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Sage Singer is a 25 year old baker, from New Hampshire, who wants to hide away from the world, because of the scars, both physical and psychological that she has, resulting from an accident three years earlier.  She is in a relationship with a married man, which is going nowhere, and does a job that allows her to work at night, without contact with others..  When she befriends 95 year old Josef Weber at her grief group, she is able to open up to him in a way that she hasn’t been able to with anyone else, so when Josef tells her that he is a former Nazi, responsible for countless deaths, and requests that she helps him to die, her world is turned upside down.

(Don’t worry, all of the above happens very early in the book, so there are no spoilers here.)  I have always found Jodi Picoult’s novels to be compelling and thought-provoking, and this one was no exception.  It is stated early on that Sage’s grandmother Minka was a prisoner in Auschwitz during World War II, and a large part of the book is given over to her description of life during that time.  This may be a fictional story, but Picoult spoke with Holocaust survivors while researching this book, and while Minka may not really exist, the horrors described are all too real, and I was moved to tears while reading about them.

I liked and sympathised with Sage – she was a well rounded character, with flaws and insecurities that made her very believable.  The main theme of the book is forgiveness, and Sage’s dilemma in this regard was fascinating.  Her struggle to reconcile the elderly pillar of the community who she had become friends with, with the former war criminal who killed indiscriminately, was interesting and well described.  Can we ever forgive on behalf of someone else?  Does Sage have the right to forgive Josef’s sins – as he asks her to do – when it was not her who was personally sinned against?  All of this crops up throughout the book.

I also adored and admired Minka.  I would have liked to have seen more of Leo, the agent who has made a career out of tracking down war criminals and bringing them to justice – while he was immensely likeable, I didn’t feel that he was as well drawn as some of the others in the book.  This is only a slight niggle though, as for the most part, this book was truly hard to put down.

The ending was a surprise, and I’m still not sure whether I liked it or not.  I don’t want to give anything away, but it left me feeling slightly unsatisfied.  However, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of what had gone before, and overall, even though it’s not my favourite by Jodi Picoult (that would probably be Nineteen Minutes) I would certainly recommend this book.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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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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Emma Bau, a Polish Jew, has only been married a few weeks when the Nazis come into her home town, and life as she knows it is changed dramatically.  While her husband Jacob leaves their home to go and work for the Jewish resistance, she is forced to take on a fake name, pretend that she is not Jewish, and live with Jacob’s Catholic aunt, Krysia.  When a chance arrives for her to help the resistance by working in the office of a high-ranking Nazi official, she takes it, but against all her inclinations, finds herself attracted to her boss – and the feeling is mutual.  While the devastating effects of the Nazi regime are being felt all around her, Emma (now known as Anna) must keep up the charade, and cope with her conflicting feelings.

I usually enjoy books set in the WWII, and this was no exception.  I thought it was an easy read, despite the subject matter, and events were moving quick enough that I was drawn in and always eager to find out what had happened.

The story was definitely more plot driven than character driven, and I was never sure how I actually felt about Emma/Anna on a personal level.  Nonetheless, the book does highlight the considerable risks that people took to fight back against the Nazis, and I am always slightly awed by such stories (because yes, these characters were fictional, but there were people who took such risks).  I felt that the author tried to humanise the Kommandant, for whom Emma has such unwanted feelings of attraction; he was almost – almost – likeable, but I couldn’t get away from the fact that he was a Nazi.  However, as Jacob barely featured in the book, he was also not a character about whom I could feel very much.  Krysia, on the other hand was a wonderful character – probably my favourite out of the whole book.

This aside though, I really like the book a lot, and an hour of reading it seemed to pass by in about 20 minutes!  The atmosphere of suspicion and not knowing who could really be trusted was depicted well, and I certainly felt thankful that I never lived through such times or make such decisions as Emma did.

On the basis of this book, I bought another book by Pam Jenoff (actually a prequel to this one, where more is written about the Kommandant’s first wife), and I look forward to reading it very soon.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

 

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I saw this production at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, on 13th October 2012. It was performed by South Staffordshire Musical Theatre Company, an amateur company – but this certainly felt like a professional production.

The story is a well known one – a young Nun named Maria is struggling to cope with life inside the convent, where she lives in Austria.  She is sent away to become a governess to the seven children of the widowed Captain Von Trapp.  The Captain is initially formidable and doesn’t approve of Maria’s methods (basically, she lets the children have fun and teaches them to sing), but he softens towards her and the two fall in love.  However, their happiness is threatened by the arrival of the Nazis into Germany…

Okay, here’s a small confession….I have NEVER seen the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein film starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.  I know the story of course, so I knew more or less what to expect in that respect.  What I didn’t know was that by the end of the show, my mouth would be aching from smiling so much, or that I would have had to wipe a few tears from my eyes.

It’s hard to pick out any specific members of the cast, only because they were all so good, but I cannot review this production without commenting on Claudia Gilmour, who had the unenviable task of taking on the part made so famous by Julie Andrews.  Claudia simply has the most beautiful singing voice, and her acting was also wonderful – I really liked her portrayal.  Tim Brown was also terrific is Captain Von Trapp, and his change from formidable and unapproachable, to gentle and loving was lovely to see.

Most of the songs are very familiar to even those like me, who have not seen the film. Do Re Me and A Few Of My Favourite Things were my particular favourites (it was hard not to sing along at the top of my voice, but I couldn’t subject those sitting near to me, to that!), but actually all of the songs were really lovely.

This was a fabulous production, with clearly a lot of hard work from all involved.  Their work paid off – the show is a triumph!

(For more information about The Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, please click here.  South Staffordshire Musical Theatre Company’s website can be found here.)

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