A Very Fine Exhibition of Clog-Wallopping or How Charlie Chaplin Found His Feet

Interesting stuff! Looking forward to learning even more at the event in December.

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“The boys roamed the streets for diversion, Syd wearing a pair of shoes as “holey as Gruyere cheese” and a worn out jacket. Charlie wore a pair of his mother’s red stage stockings… how the other children laughed at them.”                                                                                                                           (Picturegoer Magazine, 1952)

When you research Charlie Chaplin’s (and his elder brother Sydney’s)  life and work, you find an awful lot about shoes. Thanks to his diligent biographer David Robinson we know that Charlie was descended from Shadrach Chaplin, the village bootmaker of Great Finborough Suffolk, at the time…

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Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

This is a really fun book and will be enjoyed by anyone who liked fairy tales as a child.

It is a collection of stories from Norse mythology, the tales of the ancient Scandinavian Gods: Thor, Odin, Freya, Loki and quite a few you many not of heard of.  The tales are mostly funny and light but with darker elements here and there.  The Gods are mischievous, and also quite hapless at times.  They get up to no good and make silly mistakes.  My favourite stories were about Loki, who is a real trickster – doing things like removing the hair of Thor’s wife permanently just because he thinks it will look funny, and Thor, who is brave and strong…but also rather stupid (spending most of the time thinking about food and drink)!

It’s enjoyable and easy to read.  I think it probably works best dipping in and out of it and reading the stories one at a time, I got stuck on a long journey with this book and read a large chuck of it in one go which I found less enjoyable that just reading in short bursts.

3.5/5

Zoe

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Book Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This is almost two books in one.  It starts with a brilliantly written, but fairly typical, coming of age tale about Esther a 19 year-old student struggling with decisions about what her future holds, coming into contact with the wider world for the first time in New York, and juggling her studies with dating and friendships and pressures to choose between career and marriage/motherhood.  Then things take a darker turn as Esther’s ‘eccentricities’ and anxieties become more extreme and she starts to lose control as her mental health slides into crisis.  If one didn’t know the history of Sylvia Plath I think one wouldn’t see this shift coming from the witty, sharp, well observed and cynical but fairly gentle and comic first half.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story.

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and off-beat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.”

Esther is in many way a very lucky young woman (albeit most of her advantages have been earned through intelligence and hard work).  She has a scholarship to a top college, a supportive mother, she’s attractive and physically healthy, and her handsome medical student boyfriend wants to marry her.  On top of this she wins a prestigious internship to learn about and contribute to a bunch of New York magazines, this is more a prize than serious work as the organisers lay on parties and free gifts over the weeks of the scheme, but it is also a serious opportunity to make contacts and learn about the industry.  She should be on top of the world, OK the 1950s in the US aren’t the perfect time to be a woman but Esther has choices and opportunities most woman at this time would dream of.  The choices are part of the problem, Esther finds herself overthinking everything, putting extreme pressure on herself to live up to her high achieving childhood and youth as she enters adulthood.  The story is not all doom and gloom though, Esther is witty and cynical (while not always that nice!), some of her actions and observations early in the book had me laughing out loud.

This part of the tale I think everyone could relate to.  Esther’s main problem is that she doesn’t really know herself yet.  While sparkling on paper and on the surface she actually lacks inner confidence.  This is true of many young (and not so young) people trying to work out their place in the world.

The second part of the story shows that Esther has real problems above and beyond what most of us face.  Whether triggered by pressure or just part of her mental make up her mind fails to cope with life and she tips over into a kind of madness, she can no longer function normally and begins to act in a dangerous self-destructive way.  It is a stunning account of a mental breakdown from the inside and feels painfully honest.

The book is given extra poignancy by the knowledge, that most literature fan will have, that Sylvia Plath tragically committed suicide at the age of 30.  In places the book feel almost intrusive as it feels like we are seeing within Syliva Plath’s tortured brain and observing the condition that would one day kill her – a painful privilege given to us by a brilliant woman.

5/5

Zoe

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Book Review: House of Names by Colm Toibin

“If the gods did not watch over us, I wondered, then how should we know what to do?  Who else would tell us what to do?  I realized then that no one would tell us, no one at all, no one would tell me what should be done in the future or what should not be done.  In the future, I would be the one to decide what to do, not the gods.” Clytemnestra

house of names

This is a retelling of the ancient Greek story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and their children.  Of the sacrifice of their eldest child, Iphigenia, and the revenge of Clytemnestra on her husband then the revenge of her remaining children upon her.  The story will be very familiar to many readers they form part of the Odessey and the legends of the Trojan War and are in the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides.  Despite their relative familiarity I think a retelling is a good idea as they are such interesting and dramatic tales with loads of scope for new interpretations and lots of opportunity to flesh out the characters and twist the reader’s sympathies this way and that.  Having said that I don’t think this particular retelling worked and I just found it dull.  I found it dull in the beginning but decided to give it a chance, I started to quite enjoy it and found the writing style quite relaxing and there were a few nice scenes but my generosity ran out and by two thirds through I was finding it dull again.  I was very happy when I finally finished it and was free to move on to something more lively!

If someone is interested in the tales of Agamemnon and his family I would recommend finding a good production of one of Aeschylus or Euripides on this subject and giving this book a miss.  I think if this had been my only experience of this legend I would be left thinking ‘what a boring story’.

2/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Red Queen and Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard

red queen.jpg

These are the first two novels of a four part teenage, fantasy series.

The books are set in an alternative universe, or possibly our own future, we don’t really know.  The planet is like earth with towns, cities, rivers, mountains, etc etc. but the people are rather different.  In this world people are divided in two, there are the Reds and the Silvers.  Reds are just like us, humans, with red blood; Silvers look and more or less act like humans but they have silver blood and even more dramatically have what we would regard as magic powers, the Silvers call them ‘abilities’.  Some Silvers can control fire, some water, some can run amazingly fast others are incredibly strong, some have none physical powers like being able to read minds or perform mind control or see into the future.  There are a large range of abilities which tend to run in families.

As you may have guessed with such amazing powers the Silvers become the ruling dominant section of society – and they do not use this power benevolently!  Reds and Silvers live separately (except when Silvers need servants) the Reds live in all the poorest least desirable areas and are used by Silvers to perform all the horrid tasks in life; cleaning, hard labour, dangerous factory work etc.  And even worse, they are used as disposable foot-soldiers in the wars Silvers wage between their different groups and factions.  All young Reds must spend time serving in the Silver army and many don’t live out their conscription period, others come home physically broken, mentally scarred or both.  Obviously the Reds don’t like living this way and some do try to rebel but it is not easy when any insurrection can be crushed by superhuman Silver soldiers who the Reds cannot possibly beat in a fight.

So this is the set up for the novel.  In The Red Queen we meet 16 year old Mare who is a Red, living in poverty, trying to avoid conscription and help her impoverished family by petty thieving.  But one day something incredible happens, Mare discovers she has an ‘ability’ too, just like a Silver, except her blood in definitely Red and if anything her power appears stronger than that of an average Silver.  Her unique power is discovered by the ruling family of her country and they quickly decided the discovery must be kept quiet; their whole social order partly depends on everyone agreeing that Silvers are naturally superior to Reds.  By threatening the safety of her family she is forced to live in the palace and masquerade as a Silver so they can keep a close eye on her and study her developing ability.  I don’t really want to say much more about the plot as I don’t want to spoil it for you, there are lots of unexpected twists and turns which is a real strength of the novels.

In the second instalment, Glass Sword, we see Mare leaving the confines of the palace and taking her ability out into the wider world as she goes on a search to find more Reds like her.  This is a dangerous quest as most Silvers are determined to hold on the power and squash any threat to the existing hierarchy.

Overall these are very exciting fun books, though the Red Queen is a slightly slower burner.  After the interesting set up to the story then exciting revelation that Mare has powers this book becomes a little more steady paced as Mare spends time in the palace learning how to act like a Silver; etiquette, history and dance lessons included (yawn).  The only thing to really spice up this dull section is an intriguing love triangle developing between Mare and the two half-brother princes of the Silver royal family.  I did reach the point when I decided to give up on the series as the Red Queen was a bit too boring…but then the final chapters are so thrilling and unexpected that I just had to find out what happened next!

Glass Sword does not disappoint, it is a thrill ride from the opening pages.  It is an improvement from the Red Queen in that there is constant movement and peril and a team of other characters helping Mare on her quest.  My only criticism of this book is that in the dialogue the characters can come across as a bit one note, everyone seems angry all the time!  It is a pet hate with some teenage books in that the authors seem to think the best way to demonstrate that the characters are spirited is to make them endlessly snappy and irritable!  Also, although some anger is expected in times of difficultly and peril, how come all characters seem to react to stress in the same way?  In the real world some people react to bad stuff by becoming quiet and withdrawn, or deflecting how they feel with humour, or being depressed, or over the top positive etc etc.  In Red Queen world everyone just seems to get cross so there is a lot of dialogue where everyone is snappy and angry with everyone else and the voices seem to become interchangeable.  BUT this is not a novel to choose for subtly drawn characters and sensitive dialogues it is all about the action so this fault is not difficult to forgive.

I look forward to the next instalment.

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: The Candidate by Alex Nunn

the candidate

This non-fiction book tells the story of the rise of Jeremy Corbyn (relative rise of course!  He’s not in power…yet).  It focuses on how a man given the odds of 200/1 became Labour leader up against ‘more obvious’ leadership candidates and then how, after predictions from experts that Labour were on tract to lose 100+ seats at the snap 2017 election, they defied predictions to dramatically increase their number of seats and vote share and forced the Tories into a coalition.

It is very sympathetic to Corbyn and left wing politics so would probably be enjoyed most by people of a similar political persuasion but there is plenty in it for none ‘Corbynites’ – it deals with the changing unpredictable natural of modern politics, the rise of social media and the arguable decline of influence of traditional media.  Anyone interested in politics or media should find it interesting but it is also just a really good story of a man and a movement achieving the unexpected, it would be a great basis of a political thriller!  It’s easy to read and I don’t think it would be necessary to be a political expert to follow what is going on.

4.5/5

Zoe

 

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Book review: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

This is the final instalment of the Divergent trilogy (there is another book, Four, but I believe this is a spin off not part of the main story).  The first novel Divergent introduced us to Tris and her strange home city that divides everyone in regimented factions, in Insurgent this society began to crumble, Allegiant takes the characters out of the city into the wider world for the first time.  Out there they discover some dramatic truths about their society, why it is closed off from the rest of the world, how the system of factions came to be and what it really means to be divergent.

Allegiant

I was disappointed with this book, not because it was totally terrible but it just didn’t live up to its predecessors.  It begins right after the end of the action in Insurgent, which got me off to a bad start… I left about a year between reading the two books and couldn’t remember what was going on!  The book isn’t generous with the reader in this respect, there is no handy reminder with the characters conveniently reflecting on everything that has just happened within the first few pages!  (So if you do want to read this I recommend you read it not too long after Insurgent.)  It is good that it gets straight into the action though, this is the book’s main strength, it is fast paced throughout.  I can’t tell you too much about what the action entails as it is full of major reveals and I don’t want to spoil it for you.

As to the books weaknesses – a main one was the way Roth switches the narration between Tris and Tobias.  I don’t remember her doing this in the first two.  It seems totally pointless as the two characters experience almost all the same things and their inner voices seem totally interchangeable.  This often confused me, I would pick up the book half way through a chapter and after reading for a bit come across something like ‘I pull Tris to me and kiss her hard’ and I’m thinking hang on I thought this was Tris, has she just kissed herself?  This happened frequently.

I also found aspects of the plot irritating and a bit lazy.  The aspect I am referring to is the ‘serums’ that the whole plot suddenly seems to depend on.  We already came into contact with the fear and truth serum; now there are memory, death and peace serums too.  It seems that most problems could be solved with an application of the correct serum and also perils caused to characters by being exposed to the wrong serum at the wrong time which could then only be overcome by developing an antidote to the said serum.  The science of the development of all these serums and antidotes was as vague as expected.  It felt that rather that deal with how the characters were behaving and looking for ways the plot could cleverly effect their actions you just squirt someone with a serum and get the result you need.  A bit disappointing.

There were some good moments though, a few surprising elements and scenes with real heart (just not enough!)

3/5

Zoe    

 

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Book Review: City of Masks by S D Sykes

Poor Oswald De Lacy is in a bad way.  He is running from grief in his past and internal mental torment when he finds himself stuck in Venice.  “That doesn’t sound so bad” do I here you say?  But this isn’t Venice of today filled with light, beauty, energy and tourists this is the Venice of deep winter 1358.  The city is under siege due to a conflict with Hungary.  Provisions are running low.  The city has barely begun recovering from the black death.  Suspicion and paranoia rule in the form of the mysterious and autocratic ‘Council of Ten’.  The secret police can seize anyone suspected of spying or immoral behaviour and drag them away for torture and even execution.

He finds himself here after being diverted from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his mother.  They take accommodation in the home of an old family friend, John Bearpark, a rather bad tempered old man who chargers them for their stay and is far from a gracious host.  Along with a couple of odd fellow pilgrims the household is also consists of the Bearpark’s young pregnant wife Filomena (who Oswald finds himself disturbingly drawn to), his hard drinking party loving grandson Enrico and a handful of rude servants.

I suppose the best our Oswald can do is keep his head down and stay quiet until the siege is lifted and he can move on…some hope!  First he is persuaded to join Enrico in his partying and gets mixed up with some rather rough people, gets in trouble with too much gabbling and attracts the unwelcome attention of the Council of Ten.  The last thing he needs is to stumble across a mutilated corpse…but that is what happens.

Compelled to investigate the crime by pressure from his host who wants to avoid potential scandal he embarks on a quest that puts him in danger from every side.  He must seek out a murderer in a city where asking questions can see you accused of spying.  He must explore the underworld of Venice at a time when any moral transgression, or mere suspicion of it, can see you burned at the stake.  A tricky task indeed!

The best thing about this book is the setting.  The dark, spooky canals of medieval Venice help increase the sense of peril.  I also liked an historical book set in an era that has not been overdone, as I sometime feel the Tudor period has.  The characters were also good, I was left wanting to know what happened next to the characters (…those who survived that is!).

It’s a fairly exciting story but I felt the mystery itself was the weakest aspect.  I think the characters and setting would have been even more enjoyable if this hadn’t been a ‘who-done-it’, this aspect felt a bit shoehorned in, I could almost picture the meeting in the publishing house when they decided this had to fit into the crime genre because historical detectives are so popular.  The novel would have worked just as well if it had been the same characters in the same setting experiencing a number of things including murder but without following the formula of a detective character investigating the crime.

4/5

Zoe

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city of masks

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Book Review: Bring Me Back by B.A. Paris

bring me backThis is an easy to read fast paced mystery/thriller.

We meet Finn, a 41 year old financial trader who lives with his fiancée near Cheltenham.  12 years earlier Finn experienced an awful tragedy when his much loved girlfriend, Layla, disappeared – assumed kidnapped and murdered – while they were on holiday in France.  After briefly being a suspect Finn was released without charge and has worked hard to rebuild his life and has finally found love again.  But no body was ever found, so closure has not come easily.

His uneasy peace is then blown away.  An old neighbour reports seeing Layla at their old cottage in Devon.  There have been fake sightings before, all turned out to be hoaxes or mistakes, but this is different, the old man knew Layla well plus it coincides with other strange happenings.  Layla always carried the smallest of a Russian doll set as a good luck charm and childhood memento, tiny Russian dolls start appearing on the walls near Finn’s house, they are sent to him in the post and left for him to find in other places he visits.  He also starts receiving emails from a stranger, again this has happened before with trouble makers and attentions seekers claiming to know where his lost girlfriend is, but this stranger seems to know things only he or Layla would know.

Despite this Finn is adamant Layla is dead and it must be a hoax or cruel trick.  But why is he so certain?  Has he been telling the full truth all these years?  Does he know more than he has told the police?  And if so, why did he lie?  What is he hiding?

It’s a great set up to a mystery.  I really enjoyed the early stages and trying to guess the twist I felt was coming (in case you are wondering, I suspected from page 15, convinced by page 136 – well done me!)  One reasons I enjoy mysteries is trying to guess the twist and in my experience guessing it either right or wrong needn’t spoil the rest of the book.  But in this case I do feel the story went downhill a little towards the end.  I liked the idea Paris had but didn’t feel it was perfectly executed and at times the plot veered from ‘crazy but possible’ to far-fetched.

Still a very good read and hard to put down once you have started.  I look forward to reading more from B.A. Paris.

3.5/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach

 

This is a good Read.  It takes us back in time to Amsterdam in the 17th century.  Holland is in the grip of ‘Tulip Fever’ when tulip bulbs were exchanged for huge sums of money and fortunes won and lost on this rather bizarre craze.  But our focus, at least to begin with, is on Sophia a young wife married to a much older husband who is about to have her portrait painted.

Bored and unhappy married to a man more than 30 years her senior she throws caution to the wind and embarks on a love affair with the artist employed to paint her.  Her only confidant is her maid who is a sympathetic ear (at least to begin with!) as she too is in love and willing to help her mistress pursue romance.  But how will it end?! If Sophia is discovered her reputation would be ruined and although she does not love her husband she relies on his good opinion and generosity to support her impoverished family.  Has she really found true love with her artist or just lust?  Will her servant keep her secret?  Will the lovers have a happy ever after or be disgraced by their reckless passion?  You’ll have to read it to find out!

There are plenty of twisted and turns to keep the reader engaged and a good dose of humour along with more serious moments.  I really liked the way Moggach moves the reader’s sympathy this way and that – I think we pity Sophia one moment as she is trapped in a marriage (and marriage bed!) with a man more than twice her age and longs for love and passion and fun with someone her own age.  Next we sympathise with her husband who is kind, loving and trusting – if lacking awareness as to how his wife might feel – he has a kind of oblivious vanity in assuming his wife is satisfied with him but is basically a good soul and doesn’t deserve what is coming to him…

A good light-hearted read ideal for a holiday or commute.

4/5

Zoe

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Tulip Fever

 

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