Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Reading Nook: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Gossip From The Forest

So here is the first installment of The Reading Nook.  I mentioned that I was considering doing these once a month to ensure that I keep on track with my reading goals for the year and also to help to motivate me to broaden my genres and start to work my way through my back catalogue of 'I'll get around to that one eventually'.

October was a mixed bunch.  I did read two books (which for me is actually quite slow although on track with the one per month I promised myself) and they were two books I haven't read before (good) but they aren't exactly out of character for me (poor).  B for effort then.

The first was Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters and Jane Austen.  This was lent to my by a friend after I mentioned how much I had enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies which is a perfect Halloween read.
Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters wasn't quite as enjoyable for me, probably because while I enjoy the original Jane Austen novel, it's not got the same warm fuzziness in my heart that Pride and Prejudice evokes.  That isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it (double negative, wonderful grasp of the rules of English there), I did, just not as much as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

The premise of both books is the same and the story of Sense and Sensibility is just as seamlessly woven into an alternative world filled with flesh eating, tentacled and over sized sea monsters as its predecessor was filled with the brain eating undead. 
The story follows the Dashwood sisters as they try to negotiate the treacherous seas of eviction, high society, love, propriety, pirates and the martial arts all to the tune of a bawdy sea shanty bashed out on the harpsichord.

The book is littered with illustrations that help to bring this world to life in front of your eyes and the descriptions of people being mauled by various sea horrors are graphic and yet strangely genteel as the society folk desperately try to avoid eye contact with the man who is dripping blood in a most unseemly manner all over their drawing room floor.
If you are a fan of Austen but are looking for something a little more tongue-in-cheek then I highly recommend this book and its predecessor.  If you are not a fan of Austen, this could well act as gentle introduction.  It even has essay text questions at the back if you are feeling really adventurous! 
The second book was a gift from a friend who knows I love fairy tales and the origin, psychology and mythology behind fairy tales and am always looking out for something a little different in this area to add to my collection.
Gossip From the Forest by Sara Maitland is one of those rare books that can only be described as beautiful.  I must admit I did find it a little hard to read as it explores the connections between our relationships with our forests as humans and the roots of our fairy tales and delves into a lot of woodland detail but incredibly interesting at the same time.  She does make some sweeping generalisations regarding the links between landscape, religion, myth and fairy tale across the world which I find a little hard to accept but a lot of her observations are very astute.

The book is divided into twelve chapters to match the months of the year and each chapter examines in detail a particular forest or wood and a fairytale to match it.
This is a truly remarkable book, stunning to look at and extremely unusual in subject matter, filled with familiar tales and glorious pictures.  However, I did also require a dictionary next to me as I read it as it is filled with terminology that I am not familiar with.  Now, I like to think I have a pretty extensive vocabulary and I am not adverse to expanding it further but it did rather interrupt the flow of the book every time I had to stop, pick up the dictionary and look up what 'retrenchment' meant in the context of a tree.
However this is a wonderful book and one I would highly recommend.  As it is segmented into months as well it is also the type of book you don't need to read in one sitting but instead can come back to slowly to read the next section; a true coffee table book.
It also looks very pretty on the bookcase!

Monday, 25 November 2013

The Foundry

On a dark, dark night there was a dark, dark street
Down the dark, dark street there was a dark, dark building
Hanging from the dark, dark building was a dark, dark sign
Under the dark, dark sign there was a dark, dark gate
And through the dark, dark gate, there was a microbrewery full of light, and laughter and lots and lots of craft beer and ales being quaffed by a cheerful, high spirited crowd!
Welcome to the Foundry, a craft brewery pub on White Horse Lane, secreted behind a high gate in an old industrial building.  The building used to be a Victorian foundry (hence the name, obviously) that used to produce cast metal for use all over the Empire and the building certainly has that Dickensian workhouse feel about it.
Beyond the austere and foreboding gates though there is an attractive courtyard with communal seating and plants which is lovely in the summer and used as an overspill in the winter, as this place is very, very popular.  You are normally guaranteed a table up until about 10pm but then, as all the other pubs start to empty, people flock towards the Foundry, drawn by the home-brewed beers, local ciders, late night opening hours and upstairs dance floor.
 The pub's microbrewery is visable from the bar and the cask ales are all sold on the premesis.
If you aren't a big fan of real ales or beers there is always the local cider collection to tickle your tastebuds
As well as your usual selection of spirits and rather nice wines.  The Foundry has been nominated for A Taste of Kent Award for the Foundry Man's Gold so if you are really stuck with what to choose, I would recommend starting there!
The beers on tap change on a regular basis - there was a nice mix when we were in there a couple of weekends ago. 
Although I'm not a die-hard ale drinker I did try the Little Red Rye (fairytale reference in the name - I couldn't resist.  I'm easily pleased) and was pleasantly surprised by it - it wasn't too hoppy or dark for me.
There is also a huge menu to help you soak up that vast array of beers, ales and ciders you will be tempted by.  There are sharing platters (including a pie sharing platter with 3 pies and 3 1/3 pint brewers beers), steak and ale pie, mushroom and ale pie, ribs in beer BBQ sauce, beer battered onion rings, ale gravy, ale battered cod, rarebit with ale, pate with cider, are you noticing a theme here?  There is food which doesn't feature ale, beer or cider as well, including a rather attractive burger menu. 
If you end up lost on a dark, dark night down a dark, dark street head towards the severe looking Victorian building.  You will be surprised at what you find inside!

Friday, 22 November 2013

Alle the Disc's a Stage

Terry Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters.  A tale that is strangely familiar - it has a dead king floating around a castle after being murdered by a close relative, usurper rulers who can't seem to get the blood off their hands, daggers floating before people's eyes and three witches who can't seem to help meddling.

Of course this version also has obsequious chamberlains, grumpy demons, a fool whose improv is just terrible, overly dramatic players and a dwarf whose gender is entirely open for debate.

We had so much fun putting this play on! I will leave you with the now-traditional post play picture story book.

The Kingdom of Lancre, a tiny little kingdom somewhere in the Ramptops that noone has ever heard of.  Magrat, youngest of the three witches, is desperate to become a witch of the old school; potions, books, grimmers (or grimoires as she will point out), magic swords and picking toadstools by moonlight.  Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are rather more disillusioned by the whole thing.  Potions stain your robes, books are pretentious, magic swords too often get themselves stuck in stones and you can't get the darn thing out when you need it and picking toadstools by moonlight leaves you with back ache and wet feet.
While at one of the witches many tea parties meetings on the heath, the cosy coven is interrupted by the sound of hoofbeats and the rude arrival of a soldier with an arrow sticking out of his back, carrying a bundle.  He thrusts the bundle at the witches and then inconsiderately dies at their feet.  Before the three can ask 'what the bloody hell was that about' another two soldiers come rushing in and the first demands that the witches hand the bundle to him.  Granny refuses and is attacked by the soldier, who is stabbed by his comrade who apparently has enough sense to know that you just don't go around attacking witches.
The witches open the bundle to reveal a baby boy and a crown which provides an instant dilemma as to what on earth they do with both of them.  After a lengthy debate about the problems of hiding crowns that always end up with them being found and put on by any random passer by, Magrat remembers that she had seen lots of crowns at the theatre (although they look more realer than this one) and the witches head off to see a play, after pointing out that they can't meddle in the affairs of men.
Meanwhile, at the castle, the servants are frantically searching for the missing son of the late King Verence and Verence's crown, on the orders of the new and rather smug Duke and Duchess.  At least, they had better be frantically searching if they value their heads.  The new Duchess can't abide slackness after all.  The chamberlain, with a great deal of oily smarm, confirms that the baby was taken by witches.  The Duke and Duchess are horrified to discover that not only do they have witches in their Kingdom cluttering up the place, the witches don't even pay taxes.  They vow to stamp out this monstrosity and check that the baby is dead as an afterthought as apparently the witches, disappointingly, don't practice human sacrifice but instead are actually respected by people.
At the theatre after the show the witches ask to meet the Vitolliers, the head of the band of players and give them the baby, Tomjon, to look after.  Although suspicious, the couple agree to take the baby into their care.  Magrat hides the crown in a prop box and, after getting her bottom pinches by a member of the troop, gets an impromptu lesson on where babies come from from Nanny Ogg.
The Sergeant, who isn't the sharpest sword in the armory, has visited the witches to try to arrest them and get the baby back and returns to deliver his report to the Duke.  He is pleased to tell the Duke that the witches were very nice to him and his men and gave them cups of tea and a bun with currents in.  All apart from young Roger who isn't allowed fruit on account of his trouble so he had a biscuit.  It is clear that this Kingdom is not the easy kingdom to rule that the frustrated Duke (who is starting to become obsessed with a bottle of anti-bacterial gel) was hoping for. 
Thoroughly depressed the Duke demands entertainment from his Fool, a young man who has sworn to loyally follow his Lord unto death.  Although adept (ish) at capering and jokes and appearing, well, foolish, the Fool is cleverer than he initially appears to be and has learned when to keep his mouth shut.  This ability means he is often privy to secrets and rantings he would rather not be around, especially considering he never wanted to be a Fool in the first place.  As a result of this innate ability to be wherever he really shouldn't be, he has perfected the backwards tiptoe and the art of whistling when conversation gets uncomfortable.
The Kingdom starts to behave strangely.  The taxman visits the witches (and is politely turned away by them), there is an out-of-season earthquake despite the fact that you don't get earthquakes in Lancre (someone really should remember to send the land a memo about that) and the animals of the forest are still not talking to anyone, despite Magrat's best efforts.  People's houses are being burned to the ground (this is nothing new but at least the old King let you get out first) and the Duke is convinced that the trees are whispering about him so has embarked on an extensive plan of agricultural improvements, increasing work in the saw mills and generating industry by chopping down the forests (the Fool's idea).

Things are getting suspicious so the witches decide to do a bit of detective work and summon a surly demon to try and find out what is going on.  Magrat is hugely disappointed by the fact that instead of spices and candles and an octogram of protection to perform the summoning spell they instead use a rolling pin, box of soapsuds and an old washboard.  After all, in her words, it just isn't the same.
After upsetting the demon (if a witch is only allowed three questions she might as well get to the point and 'what the bloody hell is going on' doesn't leave demons a lot of wriggle room to get smart with their answers, which upsets them) the witches find out that the land of the kingdom is unhappy.  The new Duke and Duchess are only interested in money and having people obey them.  The Kingdom wants a king that cares for it so it is throwing a few tantrums right now to get people's attention and falling sick in the process.
Magrat later questions the other witches about the Fool she met at the Theatre and finds out that his name is Verence, and his master was the late King Verence whom he was named for.  The Fool's father was a bit of a cad and very popular with the ladies in his day according to Nanny.
Witches still can't meddle though (despite the fact that they just saved the baby and hid the crown and summoned a demon to find out what was going on).

Nanny Ogg has lost her pet cat, Greebo, and goes on a mission to find him, a mission that ends up with her captured and locked in the dungeon of the castle, faced with torture as the Duke and Duchess try to make her confess to crimes against them, which includes spreading rumours that they killed the old King.   
Thoroughly fed up, Nanny meets the ghost of the late King Verence who is still floating around the place gazing longingly at his favourite food in the kitchens.  He had tricked Greebo to the castle in the hope that the witches would come looking for him and would restore his son to the throne and tells Nanny exactly what happened the night of his death, when the Duchess handed the Duke the King's knife to stab him with and then shoved him down the stairs.

Cold and hungry and faced with the fairly dismal prospect of being tortured imminently, Nanny and Verence play eye spy.
Granny and Magrat, both disguised as unconvincing apple sellers, enter the castle to find and rescue Nanny.  Magrat is apprehended by guards and the Fool comes racing to her rescue.  He is fairly inept at this and Magrat ends up rescuing him and casting a spell to make the door to the dungeon (eventually) explode.
The witches barge in to find Nanny in the stocks, the late King Verence, the Duke and the Duchess.  The Fool is dispatched by the Duchess to fetch the guards but, clearly conflicted between his loyalty to the Duke and the fact he really wants to get to know Magrat better, dives behind her to hide instead.
The witches demand that the Duke abdicate, an act he refuses to do (fairly obviously) and instead laughs at his victory over the witches.  They can't meddle he reminds them, any King they put on the throne will only be ruling with their permission and therefore will be no King at all but a fool indeed.  They can't replace him without meddling and he is not going anywhere.  The Duke has won this battle.  Granny reminds him about Verence's son and the Duke gleefully points out that the boy is a child and not able to rule until he is a man, which gives the Duke at least 15 years to prepare.
Defeated and dejected, Granny acknowledges that the Duke is right.  The Duke and Duchess leave, sneering and jeering at the 'Wyrd Sisters', and Nanny is freed by Magrat and the Fool.  The late King begs the witches to intervene to put his baby son on the throne and save the Kingdom but the witches refuse, saying that they can't meddle.  The Fool nervously asks Magrat on a date (the meadow at 2pm) and she eventually agrees.  Overjoyed, the Fool rushes away after promising to wear a flower so that she recognises him.
Not satisfied with their victory, the Duke and Duchess are looking for a way to squash the rumours that they killed the old King with his own dagger.  The Fool absentmindedly comments on the power of words to subvert and twist reality and states that, with enough time and rumour, words can become reality and even become history.  The Duchess latches onto this idea and demands that the Fool go and find someone who can write a play, a play that will go around the world and be remembered long after rumour has died, a play that will rewrite history and present facts as the Duke and Duchess want them to be presented.   The Fool departs for Ankh-Morpork, the capital city, in search of a play-write.
Granny has the biggest temper tantrum that the Kingdom of Lancre has ever seen over the fact that someone has dared to put a witch in a dungeon (she could have caught her death) and being called 'Wyrd Sisters' by the Duke.  She concocts a plan to put the boy on the throne although children can't rule (that isn't meddling apparently).  Inspired by Black Aliss, an old witch who once turned a coach into a pumpkin and lived in a real gingerbread cottage, she takes action.  Black Aliss put a palace to sleep for 100 years (although she didn't actually, she just froze the palace in time which is really easy to do) and Granny is determined to do the same with Lancre, moving the whole kingdom 15 years into the future, meaning that the son of the King will now be an adult and ready to fight for his throne. She summons Nanny to help her as she will need to fly around the entire kingdom by cock crow.
Magrat keeps her date with the Fool, who is wearing a flower, just as he promised to help her recognise him and the two flirt rather awkwardly and fairly adorably with each other.  
Just as Magrat kisses the Fool, Granny and Nanny complete their spell, kickstart their brooms into action ready to fly around the Kingdrom (after a couple of duff starts from Granny's which really needs a mechanic to have a look at it and perhaps change the oil) and the land is frozen for 15 years.  Everyone is locked in place, exactly as they were, waiting for the rest of Discworld to move forward.
15 years later, shocked by what the witches have done and the fact that she has just entered the Guiness Book of World Records for Longest Kiss Ever, Magrat reacts badly (witches are very good at tantrums) when the Fool tells her he is going to Ankh-Morpork on a mission for the Duke and storms off in a huff.  The Fool goes anyway and, upon entering the city, is instantly mugged by a band of licensed thieves.  He has all of the money he was given to hire a play-write stolen but it's OK, a receipt was put in his hat so no one else does him that night.   
Luckily the dwarf Hwel (a play-write genius) and Tomjon come across the mugging and Tomjon, the greatest actor the Discworld has ever seen, persuades the robbers to give back most of what they have stolen.  Grateful and still rather dazed, the Fool offers to buy Hwel and Tomjon a drink, and, upon discovering that they are with the Theatre, hires them to write the play.
Hwel and Tomjon return to discuss the matter with Vitollier.  Hwel is reluctant at first as the whole idea seems fishy but Vitollier persuades the dwarf with the idea that the money will help build the Disc Theatre, meaning that they won't need to roam the countryside anymore, putting on performances for people who throw potatoes at them.  Hwel with her broad brummy accent agrees and writes the play (complete with three witches, you can do a lot with three witches, surprising no one's thought of it before really, and a ghost to Vitollier's dismay as you can never get the chalk out of the clothes).  
Tomjon agrees to act it and takes a group of the players and Hwel on the long journey to Lancre to perform the play for the Duke and Duchess.  Vitollier is despondent at seeing his son go, convinced that he will never see him again.  There is destiny at work here, he bemoans to Hwel, whom he discovers is actually a woman,  the mountains are calling him home and Tomjon looks just like the Fool as well.  It's all too much to be a coincidence. 
Back in Lancre the witches watch in their crystal ball as the little group of players wander on the road, slightly perplexed at the lack of swords and armour that they seem to have with them to fight their battle and also irritated that the group appear to be lost on the moors and are clearly not stopping to ask the local badgers for directions.
Granny takes it upon herself to intervene (not meddle), unconvincingly disguised as an old woman gathering wood and terryfying most of the band of players in the process who know better than to trust old women out on the moors gathering firewood, especially when there are no handy rivers available to carry her across and she rejects your lunch menu due to digestive issues.
The witches still can't meddle.  Rescuing the baby, hiding the crown, planning to replace the Duke with the late kings son, moving the kingdom forward 15 years and helping your lost "army" get to where it is supposed to be going isn't meddling.

The Fool and Magrat meet in the meadow again and the Fool tells Magrat about the play, a play that will absolve the Duke and Duchess of any wrongdoings and secure their favourable place in the history books.  The Fool tells Magrat when and where the play will be and agrees to let the witches into the theatre via the unguarded kitchen gate.
The play starts but things go wrong from the beginning.  Actors can't remember their lines, it is as if they are trying to tell untruth's and the land won't let them.  The witches are also not best pleased to see actors playing them on stage wearing green blusher and talking about putting babies in cauldrons.  Granny, realising that the audience are taken in by the web of lies unfolding on the stage in front of them and not wanting witches to always be 'old hags in green blusher', decides to take action (not meddling still) and heads purposefully backstage.
Backstage the Duke and Duchess are aware that the witches have come to the theatre and tells the guards to find them and arrest them.  The guards find the three actors who are playing the witches and mistakenly arrest them, ignoring their protestations of innocence.
Hwel, searching for the witches for Act 2, stumbles upon the three real witches backstage and shoves them in front of the audience as Act 2 starts.  The witches take advantage of the opportunity and cast a spell over the actors who instantly start to act out events as they really occurred the night that Verence was murdered.
Seeing this happen on stage in 'his play' snaps the Duke's mind and he inadvertently confesses to everything whilst denying it all.  The Duchess laughs the Duke's speech off, saying that without witnesses there is no proof, and without proof there is no deed.  The Fool can't take it anymore and reveals that he witnessed everything that night and saw the Duke kill the King.  Enraged at the Fool's betrayal, the Duke stabs the Fool with the theatre knife, stabs himself with it, runs off and falls over the battlements to his death.
The Duchess, in a desperate attempt to save herself, accuses everyone around her of treason and threatens to have them all executed.  She continues until Nanny, fed up with her talking, hits her over the head with a prop cauldron, knocking her out cold so she can be dragged off to the dungeons.  The Duchess later escapes from her cell but makes the mistake of going into the forest, where the bunnies finish her off.  Never trust a bunny.
With a distraught Magrat cradling the body of the Fool to her, Granny picks up the theatre knife, examines it and then demonstrates to everyone how the knife is a trick knife with the blade disappearing into the handle as actors can't be trusted with real ones.  The Fool realises that he is, after all, still alive.
Granny then declares that Tomjon is the rightful King of Lancre and offers him the crown.  Everyone is a bit thrown when he refuses to accept it, wanting a life in the theatre instead of a life in a castle.  The problem is, as Hwel points out, Tomjon don't really have a choice.  It's something he is born to.  The only chance he would have is if he had any brother's or sisters.  There's a pause, an idea hits Magrat and everyone stares at the Fool who suddenly looks very, very uncomfortable.
The three witches (one a bit more worse for wear having drunk rather a lot from her new coronation mug) gather back around their cauldron on the moor to talk about the coronation banquet they have just been at.  During the course of the discussion it is revealed that the Fool's father, who had a bit an eye for the ladies, had a dalliance with the Queen.  Magrat is horrified as this means that while the Fool and Tomjon share the same father, that father is not, in fact, the old King.  Granny points out that it doesn't matter,  the Fool has his head screwed on, he cares for the land and royalty has to start somewhere and it might as well start with him.
After all, witches don't meddle.