Wednesday, 3 June 2020

My Year in Books 2020: May

It's another short post from me this month. I'm still really struggling to read for pleasure during the lockdown (and, as you'll have seen, I haven't been able to write any other blog posts either). I started three books in May that I haven't finished yet, but I did manage to read three novels in a single weekend in the middle of the month. This post is just about the novels I actually finished in May (the others will have to wait until another time.

As always, in case you're curious, here are my reviews for the rest of the year so far: January, February, March, April

The House of Lyall by Doris Davidson (2000)

I decided to have a weekend of reading books from my ‘random charity shop purchases’ pile. The House of Lyall was the first one I picked up off the pile. I knew nothing about it – and I’d never even heard of the author before – but I bought it at a charity book sale raising money for a local community group. Davidson’s book is a family saga (not normally a genre I read) set around Aberdeen, and it starts with the story of Marion Cheyne, a young girl who runs away from service and her family to begin a new life. Marion arrives in Aberdeen with nothing but the money she’s stolen from her former employer, but she soon falls on her feet and starts to build a new identity for herself. The story starts in 1894, but we follow her (and her family) through to 1955. As I say, this isn’t a genre I’m very familiar with, but I enjoyed the first part of the story. Young Marion isn’t a particularly likable character, but there’s something sympathetic and intriguing about her (and I don’t really need my heroines to be likable to enjoy their stories). As the story progressed, though, I became a bit frustrated with it. The pace was uneven, and it felt like we were rushed through far too much story in the second and third parts of the novel. Perhaps it should have been a trilogy? I struggled to follow/believe character motivations in the later chapters, unfortunately.

The Ambleside Alibi by Rebecca Tope (2013)

The next book on my charity pile was this one, which I bought at a booksale for a local care home. Again, I wasn’t familiar with the author, but I bought it simply because it’s set in Cumbria. What I didn’t know was that this is the second book in Tope’s Lake District crime series. However, that wasn’t too much of a problem, as there are only minor references to the first book in this one (and none of them are spoilers). As I haven’t read the first book, I had to ‘get to know’ the characters here, but that also wasn’t a problem. Weirdly, like The House of Lyall, this was another book that started really well, but disappointed me in the second half. I loved the introduction to what appeared to be an intriguing little mystery – florist Persimmon ‘Simmy’ Brown delivers a bunch of flowers to an elderly lady, which claim to be from a granddaughter she didn’t know existed. Shortly afterwards, another elderly lady is found murdered in her home. Are the two incidents connected? And how come Simmy has been dragged into both? I loved the sense of place that Tope evokes here, and the puzzle looked like it would be fascinating. Unfortunately, the book takes an odd turn part way through, and ultimately becomes rather far-fetched and – dare I say it? – silly. The real no-no for me is that no one really solves the mystery – the culprit just dramatically makes themselves known. A bit frustrating.

The Girl in the Painted Caravan: Memories of a Romany Childhood by Eva Petulengro (2011)

This was the last book I read during my charity shop weekend. And it’s the one I enjoyed the most (though not for the reasons I expected). I bought this one in a charity shop in Blackpool, as it seemed appropriate to buy a book by a Petulengro in Blackpool. Turns out Eva Petulengro made her name reading fortunes in Brighton, not Blackpool, but let’s not worry about that. Petulengro’s memoir is ostensibly a story of the lost Romany culture into which the author was born. And there are some charming (and deeply romanticized) details about vardos (caravans), horses and hawking pegs – all viewed through thoroughly rose-tinted glasses. But although that’s the aspect on which the book was marketed – and online reviews show it’s the aspect most people wanted to read about – there’s another story here that I found much more interesting. The book actually begins with a chapter set in 1964, where Eva reads the palms of (two of) The Beatles. It’s the story of how a young Romany girl, born in a traditional caravan to a travelling family, ended up as the clairvoyant darling of the Swinging Sixties. This story reveals much about Eva’s family’s showmanship, and along the way it encompasses Billy Butlin’s Skegness amusement park, some shrewd business decisions, and the constant evolution of working-class leisure activities. It’s not actually the story of the seaside resort of the fairground, but rather a glimpse into one part of the periphery. And what a delightful glimpse it is.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

My Year in Books 2020: April

Time for my monthly round-up of the books I've read. Like last month, I've really struggled to do much reading for pleasure. I read four novels in April, which was one more than last month, but I'm still definitely reading less than usual. I did have one really nice surprise this month, with a book that I got completely lost in (first time that's happened since the lockdown started).

In case you're interested, here are my reviews for the rest of the year so far: January, February, March

And here are my reviews of the books I read in April...

A Sight for Sore Eyes by Ruth Rendell (1998)

I picked up this one at a book sale to raise money for a local community group. I generally like Ruth Rendell’s stuff – though I tend to prefer the books she published as Barbara Vine – but this was one I hadn’t read before. It’s an unusual narrative: three characters are introduced who seem to have no connection at all to one another. We begin with the story of Teddy Grex, or rather we begin with an introduction to the two people who will become the parents of Teddy Grex. They’re a strange and not very likable couple, who produce a strange and not very likable son. Teddy grows up in squalor, but craving beauty, and his parents’ neglect leaves him utterly devoid of compassion or empathy. Alongside Teddy’s story is that of Francine, a young woman who witnessed her mother’s murder as a child. Francine lives under the shadow of her stepmother Julia, who is determined to ‘protect’ her. And then hovering around Teddy and Francine is Harriet, a woman who was once lover to a rockstar. Harriet was immortalized with her former beau in a famous painting, but now lives in a sort of self-obsessed loneliness with a deeply unlikable husband (spoiler alert: almost all the characters are unlikable!). The really satisfying bit of A Sight for Sore Eyes comes when these three disparate stories come together. It’s not quite a collision, more an inexorable convergence. I enjoyed this one, but it’s got a very dark and cynical heart.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl (2013)

I genuinely don’t know where I got this book from – which seems almost fitting, given the plot. I was sorting out some boxes of books that I’d stored away in the attic a while ago, and it was just… there. I don’t remember buying it or being given it. Night Film just appeared in my house at some point. But I’m glad it did – I really enjoyed this one. Night Film is a thriller with supernatural undertones (overtones?). Scott McGrath is an investigative reporter (who clearly wants to be the hero in his very own film noir). McGrath had a brush in the past with illusive and enigmatic film director Stanislas Cordova, which left him with his career in tatters and a hefty legal bill. When Cordova’s daughter Ashley is found dead in a run-down warehouse, McGrath thinks this might be his chance to pick up the story again. The trouble is, no one will admit to having ever met Cordova, the reclusive director of a series of controversial films, and few people are interested in helping the disgraced reporter. Two unlikely sidekicks emerge – Hopper, a charismatic but lost young man who McGrath meets at the site of Ashley’s death, and Nora, a coat-check girl who may have been one of the last people to see Ashley alive – and McGrath begins an investigation that will take him to some very weird places. Night Film is gripping, noir-ish fun, and the legends that surround Cordova are surprisingly believable as Hollywood mythology.

He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly (2017)

Another book that just randomly appeared in my house. I’ve seen mention of He Said/She Said a few times when I’ve been reading domestic noir, as Erin Kelly blurbed a number of the books I read last year. It’s also a title that pops up on lists of ‘mind-blowing twists’ and ‘unreliable narrators’. I didn’t know I actually had a copy until I was sorting out some boxes in the attic. I think I must have got this one at a charity shop at some point. Sadly, not everything out of the attic boxes has impressed as much as Night Film. He Said/She Said was a bit of a disappointment, and it contains no mind-blowing twists and an unsuccessful unreliable narrator. Laura and Kit met at university. Kit is obsessed with solar eclipses. When they’re at a festival in Cornwall to witness the 1999 eclipse, they disturb the rape of a woman called Beth and are later called as witnesses at the trial. Afterwards, Beth appears to go mad, which makes Laura start to doubt her story. There’s no mystery, no surprise, and little doubt as to what happened in Cornwall. But, at the end (and there have been no earlier hints), Kit reveals he’s been lying all along and that he slept with Beth the night before the rape, and then made it look like she was mad by setting fire to their flat while Laura was asleep. And then, I don’t know, he went to see another eclipse.

Haven't They Grown by Sophie Hannah (2020)

I bought this one – newly published this year – for the same reasons as a lot of people. The premise is just irresistible. Beth (for reasons that will become clear later on) stops by the house of Lewis and Flora Braid, once her close friends. Beth hasn’t seen the Braids and their children for twelve years (again, that will become clearer later on). Imagine her surprise when she spies Flora getting out of the car with her children… but the children haven’t aged a single day! Thomas and Emily Braid look exactly like they did when Beth last saw them. How could I resist reading this one to find out the explanation? Sophie Hannah is a good writer, and I’ve found her other books readable and enjoyable (though not, admittedly, among my favourites). I also trusted that there wouldn’t be a supernatural ‘twist’ to this one, based on what I’ve read of her work. Sadly, though, Haven’t They Grown is a bit of a let-down. There’s a lot to enjoy – Beth’s relationship with her teen daughter Zannah is really well-done, for instance – but unfortunately I think Hannah wrote herself into a corner with that amazing premise. There really is no possible (sensible) explanation for why Thomas and Emily haven’t aged in twelve years, and so instead we get a rather silly and implausible one. I read it in a single sitting, but was left at the end with a whole host of ‘But hang on! If that’s… then what about…?’ questions.

Monday, 6 April 2020

My Year in Books 2020: March

So... this post is a little late, and a little short. I probably don't need to explain why, do I? Looking at social media, it seems lots of people have been reading loads during the coronavirus lockdown, but I just haven't been able to. A combination of working-from-home stress and a struggle to concentrate has left me finding it very hard to just lose myself in a book. I'm hoping I can get my reading mojo back soon, but for now here are my reviews of the three novels I read in March.

In case you're interested, here's a catch-up on my other posts so far this year: January, February

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne (1931)

As you may remember from previous posts, my mother-in-law has been keeping me well supplied with British Library Crime Classics over the years. I save the Christmas-themed ones for December (naturally), but this month I was in the mood for a couple of the less festive titles. Murder of a Lady is subtitled A Scottish Mystery, as it takes place in a gloomy old castle in the Highlands. Mary Gregor, sister of the laird of Duchlan Castle, has been found stabbed to death… in a locked room. Inspector Dundas is called in to investigate, and he’s soon joined by Wynne’s amateur detective Eustace Hailey. There’s a pervasive air of menace around Duchlan Castle, as well as references to local superstitions about evil fish creatures. More interestingly (for me, anyway), there are contradictory statements about the character of the deceased. Was Mary Gregor a paragon of selfless virtue who devoted her life to looking after others? Or was she more of a controlling puritan? Wynne’s novel is certainly carefully plotted, but it lacks the deeply immersive sense of place that characterizes many of the BL Crime Classics. There are a lot of comments on the character of ‘the Highlands’, but I didn’t get a really strong sense of Duchlan Castle. I found the character of Mary Gregor quite intriguing though, and I enjoyed the way the family’s past is slowly – and reluctantly – revealed. Fans of Golden Age crime might raise an eyebrow at the final explanation, however… you have been warned!

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Croft (1938)

Another BL Crime Classic next, but this is quite a different type of novel to Murder of a Lady. As is explained in Martin Edwards’s excellent introduction, Freeman Wills Crofts wrote a number of ‘inverted’ crime novels in the Golden Age, where the focus is on the murderer and his motivations, rather than on the whodunnit puzzle. Antidote to Venom is along these lines. George Surridge, the director of Birmington Zoo, is a man who has rather lost his way in life. He has money worries, and his marriage is starting to fail. (The book’s blurb also states that he is concerned about an outbreak of disease at the zoo, but this is a tiny bit misleading, as it isn’t really a major plot point!) George starts to imagine rather questionable ways of getting out of his predicament, and the reader would be forgiven for thinking that they know the direction the story is going to take. However, Crofts plays a little game of bait-and-switch, and things take a rather different turn. I really enjoyed the unexpected nature of the narrative, and the fact that, despite us feeling like we know exactly what is being planned an executed, there is still a perplexing little puzzle to be solved. George Surridge is an engaging character as well, though he is utterly frustrating at times. I almost found myself shouting ‘Oh George, don’t do that!’ as various points in the book. Slightly unusual, but really compelling – and a definite recommendation from me.

The Woman in Blue by Elly Griffiths (2016)

I’m not sure how it’s happened, but I seem to be determined not to read Elly Griffiths’s Dr Ruth Galloway novels in any particular order. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for this series though, as each one only contains very minor references to the previous ones, and I’m not sure any of them would count as spoilers. I do keep losing track of where things are up to in the private lives of the detectives, but I can usually work things out based on the ages of the many many children they all keep having (seriously, has any detective team in fiction ever been this fertile?!). The Woman in Blue sees Griffiths’s archaeologist drawn into sinister events around the pilgrimage sites of Walsingham. An old friend – now a priest – gets in touch with Ruth to ask for help with anonymous letters from someone who clearly doesn’t like women priests; Cathbad thinks he had a vision of the Virgin Mary while house-sitting; DCI Nelson and team investigating the murder of a young woman, whose body was found in a graveyard. Are these things connected? When another woman is found murdered – a priest, this time – it seems very much like they are. In terms of the mystery plot, I think this one might be my favourite of the series so far (though I am aware that I’ve said that before). I loved the evocative details about Walsingham, and there were some neat clues too (some I spotted, others I didn’t!).

Monday, 9 March 2020

My Year in Books 2020: February

I'm a little bit late posting this one, as we're coming into the second week in March. Oops. But I'm trying to catch up with stuff as best I can! So, it's finally time for my round-up of the books I read for pleasure last month.

In case you're interested, here are my reviews of the books I read last month: January

And here are my reviews for February...

The Neighbour by Fiona Cummins (2019)

The first book I read this month was an impulse buy at the supermarket (which I seem to keep doing). Sadly, it was a bit of a disappointment. I really struggled with this one. The blurb promised a story about a family that buy a new house, only to discover that there’s a serial killer on the loose in the neighbourhood, and everyone’s got a secret to hide. That isn’t quite how the book pans out, although there is a family (the Lockwoods), who buy a house, and there is a serial killer (the Dollmaker), who operates almost exclusively in the neighbourhood around the new house. The main problem I had with The Neighbour (aside from the utter implausibility of a family deciding to buy a house on a street at the centre of a multiple murder investigation, with the intention of ‘bouncing’ it as quickly as possible) was that I found it really difficult to engage with any of the character. The chapters alternate between a bewildering array of viewpoints (one minute we’re following the family, the next a police officer involved in the investigation, the next a first-person narrator), and it’s not always clear who the narrator is or why we’re following their perspective. The story is really fragmented as a result, and I didn’t feel particularly immersed in it. Weirdly, I also guessed who the murderer was about two thirds of the way, which meant I was just frustrated for the final sections. Not a recommendation, unfortunately.

What You Did by Claire McGowan (2019)

The next book was included with an Amazon Prime membership, and I thought I’d give it a go. The book begins with a group of six university friends meeting up again after twenty years (although they have seen each other in various combinations since they graduated). Ali and her husband Mike are hosting the reunion party at their well-to-do house, and the guests include Karen (Ali’s long-time best friend), Callum and Jodi (who got together at uni) and the somewhat enigmatic Bill. Alongside the grown-ups are Mike and Ali’s kids Cassie and Benji, and Karen’s son Jake. The reunion begins with the expected snobbery and passive aggression – these are a group of social-climbing friends who met at Oxford, after all – but it turns into something much more horrible when Karen stumbles into the kitchen, visibly injured, claiming that Ali’s husband has raped her. The accusation sends shockwaves through the group, and also tears at Ali’s loyalties. It leads to further revelations as well, including some long-buried secrets. What You Did is a readable and engaging thriller. I found it to be a bit of page-turner. All of the characters are a bit unlikeable, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing! I’ve seen some reviews that say Ali’s behaviour is unconvincing, but I think McGowan does a good job of negotiating the character’s competing motivations. I wouldn’t say this is the best book I’ve read this year, but it’s a decent story that kept me entertained. What more can you ask?

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama (2012)

I feel like I don’t read many books by men, so I should probably vary things a bit. Six Four is Hideo Yokoyama’s sixth novel, but the first that was translated into English. It’s a police procedural, but one that offers an unconventional perspective on a cold case. The eponymous ‘Six Four’ case is an unsolved kidnapping and murder, which took place just before the death of Emperor Hirohito, at the end of the Showa period (which lasted until its sixty-fourth year). Yoshinobu Mikami has been transferred to Media Relations, and is tasked with orchestrating press coverage of a visit from the commissioner general. The police’s relationship with the press has broken down, the father of the victim has refused to take part, and Mikami begins to believe the commissioner’s visit might have a hidden agenda. As he starts to ask (mundane, at first) questions, he uncovers things about ‘Six Four’ that unsettle him – things that haven’t been spoken about in fourteen years. Six Four is a slow-burning, brooding book, with a lot of the focus being on Mikami’s response to the secrets he reveals. It also explores the complex machinations of Japanese police politics and the relationship with the press, which can feel rather alien to the non-Japanese reader. However, I didn’t feel lost at any point, as Yokoyama’s writing carries the reader through and keeps us fully engaged with the somewhat troubled protagonist. The plot is labyrinthine, but the denouement is a satisfying one. I enjoyed this one.

The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman (2002)

Next up, it’s another charity shop find. I picked up this one when we were in Truro before Christmas. The endorsements on the back cover promised something a bit ‘Gothic’, and also a meeting of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Both of those assessments are totally fair. We begin the story with Jane Hudson, a Latin teacher at Heart Lake School for Girls. Jane is an ‘old girl’: she was a pupil herself at Heart Lake. When three of Jane’s students (who are known by classical nicknames assigned by their teacher) begin acting strangely, ghosts from the past are conjured up. The second part of the book takes us back to that past – specifically, events that occurred between Jane and her two roommates during her time as a student. History is certainly repeating itself, but does that repetition have a supernatural cause? or is there a more human hand behind it. I liked this one – it’s slow-paced, and I occasionally wanted to give Jane a good shake, but the characters were far more endearing than those in The Secret History. Some of the revelations (including the ‘biggie’) I saw coming, but that’s not a bad thing, as The Lake of Dead Languages is more a character study than a straightforward mystery. The pleasure of this one lies in how immersed you become in Jane’s world, and how much Goodman’s writing leads you to seeing things through Jane’s eyes. I definitely enjoyed this one.

The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James (2018)

I’ve had this one on my to-read pile for a while, as my alter ego interviewed the author for Hannah’s Bookshelf back in 2018. It’s a bit of a genre-bending one, and I’m not sure I can explain it in a short review, but here goes… Ezra Maas was the avant-garde darling of the art world, building a legion of devotees and creating a ‘Foundation’ that ruthlessly guards his legacy. He disappeared a number of years ago, prompting all sorts of speculation and conspiracy theories. Now Daniel James – something of an enfant terrible of the journalism world – has been commissioned to write a biography of the enigmatic artist, without the consent of the Ezra Maas Foundation. Or has he? Is that what’s happening here? Who is Ezra Maas? For that matter, who is Daniel James? Stitched together from fragments of partially destroyed manuscripts, interview transcripts and copious footnotes, there are shades of House of Leaves here, but this is blended with plenty of (sometimes heavily lamp-shaded) neo-noir stylings and compelling characterization. I was expecting the book to be cerebral, but I was very pleasantly surprised by how downright gripping it is. As a fan of unreliable narrators (and unreliable narration), I enjoyed the fragmentary and convoluted storytelling, and the meta-fictional quality that permeates throughout. But it has to be said, The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is a bit of a page-turner too, and I found that I didn’t want it to end. Which is lucky, really, because it doesn’t.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Review: The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel (Told by an Idiot)

Tuesday 4th February 2020
HOME, Manchester

I was at HOME, Manchester on Tuesday for the press night of The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. As Hannah’s Bookshelf is currently on hiatus due to North Manchester FM moving studios, I won’t be doing a radio review, but here’s the blog review…

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is a production by Told by an Idiot, currently touring the UK and Luxembourg. It’s on at HOME, Manchester until Saturday 8th February.

Written and directed by Paul Hunter, The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is – characteristically for Told by an Idiot – a riff on an idea, a ‘what if’ imagining provoked by a single, curious occurrence. In 1910 Fred Karno’s musical hall troupe sailed to New York to tour. Among the performers in the troupe were Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel (who was Chaplin’s understudy). Promising to play ‘fast and loose with the facts’, Told by an Idiot have created an energetic, exuberant, occasionally whimsical and entirely dialogue-free conception of what the boat voyage to America might have looked like. It is, as they say, an ‘unreliable tribute to two extraordinary artists’.

On a multi-level – and deceptively flexible – set designed by Ioana Curelea, Charlie (played by Amalia Vitale), Stan (Jerone Marsh-Reid) and Fred Karno (Nick Haverson) arrive to board a boat to New York. The ‘tribute’ element of the performance begins almost immediately, with silent cinema-style intertitles projected onto the stage, and a slapstick sequence involving suitcases of variable weights nostalgically evoking music hall comedy. Vitale deftly swings a case around to show the chalked legend ‘Charles Chaplin, esq.’, though her physical performance and appearance probably makes this identification somewhat redundant.

The ‘unreliable’ element of the performance comes shortly afterwards, as the storytelling quickly gives way to flights of fancy. The caption ‘Charlie bids a fond farewell to England’ signals a flashback sequence (‘A Victorian Childhood’) conjuring vignettes of Chaplin’s difficult early years, showing us a drunken father (a wonderfully funny turn by Haverson), a tragic mother (Hannah Chaplin is played by Sara Alexander), and unsympathetic landlord and doctor (both played by Marsh-Reid). Anyone familiar with Chaplin’s biography will recognize moments of accuracy in this flashback, but these are collapsed and truncated for storytelling purposes.

Less accurate (one assumes) is the arrival on stage of Stan Laurel – or ‘Stanley Jefferson, esq.’, as his suitcase proclaims – who appears to have missed the embarkation and swam through the sea to catch up with the boat. Wearing goggles and a snorkel, and plucking starfish out of his pockets, Stan arrives on stage all wide-eyed happiness, but is more like a caricature from a comedy film than a character on stage.

This opening sets the tone for the rest of the production, which jumps between set-pieces set on board the ship, flashbacks to Chaplin’s early life and flashforwards to a few key moments in Laurel’s later career. With impressive energy and a rather anarchic disregard for chronology, reality and logic, this is a performance that aims to capture the spirit and fantasy of its two eponymous comedy icons, rather than documenting the ‘facts’ of their relationships and careers. Thus, Laurel’s meeting with Hardy is reimagined as something like a scene from one of their films, and Chaplin’s later role as auteur-director is evoked (with the use of a gold megaphone) in the midst of a knockabout routine in which the two men attempt to conceal money stolen from Karno. Sequences merge into each other – props moved in a flashforward to the 1970s remain in the wrong place when we return to 1910 – and some bits of the story occur only in the imagination of the characters. There’s also unexpected audience participation, and the fourth wall is broken with ease and regularity.

It feels almost inappropriate to refer to ‘storytelling’ here, as the production conjures up something that defies straightforward ideas of ‘story’ and ‘narrative’. At the heart of this is Vitale’s performance as Chaplin. Her performance is more than simply mimicry – though her replication of Chaplin’s trademark mannerisms and walk is excellent – but rather a revealing embodiment of character. Her Chaplin is impatient and driven, with moments of arrogance (to the point of near megalomania at one point), and yet is utterly charming and touched with a little melancholy (on remembering Hannah Chaplin’s decline) and a wistful romanticism (when an audience member is brought on stage to ‘swim’ with Charlie). It’s a really incredible performance, and I could have happily watched Vitale-as-Chaplin for hours.

Sadly, I’m not sure the treatment of Stan Laurel was quite equal. This is very much a Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin, with Stan Laurel as sidekick. Marsh-Reid reveals a real (and impressive) talent for physical comedy, but his performance always feels at one remove from Stan Laurel. His mimicry of Laurel’s mannerisms isn’t as accurate as Vitale’s, and the gentle naivety and innocence with which he imbues his character turns him into a foil for Chaplin (and for Oliver Hardy), rather than a more rounded character. It’s a strange contrast – Vitale plays a version of Chaplin very much informed by his off-screen persona, while Marsh-Reid plays Laurel as though he were a character in a Laurel and Hardy film. Nevertheless, Marsh-Reid’s performance is enjoyable and engaging, and there’s a (very) weird sort of chemistry between the two main characters that culminates in a clog dance that is really rather difficult to describe!

Vitale and Marsh-Reid are joined on stage by Nick Haverson, who plays a number of roles including Fred Karno and (after an audience-pleaser of a transformation scene) Oliver Hardy. Haverson is beautifully versatile in his performances, and I particularly enjoyed his turn as Chaplin’s father. The other performer is Sara Alexander, who not only performs as Chaplin’s mother, but accompanies (almost) all the action on a piano at the edge of the stage, playing an original score by Zoe Rahman. It is very hard to criticize anything about the performances in this production, as I was blown away by the energy and execution – effected by Hunter’s direction. The actors didn’t miss a single mark – and given the nature of the set design and the physicality of their performances, we would have known about it if they had!

Overall, this is indeed a strange tale, signifying... something. It certainly isn’t factual or believable or logical, but it has a curious truth to it that’s really compelling. For me, the highlight was Vitale’s mesmerizing performance as Chaplin, but the whole production exudes a spirited joy that is an awful lot of fun to watch. I’d recommend seeing this one if you can.

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is on at HOME, Manchester until Saturday 8th February. It’s is currently touring the UK and Luxembourg.

Sunday, 2 February 2020

My Year in Books 2020: January

I've decided to carry on with my monthly book review posts (can you believe this is the third year now!). I'm finding it a good way of keeping track of the books I read for pleasure - much more useful than using an external site - so you're kind of stuck with these posts for now!

First post of the year, so it's my short reviews for January! Here's what I read...

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (2018)

I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while, as I really like Robert Galbraith’s fiction. (Weirdly, I don’t like any J.K. Rowling books – a fact that baffles me.) Lethal White is the fourth book about private detective Cormoran Strike, and his secretary – then assistant – now partner – Robin Ellacott. The story opens with a prologue that follows on directly from Career of Evil, but then it jumps ahead to the following year. After the events of the earlier book, Strike’s detective agency has been thrust into the public eye (well, even more so, as the events of The Cuckoo’s Calling also brought it some notoriety). As well as juggling multiple cases, Strike is offered two intriguing puzzles to solve. Firstly, an apparently mentally ill man called Billy arrives at his office claiming to have witnessed a murder when he was a child. Secondly, an MP asks for Strike’s help, as he’s being blackmailed. Of course, it’s not long before there’s a hint that the two cases might be connected somehow. I will admit, I was dubious about the length of the book before I read it. The paperback is a bit of a doorstop, and way longer than is usual for the genre. However, as with the other Strike novels, it’s incredibly readable, and so it really didn’t feel overlong. Yes, perhaps, some of the sections about Strike and Robin’s relationships could have been cut down slightly, but there’s an excellent mystery (with well-placed clues) at the book’s heart.

Local Girl Missing by Claire Douglas (2016)

This next one is a book I picked up in a charity shop in Aberystwyth when we stayed there last November. I thought I’d read another book by the author, but I realized afterwards that I’d got confused about that. Still, the blurb was intriguing enough, even though I had a suspicion it might be a domestic noir-type thriller (and I’ve still got a strange relationship with that genre). Local Girl Missing is the story of Francesca (and it’s partly told from her perspective), who grew up in a small seaside town in the South-West. Twenty years ago, Francesca’s best friend Sophie fell off the old pier, in an incident that has haunted her ever since. Now Sophie’s brother has called Francesca to drop the bombshell that Sophie’s remains have finally been found, and he wants her to return to Oldcliffe to help him find out what happened. Francesca’s narration is interspersed with entries from Sophie’s diary in the run-up to her disappearance. As she and Daniel speak to Sophie’s old friends, Francesca feels increasingly (and almost tangibly) haunted by the past – is there something else going on here? I’ve got to admit, I did twig what was going on a bit before the end, but I still enjoyed Local Girl Missing. It’s a quick read, but it’s well-paced and Douglas builds the suspense effectively, plus I found some of the flashbacks to Francesca and Sophie’s relationship both nostalgic (as I’m roughly the same age as the characters) and convincing.

The Wych Elm by Tana French (2018)

I was looking forward to this next one, but ultimately it was a teeny bit of a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, The Wych Elm is excellently written and has a compelling story. It’s just that I’m such a huge fan of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels that this one had a lot to live up to. The Wych Elm is a standalone –a mystery thriller rather than a detective novel. The central character is Toby, a privileged (and rather charming) man in his late twenties, looking forward to a happy future with his girlfriend Melissa. One night, everything changes, as Toby suffers a life-altering and traumatic assault. In recovery, he returns to his old family home (now his uncle’s), as his uncle has developed terminal cancer. Toby needs to heal, but he also needs to take care of his relative. However, a chance discovery in the garden upends Toby’s life even further – a skull is found in the eponymous wych elm tree. Perhaps Toby’s happy conception of his life – and his family – aren’t strictly accurate. As I say, the story is pretty compelling, but I found it didn’t grip me quite as much as the Dublin Murder Squad novels. Some of the revelations are a little far-fetched, though I did like the way in which Toby’s patchy memories become tangled and uncertain. The idea that a family history might be misremembered or experienced differently was definitely interesting, but there was something a little flat about this particular family.

The Guesthouse by Abbie Frost (2019)

I picked this one up (as usual) on a whim at the supermarket. The blurb looked like it might be a bit like And Then There Were None – seven guests check into a guesthouse, but it looks like they might not all survive. And… I was right. The Guesthouse begins like a millennial version of And Then There Were None. The central character, Hannah, is a twenty-five-year-old woman who is dealing with some stuff. She checks herself into the eponymous guesthouse for a week’s holiday to take her mind off things, and also to reconnect with her past. The guesthouse is in a remote location in Ireland, and the access is not as easy as the website promised. And there’s a storm coming too… I’m in two minds about this one. I loved the way Frost updated the central conceit of And Then There Were None for the twenty-first century, and the way the guests were brought to (and kept) in the guesthouse was definitely pretty cool. I also found Hannah – in the first half of the book – an engaging and relatable character. However, the plot isn’t quite as classy as Christie’s (and I shouldn’t keep comparing the two books, but it’s impossible not to). Rather than ramping up suspense and suspicion, The Guesthouse instead ramps up the backstory to the point of (almost) implausibility. I became less invested as the story went on, and the eventual reveal(s) really stretched my credulity. It’s a shame, because the book starts well.

The Family by Louise Jensen (2019)

I bought The Family in a charity shop in Truro at Christmas. I didn’t realize until part way through that I’d chosen to read a book with almost the exact same image on the cover as The Guesthouse – that was a complete coincidence. And, cover art aside, The Family is a bit different to The Guesthouse. Laura and her daughter Tilly are left grieving and in debt following the death of Gavan, Laura’s husband. A chance kindness from a woman called Saffron (someone Laura vaguely knows through her work) leads the women to a farm in Mid Wales that’s being run as a community/commune by a mysterious young man called Alex. As the book hints from its very first page, bad things are going to happen on the farm. And they do. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t really enjoy this one. I struggled to sympathize with the characters, mostly because they weren’t plausible for the ages they were meant to be – Laura doesn’t feel like a 34-year-old, and Alex isn’t believable as a 28-year-old. I also found I was drawn out of the story a lot by little anachronisms and inaccuracies, and by a timeframe that doesn’t quite make sense. No spoilers, but the ending was probably the best part of the plot, as it moved the story back into the realms of the believable. However, it was hard to get too enthused, as I really hadn’t engaged with the characters. Overall, this one probably needed much tighter editing.

She Lies in Wait by Gytha Lodge (2019)

The next book I read this month was one I picked up at the supermarket because the blurb looked intriguing (I probably have to stop doing that!). She Lies in Wait is a cold-case detective novel. Teenager Aurora Jackson disappeared thirty years ago, after going camping with her older sister and her friends. When a body is discovered in the woods, it quickly becomes apparent that Aurora has finally been found. A murder investigation is launched by DCI Jonah Sheens, and Aurora’s sister Topaz and her friends are the prime suspects. She Lies in Wait is a fairly standard cold-case story, with a bit of Secret History-esque conflict between the rather privileged bunch of suspects (in fact, one of the characters actually draws attention to the similarity in an explicit reference to Donna Tartt’s novel). It’s a very readable story, and there are some interesting interactions between the police team, but I found the actual mystery at the heart of the book to be a little disappointing. The problem is that there are clues implicating all of the suspects, and nothing that points to any particular one of them. By the time the reveal came, I felt like it could have been any of them, and I felt a bit cheated as a reader, as I could only guess the answer, not solve it. Nevertheless, Lodge is a good writer, and I did enjoy the way the story unfolded. Not the best mystery, but definitely not the worst one either!

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

My Year in Books 2019: December

And so I've come to the end of another year of writing reviews of the books I've read for pleasure. This month's books have a very festive feel, so this is definitely a very December-y post!

In case you're interested, here are the posts from the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November

And here are my reviews of the novels I read in December...

Devil's Day by Andrew Michael Hurley (2017)

I should probably start this with a confession… I haven’t read The Loney (Hurley’s acclaimed debut novel), which makes me one of the only people I know who hasn’t. I included Devil’s Day on a list of books about autumn traditions last year, but didn’t actually get chance to read it until this winter. It’s a strange book – not because of the subject matter (I really don’t mind strange subject matter!) – but in terms of its inconsistency. It has moments of absolute brilliance, but also some sections that don’t really seem that well-written. The story unfolds in a non-linear fashion (great) with an unreliable first-person narration disguised at times as third-person (even better). John and his wife Kat have returned to his family’s farm at the Endlands for his grandfather’s funeral, intending to stay on for Devil’s Day and the Gathering (traditions on the farm that presage the start of winter). As the story of that year’s Devil’s Day unfolds, older stories are woven in – the Arncliffes who built the mill, the Dennings who once owned the land, events from John’s childhood, the presence of the Owd Feller himself. There is an incredible sense of place evoked in the book, and I particularly enjoyed the episodes involving the Far Lodge (a building one of the Dennings had constructed on the land). However, there is less clear sense of character created, and I struggled to engage much with any of them. Ultimately, perhaps the Endlands itself is the best-drawn character here.

A Midwinter Promise by Lulu Taylor (2019)

So… bit of a misstep, this one. In December, we went away for our annual holiday to Cornwall. The weather was wild, but we were cosy and warm in our cottage. All year, I’d been saving Christmas-themed books to read while we were there. However, on our first night away, I spotted A Midwinter Promise in the supermarket and decided that it would make perfect holiday reading. The blurb promised (a) winter, (b) secrets, and (c) Cornwall. I bumped it to the top of my list, casting aside all the festive books I’d been saving. And, sadly, I was very disappointed. Taylor’s book begins with a woman called Alex reminiscing about her childhood at Tawray, a rambling old house in Cornwall. When Alex’s dad has a stroke, she starts to wonder about her mother’s early death, and about the secrets that may have been kept by her family. The book then alternates this storyline with chapters set in the 70s, 80s and 90s, which tell the story of Julia (Alex’s mother) and her life at Tawray. The problem with the book is that (a) it’s only partly set in the winter, (b) although characters keep secrets from one another, Taylor doesn’t keep any secrets from the reader and so Julia’s story is crystal clear from the off, and (c) Tawray may nominally be located in Cornwall, but there’s very little sense of place, save a few mentions of how nice the sea looks. Really not impressed with my decision here.

The Darkest Place by Jo Spain (2018)

Back to the books I’d been saving for my holiday… as I’ve mentioned in previous months, my mum and I really like Jo Spain’s DCI Tom Reynolds novels. In fact, it was last December when I read the first in the series and passed it on to my mum. The Darkest Place is the fourth book in the series – though I’ve actually already read the fifth one (I read them out of order so that I could save this one for going away). The Darkest Place is set at Christmas (like With Our Blessing) and sees Reynolds called away from his family celebrations (as in With Our Blessing) to investigate a crime in a remote – and very creepy – location (as in…). The setting for The Darkest Place is a disused asylum on an island, which is accessible only by boat. A mass grave has been discovered, but there’s a body in it that shouldn’t be there. Psychiatrist Dr Conrad Howe disappeared at Christmas forty years earlier, and it now appears he was brutally murdered and left in the hospital grave pit. Reynolds is faced with opening up a cold case, which leads him into the dark heart of the asylum and its ‘treatments’. The Darkest Place treads familiar ground – Spain often returns to darker aspects of Ireland’s history in her books – and its lighter on the personal lives of the detectives than some of the others. Nevertheless, this is a satisfyingly creepy story with a clever puzzle at its centre.

Murder in Advent by David Williams (1985)

I’m not having the best luck with my festive reading this year. This next one was another book I was saving till Christmas, as I thought it would be a good seasonal read. I actually bought it in a charity shop in Truro last Christmas, but I didn’t chance to read it then. I’ve saved it all year, only to discover… it’s not actually a Christmas book at all (despite the title). Murder in Advent is set in the small (fictional) cathedral city of Litchester. The cathedral owns a thirteenth-century exemplification of the Magna Carta, which they are considering selling to raise much-needed funds for the cathedral. Banker Mark Treasure (apparently Williams’s series character) arrives, as he has a deciding vote in the matter, but before anything else can happen, there’s a disturbance in the Old Library. The Dean’s verger is killed, and a fire destroys the valuable artefact. The problem I had with the book (aside from the fact that Advent and Christmas aren’t actually part of the story) is that I simply couldn’t follow who was who. The key characters are introduced in a dazzling chapter early on, and there are a lot of them. If you’re unfamiliar with church roles and titles – if you don’t know what a Dean’s verger is, for instance – it’s a bit of a tricky read. And it’s made harder by the fact that all the characters seem to speak in a similar voice. Sadly, this one just didn’t do it for me.

Mistletoe by Alison Littlewood (2019)

Now this is festive reading. Just what I wanted! Littlewood’s book has all the elements you want from a Christmas book… snow, an isolated farmhouse and ghosts. The book is the story of Leah, who is recently bereaved (she’s lost her husband and young son), and so decides – impulsively – to leave Manchester and buy an abandoned farmhouse in Yorkshire. At Christmas. Buying the farmhouse was Leah’s late husband Josh’s idea, and so she believes this is a way of honouring his memory by trying to bring his dream to reality. The farm – Maitland Farm – once belonged to Leah’s family, so it seems like fate might be playing a hand as well. But when Leah arrives at Maitland Farm, in the darkest depths of winter and heavy snowfall, she discovers that it may be harbouring some grief of its own. Mistletoe is a classic Christmas ghost story, and Littlewood is adept at conjuring an atmosphere that is equal parts tragedy and horror. Leah’s experience of the ghosts of Maitland Farm comes through visions, which take on a life of their own. The past and the present begin to blur, with the eponymous parasitic plant weaving its way through the stories. I’d be wary of calling this a ‘cosy’ story, as there are some disturbing elements, but it certainly belongs to a good old tradition. The ghost story (or the story of the ghosts), perhaps, holds few surprises. But the way that it’s told is just wonderful, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Secret Santa by Trish Harnetiaux (2019)

I picked this one up in the supermarket on a whim (despite having collected more than enough festive books over the year). There were a couple of reasons why it caught my attention. A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece of flash fiction called ‘Secret Santa’, and since then I seem to keep getting drawn to writing weird versions justice-dispensing Father Christmases. Secondly – and more importantly – the blurb looked like it’d be a good old-fashioned ‘everyone’s locked in the house getting picked off one-by-one’ tale. Claudine and Henry Calhoun are high-flying real estate types in Aspen. Every year, they throw a fancy Christmas party, which involves a competitive Secret Santa game that’s the talk of the town. This year, Claudine’s been contacted by pop star Zara (who bears some slight similarity to a real-life pop star who shall remain nameless). Zara is interested in buying Montague House, the first property Claudine and Henry ever built, and so Claudine decides to move the party to the somewhat remote building. The snow starts to fall, the guests assemble, and there’s an additional gift on the Secret Santa pile… This book was a lot of fun – it’s a quick read, and not necessarily the story you might be expecting, but I really enjoyed it. The tension is well-paced, and Zara emerges as a rather engaging character. Plus, there’s a bit of intrigue, secrecy and rivalry as well. I’m glad I picked this one up – it was a very enjoyable festive read.

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley (2018)

Managed to time my festive reading so I could end the year with a New Year-themed book! The Hunting Party takes place during a New Year’s Eve party, so it was the perfect way to end December. A group of old university friends meet up for their annual New Year’s Eve celebrations – this year, they’ve booked an exclusive (but isolated) hunting lodge in the Scottish Highlands. Over the course of the booze-fuelled party, old secrets and resentments surface… and someone’s not going to survive the party. The book is much marketed as an ‘Agatha Christie with menace’ (hmmm… I think Christie’s books had enough menace of their own!), but it’s also been compared to Tartt’s The Secret History (which I didn’t enjoy). However, the book actually does its own thing, and it’s not really fair to compare it to Christie or Tartt’s work. There was a lot that I really enjoyed about The Hunting Party. I loved the multiple narrators, and I was impressed with how easy it was to keep track of a large group of characters. Most of the characters are a bit unlikeable (as you’d expect), but they were very believable and Foley snuck in just the right amount of sympathy. I also enjoyed the way the landscape is used to create an additional sense of seasonal threat. Only downside… Foley’s not quite at Christie’s level when it comes to hiding clues, and so I did work it out very early on. Nevertheless, definitely enjoyed this one.

Happy New Year!