Book Review – Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

‘Love is not breathlessness; it is not excitement; it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being “in love”, which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.’

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a novel by Louis de Bernieres. Set in 1940s Cephalonia, the novel explores the realities of love, life and war for the people of the island. This review will have spoilers but it was published the year I was born so I think it’s been around long enough!

I’ll admit that it took me a long time to finish this book. The writing is incredibly detailed and rich, and as a result can be quite difficult to get into. It’s certainly worth the effort though, and de Bernieres’ characters are incredibly realistic and multidimensional, as is his description of the island.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is for the most part almost like a collection of short stories, as opposed to one novel – it is told through various peoples’ viewpoints, which eventually overlap and merge into one story. Although it was hard to get into, it is easier to tackle if you read it part-by-part. This method of writing is an interesting one, and certainly something de Bernieres does well. In using different viewpoints to tell the story he not only keeps the writing interesting and varied for the reader, but also adds to the effect of the story. This way of writing builds up the world in a way that simple physical description can’t –realistically we all see the world in different ways, and de Bernieres’ characters are no different. Dr Iannis, for example, sees Cephalonia in a largely intellectual way; he sees history, his pride for his home is built on hundreds of years of imperialism and rebellion, survival and victory. Captain Corelli, on the other hand, has no such connection – he simply sees it as a beautiful island. He grows a connection to it, but one completely different to anyone else’s and unaffected by the history and ancestry Dr Iannis associates with the place.

In the same way, we see many different views on life and the war. De Bernieres’ characters are all sympathetic in some way – readers even find themselves sympathising with Gunter Weber, a German soldier who follows Nazi ideology quite firmly. In fact I think while reading it I found myself sympathetic to almost all of the characters – Mussolini and Hitler being obvious exceptions.

The setting of Cephallonia itself is an interesting one, and lends itself to incredibly tragic historical context. In 1943, the island was the location of one of the biggest prisoner of war massacres of World War Two, and yet it isn’t widely known about or discussed. The Massacre of the Acqui Division saw over 5000 Italian soldiers killed. De Bernieres uses Captain Corelli’s Mandolin to give a voice, not only to the island and normal people in the war, but also to those killed in this tragic event. It seems a shame to me that events like this aren’t put into history books, and that we often only see the facts and figures, rather than real stories. De Bernieres is an advocate for social history, and this is obvious throughout Corelli.

Okay, let’s get on to the unpopular opinions. The ending. I know a lot of people who love this book, and for the most part I agree, but I found the ending largely unsatisfying. I understand what de Bernieres was trying to do in separating and later reuniting Pelagia and Corelli, and I realise the effect that leaving the novel on a hopeful note has, particularly in a social commentary like this, but I’d almost have preferred the book to end without the reader knowing what happened to Corelli. Maybe I’m just cynical but it felt like de Bernieres was told to make the ending happier by his publisher. It’s been a few weeks since I finished it, and in that time I’ve come to terms with the ending and why de Bernieres chose to end it that way, but I still can’t say I like it, personally.

All in all, this is a brilliant piece of historical fiction and portrayal of smaller social groups in a largely generalised and politically regarded historical era. Corelli is realistic, funny and surprisingly optimistic. Maybe one day I’ll learn to love the ending. Maybe.

See you soon,

Ro x

Theatre Review-A Midsummer Night’s Dream

‘The nation’s favourite Shakespeare play is performed as never before; Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman directs 18 professional actors with local amateur groups around the UK as Shakespeare’s Mechanicals.’

This year, the Royal Shakespeare Company have been touring a production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ around the UK. Not only have they taken the show to 12 different venues, but have performed it in collaboration with 14 amateur groups. Although the tour has now finished, they are still performing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon until mid-July. The amateurs play “the mechanicals” – a group of workers who are themselves a kind of amateur theatre group – throughout the play they are rehearsing their play, ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, to perform at Theseus’ wedding to Hippolyta. One of these workers, Bottom (the weaver) is quite a central character, and I was impressed to see at this role was also filled by amateur actors – in the performance I saw, done with The Bear Pit, the role was played by David Mears.

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The Bear Pit as “The Mechanicals”

The Bear Pit is one of two companies based in Stratford-Upon-Avon that are involved in this project – the other is a group called The Nonentities. The Bear Pit were very good and worked seamlessly with the professional cast, however it would be interesting to see what other groups brought to the production as well. The production itself certainly lived up to the RSC’s infamous high standards. Lucy Ellison’s Puck was particularly brilliant – she performed with all the mischief and sparkle expected from the character and completely stole the show. Ayesha Dharkar’s Titania was beautifully regal, while her Oberon, Chu Omambala was intense and domineering – both were incredibly captivating. The four human “lovers” all worked incredibly well together, both in more serious scenes and highly comedic moments. As I only stand at 5ft1 myself, the short jokes made at Hermia’s expense were all too familiar!

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Chu Omambala as Oberon and Lucy Ellison as Puck

The one thing about this production that I wasn’t entirely convinced by was the setting. The cast were mostly dressed in 1940s, typically British style clothing, with Titania being the main exception in a bright red sari. The music and backdrops fit, but it seemed to me that there was no real interaction between the play itself and a 1940s/world war setting. It looked good, and was more engaging than traditional Elizabethan dress, for example, but the lack of engagement with the play made this setting fall a little flat for me. The recent production of Hamlet was set in an African dictatorship, and this worked well and was blended perfectly with the plot of the play. Shakespeare has remained so popular for so long because his work can be translated to so many different situations, (particularly ‘Dream’ as ‘a play for the nation’) but the 1940s setting for this production just seemed a bit stuck-on, like they had already prepared the play and chose the set and costuming after. It was aesthetically pleasing, don’t get me wrong, especially the forest, however it didn’t feel like the aesthetics engaged with the play as well as they could’ve.

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Chu Omambala as Oberon, Ayesha Dharkar as Titania

The use of children from the local primary school as the fairies worked surprisingly well – they were focused and had clearly put a lot of work in, although their part was small. Some critics weren’t sold on the song the fairies sung to help Titania sleep, however I found it sweet and a good way to show the fairies’ relationship with their queen – Oberon has very little interaction with fairies other than Puck, and the lullaby scene just added to the contrast between the two. The use of local children also compliments the use of amateur groups, and in my opinion they seemed just as polished as if they had been professional child actors. Overall, the production was very well put together and showed a fantastic collaboration between the professionals and amateurs – and that’s what this was. If you hadn’t known amateurs were in the performance I don’t think you could’ve been able to tell. The Bear Pit did a fantastic job and helped create another fantastic performance at the RSC.

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The Lovers – Mercy Ojelade as Hermia, Jack Holden as Lysander, Chris Nayak as Demetrius and Laura Riseborough as Helena (L to R)

I am very lucky to live fairly close to Stratford and the RSC – however up until recently I’d never actually seen a Shakespeare play live on stage; ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was the second Shakespeare play I’d seen, and the first of his comedies – the other play being the recent RSC production of Hamlet. I’m hoping to see the RSC’s productions of King Lear in August/September and The Tempest in November. If ‘Dream’ is anything to go by, I can’t wait.

Images found here

Watch the trailer here.

See you soon,

Ro x

Review: Welcome to Night Vale

Before we get into today’s post, a quick announcement: Always in the Write has Facebook and Goodreads! Like us on Facebook here and follow us on Goodreads here. Now back  to our usual scheduling! Ro x 

‘And now a brief public service announcement. Alligators: can they kill your children? Yes.’ – Welcome to Night Vale, Episode 1 ‘Pilot’

Welcome to Night Vale is fortnightly podcast. It is in the format of a community radio for the fictional American town of Night Vale, hosted by Cecil Gershwin Palmer (voiced by Cecil Baldwin). There are currently 89 episodes as I’m writing this, along with 7 bonus episodes and separate live performances that are available to purchase separately.

The podcast is free to listen to and ad-free. It usually starts with co-creator Joseph Fink discussing tour dates, merchandise and other Night Vale related updates, and ends with a brief message and proverb from Meg Bashwiner. There are many guest voices, including Wil Wheaton as Earl Harlan, Mara Wilson as The Faceless Old Woman and Retta as Old Woman Josie. It is available on iTunes, via their website or YouTube channel, on most podcast apps and more (see their website).

I must admit, I’m not actually up to date on the show. I started listening when there were about 25/30 episodes and unfortunately didn’t have time to catch up and keep up to date with them. I pick it up every few months or so but I’m yet to catch up. This past week however I’ve been listening to it a lot – I’ve had a lot of packing/tidying/unpacking/tidying to do, and it makes a nice change from listening to the same playlist over and over again, as I’m prone to do. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to episode 76. Each episode is around 25-30 minutes long, including the introductions and proverbs.

When listening to previous episodes of the show, especially if you’re binging as I tend to do, the introductions do get boring – the announcements are out of date and same-y, but you have to remember that the show is only released every two weeks and wasn’t really meant to be binged. The introductions aren’t very long, however, and break up listening quite nicely; so it’s not all bad.

I realise I’ve written 300 words of this review without actually reviewing anything! So, here goes. The show is darkly funny, which suits my sense of humour perfectly. Science fiction is quite hit and miss for me, however Night Vale seems to get it just right. It isn’t too complicated, and yet paints a picture of the town brilliantly. Despite the plots and events being told mostly retrospectively by our host, Cecil, Welcome to Night Vale manages to find the balance between ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ the audience well. The show aims to mix the supernatural, horrific and down-right weird with everyday life, and does so in a charmingly amusing way. It dips into the serious and profoundly philosophical matters of the meaning of life, humanity’s place in the universe and other such topics, but never for too long without returning to light-hearted comedy. For me, Welcome to Night Vale is reminiscent of the original radio performances of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and is following a similar path in the publication of the Night Vale novel last October.

The format of a podcast is a really interesting one for storytelling, and Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor use it incredibly well. Using the premise of a radio show is a convenient and effective way to use podcasting. The different segments keep it organised but interesting, and add separate aspects to the podcast as well as the main plotline for the episode. Episodes often revolve around a certain event, for example, but this is broken up by segments such as horoscopes, sponsor messages, an advice section, traffic updates and of course, the weather.

The weather segment is a song performed by a different independent artist every episode, providing exposure for new and budding artists from many different genres – even though the show revolves around similar plots and the same characters, you never know what you’re going to get with the weather. Although they are currently fully booked for the next year, they do take music submissions when they can; listeners are able to contribute to the show and get exposure for their work. Fink and Cranor truly go out of their way to support fellow independent creators in everything they do, Night Vale related and otherwise. This year saw the creation of Night Vale Presents, described on their website as;

The Night Vale Presents network continues Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink’s mission to encourage new, independent podcasting from writers and artists who haven’t worked in the format before. More podcasts will follow under the Night Vale Presents network in 2016 and 2017, both from the Night Vale artistic team and from other artists with a similar vision for independent, original podcasting.’

Not only is Welcome to Night Vale a great show that supports independent artists, but is also very diverse and inclusive. Cecil Baldwin, our host, is openly gay, and the cast and characters are diverse in age, race, gender and sexuality. In a town where a five-headed dragon runs for mayor and a Glow Cloud (allll haillll) is the head of the PTA, it’s difficult to be prejudiced. Unless you’re from rival town Desert Bluffs, no one really cares who you are.

Welcome to Night Vale is a well-established podcast now, and so may be difficult to catch up on, but I’d definitely recommend giving it a go, for several reasons. It is a brilliant show and a fantastic success story for independent creators, which is giving back to the independent arts community in many ways. If you do want to listen but are behind, don’t panic! Most episodes can be listened to as stand-alone plots, and they recently released a catch-up episode for the last few episodes. There are long-standing jokes and mentions of previous plotlines, however these are largely explained enough for new listeners to understand as well.

In the words of the Night Vale website: Turn on your radio and hide.

See you soon,

Ro x

Book Review: Dart – Alice Oswald

when the lithe water turns
and its tongue flatters the ferns
do you speak this kind of sound:
whirlpool whisking round?

Dart is a 48 page long poem, based around the River Dart in Devon. The poem explores many different voices, marked in the margins along with a few brief notes. The piece won the 2002 T.S Eliot Prize, and it is easy to see why.

I usually struggle to read long pieces of poetry, and so I was surprised to find that I enjoyed this so much. Again, this came from my boyfriend – he had to read it for a module of his, and started reading it aloud while I was there. I think this approach was what kept me interested; I didn’t read it all aloud, but if I found myself getting tired it helped to imagine it being read out in my head, rather than just reading it. Focusing on the rhythms and beat of the piece not only helped me read it but I think it also adds to the feel of it – there are places with little rhythm and places with a clear beat; this is obviously intentional, and should be read as such.

The River Dart (not my photo)

The narrative itself is a really interesting one. We aren’t physically transported along the river – that is to say, the reader is taken on the journey through the river by the different voices, going from walkers at the source of the river to crabbers and salmon fishers at the estuary, rather than the poem focusing on physical descriptions to show the river’s progression. The only real complaint I have here is that I’d have liked to hear more of many of the voices; we only get snapshots of stories, many even cut off mid-sentence just as you get hooked – but I suppose the river flows through fast, and cutting stories off before they’re finished is one of the ways Oswald reflects this. The voices cut off and overlap, which can be jarring but is also incredibly effective.

As a result of this cutting off and changing of rhythms, Oswald’s pacing is interesting and well done. Again, this reflects the river; some parts as slower, as the river may slow down, others fast paced, like rapids. The way she uses language and formats the poem also adds to this in an unexpected way – this isn’t set out in one way. Like the changes in voice and rhythm, the formatting of the poem changes regularly and in different ways; sometimes it changes suddenly, others it transitions smoothly.


Oswald’s own words on the piece explain what she is trying to achieve  incredibly well, and I would definitely suggest keeping them in mind if you decide to read this;

‘This poem is made from the language of people who live and work on the Dart. Over the past two years I’ve been recording conversations with people who know the river. I’ve used these records as life-models from which to sketch out a series of characters – linking their voices into a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea. There are indications in the margin where one voice changes to another. These do not refer to real people or even fixed fictions. All voices should be read as the river’s mutterings.’

I know poetry often seems daunting, especially when it’s this long, but it doesn’t have to be as difficult as all that and Oswald proves this – she’s telling a story, just in a slightly different format. Try it, you’d be surprised.

See you soon,

Ro x

TV Review – House Of Cards: Pilot (minor spoilers!)

I know, I know, I’m four seasons late to the party on this one. I’d seen it on Netflix before, but never chosen to watch it for various reasons; mostly because a lot of my Netflix choices are often light-hearted comedies and easy-to-binge favourites. As a student I preferred things I didn’t have to think about a lot of the time – that I could work while watching or just sit and relax with. House of Cards has been sat in my to watch list for a long time, and now I have the time to fully commit to it I figured I may as well review it in the process. Also, before you say it, yes I should’ve read the novels first – but in fairness to me, I didn’t know it was a book series until the title sequence!

house-of-cards-kevin-spacey

The show begins with a dog getting hit by a car. Enter Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and the first of his infamous monologues, spoken as he strangles the dog. As a dog lover, killing one in the first scene of the show wasn’t exactly going to get me on side – but even I must admit it got my attention, and provided a powerful premise to the rest of the episode. Underwood is set to become Secretary of State under the newly elected president; however at the last minute another man is given the position. This triggers the cut-throat, yet measured attitude shown at the start of the programme – Frank doesn’t get angry, Frank calmly plans his revenge and acts carefully.

So far, the show is well written and cleverly done. I’ve heard a lot of good things, and I can see why it is so popular. Frank Underwood reflects the opinions many of us hold of politicians – he is jaded and sly, his morals are questionable and his goals are entirely selfish. Yet, he’s still incredibly likeable. His smooth talking, Southern charm appeals to us and although on paper I shouldn’t be able to stand him, there’s something that makes him a compelling protagonist.

I haven’t seen the British version, and as I said I didn’t know it was based on a book series, so my knowledge of the show is mostly limited to what’s in this episode. The pilot is interesting and well-paced, and has left me intrigued and wanting to find out more. I don’t think I’ll be able to binge watch it in one sitting, but I’m certainly hooked.

Book Review: The Silkworm

 

‘When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls private detective Cormoran Strike. At first she just thinks he has gone off by himself for a few days and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home. But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine’s disappearance. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were published it would ruin lives – so there are a lot of people who might want to silence him.’

‘The Silkworm’ is the second novel in the Cormoran Strike series, written by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K Rowling). I worked in a charity shop last summer, and bought this there in September, however only picked it up at the start of this year. ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’, the first book in this series, was appealing and interesting, so I had high hopes for ‘The Silkworm’.

I should say right now that I am a big JKR fan. I grew up with Harry Potter, and devoured ‘The Casual Vacancy’ the day it was released. I look up to her as a writer and enjoy much of her work. It is surprising, then, that I wasn’t massively impressed with this book. It was good, don’t get me wrong, but she lost me several times along the way. As I said, I picked this up at the start of the year. University work along with other things has led me to stop and start it several times, so maybe this is what made it so difficult for me to engage with the plot. Making myself sit down and finish it over the last few days, in order to review it, has improved my opinion of it. It’s well written and clearly well thought out, but still felt over complicated.

Part of the problem was the amount of background characters. While all important to the overall outcome and all well written, it was confusing to keep track of them all and fully keep up with the storyline. I felt like as soon as I got a handle on everyone and started to get on top of the plot, a new character was introduced. The plot itself was convoluted and twisted – this is to be expected in crime fiction, however in this case I didn’t feel like it was necessary to the degree that Rowling took it. There was a lot of backtracking, and much of the process felt repetitive; several interviews made up a large part of the middle of the book, and these were largely forgotten by the end, for example.

One thing Rowling always does well, however, and this is no exception, is write realistic characters. Strike, Robin, Matthew and a few others from ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ return in this, and go through some serious character development. Robin and Matthew finally discuss Robin’s career goals and relationship with Cormoran, who in turn deals with his ex-fiancée’s very public new engagement and subsequent marriage. Robin comes into her own and Strike begins to see her in a more equal light than before; she is no longer seen as just a receptionist but someone with ambition and talent for detective work – which we the readers have seen all along. It’s satisfying to see these characters develop, and the new characters we are introduced to have a lot of depth. I may not have engaged with the plot as well as I’d hoped, but I can’t fault Rowling’s ability to create characters that are believable and relatable.

Overall, the novel was good, but for me personally it was a bit of a disappointment – it didn’t excite me like much of Rowling’s other work. It was a decent read, and I may in fact read the next in the series, however ‘The Casual Vacancy’ triggered a much more passionate reaction in me (as did Harry Potter, quite obviously – although I’m trying to avoid comparisons with that for obvious reasons). I wanted to discuss it and the themes involved in detail, although as a largely political book I suppose that was the aim. ‘The Silkworm’ was enjoyable, but for me it was just too drawn out.

Ro x

Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Spoiler Free!)

 

‘Rosemary doesn’t talk very much, and about certain things she’s silent. She had a sister, Fern, her whirlwind other half, who vanished from her life in circumstances she wishes she could forget. And it’s been ten years since she last saw her beloved older brother Lowell.

Now at college, Rosemary starts to see that she can’t go forward without going back, back to the time when, aged five, she was sent away from her home to her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.’

This novel was recommended to me by my boyfriend. I was sat next to him on a tube over Easter when he reached ‘the twist’ – the infamous page 77. He told me almost immediately that I needed to read this book. As soon as I reached page 77 myself, I knew where he was coming from. As soon as I finished the book, I recommended it to my mum (and now I’m recommending it to you).

The start of the novel is good, but largely unremarkable to me – as a fan of John Green, Stephen Chbosky and Winona Ryder, the start (or, middle, which is where Fowler decides to start) of Rosemary’s story is pretty familiar; unassuming young adult with traumatic childhood event meets wild, rebellious young adult and does something reckless. I like those kinds of stories, and I still wanted to read on, but I’ve seen a lot of them.

I’ve mentioned page 77 twice already, but this is the ultimate turning point. A twist that is both shocking and blindingly obvious is so hard to achieve, but Fowler pulls it off perfectly; you’re left both astounded by the revelation and your own stupidity at not seeing it coming. Fowler hints at it from the start, and yet I at least never fully picked up on it.  I went from feeling like I’d seen this story before to submerging myself in the narrative completely; while before I’d been able to pick it up for a few pages here and there and happily leave it when I needed to do work or wanted to read something else, I binge-read the rest of it in two days. It only took that long because there were other things that unfortunately pulled me away from it.

The problem with ‘the twist’ is that it adds so many extra layers to the text – I could go on and on about various other topics, but that would spoil it completely. Maybe I’ll write a spoiler-filled piece on it some other time instead, because it’s such an interesting text to discuss in contexts that I just can’t talk about without ruining it.

This book is so deep. The characters are realistic and well-rounded, if frustrating at times, and the story is fantastic. The structure of it works surprisingly well and has hints of meta-fiction that as a reader I kind of love and as a writer I admire. Fowler writes beautifully and has created something incredibly powerful that I could only dream of achieving myself.

Last words on the matter: if you’re not sold at the start, wait until page 77. It’s worth it.

Ro x