Review: ‘The Geography of Bliss’ by Eric Weiner

Not something I would usually read, but on recommendation I picked up Eric Weiner’s ‘The Geography of Bliss’ hoping that – at the very least – I would come out of it with an idea of where to holiday in the future.

Technically I did, there are places I would love to explore as a result of Weiner’s cross-country ramblings, but it’s only the geography part that was fulfilled – ‘bliss’ seemed lost in the ether somewhere. But then, there’s a huge debate behind the question as to whether it was ever locatable – but that’s a question beyond a review!

‘The Geography of Bliss’ is fascinating; once you get past the excessive quoting of psychological and literary scripture, its engaging to see how on earth you go about finding happiness, something which a lot of us attribute to being within us, and not in a location as such. The anecdotes arising from Weiner’s travels are fascinating and well-told; anecdotes are often subject to being hideously boring when they don’t involve us, but Weiner’s brevity of style and humour allow him to escape this pitfall.

I have to say, that was the overwhelming joy of Weiner’s work; he has a sardonic, witty style that makes you laugh and groan in response to his humour. His background as a reporter also helps; his tales and exploits are tinged by personal bias, rather they are written for the objective public. He makes his work accessible by forgetting about himself, using his involvement as almost a vessel for our entertainment and intrigue. It’s a skill I haven’t come across in many first person texts, and what makes this book thoroughly engaging.

‘The Geography of Bliss’ won’t actually give you the answer to happiness, but it will give you an entertaining ride on the way to figuring out what and where it might be, and is certainly worth stopping in place for to enjoy and ponder about at your own leisure.

‘Dick Whittington’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome – December 2016

This year’s panto has arrived at the Birmingham Hippodrome – oh yes it has! And both the Hippodrome and the audience were thrilled to welcome back John Barrowman after an eight year absence – and my, doesn’t absence make the heart grow fonder!

In true rip-roaring tradition, the Hippodrome’s latest panto was funny, risque (talking boobs anyone?!) and downright ridiculous, catering to everyone from toddler to teens and, of course, the ticket-paying parents! The storyline was put aside for making you genuinely glad to have stepped out the house to enjoy this comedy showcase, with panto regular Matt Slack being a highlight with his brilliant impersonations, razor-sharp wit and inventive replacements for dialogue – I’ll say no more…

The one character I came home utterly in love with (besides John Barrowman, he’s an older love from a Torchwood time) was Babby the Tabby – the best Brummie cat I ever did see. I now only wish that my cat could talk so I could mould him into Babby Junior.

But, of course, Barrowman and Babby were not the only stars of the show. Steve McFadden (Phil Mitchell) was a superb baddy in King Rat, and I only wish we could have seen more of the giant rat he was working for, particularly at the end to see how King Rat fared against his boss’s displeasure!

Jodie Prenger, from the TV show ‘I’d Do Anything’, has a spectacular voice, and the Krankies were in fine form as the comedy duo of the piece – Jimmy Krankie in particular was an absolute riot! Add to that a chorus of talented backing dancers, singers, actors, and a clearly talented backstage crew, and this is a panto you won’t forget in a hurry – particularly if you’ve never seen Captain Jack fly an upside down reindeer! And that’s not to forget the spectacular (if rather scary!) 3D effects in the second half.

In short, Birmingham has once again excelled itself in providing festive entertainment for all the family – it’s hysterical, it’s amusing, and it’s everything the holiday season needs, so get yourself to where the streets are paved with gold and turn your fortunes into those of Dick Whittington today!

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Review: ‘The Nutcracker’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome

‘The Nutcracker’ is a festive favourite around the country and the world – the music, the Christmas wonders, the magic…it’s hard not

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Birmingham Royal Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’

to fall in love with one of the world’s definitive ballet shows.

After seeing Sir Peter Wright’s production at the Birmingham Hippodrome, here are my top five reasons to use this phenomenal ballet to project you into the Christmas spirit…

  1. The costumes: having had a sneaky peak at the costumes backstage, they are as stunning close up as they are in the shimmering stage lights of the theatre. They’re a sight to behold, and the dancers look exquisite as they lead you around Clara’s dreams.
  2. The sheer skill: ballet is one of the toughest disciplines going – if you don’t believe me, watch a ballet dancer sitting at rest, you’ll find their backs are still poker straight and their feet in formation. It’s no wonder, therefore, that this skill translates into something beautiful, magical and breathtaking on the stage. The smallest move has the utmost grace – if a picture’s worth a thousand words, a ballet movement is worth so much more.
  3. The props and set: a flying swan, the ultimate Christmas decadence and toys fit for royal offspring. That’s all I need to say.
  4. The music: you’ll recognise more than you’d realise! Tchaikovsky’s masterpieces are never better heard than with a live and hugely talented band who deserve every second of applause they receive.
  5. How it makes you feel: it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll leave wanting to put up (possibly another) Christmas tree, blast out the festive music and bring the sparkle of Christmas day to every day – after all, what else is a sugar plum fairy meant to do to you?!

If you’ve never seen a ballet before and have been curious, this is the one for you – the relaxed family atmosphere, the familiarity of the family scenes and music, and the magic of toys come to life in a land of sweets and dreams is enough to bring out anyone’s inner child and let you stare in delight at the stage for two hours of wonder.

Enjoy yourselves – and merry Christmas!

The Naughty and Nice List

I have been very neglectful of this site recently, and for good reasons – my latest project, Literacy Stars is taking off and I am incredibly proud of it, as well as being incredibly exhausted from all the time it’s taken!

Excuses aside, my recent reading hasn’t stopped in the background, so here’s the pre-Christmas naught and nice list from my reading trawls of late…

 

Nice: 

  1. ‘The Woman in Black’ by Susan Hill – a truly harrowing book, made all the more impressive by it being a product of the 1980s yet sounding like it’s straight from the Victorian era! It’s detailed but in the best possible way – you feel every moment and, for a story where (when you reflect on it and realise) very little happens, you feel like everything has changed througho
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    The clear candidate for top of the list! 

    ut the course of this little novella.

  2. ‘Facing the Congo’ by Jeffrey Taylor – a fascinating insight into life on the Conga in former Zaire, exploring the lines between adventure and exploitation, daring and foolishness, and adding a little education along the way.
  3. ‘The Year I Met You’ by Cecelia Ahern – this only just makes it onto the nice list, but it’s a standard sweetheart of a book from Ahern, removing romantics in favour of life-changing relationships beyond the conventional. It’s that everyday magic and love Ahern specialises in, so worth a read.
  4. ‘The Taliban Cricket Club’ by Timeri Murari – this is the best of the bunch; fascinating, insightful, moving and wonderful, you don’t have to love cricket to love this haunting and beautiful story of being female in a repressive regime and the bravery required to free yourself – a bravery embodied by the glorious game itself.

Naughty: 

  1. ‘Early One Morning’ by Virginia Bailey – somewhat interesting in places but entirely predictable and overly-cliched for such a serious topic. A lot of potential that isn’t fully expanded on, which is a shame considering that Rome is a vantage point lost when considering the war in modern culture.
  2. 51rpuevkfl-_sx324_bo1204203200_‘Gorky Park’ by Martin Cruz Smith – I started off loving this dark Russian detective book, but its desperation to be the first in a series let it down, meaning the story finished in a fallen hurdle rather than a rising leap, and the pathos drooped woefully.
  3. ‘The Russian Debutante’s Handbook’ by Gary Shteyngart – what can I say? Our leading man Vladimir is a feckless pig who oscillates between naive and dangerously arrogant so frequently the book needs to be solved with nausea medication and a flow chart of events. Quirky but too much so for this reader.

Review: ‘Early One Morning’ by Virginia Baily

On a recommendation, I picked up ‘Early One Morning’ late one evening and must admit, I foun9780349006512d it difficult to keep hold of it.
For starters, writing in the present tense will never be something my mind is comfortable with – it feels too jarring and ineffectual in a narrative, because a narrative can rarely actually be present tense; you don’t often narrate as you observe, you narrate as you recount. And the past tense in this book, in my opinion, is a recount; it’s embedding Chiara’s past and present to show how she roved from the then to the now.

Chiara and Simone were difficult to believe in as well. They were allegedly older ladies, but we’re repetitively told they aren’t past their prime – well if they were having lives in the 1940s as adults, they certainly couldn’t be party animals in the 1970s. Now this isn’t me saying they should have been sat at home knitting and waiting for pension day, but some sense of age and perspective was needed to make them more believable and realistic.

And to alay fears of being ageist, Maria was a difficulty to me as well; at one moment a loving family member, and at another a Roman goddess. I physically cringed at the description of her ‘creamy breasts’ – a sixteen year old, come on – and couldn’t figure out where her real emotional value lay. Yes she’s a teen and they’re difficult at the best of times, but there’s normally one element of them you can pin down – Maria didn’t have this. Her switches flipped constantly, and it was too emphatically enforced every few lines that she would only call her dad Barry and her mother Nora was a traitor. It was too much; subtlety would have been wonderful here.

What I did enjoy, however, was the storyline about Daniele Levi and Chiara’s authorised kidnapping of a young Jewish boy about to be sent to a labour camp. The notion of a mother’s sacrifice is nothing new, yet Senora Levi’s decision was beautifully stoic and incredibly moving for the shortness of its appearance. Likewise, the transformation of Daniele from mute to recovering to addict was well handled and executed; not overplayed, and certainly not garish. It was what it was, and was a reminder of how well other incidents could have been handled.

Equally, dealing with Cecilia’s epilepsy in a time where it was still misunderstood and scorned was fascinating. It’s not often we think about epilepsy as debilitating now, with media portrayals in hospital dramas and such like of a fit being something you ‘get over’. Of course it’s not, and Cecilia’s story illustrated that, and it was a refreshing yet harrowing plot. I feel her ending lacked justice for how well she had been built up, and I really struggled to believe that Chiara, whose most authentic trait was the love for her sister and Daniele, would just abandon her and fail to mourn afterwards. It felt cold, cruel and out of spirit with who both of them were.

Perhaps, then, it is worth picking this up; I was keen to finish for the positive reasons of intrigue, but there are obvious narrative flaws. It is, therefore, a book for passing the time rather than consuming it, I feel.

Review: ‘Cymbeline’ @ the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

The RSC’s production of the much-underperformed and often underrated ‘Cymbeline’ was a different experience for me: it’s the first time I’ve seen a Shakespeare play without having read the script first. As such, it became a small test for me; would I understand it without having studied it?

Answer: yes.

Because the RSC’s production was incredibly accessible and amazingly performed, making three hours of theatre seem like a blur of betrayal, mistrust and reconciliation.

The first thing to note was that Cymbeline was no longer King of Britain; Cymbeline was, in fact, the Queen, with the leering and overly confident Duke preening at her side. It made the play have a different dynamic; suddenly strength was redefined, and to be Queen in such a male-dominated world became a harder task, and instead of being an ineffectual ruler, Cymbeline became a woman with a lot to fear within and without the court. It was an intriguing and wonderful decision, proving Shakespeare still has new dimensions to add hundred of years after the play’s conception.

Innogen became my new favourite female Shakespearean character within this (although technically Guideria could have taken that role, but more gender-swapping means this might not technically be my favourite female). She was feisty, determined, principled and courageous; at least, that’s how Bethan Cullinane played her. I admired her more than Posthumus, a character often proclaimed for his virtues and yet one whose virtues I saw little of. He was easily manipulated and impulsive in all the wrong ways – not the man I would have liked our heroine to pledge her honour to, but still…

I also loved the lighter moments, particularly with Guideria (Natalie Simpson – of Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’ fame) and company in the woods. My favourite lighter moment was when Cymbeline questioned Clotten’s (Marcus Griffiths) fate and, in her best northern accent, Guideria declared ‘I slew him’. It was moments like this that made sure you weren’t fully plunged into the depths of despair, preventing tragedy from becoming all-encompassing and wholly distressing – a feat the RSC has often achieved with wonderful effect.

As I said, having not read the play some of its more delicate symbolism was lost on me until the end; the tree stump in the centre of the stage was a mystery until the closing scenes, where Cymbeline’s tree had regrown with family and honour. It worked, and was a pleasing revelation at the end tying the whole play up neatly. I loved the romantically brutal movements at the beginning separating Innogen and Posthumus, so gently and yet so tragically after their young love was denied.

The only, and it’s absolutely miniscule, thing I disliked about this came from the above scene, where the lovers ended their meeting with Posthumus’ trousers down – a feat unnecessary and a little bit distasteful after all the pledges of undying love. I realised it was so that Cymbeline and the cunning Duke had something to catch more than just Posthumus in a room with Innogen, but something about it jarred with the value of their words for me.

Two questions I would ask of Shakespeare’s play: surely a better resolution than ‘after all that war, let’s give in to Rome’s demands as we should have done in the first place’ could have been found? And where was the comeuppance for Philario (Byrron Mondahl), the erstwhile childcatcher who robber the Queen of her eldest children? These were niggles with the plot rather than production, but suspending disbelief, the experience was still an enjoyable one.

Cymbeline’s reign is short – the RSC and cinema screens host her for a short while, and I urge you to become an attentive citizen and follow a story of love, deceit and family with avid attention…