Tag Archives: writing

Book review – My Absolute Darling

The word “masterpiece” has been cheapened by too many blurbs, but My Absolute Darling absolutely is one.’

This fulsome praise is wrapped around the cover of Gabriel Tallent‘s debut novel, and comes from the mouth of no less a literary giant than Stephen King. I’m not sure I can be quite as unequivocal, but there can be no doubt that My Absolute Darling is a dazzling work of fiction, bleak, shocking and portraying a depth of character that is both rare and unsettling.

Turtle Alveston is just 14, friendless and almost feral, living in woods on the wild northern California coast with her abusive father Martin. The house is filled with guns, mould, insects and latent violence. Turtle is regularly raped by Martin, but their unhealthy relationship is nevertheless rooted in a twisted form of love.

The story may be a hard one to read but the poetic lyricism of Tallent’s narrative is spellbinding:

He lays her down, fingertips dimpling her thighs, her ribs opening and closing, each swale shadowed, each ridge immaculate white. She thinks do it, I want you to do it. She lies expecting it at any moment, looking out the window at the small, green, new-forming alder cones and thinking, this is me, her thoughts gelled and bloody marrow within the piping of her hollow thighbones and the coupled, gently curved bones of her forearms. He crouches over her and in husky tones of awe, he says. “Goddamn, kibble, goddamn.”

The unholy equilibrium of their relationship is unbalanced by Turtle happening across a couple of boys from school – Jacob and Brett – and by Martin returning home with an even younger lost soul, Cayenne, whom Martin collected in dubious circumstances at a gas station.

There is a child on the porch, face in her hands, black hair in tangles, matchstick arms tiger-striped with bruises. The girl is nine or ten, maybe seventy pounds. When Martin gets out the truck, the girl looks up and runs to him. He picks her up by the armpits and swings her round, laughing. Then, with his arm around her shoulders, he walks her back to Turtle. 

Kibble,” he says, “this is Cayenne.”

The inevitably violent denouement is dripping with irony. Turtle’s affinity with nature, mental strength and familiarity with guns are inherited from Martin, but they might just ensure her survival.

I hope Hollywood is brave enough to transfer this challenging story to the big screen, in these sexually sensitive times, and I can’t wait to see what Gabriel Tallent chooses to write about in his second novel.

Image courtesy of The Times

 

Theatre review – Nocturne – The Romantic Life of Frederic Chopin

What an original concept. Lucy Parham has scripted this engaging performance, fusing music and words as deftly as Rick Stein marries food and travel.

Lucy provides the magical music, some of the favourite piano concertos of Frédéric Chopin , as a dazzling soundtrack to the story of the composer’s romantic life.

Image courtesy of Classic FM

Esteemed thespians Alex Jennings and Patricia Hodge speak the words, the core of which is the outwardly surprising love affair between the delicate genius of young Chopin, newly arrived in Paris from Warsaw in 1831, and George Sand, the slightly older and sexually voracious literary sensation.

Through letters to each other, and occasionally from friends, we follow the lovers from Paris to a disastrous winter in Majorca, where Frédéric is plagued by a consumptive cough, on to Barcelona and back to France, where they at their happiest in Nantes.

But the affair is fated to end in disaster.

Frédéric dies in Paris, in relative poverty and at the tender age of 39, his short life dominated by ill health and melancholy, reflected in many of the pieces played so beautifully by Ms Parham.

This was a charming – and innovative – performance, but I must confess that I found myself more engaged by the words than by the music. And by Alex Jennings’ sensitive acting of his script more than by Patricia Hodge’s sometimes stuttering recital of hers.

Image courtesy of Alisa Connan

But in a nice personal squaring of the circle, this all gave some touching context to my stumbling across the charming hidden Musée de la Vie Romantique a few years ago, the home of Dutch artist Ary Scheffer in a cobbled back street of Montmartre, where the lovers would meet at his Friday salon.

Two of his most regular visitors were George Sand and her lover Frédéric Chopin. Somewhat bizarrely, you can see a plaster cast of her right arm – and the musician’s left hand – in one of the 8 small rooms forming this understated museum.

 

Blue Sardinia – the authentic taste of this unique island

I love my new career.

Don’t get me wrong….nothing can ever replace the raw excitement of commuting to London every day, compiling a set of statutory accounts, or reducing aged debtors by a couple of days. But travel writing, and all the eating, drinking and exploring new frontiers that naturally follow, come a pretty close second to all that bean-counting and high finance.

Image courtesy of Pexels

Throw books into the new mix and that might just clinch the deal….

Thanks to my relationships with the lovely people at TripFiction and Silver Travel Advisor I went to bellissimo Sardinia in the summer. My first brief was to ‘stalk’ author Rosanna Ley, following in the footsteps of her own research and the characters in her novel, The Little Theatre by the Sea.

Here are some of the pieces I wrote for TripFiction:

I also wrote articles for Silver Travel Advisor, on both the area and – as Literary Editor of the Silver Travel Book Club – on Rosanna’s book:

The third prong in my Sardinian fork was – with my friend and colleague Mark Melling and our Great Escapations venture – to create captivating content and short films for Sardatur Holidays, a Silver Travel Advisor partner who kindly sponsored our time in Sardinia.

Gianni Bonuglia, Sardatur’s Managing Director, must have liked what we created because he has kindly asked us to make a new short film for an event he us hosting in London for travel agents and journalists.

But what theme should we focus on, when Sardinia has so many jewels in its glorious crown?

Food would certainly be one. Step forward Blue Sardinia restaurant, located close to us in Guildford and passionate about creating authentic Sardinian food for the good people of Surrey.

A couple of phone calls introduced Great Escapations and what we were looking to create for Sardatur, and Cinzia – one of Blue Sardinia’s founders and a brilliant chef – graciously and generously offered to let us film in the restaurant, as she cooked some pukka Sardinian dishes.

And I mean authentic…..

  • first up, Sardinian gnochetti (traditional Malloreddus pasta) Campidanese with sausage ragout.  Cinzia heats the pan, adds oil and garlic with that chef-like insouciance, in goes the fennel seeds and sausage, together with salt, torn basil leaves, red wine, fresh tomato sauce and a little bit of stock. Fresh pasta cooks for just 2 or 3 minutes, is drained and combined with the sauce, topped with freshly grated pecorino cheese – before being filmed by a creative cameraman and eaten by a greedy writer. Buonissimo, Cinzia!

  • next up, black tagliolini with clams & bottarga fish roe. The freshly made pasta dough – the Sardo way, with flour and semolina – is made jet black by adding squid ink, and a little water. For the sauce, Cinzia marries clams, wine, chopped parsley, more wine, chopped cherry tomatoes and some salt. The fresh pasta is again cooked for just a couple of minutes, before being crowned with the clam sauce and some delicately chopped bottarga fish roe, Sardinia’s caviar. Wow!

Jonathan, sommelier at Blue Sardinia and one of Cinzia’s 6 brothers, poured outstanding Sardinian wines to accompany these dishes – a classic red Cannonau  Sardiglia with the sausage ragout, and a delicious Vermentino di Gallura white with the clams & bottarga

See, I told you it was a tough gig.

Grazie mille, Cinzia, Jonathan and the whole team at Blue Sardinia. Looking forward to eating more of your superb Sardinian cooking, and I’ll send you a link to the final film for the Sardatur Holidays event very soon.

And Cinzia even taught me a useful Italian idiom:

anche l’occhio vuole la sua parte – literally ‘even the eyes want their share’ but really you eat with your eyesQuant’è vero!

We’ll be in touch. Pronto.

Theatre review – The Real Thing

The Real Thing – review for Essential Surrey website.

A revival of Tom Stoppard’s painfully witty play about love and infidelity is being performed at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford until Saturday 11 November

Mr. Ingram was my English teacher in the mid-1970s. He instilled in me a love of English language and literature that has endured, and for which I am constantly grateful. He introduced me to Tom Stoppard for old-fashioned ‘O’ & ‘A’ Levels, and – from hazy, distant memory – we studied ‘Jumpers’ and ‘Travesties’, both terribly clever, wordy works from the wunderkind playwright who was just hitting his considerably long stride.

By the time Stoppard wrote ‘The Real Thing’ in 1982, I was distracted by Real Life so it was a joy to see this play for the first time this week, in a revival performance that remains faithful to its period of creation.

Max is brooding and drinking in his minimalist urban lounge, building a house of cards that collapses when his actor wife Charlotte returns from a trip ‘abroad.’ After some wickedly witty wordplay, Max tells Charlotte that he has found her passport in the bedroom. She refuses to respond to Max’s accusations of infidelity, and leaves him.

It is only in the second scene that we come to understand that the first was the performance of a play, written by Henry, a renowned playwright who is himself married to Charlotte. In this real world, where life and art are often hard to distinguish, Henry is in love with Annie – Max’s wife and another actor, but also a nascent political activist – and they’re having an affair.

Fast forward two years: Max discovered Annie’s infidelity, and she and Henry have been married for a while. But cracks are beginning to show….

There are multiple themes in this intellectually challenging play. One is words. Writers and words. In a parallel thread, Annie has asked for Henry’s opinion on a play written by Brodie, a former soldier who has been imprisoned for making a misguided political gesture, and whose cause Annie has taken up.

I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little or make a poem that children will speak for you when you are dead. Henry’s cricket bat analogy to compare his writing with Brodie’s is a huge hit, smashed over the literary boundary.

But the main theme of the play is love. Can The Real Thing survive betrayal and imbalance, infidelity and uncertainty?

‘I believe in mess, tears, pain, self-abasement, loss of self-respect, nakedness. Not caring doesn’t seem much different from not loving.’

Stoppard’s inspiration for The Real Thing came from being ‘intrigued by the playful thought of writing something in which the first scene turns out to have been written by a character in the second scene.’ Otherwise the play has less theatrical artifice than most of his others, and relies more on raw emotion oozing from the actors, as they bring the playwright’s dazzling wordplay to life.

Laurence Fox plays Henry in this emotionally charged revival, directed by Stephen Unwin. He acts with less outward exuberance than the rest of the excellent cast, but perhaps that is just his interpretation of a man constantly torn between his art, life and love.

Image courtesy of The Telegraph

And in the final twist of the play-within-a-play theme and life imitating art, it’s interesting to reflect that Stoppard had a long affair with Felicity Kendall, after she acted in the first performance of The Real Thing in 1982.

Image courtesy of The Telegraph

But it didn’t endure. Unlike my love of English. I wonder if Mr. Ingram is still alive….

Theatre review – A Song at Twilight

A Song at Twilight – review for Essential Surrey website.

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(image courtesy of Alexey Kuznetsov)

I love ScripTease performances from the innovative team at Lynchpin Productions.

Classic, rarely performed or completely new plays are delivered as rehearsed readings. This creates a very different actor-audience dynamic, compared with a traditional play delivered on a large stage, accompanied by complex set designs and with multiple costume changes.

A ScripTease performance is stripped down to a few actors sitting on stools, the playwright’s words, some succinct stage directions read by one of the actors…..and the audience’s imagination.

At last night’s reading of Noël Coward’s A Song at Twilight, we may have started off in the intimate bar space at Guildford’s Electric Theatre, but we were immediately transported to the suite of an opulent lakeside hotel in Switzerland.

Sir Hugo Latymer is staying here for a few months, recovering from illness and lamenting the onslaught of old age. He spends his time abusing Hilde, his loyal Germanic wife of 20 years, and barking orders at Felix, the strapping young Italian-Austrian waiter. The literary titan of his generation is irascible, arrogant, rude and has a jaundiced view of humanity.

And he’s nervous about the impending arrival of Carlotta Gray, with whom he had a 2-year love affair more than 40 years ago. What can she possibly want now….revenge for what Sir Hugo wrote about her in his blunt autobiography? Money, after a less than stellar acting career in the United States, where she fled at the end of the affair? Or something less tangible, perhaps?

The stakes – and voices – are raised when Carlotta tells Hugo she is collaborating with a Harvard professor on a biography about him, and asks for permission to use some old love letters written by Hugo to her and to a mutual friend.

Coward’s script and the actors’ nuanced readings lead us through a labyrinth of witty words, bluff and counter-bluff, surprises and shocks, camouflaged lives and missed opportunities, to a surprising denouement.

Alan Freeman and Rowan Suart clearly enjoy their verbal jousting as Hugo and Carlotta, Edie Campbell’s subtle German accent never wavers and belies Hilde’s inner strength, and Ray Murphy switches seamlessly between the roles of subservient Felix and stage director.

‘A Song at Twilight is the first in a trilogy of plays entitled Suite in Three Keys, which Noël Coward called his ‘swan song’. Each takes place in the same suite of a luxurious hotel in Switzerland.’ Jack Lynch of LynchPin Productions is considering whether ScripTease will perform readings of the other two plays. I hope they do.

Theatre review – Green Forms and Say Something Happened

Green Forms and Say Something Happened – review for Essential Surrey website.

This Alan Bennett double-bill is being performed at the Nomad Theatre in East Horsley until October 28.

Would you like some Marmite on your toast, Mam?’

Remember when our Margaret was late for school, Dad? She made that much of a fuss when we gave her Marmite soldiers for breakfast. She even missed seeing Bert, the Lollipop man, and got into proper trouble with Mrs Swinson.’

If you’re a fan of Alan Bennett, you will love this double-bill of a couple of his rarely seen plays (from 1978 & 1982), currently being performed by Graham Pountney’s Theatre Reviva! community theatre company.

In Green Forms, spinster Doris Rutter and younger married Doreen Bidmead idle their way through a working day in the Precepts and Invoices department of a large national organisation. Processing a single form gets in the way of endless cups of tea, gossiping about people in other branch offices, and re-directing forms to the dreaded Personnel department upstairs.

But the cold wind of change is blowing through their mundane working lives. The computerisation word is whispered in hushed tones. Redundancies have been announced at other branches. And why have they suddenly got a positive avalanche – well, six – Precept forms landing in their in-tray today.

With a bit of unusually energetic detective work, Doreen and Doris realise that Dorothy Binns – the ominous harbinger of change – is coming to work in their cosy office.

Mam Elizabeth and retired Dad Arthur Rhodes are in their 60s, comfortable sitting in their armchairs and with their own company, content reading the newspaper and twitching the curtains to watch the leaves falling from the neighbour’s garden onto their path. Mam is wondering whether she should wash one or two stockings today….

In Say Something Happened, their peace is interrupted one autumnal day by the unexpected arrival of June Potter, a gentle but inexperienced young lass from Social Services.

As I see it, young people have a lot to give old people, and old people have a lot to give young people. You know….caring.’

June has a questionnaire, so that she can make a list of at-risk elderly people for the local Council to keep an eye on. She means well, but is out of her depth with the independent, able-bodied and outwardly perfectly contented couple.

June crumbles as Mam and Dad resist her attempts to pigeon-hole them, and the emptiness of her own life is laid bare as Mam and Dad tell June about their ambitious high-flying daughter – ‘our Margaret’ – whose postcards from around the world adorn the lounge.

But Mam shares a secret with June, and as the deflated young council worker leaves there is a suggestion that the old couple might need to place the patronising HELP sign in their window at some time in the future, after all.

Image courtesy of Melville House Books

Bennett’s genius is his ability to wring meaning and nuance from the minutiae of daily life, and from the cadence of everyday conversations. That outward simplicity and inner depth is beautifully acted by the cast in these two short plays: by Reviva! Founder and Director Graham Pountney as a delivery man in Green Forms and as Dad in Say Something Happened, by Catharine Humphrys as Doris and Mam, and by Louisa Lawrenson as Doreen and June.

And whoever knew that the charming Nomad Theatre was tucked away behind the shops lining East Horsley’s Bishopsmead Parade, camouflaged like Bennett’s perceptive writing?

The Guildford Book Festival 2017

The Guildford Book Festival was established in 1989, and has grown in scale and reputation ever since.

This year was the first opportunity I have had to embrace the Festival….and there sure was a lot to wrap your literary arms around.

As a travel writer and blogger, I have wondered if I could ever make the leap towards crafting a readable work of fiction. Step forward Rachel Marsh, and her engaging Creative Writing Workshop which ran all week, and introduced the lively class to character development, writing dialogue, plot, editing and getting published, amongst other fun and interesting themes. Watch this space….

Before the start of the Festival I had written an article for TripFiction, giving a sneak preview of the GBF events that featured authors talking about books with a strong sense of location.

With my journalist’s hat on, and with huge thanks to TripFiction for opening the door and Tamsin Williams from Wigwam PR for shoving me through it, I was privileged to interview some of the Festival authors. Here are links to my posts, published on TripFiction:

Somehow, I managed to learn enough about the migrant crisis, 19th century French Impressionism, Venice, the Palestine/Israel conflict, political thrillers and mountaineering to bluff my way through chats with these esteemed writers. Hopefully.

A couple of disappointments. Something went desperately wrong with directions to the venue for the Alan Hollinghurst event, talking about his new book The Sparsholt Affair. I missed seeing Alan, but that did at least mean I caught all of the Chris Bonington talk, which  made my phone interview with the knighted adventurer rather more rewarding.

And I’ve been stalking author Laura Barnett for a while, since reading her charming and hugely successful debut novel The Versions of Us.  She has been touring the UK, promoting her second novel Greatest Hits by performing gigs with singer Kathryn Williams, bringing to life the soundtrack of the book. Sadly, their performance at this year’s Guildford Book Festival was cancelled at fairly late notice, and with no real explanation.

But those small mishaps did little to dent my enthusiasm for a brilliant Festival. Thanks to the many people involved in making t all happen, and looking forward to 2018 already.

Book review – Beautiful Animals

I have wanted to visit Hydra since reading Sylvie Simmons’ superb biography of Leonard Cohen, and discovering that it was where Leonard Cohen lived happily for many years in the bohemian 1960s.

Leonard Cohen on Hydra – image from GTP Headlines

The urge has only been heightened since reading Beautiful Animals, an unsettling book written by Lawrence Osborne, which places the reader firmly on this tiny Saronic island, in Greece’s Aegean Sea and almost touching the Peloponnese.

Naomi knows Hydra intimately, spending every languid summer there at the family holiday home with her wealthy father, Jimmie Codrington, and spiky stepmother Phaine.

One day, returning from her secret daily morning swim in a quiet cove beyond Mandraki and Zourva, Naomi meets the preppy American Haldane family.

The other girl was younger than Naomi, maybe nineteen or twenty to her twenty-four, with eyes that were steady and cool: perhaps like herself a student of human beings and their calamities.’

Naomi and Samantha become close, their friendship taking a darker turn after they stumble across a half naked man sleeping in a remote part of the island. Later, they learn that Faoud is a migrant, fleeing Syria on the well-worn trail in search of a safer Europe.

Naomi concocts a plan to help the intriguing Faoud, but what are her real motives…and when it goes badly wrong, can any of their lives be the same again?

The author has been compared to Graham Greene, and I can understand why after reading this haunting novel. Covering multiple themes and with Greene’s eye for physical and psychological detail, he embeds the reader deep inside the troubled heads of his characters and under the blazing sun of a Greek summer, before making a dash for freedom with Faoud through southern Italy.

For me, place is everything… I spend more time thinking about that than anything.’

Lawrence Osborne

Thank you, Lawrence….see you on Hydra.

 

Theatre review – Harvest

Harvest – review for Essential Surrey website

3 STARS, October 10-14. “If you want to understand how much rural England has changed in the last century, go and see Harvest,” says Andrew Morris

If you want to understand how much rural England has changed in the last century, go and see Harvest, by acclaimed writer Richard Bean. First staged at the Royal Court Theatre in 2005, this sprawling, ambitious play is currently being performed at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre in Guildford, in a production by New Perspectives.

In seven separate scenes the parable spans several generations and 90 years of the Harrison family on their small Yorkshire farm, telling the story of their land in parallel with wider issues and events.

Opening in 1914, this early pronouncement hints at some of the challenges ahead, and at an underlying feud with a neighbouring landowner: “Sometimes I wish Grandad Harrison hadn’t med that wager with the Squire. He’s med a rod for the back of every Harrison following him.

The ever-present William is the glue that binds the farm and the play together. We first see him as a young man, arguing with younger brother Albert about which of them should go to war, and which should stay on the farm with Mam. William has just started courting local lass Maudie and, as their horses are requisitioned for the war effort, hints at his Secret Project idea for the farm.

1934. Albert and Maudie are married, but childless. William is an amputee, sharing his bed with Maudie, and driven by the idea of converting their land into a pig factory. By the 1950s, niece Laura and husband Stefan – a German POW – are managing the successful pig farm, thanks to William’s vision and disciplined system. This is as good as it gets.

Over the next 50 years, the family struggle against an onslaught of challenges: increasingly onerous legislation, from the UK government and then from Europe; Stefan dies from asbestosis, as a result of the pig sheds he erected; rising feed prices from the company bought by the Squire; the lack of youthful labour in the family.

By the time William celebrates his 100th birthday, the Harrison farming heritage is under threat but his stubborn stoicism and wicked humour remain. It is really in the final scene – set in 2005 – where I thought the writer stretched the parable too far, and failed to bring home the bacon.

Whilst undoubtedly a huge theatrical achievement to educate the audience on English rural history at the same time as entertaining us with richly drawn characters and dark humour, it is a fine line to avoid the sense of delivering a social history lecture.

In this ambitious production, 6 actors play 15 characters across the generations. The stand-out performances are from Tom Edward-Kane as William, convincing as both a stout 19 year-old lad and a dribbling, wheelchair-ridden shotgun-wielding centenarian. And from John Askew as plain-talking, pig-fancying labourer Titch, who arrives in the Punk era and threatens to steal the show: “I love pigs. They’re intelligent, but not too clever. Just enough to mek it interesting but not enough to get yer worried.”

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.

Image result for islamic state flag

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.