Pages

Friday, 19 September 2014

Reading the Classics: Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost

I signed up for a MOOC* called The Fiction of Relationship. Now to read a book a week for ten weeks, watch a series of short lectures and prepare a couple of assignments exploring relationships in (you've guessed it) fiction and what they might teach us about ourselves.

The first book is Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost. Written in 1731, Professor Weinstein of Brown University describes it as 'the quintessential story of the couple.'

Like many of us I suspect, I associate the title with the opera by Puccini. As far as the novel is concerned, I've lots to learn.


Originally written in French (I read it in translation via Project Gutenberg) the story of Manon Lescaut is told to a stranger by the Chevalier des Grieux. A young man of noble birth, he chances upon Manon and instantly falls rapturously in love with her. Though she returns his affections, her lack of breeding means the match is unsuitable in the eyes of early eighteenth century French society.


Without his family's approval, des Grieux struggles to keep Manon in the luxury she craves. He begs money from friends and wins it at cards, but she begins to take other, wealthier lovers more able to support her.

Despite Manon's infidelity, the couple conspire to be together, even as society continues to prise them apart. Des Grieux is tormented by jealousy and they endure multiple setbacks; scheming to extort money from Manon's admirers, they themselves are betrayed by their servants and thrown into prison. Escaping to New Orleans to begin afresh, Manon seems changed. Perhaps, in this simpler existence they have a chance of happiness, or will old patterns of behaviour re-emerge?

The narrative is written entirely from des Grieux's point of view, which means we don't get a very objective idea of Manon in all her complexities. Prévost suggests that des Grieux feels fine, noble emotions because he is a man of breeding, more sensitive than the common herd. But des Grieux is so besotted, that with others he is self-absorbed and deceitful, even willing to commit murder if it returns Manon to his side. Shockingly for the time, he values his all-encompassing love more highly than his abandoned vocation in the church, arguing that its fulfilment means happiness on earth, whereas with God, reward is deferred until after death.


The lectures really help to put this book into context. It is written in a pre-romantic age, when the novel as a format is neither established nor respectable. It caused a scandal, but not because of Manon's behaviour; by seeking to make a living through trading on the one thing she has of value - her looks - she is adhering to the conventions of the time. Still, she is a fallen woman and must be seen to suffer a tragic end.

It is des Grieux, with his blinkered but freely-expressed passion, who places himself outside the bounds of society where marriage is very much a transaction. Some fifty years before the French revolution, des Grieux, says Professor Weinstein, is 'a problematic hero in a degraded world'. I love that phrase and am busy trying to introduce it into conversation...

I didn't love this book though, but that may have been down to the translation; quoting in French, the Prof makes it much more fluent. That said, examining the couple and how our own identity might merge with another person's, is a fascinating introduction to a course about relationships. I'm already eagerly anticipating the next book to be studied - Jane Eyre.


*Massive Open Online Course
Images courtesy of Wikipedia and Penguin Classics. 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Juno and the Paycock at Bristol Old Vic


This review was originally written for Theatre Bristol Writing in Residence.


Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy portrays a world he knew only too well; cramped, impoverished tenements full of the unemployed and malnourished in a country riven by unrest. 

The second play of the series, Juno and the Paycock, is set in the schism of the 1922-3 Irish Civil War and tells the story of the beleaguered Boyle family. As the play opens, Juno is just about keeping the household afloat despite a work-shy husband, her daughter Mary being on strike and son Johnny already scarred by fighting. She may have little to start with, but by the end she comes to realise how much further it’s possible to sink.


Bristol Old Vic has collaborated with Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse to co-produce this hard-hitting tale of deprivation and despair. From the beginning, Conor Murphy’s set emphasizes the Boyle’s lack of privacy in their own rooms, with a barricade-like pile of wooden bed-frames, chairs and tables in the background, inhabited by the watching ensemble. The heightened reality of characters picking their way through this confusion is enhanced by Peter Coyte’s hauntingly melancholic music, although there’s relief at first when the plaintive wail of the violin gives way to a fast, uplifting beat complete with clattering pots and pans.

Gemma Bodinetz’s direction brings out the light in the Boyle’s straightened circumstances as well as the gathering shade. There’s knockabout comedy as the Captain and his slippery ‘butty’ Joxer attempt to evade both work and the wrath of Juno. There’s rejoicing as Bentham, an unexpected visitor from England, apparently brings news of a fortune coming the Captain’s way. 


But darkness is never far from the surface; Johnny, who lost an arm in the war, is troubled by visitations both real and imaginary, and, despite the family’s newfound wealth, continues to wear old, torn clothes. A celebratory get-together round a gramophone is interrupted by the funeral of the die-hard Tancred and the raw grief of his mother. And, during the third act, any light is completely extinguished; as tragedy piles upon misfortune, humour is stripped away.

Niamh Cusack is totally convincing in her nuanced portrayal of Juno’s resignation to her struggle; she keeps our sympathy in a role that could easily become nagging and shrewish. Her joy in the family’s short-lived fortune is followed by a wretched descent into hopelessness; intoning “Sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh!”, she refuses to cross herself with Holy Water as she leaves her empty home for the final time. 


Although he’s hardly set foot in a boat, Des McAleer’s Captain is quick to tell expansive tales of his sea-faring days and proclaim phantom pains when faced with a day’s labouring. On stage alone he’s mesmerising, whether cooking a sausage for breakfast or open-mouthed and defeated at the end. Maggie McCarthy gives a heart-rending cameo as Mrs Tancred and Aoife McMahon’s spirited performance as Mrs Madigan highlights the fickleness of friendship and community when fortunes are reversed. 

This is an inspired and unsparing production which highlights the lack of dignity in poverty and the searing bleakness of loss. I've seen this play several times yet still left the theatre shell-shocked; it emphasizes themes which are as powerfully relevant today as they were when O’Casey first wrote it. 


Running until 27th September 2014 at Bristol Old Vic. Tickets are available here. Then at Liverpool Playhouse 1st-18th October 2014.
Picture copyright Stephen Vaughan, courtesy of Bristol Old Vic.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Book Giveaways: And The Winners Are...

I'm delighted to announce the winners of my two book giveaways - The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse and Trust in Me by Sophie McKenzie.

Happy publication day to both these wonderful books and their authors!

First of all, this copy of The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse


There were thirteen entries in total, including Helen, who contacted me on Twitter about the problems she was having when trying to leave a comment. I've allocated numbers:
  1. drowningnotwaving
  2. Emma Kavanagh
  3. Mia
  4. Wendy Smart
  5. shanemorgan
  6. Stephanie Rothwell
  7. thewritesofwoman
  8. Stephanie Hartley
  9. Teresa S
  10. Kicha
  11. Lisa Bentley
  12. Ann Bradley
  13. Helen Humphries
And, firing up the random number generator, the winner is (drum roll)...

Kicha

Please contact me via Twitter @clairethinking or email clairethinking@outlook.com. Once I have your full name and address details, Kicha, I'll get your book in the post!

Next up, this copy of Trust in Me by Sophie McKenzie:


There were eight entries in total and I've allocated the numbers:
  1. Ann Bradley
  2. Fizza Khan
  3. crimereaderblog
  4. Kicha
  5. derek norton
  6. Tracey Peach
  7. Natasha Mairs
  8. Kim Neville
Back to the trusty random number generator and the winner is (another drum roll)...

crimereaderblog

Please contact me via Twitter @clairethinking or email clairethinking@outlook.com. Once I have your name and address details, crimereaderblog, I'll get your book in the post!


Congratulations to both the winners and a very big thank you to everyone who took the time to enter.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Daughter by Jane Shemilt

How well do any of us really know those we're closest to? This is the unsettling question raised in Daughter, the debut novel by Jane Shemilt, which tells the shattering story of a family falling apart after fifteen-year-old Naomi fails to come home.


Jenny is a GP and mother of three teenagers; besides Naomi there are the twins, Theo and Ed. Her life is busy and full:
it was part of the bargain and I'd weighed it all up long ago. It was simple. I did the job I loved and earned good money, but it meant I was home less than some mothers. The bonus was that it gave the children space. They were growing up independently, which was what we'd always wanted. 
A question of balance it seems that Ted, her neurosurgeon husband, has not needed to consider so closely. But when Naomi vanishes one night after starring as Maria in the school's production of West Side Story, Jenny is forced to re-examine every assumption she's made about life and her daughter:
They must have been new. Black, very high heels, with straps of leather binding her feet and wrapping tightly round her slim legs; they looked wrong on her. She usually wore pumps in coloured leather or Converses.
Digging beneath the surface, Jenny uncovers a tangle of secrets and lies which reveals just how much every member of her family has squirreled away while she wasn't looking.

Jenny's tense and taut account of Naomi's disappearance a year ago is woven with a more contemplative present day narrative, which sees her living alone in the remote cottage she inherited from her mother. Naomi is still unaccounted for and Jenny, now solitary and heart-broken, continues to sift through the clues - places, possessions, family and friends - for something she might have missed. What are the secret letters inked in her daughter's diary? As the twin narratives twist ever more tightly together, the repercussions of the events leading up to Naomi's disappearance are gradually and shockingly uncovered.

Daughter is the very definition of a page-turner, multi-stranded and saturated with suspenseful detail which sucks you in from the start. As with many novels written from more than one perspective, I found myself drawn more to one strand than the other; events surrounding Naomi's disappearance are at first so much more compelling than the present-day timeline, although this diminishes as the story unfolds. Jenny's plight is heart-wrenchingly bleak and the chasm of grief which opens beneath her as she topples into the void is convincingly portrayed. Like shrapnel from an explosion, every single member of the family has their own trajectory; affected in different ways by their loss, they are all further apart and changed by the end.

Yet, at times, Jenny seems to unearth such resentments that it seems she must have been blind-folded with her head stuck firmly in the densest sand to be so unaware of what was surrounding her.  Or is this just wishful thinking on my part? We all see just what we want to see, after all. Either way, the author succeeds in creating such a sense of unease with her writing that, as the mother of teenage girls myself, I found myself questioning just how much I too might be missing.


Jane Shemilt is another success story from the creative writing faculty at Bath Spa University, joining the ranks of prize-winning authors such as Nathan Filer (The Shock of the Fall) and Andrew Miller (Pure). She is a GP, her husband a neurosurgeon and they have five children, so the details of the lives she describes in Daughter have an autobiographical ring of accuracy about them, although, as Cleopatralovesbooks mentions in her review, it's surprising there isn't more use of social media by the police in investigating Naomi's whereabouts. And, after so much suspense, I also found the ending, although unexpected, a little rushed and implausible.

These reservations aside, Daughter is a gripping, intelligently-written novel which keeps you guessing throughout. It's easy to envisage this engrossing story translating into the sort of film that would have you weeping on the edge of your seat and so not surprising to find that TV rights in several countries have already been snapped up.


Daughter is available in Penguin paperback from your local independent bookshop via hive or internationally from Wordery. Thanks to Penguin for my review copy.Photos courtesy of Penguin/Twitter.



Sunday, 7 September 2014

Theatre Review: Strawberry and Chocolate at the Brewery Theatre, Bristol

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews


If we are all equal does this mean we all have to be the same? During the Cuban Revolution depicted inStrawberry and Chocolate, you may not need family wealth and entitlement to enjoy new freedoms like a university education, but in 1979 it’s totally unacceptable to be gay.
Cultured and worldly, Diego (Craig Fuller) approaches David (Matt Jessup) in a Havana ice-cream shop and lures him to his apartment. But David, a student and writer who also happens to be a heterosexual, card-carrying Communist, is quick to repel Diego’s advances. It’s only when his fellow revolutionary Miguel (Ryan McKen) suggests to David that he should return and incriminate Diego that the two forge an unlikely friendship, wrapped up in forbidden literature, whiskey and mournful arias from Maria Callas.
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduate Nancy Medina, awarded the Emerging Director Prize for 2014, demonstrates a lively and assured touch in her winning production. She is ably supported by an intriguingly detailed set design by Max Johns; a wall of books dotted with religious iconography, effectively dividing the space. This enables the clashing ideals to be brought into sharp focus, with Diego immured in his apartment and Miguel stalking the periphery for most of the play. David, gradually softening under Diego’s cultural influence, is the “New Man” who seeks to bridge the two worlds. He supports the revolution and Cuba’s right as a country to forge its own way, free from undue foreign influence, while beginning to reason that all the island’s citizens should also be able to enjoy the same privileges.
If the attraction between Diego and David is sometimes uncertain, this is more to do with leaps made in the writing, rather than the energetic and hard-hitting performances of the cast from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Fuller’s Diego, conniving and predatory at first, convincingly makes the transition into a character deserving of our sympathy. Jessup is a slightly geeky, intellectual David, and although it might be difficult to imagine Diego picking him out in a crowd, he portrays the gradual development of a sheltered young man’s thinking with great clarity. McKen is bullying and dogmatic, frighteningly forceful in his blinkered belief in a revolution that cannot accommodate those who don’t fit in.
This UK premiere of Senel Paz’s adaptation of his own short story, first staged in New York City and translated here by Roy Arias, is a very promising debut for Medina and her young cast. It raises interesting, although not necessarily new, questions of ideology and tolerance and eventually comes full circle to deliver the revolution’s answer, reinforcing the greatest inequality of all.
Runs until 13th September 2014 and more information and tickets can be found on the Tobacco Factory Theatre's website. My original review can be found here

Photo by Max Johns

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Book Giveaway: Trust in Me by Sophie McKenzie

This giveaway has now closed.

Not content with just giving away a proof copy of The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse, I've got another fabulous book on offer, and this time it's Trust in Me by Sophie McKenzie. To be in with a chance of winning, simply leave a comment at the end of this post.


I know Sophie best for her young adult fiction, particularly Girl, Missing which both my daughters loved; in fact she's the author of almost 20 books and short stories for teens. This is her second novel for adults, following Close My Eyes, which was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick in 2013. Now she promises another psychological thriller full of suspense, delving into the seemingly unremarkable to reveal the dark and twisted secrets beneath.

Trust in Me follows the story of Livy, 18 years after her sister’s brutal rape and murder, for which the killer was never caught. The horrifying crime is brought back to the forefront of Livy’s mind when she finds her best friend dead, supposedly after committing suicide. Troubled by doubt and alone in her suspicions, Livy sets out to prove that her friend was murdered. What she doesn't realise is just how close to home the truth lies. 


Sophie McKenzie lives in London with her teenage son. She worked as a journalist and magazine editor until she was made redundant, at which point she seized the opportunity to pursue her ambition to become a writer and enrolled in a creative writing course. 

If you'd prefer a digital version of Trust in Me, head on over to Sophie's profile on Twitter @sophiemckenzie_ where Sophie is running a competition to win a download from Apple. All you need to do is tell her who you trust and why (in a tweet or even in a video – like Sophie!) using the hashtag #WhoKilledKara for the chance to win. 


Trust in Me is published by Simon & Schuster in the UK on 11th September 2014 in paperback and ebook.

For the chance to win this proof copy for yourself, simply leave a comment below and I'll select the winner using a random number generator. 

Open to UK residents only. Entries must be received by midnight on 10th September 2014 and I'll announce the winner on 11th September. Good luck and don't forget to check back to see whether you've won!

Thanks to Simon & Schuster and Riot Communications for supplying the proof copy, details and photographs.


Book Giveaway: The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse

This giveaway has now closed.

I'm very excited to have a beautiful proof copy of Kate Mosse's latest novel The Taxidermist's Daughter to give away on my blog. For the chance to win, all you need to do is leave a comment at the end of this post.


Described as a gothic, psychological thriller, The Taxidermist's Daughter is set on the flooded marshlands of Kate's native West Sussex, and transports the reader back to a churchyard in Fishbourne on the Eve of St. Mark, 1912. 

Standing alone, unseen between the graves, is Connie Gifford, daughter of the local taxidermist, who watches as the group that has gathered grows agitated and fearful. As the bells strike midnight, Connie doesn't hear the scream, doesn't realise that by the time she leaves the churchyard, someone will be dead, or that it represents only the first in a chain of macabre killings, each one more shocking than the last. 


Kate Mosse is an international bestselling author with sales of more than five million copies in 42 languages. Her previous novels set in Carcassonne and the South of France include: Labyrinth, Sepulchre, The Winter Ghosts and Citadel. In The Taxidermist's Daughter, she's returning to her roots; The practice of taxidermy plays an unexpected and sinister part in the novel, inspired by the author's childhood visits to Walter Potter's Museum of Curiosities – a celebrated collection of Victorian taxidermy which she found both horrifying and compelling. 

Kate is the Co-Founder and Chair of the Board of the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (previously the Orange Prize) and was awarded an OBE for services to literature. 


The Taxidermist's Daughter is published by Orion on 11th September 2014 in hardback and ebook.

For the chance to win this proof copy for yourself, simply leave a comment below and I'll select the winner using a random number generator. 

Open to UK residents only. Entries must be received by midnight on 10th September 2014 and I'll announce the winner on 11th September. Good luck and don't forget to check back to see whether you've won!


Thanks to Orion and Riot Communications for supplying the proof copy, details and photographs.