Review: ‘Last Letter From Your Lover’ by Jojo Moyes

I have loved Jojo Moyes ever since I was sent an advanced copy of ‘Me Before You’, which felt like it broke my heart in two. So, having been entranced, I’ve felt the need to work my way through her novels, and the latest one on the list was ‘Last Letter’, the tale of Jennifer Stirling and Anthony O’Hare’s ill-fated affair spanning from the 60s to the present day. It was a touching and sentimental tale, but I have to admit, I don’t think it will become one of my favourites out of Moyes’ books.

The time setting does a lot for the tension of the affair that the book revolves around; they might have been dubbed the swinging sixties, but things were still done a certain way, and breaking from those roles had severe and long-lasting consequences. Enter Jennifer Stirling, a woman who married according to the rules but fell in love despite them. She’s a main character you root for both in terms of her repression as a woman in this time period, and in terms of her clear vitality when around O’Hare; she’s two separate people rolled into one, and you know which one you want to triumph.

Likewise, O’Hare’s change from pompous reporter to fragile man almost beyond his time is perhaps the most touching element across the whole book. He’s emotional without become a sap, generous without being a pushover; a man who knows what he wants, but also (for the most part) knows how to stop himself from jumping over the edge.

I think what stopped me from fully immersing myself in ‘Last Letter’ was that it felt very self-conscious. It was very aware of what it wanted to be, infrequently coming across as pretentious and a bit too desperate to give a moral message throughout. Indeed, reading it on my kindle showed how many of the moral quotations had been highlighted for their seeming significance, and while they did sum up the movement of the story succinctly, they were too frequent to be quite a resounding as they hoped to be.

I think, as well, that bits were left unexplored. Jennifer’s accident and it’s side effects were dealt with initially but tailed off under the weight of the letters. Likewise, hints at Jennifer’s mother knowing something were left, and Laurence (for all his faults, deservedly or undeservedly) bore the brunt of the social responsibility for events. Likewise, Laurence and Clarissa were both concluded in much the same manner, with poor Moira being ignored completely despite the sadness of her own little story, and as such everything felt a bit repetitive.

I also wasn’t a massive fan of Ellie Haworth, a woman who agonised over things that were patently obvious and yet managed to get everything she wanted, removing the reality of Jennifer and Anthony’s bittersweet missing of one another, slipping through one another’s grasps at every turn. It made the tragedy of their loss over the years seem unnecessary and frivolous. I hadn’t invested in the whiny tones of Ellie, and therefore didn’t see her as learning from their story, more that she just fell on her feet, and just like Laurence the deserved or undeserved nature of this is down to the individual reader.

But for all these niggly little faults, ‘Last Letter’ held at its core a love powerful enough to resist decay or harm, something sustaining and beautiful despite the circumstances and decade in which it arose, which is pleasant enough to amble through at one’s leisure.

‘Last Letter’ was a swift movement through tragedy after tragedy with a bittersweet resolution, but it’s political and moral awareness stopped it from becoming a charming insight into human emotions as the other Moyes’ novels have always been. Sometimes repetitive in scenarios and statements, it will not become a repeated read for me, but is worth setting time aside to indulge in this novel just to believe in the restorative power of love, and the belief that memories sustain us rather than drain us.

My Best Friend

My Best Friend

At 25, to come back to a primary school-esque essay topic seems counter-intuitive. It goes against everything we teach the next generation about inclusivity, accepting all and appreciating the value of each person, rather than placing value judgments.

We’re wrong.

Because we can have a best friend. We can have more than one. All of our friends could be considered the best by our own qualitative scale. And I’d like to talk to you about one of mine.

There’s never a moment he isn’t happy to see me. Or you. Or anyone. He’s the most social thing I’ve ever known, willing to let anyone and everyone prove themselves to him. He makes no judgment and asks for none in return, just an understanding and love. I suppose you could say he just has a positive attitude. Even on those days where everyone struggles to get up and carry on through the sludge and slime of reality, he powers on through. Naturally, this isn’t just for himself: he does it for you too. He’ll walk the vast expanse of the kitchen, scale the mountain of stairs, leap upon the highest of sofas, if it means bringing a smile to your face.

And emotional sensitivity? Forget about it. You’re sad? Have a cuddle. You’re happy? Let’s run! You just need some quiet? Let’s lie side by side and just be. We adapt. We have a silent conversation. Eyes sparkle and connect, and we know, we just know how to be around one another. I can’t call it beautiful because it’s so much more than that.

Beauty is skin deep, it’s a truth universally acknowledged. One moment glossy and groomed, another muddy and mucky. Covered in his own food (or yours), shivering from an unexpected shower, flying forward against the breeze. That’s beauty; the unashamed running to meet you, the unreserved and animalistic appreciation of the food you provide, the gentle nuzzling of a hand proffered in love.

He was beautiful in all ways. I’ve never seen a place light up more than when he was around.

And now it’s dark, and it’s cold, and it’s empty. Because my best friend was so tired, so very tired. We would never have been ready but it was time to say goodbye and let our boy find his field in the sky, where no one dared to serve mixer with meat and where the belly rubs never end, and no one gets cross if you accidentally walk in mud or bring a birdie home as a gift.

You were the best decision we ever made, my friend. And I can only hope we let you know that every day of your wonderful life. There were no owners, no subservients. There was a family, and that family is broken without you.

Good night, my best friend. We’ll love you forever.

5 Reasons To Read ‘A Christmas Carol’…

Yes it’s March, but having started Charles Dickens’ classic, ‘A Christmas Carol’, during the Christmas break and having to put it down for other things, I got around to finishing it last week. And it was stunning. So instead of reviewing something that I don’t feel I could do justice to, I want to encourage everyone to get involved with this gorgeous piece of Victorian literature.

1) It’s a short story – I am in no way saying brevity is always a friend, but in this case if someone is wanting an easier introduction to Victorian literature (which can often be convoluted in expression and needing contextual knowledge of the era) then look no further. This is short but packs a punch, showing us very clearly that the human condition is our own to shape.

2) To know where the Christmas spirit came from – have you ever said or heard someone say ‘God bless us, every one’?  Or talked about the true meaning of Christmas? This is the origin of the moralistic idea of Christmas in a modern age that has been corrupted by personal and financial greed – take a step back and look at where one author found the true meaning of the season to lie.

3) Celebrate the anti-hero – a lot of Victorian literature has weeping and wailing, fits and swooning, but here’s a place to believe in the redemptive power of emotions. From being a hard up git to realising that money can be the root of happiness as well as evil, Scrooge’s night-time journey moves him swiftly from grouchy to gratuitous, and his transformation is as believable as it is touching.

4) The message lasts – It’s not just a Christmas story – we should be living each day thinking of who we want to be and what impact we want to have on the world. Whether it’s helping family or supporting the sick, we should make the most of every life.

5) It’s beautiful – There are many books that are emotional and touching, but this is a thing of beauty. Through the message, the characterisation of the Crachits, the haunting fantasmagorical nature of the tale, and its sheer ability to last through the ages, it truly is a special story, and I can only hope it touches generations to come.

Review: ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ @ Theatre Royal, London

Never has the invitation to enter a world of pure imagination been so tempting and so fulfilling, and with a lot of expectations upon it, the musical version of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ certainly lives up to its source of inspiration.

A blend of the Wilder and Depp versions come across in this production; the quirky weirdness of both in their creepy and geeky ways pervades through Wonka’s (Alex Jennings) captivating performance, making the mysterious chocolatier an engaging and enthralling character throughout. Indeed, it tinges the musical with a certain sadness at the end when he hands everything to Charlie; the dream becoming reality leaves Wonka celebrating the past he inhabited as he waves goodbye to Charlie and the Buckets.

Speaking of the Buckets, outside of Willy Wonka the grandparents are closely tied with the children regarding the next best set of actors. Their frank singing about death and ageing is absolutely hilarious, which definitely makes this a show for adults as well as kids. The five darlings we follow into the factory are all brilliant too; it’s a hell of a lot to expect a child to perform to such a high standard, but all five kids had no trouble in singing and dancing to perfection. I’m torn between Mike Teavee’s crazy ADHD song and Augustus Gloops hilarious German stereotyping being my favourite out of the kids bits, with Veruca’s stomping and screeching coming closely behind. And of course, we can’t forget the quiet beacon of hope in humanity in the form of Charlie, a fantastic singer and endearing character.

The sets are stunning; nothing is missing from the book or adaptations, and everything brings the dream of Willy Wonka to technicolour life. My pick would be the nut sorting room with the bad nut squirrels, which I found absolutely hilarious; the dancing squirrels are just a delight to watch, and I can only imagine how much fun that is to perform.

Speaking of which, there are no airs and graces about this performance. It is one of the most relaxed productions I’ve ever been to; no one was interrupting as such, but the enjoyment of the kids in the audience and generally upbeat atmosphere was a pleasure to be within, and as such the confines of a theatre production were definitely lifted for an evening of magical fun. The only (very minor!) mar on this was that the staff were patrolling everywhere like prison guards; I don’t know if there was a fear of people photographing and filming, but you barely went ten minutes without seeing the patrol sweep past, it was very odd to say the least.

Nonetheless, I have a feeling that – due to its sheer brilliance and much like its predecessor, ‘Shrek’ at the Theatre Royal – ‘Charlie’ will vacate its seat and travel the country soon enough, and I urge you to spend an evening indulging your imagination with your kids, and enjoying the wonderful world of Willy Wonka.

Review: ‘From the Diary of a Retired Detective: Gary Farrow is All at Sea’ by Glyn Timmins

Having enjoyed the first ‘Diary of a Retired Detective’, the second outing of Gary Farrow was a welcome return for the detective turned antiques dealer turned detective (as Mark Forster-Blythe would dryly comment, Gary doesn’t do the simple life).

16c8434bc3eccd8bfed824160d634ac1This time, Gary is all at sea, chasing the fortunes of the glamorous Sabrina following the demise of her uncle, Vincent Colley. Gary hops aboard the nearest cruise ship to see where the inheritance is setting sail to, and to discover if death becomes murder most foul.

Much as with the first ‘Diary’, this is a why-dunnit more than a who-dunnit: the book doesn’t pretend to be something that it’s not, there are few red herrings and there’s no desire to confound the readers into oblivion, an irritating quality in some crime fiction. Instead, the focus is on the journey (quite literally) – finding out how Gary will solve the case and what the comeuppance will be is the biggest part of this novel, and it makes it something refreshingly different.

And, of course, where would this all be without the company of Mark, Gary’s trusted (and much beleaguered) sidekick, who finally gets the recognition he deserves, even if this is from strangers rather than his friend in need. The repartee between the two is the highlight of the book; I’m fairly confident I could read a book full of their day-to-day conversations and name it a hit. Not only are their witticisms and barbs entertaining, they’re hugely real; nothing feels forced, it’s a real relationship that helps to drive the plot towards its final destination.

There’s no doubt about it, setting sail with Gary is light, entertaining and intriguing. Forget the high seas, set sail for Amazon or Smashwords to download a copy!

Why I Will Always Love Tim Burton’s ‘Sweeney Todd’…

There is no doubt to my obsession with the film version of ‘Sweeney Todd’. And don’t misjudge my love, I’ve seen a stage version of Stephen Sondhemovies_sweeney_todd_johnny_depp_movie_desktop_4368x2899_hd-wallpaper-86197im’s musical which was gory and haunting in much the same way, but despite the lack of vocal strength in the film, I keep going back to it time after time.

There’s no denying Johnny Depp is part of this charm. He is scary, and he is charming, and he leaves you confused over loving or hating the protagonist. For a man whose “Irish” accent came under heavy fire in ‘Chocolat’, his Cockney ain’t half bad, and his singing voice is perhaps the strongest in the film. And stood beside him is the ever-delightful Helena Bonham Carter, playing obsession and love simultaneously to create a gruesomely tragic lead female, meaning we can forgive her lack of vocal range because she’s just so damn good at hooking us into her character.

And where there’s a protagonist, there’s a suave and manipulative antagonist in he form of Alan Rickman, whose Judge Turpin is just so silky smooth in prsweeneytodd-02esentation you can see how he greased the pole to power to keep himself at the top and others at the bottom. Indeed, two of my favourite lines in the film are due to his talent for making everything sound powerful, threatening and intoxicating: ‘You gandered at her, yes sir you gandered at her’ and ‘You’ll kill me boy?! Well here I stand!’ He’s not far behind Depp in singing skills, and he’s just so brutal in his attempts to find companionship you have to watch him get his comeuppance, even if it’s at the expense of Todd’s own humanity.

Not forgetting the stellar supporting cast. From a brief appearance by the wonderful Anthony Head to more significant roles held by Timothy Spall and Sacha Baron Cohen, everyone pulls their weight: there is no weak link in the chain of this film. Spall’s sliminess (both his and Rickman’s characters have echoes of their Harry Potter roles, doubtlessly) riles you up to want him to go down with Judge Turpin, and likewise Cohen’s final rolling ‘Meester Todd’ practically has the viewer bringing the razor down before Todd can in condemnation.

Then there’s the music. How can you not revel in the grimy joie-de-vivre in every note, the sense that you want to join in but berate yourself slightly for celebrating the terrible nature of mankind or the tastiness of priest? They’re songs that aren’t pleasant, aren’t romantic, but are base and gritty and show the world for what it is (cannibalism aside, think more in metaphors). And there’s a class element to this; let’s not forget that it’s distinctly pleasurable to see ‘those above serving those down below’ for once in Victorian London.

It’s a film I will never tire of, I’m almost certain of it – it’s a rare thing to see every aspect of a project pull together so magnificently so that we’re really living it until the end, and to have triumph mingled with despair at failure, confusing you as to whether you support or condemn characters. I’m not saying it’s the most complex plot in the world, but it knows what it is: dirty, rotten and a bloody ride to revenge, without becoming hideously and psychologically dark so as to send you away with nightmares or the inability to walk past a red and white barbershop sign.

Nothing’s gonna harm you…not likely on Fleet Street.

Review: ‘The History Boys’ @ Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

‘The History Boys’ is a comedy revolving around grammar school education and the debate between educating for exams and educating for life. At its core is a debate that, at some point or another, will touch everyone’s life: do we really just want to learn as a career boost, or do we want it to be integral to our love of life?

Of course, it’s debatable how far the word ‘comedy’ covers such a heavily weighted issue, but that’s for another time. For now, the limelight has to be on the show itself.

And what a show. I’ll admit, I took a while to warm up to the blaring music and the incessant banter between the boys and Hector, but once you caught up to the fast pace of their interactions it was hilarious from start to near-finish. The nuances of the boys’ movements, of Hector’s (Richard Hope) reactions, of the secretary at the door wiggling her fingers at Dakin (Kedar Williams-Stirling) really topped off their performances, moving beyond the medium of speech into something much more subtle and therefore much more provocative in terms of audience reactions. The stand out performances were definitely courtesy of Posner (Steven Roberts, previously of ‘Hollyoaks’ fame) and, in a more understated manner, Timm (Joshua Mayes-Cooper): in their own ways, both had a resounding presence, whether it was in the more empathetic manner of Posner or the larger than life cheek of Timms. That being said, these being selected as standout are marginal – the other boys were hilarious and touching, moving between the two artfully.

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Regarding the teachers, I have to say that Irwin (Mark Field) was probably my favourite, but perhaps because I identified with the quirky, slightly geeky nature of his character more so than the others (although it’s not hard to discriminate between a slight geek and a slight paedophile). Seeing him and Hector begin to merge towards the end, despite the warning signals it brought, was rather poignant in how they had developed their knowledge of life and its needs. Comedy and tragedy, in this aspect, merged very closely together to leave an unsettled feeling in the audience. Hector in particular was a difficult one to place feelings upon: his impact upon the boys was astounding, but this came at an undeniably awful cost that tainted both Irwin and the boys, as seen in the flashes to Irwin’s future meeting with Posner. He was portrayed as weak in this sense, and if the impact of this was to leave audiences in a moral dilemma, it certainly worked well.

The tour ends at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre on 7th February but continues around the country until July 2015, and for both its lighter moments and its more serious underlying issue, it is worth dusting off the textbooks and heading back to school for this production.

Update: It is, rather ironically, I realise I’ve completely ignored the only major female character, who is rather angry about the omission of women from history as it is. How I could do this I don’t know; Mrs Lintott (Susan Twist) was a strength in casting and in the plot, providing a normality around which everything else was seen to be out of balance. She was, in my opinion, without fault.