In the Nicki of Time – take 3!

Lighthouse Whitehaven 2I started this blog in 2014, my 50th year, having set myself a 50/50 challenge. Read 50 books and see 50 films in one year.

By the end of 2014, I hadn’t achieved my goals. I toyed with the idea of closing down the blog. 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 didn’t want to give up – failure is a learning opportunity and so I tried again last year. 50 books and 50 films in one year. I did better in 2015, managing to read (and review) 50 books – but fell short of the films total having watched just 31.5.

My failure has irked me, nagged at my conscience. So, here I am for the third time. Third time lucky, don’t they say? I’d say I have more than a 50/50 chance of success!

I hope you enjoy exploring the blog and find some inspiration for your own reading or viewing. You are welcome to get in touch, I love hearing from visitors to the blog!

The Books 2015 : I did it!

Book pile 2015Having failed my self-imposed challenge to read 50 books in 2014, I paced myself more steadily this year – and I did it! 50 books in a year.

I’ve figured out a couple of things on the way. Firstly, working my way through a book a week was not going to happen by accident; I really had to commit to the task and prioritise reading over other things occasionally. To anyone I have ignored because my nose has been stuck in a book, I apologise!

The other discovery I made is that whilst the Kindle App on my IPad hosts an impressive collection of books (review copies are usually downloads), digital reading doesn’t really do it for me. Maybe its because my IPad doesn’t have that distinctive new-paper-and-ink smell, but I just don’t absorb books in the same way on a device as from real pages in a real book. No doubt someone eminent and learned has researched this phenomenon and can find as many readers whose experience is the exact opposite of mine, but my preference is still for a paperback than a gadget.

There have been some high highs and some low lows during my literary year and I have had a bit of fun organising my 2015 books into a list. I rather like lists and this one is self-explanatory; everything I’ve read, from what I liked best to what I liked least!

In my top 3 books were Bella Pollen’s ‘The Summer of the Bear‘ and ‘Song of the Sea Maid‘ by Rebecca Mascull. Both gave me a great deal of reading pleasure and I wholeheartedly recommend them. The latter is due out in paperback in 2016 and I’m planning to read Mascull’s first novel ‘The Visitors‘ next year. Emma Kennedy’s ‘The Tent, the Bucket and Me‘ is probably the funniest book I have ever read in my whole life (although Bill Bryson and Stephen Fry have given me plenty of laugh out loud moments) and I defy anyone not to be cheered by it.

I hope my reviews have given my followers some ideas about what to read, and maybe what to avoid.

1 Summer of the Bear (The) by Bella Pollen
2 Tent, the Bucket and Me (The) by Emma Kennedy
3 Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull
4 Paying Guests (The) by Sarah Waters
5 Valentine Grey by Sandi Toksvig
6 Sea Legs by Guy Grieve
7 You by Joanna Briscoe
8 Narrow Road to the Deep North (The) by Richard Flanagan
9 More Lives than One by Libby Purves
10 Light Behind the Window (The) by Lucinda Riley
11 Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
12 Invention of Wings (The) by Sue Monk Kidd
13 H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
14 A to Z of You and Me (The) by James Hannah
15 Shoes for Anthony by Emma Kennedy
16 Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
17 Lives of Stella Bain (The) by Anita Shreve
18 Children Act (The) by Ian McEwan
19 Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blackman
20 Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
21 Girl Who Wasn’t There (The) by Ferdinand von Schirach
22 I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh
23 Sea Sisters (The) by Lucy Clarke
24 Secret History (The) by Donna Tartt
25 Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham
26 Something to Hide by Deborah Moggach
27 Taxidermist’s Daughter (The) by Kate Mosse
28 The Blue by Lucy Clarke
29 We were Liars by E Lockhart
31 Harvest by Jim Crace
30 Other Side of the World (The) by Stephanie Bishop
32 Last Pier (The) by Roma Burke
33 Daughter’s Secret (The) by Eva Holland
36 Dear Nobody by Berlie Doherty
35 Girl On The Train (The) by Paula Hawkins
34 Miniaturist (The) by Jessie Burton
37 Secrets of the Lighthouse by Santa Montefiore
38 Versions of Us (The) by Laura Barnett
39 Waiting for Doggo by Mark B Mills
40 Best of Times (The) by Penny Vincenzi
41 Cuckoo’s Calling (The) by Robert Galbraith
42 Night Guest (The) by Fiona McFarlane
43 Senator’s Wife (The) by Sue Miller
44 Artificial Anatomy of Parks (The) by Kat Gordon
45 Bad Blood by Arne Dahl
46 Dolly by Susan Hill
47 Find Me by Laura van den Berg
48 Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester
49 All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
50 Girl on the Ferryboat (The) by Angus Peter Campbell 

And what about 2016? Well my Christmas stocking included Guy Grieve’s ‘The Call of the Wild‘, Paul Heiney’s ‘One Wild Song‘ and ‘The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair‘ by Joel Dicker, so my TBR pile is already stacking up. I’m also looking forward to reading Clare Fuller’s ‘Our Endless Numbered Days‘ and ‘A Year of Marvellous Ways‘ by Sarah Winman. Reading is as essential to my wellbeing as oxygen so I’ll be reading on. I will continue with the blog, but am undecided about whether to repeat the 50/50 challenge – watch this space!

The Films 2015 : wack, wack, oops

oscarsOh, come on. How difficult can it be? Every week, watch a film and write about it in an interesting, informative and (if appropriate) amusing way. But, for the second year in a row, I have failed in my challenge to view 50 movies in a year. I only managed 31. Actually, it is 31.5 as I fell asleep half way through ‘A Little Chaos‘ this evening – sorry, Kate (Winslet).

Part of my failure has been that I was also trying to read 50 books during the year, and reading is my first love – I’d rather read a novel than watch a film. Nevertheless, there have been some great viewing moments over the past 12 months and I’ve ordered the movies I did see into the following list, best to worst. Just for fun, there is no critical appraisal here!

What was your must-see film this year? I started 2015 with ‘The Theory of Everything‘ and Eddie Redmayne re-appears in ‘The Danish Girl‘, released tomorrow. I’m planning to get to the cinema to see it – and maybe 49 other films in 2016!

1 Theory of Everything (The)
2 What We Did On Our Holiday
3 Imitation Game (The)
4 Amy
5 Mona Lisa Smile
6 Still Alice
7 Pride
8 Boyhood
9 Life of Pi
10 Insurgent
11 Vera Drake
12 Les Miserables
13 Road to Perdition
14 Talented Mr Ripley (The)
15 Lion King (The)
16 Finding Nemo
17 Amazing Grace
18 Young Victoria (The)
19 Lucy
20 Rush
21 Vanilla Sky
22 Fast and Furious 6
23 The Descendants
24 Hunger Games (The) – Mockingjay Part 1
25 White House Down
26 Maze Runner (The)
27 Parkland
28 Secret Window
29 Girl, Interrupted
30 Saving Mr Banks
31 Spy

 

 

 

Book No 50 (2015) : The A-Z of You and Me

the a-zA chance conversation over a lunch table lead me to read this book sooner than I may have. I was bragging about having ghost-written Shades in the Sun this year, when another diner side-swiped me by disclosing that her husband had written a book. I’d heard of it. James Hannah’s ‘The A-Z of You and Me‘, had already set Twitter alight with rave reviews and praise. I was not sure if his wife believed me when I showed her that  her Jim’s book was already on my TBR list. Suitably chastised for showing off, I ordered the paperback and earmarked it as my final book of 2015.

Sheila is trying to encourage Ivo to keep his brain cells ticking over. After all, being stuck in a hospice bed is not the most stimulating of environments and Ivo has a tendency to be melancholy, wrapping himself up in the crochet blanket which still carries the vetiver scent of his ex-girlfriend. Sheila suggests that Ivo think of a part of his body for each letter of the alphabet, and tell a little story about each part. Ivo starts with ‘Anus’. His journey through the ABCs gradually reveals more about Ivo’s life, and how he finds himself facing the end of it.

This book defies categorisation, which I believe to be a good thing. It is one of the most original books I’ve read in a while, largely due to the fact that Ivo is a totally credible narrator. He is fallible, has messed up, and admits that his mistakes have cost him dear; because of this honesty, I believed every word he says. Life can be messy and complicated, which makes it all the more important that we nurture love and treasure those who love us. This novel has guts, surprises, raw emotion and disarming sensitivity. A fine end to my reading year.

Film No 31 (2015) Road to Perdition

Road to PerditionWhen I was a child, the world of adults was a mystery to me. Like a foreign country, I had no passport to travel there and insights into what grown-ups did when we kids weren’t around, were rare and usually unintentional. Adult conversations ended when children entered the room and most of our knowledge came from what the big folk chose to tell us; we were protected. Information about the grown-up stuff was on a ‘need to know’ basis. Mostly, we didn’t need to know. In ‘Road to Perdition‘, young Michael Sullivan’s childhood is destroyed in the instant he crosses the invisible boundary into adult activity, witnessing first-hand what his father does for a living.

Mike Sullivan Sr (Tom Hanks) is a hitman, working for local gangster John Rooney (Paul Newman). Rooney has been good to Mike, raising him as his own, crediting him with more respect than his natural son, Connor (Daniel Craig). Mike has sons of his own, Michael Jr (Tyler Hoechlin) and Peter (Liam Aiken) and one day it occurs to Michael Jr that he has no idea how his father earns his wages. When Mike goes out one night, his son hides in the car. Watching, hidden, the young lad sees his father shoot another man dead.

Having been spotted by Connor Rooney, Michael has unwittingly thrown his family into the path of danger: Connor tries silence the boy but makes a terrible mistake. As a contract is taken out on Mike Sullivan’s life, he and his son have no choice but to run.

Hanks and Hoechlin sidestep cautiously around one another to start with, unused to relating to one another in any other way than as parent and child. But when Mike realises he will have to rely on his son to drive the getaway car, the dynamic of their relationship changes. Sullivan Sr does not want his son to be like him, but has he placed Michael in a position where he has no choice?

Directed by Sam Mendes, this film is beautifully crafted. The cinematography is exquisite, hence the Best Cinematography Oscar and BAFTA in 2003, awarded posthumously to Conrad L. Hall. As well as an impressive cast,  the music is haunting and the plot gripping. Definitely one to watch. Just make sure your littlies are not peeking through the keyhole!

Book No 49 (2015) : The Girl on the Ferryboat

girl on the ferryboatAs it’s Christmas, I have been doing a fair bit of baking, putting together dishes to please family and friends. With a clear recipe to follow and the correct ingredients, carefully measured, most things seem to have turned out well. Like a rich cake, ‘The Girl on the Ferryboat‘, a novel published both in English and Gaelic, had all the ingredients to be a big hit with me – a love story, set in Scotland, with a heavy dose of sea travel to bind it all together. But the resultant novel didn’t really grab me – despite its parts, the literary cake fell flat.

Alexander, a university lecturer, looks back upon his life, reflecting upon opportunities taken but also those missed. Having just lost his wife, he is returning to the Outer Hebrides, the land of his childhood. On a whim, he decides to visit Iona and whilst making the ferry crossing, he meets Helen. He recognises her as the same girl he saw on the ferry when he was a young man, a recent Oxford graduate heading back to Scotland. Back then, Alasdair only spoke briefly to Helen, but fell in love with her instantly. Their chance meeting some 35 years later, allows them to kindle the flame which was not given a chance in their youth.

Written by Angus Peter Campbell (surely a Scotsman with a name like that!) this is undoubtedly a well-written story but I think it just didn’t suit me. Parts of the novel read like a CV, interspersed with musings on Gaelic language, folklore and attempts at philosophical wisdom. Every now and again there was a nugget of something interesting, but then the author would wander off in another direction and lose the thread. Most of all though, I struggled with the central premise, that Alexander could literally see someone for thirty seconds and remain in love with her for over a quarter of a century. So disappointing when you want that same instant burst of passion from a book – but in this case, the ferryboat sailed without me.

Book No 48 (2015) : Daughter of Smoke and Bone

smoke and boneI am a little late to the chimaera ball; probably about 35 years too late, as Laini Taylor’s trilogy is marketed as young adult fiction and it is clearly some years since I was a teenager! However, despite my advanced age, once I got into the rhythm of this tale, I was swept along by the sheer brilliance of the author’s imagination.

Karou has been raised by Brimstone, a strict taskmaster who has a use for teeth. Karou doesn’t know what he uses them for, but she is nevertheless required to interrupt her studies in order to act as a courier, travelling the world to pick up dental specimens. Karou’s unusual life begins to take on an air of undisguised menace when scorched handprints begin to appear on doorways. An encounter with Akiva, a beautiful but damaged angel exposes Karou to her true origins and identity, knowledge which brings both closure and responsibility. She also finds out what the teeth were for. It is clear at the end of the book that this is the first in a trilogy, as the stage is fully set for Karou and Akiva’s passionate affair and the fight to resurrect the chimaera.

I am not a fan of fantasy novels and would not have picked this up at all had it not been recommended by a friend but I honestly loved it. The writing is evocative, conjuring up vivid visual images. Even though many of the characters are a melange of human and animal bodies, I could see them in my mind’s eye. Similarly with the settings – Prague and Morocco in this world, but also the battlefields and cities of Eretz, the other world. The writing is full of fire and passion and I can see why it has attracted leagues of teenage fans, some of whom have produced the most amazing fan art (just Google it!). Well worth a read and I’ll look out for the two sequels – if a teenager near you needs some escapist fiction, ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone‘ fits the bill beautifully.

Book No 47 (2015) : I Let You Go

i let you goWhen the going gets tough, I dream of escape, running away. My bolthole of choice would be an isolated cottage within a stone’s throw of the sea. I would be able to wander on the beach, read books and take photos, completely undisturbed by anyone. So when a 5-year old boy is killed in a heartless hit-and-run accident and Jenna takes flight to Wales, it was this desertion which drew me in to Clare Mackintosh’s story. Away from prying eyes, Jenna stays hidden but gradually begins to shape a new life for herself.

Detectives Ray and Kate are assigned to investigate Jacob’s death but there are very few leads. The case goes cold, enquiries are halted. But Kate can’t quite give up: a year after the hit-and-run, a vital piece of information enables the Police to make an arrest.  Jacob’s killer can finally be brought to trial.

This psychological thriller has been a massive bestseller and the novel is certainly engrossing. With deceptively simple prose, the author has woven a tight web. As Mackintosh is a former police officer, I have no doubt that she has drawn heavily on her own knowledge and experiences to bring a gritty realism to her work. However, I found the final scenes so harrowing to read, rather too graphic. Some will argue that the depiction of suffering is necessary in order to fully expose the horror of the victim’s pain and I understand that, it was just too much to bear. Like the victim, I just wanted it to end, whatever the outcome: the author made her point.

With more than one gripping plot twist and some finely-drawn characters, ‘I Let You Go’ is a rollercoaster of a read. Not for the faint-hearted though, not least because it has the tragic death of a small child at its core.

Book No 46 (2015) : The Taxidermist’s Daughter

taxidermistIt has never really struck me before how much we take light for granted. I mean, if I can’t see what I am doing, a quick flick of a light switch renders everything visible. My productivity is not restricted to daylight hours and with street lights and car headlights, it is easy to move around at night. Kate Fosse’s novel is not infused with much light at all. It is dark – both actually and figuratively.

Connie is the taxidermist’s daughter. In a gloomy cottage at the edge of the waterlogged Sussex marshes, she practises the skills of breathing art into dead birds. She learned the craft from her father, Gifford, whose heavy drinking forces him into his own dark places. Connie has gaps in her memory following a childhood accident, but flashes of recollection mean she is beginning to recall her early years. When the lifeless body of a young woman is washed ashore close to Connie and Gifford’s house, the discovery of the body coincides with the disappearance of two more local men. As Connie’s memory improves, events begin to come together in a disturbing tableau.

This novel is almost unrelentingly dark. The young Davey provides some light relief, and there is some romantic interest for Connie, but the final denouement is macabre and shocking. The suspense builds throughout the novel, so much so that as the plot approached its climax I was yelling at Connie: “don’t open the door, just don’t go in there!”

There is an element of sexual violence in the plot, highlighting the fact that such aberrations are not a modern phenomenon, just more widely reported and sensationalised nowadays.

The Taxidermist’s Daughter‘ has received plenty of praise and I can also recommend it. But not if you are squeamish – or need cheering up!

Book No 45 (2015) : Dear Nobody

dear nobodyI can’t believe there are many adults-in-the-making who sail through their teenage years without mishap. After all, there are plenty of hurdles to negotiate; relationships with parents, exams, booze and, of course, sex. Berlie Doherty’s short novel, which I suspect was aimed at young adults, deals with one possible side-effect of teenage sex. Unplanned pregnancy.

De-bunking the myth that ‘you can’t get pregnant the first time‘, Doherty’s exploration of Chris and Helen’s dilemma is not sentimental. When she suspects she may be pregnant, Helen is simply too terrified to confide in anyone at all, not even her mother. A gifted musician, she has the offer of a place at a prestigious music college. To give up her place and become a mother would disappoint and shame her family.  In her desperation and isolation, Helen pours out her thoughts in a series of letters addressed to her unborn child, ‘Nobody’.

To achieve balance in the novel, Helen’s letters are interspersed with Chris’ first-person account of their situation. His bewilderment at his girlfriend’s seemingly unprovoked rejection of his affection, is very touching and reminds the reader that Chris and Helen, whilst on the verge of adulthood, still experience quite childlike reactions when under pressure and overwhelmed. Although the novel is set in Sheffield in the 1980s, in many ways, this is a timeless story, which the author tells sensitively. Although having a baby at eighteen is clearly not the end of the world, this little book examines the far-reaching consequences of deciding whether to make a Nobody a Somebody.

Film No 30 (2015) : The Descendants

descendantsThis DVD turns up quite often in the supermarket bargain bucket, which has always put me off buying it, even though I’ve picked it up many times. Shows how much I know – ‘The Descendants‘ received 130 award nominations and won 65 of them! I watched it on the TV this week, so that was definitely a bargain.

Matt King (George Clooney) is a successful Hawaiian lawyer who is also the trustee of a significant amount of land owned by his family. Selling the land to developers would be lucrative for Matt and his cousins. Married to Elizabeth for many years, the Kings have two daughters, Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), but life has been challenging of late. The two girls have been behaving badly and Matt and Elizabeth have been having some problems in their marriage. Things take a definite turn for the worse when Elizabeth is badly injured in an accident; doctors tell Matt she is not going to wake up from her coma, and the decision is made to turn off her life support. As if things aren’t bad enough for Matt, Alex then reveals that she knew her mother had been having an affair. With his wife dying and unable to communicate, Matt tries to restore harmony throughout his life.

Clooney plays this part with great sensitivity – feeling his way across the chasms which divide him from Elizabeth and their daughters. Shailene Woodley seems to mature before your eyes as the movie develops; changing from a self-obsessed, self-destructive teenager, to a caring sister and supportive daughter. Matt faces some tough decisions and I believe that this film is essentially about doing the Right Thing, however awkward the consequences.