Friday, 31 March 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Thirteen - Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly, Royal Opera House, London. March 2017.

It hasn't been that long since I saw the Glyndebourne version of this opera and fell in love with it but when I saw it was going to be on at the ROH I knew I wanted to go again, and this time with my mum and dad. It seemed like we out of luck at first because the tickets we wanted initially sold out before I could get to the website.

After much discussion and checking of the website we decided to risk the £20 seats in the upper ampitheatre - this showed great bravery on mum's part as they were incredibly high up!

We saw the first performance of this opera at a midday matinee and it was wonderful, the staging was simple, sliding doors and lighting conveyed everything needed and the costumes were traditional kimonos for the Japanese roles contrasting with the western dress of Pinkerton and the consul.

Despite being so high up the view was incredible, we couldn't see facial expressions but we could see everything that happened on the stage as well as having a really clear view of the surtitles. The sound was also brilliant, the music and voices just soared up to us.

This was another production where time flew as we were watching it and by the end we were emotional wrecks and totally wrung out - we'd never have known that this was a first performance and we are now avidly scanning the ROH brochure to see what else we can book for these bargain seats!

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Twelve - Travesties

Travesties, Apollo Theatre, London. March 2017.

After the wonderful performance of Hamlet in the afternoon there was always a danger that the second play of the day will be a let down and as Stoppard has a reputation for being 'hard'.

It started ominously when Tom Hollander shuffled into the theatre acting as an old man wearing slippers and a dressing gown. We then met all the protagonists of the drama in a crazy, frenetic scene and I was left feeling bewildered and totally at sea.

It calmed down in some ways as it became clear that the old man was the 'now' and the other scenes were his memories.  It got a bit confusing again when scenes started playing and then replaying themselves all slightly differently.

The plot of the play was full of information as the basic plot is that the old man, Henry Carr, is the British consul in Zurich in 1917 at the same time that James Joyce, Lenin and Tristan Tzara (one of the founders of Dadaism) were living there and that all of them crossed paths in the library.

In this play they all get to explain their ideas and ideologies and so much information is thrown at the audience that by the interval my head was reeling. Oh and thanks to the stage props I was also craving cucumber sandwiches!

After the interval the play continues in much the same vein, scenes played and replayed interspersed with appearances from the elderly Carr. However as the play comes to an end you realise that the replaying of scenes isn't indicating the passing of time (as I'd thought) but the unreliable memories of a man trying to write his memoirs.  So much of what he remembers is incorrect that I came out wondering if any of the facts/ideologies presented by Joyce et. al. were true and this took away some of the shine of the play - I guess that I have a lot of reading around the topic to undertake!

Mixed in with all of this confusion are jokes, songs, dances and a wonderful sub plot comprising of a farce plus a play within a play and while I came out confused and questioning I also came out smiling after having had a lot of fun at the theatre - just unsure if I can trust anything I learned during the 2 1/2 hours.

Interestingly the one bit of the play I  know to be true involved Lenin, the Russian Revolution and his return to Russia in 1917. These historical events happened exactly 100 years ago on the day we saw the play which did add some poignancy to the play, and accuracy here makes me hope that the explanations of communism etc were also correct.

The programme summed the play up as Oscar Wilde meets Monty Python and I can see this - but I'd add in a dash of Open University to account for the vast amounts of information included.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Eleven - Hamlet

Hamlet, Almeida Theatre, London. March 2017.

Reading back through this blog it becomes obvious that while I love Shakespeare seeing the plays performed by anyone other than the Globe often leads to disappointment.  I also struggle hugely with Hamlet as a play - my confession is that I've never really understood what the fuss was about and why this is considered one of the masterpieces of theatre.

I didn't enjoy the Barbican's Hamlet a couple of years ago and I had reservations about the was Shakespeare is staged at the Almeida from when we saw Richard III last year so why on earth were we going to see a four hour version of Hamlet at the Almeida?!

As the play started my trepidation grew yet further as this was a Hamlet in the modern world, complete with big screens and breaking news on cable television. Old Hamlet's ghost is first noticed on the CCTV...

However this version worked absolutely and the time flew, in fact I was quite sad as I realised we were entering the final act.  The updating of the setting worked perfectly, all of the cast seemed real and alive - they all had an (unspoken) back story and the tragedy that unfolded seemed real.  Hamlet was a broken man after the death of his father and swift remarriage of his mother.

When he learns that his uncle/step father murdered his father he tips from grief into insanity and although he claims he is feigning the madness I utterly believed that he lost his grip on reality and became mad.
Equally I believed that Claudius and Gertrude did love each other, that it wasn't just regicide and a power grab. The play was just a series of tragic accidents. The only time I fell out of love with this play was late on when poor Orphelia has become unhinged due to grief too. She seemed sidelined and unbelievable and her death/suicide was almost glossed over, as was the later graveside scene.

This small point didn't detract from the play however and for me this was a fantastic afternoon of theatre and  I finally see why this play is one of Shakespeare's masterpieces.

We decided to see this play mainly because of the lead actor, Andrew Scott, and we've been caught out by this before but our gut instinct was right. His delivery of the lines was spot on and at no point did I think I was watching Andrew Scott play Hamlet - I was just watching the tragedy of a Danish family fall apart.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

My own personal landmark birthday reading challenge

The Norfolkbookworm Birth Year Reading Challenge 

Being 40 later this month it would have been far too easy just to say that my reading challenge was just to read 40 fabulous books this year.  The problem with that is however I have already finished 60+ books this year and 2017 might not be a stellar year and there might not be 40 fabulous books...

Instead I've thought about this a little more and I've set myself twelve goals for the year and they all relate to books that have a connection to 1977.

This year I will try to read the following books from 1977:
  • The Booker Prize winner – Staying On by Paul Mark Scott
  • The Carnegie Medal winner – The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler by Gene Kemp 
  • The Greenaway Medal winner - Dogger by Shirley Hughes
  • The Whitbread Best Book Award winner – Injury Time by Beryl Bainbridge
  • The Newbery Medal winner – Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor
  • Miles Franklin award winner – Swords and Crowns and Rings by Ruth Parks
  • Governor's General  Award winner (English language) – The Wars – Timothy Findley

In addition to these I also am challenging myself to read the following:
  • A book written by an author who was born in 1977
  • A book written by an author who died in 1977
  • A non fiction book published in 1977
  • A sci-fi book published in 1977
  • A book in translation from 1977
I will also try to see a play that was originally from 1977, as well as the Oscar and BAFTA winners - hopefully over the next 12 months I will manage all of this and  using lists from Good Reads and Wikipedia I might even discover some other great reads/watches from the year!

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Reading with purpose

It has now been almost a year since I finished my MA and have been able to read what every I've wanted. Sure there have been some books I've been required to read for projects such as the Fact Not Fiction book club on Radio 2 but generally I've just been browsing the web, Netgalley and bookshops looking for things that appeal.

In the main this style of reading suits me fine, as soon as I am required to read something my obstinacy gene seems to kick in and I struggle mightily - I've failed as a member of so many book groups it is unbelievable, especially as I am such a bookworm generally!

I am feeling like I do need some sort of guide to my reading and so this morning I have been browsing the web, and other bookblogs to see what other readers have challenged themselves to.

Lots of the challenges appeal as they suggest reading from a genre rather than giving a title, and I might follow some of them 'unofficially' rather than signing up and feeling bad if I don't complete them.

The two that particularly appeal are the Bookriot #ReadHarder Challenge and then the Picture Book Challenge complete with a bingo card to keep track of your progress!
I particularly like the Picture Book bingo as these are books that I do rarely read, even when I was a bookseller I didn't read that many and so to get a little more familiar with this genre will be a 'good' challenge.

However the challenge that appealed the most to me was a really obvious one - read books from the year you were born.

This year does see me celebrate what is termed a 'mile stone' birthday and so what better way for a bookworm to celebrate than by reading books that are the same age?!

I'm just in the process of working out how to actually make this a manageable challenge but I'll post the details very soon and then try to remember to update my progress regularly!

Friday, 17 March 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Ten - Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia! Theatre Royal, Norwich. March 2017.

I wrote about seeing this show, with my mum, when we went to New York and in that review I explained why, however cheesy the show is, I am always going to think of it fondly. I was wary of a return visit to the show - what if it was all location, location, location that made me enjoy it before?

I'm pleased to say that the slightly scaled down tour version made just as fun event as before, and in fact with a better behaved audience it might have even been just a little bit better as nothing got drowned out.

What really impressed me was just how much like Greece the set looked, and also just how well some lighting and a backdrop created absolutely the light and feel of a Greek island in summer.  The shutters were thrown open and with a simple cloth, a cut out tree and the lights I believed I was looking out over the Aegean sea.

I also noticed a lot more of the peripheral action this time, perhaps because we had such excellent seats in the circle, however there did seem to be a lot of character acting from the support cast which really added to the main characters.

All of the cast seemed in fine voice this week and once more my admiration for anyone who can sing, dance and act in ridiculous costumes is total.

However I think that my favourite bit of the evening came from the audience. Just in front of us was a family of mum and three teenagers. When it came to the last number/curtain call where audience participation is encouraged these three teenagers sat there literally head in hand in embarrassment as their mum danced and sang along - they really didn't want to be there at that point.

Mamma Mia! has a daft plot but it is great fun and I can even recommend it as a cold cure - I felt really quite rough with my first cold of the winter when I saw this but for the 2 1/2 hours I forgot everything and had a super trouper time, well worth the money. money, money!

Saturday, 11 March 2017

A reading holiday

A week doing nothing!

Mr Norfolkbookworm and I have just spent a week in Tenerife where the only thing on the agenda was relaxing. For me this meant a lot of sitting around reading with breaks taken for lovely food and drink.

Once more the week's break allowed me to read 13 books of my own choosing - I have several review projects on the go as usual but I didn't take any of them with me.

So again in no particular order here's what I read:
Call the Midwife - Jennifer Worth. I was intrigued by these books as so many people watch the TV series, and some that I wouldn't necessarily expect to be fans.  It has to be said I skipped some of the medical details but I loved the social history of the East End and I have ordered the next two from the library to see how things change as the years move on. 
The Smell of Other People's Houses - Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock.  I heard the author on the radio last year and thought the book sounded good. It is set in Alaska just as it became an American state and the treatment of the indigenous people is the underlying theme told through the eyes of a group of teenagers. I'd forgotten that this was a book aimed at the young adult audience and in truth I would have liked it to have had more details and been longer but it was a really nice insight into another America. (Netgalley electronic proof) 
Three Martini Lunch - Suzann Rindell.  This could easily be billed as a sort-of-sequel to Catcher in the Rye, none of the characters are particularly nice but the car crash of their lives made the book a real page turner. 
The Bear and the Nightingale - Katherine Arden.  Fabulous. Set in a Russia pre the Tsars it blends history and folklore beautifully. It was odd to read a book set in such a cold location while being in the sun but this was the best fiction book I've read for ages. (Netgalley electronic proof) 
The Good People - Hannah Kent.  I didn't find this book quite as good as Burial Rites but the clash of traditional beliefs and religion made a gripping tale as played out in one Irish village. (Netgalley electronic proof) 
Once in a Blue Moon Lodge - Lorna Landvik.  Wonderful family saga from one of my favourite authors. Unashamed chick-lit which did move me to tears at several points. (Netgalley electronic proof) 
The Stars are Fire - Anita Shreve. Another chick-lit family saga. This one set around a real event in New England just post-war. I loved the first two thirds but found the ending a bit rushed and I'd have liked it to have been a bit longer to allow this part to match the bulk of the book. (Netgalley electronic proof) 
A Little in Love - Susan Fletcher. Eponine is one of my favourite characters in the musical Les Miserables and so finding a book all about her story was great. Sadly in this I found her to be a modern woman removed to the era of the book rather than a real character from Hugo's time. Fun but not the best fill in/ sequel to a classic. (This got a brief mention in my end of February review but I did read the majority of this while on holiday.) 
Idaho - Emily Ruskovich.  A nice idea for a book and the use of different characters to tell the story was good but the end left me confused. I had no idea of motives or what had actually happened. Subsequent reading about the book calls it experimental and for me the experiment didn't quiet work. (Netgalley electronic proof) 
Little Deaths - Emma Flint.  Another book set in New York in the mid twentieth century and this is a book with a crime at the heart of it so quite an unusual read for me.  Two children are dead and as the mother isn't behaving as society thinks a grieving mother should it is decided that she is guilty of their murder.  A fascinating study into preconceptions and stereotypes. This has gone on to be nominated for the Bailey's prize and I hope it does well. (Netgalley electronic proof) 
Mussolini's Island - Sarah Day.  A new to me tale set in Italy just before WW2 and all about the treatment of a group of gay men on Sicily under the fascist regime. It is hard to describe this book as again many of the characters are deeply unlikable but it was an interesting read and I want to know more about the trues story behind the novel. (Netgalley electronic proof) 
Greatest Hits - Laura Bennet. This is the life story of a successful musician told in snapshots as she is selecting her 'greatest hits' for a new album. This was a deceptively light weight book, on the surface it seemed like any novels about a person's life but Cass really worked her way under my skin and I was on the edge of my seat at some of the events and did have a huge lump in my throat at several points.  I really hope this does well. (Netgalley electronic proof) 

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand - Helen Simonson. Simonson's book The Summer Before the War was one of my top books last year so I was looking forward to reading her first book and while I did enjoy it to a certain extend I wasn't as bewitched as I'd hoped. The dry humour was fun and the challenging of long held views great but it did occasionally feel a little didactic.

Interestingly several of the books I read seemed to have connected themes. Two were about the clash of traditional beliefs and organised religion, two were about matricide, two included characters with eating disorders and several were all about challenging stereotypes/long held beliefs/prejudices.  Not all of these themes were clear from the book blurbs and so I found these connections intriguing.

Hopefully after this reading splurge I won't lose my reading mojo this year - however I think switching to reading some non-fiction will help this.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Talking Books Four: Reading Allowed

Reading Allowed: True Stories & Curious Incidents from a Provincial Library by Chris Paling.

This book should be given to everyone who wants to work in a library, or thinks that we just get to sit around reading all day once we have the coveted job!

Paling's accounts of his life in a public library were like he'd just popped into our staff room and written down many of the conversations we have.  It was bittersweet to know that what we experience daily is the same as in other libraries!

People who like fly on the wall television, and blog-to-book style writing will probably enjoy this as well as anyone working in a library - but it will shatter a lot of people's ideas of what a modern library is.

The most important message I took from this book, and my day to day job, is that libraries are vital. They are still the heart of a community - just not in the way they once were. Please fight to keep your local library open - sign petitions, demonstrate etc. but most of all use it.  Where else can you get a dozen or more books for free as often as you like?

Friday, 3 March 2017

February Reading Round Up

February was another book filled month for me and for the first time in a while when I've looked back through my journal I can see that it was a month in which I read a lot of young adult fiction.

This was unintentional, one book did just lead to another but I don't think I've read so many in one go since I worked in book retail.  I'd forgotten how good they can be and reading for pleasure is what it is all about after all!

Highlights this month included those that I have blogged about here and here and I blame the latter for the number of sequels and reworkings I have gone on to read this month - these including A Little in Love by Susan Fletcher (Les Miserables retold for a teen audience from Eponine's point of view) and Lydia by Natasha Farrant (Pride and Prejudice from Lydia's point of view).

Another sort of sequel that I enjoyed was recommended by a friend at a book group meeting. The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R King introduces a young woman to a mostly retired Sherlock Holmes and as she can almost match his intellectual powers they join forces to solve mysteries.  I think I will go on and read some more in the series but I did have an element of unease as I read this - the historically accuracy was a little out (WW1 dates in particular) and the close relationship of such a young woman with an older man was just a little creepy at times, although the action did mostly occur when Mary Russell was over 18.

Thanks to Netgalley I also got to read Katherine Woodfine's The Painted Dragon which again is a simple younger teen mystery.  I didn't know that this was the third part of an on going series when I started it and I'm pleased to say that it didn't matter as the book stood perfectly on its own but yet made me want to read the prequels. Happily for me a friend has reviewed this book on her blog so you can read more about it there.

In adult fiction the stand out this month was the next installment of Jack Sheffield's series of being a head teacher during the 1980s, these books cover my primary school years wonderfully and it is a slice of true nostalgia reading them.  Winters really were colder and snowier then even in my home county of Kent rather than the Yorkshire of the books.  Star Teacher is the tenth in the series and it is like catching up with old friends when a new book comes along.

There's one more book that blew me away in February but it was so special it deserves a whole post to itself - which will be coming very soon!

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Nine - The Red Shoes

Matthew Bourne's The Red Shoes, Theatre Royal, Norwich. February 2017.

As has become clear to regular blog readers I have developed a real love of ballet, and especially those choreographed by Matthew Bourne.  A group of friends contemplated travelling to London in the height of the Christmas madness to see this but as Norwich was announced as a tour stop we decided to see it closer to home.

Theatre location didn't seem to matter at all for as soon as the curtain rose you were fully immersed in the show and travelled between London and France with the cast as the story unfolded.

Although Mr Norfolkbookworm is a huge Powell and Pressburger fan, and has seen the film, I only had a vague outline of the plot in my head but as with the best storytelling that didn't matter at all as it all unfolded clearly and with great emotion in front of me. In fact when it comes to emotion on stage I think that this was one of the most erotic pieces I've seen as well as the most romantic - I utterly believed in the love and relationship of the two leads.

The set was so clever, for the most part recreating a theatre on the stage with the house curtains spinning to take you front and back stage as the action needed. When we were taken to France this again was clearly and simply shown with a simply balustrade and a back drop. I think the way to sum up the whole set is 'deceptively simple' with the finale coming totally out of the blue (for someone unfamiliar with the film) and packing an incredibly emotional punch.

Everything about this production was superb, the dancing, set, costumes, music all worked together to create a feast for the senses.  I think that special credit must go to the dancers who had to fake poor dancing as part of the plot - I can only imagine how hard it is to make something look bad while doing it safely and professionally.

As a friend said afterwards - the only problem with this show, and anything by Bourne, is that there are so many details you just want to see it again instantly to make sure you catch everything. Sadly for us however it is a total sell out in Norwich and this won't be possible currently.  I do urge you to give it a go if it tours near where you are this year.

This is definitely my show of the month for February and I think it is likely to appear in my 2017 top 10 at the end of the year.