The Tempest v Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood rewrites a Shakespeare masterpiece

As a Patron of the Royal Shakespeare Company, I am lucky enough to get advance notice of the next season’s productions and when I learned that the RSC were performing The Tempest, I was thrilled. It’s not a play I had seen before and nor did I know the story.

Imagine then, if you will, how excited I was to learn that one of my favourite authors, Margaret Atwood, had been commissioned to rewrite the story of The Tempest in novel form. Bingo!

The Tempest starts with a great storm, during which the King of Naples and his entourage, including the Duke of Milan, are shipwrecked. Watching this drama unfold is Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda.

It becomes clear that Prospero has conjured the storm himself with the help of the sprite, Ariel, because this group are his enemies. Indeed, the Duke of Milan is in fact his brother, Antonio, who betrayed him for the title of Duke some twelve years previously.

Now, to Hag-Seed. Our Prospero has become one Felix Duke, renowned theatre director who gets unceremoniously sacked and ends up working in a prison where he teaches Shakespeare to the inmates. His latest project is… Yup, you guessed it, The Tempest.

Felix’s Miranda is not real, she is a memory he has recreated and transposed into the present as a mechanism to deal with the grief at losing his daughter.

Estelle pulls strings for Felix, both inside the prison and in organising the visit of the politicos. She is the Ariel to Felix’s Prospero, creating the ‘storm’ which brings them to him.

Just like Prospero, Felix exacts his revenge during the production but afterwards feels strangely unfulfilled. The result is an anticlimax. What does this teach us about the nature of revenge, methinks? Is it really worth it? Or shall we just hold our heads high, despite the injustice inflicted by those who wronged us?

All in all, a fantastic production of The Tempest by the RSC, as one would expect, and an amazing work by Ms Atwood. Again, no surprises there. Well worth the time on both counts, if you have the opportunity.

To Walk Invisible: a Tribute to a Yorkshire family

Goodness! If you want heart-wrenching drama, you need look no further than the North York moors. Last night I watched To Walk Invisible, a BBC dramatisation of the life of the Bronte sisters.

To my shame, although both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are two of my most-loved ‘classic’ novels, I must confess I knew little of the struggles of their respective authors’ domestic lives.

I was introduced to these classic novels partly by my mother, but also due to reading lists for English Literature classes at school. I read Jane Austen many years ago (during my school days, in fact) and her novels enjoy legendary status across the world, even today. But she produced stories that examine the quest for a suitable matrimonial match among the genteel English society into which she was born. They are hardly life or death situations, per se.

Austen couldn’t possibly have imagined the frustration of three sisters, united only in their despair for their wayward brother as he succumbed to his demons doing his level best to tear the family apart as he did so.

Few women back then published novels. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), writing around the same time, wrote under a pseudonym in order to be taken seriously. The Brontes were a well-educated family for their position, being daughters of the widowed Reverend Bronte, but their education appears to have been somewhat haphazard, starting off at a school, but then being removed by their father and taught a little at home after their two older sisters (Maria and Elizabeth) had contracted tuberculosis.

It occurs to me that perhaps it is only in enduring the seemingly bottomless pit of such torment that we, as writers, find tales of such extraordinary passion. They do say that it is only by knowing sadness that we can identify happiness when we find such a thing.

I shall ponder on this thought as I begin compiling my Must Do list for 2017.

Item #1 – a visit to Haworth!

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

I have just got to tell you about this book I just finished. It’s another great choice from the book group that I joined last summer (thank you ladies!).

The book is set in the not-too-distant future. We learn that NASA has been making trips to Mars for some time. Sometimes these are unmanned trips to drop off supplies and sometimes manned voyages to conduct research. A tragic accident during one such journey results in astronaut Mark Watney being left behind after his crewmates presume him dead.

A large proportion of the book is written in Mark’s own words in the form of a logbook. We learn early on that he is an incredible individual with an astonishing sense of humour which never fails him, even in the most challenging of situations. It goes without saying that he is extremely clever and resourceful; his scientific, and especially botanical, knowledge saves his life on more than one occasion.

The reader gains a wonderful insight into the characters back on Earth, too. We meet the guys at NASA, desperately gathering the cleverest minds they have to put together a rescue plan and get him back home. I could really picture the billions of people glued to their TV screens watching him via satellite as he goes about his day on the Red Planet. We learn a little of his cremates too, as they learn he is still alive and mount a rescue operation to go back to Mars and collect him.

The author captures the reader’s imagination very quickly, and holds it throughout. I couldn’t put this book down. I’m not a scientific person, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the technical content, but from what I know of the author, I don’t get the impression he would have messed up.

This is a story of overcoming adversity, of soldiering on against all the odds, and ultimately, a tale of triumphant victory. I am not at all surprised this was made into a film. It lends itself very much to the Hollywood disaster movie genre very well.

512e-pP0zGL._SX315_BO1,204,203,200_For those of you who have seen the film, I understand it’s also very good. It’s on my To Watch list. This is almost, but not quite, as long as my To Read list, which means it’s unlikely I’ll get round to it any time soon.

Awesome book though. It had me in tears on more than one occasion. A solid 9.5 out of 10 from me.

Why not a nice round 10? I hear you ask. Well, there’s a very good reason for that. I have a thing for geeks. Mr Watney is my favourite geek out there right now, and I have a teeny crush on him and I feel this emotional attachment may be clouding my judgement. So there!

Gone Girl – Is it worth the hype?

I was very late coming to this particular party, I’ll admit. Plus, I often find that I don’t agree with creative works which have been highly-acclaimed in the media (the movie Forrest Gump springs to mind here – I just didn’t get it).

So, I was more than pleasantly surprised when my mum recommended this to me. She has an eye for a good story, my mother, and we often enjoy the same authors, so I thanked her for lending me her copy and I launched into it with glee.

Let me say one thing first of all: the phrase “all is not what it seems” is not powerful enough for this book. It takes it to a whole new level. Read on…

Amy is married to Nick Dunne. They are the perfect couple, or so it seems, until Amy disappears on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. The police believe she has been murdered by Nick, a theory which is bolstered by the fact that hergonegirl friends reveal to them that she was afraid of him. But he swears it isn’t true. On reading more into Nick’s character, we also realise he’s just not capable of anything like that.

Half the book is written as journal entries made by Amy, starting from the night they first met, and we learn how their relationship developed into what it is now. But, make no mistake, Diary Amy is very different from the woman that Nick believes he has married. And therein lies the problem with their marriage.

This is a thriller like no other. It sinks into our minds and searches through our insecurities and, like Amy, we learn that on many occasions, we too have been lured into becoming someone else for what we think is the benefit of our relationships.

This book will question how you view your partner. Do you really know them inside out? You may think you do, but do you, really? Do you support and encourage them, or do you hinder them in some way? Do you feel they stand in your way, perhaps?

As a singleton, I can ask these questions of my previous relationships and I know why they all failed. For those of you who are attached to someone, happily or otherwise, maybe you might find some of those questions difficult. But ask them you should, of yourself at least, if not your partner too.

Now, I am not saying this book will now necessarily mean that my next relationship will be a fantastic success, but I will certainly consider asking myself those questions when I meet someone new. Perhaps a good strategy as I find myself at the end of 2015 and staring a New Year in the face…

Here’s wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

Liz xxx

To Kill A Mockingbird – Is it still relevant today?

I was absolutely thrilled when someone suggested we read this for my local bookclub last month.

Snip20151013_1

Having just read the sequel a few months ago, I was very much looking forward to getting into this one again. I say ‘again’ – we actually read this at school, and I remembered that I had really enjoyed it.

I have re-read a number of books from childhood recently. Regular readers may remember my post about the Lord of the Flies and how being an adult can change our perspective on a story. I did wonder if a second reading of Harper Lee’s classic tale would have a similar effect.

There were lots of things about the story which I had completely forgotten. The touching sub-plot of Boo Radley and his affection for Jem and Scout springs to mind.

I remember as a child there was a house in our street which looked a bit neglected compared to the others. It desperately needed a lick of paint and a tidy up of the garden, and that probably would have done it. But to us children it was the topic of much gossip, as was the older guy who lived there, apparently alone. We used to make up stories about how he had murdered all the other children in the neighbourhood, and we used to wonder which of us would be next. (Jeez, I just got a shiver up my spine thinking about that!)

I had also forgotten the court verdict after the infamous trial, although looking at the story as a whole, it almost doesn’t matter.

So, I arrived at bookclub last month full of lots of things to say. Inevitably, most of us thought exactly the same thing: this story is most definitely as relevant today as it ever has been.

*** SPOILER ALERT *** For those of you who have NOT read the sequel, please do not read beyond this point!

I came across this great article from the Huffington Post which discusses what we really think of Atticus Finch (a literary hero so great that his first name is a popular baby name for white males in the US). Especially when we learn that he does not quite deserve the pedestal upon which we have perched him for such a long time.

Consider too the recent uprisings in the US, including KKK rallies and the figures relating to civilian killings of members of the African American population by white police officers. This is very sobering reading and tells us that racism is, in fact, alive and well in certain areas of the United States. Shame on them.

The Sociological Spectre of Apathy

This is going to be one of those blog posts which asks more questions than it answers, so please bear with me. I like to prompt debate about things which matter to me; this is one of them.

books1I have a friend I’ve known for half my life. I don’t see him very often and when we do meet up, like many friends, the conversation revolves around work, family and mutual friends.

Recently, he happened to mention that his eleven year-old son hadn’t performed as well in school exams as he had expected, and my friend was concerned about this.

Now, his son goes to a fee-paying school. Both parents work – his wife runs a lucrative domicilary care business and he is a company director in another firm as well. This is not a family that is short of resources in the slightest.

“I bet I know one reason why,” I said, and shot him a knowing look. “When was the last time he read a book for pleasure?”

“Oh, I dunno,” came the reply. “Reading’s not his thing really.”

…not his thing…

I shivered.

Sadly, I fear that my friend’s son is not alone. I hear this much more often than I would like to, and it fills me with dismay.

books4

Studies have shown (click here to read more) that those who read fiction are more inclined to be quick to empathise with others and especially when this reading skill is developed in younger children. It teaches them to detect and understand how certain actions affect the feelings of other people.

We all know how a good story allows you to feel what the characters feel. How many of us have laughed and cried, felt the glow of romantic love or the despair of grief, when reading a story? This is the power of a good author. My favourite books are those which have taken me on an emotional roller-coaster. I want to be reaching for the tissues when I read, I want to be moved.

But for children like my friend’s son, brought up with no books in the house other than his mother’s nursing textbooks, what does this do a child’s emotional development?

Not having my own children, it may be inappropriate of me to comment upon the upbringing of other people’s offspring. But, actually, I think there’s a wider issue here.

If children don’t learn to empathise, what sort of people do they turn out to be? Isn’t that sort of the definition of a sociopath? And, are we convinced that enough emphasis is put upon reading books for pleasure, both in schools and at home?

books2

As a little girl, my mum used to take me to the local library. In the middle of the children’s area I remember seeing an enormous wooden box, full of brightly-coloured books for young children. (It probably wasn’t all that big, but I was only a toddler at the time!)

Mum tells me, even now, that I would have favourites that I kept asking for, week in, week out. The poor woman must have been bored to tears having to read the same books over and over! But, I am eternally grateful to her for bestowing upon me the greatest gift in the world. For, in teaching me to love literature, she taught me how to escape this world and travel to far-flung places, to have adventures beyond my wildest dreams.

I flew with dragons; I fought demons and befriended angels; I toppled evil tyrants and replaced them on the thrones of lands far, far away; and, I fell in love, over and over and over, with characters who possessed magical abilities, and yet, ultimately, very human traits.

My life would have been immeasurably different without books. Certainly, I doubt I would ever have become a writer. In my opinion, it’s shameful that there are children growing up in our society without being shown the door into this enchanting world of books.

So, I would welcome your comments here. What are your experiences of teaching your own or other people’s children to read? Is it really that important, or am I just banging on about something which is none of my business, being childfree?

books3

Review: From Cornwall to the Andes, Barbara Webb

I don’t read a great deal of non-fiction but I was drawn to this book, partly due to the striking painting on the cover (which I later found out is the author’s own work), and partly because of its acutely personal nature.

“How brave!” I thought. “What great courage this lady must have to share such a private and emotional journey in such a public way.”

I find I am drawn to people who display characteristics such as courage and strength. Webb seemed to be just such a person and so I decided to purchase this little book.

The first thing that is clear is that the author is no shrinking violet. This is a lady who has travelled all over the world, visiting countries and cultures of which most of us can only dream.

Yet not even such experiences can shield us from the very human condition of profound grief when a loved one dies.

I can only imagine how difficult it must have been, after such a traumatic period in one’s life, to make the decision to commit to paper the journey from her late husband’s diagnosis through his death and into the unknown territory of widowhood.

But the beauty of this story is that there is no wallowing in self-pity amongst the pages. The illness and subsequent deterioration in her husband’s condition is handled with care and tenderness, which many in a similar position will find of great comfort.

Instead, we find a moving tribute to her late husband and a candid reflection of her own despair after his death. How lucky we are that the author found herself and created such a wonderful new life to share with us.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It moved me to tears on occasion, but between the pages lie also joy and hope, and this makes it an inspiration for those with a loved one also suffering from terminal illness.

You can find out more about Barbara Webb and her books below:

Website: http://www.cornwall2theandes.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/cornwall2andes

 

Review: Labyrinth, Kate Mosse

This is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year so far, and I don’t say that lightly.

I love reading books where the action takes place along two different time lines, but so few authors can really get this right. I believe Kate Mosse has done a superb job with Labyrinth.

In 13th century France, the spirited and adventurous Alais, daughter to a leading political figure in Carcassonne, becomes aware of a greater truth that her father entrusts to her, that of the safekeeping of ancient Egyptian texts belonging to the Cathars. Her people are being persecuted, however, and she must keep the books safe from the hands of the Northern French Crusaders who are currently marching south, pillaging land and possessions as they go.

In the present day, Alice joins an archaeological dig in the Languedoc region and inadvertently disturbs a curious burial site, bringing Alais’ story to light. Everywhere she goes there are echoes of the past, threatening her sanity and ultimately, her life.

Mosse never allows the two plots to coincide. Instead, they run seamlessly alongside one another, merging only at the very end when the reader gains a beautiful understanding as if, we too have been entrusted with this sacred knowledge of a Universal Truth.

This is a great book for celebrating the role of women in fiction. Both leading characters are women, and neither is constrained by traditional, stereotypical female roles. There is a useful glossary at the back for interpreting the Occitan language (something akin to Old French, but with distinct differences), although this is hardly necessary, and her Author’s Note explains all historical references and separates the fact from fiction.

I was never a fan of history at school. Indeed, it is through reading wonderful books such as these, that the fire in my own belly ignites and I want to write my own stories about the past. I shall certainly be reading many more from Mosse, including her recent offering, The Taxidermist’s Daughter.

Sad News About Lily

I write this post with a heavy heart.

My gorgeous Lily-Cat is sick. She has CKD (Chronic Kidney Disease). She’s only eight years’ old. I did think I would have had a good few years yet before I had to worry about this kind of thing.

Lily1

Luckily, it was picked up early during an appointment for dental surgery.
The vet was concerned about her losing weight so decided to take blood while she was under the anaesthetic.  The results were conclusive. Creatine levels were well above normal.

The vet noted that she was dehydrated and kept her in overnight to administer intravenous fluids and stabilise her so she could undergo the arranged dental work.

I toddled into the surgery to see her on my way home from work that evening. It was a funny sight.

She was lying on a blanket with her paw in a cast to prevent her from trying to remove the fluid line. As soon as she spotted me, she was over the moon. She almost sprang up on her feet and started meowing and purring.

The veterinary nurses told me they hadn’t got a stroke of work done all day because she had learned how to attract their attention.
Whenever a nurse walked past the cage, she thrust out a well-placed paw to swipe them on the arm! Inevitably, this would lead to a stroke of her head, some fuss and a friendly voice.

Despite my sadness, I could see she was in both good spirits and good hands. Everyone loved her. They said she was the most beautiful cat they had ever seen, and I have to agree.

Lily has been such a constant in my life. She has been with me through a divorce, and my other ups and downs. She’s there with me when I’m feeling under the weather – she sits on the bed and watches to make sure I’m not too bad. She licks my tears when I cry and she provides companionship when I’m lonely. There have been times in my life when I have felt she is my closest friend.

When I arrived home from the vets that evening, I held my head in my hands and sobbed.

Regular followers of this blog will know how I saved her life when she was a tiny kitten, suffering hypothermia. I remember holding her in one hand while I held a small bottle of warm milk to her mouth, willing her to regain consciousness.

Well, she was a fighter then, and she’s a fighter now. According to the vet, she’s unlikely to be feeling at all ill at this point. Other than a little weight loss, she’s not yet symptomatic.

She is still hunting a little and still playful in the right mood.
Despite a change to the special renal diet, she seems to be eating well too.

So, the prognosis is good, and as long as she keeps eating well and her charming personality continues to shine, then it’s likely we shall have a few more years together before I have to say goodbye.

This experience has driven home the message that we should cherish our nearest and dearest while they are still with us.
I am lucky that I have been given a warning so I can spend more time with her while she still has a good quality of life.

I’m sure the family of the late Robin Williams wish they had had this opportunity.

Lily1

http://felinecrf.org/

Magical Writing Retreat: Kerivoa

I can’t believe it’s only three weeks since I returned from The Write Retreat. It feels like such a long time ago now.

It was the first time I’d ever driven abroad, having previously always been on city break holidays where you walk around everywhere, or beach holidays which involve far too much alcohol to even consider driving. So, a new adventure awaited me as soon as I trundled off the ferry at Roscoff.

The journey to Katherine’s was very straightforward. I knew in advance that the French tend not to label their signs with road numbers as we do, so instead I chose to navigate by towns. The journey from Roscoff therefore, involved following signs first to Morlaix, then Guingamp, then Bourbriac, where Katherine met me and we drove up to the farmhouse.

Sipping bubbles on arrival. Katherine is such a wonderful hostess!
Sipping bubbles on arrival. Katherine is such a wonderful hostess!

The site of the farmhouse is an old Bronze Age settlement (the old bread oven still stands a little way off the main track) and I got a sense of something very special about the place as soon as I arrived. The tranquility is almost palpable.

As regular followers of this blog will be only too aware, I adore animals, so I was overjoyed when Katherine’s Westie, Kerrig, put in an appearance, closely followed by Merlin, the gorgeous black Labrador and finally, the wonderful cat, Fifi, who took a particular shine to me for the entire week. I fancy he sensed I was missing Lily so made it his mission to fulfil surrogate pet duty!

Easter Saturday meant a trip to Guingamp to sample a little shopping and practice my very rusty French. Luckily, I got by rather well and purchased gifts for family and friends before setting off back to the farmhouse for Katherine’s delicious cooking and my writing. (Well, that was the reason I was there, after all!)

Guingamp Market square, Easter Saturday. The obligatory visit to the chocolaterie!
Guingamp Market square, Easter Saturday. The obligatory visit to the chocolaterie!

Sadly, that was the last we saw of sunshine for a good few days. However, I was there to write so it didn’t matter a jot. And, write I did. Lots. Over the course of the week, I wrote no less than seven chapters of my new book.

When I arrived at Kerivoa, I had three chapters completed for what I thought was going to be a short erotic novella. This has now morphed into a larger work, incorporating more characters and venturing off into a paranormal romance direction with just a couple of erotic scenes. Funny how that happens!

Beautiful Fifi - just the most perfect muse one could possibly wish for!
Beautiful Fifi – just the most perfect muse one could possibly wish for!

I achieved so much during that week, that I am now afflicted with trying to recreate that atmosphere here at home, which is easier said than done. I have the cat, yes, but I also have a full-time job, laundry, cleaning, tidying and other procrastinating, which is driving me mad.

On top of those things, I also have some wonderful friends who are writing and publishing new books which I want to read, so I do feel as though I’m spinning lots of plates right now. Having said that, it’s a fantastic feeling to have, as I know I shall never suffer from boredom ever again!

Writing outdoors, with Fifi and Merlin.
Writing outdoors, with Fifi and Merlin.

The best single thing about my week was Katherine’s support and encouragement to follow the story and her gift for creating a truly magical and inspiring setting, even when the heavens opened and I was mooching around in my PJs and slippers!

So, back to the retreat I shall have to go. Probably not this year, what with Swanwick looming and not being able to take any more time off work than I already have planned. I believe I shall make it a priority for 2015 though.

Watch this space!