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Black Swan Green is a fictional village in Worcestershire where in 1982, 13 year old Jason Taylor lives with his parents and sister. This book, narrated by Jason, tells the story of a year in his life. It’s a tumultuous year – Jason is clearly intelligent and sensitive,  but he’s also a young boy with a stammer, picked on at school and unable to pick up the subtle hints of disharmony in his parents’ marriage.

But Black Swan Green is also a very funny book, in parts anyway. Jason is an engaging narrator and entirely believable. The events he describes are things that we will all be familiar with and take on huge significance in a young mind. It’s less of a flowing story, more joined up snapshots of a year in the life. Each chapter concentrates on a different main event, but they all string together nicely.

I felt for Jason, partly because he was so believable. I wanted him to be able to go to school without fear of what the bullies would do next (and boy did I want those bullies to get their comeuppance). I wanted him to get the girl, to overcome his stutter (or more importantly overcome the misery it caused him). The other characters are beautifully drawn as well – I enjoyed the chapter about his visiting cousin Hugo – handsome, charming and loved by all, but who’s true colours are revealed, to Jason at least.

As someone who was also a teenager in the 1980s, this book resonated with me and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I highly recommend it for it’s humour, truth and beautiful writing.

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There can’t be many theatre goers who have not at least heard of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical Evita, which tells the story of Argentine First Lady Eva Peron. And surely any musicals fan worth their salt knows the shows most famous song, Don’t Cry For Me Argentina. I saw my first production of this musical back in 2013; I went to see it pretty much on a whim and was absolutely blown away by it, so when I heard that another production of the show was touring, I just knew I had to see it.

In this particular production, Emma Hatton – fresh from the West End production of Wicked – takes the title role and Gian Marco Shiaretti has been making waves with his excellent performance as the cynical narrator Che.

However, during the performance that we saw, Che was played by understudy Matias Stegmann – and he certainly did not disappoint!! With arguably the largest part in the whole play, tasked with relating Eva’s story to the audience while maintaining a healthy cynicism about how effective she actually was in her role of First Lady, Matias Stegmann radiated star quality – he had a beautiful voice and the charisma required for the role and I will be looking out for this actor in the future.

Emma Hatton as Evita was also superb throughout – her voice is second to none and her rendition of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina actually moved me to tears. This is the song that the audience was waiting for and she did not disappoint – as she stood on the balcony ready to begin, you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium. What pressure!! I must also mention Sarah O’Connor, who played Juan Peron’s girlfriend (ousted when the social climbing and ambitious Eva came on the scene) and who performed the beautiful Another Suitcase Another Hall wonderfully. Such a sweet sweet voice – another one to look out for in future. Kudos also to Kevin Stephen-Jones as Juan Peron. Peron himself is actually not a major role in the play, but Stephen-Jones nevertheless stood out in the part.

With beautiful music and a stellar cast, this show is one to look out for – if you get chance, I highly highly recommend that you go and see it!

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Click here for my review of the 2013 production of Evita

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Leap Year (2010)

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After four years of dating with no proposal, Anna (Amy Adams) is fed up of waiting. So when boyfriend Jeremy (Adam Scott) is working in Dublin during Leap Year, she decides to take advantage of an old tradition and travel from Boston to Ireland to propose. But the plane gets diverted and she has to rely on surly Irishman Declan (Matthew Goode) to get her to Dublin. Although they detest each other on sight, she needs the transport and he needs the money, and well…you can probably guess the rest…

Okay, so lets be honest – the ending of this film is pretty predictable. You only really need to read the synopsis to guess how things turn out, and that is usually the case with romantic comedies. But in this case, the journey – both for the characters and the viewers – is so much fun that you just don’t care. Personally I loved this movie. I thought it was genuinely funny – there’s lots of slapstick humour and physical comedy – and there was genuine chemistry between the two main stars. I’ve read other reviews of this film and it does seem to be something of a Marmite movie, where people either love or hate it, and I definitely fall into the love territory. The comedy moments were genuinely comedic and the romance scenes were genuinely romantic. Amy Adams is adorable as Anna, in a role that could have just been plain annoying but in which she injected enough sympathy to make us actually like this young woman. Matthew Goode was also excellent as Declan – his accent slipped a couple of times, but only a couple.

If you like rom-coms, I would highly recommend this film. Give it a go, I doubt you will be disappointed.

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Year of release: 2010

Director: Anand Tucker

Writers: Deborah Kaplan, Harry Elfont

Main cast: Amy Adams, Matthew Goode, Adam Scott

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This book introduces The Honourable Phryne Fisher, Lady Detective – except to those of us who discovered Phryne through the television series adapted from the books. Having loved the show, I decided to start reading the books and see how they compared.

In this first Miss Fisher novel, Phryne catches a thief at a dinner party and a couple there are so taken with her quick thinking and detection that they ask her to travel from her home in London to her native Australia; they believe that their daughter Lydia is being poisoned by her husband and wish Phryne to investigate. However, when Phryne arrives she discovers that things are far more complicated than they first seem, and also gets involved with tracking down an illegal abortionist. Busy she may be, but our indefatigable detective also manages to find time for a fling with a Russian dancer!

This book was highly enjoyable in many ways – Kerry Greenwood has an amusing turn of phrase and is very good at picking the humour out of any situation and relaying it to the reader. Given the subjects covered in the book, this is no mean feat! In all honesty the plot is a little bit clunky and gets a bit tied up in itself – it felt like there was maybe a bit too much going on, and the poisoning case was actually less interesting than the search for the illegal abortionist. However, it is the first book in the series and does a good job of introducing us to several characters who (as viewers of the show will know) become regulars in the storylines; Phryne’s maid Dot; the two cab drivers Bert and Cec; and of course Detective Inspector Jack Robinson – although for those viewers liked me who adored the chemistry between Phryne and Jack, well sorry to disappoint but there is absolutely no romance between the two in the book series, and Jack is actually very different to his on-screen incarnation.

Phryne Fisher is a delightfully almost-but-not-quite over the top creation, with charm and more than a touch of impish sauciness. Based on the first book, I can only say that despite it’s flaws, I’m really looking forward to reading more in the series.

A Dash of Love (2017)

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Well, I don’t mind admitting that I am a bit of a sucker for this type of film. Going in, you know what you’re getting, and they are undemanding and entertaining. Perfect in fact after a busy day at work, when you just want something to make you smile and relax. Yes, sometimes you want something deep and that requires concentration and of course some people absolutely hate rom-coms, but if you like them, then you could do a lot worse than check out A Dash of Love.

The story revolves around a self-taught chef named Nikki (Jen Lilley) who loses her job when her boss at the local diner retires. She eventually finds work as a PA for her idol, celebrity chef Holly Hansen (Peri Gilpin) but finds that Holly is not quite the boss she would have hoped for (basically the saying that you should never meet your heroes rings very true here).

However, the job does have one perk – executive chef Paul (Brendan Penny). After the initial awkward first meeting (traditional in this kind of film), they end up hitting it off and – you won’t be surprised to hear – end up starting to fall for each other. And when things start to go wrong for Holly in her job, Paul is there to help her.

I thought the lead characters in this were utterly charming and the acting was fine. There was genuine chemistry between the Nikki and Paul, and Peri Gilpin was also excellent as Holly Hansen.

Okay, so this made for television movie is never going to win any awards and it’s not going to change the future of film – but if you want something light and fluffy which will leave you with a smile on your face, you could do a lot worse than give this a whirl.

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Year of release: 2017

Director: Christie Will

Writers: Judith Berg, Sandra Berg, Sib Ventress

Main cast: Jen Lilley, Brendan Penny, Peri Gilpin, Kandyse McClure, Frances Flanagan, Eric Pollins

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Nazneen is born in Bangladesh, the eldest of two sisters, and from the very first page we learn that she is taught to leave things to fate. So when at the age of sixteen her father arranges for her to marry a man over twice her age and move to London to be with her husband, Nazneen accepts it and does what is required. The book covers her life in London from when she moves there in the 1980s, up until the early 2000s. Initially Nazneen cannot speak more than a couple of words of English and so relies on her husband for everything – but it becomes clear that while her husband Chanu is not cruel, he is a pathetic and ineffectual man with big dream and small achievements. He is always just on the verge of something – a new business, a great promotion – but it never actually materialises.

Nazneen forges some friendships, most notably with a lady named Razia, and as she learns to cope in this new country, she also finds strength within herself and ends up falling in love with a young radical, who is at least as unsuitable for her as her husband, if not more so.

I really enjoyed this book, even though it took me a while to read it – but I think it is a book that deserves time and attention. Ali is so observant and so wonderfully descriptive that you really feel immersed in Nazneen’s world, although I could never begin to imagine what her life must feel like. But any reader will certainly recognise the relationships and social politics at work, and the interplay between characters. The book opened my eyes to an immigrant’s experience, and certainly the description of life after September 11th was eye opening, with many people viewing all Muslims with suspicion and hatred. Another surprise was the humour which Ali employs in her descriptions. She has a remarkably funny turn of phrase which made me smile often throughout the story, even when the events described were not funny at all.

A fair part of the book was taken up with letters from Nazneen’s younger sister Hasina, still in Bangladesh, who disgraced her family at a young age by running away to get married to man she chose rather than one who was chosen for her. The marriage didn’t work, but the letters make it clear that Hasina, unlike Nazneen, refused to leave her life to fate and wanted to make her own choices instead, for better or for worse.

I loved the ending of this book – I won’t spoil it for anyone, but I do feel it gave hope for Nazneen’s future. Overall, I would say that while this was the first book I have read by this author, it certainly will not be the last.

Pumpkin Pie Wars (2016)

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If you’re looking for a film that challenges you, surprises you and throws lots of twists at you…yeah, you’re going to need to look elsewhere. This film is exactly what you’re going to expect it to be, and you’ll know it from the first 20 minutes. BUT, that’s something that you tend to find with rom-coms – it’s not the ending that gets you, it’s the journey that takes you there. And as entertaining journeys go, this one is not half bad. I watched this on a Saturday night, after a busy week, when I wanted something undemanding and not in any way distressing to watch. If that’s what you want too, then this film is ideal.

Former best friends Faye and Lydia (Michele Scarabelli and Jennifer Juniper Angeli) have been at loggerheads for the past ten years, opening rival bakeries in Emeryville, Ohio, and competing against each other in the annual pumpkin pie contest. In the latest contest they decide that their children Casey and Sam (Julie Gonzalo and Eric Aragon) should take over their roles, compete against each other and pass the feud down to the next generation. But Casey and Sam start to fall for each other, and can’t reveal their romance for fear of upsetting their mothers.

I liked the film a lot, because I knew what it was going to be when I started it, and that was exactly what I needed. Yes, it’s predictable and a bit contrived, but it does have a particular charm that kept me watching. Julie Gonzalo was lovely as Casey and I could definitely identify with her lack of culinary skills! Eric Aragon was less convincing as Sam but this didn’t really detract from my enjoyment. What can I say? I like rom-coms, I like knowing what’s going to happen and I like a happy ending.

Overall, an enjoyable but totally unsurprising movie. Perfect for those nights when you want something entertaining that doesn’t take too much brain work!

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Year of release: 2016

Director: Steven R. Monroe

Writer: Nina Weinman

Main cast: Julie Gonzalo, Eric Aragon, Michele Scarabelli, Jennifer-Juniper Angeli

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