Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Odd Adventures With Your Other Father by Norman Prentiss / A Change Of Heart by Mark Benjamin / As Long As You Can by Tony Knighton

Odd Adventures with your Other Father by Norman Prentiss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Buy the ebook from Amazon.co.uk

I received a copy of Odd Adventures With Your Other Father by Norman Prentiss as a reward for successfully nominating the book for publication through the KindleScout programme. Its publication date is Today! (31st May 2016).

Celia used to have two fathers, Jack and Shawn, but Jack died when she was only four. Now she is deemed old enough to understand, Shawn has been reliving memories of a fantastic road trip he and Jack took together straight from college so Celia can understand more about her other father. A closeted gay couple in the 1980s, Jack and Shawn felt obliged to keep their relationship secret and this resulted in not only a strong loving bond between the two, but also a deeper, darker psychic connection. Odd Adventures With Your Other Father has two main story threads: Celia's present day summer at camp and Shawn's telling of tales from the road trip.

I was hooked by the unusual premise of this story from the start and, although it is horror with descriptions of bizarre images and occurrences, I didn't find it too gory. Having said that, I could have done without being reminded of That Scene in Un Chien Andalou! The relationship between the younger Jack and Shawn is completely believable and this book is as much a romance as a horror novel. I enjoyed reading about their escapades and was also moved by their partnership and emotional bond. Celia and her friend Nora bring a lighter aspect to the story and their interactions, especially their dialogue, is sharply observed and fells genuine - often difficult to achieve with teenage characters.

I wouldn't be surprised if Odd Adventures With Your Other Father goes on to become a cult read as its blend of genres and subject matter is innovative and thought-provoking and should definitely appeal to a much wider audience than purely horror fans. The supernatural situations mirror and highlight real life homophobia and the psychological damage it causes, but in such a way that Odd Adventures never feels like it's hammering home a message. It's simply a wonderfully entertaining read.

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Books by Norman Prentiss / Horror / Books from America

A Change Of Heart by Mark Benjamin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Buy the ebook from Amazon.co.uk

I was contacted by author Mark Benjamin to review his new book, A Change Of Heart. The urban fantasy novel was published two days ago, the 29th May 2016.

Bullied his entire life, orphaned university graduate, Gabriel Harper, is bitten by a Royal vampire moments before sunrise, transforming him over the course of six terrible and exhilarating nights into a hybrid - human by day, vampire by night. Just as he learns to come to grips with what he has become, the Silver Legion, a covert vampire-hunting organisation, kidnap him and his three friends, forcing them to join their clandestine crusade. However, the Silver Legion remain unaware of Gabriel's nature until it is too late.

A Change Of Heart starts out well. The descriptions of Gabriel's attack by vampire is exciting and I enjoyed the anticipation of learning how he slowly changed, day by day, from entirely human to part-vampire. We meet Gabriel's friends and his dysfunctional adoptive parents which provides interesting background. The political machinations of both vampires and Legion are intricate with lots of betrayals and power struggles.

The novel is written with an unusual structure of short chapters being written in the third person, but with each from the viewpoint of a different character. Chapters are named for their leading character, but then mostly use a generic 'he said ..., he did ..., he thought ..., etc' (or occasionally 'she') which made it difficult for me to keep track of whose story thread I was following and, frequently, who individual sentences were actually referring to. Sometimes we jump person within half a page, other times we might stick with someone for three or four pages, and with a large cast, few of which we get to know well, I had to keep stepping away from the story to establish the protagonist. (Since I wrote this review, Mark has re-edited to address this problem prior to the paperback launch next month.) This considerably slowed the novel's pace as did the repetition of reading about the same events and discussions from multiple viewpoints.

I stuck with it though! There is a good overall storyline here which just needs stronger editing to allow it to shine. However, once we draw near to the close, I felt unrewarded. I had expected that the story threads I had painstakingly kept track of would be woven into an exciting finale showdown. However, (can you see my pet hate looming here?) most are left unresolved and tangled as our story just peters out and its potentially satisfying ending is replaced instead with a brief bizarre swerve into a completely new environment - presumably something to do with a planned sequel. It isn't quite as annoying as Amos Cassidy's abrupt mid-fight cessation (Crimson Midnight), but is enough to put me off further books in this series.

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Books by Mark Benjamin / Fantasy / Books from England

As Long As You Can by Tony Knighton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of As Long As You Can by Tony Knighton from the publisher Crime Wave Press as a reward for signing up to their email newsletter. The short story is taken from Knighton's collection entitled Happy Hour And Other Philadelphia Cruelties and I am happy to have now got a copy of the whole book on the strength of this one tale.

Hank is a lifetime hustler whose day job is in a little call centre with a difference. This one was set up to con unsuspecting senior citizens out of large sums of money. Hank's second job is remarkably similar except that it uses stolen information in an extra layer of scamming - and his boss will not be happy if he finds out. As Long As You Can is eighteen pages long so doesn't have swathes of detail, but Knighton has created interesting characters with a sense of real poignancy to Hank's background and there is a disconcerting sense of menace throughout.

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Books by Tony Knighton / Short stories / Books from America

Monday, 30 May 2016

We're back in Banwell, Somerset

We stayed at Cottage Farm, a pretty Caravan Club CL in
Limestone Link sign 
Banwell, Somerset, for one night last year and have returned here now for several nights as it is a lovely spot in its own right, but also handy for popping up to Bristol. It's possible that we might not be able to stay here again in the future though. Due to retirement, the Stimsons are selling up and moving on. So if any readers are interested in buying a CL campsite with house, workshops and a seven acre smallholding in North Somerset, the details are on estate agent's David James' website!

We didn't get much chance to explore locally last year so have already rectified that with a nine mile walk on Friday. Dave plotted the route by tracing footpaths on our Ordnance Survey map and printed out the relevant section. Isn't technology wonderful! We parked up in a small layby just past Banwell Garden Centre on the A371 which was handy for a footpath heading across fields towards Winscombe and Sandford cemetery. There seemed to be more little signs indicating the Butcombe Brewery Mendip Pub Trail than any other route, but we never actually saw a pub!

After strolling through Sandford, we kept heading East on a
Wild garlic carpet 
woodlandy footpath towards the ski centre and beyond towards Dinghurst. Much of the walk was through woodland of one kind or another. It varied from being cool against the mugginess of the day to be very close and stuffy, and did mean that we didn't get much in the way of long views. We did love seeing and smelling wild garlic flowers everywhere. Torbay area might be distinguished by blue bells at this time of year. North Somerset is carpeted with wild garlic. Our walk was a sort-of figure of eight with the second loop being on part of the Limestone Link route around Dolebury Warren. This 36 mile route joins the limestone of the Cotswolds to that of the Mendip Hills. We followed it for about forty minutes below Dolebury Warren before turning almost back on ourselves and climbing to return back above Dolebury. This ancient site is looked after by the National Trust and Avon Wildlife Trust and one of the highlights for us was walling across the hill and ditch remains of an Iron Age fort. It was apparently built about 500BC and, although it is not as extensive or well delineated as Maiden Castle, it still felt pretty amazing to be there.

After a complete loop of Dolebury Warren, our return
Lime kilns at Sandford Award Land 
footpath took us to Sandford Batch around the other side of Lyncombe Hill to our outward journey. It turns out that Sandford has quite a history too. In 1799, an Act of Parliament awarded land with a quarry to the Ecclesiastical Parish of Winscombe which provided stone to build and repair public roads and properties. The quarry area is now preserved as Sandford Award Land and includes these late eighteenth century Lime Kilns (like the one at Dornafield), remains of an 1860s forge furnace and the old railway track route. We were both pretty exhausted by the time we reached this point so didn't spend as much time exploring as we could have done. The area boasts a great network of footpaths though so we could easily make it a starting location for future walks. Instead, this time, we headed back to the layby and our car, pausing only in the middle of a field to unfurl our waterproofs as a sudden heavy shower tried to drench us!

Sunday, 29 May 2016

An afternoon in Ashburton, Dartmoor

The small town of Ashburton lies on the southern edge of
Ashburton Methodist Church 
Dartmoor, close to our Lemonford campsite. A desire to buy smoked tofu (to make this risotto) led Dave to discover its The Ark healthfood shop and we used that as an excuse to go and visit. The ancient Stannary town, so designated because of its role in quality checking and weighing of locally mined tin, has a history going back many centuries with archaeological finds dating back to 3000 BC having been found here although the earliest evidence of a settlement 'only' dates back to around 500 BC. Ashburton still contains a good selection of historic buildings and an interesting photographic archive is located at the Museum.

Ashburton no longer relies on the tin industry for its economy and now is more a mecca for arts and foodie types. As well as visiting the aforementioned Ark, we enjoyed browsing in The Fish Deli which is an upmarket fishmonger specialising in Moroccan cuisine ingredients and stocking gorgeously patterned cookware and tableware.

This driftwood horsehead sculpture in a window drew our
Heather Jansch sculpture 
attention to Heather Jansch's gallery which unfortunately was closed. Heather makes superbly realistic life-size sculptures of Arabian horses which are then cast in bronze. Her work has been sold worldwide and there are photographs of many of her works on her website.

We probably won't have room for a life-sized bronze horse in our new flat, so we decided to browse a couple of Ashburton's antique and artisan furniture shops instead. If we had the right budget, we could have filled every room with fabulous items! Fortunately, as the flat isn't actually ours yet so we couldn't start moving items in even if we wanted too, we managed to keep our credit cards in our pockets!

Ashburton is also dotted with tea shops, cafes and restaurants for mid-stroll refreshments and I was very tempted upon reading a poster in the Cafe Green Ginger's window. They have a Pudding Club on the 2nd Friday of every month. What a shame we'll be in Sussex by the time the next 2nd Friday rolls around!

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Ted Hughes poetry at Stover Country Park and tea at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen

I spotted the name Ted Hughes on the Stover Country Park
sign board as we drove past on the way to Trago Mills a week or so ago. Loving his book The Iron Man as a child, I was keen to discover the advertised Poetry Trail within the Park as well as the Park itself.

Stover Country Park is now owned and managed by Devon County Council, but its history goes back several centuries. Young orphan James Templer ran away to sea to make his fortune - and actually succeeded! Returning in 1765, he purchased an 80,000 acre estate on the edge of Dartmoor and had Stover House (which is now an independent school) built for him and its extensive grounds landscaped. Much of the original grounds is what now forms the 114 acres of the Park. Run as a local nature reserve, it comprises woodland, grassland, heathland, lake and marsh which provide differing habitats for both resident wildlife and visitors. The 14 acre lake is one of the main features. In the early 1900s it was a popular skating spot in winter.  This no longer happens though and, now, the lake is so important for dragonflies that it was designated a site of Special Scientific Interest in 2002. We spotted varied types of dragonfly including vivid blue ones and bright scarlet ones!

The Ted Hughes Poetry Trail was created in 2006. The large
River through Stover Country Park 
wooden book sculpture pictured above lists the sixteen poems that can be found by following a loop walk through the Park. The whole walk is about two miles, but this can be shortened if wanted. Selected poems are displayed on tall wooden columns and my favourites were The Kingfisher and Work And Play. Ironically, the column for poem number thirteen, an extract from The Iron Man (a story about a giant), is actually being slowly destroyed by the tiniest of creatures. There must be an ants' nest nearby and we watched them eating away at the wood!

I think our favourite facilities at the park is a short section of woodland aerial walkway along which we walked up to five metres above ground. We were delighted by a very tame squirrel which posed for photographs, then when we got to the farthest side of the walkway a loitering wildlife photographer told us he had seen a Great Spotted Woodpecker coming to a conveniently hung bird feeder. We waited briefly and it returned, twice, in a flurry of black, white and red. It was taking food from the feeder and then stashing it in bark cracks for later. Unfortunately the many squirrels knew this and, apparently, often nicked the food soon after it was hidden! From the walkway we also saw a Jay and a Nuthatch.

After our couple of hours at Stover Country Park (£1.50 for
Former coach house that is now the
Devon Guild of Craftsmen 
2 hours parking!), we drove to Bovey Tracy and the fantastic Devon Guild of Craftsmen gallery and shop. It turns out there is a lot of work by Devon craftswomen too! We started out in the Terrace Cafe from which I can highly recommend the Chocolate Date, Almond And Olive Slice and I was quite envious of Dave's beautifully light Carrot Cake too. The Terrace Cafe is upstairs with great views across to Dartmoor from its outside, err, terrace!

Back downstairs again, we admired an exhibition of prints by Devon wood engraver Hilary Paynter. She had taken aging bikers as her subjects for one humorous range of prints, and there were more sobering images illustrating dementia and a dwindling class photograph.

The Guild's shop is a dangerous place! Crafts range from
pottery and leatherworking to glassware and millinery. There is furniture, tableware, clothing, jewellery, art and sculpture, and so beautifully laid out that it is hard to come away empty handed. I nearly managed, but did buy Just A Card. The Devon Guild of Craftsmen is certainly somewhere I could return to again and again and the Guild was even advertising for cafe staff. How perfect would that job be?! It's probably a good thing that our new Torquay base isn't exactly commutable. All my wages would go on cake and precious things!

Friday, 27 May 2016

Enver Hoxha by Blendi Fevziu / From The Mouth Of The Whale by Sjon / The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

Enver Hoxha by Blendi Fevziu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of Enver Hoxha by Blendi Fevziu from its publishers, I B Tauris, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.

Other than a couple of Kiva loans to entrepreneurs in the country I knew practically nothing about the tiny Balkan country of Albania. Reading this newly translated biography of its former dictator, Enver Hoxha, has helped me to understand more about their forty year exclusion. Author Blendi Fevziu is an Albanian journalist and the whole book is written in a reportage style, not dry at all, but firmly factual and pragmatic. Where truth is uncertain this is clearly indicated by the language used and many key events, particularly during Hoxha's ascent and early years of power, are now difficult to establish exactly due to his having since ordered the deaths of witnesses who might have refuted his own version. A prolific writer, Hoxha wrote over 70 books during his lifetime many of which apparently were 'revised' versions of his life so, while Fevziu had extensive material from which to research this biography, gleaning the truth must have been incredibly difficult.

Hoxha's unremarkable early life and dissolute student years in France seemed a strange beginning for a paranoid dictator. His selection as Communist Party leader was more due to his lack of personal drive meaning that he hadn't alienated any of the factions fighting for control, but once he got the nomination, there was no way he was going to relinquish power and maintained absolute control for forty-one years. An incredible achievement even though he effectively destroyed his country and totally isolated himself in the process. I found Fevziu's biography absolutely fascinating both as a overview history of post-war Albania and as a portrait of Hoxha himself. It was disappointing to learn of underhand British interference and finances helping the Communist regime to establish itself as the war ended (is there anywhere we haven't helped to destroy?). I did find it difficult to keep track of who everybody was, especially during the early chapters when timelines frequently jumped around, but once the narrative settled into a more linear approach, identification became easier.

As a cautionary tale against the effects of personality cults and an illustration of how large numbers of people can be convinced to follow self-destructive ideologies, this is an important book. Details of Hoxha's obsessive public relations campaign to present himself as he wanted to be seen and remembered are interestingly similar to celebrity and brand campaigns nowadays and it worked. On its launch a quarter century after Hoxha's 1985 death, some Albanians burned original language copies of this biography in the streets because it dared to criticise their former leader even though he left their country technologically worse off than when he took power, with hundreds dead, thousands imprisoned or interned, and hundreds of thousands starving.

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Books by Blendi Fevziu / biography / Books from Albania

From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I registered this book at Bookcrossing

I bought a second-hand copy of From The Mouth Of The Whale from Totnes Community Bookshop, intrigued by the idea of an Icelandic book. I have read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, set in Iceland, but no books actually by Icelandic authors.

In From The Mouth Of The Whale Sjon blends fact with fiction to produce a bewildering portrait of 1600s Iceland. Genuine historical figure Jon Gudmundsson the Learned really did exist, did marry as astronomer wife and did witness the massacre of Basque whalers. Here he is imagined as Jonas Palmasson, a boy prodigy who becomes a learned man and is ostracised by his community. Outlawed and isolated on a tiny island off Iceland's coast, he must survive as best he can without any help and bereft of his library, but eventually with the company of his wife. We see the story through Jonas' eyes and it is difficult to tell what is truth, what would have been seen as truth four centuries ago, and what is delusion within Jonas' mind. I was fascinated by scenes such as the devout Catholic village unearthing their banned idols in order to worship them and the text is dotted with short textbook extracts describing the bizarre properties believed of plants and animals. Jumping around in place and time, I was able to piece together Jonas' memories to make sense of his life and the politics of his time. Having visited Iceland, I was easily able to imagine locations such as Thingvallir parliament, but I would have liked more detail in some of the descriptive passages. From The Mouth Of The Whale cleverly brings historic Iceland to life and I would be interested to read more of Sjon's work.

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Books by Sjon / Historical / Books from Iceland

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I registered this book at Bookcrossing

I swapped for a copy of The Fifth Child at the book exchange at Camping Bois de Coderc in France. The novella is billed as horror but I didn't find it fitted into what I would expect from that genre as, although the eponymous child is described as not human, the book is more an examination of social expectations and how we treat people who are different to ourselves.

Harriet and David meet during an office party in the swinging sixties. Both are considered 'old fashioned' by their friends and family. Neither wants to take advantage of the new freedoms of the era and both were effectively sidelined until they met each other. We see their brief courtship and the purchase of a ridiculously large house after their swift marriage. Harriet is soon pregnant with the first of the large family they both desire and, as the years go by and their brood increases, Harriet and David's house become the place to be. Family and friends descend at Christmas, Easter and the summer holidays filling the house with happiness. Instead of being mocked for being uptight and straight laced, the couple are now envied for their welcome and (assisted) generosity.

All is perfect until Harriet's more than usually difficult fifth pregnancy and the birth of Ben, a strange stocky child who physically develops faster than his age should allow, but mentally seems remote and unable to understand basic social concepts. The catalyst for visitors cutting short their stays or making excuses to be elsewhere, Harriet feels blamed for his existence and Ben's menacing presence upsets the other children. After violent acts, David and his parents arrange for Ben to be sent away, leaving Harriet apparently the only one experiencing guilt at his absence.

Lessing has written a compelling novella which I found difficult to put down. It does seem rather dated now although I can't quite put my finger on why, but asks deep questions about how difficult children are treated. Ben is presented as less (or perhaps more) than human, but does this mean he should be excluded? Does his right to a normal family upbringing override the potential safety of his siblings in the same environment? How much freedom should children be allowed in order for them to be happy? These questions are just as relevant today as in the 1980s when The Fifth Child was written and I don't think the answers are any easier. We know what we think we should do and feel, but if this was your family, what decision would you take?

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Books by Doris Lessing / Horror / Books from England

Thursday, 26 May 2016

#ThrowbackThursday - where we were on this date in Mays past

For my second monthly #ThrowbackThursday feature, I
The People's Monarch
Photo courtesy of @eccn_news 
am taking today's date of the 26th May and revisiting blog posts published on the same date (or thereabouts) in years gone by. It's great having this reservoir of posts to click back through because my memory can be somewhat unreliable and we've done so much in the past few years! If you've been following me since 2012 then I hope you enjoy rediscovering these moments. If you're newer to Stephanie Jane then this is some of what you've missed out on!

On the 26th of May 2012 I blogged on Theatrical Eastbourne about The People's Monarch which was a giant photographic installation created by Helen Marshall to celebrate the Jubilee. It had opened at Eastbourne's Towner Gallery the day before and I got there early in the day to be one of the first visitors to see it!

One year later and I had just posted a letter booking us into
Our first caravan campsite 
our first ever caravanning campsite. We had just bought Bailey and were now going to spend a weekend in our very own caravan for the very first time! I was so excited! We're a bit blase about it all now, but I remember writing a list of everything we needed to do and check before setting off and upon arrival. It seemed incredibly complicated back then - and I still haven't completely got the hang of the jockey wheel. It usually needs to go a couple of turns further than the end of the pole. Checking the old links for this post, I don't think the Old Mill campsite is still open for touring caravans. Their website has been taken over by adverts and we've heard talk of only static parkhomes there now.

Orlando audiobook 
May the 24th in 2014 was a book review day and I posted about a trio of very different books. I had listened to the audiobook of Orlando by Virginia Woolf, and had read both Mysteries Of Mithra by Franz Cumont and Witness The Dead by Craig Robertson. Amazing transgender fiction, interesting religious history and a pretty dire thriller.

Mam Tor 
We were well into our UK summer tour by May 2015 and had pitched up in the gorgeous scenery of the Peak District. My blog post for the 25th of the month recounts our nine mile walk from Lose Hill to Mam Tor, one of the iconic Peak District routes. We shared our day with lots of other walkers which gave an unusual community feel to it - long distance walks usually result in us seeming to have the world to ourselves. It was a beautiful day and we treated ourselves to ice cream in Castleton at the end. Both Dave and I loved the Peak District and I definitely think we will return at some point for more superb walks.

That's all for this month's reminiscing. If you want to share your own #ThrowbackThursday posts, feel welcome to drop a link in the Comments. Next month I'll be remembering the 30th of Junes.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Walking from Lemonford campsite to Rora Wood and Liverton

One aspect of our current campsite, Lemonford, that most
Vintage tractor at Liverton 
attracted us to it is its proximity to Dartmoor and, therefore, potentially good walks. We set out on one a couple of days ago which Dave had plotted from our new Ordnance Survey Landranger map 191. Starting from Lemonford and walking in to Bickington, we crossed over the River Lemon and took the second left, passing under the A38. We then passed a turning to Yeo Farm, instead taking the bridleway towards Goodstone Woods. I wondered if Yeo Farm was a contributor to Yeo Valley, but couldn't find any connections mentioned online. There is a beautifully picturesque Bed and Breakfast called Owls Rattle on the junction. (They're not taking bookings right now though)

At a fork, we took the right-hand footpath towards
I never get bored of bluebell woods 
Ramshorn Down. There was a little uncertainty leaving the first field. It turns out that through the leaning metal gate is the correct route! The narrow wooded path follows a pretty little stream for quite a way, emerging at Coombe Farm where a protective collie dog didn't allow us much thinking time. We should have gone straight ahead uphill, but actually took the right fork along a rough road away from the farm. It didn't really matter as we then rejoined our footpath by turning left at the tarmaced road and completing a triangle. Our track to Ramshorn Down, after a short distance on the right, climbed up onto open moorland with stunning panoramic views in almost 360 degrees. We spotted Lemonford below us and looked over to Haytor where we previously walked a couple of weeks ago.

View to Haytor (you'll need to squint to see it though!) 
Descending towards Rora House, we passed either several little or one huge equestrian establishment. There are numerous tyre jumps by the sides of tracks too. The three-way junction where we turned down to the House only has signs pointing in the other two directions, but it is marked as a right of way from the other end. Rora House is an elegant pinkish coloured building, unfortunately obscured by scaffolding at the moment, and is a religious retreat for 'Regions Overseas, Regions Around'. I think the house must have been named first!

Liverton hamlet, on the far side of Rora Wood, is picture
Song thrush egg (?)
postcard pretty, although a possible scrap metal merchant on the outskirts spoils the effect. I think the vintage tractor pictured above was his though. We ate our picnic lunch perched on a road bridge just before the village, and then followed the road through as the farthest point of our circular walk. Returning around the other side of Rora Wood, we climbed steadily uphill along forestry tracks and paths. There are lots of options here and the Wood seems popular with dog walkers. I am not sure of our exact route, but we ended up coming back to the three-way junction and retracing our steps to Ramshorn Down, now with those expansive views in the other direction. There are two tracks marked on the map to cross the Down. We had come up from the Coombe Farm direction and so headed back along the other track. This entailed climbing over a stile prior to a short but very steep downhill section after crossing the road. I didn't like this bit at all, but had we done the route the other way round we would have had a very steep uphill and Dave certainly wouldn't have liked that!

We returned along the same woodland path as we had taken on the way out. There are a couple of places where unofficial small diversions around fallen trees or muddy patches make the path vague for a while. Our whole route was about six miles and we were delighted with the range of environments we saw. Were we staying here longer, we would certainly do more walking from Lemonford as it is a great base location. The little roads are very quiet and there are plenty of small villages and hamlets to discover as well as Dartmoor itself.

Monday, 23 May 2016

The Life Of Elves by Muriel Barbery / I Wore Heels To The Apocalypse by C H Clepitt / The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I was very happy when one of my favourite book publishers, Gallic Books, contacted me to ask if I would like a review copy of a new Muriel Barbery novel, The Life Of Elves. The book is very different to Barbery's previous novels such as The Elegance Of The Hedgehog which I have noticed has upset other reviewers.

Set in a timeless France and Italy, the story revolves around the mystical connection between two young girls. Maria was abandoned in a French village as a baby, the only clue to her origins being two Spanish words embroidered onto her wraps. Clara was brought up in Italy and finds herself a child prodigy pianist. I loved Barbery's descriptions of music and the evocations of sound. Clara's flights of imagination at these points, seeing mountains and streams or the stone cages that are cities intricately woven through the melodies she plays, are superbly written and some of the most visionary prose passages I have ever read. This alone is the reason why I would urge people to buy The Life Of Elves.

However, alongside such beauty also comes frustration as, even after finishing it, I still don't really know what this book is about. Supernatural beings in the form of Elves have come into the human world and Maria's village comes under attack, but I never understood why or even really who by. Perhaps experienced readers of fantasy novels would find the overriding story ar so obvious that Barbery felt she didn't need to make it explicit. Personally, at the time, I was happy to simply be swept along in the whirl of words, but now I am trying to write a review I think it would have been nice to have known exactly what was going on!

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Books by Muriel Barbery / Fantasy / Books from France

I Wore Heels to the Apocalypse by C.H. Clepitt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Buy the ebook from Amazon.co.uk

I enjoyed a previous C H Clepitt witchy read, The Book Of Abisan, so was happy to be offered an advance copy of her newest novella intriguingly entitled I Wore Heels To The Apocalypse. The book will be launched on the 26th of May and there is a two day Facebook party in celebration starting on the 23rd May.

I Wore Heels To The Apocalypse tells the story of web designer Kerry who, having dressed snappily for a business interview, then finds herself hopelessly attired for escaping exploding coffee shops and general running away as The Apocalypse takes place all around her. Exasperated at becoming the generic pathetic female, she befriends a talking badger (as you do) and eventually finds that she might have a useful skill or two after all.

I Wore Heels is a whimsical exploration of survival in desperate times. The characters are more caricatures than fully rounded portrayals, but their adventure takes interesting turns and is always entertaining. Personally I would have preferred more background and description and less chat as the dialogue isn't always convincing, but otherwise this is fun escapism - and there's possibly zombies!

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Books by C H Clepitt / indie authors / Books from England

The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is one of my WorldReads from Spain.

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I read The Midnight Palace in September 2013, but wasn't blogging my mini book reviews back then. I re-discovered a few recently so am adding them into the next few book review trios.

I didn't realise this was a YA title when I bought it, another Oxfam find. I loved Shadow of the Wind and was hoping for more of the same. Midnight Palace does not have the beautiful poetic prose of Shadow. However, it does have good atmosphere with a strong sense of place, and is a gripping adventure story. I would recommend this to adults as a light fantasy thriller and a good holiday read.

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Books by Carlos Ruiz Zafon / Young adult / Books from Spain

Sunday, 22 May 2016

#TreatYourself - special offers that caught my eye!

It's now the second day of rain at Lemonford. Yesterday I spent creating a new bookish blog (which will officially launch on the 1st of June) so that passed a bit of time. Today I am a tad bored! I thought I could entertain myself by rounding up a few potential treats for you. If you follow me on Twitter you might already have seen some of these, but this first one is brand new!

I've seen vague mentions of a new Harry Potter book but
hadn't taken much notice until it was highlighted at Waterstones this morning. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is half-price in hardback. It's actually a play script for the official West End production, written by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne, and due to be published on the 31st July. I wouldn't be surprised if the first edition has sold out long before then!
Pre-order yours for £10, reduced from £20

Also in the theatrical line, this time two London plays:
former Dr Who Matt Smith is to star in Unreachable at the Royal Court Theatre from the 1st July until the 6th of August. The play is about a film director's obsessive quest to capture the perfect light.
Tickets for Unreachable are on sale now from London Theatre Direct.

If that sounds a bit deep, perhaps 'razor sharp' new comedy The Spoils at Trafalgar Studios will be more your thing. Big Bang Theory's Kunal Nayyar stars alongside Jesse Eisenberg who also wrote the play. Unpopular bully Ben discovers that his school crush is going to marry a banker and sets out to win her back. The Spoils was hailed as 'a triumph' in New York.
Tickets for The Spoils are on sale now from London Theatre Direct.

Time for a cuppa now and Twinings are offering 3 for the
price of 2 on all their Single Origins Tea Caddies throughout May so you've still got just over a week to take advantage of the offer.

And why not serve your tea in this gorgeous Emperor's Bird tea set by Alison Appleton. Created from De Hua porcelain and black clay, the five piece set has a literary connection having been inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale The Emperor and The Nightingale. I love the little white bird as the teapot lid handle.
The Emperor's Bird tea set retails at £58.

For the kids, English Heritage have some fun Princess or Knight bedding sets available at the moment. For a limited time, you can get a matching door sign with every single bedding set purchased. At checkout simply enter code EHP5D for the Princess bedding set and sign or EHK5D for the Knight bedding set and sign.

Plus, if you're stuck for half-term holiday ideas, English Heritage membership might be something to consider. A year's family membership is £92 for two adults and up to 12 children (12?!) and gets you entry into English Heritage properties all over the country. They frequently have special events over the school holidays. If you pay by direct debit, English Heritage are offering an extra three months free so that's fifteen months for the price of twelve.


Saturday, 21 May 2016

Moving onto Lemonford campsite and visiting Trago Mills

After two weeks each at the Devon campsites Widend and
A Dornafield rabbit 
Dornafield, we are now settled in at Lemonford, near Bickington, for a week and a day before we head into Somerset. We were a little sad to say goodbye to our new Dornafield friend who you can see checking out our stuff in this photo. This not-so-little wild rabbit was so relaxed around people that it wandered into our awning several times!

Lemonford was less than a half hour drive from Dornafield and getting to the campsite doesn't involve any single track roads which was nice with the caravan on tow. I am always a little nervous of those kinds of road! A seasonal deal means that we are now paying £100 per week including electric here instead of the £99 at Dornafield. Lemonford is nowhere near as immaculately groomed, but the upside of that is that it seems much quieter. There is continuous background traffic noise, but I can tune that out. Our pitch is hardstanding in a grassy area with trees and the water and waste water are only a short walk away. There is a bit of a step up to both so I now know not to let the waste master get too heavy!

The little shop-reception has basic groceries and a couple
Out pitch at Lemonford 
of shelves of books to swap. They also sell local pink Ordnance Survey maps at a very good price of £6.99 so we got number 191 (Okehampton and North Dartmoor) to go with our existing number 202 (Torbay and South Dartmoor). It is possible to walk onto Dartmoor straight from Lemonford and we did one such route today which I will blog about soon. Other facilities include a laundry area with communal drying lines and sanitary buildings which are a bit dated, but clean and with a good sized shower cubicle that stays warm because it is effectively its own little room. Lots of the pitches here seem to be set up for the season, but with their caravans unoccupied so we have much of it to ourselves which seems ghost towny. Perhaps that will change over the weekend?

As well being very near to Dartmoor, Lemonford is also
A Trago Mills tower 
within easy driving distance of the locally famous Trago Mills - huge retail and entertainment complex which we had heard about from our friends Chris and Marta. We popped along for a visit after pitching up on Wednesday afternoon and found it to be a rather surreal experience! I was reminded of the huge Roy's of Wroxham department store(s) we saw last, but Trago Mills is even weirder! Most of the buildings are topped with these white towers, even the Co-op, and the items on sale range from motorbikes to furniture to food to musical instruments. Having not really intended to buy anything, we came away with two pillows, a box of DVD-Rs, a DVD of The Crucible and a banoffee cake. There are concession shops too which sell jewellery, goth fashions, fudge and sweets, swing sets and goodness knows what else, plus a large area of recreational attractions including radio controlled boats, a ride-on train, a model railway and amusement arcades. I couldn't quite believe the extent of the attractions crammed into the park! And I am not sure I would ever want to go back there - even though the cake was pretty good!

Thursday, 19 May 2016

We visit Cockington Court country park and craft centre

We met up with our artist friend Marta yesterday
ROC Creative wedding dress displayed at
Cockington Court 
afternoon. She is on a flying visit to the UK and suggested that we might like to spend some time together at Cockington Court. We had seen the Torbay attraction advertised, but hadn't yet got around to visiting so were happy to take up her idea. As it was a sunny afternoon we decided to walk in from the outskirts of Torquay, parking up near to the station and following a very pretty open woodland path into the Court grounds. Our alternative, which I had already checked via a Twitter conversation, was to park onsite. This is reasonably priced at £1 per hour up to three hours and £4.50 for over three hours (exact change needed for the machines). Cockington Court has been extensively renovated, part paid for by the European Development Fund, but still retains a real air of history and reminded of Alfriston - a historic village near to where we used to live in Sussex.

We started our visit with a drink at The Drum Inn which
The Drum Inn, Cockington 
was built in 1936 and sports a blue plaque outside because it was designed by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. The coffee is pretty good and Marta was pleased they had St Austell Brewery's Proper Job beer on tap.

Outside we could see picturesque thatched cottages and a water wheel being repaired as we walked by. The number of ice cream shops and tea rooms gave us an idea of just how busy Cockington Court must get in the height of summer, but it was pleasantly tranquil on a weekday May afternoon. There are over twenty artisan studios whose windows we peered into. I loved the gorgeous colours at OurGlass glassblowers workspace and was tempted by the four-tiered chocolate-covered cakes at Cockington Chocolate Company - almost worth getting married for, except I wouldn't want to share!

Cockington Court house 

Leaving the studios behind, we crossed the windy cricket
Stairwell window 
pitch towards Cockington Court house itself. Apparently a thriving Saxon community in 1066, Cockington was seized and passed to a conquering Norman family, the FitzMartins, who promptly changed their name to deCockington. The family remained until 1375 when they sold the estate to Sir John Cary. A Chief Baron of Exchequer, his family owned the estate continuously, despite beheadings and forced exiles, until they were ruined by the civil war. Exeter goldsmith Roger Mallock bought Cockington Court in 1654 and also, later, Torquay's Torre Abbey. The beautiful stained glass window here features stylised 'M' letters which I presume were for Mallock. William Of Orange was met on British shores at the quay by a Rawlyn Mallock in 1688 and this third family continued to live here until 1933.

Cockington might no longer be a place for making history,
Cockington church 
but echoes of its past are everywhere - even the church has real battlements! Nowadays, the emphasis is s on art and creativity and we were lucky to catch a ROC Creative art exhibition in the Kitchen Gallery. Entitled Memories, its publicity poster indicated it should have finished in April so I don't know for how much longer it will continue, but the work was still on show as of the 17th of May and included the gorgeous wedding dress illustrated in the first photo at the top of this post. ROC Creative is an inclusive arts-led project supporting people with learning difficulties. The Wedding Dress was originally created as part of an exhibition to commemorate 200 years of Singer (of sewing machine fame). Artists were given plain white cotton cloth and asked to create a garment that evoked a significant personal memory. ROC Creative's dress is transfer printed with photographs important to the members and staff who wanted to take part.

As Cockington Court was closing for the day as we left the Kitchen Gallery, we started back through the village and along the pretty path. Our entertainment wasn't quite finished though because Dave expertly crossed the stream and back balancing on a sloping fallen tree!

A circus career beckons? 

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Told From The Hips by Andrea Amasson / No Longer At Ease by Chinua Achebe / The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Told from the Hips by Andrea Amosson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Buy the ebook from Amazon.co.uk
Buy the paperback from The Book Depository

I received a copy of Told From The Hips by Andrea Amosson from its publishers, Nowadays Orange Productions, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review. This collection of ten short stories and vignettes is mostly set in Chile or features people emigrating to or from the country. The tales centre around strong women or women whose situations bring out their inner strength and I found it a remarkably inspirational and uplifting book to read, despite the dark turns of some of the stories.

We visit Copenhagen with a young Chilean woman whose ex-pat aunt and uncle now life in the city. Effectively exiled from their homeland, the aunt and uncle make weekly cycle rides to a flea market. Their niece is underwhelmed by the trip until she realises that this is the closest her relations have to a remembrance of home. Then, in Cover Story, a different young woman is so excited to have landed her ideal journalism job and had her first article printed in the newspaper. She learns the hard way that not all women believe in sisterhood though as her dreams are spitefully ripped away.

Ananuca and Chachacoma are a particularly moving pair of stories about an orphan who never knew her mother and the mother who was given away in marriage for the price of a few animals, losing her baby daughter 'to the city' during a particularly harsh winter. I loved the imagery of this story and that of The Blood And The Escape where Teresa, declared insane, walks barefoot to a railway station to escape imprisonment in a nunnery, but cannot steel herself to leave her daughter behind with 'the lump', her husband. In common with the final three stories, Octavia who is lost to gypsies, Marcelita's Amusement where a slow-witted girl decides to entrap a husband, and Suan who is born to a Chinese immigrant woman, simple effective prose and beautifully evoked characters make these the kind of tales that are good at face-value and become greater with pondering. The women and girls are real with easily relatable problems that are repeated the world over so, while there is a Chilean flavour to the writing, in many ways these stories could be told of women in many different countries. The whole collection is short and I easily read it in a couple of hours, but then returned the next day to read it again to make sure I had picked up on all the details and emotions.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Andrea Amosson / Short stories / Books from Chile

No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my WorldReads - Nigeria book choices.

Buy the audiobook download from Audible via Amazon.co.uk
Buy the paperback from The Book Depository
Buy the paperback from Waterstones

I originally listened to No Longer At Ease by Chinua Achebe in February 2013 and chose to return to the book now so I could include its review in my WorldReads - Nigeria collection. This Audible download is narrated by Peter Jay Fernandez who does a pretty good job although his British and Irish accents are mangled at times. I don't know Nigerian accents well enough to tell if those are accurate or not.

No Longer At Ease is the story of Obi Okonkwo, a talented young man whose village, Umuofia, clubbed together to pay for him to be the first from there to study in England - a fantastic honour. The village did want Obi to study law in order to further their interests legally and Obi switched courses to study English literature, but a university degree is still something to be very proud of and Umuofia welcomes back their son with celebrations. Swept along by expectations Obi lands himself a prized government job at the ministry dealing with scholarships, an apartment in a formerly whites-only enclave, a new Morris car and the fantastic salary of seventy pounds a month. It's all obtained fairly, above board and Obi feels he represents the new face of Nigeria.

I loved how Achebe chips away at Obi's naive beliefs and expectations for his life. We know from the very beginning of the story that he will be shamed by bribe-taking, but his downfall is so cleverly portrayed that I felt sorry for him and completely understood his predicament. Torn in many directions, Obi finds himself not only standing against matter-of-course corruption, but also small town views opposing Lagos city experiences, and ancient beliefs still strong under the veneer of his Christian upbringing. The scholarship was actually a loan that must be repaid and keeping up appearances in the city is pricey; his younger brother's school fees compete with those of his mother's hospital; his white boss repeatedly undermines Obi and his country; his girlfriend is of a forbidden caste; and then bills that he never imagined existed begin to pile up. From wonderful initial hope, No Longer At Ease is a portrayal of culture clashes between races, generations and belief systems and provides a valuable insight into how strong people need to be to live between all of those stools.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Chinua Achebe / Audiobooks / Books from Nigeria

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Buy the ebook from Amazon.co.uk
Buy the paperback from The Book Depository
Buy the paperback from Waterstones

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell is one of my 2016 TBR Pile Reading Challenge books, ie a book I have been meaning to read, but struggling to get around to. In this case its length has been putting me off. I am not a great fan of loooonnnng books! Of the twenty TBR list books I challenged myself to read this year, I think The Bone Clocks is only my fourth. Must try harder!

The Bone Clocks is a sweeping epic of a novel, told from multiple viewpoints and covering over half a century in time from 1984 until the 2040s. Everyday events are blended with an overall fantasy good-against-evil arc and several heavy lectures about how mankind is destroying the Earth and our own futures. We first follow young Holly Sykes, a fifteen year old runaway from Gravesend, in a Black Swan Green-like storyline with lots of nostalgic 1980s detail. Holly was easily the most believable of all Mitchell's characters and I enjoyed her segment of the book. The fantasy element introductions here are intriguing, but peripheral. A time jump later we meet privileged Cambridge student Hugo Lamb and are whirled into drunken parties, skiing trips and underhand machinations. We also begin to understand more about the supernatural forces at work. I was still quite happy with The Bone Clocks at this stage, but when we had to spend many pages with jaded fading author Crispin Hershey, I began to lose interest. This segment might be hilariously funny if you're part of the literary in crowd, but I just found it self-indulgent and patronising. It's followed by an anti-Iraq occupation harangue that, to me, read like a synopsis of Imperial Life In The Emerald City and then Mitchell goes all Ben Elton on us in his near-future dystopia where there's No Internet. Scream!!!

I did read The Bone Clocks all the way through to the end and there were significant parts of it that I thought were brilliant, hence my overall three star rating. I liked the nods to previous Mitchell books such as Black Swan Green and Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet and caught myself wondering what other nods I might have spotted had I read more Mitchell books - neat marketing ploy! However the storyline rambles around too many Important Issues leaving me feeling distinctly hectored on several occasions and I wasn't convinced by the supernatural thread. All that effort to save four lives a year yet leaving a higher body count in their wake!

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by David Mitchell / Fantasy / Books from England

Monday, 16 May 2016

Views From Bridges part two - walking Dartmoor from Lustleigh

For the second part of my Views From Bridges post pairing
The old Clam Bridge viewed from the new 
I am turning away from the superb National Theatre production and, instead, talking about actual bridges over which we crossed during our second Dartmoor walk of this season. We chose Number 18: Lustleigh And Becky Falls in our brilliant new Walk Dartmoor book. This walk takes in several pretty villages and hamlets as well as woodland paths and babbling brooks so it was a complete change of scene from our first walk last week.

Beginning by trying to find somewhere to park in the
Lustleigh sheep! 
gorgeous village of Lustleigh - we got lucky with a spot by the church - we were a little disappointed to see that the recommended tea rooms are closed down at the moment. Apparently the owners are retiring so the business is up for sale (and with the same estate agent, Bettesworths, as is selling a furniture shop we had wanted to visit in Newton Abbot). As it turned out, we weren't back in time to indulge in Afternoon Tea anyway! I liked these painted sheep by the church although I am not sure what the reason for their decoration was.

Setting off through a wonderful orchard which is now
Lustleigh May Queens' chair 
recreational space for the village, we passed by the May Queens' throne. The stone chair was designed by Doug Cooper and carved from local Blackingstone Quarry granite by Warren Pappas. It sits is atop a large boulder engraved with the names of all Lustleigh's May Queens from Vivienne Jenkin in 1968 to Abigail Carroll in 2015 and apparently a previous rock has names going back to 1905. The chair was still decorated with this year's May Day flowers, only slightly wilted, so I expect this year's queen, Talia Sullivan, will be immortalised there soon too.

The woodlands around this part of Dartmoor are beautiful,
Woodland near Lustleigh 
especially at this time of year when they are carpeted with bluebells. We saw both blue and white bluebells as we descended from Lustleigh and also pretty two-toned pink purslane flowers. This walk took in a variety of woodland areas with different trees dominating. Some were more open like the picture here, others very overgrown or, like Becky Falls Park, strewn with mossy boulders. The signposting is generally very good so we could often dispense with our book and Ordnance Survey map between waypoints. It was beautifully peaceful with just distant birdsong often the only sounds and we hardly saw any other walkers. We did step aside for two mad mountainbikers and Dave got a comment on his last-year-birthday-present t-shirt:

Our book had mentioned the authors 'gingerly crossing' the
The new bridge 
River Bovey at Clam Bridge and Dave had wondered whether this might be a bridge too far for my vertigo. The old bridge is pictured in the first photo at the top of this post and I think I would have been ok, if nervous. However that slender crossing is now closed and barricaded at each end for safety reasons. We learned that some locals aren't very happy about this even though there is now a new £35,000 bridge right alongside, because it doesn't have the historical significance (or adventure factor) of the original.

Once over the bridge, we continued on to the famous waterfall at Becky Falls. Our route followed a public footpath through the privately owned land and we did catch sight of the brook tumbling, but in order to get good views of the waterfall you need to buy a ticket to the park. Having been so impressed with High Force and Low Force last year we aren't sure yet if we will splash out on Becky Falls too.

Finally, steep climbs up from Hisley Bridge towards Hisley
itself gave us long views out over Lustleigh Cleave and Trendlebere Down. The bridge is an old stone packhorse bridge and has a lovely sense of timelessness to it.

We took quite a bit longer than our book suggested for this walk - 3 1/2 hours as opposed to their 2 1/2. We are putting this down to a combination of too much time spent pointing at things and taking photographs, and to being a tad out of condition for the uphill bits! It's an excellent walk though and we were very happy to have been guided along this route past sights that we probably wouldn't otherwise have found. We finished up with a spot of good luck too: we just got into the village shop as the church clock was striking six so were able to buy ourselves each a delicious and well-earned ice cream before they closed up for the day.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Views From Bridges part one - @NTlive Young Vic cinema screening

The first of a pair of tenuously linked posts today! I want to
talk about the superb National Theatre live production we saw at Dartington Hall's Barn Cinema on Thursday evening and our Dartmoor woodlands walk on Friday afternoon both of which incorporate views from bridges.

A View From The Bridge, the Arthur Miller play, was reimagined by Dutch director Ivo Van Hove for a Young Vic revival last year. I think we must have been travelling too far from a venue when NTlive first screened their broadcast so I was delighted to be within reach of several venues for Thursday evening's encore. We chose to patronise Dartington Hall's Barn Cinema which is beautiful. Finding it was a little tricky as we seemed to be driving through the Estate for a very long time, but once there there is plenty of car parking for just £1. The Barn is just that and I loved the thick wooden beams and whitewashed stone walls. Comfortable-enough tiered seating is thoughtfully offset so all seats have a clear view and, although the screen is smaller than we expected so we thought we might be too far back, this turned out not to be the case.

Ivo Van Hove chose to stage his almost propless production in a stark boxing ring style set. This meant we could focus entirely on the dialogue without distraction. The narrator-lawyer-referee Alfieri (Michael Gould) provides a bridge between the audience and the characters as we watch longshoreman Eddie Carbone's (Mark Strong) domestic life crash around him. Eddie and his wife Beatrice (Nicola Walker) agree to host two illegal Italian immigrants, Beatrice's cousins, in their home and one, Rudolfo (Luke Norris) begins a relationship with Eddie's sheltered niece, Catherine (Phoebe Fox). It's a very powerful story of jealousy and rivalry which is still incredibly relevant despite having been first staged some sixty years ago. I left feeling distinctly steamrollered by the emotional impact of the play. All the actors are perfect throughout especially Mark Strong and Nicola Walker. I liked the understated accents and was impressed with the pacing especially in a scene which resembled a communal meal - tough to know without props! - where the stilted conversation created unbearable tension.

Having not seen any other versions of A View From The Bridge, I can't compare this one, but I just feel so lucky to be able to experience theatre of this sublime quality from a tiny cinema in Devon. Dave and I have been talking about A View From The Bridge on and off since it finished two days ago and I believe this is the most discussed NTlive play we have seen. NTlive and similar broadcasting ventures are a fantastic innovation which I hope continue for years to come as we certainly wouldn't get to see such memorable productions without them!