far far away – tom mcneal

April 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Far Far Away – Tom McNeal

I received a review copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Jeremy Johnson Johnson isn’t a typical ‘normal’ boy in his small town of Never Better. For starters, there’s his name – his parents had the same surname when they met, and shared this phenomenon with him in this way. He also owns a bookshop – The Two Book Bookshop. His mother  disappeared years earlier, under strange circumstances – oh yes, and his constant companion is the ghost of Jacob Grimm. Well, he can only hear his voice, but that’s enough!

When bright, beautiful, feisty Ginger Boultinghouse shows a sudden interest in him, and convinces him to come to the baker’s to try the magical Prince’s Cake. This begins a sequence of events that play out like a typical Grimm’s fairy tale – but will trthe ending be a tragic or a happy one for Jeremy, Ginger and their families and friends?

I’ve been quite into Grimm’s tales and re-workings of them recently, Having read Grim, and Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales of the Brother’s Grimm, so when I saw this one it called to me, like a golden mechanical bird in a dark dark wood.

I really had no idea what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised by this poignant, touching timeless tale of a boy trying to fit in with a life that can’t quite contain him. There is an authentic Grimm feel to the story, which seems to be ‘olde-worldey’ and yet TV exists, and Ginger speaks like no folk tale heroine.

Narrated by Jacob himself, Jeremy’s self-appointed ‘protector from evil’, this is a unique coming-of-age story with a few sinister twists and turns along the way – and a finale that I really wasn’t expecting.

I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for other Tom McNeal books.

things i’ve seen this year and not got round to blogging about (January)

March 9, 2014 3 comments

2014 has been exceptionally busy. I haven’t had a chance to blog about all the wonderful things that I’ve been able to experience – and to be honest, I worry that if I don’t blog about them, they’ll be erased from my memory just through so many other things piling in!

So, I have been making the most of living in this wonderful, cultured city – I’ve seen so many widely diverse shows, it makes me feel alive! God bless London!

Death Ship 666

The first show I saw this year, so I did actually manage to get around to blogging about it, before I got bogged down in being such a culture vulture!! See my full blog post here.

The Lost World, Barts Pathology Museum

The Lost World at Barts Pathology Museum

The Lost World at Barts Pathology Museum

Two treats in one – a visit to the amazing Barts Pathology Museum where you can peruse the fascinating and gory exhibits of medical interest in the many cases and jars (from leprous hands to a flashlight that was extracted from an ancient flashlight that was extracted from a soldier that had obviously ‘fallen’ onto it backwards) and a silent film that I hadn’t seen before.

As part of their Silent Film season, the £7.50 entrance fee included popcorn and a Hendricks giin and tonic. The Lost World (1925), based on the book by Conan Doyle (and featuring him at the start), it was the inspiration for Jurassic Park and King Kong. And it was brilliant. The stop motion animated dinosaurs felt way ahead of their time, and the acting was wonderfully non-purposely comedic. I loved it. One of the best moments was after they had carefully and painstakingly gone through the process of capturing one of the huge creatures, the caption “Later in London…” is shown, removing the need for a return journey :) Brilliant!

The Pink Singers, Cadogan Hall

The Time Of My Life

The Time Of My Life

The Pink Singers are London’s LGBT choir, and in January they put on a great show at Cadogan Hall of a selection of songs from some well-known and well-loved films.  There was a great energy amongst the singers, and some fantastic high-points. I may not enjoy “I Will Always Love You” but there was no denying the sheer talent of the MALE soloist who belted out a perfect rendition. the haunting “Mad World” was my highlight though. Beautiful :)

Frank Skinner, Leicester Square Theatre

Frank Skinner

Frank Skinner

I was lucky to be given a friend’s ticket for Frank Skinner’s ‘Man in A Suit’ – a prelude to his tour that starts next month. After a seven year break from stand-up, he’s changed a bit. Now a father, teetotal and in his mid-50s, he’s not quite the lad that he used to be in his Fantasy Football days. He was warm and witty and relaxed, rather than outlandish and shocking with loud belly laughs. It’s not often that you get knob jokes and haikus in the same show.

the dead wife’s handbook – hannah beckerman

The Dead Wife’s Handbook

I received a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

“Today is my death anniversary. A year ago today I was still alive.”

Rachel was a bright, happy young mother of just 36 when she died quickly and unexpectedly, leaving her family far less bright and happy.

We join her ‘spirit’ a year after her death as she watches her grieving husband Max and their beloved seven year old daughter, Ellie.

Rachel isn’t haunting her family, or a ghost in the ‘conventional’ form, she seems to be in some kind of limbo, allowed to witness important scenes from Max and Ellie’s lives, but unable to control which she sees and when they end.

The story captures the normalising time from a year after her death, when family and friends are starting to expect Max to move on and get on with his own life as “…that’s what Rachel would have wanted.”

In contrast, Rachel herself isn’t at all sure that this is what she wants. And she is even less sure when Max starts dating.

I was so torn by this book. I love the premise, and I loved the way that it was written. It could very very easily have wandered into tweeness, or come across as overtly religious or sentimental, but it didn’t. There wasn’t even a description of a ‘Heaven’ or the afterlife (which is just nothingness to Rachel).

“There are no gardens, no rainbows, no magical worlds like those at the top of the Faraway Tree.”

She mentions the Faraway Tree – that’s GOT to be a good thing!

I didn’t even feel that the story was about Rachel witnessing her family mourning her and being grateful that they can move on from this and get on with living their own lives without her. I felt that this was a completely different focus on grief. It was on Rachel. This was the journey of her own acceptance of her death.

She needed to go through the entire grieving process, and this was only possible through Max and Ellie’s own progress – much of which she battled against…especially when Max started a new relationship.

I guess I felt that there wasn’t enough anger coming across. I’d have been angry. My husband would have been angry. My family would have been angry if I’d just dropped dead with no warning at 36. There weren’t enough tears and tantrums fo rmy liking. No raw emotion. Everything felt a little too…I don’t know…considered?

There were moments, of course, but I wanted more, I just felt that there was some passion missing. All of the characters felt quite philosophical, understanding and seemed to instinctively know the right thing to do or say. That didn’t feel real to me.

But that said, it was a well written story, easy to read, heartstring-tugging and very unique. And it’s a very pretty cover, isn’t it?

grow up – ben brooks

February 14, 2014 Leave a comment

Grow Up

I was looking for some audiobooks from the library, and was drawn in by the cover of this one. My mind has had to do quite a lot of overtime recently, and I wanted something that I wouldn’t have to think about too much.

Thinking about it now, I guess I’m not really the target audience for a book narrated from the POV of a 17 year old white middle-class lad. However, with a 14 year old daughter – getting into the head of a 17 year old boy was probably way more scary than any horror story I could have picked up!

Narrated by ‘Jasper’, Grow Up tells of the ‘normal’ life of a teenage boy. Girls, sex, drugs, booze, parties and maybe something a bit more – a realisation that this time is where he is coming of age, and that once him and his friends leave school, nothing will ever quite be the same.

Being *whispers indeterminate age* myself, my mid-teens seem an oh so very long time ago. But I don’t think that much has really changed in that time – there were kids doing drugs, a lot of kids drinking too much, and kids sleeping around. I think what tends to surprise me when I read books like this and see things on the TV is how more stuff seems to be done publicly as a group. Yes, when I was 17, most of my group were sexually active, BUT we didn’t do it right there in front of each other – sex seems to be a spectator sport far too often amongst teenagers these days.

There wasn’t much of a story, it felt more like a snippet of life, although it was tied up neatly at the end – just when you didn’t think that it would be. Jasper obsesses about one particular girl at school and his whole time is spent working out how to get hold of her. His relationship with his female best friend is sweet and endearing – but still not perfect. He fucks up just like any (17 year old) bloke does.

There are many reasons not to like Jasper, but I couldn’t help liking him because (as the mother of a teenager), you could tell that he was just being a teenager, and deep down he was going to turn out a decent person.

Now more than two years old, Ben Brooks had the book published when he was just 17. It makes me feel extraordinarily inadequate! There was some great writing in it – some fantastic observations and points when Jasper was being quite reflective and the prose became beautiful. Brooks is likely to have a long glorious career ahead of him!

The audiobook was narrated by John Hasler – and he sounded exactly how I would have expected Jasper to sound – so was a great book to listen to in that respect.

I would definitely recommend it, probably to anyone under 25. But if you’re ancient like me, and have a teenage daughter…keep away, or you might end up locking her up!

a birthday trip to romney

February 8, 2014 Leave a comment

It was my birthday last weekend, and as a treat, my lovely HUSBAND (I still can’t get used to calling him that – either lovely OR husband to be quite honest), decided to book up a hotel that I had found while searching online a few years ago, but had never got around to going to.

The original reason for the search was “I want to go on the Romney Hythe & Dymchurch railway! I haven’t been on it for years! Where could we stay if we went down that way?” And one of the most aesthetically striking images was that of the Romney Bay House Hotel. How dramatic does it look?

Romney Bay House Hotel

So hubby decided to treat me. Having your birthday at this time of the year, you have to get used to the fact that the weather isn’t going to be great if you go away to celebrate it anywhere in the UK! We were actually quite lucky – it was bright when we arrived, although the potholed road leading to the hotel was peppered with pond-sized puddles. Soon after our arrival, the rain came crashing down again – and unfortunately there was scaffolding up as they had lost roof tiles in a mini-tornado the week before!

Owners Lisa & Clinton couldn’t have been more warm and friendly. You really felt that you were a welcome guest in their home – and what a home. A rambling maze of corridors and nooks and crannies – full of old fashioned character. I was surprised when we opened the door to our room and the sunshine streamed into a beautiful large space, including a wonderful large bathroom with a claw-footed free standing tub and separate shower cubicle.

Romney Bay House Hotel

Romney Bay House Hotel

Everything was clean and bright and well-thought out.  The bed was extremely comfortable (I’m quite the insomniac, but I actually slept really well), and our view out over the sea was fabulous. Ive never been one for hangign around in hotel lounges, but there was a gorgeous cosy first floor guest lounge overlooking the sea and I’d spied a ginger cat resting in there, so popped in for a tickle. Everything felt right and homey. Lisa didn’t even give us a key for our room (the front door is locked and you have to ring to get in), she showed us where they were kept, and it was up to us if we felt we needed it. There was also a fully-stocked honesty bar downstairs, where you just noted your room number and what you’d helped yourself to (although we’d packed a bottle of Prosecco!)

Pre-dinner drinks and nibbles

Pre-dinner drinks and nibbles

We had read great things about the restaurant, and had eagerly booked ourselves in for dinner.  There is no menu, and no choice of dining time. We were told what the menu was when we turned up, so I guess if we’d had any dietary requirements, we could have said then! Diners are expected to come down to the ground floor lounge (in front of the roaring open fire) for 7.30pm to be served drinks and nibbles, beofre being shown into the conservatory for dinner at 8pm. With the whole place feeling so homey, I did wonder whether Lisa would shout up the stairs for us to come down for dinner if we were late!

There are only 10 rooms at the hotel, and the restaurant reflects this – there were only 8 other diners on the night that we were there. The conservatory is a lovely space – and I can imagine it would be absolutely wonderful in the summer on a bright clear evening.

We were served by Lisa and two young waiters who couldn’t have been more professional, friendly and accommodating. Clinton in the kitchen served up a fantastic meal!  I couldn’t have ‘chosen’ better.

The first course was a kind of thin poatato rosti topped with smoked haddock and spinach, topped with a perfectly poached egg with a very light cheese sauce. I’ve only been ‘coming back’ to fish over the past couple of years, and as I can’t stand smoked salmon, I was a bit dubious of what smoked haddock would be like, and was fully expecting to just grin and bear it. I couldn’t have been more wrong – the haddock had been smoked on the premises I believe and was absolutely delicious – exactly the right amount of smoke! The whole dish was delicate but full of flavour.

Dinner at Romney Bay House Hotel

Dinner at Romney Bay House Hotel

Next was honey glazed duck breat with fondant potato and vegetables. The duck was pink, tender and juicy, the potato buttery and soft, the roast parsnip sweet and the vegetables beautifully turned, fresh and crunchy! Perfect!

Dessert was a spiced bramley apple souffle, cinnamon cream with red berries and sugar lattice. this had a thin, light sponge base, the souffle was a really light whipped mousse and the cream had just the right amount of cinnamon. The crisp satisfying crack of the sugar-work with it’s very slightly burnt caramel taste was a brilliant contrast. Absolutely wonderful!

I could have ended there – but there were cheese and biscuits (and port) to be had. I’m not a massive cheese and biscuit with dinner kind of a girl, so I left most of that to him.  However, I did eat most of the gorgeous little petit fours!

We wandered back up to our lovely room full (but not too stuffed) and happy and, looked out over the calm sea and even though it wasn’t my plan, fell asleep almost immediately!

The legendary orange marmalade

The legendary orange marmalade

Breakfast the next morning (you write down what time and style you want the night before on a pad next to the decent WiFi’s password) was the usual combination of buffet-style cereal, fruit etc, and we had both ordered the full english. We had our choice of eggs (me scrambled, him poached) – everything was tasty and well cooked – especially the sausages.  But the absolute star of breakfast (at which there were far more people) was the seemingly endless supply of toast to be smeared with their homemade orange marmalade. As each table tried it, you could hear the wave of the same question over and over “What’s in the marmalade?” The answer was that Clinton’s marmalade had cinnamon, vanilla, bay leaf and (the flavour that made it so special) anise.  They had some jars for sale at the honesty bar where you checked out, and we bought a couple – one for my parents and one for us. Lisa mentioned that this left just one jar from the batch and they’d have to make some more. I’d happily pay to buy some and have it posted to us!

So, that brought us to the last part of our trip – a quick return chug on the gorgeous Romney Hythe & Dymchurch railway – a not-too-mini version of a ‘real’ steam railway. My parents had taken me on it as a kid, and I’d been again when I lived in Kent – but I hadn’t been for about 20 years.

There’s something exciting about steam trains – the smell of the coke hanging in the air and the sound of the steam escaping from the funnel evoking all kinds of base emotions!

Romney Hythe & Dymchurch Railway

Romney Hythe & Dymchurch Railway

It may be small, but it’s perfectly formed, and proper grown-ups can still sit in the enclused carriages very comfortably. There is even a licenced buffet car. It was a perfect day – bright and brisk with hardly any clouds in the sky. We took the hour long round trip to Hythe and back to New Romney, puffing through the marshy countryside, baaing at sheep on the way – and checking out the few sights. It was exhilirating but relaxing and I loved every second of it. I plan to go on the Watercress Line soon as I’ve never been on it – or perhaps a return to the Bluebell Railway.

I even had the added pleasant surprise that the RHDR official guidebook that I bought contains a foreward by Ben Goldacre! Which seemed rather random.

What more could I have wanted for my birthday?

grim – various authors (edited by christine johnson)

February 4, 2014 5 comments

Grim

I received this as an Advance Review Copy in exchange for an honest review.

This is a collection of short stories, based on the ‘classic’ fairy tale (some more obviously based than others), but all with a dark, unusual or sinister twist to them – and many feeling a lot more contemporary.  The authors chosen are some of the best young adult writers of today, including a couple of my daughter’s favourite authors – Amanda Hocking and Julie Kagawa.

I read it with the intention of ‘checking out’ its suitability for my 14 year old daughter.

I haven’t read many collections of short stories, which is a bit odd, considering I’m more likely to write them myself, and the fact that I have a very short attention span.  However, the issue with any kind of compilation is that it is likely to be a bit hit and miss – you can’t please everyone with every inclusion.

Luckily, the first story The Key by Rachel Hawkins had enough pace, intrigue and mystery to set the pace. It wasn’t overdoing the fairy tale aspect, and it wasn’t too in-your-face supernatural to be a turn-off.

The stories were extremely diverse, which made the collection all the more engaging – from a psychic girl wondering whether to trust her boyfriend, to a musician inheriting his father’s muse, a rock band called Skin Trade or a re-imagination of The Snow Queen.  Just a couple of the tales were slightly near the mark, making me wonder whether they were ENTIRELY suitable for a 14 year old – but in the greater scheme of things, that’s probably just me being overly-sensitive, as they were not particularly graphic.

The standouts for me were The Twelfth Girl by Malindo Lo – an intoxicating schoolgirl tale of the ‘in’ crowd, all night parties, alcohol and hidden tunnels - The Raven Princess by Jon Skovron – an unexpectedly sweet story of a beautiful princess cursed to live as a raven – and my personal favourite Beauty & The Chad by Sarah Rees Brennan – a highly entertaining retelling of Beauty & The Beast.

In this the Beast was actually a surfer dude type called Chad who had been transformed and transported to the world of fairy tales, and just misses his frat mates and his X Box. The dialogue is clever, and Chad’s annoyance at the animated items within the castle trying to ‘serve’ him constantly had me grinning throughout.

A lovely collection, easy to read, and enough to have at least a few stories that you’ll be glad you read. A good YA alternative to Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters, which I love! I think The Faery Handbag is my favourite short story ever.

Grim by Christine Johnson will be published on 25th February 2014.

death ship 666, leicester square theatre

January 30, 2014 1 comment
Death Ship 666

Death Ship 666

On a whim, me and my mate booked tickets for this, just down to the name and the poster really.

It was on a Sunday afternoon, and sounded like it may be just the (pretty cheap) ticket for a prospectively grim day.

Death Ship 666 is only half built (and even that’s pretty shabby), and is on its maiden voyage to the Bermuda Triangle. What could possibly go wrong?

A parody of Titanic, it’s a fast-paced, clever farce, drawing on the audience’s knowledge of the film, theatrical cliches, puns and with plenty more clever dialogue.

The cast of six take an a vast array of roles – in fact, during the only musical number (and very amusing it is), one of them has to don two suit halves to sing as his two leading characters – and he pulls it off very successfully too!

It was a laugh from start to finish, and we came out into the rain with a warm glow and a big smile on our faces – sinking ships, brash Americans, nasty posh people, an evil genius, big floppy hair, a 50′s style child detective, a mad captain, doomed lovers and added bears! What’s not to like?

Death Ship 666 has one more show at the Leicester Square Theatre at 2pm on Sunday 23rd February. It wasn’t quite sold out when we went, but I reckon word will get around – so why not book it? You can’t go wrong for just £12.50.

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