Friday 25 February 2011

Book Blogger Hop and Trial By Jury/Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan

The Book Blogger Hop
Book Blogger Hop
It's Friday again and time for the Book Blogger Hop. The Hop is a quick and easy way to find out what other book blogs are out there, and to find out a little about the people behind them. The Hop is hosted by Jennifer at Crazy for Books, and if you visit her site you'll find a question to answer and lots of clicky-links to all this week's Hoppers' blogs, all in one place. Simples!
"Do you ever wish you would have named your blog something different?"
Actually, yes I do. Katie's Book Blog may tell you what the blog is about, but it doesn't have much personality to it, and there are plenty of other Katies out there with book blogs. I wish I'd used a bit more imagination when I started blogging. I've also included reviews of film and TV, so it's only mostly about books. Perhaps a title with "Story" in it would be more appropriate. Still, at least I won't be able to look back in a couple of years and groan, "what was I thinking to come up with such a cheesy name?!" as I have done in the past.

Theatre: Trial by Jury/Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan

The last couple of months I haven't been able to read and write as much as I'd like as I've been in rehearsals for a double bill of Gilbert and Sullivan: Trial By Jury and Pirates of Penzance. As you can imagine, trying to fit rehearsals for two shows into the same space as the usual one has been a lot of hard work and quite stressful at times. Two weeks ago it seemed that these operettas would never be ready for an audience! But credit to all involved, each rehearsal was noticeably better than the last and at last on our dress rehearsal we were informed by our patient but pernickety Musical Director that it was going to be a "really good show."

We're setting Trial in the modern day, despite it being about a trial for Breach Of Promise Of Marriage. I've been cast as the Counsel for the Plaintiff, originally a man's part. I'm loving the part, as - for a change! - there is no giggling, swooning or screaming involved - I just get to power-dress and glower over a pair of glasses. I'm looking forward to seeing the DVD of the show as I miss much of what is going on, either because the character is studiously ignoring everyone else's disgraceful behaviour, or because the judge - a red-faced drunken buffoon - sits behind me.

Ruth and the Pirate King
Pirates is set more traditionally in the late 19th century - you really can't do anything else, with its particular finale - and that means (for the ladies) big, heavy dresses and sun-bonnets. It may look very pretty but get very hot and uncomfortable under the stage lights. The pirates are a fearsome crew of scoundrels with plenty of scars, swords and "arrrr!" - and Ruth, the "piratical maid-of-all-work" seems to take great pleasure in her make-up, with stick-on warts, blackened teeth, a mono-brow and Johnny Depp-style beads dangling from her bandanna. The woman's only supposed to be forty-seven years old. Evidently a life of piracy does not suit her. And she does not suit a life of piracy. Anyone who has read Swallows and Amazons knows that you just can't have a pirate named Ruth. Pirates should be ruthless. (Though, bless 'em, they do try to get rid of her with Frederic. And besides, they're pretty useless pirates. For one thing, they don't drink rum, but sherry!)

A policeman and
relax at the bar.
Pirates is probably the best-loved and most accessible of Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas - probably because pirates make anything more interesting! It has some wonderful songs that everyone is familiar with, notably the Major-General's song, "A Policeman's Lot is Not A Happy One, and "With Cat-Like Tread" (The tune of the chorus, "Come, friends, who plough the sea..." is one I've known all my life without knowing what it was.) The heroine, Mabel, has some ridiculously over-the top "warbles" that I always thought marked her out as being a bit of a spoilt princess - thankfully the director agreed, and this is how she is being played.

This is my favourite part of the show, as performed with great energy by the Australian Opera.

Mabel and Frederic
We usually have a problem in our company finding enough men for the shows - notoriously, last year's The Sorcerer, which involves pairing off the chorus after a love potion is put into the teapot, ended with each man marrying two wives! If you know Trial by Jury, you'll know that this is Not Allowed - it is Burglary [sic]. This year, as well as having a big enough men's chorus for policemen AND pirates, AND to pair off with all the ladies at the end, we even had a young tenor to cast as Frederic, a rather important role to get right as the plot revolves around his twenty-first birthday. (Except it isn't - he was born on February 29th in a leap year, which means that he is a little boy of five!)

"Paulette" and "Michelle"
So far there have been two performances and aside from a few muddled words and missed entrances, it seems to have gone pretty well - certainly better than the pessimists were predicting a couple of weeks ago. Tuesday was the dress rehearsal, and that day we had the local paper's photographer in, so the actors who played the Pirate King and Major-General Stanley were in those costumes through Trial. Wednesday, opening night, I walked into the theatre clubroom to see their Trial costumes for the first time. There they were, in their wigs... skirts... handbags. How was I going to keep my Mrs Grumpy Face act up looking at that? Couldn't they have given me some warning? But when it came down to it, I barely noticed, being too busy watching the musical director. In fact I think I stayed in character throughout Trial, despite a coatstand crashing down on me as I made my entrance. I glared at it and let someone else pick it up. In actual fact I was thinking, "Oh help! I don't know how to make this work in the scene. Let's pretend that didn't happen."

Two more days to go, three more performances, and then I hope I'll be able to get back to posting regular book reviews. In the meantime I'll leave you with a clip from another Australian production of Pirates - they seem to do the best! This song is originally from Ruddigore but is sometimes included in Pirates. After all, "this particularly rapid unintelligible patter isn't generally heard, and if it is, it doesn't matter." Enjoy!

Sunday 20 February 2011

South Riding, Winifred Holtby

I wouldn’t have heard of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding if it hadn’t been for the new 3-part BBC adaptation masterminded by Andrew Davies of Pride and Prejudice and Bleak House fame and due to start airing in the UK tonight. A largely forgotten work, it has been compared with George Eliot’s Middlemarch, being a portrait of an entire community at a difficult time – in this case, the 1930s, between two world wars and an era of depression. South Riding has been hailed by novelist Sarah Waters as “a twentieth century classic,” so I have chosen it for Sarah’s Back to  the Classics challenge.

Although there is a large cast of central, viewpoint characters, the main protagonist is Miss Sarah Burton, who is newly appointed as headmistress of a girls’ high school in the South Riding, Yorkshire. At thirty nine, Sarah was much younger than her competition for the job, and a very modern woman. She is full of idealism and a love for life, and full of ambition to encourage her girls to realise their potential, not to be held back by their sex or poverty.

Holtby also shows us the details of the local government trying to do their best at a time of financial crisis, covering themes and issues that are all too familiar to a modern reader, and it’s sad to see how little has changed. The slums of the South Riding may be gone, but there is much that resonates – the trap and stigma of unemployment and poverty – Mr Holly, for example, is described as being two shillings a week better off when on the dole than when working as most of his wages go towards his travel. His daughter, Lydia, is an excellent student and a scholarship girl at the high school, but she can’t afford to go to college and fulfil her potential, and her responsibility to her younger siblings keeps her out of school.

"A twentieth-century classic"
- Sarah Waters
South Riding, like Middlemarch, shows everyone’s point of view in turn, good and bad. My first impression of Councillor Huggins was the tired old stereotype of religious hypocrisy, preaching fire and brimstone from the pulpit and in his spare time ogling pretty ladies in their swimming costumes on the beach. But we get to know him as a compassionate man, with a good heart and an agonising awareness of his own weaknesses. It’s painful to watch him trying and trying to make amends and digging himself deeper into trouble. Then, there is sad, tormented farmer and landowner Robert Carne, who is as good as widowed with a mad wife who doesn’t recognise him. He is on the verge of financial ruin and fears that his teenage daughter Midge will go the same way as his wife. Midge, herself, is a bratty, spoilt kid, but underlying is loneliness and a desperate longing to be popular.

With such a large cast of viewpoint characters, it’s inevitable that some get only a little page space, but this does not mean that they’re not fleshed-out properly. Holtby brings her characters to life in a chapter or two, then they pop up a bit later in the background with an update on a situation you can quite believe has been carrying on away from the readers’ eyes.

The casting of the BBC adaptation features several familiar actors, faces who seem to pop up everywhere, such as Anna Maxwell Martin, (Bleak House) David Morrissey (Blackpool) and Penelope Wilton (Doctor Who’s Harriet Jones Former Prime Minister (Yes We Know Who You Are) and Downton Abbey.) All are actors I admire and enjoy watching, and this as much as anything else persuaded me that South Riding is a book and series that might be worth a look at.

There is of course a little bit of romance – name me a book without it! – or at least the hope of romance between Sarah and Carne. This came as no surprise: Sarah is the heroine after all, and Carne is a brooding, tortured soul – as well as being played by the rather handsome David Morrissey. Their relationship was clearly meant to be a Pride and Prejudice- style hatred which reveals itself to be a disguise for attraction. Yet in the book, Sarah’s first realisation of being in love seemed to come from the blue, prompted by a few grumpy encounters in which I, at least, noticed no signs of attraction. No doubt on the screen their scenes will be slow-paced to allow for many long, smouldering looks, supported by appropriate music. But we’ll see.

4 stars 

For UK viewers, the first episode of South Riding is on BBC1 at 9PM tonight.
In the USA, PBS have scheduled part 1 for May 1st this year.

If you enjoy this, you may like:
Middlemarch - George Eliot
Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
Bleak House - Charles Dickens
TV: Cranford (or the book by Elizabeth Gaskell)
TV: Lark Rise to Candleford (or the book by Flora Thompson)

Friday 18 February 2011

Artichoke Hearts, Sita Brahmachari

Mira Levenson has just turned twelve and her world is becoming a strange and unrecogniseable place. Her Nana Josie, always so artistic, passionate and full of life, is dying; she can't stop thinking about Jidé Jackson, whose confident, joky manner hides a tragic history and a sensitive soul. Mira is changing. Sometimes she catches her mouth saying what she didn't intend to say, speaking out when she's always been so shy, or alternatively keeping secrets to herself. Nothing particularly drastic, she just doesn't feel like sharing everything with everybody.

There are a lot of books for teenagers that deal with the aftermath of the death of a loved one. Artichoke Hearts actually seemed to be targetted at the younger end of the Young Adult range (11+) but is unusual in exploring a terminal illness, and the feelings of helplessness of those who can only watch as a relative approaches death, and Brahmachari writes this with simplicity but a great deal of maturity. Nana Josie is early on established as a vivacious, artistic woman, a former hippy and passionate protester. Early on, there is a moment of dark, uncomfortable humour, as she embarks on her big artistic project: to paint her own coffin. It is heartbreaking to watch such a lively person fade.

The artichoke of the title refer to a charm given to Mira by Nana Josie, a symbol of the human heart, and how with age and experience, a heart which may seem to break grows tough layers to protect it, like the layers of an artichoke. The novel is a sweet, beautiful coming-of-age story, showing a child starting to learn who she is. Mira is a quiet girl, artistic and thoughtful, but through the sadness of seeing her grandmother die, the strangeness of early adolescence and the sweetness of a first romance, she grows in confidence and self-awareness. The characters are all very-well rounded individuals, and I think that Jidé Jackson is one of the loveliest boyfriends I've encountered in a kids' or teen book for a long time - and he's only twelve.

Read for the Support Your Local
Library Challenge 2011
One way that Mira grows in her understanding is in her extracurricular creative writing class, which is led by writer Miss Pat Print, and consists of herself, her best friend Millie, Jidé and his friend Ben Gbemi.  In the classes, Miss Print (an unfortunate name for a writer!) helps the children to understand themselves and their world through writing. The novel is written as being Mira's diary, in the present tense which itself is highlighted early on as helping reader and writer feel the immediacy of the narrative. On occasion, after a short writing exercise, the children start to feel empathy for others in a way that they hadn't before. I found these writing sessions fascinating, and they summed up what is, to me, why literature is so important: Fiction (or poetry, theatre, film, TV) helps to make sense of the world and cultivates understanding of other people.

Artichoke Hearts is a pensive, sometimes sad read, but ultimately it left me feeling uplifted, a celebration of life, youth, a loving family and good friends. I would recommend it for Judy Blume fans and older readers of Jacqueline Wilson, who are maybe looking for something a bit more grown-up. So far, Artichoke Hearts has quietly slipped onto the bookshop shelves with little fanfare, but it deserves to be widely read and talked about.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Beloved, Toni Morrison

I chose to read Beloved as part of Sarah's Back to the Classics challenge, as it was a regular title to appear on lists of books banned from school libraries. Looking it up on Goodreads, opinions were polarized: reviewers either loved or hated Beloved and could not understand any other point of view. I decided to give the book a 50-page or 3-chapter trial, and decide at that point whether or not it was for me.

Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a former slave who chose to kill her small daughter rather than allow her to be taken back into slavery. After many years of mysterious activity in Sethe's home, a young woman appears at her door who calls herself Beloved - the name on the child's gravestone - and who knows things that only Sethe's children ever knew. Is this girl Sethe's daughter miraculously returned to her, or does Beloved have a more sinister purpose?

When reading Beloved I had no difficulty in understanding why it is a regular banned book. With themes of infanticide, cruelty, rape and torture, Beloved is a dark, disturbing novel, not suitable for young or sensitive readers. However, I found myself wondering if people call for its censorship out of discomfort, not wanting to look closely at a shameful era of history; one which, like Beloved, will not stay dead.

I have to say, I didn't really enjoy Beloved. Beside the obvious, that it covers subjects highly unpleasant to think about, I found the writing style very patchy. Though Morrison's writing can be beautiful and poetic, I found it somewhat dense and at times impenetrable. I tuned in and out of the writing and sometimes found myself reading a few pages without really taking in what was going on. She switches between characters, past and present and first and third person narration with little warning, and if I'd put the book down it took me a little while to be able to tune back in to what was going on at a particular point. At one point, the book took on a stream of consciousness style which, although full of fascinating language and imagery, I confess I couldn't get its meaning. I think my personal preference of storytelling is more traditional.

And yet, when I reached the end, I found myself unable to let Beloved go, feeling that it needs at least a second reading to get everything out of it. Perhaps more. I didn't always enjoy reading it - and yet, I felt the need to do so again. Love it or hate it, or if, like me, you don't quite know what to make of it, ultimately Beloved is an important work of literature which deserves its place as a classic.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Delirium, Lauren Oliver

Love, who needs it? Sure, it feels good when you're with that special someone, but what about the pain when it ends? What about the fear that you're not good enough and that one day they'll realise it, or the jealousy that eats you up when he's late home for work? The soaring highs and the crashing lows are bad enough, but on top of that, love makes you do stupid things, put the beloved before yourself even at risk to yourself. Make no doubt about it: Love is a disease.

Or so Lena is led to believe, growing up at some unspecified point in the future. Luckily there is a cure against Love, or Amor Deliria Nervosa as it is now called. At eighteen, all US residents undergo surgery to remove all traces of the disease. They are paired up with suitable spouses, married out of college or high school, and have as many babies as the government tell them they can support. It seems to work all right. Even today many people argue that arranged marriages are as good as the kind based on being in love, with both parties having to work at the marriage and love coming as a result of this.

But wait. Did I mention love is a disease, and cured when a person reaches adulthood. Think about that for a moment. It's not just the being in love, but love, full stop. That's the love of parents to children - they bring them up dutifully and make sure they lack nothing they need, but there's no love. And without love, what is left? You're not even left with a love of things: hobbies, colour, beauty, music. There is no joy. There is no hatred or anger either; without love there is no emotion. But can you call yourself human? You might as well be one of the Cybermen of Doctor Who.

This is the world to which we are transported in Lauren Oliver's long-awaited dystopia, and what a bleak world it is. I've read a few dystopian teen novels recently, but they - Uglies and The Hunger Games are set in a very changed world. Uglies' is very polished and futuristic, while The Hunger Games has progressed technologically, and regressed in other ways, until it could be a high fantasy novel. But Delirium takes place in Portland, Maine, with real landmarks you can look up on Google Maps Street View. Although time has obviously passed, it feels as though this isn't so far away.

Delirium is the first part of a series - I think a trilogy - and all the way through myself wondering just how the story can end happily. Protagonist Lena is an ordinary teenager who falls in love just before she is due to undergo "the proceedure." After having unquestioningly accepted her fate, and the dangers of love, once she has experienced it for herself she finds herself wondering, desperate to defy the authorities and live happily ever after, and never mind the disease. But there is more at stake: it won't be enough for her to resist or survive the proceedure. The entire worldview of a nation has to change, and Lena is so very insignificant. I can't see how she and other resistors will realistically manage to persuade the whole country that all they've been brought up to believe in is wrong.

I found some of the culture in Delirium to be bizarre and contradictory. Love has been declared a disease, fair enough, but everything seems to revolve around keeping people uninfected. It's fair enough to succumb to the disease - that can be cured - but "sympathisers" are treated more like criminals, and punishment is harsh. It may appear to be a government concerned for its citizens, but it seems to me that there is an ulterior motive for keeping the people loveless. Even if it's the same old story: keeping people in their place and stopping them from thinking for themselves, I suspect more will be revealed in the sequels. And if this is a totalitarian regime, it doesn't have to make sense. You only have to look at somewhere like North Korea to see that.

After reading Oliver's Before I Fall, which was one of my big discoveries of last year, I've been eagerly awaiting Delirium, along with most other bloggers who read teen fiction. For me, though, "unputdownable" wasn't the word. (As far as I'm concerned "unputdownable" isn't a word!) Before I Fall was so fresh and original, I really did take it with me all around the house and got through it in a day. This time around I was able to read two other books at the same time as Delirium and it took me several days to finish. I thought the concept was fascinating, and that Oliver explored it well, with some beautiful writing, great characters and moments that came to life off the page. The plot itself, however, felt very familiar and I realised that the pattern of events, if not the details, mirrored the story outline of Uglies, at least in the first half. The second half is where the story really started to grab me and take on its own shape until its shock ending. Although other bloggers gave away no spoilers, I guessed from their reactions what might happen. That ending, however, ensures that the story from here on, and possibly even the story up to this point, isn't what you'd expect it to be, but something new and unexpected.

If you enjoyed this, you might like:

Uglies - Scott Westerfeld
The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro
Matched - Ally Condie

Sunday 6 February 2011

Middlemarch, George Eliot

I'm not fussy when it comes to books and I read a variety of genres for different reasons: romance when I'm feeling squishy and in need of cheering up, fantasy for escape, crime and adventure stories for the excitement, kids' and teen fiction for nostalgia's sake, to recapture the innocence (or not) of days gone by. But most importantly of all, I read about people. Sometimes that's all I want in a story. The other day I found it very difficult to find a film in the DVD shop that was just about people - not romance, not the sort of adventures that don't tend to happen in real life, just a story about ordinary people doing ordinary things.

Middlemarch is very much a character-based story, focusing on various residents of a small English town at a time of social and political change. Although the country may be a very different place in twenty first century, where people travel further afield as a matter of course, and technology is the world's defining feature, Middlemarch's characters could quite well be living among us. Eliot deftly brings her characters to life and allows us to see everyone's motivations and thought processes, so that even as we recognise their foolish or self-deluding motivations, we have, if not always sympathy, an in-depth understanding of even the most unpleasant characters seen from both outside and within.

First, there's Dorothea Brooke, a very modern woman for the nineteenth century: good-hearted and intelligent, if rather naive, with a scientific mind. She chooses to marry an older man, Mr Casaubon, in the hopes of assisting his great works as an equal. Mr Casaubon, in theory, is keen on the idea of a beautiful young wife who understands his life's work, but both he and Dorothea are doomed to disappointment and frustration. When it comes down to it, Mr Casaubon finds that his wife's beauty draws unwanted attention from younger men, provoking his jealousy. Her understanding of his work is a nuisance to him, because she might have her own ideas about it, which don't suit him.

Then we have Fred Vincy, university-leaver who is full of good intentions, but ultimately doesn't know what he wants to do with his life. In Vincy I was reminded of Richard in Dickens' Bleak House, trying out one profession after another, but I was also reminded of many of my contemporaries - as well as myself - trying to find our place in the world. And we meet Dr Lydgate, who is new to Middlemarch and whose unfamiliarity, high ideals and new methods are met with distrust from his patients. Lydgate's marriage to the spoilt Rosamund is strained by their spending what they cannot afford, and even more by the persistant lack of communication between husband and wife, who each go their merry way without thought for the other. All too familiar are the consequences of such a relationship.

A contemptible character is a money-lender named Bulstrode, a self-righteous, self-justifying hypocrite whose attempts to keep an unsavoury past buried become increasing desperate throughout the novel. Not that we have any modern examples of such corruption in people who hold positions of power over others(!)

I decided to read Middlemarch after watching the first part of a BBC adaptation several years ago, as I generally prefer to read books before watching film or TV adaptations. Although it took me about three years to get around to starting, and many months to finish Middlemarch, reading just a few chapters between lighter works, this isn't through lack of enjoyment so much as a wish to savour the novel, and it has always been easy to pick up where I've left off the last time. Now I've finished, I'm going to feel quite at a loss without it on my desk, where it has lived since the summer.

Friday 4 February 2011

The Book Blogger Hop 4/2/11

First of all, I have to apologise for things being a bit slow over here the last week or two. I'm in rehearsals for a double bill of Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance and Trial By Jury, which, along with work, doesn't leave much time or energy for reading and reviewing.

But I have just been paid, and yesterday I came home with a few more books to add to my ever-increasing to-read pile. From work: Dorothy Koomson's The Woman He Loved Before, which judging from the blurb sounds as though it could be a modern-day Rebecca. I also bought this week's Times recommendation - The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith, which I already owned, but which came with a free copy of the second Sunday Philosophy Club book, which I haven't read. Annoyed that Lauren Oliver's Delirium hadn't arrived instore, I went down to the other bookshop and bought it on a Buy One Get One Half Price with Maggie Stiefvater's Lament.

Plus three library books, four Richard and Judy Book Club recommendations and various books left over from previous splurges. I intend to make up for lost time in March.

Book Blogger Hop

Hosted by Jennifer at Crazy For Books 
"What are you reading now and why are you reading it?"
I have two books on the go at the moment: Middlemarch by George Eliot, which I have been reading, on and off, for several months now. I'd been meaning to read it since seeing the beginning of the BBC adaptation a few years ago, and am enjoying it, but have been quite daunted by such an enormous volume and reading only a bit at a time. This last week, though, I've sped through the second half and am nearly finished. It'll be strange when I've finally finished it.

I'm also reading Lauren Oliver's Delirium, which was released in the UK yesterday. Before I Fall was one of my favourite books of 2010, one I bought without any prior knowledge of after being drawn to it in the bookshop. There's been a lot of rave reviews from those lucky enough to get advanced copies, and a lot of excitement from book bloggers, and I wanted to read it now! Expect a review in the next couple of days.
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