Books of the Months – June and July 2012


Once again I’ve managed to lose a month in my chronicle of books read. So no further blathering, on with the post.
A Madness of Angels, The Midnight Mayor, The Neon Court and The Minority Council by Kate Griffin

This is a series, or sequence, of four urban fantasy novels set in London. They focus on formerly-dead sorcerer Matthew Swift, who has returned both more and less than human and seems to keep getting caught up in battles where the fate of London may be at stake.  These are not nice books.  Very few of the characters are particularly pleasant, and nasty things happen to lots of people.  But the plots and ideas are intriguing, the allegiances of the various parties are never 100% predictable and although you rarely warm to any of the characters, you soon find yourself wanting to read more about them.  I enjoyed the first two books a great deal, and the later two not quite so much, but I definitely thought they were worth reading and I’d certainly return to the world of Matthew Swift again, if only to read more about Kelly, a wonderful character introduced late in the series.  I’m also intrigued to investigate the books written under the author’s real name, Catherine Webb.

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

A darkly comic novel about a writer/professor who is pretty much washed up in all aspects of his life.  It somehow manages to weave together a bizarre collection of characters and objects – a tuba, a boa constrictor, a dead dog and more – into a nightmarish weekend in which things go from awful to so much worse at a rapid pace.  It has been filmed, but I don’t think I could bear to watch it – I’d need a cushion to hide behind to stop excessive cringing as the main character makes stupid mistake after stupid mistake.

A Man of Parts by David Lodge

June’s book group book and a bit of a disappointment.  A novel about the fascinating H.G. Wells sounds like an excellent idea, and I had previously enjoyed Lodge’s novels about the fictional (but worryingly realistic) University of Rummidge.  However, after a promising start, I soon went off this novel.  There is far too much emphasis on Wells’ sex life for my liking and far too often the glimpses onto his political life and writing habits were cut short in order to focus on his bedroom.  I’m sure this is fascinating for many people, but not for me.  It did remind me that I’ve only ever read Wells’ ‘scientific romances’, though, so I’ll be tracking down some of his other works.

Active Learning Techniques for Librarians: Practical Examples by Andrew Walsh and Padma Inala

I have been wanted to develop the teaching sessions which I run in various ways, and one of these is that I want to vary the ways I involve the students in their learning.  I already try to get them doing the things I’m trying to teach them as much as possible, but was looking for some ways to vary this.  The book is, as the title implies, full of practical ideas for activities and lessons which involve much more than the students listening to or watching the librarian.  Some involve web 2.0 tools, some involve the use of mobile technology and others are extremely low tech.  I found the book really useful, bot just for the specific ideas it contains, but also to spur me on to think about other ways I can make information literacy learning more active.

The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

July’s book group book, and this one was an absolute joy.  Written in 1908, it is the story of two sisters who live very different lives, following them from childhood through to death.  It is not a rip-roaring page-turner, but it is utterly absorbing, drawing you in to the two women’s lives and painting them as absolutely real people.  They are simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, as are the events around them.  The world changes, but in many ways they do not, and their stubborn pride is both exasperating and admirable.  I wanted to savour every page and I am so glad it was suggested for the group.  This is a remarkable book, and Arnold Bennett has now been added to the list of authors I need to read more of.  A list which seems to get longer every month!

The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

This was a re-read, as I am about to start rehearsals for a new musical based on the story, playing Utterson, and wanted to remind myself of the original.  It still holds up well, even if there is no longer any suspense at all about the ending.  The morality of the tale is far from black and white.  Indeed, it is rather unsettling to consider the concept of good versus evil in the context of this ‘case’.  Is Jekyll really as ‘good’ as he would believe?  I suspect this short book will continue to inspire film, theatre and television writers for many decades to come.

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A bit of a mixture there, as ever, including two very different book group books. Without any shadow of a doubt, The Old Wives’ Tale is my pick of the month(s).  It’s not an exciting read, it’s not a quick read, but it is the most rewarding novel I’ve read in quite some time.

Mountains and molehills


I have various talents in life, and one of them is an amazing ability to make a huge mountain out of the smallest of molehills.  This is most evident on stage – a case in point being Guys and Dolls.

I performed in Guys and Dolls last month, playing Nicely Nicely Johnson (otherwise known as “you know, the one who sings ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat'”).  Things went really rather well, if the audience’s reaction is anything to go by, but there was one particular night which allowed me to demonstrate my mountain-making talents in addition to performing.

Things began well with the ‘Fugue for Tinhorns’, but in the dialogue after that, something very unusual happened.  I dropped a line.  I was so busy reacting to what the character Nathan had just said, that I momentarily forgot that I was supposed to say something.  Luckily, he covered for me by  adding a reaction comment of his own, which allowed me time to recover and come back in with the line.  Hardly earth-shattering, but as I have a reputation for knowing not only my lines, but everyone else’s as well, certainly noticeable to cast and crew, and cause for much self-annoyance.  Already cross with myself for this momentary lapse of concentration, I then managed to annoy myself further in the number ‘Guys and Dolls’, which has a dance break half way through.  At one point in this break, I managed to get a beat or so out of time, so that it looked as though myself and my duet partner were in canon with each other rather than in synch.  I doubt the audience would have noticed (when there are only two of you dancing, moments like that can be got away with to an extent), and I soon got back in to it, but I was still mightily annoyed with myself afterwards.

The Singing Librarian as Nicely Nicely Johnson, surrounded by the gamblers.

These little things, and a couple of others (also things which the audience would not have noticed and most people would just shrug off), began to mount up during the evening until we got to ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’.  This is surely the best song in the show, and was great fun to perform, but on that night it wasn’t quite so enjoyable.  At the start of the third verse, I had to leap up on to some benches.  As I did so, my subconscious decided this would be a good time to inform my conscious mind of something – that my costume for the finale of the show was in my dressing room.  Not a problem, you might think.  However, it wasn’t supposed to be there.  It was supposed to be in a quick change room by the stage to ensure that I had time to change costume, put on my tap shoes and strap on a bass drum.  The thought of having to dash down to the dressing room, which would involve going through about 5 doors and down the stairs, was not a fun one.  For a moment, it distracted me and I stumbled over the first line of the verse.  By the fourth word (laughed, if you need to know such things) I had recovered, and carried on as before.  However, I was exceptionally annoyed with myself, and it did worry some other people as well.  One of the ladies in the chorus said she thought I might not sing the verse at all, the musical director was rather concerned, and one of my fellow gamblers reported that I suddenly went deathly pale at that moment, which must have been quite alarming for him.

With the song and the scene over, I was fuming at myself, annoyed about all the small mistakes I’d made, annoyed that I had forgotten to take my costume up to the quick change room, and particularly annoyed that I had let this distract me on stage, even for a moment.  As soon as we were able to move, I dashed off towards the dressing room.  I managed to collide with two other gamblers on the way, then fall over on my way down the stairs.  I managed to get back in time for the drum, but by that point was extremely frustrated with myself and just wanted the evening to be over and done with.  As I checked, in a very flustered way, that all the buttons on my costume were done up, I accidentally worried another of the guys in the cast, who thought I was on the brink of a heart attack, and knew that a bass drum strapped to me would not make dealing with this very easy.

After the show, I was simply mortified.  Small mistakes which with hindsight I can see hardly anyone would have noticed, had assumed monstrous size in my mind, and I felt that I had let everyone down due to not living up to my reputation.  The mistakes probably amounted to five seconds of stage time in total, if that, but to me that was more than enough to make the performance a disaster.  I have since been assured that it really wasn’t, and I did soon realise that a little perspective was rather necessary.  Mountains and molehills.

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Related posts :

Books of the Month – May 2012


This has been a month where I haven’t really managed to read very much, and I’m not at all sure why. But what I have read has been worth reading.

Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn

Set on Fleet Street during the middle of the 20th century, this book is both highly amusing and rather sad.  It shows the newspaper industry at the end of it golden years, seen through the eyes of a few characters who work in an insignificant department, responsible for dreaming up crosswords and similarly cutting-edge parts of their publication (though they, of course, believe themselves to be dynamic journalists).  The characters are all deeply flawed, and Frayn draws them in such a way that you laugh at them, then are moved to feel sympathetic for them, even John Dyson, the pompous fool who is trying to make his name on television.  The disastrous press trip to the Persian Gulf which takes up much of the final few chapters of the book is a masterpiece of farcical writing.  An intriguing glimpse into a different time and world, this novel is decidedly worth reading.

Identity Theft by John Andrews

With the subtitle ‘Finding the missing person in you’, this is a Christian book about personal identity – both the general identity of a Christian as a child of God and individual identity.  This latter aspect is welcome, as a lot of Christian writing seems to imply that we are all turned out of the same mould and should be a homogeneous mass of identikit people.  This book sets out the reasons, both Biblical and otherwise, why this shouldn’t be the case, and encourages the readers to acknowledge both aspects of their identity.  I found the book challenging and encouraging, and have gone back to the beginning to read it again in the hope that I’ll actually remember what’s written here and live it out.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

This month’s book group book (though yet again I missed book group night).  I have seen the stage musical based on the book before and caught a mixed adaptation on television recently, but had never got round to reading it.  I didn’t find it one of Dickens’ best books, to be honest, though perhaps my feelings would have been different if he had finished the story before he died.  The chief problem is that the characters do not, for the most part, feel quite so vitally alive as his characters normally do.  Some of them, particularly Mrs Crisparkle and Durdles, are beautifully described, but there is a spark missing.  The big question of the book is this – what is the mystery?  Dickens made it clear in some letters that the obvious suspect is indeed the culprit, and all the clues are laid out quite clearly (for the reader if not for any of the characters yet).  So for me the mystery is how the guilty party will be brought to justice or who the disguised detective Dick Datchery really is (my money is on Bazzard, though that is again the obvious choice).  The mystery could be unravelled if everyone sat down and talked to each other, as each person holds a vital clue, but the likelihood of getting  such different people as Rosa Budd and Princess Puffer in the same room would be rather unlikely.  Reading Dickens is never a bad thing, but there are definitely better ones out there.  Oddly, leaving the novel midway doesn’t seem hugely frustrating.

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So not the most impressive list of reads this month.  In terms of impact, Identity Theft has been my most valued read, but Towards the End of the Morning wins in terms of enjoyment.

Mental Health Awareness Week


About once a fortnight on Facebook, at least one of my Friends will run a status update beginning with the words “This week is Mental Health Awareness Week”.  These posts will then remind everyone to be aware of mental health issues in some way, offering a call to end the stigma often attached to conditions which affect the mind.  I was not convinced that all of these weeks could possibly be Mental Health Awareness Week, and a little research showed that in the UK, the week beginning 21st May is the 2012 week of that name, at least according to the Mental Health Foundation and the NHS. Hence this post.

One side of my family has a history of mental illness, and I am no exception to this.  I have written about it before, but not for quite some time, and I think perhaps this is something I should be more open about, so this Week seems like a sensible time to mention it again.  Over the years I have found that others who know that I have these issues have felt able to come and talk to me about their own struggles with mental health, whether temporary or ongoing.  I am not always able to give them any sensible advice, but sharing our experiences seems to help both parties.

The theme of the week for 2012 is that doing good is good for you – random (or not so random) acts of kindness can be just as good for the doer as the receiver.  It is most definitely true that what you do has a big effect on how you feel, whether you have a recognised mental health condition or not.  The intent is not so much to raise awareness of mental illness, but to help everyone learn more about how to improve their own mental health and wellbeing.  Previous years have had a focus on anger, fear and loneliness, all of which affect everyone to a greater or lesser extent.  It will be interesting to see how widely publicised the week is and how much it encourages people to engage with its ideas.

Although the Facebook status updates mentioned at the start of this post are not all accurate in terms of dates, they do offer a glimpse of reality.  For those who have a mental health condition, every week is automatically Mental Health Awareness Week.  In my case, sometimes I’m mostly OK, sometimes I’m really not, but it would be very rare for a whole week going by without something happening to remind me that the chemicals in my brain are out of balance.  Whether it is unwanted thoughts, a loss of appetite and energy, unprovoked tears or even minor visual or (more likely) auditory hallucinations, something or some things will remind me, even on a good week, of the negative things my brain can get up to, making every week an awareness week in a quite different sense.

Books of the month(s) – March and April 2012


With apologies for missing a month, just in case there’s someone out there who has been waiting anxiously to find out what I’ve been reading recently.  Given that this post covers two months, it is surprising in some ways that it isn’t extraordinarily long.  On the other hand, the reason for that is one Monsieur Dumas.  So, in order of completion :

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Back to Titanic


On Thursday, this being the centenary week of the sinking of RMS Titanic, I travelled up to Bromley after work to watch West Wickham Operatic Society’s great production of Titanic the musical.

Titanic the Musical.  Sounds crass, doesn’t it?  Those three words conjure images of flying icebergs, substandard cover versions of Celine Dion and the horrifying possibility of a tap dance to the strains of Wallace Hartley’s band.

Thankfully, none of these things form part of this show, and strangely it is not just a show I enjoyed watching, it’s one of the shows I’m proudest of having appeared in.  First performed on Broadway in 1997, Titanic has music by Maury Yeston and a script by Peter Stone.  It features dozens of named characters – all bar one of them actually sailed  on the great ship’s fateful voyage.  The ‘star’ is the entire company, and nobody’s heart goes on.  At least, not in so many words.

I had the great fortune to perform in Titanic during November 2008, playing the character of Harold Bride, one of the telegraph operators on the ship.  I was one of a privileged few members of the cast who only played one character (some, even with well over 50 people on stage, were obliged to take on 3 or more roles), and he was a character I came to love.  We were encouraged to research the people we were playing, which made the rehearsal process more educational than for your standard show!  We all knew where the authors had deviated from a totally accurate portrayal of events in service of dramatic effectiveness, and as we truly appreciated the reality of the people we were portraying, more than a few tears were shed in rehearsal.

The scale of the show is huge, following characters from all three classes on the ship as well as a number of crewmen from captain to stoker, chief steward to bellboy.  Each has their hopes and dreams, each has their own way of speaking.  Despite the parade of characters, the audience is somehow never lost and the wide focus makes it clear that this show is not about one or two passengers, but about the ship and all who sailed on her.  Although much of the dialogue is laden with irony due to the audience knowing what’s coming, it never descends into spoof and instead of being crass it serves as a memorial to the great ship and all who sailed on her.  Their hopes and dreams, their strengths and weaknesses, their failures, their heroism and above all their humanity.

The voyage of RMS Titanic is a legend.  This year, there will be many productions of the musical around the world.  Don’t be put off.  Go.  The music is majestic, the ensemble singing is amazing and the show pays homage to those who were lost without being over-sentimental.  There simply is no better dramatisation of these events.

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My posts from the time of the show :

Books of the month – February 2012


A smaller collection of books this month if you compare it to the January 2012 selection.  However, by the end of February, I was one third of the way through The Count of Monte Cristo as well.  That one really is going to take quite some time to finish!

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