Thursday, July 27, 2017

Review: Salt

Salt Salt by Fiona Peek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two couples, four dinner parties: Nick is a journalist who does carpentry on the side – not to make ends meet but bring the ends at least within sight of each other – while his wife Rachel is a former musician whose income from giving lessons don't bring those ends much closer together. Her multiple miscarriages and Nick's glacial progress on his novel symbolise the couple's failure to achieve and conceive.

Nick's old university friend Amy and her husband Simon are everthing Nick and Rachel aren't: they have children and jobs, with Simon's work in the law ensuring they are never short of money. But their friendship is unshakable – until Amy and Simon use an unexpected and un-needed inheritance to bail their friends out and gratitude slowly turns to resentment.

Fiona Peek's debut play is funny, sharply observed and often poignant. It's also the most difficult script I've ever had to learn. Every movement has to be precise, while there are several lines that change the subject completely, such as offers of food or drink or Simon interrupting a discussion of Amy and Nick's university years with an anecdote about a compensation case. Every play has some of these logical jumps, but Salt has far more than most.

And then there's the eating and drinking. Amid all the quick-fire dialogue, all the characters have to prepare food, eat it, share it, open bottles, recharge glasses, drink and open more bottles. Not only must you make sure your glass or plate is empty, you even have to make sure the bottle is empty when it's your cue to get another. And of course, you've got to make sure your mouth is empty when it's your turn to speak, though sometimes you have to speak with a mouthful of food and do it so everyone in the theatre can hear you (NICK: "You're just a bitter, pre-menopausal old hag who's … God this is fantastic"]. And this isn't just one difficult scene; it's the whole play. And spare a thought for the backstage crew who have to prepare the food.

Get it right and you'll have a cracking night's entertainment (I hope we will: at the time of writing we've got a week till first night). But don't under-estimate the amount of work required.

It also has the odd flaw: Nick's short speech about Rachel and the baby in the final scene makes no sense at all in the context of what has gone before:
"At last I've got them home. [Where from? Hospital maybe?]. The same rush all over again [Again? What rush? From where to where?]. The second coming [What was the first?]. Took him to Kew yesterday. First family outing [So did this baby spend its first three months in hospital? If so, would you really take him to Kew straight off and then leave him with friends the next night?]".
It reads like a reference to something that was cut from an earlier draft.

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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Review: By Blood Divided

By Blood Divided By Blood Divided by James Heneage
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It would be unfair to call this bubblegum literature, but it's not literary fiction either. It deserves four stars because I rattled through it in five days and enjoyed the experience. What more could you want? It succeeds at what it tries to do and lacks the pretension to be anything more than it is, which is an adventure story set in history.

Heneage stays true to the events surrounding the fall of Constantinople in 1453, while deftly mixing historical characters and fictional ones. Mehmet and Minotto come out much worse than their historical selves, but the need for villains makes this forgivable.

Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky at times, with characters explaining to each other things that they already know, and on these occasions it's faintly reminiscent of the dreadful Mongoliad. But it's not enough to spoil the enjoyment.

Maps are provided, which many readers will find invaluable, but the character list has a major flaw in the the death dates are given for historical figures. That's a big spoiler, given that one of them is a central character who only dies in the penultimate chapter.

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Jogger baffled by pedestrians

A runner preparing for the London Marathon has expressed his irritation at his regular route being cluttered by pedestrians.

London's jogger plague will ease after the marathon
Tom Logan, whose training route takes him the half-mile from his City office to his flat in Shoreditch, regularly finds his way obstructed by slow-moving, unhealthy people. “It’s ridiculous, he said. “It’s 5pm on a Wednesday. Where are all these people going?”

But Emma Bradford, a legal secretary from Wimbledon, complained, “I’ve been at work since 7.30 and just want to get home in peace, and suddenly this prick comes lumbering towards me like he’s some kind of elite athlete expecting the crowds to get out of the way of his £300 trainers and ‘I ran the world’ tee-shirt. It’s pathetic.”

Logan, who plans to participate in the marathon by watching the closing stages on television after spending the morning at Homebase, said, “I'm an elite athlete. These trainers cost £300. I ran the world. You’d think these plebs would show some respect.”

With apologies to the Daily Mash

Monday, March 20, 2017

Review: A Lady Mislaid

A Lady Mislaid A Lady Mislaid by Kenneth Horne
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Horne's plays are showing their age. A Lady Mislaid, albeit one of his better efforts, still suffers from being over-long and repetitive, with dramatic moments blunted by wordiness and excess explanation.

Sisters Jennifer and Esther rent a house in the country so that the former, a novelist, can recover from a nervous breakdown. Bullock, an over-enthusiastic policeman, intrudes, searching for the body of the previous tenant's missing wife. Matters are complicated by the arrival of Bullock's suspect, Smith, who remains beyond the police's clutches as long as the body remains missing. Eventually a body does turn up, but so does Smith's wife, very much alive.

A good example of the slow pacing is when the sisters question the newly arrived woman: her line "I'm his wife" should be followed immediately by Bullock's entrance; instead, we get half a page of the sisters exclaiming "His wife?", "But I thought…" and similar such nonsense before the policeman's belated entrance finally shuts them up.

A Lady Mislaid can only be performed as a period piece because of the dated 1950s social conventions and phrasing. Characters talk of "making love" to each other, which sits oddly on the modern ear, and Jennifer's fiancé insists that she won't be able to write books after they're married because she'll be bringing up children. Horne, like most mid-century British comic writers, suffers from the curious delusion that the mere mention of lumbago is always hilarious. Mrs Small the housekeeper is a stock character from the period, but no less fun for all that.

With judicious cutting, this play could still pass muster in a Village Hall. Sadly, the director of the production I'm stage managing is convinced of Horne's unerring genius and that every syllable is sacrosanct. I'm sure the audience will enjoy it well enough, but it would have been better with the red pen deployed.

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Monday, March 13, 2017

Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Why would you hire a travel writer to pen a science book? Because he's Bill Bryson and you could put his name on the phone book and it would sell shedloads. Otherwise this book has little to recommend it. Sure, he writes with his customary engaging joviality, but as he says himself in the introduction, there are plenty of proper scientists writing engaging and interesting books for the layman, so quite why he felt the need to write his own book to counter the dull texts of his 1960s schooldays escapes me.

This negative impression isn't helped by finding a huge, glaring error in just the second paragraph:
"Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this ‘i’ can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them, rather more than the number of seconds contained in half a million years."
That's more like five million days. It takes a couple of minutes with a calculator to work that one out, but neither Bryson nor his editor could be bothered. To quote from the Acknowledgements:
"Goodness knows how many other inky embarrassments may lurk in these pages yet, but it is thanks to Dr Tattersall and all of those whom I about to mention that there aren't many hundreds more."
At this point Bryson should have realised that he'd written a book whose only value would be to his own pension pot and his publisher's bottom line. I can understand him being reluctant to jettison three years of work, but considering he'd made a similar horlicks with Mother Tongue a few years earlier – on a subject where he might more reasonably claim to be qualified – one wonders why he started the book in the first place.

Sure, you can read it for the easy, witty writing, but it's distracting when you know you can't trust any of the facts. It's still the first chapter and we have: "with Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea … Pluto would be … about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn't be able to see it anyway". Even if it's a petit pois and I'm not wearing my glasses, I can still see Pluto on that scale.

If the errors are so obvious to me (and my degree is in Medieval History), what hope is there when it comes to the more technical science? Maybe things improve, but after barely an hour of reading I'm ready to give up.

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