Monday, 30 December 2013

My arts highlights of 2013

Apologies for the lack of posts over the last two months - I have hardly had time to read, yet alone blog. I work in a theatre and the pantomime season is obviously the busiest time of the year and with every other spare moment spent in the usual festive activities of shopping for presents, card writing and gift wrapping, there has not been much time for anything else.

The end of a year is always a time of reflection and I was thinking of some of my most memorable moments of the year in the form of books, films and theatre. Here are some of my highlights and I would love to hear about yours!

Iron Man 3 (film)
I really enjoy the Marvel films and had loved Avengers Assemble, so was looking forward to seeing how the events in that film had affected Tony Stark. The trailers made it appear like a straight-forward action / comic book film, but Iron Man 3 was actually one of the most surprising and thought-provoking films of the year. With its twists and turns and mix of predictability with genuine revelations, I kept changing my mind through the entire film of whether I actually liked it or not! My full review at the time is here


Les Miserables (film)
I was really intrigued as to how good a musical with A list stars (albeit ones with a theatres background) would be and the answer was stunning! Although I did have some criticisms, overall this is a stunning achievement by Tom Hooper. There are some fantastic performances, notably from Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman and Samantha Barks and the first time I saw the film, it left me in floods of tears. The sign of a good film? I went back for a second showing! My original review is here

Peter and Alice (theatre)
£10 tickets to see a brand new play starring Dame Judi Dench? Definitely an offer which cannot be turned down! Peter and Alice told the story of children who inspired the authors behind Peter Pan and Alice In Wonderland and their tragic adult lives. It was moving, beautiful to watch and a fantastic opportunity to see Judi Dench playing opposite her Skyfall co-star Ben Whishaw. My full review is here


The Cripple of Inishmaan (theatre)
The second play I saw as part of the Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward Theatre, starred Daniel Radcliffe as a young cripple boy called Billy. This play had an impressive and colourful ensemble cast who were all brilliant. The politically incorrect humour was hilarious and mixed with some very moving moments, I genuinely did not know what was going to happen in the second act. My full review is here

Frozen (film)
This was the first animated Disney film that I had seen at the cinema since I was a child. After my love of Tangled and the brilliant teaser trailer of a struggle between Olaf the snowman and Sven the Reindeer, I had to experience this at the cinema. And this is definitely in the top three films of the year for me as I loved every second. Featuring some brilliant songs, which stay in your head after just one listen, an unpredictable story, stunning scenery and two strong female leads, Frozen is a treat for all ages. Its funny, sad and exciting and I can't wait for the DVD release so I can watch it again and again!

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (film)
I am so glad that I listened to the lovely lady in my local Waterstones last year when she recommended The Hunger Games series to me. I would probably have never read them otherwise and missed out the amazing story of Katniss Everdeen. I missed out on seeing the first Hunger Games film at the cinema as I had not read any of the books then and had no interest in it, but I did enjoy watching it on DVD and thought it was a good adaptation. But Catching Fire is in a league of its own. Bold, brutal and at times beautiful to watch, I did not want to miss a single second of this film. It stays so true to the book and it is amazing to see the arena and all its surprises come to life on screen. Jennifer Lawrence is just amazing as Katniss, and with strong support from Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson,Lenny Kravitz, Josh Hutcherson and Jenna Malone, it is acted really well. Although I had been looking forward to this film, I did not expect to love it as much as I did. And I did not expect it to move me as much as it did. It made me cry in several points and the final scene of an extreme close-up of Katniss' face showing shock, then disbelief, grief, anger and then a look of pure revenge is just genius and really heartbreaking. Do not be fooled in to thinking that this films are just for teenage girls - the Hunger Games is brave film-making which makes you think and has real heart. I cannot wait for Mockingjay next year!


Other films I saw at the cinema this year included: Skyfall, Life of Pi, Great Expectations, Quartet, Hyde Park on Hudson, Lincoln, Hitchcock, To The Wonder, This Is 40, Oz The Great and Powerful, The Great Gatsby, Jurassic Park 3D Imax, Despicable Me 2, The World's End, Thor: The Dark World

I have read too many books this year to be able to pick out a couple of favourites so I have listed them all below. 2013 was the year I discovered Agatha Christie after visiting her holiday home in Devon. I love her writing and have plenty of her books to make my way through! I also read a lot of historical fiction as well as some 'different' books for me as part of my book club, receiving advance reading proofs from generous publishers and recommendations or gifts from family and friends:

The Secret Keeper - Kate Morton
The Cove - Ron Rash
Life After Life - Kate Atkinson
Citadel - Kate Mosse
The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield
One Hundred Names - Cecelia Ahern
The Red Queen - Philippa Gregory
The Girl You Left Behind - Jojo Moyes
A Study In Scarlet - Arthur Conan Doyle
The Hound of the Baskervilles - Arthur Conan Doyle
The Valley of Fear - Arthur Conan Doyle
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle
Perfect - Rachel Joyce
The Sea Sisters - Lucy Clarke
And Then There Were None - Agatha Christie
The Bellwether Revivals - Benjamin Wood
Dead Man's Folly - Agatha Christie
Longbourn - Jo Baker
Inferno - Dan Brown
The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency - Alexander McCall Smith
The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Other Boleyn Girl - Philippa Gregory
Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel
The Truth About Melody Browne - Lisa Jewell
Cat Among The Pigeons - Agatha Christie
Before I Go To Sleep - S.J. Watson
The Sacred River - Wendy Wallace
The Matchmaker - Stella Gibbons
Calling Me Home - Julie Kibler
The Silent Tide - Rachel Hore
Sense and Sensibility - Joanna Trollope
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Mark Haddon
The White Princess - Philippa Gregory
The World According To Bob - James Bowen
Rivers of London - Ben Aaronovitch
4.50 From Paddington - Agatha Christie
The Invisible Kingdom - Rob Ryan
What Matters in Jane Austen - John Mullen
Bring Up The Bodies - Hilary Mantel
Black Roses - Jane Thynne
Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins
Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins
Burning Bright - Tracy Chevalier
Girl Reading - Katie Ward
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle
A Gift To Remember - Melissa Hill
The Mistletoe Bride and other Haunting Tales - Kate Mosse


I have received plenty of books for Christmas, so am making my way through those now as well as my book club read for January. I found some unread books at the back of one of my bookcases too, so I have plenty to keep me going through 2014!

Please let me know your highlights of 2013 and what you are looking forward to in 2014!

Happy New Year!

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Black Roses Blog Tour

I am currently reading (and thoroughly enjoying!) Black Roses by Jane Thynne. It tells the story of a young actress called Clara Vine who travels to Berlin in 1933 in the hope of being cast in a feature film and becomes involved in a circle of Nazi wives including Magda Goebbels. She meets an undercover British intelligence agent called Leo Quinn and is recruited to spy on her new friends. Clara is soon caught in the battle between duty and love.


The publishers approached me to ask if I would like to host a day of Jane's Black Roses blog tour and the answer was a resounding YES! Below Jane explores the rise of the females spy, I'm sure you will agree it is fascinating stuff!


FEMALE SPIES
When I was at university, one thing everyone secretly hoped for was the discreet tap on the shoulder from an aged tutor - the legendary invitation to sherry that was supposed to signal a job offer from the British secret services. Stories abounded as to just who had received the call – a Bulgarian girl in my year who spoke seven languages was said to have been approached – but it never happened for me.  Nowadays, though, the covert sherry invitation is way out of date. Current recruitment for MI6 takes place via full page national newspaper advertisements, and the one thing they make abundantly clear is that the intelligence world is not an all-male preserve. The most recent advert bears a picture of a sexy, twenty-something woman sitting in a cafĂ© with a cappuccino, with the caption, ‘As for the white, male stereotype, the truth is we don’t care what sex you are.’

Jane Thynne
In film and fiction too, the female agent is having a field day. Characters such as Carrie Mathison in Homeland, Eva Delecktorskaya in William Boyd’s Restless, and the CIA agent Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, are all part of a surge of interest in women spies, not to mention non-fiction accounts of SOE heroines like Christine Granville, Churchill’s favourite spy. As part of my research I asked certain people ‘who should know’ whether there was any quality that made women especially suited to espionage, and they told me that women’s superior powers of empathy are exceptionally useful when it comes to recruiting and communicating with agents in the field.

Yet none of this occurred to me when I wrote Black Roses! Set in 1930s Berlin, my heroine, Clara Vine, is an Anglo-German actress who is drawn into Nazi high society and comes to spy on them. The book came about because I was always fascinated by the Nazi wives, and how it would feel to be married to a man who gradually became a monster. The wives were close up to the action, they were privy to all the feuds and gossip, of which there were plenty in the Third Reich, and they had some pretty dramatic secrets of their own. It was stumbling across the explosive secret of Magda Goebbels, wife of Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, that inspired me to write the first in the Clara Vine series.   

And the idea of a woman like Clara spying on the private lives of the Third Reich wasn’t far-fetched. Pre-war, there were several English visitors who moved freely in German high society and agreed to spy on their hosts. They performed a very valuable service because British intelligence had been caught on the back foot by the Nazis’ seizure of power, being up until that time totally obsessed with the threat of Communism. The British establishment was divided, and while many senior figures like Winston Churchill realized the threat of the Nazi regime, others were intent on keeping Britain out of Hitler’s European wars. So the information which those visitors to Germany brought back about Hitler’s true intentions was invaluable.
As a novelist, I discovered that an actress/spy also proves the ideal protagonist, both because the metaphor of role-playing is an obvious one for a spy, but also because espionage involves those same qualities of close observation and heightened perception that writing does. It could be said that all writers, in a way, are spies, carrying their secrets close throughout the narrative, observing the way people speak, and act, and conceal their feelings, and above all trying very hard to weave a convincing tale.
Thanks so much to Jane for taking the time to write this feature and to Rik at Simon & Schuster for arranging this. Please check out the rest of Jane's blog tour below:


 

Saturday, 12 October 2013

What Matters in Jane Austen?

I suppose you could say I'm a bit of a Jane Austen fan. I love all her novels especially the witty style of her writing and her colourful characters. I thought I knew all her work pretty well, but this amazing book explores and contrasts all Austen's writing in a brilliant way and I found out things I either did not know or had not noticed before.

For example:

Did you know that just one married woman in all of Jane Austen's novel refers to her husband by his first name? (Mary Musgro
ve in Persuasion if you were wondering)

Most of the scandal or inappropriate behaviour in Austen's novel occurs in a seaside location. (For example Lydia Bennet running off with Wickham in Brighton in Pride and Prejudice)

There are a number of key characters who actually never speak throughout the course of the novels - they are quoted by others or summarised by Austen rather than having any speech quoted to them.

There are many more fascinating points explored throughout twenty key questions with the Regency viewpoints of age, money and behaviour explained in detail. Income is discussed a great deal in by characters in Austen's novels especially when discussing appropriate suitors. I have usually found this a bit difficult to understand not knowing the value of money during that time, so this book sheds some light on what the average income and inheritance money would be. Therefore Mr Darcy was indeed very rich!

The book also explores how Austen commonly used details such as the weather, card games, character blunders and blushing as plot devices.

I really enjoyed reading this exploration of Austen's novels and it has made me want to read all of her work again with a new perspective (not that I need that much encouragement!) Janeites across the land will love this book! Buy it!  

4:50 From Paddington

Another fantastic story from the Queen of Crime. Elspeth McGillicuddy is on the 4.50 From Paddington, when a train runs alongside her carriage. Through her carriage window, she sees a man strangle a woman and immediately alerts the train staff. But no body is found on the other train and she only saw the back of the man and knows that he is tall with dark hair. She tells her friend Jane Marple who becomes determined to solve the case. Miss Marple employs the services of a young woman called Lucy Eylesbarrow who has created her own famous and in-demand role of a home help. Together they work hard to find the body and solve the mystery...

I loved this story, there are so many revelations and suspects and the character of Lucy Eylesbarrow is a fantastic one. Once again I had no idea who the murderer was or why. I love Agatha Christie's humour and way of describing characters and I have no idea how she thought of so many different crime stories, colourful characters and brilliant names! Recommended!

Rivers of London

Rivers of London is the first book in a hugely successful series of crime novels set throughout London town. So far, so familiar. In the first couple of pages, a decapitated corpse has been found in an iconic area of Covent Garden, with the key witness being a ghost. Yep - that pretty much grabs your attention and sets the scene for this supernatural rollercoaster ride across the city.

Ben Aaronovitch's writing is fantastically funny, told through the viewpoint of a young mixed-race, slightly rubbish policeman called Peter Grant. While his colleagues are chasing down criminals, he is more likely to be reading a plaque on a statue at the crime scene. It is this gift and desire to know more which enables him to be able to see ghosts and become an apprentice to Inspector Nightingale - the last wizard in England.


As more random acts of violence occur, Peter becomes intent on finding out the cause of ordinary Londoners suddenly erupting in anger and having there faces split open. Along the way he acquires a ghost-hunting dog and meets vampires and the spirits of the Thames.

What makes this book really effective is that it describes parts of London really accurately, which makes the 'magic' in the book a lot more realistic. The juxtaposition between traditional magic and modern technology is explored really well and the characters are well-written are likeable.

I don't often read crime fiction, but this instantly intrigued me and is unlike anything I have read before. I hope the rumours of a television series are true, as this would work really well on screen. I will definitely be interested in reading the other three books in the series so far.

Find out more about the books at www.the-folly.com

The World According To Bob

This is the follow-up story to last year's huge success A Street Cat Named Bob. The first book was one of my favourite books of the year as it features a cheeky ginger cat and a truly heart-warming story set on the mean streets of London.

In this update, James takes centre-stage rather than Bob as he describes how important his feline friend is throughout his daily life - from suffering from illness to stressful situations on the street. This is surely one clever cat as we read stories of him attacking a potential mugger and giving James time to recover from a spell in hospital.

Fans of the original book will enjoy this second visit to Bob's world just as much as the first as it is full of humour and warmth. There are also some shocking and poignant moments such as James finding a man overdosing on drugs in his flat stairwell and the behaviour he experiences from members of the public. The chapter describing the duo's first book signing is a lovely moment and the final chapter will bring tears to any pet owner's eyes.

I love reading about James and Bob's adventures and the money that they have raised for animal charities is phenomenal. Theirs is a story that has captured hearts all around the world and it is one which reminds you about the important things in life.

Follow @streetcatbob on twitter for more regular updates on the pair and their charity work.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

The Liebster Award


So, I was surprised and delighted to be nominated for the Liebster award by All That Magic - you can read the blog post here. The Liebster Award is a way to help new blogs with less than 200 followers to gain new followers. By awarding the Liebster award, we can show our followers that there are other great blogs out there to explore.
 
The rules are:
  • Link back the blogger that tagged you;
  • Nominate 10 others and answer the questions of the one who tagged you;
  • Ask 10 questions for the bloggers you nominate;
  • Let your nominees know of their award.


These are the 10 questions which All About Magic have asked me:

1) What is the first book that you can remember “reading”?
On my own it was probably a Famous Five book! Five Go Smuggling seems to be one of my early independent reading experiences. I loved these Enid Blyton adventures as they reminded me of summer holidays on the beach with my family and as a dog-lover I really liked the character of Timmy! I also liked the fact that George was a tomboy! I keep meaning to dig out my collection to re-read them to see if they are a little controversial in today's politically correct world.

2) Do you have a book recommendation for Halloween?
I used to read a lot of horror in my teens, but the only scary books I read nowadays are the odd ghost stories. It may seem like an obvious choice, but you can't beat The Woman In Black. It genuinely gave me goosebumps while reading it, especially the final shocking page. I purposely read it in the dark on a winter's evening with heavy rain and a strong wind blowing outside which added to the atmosphere. It took me ages to build up the courage to watch the film (which I loved and felt was incredibly sad) and I am going to book tickets to see the play soon! The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore is also suitably chilling.


3) What is your opinion on memes like “Waiting on Wednesday”? Do you like them? Do you use them?
Although I run this blog and a twitter feed and my marketing job involves a lot of social media, I am still pretty much clueless about memes! I quite like a good hashtag, if it captures my imagination. I have recently discovered #ShakespeareSunday when favourite quotes are posted on twitter, so I may join in with that one this weekend!

4) What do you like most about blogging?
When I finish a book, I usually spend a lot of time thinking about it and blogging is a way for me to collect my thoughts, both as a record for me and also to share and chat about books with other people. I also run a bookgroup for this reason and it is fascinating to see how books are translated by people in varying ways and how different points are picked up by members.


5) How do you prefer to read? Where is your favourite place to read?
I do most of my reading at home - I like a nice, quiet, comfortable space to read so that I can give a book my full attention. This is usually curled up on my bed or in an armchair. I also like reading in the garden on a summer's evening to relax after a day at work. At weekends, I quite often go to a local coffee shop to indulge in a flat white or hot chocolate and read for a solid hour or so, but sometimes it can be a little too noisy. I also like finding a quiet spot in a park to lay on a blanket with some snacks. One of my favourite such spots is the Long Walk in Windsor, in the shadow of the castle - perfect for historical fiction!

6) What is your favourite genre?
I don't tend to think of it as my favourite, but I do tend to read an awful lot of historical fiction. There is so much British history I want to learn about, and I find that reading in depth about historical figures makes me want to research and find out the real story. It is interesting to read so many different theories on what could have happened. My favourite eras to read about are the Yorks and Lancasters and the Tudors.

7) What three adjectives would you choose to describe your favourite character?
My favourite character is Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. I would describe her as feisty, headstrong and independent.

8) Do you think the name of the characters in novels are important?
YES! I hate it when a love interest in a book has a weedy or boring name and I also find it a little frustrating if the same name pops up in several books. I have also hated a character in a book and then met someone with the same name and been instantly reminded of them! Names can be iconic too - think of Fitzwilliam Darcy - a name which is instantly recognisable to people whether they have read the book or not.

9) Which place would you set up as a meeting point (fact of fictional), if you got the chance to meet your favourite character?
If I got the chance to meet Elizabeth Bennet, it would have to be in a grand Georgian house for a spot of afternoon tea followed by a stroll through the beautiful grounds. Basildon Park or Chatsworth House spring to mind!

10) Which book would you like to see turned into a movie?
Hmm this is a difficult one! I have hated a lot of films which have been adapted from books. For example PS I Love You by Celia Ahern is a beautiful book, but the film was absolutely awful! Then again, I preferred the film version of The Time Traveller's Wife to the book and I love the adaptations of the Harry Potter books, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Hunger Games. I would love to see The Night Circus by Erin Morgernstern to be made into a film, although I have a very specific idea of what it should look like on screen! I also think that The Light Between Oceans by M.L Steadman would be great as a film.

So now I need to choose 10 blogs with less than 200 followers to pass the Liebster Award on to. I have decided on:

An Armchair By The Sea
I used to work with Bekah's husband and she is obsessed with books!

The Bird's Nest
Not technically a book blog, but I know that Hannah loves books as much as me and she does write the odd review.

Shadepoint
A blog which reviews mystery fiction - I don't how many followers it has, but I like it!

The Tattoed Book
Written by a bookseller, I love the design (and content!) of this blog!

The Classics Circuit
The Perpetual Pageturner
Again I don't know how many followers, but its so pretty!

Entomology of a Bookworm

Bookish Habits

Ciska's Book Chest

I Live Literary

So these are my 10 questions, I would like the above bloggers to answer:

1) Do you belong to a book group? Which books have caused the liveliest conversations and what would you recommend for other groups?
2) Where do you stand on the digital book debate? Do you have an e-reader or do you prefer 'the real thing?'
3) Do you enjoy reading non-fiction?
4) If you went on Mastermind, which literary subject would you choose?
5) Have you ever lied about liking a book?
6) Which book have you read the most often?
7) Which 'classic' book is your favourite?
8) Do you ever read plays? Which would you recommend?
9) Why do you run a blog and what is your proudest blogging moment?
10) What is your favourite 'festive' book?

Looking forward to seeing everyone's answers!

 

The White Princess



I have thoroughly enjoyed all of Philippa Gregory’s Cousin’s War series. Each one has told of the war between the Yorks and Lancasters from a different pivotal woman’s viewpoint – Jacquetta Rivers, Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Neville and Margaret Beaufort. This latest book in the series sees the turn of Elizabeth Woodville’s first daughter Elizabeth of York, who becomes Queen of England when she is forced to marry Henry VII, son of Margaret Beaufort. As she will become mother to Henry VIII and grandmother to Mary I and Elizabeth I, she is one of the most important women in British history.

Elizabeth’s story begins at the point where The Red Queen novel and The White Queen BBC television series both ended, at the result of the Battle of Boswoth. Elizabeth’s uncle Richard III, who in Gregory’s series, she has been in love with and had a relationship, has been killed as a result of Henry Tudor’s invasion and quest to be king. She must now marry the man who was the cause of her Uncle’s death. Interestingly, if this version of the story is true, Elizabeth would have been Queen of England no matter who was the victor of the battle.

Elizabeth has to go through with her mother’s previous agreement with Margaret Beaufort that she will marry her son to strengthen his ties with England, as he has lived abroad in exile for most of his life. Margaret behaves worse than ever in the beginning of this book, treating Elizabeth as a breeding machine and making sure that she is pregnant with Henry’s heir before the marriage ceremony. As she lives such a pious and devout life, she uses ‘God’s will’ to her own advantage. Margaret also takes the best rooms and a higher position than the Queen with her own title of My Lady, the King’s Mother.

As Elizabeth lives a life of giving birth to the Tudor heirs, her mother Elizabeth Woodville is plotting with the remaining Yorks and when a ‘boy’ claiming to be her long-lost song Richard (the Prince she managed to get away to freedom before being locked away in the Tower of London), returns to England to make a claim on the throne, Elizabeth must choose between her duties as wife and Queen and her love of her mother and little brother.

Portraits of Elizabeth of York and Henry VII

The White Princess is full of threat and emergences of ‘the boy’ Prince Richard. It does get a little repetitive as each time Henry VII hears of the boy, he becomes frightened, leads an army out and returns when he disappears. There are not any huge events in the novel as in the previous ones in the series and although Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort feature heavily in the beginning of the novel, the second half lacks their big characters. This is not a criticism of Gregory, as she cannot change the main account of history, but it makes the book possibly the weakest in the series. Saying that, I was completely engrossed as ever and although I knew what would happen at the end, I could not put this book down.

It was refreshing to learn more about Lady Katherine Huntley who marries ‘Prince Richard’ and in this version of events, becomes the object of Henry VII’s affections. I had not heard of her in history before (I would love a Gregory book from her viewpoint!) and as usual when reading historical novels, I have been researching all of the main characters and family trees.  It was also fascinating to read of Henry VIII as a baby and young child. I had never thought of him as an innocent toddler before!

Reading the books in the Cousin’s War series has given me a huge interest in the York and Lancaster families and I am now reading historical accounts, other novels and watching films and documentaries on the subject. This is a fascinating and dangerous part of history, when families in power could not trust life-long friends and allies or even family members with their own husbands, wives, parents or siblings ‘turning coats’, making life-changing or life-ending decisions and betraying those closest to them. Thanks to Philippa Gregory for igniting my interest in this era of history!

There is lots of further information at www.philippagregory.com
I also found some great related articles at www.bbc.co.uk/history 
  

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Greenway - Agatha Christie's Devon home

Greenway
Back in May I visited Agatha Christie's Devon holiday home which is now managed by the National Trust. Although Agatha lived in Torquay, her relaxing summer house is based just along the coastline and up the River Dart in a remote setting. There are several ways to arrive, from walking or catching a steam train or vintage bus. We chose a beautiful 20 minute boat ride on the Christie Belle from Dartmouth which rewards you with a glimpse of the stunning house on the high up on the hill-top. There is a very small car park for visitors unable to climb the steep hill to the house, although this must be booked in advance.
The vintage bus

Greenway was bought by Agatha Christie for £6,000 which also included 30 acres of land. The house is one the most welcoming National Trust properties I have visited as visitors are invited to explore, opening drawers and relaxing on sofas to read about the house and its most famous inhabitant. There are plenty of ‘scrapbooks’ around, full of newspaper clippings, letters, excerpts from books, quotes and photos. The first room we enter is the drawing room which features a beautiful piano. We learn that Agatha loved music and in a confessional said that she would have loved to have been an Opera singer.

The house features many of Agatha’s collections, from china and fans to books and ornaments. There are cupboards lit up with her possessions and a closet in her bedroom is full of ‘dress-up’ clothes for games and parties. It is clear that Greenway was a house for relaxing and entertaining. The dining room was used extensively for family meals and events and a menu for her 80th birthday celebrations is displayed here.
The boathouse in the grounds which
inspired the murder in Dead Man's Folly
 


Agatha used the cost of things that she desired as a motivation for writing. Although Agatha did not write any of her books at Greenway, she made revisions and read her latest stories aloud to her family during the evenings. Greenway inspired the murder in Dead Man’s Folly, which sees the extensive grounds used for a summer fair and a body found in the boathouse.

Books on sale in the gift shop
We enjoyed a slice of cake and some coffee in the tea-rooms based near to the house and I loved the shop which stocked an array of Christie books and memorabilia. I purchased a copy of Dead Man’s Folly, which was stamped with the Greenway mark at the till. There are beautiful views over the River Dart on the steep walk down to the battery and boat house. We took our dogs with us for the day who loved the walks around the grounds and the boat rides!

View across the River Dart from the house
Since visiting Greenway, I have been inspired to read more of Agatha Christie’s books and I am really enjoying them. It is pretty much impossible to guess the result of any of the mysteries and the huge casts of eccentric characters are great fun to read about.

Find out more about visiting Greenway at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/greenway/

www.agathachristie.com is also a great website for information all about the author and her huge collection of books and plays.

Calling Me Home

This is a quick, easy book to read. Described on the cover 'for fans of The Help', Calling Me Home tells the story of sixteen year old Isabelle, who falls in love with her black housekeeper's son Robert. This is an impossible relationship in 1939 Kentucky and they must fight against the hate and violence from the surrounding town and Isabelle's own family. Seventy years later, Isabelle is heading back to a mystery funeral, travelling with her hairdresser and friend Dorrie. As they drive across the country, Isabelle finally tells the story of her past.

This was a book group choice and as we discussed it over a cup of tea, we realised that there are lots of holes in the plot and it didn't quite make sense why everything would all be okay after seventy years of hurt. At the funeral, everyone is suddenly happy to reveal secrets which have lasted a lifetime and it didn't make sense that this had not happened before with the changing times and results of the Civil Rights Movement. Dorrie's present day story is uninteresting and although the author is trying to get across that our problems today are nothing compared to the unjustness of Isabelle's history.

However, this is a moving story which you will be willing to end in a different way.

The Austen Project - Sense and Sensibility

Joanna Trollope's modern re-telling of Sense and Sensibility is part of the Austen Project which will see all of the Jane Austen's six novels re-written in contemporary style by six well-known authors. Sense and Sensibility is one of my favourite novels of all-time and I was interested to see what changes could be made.

I felt that Trollope had a good understanding of the characters and the story, with the dialogue updated to today's style - expect plenty of 'What evs' and 'hilairs'. The three sisters are also contemporised to good effect - Elinor has hopes to be an architect and is the breadwinner of the family, taking on the strain seen in different ways in the original novel. Marianne suffers from asthma, which makes her breakdowns through the novel more plausible and Margaret is an I-pod loving, spoilt younger sister, mortified by being dropped off at her new school in Elinor's old car.

The society that Elinor and Marianne end up in during their time in London now seems to be full of Chelsea it-girls, and Marianne's reaction to seeing Willoughby becomes public knowledge for different reasons. I enjoyed reading this updates and thinking about what would be coming next.

There are a few parts of the story which do seem a bit odd in today's world - for example the Dashwood's being thrown out of the family home in favour of a male heir - but Trollope does her best to explain and without these parts of the story, it would not be Sense and Sensibility. It also felt a bit odd to read Edward Ferrars being referred to as Ed and John Willoughby as Wills throughout the novel, but then I guess that is the romantic Janite in me! Colonel Brandon is described as dreamy as always!

Fans of Jane Austen will find this amusing as they compare to the original novel. Good fun and I'm looking forward to the other five novels being told in this way!

Find out more about The Austen Project at www.theaustenproject.com

Join in the conversation on Twitter with #austenproject

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Q and A with Rachel Hore

After reading The Silent Tide, I was lucky enough to be offered a Q and A with author Rachel Hore. I really enjoyed Rachel's writing style throughout the novel and will be looking forward to reading more of her work. The Silent Tide tells the story of two women working in publishing. Isabel moves to post-war London to make a new life for herself, while the present day story of Emily is linked as she becomes involved in Isabel's past as she starts to discover why Isabel seems to have been erased from history. Both women become involved in relationships with authors which don't turn out quite as they had hoped and I enjoyed the parallels between their lives and relationships.

I was particularly interested in the story of Isabel and Hugh. Isabel was using the post Second World War ideas to her advantage, moving away from home at a young age and finding her own job and home. Hugh seems to admire this in her at first, but when she becomes a mother, he expects her to become the traditional 'stay-at-home' wife figure, which she cannot adjust too. I also wondered why Isabel and Emily both became attracted to the romantic, creative authors who they admire and ultimately become disappointed in as they realise that they are not the men they had hoped them to be. I was really excited to ask Rachel about these two themes in particular...
A quote at the start of the book is taken from Only Halfway to Paradise: Women in Postwar Britain by Elizabeth Wilson – ‘Women were wanting to escape the net just as men were climbing back into it.’ How did you want to explore this in the relationship of Isabel and Hugh? Do you think their relationship was very typical of the era?
Following the Second World War there was a tendency, enacted in government policy and expressed by the popular media, to assume that women would withdraw from paid employment and get back to the kitchen once their menfolk were demobbed and wanting 'their' jobs back. At the same time,  more women were actually becoming better educated and wishing for greater independence.   Whilst it was considered socially and economically acceptable for girls to take on certain kinds of 'female' employment -  teaching, secretarial, nursing - marriage and children were still presented as the ideal, and once married, or certainly after having children, they were definitely expected to retreat to the home.  However, in some more liberal-minded areas of the workplace, publishing being a notable one, educated women were able more strongly to make their mark, and Isabel in The Silent Tide is an example.
I've portrayed Hugh, her husband-to-be, in some respects as forward looking.  He admires Isabel's talents as an editor and intellectually he's very much aware of the dilemmas that young women face.  At the same time, he's a product of his environment, and deeply conservative underneath it all.  Although they love each other deeply, he and Isabel have false expectations of each other in their marriage, and it's these that they need to overcome. Diary evidence suggests that many couples must have had versions of Hugh and Isabel's experience at the time, even if they broadly accepted the social norm. 

Isabel and Emily both work in publishing and both have relationships with authors they are representing. Did you base either of their stories on your own experiences in publishing or did you think about the opposite of what could have happened in your own life?
I met my husband (the writer D.J. Taylor) after I published the paperback of his first novel when I worked at HarperCollins.  As we know, very many people meet their partners in the workplace.  However, I was never his editor in the sense of being involved in the creative process - that was the prerogative of his hardback publisher.  In The Silent Tide I became fascinated by the idea that the professional, the personal and the gender-political could become mixed up to the extent that Isabel, Hugh's editor then wife, unwittingly becomes his muse for a book that's basically about their marriage!  One does hear about writers who fictionalize their own marriages (Hanif Kureschi being one, Philip Roth another), but I assure you that I haven't done such a thing and nor has my husband (yet)!   

Did you decide Isabel’s fate when you first began writing the book, or did it proceed or change as her life went on?
Before starting the novel, I knew that Isabel had been swept away in the great floods of 1953 and it was towards this plot point that my past narrative was working.  The issue of interest for me as a writer, however, was not her demise, but why her story had been suppressed by Hugh's second wife.  Some might see variants of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca in this, though this wasn't in my mind as I wrote.  

We occasionally get to read parts of Isabel’s memoir in her own words. Why did you decide not to tell her whole story in that way?
Isabel is a girl carried along by the tides of her time.  She's not a person who's naturally very self-aware, nor does she consciously stand with or against the social norm. She's a person of feeling who acts intuitively.  I wanted the past story to be a little more knowing than the way she would have told it herself - hence the third person narrative.
 
If you could write the biography of any author, who would you choose? What questions would you want answered?

Oh dear, everyone's been written about.  I'd be interested to ask Harper Lee why she wrote no more books after To Kill a Mockingbird.  Surely she had some more things to say. 
 
The covers of your books are always so beautiful and intriguing; I am always drawn to them in book shops. How much input do you have in these?

Thank you.  It was the cover of A Place of Secrets that instigated the concept of looking through a gate or doorway to a lovely secret world beyond.  After the novel became a bestseller, my publishers suggested that the backlist should be rejacketed in a similar way and that the design of future books should build on the idea, too, and this seemed sensible. I fully understand that my books have to have the branded look that we're told retailers and many readers need. However, my publisher has always asked my opinion of different versions of covers within the general style, and my response has been largely heeded.
 
What is your usual process for writing a novel? What kind of research do you find most valuable?
 I tend to develop a general feeling for the setting and atmosphere of a novel and develop everything from there.  I read a great many books about all aspects of my subject, and after a while characters and situations start to grow in my mind.  After that I write a two page synopsis, whilst continuing to read and think and work out details in a notebook.  I always know where the book is going to go before I start to write it, but not always how it's going to get there. Sometimes, as with The Silent Tide, the unexpected happens!
Which authors do you enjoy reading? If you could recommend a list of ‘must-read’ books to a book group, what would they be?
I belong to a book club myself and some of our most successful discussions have been around books that have polarized the group.  We Need to Talk about Kevin is the classic example.  Thinking about it, an issue that often crops up is whether or not the group 'likes' the central character or finds them 'sympathetic', and Eve in that novel is exactly the kind of narrator who flies in the face of that requirement. There's something satisfying about concluding that one might not particularly like a book but might still recognize that it's fascinating, gripping and intellectually challenging, and that it has maybe changed the way one looks at the world.  Other recent books that come into this category include The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Dinner by Herman Koch. My personal perfect list of recent titles? And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled, Hosseini, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Kill by Richard House, The Summer House by Santa Montefiore, The Great Silence by Juliet Nicolson (non-fiction about the aftermath of WWI), and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson (memoir).

A huge thank you to Rachel Hore for taking the time to answer these questions and for Dawn Burnett at Simon & Schuster for arranging this.

You can follow Rachel on Twitter @rachelhore and find out more about her books at www.rachelhore.co.uk
 



 

Monday, 5 August 2013

Longbourn review

When I first heard about Longbourn - a kind of Downton Abbey meets Pride and Prejudice, telling the stories of the staff serving The Bennet family - I was very excited and couldn't wait to start reading. I was very fortunate to receive an early proof copy a few months back and eagerly began to read while on a break in Devon. I wanted to love it. I ended up feeling the complete opposite...

I am a huge fan of Pride and Prejudice. I read it about once a year to enjoy the wit, romance and the cast of brilliant characters. I think it's fair to say that most fans of the book enjoy it for the same reason - some escapism into Georgian society. So why did Jo Baker decide to include so much grimness into Longbourn? I can kind of see why. The elegance and gentleness of the Bennet girls is in stark contrast to what the servants have to do on a daily basis - scrubbing soiled clothes and sheets, making soap from pigs fat and plucking chickens. But do we really need to know about Elizabeth Bennet's monthly courses - I think the all round answer is a firm no.

So, to the story. It follows maid Sarah, who works for housekeeper Mrs Hill and her husband alongside a younger girl called Polly. The team are joined by a mysterious footman called James, who suddenly appears and there is instant antagonism between him and Sarah. Meanwhile, Sarah meets the charming Ptolemy, a member of Mr Bingley's staff across at Netherfield, who shows an unhealthy interest in Sarah. Sound familiar? The second part of the book, follows James' history serving his country in war and the horrors of what he had to endure. Again, I can see what the author was trying to do, to explore the juxtaposition between life in Meryton and the life of a soldier, but it just sends the novel astray and it never quite comes back to the world of Pride and Prejudice.

None of the new characters introduced are likeable and the author does not show much understanding of the staple Pride and Prejudice characters, never quite catching their voices or characters. (Apart from maybe Mrs Bennet, but then she is such a caricature, she is a very easy character to recreate). Every now and again, the author seems to remember the original story and will throw in a reference here and there, but it hardly ever seems authentic.

As the books goes on, it just gets more offensive for me. Not only does it not capture the essence of Pride and Prejudice, but it actually tries to rewrite the much-loved characters and their history. This includes - do not read any further if you do not want spoilers - an affair, illegitimate child, a miscarriage, a Bennett son and a gay relationship. Its almost as if the author had a list of controversial plot lines and was ticking them off as she went along. All completely unnecessary and something which could ruin the original novel for fans. Some of the vulgar language was also uncalled for and terms of endearment such as the over-used 'sweetheart' hardly seem Georgian.

I have read many a spin-off or version of Pride and Prejudice, and while they seem indulgent, they are usually quite fun, light-hearted and 'fan-girly' - a celebration of Jane Austen's work. But Longbourn just made me a little frustrated and angry and includes none of the reasons why Pride and Prejudiece is such a timeless classic and has such an army of fans. I have heard mixed reviews for Longbourn, so maybe this is just one that will divide people. I would love to hear your thoughts on the comment section below!

Friday, 26 July 2013

The Cripple of Inishmaan review

The Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward Theatre is proving to be in demand from theatre audiences and a great success with rave reviews of all three plays so far. With the very best production teams and cast members performing in such a beautiful theatre, I was lucky to be able to purchase £10 tickets for Peter and Alice starring Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw (my review here) and the third play in the season – The Cripple of Inishmaan.
 
The Cripple of Inishmaan has received an enormous amount of press as it stars Daniel Radcliffe, once again out of his comfort zone portraying a ‘cripple’ called Billy – an orphan, obsessed with reading and watching cows and living in an Irish village full of colourful characters. Although Radcliffe has been receiving all the headlines, this is very much an ensemble piece, with a fantastic Irish cast all providing plenty of laughs.
 
The village is used to lots of big new stories being spread around the inhabitants by notorious gossip Johnniepateenmike, such as a cat attacking a goose and eggs being broken, but one day an American film crew arrives to make a film on a nearby island and Billy persuades a local sailor to take him across so that he can possibly be an extra. Much to the whole village’s surprise, Billy is taken off to America for a screen test which could change his life forever...
 
The Cripple of Inishmaan is an hilarious, clever play. There are lots of red-herrings as the audience tries to find out the truth about both Billy’s trip to America and ultimately about his parent’s mysterious and tragic deaths. Although darkly funny and politically incorrect, with some amusing stereotypes and use of language, there are some really heart-warming and poignant moments.
 
The whole cast cannot be faulted. I particularly enjoyed performances by Sarah Greene and Conor MacNeill as quarrelling siblings Helen and Bartley, obsessed with throwing eggs and eating imported American sweets respectively. Laughs also come from Billy's two 'aunts' who have adopted them as their own to live in their shop which just seems to stock tins of peas and one of whom has a penchant for talking to stones when she is worried. But the play belongs to Daniel Radcliffe as he shuffles around the stage with an impressive Irish accent. This is a very committed and impressive performance – just halfway through the first act, I completely forgot that this is the child actor we watched grow up as Harry Potter for over 10 years. He has matured into a brave, risk-taking and very accomplished actor and he very much deserves his solo bow at the end of the performance, even though he looked embarrassed at being singled out from his extremely talented cast members.
 
I would really recommend catching this wonderful play before it closes at the end of August – a fantastic set, wonderful cast, big laughs and a lot of heart – what more can you ask from a West End production?!
 
The trailer for The Cripple Of Inishmaan is below and tickets can be purchased from www.michaelgrandagecompany.com
 
 
 
 

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Peter and Alice review

The Michael Grandage season at The Noel Coward Theatre is without doubt THE theatre highlight of the year, with five plays running over the course of a year featuring top-class writers, directors and actors including world-class names such as Dame Judi Dench, Daniel Radcliffe and Jude Law.

I was lucky enough to catch the eagerly anticipated Peter and Alice last week and it was a wonderful theatre experience. To be honest it initially caught my eye as I wanted to experience seeing one of my favourite actors, Judi Dench, live on stage and with a large amount of £10 tickets available for each performance, this is an opportunity that cannot be turned down! There is also a definite 'Skyfall' theme as the play also stars Ben Whishaw (Q in the latest Bond film) and is written by the film's screenwriter John Logan.

“Of course that’s how it begins: a harmless fairy tale to pass the hours”

Peter and Alice tells of the real-life meeting between Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland now in her 80s and publisher Peter Llewelyn Davies, a young man who Peter Pan was written for. Logan has researched their tragic adult lives and imagined what these two immortal characters may have spoken to each other about.

As soon as Ben Whishaw enters the stage, an almost hunched over figure, lighting up a cigarette, he has the audience's attention. This is obviously a man with an aura of sadness about him. Judi Dench's enters confidently, full of plenty of put-downs making the audience roar with laughter. Although the first exchange between the two characters is amusing, I'm not sure if the production team expected such outbursts from the audience. The set design is stunning, with the opening scene in a beautiful, if dilapidated bookshop.

As Alice and Peter relive their childhoods, scenes from their past as well as familiar images from Wonderland and Neverland are revealed. This makes a magical, beautiful and poignant sight. These are stories which every child must be aware of, but the sadness out of which they are born makes these two stories of innocence and wonder very thought-provoking.

Alice and Peter are joined in their thoughts by the authors of their tales, Lewis Carroll and J.M Barrie as well as the young versions of their characters with both Alice and Peter Pan making surprising and beautiful entrances.

Judi Dench really is a wonderful actress. She begins the play as an elderly woman, moving cautiously across the stage and as she delves into her past, she skips and dances around the stage, with her face looking like a young, cheeky girl. She plays well to all of the audience knowing exactly how to make sure that even the balcony where we were sitting can see all of her facial expressions. Ben Whishaw puts in a heart-breaking performance, but sometimes it was a struggle to see his face as he played his character as a thoughtful, almost introverted man, looking downwards a lot of the time.

This is a beautiful, enchanting and moving play which I would thoroughly recommend seeing. I can't wait to see Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan in July!

Peter and Alice runs until 1st June - there are tickets available from 10.30am each day and queues for return tickets (the day we went the queue was massive!)

Find out about the rest of the Michael Grandage season at www.michaelgrandagecompany.com

Watch the trailer for Peter and Alice here:


Monday, 27 May 2013

The Bird's Nest: Book review - may#c4414087160671994979

The Bird's Nest: Book review - may#c4414087160671994979

I am finding it hard to find time to write up reviews at the moment, so I thought I would share my friend Hannah's recent blog post with her thoughts on a couple of books she has recently read. Check out the rest of her blog, it is always really interesting to read and she shares some beautiful photos and some great 'crafty' posts!

Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Sea Sisters

Sisters Katie and Mia have been through a lot together including their Dad walking out on them and their Mum recently passing away. Complete opposites, older sister Katie is responsible and sensible, starting a new life in London with a good job, plus trying to look out for younger sister, free spirit Mia. One day Mia suddenly decides to go travelling around the world with her childhood friend Finn and she books her ticket straight away. Katie is left along for six months worrying and preparing for her wedding, but one evening she gets the news she has always dreaded - Mia has been found dead at the bottom of a cliff in Bali. And the official report is that it was suicide.

Katie can't help but blame herself, as they had a huge argument over the phone the previous day, but she also can't believe that Mia would throw her life away. When she receives Mia's travel journal, she does the first impulsive thing of her life and books a ticket to follow in Mia's footsteps, while reading her journal to try to understand what happened in the last few month's of her sister's life.

The Sea Sisters is full of mystery, intrigue and revelations. Lucy Clarke captures the exotic locations perfectly and I was surprised to read in the Q and A at the end of the novel that she does not actually have a sister, as the relationship between Mia and Katie feels very authentic as each character feels a complex mixture of love, hate, jealousy and resentment towards each other.

I was gripped throughout and sped through this in about three days. Mia and Katie each have their unique voice and both of them were likable 'real' characters. I think this is one of those rare books which will please fans of mystery / suspense novels and 'chick-lit'. This is a perfect holiday read and I am looking forward to discovering more of Lucy Clarke's work.

Watch the trailer for The Sea Sisters below:


Iron Man 3

So Tony Stark has returned, but he is not the Stark we all know. Since his time spent with the Avengers in New York, he can't sleep and is suffering from anxiety attacks. With two feuding demi-God brothers from another planet, a big green angry thing smashing things up and hordes of aliens emerging from the sky, who can blame him? Although experimenting with new suits while being awake for over 72 hours, is probably not his best idea...

Iron Man 3 opens with Tony re-living New Year's Eve 1999 in Switzerland, a time when he unknowingly makes a deadly enemy with a light-hearted snub. Fast-forward 13 years later and the Mandarin is causing terror across America with a series of explosions, but no evidence of any bombs being left on the scene. When Tony's trusted chauffeur  Happy (now head of security at Stark Enterprises) is left in a coma as a result of an attack, he stupidly gives the Mandarin his home address in front of the world's press. Again not a good idea.


Not surprisingly, Stark's Malibu home is soon under attack and Iron Man is last seen falling into the ocean. His trusted computer system Jarvis has other ideas and has drafted a flight plan to Tennessee, a scene of one of the Mandarin's attacks. There he works off radar with the help of a plucky young boy called Harley, fixing his suit and working out his plan of attack on the Mandarin. First he needs to find out where to find him...

Iron Man 3 is completely different from the first two films and is genuinely full of surprises. This is not a straight forward superhero film of hero against villain. This is more of a film about Tony Stark than Iron Man. Here, we see him in combat without the armour of his suits and Robert Downey Jnr is at his best, full of wisecracks and one-liners, but also showing the vulnerability of the character, trying to work out who he is without the guise of Iron Man.

The technology has ramped up a few gears, with Stark's love / hate relationship with his MK 42 suit, which can be controlled remotely, taking centre stage. Jarvis, has also taken on a role of his own and has to be the most sarcastic computer ever seen on screen! I also enjoyed Marvel's on going love affair with British culture, with references to Downton Abbey, Croydon and Premier League football (I can't wait to see Thor running around London in The Dark World too!)

There is a great supporting cast (although I still can't take to Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts) with Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall putting in great performances and Don Cheadle getting his own plot line with 'Iron Patriot'. But a special mention must go to Ben Kingsley who is brilliant as the Mandarin. I have a feeling he is going to be a controversial character for Marvel fans, but I really enjoyed his performance.

There are some plot holes and a couple of moments I would have rather seen go in a different direction, but overall Iron Man 3 is full of laugh out loud moments, some tense scenes and brilliant action-packed set-pieces. Be prepared to go on a gritty, dark, unpredictable rollercoaster ride. I just hope we get to see Iron Man on the big screen again.

Watch the trailer for Iron Man 3 here:



As it is this film's opening weekend, I have tried to review this as best I can without any spoilers! I may add some more thoughts here in a couple of weeks time as anyone who has seen the film will know that there is plenty to talk about! I would love to know what everyone thinks so post away below (I can't guarantee the comments will not include spoilers!)