Saturday, 16 February 2013

Book review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Have you ever read a book that with its last word just stunned you into tears? I have, and it's called The Fault in Our Stars.

John Green's book follows 17-year-old Hazel, a teenager with terminal cancer, as she meets and falls in love with Gus, who has lost a leg to cancer. Their story is surprising, touching and full of love. And above all, it's full of humour, surprising considering its subject matter.

Intelligent and clever, Hazel's life is changed when Gus walks into it at a support group for kids with cancer. The pair bond instantly, and are brought even closer by the suffering of their friend Issac, who has his second eye removed due to cancer after losing the first a while ago, and a trip to meet the reclusive Peter Van Houten, who wrote Hazel's favourite book An Imperial Affliction - a book about a girl, who has cancer, which ends mid-sentence.

Hazel and Gus may not have the most conventional of teenage romances, but theirs is one of the most powerful love stories I've ever read. Despite their young age, the two are both more grown-up than many grown-ups, and more immature than many children. They are living all stages of their lives in this one teenage stage, because the future is not guaranteed.

Green writes convincingly about both love and cancer, and his descriptions are second to none. In a confessional moment between the couple, Green's description of Gus's pain hit me like a punch to the chest:
"...and then he broke down, just for one moment, his sob roaring impotent like a clap of thunder unaccompanied by lightning, the terrible ferocity that amateurs in the field of suffering might mistake for weakness."
Later, when Hazel is describing the pain she feels in hospital, Green's description is vivid and makes it easy to imagine how Hazel is feeling, even if we can't feel it ourselves:
"I called it a nine because I was saving my ten. And here it was, the great and terrible ten, slamming me again and again as I lay still and alone in my bed staring at the ceiling, the waves tossing me against the rocks then pulling me back out to sea so they could launch me again into the jagged face of the cliff, leaving me floating faceup on the water, undrowned."
It's easy to think The Fault in Our Stars is a miserable book. It's not, it's full of beauty and love, and even plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and it's full of deep thoughts that are put across in simple, non-pretentious ways, like Hazel's description as she has a picnic with her parents:
"You could hear the wind in the leaves, and on that wind travelled the screams of the kids on the playground in the distance, the little kids figuring out how to be alive, how to navigate a world that was not built for them by navigating a playground that was."
Yes, The Fault in Our Stars is very, very sad, but it's also very, very hopeful about life in general and how much meaning our lives can have regardless of how short they are. My reaction on reading the final words of The Fault in Our Stars was to let the tears flow, but they were good tears, full of happiness for Hazel.

Glee recap/review: I Do

Diva recap/review

I Do was a lovely slice of Glee perfection. 

Witty, funny, and adult, this is the episode that showed audiences Glee has grown up, instead of incessantly telling them without any evidence to back the claim up.

Gathered together again for the wedding of Will and Emma, the old New Directions and the new New Directions found themselves trying to untangle their various love lives on Valentine's Day.

Let's start with the easy stuff - Will and Emma. I love Emma, I don't love Will. He constantly takes her for granted, then realises he is doing so, then a few weeks later takes her for granted again. This time, he ignored her plea to help her with the seating chart to go swanning off to glee practice, not realising that stepping in at that moment could possibly have stopped Emma's dizzying spiral, which eventually led to her leaving him at the altar.

Emma's panicked demeanor was brought out even more when she was waiting in the church, all dolled up in a gorgeous wedding dress. In comes Sue, dressed the same but the complete opposite to Emma in all other ways, to enhance just how scared and not ready Emma is for this moment. For the record, I don't think Emma doesn't want to marry Mr Schue, I just think she doesn't want a huge wedding and the pressures that come with it. And her panic was shown even more when she, Will and Mercedes sang Getting Married Today from Company. It was a fun, frenzied song, but Emma's parts were so fast, her enunciation not amazing, and her lip syncing out of time that I was a little distracted by it all.

I liked that Glee's focus on Emma's uncertainty didn't revolve around her kiss with Finn ("I'm sorry I don't have a pamphlet for you right now, but if I did, it would probably say get over it"). Yes, the kiss didn't help, but it's not what made Emma not want to go through with her wedding to Will.

And advice about the kiss and how it wasn't Finn's fault came to him from an unlikely source - Rachel. This is quite possibly the first time Rachel has ever offered sage advice to anyone, and telling Finn to not worry was the right thing to do (although I'm sure Will will find out at some point).

Still, I was a little confused about Finn and Rachel's sudden closeness in the opening scene of I Do. I thought they'd decided not to speak again, but suddenly Finn's calling Rachel and confiding in her. Did I miss something?

Anyway, apart from that blip, Rachel and Finn's development over the episode was good. I've never been a huge fan of this coupling, but I can't deny they have chemistry. The "she loves me, she loves me not" scene was zinging, and puts Brody and Rachel, and the new Finn and Rachel Marley and Jake, to shame. Yes, their chemistry dimmed a bit once they got to the hotel room, but that may be more to do with the couples they were juxtaposed against.

Back in New York, Rachel hooked up with Brody again, who, while living with her, is not her boyfriend. Brody had potential when he was first introduced, but now he's just slimy. Is he a gigolo? Because that's what I understood. Skanky. And Rachel is pregnant? I'm guessing there's supposed to be some kind of plot here about it being either Brody or Finn's, but isn't it way too soon for it to be Finn's and to be showing up on a home pregnancy test?

Anyway, back to McKinley, where Artie was trying to hook up with Emma's bitchy niece Betty (one of the not-winners from The Glee Project). As usual, because it involved Artie, it was very sweet, and all worked out for the best. I liked Betty, but I'd also like Artie to have a proper romance plot, a bit like he did with Tina in the first series, rather than just having a meaningless sub-plot so Glee can focus on other characters.

Santana and Quinn hooked up. There's not much to say beyond that. The two have always had friend chemistry, and it zinged over for one night into something more.

Marley and Jake were being their usual sweet, bland selves. In proper teen movie style, Jake's best bud Ryder was being Cyrano, setting Jake up with amazing presents to give to Marley for Valentine's Day, and watching from afar with a longing look on his face as Marley succumbed to Jake's charms. Well, okay, she didn't succumb because they didn't have sex, but it was close(ish). Anyway, it was all really boring until Marley thanked Ryder, knowing he'd been behind it the whole time, and then Ryder kissed her. In the hallway of their school. While people were wandering around. Really, this is going to stay a secret?

And finally, saving the best until last - Kurt and Blaine (and Tina). Kurt and Blaine's relationship is in the physical stages, and they're not ashamed of it. Caught by Mercedes making out in a car right before the wedding begins, the two brush it off with laughs and Kurt's "everyone hooks up at weddings". I can fully believe Kurt and Blaine are at the stage of physical interaction again. We know they've been repairing their friendship, largely over the phone, and seeing each other again, their "legendary chemistry" (thanks Tina) comes back.

At the wedding the pair sing a cute duet, before Blaine heads off to get punch with the instruction "we're not dating, we're here as friends". And in steps Tina to have a go at Kurt for not being there for Blaine. Hands down, this was one of the funniest moments of Glee, as Kurt called her out on being a hag for Blaine, and Tina told Kurt some home truths about him flitting in and out of Blaine's life, and then accidentally confessed she'd put Vapor-rub on Blaine's chest while he was asleep. Kurt's "did you Vapor-rape my ex-boyfriend?" was wonderful because it addressed just how inappropriate Tina's actions were while at the same time moving Tina's crush on Blaine from disturbing back to kind of funny. And it also demonstrated that while Kurt may be protesting (constantly) that he and Blaine are just friends, he still feels jealous enough to have a go at Tina for touching his ex-boyfriend.

His ex-boyfriend who he's sleeping with. In the hotel room Blaine told Kurt that the two were destined to be together (while the walls still vibrated with the chemistry bouncing off the pair). While Kurt didn't deny it, he's also not ready to throw himself back into a relationship with Blaine. I'd love to see them back together, but I like that Glee is taking its time. It's much more realistic than an immediate declaration of love. Kurt is still guarding himself, although he's forgiven Blaine, and Blaine knows it's only a matter of time before they get back together.

And the best thing about Kurt and Blaine's interactions was how happy they both were. We're used to seeing them buttoned up (physically as well as mentally), and both have been very guarded with their emotions since their break-up. In I Do they were laughing and smiling and making jokes, and sometimes being inappropriate. It's clear to see that having the other in their lives makes Kurt and Blaine much, much happier.

Best moment
Just the whole thing really. I did enjoy Kurt, Blaine and Tina's final scene together, where they made up, bringing a ridiculous storyline to a welcome, well thought out conclusion, and where Blaine said he as determined to find Tina a boyfriend. Tina and Blaine's friendship is now back to being cute. I love it.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Book review: Lament by Maggie Stiefvater

Having previously read Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver trilogy, I was looking forward to Lament, the first in her Faerie books, and thought I knew what to expect.

I was wrong.

Where Shiver and its sequels Linger and Forever were slow builds with mysteries which unravelled piece by piece, Lament was a much faster-moving book, and there was no time at all before I was thrust into the world of faeries and cloverhands.

Lament starts with Deirdre Monaghan about to take part in a music competition. As usual, she is throwing up before she goes on stage, but this time, unusually, a beautiful boy comes to her aid, and then persuades her to perform with him.

Within just a few pages Deirdre finds herself forging a deep connection with Luke, and she knows there's something weird about him.

At the same time she keeps finding four-leafed clovers everywhere, and it's not long before Luke tells her she's a cloverhand - someone who can see faeries. Luke is not all he seems, and Deirdre's grandmother is the first to warn her away from him, saying he is a bad faerie.

Dealing with a controlling mum and a crazy, definitely evil aunt, Deirdre finds herself getting deeper and deeper into the world of faerie as her relationship with Luke continues, leading to her best friend James getting into a dangerous situation.

Stiefvater has a real talent for making readers feel the emotions of her characters, and we feel Deirdre's anger, sadness, frustration and confusion throughout the book. Stiefvater is also great at portraying love of all kinds - between friends, family and lovers - and, like in the Shiver series, her portrayal of Deirdre and Luke falling for each other is completely realistic (putting the supernatural element to one side).

However, I did think that Deirdre was just too accepting of the world of faerie. She knows immediately there is something unusual about Luke, and about some otherworldly not-so-nice people she meets, but every time something new is revealed she accepts it without question or angst.

And I found her reaction to something that happened to her grandmother unrealistic and lacking the emotion I thought it would. On the other hand, she was full of emotion when James got caught up in the games of the faeries.

I would have liked to have found out more about Deirdre's aunt, who made me uneasy from the start, but I think Stiefvater was clever in just showing us glimpses of Deirdre's family. And I definitely wanted to know more about best friend James, but there is a sequel already which focuses on him. Lucky for Stiefvater, I found Lament intriguing enough that I'll be reading Ballad.

Book review: Blueeyedboy by Joanne Harris

We all show different sides of ourselves depending on the situation we're in, or the person we're talking to, but with the invention of the internet the possibilities of reinventing ourselves are endless.

In blueeyedboy, Joanne Harris uses a thriller to explore issues of identity, disguise and the difference between fantasy and reality.

Living at home with his mother in a village, B.B. spends most of his time online at a website called badguysrock. The reader learns about his life through a series of restricted and public entries, which tell of his relationship with his controlling mother, his brothers, and others in the village growing up.

And through it all, B.B. spins tales of murder, explaining, or fantasising about, the deaths of people close to him, and to other members of the badguysrock community, including the mysterious Albertine.

Full of twists and turns, blueeyedboy was a book I found difficult to put down, and every time I thought I'd worked out what was going on there came another clue that led to my theories being blown to dust.

Told entirely through web posts, Harris purposefully presents just a few sides of a layered story full of complex characters, meaning we either have to trust B.B. and Albertine's version of events, which we don't entirely, or we have to delve further into tiny hints the two characters don't even realise they're giving to find out more.

As it hurtles to its climax, the online and real lives of B.B. start coming together in a terrifying way. Mind games are rife throughout blueeyedboy, but perhaps the biggest mind game of all is being played by Harris, whose intricate story left me wanting to yell in shock as I read the final word.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Book review: The Perfect Hope by Nora Roberts

Nora Roberts is my go-to author for when I want to read something easy, well-written and with a happy ending.

The Perfect Hope, therefore, was the perfect book to read during the cold winter days when the other book I was in the midst of was non-fiction - Kate Adie's Into Danger.

The third book in the Inn at BoonsBoro trilogy, The Perfect Hope is the story of inn manager Hope Beaumont and Ryder Montgomery, the last single Montgomery brother, the family the series revolves around.

It's not a spoiler to say that Hope and Ryder get together - this is a book by Roberts, whose specialty is romance, and she doesn't tend to keep her characters away from each other with false angst and contrived situations.

Rather than a will-they-won't-they over the main couple, it's all the relationships that make the whole interesting, like other books by the author. Hope's friendship with Clare Brewster (whose story with Beckett Montgomery was the subject of the trilogy's first book) and Avery MacTavish (whose story with Owen Montgomery was the subject of the second - which I haven't read) is the kind of friendship we all aspire to. The relationship between the three Montgomery brothers is realistic - teasing, competitive, sometimes tense, but always full of brotherly love and respect.

And the Inn at BoonsBoro trilogy also contains another Roberts' specialty - a supernatural element. Here it's a ghost who haunts the Inn, who is searching for her lost love with the help of Hope et al. It's a nice element to add a bit of depth to the tale.

The Perfect Hope isn't scholarly reading but that's no bad thing as it does the job of a good book - takes you into another world and makes you forget the troubles of this one for a little while.

Glee recap/review: Diva

When I think diva, I think power, personality and punch. Those were three things I felt were missing from this week's episode of Glee - Diva.

In an attempt to get New Directions thinking about regionals, Finn and Emma teamed up to hold a diva competition. In episodes past, Will used to hold stupid contest after stupid contest, but at least they produced great performances. This time round, in Diva, I felt that while the vocals were pretty good, the overall performances just didn't hit the right note for me.

Beyonce's Diva, performed by Unique, Brittany, Tina, Blaine, Kitty and Marley, was more about show than substance. Yes, the costumes were amazing and the diva attitudes fun to watch, but I didn't really get anything from the performance.

Blaine's version of Queen's Don't Stop Me Now was vocally good, and again the costume was great, but I felt it lacked the energy of previous Blaine performances, confined as he was to the piano for most of the song.

And it wasn't Blaine's performance that showed men could be divas too - it was his behaviour towards Tina. Blaine and Tina could have been great friends, but what started off as a harmless crush on Tina's side has morphed into something truly horrific to watch. Feeling ill, Blaine accepts Tina's offers of food and medicine, without giving much thought to why she is helping him. Calling her pet names and telling her how amazing she is, Blaine is completely blind to Tina's feelings, which he shouldn't be since she made her crush quite clear a couple of episodes ago.

And Tina, quite frankly, is displaying bad behaviour towards Blaine. When he offers to help her find a song for the diva-off, Tina takes it the wrong way, believing it to be sort of an admission of his love for her. I'm insulted on Blaine's behalf that Tina seems to hint that she believes she can be the one for Blaine, even though he's gay. And when Blaine fell asleep as Tina confessed she loved him, it disturbed me to see Tina undo his shirt and put Vaporub on his chest before laying down to cuddle him - it felt like a huge invasion of personal space, and even ventured into assault territory, since Blaine wasn't awake to know what Tina was doing.

Tina's crush has gone from something amusing to something disturbing, and I'm not quite sure what the Glee writers think they're doing. I'm hoping Tina's win at the diva-off (well-deserved despite her creepiness this episode) will have given her confidence - and perhaps her lack of confidence is what was causing her strange behaviour. Please, please, Glee, let this be the end of Tina's crush on Blaine - I fear it is heading into dangerous territory and I don't want to see anymore. However, I'm not sure I'll get my wish, since Blaine asking Tina to be his date to the wedding next week may not be sending out the right signals.

EDIT: I've read two great posts here and here that have made me reconsider how Blaine and Tina's relationship is being portrayed. I still feel uncomfortable watching it, but maybe that's the point? It's not supposed to be easy to watch. Although I still don't like the whole Tina-touching-Blaine-while-he's-asleep thing.

Talking of the wedding, Emma was going crazy this week trying to organise her big day with Will, who was still in Washington. Never fear, Finn would help. Who didn't see their kiss coming a mile off? Why, why, why, does Glee do this? Why can't we just have uncomplicated characters who deal with their feelings in normal ways without venturing into inappropriate, unrealistic territory? I don't think there's anything else I want to say on Finn and Emma.

Santana was also back at McKinley to show New Directions how to be a diva. Again, I felt her performance of Nutbush City Limits was lacklustre - I know Santana can do better. Which is what she thought of Brittany's choosing Sam. When Santana and Brittany broke up it was sad, but not heartbreaking, because it was the right decision. It was a mature break up for the right reasons. In the course of this episode, that maturity disappeared, as Santana fixated on the idea that Sam wasn't right for Brittany.

I think Santana does genuinely love Brittany, but her feelings are also a lot to do with her own insecurity about still not having found her place, even when she left Lima to go to college. While Nutbush City Limits wasn't amazing, I did like Girl on Fire, because I could feel Santana's emotions and love for Brittany, but also felt that Santana was ready to face her own future and take control of it, and taking control involved going to New York and moving in with Rachel and Kurt.

But before Santana got there, Rachel and Kurt had been having a diva-off of their own. Sick of Rachel's behaviour, Kurt (who is way more patient than I am) challenged her to a diva-off at Midnight Madness, some competition where those crazy theatre kids break into a NYADA classroom and sing against each other. I was happy to see Kurt calling Rachel out on her behaviour, and confessing that he'd thrown that note when the pair competed against each other singing Defying Gravity (now that was a diva-off). Rachel needs some home truths to bring her down to size.

And so to Midnight Madness, where Kurt narrowly triumphed over Rachel as they both sang Bring Him Home from Les Miserables. They were both vocally excellent as always, but Kurt always seems like he's feeling the song, while I always feel Rachel is acting that she's feeling the song.

Miserable that she'd lost, Rachel decided not to audition for the Funny Girl revival, until Kurt went and signed her up and the two made up. Rather than showing Rachel's humble side, I felt her attitude to defeat was diva-like. I'm really not a Rachel fan this season.

Far more interesting than Rachel and Kurt's diva-off was the small glimpses we saw of Kurt and Adam's relationship. I think they're still in the friends/getting to know you stage, but it was nice to see Kurt with a support system that was exclusive to him. And it was nice to see Kurt defending Adam and the Apples (and putting those shallow NYADA divas in their place), and nice to see Adam offering good, mature advice to Kurt on his friendship with Rachel and his career. While I'm a Klainer, I like that Kurt has someone he can talk to, it's healthy.

Best moments
I don't know if I'm in the minority, but I just didn't love this week's episode, but I watched it when I wasn't in a great mood myself. It was therefore hard for me to pick what I liked best, and after some thought, it was probably the stuff with Kurt standing up for himself and really taking control.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Theatre review: Old Times at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Kristin Scott Thomas as Anna, Lia Williams as Kate and Rufus Sewell as Deeley in Old Times. Picture: Simon Annand
It's one of the most awkward positions you can find yourself in - being the odd one out in a group of three.

And that's the relationship explored in Harold Pinter's play Old Times, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Lia Williams and Rufus Sewell and currently playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Scott Thomas and Williams alternate the roles of Kate and Anna, and the production I saw had Scott Thomas as Anna and Williams as Kate.

Kate and her husband Deeley (Sewell) open the play discussing an old friend of Kate's who is coming to visit - a friend Kate hasn't seen in 20 years. The dynamic between the couple is fun and teasing, although there is an undercurrent of something that hides in Kate's face as Deeley questions her about her relationship with Anna (her "only friend").

Then in comes Anna - dynamic, full of laughter and memories about the pair's time together as secretaries in London, getting up for work after glamourous nights out, weekends filled with going to this show and that coffee bar and to see this film.

Williams as Kate and Sewell as Deeley. Picture: Simon Annand
And so the dynamic on stage changes, as Anna and Deeley try to outdo each other's stories of old times with Kate in an attempt to become her favourite. Deeley's tale of seeing Kate for the first time at a film, and Anna's tale of seeing the same film with Kate aren't very exciting, but the two characters ham them up with shouted words, dramatic pauses and facial expressions and gestures in an attempt to make their memory of Kate seem the best.

Meanwhile Kate sits and listens, looking increasingly uncomfortable as it becomes obvious that her relationship with Anna was something deeper than friends. At one point Kate accuses Anna of talking about her as if she was dead - an apt observation since for a large part of the play Kate, while being the subject of discussion and the point which Anna and Deeley flit around on stage, is actually a character who seems to do nothing much but react, and even then in an awkward, bland way.

Scott Thomas is compelling as Anna. Her every action, even when the focus is on others, belies that there is more to her relationship with Kate than Deeley knows - particularly poignant is a moment when Anna is clearly reaching for Kate's hand, only to be rejected and see Kate go to Deeley instead. And when she and Deeley are alone together, Scott Thomas reveals another side to Anna, a different Anna than the one she is with both Deeley and Kate, and with just Kate.

Sewell brings both tragedy and comedy to Deeley - a man with a successful career, a house in the country and a wife he seems to love. But as it is revealed that he knows less about her than Anna does, we stop laughing at his over-the-top gestures and booming voice, and start feeling sorry for him as we watch him break down - the last person to believe what he is seeing in front of his eyes.

Sewell as Deeley and Scott Thomas as Anna. Picture: Simon Annand
Williams as Kate has arguably the hardest job in the production. For all the attention paid to Kate by Anna and Deeley, it could be difficult to believe that what either of them are saying about Kate is true - we don't see the fun-loving young woman she once was when she was living with Anna, or the shy girl that Deeley fell in love with. Instead we see a quiet, private woman, one who seems to be a shadow of the woman Deeley and Anna speak about. It would be easy for Kate to become a boring character, but the expressions that fly across Williams' face - from despair to longing to fear to sadness to (briefly) happiness - make her compelling to watch, as does her body language, which is largely tense, even when she is playing relaxed.

Old Times makes for uncomfortable watching, but only because we feel for all the characters, and because we all have had some experience being the odd one out and wanting someone's approval over another person. Thought-provoking and beautifully nuanced, Pinter's play will leave you hooked on the mystery of what you've just seen.

Old Times is at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street, London, until April 6. Click here for more information.


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