Review: ‘Return to the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul’ by Deborah Rodriguez

Perhaps not the most inspiring title for a sequel, but regardless I was eager to return to Kabul to fulfil my curiosity about culture and coffee simultaneously. I left, however, without coffee but with a greater understanding of how women are perceived in one of the world’s most prolific patriarchal societies – and it left both a bitter and inspiring taste in my mouth. Confusing, I know. Beware, spoilers ahead…

Let me start with the newbies. Layla and Kat’s parallel journeys in finding out about new cultures, whether the ones they deliberately ignored or the ones they are having to try and fathom despite their differences, was one of the more interesting sections of the book. Although sometimes clumsily put (teenage dialogue is perhaps not the books forte), Kat’s experiences of Afghani culture were perhaps akin to what is picked up on by the Western media, but Layla’s love of her culture balanced this out superbly. It wasn’t a one-woman vitriolic rant, but a two-pronged perspective on something we think we know but actually realise, through Layla, we cannot understand, because like Kat, we find it difficult to see past our initial perceptions. And like Kat by the end, we find ourselves re-evaluating what we think we know and what we feel.

 

Perhaps less inspiring was Sunny’s journey. The decision to kill Jack off between books was a brave one, but not one I feel worked. Sunny’s constant ‘I want to leave the island but oh no I’m stuck here again and say what it’s been months’ sometimes grated. The sub-plot with Rick was pretty hilarious, and the ending set a romanticised tone for the coffee shop’s latest venture, but the opening of Sunny’s narrative was, in places, repetitive. Grief has been done so well in so many books that this wasn’t the best portrayal, but the outcomes of it were perhaps more emotionally profitable.

 

But the main thrill in the whole book came from life in the coffee shop – it’s what we’d all come back for, and it’s what I came away loving still. The aroma of change and the growth of each person under one tiny roof was a joy to read, and much like Rumi, you come away feeling older and wiser in your perception, this time, of female rights in a country torn apart by terror and twisted ideologies. From Halajan’s driving to Zara’s marriage, and right back to Ahmet slowly but surely realising the old world order needs to evolve – each character gives both bright and frightening insights into a culture full of love, potential and often happiness, but marred by those few who take power through fear-mongering. It shows hope amongst ashes, and is a beautiful representation of a culture not filled with terror, but filled with so much to learn from and so much potential.

 

The return was worth the read, and as our return outdoes the length of Sunny’s it is a satisfying jaunt down memory lane, and looking at how the past has developed to present the watery sunshine of the future on the horizon.

Review: ‘The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul’ by Debbie Rodriguez

My knowledge of events in Kabul and Afghanistan as a whole is miserably limited – it’s one of those places I hear about on the news and half-tune into, without really understanding the country, culture or conflict within it.

As such, it was part-recommendation and part-cultural curiosity that led me to ‘The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul’, and in that respect it was an enlightening experience.

Although somewhat over-idealised in some senses (the search for Layla, Sunny and Jack’s will-they won’t-they, Ahmet’s u-turn…), it was a sweet and enjoyable experience – it felt like I’d spent an afternoon safe, warm and well-watered in Sunny’s cafe. Alongside the more complex plot details, which deal with terrorism and national security in times of crisis, there were lighter moments, with the two matching one another to provide a balanced and not overwhelming experience. In short, it meant you saw the terror of everyday life without being engulfed by it; the book is a window to an experience rather than a wave crashing over you.

I have to say my favourite character was probably the rebellious Halajan, a woman whose pride and love equalled one another, and whose personal tragedy regarding the letters was, to me, just as tragic as other plot elements – the suffering of an individual can often equal the suffering of many in how it cripples every aspect of life. Her movements between being bitingly sarcastic and an overbearing matriarch were well-crafted, building a character that is practically visible in real life; someone we all know who is brave inside and out at the expense of their own happiness at times.

It’s a story that reveals much about place, person and humanity; how we live, who we are, and how far our beliefs stretch in times of crisis and love. Whilst not in the devastating league of ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ or ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ in terms of cultural dissection, it’s a charming exploration of life in troubled times defying the odds and managing to cast a glimmer of hope in the darkest of situations.

Review: ‘Jersey Boys’ @ Piccadilly Theatre

It took a second viewing of Clint Eastwood’s film of the same name to get me to really love ‘Jersey Boys’, leading to the ultimate step: seeing the show in London’s Piccadilly Theatre. And let me say now: I have never wanted to dance in the aisles more in my theatrical viewing life.

Even people (like myself!) who are largely unaware of anything behind Frankie Valli (with an ‘i’, it’s Italian, like pizza!) won’t be able to resist the toe-tapping beat of the life of the Four Seasons, moving through their autumns and winters to their golden summers (although I do hear December ’63 is a very special time).

The fluid movement through the music is impeccable, and rather than feeling like a jukebox musical the beauty of The Four Seasons in their music feels like a life soundtrack, and as such applicable to every conceivable moment. Translation: the music carries you along so smoothly that if you blink, you’ll feel it’s over before it began!

The standout moment had to be Frankie singing ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ – the round of applause never stopped going around, and I loved it when he and others in different performances betrayed themselves by smiling at the response they received – they loved it as much as we did!

As tragic as the story of Francine is, I’m glad it doesn’t overwhelm the story; likewise with the imprisonments and trouble with loan sharks. The musical stays true to what it is: the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, not an overly emotive tragedy of four separate beings. As such, it may seem light and fluffy in its treatment of these major issues, but it was never trying to be anything else; it’s a feel-good celebration of outstanding music.

I can’t emphasise how much I recommend this; whether you’re a die hard fan or someone who only vaguely knows of hits like ‘Beggin” (something I had never realised was a Four Seasons tune!) and ‘Sherrie’, it’s the most uplifting musical performance I have heard in a long time, and the talent behind the performances is phenomenal. Take a trip to Jersey via London, and Walk Like a Man to the box office to experience a very special time.

 

Review: ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome

I was a skeptic; ever since first hearing of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ with the ITV1 talent search in 2011, I found it preposterous that something as sacred as religion had been turned into a mere musical, despite loving musicals in all shapes and forms.

I am now officially a convert.

I cannot stop thinking about the performance of ‘JCS’ running at the Birmingham Hippodrome in November 2015. It was stunning and – more than that – it made me rethink my view of one of society’s oldest institutions. I am by no means undergoing a religious conversion, but I’d always thought of it almost as a moralistic tale where people suffered artfully and told long rambling tales to make us understand how to behave – not any more. The suffering of Judas, Pilate and Jesus is haunting in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical, so much so that by the end I was ready to cry. In particular, the literally painfully drawn out final scene, where Jesus is nailed screaming to the cross, was hideous for both the obvious and more obscure meanings. His cries of anguish were tormenting, but equally it made us realise: no matter what else he might have been, Jesus was a man of flesh and blood when this happened, and felt everything, calling for his mother and water, never denying his essential humanity. It was here that Glenn Carter, as Jesus, really outshone himself; yes, Gethsemane was stunningly sung, but this was his piece de resistance, and it was truly humbling.

Having seen my fair share of musical theatre, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen such a well choreographed or suitably used cast before. Their movements were so well coordinated without looking false, and intensified the musical dramatics no end; the highlight for this had to be during ‘The Temple’ scene, where Jesus’ cry of ‘heal yourself’ was riveting in the midst of the claustrophobia around him, the faceless and helpless people literally drowning him in their requests.

Two things I have to pull out, though, are Tim Rogers and Rachel Adedejie as Judas and Mary Magdalene. They both had something the other lacked, one more so than another. Judas was hugely moving; his constant lurking presence on stage made his final confused status as victim and murderer compelling. However, there were times when his voice was perhaps not used to its potential, and that potential was clearly there because ‘Superstar’ was astounding right at the end, but before it was perhaps too heavily focused on acting rather than singing. Needless to say this was incredibly minor, particularly when the reacting to things like Jesus’ beatings and arrest were so moving, but noticeable in the face of performances such as Tim Minchin’s in the 2012 revival.

The opposite happened with Mary Magdalene. She felt like a token presence on stage, which was mildly irritating, as though a woman was necessary for looks but nothing else. Likewise, her singing was flawless, but in an idealised way; there was no trouble, no heartbreak behind it, which made ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ slightly hollow, which is a shame for such an amazing song. Her acting needed vamping up and injecting into her singing to make the perfect performance.

If I had to pick a favourite segment, it has to be Caiphus and Anas’ initial scenes within the council. ‘This Jesus Must Die’ is my favourite arrangement; the tempo, variety and characters were stunning. A close second had to be ‘Trial Before Pilate’, which was utterly brilliant; seeing Pilate as a victim was much like seeing Judas as one – a moving revelation. His final exasperated pleas to Jesus were breathtaking, and the transformation between empowered statesman to a man holding life in his hands was flawless – it was definitely here where I started to lose control of my emotions!

The ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ tour comes to an end soon, but I can only live in hope that it will restart again in the imminent future, because I would be one of the first to show my devotion at a theatrical temple to such a breathtaking and lyrically infectious musical.

“1984”: Haunting (Non?) Fiction

I am behind the times (ironic for the book I’m discussing) and have only just read George Orwell’s “1984” – and boy, was it one of those books that doesn’t let you go even after the final page has been turned.

Written in the wake of Nazism and the fear of communism, it’s fiction that could easily have become non-fiction if the wrong people had gathered all the power – and power, as O’Brien reminds Winston, is everything. It was perhaps my favourite notion from the book: this wasn’t about good and evil, about right and wrong, it was purely about absolute power. In a way, it almost made it easier to see the Party’s motives, and what really hit me regarding this was the section of Goldstein’s book on the slogan ‘War is Peace’. At the heart of it, the slogan was proven to be right; a constant state of war meant constant alertness, prosperity from war preparations, community spirit in the face of the enemy – it promoted a lot of things we want during peace time, that we strive to achieve. Suddenly, the realm of fiction isn’t so fictitious any more.

I like that we never really know what prompts Winston and Julia to rebel, because it makes it logical that it’s quite literally beaten out of them in the closing chapters of the book. Likewise, they don’t win; dystopian fiction has a tendency to show the endurance of the human spirit, with which there’s nothing wrong, but this became very close to reality. There was no winning, and no losing, just being. And that’s what was scary: this could slot right into any form of reality, whether it’s what we consider a ‘good’ world or a ‘bad’ one.

It’s not a ‘reviewable’ book as such, but it is one that – whether you enjoy it or not – really grips the issues of humanity across time. We should be afraid of being wiped out in personality, in mind – we should cling on to what makes us individual in the face of frightening world events, if only to protect our humanity rather than our society.

Why I’ve Given Up On Doctor Who

Christopher Ecclestone, David Tennant and Russell T. Davies. What do they have in common? The greatest four series and specials of sci-fi/fantasy television produced in the 21st century. So what happened?

Let me get this out there now: Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi are fantastic actors, as are the people around them. But something has gone catastrophically wrong since the end of the Davies era Doctor Who, and it’s only getting worse. The final straw came with the lamest episode to date, ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’, also known as an overactive imagination not screened out during the writing, editing or filming process. I’m not arguing that imagination is bad, but the failure to contain it appropriately has led to bad writing decisions, which is leading to the downfall of a fantastic series that doesn’t deserve to die the death of fallen heroes.

I’ve not been a fan of the Moffatt era since ‘Amy’s Choice’, where everything started to get too convoluted. Both that and the imagination comment suggest I shouldn’t be watching this type of programme, but let me re-iterate that these things can be used well, nay successfully, if used right. But Moffatt and co. have tried to replicate the success of the Bad Wolf, Torchwood, ‘something on your back’, Harold Saxon mysteries by heavy-handedly thrusting a million┬ápotentials and clumsy space expressions in viewers’ faces, hoping they’ll see through the fog of unexplained theoretical concepts in order to make sense of the mess.

Let’s take the aforementioned ‘Magician’s Apprentice’. The hands with eyes on: spooky as hell, a riveting start. The appearance of young Davros, mystifying. Planes stopping? The Master/Mistress randomly involving herself in the Doctor’s affairs? The random inclusion of UNIT? The Doctor playing guitar in a party-cum-sacrificial ceremony? I could go on I’m sure, but I stopped watching; there was no story, there was a fanboy vomiting Whovian all over my screen. I’m not saying prior Who episodes were simplistic, but they followed one plot with occasional hints at what was to come, without feeling like something to prove was on the agenda. There’s nothing clever about writing things because you can, but there is in writing one thing well.

And then there’s the assistant overload. They’ve become more important than the Doctor, and no-one seems to appreciate that you can have a clever, sassy female on screen without making her as intelligent as a something-thousand year old man, the titular character who should be the centre of the story. Rose was smart and loved, but she needed the Doctor. Martha, a wannabe medic herself, was clearly in the know, but she did everything she did because she needed the Doctor, not because she could simply outdo him. Donna, Lindsay Duncan’s Adelaide Brooke, Michelle Ryan’s Christina De Souza – all flying the feminist flag without being a master in the own right. Again, Karen Gillan, Jenna Coleman and the like are all wonderful actors, but they are being pushed into a limelight that wasn’t meant for them, not in this show.

I suppose, without rambling on, my complaint is with a lack of refinement; it wasn’t all peaches and cream in the prior series, but it was bloody brilliant nonetheless because of a mix of subtlety, explained madness, and sophistication within the ideas, instead of a mental splurge and the feeling that every line is an intended witticism without real meaning. When the next creative change occurs on Doctor Who, chances are I’ll return to the screen and indulge in my favourite time-traveller once more, but until that moment, I’ll leave the TARDIS and keep my feet firmly in reality.