I’m going to brush over the gap here again. Somehow we’re at the end of the year already which feels mad. For this post, I want to look back over some of my favourite books, theatre and other culture things from the past 12 months.
This was a bit of an average year for me in terms of reading – my Goodreads average rating for the year is 3.4/5 which feels about right. I did however smash my 50 book reading challenge which made me very happy – with 54 books read this year. My favourites can be found below.
In Extremis by Lindsey Hilsum
This was 100% my favourite read of 2019. In Extremis is a biography of the journalist Marie Colvin who was a brilliant foreign correspondent until her untimely death at the hands of the Syrian government in 2012. Lindsey Hilsum is a fellow journalist and writes brilliantly about Colvin’s incredible work, but also her difficult personal life and shows her very much warts and all. It’s an excellent read which was a true page-turner and made me laugh and cry in turns all the way through.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
I’m possibly one of the last people on Earth to read this but I’m still really glad I did. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a work of true crime by the late Michelle McNamara, exploring the crimes and hunt for the ‘Golden State Killer’ who committed a series of sexual assaults and murders in California. McNamara also explores what it is that brings her to be obsessively searching for the culprit as well. She gives so much character to the survivors, victims and law enforcement that this never felt like a dull non-fiction read. McNamara unfortunately passed away before the book was complete, meaning the final pages are a little disjointed and also means that she didn’t have the opportunity to reflect on the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo for these crimes. However, her original ending packs a punch. I’d recommend this – just not one to read alone at night.
Bad Blood by John Carreyrou
Remember Theranos? The company founded by Elizabeth Holmes claimed that it could test for illnesses and maybe even lead to treatment based on a single prick to a persons finger. Holmes became a massive star and the company became a sensation before it was revealed the entire thing was a house of cards which came crashing down. Carreyrou was the journalist who original exposed the company and Bad Blood is a fascinating exploration of Holmes and the company’s rise until it all came crashing down.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
I was very excited to pick this up, and Evelyn Hugo did not let me down. The novel follows the life of one-time Hollywood starlet Evelyn Hugo, think Elizabeth Taylor, and explores her life through looking at each of her seven marriages. The novel brings old-time Hollywood to life wonderfully, reveals Evelyn’s true romances and her connection to the young journalist she plucked from relative obscurity to write her story. Jenkins Reid does a phenomenal job of creating a world and characters that you are convinced are real (I so wanted to Google some of these films) – and I am so excited to read Daisy Jones & The Six in 2020.
The Rotters Club by Jonathan Coe
A book that I wished I’d read sooner – The Rotters Club follows a group of friends as they come of age in 1970s Birmingham. It features teenage crushes, challenging sibling relationships and trying to figure out what you want to do with your life – against a backdrop of strikes, turbulent politics, race relations and Irish nationalism. Coe does a great job at bringing to life all the different young people in the novel and I was invested in all their stories – he manages to be funny, smart and moving all within the same few pages. I’ve since read the follow-up The Closed Circle set in the 1990s and enjoyed that too – though not as much as this novel. I’m glad to have finally read some of Coe’s work, and hope to read more in 2020.
This was a year of slightly less theatre-going than previous years, with a definite feature on musicals rather than ‘straight plays’.
Evita at Open Air Theatre
Evita is hands-down one of my favourite musicals, and I was so excited to see this. Jamie Lloyd’s complete re-imagining of what the show should look like was completely unexpected and used the Open Air Theatre’s unique surrounds perfectly. His work was complimented by Fabian Aloise’s energetic choreography and Jon Clark’s atmospheric lighting design. Led by the trio of Samantha Pauly as Eva, Trent Saunders as Che and Ektor Rivera as Peron the cast were all excellent and made both the visits I made to this show an absolute highlight. It is being performed at the Barbican this summer and I will be there again.
Romeo & Juliet at Sadlers Wells
Matthew Bourne was never going to do a straightforward version of Romeo & Juliet, and his re-imagining of Shakespeare’s story within the walls of a youth institute is one that I haven’t stopped thinking about. Seren Williams was excellent as Juliet and Bourne doesn’t shy away from the likely trauma that all the teenagers in the institute would feel having enacted violence and been victims of it. A show that left me feeling like I’d been through the ringer – but one that I would highly recommend seeing.
& Juliet at Shaftesbury Theatre
Another re-telling of Romeo & Juliet, but one that couldn’t be more different in tone. & Juliet sees Anne Hathaway argue with Shakespeare that Juliet should be allowed to live at the end of his play and try and capture her own independence – all to a Max Martin-produced soundtrack from the 1990s and 2000s. David West-Read’s book doesn’t make the songs feel forced – and whilst at times its desire to be ‘right-on’ felt a bit too on the nose this is a really fun time at the theatre. A full review will come after my second visit in January – but shout outs should go to Grace Mouat and Ivan de Freitas who were on as Juliet and Shakespeare when we first saw it and who were both excellent.
Six at Arts Theatre
Six is the little musical that has exploded this year – with West End, Broadway, cruise ship, UK tour and Australian productions. Written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss when they were at university, it casts the six wives of Henry VIII as a girl band – each ducking it out over who had the hardest time married to Henry. At 75 minutes, it’s short and fun and I haven’t stopped listening to the cast album since I saw it. Stand-outs when I saw the show were Aimie Atkinson as Katherine Howard and Maiya Quansah-Breed as Catherine Parr
Emilia at Vaudeville Theatre
Written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, the play brings to life the real Emilia Bassano thought to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’ sonnets. The all-female cast bought to life her story brilliantly – with the trio of Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce and Clare Perkins playing Emilia through the years wonderfully. I really hope this comes back.
TV & Film
This year wasn’t a great film going year for me, as there weren’t a load of films that I was particularly interested in seeing. However, there was a load of great stuff on TV which kind of made up for it.
Fleabag – BBC
I almost feel like I don’t need to explain why Fleabag is wonderful. Written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, season two of Fleabag picks up with the best dinner table scene ever and follows Fleabag as she tries to mend her relationship with her sister Claire (the excellent Sian Clifford) and with herself, by way of a relationship with a hot priest (Andrew Scott – brilliant). This is just a great series and I’m sad we won’t be getting more – but excited to know what Waller-Bridge has got up her sleeve next.
His Dark Materials – BBC
After the disappointment of the Golden Compass film that came out many years ago, I had high expectations for the BBC/HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy and they were 100% met. I was slightly nervous as some of Jack Thorne’s work really hasn’t worked for me, but his adaptation was excellent and I loved how they weaved together Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife. The special effects are incredible, and the ensemble of actors were all great – with highlights being Dafne Keen as a lovely Lyra, Ruth Wilson as a completely brilliant scene-chewing Mrs Coulter and Lewin Lloyd as Lyra’s friend Roger. I cannot wait for the second series.
An actual film! Hustlers was a great time at the cinema. Based on an article in New York Magazine, Hustlers follows a group of strippers led by Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) who turn the tables on their wealthy clients and scam their way to riches. It was refreshing to see this kind of film with a mostly female cast and Jennifer Lopez is really, really good – and looks better than me.
The Crown – Netflix
There has been some sniffiness around the latest season of The Crown – which I can’t quite understand other than the change in actors. Peter Morgan’s scripts are still effective – with the Aberfan episode in particular being incredibly moving. The cast highlights for me are Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip, Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles and Erin Doherty as Princess Anne.
A late entry to this list, with a full review to come but this is probably my favourite film I’ve seen in the cinema this year. Adapted and directed by Greta Gerwig, this film of course follows the March sisters into early adulthood. Gerwig starts her adaptation towards the end of the story and tells it through flashbacks. Two great performances by Saorise Ronan as Jo March and Florence Pugh as Amy March make this film a must-see.