Last night I saw “Educating Rita”, the play by Willy Russell at the McAulay Studio in Wanchai, Hong Kong. For those of you who don’t know the play, it premiered on the 10th of June 1980 at the Royal Shakespeare Company Warehouse in London with Julie Waters as Rita and Mark Kingston as Frank, and received the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. It was also adapted into a movie in 1983, starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters, and directed by Lewis Gilbert.
Educating Rita is the story of the relationship between a young working-class hairdresser from Liverpool and Dr. Frank Bryant, a University lecturer in English literature, which takes place during one full year. We witness how Rita (who later calls herself Susan), dissatisfied with her life and education level, enrolls in an Open University course in English Literature, meeting her tutor Frank and learning “everything” from him. Rita learns fast but Frank (who deals with his own demons) is devastated to see her losing her individuality and the mere reason why he’s fallen for her. He can’t bear to see her adopt the superficiality of so many of the other students. It’s an interesting topic, it’s fun to watch and it makes you think… all the ingredients of a good play – and a good night.
The actors, Kim Haslam and Adam Harris, did a good job, even if – in true Hong Kong style! – they were sick: Haslam tried to suppress a nagging cough during the whole play (through lots of drinks and a few Fisherman’s friends - I admire her for being able to speak clearly with one of those in her mouth) and Harris had the sniffles. They were not the only ones; the audience echoed their plight! An honest production.
Birdman is Mo Hayder’s first novel, published in 2000. As an entrée served by Hayder before a long list of courses more bloody and frightening than each other, Birdman is perfect. In her debut novel, Hayder introduces Jack Caffery, a detective who will feature in some of her subsequent novels. “Birdman” is the nickname given by the police to a serial killer who has buried five of his victims – five butchered women – in an empty field in London’s Greenwich area. Caffery soon realises that the psychopath he is on the trail of is much, much worse than any other he has ever encountered before. Hayder’s writing is not dissimilar to the scalpel used by Birdman: precise, lacerating, and bloody. But it’s also effortless, and like any good writing, doesn’t draw attention to itself; it simply serves its purpose, a story that will keep you on edge untill the very last page of the book. Hayder makes smart use of the environment, the sounds, the colours and the smells; it’s almost as if it were not a story you’re reading, but a film played on the screen of your mind. Even better, her dialogues sound true and efficient. But what distinguishes Hayder’s crime novels from others is an ability to create characters who are real people, not flawless heroes. These characters don’t work in isolation, the search for the killer is a team effort win which every member of the crime division has a role to play. And Caffery is simply the musical director who facilitates the development of the piece. I had read Gone - another Jack Caffery novel - before reading Birdman, but this was not a problem. Each Hayder book can be read as a standalone. Birdman shows all the signs of a great writer, including some of the subtlety and smart plotting that Hayder will further develop in her other novels.
Two small things disappointed me in Birdman, maybe because I had experienced some of Hayder’s later writing. The first disappointment is that towards the end of the story, Caffery does two things which make me instantly lose my compassion – and my interest - for him. If I had not read Gone, maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to experience him again. The other disappointment was, once again towards the end of the book, what I perceived as gratuitous gore - the story could have ended without it and without losing any of its edge. This said, and not to end on a downer since I really liked the novel, Birdman is a one-sitting type of read, a story full of twists and dead ends that I guarantee you will not see coming, a book to be read absolutely by any crime lover.
I was given “Birdman” by Transworld Publishers as part of The Great Transworld Crime Caper, in which I am currently taking part.
Filed under Books, Reading
Last weekend I went back to the Maldives for five days of pure indulgence. For a diver – and an old one at that since I started diving thirty years ago, when diving equipment paled in comparison with today’s easy-to-use equipment – the Maldives are a must. Clear, warm waters, an explosion of colours - coral and fish – a delight for the senses, emotions guaranteed with every dive. Manta rays, turtles, sharks, cod-fish, clown fish, lion fish, dolphins, whale sharks to name a few… My first trip to these wonderful coral islands was twenty years ago. The atolls have not changed much, except maybe for increased tourism. Their beauty is staggering. Unfortunately, if climate change continues at the current rate and sea level continues to rise, they may very well find themselves under water in the future. Scary. The Maldivian Government has started to address the issue and in 2008, the President announced plans to look into purchasing land in India, Sri Lanka, and Australia.
A few facts you may not know about the Maldives:
- They were an independent sultanate from 1153 to 1968 and a British protectorate from 1887 until independence on 25 July 1965
- The islands spread over roughly 90,000 square kilometers
- With an average ground level of 1.5 metres above sea level, it is the lowest country on the planet
- Only 200 of the 1,190 or so islands are inhabited
- The Maldives’ population is roughly 300,000 (100,000 in the capital Male)
- Tourism accounts for 28% of GDP
- Islam is the only official religion of the Maldives; the open practice of all other religions is forbidden
- The official and common language is Dhivehi
- 108 people died in the 2004 tsunami
One millisecond, that’s all it takes, and Mia loses everything dear to her heart. Her life is over. Or is it, really? After a terrible car accident, Mia finds herself outside her body, witnessing her family’s and friends’ distress, the effort of the medical team to save her life, her boyfriend’s struggle to get the right to visit her in the ICU, and her own body fighting death… Soon Mia realises that her fate lies in her own hands. She faces a dilemma bigger than everything she’s ever experienced, should she decide to stay – and face her losses – or move on to another dimension…
The issues of out-of-body experience, afterlife, and death that Mia faces interest me. In my latest novel Body Swap, the hero faces something similar. I was therefore looking forward to finding out how Gayle Forman dealt with those issues in If I Stay. The story is gripping. Mia’s dilemma, her struggle, her hopes and fears become ours. It is impossible to read this novel without asking oneself the question of what we would do, would we find ourselves in Mia’s situation. Forman’s writing is full of vivid images, at times light and airy, at times strong and heavy, such as the minutes following Mia’s accident. But they are always spot-on. I found the questions going through Mia’s mind sometimes a little too obvious or brushed over too quickly, but overall, Forman did a very good job. I did get slightly annoyed at first though when the narrative went from the present to the past, and again, and again. I felt that the flashbacks slowed the action and were a little repetitive. But once you got to know the characters, it was fine. Some parts of the book seem to lack emotion at first, for example the cold way Mia watches the world from outside her body, but in fact it’s a way for Forman to show the distance between the new Mia and her former life – that is until she finds herself dragged back into it – big time.
Filed under Books, Reading
I first came across Blacklands by Belinda Bauer when I read a review of the novel on my friend Nikki-Ann’s blog (you can find her review here). She raved about it, so I felt I had to read it. Blacklands is also one of the crime novels on the list of the Great Transworld Crime Caper.
Blacklands tells the story of Steven Lamb, a twelve-year-old boy whose uncle Billy Peters was murdered by a pervert when he was only eleven. The murder has had a strong impact on the family, which has become somewhat dysfunctional since the event. Steven’s grandmother (Billy’s mother) never got over losing her son and pays little attention to Steven. To get a little bit of his grandmother’s love that he is yearning for, Steven decides to find his uncle’s body. To do this he starts writing to his uncle’s murderer, who sits in a jail nearby. Starts a dangerous game of cat and mouse between Steven and Billy’s murderer, which turns deadly when the pervert escapes from prison and looks for Steven with more than just a chat in mind.
Bauer mentions that when she started writing her book, she didn’t have a crime novel in mind. Instead, what she wanted to write about was the story of a boy and his grandmother. Well, she certainly succeeded in that regard. The relationship between Steven and his grandma is fantastically portrayed and you find yourself suffering in silence in Steven’s shoes. In fact, the relationship triangles in the whole family are wonderfully described, with Steven’s younger brother Davey, his mother Lettie, and Lettie’s boyfriend Uncle Jude all playing a big role. However, with the murderer’s entrance, the story takes on a more sinister turn. Bauer has made smart use of the novel’s environment. The eerie atmosphere of the Moors plays such a large role in the book that the landscape almost becomes a character with its own set of rules and even feelings. This is a great, psychological story. I find it hard to put it into a specific genre, and that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned: it is as much as a coming-of-age story than a crime novel or a story about grieving. I read it in two days and I am looking forward to Bauer’s next book, Darkside.
Filed under Books, Reading
Zhou Sicong, Children at Play, 1991
I saw a wonderful exhibition today, which shows a selection of around 60 paintings and calligraphies by three artists, Lu Chen (1935–2003), Zhou Sicong (1939–1996), and Shi Hu (1942– ). Pictures are mostly in ink and colour on paper, and were collected by Dr Leung Kam Ching over the course of thirty years. Some of the pictures are exquisite; they need to be seen from various angles to realise the power that lies underneath each one. My favourite ones are from Shi Hu and Lu Chen. “A keen collector of Chinese antiquities, Dr Leung began to include contemporary paintings to his Jian Gu Xuan collection in the 1980s. Leung’s interest in traditional Chinese culture, and specifically the expression of the human figure, can be seen as a consistent theme throughout his painting collection. Another prominent theme is that of friendship as Leung’s collecting of these paintings arose out of his close personal relationships both with the husband and wife team of Lu Chen and Zhou Sicong, as well as with the iconoclastic contemporary artist Shi Hu.” (Extract from the exhibition’s brochure)
Lu Chen, Painter Zheng Banqiao, 1988
The exhibition was supposed to end on 15 February, but I went on the 16th and it was still open, so you may try your luck. I love the calligraphy below.
Shi Hu, Calligraphy Couplet, 1995
The exhibition is held at the University Museum and Art Gallery – UMAG
94 Bonham Road, Pokfulam (University of Hong Kong) – Hong Kong
Opening hours are Monday to Saturday 9:30 am to 6:00 pm; Sunday 1:00 to 6:00 pm
Admission is free.
I went to see Janet Jackson in concert last night in Hong Kong. It was her first concert from her new world tour (35 countries), and following her fans’ suggestions she had decided to start it in Hong Kong… on Valentine’s Day! It took place in the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre, which probably didn’t allow her to use the full features of a normal concert venue. In any case, it’s not what I would call “a venue that will allow Janet to be up close and personal in a much more intimate setting”, as her website mentions, but that was okay. Jackson moves well, and she didn’t spare her energy. The songs she performed were all hits, so people could sing along with her. I enjoyed the show. There are a few things which didn’t impress me though: I wish she interacted more with the audience for a start. Then, what is it about all the breaks in the show? I understand she needs time to change outfits and take a small rest, but these breaks were a bit boring and defused the energy. We had to sit through a slide show of her in various postures and dresses…. a real star. As for the last break, it was simply a black-out that lasted a few minutes…. In spite of all this, it was a good night. It’s not that often that we get artists of this calibre performing in Hong Kong.
Filed under Hong Kong, Music