Book review – Hard Cold Winter

I wrote recently about TripFiction, a website that panders to a couple of my lifelong passions – books and travel.

Tina from TripFiction kindly sent me a couple of books to review for the website.

Here is my first review:

Hard Cold Winter

Cold and wet in Seattle

Hard Cold Winter by Glen Erik Hamilton

This is the second novel from Glen Erik Hamilton featuring anti-hero Van Shaw, a former thief and Army Ranger.

The plot fizzes along as rapidly and violently as a Desert Storm attack, developing in and around Seattle after Van finds a brutal double murder scene in the nearby Olympic Mountains.

In a helter-skelter story, Van has to deal with illegal gambling dens, Russian mobsters, an old army friend as damaged as he is, and a girl from his childhood who may be hell-bent on revenge.

I was hoping the city would play a more vivid role in the narrative, and that I’d feel compelled to jump on a plane to the Pacific Northwest and discover the places Van lives, drinks and stalks his prey. But it doesn’t.

The novel feels more like a movie screenplay, with the frenzied plot and one-dimensional characters the focus, rather than the sense of place. Perhaps Seattle will get a more prominent role when the movie is made….

So Hard Cold Winter is an enjoyable, if violent and shallow, romp that just happens to take place in and around Seattle. I’d still like to visit the Pacific Northwest area – Seattle is the home of Frasier Crane and Starbucks, after all – but I wasn’t mentally in the airport departure lounge as I read this book.

Bring on the next TripFiction book….The House on Cold Hill by Peter James, set just down the road in Sussex….

Theatre review – The Comedy of Errors

It’s hard to believe that the same man who wrote the farcical, slapstick The Comedy of Errors also wrote Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello.

 

“Errors” is one of Master Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and it’s also his shortest.

The knock-about tale tells of two sets of identical twins, their father Egeon – a Syracuse merchant on the cusp of being executed for entering Ephesus – and Emilia, Egeon’s long-lost wife, now Abbess at Ephesus.

One set of twins are called Antipholus, the other – the Antipholean bondmen – are both Dromio.

Separated from his wife and one pair of twins during a tempest at sea, Egeon is trying to track them all down. What follows is an exhausting helter-skelter ride, with mistaken identity, wordplay and slapstick comedy providing a farcical theatrical experience of Feydeau and Brian Rix proportions.

The ever brilliant Guildford Shakespeare Company pull it all off in their usual exuberant style, the mobility of the open-air set – at both Guildford Castle Keep and around the Castle grounds by the bandstand – adding to the air of fluid confusion.

The loose ends are all neatly tied up with a bow on top, before Will gets his head down for some serious tragedy.

 

The EU referendum – at last

So after months of facile soundbites, misinformation and angry confrontations, we finally get to vote tomorrow on whether we should Remain in the European Union, or Leave.

I’ve been hugely disappointed at the tone set by both sides, and by the way they’ve managed their campaigns.

But not surprised.

Politicians just don’t get it, do they? We want facts, reasoned debate and mutual respect. Instead we get exaggeration, lies, rancour and vitriol.

If you don’t know the answer to a specific question or issue….just say I don’t know. Or we can’t be sure.

The Remain team’s trump card has been the assumed economic implications of leaving, the challenge of securing new trade deals, and the resulting impact on jobs and incomes.

An additional strength of the Remain argument is the potential destabilisation of Europe, should the UK leave. A Brexit could be the straw that breaks the Greek camel’s back…and the Italian’s and other southern EU members’, constrained by the rigidity of the EU and suffering systemic levels of high unemployment. But could the possible disintegration of EU federalism expose us to a repeat of historic conflicts…?

The Leave team’s trump cards are immigration, and control over our borders and sovereignty. But I got very bored during the course of last night’s Great Debate, orchestrated by the BBC. The Brexit team of Boris, Gisela and Andrea were programmed to repeat their mantra at the end of every segment: Vote Leave and Take Back Control. And there were a lot of segments.

Which side can say with any honesty how the country – and Europe – will evolve over the next 10, 20, 50 years, whether we vote Remain or Leave tomorrow?

On balance, I stand by what I wrote on this blog in January – before David Cameron returned with his non-existent deal.

I embrace everything about Europe…its people, languages, history, food, wine.

Everything.

Except the bloated, bureaucratic European project that is the EU. It’s teetering on the precipice of failure, and I’m leaning heavily towards the exit door.

I’m not racist. I’m not xenophobic. And I’m not rooted in the past. But I can’t believe the status quo is sustainable.

I love Europe. But I love its separate, beautiful, independent cultures rather than its homogeneous, bureaucratic mass.

I will be voting to Leave the EU tomorrow. Not without some trepidation about the immediate financial and economic turmoil. Not without some concerns about the longer term implications for all European countries, and their interaction. And not without an expectation that it might be more awkward to travel to our beloved Italy. Or France. Or any of the other EU member states.

But my vote will be cast in the knowledge that we will be able to have more control over how we spend our taxes on our own priorities. And in the expectation that over the longer term, having more control over our borders will allow us to eliminate the obvious risks of complete freedom of movement within EU member states, and to alleviate some of the pressures on our health system, our schools and housing demand.

But I completely respect, and understand, all those who will vote to Remain.

Only time will tell whether Remaining or Leaving the EU tomorrow is the right thing to do over the long-term.

Until the next Referendum, at least.

And the only thing I’ll miss now the campaigning is finally over is the frequent airing of that brilliant musical memory from 1982…when The Clash wondered whether they should stay or go, when I first went to Bermuda, and when we all hoped that being a part of a united Europe would undoubtedly be A Good Thing.

Books + Places = Trip Fiction

Love books? Love travel? Then you’ll embrace TripFiction as warmly as the Mistral wraps itself around a village square in Provence.

This intriguing and inspiring website recognises that books set in a location offer great holiday reading. They help us get under the skin of a place in a way that is quite different to a conventional travel guide.

How true.

A friend passed me a copy of Victoria Hislop’s The Thread before we visited Thessaloniki recently. Neither an author nor a book I’d usually pluck off the shelves, reading it before we went added so much to what we saw, smelt and felt in this multi-layered and historically important city in northern Greece.

Inspired by our Greek odyssey, I read Things Can Only Get Feta after we got back.  This is about two journalists – and their mad dog – spending a year in a remote hillside village in the Mani area, on the Pelopponese peninsula. A rugged, unspoiled landscape, it was also the beloved home of travel writer and explorer Patrick Leigh Fermor. I lent the book to neighbours and friends Steve & Fionnuala just before they headed to nearby Kalamata. They said it added hugely to their holiday…although they did fight over who got first dibs.

Colin Dexter famously rooted his Inspector Morse books in Oxford. Brilliantly brought to televisual life by John Thaw, part of the success was due to the surprising amount of murder and mayhem being wrought so frequently in such a beautiful city.

Countless other books have come to be known as much by their location as by their content:

  • Death in Venice – Thomas Mann
  • The Shipping News – Annie Proulx
  • Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernieres
  • A Room with a View – E.M. Forster
  • Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

You get the idea. I’m sure you can conjure up many more from your own reading list…..

I contacted TripFiction a few days ago after reading on their blog that they were looking for readers to review some of their location-based books.

I’m now digging in for a Hard Cold Winter. Written by Glen Erik Hamilton, this is a thriller played out in Seattle and the nearby Olympic Mountains. Again, it’s not a book I’d otherwise have chosen. I’m hoping it’s well written and engaging, but if it’s not I can at least immerse myself in the sense of place. And Seattle is on my long list of places to visit.

Thanks to Tina at TripFiction for sending me this book and also The House on Cold Hill by Peter James, based much nearer to home, in Sussex. I’ll post my reviews here as well as on TripFiction’s site when I’ve travelled to each bookish destination.

I am just going outside…and may be some time. 

Book review – All Quiet on the Western Front

I like the adage less is more.

It’s usually true.

Translated from the original German novel Im Westen nichts Neues, Erich Maria Remarque distills all the horror of war into just 200 pages, in his remarkable  All Quiet on the Western Front.

Paul Bäumer and his school classmates are barely 18 when they’re persuaded by their teacher to fight for Germany in The Great War.

With spare language, Remarque describes the daily routine of their life on the front in France.

In some vivid set-pieces, Paul and his infantry company endure abject extremes: stabbing to death a French soldier who falls into Bäumer’s shell-hole; an infestation of rats in the trenches; a deadly gas attack; daily bombardments from heavy artillery.

But there are also some occasions of black humour that epitomise the camaraderie of those who know death is almost certain: a feast of piglets and white sauce, even as Bäumer and best friend Kat are under heavy fire; swimming naked across a river to meet some French girls, for fear of getting their uniforms wet; stealing a goose to wring its neck and provide a memorable meal for the starving soldiers.

But one by one, his friends fall. To shrapnel wounds. To direct mortar hits. To dysentery. Bleeding to death in no-mans’ land. Drowning in mud. Shot for desertion.

But amongst all this futllity and desolation, he still recognises the insatiable human lust for life.

I am very calm. Let the months come, and the years, they’ll take nothing more from me, they can take nothing more from me. I am so alone and devoid of of any hope that I can confront them without fear. Life, which carried me through these years, is still there in my hands and in my eyes. Whether or not I have mastered it, I do not know. But as long as life is there it will make its own way, whether my conscious self likes it or not.

All this in 200 pages.

Weniger ist mehr.

Movie review – The Nice Guys

I’m not going if it’s just a blokey film, Ruth said.

But it’s getting some great reviews. And it has a 91% Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer ratingparried John.

We were looking for something to do, on a soggy Saturday afternoon and within spitting distance of Dublin. Something to stop us eating and drinking for just a few hours, after a heavy couple of days enjoying Irish hospitality. Something that wasn’t too mentally challenging, after a Leonardo da Vinci culture-fest at the National Gallery the day before. And something sitting down, after some energetic yomps through the moody Wicklow mountains.

John won.

Sure enough, The Nice Guys is a grand way to escape reality. Just park your critical faculties at the door, stick your nose in a bag of Maltesers, lean back in the velvety seat….and let your mind drift back to the 1970s.

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe stumble around a time-warped Los Angeles as a private-eye Odd Couple.

The plot is a load of old hokum, but has something to do with a dead porn star, a missing girl, some dangerous gangsters and a conspiracy. Maybe.

But forget the plot.

The point of the movie is the undoubted chemistry from the unlikely pairing of Ryan and Russell. Gosling in particular is a revelation in a comedy role, what with his droopy moustache, drink problem and bad father issues.

Enjoy the authentic soundtrack, party scenes, clothes and scenery. Hell, even the title credits transport you back to 1977.

Enjoy some good one-liners too, and a cracking performance from Angourie Rice as Holly, Gosling’s wise-beyond-her-years teenage daughter.

Angourie Rice Picture

It’s a buddy movie. We laughed a bit. It won’t win any Oscars. We stayed dry for a couple of hours. We ate and drank loads more afterwards.

Job done.

Theatre review – Sideways

There was a dramatic surge in sales of Pinot Noir wine, after the 2004 movie Sideways became a surprise hit.

Writer Rex Pickett has adapted his script for the stage, and after success in La Jolla it has now made its way across the pond to the St. James Theatre in London.

Miles is a wine bore. And he’s depressed. He’s a failed husband and a failing writer. He loves Pinot Noir. He hates Merlot.

He and his buddy Jack are hitting some California wineries for a week before Jack’s wedding, but they have very different agendas. Miles is searching for some answers at the bottom of an expensive wine bottle. Jack – a second-rate actor and ageing lothario – just wants to get laid before his nuptials.

Opportunity knocks in the form of Terra – a winery host – for Jack, Pinot Noir – and waitress Maya – for Miles.

After a languid first sip or two, the performance really hit its stride mid-way through the first half. By the time the bottle is emptied, the audience is gurgling with laughter as Miles and Jack have to face the music.

Sideways is a touching, funny and poignant story of love, friendship and grapes. The English cast admirably ape the American characters and voices, but Paul Giamatti as Miles and Thomas Haden Church as Jack in the original movie are hard acts to follow.

A few cautionary words. There is a lot of swearing. And some full-frontal nudity. And get some Pinot Noir down the off-licence before it sells out.