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As a teenager, Theo Decker survives a terrorist attack in a museum, which kills his beloved mother. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Theo makes a split second decision and steals a painting which his mother always loved – The Goldfinch. This incident, and indeed the painting itself, sets the course for his life – a life which as a reader, we join him on as he makes friends and enemies, makes bad decisions which reverberate for years, falls in love and in lust, and eventually gets mixed up in the criminal underworld.

Well, this is a brick of a book – coming in at over 850 pages of smallish font – if I’m honest, the size of it put me off reading it for a while, but once I picked it up I was glad I had done so. After reading it, I did what I usually do when finishing a book and went online to read reviews of it. What struck me the most was that it seems to be a very polarising read – people generally loved it or hated it. It certainly seems to be the least well received of all of Donna Tartt’s offerings, and this is good news for me, because if this is the worst she has to offer, then I definitely look forward to reading the best! I enjoyed the book a lot, especially the first two thirds, which cover Theo’s teenage years. It’s fair to say that not all of the characters are particularly likeable (except for Hobie, Theo’s guardian of sorts, who is just adorable), but they are all beautifully drawn and utterly believable.

The writing is elegant and often beautiful – Tartt uses a lot of words to describe the most mundane and ordinary events, and while this can be annoying with some authors (just get to the point!!) here it works really well, because it is just such a pleasure to read lovely prose. The story is told in the first person from Theo’s point of view, which is good because if we had seen Theo from the outside in, I think he would have been much harder to like or understand.

If I’m honest, I did think that the last part of the book paled in comparison to what had gone before, but it still held my attention and at the end, I came away satisfied.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book – don’t be put off by the size…while the story doesn’t always move particularly quickly, the writing does draw you in. I look forward to reading more by Donna Tartt.

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Set (mainly) in Calcutta in 1971, this book tells of a time immediately before the Bangladesh Liberation War between India and Pakistan. A number of Western travellers have found themselves at the Lux Hotel, which in reality is a shabby fleapit. Among those who are in Calcutta at this historic time are Anand, the young man who runs the hotel, such as it is; Larry and Gordon, two would-be hippies who spend most of their time smoking dope and in Gordon’s case searching for the elusive meaning of life; Britt, an American photographer; Hugh, a philandering English journalist; and Freddie, an enigmatic young eccentric.

Despite the war, life is pretty laid back for most of these characters, with shared histories and complicated entanglements taking up most of their time – that is until two murders shake up their world. It will take more than 30 years for the truth behind the murders to come to light – and in the meantime, life marches on…

This book had been languishing on my shelf for about eight years, and I eventually picked it up more out of curiosity than anything. It turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. It depicts fictional characters against a factual backdrop, and while some of the characters might be slightly stereotyped, they are all distinct and interesting (if not all likeable – frankly Hugh was pretty detestable). The story was both interesting and amusing, and I was kept guessing  until the very end. I particularly liked how, through a series of letters and news reports, the time frame was brought up to 2003.

The India/Pakistan war was clearly well researched, but while it was almost a character in its own right, it did not dominate the storyline and did not detract from the interaction between the characters.

Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable story and I would thoroughly recommend it.

 

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When their friend Cookie (Thandi Newton) overdoses after using heroin for the first time, musicians Spoon (Tupac Shakur) and Stretch (Tim Roth) decide it’s time to kick their addiction, get into a government rehab program and finally get clean. However, it is easier said than done, as their good intentions are thwarted by bureaucracy and red tape at every turn. Not only that, but a local drug lord (Vondie Curtis-Hall) has it in for them, and staying one step ahead of him is not easy…

I watched this film purely because Tim Roth is in it, and honestly I was just expecting a fairly enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours. From the outset though, this film exceeded all my expectations and I would probably now put it in my top ten films of all time.

It’s a comedy, and there were several scenes which made me laugh out loud. That said, it’s definitely not a light-hearted comedy – there’s a serious point to be made about how hard it is to get help for addiction (bearing in mind this film is nearly 20 years old, I can not be sure how realistic it is nowadays), and there is a lot of violence, albeit most of it does take place off-screen.

Although there are a lot of characters, it’s basically Tim Roth and Tupac Shakur’s film. I knew Tim Roth would be great, because…well, he ALWAYS is – and he was – but I have never seen Tupac’s acting before, and I was really surprised by how talented he was. Often when singers turn to acting, the results are less than stellar, but Tupac brought just the right about of comedy and angst to the role. He and Tim Roth bounced off each other perfectly, with Stretch (Roth) being the more wild and impulsive character, while Spoon (Shakur) was the one attempting to keep him in line.

Kudos too to Vondie Curtis-Hall as D-Reper, the drug lord who Spoon and Stretch found themselves on the wrong side of – Curtis-Hall also wrote and directed this film, so he is obviously a multi-talented man.

If you are not offended by swearing or drug references, I would definitely recommend this film. I give it a solid 10 out of 10.

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Year of release: 1997

Director: Vondie Curtis-Hall

Writer: Vondie Curtis-Hall

Main cast: Tim Roth, Tupac Shukar, Thandie Newton, Vondie Curtis-Hall

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After ruining her sister’s wedding and crashing a limousine, Gwen Cummings (Sandra Bullock) is sentenced to 28 days in a rehab centre, to work through her alcohol and drug dependency.  Initially resistant to the idea, Gwen eventually realises that she does have a problem, and starts to re-examine her life.

I admit that much as I like Sandra Bullock, I expected this film to be riddled with cliches, and only watched it because Dominic West is in it, and that in itself makes a film worth watching!  However, the film itself was a pleasant surprise.  Sandra Bullock, who is usually so likeable and sweet, played the part of Gwen really well, and the process of coming to accept and learn how to beat her demons did not unfold at the breakneck speed which I anticipated.  Having never been in a rehab centre, I cannot truthfully say how realistic it was, but it felt believable.

West plays Gwen’s boyfriend Jasper, who is almost certainly as dependant on drugs and alcohol as she is, but not being the one who is sentenced to rehab, does not take any time to look at his own life.  If there is a villain of the piece, he is probably it, but in truth, Jasper is not so much a bad person, as irresponsible and unrealistic about what a sober life means for Gwen.  I thought West did a very good job in a not especially likeable role.  Viggo Mortensen also provided great support as Eddie, a professional baseball player who is also in rehab, and Steve Buscemi was excellent (if slightly under-used) in an uncharacteristically sombre role as a counsellor at the centre.

The story bounced along nicely, and there were a few genuinely moving moments (I definitely had tears in my eyes a couple of times).  The only character who I felt was over-the-top, and who seemed to be there only to provide comic relief was Gerhardt (Alan Tudyk) as an apparently sex-obsessed fellow patient.  Although his monologue about forks in the road and forks in general was quite funny – more so when you realise that Tudyk actually improvised that scene.

Overall, well worth watching – it’s an entertaining, sometimes moving film, with a great cast.

Year of release: 2000

Director: Betty Thomas

Producers: Jenno Topping, Celia Costas

Writer: Susannah Grant

Main cast: Sandra Bullock, Viggo Mortensen, Dominic West, Azura Skye, Steve Buscemi, Alan Tudyk, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Margo Martindale

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This film tells the story of the life of Johnny Cash, covering the years from 1944, when he was a young boy working on his father’s farm, until his groundbreaking concert at Folsom State Prison in 1968.  The film concentrates on Cash’s rise to fame, and addiction to drugs, and his relationships with his first wife Viv, and his second wife, country singer June Carter (later June Carter Cash).

Johnny Cash personally approved Joaquin Phoenix to portray him (having apparently enjoyed Phoenix’s role in Gladiator) and June Carter Cash approved Reese Witherspoon to portray her.  (Sadly both Johnny and June died before the film was released.)  I thought that both Phoenix and Witherspoon were terrific.  Both were nominated for an Oscar for their performances in this film, and Witherspoon actually won.  (Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Best Actor award, beating both Phoenix, and Heath Ledger for his role in Brokeback Mountain.  Personally, I would have loved either Phoenix or Ledger to have won.)

What is quite amazing is that both the leads learned how to play the instruments which Johnny and June Cash played, and they also performed all the singing themselves.  And frankly, I thought they nailed it.  Phoenix may be a reluctant star, but he certainly has bags of talent and charisma.  He gives a note-perfect turn, and I really believed in his performance.

Ginnifer Goodwin was also great as Vivian Cash, Johnny’s long-suffering first wife.  It has been strongly suggested that the character portrayed in this film was unfair to Vivian, and that she was actually far nicer than shown in the film (Johnny and June’s son John Carter Cash, was an executive producer on this film, and he has acknowledged the criticism and said that he wanted to show the love story of his parents.  Roseanne Cash, Johnny and Vivian’s daughter, has been critical of the film also.)

The story was fascinating, showing how Cash always blamed himself for a family tragedy which occurred when he was a young boy, and which contributed to the very strained relationship with his father (Robert Patrick).  It chronicles his early struggles to make it in the music business, and his subsequent success.  Naturally, there is some excellent music throughout!  It is a gripping and sometimes very sad tale, but it is ultimately uplifting.  The chemistry between Phoenix and Witherspoon is almost palpable, and the play off one another very well.

I would have liked to have seen the story continue past 1968, and perhaps show more of Cash’s social and political views; it perhaps concentrated too heavily on the love between Johnny and June, but maybe this film is better viewed as a love story, rather than a complete biography.  Either way, the superb music and atmosphere, and the two incredible performances at the heart of the film make this well worth watching, even for those not familiar with Johnny Cash’s music.

(For more information about Johnny Cash, please click here.)

Year of release: 2005

Director: James Mangold

Producers: John Carter Cash, Alan C. Blomquist, James Keach, Cathy Konrad, Lou Robin

Writers: Johnny Cash (book ‘Man in Black’ – based on) (book ‘Cash: The Autobiography’ – based on), Patrick Carr (book ‘Cash: The Autobiography’ based on), Gill Dennis, James Mangold

Main cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Waylon Payne

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This beautifully written novel tells the story of approximately one year in the life of Erica Mason, a 23 year old American girl who has been living in Mexico for two years. Set in the 1970s, while America and the world was still suffering from the effects of the Vietnam war, and at a time when the world is changing (women’s lib movement, gay rights and legal abortion), this book powerfully captures the spirit of the time, as well as showing the reader Erica’s own personal experiences.

Erica initially moved to Mexico to hopefully develop as an artist, and to find out who she really was and who she wanted to be. Living in Merida, in the Yucatan part of Mexico, she finds many distractions – in the form of drugs, unsuitable men and the poverty surrounding her – which hinder her ability to work on her art or herself. Indeed Erica realises that far from being a social indulgence, the drugs she takes are becoming an addiction to her, especially the Quaaludes (downers) which she takes to calm her.

Linda Dahl describes the lifestyle in Mexico at the time in question, with real skill, so that the sights, sounds and scents which surrounded Erica seemed to almost jump off the page. Dahl apparently spent a lot of time in Mexico in the 1970s, and it certainly shows in this book, with an authentic feel of the place, and especially of the Yucatan area where Erica spends much of her time. The people of the area and their culture are portrayed with great understanding.

Erica herself is also portrayed wonderfully, so that she becomes a character who the reader cannot help but care about and empathise with, as she struggles with her journey through life, in the hope of finding peace with herself.

This is a character driven rather than a plot driven book. The reader sees the world through Erica’s eyes, and becomes well acquainted with her friends and the people who pass through her life.

The story paints a vivid portrait of a young woman in turmoil, in a country facing many problems, at a turbulent time for the world. Highly recommended.

(I would like to thank the author for sending me this book to review.  Linda Dahl’s website can be found here.)

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Only half an hour long – which is not long enough!  That is my only complaint about this show.

Bill Hicks is sadly no longer with us, and I feel that we lost a genuine talent when he died.  Not only is he a very very funny man, but he speaks so much sense.  As well as making the you laugh, he also makes you think, as he unleashes his own particular bitter brand of humour on subjects such as drugs, rock n’ roll and advertising.

Bill was certainly cynical, but it’s obvious that he also thought about things a lot – he cared about what was going wrong with the world, and he could see when things such as drugs and pornography were used as scapegoats – easy things to hang blame on.  Someone once said that they thought that Bill Hicks was disappointed with humanity, and I think that that could well have been true.

This DVD captures Bill doing a very, very funny and thought provoking stand up routine – well worth a watch.

Year of release: (Series 1989 – 1992)

Directors: Peter Calabrese, Robin Shlien

Writer: Bill Hicks

Main Cast: Bill Hicks

(For more information about Bill Hicks, please click here.)

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