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The Blurb

The landscape is flawless, the trees majestic, the flora and the fauna are right and proper. All is picturesquely typical of rural England at its best. Sir Giles, an MP of few principles and curious tastes, plots to destroy all this by building a motorway smack through it, to line his own pocket and at the same time to dispose of his wife, the capacious Lady Maude. But Lady Maude enlists a surprising ally in her enigmatic gardener Blott, a naturalised Englishman in whom adopted patriotism burns bright. Lady Maude’s dynamism and Blott’s concealed talents enable them to meet pressure with mimicry, loaded tribunals with publicity and chilli powder, and requisition orders with wickedly spiked beer. This explosively comic novel will gladden the heart of everyone who has ever confronted a bureaucrat, and spells out in riotous detail how the forces of virtue play an exceedingly dirty game when the issue is close to home.

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My thoughts

If I had read a physical copy of this book, I would probably think it was pretty good. However, I listened to the audiobook narrated by David Suchet, and his narration thrust this into the realms of hilarity. The story is nothing if not convoluted, and the levels of ridiculousness grow with each chapter – but it’s all written so well and with such wit that you can’t help but laugh out loud.

The synopsis above only scratches the surface of double dealings and dirty deeds committed by most of the characters, it does sometimes require concentration to keep up with who is doing what to who. However, it never sags or bores, and I really enjoyed this. I remember my Mom really enjoying the tv adaptation of this in the 1980s – David Suchet starred as the titular Blott in that series – and I can certainly see the attraction.

I would definitely recommend this book – but do yourself a favour and listen to the audio version.

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Year of first publication: 1975

Genre: Comedy, satire

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In 1956, Marilyn Monroe came to England to make a film with Sir Laurence Olivier.  The film was The Prince and the Showgirl, based on the Terence Rattigan play The Sleeping Prince.  Monroe wanted to work with Olivier, who directed and starred in the movie, because she thought it would give her credibility as an actress, and Olivier was initially equally as keen – so much so that Olivier’s wife Vivien Leigh was worried that her husband would have an affair with Marilyn.  She needn’t have worried as it turns out; the most overwhelming feeling that Marilyn roused in Olivier was that of annoyance – at her lateness, her constant fluffing of lines, her moods on set…it’s safe to say that making the film was probably not an enjoyable experience for either of them.  (The Prince and the Showgirl is regarded as far from the best thing that either actor worked on, although I personally really liked it).

During filming, Marilyn’s recent marriage to playwright Arthur Miller already seems to be crumbling, and when Miller flies back to America, Marilyn turns to third director Colin Clark, for comfort.  The two end up spending the titular week together.  Colin Clark wrote two books about the making of the film – one of which excluded the week with Marilyn, and one of which concentrated solely on that week.  The second book is the basis of this film.  I have no idea how much of the book is truthful, and I was – perhaps unfairly – sceptical about some of the things he wrote, which made their way into this film – but nevertheless I found the film enjoyable from start to finish.

Playing Marilyn Monroe is a tall order for any actress, but fortunately Michelle Williams was up to the task.  She captures Marilyn’s mannerisms and voice very well, and more importantly, shows Marilyn as more than just the dumb blonde which she was often portrayed as.  She also demonstrates Marilyn’s extreme vulnerability and need to be liked (“Shall I be her?” she asks Colin, when they are surrounded by fans while on a day out, before breaking out Marilyn’s sexy poses and million dollar smile).

Kenneth Branagh was also brilliant as Laurence Olivier – in a cast full of brilliant actors, he stole the film for me.  I loved every one of his scenes; his exasperation at Monroe was entirely understandable – I adore her, but frankly she must have been a nightmare to work with – but he is not incapable of sympathy for her.  He also shows Olivier’s fear that he himself is getting too old for this business, and that his popularity belongs to days gone by.  I always enjoy watching Kenneth Branagh, and this is one of my favourite performances of his.

As Colin Clark, Eddie Redmayne had the unenviable task of making the audience care about someone who they had likely never heard of, when there were two characters in the film who were international stars.  I think Redmayne pulled it off.  There are other actors who probably could have done as good a job, but he was great – especially when you consider that other actors on this film included the aforementioned Branagh and Williams, as well as Dame Judi Dench (wonderful and absolutely adorable as Dame Sybil Thorndike, who also starred in The Prince and the Showgirl) and Zoe Wannaker (in a flawless performance as Marilyn’s acting coach Paula Strasberg, wife of Lee Strasberg, who is known as the father of method acting.  Strasberg’s constant presence on the set, and her undermining of Olivier’s direction proved to be another bone of contention between the two stars).

I really enjoyed seeing the scenes from The Prince and the Showgirl being acted out, and My Week With Marilyn acts as a nice sort of companion piece to that film.  Overall, great performances throughout and an interesting and touching story make My Week With Marilyn a film well worth watching.

Year of release: 2011

Director: Simon Curtis

Producers: Simon Curtis, Kelly Carmichael, Christine Langan, Jamie Laurenson, Ivan Mactaggart, Cleone Clark, Mark Cooper, David Parfitt, Colin Vaines, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein

Writers: Colin Clark (books ‘My Week With Marilyn’ and ‘The Prince, The Showgirl and Me’) Adrian Hodges

Main cast: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Dominic Cooper, Richard Clifford

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Click here for my review of The Prince and the Showgirl.

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The narrator of this book is Stevens, a loyal butler, who has worked at the grand Darlington Hall for most of his adult life.  Set in 1956, when Stevens receives a letter from former housekeeper Miss Kenton, who left Darlington Hall several years earlier to get married, he sets out to meet her.  En route, he reminisces about his time at Darlington Hall, specifically the years when he served the now deceased and disgraced Lord Darlington, in the years between World War I and World War II.

I found myself being drawn into this book, and ended up being very moved by it.  The characters – principally Stevens himself and Miss Kenton are believable, and if not always completely likeable, are certainly shown as two very decent people, who may have both missed the best years and opportunities of their lives.  (Such as when Stevens meets some villagers on his journey and allows them to believe that he had more influence over world affairs than he ever could really have hoped to have had.)

The dual narration works well, and while most of the book is devoted to Stevens’ time serving Lord Darlington, his present day narration show how those earlier years have affected him, despite his seeming never to want to show emotion.  Tellingly, on a couple of occasions in the present day narrative, he denies having worked for Lord Darlington, due to Darlington’s reputation as a Nazi sympathiser.  At times I wanted to shake Stevens and tell him to allow himself to show his feelings; not to miss out on an opportunity.  He was a perfectly drawn character, sometimes frustrating to read about with his fastidiousness and his occasional obtuseness, and ultimately a sympathetic character.

Also, this book is surprisingly funny at times.  Stevens attempts to teach Lord Darlington’s godson about sex (under Lord Darlington’s instruction) had me giggling, and his occasional referrals to the art of banter, and his attempts to learn this art, were also very amusing.

In the end, the message behind the book is a simple (and obvious) one, but this story is so beautifully told and so absorbing.  It’s no surprise that this book won the Man Booker Prize…I would highly recommend reading The Remains of the Day.

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One morning, mild-mannered Harold Fry receives a letter from a former colleague named Queenie, who he has not seen for some 20 years.  The letters informs him that she is in a hospice, and is dying of terminal cancer.  Harold writes a letter back, and sets out to post it, but when he gets to the postbox, he decides to keep walking on to the next one.  And then he decides to walk a bit further, and his short walk eventually turns into a journey on foot from his home in Devon, to where Queenie is, in Berwick-upon-Tweed.  Though the going gets tough, Harold knows that somehow or other he has to walk to Queenie, and that as long as he keeps walking, she will keep living.

I had heard so many good things about this book, and was really looking forward to reading it.  The story is lovely, although a little far-fetched occasionally.  Harold meets many other people en route to save Queenie, and he realises that like him, everyone has regrets and worries in their lives, and that sometimes what we see on the surface tells us nothing about a person.

For Harold, the journey is metaphorical as much- as it is physical.  He believes that his walk can save Queenie, but he also seems to be seeking redemption for himself. As his walk unfolds in the pages, so does his history, and we learn all about the tragedies he has faced, the situations which he wishes he could change, his regrets about his relationship with his son, and the cause of a rift between himself and his wife Maureen.

At times the book is achingly sad, and at other times oddly uplifting.  I liked it a lot, but I was not as taken with it as I expected to be. (I had read reviews from people saying that the story had caused them to re-evaluate their lives, and it had made them cry.)  Having read so many positive things about the book, I would say that this puts me in the minority as it did not move me to tears, and while I would certainly recommend it, I would not say it particularly moved me.

It’s still an enjoyable story though, and I will be looking out for more by Rachel Joyce.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Mildred Lathbury is an ‘excellent woman’ This book is set in the 1950s, when an unmarried woman in her early 30s, like Mildred is considered middle-aged, and forever destined to be a spinster. She is a woman upon whom so many depend – particularly at her local church, where she is always called on to help out at bazaars, fetes, jumble sales and the like – due to her sensible nature and charitable mind. However, Mildred’s life is shaken up when she gets new neighbours in the form of the impetuous anthropologist Helena Napier, and her dashing husband Rockingham ‘Rocky’ Napier. The Napiers have a volatile relationship, but Mildred tries to keep from becoming involved – but it is so difficult when both of them rely on her for advice and help…

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this book. Certainly, it is amusing, with many wry observations on parochial life. Mildred – who is the narrator – is a likeable person, but I found myself getting frustrated at the fact that she was so obviously an intelligent and attractive woman, but she couldn’t see it for herself, because she had resigned herself to life on her own, thinking that she must not be interesting enough for anybody to marry. Maybe this was part of the point of the book.

However, it was certainly well written, and the characters were vividly brought to life. (I got the impression that if you ever met one of the characters, you would know them instantly.) Mildred herself was by far the easiest character to warm to, and as the book is told from her own self-deprecating point of view, perhaps this is only to be expected.

This is not a laugh-out-loud book, but it certainly made me smile on numerous occasions, especially when Mildred pointed out the ridiculousness of certain situations, which would normally seem so important.

Overall, I enjoyed the writing, and as this is the first book I have ever read by Barbara Pym, I would certainly be interested in reading more by this author.

(For more information on the author, please click here.)

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As a child in California,  Jack Renoir witnessed the brutal murder of his uncle, and ever since then, he has cut himself off from emotion, refusing to allow himself to get close to anybody.  He gets a job in security clearance, which means that he has to unearth the secrets that people hope to keep buried.  But thirty years later, he meets Kate Palmer, an English businesswoman, and can’t help falling in love with her.  Jack moves to England to start a new life with Kate, and put his past business behind him…but it’s not long before little things start to raise doubts about Kate, and despite his intentions, Jack can’t help trying to discover exactly what it is going on…

This book has two storylines;  Jack’s life with his uncle Will and Will’s girlfriend Maris, and the events which led to Will’s murder; and Jack’s life with Kate and his suspicions about what she is not telling him.  The story switches between California and Belfield (Kate’s family estate in England) and also between the present day, and thirty years before.  I enjoyed the parts set in California very much.  I do believe that in fact, the story of Jack’s childhood and his subsequent approach to relationships, would have made an interesting novel in itself, without the storyline of his relationship with Kate. I do believe that the book would have been much better if it had been about 50 pages shorter, and had concentrated more on the events of Jack’s childhood (and their subsequent effects) than on his current life and relationship.

The storyline about Jack’s relationship with Kate was less interesting; the secret which Kate was obviously hiding from Jack was not as interesting as it should have been, and I ended up not really caring how that particular aspect of the story turned out.  I did not think Kate was a particularly likeable character, and found it hard to care about her or her family.

However, the book was interesting enough to hold my attention. I am not sure whether it was supposed to be a romance, or a mystery, and I think the mystery aspect worked better.  Renoir was a likeable character, and certainly easy enough for the reader to like.  I would certainly be interested in reading further books by this author.

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