Friday, 27 February 2015

Advance reading

The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

Reviewing a book by someone you know, and that you bump into on a frequent basis is actually quite nerve wracking.
Add in to the mix that their new book is on a topic that you love, and know quite a lot about.

To say I approached The Last Pilot with trepidation isn't entirely the truth however, since the author announced it had a publication date I'd been haunting daily hoping that a reading copy would be available for request.

It duly appeared and I was approved for a download.  As soon as I'd finished my required reading for uni I did turn to it and then read pretty much non stop to the end.  I was very lucky that the following day was a day off!

The book took a little getting used to at first as there were no speech marks but this was good - it slowed me down (a little).

The publisher blurb tells more about the book than I ever could - and decides what counts as a spoiler:

Jim Harrison is a test pilot in the United States Air Force, one of the exalted few. He spends his days in a precarious dance with death above the Mojave Desert and his nights at his friend Pancho's bar, often with his wife, Grace. Both are secretly desperate for a child—and are delighted when, against all odds, Grace learns that she is pregnant.But Sputnik has put the country in a panic, and NASA, newly formed, has been tasked with manning space before the Russians. Harrison turns down the chance to participate in Project Mercury and becomes a father to Florence, his baby girl. Yet his life, as a father and as a pilot, grinds to a halt when she becomes seriously ill and dies at the age of two. Devastated, Harrison loses himself in his work—and, sometimes, in distressing thoughts of Florence—and this time, when he gets a ticket to the moon, he takes it, but without consulting Grace.As Harrison trains to become an astronaut, the toll that his daughter's death has taken upon his marriage becomes more palpable, even as his ability to reckon with the reality of it diminishes. Set against the backdrop of one of the most emotionally charged periods in American history,The Last Pilot is a mesmerizing story of loss and finding courage in the face of it, from an extraordinary new talent.
What I loved about the book was how little like a novel it was, at the back Johncock lists books he consulted for the research (I'd read all but one of them!) and I really felt that his book stood alongside them as a biography of the time and age - just with an invented character which made it fiction.

The repressed emotion shown by Harrison was perfect when compared to the biographies and autobiographies of the early astronuats - you know that they had to have feelings but that they were repressed to the Nth degree to keep up the image of the macho astronaut.

However this (accurate) emotional distance did keep me a little distant from the book as a novel hence my constant forgetting that it was fiction.  This may be down to my own knowledge of the topic matter and I really look forward to talking about the book with people who don't know the source stories as well as me! The book has enough story that I think it will satisfy people who are 'space nuts' and those who like a good story set in the 1950s and 60s.

I've been to many of the physical places mentioned in the book, and met several of the real men featured and I am so pleased that this book adds to my experiences and, unlike some works on topics I like, send me either screaming back to the sources or ruin my interest entirely.

The book isn't published until July in either the US or the UK but add it to your wish lists now.

Please note that although I know the author the book was provided through, the review is entirely independent and I have received no recompense for writing it.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Theatre 2015: Review Seven

Farinelli and the King, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe, London. February 2015.

Liking and admiring Mark Rylance as an actor has become hugely popular this year thanks to his role in Wolf Hall and as a result of this Rebecca and I were pleased to have booked tickets to Farinelli and the King way back last year.  We already knew he was great without waiting to see him on the small screen!

So much could have been wrong with Farinelli - it was a new piece of theatre (with music/opera), written by Rylance's wife for him and performed in a theatre that is not the most comfortable to sit in.  Luckily we found it to be a great afternoon.

It is based on a true story where the King of Spain is mad.  The play opens with the king (Rylance) lounging in bed fishing in a goldfish bowl and talking to the fish.  His state of health is ambiguous at this point as he mostly seems lucid.  His leading ministers are not happy with him and think that he should be replaced.  His situation worsens but with the help of his wife and doctor a new cure is tried - that of music and the leading castrati of the day, Farinelli, is invited to court and appears to cure the king.

There are a few nuances and added parts to the story but it remains very simple and very affecting, the king remains mostly well as long as Farinelli sings.  There is a very interesting device used for Farinelli however, and one that I didn't spot at first.

When Farinelli is singing the actor playing the role doesn't actually sing, someone else - when we saw it Iestyn Davies provided the amazing voice - appears on stage next to Farinelli and they mimic each others movements.  It sounds terrible written down but on stage worked amazingly, Farinelli the man wanted to be seen as different from the voice and so on stage he physically was.  Only in the very last scene did the two men actually interact and that added more poignancy to the piece than anything for me.

While the play was very good I have to say that I did find it a little jarring that despite the setting and costumes all being redolent of the 1700s the language used was entirely 21st century.  It made for some funny moments but did create a little barrier between me and the play.  Possibly a bad attempt at replicating actual speech from the time would have  been just as bad however!

This was a lavish production with not a weak member of cast and a full ensemble piece - something that I would imagine is hard to create when Rylance is the leading man.  His charisma and skill shone through and I am now desperate to see him on stage in a truly modern piece.  Farinelli and the King has a very short run at the SWP and while I'd love to see it transfer so more people could see it the setting was ideal and in a bigger venue the intimacy created here could not be replicated I feel.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Theatre 2015: Review Six

Edward Scissorhands (ballet), Theatre Royal, Norwich. February 2015.

It has been nearly two weeks since I saw this and yet I still find myself at a loss when trying to write about it.  For all the right reasons I hasten to add - it was a piece of perfect theatre.

I'm pretty sure I saw the movie back in the 1990s but again I went to see a Matthew Bourne ballet knowing very little of the plot intricacies and once more it didn't matter - the story just unfolded naturally in front of me.

Often theatre reviewers and critics say that if you notice things like the scenery and the lighting then there is something lacking in the event but in this case absolutely everything was perfect and worked together - you were supposed to notice the lights, the nets etc. At the end I was crying and yet hadn't realised that this was the case.

I came out of the performance gobsmacked that there were empty seats and it is only because I couldn't fit it in that I wasn't back at the Box Office buying tickets to see this again and again.  The one thing I feel bad about it telling my mum that she has to see this only to find that her local theatre isn't showing it.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Staying with the French theme

Book review: The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain

My top book of the year in 2013 was the wonderful President's Hat and for the past six months or so I have been periodically tweeting with the publishers (@gallicbooks) about if and when the next book by Laurain is due.

Persistence paid off last week when the very nice team at Gallic Books popped an advance copy of The Red Notebook into the post for me.  Luckily I am up to date with my studies as I'm afraid all work instantly stopped and I plunged straight into the book...and pretty much didn't surface until it was finished.

The light whimsical tone of the President's Hat remains but this time the book is more contemporary and features a wonderful protagonist, Laurent, who runs a bookshop in Paris.  One morning he discovers an abandoned handbag in the street and decides to set about finding who it belongs to.

The story is part mystery, part family story and part love story and all the strands work beautifully with each other - you can see the disasters looming but Laurain, and his translators, don't overplay anything and the story feels real as well as very much like a modern fairy tale.  

I loved it, the book is different to The President's Hat - possibly a little more mainstream and conventional - but it is still a fantastic read for anyone, and for those with a little French knowledge some of the wordplay is fantastic but the humour totally works without knowing this extra layer!

Many thanks to Gallic Books for sending me a copy so early - the book isn't published until 14th April - and for letting me talk about it in advance of publication.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Theatre 2015: Review Five

Boeing Boeing. Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich. January 2015.

Up until now a mixture of laziness and inability to work out what the day is has stopped me going to the Maddermarket Theatre here in Norwich but last week I finally got there.  Thanks to the weather and a hurried change in companion I nearly didn't make it but I am so glad that I did.

The theatre itself is very important in the field of Shakespeare Performance studies and I keep coming across mentions of the building in journals and reference books as I study - a brief explanation as to why is here.

My first visit wasn't to see Shakespeare however but to see a 1960s farce, translated from a French original.  I've discovered over the past few years that I quite like farce as a genre but that it has to be done very well to succeed. This was done as well, or if not better than the touring London companies that I have seen.

Bernard lives in Paris, he has a nice apartment, a long suffering (and scene stealing) house keeper and three fiancees.  The three fiancees aren't a problem however as they all work as air hostesses (this is set in the 1960s remember) for rival airlines and their schedules mean that they are never in Paris at the same time... until they are.

Luckily for Bernard his hapless but romantic friend from Wisconsin has just flown in and so everything will be just fine...

The tension and humour built brilliantly throughout this play, and coupled with some wonderful stage falls and expressions I was in stitches for much of the play and wonderfully for a farce the ending was perfect and not at all a let down.  My hat goes off to all the actors for keeping up such a pace without once losing momentum.

My companion on the evening was Mr Norfolkbookworm and he is more of a film person than a theatre goer so on the next night we watched the film version, produced just a couple of years after the original stage play.  It really wasn't very good at all, the humour was missing and the chemistry between any of the characters - we both agreed that if we'd seen the film first we'd never have gone to the theatre.

I'm now sitting here with my diary trying to work out just how many other things I can see by the Maddermarket company in among all the other things I already have booked.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Theatre 2015: Review Four

Assassins. The Chocolate Menier Theatre, London. January 2015.

After the previous uninspiring theatre trip and a week spent nursing an ear infection I can't say I was particularly looking forward to the trip to London for this.  Coupled with the fact that my last two plays directed by Jamie Lloyd (Richard III and Macbeth) have been among my worst experiences at the theatre it really wouldn't have taken much to see me call this visit off.

However the lure of the venue and the cast saw me negotiating the complicated rail timetables and heading to the theatre.  I am so pleased I did.

Apart from being about the people who have killed (or tried to kill) the Presidents of the United States I knew nothing about this show at all and got quite a shock as we entered the auditorium through a creepy, run down clown's mouth past a dodgem car into a really grungy old travelling funfair come circus set.

The musical was as creepy as the staging, and I mean that in the best way, I was on edge the whole time and totally unsure as to what was going to happen or how.  The assassins brandished guns with abandon and as the venue is so small to be looking down the barrel of a gun at that close distance coupled with the manic grin of a mad assassin meant that the hairs on the back of my neck didn't lay down for the whole 75 minutes of the show.

I hadn't read reviews or the programme so the small casting twist took me totally by surprise and worked wonderfully.  I didn't come out humming the songs but I know that it will take a long time to let the images of the show calm down in my mind.

Another (sell out) hit from the Menier - now let me go and look at their schedule for the rest of the year...