Friday, 11 December 2009

"The Girl Made of Cool" by Alan Fox

“The Girl Made of Cool” is a subtle, harsh, intelligent story of a love triangle between three friends, and is the second novel by Alan Fox.

A young man and woman arrive home from a night out together. Having only recently met, this was their first formal date. It was all going so well until the young man starts to tell the truth. Having well and truly scared her away, Ridley turns to his friend and housemate, Chet Clifford, for advice. Chet is successful, suave, and handsome. I hated him at once. His teaching Ridley how to make moves on a girl was cringe worthy, as it was not Ridley’s style at all. Chet also does something so jaw-droppingly bizarre when he is alone that I will not even attempt to begin to describe it.

Ridley Richardson is the anti-Chet: academic, geeky, and poetic. His “Girl Made of Cool” speeches are much more romantic than Chet’s crotch-to-crotch dancing. He is an intriguing person, full of wonder; and his creativity with words and imagery seem to go hand in hand with a logic that allows him to put together ideas like non-adjoining pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and still make them fit.

The object of Chet and Ridley’s affection, Jayne Holly Wyatt, initially seemed to me more frosty than cool. Other than her being pretty it was hard to pinpoint why the two men pursue her. Her manipulation of Chet, although thoroughly deserved in my opinion, still did not endear her to me. Evidently Ridley sees something hidden in her that is worth fighting for, that maybe he can bring to the surface; and it is because of this that I was cheering for Ridley to win her. Does he? Only one way to find out.

I was also fascinated to see how the relationships between the three central characters evolved over time, and it is this dynamic that keeps the reader involved. The roles of honesty switch as the characters mature and grow to know one another better.

My favourite of the three stories is “Hell Has Blue Skies”, an amusing and exacerbic account of a young graduate struggling to make an impression in an unusual and demanding line of business. Jack Flynn is initially keen to change the image of the business as one full of crazy people, but soon his only choice is whether to try and beat them, or simply join them.

“The Lovely Lady at the Love Museum” is a witty tale of a young man pulling a long con on a major real estate billionaire in New York City. Yet Reed Fleming is not a professional con-artist, rather he uses his knowledge gleaned from a degree in anthropology to help him achieve his aims.

Fox shows us exactly why he is regarded as an expert in the field of storytelling. “The Girl Made of Cool” is far from your average love story. Instead it highlights the two very different interpretations of love that Chet and Ridley embody, and through Ridley. gives it an almost ethereal atmosphere, and even shows where love belongs in our universe.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Undone by Karin Slaughter

Undone may be Karin Slaughter’s seventh book in her Grant County series, but it is the first for yours truly. I am now sorely tempted to go and read the rest.
Undone sees Faith Mitchell and Will Trent investigating a grisly case of kidnap and torture, after a young, successful, mutilated and naked woman blindly runs out into the oncoming path of an elderly couple’s car. Sara Linton is the doctor who tends to the woman when she is brought into the hospital.
All three characters are dealing with their own personal issues while attempting to solve the case. Will soldiers on in the police force, trying to keep his illiteracy a secret from everyone except Faith, who is herself coming to terms with two sudden health matters of her own. Sara, meanwhile, carries a letter around in her coat pocket, wondering whether to open it.
As the case progresses, three more women of similar looks and lifestyle go missing. Faith and Will are hindered in their investigations by the fact that none of the girls were liked or loved, apart from two children between the four of them.
Slaughter imparts such intimately morbid details into the torture of the girls that one has to read a sentence twice to ensure that they got it right the first time. Although grisly, it is far from gratuitous, and Slaughter writes with empathy towards the plight of the girls. There is even some dark humour thrown in for good measure.
I did not have to have read any of the previous Grant County novels to understand the characters or the story, I could just jump straight in. Slaughter does not fleetingly refer to events in Faith or Will’s history that leaves the reader wishing they had read the other six books first, nor does she regale us with the intricate details of each of her main characters. Instead she lets us work them out for ourselves, and leaves little signposts as to what their lives have involved. Yet with Sara she does give us more, and deservedly so.
Undone can surely sit proudly alongside the rest of Karin Slaughter’s books, and confirms her as one of America’s best crime thriller writers.

Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella

A word of warning, and I know this from personal experience: do not read Sophie Kinsella’s Twenties Girl while eating, unless you are around someone who can perform the Heimlich manoeuvre. I was lucky this time.
From the second page, Twenties Girl is laugh out loud funny, poking gentle fun at everyday annoyances like family, the elder generation’s paranoia over modern technology, and funerals. Yes, I said funerals. It was a line within the first twenty-two pages during a funeral that nearly packed me off to my own.
The memorial service in question is that of Lara Lington’s great-aunt Sadie, who has just died at the age of one hundred and five, and this seems to be all that the family know about her. However, when Sadie appears to Lara in the middle of the service as a twenty three year old ghost, Lara quickly learns that her relative was not just some old lady who liked knitting.
Lara is coerced by Sadie to halt the funeral, and accuse the kindly nurses at her care home of murder, all so that Sadie can find a necklace. However this is just the start of Lara’s humiliation at Sadie’s hands. Yet, having a ghost around can prove to be fruitful for Lara, too; and she and Sadie are quickly pairing up on matters of love, work and revenge.
During her quest to find Sadie’s necklace, Lara uncovers a family secret that proves her great aunt was not simply someone famous for receiving birthday cards from the Queen.
Sadie is a feisty, tenacious, strong willed, opinionated woman who knows how to have a good time, and will go to any lengths to have one. She and Lara exchange amusing banter on everything from fashion, music and television, and shows that although the elder generations may not care for the current trends, even their twenty year old selves would not have approved.
Joyously heart-warming and hilarious one moment, guiltily heart-breaking and tearful the next, and sometimes both at the same time, Twenties Girl is a delightfully witty story with a moral centre. I’m off to track down the rest of Kinsella’s novels.

The Sentinels: Fortunes of War by Gordon Zuckerman

The Sentinels: Fortunes of War by Gordon Zuckerman is a World War II story with a difference. Instead of focusing on Hitler or the persecuted Jews, Zuckerman weaves an intelligent tale of six super-wealthy, super-clever economics students who come up with a plan to prevent the War from escalating any further.
Cecelia Chang, Claudine Demaureux, Tony Garibaldi, Ian Meyer, Jacques Roth and Mike Stone formulate a strategy to take money out of the pockets of the German industrialists who are prolonging the War and initiating their own schemes for their own financial benefit.
With the six of them living across three continents, they must work together and on their own in order to make this happen; something that is given an extra edge considering that they live in a world without mobile phones or email. However when the German industrialists realise that something is wrong, the six sentinels must call on their familial and political ties, as well as their own guile and survival skills.
The characters are strong, faulty, yet clever, and despite them all being rich and intelligent, they are also likeable, their dedication and determination to carry out their plan is admirable.
Fortunes of War skilfully entwines political drama, dangerous romance, riveting action, and set against a well-worn historical background while giving it a fresh look. However in some places the book seems to move too quickly. One sentence following on from another can be a leap of months, which seems to simultaneously take away the urgency of what the sentinels are trying to do, while feeling as though there was a lot more in between.
Setting the time-warps aside, Fortunes of War is a gripping political thriller that rewrites the World War II genre. If you think you’ve covered every possible angle on this period of history, think again.

The Shiksa Syndrome by Laurie Graff

Laurie Graff’s The Shiksa Syndrome is a witty, lively rom-com that tells of Aimee Albert’s struggle to attract a nice, Jewish man, until one mistakes her for a non-Jewish woman - a shiksa. Josh Hirsch’s anti-Oedipal feelings towards Jewish women and his affection for Aimee lead her to keep up the charade of being a shiksa. She empties her Manhattan apartment of menorahs and Torahs, and even has to skip a Passover ritual to accommodate him; in the hope that he will soon introduce and ‘convert’ her to the Jewish traditions.
Meanwhile, her shiksa friend Krista lands a Jewish companion, and soon it is Krista who is being welcomed into the Jewish community. Aimee has to dig deeper and deeper in order to maintain the pretence of being a non-Jew, even having to disown her parents and sister while in Josh’s presence. As her situation becomes ever more outrageous and whirling out of her control, she is forced to decide whether she holds Josh or her identity in higher esteem.
Although on the surface, Aimee seems foolish for even temporarily sidestepping around her cultural identity to appease a man, she is nonetheless a smart, intelligent woman who can think on her toes. She manages to fit her alter-ego around the loss of her boyfriend on 9/11, while heading a major product launch at work, and trying to overcome her fear of driving.
For those who are wondering just why this Josh is worth all the effort, it is he who helps her exorcise her driving demons in his big BMW with heated seats.
Graff’s novel offers a sparkling insight into the traditions and values of the Jewish faith, as well as giving gentle nudges to the little clichés that go with it: the logic, the guilt, and the women. Yet it also raises the question about staying true to one’s identity, one’s faith in difficult circumstances; and this is talking Jews in New York, not Protestants under Queen Mary.

Mortal Path Book One: Dark Time by Dakota Banks

In the seventeenth century, a young mother-to-be is accused of witchcraft, and burned at the stake. As the flames engulf her body, a demon of the underworld hears her longing to wreak vengeance on the woman who accused her, and offers her an ultimatum: death, or life as his assassin.
Three hundred years later, Mahlia Crayne is getting tired, sick of murdering innocent people at the behest of the demon. Yet she manages to find a way to break out of her sentence: for every life taken, should she save another, she will be released. Of course the small print makes this more difficult for her. As well as being robbed of her superhuman speed and strength, she will also age faster than she had previously. Her time is running short.
Fear not, she does not turn into a girl scout, pulling old ladies out of the way of oncoming lorries, and stopping babies in their prams from rolling down a long flight of steps. Saving a life can often mean taking another.
Maliha is a mix of Lara Croft and a human Terminator, she would be marvellous in a video game. She is also a strong character in any book. The real heart of the story lies in Mahlia’s past, at what she lost; her husband, her baby, her life. Now she is living in our present, moving with the times, making herself comfortable, creating a public identity for herself with a career that brings in a lot of money, and educating herself.
She tries to have some semblance of normality by having close friends, but living in an apartment with a security system that puts Fort Knox to shame makes it slightly difficult. Add to that her constantly youthful looks raise a few eyebrows.
In Dark Time, Dakota Banks combines daredevil action, poignant romance, the past, the present, the paranormal, all infused with modern technology. It is the first in a series of books that looks set to be a strong, intriguing storyline, and I intend to find out what happens at the end.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Hedge Fund Wives by Tatiana Boncompagni

Tatiana Boncompagni’s "Hedge Fund Wives" is the story of Marcy Emerson. When her husband John is promoted to be a big-time hedge-fund manager, she quits her job and moves to New York with him to start their new life. However, she finds it difficult to fit into their new social circle of wealthier, snootier hedge fund wives. Against the backdrop of the US recession, while their new colleagues are losing money, John has not yet had to deal with such shortcomings, which makes it all the harder for Marcy when she discovers that he is having an affair with a young, prettier, blonder model.
Yet there are those around them of a higher pedigree who are also facing scandal of their own, and not just financial. Just to pick one, Marcy’s newest, closest friend, gourmet recipe book author Gigi Ambrose, is facing a backlash over her latest book, as it is deemed insensitive due to the fact that the economy is in freefall.
Aside from the scandal and heartbreak, the glimpse into how the wealthy live is enough to turn any shop-a-holic green with envy: the houses, clothes, shoes, furniture, décor, art, and perks are to die for; and the numbers of the salaries…they were astronomical. The last time I got a headache like that over a row of zeroes was in the opening chapter of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, in which he explores the creation of the universe. Indeed, the lives of those at the top of the New York social hierarchy makes life on the Planet Raxicoricofallapatorious look normal.
Boncompagni’s insight into the lives of the super-rich is mind-boggling, hilarious, and toe-curling. No doubt some of the anecdotes are from her own experience of mixing with those who own, create, and grace the pages of Vogue, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, for whom she has written. Being her own personal accounts makes them both all the more realistic, and all the more unbelievable. Some of the scenes would fit comfortably into a French and Saunders sketch, a scene from "Absolutely Fabulous", or a Joan Rivers gag.
While I envied Marcy’s wealth, home, and most of all her ability to get a job; I could not help but sympathise with her over her fall from grace, and admire her resolution to get back up again.
"Hedge Fund Wives" is the perfect companion to a lazy Sunday afternoon, preferably with a cold drink and some silky-smooth chocolate by your side. It may even spur the poor unemployed like myself to get a good job, if not purely for the sake of spending the wages on Fifth Avenue.

Many thanks to TJ Dietderich of Planned TV Arts for suppling me with this book!

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Singin In The Rain - Sunderland Empire Theatre

Actors are famously superstitious when performing a certain Shakespeare play, but I wonder if they are also superstitious when performing Singin’ In The Rain. At least the putting up of more than a dozen umbrellas indoors did not bring any bad luck on opening night at the Empire.
Set in 1927, it tells the story of Hollywood’s golden couple, silent movie stars Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont. However, when the talking-picture is invented, their studio company, Monumental, decides they must follow in the footsteps of The Jazz Singer, and make a movie with talking and sound. However, Monumental has a slight problem in that Lina, for all her artificial beauty, has a voice that would make Van Gogh cut off his other ear.
Thankfully, they are able to get around the problem by having young actress Kathy Selden, who has the voice of an angel, and the heart of Don Lockwood, performing Lina’s lines in the movie, both speaking and singing. Matters are complicated when Lina, who wants Don for herself, learns of the love between her two co-stars.
There was water falling in the theatre long before the titular song at the end of Act One: the scene in which the film company attempt to shoot their first talking-picture movie against a myriad of continuous technical problems had the audience weeping with laughter. In all the shows I have seen at the Empire (and that includes a pantomime starring Ant and Dec), that was by far and away the funniest thing I have ever seen on that stage.
The wonderful Tim Flavin made for a fine Don Lockwood: personable, witty, and delivered the intricate tap-dancing with a suave grace and athleticism. His solitary performance during “Singin’ In The Rain”, was just one of many highlights during the show; the others being the humorous “Moses Supposes”, and “Lucky Star”, the latter an ethereal performance by Jessica Punch as Kathy Selden.
Graeme Henderson as Cosmo, Lockwood’s former showbiz partner, and now musical director at Monumental, stole the show during his classic slapstick comedy routine in “Make ‘Em Laugh”. Then Amy Griffiths’ Lina Lamont stole it during the kind of intentionally dire, audially atrocious, wonderfully comic performance of “What’s Wrong With Me?” that would have had Cowell, Holden and Morgan hitting their buzzers before the end of the first line had been sung, and telling her exactly what.
When the first large screen showing Lockwood and Lamont’s latest movie appeared, it was as though we had been transported back to the days when the theatre was a cinema; and although the movie was deliberately naff and hammier than Brian Blessed in a Shakespearean comedy, it was almost startling to be reminded of the Empire’s past in a subtle, yet effective manner.

Friday, 8 May 2009

State of Play (2009)

Speaking as one who has not seen the original BBC drama on which this movie is based, I am afraid I cannot compare the two. However, I am now keen to do so. This new State of Play is a clever conglomeration of British and American political scandal, it is this generation’s version of All The President’s Men, with scenes that would fit into a revival of Drop the Dead Donkey thrown in for good measure.
Russell Crowe stars as Cal McAffrey, a journalist for the Washington Globe investigating the death of political researcher, Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer). Baker had been doing research on a huge American company called PointCorp, for McAffrey’s old college friend, Congressman Stephen Collins, played by Ben Affleck.
With the help of Rachel McAdams’ political blogger Della Frye, a branch of journalism for which McAffrey has nothing but scorn, he stumbles across more and more seemingly unrelated sideshows. His persistence in following them up drives his blunt, sardonic, prickly editor (a surprisingly and enjoyably uncouth Helen Mirren) long past despair. She is more concerned about the plight of her rapidly declining newspaper to care about it printing the truth.
As with any good investigative story, watching the loose threads get neatly sewn together is part of the satisfaction. Crowe as McAffrey is concise enough not to complicate the complicated, and comes across as a likeable journalist; while director Kevin MacDonald (who gave us the powerful, atmospheric The Last King of Scotland) keeps the tension and uncertainty taut. Even Ben Affleck manages not to be as wooden as my pine furniture under MacDonald’s guidance.
There is still a sprinkling of humour through the strain, much of it between McAffrey and Frye over the conflict and bitterness between their respective fading print journalism, and the expanding blog culture. “I’ll have to read a couple of blogs before I make an informed decision”, he tells her when she asks him about circulating rumours of Collins’ private life.
In all honesty, the only thing that spoiled it slightly - without wanting to give too much away - was the timing of the UK release: we are now (believe it or not) only four episodes away from the end of series seven of 24. For those that have watched the last twenty, certain subjects in State of Play will not seem anywhere near as dangerous or frightening.
Speaking of TV dramas, come on, BBC! Remind us why this movie was made in the first place!

Thursday, 7 May 2009

"Oliver!" - Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London

There was no sign of a recession in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on Saturday. From the packed auditorium, to the at times rather crowded stage, not to mention the sight of the man whose name is in lights above the main entrance.
I was going to nominate whoever persuaded Rowan Atkinson to play Fagin for a Knighthood, but I see Cameron Mackintosh already has that honour. From Fagin’s very first line of one syllable, the audience warmed to him with gusto; or as much as is possible to warm to a crazed, creepy uncle type who teaches young boys to steal, and has no concept of soap.
Yet for all that, he rightfully received the biggest laughs and the longest applause, “Reviewing the Situation” being the night’s highlight. For someone known mainly for only two characters, there was a slight trepidation that Atkinson would slip into one of them; but although “Teddy” had a small cameo, I never once thought of Mr Bean or Blackadder.
Halfway through “Food, Glorious Food”, it was obvious that this production would be as delectable as the “hot sausage and mustard”; and from Harry Stott’s first solo in “Where Is Love”, the auditorium took him to their hearts as their tousle-haired orphan. The cast of over thirty young boys were wonderful, and although poor Oliver is condemned to be perpetually upstaged by the Artful Dodger, even he could not compete with a little lad called Nipper, played by nine-year-old Daniel Huttlestone.
This angelic, blond-haired, blue-eyed little nipper turns out to be the cheekiest of Fagin’s urchins: pilfering from, imitating, and insulting his elderly mentor. It’s always the one you least suspect, isn’t it?
Lionel Bart’s memorably addictive soundtrack is given a new lease of life thanks to modern sound equipment. “Consider Yourself” takes the term “all-singing, all-dancing” to a whole new level; I didn’t want it to end, it was glorious. This was due in no small part to Eric Dibb-Fuller’s mischievous turn as the sneaky, swaggering, affable Dodger.
Jodie Prenger made for a delightfully sexy, feisty and yet vulnerable Nancy. From the boisterous exuberance of “Oom-Pah-Pah” to the softly defiant “As Long As He Needs Me”, her powerful voice delivered both cockney character and raw fervour. I will have to read the novel to try to discover how she came to be the preferred company of Burn Gorman’s dark and menacing Bill Sikes.
Dickens’ tale is played out during certain scenes on a clever, elevating two-tier system, allowing us to see what is happening above ground, as well as what is happening below in Fagin’s underground lair.
Given the enthusiastic performances and unforgettable songs, I hope the cast and crew will consider themselves at home at the Theatre Royal for a long time to come.

Friday, 1 May 2009

"Demonkeeper" by Royce Buckingham

Demonkeeper is a young adult horror novel by Royce Buckingham that is as dark and light as a Tim Burton fairytale. For most children, living in a house inhabited by monsters would be the stuff of nightmares; but for teenager Nat, it is his job. Left an old, creaky house and all its pesky occupants by his now deceased predecessor and mentor, Dhaliwahl; Nat is charged with becoming the new Demonkeeper. Things quickly go awry when, on the one night he leaves the house, the most violent and lethal of the demons escapes. Nat must track The Beast down, with the reluctant help of his new (human) friend, Sandy, a bookish, neat, and frankly desperate girl who is even worse at parallel parking than yours truly.To make matters worse, a former pupil of Dhaliwahl’s who had fallen out of favour arrives back in town with a score to settle. Initially known only as The Thin Man, he has his own plans about catching and using The Beast.Despite being billed as horror, there is a healthy dose of humour that would not look out of place in a Pixar movie. From the description and antics of two young boys who get caught up in the melee, to the characters of Nat’s three little “helper” demons, even The Thin Man’s real name unintentionally made me laugh. Perhaps not everyone will agree with Dhaliwahl’s assertion that “Marriage is attempting stability. To be a keeper is wrestling always with chaos”. For some, they may be one and the same.Although there is a good deal of comedy and wit, there is also some undeniably horrific, primeval action. Even the delicacy of choice for The Beast is tragic, in a way. Buckingham’s book covers the not so subtle fears like demons under the bed and noises in the basement, and the darker, ultimately more frightening fear of simply being alone; making it a much more wholesome tome than your average Goosebumps.