Review: ‘One Hundred Names’ by Cecelia Ahern

Regular readers will know I’m a massive Cecelia Ahern fan, I love how the everyday and ordinary becomes pure magic in her hands. ‘One Hundred Names’ has been sat gathering shameful amounts of dust on my shelf, so blowing away the cobwebs I picked it up ready to be thrilled.

‘One Hundred Names’ is the story of Kitty Logan, a journalist who’s made a mistake: a big one at that. While her friend and mentor lies dying, she’s entrusted with the story of her career to salvage her reputation and her writing soul – and thus begins a journey of finding what matters amongst the rubble we build our lives in.

I’ll be honest, Kitty is not my favourite female lead ever, but this is undoubtedly deliberate: her journalism destroys a life and she has to learn her lessons, including that she might not be the nice person she thought she was. So she’s true, if not always likeable, and she grows on you as the story develops and she realises vicious journalism isn’t who she is.

The stories of the hundred names is in intriguing: what connects one hundred seemingly obscure people together? I won’t spoil the link, but it’s a decent payoff for your wonderings – predictable in some ways, but that’s what makes it heartwarming. It’s a weird feeling: not meeting all one hundred seems both logical and mildly disappointing, but it would have been impractical to meet all one hundred without creating a Game of Thrones style saga!

And the trick is this: enough stories are picked to validate the links, pour the right amount of depth into each storyline, and allow your investment in the people making the headlines. My favourite had to be Birdie – an obvious choice but a good one nonetheless, a story against adversity that doesn’t go dramatically overboard, but shows how simple goals such as living life can be the most challenging of all.

A criticism? Some of the plots tied up a little too nicely, mostly where couples were concerned: useful that the lady our man Archie has been watching for a year returns his affections, that Kitty’s best friend Steve has a sudden revelation about their whole friendship just as she does, that Birdie’s carer and her grandson very (very very!) quickly hit it off…you have to overlook the convenient couplings for a little while, but this doesn’t overshadow the story as a whole which is key.

Kitty’s final triumph in the offices of etcetera magazine is a wonder: it’s like seeing a butterfly emerge from its cocoon (our lovely Ambrose from the one Hundred Names can surely identify), and we finally get to see what the cocoon was hiding all along in all its colourful glory. It’s lovely, melting tummy kind of reading, and that’s what Cecelia Ahern is all about.

So add your name to the hundreds on the list who have enjoyed the tale of Kitty, her redemption and in understanding that life is the story before all else – you won’t regret the read!

The Magic of ‘Aladdin’

The Disney spectacular on everyone’s minds at the moment has to be the newly-released live-action ‘Aladdin’ starring Will Smith, but there’s only one ‘Aladdin’ you should be worrying about – the one that leaves its West End home at the Prince Edward theatre at the end of August 2019!

My birthday treat this year was tickets to the outstanding ‘Aladdin’, and here are five reasons to sweep up your tickets before the magic carpet flicks its tassels and flies on its way!

  1. The Genie. Straight from Broadway, he is the standout star of the show. He is the sassiest, funniest and most brilliant comic character I’ve ever seen on stage; you were begging for more Genie time, and his extended version of ‘Friend Like Me’ didn’t disappoint!
  2. Everyone else! There’s not a bad actor in the house, and my particular favourites were Jafar (who doesn’t love a bad guy?!) and Aladdin’s new friends that replace (although obviously not entirely) Abu – their song was particularly memorable, I dare you not to be humming along at the very least!
  3. The songs you love. I’ll admit, the backdrop and romance of ‘A Whole New World’ made me shed a tear – it was absolutely perfect. There are new ones and the classics, but all are perfectly tailored to the story and lift you up and mellow you out in true style.
  4. The glib references. Whether it’s cutouts of monkeys, the cheeky Disney songs twisted into ‘Friend Like Me’ or the parroting reminiscent of the actual parrot Iago compared to the human one, they know what the audience wants, and make you laugh when giving it to you.
  5. The magic and the wonder. It’s not just a cave that provides wonder, it’s the spectacle on stage – the scenery, the magic, the slapstick…It’s all just brilliant, and at times breathtaking, a real feat of stagecraft that needs to be seen to be believe.

 

So you’ve got til the end of August 2019 – get yourselves to Agrabah for a final Arabian night!

Reviews: Recommended and Steer Clear!

It’s been a long old time, not least because I’ve gone a bit blog-crazy and set up two new ones to incorporate my latest passions: running and crafting (the two don’t exactly go hand-in-hand, I know). However, I haven’t stopped reading (nor have I perfected the recipe for adding a few hours to the day, sadly); below are my must-reads and my to-avoids of 2019 so far – see if you agree…!

Must Reads:

9781784759438Tom Hanks: ‘Uncommon Type’

I adore Tom Hanks – he always comes across as humble, hilarious and witty, so when I saw he’d tapped out a book on one of his many typewriters I knew I’d have to give it a go. It’s a collection of short stories ranging from the everyday to the (literally) out of this world. They’re simple, they’re straightforward, they’re just darn lovely. What I loved about these stories was their easygoing nature; nothing took itself too seriously, it was a pleasant read at the end of the day to ease myself into rest for the night. Definitely a must-read if you want the calm and chilled story.

Deborah Rodriguez: ‘The Kabul Beauty School’

I love the ‘Coffee Shop’ books by Deborah Rodriguez, and ‘Kabul Beauty School’ has been sat on my shelf a shameful amount of time. It’s insightful, it’s funny and it’s heartbreaking, but what a wonderful way to get to know one of the perceived most dangerous areas in the world. I would never have associated Afghanistan with the need for manicures, but what Rodriguez shows you in sparkling style is how even the humble haircut can change a life for the better in the most troubled of times. She doesn’t deny the harsh realities of living in a war zone, but this is complemented with the rays of sunshine poking through the clouds. It’s a gem and an enlightening experience.

Ben Elton: ‘Blind Faith’71rxq3s2bccl

I LOVE Ben Elton; his writing is never overly-intellectualised or complicated, but it is so incredibly precise in aiming its satire right at you and making you reevaluate your entire life that it feels like I’ve been stripped and judged to my very soul. ‘Blind Faith’ is no exception: I genuinely can’t take the world seriously any more. I can’t see an ill-fitting outfit without thinking of the citizens in the book defending their right to flash everything. I can’t go on social media without reflecting on the absurdity of communitainment advice. And when the royal baby name came out? I couldn’t help but wonder if Archie Happymeal might be on the cards. Read this for a real examination of our cultural values, delivered so obviously yet subtly; it’s a masterclass in exposing people without them realising it, and Elton is certainly a magician in revealing what was there all along.

Elizabeth Gilbert: ‘Eat, Pray, Love’

Another one sat on the shelf for longer than it should have been, this wasn’t overly complex but it was thoughtful and written so as to make you reassess your life without preaching at you, which is a dandy old combination for me! It’s a treasure trove of wonderful sayings, quotes and mantras designed to help enrich your life and put a smile on your face; I challenge anyone not to come away without some form of gentle resolve for their everyday existence.

9781782118640Matt Haig: ‘How to Stop Time’

Haig’s book follows what seems like an enviable character: he doesn’t age. But the downsides become a heartbreaking journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Yes, the climax seems a little odd after such a drift-along gentle plot on the whole, but it serves the purpose to fly our characters into love, happiness and acceptance; and perhaps its readers, too.

 

 

Steer Clear:

Aidan Chambers: ‘Postcards From No-Man’s Land’51w16tpa6wl._sx326_bo1204203200_

Granted, the target audience for this is probably a lot younger than man, but as a former teacher I’ve always taken a keen interest in what teen fiction is coming out now, and as a Carnegie Medal winner it piqued my interest. Don’t get me wrong, some of it was touching and beautifully written, but for me, particularly with my ex-teacher hat on, it tried to do too much too subtly. I’m not exactly daft and I struggled with why it was ‘postcards’ when it seemed more of a reflection/diary, and I’m so glad it was spelled out Ton was a boy early on as even when rereading I couldn’t pick up on those clues. There were just too many threads being pulled at: sexuality (big disappointment: potential homosexuality quickly overshadowed by heterosexuality, this felt like it undermined itself), war, identity, death…Each issue was so vast and weighty that none got their full worth recognised; it was clumsy and clunky to get through, and not an experience I’d repeat.

Mary Renault: ‘The King Must Die’

I read this because everyone kept comparing the wonderful Madeline Miller (a la ‘Circe’ and ‘The Song of Achilles’) to her predecessor; how could I resist? Boy, I wish I had: I don’t know how I got to the end of this but it’s incredibly literal style, paired with expecting you to know things have happened when you’ve not been told, completely lost me. I’ve got another Renault on my shelf, but I’m not sure I’ll manage another dose of cold, stark history lesson, so I might give it a miss!

Review: ‘The Memory Keeper’s Daughter’ by Kim Edwards

This has been on my shelf for a while and I finally settled down to it some weeks ago – settled to the point of spending a whole evening away ignoring the lure of ‘Strictly’ and being utterly engrossed in how this story was going to end.

‘The Memory Keeper’s Daughter’ is the story of David Henry’s decision one fateful winter night in 1964, when his wife Nora gives birth to twins and the girl baby is found to have Down’s Syndrome. Figuring it’s the best for all, he sends the girl away and tells his wife she died, leading to a road that Dr David Henry never imagined he would travel down.

David Henry is a difficult character to feel sympathy for, but that’s the point: he does a terrible thing according to twenty-first century thinking, but in the 1960s (as Edwards shows) attitudes were not all-embracing and tolerant, clashing with our modern ideology. As such, we struggle between not understanding and trying to understand, making this a morally engrossing read as we test our perceptions. Likewise, although Nora seems an obvious victim of not only her husband’s betrayal, but of a society unable to accept depression, there’s something holding us back; perhaps it’s her inability to be grateful for the child she has, always searching for something she knows she cannot have. But then, mother’s intuition tells her she can have it, again making this an utter mind-boggling scenario as we attempt to reconcile Nora and her behaviour with what we know – see what I mean about this being a captivating read?!

The storyline itself is pretty simplistic; events come and go, we see the Henry’s struggle with grief and loss, we see Caroline – entrusted with the baby girl – battle for her adopted daughter’s rights, and we see our own attitudes and values tested. Edwards is very clever in how subtly she does this; although there is one use of ‘mongoloid’, the rest of the language is designed to make us feel uncomfortable without breaking major taboos; personally, I think this works better – it frames our unease with the treatment of Down’s Syndrome children within language we use now and understand, rather than just provoking an outrage ‘you can’t say that!’ it provokes a ‘how do I feel about that? Technically have they done anything wrong…?’ undoubtedly along with a look of confusion. It’s a tactful and brilliant way of writing that makes you think rather than jumping to our pre-programmed reactions.

Finally, I did appreciate the ending – not happily ever after as such, but the start of something new at the end of our story, showing possibilities and hopes with no promises attached. I’ll leave it there for the sake of spoilers, but each character ends where they rightfully should without the cloying feeling of everything having slotted neatly into place – there are no neat edges in this jigsaw, it’s safe to say.

I thoroughly recommend ‘The Memory Keeper’s Daughter’ for those intrigued by historical attitudes to disabilities, and those who enjoy a read filled with moral dilemmas and difficult choices at every turn – I promise you’ll come away rethinking your own attitudes towards a multitude of issues.

Review: ‘Bring Me Back’ by B A Paris

247a4-bring2bme2bbackI spied ‘Bring Me Back’ on a family member’s worktop one day and decided it looked like something I should give a go – and I wasn’t wrong to try!

‘Bring Me Back’ is the story of Finn, whose girlfriend Layla went missing twelve years ago, only to be haunted by her memory just as he’s about to move on. It’s a psychological thriller filled with tension, urging you to read on (frustrating when your lunch hour’s over!).

‘Bring Me Back’ isn’t sophisticated in style or overly-complicated, and that’s a compliment – it’s refreshing not to be led down twenty different alleyways before being told they were all wrong anyway. Instead, Paris masterfully builds suspense, brings it crashing down around you quickly, and then subtly builds more suspense in doing so because you realize everything you were thinking was wrong.

The narrative style is what kept the pace for me; mixing between perspectives and media types made the pulse of this novel beat quicker and quicker until the climactic ending, and was a brilliant choice for such a complex subject, particularly considering the shock revelation at the end.

Finn isn’t a likeable character – we sort of get why Layla might have disappeared from him and sympathise with people like Ruby for their lucky escapes. He’s self-centered, brutish and brilliantly written to confuse us as to whether we think he’s victim or villain. I won’t say much of the other characters to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say that the leading ladies are equally as well-crafted in their respective roles; the characters are central to motivating you to finish this novel and uncover the truth in their desperation and terror.

Overall, I’d thoroughly recommend ‘Bring Me Back’ on any psychological-thriller-lover’s shelf; it delivers pace, tension and a gripping plotline to throw you from chapter to chapter until the bitter end. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Paris’ work in the New Year!

Review: ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ by David Mitchell

url9I adored ‘Cloud Atlas’ and loved ‘Ghostwritten’, so ‘Jacob de Zoet’ was my third trip into David Mitchell territory, and I was full of high hopes.

Initially, my hopes were a little deflated: there’s a LOT of information and technicalities get your head around in the first part, making it a little difficult to get a reading rhythm going. It did feel a little stilted and there were a few times I had to put this down in order to gather my poor reeling head.

However…

Perseverance pays off! With the shock betrayal of Jacob’s principle by Voerstenbosch and Van Cleef, and Aibagawa Orito’s evident kidnap, everything kicked up a gear in the final moments of Part One, and left you hungry for more.

Orito’s story was my absolute favourite throughout; initially because she was a woman trying to live in a man’s world (thanks to the open-mindedness of the indomitable Dr Marinus), but then because she was a fighter with feeling. The moment where she had escape within her clutches and turned back for the benefit of others was absolutely heartbreaking, but equally wonderful in showing a bravery beyond just getting out and being safe.

Talking of which, the story of Mount Shiranui was horrifically captivating: the balance between it being perceived as a haven but actually being a temple of death and sacrifice was elegantly crafted and haunting in its composure. Watching Ogawa Uzaemon flail against the invincibility of this cult of terror was plot perfection; hopelessness and inevitability at this point invades even the strongest believer in good triumphing over evil, and as such intensifies the emotional reaction against Lord Enomoto and his evil creeds.

I’ll admit the introduction of the British naval fleet in Dejima was, although initially an interesting twist, something that soon lost its interest. Captain Penhaligon (and his interminable gout!) was a fascinating character nonetheless, and I’ve never witnessed such a subtle blend of grief manifesting itself in every action as I had within his plot unfolding. The only thing that stuck in my gullet here was the survival of Daniel Snitker, former Dejima Dutchman trader and traitor to the Dutch empire in Japan; how on earth did he get from chains to the British empire’s fleet, and in doing so find not only refuge but a refuge with a fluent Dutch translator to enact his revenge? A lot of convenience, but forgivable for the plot it allowed to unfold.

For this leads to one of my favourite single moments in the book:  Jacob de Zoet (not forgetting Marinus and William Pitt the monkey) in a solo stance against the British invaders to Dejima, standing alone where all else had fled or lost everything. It was touching and it was real; both men wetting themselves, for example, showed heroism doesn’t have to look pretty to be amazing.

And the ending: David Mitchell knows how to write an ending that stays with you. Yes, Jacob de Zoet’s autumns are not what he thought, and never what he planned, but they are everything that makes us human and wonderful. So yet again, another David Mitchell book that thrills, captivates, confuses in places but causes wonder all over. Remember, persevere with ‘Jacob de Zoet’ and it will pay off; maybe not in copper shares or Dutch profits, but in pure pleasure alone.

Review: ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ by Dorothy Koomson

MyBestFriendsGirlCover‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ is the story of thirty-something Kamryn who suddenly and in devastating circumstances becomes adoptive mother to her best friend’s little girl – enter Tegan, Luke and a whole lot of upheaval for independent Kamryn.

Koomson is an emotional writer, that almost goes without saying, and there’s plenty to tug on the heart-strings here. In particular, I often find that when people write dialogue including children they either go far too sophisticated for what is allegedly a five-year-old, or they use baby speak to the extreme which is just cloying: not Koomson. I’d go as far as to say that this is the first time I’ve had a convincing kid on the page – proper childlike emotions, some scrambled words but generally coherent, and above all naive and innocent in that beautiful way kids are. This is the emotional pull of Koomson’s novel; the touching interaction between Kam and Tegan which subtly highlights the frailty of each.

There were bits that irked me throughout this: if nothing else, if I had to hear the description ‘navy blue’ or ‘royal blue’ regarding eyes one more time I’d have lost the plot! A few things were a little too convenient and, equally, some were so inconvenient that you’re sat screaming at the page that a simple conversation and a bit of honesty would solve this: my willing suspension of disbelief did a fail a couple of times in this respect.

However, the plot between Kamryn and conveniently place Luke was a good backbone to the trials of being a new mother, and the addition of third-wheeler Nate, provides more than enough to sink your teeth into and fret over during the course of the novel, and indeed one of the continuing pulls is being unable to decide who Kam should choose: Luke or Nate? Both are ideal and flawed in equal measure, and the final decision perhaps doesn’t sit easily as a happily ever after, but then it’s not happily ever after; it’s ‘this is where we are and who we are’, and that’s the point of the novel, that it’s not about becoming the best mother and having the perfect family, it’s about finding your way through the most trialling of times.

Overall, ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ would be the perfect addition to any summer read: sad in places but overall a testament to achieving anything we can and realising how amazing we can be when put to the test, it’s a touching journey throughout.