Archive | February 2016

Mini Reads Vol. III

So way back September I published a blog post called ‘Summer Reads Vol. I’ and got around to Vol. II in November. The purpose of these posts was to write mini reviews of all the books I’d read over summer in succinct reviews rather than in depth ones. Whilst some books do deserve longer reviews, my hectic final year life just can’t keep up with it (currently balancing The Martian with The European Tragedy of Troilus, which I know you’ll all be adding to your TBR lists). So I’m continuing the concept of mini reviews in this new series, which follows on from the Summer Reads to the Mini Reads series.

This is Volume III.

1. Dream a Little Dream – Giovanna Fletcher

Cover Image

I love this book. I won’t lie, I’m a bit of a Gi fangirl – I watch hers and Tom’s videos frequently on YouTube and I knew I wanted to read this desperately, so when I got my hands on a copy at Penguin last summer, I wasn’t letting it go easily.

It’s a gorgeous romantic novel that centres on Sarah, a twenty-something year old in the midst of her twenty-something year old slump. Her PA job isn’t exactly what she’d always wanted, her career is somewhat disappointing to her mother, and she happens to still be friends with her ex and his perfect new girlfriend. Who can blame her for enjoying the dreams she’s begun to have about a handsome stranger from her past? But when her dream guy appears in her real life, things get a little more complicated than she expected…

It’s an extremely easy, satisfying read. Yes, it’s a little predictable in places, but that’s the joy of it. You kind of know how it’s going to end up so you can enjoy the journey to the final destination. Giovanna is a very accomplished romance writer and perfectly understands the torment of unlucky-in-love post-graduates and the way that friends become your family once you move away from home. I loved the little nod to husband Tom in one of the dreams and found myself staying up late to finish reading it over Christmas.

I would definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a lighter read, full of warmth, character and substance.

2. Funny Girl – Nick Hornby 

Nick Hornby’s most recent novel is a tale of Sophie (née Barbara) who finds fame in 1960s London in a sitcom about married life. The book follows Sophie from her humble beginnings in Blackpool, to her life as a young ingenue, to full-blown stardom. Surrounding Sophie are an ensemble of characters working with her on the sitcom including suave co-star Clive, producer Dennis, and the writing team Tony and Bill (who offer an interesting subplot about homosexuality).

Most of the humour in the novel comes from Sophie’s interactions with the ensemble, rather than Sophie herself. It’s a good read, but ultimately simply isn’t as strong as some of Hornby’s earlier works like About A Boy and A Long Way Down. It is a pleasant novel that is never hilariously amusing nor darkly observant (as it could be of stardom in the 1960s). Rather than racing down a train track, it simply meanders and never reaches the peak interest of the earlier novels.

It’s sweet and it’s pleasant, just like Sophie’s eventual golden years, but it simply isn’t enough from an author as talented as Hornby.

3. The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion 

I had wanted to read this for a while after hearing about it through various channels, but was initially wary as my mum hadn’t liked it. That just goes to show you can’t always trust someone else’s opinions. I thought it was a fantastic read, though it does take a little while to get into.

It is novel about Don and Rosie, the former a man of ritual, and the latter a reckless fireball, who find themselves embroiled in a plot to discover Rosie’s birth father, whilst Don himself attempts to find a Wife. Once the introductory material introducing Don gets out the way and the plot gets going it is a humorous and captivating read, that is really driven by the relationship between Don and Rosie, who are so mismatched but so perfect for each other.

I found myself laughing out loud at various points and motivated to keep reading as both the A-Plot of the Rosie Project and the B-Plot of Don’s search for a wife were equally engaging. It was a thoroughly entertaining novel and easy to read once you got into Don’s brain and accustomed yourself to his method of narration. The only problem I had with it was that I simply couldn’t understand how someone of such intelligence as Don, with a speciality in genetics and a strong awareness of Asperger’s, couldn’t place himself somewhere on a scale on which he clearly belonged.

Nevertheless, I would wholeheartedly recommend this, and encourage you to push on through the somewhat challenging opening as you navigate Don’s narration, to get to the truly special, sentimental hilarity of the second and third thirds of the novel.

4. The Queen of the Tearling – Erika Johansen 

This is marketed towards lovers of The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones and I can definitely see why. It’s a fantasy novel set in the future, which rather than making 1984-like predictions of the future reverts the future back to a medieval time of horses, highwaymen and sword-fights.

On Kelsea Raleigh’s 19th birthday, her mother’s guards come for her to take her to her throne, for she is the Queen-to-be, inheriting her mother’s throne after living in hiding all her life. Now Kelsea faces a kingdom who doesn’t quite trust her, the threat of the Red Queen in the neighbouring nation and the legacy of her mother’s reign weighing on her shoulders. With only her Guard and the mysterious Tear sapphire, a jewel of immense power and magic, Kelsea must save her kingdom without losing herself.

It was a solid read; it wasn’t anywhere near as captivating as The Hunger Games but had a host of interesting characters including Lazarus, Kelsea’s Mace and the Fetch, a mysterious outlaw. If I’m being honest, I’d want to read the second book only to find out more about him.

Johansen’s difficulty is that she is trying to set up a new world that’s interesting but is neither here nor there. It’s medieval, but it’s set in the future. She could have spent less time on Kelsea’s long journey to the throne and more time setting up the world to make it more understandable for readers; I was certainly confused about where and when the story was supposed to be taking place.

And Kelsea herself is a weak character. She’s plain but strong. That’s her description. She is also frequently excused her failings as a character because she’s only nineteen. Except Katniss Everdeen had more strength at age sixteen. (I’m sorry to keep comparing, but if the copyediting is going to point out THG as a common interest, I can’t help but compare the things they have – or don’t have – in common.)

It was a slow story, with an extremely slow build, but made an interesting opener to a trilogy. It felt more like a prologue (and it needed a prologue to try and explain all the Crossing/Pre-Crossing setting) that was waiting for some real action. I suppose it was as the next book is titled The Invasion of the Tearling. If Emma Watson is indeed attached to a film version (as is one of the book’s main selling points) then I hope the film has more action and is more deserving of Emma’s calibre. Though how they’re ever going to make Emma Watson look as plain as Kelsea’s meant to be is beyond me.


So there’s the next volume in my Mini Reads – have you read any of these novels? Let me know in the comments below!

 

Grease: Live

Forgive me, this doesn’t quite fit into book review or theatre review, but I just had to get out all my feelings about this show. I think rather than doing a traditional, wordy review, I’m going to make a list of what worked and what didn’t – the highs and lows if you will.

 

The Highs

  • Didi Conn

Didi Conn, who played Frenchy in the 1978 movie, was an absolute genius cameo move. She was a ball of sunshine then and she’s a ray of light now. She had the part of Vi down, and I’ve always thought Vi was a little like a guardian angel to Frenchy, so seeing her interact with Carly Rae Jepson was a lovely passing of the torch moment. Plus her cute little dance at curtain call was adorable.

  • The cinematography 

Those sweeping shots, the way the camera moved effortlessly through the sets and around the actors: this was a very cleverly done production that didn’t feel jerky or uncomfortable. Though the performance was live it could have very easily been pre-recorded as the camera work made it feel natural and effortless.

  • The choreography

Zach Woodlee is an angel. He was absolutely spot on throughout, I repeatedly noticed the dancers and the wonderful choreography, particularly in Summer Nights and You’re the One that I Want. I found myself wondering for songs that aren’t dance heavy, who is responsible for how an actor moves throughout it? The choreographer or the director? Does anyone know?

Regardless, Zach, you’re a star, keep doing what you’re doing.

  • Putting back in ‘Those Magic Changes’

I love this song! I love lots of the songs used for the National Bandstand, like Raining on Prom Night. And putting this back in the mix was a great addition and a wonderful opportunity to let Jordan Fisher (as Doody) shine – the harmonies between him and Aaron Tveit (Danny) were simply stunning.

  • Keeping it more similar to the movie 

I think it’s fair to say that much of the audience of Grease: Live will probably be more familiar with the movie than the musical, so keeping it more similar to the film was a great touch that will definitely have stopped people saying, ‘Wait… why is We Go Together in a diner in the middle of the show??’

  • Jessie J singing Grease as an introduction

It was like a pre-curtain call that made us really feel part of the production even when you’re sat at home watching it on your laptop. It was a really fantastic introduction and allowed Jessie to use her more soulful voice.

  • Vanessa Hudgens

Vanessa is a hero and a wonderwoman for getting on with the show. Though she tragically lost her father to cancer mere hours before the show, she still performed and she performed the heck out of it. I was so sceptical about her playing Rizzo, because to me she’ll always be Gabriella, but she was all the right parts sassy and sensitive. Her There Are Worse Things I Could Do stole the show and was the highlight of the piece (I even teared up a little) and she really showed off her singing chops.

Credit also to Julianne Hough who managed to get the balance between Good Sandy and Sexy Sandy (when I didn’t think she would) and also hit the notes in all the right places; Carly Rae Jepson, who was a lot better than I thought she’d be; and Kether Donoghue who was charming and adorable as Jan.

  • The transition between You’re The One That I Want and We Go Together

Such a great idea! The cast obviously had to move sets, but the singing and enthusiasm on the golf carts kept the party going. Though I have to wonder why they didn’t just do the whole of the end section outside?

  • General production 

I have to admit I didn’t sit through the whole of any of the other ‘Live!’ productions, but the ratings so far for Grease: Live seem preeetty good. And I think some credit to Fox’s success has to go to Glee. Fox obviously know how to produce a musical number and how to put on a show and their experience with Glee surely must have helped.

 

The Lows 

  • Mario Lopez’s interludes 

A little unnecessary and total broke the focus of the piece. It didn’t need interjections every so often and it definitely didn’t help when he had to play Vince Fontaine, as it was hard to distinguish Mario Lopez presenter from Mario Lopez actor. There was too much back and forth and it was just not needed.

  • Keke Palmer 

I just can’t. I’ve tried to like Keke, and shockingly some outlets are praising her as a highlight of the piece. She overacted terribly I thought, over enunciated and had a strange affected accent that was just plain odd and uncomfortable to hear. I loved the subtle insecurity of the 1978 movie Marty, and Keke’s Marty left me with a sour taste in my mouth. Her only high point was her song Freddy My Love, which indicates to me she should stick to singing not acting.

  • The T-Birds

Okay, so not quite a low, just weaker than the Pink Ladies (except for Doody). And Aaron Tveit – who is undeniably extremely talented, but he’s just too old to be playing Danny these days and looked out of place against how young some of the others looked, like Jordan Fisher. The others all sort of blended into one for me and weren’t really gelling. I didn’t believe in their friendship as much as the Pink Ladies. Also, it got really confusing for me because Andrew Call (Sonny) seriously reminded me of Jeff Conaway (RIP) so I kept getting confused and thinking he was Kenickie.

  • Technical glitches 

Totally understandable in a live production, but the sound cutting out in the middle of Born to Hand Jive did make me stop for a moment.

  • Julianne’s dancing talent 

Again, this really isn’t a low at all, but Julianne Hough is so wonderfully talented at dancing that she almost outshone Aaron Tveit and pulled focus at the dance. When you love dancing it’s hard to keep a smile off your face which meant she was pulled out of the sweet, nervous Sandy character.

  • The additional song

Finally, the additional song. It didn’t fit at all. It sounded like a pop song and would sound great on Carly Rae Jepson’s new album, but not in Grease. It totally didn’t fit with the 50s vibe and it was actually the only moment I really wanted to skip ahead.


 

So there’s my review. I would definitely give the show a solid 8.5/10 and was pleasantly surprised by it all. In some ways you expect a live performance to be a car crash, and this, this was greased lightening.