Red August by H. L. Brooks

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On the cusp of womanhood, August Archer wakes up from powerful erotic dreams of werewolves to find her real life is even stranger, more violent, and more passionate than she ever could have dreamed in this modern-day telling of the Red Riding Hood story.

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An adult retelling of beloved fairytale Little Red Riding Hood by author H. L. Brooks. Like the classic, there is a young girl named (August) Red, a grandmother living in a questionable, foliage bound residence, some pretty terrible parenting and of course the dangerous wolf with big eyes, big ears, big teeth and in this case, a rather large something else…

Unlike the story we all know and love, Red August contains a beast which is not entirely human nor entirely wolf, an errant mother who is definitely hiding something and an apothecary lady who deals in some rather unsavoury substances.

This is certainly a tale for the grown ups and not one that I would snuggle down to with my nephew and/ or niece of a Sunday eve. In other words there’s LOTS of sex in it. I don’t see this as a bad thing (so long as it’s true to the character, you can write whatever the heck you like my friend), but some people can be put off by this kind of fiction. If that’s you, Brooks has written a very interesting blog post explaining why there is quite a bit of sex in this book which you can read here.

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I enjoyed the way that Brooks played with the well known story, bending the rules a little so that we could see alternate angles, and introducing us to characters and their backstories to enrich the experience.

My favourite element of the book is the setting. The deep dark woods with the flowing stream, which encompasses Grandma’s quaint if generously proportioned home. Then there are the occasional references to the family’s homeland, Scotland, which wasn’t explored nearly enough for me.

Like all good books, Red August is awash with mystery and intrigue. As we slowly unravel the family secrets, and learn more about Red’s past, her current situation does make more sense but I wanted more. I sometimes felt a little out of touch with what was happening, but I guess that’s how Red must have felt among her family for a little while.

For a writer, an amazing part of the storytelling process is to share an important message that transcends the superficial storyline and reaches readers on a personal level. Bearing this in mind, I think Brooks has missed a trick in this book. (Dear author, please do forgive me for the next paragraph if I’ve interpreted this wrong. I feel inclined to tell you here that I am on a very tight schedule what with me being very busy and important with work and studying. Also, last night my cat decided that I was not looking nearly fancy enough for slumber and so he rolled himself out into a furry wrap and donned my chest, stretching from shoulder to shoulder, and proceeded to purr with volumes to rival the deepest thunder, between the hours of 3am and 6am making me a very sleepy human today.)

What I mean by that is I feel that the author sometimes glosses over some of the heavier subjects. Allow me to illustrate. Towards the beginning of the book, following an intense bout of bullying, August is sexually assaulted in a most brutal manner by a boy from her new school. This whole episode is soon forgotten however when the rest of the story kicks in. There is no mention of this violent, sexually explicit experience later on, even in relation to August’s many sexual fantasies and later on in her intimate encounters with Faolon.

Whether this is to demonstrate August’s resilience to the mental effects of the attack (an attribute worthy of her new found family history?) or whether the whole incident is an example of unnecessary background information on the author’s part, I haven’t quite worked out yet. I’m inclined to go with the latter. The boy who attacked August is left out of the book altogether, once he has been ruthlessly dealt with. There is already so much going on in the book that this episode serves little purpose but to paint August as an unfeeling robot, which of course we know she isn’t. It could also be construed as a way to show August’s protective relationship with her mother (as she shields her mother from hearing about her attack) but their relationship is shown in various other ways anyway.

Either way, it adds a certain darkness to the story.

I enjoyed the whole concept of the Red August. You guys know I bloody love a fairytale with a modern twist.

I look forward to the next instalment of the Red August series, which I believe is due out in 2016!

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Thanks Heather for sending me a copy of Red August to read and review.

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Sugar and Snails by Anne Goodwin

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At fifteen, Diana Dodworth took the opportunity to radically alter the trajectory of her life, and escape the constraints of her small-town existence. Thirty years on, she can’t help scratching at her teenage decision like a scabbed wound.

To safeguard her secret, she’s kept other people at a distance… until Simon Jenkins sweeps in on a cloud of promise and possibility. But his work is taking him to Cairo, and he expects Di to fly out for a visit. She daren’t return to the city that changed her life; nor can she tell Simon the reason why.

Sugar and Snails takes the reader on a poignant journey from Diana’s misfit childhood, through tortured adolescence to a triumphant mid-life coming-of-age that challenges preconceptions about bridging the gap between who we are and who we feel we ought to be.

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I want to start by thanking Anne Goodwin for asking me to review Sugar and Snails. It’s the first book I’ve read in a long time that provoked the words ‘I can’t actually believe that just happened’; ‘I did NOT see that coming’; ‘Orange is the New Black can WAIT! I HAVE to read the next chapter’ exit my mouth. For these reasons and some others, it’s one of the books that I have been most excited about reviewing since starting out on my little reviewing sideline. Its one of those books that I want to talk and talk about but because of my religious beliefs (Thou Shalt Not Provide Spoilers) its the one book that I can’t talk about at all! Because much like the classic Bruce Willis thriller The Sixth Sense, once you know the twist, you’ll never see it the same again. But I’ll give it a go…

Sugar and Snails follows Diana, a middle aged, moderately successful psychology lecturer. Despite her good education and a position at one of the top universities in the country, her head is firmly stuck in the sand, but is at serious risk of being dislodged through the efforts of an ever helpful friend and a prospective love interest.  The story is told through Diana’s voice. I’m not often a fan of books with a single voice, but I can’t imagine Diana’s story being told any other way. She narrates her life in the first person, with a graceful poise that transcends the upheaval that she has encountered on her journey. Goodwin delicately navigates through Diana’s memories and emotions with a nimble dexterity, gently guiding the reader as we plunge into Diana’s psyche with a tenderness that was never afforded our heroine. That is until we discover Diana’s secret around half way through when it feels as though we’ve sidestepped into a raging torrent of ice; not because of what the secret is, but because of Goodwin’s sudden shift from softly subtle to pointedly direct.

It is around this point that I realised how perfectly this book is written. With one sentence, Goodwin forced me to simultaneously question all preceding events while doubting my expectations for the remainder of the book. It felt like being frozen in a tangled crossroads of possibilities; a deer caught in the headlights moment, if you will, which is how I imagine Diana must have felt more than once throughout her life.

Anne Goodwin

The Author, Anne Goodwin

annegoodwin.weebly.com

Sugar and Snails is the  classic example of why one should absolutely never begin writing a book review before the reading of said book is finished. When reviewing, I always make a few mental notes as I read, thinking about what I’ll say about the book, themes I’ve picked up on etc. Inevitably, very few of my Sugar and Snails notes have proved useful due to the surprising turn of events circa 56% in (thank you Kindle with your ever precise page counting techniques), but there is one such note that I think is still valid. It is this: The book’s main focus is a decision made by a 15 year old, and the consequential lifestyle and doctorate research led by Diana about the ability of adolescents to make meaningful decisions. In real life, adolescents are made to make some of the most important decisions of their lives, especially with regards to their education and future careers. They also think that they are the only ones having to make these decisions and that nothing will ever be simple again and the world will probably end next Wednesday. I’m sure we can all agree that for the most part, these are all very correct and reasonable observations for teenagers to make. I therefore think it would be very useful to have this book available in all high schools. Either in the library or as part of a lesson taught by an open minded teacher who is not easily embarrassed. Because despite some controversial topics, or maybe because of said controversy, and while not everyone faces Diana’s dilemma, we could all be better rounded people for learning about said dilemma in order to support those who do have such a decision to make.

Sugar and Snails deserves to be pushed to the front of the queue in all book club reading lists. The depth of the characters and the intricate problems that they face will provide so many discussion points. Now that I know the twist, I am excited to reread Sugar and Snails and to pick up on the many muted clues sprinkled throughout the text.  So please, for me, read this book. If you can’t do it for me (rude) do it for you. Just go now. Buy it. Read it. Then come talk to me about it. Because it is absurdly brilliant.

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Truth: The Oleah Chronicles by Michelle Johnson

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What would you do if everything you thought
to be true in your life was a lie?
Sixteen-year-old Angel Seriki must face overwhelming truths about her family when she meets Zander Black, a new student to her high school who is smart, charming and devastatingly beautiful. The revelations he uncovers to her about her family’s past changes everything, and as her relationship and feelings for Zander deepen, so do the risks involved. She must now accept her fate and face the true reality of who and what she is. Even if that means giving up everything, including being human.
 oleahchronicles.com

 

Truth is the first in a series of books by Michelle Johnson, an imaginative young writer with a penchant for mythical creatures and all things creative.

In Truth, Johnson has created a very interesting cast of characters, made even more so by introducing some of them in one world, before ripping them away and depositing them unceremoniously in another. This displacement is for good reason; if an evil queen threatened you and the entire population of your home planet, you’d probably jump ship too. No? Then you clearly have never crossed paths with Satan’s little sister before.

Truth is essentially a vamped up story about coming of age. We watch Angel grow from a regular teenager into a fierce heroine as she survives persistent vampires, homicidal demons, earthquakes, an unwanted 17th birthday party and worst of all, high school boys.  Despite all the other-worldly characters, and planet hopping, Truth is a very down to earth book. The characters are believable, which is made apparent in the closing chapters: when Angel is forced to give up her whole world, literally, the reader can’t help but feel her agony, particularly at the loss of her friend who she will do anything for. It is this deep friendship that spurs our reluctant heroine on to save the world, rather than the throngs of Oleahs bowing before her on her home planet.

The story kept my attention from page 1. I enjoyed the relationships depicted and the believable tensions and ensuing arguments that arose throughout. Johnson has got the balance between sci-fi, fantasy and the plausible spot on by dealing with everyday issues in a supernatural reality.

I look forward to the next installment!

 

Romeo and Juliet by Chester Performs

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This is my second trip to Chester Performs in as many years. For those of you who are unindoctrinated, Chester Performs is an outdoor theatre event that springs up for the summer months in Grosvenor Park in the middle of Chester. Its a risky business, weather wise what with the gaping hole atop the auditorium. Allow me to illustrate further: on Sunday we started with torrential downpours, which progressed onto a light chill/ drizzle which then blossomed into eye squinting, sunstroke inducing hot sun.

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Awaiting the performance in the rain.

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A kindly Chester Performs worker fighting against soggy bottoms


The initial deluge saw the performance delayed a little but we didn’t mind. This was helped by inhaling the poshest picnic ever which consisted of sandwiches, cheese, olives and prosecco. Good times.

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Slightly bedraggled but happy with our prosecco!

It was a struggle to choose between the three plays but in the end we went for Romeo and Juliet because its a classic and it just happened to be on my birthday (happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday to Alicia, happy birthday to me). Ahem.

You can never see Romeo and Juliet too many times. This is not possible. I last saw it in September 2014 at the Victoria Baths in Manchester, which you can read all about here. I love how each interpretation of Romeo and Juliet is so original while retaining the authenticity of the story. Chester Performs version is the most refreshingly “authentic” version I’ve seen to date. I think a lot of theatre companies try to modernise, sexualise and americanise this play (just like wordpress is doing now as I write. NO, wordpress there is no “Z” in modernise and you do not spell “theatre” as “theater”. No offense to any American readers. But you’re wrong.) But here, we have a rustic, Italian setting, a young and petulant teenage Juliet, an excitable and somewhat immature Romeo and a historically accurate ending (read, no guns. Luhrmann, I’m looking at you).

The costumes were pretty and practical. Juliet had some great costume changes; a sage green play/ work dress; innocent, bridal white bed clothes; a stunning golden wedding robe. My only gripe is that the wedding guests arrived in black (bit depressing) but then again, the wedding day does immediately morph into a period of mourning so I’ll let that one slide. At least the guests didn’t turn up to the wedding in white and/ or cream. That would have been v. embarrassing for all involved, I’m sure we all agree.

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Awaiting drama in the rain!

Juliet was my favourite Juliet to date. She was a young, bouncy, conflicted, petulant, bright, passionate, beautiful angst ridden teenager. I enjoyed seeing a Juliet with a tousled blonde bob as opposed to the usual long, sleek, brunette locks. Romeo wasn’t my favourite, but again he was refreshingly different. He wasn’t stylish or devastatingly handsome or particularity suave but he was Juliet’s perfection, and that’s all that mattered. They played the relationship in such a believable way. They were hysterical in each other’s company and desolate when apart. They conversed at a remarkable speed,infusing as much emotion as possible into their last days. At one point I could not reconcile the soaring energy of the first half with the inevitable tragic end. It just didn’t seem possible that the world could continue without these two ecstatic lovebirds within it. But the whole cast were brilliant and the energy levels remained constant, if the happy mood did not.

One of my favourite things about Chester Performs is the use of music in their performances. They always have cracking singers and this time we were even treated to a singalong sesh pre-show with two ukulele clad minstrels. We had to sing in Italian, so I have no idea what they tricked us into saying. Everyone seemed to enjoy it anyway.

All in all, a very fun day out, which comes very highly recommended.

I’m hoping to get to some more performances this year to see the other shows on offer, but if not I’ll definitely be back next year!

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And the sun came out! See you soon Chester!

 

 

 

Storytime with Joanne Harris at Huddersfield Literature Festival

Joanne Harris HLF2015 image c. Kyte

Photo by Kyte Photography

Its Huddersfield Literature Festival time again! Yay! On Friday 6th March my excellent friend Ben and I visited the cellar of the Lawrence Batley Theatre where  Joanne Harris made her contribution to the festival with a new and exciting project, which she called Storytime.

Joanne began the evening by introducing the concept of her Storytime. She had joined Twitter a few years ago and started telling stories on it because that’s what she does; tells stories. If you are a twitterer I’m sure you’ve experienced these bursts of stories of a slow day at work, while “researching” that important thing you were supposed to be working on ….

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 Joanne was not alone on her stage in the cellar of the LBT. As well as a range of lighting and colourful projections to accompany each story, she had a band of helpers. Literally. Her stories were accompanied by a drum set, guitar, keyboard, bass, a flute and other miscellaneous percussive instruments.

Following Joanne’s introduction, we were treated to a musical introduction from the band. They played a beautiful song including the lyrics ‘There is a story the bees used to tell, long ago, long ago…’. This is how Joanne begins each of her twitter stories. The music, composed I believe by Joanne’s husband, was rather haunting. The melody was calm and lilting but with a dark edge to it. It was almost like accepting a warm invitation but once inside, a minor sequential cadence tinged with a sceptical coolness wrapped around the room, trapping us all inside. ‘…long ago, long ago, which makes it hard to disbelieve.’

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Photo by @Cat_Lumb

Each story once told was summarised in musical form by a song or an instrumental. Who knew that Joanne Harris was such a talented flautist? As a writer and flautist myself (show off) I have never considered putting the two together. But that’s what the whole evening was about; challenging storytelling norms. There was one point when Joanne leaned towards the mic without her flute where I was worried that she was going to sing. Then she did. And I was pleasantly surprised. What a beautiful voice. But writers aren’t supposed to be singers. Writers are solitary creatures who only surface once in a while to sign a few books and push the boundaries of blood to caffeine ratio.

I think there’s often a supposition about what people should be and how we identify with them. This is a philosophy that Joanne is trying to dispel. A lady in the audience asked the question “In your short stories tonight and actually in many of your novels, there is a feeling of ‘seize the day’. Would you agree?” Joanne did agree and she talked about this at some length.

When I saw her at the Huddersfield lit fest last year (where she was talking about her excellent book The Gospel of Loki) she made the point of saying that she didn’t subscribe her writing to any particular genre, preferring instead to tell her stories and letting them land where they land.  So it is with her Storytime on Twitter. The stories had been ephemeral in nature, flying through the twittersphere and being sporadically caught by readers. Now the stories are being saved and collated and are even being published soon in a book titled Honeycomb. But that all came from sitting down and telling a story in a different way.

The stories themselves were often quite dark, again belying the apparently safe, cosy nature of ‘Storytime’. My favourite was about a toymaker (I think he was a toymaker. Or a carpenter. He was a handsy sort of person anyway) who one day, noticing that his once lovely wife is no longer perfect, sets about fixing her to his satisfaction. A poignant parable about the struggle for unattainable perfection and (as my friend Ben surmised) the throwaway, consumeristic way that many of us live our lives. Thought provoking stuff.

All in all, Storytime was a magical evening. It was very refreshing to see a writer not only thinking outside the box, but dispelling said box altogether. An amalgamation of stories, music and theatre, Storytime with Joanne Harris and friends is something that I would certainly like to see more of.

There are still many fun events to get involved with in the Huddersfield Literature Festival. You can find out about it here.

 

P.S. Joanne, it was very lovely to meet you again. Thank you for signing one of your books for me. Should you need an additional flautist and/ or keyboardist for your future projects, I am always available. I’m really good. And sometimes modest.

P.P.S It was also very lovely to meet Jennifer and Lynne of Kyte Photography. You should check out their book of famous people from Yorkshire ‘Yorkshire Made Me‘.

The Evil Seed by Joanne Harris

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When Alice Farrell is drawn to a Grantchester churchyard and reads a strange inscription on Rosemary Virginia Ashley’s gravestone, she feels oddly disturbed.

And when her former boyfriend Joe returns to Cambridge with his new girlfriend Ginny, Alice is repelled by the ethereal, lavender-eyed beauty – and certain of her evil.

Then Alice finds an old diary in Ginny’s room and reads the story of Daniel Holmes, who lived in Cambridge forty years earlier, and fell under the fatal spell of Rosemary Ashley. As the two stories intertwine, Alice’s suspicions about Ginny increase – until past meets present in a terrifying climax…

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I’ve had a few long car journeys to contend with at work recently, so I thought I’d give audio books a chance.  Here’s my review of the very first audio book that I ever listened to – The Evil Seed by Joanne Harris, which consequently, is the very first book that Joanne Harris ever wrote.

The story begins a little ambiguously with several intriguing characters, sharing a town but divided by time, with their ordinary lives and ordinary dilemmas. It quickly becomes clear however that they are anything but ordinary as they each come to terms with their role in the vampire story in which they are embroiled. Some utilise keen detective skills, some attempt to run while others use the full force of denial to move through the drama.

The most interesting characters for me were Alice and Daniel. Both are the voice of reason in their respective time zones. They got the most airtime and maybe this is why they felt like the most rounded characters. Joe and Ginny on the other hand were very two dimensional, despite their pivotal roles in the story.

I’m going to go all feminist on you now ….

Ginny is a vampire. Say what you want about those bloodsuckers, but having done at least 8 hours of research into the nature of vampires (Twilight) I can confirm that vampires are strong, cunning and their lightning speed makes Usain Bolt seem positively sluggish. In other words, no one messes with Ginny. She would NOT be in my top three people to run into in a dark alley of an evening.

It says a lot about our society, does it not, that supernatural Ginny with knowledge and age that belies her iridescent appearance must act like a vulnerable, needy, pathetic excuse of a human, desperately seeking the protection of a male human in order to fit into our world. Just sayin’.

I know that Joanne Harris has mixed feelings about her debut novel. Not because we’re bezzies (except we did meet one time and I have a photo to prove it) but because I read it on her internet site on the web.  I too have mixed feelings about it. Mostly, I wish I had read it in book form rather than listened to it in broken car journeys. I’m not sure that I would have assigned the voices I heard as read by the narrators to the characters. The story itself is quite slow paced, but I did very much enjoy ‘reading’ Daniel’s diary in and among Alice’s journey.

If you love Joanne Harris, give it a go. I believe it is currently in print. Alternatively, why not give audiobooks a try? I downloaded my copy on iTunes.

Enjoy!

‘The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson

Its a ridiculously long title that fits a ridiculously tall tale. ‘The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson.

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It all starts on the one-hundredth birthday of Allan Karlsson. Sitting quietly in his room in an old people’s home, he is waiting for the party he-never-wanted-anyway to begin. The mayor is going to be there. The press is going to be there. But, as it turns out, Allan is not…Slowly but surely Allan climbs out of his bedroom window, into the flowerbed (in his slippers) and makes his getaway. And so begins his picaresque and unlikely journey involving criminals, several murders, a suitcase full of cash, and incompetent police. As his escapades unfold, we learn something of Allan’s earlier life in which – remarkably – he helped to make the atom bomb, became friends with American presidents, Russian tyrants, and Chinese leaders, and was a participant behind the scenes in many key events of the twentieth century.

(Ta Amazon for this handy synopsis)

In the Interview with the Author at the end of the eBook edition that I read, Jonasson talked about his journey of writing this book. He wanted to write an uplifting story. Uplifting it may be, but its a little too far fetched for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some far fetched I do. But I also like a bit of substance to weigh it down, rather than a flimsy layer of a story that sticks over historical events somewhat haphazardly like a piece of rogue cellophane. Jonasson himself has said that the reason that Allan is 100 years old is so that he could fit in some of the main historical world events of the last century.

As robust as Allan has proved himself to be over the century of his life (surviving explosions, enduring psychiatric institutions, escaping prison, fooling at least five world leaders. Please!), I couldn’t help but read  his story through the thick rimmed spectacles of the eulogist. The story jumps between the past and the present. With every shift to the present, I had to stifle an anticipatory grieving as he fumbled through his next caper and/ or full bottle of vodka. I don’t want to ruin the ending so SPOILER but I found it very unrealistic that Allan didn’t die in the end. Not to sound morbid but with the main character being 100 years old, I kind of expected the end point to be his death. But I guess that would have ruined Jonasson’s perky upbeat book.

I have a slight marmite dilemma with this book. One of the things that I can’t decide whether I love or hate about it is the incessantly upbeat tone of the narration contrasted with the absurd and sordid criminal activities that go on. A lot of the time it feels like you’re being read a cosy night time story, lulled into a false sense of security by the flowing cadences, the simplicity of ‘this happened so then this happened’, the perpetually cheery Allan. Then WHAM. An explosion. A conveniently deceased antagonist. An elephant with a penchant for sitting on gun wielding gang members. IT MAKES NO SENSE JONASSON!

This book was written in Swedish and translated into English by Rod Bradbury. I always find it difficult to read a translated book (no offence Rod). I get distracted by the fact that it is translated. One of the things I love about reading/ writing is playing with language, experimenting with the shape, sound and the rhythm of the words. I love the specific nuances behind a northern phrase that probably wouldn’t transfer to the southern part of our isles let alone another language.

A large part of a story is the way in which it is told. This is why we have favourite authors that we go back to again and again (Joanne Harris, Kate Mosse, George R.R. Martin, hello to you).  If you take away the author and their style, yes you still have the story but I worry that this diminishes some of the intentions behind the story. Allow me to illustrate my point further. How many times have fairy tales been rewritten? With each retelling, the story is morphed into something very slightly different until we get Mr Walt Disney making a completely magical film called Beauty and the Beast in 1991 which nevertheless tells a completely different story to the original Belle et la Bête published in 1740. This is no way diminishes my undying love for Disney FYI. Also this analogy doesn’t really work because Madame de Villeneuve is long gone and if it were not for Disney’s version the majority of humans would never have known about this story. I think I just wanted to talk about my all time fave film…

So, yeah, The 100 Year Old Man... Didn’t love it. Probably won’t watch the film. Maybe I’d feel differently if I could read fluent Swedish.

We’ll never know.