Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Top 10 Books of 2014

Top fiction and non fiction from 2014.

Despite a lot of my reading being for uni during the year I seem to still have managed a lot of reading for pleasure too, although it has to be said I struggled more to get a top 10 for each genre, more than 5 was easy but getting to 10 less so.

These are simply in alphabetical order and nothing more - simply the best books I have read this year.


  • Song for Issy Bradley - Carys Bray
  • A Place Called Winter - Patrick Gale
  • Ishmael's Oranges - Claire Hajaj
  • Wars of the Roses: Trinity - Conn Iggulden
  • The Dead Lake - Hamid Ismaliov
  • Strange Weather in Tokyo - Hiromi Kawakami
  • A Tale for the Time Being - Ruth Oyezeki
  • Unspeakable - Abbie Rushton
  • Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan
  • Mrs Hemingway - Naomi Woods
In this we have 2 books not out until 2015, 2 in translation and one sequel that was easily as good as the first!


  • The Fateful Year: 1914 - Mark Bostridge
  • Europe in the Looking Glass - Robert Byron
  • Bitter Lemons - Lawrence Durrell
  • How to Be a Heroine - Samantha Ellis
  • Apple of My Eye - Helene Hanff
  • H is for Hawk - Helen Macdonald
  • My Salinger Year - Joanna Smith Rakoff
  • The Boy in the Top Knot - Sathnam Sanghera
  • Without Reservations - Alice Steinbach
  • Gin, Glorious Gin - Olivia Williams
From this list it seems that travel writing is my top genre of 2014!

Here's to another year of reading in 2015, although studying continues and will involved a 15000 word dissertation so who knows how much I'll read for pleasure.  I do have a 2 week beach holiday planned which will mean at least a dozen books...!

Monday, 29 December 2014

Top Ten Theatre of 2014

That Time of the Year Again

In a year where I have seen 36 pieces of theatre live and 4 broadcast as live plays narrowing down to just five was impossible and even now I think that my frequent companion, Rebecca, will disagree with my rankings at the very least.

I have had several outings to the theatre with my nephew and while all of the productions we saw together were magical this year they haven't made the top 10 but rest assured theatre aimed at the under 10s is excellent and I had a lot of fun watching them and sharing my love of live theatre with him.

So with no further ado my top 10 are:

  1. Lord of the Flies
  2. Red Velvet
  3. 'Tis Pity She's a Whore
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird
  5. My Night With Reg
  6. The Scottsboro Boys
  7. Oh! What a Lovely War
  8. Another Country
  9. A Bunch of Amateurs
  10. Pitcairn
A real mixture of genres here and it was very hard to narrow it down to just 10, so many plays nearly made the grade.  I shan't list my least favourite plays - I think the reviews speak for themselves!

As I already have my first trip of 2015 planned for January 3rd I think it is fair to say that 2015 will also be theatre filled!

Friday, 26 December 2014

Bookaday December

The monthly book challenge continued though into December in two formats so as everyone gets busy at this time of year I picked the shorter one! I am guessing that the organisers think (hope) that after this we'll all be reading our new books!

1st: Iconic first line?
So many of these but I do love "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents" from Alcott's Little Women.

2nd:Last Read?
On the 2nd this was actually the new novel Impossible! by Michelle Magorian. This connected to several of her other books and has the theatre of the 1950s as a plot line and especially the theatre at Stratford East and Joan Littlewood which was apt after seeing one of her plays at that venue this year!

3rd: On my Christmas list?
I'm far too naughty for this and I have just ordered the books I want myself as I can't even wait the 3 weeks until Christmas to read them. #NoSelfControl
4th: For chilly nights?
I like books set in warm places when I am cold but for me it is the location of reading on cold days/nights that is important. Ideally it would be in front of an open fire but failing that wrapped up and all cosy in a fluffy duvet with a heated wheat bag.

5th: Quintessentially British?
That opens a whole can of worms as to what is British but I think I'll pick the Famous Five books by Enid Blyton
6th: Everyone should read?
That's hard as no book is going to appeal to all readers but I know I've shared The President's Hat to lots of people all of whom have enjoyed it - including a couple of non-readers.

7th: Childhood favourite?
Oh - so many. Little Women, Little House on the Prairie, Heidi, Black Beauty,WIndsong Summer..

8th It's a mystery?
Not my favourite genre at all but I really enjoyed Gone Girl recently.

9th: I judged this by its cover?

Sorry - so many of the physical books I pick up are influenced by cover, I do think that I'd avoid the Harry Potter books as a new reader now as I don't like their covers.

10th: Latest purchase?
That will be three new books from Girl's Gone By - a new Chalet School fill-in, and two new (to me) books by Phyllis Mathewman.

11th: Christmas classic?
Reading The Night Before Christmas to my nephew has happened the past few years, but I won't see him on Christmas Eve this year.  I often re-read a few of the Christmassy Chalet School books.

12th:Book of poems?
I don't have many just poetry books but I do have an illustrated collection of WW1 poems and several versions of Shakespeare's sonnets.

13th: Stocking filler?
I think that the Simon's Cat books are great but as a rule I'm not a fan of stocking filler books as you tend to read them once and then donate to charity.

14th: Read at school?
Many childhood favourites were read while I was at school, in class I remember a teacher reading Stig of the Dump but I don't recall us getting to the end!

15th: Favourite colour cover?
What an odd question - I guess I'll turn this around and say I'm not that keen on bright pink books, but even then I'll give them a go if the content looks good!

16th: For someone I love?
I buy my nephew books all of the time and can't say no when he asks for or even mentions a book.  I recommend lots of books to Mr Norfolkbookworm too.

17th: Funny read?
Comedic books are funny as they are often only funny in the right context and they don't always age well, but I do always smile when I read the Duck books by Jez Alborough.

18th: Massive tome?
I used to pick books by width when I visited the library as a child!  I think that Birds Without Wings fits here.
19th: Travelling home - reading this?
Anything I like from my shelves as we are celebrating Christmas in our own home this year.  In general though I travel everywhere with my Kindle so I don't run short of reading material!

20th: Set where I live?
Lots of books are set in Norfolk, but I think one of the best is Coot Club as even 70+ years after it was written you can still make the same journey as describe in it!

21st:To be read?
Far, far, far too many but it is essay time and I am bogged down in research!

22nd: Favourite festive scene?
The bit towards the end of 101 Dalmations in the church is very nice.

23rd: The best present?
Unlimited time and money to spend in bookshops and no guilt for doing either!

24th:For Father Christmas?
A travel guide to somewhere warm where he can relax for a few weeks after his busy season!

25th:Under the tree?
Book tokens to allow a huge binge in the new year!

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Theatre 2014 - Review Forty

'Tis Pity She's A Whore, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe, London. December 2014.

It was a very cold and damp December day when Bec and I went to London to see this, and to be honest after our experiences at the SWP earlier this year we didn't go in with high hopes.  The Duchess of Malfi was good, but the seats that time were very uncomfortable, Knight of the Burning Pestle was fun but over long and felt forced by the end and the Young Player's version of The Malcontent was frankly a disappointment and over priced.

This was a different experience entirely, I am not sure if we accidentally picked the best seats in the house or what but we had a good view and missed very little of the action at all and didn't find ourselves wriggling too much to stay comfortable.

The key thing is however that this play was fantastically acted - the space of the theatre was used completely and the scene where all the candles were extinguished was spooky - far more so than in the Duchess of Malfi.  I still can't decide if this play was actually bloodier than Titus Andronicus earlier in the year, or if it just seemed so because the playhouse is so much smaller and we were so close to the action.  No pies in this production but a bloody heart on a sword was waved around for much of the last act!

The only thing I didn't like about this play was the feeling that I couldn't discern what John Ford was actually trying to say.  The Catholic Church certainly came across as corrupt, and sleeping with your sister will drive you insane but I'm note sure beyond that.  The way I 'read' the performance Annabella was almost coerced into sleeping with her brother, and that every time she tried to repent he bullied her back into his arms yet why she should be castigated and called a whore is beyond me.  Politics of the time I guess.  I found it interesting that the audience hissed more as the one anti-Semitic line the play but laughed when the woman was called a whore.  Something to think about and investigate further I feel.

I am pleased that we had a good experience at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse finally, and I am pleased that we have got tickets to one more thing there this winter season.  I do look forward to their first full Shakespeare in the venue however and without wishing my life away hope that that will be a feature of the 2015/16 season!

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Bookaday November

This wonderful challenge making you think about and talk about books continued into November with the publisher Headline throwing out the challenges for the month:

1st: Movember begins - your favourite hairy hero?
We're talking beards and moustaches here and I think that I would have to pick Mr Twit here - not a role model but a wonderful character!

2nd:A book you can't wait to read this winter?
I have no self control and as soon as a book comes out I have to read it - the one I was waiting for most keenly was the new Conn Iggulden and it didn't disappoint.

3rd: Your favourite fictional family?
Often is which ever book I'm reading at the time but I like the chaos of the Weasley family, although do love Little Women I think the family itself would drive me insane.

4th: A brilliant epic read - we mean one with more than 600 pages!
Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres for a one volume epic but if not The Flowers of the Field & A Flower That's Free by Sarah Harrison (not so fusssed about the 3rd volume!)

5th: Guy Fawkes Night - pick a character you love to hate.
Achilles in Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles is a bit annoying but it is still a great book.

6th: A book that reminds you of your schooldays?
Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth as I remember when my group of friends discovered this one and read it.

7th: The book you wished you'd owned as a first edition?
I'd love a Shakespeare's First Folio!

8th:Doctor Who ends tonight - best book featuring time travel?
I have three for this one: The Time Traveller's Wife, Charlotte Sometimes and Tom's Midnight Garden

9th: A book you have to read twice to fully appreciate?

Most of Shakespeare's plays - once to just get the story and then a 2nd time using all of the notes to get the full meaning. Who knew Romeo and Juliet was such a smutty play?

10th: Happy Birthday Neil Gaiman! Favourite fantasy novel?
Not a huge serious fantasy fan but I like most of Trudi Canavan's books and most of Garth Nix's

11th: Remembrance Day - your favourite WW1 novel?
There's a lot of good WW1 fiction out there but I think that this is a tie between War Horse and Remembrance by Theresa Breslin.

12th:A book on your shelf that you haven't got round to reading yet?
Shamefully there are many but the author I keep meaning to start but then never getting around to is Dickens.

13th: A book you'd love to see on the big screen?
None of them - the book is always better than the film!

14th: A book you loved but wouldn't want your mum to read?
She reads this blog so I'm not going to list it here! In all honesty I think I'd pass anything on to my mum just with the appropriate warnings, my parents were always open minded when it came to reading.

15th: A book that made you hungry?
I can't remember the title but it was a travel memoir of a man and his family in Japan and it made me crave all of the food mentioned.

16th:The best debut you've read this year?
Ishmael's Oranges  by Clare Hajaj.  It was handed to me in a pile of books to read and rate for an upcoming work promotion and I loved every word.

17th: Your favourite mystery novel?
Not a genre a really like very much but the closest I come is Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time although the Montalbano books are on my to-be-read pile.

18th: It's Scotland v England! Tell us your favourite sport book?
I don't mind watching some sport but reading about it isn't my favouite thing so I am going to go with Cat by Freya North - a novel set during the Tour de France.
19th: A brilliant book with an eye-catching read cover?
I'm frantically scanning my shelf for books with red covers and all I can see are some antiquarian hardback missing their covers that have red boards... if that counts then I chose some of my Chalet School books!
20th: Your favourite fictional pet?
Those that appear in the Tortall books by Tamora Pierce.

21st:A book you've read that you wish had a sequel?
There's a lot of books that I finish wanting to know what happened next but none that I consciously want a sequel too.  Often they aren't as good or are written a long time afterwards and aren't as good.

22nd: Your favourite book about a journey?
I like travel books a lot and think that perhaps Bill Bryson's books about rediscovering America win here, although Patrick Leigh Fermor is also good, and so is Robert Mcfarlane....

23rd: An awesome autobiography by one of your heroes?
I love the diaries that Michael Palin is publishing.

24th: A series you'd happily read all over again?
Has to be the Tortall books by Tamora Pierce.

25th: One month to go! A book you want for Christmas?
There is a new Greek cookbook out that features some of my favourite dishes so I'd like that, however I already have dozens of Greek cookbooks so this would have to be a gift as I can't justify buying another one!

26th: Tasty! Your favourite cookery or baking book?
Currently this is Rick Stein's India as we're experimenting with new curries.

27th: Happy Thanksgiving - your favourite US classic?
Children's classics are the Little Women and Little House on the Prairie books and a modern classic is John William's Stoner.

28th: A book with beautiful title typography?
H is for Hawk a truly stunning book from cover to cover.

29th:  Happy birthday C. S. Lewis! Favourite fictional world?
Predictable for those who read these each month but has to be Tamora Peirce's Tortall!

30th: Your favourite book featuring a wedding?
Oh dear, I must gloss over these as I don't recall many weddings in books at all...

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Theatre 2014: Review Thirty-Nine

Lord of the Flies (ballet), Theatre Royal, Norwich. November 2014.

We'd not been back from our holidays a week before I was off to the theatre again and after enjoying Swan Lake so much last year I leapt at the chance to see another Matthew Bourne ballet.

Here's a shocking confession for a bookworm to make - I've never read the Golding novel Lord of the Flies. I know the basic plot premise but none of the details.  I considered reading it while we were away and then decided that I wouldn't - I'd watch the ballet first and see if I could follow the story.

The answer is a resounding yes - from the very first movement on the stage to the last I understood and followed the storyline throughout, and just like Swan Lake I found it incredibly moving and powerful and at times incredibly tense and scary.

This wasn't traditional ballet but it was all about the choreography and movement and this time the cast was all male. Interestingly not all of the cast were professionals either. Back in April a call went out for people interested in the project to come to a taster session and since then local boys and young men have been trained to such a standard that I could see no way of telling them apart from the fixed touring cast.

I was transfixed throughout the whole performance and like so many theatrical experiences this year if it was possible I'd go and see it again like a shot - there is so much happening on the stage all of the time that I don't think it would be like seeing the same thing twice... I am going to read the novel now and see how they compare.

The new season has just been announced at the theatre and I already have tickets for Bourne's Edward Scissorhands but I am also contemplating some of the more traditional ballets and giving opera another go.  Good productions are dangerous as they just make you want to see more and more!

Monday, 17 November 2014

Reading Week

Holiday Reading.

Mr Norfolkbookworm and I have just spent a week in the Canary Islands as we set ourselves up for winter by absorbing some more vitamin D, typically of course this year autumn has been splendid and the weather only really broke here just as we went but still a week away was wonderful.

This week also coincided with uni reading week but I'm not actually sure that this meant spend a week reading fiction but as I am up-to-date on the course work I wasn't too worried I'd fall behind.

Instead I spent 7 glorious days reading whatever I fancied and as the weather was good I got through an obscene amount of books - 14 and 2 halves (one I gave up on and one I've still to finish).

In no particular order and with just a few comments rather than reviews the books read were:

The Promised Land - Erich Maria Remarque 
Most famous for his anti WW1 novel All Quiet on the Western Front this is a fascinating book about emigres to America during WW2 and follows one man as he settles into life in New York. This is the first time the book has been translated into English and was unfinished when he died - this gives the book an abrupt ending but it was very good.

The Possibilities - Kaui Hart Hemmings 
From the author who wrote the book and Oscar winning film The Descendents. This was a slight tale of a woman coming to terms with the death of her son and the realisation that she didn't actually know him very well. It was all set in a ski resort and I think that I got more out of this book from having visited Mammoth in California than I would have done without knowing the type of town the book was set in. A slight read that passed the time but that will fade quickly from my memory.

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent 
From the blurb on the back of this book I really thought it wasn't for me but it just goes to show you shouldn't judge a book by a cover.  Set in Iceland in the 1800s a convicted murderess is sent to live with a family while she awaits execution and slowly the tale unfolds.  This isn't a crime story per se but is utterly compelling and an intelligent page turner which I really recommend.

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn 
This has been a huge hit in book and film form and was again not a book I expected to like as thrillers aren't usually my thing but again I was pleased to be wrong. You can't like any of the characters in this book but it is an amazing piece of story telling. Not saying anymore for fear of spoiling it for others yet to discover it.

A Song for Issy Bradley - Carys Bray 
This was a recommendation from two places and I am very pleased that I bumped it up my to-be-read pile. It is a story of a family coming to terms with the loss of a child but the added dimension of the family's Mormon faith.  This isn't a complex story but it is very moving and I found my sympathy changing with each chapter I read. I've read a few books with Mormon protagonists but they were all very negative portrayals - this is far more subtle.

Love Charm of Bombs - Lara Feigel 
This is a non-fiction book that tells the story of WW2 through the eyes of some of the leading writers at the time such as Graham Greene and Rose Macaulay.  I liked the idea of telling the story of the war through writers but thought the conceit was stretched a little with the comparison to the First World War poets.  An interesting read but not a stand out.

Crooked Heart - Lissa Evans

This was an odd duck of a book as it reminded me of a lot of other books but still remained unique.  A precocious boy is living with his guardian at the start of the WW2 but this life comes to an end after her death.  He is then evacuated to St Albans where he is taken in by a lady who sees him as a way to make money.  With his brains and her gumption the two soon get into all sorts of shady business - complicated by her borderline criminal son.  The book was a quick, easy read but slight and never really rose above either a young adult novel or a Mills and Boon.  I liked it but wanted just a little bit more.
A Place Called Winter - Patrick Gale
This ended up being another book with a war setting - WW1 this time - and one of my favourite reads of the holiday.  A family man is forced to leave Edwardian England to avoid a scandal and instead make a new life for himself creating a farm in the wilds of Canada.  This is another book I don't want to say too much about as it unfolds beautifully, for me it was very much like a grown up Little House on the Prairie and as that is one of my favourite series of books for children I loved the entire thing and got fully swept up in the story and characters. This was a book that really came to life before my eyes.

Belzhar - Meg Wollitzer 
Last year I read and loved The Interestings by this author and so looked forward to this a lot and while it was still good I didn't realise that it was a young adult novel and thus found it to be less nuanced and in depth than I was hoping.  After a breakdown Jam has been sent to a boarding school for emotionally fragile teenagers and on arrival finds she has been selected for a special English class with only a handful of other teenagers.  This class only studies one book all semester and the only homework is to keep a journal.  The story does contain several twists and one in particular really surprised me, this is good quality young adult literature but the ending keeps it firmly in that bracket and it isn't elevated any higher.  I'll keep looking for books by Wollitzer but I think she is a better adult writer.

Mac and Me - Esther Freud 
Another WW1 novel here and this time set in a place I know very well - Southwold in Suffolk.  The descriptions of the town and surrounding areas were great but that is about all that I can recommend about the book as it had so many historical inaccuracies I spent most of the time I was reading it growling and looking things up on Wikipedia to find the truth.

Let's Get Lost - Adi Alsaid
This was a sweet teen novel that I enjoyed a lot, a girl on a road trip to Alaska to see the Northern Lights meets lots of new people on the way and changes the course of their lives. It sounds trite and terrible but was in fact very clever and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

The Lives of Stella Bains - Anita Shreve
Another WW1 set book and again one with a plot I don't want to talk about as the discovery is part of the tale.  It is a slight book but mostly believable if a little too reliant on happy coincidences.  A good holiday read but not much more, I still think her best book is The Pilot's Wife.

A tale for the time being - Ruth Oyezeki 
Rebecca has been encouraging me to read this book for a while now and I am glad that I saved it until I had time to concentrate on it as it changes from being a straightforward (almost) time-slip story to a book full of complicated ideas about faith, philosophy and quantum physics.  Utterly brilliant and I can't wait to read more by Oyezeki - a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Europe in the looking glass - Robert Byron

This book was recommended at the Heffer's Classics Day at the start of November and I am glad I sought it out.  It is a mixture of a Patrick Leigh Fermor travel novel and Jerome K Jerome and is full of wonderful lines and descriptions as well as some cringe-worthy moments of pure 1920s snobbery and entitlement. Great fun but a little exasperating until they reach Greece when it comes to life.

The books I didn't finish:

The Rosie Effect - Graham Simison
Earlier in the year I read and loved The Rosie Project and I was looking forward to the sequel, although I wasn't 100% convinced the book needed one.  I should have stuck with my gut instinct as the comedy of the first book became, for me, unbearable farce and so far fetched and uncomfortable that I had to stop reading and I don't think I'll ever go back to it.

Travels with Epicurus - Daniel Klein
This is a book I am reading slowly as it is full of big ideas. Klein is exploring the ideas of Epicurus and other pphilosophers while living on Hydra - the place where people seem to live the longest and happiest lives.  It mixes big ideas and details about the Greek way of life seamlessly and is giving me a new reading list as long as my arm!

Phew - that was a lot of books in a short space of time and now it is back to the Shakespeare and lit crit books for a while!

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Entering the Classical World

Heffers Classics Forum, Cambridge. November 2014.

This is the third Classics Forum that we have been to. I blogged about the first back in 2012 but missed mentioning last year's for some reason.

This one was possibly the best yet, between 10am and 6pm we heard presentations from 12 great speakers talking about all manner of things connected to the classical world - from atheism to how to manage a slave and all points in between.

Each speaker had 20 minutes to talk about their ideas or new books and I can say with all honesty that there wasn't a bad speaker or dull topic all day.  In addition to this there was also a 'balloon debate' during which 5 speakers championed a literary work from the classical world and we as the audience had to decide which ones we'd throw from the balloon in order to save the best. This year we saved Cicero but I'm not entirely sure if that was because we thought losing him would be the worst thing going or if his supporter was just so nice and funny that we saved his hero as favour to him.  Great fun!

I've come away with a reading list as long as my arm but as Mr Shakespeare used so many influences from the classical world in his work I feel that the day really helped round out my studies.

Here's hoping that next year's festival doesn't clash with an astronaut visit...

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Pontefract - we have a problem

Fred Haise (Space Lectures), Pontefract. October 2014.

Thanks to the world of Twitter letting me know about Space Lectures we are recently back from our third jaunt cross-country to Pontefract to meet another legend.

This time we were meeting Fred Haise who I think is probably the unluckiest man in the Apollo astronaut corps.  Haise should have been the 6th man to set foot on the moon but instead was on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission.  Having escaped the threat of measles which saw his crew mate Mattingley bumped from the mission all looked to be going well.

Except after launch an engine behaved oddly and shut down (just in the nick of time as it nearly came off which would have caused many more - fatal - problems). After spending some time orbiting earth while the ground crew assessed the impact of the engine loss Apollo 13 was good to go to the moon.  Then 200 000 miles away from the earth, when the oxygen/hydrogen tanks were stirred there was an explosion which ultimately ended the mission to the moon and turned Apollo 13 into the tense tale of three men who had to hope nothing else went wrong so they could get home safely, and the ultimate irony - to do this they had to fly right around the moon!

Obviously as Fred Haise was talking to us this was a success but his bad luck didn't end there. After being the back up commander for Apollo 16 he was then due to command Apollo 19 - a mission that was scrapped due to funding cuts.

Fighting back from a serious plane crash (resulting in burns to 65% of his body) Haise returned to flight status and flew space shuttle Enterprise on 5 test flights in the earth's atmosphere but left the astronaut corps before the shuttle programme finally got to orbit.

Haise covered all of this in his talk and though out was, like the other astronauts we've seen in Pontefract, humble, amusing and very quick to praise the other 400 000 people involved in the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo missions who we rarely hear about.

I'm afraid that I just spend these talks star struck and don't remember huge details of them but there are fuller accounts on Collect Space and I have no doubt that blogger Space Kate will have a post up soon - she was name checked in the lecture by Haise as his first career choice was as a journalist and Kate was taking copious notes during the talk.

This time - for the first time - we also went to the dinner on Friday night and while Fred Haise only spoke for a few moments at this there was much more time to get an autograph and share a few words with him than the popular lectures allow.  Being outbid on two auction items and not winning either raffle were slight downers!

The two things I really will take away from this weekend:

  1. Fred Haise holding a door in the hotel open for me (okay I had my hands full but I felt I should be laying down my coat for him to walk on a la Sir Walter Raleigh rather than him holding a door for me)
  2. Fred Haise's look of total emotion as the lecture theatre of c.450 people gave him a standing ovation at the end of the event.
Oh and the blog title?  The school where the events are held had several tech failures during the talk, not least Fred Haise's headset microphone failing necessitating one of the Space Lecture's organisers having to remove it.  This was connected to Fred Haise's belt and it did look very funny from the audience, caused Haise to smile hugely and also for hecklers to call out that Haise needed to check it was only the microphone removed and not a wallet. I guess you had to be there....

We'll be heading back to Pontefract in April 2015 when the guest will be the first woman to pilot, and then to command, the space shuttle Cmdr Eileen Collins.  This news really made my inner feminist very happy :)

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Bookaday October

The #bookaday challenge continues in to October, with Books Are My Bag taking the reins. This is a campaign about using bookshops so that they don't all vanish and while may independents do take part in the campaign it is all embracing and about books!

1st: Book to curl up in front of a fire with?
What ever I am currently reading as long as the weather is appropriate!

2nd: Happy birthday Snoopy - your favourite fictional dog?
Although I've not re-read the books for a while I remember being most taken with Garth Nix's Disreputable Dog.

3rd: A book I love from one of the Cheltenham Festival 2014 guests?
Soooo many good authors here that it is hard to pick - I think I am overdue a re-read of Alone on a Wide Wide Sea by Michael Morpurgo

4th: One with a beautiful spine
Not just the spine but the whole package of The Invention of Hugo Cabret  was beautiful.

5th: Favourite reference to cinema/film in a book.
Again thanks to the depiction of early cinema I think Hugo Cabret wins though today as well!

6th: First book bought in a bookshop?
Not quite a bookshop but I remember saving my pocket money for the books advertised in the book club leaflet from school and the first one I paid for myself was either Earthstar Magic, Windsong Summer or Little House on the Prairie.

7th: Last book bought in a bookshop?
The script of My Night With Reg after seeing the play.

8th: Best bookshop find?
This has to be the secondhand copy of a rare Chalet School book that I found for very little money.

9th: Favourite book about a bookshop?
84 Charing Cross Road without a doubt.

10th: One with an orange cover?
The only one I can think of is Joshua Files:The Invisible City by M G Harris - this came in a bright orange plastic sleeve!

11th: Bought at a BAMB party?
This was The President's Hat by Antoine Laurain at the Jarrold's party in 2013.

12th: Favourite Bookseller recommendation?
So many after working in the book world for 16 years - most recently it was Mr Penumbra's Twenty-four Hour Bookstore.

13th: Nostalgic reads! Changed meaning when I re-read it later in life.
I re-read all of the time but the most obvious book with different meaning has to be a children's classic. As a child I loved Black Beauty as a simple horse book during the pony book phase, but later on saw all the messages about animal cruelty, and social injustice to some extent, that Sewell was writing about. Interestingly Little Women is one book that I read very differently from a friend - I see it as a positive book but she sees it very negatively.

14th: I adore the title of this novel.
A book title is important and I really dislike ones that make you think it is a completely different style of books. As serious books go then I love The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society but for a less serious one that makes me smile it has to be the puntastic Tequila Mockingbird.

15th: Best home in literature
I like my home a lot but I think that any fictional house that features a library swings it for me, talk of an open fire where I can curl up with a book makes it a winner.

16th: Most memorable adventure/journey in literature
The part of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe where they are walking in the snow towards the beavers' house and meet Father Christmas.

17th: The nearest book to you right now
The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Sounds pretentious but I'm typing this as a break from studying!

18th: Made me laugh in public
Not sure I've laughed out loud a lot while reading in public but certainly snorted and grinned on a train reading Stephen Fry's autobiography More Fool Me recently.

19th: Made me cry in public
H is For Hawk  and The Love Song of Queenie Hennessey both made me cry on a train in the past few months,

20th: Favourite bookworm in literature
The eponymous Matilda or Jo March from Little Women

21st: One where I fell in love with the narrator
Not sure I do this a lot but I often become so immersed in a book that I think I am part of it and struggle to return to the real world or to let go of the book at the end.

22nd: Makes me want to travel
Most books not set in Norfolk that I read! Some even make me want to time-travel too.

23rd: Best book on diversity
Malorie Blackman's Boys Don't Cry challenged so many commonly held prejudices and is fantastic.

24th: A hidden gem
The novels by R C Sherriff. He's well known for the play Journey's End and due the topic of this will be in the news a lot but I suggest looking for the Persephone reprints of his novels.

25th: Most memorable food/drink moment in literature
Could have chosen any of the picnic scenes from Enid Blyton, the midnight feasts from numerous school stories or the meals at Hogwarts but for me it is the Turkish Delight scene in  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I spent years as a child both wanting to cultivate a taste for the stuff and being worried I'd turn into Edmund if I did!

26th: Best book on time travel
Another hard one and so I pick two books The Time Traveller's Wife and Charlotte Sometimes they couldn't be more different but I re-read them both!
27th: Favourite epigraph
I don't have a good memory for these but after looking it up on line the quote used by Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird appeals greatly "Lawyers, I suppose, were children once" originally from Charles Lamb.

28th: Has the best advice
Any book that leaves you with the message that who ever you are is fine and that you should only change because you want to and not because anyone tells you to do so.

29th:  Most memorable fashion moment
I'm not into clothes or fashion but the scene in Harry Potter where Ron is in out of date formal robes always makes me feel very sorry for him.

30th: Favourite experimental book
I was most taken with Marguerite Duras' nouvelle vague book L'Amant (The Lover) when we read it at A Level, I think it was the first non straightforward narrative I'd read.

31st: Spookiest read.

I don't like scary books but Philippa Gregory's The Little House is I think the closest thing to horror I've read, but Nevil Shute's On the Beach is the most frightening book ever.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Theatre 2014: Review Thirty-Eight

The Scottsboro Boys, The Garrick Theatre, London. October 2014.

After a visit to a challenging art exhibition Rebecca and I continued our day to see a musical - not a genre of theatre we see an awful lot.

We hadn't picked a light-hearted musical either as the Scottsboro Boys tells the story of 9 young black men arrested and imprisoned in Alabama after being falsely accused of raping two while women on a train.  At the first trial the young men are sentenced to death but this is overturned and the trial considered not to be legal.  Over the next years the trial repeatedly comes back to court and the same verdict is given - even after one of the women admits to having lied.

A truly shocking story by any account.

However this production is even more uncomfortable as it is staged as a minstrel show with the Scottsboro Boys being run by an old white man. It is hard to explain just how well this works and just how uncomfortable it is whilst at the same time being as fantastic as I found it. The bit that unsettled me the most was when the black actors themselves appeared in the 'black-face' of the minstrel show but then even this was subverted and reclaimed...

The actors/dancers/singers are all on stage nearly all of the time, many of them play two or three roles and the only scenery is some chairs and a couple of planks of wood and yet I was there in 1930s Alabama with them throughout.

At times the story is a little badly paced and as the characters aren't individually named at the start it takes a little while to work out who is who.  Right up until the last scene I was also very unhappy with the way the one woman in the cast was used but this all becomes clear in one of the best twists I've seen.

I didn't come out singing any of the songs and even now, a week on, I feel deeply unsettled by what I saw and am struggling to put a review into any form of coherency yet I'd happily go and see this again and have been recommending it to all and sundry.  Sometimes you can like a production despite everything, and it is good for me to be jolted out of my comfort zone.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Pictures at an exhibition

Anslem Kiefer, Royal Academy of the Arts, London. October 2014.

Rebecca was keen to see this exhibition but unsure if it was my thing (I am pretty conservative and mainstream in my liking/understanding/appreciation of the art world) but I do like to try new things and so off we went to the RA no thanks to the combined efforts of various rail companies.

In advance Rebecca had warned me that some of Kiefer's work was bleak but thanks to the excellent website run by the Royal Academy I watched some films about the artist and his work and entered the exhibition with an open mind.

Like so many exhibitions where there is an audio guide the first room was a bit of a nightmare with people walking in and stopping but after this it thinned out and there was plenty of space to really spend some time looking at the pieces displayed.

I can't say I liked it all, but I had a very visceral response to many of the pieces and some of them grew more and more haunting the longer I spent looking at them. Some of the work I found myself rationalising in to things I was familiar with in an attempt to understand them and a few (many of the ones including the sunflowers below) I treated like astronomy.  The longer you actually look directly at something the less clear it becomes, but when you look to one side you clearly see the image...

The real downside to the exhibition was that they had run out of leaflets/guides to the works and so if you didn't take the audio guide then there was very little description to help you understand the pictures and installations - this was liberating in a way as we could invent our own narratives to them but I'm pretty sure we were wide of the mark!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Theatre 2014: Reviews Thirty-Six and Thirty-Seven

Henry IV parts I & II (RSC), Theatre Royal, Norwich. October 2014.

This past week I have spent a little over 6 hours in the theatre watching the two parts of Shakespeare's Henry IV and even now a few days on I am really not sure what I thought of the two plays.

Overall I enjoyed the duo but not as much as I'd expected, and this isn't just because the theatre seats weren't that comfortable for that length of time - after all I am happy to spend this much time at the Globe on wooden benches in the rain...

Whilst saying that I enjoyed the plays overall I am hard pressed to think of any specific moments except the choreography of the battle in part I and the deathbed scene and aftermath in part II. Both of these captivated me wholly and were a wonder to watch, and the latter did move me. The speaking and singing in Welsh during part I were also impressive.

However it would be fair to say that had these plays been renamed Falstaff part I & II it would be a fairer account of how the plays were staged/directed. As I never warmed to Sir Antony Sher's version of the character this was a bit of a problem.  I felt no chemistry at all between him and the rest of the cast, especially Prince Hal, and thus when he was rejected at the very end it didn't feel a surprise or a betrayal - something I keenly felt when seeing the DVD of the Globe version and from reading the texts.

The direction of Hotspur in part I also caused me some problems as he was played as completely unlikeable, again not something I've come across before. For sure he should be hot-headed but there was no reason at all for Henry IV to prefer him over Hal in this version and rather than hoping that the underdog would win I wanted to cheer when he was killed.

Possibly the biggest problem for me was that from the circle I couldn't tell Prince Hal and his companion Poins apart and for much of the production (whether intentional direction or not) I felt that Poins was more imposing than Hal and thus I mistook him for the prince in many scenes.

It all sounds very negative, and after part I that is certainly how I felt, part II did improve the experience for me but it all felt very worthy and the joy that I've found in Shakespeare (even in the versions of Macbeth and Richard III at the Trafalgar studios) was missing here.
My complaints could be because the staging didn't work so well in a traditional, dark, proscenium arch theatre where the acoustics were not the best but I think that my unease and dislike of the production are deeper than this and again it is that I prefer the Globe's interpretation to that of the RSC.

I'm glad I saw this, and after the recent treat that was Two Gentlemen of Verona, I am a little disappointed in my reaction but it does confirm that I am right to travel to London regularly rather than struggling to Stratford.  I will keep trying the RSC versions at the cinema however!

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Book Review

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce.

Proof provided by

A couple of years ago a very gentle book called The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was published and became a hit. I read it, enjoyed it and thought it an interesting premise. Over the summer excitement has been building for the companion book and I was interested enough to request an advance copy.

I'm glad that I did for this is an interesting book that faces dying head on but without slipping over into mawkishness or forced humour. It does remain moving and funny however.

In Harold Fry we follow Harold as he makes his epic journey on foot from Cornwall to Northumberland. This book focuses on Queenie - the woman he is trying to reach - and recounts her life as she remembers it, and how it intersects with Harold's alongside daily life in a hospice.

A book about dying should always be read with caution and this book will certainly not be for everyone. If I still worked in retail I would be cautious about recommending this to customers - it is such an emotive topic that people should come to it on their own, even fans of the first book should take care before reading. That all being said books on topics like this are important and the quality of writing and the ending make this a good, if sad, read.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Theatre 2014: Review Thirty-Five

Seminar, Hampstead Theatre, London. October 2014.

I was very glad that I'd made the Friday a Globe double bill for although the weather started fair on Saturday it didn't stay that way!

However before the rain fell Rebecca and I managed to get to the Tower of London to see the amazing Poppy installation at the Tower of London. This is a truly powerful way to mark the centenary of World War One and the sight of that many poppies marking those from Britain who died in the war is mind blowing.

One small section of the final 888, 246 poppies.

After this the long suffering Rebecca agreed to accompany me to Gordon Square to see all of the Book Benches in one place prior to them being auctioned off for charity.  I love these projects of installation art with themes and spent a happy half hour photographing the front and back of all 51 seats.  Poor Rebecca sat under a tree with a book hoping that the drizzle wasn't going to get worse before I was finished.  We were mostly lucky and it wasn't until we were walking towards the West End that the heavens truly opened on us.

Wet through we made our way to Hampstead, dried out a little in a cafe and then got drenched again on our way to the theatre.  Not entirely in the mood for a play that hadn't had great reviews we took our seats.

Again I find myself out of step with other reviewers.  Seminar is an odd play in that it is all about the craft of writing. We follow four aspiring writers as they present their work to an expensive and well regarded editor/author.

None of the characters - including the superb Roger Allam - are likeable and all are almost caricatures of different types of writers/artists. For me this didn't matter as the play was about how and why people write and read, and I found it easy to transfer a lot of the ideas to both my studies in theatre and also my job in the book world.  I really could see several people I've met over time in all of the stage roles - not all of them flattering!

A play about writing is hard to talk about strangely enough as it sounds terribly dull but it wasn't, in fact I found it very human and very funny.

Concentrating at times did feel hard however as Allam was playing against characters called Martin and Douglas and his accent was just like the one he puts on on the episode of Cabin Pressure called Paris.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Theatre 2014: Review Thirty-Four

Doctor Scroggy's War, Shakespeares' Globe, London. October 2014.

After meeting Rebecca, having a cup of tea, saying goodbye to companion number one and locating our hotel we returned to the Globe for the evening.

We started in the lecture theatre below the theatre for a "Perspectives" talk. This involved Howard Brenton (author of the play) talking about the play and then taking questions from the audience.  The talk tried very hard not to spoil any surprises in the play for those of us who hadn't yet seen it but at the same time gave us a good idea on how it came to be written and some of the research undertaken to formulate it.

I was most interested in the areas of the talk, and questions, that talked about how Brenton wrote the play for the space and the uniqueness of the Globe, and how the audience interaction can both be a help and a hindrance to the playwright and actor.  I was also really pleased to hear Brenton talk about how WW1 wasn't the first mechanised/trench war - he acknowledged the American Civil War! This is a pet peeve of mine - can you tell!

After the talk we had very high hopes for the play and were in our seats well before the start.

The plot follows three people Jack Twigg - a temporary gentleman with a commission in the London Irish Regiment, Penelope Wedgewood - a leading socialite, and Dr Harold Gillies - a pioneering plastic surgeon with a progressive and unorthodox take on medicine and the importance of morale on healing. There are many other incidental characters helping to drive the plot and in historical terms the play focuses on the Battle of Loos in 1915 and the incredible mistake made by high command.

The play purports to be, and the pre show talk lead me to believe, that the focus would be on the dramatisation of the real life Gillies and his unorthodox but effective treatment of soldiers who suffered facial injuries - he was in fact mentioned recently in the moving ITV series The People's War - however for me this didn't turn out to be the case.

For me the play felt like it was put on stage too early - I think that there are three excellent stories to be told, but that to develop them better each needs more space, or a play of their own.  Jack's story is fascinating and I wanted to know more of him in all ways, without spoilers it is also still very pertinent in asking what does being British actually mean.

Penelope undergoes the most radical of changes and has a fascinating arc to explore, especially in the light of last year's Bluestockings and as for poor Gillies...he was played by the ever wonderful James Garnon but was woefully under used and I felt that there was a lot more mileage in his character. It almost feel disrespectful to use a real person in such a desultory way.

My final grievance with the play was the jig at the end, I can't explain why but for me to see people dancing to Goodbye Dolly Gray and Tipperary seemed wrong.

On the plus side the play held my attention throughout the (scant) two hours, I laughed lots and learned lots of new things about a subject I do know well. It was acted brilliantly and the use of sound was incredible.  I hope that perhaps some more work is done on this play and that it does come back again as it is an interesting story, I'm just not 100% sure that at present the play tells it.