Tag Archives: love

Book review – Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

I’m not sure I can remember reading as compelling and timely a book as Home Fire.

Image courtesy of Firstpost

Kamila Shamsie forces us to think about one of the most important issues of our times through complex but believable characters, a shocking plot and a searing insight into Muslim culture and faith,  colliding painfully with the Western world.

The story unfolds like a flower in spring, through the eyes of each protagonist in turn as the seasons pass, until the bleakest of winters and all hope of fresh green renewal has been extinguished.

Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s premature death, she resumes a dream long deferred – studying in America. Here, she gets to know Eamonn, the privileged son of a powerful British Muslim politician.

Back in London, Eamonn meets – and falls in love with – Aneeka, Isma’s beautiful, young and headstrong sister. But is Eamonn’s love returned, or is Aneeka cruelly seeking political support through Eamonn’s father to help her beloved twin brother Parvaiz?

The central core of the novel tells of Parvaiz, a British-Pakistani Muslim who comes to understand how his father fought for the Taliban and died a glorious death en route to Guantanamo Bay. Parvaiz’s vulnerability is seized on by Farooq, a cynical recruiter for the ISIS cause in Syria.

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Karamat Lone, Eamonn’s father and Home Secretary, arrives late in the narrative, caught in the crossfire of an unwinnable conflict between faith, ideology, politics, family and love.

But these are only the bare bones of Home Fire. The author weaves layer upon layer of complexity into the story through deft dialogue, subtle shading and brilliant scene-shifting.

Home Fire educates as much as enthrals. It would be a worthy winner of the Man Booker prize for 2017.

 

Book review – Exquisite

Where does imagination stop and reality kick in? How blurred are the lines between fact and fiction? How closely does art sometimes imitate life…..?

I’m asking myself all these linked questions a few minutes after turning the final emotional page of Sarah Stovell‘s striking debut novel, the psychological thriller Exquisite, published by Orenda Books.

Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name.

Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend.

When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops…

Or does it?

Breathlessly pacey, taut and terrifying, Exquisite is a startlingly original and unbalancing psychological thriller that will keep you guessing until the very last page.

Bo and Alice embark on a passionate affair that threatens to undermine the outwardly stable family life Bo has established in idyllic Grasmere. But do they both have the same perceptions of their relationship…and is one more damaged and needy than the other?

Author Sarah Stovell lives in Northumberland, where successful author Bo leads the Creative Writing retreat and first meets  damaged and vulnerable Alice, herself an aspiring writer. Sarah is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Lincoln University. Bo was born in 1977, just like Sarah….

I enjoyed Exquisite. The juxtaposition between Alice’s chaotic life in bohemian Brighton and the calm family existence led by Bo in the beautiful Lake District is stark, but ultimately deceptive. The way the story is told separately through the eyes of both Bo and Sarah, from the initial mutual passion to eventual destruction, is skilful and deeply engaging.

Alice’s own debut novel was about her all-consuming relationship with Bo.

I wonder what Sarah’s next will be about….

 

Book review – The Talented Mr Ripley

Read the book first, then see the film is the usual advice, right?

Well, I saw the marvellous adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley soon after it was released back in 1999, but hadn’t read the book until now.  The film version was beautifully crafted by Anthony Minghella as both Screenwriter and Director, and perfectly acted by a stellar cast, including Matt Damon (Tom Ripley), Jude Law (Dickie Greenleaf), Gwyneth Paltrow (Marge Sherwood) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Freddie Miles).

So how would Patricia Highsmith’s novel, a psychological thriller written in 1955, compare?

Tom is a feckless freeloader, struggling to make a living in New York City. He grabs the opportunity offered by wealthy shipbuilder Herbert Greenleaf to go to Italy and coax his spoiled son Dickie back to face his responsibilities in the US.

But Tom is soon as much enamoured with the languid self-indulgence of life in Mongibello as Dickie. One fly in the Italian ointment is Marge, a fellow American who has clearly fallen for Dickie, though more than he for her.  And later there is also the irritating problem of Freddie Miles, a friend of Dickie’s, who is becoming suspicious of Tom’s motives.

The plot develops around exotic Italy, from Mongibello to San Remo, Rome and Venice, with the devious Tom using his many talents to ensure he can pursue as sybaritic a lifestyle as Dickie.

“Underneath he would be as calm and sure of himself as he had been after Freddie’s murder, because his story would be unassailable. Like the San Remo story. His stories were good because he imagined them intensely, so intensely that he came to believe them.”

Ms Highsmith’s writing style is as languid as a day on the beach at Mongibello. Her real strength lies in the ability to make the reader engage with Tom Ripley’s character, even though he is clearly deeply flawed and – based on any objective analysis – largely amoral.

Ambiguity is at the heart of this classic novel, including the sexual inclinations of the main protagonists….just as they were for the author.

I enjoyed reading about Tom’s undoubted talents, but is it literary sacrilege to admit that – on this occasion, at least – I preferred the adaptation on the big screen?

Film from Paramount Pictures. Image courtesy of Into Film.

 

 

Book review – Fierce Kingdom

Fierce Kingdom tells the story of a couple of alienated young sociopaths on a shooting spree in a zoo park, somewhere in gun-friendly USA.

But really this book is all about a whip-smart, feisty young mother’s relationship with her 4 year-old son, and what she’ll do to protect him when faced with every family’s worst nightmare.

Joan is cajoling Lincoln out of the zoo at closing time, when she realises that the balloon-popping noise nearby was deadly gunfire, leaving bloody corpses strewn around the park.

Do they run, or do they hide? How long will it be before help arrives? Can she trust any other survivors?

The action takes place in real time, from 4:55 pm until 8:05 pm but the author cleverly paints a vivid picture of the dynamics between mother and son in a deft series of flashbacks.

His crying always starts with words. He tries to talk through the weeping, and the words stretch into wails, and then the words evaporate and the tears come, and once they are falling down his cheeks he has passed into something monotone and rhythmic like the ocean, only more grating.”

Joan and Lincoln are forced to leave their first hiding place, introducing them to danger and to other desperate fugitives, talkative young Kailynn and older Mrs Powell, once a teacher of one of the shooters. But will this help, or hinder, their chances of survival?

Author Gin Phillips has written a compelling psychological thriller, pulling the reader through the narrative as breathlessly as if trapped in a tiger’s cage. But it is the mother’s feral instincts to protect her son that will linger after the last page has been turned.

“Make yourself disappear”, she says, already standing, taking an extra second to put her hand on his head – the precious curve of it – as she lets the branches fall. He disappears except for his feet, so she reaches under and bends his legs slightly.

Fierce Kingdom is not without its flaws – would Joan really have thrown her phone away? Why don’t the police arrive earlier? Would a 4 year-old really be so damned clever? – but Ms Phillips has crafted a well-written, high-octane novel, which is also a warm tribute to her own son:

“To Eli, who has entire worlds inside him.”

Theatre review – The Two Gentlemen of Verona

I have never read Master Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona,  nor seen it performed. Until last night, when the always excellent Guildford Shakespeare Company brought the comedy to vibrant life, in the beautiful gardens of the University of Law and transported to glitzy Italy in the 1950s.

(images from GSC website)

The Two Gentlemen was Shakespeare’s first published play. It is considered to be weaker than the many classics that followed, but it does introduce common themes that he returns to time and time again – love and friendship; infidelity and betrayal; dominating fathers and recalcitrant children; and a girl dressing as a boy.

The two young Veronese gentlemen are best friends Valentine and Proteus. Proteus falls in love with Julia. Valentine leaves for Milan, where he falls in love with Silvia, the Duke’s daughter. Proteus is told by his father to travel to Milan too, where he falls instantly in love with Silvia.

Poor, weak Proteus is completely undone by the urge to obtain the new object of his desire, whatever the cost. Friendship is put aside, betrayal ensues, but contrasted by steadfast loyalty and – ultimately – forgiveness.

This innovative production, directed by Charlotte Conquest, never flags. Comedy quickly overcomes the play’s darker themes, and GSC co-founder Matt Pinches lets rip with his usual array of comic voices – as a slow, West Country station announcer before the curtain comes up, and then as Launce, Proteus’s servant, played with a Welsh accent as broad that of the Pontypool  front row,

But the undoubted star of this production of The Two Gentlemen is Launce’s canine companion Crab. Played by three separate actors throughout the 16 night run, Tiba had Launce – and the entire audience – eating out of his paw last night.

Another triumph for the exuberant Guildford Shakespeare Company. Like Master Will, they just get better and better.

 

 

Theatre review – Austen’s Artifice

Austen’s Artifice – review for Essential Surrey website.

4 STARS, June 19-20. Andrew Morris enjoys an energetic stroll through the works of Jane Austen in Kate Napier’s superbly executed play about writing a novel

This charming literary stroll through the works of Jane Austen was written by Kate Napier – at the request of Chawton House Library – to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sense and Sensibility.

Kate considered a traditional adaptation of the novel, but opted instead for a teasing glimpse into many of Austen’s characters, plucked from both her best known and much loved classic novels, but also from less familiar works.

A loose structure explores the different characteristics of Sense – Elinor Dashwood, prudent with good judgement; and Sensibility – sister Marianne, emotional and spontaneous. Through this artifice we meet other female characters from Jane’s genteel society, illustrating the journey of an Austen heroine through the somewhat rarefied atmosphere of her world.

Susan Fitzgerald – now the eponymous Lady Susan Lesley – tries to dissuade her brother from falling helplessly in love with her new step-daughter, whilst Frederica Vernon also seeks to avoid the oppressive control of her imposing, beautiful mother.

Laura and Sophia follow disparate paths through the 15 letters of epistolary Love and Freindship (sic).

Catherine Morland pops up to receive some guidance from Isabella Thorpe before coming across Henry Tilney, from Northanger Abbey.

And from little known Lesley Castle, a searingly comic novella, Charlotte and Eloisa Lutterell ponder the primary concern, should a bridegroom be fatally wounded on the eve of the wedding….what on earth should one do with the splendid food, to avoid it going to waste?

You get the drift.

This is a whimsical and hugely entertaining dive into the literary genius of Jane Austen, allowing us to dissect the social structure of her time through so many of her well-crafted characters.

What is remarkable about this production of Austen’s Artifice is that the panoply of characters is performed by just two female actors. As Jane (played by a bonneted Cath Humphrys) sits at her writing desk, Claire Ni Ghormain and Charlotte James bring the stories to sweet, vivid life, as effortlessly as the author skewers the social niceties of her period.

And whilst the inevitable focus is on female Sense and Sensibility, the male presence is well represented by malleable-faced and multi-accented James Sygrove.

Mention must also be made of Musical Director Andrew Hopkins. He may have been tucked away behind Jane’s writing desk, but he provided the perfect soundtrack to proceedings.

This was a hugely rewarding immersive theatrical experience, filling the Farnham Council Chamber with literature, love, laughter…and plenty of both Sense and Sensibility.

Artifice is a company of professional writers and actors, whose mission is to perform classical plays in beautiful places, bringing together period text and period locations.”Artifice is part of LynchPin Productions Theatre Company, based in Godalming, and Austen’s Artifice will be performed at various locations throughout the summer.

Movie review – The Sense of an Ending

Thanks to my Times+ membership, we’ve just seen a pre-release screening of The Sense of an Ending, based on the Julian Barnes novel of the same name.

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Tony Webster is the divorced, almost reclusive and somewhat curmudgeonly owner of a second-hand Leica camera shop in London. He is in close contact with his ex-wife and heavily pregnant daughter, and yet he is emotionally aloof from them.

He is forced to reconsider his view of family, friends and life though, when he receives a strange legacy. The mother of his old girlfriend Veronica from university days, 40 years ago, has died and has bequeathed him a diary. Unexpectedly, the diary belonged to Tony’s old school friend Adrian, who dated the enigmatic Veronica after she and Tony ended their brief and unconsummated relationship.

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But Veronica refuses to give the diary back to Tony, for some reason, and the film delicately unravels the mystery of why, spanning the generations and uncovering uncomfortable truths for Tony.

This is a very English production, filmed mostly on location in Bristol and London, and featuring a stellar cast delivering beautifully understated acting. In the current timeline, Jim Broadbent is the essentially good Tony Webster; Harriet Walter his slightly acerbic wife Margaret;  Charlotte Rampling the older but still mysterious Veronica; Michelle Dockery is the mature daughter Susie facing motherhood alone.

The lesser known actors playing the main characters in their younger years capture perfectly the period and the zeitgeist of youth.

Out in cinemas on general release on April 14th, I’d urge you to see this slow-burning emotional film, whether you’ve read the book or not.

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Movie review – A United Kingdom

Based on a remarkable true story, A United Kingdom opens in post-war London.

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Young black African Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is coming to the end of his education, and about to be recalled to his home country – Bechuanaland, later Botswana – to rule the British Protectorate as hereditary King of nation and tribe.

But he falls in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund  Pike), who is from a very humble background and who is most definitely the wrong colour, alienating many in Bechuanaland and in Whitehall.

If the story told in the film is remotely close to the truth, it is yet another episode in British colonial history of which we should be ashamed. Driven by the burgeoning cold war, the new policy of apartheid in neighbouring South Africa, and the possibility of finding valuable minerals in Bechaunaland, Seretse is banished by the British government from his own land, initially for 5 years and then for life.

But Ruth has remained in Africa, where she gives birth to a daughter and where she slowly wins round the local people.

The only British politician or diplomat to emerge from this shameful overbearing behaviour is a young Tony Benn, who fights Parliament for the right of Seretse to return. Newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill reneges on an earlier promise to overturn the exile, and Jack Davenport deserves credit for his reptilian portrayal of Sir Alistair Canning, a devious – though fictitious – career diplomat who thrives on wielding colonial power over subjugated nations.

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The film moved me to tears. It is a powerful tale rooted in reality, and told with vivid cinematography, particularly of the African landscapes. But it is related somewhat in stark black and white tones – the evil colonial masters against the wholly good Seretse and his pale skinned wife – when I suspect there were many shades of grey in the truth of history.

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No matter. Good wins out, Seretse returns to his homeland and facilitates a new democratically independent country.

And Ruth is even finally reconciled with her own family.

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Book review – The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

Love. Hope, Passion. Evil. Loss. Loneliness. Isolation. Displacement. Genocide. Survival.

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Edna O’Brien’s latest novel weaves all these disparate themes, and emotional extremes, into a story that will leave you gasping for air by the time you turn the final page. And shaking your head in disbelief at the evil man can perpetrate.

This is masterful prose from a gifted story-teller at the peak of her considerable powers, honed in 19 novels and much other garlanded literary output throughout her 86 years.

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The first part of The Little Red Chairs takes place in a small village in rural Ireland. A stranger arrives in this peaceful community. He is an enigmatic presence but a poet and a healer, who soon becomes an increasingly popular figure.

His name is on everybody’s lips, Dr Vlad this and Dr Vlad that. He has done wonders for people, women claiming to be rejuvenated, just after two treatments. It is tantamount to a miracle, what he has done for Hamish’s wife. 

Jack McBride is a good man, but much older than his wife. Fidelma longs for a child, to become a mother before that option is no longer available to her. She comes to know Vlad, but the consequences are a scene as shocking as I can remember reading in any work of fiction.

The second part of the story is told on a broader canvas, both geographically and in its themes. War. Genocide. The asylum process. Immigration. Revenge. These are communicated effectively by the writer, but I preferred the subtlety of quiet, brooding, parochial scenes in rural Ireland – and the difficult to endure, heart-piercing shock of the pivotal scene – to the more sweeping story that develops afterwards.

This book has been called Edna O’Brien’s masterpiece. I’m not sure about that, I’ll have to read some of her other work to compare. But it is a fine novel, memorable and haunting.

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Movie review – Lion

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A 5 year-old boy lives in poverty in rural northern India, but is much loved by his hard-working mother and older brother Guddu.

Tragically, he is accidentally displaced to the mean streets of Calcutta, where he survives with other lost children, until swept up into a secure facility. Unspeakable things happen here, but young Saroo is fortunate and is adopted by a caring Australian couple.

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He settles in well – Nicole Kidman as your new Mum can’t be a bad experience, after all – but the family unit is destabilised by another arrival from India. Saroo’s newly adoptive brother Mantosh struggles with demons that he sadly never really overcomes.

Saroo thrives in Tasmania though, and qualifies to study hospitality management at university in Melbourne. He embraces the cosmopolitan environment there, and meets and falls in love with Lucy, sympathetically played by Rooney Mara.

But 25 years after being separated from his real family, Saroo becomes desperate to track them down, with inevitably damaging consequences for his Australian family and friends.

Based on a true story, this is a charming film, if a little mawkish at times. I defy you not to be reaching for the Kleenex when Saroo, played by Dev Patel, finally locates his village and family in India.

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Two things linger in my mind after seeing Lion. The scene where Sue Brierley tells Saroo that she and husband John could always have had children of their own, but wanted to offer a better life to parentless children from a poorer society.  And the caption – as the closing credits roll – that 80,000 children are lost in India every year.