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Books that deserve a standing ovation.
We’re so happy to be back in your inbox after our short break. Please take your seats for today’s theatre-inspired books edition, the show is about to begin.
Sometimes the best books on our TBR piles are the ones we didn’t put there ourselves. All’s Well was one of Sian’s birthday presents and she had raced through it – and half a box of florentines – by the end of Birthday Boxing Day. It tells the story of one-time theatre actress Miranda Fitch who suffers from severe but unexplained chronic pain after a stage accident. Several years on, still in pain, her acting career is over and she is tasked with putting on a college production of All’s Well That Ends Well.
If this sounds like a typical campus novel, rest assured that it is anything but. Thanks to Miranda’s internal monologue, Mona Awad’s tale is unsettling from the start. It takes a surreal and macabre turn when Miranda meets three men who make a drunken promise to take her pain away. After brushing off their conversation as foolish ramblings, she finds that not only is her pain lessening, but that other people in her life are suffering as she did – as though they can feel the pain that she has dealt with alone for years. The touches of Shakespeare become almost parody, with flashes of The Tempest and Macbeth, as well as the title play that Awad uses to address the theme of women’s pain head on, and force the reader to consider the desire to be believed.
The Whalebone Theatre
There are times when you really want a sprawling book to sink into. They’re particularly suited to incredibly long train journeys, or – before we were avoiding putting the heating on – entire weeks sitting by a pool. They’re also ideal for the glorious between bit of time after Boxing Day when time is punctuated by mince pies and Christmas University Challenge. Joanna Quinn’s debut The Whalebone Theatre is one you really want under the tree this year.
You’ll sink into the lives of the Seagrave family and get completely caught up in the young lives of Christabel, Digby and Florence as they discover a whale on the beach in Dorset. They set about claiming it for themselves and – rather unexpectedly, despite the book’s title – transform it into an open air theatre. The skeleton shapes each of their lives in unexpected ways. It’s easy to see why Quinn’s book has had comparisons to The Cazalet Chronicles, and while there’s very little in the way of a plot to hook you in – it struggled to command our attention alongside work and emails – the characters are so beautifully written. You’ll be delighted that you joined them on their journeys into adulthood.
City of Girls
Despite us telling you that City of Girls is a glorious romp around 1940s New York, some of you are still going to be put off by the Eat, Pray, Love sticker on the cover. We understand – the very same thing almost stopped Sian from reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s first novel, The Signature of All Things, many years ago. But we remain emphatic about both. Gilbert’s novels are firmly on our forever favourites list.
"Life is both fleeting and dangerous, and there is no point in denying yourself pleasure, or being anything other than what you are."
Vivian Morris is the novel’s elderly narrator. After getting kicked out of college at 19, she joins her Aunt Peg’s crumbling New York playhouse and finds her home there with an unlikely new family. When Vivian naively makes a mistake that causes an enormous scandal, she jeopardises the futures of the playhouse and everyone who call it home, including herself. The ramifications of Vivian’s actions impact her whole life. The novel’s glittering backdrop make for a luscious novel, and Gilbert’s central theme of women’s shame and the weight that we carry with us will stick with you for a very long time.
An Awfully Big Adventure
Don’t let the “Oh, just buy whatever’s on offer in the train station WHSmith, who cares what it’s about” covers of Beryl Bainbridge’s novels deter you – an author who won the Whitbread prize twice and was nominated for the Booker five times deserves better than this, yet here we are.
An Awfully Big Adventure is one of hers that’s been on our list for an awfully long while, and we’re feeling inspired to tick it off over the festive season, since it focuses on the cast and crew of a post-war Liverpool repertory company as they put on a production of Peter Pan for Christmas.
Don’t expect heartwarming holiday cheer, mind – Bainbridge’s unflinching eye never shied away from portraying all the grit and ghastliness of real life, albeit in dazzling style. In this coming-of-age tragicomic tale, teenage protagonist Stella Bradshaw gets caught up in unrequited love and a theatrical affair that has an unexpected and shocking conclusion. Bainbridge was an actor before becoming a writer, and this book is said to draw influence from that time; equal parts matter-of-factly bleak and gloriously entertaining, it’s going to be just the thing for a chilly winter’s evening.
It’s been about 25 years since Laura read Angela Carter’s Wise Children, and despite the pile of new books tutting and glowering at her from beside the bed, she’s decided it’s high time for a re-read. This was Carter’s last book, published the year before her death, and it’s arguably her best – though it is, admittedly, a crowded playing field.
The story takes place on 23rd April, Shakespeare’s birthday, but also the 75th birthday of former chorus girls Dora Chance and her twin sister Nora, and the 100th birthday of revered actor (and their father, though he has long refused to admit it) Sir Melchior Hazard and his twin brother, Peregrine, who is presumed dead (and presumed by many to be their father).
This is a brilliantly funny novel of a theatrical dynasty divided in two on so many levels, from the Hazards’ natural habitat of highbrow theatres versus the Chances’ bawdy, gaudy music halls, to the complicated and confusing parentage of almost everyone in the family. Wise Children is an absolute riot: big and bold and brash; played out like a surreal Shakespearean drama and filled with memorable characters. Above all, though, it’s so joyful, and a celebration of life, on stage and off of it.