Books

Book Review: Rooms

Rooms(Not to be confused with Room, which is also good.)

The other day I hopped on a bus and went to meet a friend for dinner. Unfortunately she texted at the last minute to say she couldn’t make it, but being a true introvert this didn’t particularly bother me.

This meant that I had both (a) spare time and (b) spare money, which I’d budgeted for dinner. What did I do? Naturally, I took myself along to Waterstones.

I spent an hour and a half browsing the shelves, telling myself I was only allowed two books (the price of books these days almost equals the price of dinner, but books > food, so it’s fine). I went through several, starting with Eco’s The Prague Cemetery and Joanne Harris’ The Lollipop Shoes, both of which I inexplicably still haven’t read.

I realised whilst wandering though that Eco and Harris are both authors whose books seem to drop into my life of their own accord from time to time, and therefore maybe I should buy something I wouldn’t normally read. Something from an author I hadn’t heard of, for example, I thought as I absent-mindedly turned all the copies of The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect to face forwards so that people would buy them (do it. They’re great.).

My eyes flicked over the shelves and alighted on Rooms. It had an intriguing cover, nice and dark, so I wandered over and read the blurb.

A compulsive and dazzling novel narrated by two ghosts that inhabit the walls of an old house. This isn’t your traditional ghost story, though. It’s about the living as much as the dead – and the secrets that haunt them both.

Hmm. Interesting. But it didn’t really give much away. It sounded good, though, or at least unusual; I often think that the ‘story told by someone who’s dead’ trope is a bit overdone, but this one seemed like it might be a bit different. And it was.

The Story 

Wealthy Richard Walker has just died, leaving behind his country house full of rooms packed with the belongings of a lifetime. His estranged family – bitter ex-wife Caroline, troubled teenage son Trenton and unforgiving daughter Minna – have arrived for their inheritance.

But the Walkers are not alone. Prim Alice and the cynical Sandra, long dead former residents bound to the house, linger within its claustrophobic walls. Jostling for space, memory and supremacy, they observe the family, trading barbs and reminiscences about their past lives. Though their voices cannot be heard, Alice and Sandra speak through the house itself – in the hiss of the radiator, a creak in the stairs, the dimming of a light bulb.

The Review 

I like any book that opens with a poem. This one opens with two: a good start.

There were lots of things I liked about it and I’m not quite sure where to begin. I suppose one of the main things was that it didn’t try to be more than it was. It could have gone down the flouncy-writing route (not necessarily a bad thing) and been all descriptive and haunting, but it didn’t. It remained as down-to-earth as a ghost story can be: telling the reader about the family who’d come to collect their inheritance, running through a fairly generic family-in-a-novel plot. Ex-wife who’s angry that ex-husband slept with other women, career-minded nymphomaniac daughter whose sexual escapades ruin her professional life, troubled teenage son who has no friends and wants to end it all. And of course, there’s Amy, the granddaughter, who watches everything that’s going on and applies to it her childish logic.

Then there were the ghosts. Again, these were nicely written because they were more like people than spirits; getting angry with each other, trying to keep secrets but also wanting to let them into the open. What I particularly liked, though, was the description of how being a ghost worked. They weren’t corporeal in any sense of the word, and some of the passages about how they drifted through the house, in some ways becoming it briefly before scattering again, were really well done. It’s how I’d imagine ghosts would actually be, if they existed.

On the whole, it’s a good solid novel that’s somehow more than the sum of its parts. I think because it’s sensitively written without being cloying, and Lauren Oliver spends just enough time on descriptions to make them interesting, but not so much time that you end up skipping pages of text (*ahem* Victor Hugo *ahem*).

Definitely recommended; dinner budget money well spent!

 

Books

Book Review: The Twilight Hour

twilight2014 is proving to be a really good year for books. This is exciting, because the past couple of years haven’t been so great (or maybe I just haven’t been buying the right books). Last year, of course, there was The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, which was my Book of the Year,  but that was pretty much the only one that bowled me over. This year, along with The Rosie Effect (TRP’s sequel), there have been several novels competing for the “No, that one was my favourite” accolade.

The Twilight Hour by Nicci Gerrard is one of those. It is, in a word, beautiful.

The Storyline

To any passer-by, Eleanor Lee might be almost invisible – just another elderly lady – but beneath the surface lies a powerful secret she has kept hidden for decades…

At the dawn of the Second World War, Eleanor is a fiercely independent young woman, determined to write her own future, rejecting marriage for passion, security for adventure. But now, seventy years later, alone in her big old house, she is anxious to erase the past.

Peter Mistley, a young man escaping his own ghosts, is employed to help Eleanor sort though her lifetime of possessions. For amongst them are things that her children and grandchildren must never find. Together, Eleanor and Peter uncover traces of another life – words and photographs revealing a story of forbidden love, betrayal, guilt and self-sacrifice.

But by releasing her memories at last, can Eleanor still protect those who must never know the truth?

The Review 

I can’t remember if I’ve ever read anything else by Nicci Gerard, but after reading this one I’m pretty sure I’m going to buy some others. It’s a lovely story, beautifully told, and does something I absolutely love: treats old people like they’re humans.

Some of my favourite people are (were, have been) in their 80s and 90s – filled with life and stories and tidbits of information that those of us who haven’t been around for so long aren’t yet privy to. But the elderly aren’t just story machines; they’re humans too, with wants and desires and needs just like the rest of us. A lot of books (and people) forget this, I think, and treat them like they’re either superhuman wise-old-ancients, or fun little pets.

The Twilight Hour doesn’t do that. Eleanor Lee is a complex character, down to earth and filled with the same stuff as her co-protagonist, Peter Mistley. Yes, she’s lived a lot already, but that doesn’t mean she’s not still living. Her story’s drawing to a close, but it’s still happening at the same time. And she is an active part of it, not a passive passenger.

It’s a novel about two people who are stumbling in the world, and who find each other. A story of what loneliness can do to a person, and how people can be lonely in different ways. How sometimes all we have to do is give another person a chance.

And it hits one of my other favourite points as well: it’s realistic. There are no wildly unlikely plot-saves, nothing particularly ground-breakingly unusual happens. I thought the ending was going to go a certain way, which in my mind would have been the perfect literary ending; but it didn’t. It went the realistic way, and that made me love it more.

It’s one of those books you’ll read in one sitting, curled up on the sofa with a mug of tea, and when you finish it and put it down, you’ll be very still for a few moments while the ghosts of the characters curl around your mind and take up their positions there. ‘Cause those guys won’t be leaving anytime soon.

The Twilight Hour will stick with you in the best possible way; remind you that people are people, we’re all struggling through the world in our own way; and might just make you a better person after you’ve read it.

An excellent story, beautifully told.

Personal

The Five and the Prophecy of Prana at Brighton Dome

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Last night I finished work a bit earlier than usual and took myself on a theatre date to Brighton Dome. I hadn’t really looked at the description when I’d booked the ticket, so other than remembering the words ‘hip-hop’ and ‘martial arts’, I had no idea what to expect.

I got there to find a large number of children racing around the theatre, and noted the words ‘Ages 6 and up’ on the poster outside the door. This generally means one of two things: it’s more magical than expected, or it’s more patronising. The Five and the Prophecy of Prana was neither, but it was good, and really interestingly done.

I should admit at this point that I’m a total theatre snob. In general, I like physical theatre with a strong Artaudian influence, a good dollop of Stanislavsky, and very little Brecht. I’ve also been a choreography snob ever since I had to pirouette 39 times in a row in a performance of Joseph as a teenager. In other words: I’m a fan of ‘one must suffer for one’s art’.

The Story

In ancient times, an evil Emperor has used sorcery to harness the five elements – wood, fire, earth, metal and water. With the powers of the combined elements at his command he rules with an iron fist for decades, until a group of warriors known as the Guardians of Prana devise a way to defeat the Emperor and split his soul into five parts.

Successful in their plan, each Guardian vows to protect one of the five orbs containing an element of his soul. Every 60 years a new generation of Guardians of Prana is trained to ensure peace and harmony reign.

But eventually one of the Guardians becomes greedy for power. Soo Lin discovers that whoever restores the five elements to one will rule the world. She persuades fellow Guardian Choo Fang to join her and they murder their comrades Ying Pi and Lao Chen, claiming their orbs. Wang Tang realises he is too late to save Ying Pi and Lao Chen but battles Choo Fang and prevents his orb from falling into the hands of evil.

Wang Tang’s antics make him a local hero, until he is embroiled in a scandal which sees him shunned by the villagers. In his misery, he becomes a drunk vagrant, wallowing in sorrow.

HG3_0937-660x439In the present day, we meet The Five. Tuggy, Michelle, Maxine, Flinch and Stylouse are all appearing in court, where a judge is about to sentence them for their crimes. An old friend of Wang Tang persuades him to intervene. At first Wang Tang is reluctant, but seeing an inner glow within them he agrees to begin their training.

As time passes they learn discipline and improve their skills. Wang Tang assigns each of The Five with their spirit animal. They are humbled at their newfound skills and become respectful of their teacher. In spite of their progress, Wang Tang continues to drink.

The ultimate goal for the Five is to conquer Soo Lin and restore the elements, for which they will need to draw on all of their training.

I did have to Google that, though. From the performance itself, I understood that there were orbs that somehow gave power, that Soo Lin had them all, and that the Five wanted them back. Again, I think it would have benefitted from writing bits of the story onto the comic book screens. But then I’m quite a wordy person, so maybe that’s just me.

The Setup

This was undoubtedly the most interesting part of the performance: just how everything blended together. The movement was street dance mixed with martial arts, which worked really well. There were a couple of scenes where the music was pounding, horrendously loud, the beat throbbing through the theatre so you could feel it in your chair, and the actors engaged in vicious battle that was part dance-battle, part outright war. These were wonderful scsenes and I wished there had been more of them.

The set was really interesting, too: three huge white screens hung across the back of the stage, and several white blocks that were brought out between scenes and arranged in different ways to create landscapes. Projected onto these was comic-book-style art, sometimes with appropriate dialogue (“Yaaa!”), sometimes just the art itself. It gave the impression of turning a page every time the stage went dark. A fascinating way of moving between scenes, and not one I’ve seen done before.

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The dialogue was boomed on loudspeakers across the auditorium, and it was the one part of the show I really didn’t like. The actors overcompensated for the hugely loud vocals by throwing their arms around and moving their bodies a bit too much at times, making it look a bit more panto than dance theatre. But there wasn’t too much dialogue, so it was alright. In a couple of instances, the dialogue appeared instead as projections on the screens, alongside the comic-book-art, and this worked far better in my opinion. Though I can understand that if it’d been done like that all the way through, it would have felt like a subtitled performance, and perhaps that wasn’t what they were aiming for. One of the best pieces of acting in the show, I thought, was when one character died and another wept over his body, and you could hear the actual actor on the stage making ravaged noises. No amplification needed, beautifully acted. That’s my kind of theatre!

During the interval, the elderly lady who was sitting next to me leaned over and said “The kids love this, don’t they? Of course, it’s their kind of thing, technology and vicious dancing. ‘Manga’, I think they call it.” I smiled quietly to myself, but she had a point. It was very technology-influenced: like something you’d see when scrolling through Tumblr looking for anime pics. Not that I spend too much time on Tumblr, of course.

The Acting 

Michele 'Paleta' Rhyner as Soo Lin
Michele ‘Paleta’ Rhyner as Soo Lin

This was, on the whole, strong, but it took a while to get warmed up. The first half of the show didn’t feel very tight; some of the moves weren’t quite in time, some of the projections on the screen were slightly off when the actors were (presumably) supposed to be moving in time with them. Shortly before the interval, I’d decided I didn’t really like it. But then Frankie Johnson, who plays Stylouse, had an excellent scene which convinced me that I should definitely pay attention to the rest of the show.

After the interval, everyone seemed to be sufficiently warmed up and things became more tightly choreographed, which I liked. Lots of dance-fighting, and a couple of scenes carried excellently by the amazing Michele ‘Paleta’ Rhyner (Soo Lin), a double-jointed gymnast who moves like liquid across the stage.

Overview 

On the whole, it was good. I wasn’t bowled over by it, but I think I was in a minority there. The audience gave thundering applause at the end, and as I left the theatre I could hear people around me raving about it. Like I said, I’m a theatre snob.

The children in the audience absolutely loved it, and some of them could be seen practising the moves during the interval. I’d say it’s a great family show, especially if your kids are into anime, manga, martial arts, hip hop, street dance, or just unusual theatre.

I’m not sure how I’d rate it – maybe a 5/10. I enjoyed parts of it immensely, but never got completely lost in the storyline; thought a few of the dance scenes were brilliant (Soo Lin), and a couple of bits of acting were amazing (Stylouse), but I’d have liked a bit less dialogue, a bit more storyline explanation, and a slightly tighter choreography in the first act.

I saw the final performance at Brighton Dome, but the show is now on tour around England & Wales; you can see some of their tour dates here.

Photos by Hugh Glendinning.

Books

Book Review: The Shadow of the Sun

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You know those books that just sort of appeared in your bookshelf and you don’t remember buying them, and then they sit there for years until you completely run out of things to read, and then finally you pick them up and open them? The Shadow of the Sun was one of those for me.

I have no idea where it came from – possibly it was wrongly placed in one of my boxes during the dividing of the things when Husband and I separated – but I’ve never picked it up because my reading pile tends to be pretty large. The other day I finally got around to it, and was glad I had.

It’s non-fiction, charting the journey of Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Polish journalist who travelled around Africa in the latter part of the 20th century. He describes the experiences he had there, the people he met, the trials he succumbed to along the way. He gives a lesson in the history and sociology of various African countries, including a fascinating account of Rwanda in the 80s and 90s which finally gave me an understanding of the war there, which I’d heard about at the time but never really understood.

The writing is rich and beautiful, and it’s easy to feel like you’re sitting with the author in his room, eyeing up the huge cockroaches wearily in the scorching midday heat. His description of the elephant graveyard legend is particularly beautiful, and there were several passages that I had to reread a few times just to drink in their explanations.

I’d definitely recommend this for anyone who’s remotely interested in journalism, travel, history, or just really good writing. It’s a pretty quick read, just over 300 pages, and great for a long weekend or a few days away. Once you’ve picked it up you won’t want to put it down.

Books

Book Review – The Humans

the-humans

I don’t buy very many books, because I normally receive free review copies in the mail, but when I read the blurb of The Humans whilst waiting for a train, I knew I had to buy it.

After an ‘incident’ one wet Friday night where he is found waking naked through the streets of Cambridge, Professor Andrew Martin is not feeling quite himself. Food sickens him. Clothes confuse him. Even his loving wife and teenage son are repulsive to him. He feels lost amongst a crazy alien species and hates everyone on the planet. Everyone, that is, except Newton, and he’s a dog.

Who is he really? And what could make someone change their mind about the human race?

I showed this blurb to my friends when we went for dinner, and they unanimously agreed that it Professor Martin’s view of the world sounded just like my own.

When I first started reading it, however, I nearly gave up within the initial couple of pages. There’s a pretty ridiuclous storyline woven into the novel – its central one, in fact. But it’s worth sticking with it. I only did because I was stuck on a train for two hours anyway, and it beat staring at the black walls of the tunnels.

It’s worth reading because the book isn’t really about the storyline. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to me. It’s about what it’s like to feel somehow ‘other’, like you don’t fit in and you can’t understand the confusing actions of the people around you. It’s similar to books like The Rosie Project or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, in that people who see the world as a strange and confusing place filled with people who have too many emotions, and who live their own internally structured lives rather than doing what everyone else is doing, will understand Andrew Martin’s views.

Some of my favourite quotes below (no spoilers, but skip to the final paragraph if you’d rather not have any previews).

Humans, as a rule, don’t like mad people unless they are good at painting, and only then once they are dead. But the definition of mad, on Earth, seems to be very unclear and inconsistent. What is perfectly sane in one era turns out to be insane in another. The earliest humans walked around naked with no problem. Certain humans, in humid rainforests mainly, still do so. So, we must conclude that madness is sometimes a question of time, and sometimes of postcode.

Basically, the key rule is, if you want to appear sane on Earth, you have to be in the right place, wearing the right clothes, saying the right things, and only stepping on the right kind of grass.

The news was prioritised in a way I could not understand. For instance, there was nothing on new mathematical observations or still undiscovered polygons, but quite a bit about politics, which was essentially all about war and money. Indeed, war and money seemed to be so popular on the news it should more accurately be described as The War and Money Show.

Civilised life, you know, is based on a huge number of illusions in which we all collaborate willingly. The trouble is we forget after a while that they are illusions and we are deeply shocked when reality is torn down around us. – J.G. Ballard

So, there you have it. The Humans is the best book I have read since The Rosie Project last year, and I’m fairly sure it’ll be my Book of the Year 2014. I recommend that you buy a copy and read it, especially if you have ever felt as if the world around you is strange and alien.

Books

Book Review – Bitter Wash Road

Bitter-Wash

The press release promised a new Rebus: quite something to live up to. The classic ‘cop who wants to do the right thing but never follows orders’ character is frequently done, but personally I can’t get enough of protagonists who endanger their careers, and sometimes lives, for the sake of doing the job well.

Hirsch is a whistle-blower. Formerly a promising metropolitan officer, now hated and despised. Exiled to a one-cop station in South Australia’s wheatbelt. Threats. Pistol carriage in the mailbox.

So when he heads up Bitter Wash Road to investigate gunfire and finds himself cut off without backup, there are two possibilities. Either he’s found the fugitive killers thought to be in the area. Or his ‘backup’ is about to put a bullet in him.

He’s wrong on both counts. But the events that unfold turn out to be a hell of a lot more sinister.

Hmm, an intriguing storyline. Dude who’s been exiled by his colleagues fights against police corruption. One of my favourite tropes.

It wasn’t bad, by any means, but somehow it read like a debut novel. Apparently it’s not, though. I felt that if the storyline had just been a little tighter, the characters fleshed out a little more, this could have gone from being a book I put down three quarters of the way through and then couldn’t remember whether I’d finished, to being a tense joyride. Or maybe more of a car chase.

The story has potential, the character could be interesting, but he’s no John Rebus. Still, I’d be interested to see what Garry Disher publishes in the future; I have a feeling this author’s works are going to get better with time.