Book No 24 (2014) : The Midnight Rose

midnight roseA perfect beach holiday calls for a perfect beach read. ‘The Midnight Rose’ ticked all the boxes and it does seem a bit churlish to relegate the book to the lazy days section of my bookshelf.

Lucinda Riley’s saga sweeps across England and India, from the 1920’s onwards, following the lives of Anahita Chavan and Rebecca Bradley. The two women have little or no connection until Rebecca, a successful American actress, is cast to appear in a period drama film to be shot at Astbury Hall on Dartmoor. Anahita, an aristocratic and educated Indian woman, had spent some time at the Hall with her son, Moh, many years before. When Anahita dies in India, she leaves a written account of her life to her great-grandson, Ari, in the hope that he will be able to discover the truth about what happened to Moh. Ari’s quest takes him to England, where he crosses paths with Rebecca and unravels the mysteries of Anahita’s life.

It’s a full-blown romance, with a touch of intrigue and some beautiful touches of character. Anahita, known throughout as Anni, is a respected and trusted Ayurvedic healer and trained nurse. Her strength provides a sense of gravitas to the story, which is clearly well-researched despite its fictional plot. There are elements of the supernatural, together with a strong message that each and every one of us should trust our instincts to guide our lives.The human connections and relationships within the story are complex, the ending bringing a couple of startling revelations! Kept me guessing right to the last paragraph.

This book is over 600 pages long and I was so desperate to know what happens, I read it in 2 days! Sure, I was on a sun-bed and had time to devote to its pages, but I don’t recommend you wait until your next holiday to read ‘The Midnight Rose’ – grab a copy and give yourself a holiday from reality by reading it now!

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Film No 27 (2014) : The Hunger Games

Hunger GamesOne-to-one time with a teenage son is a rare opportunity, so I jumped at his suggestion that we watch the first ‘Hunger Games’ film on Netflix. I’ve read the book (by Suzanne Collins) so knew the story.

In a nutshell, 24 young people are set against each other in a battle of survival. The Hunger Games are played out in an outdoor, enclosed arena, which covers woodland, rivers and open spaces. The Games are televised for the entertainment of the outside world; the competitors (known as Tributes) can attract sponsors who send in essential equipment and aids, such as medicine. The action centres upon Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers to take part in the Games in place of her sister. There can only be one winner of the Games. The winner is the one who is left once all the others have been eliminated. By death.

I’m sure the ‘Hunger Games’ intended audience is probably teenagers, (it’s rated 12A in the UK) but I was totally transfixed all the way through. Jennifer Lawrence is a wonderfully expressive Katniss, displaying both immense bravery, empathy and vulnerability. Her reluctance to ‘play the game’ to try to endear her to the audience, adds to her strength of character as a young woman guided by a strong moral compass.

But for me the appeal of the film was not just about what was on the screen, it was the whole examination of modern day life. The viewers are obsessed with physical attractiveness, appearances are carefully controlled by the programme makers who manipulate both the screenings of the Hunger Games as well as the competition arena. Young people trying to eliminate one another, watched by millions who are glued to their screens, choose their favourites, take bets – isn’t that what ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me out of Here!’, ‘Big Brother’ and countless other reality TV shows are all about? Scary as it may seem, a real Hunger Games really doesn’t feel all that far removed from where we are now.

Book No 23 (2014) : The Small Hand

small handOne of my closest friends is a talented drama teacher. Theatre trips to see the stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s ‘The Woman in Black’ are a regular feature of her curriculum. I remember my friend telling me that on one of these occasions, the woman in the seat next to her had been so utterly terrified by the production, that she had literally – well, peed her pants! I’ve read Susan Hill’s ‘The Woman in Black’ and although reading it did not have such a profound effect on me, it was nevertheless an engrossing, unsettling read. When my book group settled upon another of Ms Hill’s novellas, ‘The Small Hand,’ as its next read, I was looking forward to being similarly spooked.

Told in the first person, the book follows Adam Snow as he tracks down a rare First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s work. On the way to visit his client, Adam chances upon a deserted house, where he first feels a small, invisible hand in his. Resisting the urge to be drawn by the force of the child’s touch, Adam tries to forget the inexplicable sensation. However he begins to be bothered by nightmares, panic attacks and an impending sense of doom. He tries to discuss his dilemma with his brother, Hugo, who dismisses his fears and suggests a trip to the GP. Determined to uncover the truth about the tiny hand, Adam delves into the history of the White House. HIs encounter with its occupant enables him to unravel the mystery, culminating in a final encounter with the mysterious tiny fingers.

Unlike the lady in the theatre, I was not paralysed with fear by this book. That’s probably a good thing, given that I was reading it on my leather sofa! It was an intriguing tale, in so far as the terrors of our Adam’s own mind contrive to bewilder him, but it was not scary. The dark corners of my own mind were not infiltrated by the pull of the small hand. Maybe I am just not easily lead!

50/50 50%

Nicki 2Just finished reviewing my 25th book. So, by mid-May I am half way to my target of reading 50 books and seeing 50 films this year. I feel pleased with progress but not smug! Finishing a book a week is not happening by accident. It requires commitment – reading has to be prioritised over other things.

I’ve also discovered that the experiences of reading and film-viewing are significantly altered when you know that you have to write about them afterwards. It’s more difficult to ‘go with the flow’. Sentences and phrases half-form in my head in the middle of a chapter, opinions form when the camera pans across a landscape.

Recommendations are tricky. Whilst it’s fascinating to hear suggestions from people about novels and movies I might enjoy, I feel an overwhelming urge to be nice about everything! This is particularly true of books. Giving an honest review when a book has not impressed me, feels treacherous, a betrayal of all the hard work which has gone into creating the work. Knowing a film is a team effort somehow diffuses the pressure, it’s easier to be critical.

Oh. And the weight loss. Well, there is an elephant in the room. Literally. It’s me.
When you are losing weight everyone is delighted to comment, congratulate and encourage. When you are gaining weight, of course people notice, but everyone is too polite to mention it. I count myself lucky to be surrounded by family, friends and colleagues who are only too aware of my anxieties around food and fat. The weight loss has yet to be achieved but I have not given up hope of conquering my demons.

Stick with me on my journey. The books and films are in the bag – or in the blog.

Book No 22 (2014) : The View on the Way Down

The-view-on-the-way-downRebecca Wait’s debut work explores the impact of depression and suicide. Having suffered a nervous breakdown herself, the author felt compelled to try and make sense of her illness by writing about it: She explains in the Afterword that ‘The novel was born out of darkness, but also out of relief and joy’.

Kit, Jamie and Emma are siblings; their parents are Joe and Rose. Following Kit’s death, Jamie has left home to live in Sheffield, where he is working in a bookshop. The circumstances surrounding his estrangement from his family are gradually revealed throughout the narrative. Being the only child at home with Joe and Rose, coupled with the bullying she suffers at school and insecurities about her weight, cause 14 year-old Emma to run away from home. She seeks out Jamie, bringing about the beginning of a rapprochement between him and the rest of the family. But this is not a fairy-tale reunion, as Kit’s death continues to cast its long shadows over all their lives.

I have suffered from depression for most of my adult life and although the condition is largely well-controlled nowadays, in the past I’ve found myself standing on the edge of the abyss. For this reason, Kit’s turmoil did resonate with me at some level, as did Emma’s alienation from her peers. However, Emma was a most unconvincing 15-year old. As the (proud) mother of a teenage daughter of the same age, I am well aware of the language and pre-occupations of girls of that age. They don’t generally include milkshakes, or making board games. Emma came across as a 9/10 year old and totally unbelievable as a result.

Much has been made of the fact that Rebecca Wait is only 24 years old. I’m sorry to have to say that I think this shows. I found her characters to be somewhat lacking; their emotional depth could have been plumbed more deeply. For me, the book lacked profundity and the naïve style did little to shed light on its dark subject matter. Like a flat stone on a lake, The View on the Way Down merely skimmed across the surface.

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Film No 26 (2014) : Beaches

beachesFriday night, end of a busy week, snug on the sofa with my teenage daughter. The film was my choice.

‘Beaches’ is a weepie. Cecilia Carol Bloom (Bette Midler) and Hilary Whitney (Barbara Hershey) meet at the beach as youngsters; Hilary is staying at a posh hotel, CC is hiding under the boardwalk, sneaking a quick fag. They are polar opposites as characters – Cecilia is brash and feisty, wants to be a star. Hilary is quiet and plans to follow her father into a career in law. Despite their differences, they strike up a friendship and communicate via letter for years. Eventually they meet again, each having fulfilled at least part of their ambitions. Hilary is an attorney, CC is beginning to hit the big time on the stage. The film follows their friendship through the years. It is like a marriage as they live together for a while, fight, break up and reconcile! When a crisis hits their lives, the women face it together with quiet courage.

The soundtrack to the movie is ‘Wind beneath my Wings, a soulful ballad which CC uses to illustrate the support which Hilary has always given her. ‘You were content to let me shine’. I obviously can’t claim to have risen on my wings to any great heights, but the song eagledoes make me think of the people who have inspired me – from schoolteachers to bosses, colleagues to relatives. I like to think of myself as a wind rather than an eagle.

The film is a testament to the strength of female friendship, the kind which stays with you a lifetime. Actually, the person who lent me this film is one of the people in my own life for whom I would cross continents if she needed me. Knowing she would do the same for me is what is at the heart of ‘Beaches’.

 

 

Book No 21(2014) : The Boy with the Topknot

topknotI first heard about this book via the online networking site ‘Mumsnet’, where keen readers frequently cited it as one of their ‘must-reads’. ‘The Boy with the Topknot’ was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award in 2008 – its subtitle is ‘A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton’. I’m so glad that the author listed ‘Love’ as the first of the elements of his memoir, as Sathnam Sanghera’s love for his family is the common thread which runs through his autobiography.

S.Sanghera is a highly-educated and successful journalist. He explains this in the book, along with a light sketch of his fashionable lifestyle: flat in London, brushes with celebrity, foreign travel, champagne and girlfriends. This glamorous existence contrasts sharply with his upbringing in Wolverhampton, as a not-very-accomplished Punjabi speaking schoolboy. He was raised as a Sikh, expected by his mother to marry a suitable Jat Sikh girl. However, Sathnam does not intend to have his life partner chosen by his family and he decides he must break this unwelcome news to his mother. However, in 2000, when he is just 24, Sathnam discovers letters which reveal that his father has been diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Putting two and two together very quickly, he realises that his sister Puli is also a sufferer.

Confronting the realities of his father and sister’s illness unearths a painful vault of family memories, including domestic violence. His parents have been hampered by their lack of money, status and command of English. As Sathnam himself concludes, his father is ‘an illiterate, uneducated, unemployed mentally ill Asian man [who] doesn’t matter in the eyes of society’.

Sathnam Sanghera is a self-deprecating, perceptive writer whose wit and charm belie a searing honesty when charting his personal history. This book is a poignant and revealing read, but also reminded me that I have had little or no exposure to multicultural Britain. Sure, I lived in Lewisham for a while, but was in no way integrated into its diverse ways – I just floated along the top of the stream, not really paying much attention. I can’t blame myself for being born white and (dare I say) middle-class, but I should certainly be more aware of the difficulties which minority groups face in the UK. Sathnam Sanghera has the insight to open a lot of our eyes.

Book No 20 (2014) : The Perfume Collector

perfume collector I loved this book.

Grace Munroe is trapped in a loveless marriage, unable to have children and convinced her husband is having an affair. Out of the blue, a letter arrives from a French lawyer, asking Grace to travel to Paris as she has been named as the sole benefactor in the will of the recently deceased Eva d’Orsey. Grace makes the trip alone. So begins a journey of discovery into her past, as Grace traces Eva’s story and unravels the mystery of why she has been entrusted with Eva’s estate.  Alternating between the late 1920’s/early 30’s and the mid-1950’s, Eva’s life and death begin to converge with Grace’s birth, and future.

The role of scent is fascinating within the book – the creation of perfume, the pursuit of the perfect accord, and the processes of the perfumer. Whilst there are visual and emotional descriptions within the text, the author’s talent for describing the smell of a scene adds a new dimension to appreciating its setting. She references famous French perfumes such as Guerlain’s ‘Mitsouko’ and explores the importance of aroma in recollections, sexual attraction and perception.

perfumesThe Perfume Collector’ is like a perfume itself. There are the top notes – the light humour and teasing of the lawyer Edouard Tissot, Mallory’s exuberance, Paris fashion. Then the base notes which emerge after a while – power, debt, abandonment, betrayal and secrets. Throughout the narrative the author lays down clues which tug at your memory, wafts of something which has passed before but which you can’t quite capture. Then once you have finished the book, a trace of it lingers. The slight whiff of a scene from the novel transports you back to its pages, in the same way as scent connects us to our memories.

As a lifelong lover of perfume, (I am always surreptitiously sniffing passers-by and openly ask friends what they are ‘wearing’), I was transported by this book. It’s one which I will readily recommend. Like my favoured ‘Aromatics’, it is both evocative and memorable.

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