The Emperor of the Eight Islands – Lian Hearn – read by Paul English

I had this as an audiobook, read chapter-by-chapter as I took the train to and from work. Each day I lost myself in a mythical Japan, where Shikanoko finds his powers and influence within the Islands rises and falls. A strongly mythical setting, magical powers are real, and as important for influence as military powers. Spirits truly haunt, and fate plays a strong part in the direction of the characters.

This last part was one of the most frustrating parts of the book for me. Used to more active protagonists, heroes who fate repeated drops into the right place and time, again and again seem to lack decisiveness, and makes the novel more of a blocking piece than dependent on the characters.

But I will read the rest of the Tale of Shikanoko, to discover what happens to all these intricate, well-written characters.

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

Having cast aside The Lesser Bohemians, I picked The Dark Circle out of my library bag in its place. This was much more readable, written in a conventional third-person style, moving between points of view as the plot develops.

I appreciated the perspective on the dawning days of the NHS, and how rationing, waiting lists and condemnation of patients was always part of the culture. But the NHS itself was not the subject, far more how the circle of friends at the centre of this novel drew together, and each coped with and recovered from, their time in the institution. How they each managed in the prospect of death, and how ultimately each of them left.

It is a “coming of age” story, but one with a difference, in that the trial these young people pass through is one of its time. And the writing gives a perspective on that time, and a connection to the characters that makes the whole situation heartbreaking.

Very well-written, and a good selection of a slightly unusual subject-matter.

Kindertransport at Chorley Little Theatre

Play number four of our 2016/17 season ticket was Kindertransport, this year’s serious drama. It was indeed very serious, an intense play with very few light moments. Of course this is to be expected from the subject matter, and certainly we weren’t expecting a light-hearted comedy.

We live through Eva’s trauma and recovery, and how that effected herself and her relationships within her family. There were so many points where I had tears rolling down my face, as recovery seemed impossible. The actors were very powerful, in what must have been an emotionally tiring play.

In terms of angles on the impact of war theme, this stood in sharp contrast to Pals, which had been a story about men’s friendships, as instead a story about women’s family bonds. My only sorrow is that the playwright ended it where she did. It could easily have turned more towards a reconciled note at the end, although of course that would lessen the impact.

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

The premise of this book, that Death is telling a story is often forgotten throughout this book, only reaching in when Death touches Liesel’s life directly. Otherwise we see the world as a generic third-party narrator, following Liesel directly.

But it is a compelling tale, speaking of bravery, learning and compassion in a small town during the rise of Nazi Germany. Leisel relearns love and friendship in her foster home, as well as poverty and cruelty. And throughout the common theme is the stealing of books, and what that give to her.

Whilst the cover and the description did not make me pick this up with any degree of urgency, once I was a chapter in I needed to keep reading to find out Liesel’s fate.

Pals – Chorley Little Theatre

Pals was written by artistic director Mark Jones, specifically for Chorley Little Theatre. It is very much feels set in the textile industrial background of Chorley, although no place names (or even pub names!) were mentioned explicitly.

It is a look on the front of the Great War, of course, and the stories that came out of that. But more than that, it is a story about life, and men’s friendships. How shared work and a quick drink after developed bonds, where gradually the truths about family and love become clear. But then also friendship between a history student and an elderly man. A friendship with a rocky start, but finally a chance for Bill to tell the tale of his life.

I love that we don’t just see Bill in those key minutes where everything changes, but we also see the human side before and after. What was there, what was lost, and what little was saved. There were few dry eyes in the house by the end, which speaks volumes for the strength of both the writing and the acting.