.

Margot and Me - Juno Dawson. 
This is a teen novel about a family of strong women and their stories and secrets. I enjoyed it but the book was set pre-2000 and I found myself questioning some of the technology that the teenagers use as a matter of course. These niggles aside I was swept away by the story and wholeheartedly recommend the book.

Durrells of Corfu - Michael Haag
I love the TV series about the Durrells, I've greatly enjoyed reading books from both Larry and Gerry Durrell and thus I've been looking forward to the biography of the whole family a lot. It didn't disappoint, in fact this was a very affectionate look at the family which took some of the legendary episodes and told the true version behind them.  It didn't shy away from the bad times but in being a whole family biography it wasn't always as detailed as I'd have liked. It has left me with a reading list and a desire to go to Greece!

Balancing Acts - Nick Hytner
This is Hytner's selected memoirs of his time running the National Theatre in London and while I raced through the book and enjoyed lots of it I did find it ultimately a little disappointing. It rarely does more than scratch the surface and even when it is talking about flops/failures it is all really good hearted. I realise that Hytner is a relatively young man and his career is nowhere near over so he needs to be careful in what he says but I'd have liked a little more. There is very little of Hytner the man either. Oh dear - this all sounds negative again but I did really enjoy what was in the book hence why it is on my best of April list!

Do Not Say We Have Nothing - Madeleine Thien
Already reviewed here!