Books

The Good Girlfriend’s Guide To Getting Even by Anna Bell

512vkrgbwbl-_sy346_1It’s true what they say; revenge really is a dish best served cold. When Lexi discovers her sports-mad boyfriend Will pretended to have food poisoning so he could miss her friend’s wedding and secretly go to a football match instead, she’s mad – really mad.

However Lexi then realises a good girlfriend doesn’t get mad, she gets even. Rather than confronting Will, she carries out acts of revenge, which include ‘lost’ tickets, a Sky box ‘accidently’ soaked in wine and a dead car battery – causing him to miss out on his precious fixtures.

While friends have got married and settled down, Lexi and Will, who have been together for seven years, find themselves stuck in a comfortable domestic no man’s land with no sign of an engagement ring, much to her mother’s disappointment. After her discovery of Will’s lie, Lexi is forced to re-evaluate her relationship, and realises that whether its football or Formula 1, she feels like she always takes second place to sport. Lexi uses her ‘getting even’ scheme to reinvigorate their relationship, but starts to wonder if she is flogging something well past its sell by date.

The genius of The Good Girlfriend’s Guide To Getting Even is that it is so relatable, whether you are a cricket/golf/tiddly winks widow or not. At some point we have all been in that relationship which feels a bit stale and neglected.

As the lead character, Lexi is likeable and again, really relatable. The exchanges between Lexi and her sex-mad best friend Cara are hilarious, awkward mealtimes with her parents are cringe-worthy and the connection between Lexi and her handsome work colleague Robin is intriguing – although he probably does the biggest 180 degree character change ever!

It is a charming novel, full of warmth and wit. Anna Bell’s writing style is snappy, conversational and really funny. Yes, some of the scenarios are a little far-fetched and I was amazed Will doesn’t twig what his girlfriend is up to sooner, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable, feel-good read.

Clare 

Review copy supplied by NetGalley

Published by Zaffre

Ebook available from Amazon

Life

This Girl Can – Keep Calm & Spin

I’m too tired. I can’t find my trainers. My ‘old lady’ knees aren’t up to it. I’m allergic to Lycra. I don’t have time, I need to organise my sock drawer – just some of the excuses I have used to get out of doing exercise. This Girl Can give you a million feeble reasons why sitting on the sofa watching Hollyoaks with a KitKat Chunky takes priority over getting a sweat on.

I’ve never been ‘sporty’ and my fitness levels have generally been pretty poor. Like many people, I’d been left with the mental scars of horrible PE lessons at school – being picked last for teams, trying to play hockey in a snow blizzard and being winded in the stomach by a football (I genuinely thought I was going to die!), had resulted in associated memories of feeling self-conscious and inadequate, and hadn’t helped me find any enthusiasm for physical activity.

I’ve generally avoided exercise most of my adult life, finding any excuse not to do it (see above). The truth is, while I’m not one for competitive activities and don’t have a natural ability for sport, my main reason for dodging it is that I fundamentally, underlying everything, have a huge fear of making a fool of myself.

Over the years, my sister Helen, who is ‘the sporty one’ of the family and a real advocate for the benefits of physical activity, had made various attempts to cajole me into doing exercise. Then a couple of years ago, life gave me a bit of a kicking. As a result, my confidence hit rock bottom and I found myself sinking in a fog of anxiety and depression. It wasn’t a fun time, but my sister decided that I needed to get moving and in my limp disposition, I gave in.

thisgirlcan

First we tried swimming. Now, in my case, ‘swimming’ is essentially ‘trying not to drown’, and you can’t really think about much else when you are trying to do that. For the first time in weeks, mid-breast stroke, my mind cleared and I actually felt human. We also went walking – anywhere, as long as it was in the fresh air. Helen dragged me up the Wrekin (big hill) and around Attingham Park (big park). I respond quite well to bribery, so as long as there was a promise of tea/cake/sandwiches at some point, I would happily stride it out, and as it turns out, fresh air is really quite good for you. Who knew?!

We then tried spinning. I didn’t really have much idea about what I was letting myself in for and to say I was scared is an understatement. If you’re not familiar with spinning (otherwise known as BOOM cycle, Soul Cycle, Cycle Beat, etc.), let me set the scene. There are rows of exercise bikes, the room is dark and lit by disco lights, the music is loud and upbeat (anything from Rihanna to ACDC) and an instructor talks you through various routines while you peddle away on a bike for 45 minutes. It’s a full body workout and really good for burning calories. On my first attempt, I only kept up with 50% of the moves (Helen kept looking at me apologetically during a particularly tricky routine to Flo Rider), but by the end, despite the fact that I was utterly exhausted and my legs were like jelly, I felt AMAZING!

Like unicorns and sunny bank holidays, I used to think endorphins were a bit of a myth, but what do you know, those little neurotransmitters, produced in the brain and nervous system after aerobic activity, are miraculously real. It’s been well documented by clever sciencey-type people that regular exercise has a positive impact on your mental wellbeing; relieving stress, improving your memory, helping you sleep better and boosting your overall mood, and I’m a believer – physical activity really does give you the happy hormone.

I now spin once a week, and as a result, have more energy, feel stronger, my ‘old lady’ knees don’t give me jip anymore, and this might be too much information, but my backside is definitely firmer. But most importantly for me, the fog has cleared, the anxiety is under control and I feel ‘better’. The feel-good-factor exercise gives me is undeniable.

And spinning was just the start. I’ve since tried and enjoyed Clubbersize (clearly I have a thing for loud music and disco lights), Blockfit (invented by Chico, who was on the X Factor! I’m not joking, Google it!), Yoga (I have the flexibility of a lead pencil, but it’s so good for those endorphins), Body Balance (ditto flexibility/endorphins). I’ve even done a mud run! (Well a mud walk really, but I got a medal and everything).

Yes, my face goes bright red and I’m sweating most unattractively, but so is everyone else. And yes, quite often everyone is going left and I’m going right, but it really doesn’t matter. The fear of looking like a fool was an issue I’d let build in my head from those school days of feeling like an inadequate lump, but people, it’s time we all let that baggage go. When I exercise now, I’m only in competition with myself – to sprint a bit faster on the spin bike, or to perfect that downward dog. Crucially, I’ve never once felt like an idiot, and dare I say it, it’s really FUN. I know, it’s a shock to me too.

this_girl_can_logo_pms_248-1024x1024-e1443023419906That’s why Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign was so inspiring and continues to capture the imagination of women and girls who, like me, have avoided exercise because they are worried about being judged on their ability and/or appearance. Let me tell you ladies, no one gives a damn, and neither should you.

I might be stating the obvious here, but I think it’s really important to find an activity you enjoy. If something feels like a chore, you’ll start to dread it and then the excuses will start. For example, pounding a treadmill in a gym does little for me – I give up almost as soon as I’ve started. I’ve found I’m better doing a fitness class, with a start and a finish time and an instructor, otherwise I’ll flake out. It might mean you have to try lots of different things out to see what clicks with you, but who knows, you might have a thing for aqua aerobics or be an undiscovered Zumba queen.

Ladies, it’s time we ditch those excuses and that fear of judgment and get moving. Embrace it, enjoy the benefits to your mind, body and soul and have fun. The sofa, Hollyoaks and that KitKat Chunky will be waiting for you when you get home.

Clare

This blog was originally written for Energize Shropshire Telford & Wrekin

Theatre

Review: Anita and Me – Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton 

This review was originally published on The Reviews Hub

Writer: Tanika Gupta from the book by Meera Syal
Director: Roxana Silbert

Following a sell-out run at Birmingham REP in 2015, Anita and Me returns for a 2017 spring tour, premiering at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton.

The popular semi-autobiographical novel by Wolverhampton-born writer and actress Meera Syal was made into a film in 2002 and is now a GSCE English text. An endearing coming-of-age tale, it follows the story of Meena, a young British Punjabi girl growing up in the fictional Midlands mining village of Tollington in the 1970s. While her proud Punjabi family is determined to preserve their culture and give their children the best opportunities, strong-willed Meena is eager to embrace western lifestyles and desperate to fit in with her cool and confident new friend Anita. Meena finds herself caught between two cultures while struggling to make sense of her place in the world.

Described as a ‘play with music’ rather than a musical, Tanika Gupta’s stage adaptation features original compositions by Ringham Brothers, which at times feel a bit out of place, but overall add to the atmosphere and narrative. Save The Heathen Souls sung by the local shopkeeper Mrs Ormerod (Rebekah Hinds) is particularly funny.

The play is difficult to define – a mishmash of tones and genres exploring issues of culture, adolescence and racism while touching on themes of domestic violence, postnatal depression and immigration, but also being offering a brilliantly comic observation of those tricky teenage years and of life in the Black Country in the 1970s. One minute Meena is trying to impress Anita by stealing sweets and weeing on a tyre and the next Mr Bhatra, an Asian counsellor, is brutally beaten in a racially motivated attack. The audience is taken on rollercoaster of emotions, and while occasionally confusing, it’s certainly never dull.

There are strong performances from the young leads Aasiya Shah and Laura Aramayo as Meena and Anita respectively. Shah captures the spirit of energetic Meena, while Aramayo’s portrayal of Anita is spot on – feisty and arrogant with an underlying vulnerability of a troubled teen. Ex-Coronation Street actress Shobna Gulati and Robert Mountford are equally as good as Meena’s exasperated parents.

Culturally, the two girls are poles apart, but it’s their experience of family that highlights the differences between them. Meena comes from a loving, educated and flourishing extended family, while Anita is a neglected child living in poverty and yet, for the most part, Meena is desperate to be like her. Anita is abandoned by her selfish mother, while Meena is nurtured by strong female influences around her – her mother Daljit, played by the fabulous Gulati, her Aunty Shaila (Sejal Keshwala), caring neighbour Mrs Worrell (Therese Collins) and her formidable grandmother Nanima, hilariously portrayed by Rina Fatania.

The story is as relevant now as it was when the novel was published in 1996, a colourful portrayal of teenage troubles, fish fingers, friendship, with important messages about cultural diversity and identity and the added novelty of familiar Black Country humour. While at times confusing and chaotic, the production offers plenty of light and shade and at its heart is a poignant, honest and funny story. Bostin’.

Clare

⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Runs until 18 February 2017

Books

Book Review: Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

51e3y0cfeylFrom the creator of the popular ITV drama starring Jenna Coleman and Rufus Sewell, Victoria is a standalone novel by Daisy Goodwin.

It’s June 1837, and following the death of her uncle William IV, 18-year-old Alexandrina Victoria has become Queen of England. Up until now, her existence has been privileged but extremely sheltered – her dolls are her only friends. Desperate to escape the controlling clutches of her mother and calculating Sir John Conway, she is determined to rule alone, however the crown is literally and metaphorically a heavy burden and her naivety and immaturity is evident.

“They think I am still a little girl who is not capable of being a Queen.”

Lord Melbourne turned to look at Victoria. “They are mistaken. I have not known you long, but I observe in you a natural dignity that cannot be learnt. To me, ma’am, you are every inch a Queen.”

With many plotting her downfall, Prime Minister Lord Melbourne becomes Victoria’s most trusted supporter. Although old enough to be her father, she turns to him for advice, comfort and friendship, believing this is the only relationship she needs. As with all monarchs, the pressure to marry and secure an heir mounts, and her first cousin Albert is reluctantly pushed forward as a suitable candidate. However, Victoria is determined not to marry for convenience or let go of her beloved Lord M.

Having watched and loved the television series, to be honest I did wonder if it was necessary to read the novel. However, it is a must read – an engaging accompaniment to the programme, rich in historical detail which delves deeper into each fascinating character.

Daisy Goodwin’s young Victoria is immediately likeable – brave, strong-minded and expressive. Despite her naïve mistakes and initial giddiness, with the help of Lord M and then with Albert, she matures into a strong and resilient monarch and you root for her all the way through.

The relationship between Victoria and Lord Melbourne is captivating, and while a marriage would have been impossible, I was almost wishing history could have been re-written so that their relationship could be explored. Lord M himself shows great restraint over his feelings for Victoria and his commitment to the crown. The internal struggle between his feelings and his duties is played out in more detail in the novel, as is his jealously over the blossoming relationship between Victoria and Albert.

Victoria and Albert’s initially awkward relationship is charming and moving. With Albert, Victoria truly meets her match and their historically famous love story is brought to life with great passion and realism.

The book ends just as a new chapter of Queen Victoria’s life is about to begin, which paves the way perfectly for a sequel. Daisy Goodwin is currently writing the second series of the TV drama, so a second novel is bound to follow. Victoria is a historical delight.

Clare x

Review copy supply by NetGalley
Published by Headline Publishing Group

Theatre

Review: Aladdin, Grand Theatre Wolverhampton

This review was originally published on The Reviews Hub.

Pantomime wishes have been granted in Wolverhampton this festive session, as the Grand Theatre delivers a magical production. With more glitter, sparkle and silliness than ever before, Aladdin is a fun family spectacle.

The story is a jam-packed mash-up of the traditional Arabian adventure, set in both China and Egypt, complete with magic lamp, a genie, a giant spaceship and a Cockney policeman. Some of the elements, like the random spaceship and the Cockney bobby, are a bit bizarre, but this is panto and we wouldn’t want it any other way. With magic, romance and adventure at the heart of story, and with comedy and sing-a-long songs thrown in, it is enjoyable on many levels and the perfect show for all the family.

Joe McElderry really impresses as Aladdin. The 2009 X-Factor winner has a superb voice and makes a lovable leading man. Soprano Lucy Kay, a former Britain’s Got Talent finalist, is a beautiful Princess Jasmine, with a stunning voice to match. Their duet of Listen from the film Dreamgirls is a highlight, so it’s a shame that the two talented singers aren’t used a bit more throughout.

Actress Lisa Riley sparkles as the Slave of the Ring, and Stefan Pejic strikes a perfect balance between wit and wickedness as the evil Abanazar. Adam C Booth and Ian Adams as Wishee Washee and Widow Twankey respectively are masters of entertainment and firm favourites with the younger members of the audience. Their physical comedy, wordplay and general silliness is spot on.

Yes, many of the gags have been done before, but frankly, toilet humour and local ribbing (Bilston, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton Wanderers take the brunt) never get old. An energetic slapstick routine featuring Wishee Washee, Widow Twankey, The Slave of the Ring and PC Ping Pong (CBeebies Mr Bloom, aka Ben Faulks) gets the biggest laugh of the night.

However, it is The Lazy Empress, Doreen Tipton, aka actress Gill Jordan, who steals the show for the grown-ups. Doreen, the Black Country’s internet sensation and self-confessed ‘lazy cow’ is a genius addition to the production, hilariously riding around on a mobility scooter, complaining about her Jobseekers Allowance being stopped and missing the Jeremy Kyle Show.  

No expense has been spared on the sets, special effects and costumes. From Widow Twankey’s launderette to Princess Jasmine’s gowns, everything is bold and bright. The flying carpet scene at the end of Act 1 is particularly impressive and adds to the magic.

Aladdin is a real success for the Grand, with laugh-out-loud comedy, plenty of opportunity for some enthusiastic booing and heckling, clever special effects and a strong cast – there is never a dull moment and it is thoroughly enjoyable.

Clare

Runs until 22 January 2017
Image: Contributed

Books

Review: All I Ever Wanted by Lucy Dillon

51pqr9jhsxl-_sx326_bo1204203200_All I Ever Wanted is the latest novel by Lucy Dillon, author of One Small Act of Kindness and A Hundred Pieces of Me.

When Caitlin’s marriage breaks down, she desperately tries to keep things normal for her two young children. With her life in chaos and her confidence at rock bottom, things couldn’t really get much worse. That is, until her lively, four-year-old chatterbox Nancy worryingly stops talking.

Caitlin and her husband Patrick struggle to keep things amicable, especially when his new job, the final nail in their relationship coffin, takes him miles away from his family. Patrick calls upon his aloof sister Eva to act as a half way access point so he can see the children every fortnight.

Recently widowed, Eva is lonely and grieving – both her beloved husband and a life she feels she has missed out on. Her quiet solitude is disturbed by the arrival of her niece and nephew, and she slowly begins to open her heart again.

Sometimes things happen that make you realise what you thought you wanted isn’t the case at all. Caitlin and Eva are forced to confront the issues in both of their marriages, decide what they really want their lives to look like and search for their happy ending.

All I Ever Wanted is a charming, bittersweet tale, told with compassion by Lucy Dillon. The characters are likeable and well rounded, and you can’t help but care about what happens to them. The situations they find themselves in and their reactions to them – a relationship breakdown, bereavement, a childless future, are touching and totally relatable.

Although it deals with issues of heartbreak, grief, guilt and stress, at its heart, the story is uplifting and life affirming and well worth a read.

Clare

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Proof copy supplied by NetGalley

Theatre

Review: The Nutcracker, Birmingham Hippodrome

Opening night of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker at Birmingham Hippodrome coincided with its creator Sir Peter Wright’s 90th birthday.

The production was created by Sir Peter 26 years ago to mark the dance company’s relocation to Birmingham, and the legendary choreographer was present to enjoy the launch of this year’s run of the much-loved festive perennial.

Set in the late 19th century, during a Christmas Eve party hosted by Dr Stahlbaum and his wife, magician Drosselmeyer produces gifts for all the children present, including a nutcracker doll for the Stahlbaum’s daughter Clara. After the guests have left the family retire to bed, but Clara sneaks back downstairs to play with her new doll. As the clock strikes midnight, Drosselmeyer reappears and Clara is transported to a magical winter wonderland of dancing snowflakes, a malevolent rat king and a handsome nutcracker prince.

The Nutcracker Birmingham

Right from curtain up, this production has the wow-factor. There was an audible gasp from the audience when the first of many extraordinary sets was revealed. The scenery, special effects and costumes, devised by designer John Macfarlane. are spectacular. From the giant Christmas tree transformation to a magical snowstorm at the end of Act I – it’s one of the most visually stunning shows I’ve ever seen.

Tchaikovsky’s evocative score, faithfully executed by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the baton of Nicolette Fraillon, gives the production an additional layer of magic.

Any less of a company might have been overshadowed by such elaborate staging, but The Nutcracker is the perfect vehicle for Birmingham Royal Ballet to show what it is made of. Despite a few minor timing issues during some of the group dances in Act I, this renowned troupe is world class.

There are many standout performances – Karla Doorbar is delightful as Clara, and Jonathan Payn is a commanding presence as the enigmatic Drosselmeyer. Tzu-Chao Chou’s performance as the Jack-in-the-Box is jaw-droppingly energetic and young Max Blackwell is charming as Clara’s mischievous little brother.

The Nutcracker BirminghamWhile most of the action takes place in Act I, the second act is a series of divertissements in various fantasy realms, which in the most part have little to do with the story. Clara is somewhat sidelined to observe the Waltz of the Flowers and dynamic Russian and Spanish-style dances. It is these continental-themed sections of the ballet which perhaps haven’t aged so well. The Chinese tea dance, for example, is an awkwardly stereotypical caricature complete with pointing fingers and bobbing heads.

That said, the best is indeed saved until last. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is exquisitely executed by Momoko Hirata. The grand pas de deux featuring the Sugar Plum Fairy and The Prince is equally flawless. Hirata is partnered by Joseph Caley, and together they give a beautiful performance that is both sensitive and exhilarating.

Sir Peter Wright’s masterpiece continues to delight. After 26 years and over 500 performances, this classic ballet has lost none of its sparkle. Enchanting and poignant, the Birmingham Royal Ballet has yet again delivered a sensational festive showpiece.

Clare White

The Nutcracker is on at Birmingham Hippodrome until Tuesday 13 December.
This review was originally published on www.countywoman.co.uk