Holiday Reads

I was on holiday at the start of the month and as an avid bookworm, for me no suitcase is sufficiently packed without the presence of several books (hard copies for me as I am still resisting the call of a Kindle). These are my top four reads that kept me fully engaged whilst I relaxed on the beach and by the pool.

1: A TIME TO SPEAK – HELEN LEWIS
Synopsis: A remarkable story of courage and endurance during the Holocaust. Helen Lewis, a young student of dance in Prague at the outbreak of World War II, was herded, like Madeleine Albright, into the Terezin ghetto, then deported to Auschwitz in 1942. Separated from her family, she struggled to live amidst the carnage of Hitler’s Final Solution. How she did so, and what she did in order to survive, is a gripping story, told with wit, candor, and controlled anger.

What I thought: World War II is a period in history that has always fascinated me; at its heart, this War highlighted the complexities of human nature. So many years later, it still baffles me how so many ordinary and sensible people could be blindly swept up in a movement that saw them turn on former friends and neighbours and willingly herd them to ghettos and concentration camps from which it was unlikely they would return. Whilst A Time To Speak does mine the depths of depravity a human can inflict on another, what makes it such a compelling read is how strong and brave people like Helen Lewis were, who refused to give up or give in. It also highlights that the War was not simply a case of good versus bad; for every bitter betrayal there are uplifting instances of kindness, from brave neighbours who put themselves in danger to try and protect Lewis to the few guards in the camps who showed mercy to their prisoners rather than tormenting them, such as the kind officer who went out of his way to discreetly feed the starving prisoners of war in the concentration camp. This is a remarkable story that needs to be read and remembered; not only does it teach a valuable history lesson but also offers an invaluable insight into how to be a better human.

 

2. FINAL GIRLS – RILEY SAGER
Synopsis: The media calls them the Final Girls – Quincy, Sam, Lisa – the infamous group that no one wants to be part of. The sole survivors of three separate killing sprees, they are linked by their shared trauma. But when Lisa dies in mysterious circumstances and Sam shows up unannounced on her doorstep, Quincy must admit that she doesn’t really know anything about the other Final Girls. Can she trust them? Or can there ever only be one Final Girl?

What I thought: Final Girls is a gripping and taut thriller that had me hooked from the get go. I loved the fact that Quincy is an unreliable narrator; whilst she is famous for the tragedy she survived, no one really knows what happened that night in the woods when all Quincy’s friends were butchered but she survived, including Quincy. With a bad case of amnesia, Quincy refuses to embrace the title Final Girl, instead opting to focus on her career and her quest to be normal. However, when Sam turns up on her doorstep after the death of Lisa, Quincy is forced to look at who she is really and confront the secrets lurking beneath the surface. As the layers from her past start to peel away, the reader takes the journey of self-discovery with Quincy. This is a superbly crafted thriller that taunts and teases and had me frantically turning the pages until I found out how it finished.

 

3. HERE AND GONE – HAYLEN BECK
Synopsis: Audra has finally left her abusive husband. She’s taken the family car and her young children, Sean and Louise, are buckled up in the back. This is their chance for a fresh start. Audra keeps to the country roads to avoid attention. She’s looking for a safe place to stay for the night when she spots something in her rear-view mirror. A police car is following her and the lights are flickering. Blue and red. As Audra pulls over she is intensely aware of how isolated they are. Her perfect escape is about to turn into a nightmare beyond her imagining. . .

What I thought: Haylen Beck AKA Stuart Neville is one of my favourite thriller writers. Whilst this is his debut novel under the pseudonym Haylen Beck, I had high hopes for this novel before I even started it. With the change of name comes a totally different direction. Switching the Northern Irish setting synonymous with the writing of Neville, to that of a small town in America, this standalone thriller allows Neville, as Beck, the opportunity to explore his love of American crime fiction – and the result is phenomenal. From the opening, this book chilled me to the core. Beck is more than adept at ratcheting up the tension throughout the book, to the point I was dreading how it might end but I couldn’t stop reading. Audra and her children, Sean in particular, are fabulously constructed characters that are impossible not to care for. As well as solid characters, Beck’s strength lies in making everyday scenarios seem sinister by showing how vulnerable we really are, making us question who can really be trusted and showing the lengths we will go for to protect our loved ones. This is an absorbing, adrenaline-fuelled tale that gripped me from start to finish.

 

4. THE ESCAPE – CL TAYLOR
Synopsis: When a stranger asks Jo Blackmore for a lift she says yes, then swiftly wishes she hadn’t. The stranger knows Jo’s name, she knows her husband Max and she’s got a glove belonging to Jo’s two year old daughter Elise. What begins with a subtle threat swiftly turns into a nightmare as the police, social services and even Jo’s own husband turn against her. No one believes that Elise is in danger. But Jo knows there’s only one way to keep her child safe – RUN.

What I thought: CL Taylor is the queen of the slow but fierce burning thriller, and this is no exception. With a protagonist that suffers from agoraphobia, Jo’s reaction to the initial threat posed against her family is to construct metaphorical wall after wall to keep them safe. CL Taylor’s exceptional pacing means that the book feels more and more claustrophobic. However, as the threat gets closer, Jo’s need to protect her daughter is that fierce that she finds herself doing the impossible in a bid to keep her daughter safe. CL Taylor adds twists and turns in all the right places so that it was impossible to predict how the book would end, a major plus for me. Combining suspense with heart and soul, thrills with an examination of the love a parent has for a child, this is one book that will affect you on a totally different level.

Posted:17/10/2017

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Review: Monty Python’s Spamalot

Review: Monty Python’s Spamalot

I feel very ashamed to admit I know very little of the work of Monty Python; the closest I have gotten to exploring their comedic offerings was catching ten minutes of The Life of Brian when I was a student. It therefore seemed very opportune when I got an invite to see a production of Monty Python’s Spamalot, which is being performed by the Ulster Operatic Company at the Grand Opera House until Saturday (14 October).

Adapted from the 1975 film Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Spamalot is a musical comedy which tells the story of King Arthur as he travels around the land gathering his Knights of the Round Table. This band of hapless adventurers is then tasked with a divine mission to locate the elusive Holy Grail – with uproarious consequences. On arrival, I wasn’t sure what I had let myself in for, but a few minutes into the production and after the absolute surreal rendition of ‘He’s Not Dead Yet’, I soon knew: prolonged fits of laughing which ultimately resulted in a stomach ache. It is fair to say Spamalot was bonkers from the get go, but it was the absolute best kind of bonkers; slapstick comedy, hilarious musical numbers and physical comedy all combined together to create a performance than had me grinning from ear to ear.

Superb guidance from director Neil Keery, musical director Wilson Shields and choreographer Brooke Allen was evident from start to finish; in my opinion the overall performance would not have looked out of place on the West End. The cast likewise put on exceptional performances. From the authoritative and determined King Arthur (Colin Boyd) to his ‘trusty’ Knights; Sir Robin (Brian Trainor), Sir Lancelot (Jamie Johnston), Sir Galahad (Ross David Chambers) – who looked like a medieval Thor, and Sir Bedever (Paddy McGennity), each brought a high energy and pitch perfect performance that thoroughly entertained me; there were that many stand out moments that I can’t even list them all. It is hard to think how Spamalot could be made even better, but the seemingly impossible was accomplished by the stellar performances of Jordan Walsh as Patsy and Ciara Mackey as the Lady of the Lake. From the outset Jordan had me in hysterics through his expert use of coconuts, whilst his ability to convey as much with his facial expressions as his lines was a remarkable feat. Ciara Mackey completely mesmerised me as the Lady of the Lake. Unbeknownst to me at the time of viewing, I have had the pleasure of seeing Ciara perform several times as part of the excellent Pleasuredome band, who are regulars at The Belfast Empire. I already knew she was a talent but after Spamalot my eyes have been well and truly opened; not only is she a phenomenal singer, she is also sassy, cool and has impeccable comedic timing.

Whether you are a Monty Python super fan or only being introduced to their work, Spamalot is definitely for you. This superb piece of comedy is clearly in capable and trustworthy hands with the Ulster Operatic Company. After an evening that was spent literally laughing out loud (a lot!), Spamalot has shown me what I have been missing when it comes to Monty Python. Right you book your tickets to Spamalot and I am away to check out the remaining 85 minutes of Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Monty Python’s Spamalot by the Ulster Operatic Society runs until Saturday 14th October at the Grand Opera House. For more information: 

https://www.goh.co.uk/spamalot

Posted 12/10/2017

Review: The Weir

Review: The Weir

 

I have been quiet of late as I have been on holiday (posts on that coming asap), however to give me something to look forward to, and to make the thought of the return to Belfast and to Northern Irish weather less painful, I booked a trip to the Lyric Theatre with my culture buddies to see The Weir last night.

The play is set on a balmy but stormy night and sees the local men of an isolated Leitrim town gathering in Brendan’s pub for a pint and a bit of banter to wile away the lonely hours before bedtime. However, with the arrival of a mysterious woman, talk turns to the history of the town and its folklore. As each man tries to make an impact by recounting tales, which flow from ghost stories, to those of personal loss, in order to impress the beautiful stranger, one story is more chilling, more sinister and more real than any of them could have foreseen.

Written by the talented Conor McPherson (who also penned The Night Alive, which is one of my favourite productions that I have seen staged in the Lyric), The Weir, which won the Evening Standard, Critics’ Circle and Olivier award for Best New Play, is storytelling at its finest. The pacing, the interaction between the characters, the humour and the carefully crafted tales they tell all combine to create a play that is compelling, captivating and utterly chilling. The fantastic writing is complemented by wonderful direction from Andrew Flynn, who ensures each nuance of this classic tale is perfectly measured to have ultimate effect.

In addition to the exceptional writing and direction, the play is brought to life by the fantastic performances from each member of the accomplished cast. Patrick Ryan provides laughs as the ever ‘debating’ bar keep Brendan, a young single man who is set in his ways. However, behind the laughs we are also offered glimpses of a serious man who is lonely and adrift when his locals are absent from his bar. Garrett Keogh excels in his representation of Finbar, a local who has left the country behind for the bright lights. The only married man in the bar, Finbar sees himself having attained loftier heights than is former neighbours, however as the tale unfolds Keogh expertly unveils the cracks in Finbar’s carefully polished veneer. Marty Maguire offers a layered portrayal of scene stealing, confirmed bachelor Jack, the joker of the pack who uses humour to mask an underlying hurt, whilst Frankie McCafferty serves a subtle and incredibly natural performance as straight shooting handyman Jim, who is kind hearted and acts as the peacekeeper trying to keep the egos in the bar in check. Kerri Quinn, who I have seen in a few productions now, simply mesmerises as mysterious stranger Valerie, a woman with a story to tell but who longs for nothing but peace and quiet in this small, rural community.

The Weir is a chilling yet beautifully told story that explores universal themes of loneliness, loss and community, and so like all great ghost stories, has maximum impact because the threads that weave it together are so believable. Perfectly paced to continually ramp up the tension, the punctuations of humour add much welcomed light relief to this captivating production. The Weir only runs until 30 September, so be quick and catch one of the last performances before it finishes; I can’t recommend it enough. https://lyrictheatre.co.uk

the weir

Dead in Dún Laoghaire crime writing festival

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The beautiful town of Dún Laoghaire.

When it comes to a genre of choice when perusing a bookshelf, my eye always goes straight to the crime fiction selection. I love all the different aspects this genre encompasses, from mystery to law, crime procedure to the exploration of an ‘evil’ mind. So, when my friend and fellow book worm, Bronagh, told me about Dead in Dún Laoghaire, the inaugural crime writing festival by Penguin Random House Ireland, in partnership with The Irish Times, I jumped at the chance to attend.

After a bleary-eyed early start, I caught the 7am bus from Belfast to Dublin, which also stopped in Newry, where Bronagh, my partner in crime (pun fully intended), hopped on. Once we arrived at the Busáras Bus Station in Dublin, it was a five minute walk to Connolly Train Station to catch the DART which took us the rest of the way to Dún Laoghaire. By 10am we were sipping coffees and enjoying the picturesque views this suburban seaside town has to offer (I have not been to Dún Laoghaire before but it is such a quaint town and I instantly fell in love with it).

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Paula Hawkins (right) in conversation with Kathy Sheridan.

The festival consisted of four events taking place across one day (Saturday 22 July) at the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire. First up was a Q&A with global crime writing phenomenon Paula Hawkins, who not only discussed her massively successfully novel The Girl on the Train but also discussed her follow up, Into the Water. As well as touching on ‘second novel’ pressure, Paula, in conversation with Kathy Sheridan of The Irish Times, also discussed her career which veered from journalism to writing under a pseudonym before finding her true voice in crime fiction.

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John Banville (centre) and Stuart Neville (right).

After a short break, it was time for event two: Stuart Neville aka Haylen Beck with John Banville aka Benjamin Black. I first encountered Stuart Neville’s work when I reviewed his debut novel, The Twelve, for Ulster Tatler in 2009. Whilst  I have been lucky enough to attend several of Stuart’s readings over the years, in particular as he is a regular at my favourite literary spot in Belfast, No Alibis bookstore, I have not had the opportunity to see John Banville in conversation before and so it was very interesting to see these two authors sharing a stage to discuss their latest works Here and Gone (Haylen Beck) and Prague Nights (Benjamin Black). What intrigued me most was to hear how different both authors’ writing processes are. Whilst Stuart Neville spent weeks in Arizona, the setting of the new Haylen Beck book, to allow him to fully translate that experience onto the page, John Banville explains that the Prague he depicts on the page is the one he conjured up from his imagination as opposed to one he had experienced first hand.

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Liz Nugent (second from left) with Paul Perry and Karen Gillette aka Karen Perry (right).

The penultimate event featured prize-winners, bestsellers and book club favourites, Liz Nugent and Karen Perry (who, I didn’t realise, is actually two writers, novelist Karen Gillece and poet Paul Perry). As well as discussing their new works, Lying in Wait and Girl Unknown respectively, they also discussed how they deal with delving into the minds of the psychopaths that feature in their works. After several probing questions from the audience, Liz Nugent also discussed how, for her, persistence was the key when it came to getting published, whilst Karen and Paul explained the process they undertake for to write as part of a team.

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International bestseller Kathy Reichs closing the Dead in Dún Laoghaire festival.

The final event of the festival was international bestseller and real life forensic anthropologist, Kathy Reichs. As well as the creator of the hugely successful Temperance “Tempe” Brennan series of books, she was a producer for the TV series Bones, which was loosely based on her novels as well as her career. This really was a fascinating, and very humorous, Q&A which saw Reichs touch upon how her real life inspired her writing, how she has written books alongside her son as well as what inspired her new book, a standalone thriller, Two Nights, which features a smart, tough, talented heroine whose thirst for justice stems from her own dark past.

Dead in Dún Laoghaire was a truly remarkable festival which provided a unique and inspiring look into the writers behind some of the top offerings in the crime genre. Whilst the festival very much shone a light on the literary merits of crime writing, it also delved into a range of subjects from why established authors write under pseudonyms, how to forge a career as a writer as well as exploring how vastly different the writing process can be for each author. With the opportunity to meet the writers after each event as well as to get books signed, this was a thoroughly enjoyable and fantastically organised event and I for one hopes that the ‘Dead’ once again returns to Dún Laoghaire next year.

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Partners in crime: Bronagh and Kellie.

Posted: 31/07/2017

Theatre Review: Sinners 

This week I enjoyed a trip to the theatre to see Sinners, which was written by the superbly talented Marie Jones and produced and staged by the Lyric Theatre. 

The play tells the story of an isolated farming community that comes under the spell of the charming yet mysterious preacher, Pastor O’Hare. Whilst his unorthodox style of preaching has won over the locals, not everyone is sold. Her husband has declared his devotion to the new ministry, but Tania Simpson is not convinced; with the help of her family and friends she is on a mission to find out what the Pastor’s true motivations are.

The first half of the production was very much about setting the foundations of the story, whilst the second ramped up the drama and the comedy and when it finished I had an ache in my side and a smile firmly on my face. With a sharp script, clever staging and an accomplished cast, it definitely made a lasting impression. When it comes to plays at the Lyric, Michael Condron has become somewhat of a measuring stick for me as to whether to get tickets. I’ve seen him in a few productions now, such as The 39 Steps and Smiley, and he has always been a highlight, so with Condron cast as the charismatic Pastor O’Hare, myself, and my culture buddy Mark, were really looking forward to seeing what he brought to this production. Condron gave a mesmerising performance, making it seem completely plausible that he could cast a spell over and entire community. He also has an amazing ability for physical comedy and at times had me laughing without having to say a word. However, Condron wasn’t the only talent in the cast. Seáinín Brennan as Tania was fantastic at playing a woman who will go to any lengths to protect her family. She was passionate and fierce and utterly compelling to watch. Louise Mathews as Coleen, Tania’s sidekick and best friend, honestly had me snorting with laughter. She is a natural performer who commanded your attention anytime she put a foot on stage. Charlie Bonner as Tania’s husband Stanley, was a revelation. He perfectly captured a vulnerability which made it very realistic as to why he would be willing to dismiss his family’s worries to offer up his worldly possessions in return for redemption. Alan McKee as Stanley’s brother Sydney provided lashings of comedy to the proceedings. As a culchie living in the city, I found something comfortingly familiar about his portrayal of a local farmer. He perfectly captured the hilarious colloquialism of local life and that seriously amused me. I also have to say the younger members of the cast: Adele Gribbon as Millie, Michael Johnston as Jed and Patrick McBrearty as Dino added an unbridled youthfulness to the show as well as each having impeccable comedic timing that added a new dimension to the play. 

Unfortunately Sinners closed its run last night but if it returns to the Lyric or you get the chance to see one of these wonderfully talented actors in another production, I suggest you get yourself a ticket booked. Right, I am away to get ready for a new show coming to the Lyric; The Ladykillers (which runs from 10 June – 8 July and is adapted from the classic comedy by Graham Lineman); I’ll maybe see you there! 

Posted: 4/6/2017

Review: The Ice Beneath Her

I am a huge fan of Jo Nesbø and so when my BFF Bronagh gave me a copy of The Ice Beneath Her by acclaimed Swedish author Camilla Grebe, I was definitely intrigued. 
The tale, set in Stockholm at winter, finds the local police called to investigate a shocking murder: an unidentified woman is found beheaded in a posh suburban house, owned by controversial chain-store CEO Jesper Orre. What makes the case more disturbing is the similarities it bears to an unsolved case from ten years ago. As homicide detectives Peter Lindgren and Manfred Olsson delve into the case and search for motive, they enlist the help of brilliant criminal profiler Hanne Lagerlind-Schön. However the police aren’t the only ones on Jesper’s trail. Two months before the murder, Emma Bohman, a young clerk who works for Orre’s company, encountered the charming CEO by chance, and soon romance blossomed. However after Orre abandons her and her life goes from bad to worse, she believes her former lover is to blame for the disintegration of her life and so sets about tracking him down. 

The Ice Beneath Her is hailed as a psychological thriller and for me, it did not disappoint. The story is told by three people: Peter Lindgren, Hanne Lagerlind-Schön and Emma Bohman. I found the interweaving of the three strands of the same tale a compelling narrative technique. Whilst there is reason to question the reliability of each narrator, I was fully absorbed in the book to see how the case would be resolved as well as the impact it would have on each of the narrators. 

As this multi-layered tale begins to unravel, Camilla Grebe’s perfectly nuanced writing style had me truly hooked. The book is fast but perfectly paced and has twists that take you by surprise. The Nordic setting and weather is also very much a character of this book. Everytime I opened it, I was transported from a rarely sun soaked Belfast to the dark, bone aching cold of Stockholm. As the setting is smothered in blankets of snow, the anxiety level of the book was ratcheted up to a new level. 

The Ice Beneath Her is a very visual, bold and exciting novel. The tale it tells is not black and white, instead the truth is often as hidden as Stockholm beneath the snow. Grebe is an exceptional storyteller who knows how to keep her reader on the edge of their seats. With a brutal crime and an intriguing cast of characters scrambling to reach the truth, Grebe has crafted a thriller that is very difficult to put down. Fans of crime fiction, Nordic or otherwise, should definitely check it out. 

Posted: 12/05/2017

Review: Million Dollar Quartet 

My family are my favourite people in the world and when we get a chance to all get together for a night out, I am truly at my happiest. So it was happy days indeed on Saturday night when we got together for a night out in Belfast. Our first port of call was dinner, and so with the idea of trying somewhere different we headed to The Crown Bar Dining Rooms. I am a huge fan of the iconic Crown Bar and so I was definitely intrigued to see what the restaurant, which is located upstairs, had to offer. The interior boasts a classic and warm ambience, whilst the staff are professional yet incredibly friendly (from booking the table right through to settling the bill, I could not fault the service we received). The menu had a fabulous mix of dishes, however, I sampled the chicken, chorizo and cider pie which was served with mash, vegetables and gravy. The portion size and presentation was impressive and whilst there was not as much chorizo as I would personally like, it was still a very tasty meal. 

The combination of the food, the superb selection of drinks, excellent service, welcoming atmosphere and fantastic location created a brilliant experience and I would definitely visit again. 

Next up was a visit to the Grand Opera House, Belfast, where I got to indulge my love for the theatre and for music when we attended the final night of Million Dollar Quartet. I had high hopes for this production and I was not disappointed. 

Million Dollar Quartet tells the story of record executive Sam Phillips, who founded the legendary Sun Records, and the night he made rock ‘n’ roll history when he brought Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins together to play for the first and only time on December 4, 1956.

As well as impressively singing and playing their instruments live, each member of the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ superbly executed their roles, from Ashley Carruthers, who gave an animated performance which perfectly captured the frenetic energy of Jerry Lee Lewis to Matthew Wycliffe, as Carl Perkins, who exuded the intensity of a musician struggling to recapture the same level of success and fame he once had. Robbie Durham took on the role of Johnny Cash and whilst he bore an uncanny physical resemblance to his namesake, he also gave a wonderful performance that showed a vulnerability to Cash veering from being a musician who wanted to progress his career to being a man who was loyal and reluctant to turn his back on Phillips, who kick-started his career. Ross William Wild was tasked with portraying Elvis Presley and whilst he effortlessly captured his voice, he also added a physicality to his performance which captured Elvis’ larger than life persona. 

The biggest name on the cast list however was Jason Donovan whose portrayal of Sam Phillips was the lynch pin to the production. From narrating the story to introducing each song on the impressive set list, Donovan was responsible for taking the audience back in time to this iconic moment in history. With a flawless Southern drawl, an assured and committed stage presence as well as a faultless and passionate performance, Donovan fully engaged the audience (well, apart from one rude heckler who interrupted a key scene, although even this did not put Donovan off his stride). For me Jason Donovan was the perfect person to bring the remarkable character of Sam Phillips to life on stage.
With a raucous set of classic hits, from ‘Walk the Line’, ‘Blue Suede Shoes ‘, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’, an insanely talented cast and a superbly assembled production, Million Dollar Quartet is a wonderful show that will entertain you, transport you back in time and get you off your seat and on your feet for a dance. If you get a chance to catch this performance, I can’t recommend it highly enough. 

Posted: 1/5/2017