Thursday, 31 July 2014

Theatre 2014: Review Twenty-Three

The Elephantom, New London Theatre, London. July 2014.

The best thing about being an auntie (apart from the cuddles) is being able to share books and other experiences with my nephew.  He's already turning into a junior bookworm and I'm pleased to say that his theatre habit is coming along quite nicely too...

His birthday treat this year was an outing to London to see the Elephantom but we were so lucky with the weather that it turned into a whole day of fun including a trip on the river, hunting for book benches, an introduction to the Globe and a picnic before we even got to the theatre!

On a hot day the New London Theatre was a delight with the cool air conditioning but the real excitement was the show.

A little girl is ignored by her parents until chaos ensues when an Elephantom moves far so standard in children's fiction. The Elephantom however is incredibly troublesome even to his new friend and the tipping point is when he invites his friends over for a party.  Gran comes to the rescue however and after a trip to a magical shop the Elephantom is encouraged to move out and cause chaos elsewhere.

This play is almost wasted on children although my nephew sat spellbound throughout - giggling mightily when the elephant gets wind and poops on stage!  It is a wordless play which is choreographed as carefully as any ballet and the ideas are quite complex. The Elephantom isn't on stage all of the time and this could cause a dip in attention but some how it doesn't.

I hope that at some point the National Theatre release a DVD of this, like they did for their Cat in a Hat, because I think it is a play that can be watched many times at all ages. I know I want to see it again.

Like in War Horse the staging allows you to see the puppet operators as they work the Elephantom but again they are forgotten to the extent that when the little girl tugs the trunk of the naughty elephant and he appears to come apart my nephew really did gasp as if it were real.

My favourite thing of this show is that instead of a programme the ushers are selling copies of the book that the play is based on.  What could be better my two favourite things in one place!

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Right Stuff

Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space by Lynn Sherr

It seems appropriate for two reasons to be reading the biography of Sally Ride at the moment.

July 20th saw the 45th anniversary of the first moon landing by Armstrong and Aldrin (supported by Michael Collins) and this coming weekend is when Norwich holds the city Pride celebrations.

NASA's first quarter century was full of firsts but flying women and non white men was not on the cards - it wasn't until the late 1970s that minorities and females were selected as potential astronaut candidates.

Ride was among this group and was selected to fly on STS-7 in 1983 to become the first American women to leave the planet (although the 3rd female in space). Return to earth left her as a celebrity and this continued after she flew for a second time and then after the Challenger disaster served on the panel investigating the tragedy.

After leaving NASA Ride, and her partner Tam, set up an incredible programme to encourage girls to become interested in science.  These initiative are not just for girls but they are all about making it normal for girls and women to be scientists. I was always lucky in that my family, and my school, always encouraged me to do what I wanted but this breaking down of barriers is great.  To see one of the amazing initiatives for middle school children have a look at EarthKAM.

While NASA had opened up enough to allow women and minorities to fly into space, sadly homophobia (real or perceived) kept Ride from publicly acknowledging much of her life, but now this is being rectified and the message of the book is that it is okay to be whatever and whoever you want.

Sherr, the author of the book, admits freely that as well as a journalist and biographer she was also Sally's friend and so there may be some bias in the book but for me the important thing is that the story is told and that girls continue to dream, to study and to experiment.

 STS-7 launch photo 1983 carrying 1st American female, Sally Ride, into space

Many thanks to the team at Space Lectures for letting me know about this title.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Spying Game

The Spy Who Changed the World by Mike Rossiter

Book supplied through the programme.

A good non fiction book can read like a novel, and with a topic such as spying fact is often more far fetched than fiction can ever be. This is something I kept thinking about while reading this book.

It was a quick read that held my interest from the start, as with the best non fiction books the details of the topic covered - in this case nuclear power and nuclear weapons - were given with the right amount of information.  Science and mathematics are important to the book but Rossiter never forgets that the reader is more than likely not going to be an expert in these fields.

The intricacies of spying were also kept clear throughout the narrative and at all times I could keep the protagonists clear in my mind even with all of the code names, which is again a bonus as a non expert.

However I am not sure if it is because a lot of the information is still classified or if it is because the book was just aimed a little too much at a lay man that I found it very slightly unsatisfying.  I know it seems odd to praise a book for being accessible and then to criticise it for lack of detail but to me it just felt a little slight when compared to Ben MacIntyre's books in the same genre.

There were lots of reasons that I enjoyed the book, and it complemented another advance copy I'd read in the past few months, The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan, but it has left me wanting to find the time to read a more in depth biography of Fuchs and his antics.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Theatre 2014: Review Twenty-Two

The King's Peach, The Blakeney Players, Blakeney. July 2014.

As ever this review comes with the caveat that it cannot be impartial as I know one of the cast.

It was the hottest day of the year so far when we left the city for our bi-annual trip to the Norfolk coast for an evening of fun with the Blakeney Players and for once the traffic played ball and we made good time so had a lovely pub supper and then there was even time for a walk on the beautiful marsh before settling in for some laughs.

How to describe this one... erm... apart from the over use of superlatives it is quite hard...
Imagine The King's Speech mixed with a little bit of Roald Dahl, Strictly Come Dancing, Celebrity Bake Off, Agatha Christie and Sherlock with a dash of Hitch Hiker's Guide to Galaxy and a large slug of political quips and a soupcon of local humour.

It was a wonderful evening and I'm not sure I will ever recover from seeing Prince George making a toad in the hole whilst waltzing and then singing a re-write to the song YMCA. The special effects were wonderful as well.

(cast photo sneaked during the curtain call)

We actually saw the first show in the run - there are tickets available for the remaining four shows and I do highly recommend it as a showcase of just what amateur dramatics should be about. Oh and with views like the one below just 5 minutes from the theatre how can you refuse?

Blakeney Harbour in the evening light.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Travelling vicariously

Without Reservations by Alice Steinbach

Since coming back from holiday I've been reading quite a lot of travel writing, perhaps in a hope of prolonging the feeling of being on holiday, the books have been of all types and my list of places to both visit and avoid are growing ever longer.

One of the best I've read was The Yosemite by John Muir, this was written in 1912 and is a collection of thought made by Muir after years spend visiting Yosemite National Park.  I'd tried his books before but found them very hard going, however on returning to this one after visiting the area was a delight as I could now really 'see' what he was writing about. If you aren't familiar with the geography/wildlife however I do wonder if you'll enjoy it as much.  It is worth trying just for his descriptions of avalanches and thunderstorms.

Other books I've read have been the autobiographies of National Park Rangers in various areas of the USA.  These are insightful and funny and as someone who has worked in various customer service jobs for years there is a lot to relate to.  The knowledge, advice and friendliness of all of the NPS employees we've met have really added to our experiences of the American wilds and it does make me sad to read how overstretched, under protected and vulnerable they often are.

The last book in the genre I've read broke my book butterfly problem and I have no idea who suggested it to me or why I had it on reserve from the library.

Without Reservations is the story of Alice Steinbach's 9 months spent in Europe in 1993.  She takes a sabbatical from her job (and life) in Baltimore and apart from knowing where she'll be living in Europe she crosses the Atlantic with no plans.  This could so easily have become mawkish - like I found the inexplicable popular Eat, Pray, Love - but was delightful and I sat up until gone midnight as I had to keep reading.
Alice is a friendly person and even when feeling lonely and shy in new cities manages to meet people and turn them into friends where ever she goes which no doubt adds to her experience but her willingness to try anything makes her journey a joy to read.

Cities that I know well revealed new secrets to me through the writing and again yet more destinations have been added to my list of places to visit.  However Alice's experiences in Rome were so different to mine that I wanted to encourage her to go again and give a magical place a second chance.

This book was a pleasant surprise and just what I needed to kick start my reading again.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Book Butterfly

I have a terrible confession.

Just lately I've had terrible trouble finishing a book.
I've started loads and they've generally been really good but  lots of great books have just been added to Net Galley and I've been approved to read them, plus proof copies from Bookbridgr and other sources have been dropping through the door.
This means that however good the book I was reading was I've dropped it in favour of the new.

My to-be-read pile is enormous again and all of the books look appealing and many need reviewing but thanks to Twitter I've just discovered that there are two new astronaut biographies out and we all know that I am a sucker for them...

It is probably a good thing that I am on summer break from uni at the moment and so do actually have time to read without causing the MA to suffer but I really need to settle down to a book and read it from cover to cover. And then review it!

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Book-A-Day June

In June, while I was away, I started noticing lots of tweets going around all tagged #BookadayUK.

When we got home, and I'd recovered from the jet lag I looked into this and discovered it was an initiative from Borough Press to get people talking about books on Twitter.  Each day a question about books was given and people from all over the world answered.

I didn't take part as by the time I found out about it the month was more than half gone, but since then I've been thinking about it and decided that all in one go I'd answer the questions.

1st - Favourite book from childhood? 
Has to be Little Women, I still reread it at least once a year and the sequel Good Wives can still make me cry.

2nd - Best Bargain? 
This would be when I found a hardback copy of Two Sams at the Chalet School in pristine condition for just £5, copies are on sale currently for £250!!

3rd - One with a blue cover? 
Captain Corelli's Mandolin. The cover is mostly blue and the book wonderful, just don't expect the film to be faithful to the book.

4th - Least favourite book by a favourite author? 
The Wildflower Path by Sarah Harrison. I loved the detail of Flowers of the Field and A Flower That's Free but this one was slight and just a re-write of the first two books. Long awaited but disappointing.

5th - Doesn't belong to me? 
A huge pile of library books, my library card is often maxed out.

6th - The one I always give as a gift?  
A bit of a cheat but I generally give book tokens so that people can pick their own. 

7th - Forgot I owned it? 
Any number of titles as my shelves are all double stacked. I have got 3 copies of Regeneration by Pat Barker so I do keep forgetting I own this.

8th - Have more than one copy? 
Does it count having a paper copy and an eBook version...

9th - Film or TV tie in? 
My copy of Chocolat is the film version, and possibly also one that I prefer the film to the book.

10th - Reminds me of someone I love? 
This would be any of the space history books around the house as I'd never have become so interested in this topic without Mr Norfolkbookworm.

11th - Secondhand bookshop gem? 
About 70% of my books are secondhand but I think it has to be the aforementioned Two Sams at the Chalet School.

12th - I pretend to have read it?
 I'm not too embarrassed about admitting to have not read things but I've never read 1984.

13th - Makes me laugh? 
I find the most inappropriate things funny but Bill Bryson's books about America always raise a smile, his ones about Europe and Australia are a bit xenophobic but I love the US ones.

14th - An old favourite? 
I'll often re-read the Tortall books by Tamora Pierce, I think I must nearly know some of them by heart now.

15th - Favourite fictional father? 
Struggling with this as so many books I like need an absence of parents for the plot. Probably the Swallow's father from Ransome's Swallows and Amazons.

16th - Can't believe more people haven't read? 
Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres. A real epic in the Homeric style which I think puts people off but a real sweeping story about Greece, Turkey and World War One.

17th - Future classic? 
Too hard to predict but I do think that the Harry Potter books will survive in the way that Hobbit / Lord of the Rings have done.

18th - Bought on a recommendation? 
Numerous books, last one was probably Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore which I adored.

19th - Still can't stop talking about it? 
The President's Hat, great fun all the way through and one that I seem to recommend and defend in equal measures.

20th - Favourite cover
Probably the grey covers from Persephone books as they are just beautiful but don't influence your thoughts of the books as they give nothing away.

21st - Summer read? 
Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Set in snowy Alaska and a real escapist read in a humid, sticky English heat.

22nd - Out of print?  
At least 50% of my books fall into this category and thanks to specialist publishers more are coming back into print. I'll pick many of the Mary Renault books but they are being reprinted in August so they only just count!

23rd - Made to read at school? 
There weren't too many of these but I still don't know the ending to Stig of the Dump as we didn't get to the end of it when I was in the 2nd year of primary school.

24th - Hooked me into reading? 
I can't remember a time when I couldn't read but early favourites were the Garden Gang series of books.

25th - Never finished it? 
Watership Down, tried so many times but the warning given by a teacher that it was a "bit hard" when I was about 7 and it keeps stalling me.

26th - Should have sold more copies? 
The President's Hat. It is very funny but I think that being in translation put many people off.

27th - Want to be one of the characters? 
Generally the book I am currently reading if I am enjoying it.

28th - Bought at my favourite independent bookshop? 
I love all bookshops equally so can't pick a favourite.

29th - The one I've reread the most often? 
Probably Little Women but the Tamora Pierce books are a close second.

30th - Would save if my house burned down? 
I think that eventually most of my books could be replaced but my signed astronaut biographies would be the irreplaceable ones and so the ones I'd save.

The publishers Doubleday have taken up the baton and the same thing is happening through July and again I keep missing these so will do a round up again in August. If you are on Twitter then do check the hashtag as I am creating huge long list of recommendations!

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Theatre 2014: Review Twenty-One

Last Days of Troy, Shakespeare's Globe, London. June 2014.

New writing at the Globe has a real hit and miss reputation, however Mr Norfolkbookworm and I seem to have struck it lucky each time.  Last year Bluestockings was fantastic and this new play by Simon Armitage was equally as enjoyable.

The play is based on the last few weeks of the siege of Troy and uses Homer's Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid as source material to create a retelling of the events. The original texts are both sprawling and often confusing with many characters and interfering deities but this version simplified the cast and kept the narrative clear and easy to follow.

A few times the language seemed a little modern for the setting and the outburst from Achilles which was full of obscenity really jarred but apart from that I was swept away from the start.  I also very much liked the framing device of the immortal Gods stuck in a world where no one believes in them anymore and poor Zeus being forced to act as a living statue portraying himself and selling models of himself at an archaeological site!

We saw the last performance of this play at the Globe but if it tours or is revived then I do recommend it as it has certainly moved into my top 10 of plays seen this year so far.