Saturday, 31 October 2015

I Actually Left the House: A Night in Birmingham

The title is true. Last week one of my colleagues had her leaving party, which is always the worst reason to go out, but it did mean that I finally did something with my Friday night outside of cleaning my floors (advanced apologies for poor photos). We began having a bit of a casual drink at Gosta Green, which is basically Aston University's student bar and was a pretty good place to start the night-with obviously reasonable drink prices-but probably not somewhere you should hunt out if you're not a student.

Somewhere that is definitely worth heading to is Bodega. This is a South American restaurant in the city centre specialising in street foods such as tacos and quesdillas and favourites like massive piles of nachos. All of these are complimented by some really delicious or just plain interesting cocktails. I had fish tacos, which were so fresh and delicious and grilled halloumi because halloumi. Whilst I didn't try any puddings (although I can't imagine churros ever being a bad idea), I did have a white chocolate and passionfruit mojito which was more than sweet enough. My only advice would be to either order several little plates or go with a big plate (the halloumi burger sounded lovely, and another table's nachos looked great) if you're really hungry.

The Lost & Found
The Lost & Found is one of my favourite places in Birmingham. My parents introduced me to it a few years ago; I spent my 21st birthday there and went a lot with my housemates; and I had my pre-graduation meal there. So I basically just have a lot of love for it. A really gorgeous building decorated with birdcages and faux plants, and a hidden function room behind a bookcase (!) it's a great place for a meal or just drinks. Despite being slightly disappointed that they've changed the cocktail menu, there were still plenty of delicious options including something called a Moscow Mule (vodka & ginger beer) which is definitely going to be my go to drink for future trips.

Gas Street Social
Finally, we headed to Gas Street Social, a place whose name I've heard a lot but I've never visited. Located just outside the newly refurbished Mailbox shopping centre (home of Harvey Nichols). It's got a really cool vibe, and does a pretty amazing espresso martini which is one of my favourite cocktails.

I had a really good night, and it was one of those times that you don't really feel the need to take copious photos because you're just enjoying yourself too much. Brum seems to be having something of a renaissance amongst the blogosphere so if you have any recommendations for Brum I'd love to hear them!

Monday, 19 October 2015

Clicklist #8

October is zipping along and it feels like the internet is just spilling over with good stuff. Here are some of my favourites.

-Amber did a great post on places to find free, copyright issue-free images that you can use online; super handy for those of us lacking the light/camera/time/Pinterest worthy backgrounds that are so popular online

-If you've read enough of these posts, you'll probably know that Kate's travel posts are some of my favourites. Her trip to Denmark and Sweden looks just wonderful. Start here.

-I'm always on a bit of a mission to find places within the UK to visit whilst I'm a little too poor to afford plane tickets, and Cat's post on Rochester (a place I'd never heard of) has added it my list of places I'd like to visit

-I loved Meg's post on turning thirty, a nice piece of perspective for when I panic about my nth quarter-life crisis 

-The Cabinet Member for Children's Services at work has started writing a blog about what she does, and it's a really great insight into local government & public sector working (and yes, she really is called Brigid Jones)

-Bath is definitely a city I want to visit, and where one my friends from school lives, but is just so hard to get to. Jen's post (and that hotel room) really makes me want to stop making excuses about this.

-A trifecta of recipes; vegan caramel biscuits, amaretto tiramasu and butternut squash mac & cheese. I want to eat all of these.

-I definitely want to start talking a little more about the places in Birmingham that I love, but Megs' post on her time in the city sponsored by Premier Inn, is worth a read if you have no idea where to start

-Another one of my colleagues at work, Rachel, has also got a pretty great blog; writing about Birmingham and musings on her life exploring the world of work in general

-This article (found via Nicola) by Ann Friedman (of Call Your Girlfriend podcast fame) about establishing a personal brand is ace.

-I was fairly sceptical about whether I'd enjoy Lenny Letter, due to my kind of complex relationship with Lena Dunham, but it's really worth checking out

-If you're not subscribed to Natalie, aka communitychannel, you really should be. Her videos make me literally lol.

-Finally, everyone appears to be doing Vlogtober this year which I'm loving, but I think my favourite has to be Jess, aka sunbeamsjess, whose videos are making me miss university a lot.

What are your top internet picks so far this month? I'm always on the look out for more stuff to procrastinate with.

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Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Top 5: Films

In addition to being an avid bookworm, I am also a bit of a film fan. Whilst am I by no means a movie buff, and I have gaps in my film watching that would seriously embarrass a hardcore film fanatic I still really enjoy watching them; and am a longtime listener of the fab Five Live review programme. I thought I would put together a little selection of just some of my favourites.

A Single Man
A Single Man was the 2009 directorial debut of the designer Tom Ford, and is based on the (similarly fabulous) novella by Christopher Isherwood. It's the story of George (Colin Firth), a university lecturer mourning the loss of his lover (Matthew Goode). It's an unsurprisingly beautifully shot film, and although there isn't a great deal of plot, it's quietly heartbreaking. Firth really should have won an Academy Award for his completely out-of-character performance as George, and there are really good performances by Julianne Moore as his friend who is clearly in love with him, and Nicholas Hoult as one of George's students. Not exactly uplifting, but well worth a watch.

An Education

Another 2009 release, An Education is a firm favourite of mine. Directed by Lone Scherfig and based on Lynne Barber's memoir, it's the story of Jenny (Carey Mulligan) a teenager desperate to escape her mundane life. She is therefore easily taken in by the handsome, charming and older David (Peter Sarsgaard) and experiences a very different 'education'. When I first watched this film, like Jenny, I thought there was something rather romantic about being whisked off your feet to Paris by an older man. Obviously as years have passed I've realised that there is very little romantic about Jenny and David's relationship, but this film is great. It cemented Carey Mulligan as one of my favourite actresses and there is excellent supporting performances by Dominic Cooper as one of David's associates, and Rosamund Pike who has one of the film's greatest laugh lines. There is also a heartbreaking scene with Jenny and her father (played by Alfred Molina) which makes me cry every time. 

Romeo + Juliet

I am sure I am not alone in just straight-up loving this adaptation of Romeo & Juliet. Baz Luhrmann's modernised 1996 Romeo + Juliet stars baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the star-crossed lovers, and it's just pretty much perfect. I know Shakespeare purists don't like that Luhrmann cut parts of the text, but from it's technicolor beginning, to its fabulous soundtrack and great performances all round (John Leguizamo as Tybalt and Harold Perrineau as Mercutio stand out; and you get a brief cameo from Paul Rudd as Paris) I simply adore this film.

Moulin Rouge!

Another Baz Luhrmann film, but another all-time favourite. In case you somehow don't know, Moulin Rouge is the story of Christian (Ewan McGregor) a young struggling writer who heads to the inspirational city of Paris in the midst of a bohemian revolution. There, he comes across the courtesan & Moulin Rogue performer Satine (Nicole Kidman) and the pair fall in love. The musical gets its music from a variety of original & pop songs but they all work in context of the story. A visual feast, with stunning costumes and an excellent ensemble cast make this film one that I can watch again and again. Sadly it doesn't end happily (but you can always just pretend the last 10 minutes doesn't happen), but it is still a great film.

Pride & Prejudice

So, two potential controversial opinions coming up. 1) I don't particularly like the novel of Pride & Prejudice. 2) I prefer this 2005 adaptation to the BBC miniseries. Pride & Prejudice is obviously the story of Lizzie Bennett (Keira Knightley) who has a disastrous first meeting with Mr Darcy (Matthew Macfayden) but eventually they figure out that they are meant for each other. Joe Wright's opening scene is one of my absolute favourites and the score by Dario Marianelli is perfect. As a theme for these films, the ensemble acting is great particularly Tom Hollander as the horribly awkward Mr Collins, Simon Woods as an adorable Mr Bingley and Rupert Friend as the moustache-twirling Mr Wickham. The entire Bennett clan is great with launchpad performances by Jena Malone (of Hunger Games fame) and Carey Mulligan (as above). There are so many moments in this film that make me gooey (the hands and the carriage guys!); it's just lovely.

There will definitely be a part two of this, simply because I kept thinking of more films that I love as I was writing this. What are some of your favourites?

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Thoughts On: Birmingham Royal Ballet's Variations Triple Bill

Or how I ended up going to the ballet twice in a week.

After having a bit a A Week at work (though I guess you can never accuse politics of being boring) I spontaneously booked tickets to see Birmingham Royal Ballet's 25 year celebration production of a Triple Bill of ballets. This opened with Balanchine's Theme & Variations, followed by a new piece choreographed by Alexander Whitley called Kin and ending with Enigma Variations a piece choreographed by Frederick Ashton to Elgar's famous piece of music.

Theme & Variations is a very classical piece of ballet, which has a clear principals, soloists, artists breakdown in terms of staging and dance. The two leads were the same that I saw in Swan Lake, Momoko Hirata and Joseph Caley. Their partnership was so lovely to watch and Hirata is just so graceful on stage. Celine Gittens, a dancer that has been used in the publicity for Swan Lake, performed as one of the soloists and is someone who you can't help watching on stage. The piece was just beautiful to watch, with so much graceful technicality I couldn't quite get my head around it all.

The next piece, Whitley's Kin was a pretty dramatic change to the previous piece. Whilst Theme & Variations was bright and sparkling, Kin was a lot darker. It combines some of the classical ballet steps; and there is one pas de deux danced en pointe, with the sort of expressionism seen in modern dance. It was really technically impressive, Elisha Willis and Joseph Caley as the lead pair were really great; but all the other dancers in the piece were excellent too. Particular standouts were the pairing of Brandon Lawrence and Yijing Zhang; and the solo by Tzu-Chao Chou. I will also give Peter Tiegen's lighting design a shout-out because it was the first time I've ever really felt the impact of good lighting.

Finally was the Enigma Variations piece. This was a more character-driven, acting ballet and was both laugh-out-loud funny and also really moving. The general arc is Elgar (Jonathan Payn) is struggling with inspiration, much to the sadness of his wife (Samara Downs) and his friends who are all attempting to cheer him up. The central duo of Downs and Payn was really lovely, and the pas de trois to the famous 'Nimrod' movement alongside Valentin Olovyannikov was surprisingly moving. I also really enjoyed the youthful pas de deux between Richard Arnold (Jamie Bond) and Isabel Fitton (Arancha Baselga) and anyone who thinks ballet lacks 'real' acting should see Elisha Willis' transformation from the lead female in Kin to the young Dora in Enigma Variations, as it is really something.

This was a really entertaining night at the ballet, and although its run has finished at the Hippodrome now, a similar programme is touring to London and Plymouth so if you live near there I'd recommend checking it out.


All photos from the Hippodrome website

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Top 5: Books

Oh hi laundry

If you haven't picked up by my monthly book posts, I am a big fan of reading. Whilst I've been blogging about the books I've read in the past few months, I thought I might mention some previous reads that I've really loved. I also have way more than five favourites, so this is probably the beginning of a series!

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
I picked this off my GCSE English teacher's classroom bookshelf and just immediately fell in love. From it's famous opening line 'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again' du Maurier just sucked me straight into this gothic tale. It tells the story of an unnamed narrator who is working as a ladies companion in Monaco when she meets widowed Maxim de Winter. A whirlwind romance later, she accompanies him home to his large estate, Manderley. It is there that she realises things may not be all that they seem with Maxim, and that some people-especially the delightfully wicked Mrs Danvers-are keen to keep the ghost of Rebecca haunting the house. Du Maurier is now one of my favourite authors and I really recommend reading this as a 'classic that doesn't feel like a classic'.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
I very rarely cry at books, but I sobbed through the last few pages of this novel. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is the story of Max, a young boy whose father is killed in the 9/11 attacks. He discovers a key inside an envelope which is convinced will explain to him why his father died. Interwoven into Max's story is the story of his grandfather, still dealing with the aftermath of surviving the bombing of Dresden. This is beautifully written and moving without (in my opinion) being manipulative. It deals with love and loss and family and urgh it's just a really beautiful book. I'm impatiently awaiting Safran Foer's next novel.
A little glimpse at the multimedia used throughout the novel.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I didn't read this in school, so was probably pretty late to the Fitzgerald party. In case you have no idea what happens, The Great Gatsby follows Nick Carraway, a young man who moves in next door to a sprawling estate owned by the enigmatic Jay Gatsby. No one knows anything about him, aside from the fact that he throws hugely popular parties; which could be aimed at winning back a lost love. Gatsby is pretty bleak; everyone is pretty awful and the final message of the novel isn't particularly upbeat. However, it is pretty darn perfect when it comes to the writing. Every word feels perfectly chosen and those famous opening and closing passages are famous for a reason. If, like me, you haven't picked this up yet-you really, really should.

My edition is the gorgeous Tiffany's designed edition; which narrowly survived water damage when my room flooded at uni (really).
The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan
David Levithan is a pretty popular Young Adult author, but The Lover's Dictionary is his first foray into adult writing (although it is still accessible for mature YA readers). It tells the story of a relationship in the form of non-linear dictionary entries. It's brilliant and makes up about 95% of my Goodreads quotes.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
I figured I would throw in a non-fiction title to this list as well. Susan Cain first came to my attention after her TED talk on the differences between extroverts and introverts. I, as well as a lot of people, always felt that the former was the thing to aspire to and as an introvert myself desperately wanted to avoid the 'people-hating' label that the term seems to have. Quiet tackles this division head on, by first explaining how introverts don't hate everyone, they just lose energy when interacting with people rather than gaining energy from this. Cain explores different societies and the positives that can come from being an introvert, as opposed to using it is a character trait that needs to be changed-I'm sure I'm not the only one who had school reports telling me I was too quiet in class, something that Cain tackles head on. This book was a bit of a welcoming hug for me, and I recommend it to introverts and extroverts alike.

What are some of your favourites? Or do you have any recommendations based on these?

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

A Month in Books: September

I cannot quite believe that we're in October! September was another fairly good reading month for me, especially as I ticked off a few books that have been on my TBR for a while.

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead (2014, Blue Door)
I picked up Astonish Me knowing nothing about it other than the blurb mentioned the Cold War (a favourite period of history) and ballet (a favourite thing in general). It tells the story of Joan, a dancer in the corps de ballet, wholly aware of the fact that she will never be a great dancer. A chance encounter with Russian dance star Arslan Rusakov leads to a love affair and to Joan helping him defect to the US. However, when their affair fades Joan turns her back on the world of dance and returns to the familiar arms of her childhood best friend Jacob and decides to raise a family. However, when their son Harry exhibits signs of being a dance prodigy himself all the characters converge again.
Shipstead writes a really compelling version of ballet which is not romanticised but still contains enough sparkle for the reader to understand why people would be drawn to it. However, the characters-whilst vivid and incredibly 'real'-are almost universally unlikeable, to the point that a lot of the time I almost didn't want to pick up the book as I didn't really want to know what the characters were going to do to each other. Plus, the plot contains very few surprises.

Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant (2014, Virago) 
This was another totally cold purchase, I think I was attracted to a story being set at university. This is a purchase I definitely don't regret. Upstairs at the Party follows Adele, who through sheer luck manages to escape her humdrum and tragedy-riddled youth in Liverpool, to get to university at the new University of York (never named, but it's clear that it is that uni). Whilst there, she becomes fascinated by Evie, a fellow student, a fascination that becomes lifelong after the titular event takes place.
I loved Grant's writing style and the way she really captures the self-assured nature of teenagers and students; especially at a time when uni was free and leftist ideas were brand new. As with Astonish Me none of the characters but are particularly likeable, but I was invested in finding out what happened with all of them. I especially liked how the novel follows the group of friends over the years; as they enter the workplace and how their lofty ideals fall apart or strengthen. I really recommend this.

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (2013, HarperCollins) 
I expected to really, really like this. The Shock of the Fall received loads of buzz and awards upon its release. Filer has a background working as a mental health nurse and this novel follows the story of Matthew, a young man struggling with his declining mental state after the tragic death of his brother when they were children. As an insight into someone struggling with mental illness, and one that is not usually covered in literature, The Shock of the Fall is great. Matthew is an undeniably sympathetic character who you just wish someone could get through to. I did feel that the writing was a little clunky and the central 'reveal' wasn't really that surprising. It is always good to see mental health tackled in writing, and I'm keen to see what Filer's next works will be like.

Why I Write by George Orwell (2005, Penguin)
Having ticked off both of Orwell's most famous novels, I really wanted to read some of his non-fiction. Why I Write is part of the Penguin's Great Ideas series and is a collection of four of Orwell's essays. There's the self-explanatory title essay, 'The Lion & The Unicorn' which is an exploration of socialism in England, 'A Hanging' based on Orwell's travels in Burma and 'Politics and the English Language' which is again pretty self-explanatory. I found these really interesting, and it was different to see Orwell really weaving a biting humour through his pieces. I will say that unless you're really interested in politics or language you probably won't be that interested in this; but it is well worth a read if you do like those things.

The Female of the Species by Joyce Carol Oates (2005, Quercus)
This was a bit of a downer to end the month on. Joyce Carol Oates is a really prolific author and I was really intrigued by her work so picked up this collection of short stories a while back as I thought it could be a good place to start. The blurb claims that these stories show that women are just as capable of men of committing evil; but pretty much all these stories feature women being pushed into desperate men. Plus all the stories had pretty much the same narrative voice which got a bit repetitive. I did like the two longer stories-'Hunger' about a woman sucked into an affair with a handsome stranger; and 'Tell Me You Forgive Me' about a woman divulging a dark secret. But I can't say this really sold Oates to me.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Thoughts On: Birmingham Royal Ballet's Swan Lake

I'm going to preface this by saying I know very little about the technical aspects of dance; someone has to fall over before I realise that something has gone wrong. However, I adore watching ballet. When I was little I poured over a DK guide to ballet, trying to teach myself the various foot positions. Yesterday, I was lucky enough to watch a matinee performance of Birmingham Royal Ballet's production of the classic ballet Swan Lake with my friend from uni, and it was just lovely.

The ballet is the story of Odette (Momoko Hirata), a princess cursed by the evil Rothbart (Valentin Olovyannikov) to spend her days as a swan and only becomes a human in the early hours of the morning. One night, Prince Siegfried (Joseph Caley) spots her whilst fleeing from his mother's (Ana Albutashvili) wishes to see him married and ascend the throne. They fall in love, but are torn apart by a cruel trick by Rothbart and this version of the story does not end well.

As it's a pretty traditional ballet, the only thing I found a little odd was the constant solo dances that didn't seem to do much to further the story of the dance; although this may just be a reflection of the fact that the last ballet I saw was Romeo & Juliet which is known for being a more story-telling ballet. 

That being said, the sets and costumes of this production are just incredible-there was even a moment the audience applauded the dry-ice! The principal performances were all really good-Caley is apparently 30 but looks younger than me and was a really great partner to Hirata. She was a beautiful dancer as Odette, but I literally gasped at her dancing as Odile-where she executes numerous turns without any kind of pause.

Really for me though, the stars were the chorus of swan maidens. The choreography requires them to be completely in sync and the BRB chorus truly were. There were stand-out dances by the 'cygnets' a quartet made up of Ruth Brill, Laura Day, Reina Fuchigami & Beatrice Parma; they perform a short solo holding hands and it's incredible. There was also really good solo spots from Yvette Knight and Yijing Zhang as the lead swan maidens. Knight's other appearance raised the one big laugh out loud as the Polish Princess facing off to Delia Mathews' Hungarian Princess for the affections of Siegfried.

I really loved my time at the Hippodrome, this is such a beautiful ballet completed by a simply gorgeous score by Tchaikovsky. It's on in Birmingham until Tuesday and then on tour so I will link further details here. I'm definitely going to try and utilise having such a brilliant company on my doorstep.