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.

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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.

Review: “Then She Was Gone” by Lisa Jewell

61Fb4HID3lLI’ve been an avid fan of Lisa Jewell for many years, and was intrigued by the furore on Twitter about her latest offering – reviews were glowing and filled with emotion.

It’s a different offering to the usual romantic and upbeat offerings from Lisa Jewell, as ‘Then She Was Gone’ focuses on the disappearance of teenager Ellie Mack and her mother’s unravelling of the truth behind the deceit leading to Ellie’s vanishing.

And it was absolutely brilliant in delivery; it was intense, emotional, and brilliantly captivating. It didn’t take long to figure out what might well have happened to Ellie, with tantalising clues being drip-fed throughout the story leading to the devastating conclusion. Ellie’s mother, Laurel Mack, represents the needs, fears and desires of every mother, and is the perfect lead to take us on the rollercoaster journey leading to the final revelations.

One of my favourite bits of this book wasn’t the build up or climax, it was the ending; a lot of novels of this genre have a gentle fizzle to the ending after such a stunning reveal, but this one didn’t. Without giving away what happens, a final note give a bittersweet finale that does our characters justice and shows the fight never ended for freedom and a mother’s love. It was a hauntingly beautiful ending, and I absolutely loved how thoughtful it was.

A breathtaking mystery and thriller, ‘Then She Was Gone’ is a must read this summer – it captivates, horrifies and touches you all in one fell swoop.

Review: “After He’s Gone” by Jane Isaac

afterhesgone-isaac-ebookweb-188x300I was very excited to see Jane Isaac asking for reviewers on Twitter to read her latest book, and even more excited to see it land in my inbox – I’d enjoyed ‘The Truth Will Out’ tremendously. And just like DCI Helen Lavery in ‘The Truth Will Out’, Isaac gives us DC Beth Chamberlain as a well-written strong female lead, and this is one of the standout features of ‘After He’s Gone’.

As Cameron Swift is gunned down, execution style, outside his family home in a well-to-do estate, the life he held together so tightly unravels and brings new revelations to his nearest and dearest. Enter family liaison officer Beth Chamberlain on her first case in the role, sharing in the reader’s interest and intrigue into how such a controlling man managed to end up mixed in with people who would want him dead.

Nothing is overly played in this novel which is one of the reasons I loved ‘The Truth Will Out’ so much – relationships are what they are, people have good and bad qualities, there are no over-the-top heroes and villains, just everyday people coping with tragedy beyond their understanding. The realism of the book is what makes you invest in it, and helps you to understand the prickliness of characters like Sara Swift and the protectiveness of characters like Beth.

The plot line of the murder was well developed – details were drip-fed through expertly, revealing a little whilst causing more questions and in doing so pushing you through to find out the unexpected truth. It’s clearly well-researched (well, the author’s husband is part of the police force after all!) and even the mention of things like budget constraints offer an interesting insight into the world of crime and how investigations are likely to develop. In all, it’s a story worth investing your time in – and trust me, you won’t be able to help but devour this novel in one sitting!

And best of all, the novel closes with unanswered questions – Beth and Nick? Eden’s custody battle? The outcome of Beth’s case? All left up in the air and begging for a sequel (which will be out this year, hurray!), giving us a further pull towards Beth and her challenges in a demanding role and setting up the next in the sequence in a beautifully seamless manner.

I thoroughly recommend getting your hands on the latest detective series to come from Jane Isaac, and on the previous ones if you haven’t already – you’ll be in for a thrilling read that teases and tantalises you before revealing the explosive finale.

Review: ‘The Truth Will Out’ by Jane Isaac

18854687I’d had Jane Isaac recommended to me and grabbed ‘The Truth Will Out’ to give Isaac a whirl – and I can’t wait to pick up her other books, because ‘The Truth’ was a thrilling read.

DCI Helen Lavery is a well-written female protagonist; in some novels there’s a tendency to overplay the girl power card, but she just did what she had to do without being overly-glamorised or over-praised for being a woman in a man’s world. It was refreshing to have a strong female lead who wasn’t overly-lauded for being exactly that!

Likewise (without spoiling anything!), Dean’s role in Helen’s life unfolded naturally without being met with trumpets sounding and fireworks going off; I think that’s what I liked most about Isaac’s writing, in that despite the drama of the police work it was down-to-earth and naturalistic.

The plot moved quickly, leaving you no time for breath and creating an urgent need to uncover the truth behind all the lies and running away, echoing the journey that Eva is on in the fight for her life. It really keeps you involved, and is one of the main reasons I devoured this book in just a couple of days.

Overall, this was a thoroughly engrossing read and one I would thoroughly recommend – I keep spying more Jane Isaac novels in The Works and the like, so I’ll definitely be stocking my shelves in the near future!

Review: ‘Macbeth’ @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

I love ‘Macbeth’, it ranks up there with my favourite Shakespeare plays, and finding out Christopher Ecclestone was playing the titular character was the final drop of incentive I needed to book my tickets to see the RSC’s latest production of The Scottish Play.

And Ecclestone was fantastic: brooding, conflicted, frustrated, fearful – he did it all and seamlessly so. It was post-crowning that the role really took flight; Ecclestone’s portrayal of ambition fearfully achieved was convincing and gripping, something to keep you on the edge of your seats (dangerous when you’re in the high ones like we were) until the bitter end.

Lady Macbeth…I was less convinced. Don’t get me wrong, overall Niamh Cusack was good, but I felt like a decision hadn’t been made over whether she was power-hungry, insane or simply overly-emotional. If a route had been picked it might have been easier to figure out why she pushed Macbeth as she did, but it seemed like neither of them wanted to ‘o’erleap’ their ‘vaulting ambition’, which is the sole purpose of Lady Macbeth in Macbeth’s mental torment: pushing him over the edge. I think it was most apparent following Duncan’s murder: one moment Lady Macbeth was the ‘unsexed’ woman, bloody, bold ad resolute, and the next she seemed to be blaming Macbeth for being so foolish. I couldn’t quite place what Lady Macbeth wanted, and I found that a little difficult to follow. However, the classic sleepwalking scene was outstanding, as was Lady Macbeth’s role in the banquet scene, so there were definite peaks and troughs.

The setting and scenery were used well, particularly where the (spectacular!) Porter was concerned (that blummin’ vacuum cleaner!!). Everything had a place and if something was unnecessary, it wasn’t used. The only mild (and I mean mild!) criticism I had was that the perspex box above the stage where the characters were during the post-war celebrations, where Lady Macbeth heard Macduff’s son’s cries and then sleepwalked through, wasn’t viewable from the second tier; I can’t imagine what it was like on the third. This was a shame because it literally needed a foot more glass and it would have been successful, and I did feel like we missed out on some key aspects of the performance.

Standout moments? The Porter was an absolute scream, punctuating the madness with stark reality and a reminder of life continuing in darkly humorous ways – he was a character used well throughout the play, not just in his one key speech like in other productions. He really did make me shiver when cleaning up after gruesome moments (like the Macduff massacre – a terrifying moment that was captured brilliantly by mother and son alike, and making her pregnant? Awful but a stroke of genius for the tragedy of Macbeth).

Another moment had to be the ghost scene with Banquo: the fact that no ghost appeared in Macbeth’s first rantings first of all had me going ‘what?!’ and then I saw it as brilliant; you got to see what the diners saw, before seeing what Macbeth saw when the ghost finally made his ethereal, terrifying appearance. I loved it, and it was one of my favourite production moments of the whole performance.

And I loved loved loved the clock. Another Porter moment of genius setting a stopwatch, the tension (and a moment where you blinked and thought ‘blimey, where did the time go?!’) mounted and Macbeth’s doom crept closer; it was a silent reminder that the truth will out and wrongs will be righted, and I loved how understanding it was.

Finally, I have to reflect on what once was; in the 2011 Macbeth at the RSC, one of my favourite choices was having the Weird Sisters as children dangling from the heavens speaking down to the cursed Macbeth, and a similar concept was attempted this time, but I wasn’t convinced by the kids in onesies with teddy bears I’m afraid; they were too cutesy to be wicked, and looked too snuggled up to cause real harm, so I couldn’t believe in their ill-will sadly. They were a little better in the second half, particularly when complemented with the dead cast members as the Prophecies, but overall it wasn’t the choice for me.

In what is overall a haunting performance with a killer cast, ‘Macbeth’ is encoring at cinemas soon and plays at the RSC throughout May, and is definitely worth catching while it’s around – Ecclestone and co. overall produce a fascinatingly dark demise of a former hero for you to sink your teeth into.

Review: ‘Wicked’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome

It was third time lucky for seeing ‘Wicked’ it seems – my favourite ever performances of ‘No Good Deed’ and ‘As Long as Your Mine’ and a fantastic production, one that you should definitely see if you get the chance!

wicked-04-683x1024.jpgTaking us to Oz before Dorothy and Toto, ‘Wicked’ is the untold story of the witches of Oz, and one designed to make you rethink what good and evil really is. I have to place myself firmly on Team Elphaba, and Amy Ross was a spectacular Elphaba – you could feel the hurt and pain that led her to being who she is, and every word sang emphasised this characterisation. Team Glinda, never fear, your Glinda is just as good as my Elphaba – Helen Woolf is hilarious and emotional in equal measure, and I’ve never been so moved by the heartbreak she faces in the second half when she betrays Elphaba to the Wizard and Madam Morrible.

 

The sets and costumes travel well and are truly spectacular – it’s always the worry that when a show tours something might get lost, but if anywhere’s equipped to cope with the grandeur of Oz it’s the Birmingham Hippodrome, a stunning venue for a breathtaking musical. From Glinda’s bubble to Elphaba’s flight in ‘Defying Gravity’, it was all incredibly staged and truly mesmerising theatre.

And, of course, where would a magical show be without the supporting cast? From Aaron Sidwell’s Fiyero who convincingly moves from shallow to caring(and looks darn good whilst doing it), to the bitter Nessa Rose (Emily Shaw) and the naive Boq (Iddon Jones), there isn’t a faulty cog in this production, and they’re all fighting it out to pull on your heartstrings until you’re an emotional mess by the end!

Performance of the show had to go to ‘No Good Deed’ and the Fiyero riff that made the my arm hairs stand on end; I could have listened to that song on repeat for the whole three hours (although Amy Ross might have gotten a little weary of it I suppose).

It’s a musical that’s as fun as it is emotional and meaningful, and despite not having a green wicked witch in the world (yet), it resonates with so much going on in the world right now that it reminds us to look at things a little differently and make sure we know what’s wicked and what’s not before blustering our way through life. Get to see ‘Wicked’ on its tour and I guarantee you’ll be seeing a little green in everything around you, and humming a wicked soundtrack to boot.