Saturday, 30 May 2020

Perfect Addiction

May 2017 I downloaded a book for my Kindle. No big deal I hear you say, but I am the person who loves the scent of ink on paper, who likes the tactility of turning a paper page. I am not a lover of the Kindle…in fact it’s just an app I have on my phone and tablet. It’s a device on which to have emergency books for when you’re sat on a train and you’ve just finished your physical book and you need entertaining for the last hour of your journey. (And you can’t look out of the window because it’s dark!)

I had downloaded Perfect Remains by Helen Fields. I hadn’t heard of the author, or the book, but it was a free download so I wasn’t complaining. One journey back from London, this novel became my emergency book of choice to while away my journey. By the time the train had rattled into Chester station I was hooked…thank goodness for the quiet taxi driver, as that meant more reading time until I got home.

The protagonist of the story, Luc Callanach, was raised in France, however, his career at Interpol was brought to an untimely close following a false allegation made against him. In a bid to make a new start he returned to Scotland, the land of his birth, for a job as a Detective Inspector in Edinburgh. No sooner had he started in his role, then he was plunged head-first into a murder investigation and I was plunged into a perfectly addictive series of books.

Elaine Buxton is missing. On a remote Highland mountain her body is burning. Soon the body of the once respected lawyer will be a mound of ash and only her teeth and clothing will identify her. Callanach wants to prove himself, but the Frenchman of unquestionable beauty riles the other men in the team. Will his good looks be the undoing of him, or will his colleague DI Ava Turner realise that the man has intellect as well as an attractive physique and Gallic charm?

It isn’t long before both DI’s are put to the test. Another successful woman is abducted from her doorstep and Callanach finds himself in a race against the clock. What he doesn’t know is that the real Elaine Buxton is concealed in the back room of an Edinburgh house, screaming into the dark cavern within where no-one can hear her cries. Elaine’s killer has covered his tracks meticulously and the fate of the abducted women becomes more twisted than Callanach could ever imagine.

Perfect Remains is the first in a series of detective novels featuring DI Callanach and what a stunning debut novel it is. I was completely gripped reading this chilling sequence of events and entering into the mind of such a twisted killer. I love a great detective novel. It has to be clever, punchy, dark and the characters have to illuminate the page. If you don’t care for the characters, then you’re not going to be bothered by them solving the crimes.

I often read marketing where I’m told a book is “gripping” “you can’t put it down” “clever twist” and in reality I’m often disappointed. The “clever twist” has been done before or you can see it coming a mile off. The “gripping” novel is often an agent doing their best to ramp up the excitement of a book due to the name of the author rather than the content of the book. “You can’t put it down” – well actually I can, I’ll read the next chapter tomorrow because all of this unnecessary waffle is putting me into a coma! This book was a free download, I was stuck on a train, what was there to lose? I started reading and I didn’t stop until the book was finished…and as I came to the end I did a quick Google search. The second book in the series was waiting for me, I had inadvertently stumbled across a new writer whose work I was enjoying enormously.

Perfect Prey – Edinburgh, a charity worker is slashed across the stomach in the middle of a rock concert. In a crowd of thousands, no-one bears witness to his bloody death. A week later, a schoolteacher is dumped in an alley, she’s been strangled with her own scarf. For DI’s Callanach and Turner there is no motive for the murders and no leads to follow…that is until graffiti begins to appear on the city buildings describing each victim. It’s only when they realise that the words appear before, rather than after the next murder, that they begin to understand the enormity of the task ahead.

The combination of horrific and terrifying storytelling is back and it is more addictive than the first book. By now I had settled in with the main characters, and it was refreshing to have not one, but two lead detectives, both of which weren’t the usual miserable bloke with a chip on his shoulder and a heap of skeletons in the closet who thinks the answer lies at the bottom of a pint glass. Instead there is Luc, a former Interpol Officer and model, used to the sunshine, cuisine and glamour of France, trying to unravel crimes in an often rainy Edinburgh, who has to get used to the dour sense of humour of his colleagues. Then there is Ava Turner, a loyal but feisty woman who is more than a match for all of her male counterparts. She gives Callanach a level of credibility; he could be a character hard to get on with, but she brings out the human qualities of him, and they are a winning  combination - she’s impetuous, whereas he is more level-headed, but both have a similar intellect and they watch out for each other in the depraved world in which they work.

It’s probably best to make it clear these books are a bit gruesome, they’re certainly not you’re quaint Agatha Christie style who-dunnit, or the more traditional easy-paced detective novel; they do force you to consider the depraved and deadly world that we live in. The reader is left to consider the victim, the sense of hope and hopelessness they must feel and the perpetrator, who to the reader seems insane, although in the offenders eyes their actions are completely logical. In amongst this mix, the reader is privy to information the detectives are unaware of, so it becomes clear to the reader who the criminal is, but not whether the police will find the missing links in time to stop another victim come to an untimely end.

Detective novels have been one my favourite genres since my second year at junior school reading Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys in Mrs Scott’s class. From there I ventured to Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie and beyond. I’ve travelled around Venice with Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti (although after the first twelve books I decided I needed to give the series a break) and the South East of England with Susan Hill’s Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler. I even (after some cajoling) read the first three Strike novels, although in that instance I ended up preferring the TV series to the novels; so what was it that held my attention reading the “Perfect” books so much?

Helen Fields has created an edge of the seat style read; as you get towards the end of the novel there is a mix of expectation, apprehension and a bit of melancholy that the book has to end. The books stick to the plot, they are fast paced, they leave you disgusted, perturbed, wary, but then in that darkness there are moments of light peppered through the pages that leave you chuckling and smiling. You are engrossed with the characters, both the main detectives and their colleagues back at the station. You don’t want anyone to get hurt, but this is policing and there is a rawness in that people will get hurt, people will die, you just have to read on to find out who lady luck is smiling on and who she has chosen to ignore.
The books leave me desperate to know what happens next and by the time I finished the second book I knew I was hooked on this series. I also knew that the next time I read a Callanach novel, I needed to ensure I had a whole day ahead of me, because once I read that first page, the book wouldn’t be put down until the last page had been turned. 

Unfortunately when I finished Perfect Prey, there was no third book to read…Perfect Remains and Perfect Pray were published in January and July 2017 and I had no idea when book 3 would surface!

November 2018 I noticed that two new books in the series had been released – I downloaded them but knew I would need a weekend where I would be uninterrupted to read them. That weekend finally happened over the late May bank holiday this year! By now, however, there were another two books to add to the Kindle. Good job I’m only working a three day week during lockdown…this was going to be interesting. Would I still find the books as enthralling as when I read the first two novels? Would I actually manage a book a day or would it end up like everything else I do…being started, interrupted, left on the side for a while before being picked up again?

4 days…4 books…and I’m now in mourning!

Perfect Death – the third novel in the series and Ava Turner has been promoted…she is now Detective Chief Inspector, so how will the dynamic of her and Luc’s relationship stand up – both personal and professional?

Now whilst earlier on I said the lead character isn’t “the usual miserable bloke with a chip on his shoulder and a heap of skeletons in the closet,” Luc does have a troubled backstory relating to his departure from Interpol, which recurs in this book and adds another element about his troubled past. Instead of detracting from the tale, finding out more snippets about his past actually enhances the story and allows the reader to follow more than one crime per novel.

Ava’s first case as DCI is going to be a tough one…Edinburgh has another serial killer on the loose, but this time the murders are slow and painful. Each victim is entirely unaware of the poison slowly flowing through their veins until it is too late. It seems an impossible murder to solve, how can you catch a killer who takes endless pleasure watching his prey slowly die?

The body of a young woman is found lying naked, in the depth of winter, near Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. There are no signs of a struggle, it looks like a simple case of an overdose. Meanwhile, a road traffic accident is called in, but upon investigation, the victim has disappeared. The case is handed over to DCI Begbie to investigate, but is he upholding the strong arm of the law or concealing a history of events about Ava’s former DCI that she might not want to know about?

The murders in this third novel are not as gruesome as the earlier reads, in fact the bodies seem serene and at peace with the world, but they are still distressing for the families left in the aftermath trying to understand what has happened and why. Whilst the pace of the book is slightly slower, echoing the slower types of death, there are two threads for the reader to follow – so once again, intrigue and concern for the victims makes you continue to turn the pages.

As in her earlier works, it is clear from the beginning who the murderer is, so unlike other detective novels, the menacing undertone comes from watching the killer choose his prey and rejoice in the joy of careful planning coming to fruition. As a reader, it is disturbing to watch someone with such evil intentions hiding in plain sight of people. Fields has managed to create characters that appear normal…likeable even…until you establish what they are really like and what they are capable of.

The sub-plot that DCI Begbie is involved in adds another element into the growth of both Turner’s and Callanach’s characters. It is warming to watch these two characters grow and how their interactions have changed following Turner’s change in rank, testing both parties to their limits. It is also heartening to see other characters grow such as DS Lively who has hidden depths. He is fast becoming one of my favourite characters in the station!

Now of course, once the tightly woven plot has come to an end, the various complicated layers tied up in a satisfactory manner, you can put the book down and walk away…unless of course the author has put a teaser into the ending which means that book four is not just calling…it’s screaming to you!

Perfect Silence. Nicknamed “The Babydoll Killer” by the press, Luc and Ava are drawn into a macabre world of butchery beyond belief. The body of a young woman is dumped at the side of a quiet country world. As she slowly drags herself into the middle of the road, she lies back and looks at the stars shining brilliantly in the sky. As her remains are examined the cause of death is quite clear. The silhouette of a doll has been carved out of her belly and back. As Luc and Ava investigate another missing person, they find a doll nestling in the pram of an abandoned baby…made from the first victim’s skin. It soon becomes a race against the clock to find the perpetrator.

This story takes monstrous acts to a whole new level and enters the mind of a very devious and twisted individual…however, I couldn’t help but get side tacked but some bad editing. I know that is being pedantic, but it is one of the reasons I don’t enjoy reading the Strike books; they require some of the superfluous bumph removing…this book needed proofreading. To not notice that one of your main characters has changed name from Salter to Salted is unforgivable, likewise missing words from sentences, not using capital letters for proper nouns and misspelt words were annoying distractions that stopped the flow of the book. That aside, it was another good insight into police procedural work with a good assortment of villains.

I found the sub-plot of the book interesting but not entirely necessary, homeless people taking the drug Spice (the zombie drug) and having the letter Z carved into their faces. It was too coincidental to genuinely have anything to do with the main story nor did it add anything extra other than an opportunity to have a political dig about the mistreatment of the homeless in our society. Perhaps it would have been better to take that idea and develop it for a main storyline in a future novel.

Unlike it’s title, the book may not have been perfect but it was still a lot better than many other crime reads. It may also not have had the perfect ending, but it was another gripping read and enjoyable to catch up with the private lives of DI Callanach and DCI Ava Turner again, although I wish I could grasp them and bang both their heads together!

Despite my misgivings about the previous book, Perfect Crime was beckoning to me. Is there such a thing as a perfect crime? A young man climbs over the anti-suicide railings of a bridge. As he battles the demons in his head, a suicide prevention counsellor talks him out of his suicide attempt. A week later, the young man’s body is found at the foot of Tantallon Castle, only a mark on one fingertip begs the question of whether he jumped or whether he was pushed from the castle walls.

A woman is found in a bath, her wrists slit. She has a history of mental health issues and has tried to end her life before. As DI Callanach and DCI Turner investigate, another body is found…this time the death is even more twisted. The victim has been having marital problems, his remains show a body violently electrocuted, his position shows a carefully constructed death. There are more to these “suicides” than meets the eye, and the perpetrator is much closer than Callanch and Turner realise.

Arrgghhhhhhh! OK – let’s get it over with. The editor needs to go to Specsavers. I’m sure there must have been errors in the earlier books, maybe I’ve just started noticing, but the dropped words from sentences and misspelt words are infuriating when you have paid good money for a quality book. Also, whilst I love the relationship between Luc and Ava, they both need to grow up, they’re adults. The will they won’t they question needs answering. I mean it’s almost there, but it’s starting to get a bit repetitive, especially as readers we are privy to knowing what they really feel about each other. The introduction of other romantic partners to arouse feelings of jealousy between them seems a bit trite and possibly desperate writing, but maybe there is no further storyline for them to develop. Their characters may have started to stagnate a little, but DS Lively has evolved into a well-rounded character with a fabulously dour sense of humour. He has a sense of what’s right and wrong and he has humanised himself as he has slowly broken the walls around him and let others into his life. None of the characters are perfect, and these flaws are what makes us compelled to read about them.

As in previous novels, two threads run throughout the book. The questionable suicides and a return to Callanach’s past. The crime element has one again been thoroughly researched it and gives an insight into why people are driven to commit the atrocities they do. What I did enjoy was the unexpected twist in the tale at the end and that obviously meant it was straight onto book number 6….Perfect Kill.

Bart Campbell is alone, trapped in complete darkness and terrified. He soon realises he has been drugged and kidnapped…what he doesn’t know is that he is trapped inside a shipping container headed for France, nor what fate has instore for him once he arrives there. A young woman makes a bid for freedom. In desperation she knocks on a neighbour’s door, only for her saviour to be shot dead by the men chasing her.

This latest book by Helen Fields is perhaps the most gripping of the lot. Set on both sides of the English Channel, DCI Ava Turner heads up an investigation about women trafficked into Scotland, whilst DI Callanch is back on his old stamping ground working with Interpol and his former friend and colleague Jean-Paul. It’s not long before two separate incidents bring Luc and Ava working together on something so horrific that neither of them could imagine. If they can’t put aside their differences, Bart and many others will soon be dead.

This book has been described as a rollercoaster ride like no other and that is a perfect summation. I think out of the four I read over the weekend, this was the most chilling and sadly very plausible. These crimes were made against young, ordinary, random people, who didn’t have a troubled past to make them susceptible to a preying psychopath. The book hits hard from the moment you start reading it and it just gets more and more graphic as it goes along. It is not a book for the faint hearted.

The complexities around the women trafficked in as sex slaves is particularly distressing to read, but Fields has captured the abject misery these women must go through without sentimentality. She describes the callous nature of the men that hold them and the brutal conditions in which they are kept. There is a reminder that women have been duped from difficult conditions in their homelands to be bought and sold by those who have no interest in their wellbeing, and the graphic descriptions of The Race are particularly galling. It’s an eye-opener for those who do not believe such things could happen, but also an element of hope that there are people working hard to try to put a end to such criminal networks.
Once again, the natural style of banter between all of the characters keeps the reader invested in not only the outcome of the case, but also the personal journeys of both friends and colleagues of the two main characters. The personal stories, of both good and bad news, give the books a sense of authenticity. In this novel there is a little less focus about Luc and Ava’s “relationship” which was refreshing and instead it moved onto the relationship they share with their friend Natasha.

Although I love the dynamic between the two leads, Luc messing up things with their relationship in the previous book and Ava doing something she regrets at the start of this book, has become a bit too soap opera for my liking. There’s only so much shilly shallying that readers will put up with before finding the whole “will they, won’t they” storyline tedious. If there is a next book in the series (and I genuinely hope there will be) Luc and Ava either have to get together or split up for good. It is a fundamental problem in a series of novels when the readers can see that both main characters are in love with one another, but circumstances stop a potential romantic liaison. If there are a finite number of books in the series (approx. 6) then the story can be resolved one way or the other. If the number of books is based on how many crimes the author can come up with – the romantic aside in the story stops working.  (The Strike novels come to mind when writing this. The first three books relied to some part on the awkward relationship between Strike and Robin. Book 4 was so tediously long with various sub plots and distractions I’d got past the point of caring of what the two of them got up to.)

As I read the last pages of the novel however, there was a sense of emptiness. I want to know how Natasha gets on, whether Lively really is disillusioned with the job and whether poor DC (Doesn’t Compute) Swift will make the grade in MIT. I do hope it wasn’t the last book in the series, it’d be a waste of such wonderful characters if it was.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

The Kite Runner – Theatr Clwyd – 5th March 2020

I’ve not read Khaled Hosseini’s novel, I’ve not watched the film and I missed the stage production when it arrived at Theatr Clwyd last year. I had heard rave reviews and so I was thankful that this time round I would be blessed enough to see the stage production…and I wasn’t to be disappointed. The reviews from friends and strangers were spot on. The production was spellbinding and a superior history lesson than either the media or the classroom could give you.

The Kite Runner commenced life as a novel by Khaled Hosseini and it tells the story of Amir and his best friend Hassan (who is also his servant). Kabul was a tranquil place, people lived in harmony experiencing a conventional way of life. Privileged families would attend lavish weddings, full of colour and splendour and take family picnics in the foothills of the Hindu Kush to escape the heat of the city.

Kite flying, which probably originated in China about 3000 years ago, was turned it into an art form in Afghanistan, by taking on a different competitive twist. Enjoyed by both men and boys, this was a competition that was less bloody than dog fighting and very cheap, so anyone had the opportunity to join in. A person would just need some bamboo to make a frame and some brightly coloured tissue paper to stretch across it. For those with money, they could visit the Kabul bazaar where professional kite makers would hand down their skills from father to son. Tiny pieces of crushed glass would be painstakingly glued to the kite string for competitors to slash their opponent’s kite string, bringing their kites crashing to the ground. The poorest boys, such as Hassan, would rush to collect the losing kite for their friend or master – these were the kite runners.

Matthew Spangler’s stage adaptation of the novel is told in the first-person narrative through the eyes of Amir (David Ahmad.)  His tale which starts in Afghanistan as a child, transitions through to adulthood where he is living in America and it transports us through a harrowing journey of life and intimate relationships: father/son, best friends, husband and wife.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Living in a Lockdown

A very quiet yard on a beautiful sunny day.
I’m back at work. I say back…I’ve been working from home for the last 6 weeks and probably putting in more hours from my garden than I have from the office; but needs must. There’s only so much you can do from home and whilst all paper work is now up to date and all the “missed” emails have been dealt with accordingly – mostly in the bin - I can’t deal with someone’s knackered lorry from home, which is a shame as I’ve rather enjoyed being incarcerated.

I was watching BBC’s Saturday Kitchen a few weeks ago when Stacey Dooley was the guest. The host Matt Tebbutt asked her how she was feeling during the Covid-19 lockdown and she replied “I am spot on, it is a bit worrying about how OK I am with self-isolating, because I am quite anti-social, so I’m good.” I was a bit shocked, not because she was coping, but because she said she was anti-social. I guess I had the same look on my face, as others have when I say “I’m quite happy during lockdown because I’m pretty anti-social!”

People often don’t believe me when I say I am anti-social, but I do prefer the company of animals to the company of people and I even find my own company tolerable.  I do feel a tidal wave of guilt wash over me when I make the mistake of reading Twitter and seeing how many people are not coping with this situation, but then I have had a lifetime of practice of sitting in a garden entertaining myself (usually teddy bear picnics or reading, or dangling over the garden pond watching the frogs and fishes and whatever wildlife decided to turn up. I’m not lucky enough to have the large garden of childhood anymore, but my small back garden allows me to get fresh air and pootle about and sit and watch the abundance of birds and bees around me. I cannot imagine how it feels to be stuck in a flat, especially with young children for weeks on end, with no outdoor space to sit and reflect in.

But lockdown is still infuriating when you want a change of scene, a quick trip to the ocean, or a wander in the mountains. I have both available a short drive away…but I can’t do that, it’s the same rota of visiting the supermarket (once a fortnight) going on a rare walk (and I mean rare) working, reading, pottering in the greenhouse and vacuously watching TV.

“There is something majorly wrong with your work laptop…”

The day lockdown started I was sent home with my laptop and told to work from home. Easier said than done as I.T. couldn’t get my work laptop to work from my house. Hmmm….maybe I can spend the next few weeks sitting on my backside doing what I want…try and locate the photography course I bought three years ago and do it, or maybe learn some Photoshop so I can finish those designs I have in my head and get them on my Redbubble store which is sadly very neglected. Or… alternatively the I.T. department could get the software which wouldn’t work on my work laptop onto my personal laptop and get me up and running on that instead. Well of course, good ole I.T. got it to work on my laptop! In hindsight I’m thankful the antiquated piece of rubbish from work was a no go, as my laptop has a larger screen (and a touchscreen) so not only could I see more easily, tapping the screen instead of scroll and click was also quicker. Sadly, unlike MPs, I couldn’t convince my boss to give me an extra £10K for having to use my own laptop for work (or any other subsidies that MPs wangle for themselves.) Have I missed going into work? Yes and no. I miss seeing the friendly faces and the yard cats, especially Bob, but I haven’t missed the daily histrionics that used to occur.

Bob the yard cat.
At work if I make a brew, I stand around chatting to people (it is after all a portacabin with limited floor space.) At home, I’ll put the kettle on and put a load in the washing machine or put the dishwasher on. Next trip to the kettle I’ll empty the dishwasher and put the washing on the line. Next-time, maybe give the kitchen floor a quick clean. My house has never been cleaner and tidier, and the irony is not lost on me that for the first time in 20+ years, my house is always visitor ready…AND I CAN’T ALLOW ANYONE THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR!!!! So not only could I get more office work done – but I also kept on top of the daily house chores.

First day back in the office I realised that I had lost my daily 48 min lie-in. I normally leave the house at 7:48 to be in the office for 8.  In those 48 mins I shower, dress, have breakfast, throw lunch in a box and head out the door. For 6 weeks I’d been getting up at 7:48, ambling downstairs, making breakfast and sitting at my desk ready for an 8am start. I am not naturally one of God’s morning people and sitting at a desk in my pyjama’s was lovely…until the boss thought it a good idea to install Microsoft office instead of just phoning me with queries. Fortunately, there was the option to switch the camera off so I could see him and not vice versa! The argument for working at home was a win win for me.

I’ve slipped into some strange time vortex…

But it wasn’t all plain sailing working from home. I thought if I was cooped up in the house for several weeks, I would devote some time to blogging and my various other hobbies. It seems however that I slipped into some strange time vortex. My days have just been filled with work – especially at the beginning as I had to devise a whole new way of working. Everything that had previously been done physically – reams of paper printed off, physical signatures sought for work and costs to be agreed, all had to change, and quickly.  I’ve had to document everything and save it in electronic files – which has meant sorting and archiving the unused mass of files that were on the system. Spreadsheets had to be set up to track what went where and whether a reply had been received. Emails started to be filed as an audit trail to prove agreed costs so arguments about budgets couldn’t rear up in the future. All that time devoted to establishing brand new systems and disseminating the new system to other users takes time…and so once done the laptop was put to bed. No blogging. No playing around in Photoshop. No laptop. Instead the workspace closed and it was time to read a book or sink in front of the TV.

To be honest, it has been nice sitting around catching up on stuff and not feeling guilty about what I SHOULD be doing. I’m not sure WHO decides what I SHOULD or SHOULDN’T be doing, but it seems an unnecessary burden I put on myself, although I’m sure many others must do it to themselves too. I have caught up on several films and box sets on Netflix and Prime that I’ve had stored for ages and not got around to watching.

First on the Covid-19 watch list was The Man in the High Castle (all 4 series over a period of nights and nothing else in between.) I wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy it, the only reason I put it on my watchlist was because it starred Rufus Sewell and he’s up there on the list of people I’m likely to start watching a programme because of who is in it. Fantastic show – must have been for me to have binge watched it as I did.

Unbelievable was an interesting watch – it was the true story of a rape victim who wasn’t believed, however, I read that the person the story was about had watched the program and thought it was well produced and reflected accurately the events which took place. On that basis, I watched it and it was a fascinating story of how a young woman accused of lying about a rape, gets discovered by two female detectives who are investigating a spate of eerily similar attacks across America.

2018 - BBC/Netflix Watership Down
Watership Down – the new version the BBC showed over Christmas 2018…yes it has been sat recorded on my Sky box that long and only just viewed. I was wary that it would be turned into a saccharine Disneyesque type film but no. I thoroughly enjoyed it (despite sobbing through half a box of tissues.) It certainly didn’t leave me traumatically scarred like the original 70’s version I watched as a child at school. In fact, thinking about it, I’m surprised I made it through childhood without needing to obtain some form of therapy…Watership Down, Tarka the Otter, Bambi, Black Beauty…no wonder I grew up preferring animals to people.

The New Pope. Disappointed. Really enjoyed The Young Pope – thought it a fresh and exciting programme. I found this sequel slow going and I kept getting distracted whilst watching it…although I still persevered to the end!

The Stranger. Based on Harlan Coben’s novel, a stranger tells someone who thinks he has the perfect family life a shocking secret. This secret exposes a dangerous set of lies as the truth starts to be uncovered. This was another binge watch series where once an episode finished, I just HAD to watch the next one. Bed just wasn’t an option.

Carnival Row. Hmm this was a peculiar one! A love story of sorts between a human detective and a refugee faerie. Following a war in which their homelands are invaded by man, an increasing number of mythological immigrant creatures try to co-exist with humans. The creatures however have no rights, they are forbidden to love or fly, and it is only when a series of gruesome murders take place that we see some change in the intolerant society. It was obviously a thought provoking watch as well as an entertainment series, the way in which immigrants are treated and of course why they are immigrants seeking refuge in the first place. (It was also nice to see some of the Czech Republic locations used again where The Musketeers had been filmed. It made me want to watch the three series again as I haven’t watched them since they finished on the BBC…but rewatching things are not a priority at the moment, I want to watch all the new productions I have waiting for me on my laptop first!)

I started to watch Picard however, other-half is a Star Trek “fan” and was surprised I’d want to view it seeing as I’ve paid no interest to any of the other incarnations he’s watched. Have had to break the news that it’s because Santiago Cabrera is in it (met him once at the theatre when I went to watch The Deep Blue Sea – what a lovely chap he is, we spent the interval talking about his son) so it’s become one of those shows we watch together and I can’t whizz through.

So when you add up the time spent on these, other productions I haven’t mentioned and perennial favourites such as The Great British Sewing Bee which has made a welcome return…it’s a wonder that I haven’t developed square eyes.

Madness takes it toll…

But then, in another dimension, there are the days when time stands still in lockdown. It refuses to budge. Melancholia sets in as the reality of not being allowed to jump in the car and drive to the beach or the RSPB reserve hits home. In England, recommendations were given about exercising. In Wales, a number of those recommendations were put into law. At the start of lockdown, I went for a walk. I did the same route down the old abandoned railway line I’ve done countless times before. 

Over the past few years, I have hardly ever met anyone out whilst walking – but for some reason, this knowledge didn’t put my mind at rest. I was sure I’d end up bumping into loads of people and getting arrested. An irrational fear, undoubtedly, but the Heddlu (police) were out in force – in cars, on foot, in the police chopper. Far less stressful to stay sat at home, which is why I have spent too much time watching TV or reading or working. I just don’t have the inclination to go out as much anymore in case I meet people on “my” routes; as routes which used to be quiet, are where people now congregate. 

Tidy, tidy shelves!!
One day, I felt I should do something productive with my time and for some hairbrained reason, it took the form of sorting one of my messy bookcases. THREE HOURS it took me to put the books in some semblance of order and then get them all to fit back in the cupboard. (Other half “helpfully” suggested a binbag. Other half has been told to keep his suggestions to himself.) I was going to tackle the other one under the stairs, but at twice the size, I’ve decided a better plan is to just keep opening the door to shove books in without looking until the door will no longer shut. When that happens, I will concede defeat and tidy it up.

I have gone through a spate of cleaning, even the tea cupboard has been tidied out. I’ve found some unopened teas I’d forgotten about, but alas also noticed how many of the tins are now empty. This is very depressing – I need to go visit some tea shops when all this is over and re-stock big time. 

Fortunately the drinks cabinet has fared a little better (although I did cheat and buy several bottles of gin in March) this was a good thing because most nights after work the wind down became a G&T rather than the drive home singing (screeching) out of tune to the radio. I suppose going back to the office is good news for my liver. Silver linings and all that!

In this rush to return to normal life, we should use this time to reflect what normal parts of life are worth rushing back to.

One thing I have been very blessed to do over these last few weeks is to spend an afternoon sitting on my drive with a brew, chatting to my neighbour who sits on her drive and does the same. No contact, just the opportunity to sit and have a natter. Before lockdown we started going to camera club each week; as well as a chance to learn about photography, it was an excuse for the pair of us to catch up with one another. With club activities on lockdown, it was nice to create a new sense of normal, and once we all go back to work, it’s something I’ll miss doing.

This weekly catch up has brought about a newfound enjoyment in baking. When I worked in a large office we would have “Bake Off competitions” for charity. Whilst I loved watching the programme, it never really inspired me to bake, it was just something I did when I needed to do it. My mum taught me to bake at a young age. I think we often reminisce with rose tinted spectacles and I had this grand vision my mother was a wonderful cook. It was only recently that my brother, who is several years older than me, told me she was a dreadful cook. She was good at baking, but dire at cooking.

I was reminded of her gastronomic repertoire…Sunday roast, Monday leftovers, Tuesday more leftovers and a fight over the bone, Weds/Thurs something from the freezer with homemade chips, Friday, yellow fish with mash, Saturday – sausage, egg and chips. Sunday the repertoire would begin again! I remember her stew and dumplings being very, very chewy, I had no recall ever of meat being tender enough to fall apart in the mouth. Wonder if that had something to do with me becoming a pescatarian?!

Garlic and Rosemary Foccacia 
She was, however, a good baker and I do remember standing on a stool next to her, pummelling bread dough and making mini cottage loaves. She would come into my infant school and teach us all how to make and ice fairy cakes, or make scones and shortbread. By the age of twelve, when she departed this earth, I had the ability to bake bread, cakes, even pies…however, despite a plethora of cookbooks in the house, baking has never become a regular activity. During lockdown however, I set myself the challenge that if I had done the fortnightly shop and I’d run out of bread…I would have to bake some until my next scheduled trip to the shop. If I fancied a pie, I would have to get off my backside and make some pastry…if I wanted to “meet” my neighbour for tea and cake…I’d have to get that mixing bowl out, and it has been an unexpected delight. The offerings, which may need a bit more practice, have been on the whole far tastier than the factory made stuff I buy and I hope that this baking malarkey remains a “normal” in my post lockdown life.

Our theatres, especially our smaller venues, are going to need people more than ever before…

I know a lot of people, including some of my friends, are suffering out there and finding this confinement hard to deal with. Sometimes it’s hard to connect, because however hard you try, a video chat with someone is never going to be the same as the real thing. On a video link you feel compelled to talk – but if you’re not going out or doing anything exciting, what do you talk about? TV? Life in lockdown? What is a comfortable silence when you’re at a friend’s house, suddenly becomes amplified and a bit unnatural.

Frankenstein performed @ Theatr Clwyd
One Thursday, a friend suggested that we went to the theatre together like we used to do. We were both supposed to be visiting Manchester to see a play in a few weeks. Instead we both sat down with a drink and watched NT at Home on YouTube - Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the monster. We WA each other as the play progressed sharing our thoughts on it. We also had an interval at 8pm to clap essential workers, grab a choc ice and a comfort break and take our seats for the second act! I suspect the fact that we were on WA during the performance suggests that neither of us were grabbed by the production. 

For me, I don’t think it had anything to do with the fact I was watching a play with me feet up, my slippers on and a cup of tea in my hand, but more to do with the fact that I’d finally just finished writing up my blog notes for the production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which I had seen at Theatr Clwyd in January. In that play I was captivated from the very beginning; in this one I got fed up of watching the monster writhing about the stage for 20 minutes. There’s slow burn…and then there’s slow burn. I perhaps need to watch the second version where the role of the monster is played by Jonny Lee Miller before sharing any further thoughts, especially as I know so many people loved the production.

It was enjoyable to have the opportunity to be “back at the theatre” and to discuss, albeit briefly, what I was watching with a fellow friend and theatre lover. OK – so it wasn’t the same as leaving the theatre and heading to the bar (or the chippy) to unravel our thoughts, but it was better than nothing. Normally I only watch parts of a play on the laptop if I’ve been to see it and I need reminding of something I can’t remember fully before doing a write up. I don’t tend to watch the productions I have because I’m not getting that full theatre experience and so I’ve been wary of lying prostrate on the sofa, crisps and drink in hand as though I’m at the cinema. On reflection, this is a stupid reaction, I couldn’t travel to London every two minutes before Covid-19, so would visit the cinema to see a NT Live production…surely watching it on the small screen is the same as the big screen? Not exactly…in a cinema you still get an audience reaction from those sat around you, which is why it’s often nicer watching a film at the cinema than at home…if you don’t have an annoying chatterbox sat next to you!

TV theatre will never feel the same as being IN a theatre, watching a live show and seeing THAT production unfurl before your eyes – because with theatre, every performance is unique, the recorded version will always be the same however many times you watch it. It seems strange that it has become the norm for people to sit on the sofa watching a play (or opera or ballet) on the TV. It is heartening to see how many people are watching the various streams which have become available and the joy it is bringing to people who are finding times in lockdown hard. It is interesting how much the various art shows have brought the best out of people, I just hope that if this initiative has brought new audiences to the fore, that they will continue to support the arts long after lockdown. Our theatres, especially our smaller venues, are going to need people more than ever before, as can already be seen by the unfortunate announcement that Nuffield Southampton Theatres has gone into administration.

When lockdown was announced, I still had tickets for four shows at Theatr Clwyd…as each one was cancelled, I received an email offering me a refund, leaving it as a deposit towards future shows, or to give as a donation. The cost of all the tickets was donated. I wanted to help futureproof “my” theatre. I do hope those that were able, donated their ticket costs too, holding onto the same view of keeping the theatre alive. Theatre is not just about a bunch of actors entertaining you for a couple of hours; it is the heart of a community, it brings people together, it teaches them things through storytelling, it opens minds, it makes people question what goes on around them. If you love your theatre, you’ll look after it whatever way you can and I hope its use in helping people get through lockdown will be remembered and appreciated in the times to come.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

BANG BANG! Theatr Clwyd (19th Feb 2020)

John Cleese, best known for Monty Python and Fawlty Towers has decided to tackle a little-known play by George Feydeau as his stage writing debut. This vaudeville styled French farce is the perfect antidote to the long working week; based on a series of comic situations which get more and more ludicrous as the play continues, it is a feel good fun fest that will have you laughing down the aisles and putting all your stresses and worries behind you – or at least for the duration of the play.

George Feydeau was born 1862 in Paris. He was the son of a novelist and at the age of 20 wrote his first comedy, but it wasn’t until later, whilst in the army, that he wrote his first play The Dressmaker. It was a success, but it had George thinking about the farces that he had watched whilst growing up. He felt that the characters were mere puppets of themselves and that if you stood back and looked at the tedium of reality, it was often highly preposterous. He therefore started to look to real-life for inspiration, keeping the interesting personalities of those around him and then throwing them into burlesque situations.

Feydeau wrote some 60 plays, and they were often noted for their complex plots, full of wit and great vivacity, together with coincidences and misunderstandings. It is the type of entertainment that stands the test of time, and perhaps why more modern-day incarnations of the farce, such as Fawlty Towers, is fondly thought of by the masses. At the time, Feydeau’s work was just seen as light entertainment, however, he is now seen of one of France’s greatest playwrights. His works are perfect for revival and very popular with new audiences and he is the perfect choice for John Cleese to adapt for the British stage.

The Plot

Léontine is a respectable member of Parisienne society and the wife of Duchotel. Duchotel is a keen huntsman and will often disappear, packing his shotgun on the pretext of a hunting trip, and instead heads off for a long weekend with his mistress. The abandoned Léontine is left to be entertained by Duchotel’s friend Dr. Moricet. On one particular occasion, Léontine announced to Moricet her undying love for him. He tried to take advantage of the situation, but Léontine vowed that as long as her husband was faithful to her, she would remain faithful to him.

Oolong Formosa – T2

I know – it’s been a while since I’ve written about tea. To be fair, I’ve never stopped drinking the stuff, or indeed making notes about it, however, getting those notes and relevant photo’s onto a blog page seems to be my permanent downfall. (Actually, having started organising the files on my laptop during lockdown, I also realise there are a number of outstanding theatre posts I’ve semi-written which have never seen the light of day either.) So… whilst the sun is trying to shine [???!!!!???? - well it’s not raining for a change] I shall endeavour to catch up….and then we can start afresh on all the glorious productions I’m catching up with via Ye Olde Gogglebox.

Today, I am sitting in the garden editing my post about the play Bang Bang! I nearly made a pot of gunpowder tea to assist me, instead, this golden box of joy was shouting out for my attention.
T2 is an Australian tea company (Melbourne to be precise, the first store opened in 1996 in Fitzroy, Melbourne) and whilst I’ve seen their shops dotted about on various UK high streets, I confess I haven’t set foot inside one. Instead, the boxes of T2 tea that I own are both gifts.

Oolong Tea

Surprisingly, Oolong tea only accounts for about 2% of the world’s tea, but whilst many people may be unfamiliar with it, it is certainly something a tea lover should try consuming. Oolong tea contains various vitamins, minerals, polyphenol antioxidants and amino acids which are supposed to have many health benefits. It is a traditional form of Chinese tea made from the partially oxidized leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant. Green tea has leaves which have not been oxidized a great deal, black tea leaves have been oxidised a lot. Oolong tea is somewhere in the middle of this oxidising process, and therefore depending upon the retailer, the tea you buy can vary from green to brown in colour.

Studies have shown that Oolong tea may reduce diabetes, help with heart health, improve brain functions, protect against various forms of cancer, and my favourite since being incarcerated at home…weight loss. [TV film + Oolong tea = not turning into Homer Simpson!] Well one can always dream.

T2 Oolong Formosa

“A green, balled Oolong”

Once hot water is added to the grey/green/brown pellets, the leaves unfurl to produce a tea which is a light golden green in colour. It has a light and subtle flavour which increases on the second and third brews. (I normally make a pot of tea which fills a cup, then I fill a flask with hot water and can make several brews from the one pot of tea leaves.)

Formosa Oolong is a darker type of Oolong tea from the Taiwan (formerly Formosa) province, giving the tea a slightly sweet dried fruit flavour. This particular product reminds me of an autumnal day, as it has a pleasant earthy/grassy/leafy scent which transfers onto the taste buds when drinking. It is a refreshing brew with a slight astringency to it, but it is moreish and makes for a nice dependable but not overwhelming brew.

Upon checking T2’s website – the Oolong Formosa no longer appears to be available – however, they have a similar style standard Oolong which has similar tasting notes.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein @ Theatr Clwyd, Mold

(Watched Tues 28th Jan. 2020)

I have a confession to make. I’ve never read Frankenstein. It was on the curriculum, but I couldn’t be bothered…I read the minimum amount of Gothic Horror I could in order to get me through the semester and then I spent the rest of the time horse-riding. I’ve never watched the films, so I have no idea if they’re any good or not, although I’ve heard that the book and the films have very little in common. 

I haven’t seen the National Theatre production starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller as my preconceptions meant that I just didn’t find the tale that appealing.*  I did watch a version of Frankenstein by Box Clever Theatre Company once; it was a thought-provoking production and I thought that perhaps I should buy the book, but once again…before I could think about buying it, other tomes on the bookcase had vied for my attention and won.

Now there was something that intrigued me in the advertisement for Rona Munro’s adaptation which compelled me to go and watch it. Her version puts the novelist, Mary Shelley, right at the heart of the production. That idea aroused my curiosity…the idea of her, the creator of Frankenstein, being on stage with Frankenstein, the creator of the monster. What a spine-tingling thought!

“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.” Mary Wollstonecraft

Before looking at the play, it is interesting to understand a little about Mary Shelley and novels in the era she lived. She was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, herself an English writer and advocate of women’s rights. Interestingly – in her book The Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) - she argued that women should be given an education, further elaborating that it was because women educate their children and they could also be more than mere ornamental wives to their husbands. 

The book is one of the earliest known forms of feminist writing and Wollstonecraft argued that women deserved the same fundamental rights as men. What was interesting about her book, was that she argued that women were superficial because they lacked an education, and in it she launched a brutal attack on those women who had an obsession for reading sentimental novels. There were far better things women could be doing with their time than idly lying around filling their heads with saccharine tosh!

Sunday, 9 February 2020

The Violence Series @ Theatr Clwyd, Mold

The Violence Series is a set of three dystopian style drama’s, set Orwellian style in a world that is recognisably ours, but one which we have not quite attained. They are not physically frightening plays, more a bleak window into the future, which is often more disturbing than watching a fight break out when you begin to realise the future portrayed is not that far off.

The plays were commissioned by The Other Room, an award-winning pub-theatre in Cardiff. The Other Room is renowned for making drama that is both distinctive and visionary; drama that makes you think about the consequences long after you’ve gone home. Each of the three plays are profoundly different, but they all explore the divisions in society and look at the darker side of humanity.

American Nightmare by Matthew Bulgo

Ahhhh, the American Dream. The belief that everyone has the opportunity to pursue their own happiness. It doesn’t matter where you are born, what class of society you are in, or what religion you follow, you can achieve whatever level of success you want. Success is possible to anyone through hard work and sacrifice, taking risks rather than relying on luck to get you to your goal.

Sounds ideal…but what happens when the distance between the American reality and the American Dream becomes an enormous yawning cavern? What happens when the American Dream becomes an American Nightmare? Just how far are you willing to go to keep pursuing your Dream?

Sunday, 2 February 2020

How to Kill a Narcissist and Killing Narcissism by J H Simon

“The Penny Drops

The fact that you’re reading this book means you’re onto something. Maybe a particular event burst the bubble and a small gap opened up as a result. A gap in what, you’re not sure, but you felt it. It happened when a significant person in your life went that little bit too far, and you finally said to yourself: “This is not normal. Why am I tolerating this crap?””

What makes you start questioning the friendship/relationship you’re in?

Is it one-sided? When you try to express an opinion is it always side-lined as stupid or irrelevant? Does your friend twist things so that they are the focal point again? Are they able to manipulate you by putting up so many arguments or obstacles that it’s pointless carrying on? Do you get tired of walking on eggshells around the person because you know that one slip of the tongue will cause an unnecessary emotive reaction? Do they try to supress you from being yourself…to make you feel inferior? Does this person always have a drama unfolding around them that they just have to share with everybody around them? Do you actually get any real pleasure from the relationship, or are you just kidding yourself that it’s fun, fun, fun?

At the point you start asking yourselves these questions, you’re also probably trying to find an answer to them….just to make sure you haven’t actually gone insane. Google becomes your best friend as you start reading up on Narcissistic Personality Disorder and the various articles make you realise that you have been trapped in a world you didn’t believe you could ever be dragged into.

Phrases like “gaslighted” are used. I’ve seen the play Gaslight from which the term derives from…surely not? I’m savvy…aren’t I? I couldn’t be manipulated like that…or could I? And why would I befriend someone like that in the first place? You read more and more, and then suddenly you see an offer on a book and you buy it and as you read it you realise just how you managed to fall down the rabbit hole so easily.

The problem is trying to establish what is normal human behaviour and what is narcissistic behaviour. This book tries to unravel this question by looking at who narcissists are and to whom they are most likely to target and why. If you can understand the core of the problem, you are better equipped at dealing with it and ensuring you are not the target of other narcissists in the future.

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Murder on Mulholland Drive, Theatr Clwyd (Mold)

OK, let’s get this straight from the start, this is not a stage version of David Lynch’s strange neo-noir 2001 film starring Naomi Watts. 

Mulholland Drive is a road that stretches 21 miles in Southern California, USA, which takes in scenic views of the Hollywood sign, Los Angeles Basin and the San Fernando Valley. It has some of the most famous and expensive houses in the world and is home to several Hollywood celebrities; and it makes the perfect setting for an Agatha Christie style whodunnit!

Who Killed Houston Ziegfried McCoy?

Murder on Mulholland Drive is a murder mystery play written and starring Richard Jones of Pheonix Theatre Company, Mold, a familiar name to those who frequent Theatr Clwyd. Set in the 1950’s, it is a cautionary tale of what could happen to a sleazy, middle-aged man, who happens to be head of one of the most powerful film studios in Hollywood. Houston Ziegfried McCoy has helped many hopeful starlets achieve their ambitions, but his methods have made him many enemies along the way.

Monday, 20 January 2020

An Inspector Calls, The Lowry (Salford)

Well my 2020 theatre season has commenced with a splendid big bang! The English novelist and playwright J B Priestly, wrote what is probably regarded as his most well-known drama, An Inspector Calls, in 1945. Surprisingly, the play was first performed in that year in Moscow; the first performance in English took place in London the following year. It stood to reason that a cinematic version would follow and in 1954 Alastair Sim took on the role of the titular inspector. It is a contender for one of my favourite films of all time and whilst other film versions have been made, the original version remains the best in my humble opinion.

In 1992, Stephen Daldry decided that his directorial debut at The National Theatre, London, would be this old warhorse of a text. Was this to be a stroke of genius or professional suicide? Most productions of An Inspector Calls, which is set in 1912, would take place in a reconstructed, historically accurate Edwardian drawing room, complete with period furniture and heavy on the crystal decanters etc. Those productions subconsciously take you back to a past era, but the issues back then are still affecting modern audiences; probably more so now with the advent of technology and the inability to “get away from it all,” so how do you keep the feel of the original play, but make it relevant for a modern audience?

Instead of keeping with tradition, Daldry changed the setting to 1945, when the play was written. He had such a fresh, imaginative approach to the staging of An Inspector Calls, that the traditional boring drawing room drama seems to have died out. I’m thrilled that I can now say that I’ve experienced his visionary production, including Ian MacNeil’s house on stilts, first-hand.