In the Nicki of Time – again!

Lighthouse Whitehaven 2I started this blog in 2014, my 50th year, having set myself the challenge of reading 50 books and seeing 50 films in one year.

By the end of 2014, I had not achieved my goals. I toyed with the idea of closing down the blog, shutting up shop and going home. But I recalled one of my children telling me that the man who patented lightbulbs tested thousands before found the one which would work. I’m not sure if the tale is true, but it sparked a lightbulb moment of my own! I don’t want to give up – failure is a learning opportunity and so I’m going to try again in 2015. 50 books and 50 films in one year.

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Do have a good look around and come back soon!

Film No 21 (2015) : Amy

amyAmy Winehouse’s biography could have been done differently; scouring the lookalike agencies would have turned up a Jewish Londoner with an unkempt beehive, pierced lip and heavy eyeliner. Several actresses could have pulled off Winehouse’s vulnerability. But no-one would be able to replicate the voice; not even come close. Which is why Asif Kapadia’s use of authentic footage, recordings, photographs, interviews, TV appearances and friends’ commentaries was the only way to tell Amy’s story.

There probably wasn’t a lot about Amy Winehouse that I hadn’t gleaned from the media before I went to see film. Prodigiously talented, but struggling with an eating disorder, alcoholism and substance abuse. This was all true, but as I watched ‘Amy’, the fact that I’d learned this from paparazzi photos and newspaper gossip columnists made me feel deeply ashamed. The film is unequivocal in its criticism of the ceaseless press intrusion which the singer endured. At one event, Winehouse visibly flinches and involuntarily puts up her hands to shield herself from the baying, flashing crowd of photographers wanting a piece of her: “don’t shout. don’t shout,” she implores. Even when her family intervened and took her to a hotel to try and persuade Amy to seek help to beat her addictions, reporters bagged the remaining rooms and stalked her on the patio. She didn’t sign up for that kind of attention, she wanted to sing.

Neither Amy’s husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, nor her father, Mitch Winehouse, come out well in Kapadia’s film. Both appear exploitative, keen to keep their cash cow on the road, often to Amy’s detriment. Others though. including Amy’s close female friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, her first manager Nick Shamansky and bodyguard Andrew Morris, express unassailable devotion to their troubled star.

Of course Amy’s own music and incomparable voice are the soundtrack to the film, which includes previously unreleased material together with some more well-known TV show appearances and concert performances.

Unbeknownst to my daughter and I at the time, we actually saw the film on the anniversary of Winehouse’s death from alcohol poisoning in 2011. What an absolute waste of a life. There really is so much to say about this film; I could easily watch it again, and probably again. Although it is about Amy Winehouse, it is actually about all of us – our insatiable thirst for celebrity news, and the devastation brought about by the lethal combination of fame and substance abuse. Utterly heartbreaking.

Book No 30 (2015) : Find Me

find meThe naming of the narrator of Laura van den Berg’s ‘Find Me‘ must have been ironic. She is called Joy. The most joyless protagonist ever to flicker across the screen of my Kindle. Living alone, working in a minimart and stealing cough medicine to blur the edges of her existence, I don’t think Joy Jones smiles or laughs more than three times throughout the whole of the book.

In this dystopian novel, a sickness has swept across America, causing its victims to suffer memory loss before death claims them. In some ways, Joy is fortunate as she is immune to the sickness and Dr Bek hopes that she and others like her will lead to a cure. But Joy’s live is pervaded by an overwhelming loneliness; abandoned at birth and placed with foster parents, she has no permanent relationships in her life. The whole narrative aches with her isolation, even when she has people around her. ‘Find Me’ is in two parts. In the first, Joy is in The Hospital where she is under contract to remain. In the second, she has escaped and sets out to track down her birth mother, whom she has recognised from a TV programme.

Although van den Berg’s work gets off to a promising start, the intrigue of Part 1 is totally obviated by the mind-numbing tedium of Part 2. I am sure the author had some profound secrets of the human soul to disclose, but I couldn’t find them amongst the interminable bus journeys, unlikeable characters and seemingly unconnected happenings and recollections. At least I figured out how the book derived its title; readers get totally bogged down by its meandering pathways and become so confused and disorientated that after a while a search party has to be despatched to to retrieve them. Seriously, I can think of far more enjoyable ways of losing myself, most of which would involve alcohol.

Thanks to NetGalley for the copy of this book.

Book No 29 (2015) : The Other Side of the World

other side of the worldCharlotte is happiest outside, wandering the fields, taking in nature. She loves the leaves and the seasons, the cool and unpredictable English weather. But the house she shares with her husband and their baby daughters is cramped and mouldy, leaving Henry yearning for warmth and sunshine.  When he persists with his suggestion that the family emigrate to Perth, Australia, Charlotte is exhausted by motherhood and too lacking in energy to resist. So they make the journey with their young family and Henry takes up his post at the University. His wife however, has no reason to leave the house and she becomes increasingly isolated and frustrated by motherhood. Until she meets Nicholas. When Henry has to travel to India to be with his ailing mother, Charlotte makes a decision which will change her life and her marriage, possibly irrevocably.

The descriptive powers of Stephanie Bishop make this book read like poetry; I could feel the oppressive Australian heat, English rain and Indian humidity. Whilst the plot is simple enough, the evocative writing makes this an engrossing read. It seemed to me a very honest picture of the realities of marriage and motherhood, as Charlotte loves her children but struggles with the loss of her own identity and craves time to be alone, to express her creativity through her painting. In her resentment, she ‘takes it out’ on her daughters; whilst no-one would condone such behaviour, Bishop’s portrayal makes Charlotte a highly credible character.

Born in India but sent to England, Henry struggles with his own sense of not belonging there; ‘England was always secondary.’ Once away from the fens, Charlotte yearns to return. The author uses ‘The Other Side of the World‘ to make her reader really think about what home is, and how the pull of a place can be overwhelmingly strong. What happens when our homing instincts conflict with where we believe our duties lie?

This is a thought-provoking and moving read, one of those rare books whose imprint lurks in the memory long after the final page.

Thank you to NetGalley for the copy of this novel.

Book No 28 (2015) : All My Puny Sorrows

puny sorrowsWhen I bought the paperback, the bookseller at the counter told me that this Miriam Toews’ novel was the best thing to have been written in the past five years. He even gave me an extra stamp on my loyalty card to prove the point. Such was his enthusiasm, I believed him wholeheartedly.

Elfrieda (Elf) and Yolandi (Yoli) are sisters, raised in a loving family. Elf is married and has a successful career as a concert pianist. Yoli has two children by two different men, is in the process of divorcing one of them and tries to earn a living by writing. Despite their differences, they are close, with shared, happy memories. But Elf is not happy now, in fact she is ‘weary of life’ and wants to die. She has made several unsuccessful suicide attempts and is in hospital recovering from the last one. Elf wants Yoli to help her get it right next time, to help her to die. The narrative focuses in the main upon Yoli’s life amidst visits to her sister’s bedside, with flashbacks to their earlier lives, as Yoli grapples with the dilemma of assisting Elf’s suicide.

I have read that ‘All My Puny Sorrows‘ is based upon Toews’ personal experiences, even though it is a fictional work. My problem was that the book just didn’t sustain my interest; if it had been a long article in a Sunday newspaper supplement, I would have read it and enjoyed it, but as an entire novel I found it unsatisfying. There are lots of humorous moments, many of which would make fantastic soundbites – however a successful book is more than a jigsaw puzzle of quotes. I also find myself irritated by novels which don’t use speech marks; whilst dialogue and action are simultaneous in real life, I find it difficult to follow when they are not delineated on the page.

In its defence, I feel obliged to say that this novel  won the 2014 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. It was also shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the 2015 Folio Prize for Literature, and the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize. It was longlisted for the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Lots of people, including the lovely guy in Waterstones, clearly rate the book very highly, but it just didn’t work for me. Even though I really, really wanted it to.

Book No 27 (2015) : The Lives of Stella Bain

stella bainI used to read Anita Shreve all the time, and ‘Fortune’s Rocks’ is up there with my favourite books. However, I lost interest in her work a bit after she produced a few duds. ‘The Lives of Stella Bain‘ has restored some of my faith.

Stella is a nurse’s aide in a field hospital during WW1 and she bears daily witness to harrowing scenes of pain and suffering as she assists the doctors working to help injured soldiers. ‘Always look the patient in the eye’, she is told. But when Stella herself is badly hurt in a blast, she comes round again, but has lost her memory. Driven by an inexplicable urge to reach ‘the Admiralty’, she makes her way to London. Arriving alone, she falls ill with pneumonia, only to be taken in by Lily and August Bridge. August is a cranial surgeon but he has a keen interest in psychiatry and the work of Sigmund Freud. He also has contacts in the Admiralty. With August’s help, Stella begins to recover her memory. Only to discover that she is not called Stella Bain at all, and the life she left held as many fears for her as those of the French battlefields.

It is not very often I say this as it’s usually the other way round, but this book could have been longer! For a quickish read there are a lot of sub-plots and themes, some of which warranted deeper exploration. There were echoes of Louisa Young’s ‘My Dear I Wanted to Tell You‘ as the issue of soldiers’ facial injuries features in Shreve’s novel. One of the things I particularly liked about this book though, were the various styles of narrative, including prose and description, correspondence and the transcript of a court case. Together with the settings in France, London and Canada, the mingled styles resulted in an interesting and engaging read. Definitely recommended and if you like ‘Stella Bain’, you might want to dip into some of Shreve’s other novels. As well as ‘Fortune’s Rocks and ‘Testimony, I’ve also enjoyed ‘The Weight of Water, The Pilot’s Wife and All He Ever Wanted. I read the last of these some years ago, but scenes from it still linger in my memory; proof that when Shreve gets it right, she produces compelling, memorable fiction.

Thanks to NetGalley for the digital review copy of this book.

Book No 26 (2015) : The Artificial Anatomy of Parks

anatomy of parksThe absolute best thing about Kat Gordon’s debut novel is the central character, Tallulah Park, often known as Tallie. She is twenty-one and she wants to be a nurse, but hasn’t got herself sorted out yet. Tallie lives in a grotty flat by herself and works as a waitress in a cheap cafe for a boss she hates. Her Dad is a doctor and she used to study his textbook, so her medical terminology and knowledge of anatomy is actually very good. This comes in handy when she gets a call from the hospital to say her father is unconscious in hospital following a heart attack. Tallie and her Dad’s sisters, Gillian and Vivienne, keep vigil by his bedside. It turns out though, that Tallie has not spoken to her Dad for 5 years and has lost contact with virtually all of her family other than a cousin, Starr. Using flashbacks to the past, the reasons for the rift between the emotionally damaged Tallulah and her family are gradually uncovered.

All of the characters in this novel are intriguing although I found the plot slightly less so. There is a big ‘reveal’ towards the end of the book which I would have preferred to have happened sooner, especially as the reader is made aware of the situation quite early on. It would have been interesting to see how Tallie re-adjusted after the revelation about her family.

The young Tallie really resonated with me. Gordon has captured very well the confusing world in which children sometimes live, catching snatches of adult conversation, witnessing behaviour they don’t understand and being fobbed off with half-hearted explanations. This is especially obvious when Tallie is bereaved and finds herself isolated from her peers. I read in the Acknowledgements that Tallulah was ‘a lot like’ Kat Gordon and wondered if the character was semi-autobiographical. Struggling with grief, not making friends and forming a close relationship with her grandmother, Tallie certainly brought to mind a younger me!

Thanks to NetGalley for the digital review copy of this book.

Book No 25 (2015) : The Versions of Us

versions of us

VERSION ONE

I loved it

This is a mightily clever book, constructed with the precision of a finely-tuned Swiss watch, hands sweeping through time. Jim Taylor and Eva Edelstein’s paths cross whilst they are under-graduates at Cambridge. They are drawn to one another and, after Jim has offered to fix the punctured tyre on Eva’s bike, he takes her for a drink. At least, that is what happens in Version One of their story. In Version Two, Eva and Jim barely speak to one another although he does check she is OK when she has to stop her bike suddenly to avoid a dog. And in Version Three of the tale, Jim sees Eva fall from her bike and, having stopped to help her, he falls as well. In love with her. Having been smitten instantly, Jim can’t bear to let her go and so he suggests they go to a pub on Barton Road.

So, there are three beginnings and each is the start of a different version of Jim and Eva’s lives. Apart and together, their stories weave through the years from 1958 to 2014. There are intersections between the various versions, marker points which anchor the narrative on common ground every now and again, to help readers keep their bearings.

The Versions of Us’ is an enchanting exploration of what our lives may have been if we had made different choices, or circumstances hadn’t been quite the same. The characters in the book are not chocolate-box stereotypes though; this is not a fluffy romance. Both Jim and Eva and their various partners and children are realistically flawed, they make both good and bad choices, have regrets and unfulfilled dreams. This debut novel (and it is hard to believe this is Laura Barnett’s first book) is a really absorbing read, already destined to be a summer hit.

VERSION TWO

I hated it

There are three versions of Jim and Eva’s lives and their stories weave through the years from 1958 to 2014.  Intersections between the various versions, marker points which anchor the narrative on common ground every now and again are supposed to help readers keep their bearings. But it was impossible to keep track of the thread of one version, especially once Jim and Eva started having families of their own and, by the later chapters, step-children and grand-children as well. Over 404 pages, by the end I was reading for the sake of it, still trying to piece together in my mind the past lives and context of the characters in the version I was reading. One reviewer said she got so frustrated that she tackled all the Version Ones first, then the Twos and Threes; I wish I’d thought of that!

Whilst there is no doubt that this is a mightily clever book, constructed with the precision of a finely-tuned Swiss watch, the framework of the book obscured the enjoyment. I feel as if the narrative suffered as a result of the format, and the author would have been more expansive if she hadn’t been constrained by the novel’s structure. It was difficult to really get under the skin of Eva and Jim as just when you are getting to know them, you skip chapter to another version of their lives.

As well as the confusion trying to keep track of the parallel narratives, the characters themselves lead rather joyless lives. Infidelity seemed to be the norm, relationships floundered, there was sickness, alcoholism, unfulfilment and death. Some more light and laughter wouldn’t have gone amiss.

VERSION THREE

I can’t make up my mind

Having taken quite some time to finish this book, mainly because at times I found it difficult to follow the versions of Jim and Eva’s lives, I am still unsure what I thought  of it. Whilst this debut novel (and it is hard to believe this is Laura Barnett’s first book) is a mightily clever book, constructed with the precision of a finely-tuned Swiss watch, there were parts of it where I was concentrating so much upon remembering which version I was in, that my enjoyment of the story was curtailed. It was almost as if I couldn’t relax into the experience!

But the writing itself is insightful and moving. Jim, Eva and their families are not given to extravagant proclamations of emotion, but there is nevertheless a powerful undercurrent in the book which highlights the every-dayness of love. Love which binds together couples, parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends. It is not always an exciting, carefree emotion, but more one that forms the bedrock of our lives, if we are fortunate. Barnett expresses these ideas with a great sensitivity as Eva and Jim weave through the years from 1958 to 2014. There is some exquisite prose: in Part 2, Version 3 (Sandworms), Eva, trapped in an unhappy marriage, takes to the Suffolk coast with her mother and daughter. The writing was so poignant it made me cry, as it did towards the end of the novel.

The Versions of Us‘ is already destined to be a summer hit and I definitely think readers will get the most out of it when they can immerse themselves in Jim and Eva’s various worlds for a reasonable length of time – dipping in and out makes it harder to follow the three versions. It will also be a great book club choice as there is a lot to talk about!

Book No 24 (2015) : Shoes for Anthony

anthonyEmma Kennedy is an attractive blonde, born in Corby and educated at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. As far as I can tell, she has never been an eleven year-old boy. Which makes her first fiction novel for adults quite an achievement; Anthony’s schoolboy perspective is insightful, sensitive and amusing.

In WW2 Wales, Anthony’s Mam has more to worry about and pay for than shoes for her youngest child. With her pitworker husband and two sons, as well as daughter Bethan, plus Anthony and herself, there are a lot of mouths to feed on wartime rations. So Ant has to make do with hand-me-down wellies which make him smell like a ‘mouldy log.’ But Anthony doesn’t mind too much, although he does hoard a picture of his dream brogues. Times are tough but Ant has his mates, a group of lads from the village with whom he spends time scrapping, hanging out in the den, climbing, exploring and getting into boy scrapes. But everything changes the day that a German plane crashes into the mountain overlooking Treherbert. Its occupants are all dead when the villagers arrive. But they soon discover there was a survivor.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from the book as the only other thing I have read of Kennedy’s is the hilarious ‘The Tent, The Bucket and Me.’ ‘Shoes for Anthony‘ is quite different. The author herself describes it as a thriller, but that is not immediately apparent from the relatively slow start. However, the pace gradually picks up until one minute I was laughing and the next crying. This was a genuinely moving read, beautifully recounted and with a very special human touch. I thoroughly recommend it.

Even if your usual style is more Givenchy than galoshes, you are guaranteed to be captivated by Anthony and his wartime community.

Film No 20 (2015) : Spy

spyWell, who’d have thought it? Fat people can be good at their jobs. Amazing isn’t it?

What’s more, they can fall in love with beautiful people, like CIA agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Jeez, talk about Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) punching above her not inconsiderable weight. Don’t worry though, just in case anyone in the film audience might be misled into thinking that the most corpulent member of the CIA office team may be able to make a positive contribution to the protection of national security, we will put her into an array of unflattering, stereo-typed and ridiculous characters when she goes undercover. Tell you what, we will also contrast her with several stick-thin actresses just to push the point home. Yet, Susan Cooper still comes out on top. Despite being a lump.

Do I sound scathing? More than a little. My co-viewers accused me of over-analysing. Maybe I am a little hyper-sensitive being of the chunky monkey variety myself, but my son did concede that ‘Spy’ would not have worked, been anywhere near as funny, had Susan Cooper been a breadstick.

Susan Cooper is the voice in Fine’s ear. Using advanced technology, she is able to track and monitor the agent’s precise location and direct him out of danger. When Fine is killed in action, Cooper persuades her boss Elaine (Alison Janney) to let her go undercover to hunt out the villains. The mission takes Cooper to Paris, Rome and Budapest as she is sent to track and report on the movements of Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) and Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale). Having not been out in the field for some time, Cooper’s skills are rusty, but she grows in confidence and before long is wielding pistols and hanging off helicopters with the best of them.

I am not daft enough not to be able to see the comedy value of the film. It has a smart script, peppered with witty one-liners and quotable moments. It also has an array of glorious characters, particularly the wonderfully ambigious Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz) and egotistical braggart Rick Ford (Jason Statham). The settings are glamorous and some of the action sequences nail-bitingly brilliant; notably, a fight between Cooper and Lia (Nargis Fakhri) in a hotel kitchen, where the choreography is stunning, a decent car chase and several exciting punch-ups. Miranda Hart stars as Nancy but to my mind, she is one of those actors (along with Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy and Billy Connolly) who just play themselves all the time.

‘Spy’ will make you laugh. I just couldn’t get over the insidious underlying messages. To me, laughing at fat people is a cheap gag.

Book No 23 (2015) : Song of the Sea Maid

song of the sea maidPersonally, I am not a big fan of fridge magnets with twee mottos, but there is one I do like. It says: “Well behaved women never made the history books“. If Dawnay Price, the protagonist of Rebecca Mascull’s second novel had been a real person, she would definitely have made the history books. In fact, she would probably have been writing them.

Dawnay (there is an explanation for her odd name, but I won’t spoil it) has a rotten start in life in mid-18thC London. A homeless ragamuffin, she lives a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets until a chance encounter sees her taken in by an orphanage. Once there, the young foundling risks being despatched to the workhouse by secretly teaching herself to read and write. Her efforts do not go unrewarded as when local benefactor Mr Woods agrees to educate a child, Dawnay is chosen. Under the dedicated tutelage of Mr Applebee, the naturally gifted Dawnay thrives. Intelligent, curious and determined, she is drawn to the wonders of the natural world and resolves to travel abroad in order to explore and develop some of her ideas about the origins of life, amongst other things. Achieving her ambition to see beyond the shores of Britain, Dawnay secures a passage to a small group of Portugese islands known as the Berlengas. A passionate love affair, natural disasters and the risk of being ostracised by polite society do not deter Dawnay from her chosen path as an explorer, scientist, philosopher and writer.

Firmly rooted in history, but not at all dense, this is an absorbing read. Dawnay reminded me just how much we take for granted in the West, including women’s education, free speech and some semblance of equal rights (although we still have a way to go!). Unfettered by social conventions, which were extremely rigid in the 1750s, she forges her own path in life. Her ideas are heretical yet she refuses to be subdued. This book is a testament to self-belief, intellect and hard work. With Tim Hunt’s comments about #distractinglysexy women in laboratories recently, ‘Song of the Sea Maid‘ explores some extremely topical themes.

I can wholeheartedly recommend this book; it is published today by Hodder & Stoughton. Although not a YA book per se, it would make a fantastic gift for any young female who is struggling with identity and finding her place in the world. ‘Song of the Sea Maid‘ is a positive affirmation of what it is to be sexy and smart; the two are not mutually exclusive.