Friday, 31 March 2017

Book Challenge 2017: Months 1-3

Every three months, I'll be sharing my progress with the Book Challenge, aiming to read a book a month, one from each of the given categories. I already read a lot, but I thought it would get me to widen my net a little. You can read my selected list in my Book Challenge 2017: My Picks post.

So without futher ado, here are my reads from January, February and March.

January: A collection of short stories
Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro

This is a beautiful gem of a collection, made up of five short stories under an overarching theme of music. In Crooner, a guitarist meets his idol in Venice. Come Rain or Come Shine tells of a friend stuck between a couple whose marriage is deteriorating. Malvern Hills is a story of making fast judgements and having them challenged. Nocturne features a musician recovering from surgery, rediscovering his own sense of self. Finally, Cellists tells of a musician getting to know a man who sits and watches them perform daily in the piazza.

Ishiguro's writing style is beautiful, and I started my morning five days in a row with a story a day. Each transported me to another time and place, and there were threads of repeated themes across the collection that I really enjoyed, too. It's a thoughtful, neat collection and even appealed to this self-confessed 'not a huge fan of short stories'.

February: A book by a writer from a minority group
Passing, Nella Larsen

I first heard of this book during my time at university, and picked up this copy online for about 50p. Since then, it's been sitting on my shelf. I'm so pleased this challenge finally gave me the push to pick it up, because I can now see exactly why it was described to us at university as being such an important novel. It feels particularly relevant as I write this only days after a Rachel Dolezel Newsnight interview, a woman 'passing' as black for many years.

In 1920s Harlem, Irene bumps into a childhood friend, Clare, who is 'passing for white', married to a racist husband. The secret threatens to deeply affect both woman. It's a very readable, short novel, covering race, gender, marriage, nostalgia and the complex friendships that exist between women. Building slowly to a shocking ending, it's a read that left me with food for thought.

March: A book by a female author
Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

Mansfield Park is one of the classics I've never got round to reading. I didn't cover it at school or university, and it's never jumped out to me as one I needed to get ticked off. Unfortunately, I wish I had stuck to that thought and chosen another option! Mansfield Park just was not my cup of tea. I love a lot of Austen, but this was my least favourite. It felt to me like it was full of all her lovely descriptions and observational brilliance, but with none of the excitement that carries some of her other novel forwards.

Fanny Price goes to live with her aunt and uncle, and this is the story of the household and those in and around it. It's a novel consumed by the ordinary and the everyday, and takes some patience. I loved and raced through the first 100 pages, enjoying Austen's familiar style, and it then picked up a little towards the end, but between those moments I wasn't convinced. It's a charming read, but was missing something, for me.

So far, so good. I read widely anyway, but I'm enjoying being forced to step a little out of my comfort zone, or being pushed to pick things up I've heard about before but have never made it to the top of me 'to read' pile.

A quarter of the way through the book challenge, I'm enjoying it and looking forward to what's coming next...

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Recipe Post #10: Garlic Courgette Bake with Pasta

One tasty - and very garlicky - meal I made for my mum and I ended up being a bit of an improvisation on the recipe I had found, but it went down a treat.

The original recipe was from the website, and was intended to serve six. Once the chopping was done, there didn't seem to be anywhere near those quantities, so we opted to serve the bake on top of pasta.

The result was a deliciously fresh pasta dish, bursting with tomatoes and full of garlic. 

The ingredients:
  • Pasta, to serve
  • 2 large courgettes, in chunks
  • 1 tsp chopped basil
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 large tomatoes, diced
  • half cup Parmesan, shredded
  • chopped parsley or basil, to top
  • salt & pepper, to taste

Add the tomatoes, courgettes, parmesan, garlic and basil into a large bowl and mix thoroughly - really get your hands in there.

Pour the contents into a baking dish and bake in the oven for 25 to 35 minutes, depending on how crunchy you want the courgette.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta to pack instructions, as usual.

Put the cooked pasta into a bowl, top with the courgette, tomato, garlicky goodness, and devour!

The quantities given above didn't leave us with too much left over, just a good lunch-sized portion, so double up if cooking for more than two.

Definitely another success, and a meal I'll be making again soon.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Beauty and the Beast

Spoiler alert: I'm joining the ranks of those who love the new Beauty and the Beast film.

I've got to say, after my initial excitement at the announcement a long time ago, I got slightly nervous about this remake. I'm one of millions of girls who adored Beauty and the Beast when I was younger, identifying with Belle's bookish ways and loving every song and dress.

I'm a big fan of the animated film and of the stage musical, so I wasn't quite sure where the new film would fit into that well-crafted world.

Let me dive right in and say that I loved Emma Watson as Belle. When she was first announced, I had my doubts, but after she'd been on screen a few minutes I was sold. I thought her voice suited the songs nicely, she played the part well and she looked absolutely beautiful, too. She also deserves credit for the fact she must have done a lot of her acting to empty screens and empty rooms, such as in the 'Be Our Guest' sequence, but she pulled that off pretty well.

Dan Stevens' Beast was also a success in my eyes. I enjoyed his singing, and the fact the Beast looked so human in many ways, especially facially. I thought the 'Something There' montage was really nicely done, and found the chemistry between Belle and the Beast believable.

Luke Evans and Josh Gad pulled off the double act of Gaston and LeFou brilliantly, and elicited all the laughs those roles deserve. Kevin Kline as Maurice was also a lovely bit of casting - I enjoyed his scenes very much.

The world of the castle was beautifully created, and visually was a real spectacle. The human-like qualities of the animate objects were done well, and the vocal work of the actors behind them really worked. A special mention goes to Ewan McGregor's French accent - I had no idea it was him until the end! The only one I was slightly disappointed by was Emma Thompson, who I think I thought would be the perfect Mrs Potts, so the fact she didn't blow me away left me a little let down. Having said that, there was nothing 'bad' about the performance.

And then to the overall 'feel' of the film. It had all the spirit and joy of the original animation, and group scenes such as 'Gaston' and 'Belle' were really just like watching the animated characters turn to life. The important moments were all there, like the reveal of the yellow dress and every song we know and love, with a few extra embellishments to add more depth to this new telling of the tale. It was nice to get some insight into what happened to Belle's mother (although I'm not sure I particularly liked the route it went down), and I liked the little addition of the villagers forgetting the castle and its inhabitants existed, leading to some emotional and comedic reunions at the end!

I came out of the cinema feeling like I had truly been whisked away and swept along in a magical story I've known for years. It's visually beautiful, carefully and lovingly made, and is definitely a version of the story I will be re-watching in the future.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Evita, The Lowry

Evita has arrived at The Lowry, and this current tour is unmissable.

I saw the show on tour about five or six years ago and loved it, but last night's production made the first I saw seem like an amateur performance.

The current touring cast give the show a whole new lease of life.

I came away with a whole new appreciation for the show; songs I had never been a huge fan of became some of my favourites, I noticed subtleties in the narrative I've never seen before and the casting was genius.

Evita tells the story of Eva Peron, a working class girl who worked her way up the ranks to become wife of Peron, and First Lady of Argentina.

The role of Eva is therefore an incredibly complex one, beginning as a 15 year-old girl full of dreams, rising to power and eventually meeting her death, due to cancer, at just 33. For an actress this would be impressive, but you've got to then add to that the fact she is a woman who manipulates everything around her, and plans and executes her life in an incredibly clever fashion. As an audience, you've got to believe the country adored her while also seeing her flaws. In previous versions I've seen, all I have taken away is the story of working girl to woman of the people.

Emma Hatton completed the role. For the first time, I felt I truly saw the whole character of Eva. She skilfully planned the life she desired, and she did it well. From the moment Hatton entered the stage she was flawless. As 15 year-old Eva, she was youthful and full of energy, not to mention a brilliant dancer. As the show progressed, she matured gracefully, fully embodying her role as Eva Duarte de Peron, leading her husband's rise to power.  Hatton's voice is unquestionably brilliant, but the way she controlled her vocal to chart the growth of her character was quite remarkable, She held back some of its full power until as late as mid-way through the second half, when she really let that full, rich voice take hold. 'Rainbow High' was absolutely phenomenal in this respect, and was one of my favourite songs of last night's performance. Before that, Hatton's 'Don't Cry for Me Argentina' had the whole audience enraptured; you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium.

In the final stages of the show, Hatton also mastered the art of 'singing really well while making it clear your character is dying', which is a tough one to get right, and 'You Must Love Me' had me in tears. Ending the show with 'Lament', post-death, Hatton had one final chance to showcase her Eva, and my goodness was it brilliant.

Stepping into the role of Che was Gian Marco Schiaretti, and he too blew me away. To begin with, his voice was absolutely stunning, and he never once let his character slip, whether that was in his stance, facial expressions, or through his words. He was a commanding presence on stage, and skillfully guided the narrative. It's another tough part, and I have never seen it executed as well as last night, on stage or screen. Every word was executed with purpose, and for the first time I really heard all of the words. For the first time, none of the little asides were lost on me, and Schiaretti added that depth of meaning to every single scene. 'High Flying Adored', which in the past I've found a little boring, was beautiful, and the climactic 'Waltz for Eva and Che' showed off both Hatton and Schiaretti superbly.

While I'm on a roll with writing about the songs I've not loved in the past but that my mind was changed about last night, Kevin Stephen-Jones most definitely deserves a mention. I would never have picked out 'She is a Diamond' as a highlight before, but he delivered this beautifully, and throughout the show I enjoyed his depiction of Peron.

One more solo I can't possibly not mention in a review of Evita is one of my long-time favourites, 'Another Suitcase in Another Hall'. It's an unusual moment, in some ways, to give such a significant song to a character only ever known as 'Peron's Mistress', but is one of the most brilliant songs in the show. Sarah O'Connor delivered the song perfectly, and the audience were completely swept away in it. Her voice had such a pure, beautiful tone, and it had all the impact that song deserves.

The ensemble, too, were slick and the choreography was brilliant. 'Buenos Aires' was a favourite in that regard, along with what is always a highlight of the show: 'Peron's Latest Flame'. The soldiers and ladies had perfect diction - not always a feat achieved in group numbers - and they elicited laughs from the audience in all the right places.

I think it's very clear to see I was impressed by the performance last night, and I would very happily go again tonight, and probably tomorrow, too.

The cast was flawless, the storytelling was expertly done, and the overall visual impact was a ten out of ten.

If you do get chance to see the show on its current tour, you really must. It's quite something.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Down Hall Hotel, Hertfordshire - Escaping Reality

This week we got the hotels booked for our next little adventure, which has set me off daydreaming about other weekend trips away I've had recently. 

It then hit me that I haven't yet shared on here about one of my favourite hotels from last year: Down Hall Hotel.

Set on the border of Hertfordshire and Essex, it's a beautiful country house hotel, in beautiful grounds.

The night away was meant to be an escape from reality, and from the moment we arrived, that's what it was.

On the approach to the hotel you feel like you're hidden away from anyone and anything, making it the perfect site to offer spa breaks. Although we weren't there for the spa on this trip, I'd definitely return for that version of a Down Hall stay.

The break fell in a period during late 2016 when I was really struggling. My depression and anxiety were extremely high, and I was struggling to cope with going through the motions of day-to-day life.

I was quiet, I was withdrawn, and it didn't help that I didn't even feel comfortable in the place I was living.

The night at Down Hall was a chance to escape, and it couldn't have been more perfect.

The room was huge and bright, with one of the most comfortable hotel beds I've ever stayed in.

The setting was so quiet - apart from a noisy half hour when our neighbours had visitors - and there was an overall feeling of comfort and luxury.

 Tucked away in that room, the outside world felt temporarily a long way away, and I could breathe.

It gave me a space to release some of my tension, unwind a little, and provide my brain with a soft pillow for a short while.

There was crying. Crying is actually one of the most effective releases for me when I'm at my most tense. But I was crying in a setting and in company where I knew every was ok.

I felt safe.

A room service dinner allowed me to carry on pretending there was no one else in the whole hotel, and breakfast the next morning was delicious, in a beautiful, calm dining room reflecting the rest of the experience.

Down Hall Hotel ranks up with one of my very favourites I've stayed in, and it provided me with a quiet sanctuary when I needed it most.

Next on my list is a return visit now I've made such vast improvements when it comes to my mental health, to fully immerse myself in and enjoy this brilliant hotel without the cloud of being unwell.

Ten out of ten, would highly recommend.

Down Hall, I'll be seeing you again.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Hedda Gabler, National Theatre Live

This week, I went along to my first National Theatre Live broadcast, and the 'theatre via cinema' experience is definitely one I will be repeating.

On Thursday evening, National Theatre Live beamed out 'Hedda Gabler' to cinemas nationally, and I took up my seat full of anticipation.

I first came across Hedda Gabler while studying GCSE drama, and it's been on my 'need to see' list ever since. Widely agreed to host one of the very best female dramatic leads, the casting of Ruth Wilson in the role had me intrigued and confident it would be an impressive performance of Ibsen's classic.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the 'theatre at the cinema' concept, and I think I had assumed a camera would be set up as if you were a member of the audience in the theatre itself.

In fact, the National Theatre Live experience is a completely separate experience all of its own. Yes, there are moments where you see the whole stage and are aware of the live audience, but through most of the play it's more like watching a film, just one performed live. The camera angles change regularly, and pivotal moments are zoomed in on. The broadcast had clearly been plotted out very carefully, and every camera movement skillfully built up the picture of the whole performance.

Although you didn't get the intimacy of being IN the auditorium, you experienced a different kind of intimacy. The opportunity to be right up close to a character in their most intense and dramatic moments added a whole new layer of experience to the production.

In addition to this, there are two short films to enjoy as a cinema audience. Just before the show was one about how the National Theatre commissions and develops works, and just before the second half was a short film featuring the director and actors, sort of a 'the making of' featurette.

I can't not mention the fact there was one slight technical blip - in a pivotal moment, just as Hedda is asked 'Where is the manuscript?' the screen went green. For about 3 or 4 minutes. I've got to admit this really broke the spell, and we were a bit gutted to have missed a few minutes, as it's not like a normal film where you could have picked up from where it cut out! However, it wasn't enough to really disrupt my overall enjoyment of the evening.

And the show itself?


I was completely captivated.

The show has been brought up to date, set in a sort of loft apartment, presented in a way that demonstrated the fact all the issues from Ibsen's original play are still applicable today. Ruth Wilson, in the short film at the interval, described the sense that instead of being trapped in a man's world, as is the common interpretation of the play, the characters were trapped within their own minds. This angle played out very well in the production.

Ruth Wilson's Hedda was flawless. She handled the boredom, passion and the manipulation of this woman with apparent ease, and she's such a striking presence on the stage it was hard to look away from her. I also thought her voice work was outstanding; a deep, commanding voice that flitted easily between apathy, annoyance, petulance and anger. I particularly enjoyed the scenes where she was alone on stage, where without words her every emotion was made clear.

Rafe Spall played a menacing Brack, who from his first moment on stage was an impressive figure. He embodied the 'playboy' role well, with a sinister edge, and his climactic scenes in the second half were truly intimidating and powerful. The Bloody Mary moment (I'll say no more in case you've got tickets booked to see the show) was particularly awful - in the best possible way.

I think my other favourite, if I were to give a top three, would by Mrs Elvstead, played by Sinead Matthews. When reading and studying the play I had always dismissed it as quite a boring part, as elements of her character just seem so simpering and pathetic. This is true to an extent, but Matthews fleshed out the character and we commented on the way home that it was easy to forget she was an actress at all; it was just Mrs Elvstead appearing before us. In body and voice she transformed into character fully, and really developed a part that could otherwise just pass an audience by as a storytelling vehicle.

Ivo Van Hove has really pulled it out of the bag with his direction of this production of Hedda Gabler. My expectations were high and they were surpassed, with brilliant staging, an accomplished cast, and a reframing of a story I thought I already knew.

Monday, 6 March 2017

The Recipe Post #9: Sausage and chickpea casserole

One meal that's gone down a treat in our house recently is this sausage casserole, adapted from a recipe on the Delicious Magazine website.

Packed with chickpeas and spinach, too, it's less like a traditional casserole and feels hearty but not too heavy.

The ingredients were:

  • olive oil (for the pan)
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 200ml chicken stock
  • 200g spinach
  • 6 pork sausages, cut into chunks
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 400g tin chopped tomatoes
  • 2 x 400g tins chickpeas, drained


Once you've got the list of ingredients, it's one of those great recipes where you can't really go wrong. Heat the oil and cook off the sausages, then set aside.

Throw the onions into the pan, and once they're on their way add the garlic, and you could throw in some herbs (the original recipe suggests thyme).

Add in the chopped tomatoes, chicken stock, browned sausages and chickpeas. Stir well, bring to a gentle simmer and cool for about 15 minutes until the sauce has reduced and thickened.

Throw in the spinach towards the very end - a staple in pretty much anything I make - season well, and serve.


This went down very well in our house, and is definitely something I'll be making again.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Novotel, London Brentford

At the end of January I went for the most wonderful weekend away, staying in London with a day trip to Oxford in the middle.

Part of the reason the weekend was so good was the two nights spent in the Novotel London Brentford hotel, and that's what I'm sharing about today.

I've stayed in a Novotel once before, in Liverpool, which was brilliant, so I had pretty high expectations.

After parking under the building you come up into a beautiful, spacious, high-ceilinged lobby. The design work is quirky, with a large seating/work area, Macs for guests use, and it opened back into the bar and restaurant.

Check-in was quick and easy, with the staff doing everything on iPads, and off we headed to the sixth floor.

The room was spacious and looked and felt brand new. The bed was big and comfortable, with a warm light around the headboard, and there were floor-to-ceiling windows with a sofa placed in front of them.

There was a large desk area and so much storage space.

The standout feature was the glass wall between the shower and main bedroom, which could be frosted over at the touch of a button.

It gave the room a really unique twist and made the whole room feel bigger and more open.

Every detail, like the unusual doors to the bathroom and the beautiful wood of the doors and furniture, had been carefully thought through to emulate a feeling of luxury.

We ended up eating in the hotel restaurant both nights, after a day of travelling and then a long day trip to Oxford. 

With some restaurants, this would be a problem, but the menu was extensive and offered all kinds of cuisine... which were actually done well!

From steak to pasta to curry, we were impressed.

The staff, too, more than deserve a mention. They were so warm and friendly, and remembered you at breakfast if they'd seen you the night before. 

There was building work going on in the restaurant, which I feel in many circumstances could have been a hindrance as they were able to use a much smaller area, but it just had no impact at all on my enjoyment eating there. That's saying something for me, because I'm usually sensitive to any kind of disruption, noise or distraction!

Breakfast offered the usual hotel spread of cooked and continental, and this was also done well. I wouldn't call it my favourite hotel breakfast - that still sits with the Ramada - but it wasn't far off.

Overall, the Novotel offered the perfect base for the weekend. I felt incredibly comfortable there, loved the room, the food and the staff, and wouldn't hesitate to return there or to another hotel in the chain.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Hidden Figures

I finally went to see Hidden Figures this Wednesday, and it did not disappoint.

The trailer had me hooked, and then I heard glowing review after glowing review from so many people I knew.

Hidden Figures has got the perfect ingredients:

  • a brilliant cast
  • based on true events
  • an inspiring, inspirational story
  • an interesting context - two, in fact. 1960s America in terms of segregation, and 1960s America in terms of the space race
  • great characters
  • some real heartwarming moments.

Hidden Figures tells the story of three African American women who played pivotal roles at NASA during the space program's early beginnings, but whom few people have heard of. Mathematicians, at the beginning of the film the women are 'computers', tucked away in a separate building, and the film tells of their rise through the ranks to fulfill their true potential, despite obstacles that could have held them back.

Set against the backdrop of the American civil rights movement, the film perfectly presented the reality in which these women were living, and reminded of the entrenched segregation of a period still within the lifetime of many of those viewing this film. One of the most brilliant moments of the film, in my opinion, is when Kirsten Dunst's character tells Dorothy 'I don't hate y'all'. Dorothy turns, with a smile, and says 'I know you think you don't.' 

Which moves me on to the three women playing the titular 'hidden figures', Dorothy (Octavia Spencer), Katherine (Taraj P. Henson) and Mary (Janelle Monae). As a trio, they steal the film instantly, with the car scene and the later scenes at a playful garden picnic outside their church. As individuals, each had a strong story and character, and each was celebrated in their rightful way.  thought all three were cast perfectly, and thought each story was well told.

Kevin Costner was another standout in this film, as Al Harrison. His character was both intimidating and accomplished, yet he was arguably one of the first to open his eyes to the fact Katherine was needed and valuable to his team. I particularly enjoyed his dealing with the toilet situation, which I won't go into here in case anyone hasn't seen it yet...

Alongside all of this, I found the space race context fascinating, and particularly the role of maths and geometry. As my dad said on our way out, you could see the appeal of being a mathematician (we both studied English Literature at uni!) when it's applied in ways like that. Seeing inside the workings of early NASA and the space race was so interesting, and I do find the whole idea of space travel captivating. The idea of this being the world and the context that brought together these characters who in the world outside of NASA were not treated as equals really added to the whole feel of the film.

Overall, it was easily one of my favourite films I've seen for a long time. There were laugh out loud moments, tender moments, outrageous moments and yes, I shed a few tears.

I left the cinema feeling inspired, and full of the stories I had just seen play out in front of me. 

Definitely a film I'll be seeing again.

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