Review: ‘The Sheriff’ by Simon Fairbanks

Picking up a book by a fellow Birmingham alum is always a special thing, and ‘The Sheriff’ did not disappoint – full of fun, tension, twists and turns, it pleases on every level.

Denebola very quickly became one of my new favourite characters; noble, courageous (he’s no cowardly lion!) and a little bit grouchy, he’s a bit of all of us: trying to do a good job in a difficult and ever-changing world. His shaping and craft is skilful to show the complexities of his job, something which is handled delicately to subtly show the intricacies of Nephos life. Likewise, children are always tough in novels, and to get them into likeable characters without being sickly sweet or just plain irritating is a skill, and one that Fairbanks possesses in spades. Toby is astute and brilliant without going beyond his boundaries as a child character, and I’d argue as a result he’s the character we feel the most emotionally throughout the novel.

Even the bad guys are wonderfully shaped; it’s so easy to fall into cliches, but Fairbanks makes even the obnoxious Father Osmond into a creature that confuses the readers emotionally: do we feel angry at him, or sorry for him, or do we see that he’s like anyone who becomes engrossed with theological matters? It’s brilliant writing that makes you re-evaluate how you see things, a sign of a cracking read.
What I also like about Fairbanks’ style of writing is how everything wraps together; there are no clunky hints or clues here, just subtly weaved in elements that allow the direction of the story (and I imagine the Nephos novels as a whole) to be clear and to leave you realising the answers were there all along, a bit like a good Holmes story! I kicked myself for not seeing some of the plot twists coming because everything had been there to tell me they were, and that’s the beauty of Fairbanks’ writing.

This is a definite must for fantasy and young adult readers alike; I dare you not to want to live in the wonderful Nephos, and to come away not wondering who the cursed Besti Bori is in anticipation of the next book – this is definitely a debut that leaves you wanting more, and if you take a sneaky peak on Amazon, you’ll see that Fairbanks does not disappoint in this respect!

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Review: ‘Origin’ by Dan Brown

I’m a massive Dan Brown fan and hadn’t stopped questioning the implications of ‘Inferno’ by the time ‘Origin’ came out; even so I dashed off to the supermarket on the morning of the big release to get stuck into the next Robert Langdon. And the verdict? Warning: spoilers ahead…

The ming boggles at the possibilities of Edmond’s prediction just as it did with the population crisis in ‘Inferno’, and the set up of Edmond’s presentation was incredible.

However…

I will say that the build up to the finale of the book wasn’t quite like other Langdon books – a lot of the book is spent in one location with a lot of background noise ticking over about the royal palace of Spain which turns out to be something less sinister and more bittersweet than imagined (which was a lovely, brilliantly underplayed twist). Whilst I did love that twist, I didn’t quite understand why so much was made of the palace’s involvement; personally, it felt like all the build-up to Valdespino potentially being the big bad was let down by sidestepping the potential church involvement and worrying over the monarchy instead – perhaps ‘Da Vinci’ did enough to the church! It was a shame because we lost the importance of the murder of the religious officials amongst all this changeover between settings and the movement between religion to monarchy as a focus; it’s never nice to feel like the deaths of characters are senseless, but it’s how (until the final revelation) the Imam and Rabbi’s deaths were made to feel by undermining them.

There was a lot of tension constantly being built with little catharsis throughout – no revelations or small reveals, just the reveals that you’d expect in the final part of a book. I have to say, I prefer Langdon being a bit more active and not just trawling a library for most of a book!

However, redemption came in another brilliantly undersold and stunning moment which I’d suspected from about midway through – Winston’s involvement in Edmond’s assassination. What a stunning thought after Edmond just about put a positive twist on his predictions about the future – that it’s not all bright, not all rosy, and is just as sinister as it initially sounded. It was also odd, when Winston announced his departure, to feel sad about this – he’s essentially a robot and here we are missing him! It definitely showed us the possibilities of AI and the conflicted emotions Langdon will have felt, something which made our leading man all the more accessible to us.

Ambra was our traditional female sidekick – beautiful, age-appropriate for Langdon, smart…and I’ll be honest, I was a bit fed up of her being referred to as the ‘future queen of Spain’ every other sentence. In herself, an endearing character, our author was just a little heavy-handed with her significance to the royal household. However, she was a character worthy of our previous female counterparts to Langdon, and not since Sophie Neuveau have I genuinely felt Langdon have a connection that could have been more with his co-adventurers.

Overall, ‘Origin’ was an enjoyable and thought-provoking ride with Langdon once more – yes, nothing will ever live up to the wonder of ‘Angel and Demons’ and ‘Da Vinci’, but both ‘Inferno’ and ‘Origin’ have worked hard to show our Harvard professor isn’t past it yet (let’s ignored ‘The Lost Symbol’…) – and I hope to see him swinging from church towers long into the future…!

Review: ‘Miss Saigon’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome

I saw ‘Miss Saigon’ on its run at the Prince Edward’s theatre in London, and I’m fairly confident I forgot to breathe throughout the entire performance it was so energetic and heartbreaking. So when I heard it was touring, going again wasn’t even an option.

It’s a show that clearly travels incredibly well, given the right theatre. The sets were stunning, and despite a moment where I doubted it would happen, the infamous helicopter escape from Saigon was there in all its glory and it was absolutely magnificent. What struck me about the set in last night’s performance were the colours; they make the atmosphere what it is, and you follow them through the journey metaphorically as it progresses.

The standout actors had to be Kim and The Engineer (Sooha Kim and Red Concepcion respectively). Kim broke my heart with every word she sang, everything resonated and showed her heartbreaking hopefulness until the bitter end; she is what we all want to be, someone believing that a better day will come, and it’s gut-wrenching to watch that hope being played out so cruelly in such a horrific time. The Engineer is perhaps equally a more veiled version of ourselves: he’s our inner desires and ambition, albeit hilariously over-exaggerated. He’s the comic relief such a musical needs, but with a tinge of fear at the world not working out how he planned; he’s just a brilliant character and Concepcion plays him masterfully.

An underrated actor for me had to be John (Ryan O’Gorman) – he nearly had me when singing Bui Doi, which was possibly my favourite number of the show, especially the male acapella part which had me shivering it was so emotional.

It’s a timeless plot of love, loss and seeking a better life, and a wonderful night out – just make sure you pack some tissues! ‘Miss Saigon’ is on tour for the foreseeable future and at the Birmingham Hippodrome until 23rd September – the hour is now to get your tickets!

 

Review: ‘My Not-So-Perfect Life’ by Sophie Kinsella

I’m not afraid to admit that I’d lost a little faith in Sophie Kinsella following ‘Mini Shopaholic’ – I still haven’t plucked up the courage to try any more Shopaholics at least! However, ‘My Not-So-Perfect Life’ was half price at WH Smiths at a time when I was craving a good book, and I remembered my love of ‘Undomestic Goddess’, ‘Twenties Girl’ and the first three Shopaholics and thought ‘why not’?

And I was right to trust in those books!

Katie Brenner (definitely not Cat!) is one of my new favourite modern heroines, she’s trying to fit into a confusing world with her ambitions at her side and I loved her for it. She’s the most human character I’ve come across in a while, and it worked well against the few stereotypes used to sustain smaller characters, making them seem more realistic than just stock. It was like lifting the lid on what we all think: we need to appear to have it all together, when in actuality finding someone who does have everything in hand is rarer than a flying monkey. It linked to our social media lives without being cloying or preaching, and it was a relief to see someone finally admit that the thousand words behind a photograph might not necessarily be pleasant!

The plot wasn’t trying to be anything over-complicated, and again it was a pleasure for it. We’re so used to everything having tangents and sub-plots and subterfuge, it was refreshing to just be able to follow a (fairly) straight line. You never think about bullying coming from the bottom ranks to the top, so it was an interesting take on an old story, and watching Katie and Demeter, the big scary boss, become allied against this injustice was empowering. Everything was what it was, and that’s a rarity in modern fiction, and a delight.

Talking of Demeter, I liked how the big scaries of the company Cooper Clemmow (Demeter, Alex, even Adrian) weren’t overly imposing or difficult to comprehend; they were the big shots, but you were able to get them without feeling like they were deviating from their characters too wildly in order for them to be seen as humans, not robots in the machine. There was one bit in particular I really appreciated, and that was the small moment between Demeter and her husband; it wasn’t all a veneer, they did really care about one another, it was just as it is in real life – a bit chaotic at home! Kinsella’s wonderful at that though, remembering to keep her situations real and recognisable.

I think that’s what makes this book superb; it’s not trying to be profound or over-the-top, it’s just holding up a mirror to life in an attempt to make us remember it’s ok to be not-so-perfect all the time. In fact, if anything, its the imperfections that make us better – look at Demeter having to admit to her staff that she wasn’t as glossy as she projected at the end, where they liked her all the more for it! We could learn a lot from the Katie-Demeter combo – ambition is great, but reality can be better.

Review: ‘Dream a Little Dream’ by Giovanna Fletcher

I was so excited for a break from some of my heavier-going reading with a bit of light, throwaway chick-lit. After this? Bring back the heavies.

If I’m honest, I forgot who half of the characters were at points in the story. When one character (a generic male/lad type) referred to ‘Sarah’, it took me ages to realise they were talking to the main character. I think that sums up the book; it was forgettable. It didn’t even hold up on the dream sequences, and I imagine this was because Dream Brett was becoming Real Brett and dreams weren’t necessary any more, but it just felt like the concept had been forgotten about. The characters were boring and had no substance to them, and I think if I’d heard Sarah ramble on about how beautiful and wonderful her friends were any more I’d have screamed; we all think our friends are the best, but that’s because we know them, and we never get to know any of these allegedly alright people.

The storyline, like the characters, was practically non-existent. There were bits of story that held promise but they were all a bit hurried in the end and neglected. The recce disaster could’ve been a real drama, the sad miscarriage of Carly could’ve been a heartbreaker, but nothing had been built up enough for me to give a damn. The latter was a little tacky in that respect; to marginalise something so painful didn’t leave a good impression.

Overall, it read like someone writing their diary (especially with the embarrassing reference to ‘Tom from Mcfly’ in one dream which just felt awkward) and trying to be a little too cool for themselves which left me cringing. I was sad because I love Giovanna Fletcher, and I’ve seen that her other books might be worth more of a try, so I won’t despair for too long – hopefully it’ll be second time lucky with Fletcher’s books!

 

Review: ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn

I won’t go into too much detail on this one because part of the thrill is in ¬†unravelling the truth from the lies, the real from the fake, and I’d truly hate the spoil that suspense for anyone.

What I will say is that you have to plough through the first few chapters, where I really took against the narratorial style and Nick’s character in particular, and then suddenly you’ll find yourself unbearably and frustratingly hooked. When you reach the crescendo of part one, part two comes along and smashes it into piece and completely ruins your mind whilst you try and reconcile good and evil with the twisted plot that lies before you. Hint: good and evil are proven to be nothing compared to the unfolding of this story.

Nick is not a likeable character, and I’ve never said that directly about a protagonist before; there’s normally something that makes them into your hero or, at the very least, your anti-hero, but Nick is just so self-conscious you can’t like what he does because it all feels so formulaic and calculated, and at time ridiculous. He sets himself up at the perfect candidate to be responsible for his wife’s disappearance, in short.

Amy…there’s little I can say, but I’ve never come across a character I was repulsed by and secretly admired in equal measure as much as Amy Elliot Dunne.

It’s a road so full of twists and turns in will make you feel exhilarated in your dizziness, but make it through the warped road ahead and you’ll be rewarded with an explosive and breathtaking thriller that will struggle to be topped…

Now where’s my next Gillian Flynn book…?

Review: ‘Funny Girl’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome

Birmingham Hippodrome played host to Sheridan Smith starring in the iconic musical, ‘Funny Girl’, in May, and there are few words to describe just how brilliant it was.

I have long been a fan of Sheridan Smith, ever since her days on ‘Two Pints’ (!), but I never knew what a set of lungs she had on her. Not only this, but she keeps in character when singing; her accent and mannerisms remain despite coming to the big musical number of the piece, and its refreshing to see a character stay true to themselves despite having to reach vocal crescendos. Her voice was stunning and her portrayal of Fanny Brice was amazing; she was, in every sense, a very funny girl.

The storyline is simple but I personally like that; I’m a bit fed up with convoluted stories with eight different plot lines to try and keep hold of. Fanny’s story, from childhood to her older age, is one of finding stardom and fame and coping with being a strong, financially secure woman in a man’s world. And ultimately, it’s this that brings part of her world down towards the end of the play, and it’s so fascinating because (I imagined at least) I’d be screaming at Arnstein to get over not being the biggest and best, but you do understand why he’s desperate to maintain his status; he has nothing else and it’s how he found Fanny in the first place, it’s all he has ever known. I suppose the equivalent is seeing an older generation fail to adopt new fads and levels of political correctness; Arnstein just isn’t ready to evolve into the new age man, and it’s rather sad to see.

The musical numbers themselves and choreography are dazzling, and there’s not a lull in the story as you lurch from show to show, following the rise and rise of Fanny Brice.

The tour continues throughout the year and, whether it’s Sheridan Smith or another leading lady, get yourself to the theatre for a night of laughter, emotional highs and lows, and to end your night with a big old smile on your face.