Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Hairpspray, 03/09/21 and Leopards, 04/09/21

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Walking in to the Coliseum on Friday night you could feel the excitement in the room, even before the curtain went up. Theatre is back, and what a glorious return Hairspray is. I knew a lot of the songs but had somehow never managed to see it before, either in a theatre or on the big screen. The next two and a half hours were everything I could have hoped for and more. The story is one of acceptance, self-love, and the fight for inequality, and has a lot going for it. The cast were on fine form, and when Les Dennis got the giggles during a duet with Michael Ball, it reminded me how wonderful it is to be at a live performance, that no two shows are ever quite the same.

From the opening number to the final song this was a high energy, colourful production. The costumes were lavish, the singing pitch perfect, and the characters, although occasionally cartoonish, nonetheless evoked genuine emotion and took the audience along with them. I can’t think of a more perfect show to return to musical theatre with, everyone left with huge grins plastered across their faces, and I think it’s a safe bet that I wasn’t the only one dancing my way home.

Leopards, at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, couldn’t have offered a starker contrast. Dark,
intense, and thought provoking, seeing these two shows back to back demonstrated the versatility of theatre, and its ability to convey important messages in very different styles. With  a cast of two, a simple set, and no interval, Leopards demands your attention. Young, ambitious Niala (Saffron Coomber) meets celebrated charity leader Ben (Martin Marquez) in a hotel bar, looking for a new career direction. After some stilted conversation in which you question the quality of acting (before realising later that any awkwardness was entirely intentional), they end up in a bedroom.

What unfolds is deeply uncomfortable, as the characters are forced to face up to issues of consent, grief, and personal responsibility. The power balance shifts back and forth and you question the assumptions made during the scene in the bar. There are so many twists and turns that it’s hard to write about without spoilers, but trust me when I say this is a play that will leave you thinking about it long after leaving the theatre.

Monday, 6 September 2021

London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City, Tom Chivers

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thank you to Penguin and Random Things Tours for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

In this fascinating book, Chivers take us on an exploration of London, looking beyond the modern city to the forgotten past that has left subtle marks, if you know where to look. Written in a relaxed manner, Chivers takes us with him as he walks familiar streets, enlists the help of enthusiasts to aid his search for ancient rivers and geological features, and gives us a glimpse into his own life and his relationship with the places he visits. This is a book that will make you look at the city with fresh eyes and wonder what lies beneath your feet. 

At the start of each section is a map showing the make-up of the ground covered, helping readers visually understand the journey they’re about to go on. A sinkhole near his home on Petticoat Lane is the jumping board for the first section which will take you from Chaucer to the London riots of 2011 and bombings of 2005 with breathtaking speed, and with an emotional punch for those whose memories of the more recent events still haunt them. His broad sweep approach allows patterns to emerge from history, reminding us that although the scenery might have changed, the struggles and ambitions of humankind are recognisable across the centuries.

Clutching his modified map of London, Chivers covers huge swathes of the city, remarking on feats of engineering and the layers of history that are at times disturbed or discovered in building works. We learn about rivers that have been bricked over, Bazalgette’s famous sewerage system, and the fact Westminster Palace once sat on an island. We learn about a storm in 1928 that returned it briefly to this, filled the moat of the Tower of London, and sadly took the lives of ten locals.

This is a reflective, emotive book, a love letter to London both past and present. It feels very much of its time with references to Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn, and terrorist attacks. Contemporary readers will be familiar with these topics, which are mentioned only briefly, but I wonder if future generations of readers will have the same understanding, the same visceral response. Similarly, his laying out which streets he is walking along may bore those who can’t visualise the locations, or perhaps will help direct them to pinpoint the locations on their own maps. Made up of personal memoir, history, and geology, this is an interesting read that gives you a glimpse of the city through its inhabitants' eyes both past and present. A great read for London lovers and history enthusiasts alike.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Scott-Land: The Man Who Invented A Nation, Stuart Kelly

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This interesting book looks at the life of Walter Scott, his impact on the prevailing image of Scotland, and Kelly’s own relationship with ‘the Great Unknown’. This is not straightforward literary biography, but instead something more difficult to define. He guides us through the rise of Scott’s popularity and descent into derision and obscurity. His legacy naturally gets a lot of attention, and readers, whether familiar with Scott’s novels or not, will leave with a greater understanding and fascination with this eccentric author whose work provides us with so many of our ideas of Scottish tradition and whose influence should not be forgotten.

Scott not only created a version of Scotland and Scottish history that did not exist, but also attempted to create some mystique around himself as author. ‘It is as if, in the process of converting Scotland into an imaginary place, Scott had to make himself into an imaginary author.’ For many years he continued with the ruse that he wasn’t the author of the Waverley novels, going as far as to review one of his own books negatively, and determinedly persisting with the delusion despite his identity being an open secret. Indeed, he seemed to imagine himself a different reality at several points throughout his life. When he was met with financial ruin it made no practical sense to declare bankruptcy, yet he framed this as an act of heroism. It is perhaps not surprising then that Abbotsford, the home he created, is formed of clashing and contrasting styles that somehow held together while he was living but lost its soul with his parting, leaving modern visitors with a feeling of disconnect and unease.

It is perhaps ironic that the man who did so much to build the mythos of Scotland has had such a troubled legacy himself. A bestselling author during his lifetime, hailed by the Victorians as rivalling Shakespeare (or at least their idea of him) in significance, he is now largely neglected except for the most devoted of fans. Even his memorial in Edinburgh, the largest to an author in the world, was plagued with problems from the start, with the untimely death of the architect years before its completion, and an unfortunate material choice that meant it looked time worn when new.

His impact on Scottish tradition was helped along in no small part by royalty. His co-ordination of George IV’s visit to Edinburgh popularised a new, false sense of tradition that was derided at the time yet remains firmly in place today. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert also enthusiastically adopted his vision of Scotland in their time at Balmoral, from the design of the building to their patronage of the highland games and penchant for tartan.

Scott’s name will live on in street names, railway stations, and schools, and in this entertaining book Kelly takes us on a journey with one who went in search of the man behind the name. The character that emerges is one of contradiction, a nationalist unionist, a great yet shallow writer, forgotten yet commemorated across Scotland. Kelly does not shy away from Scott’s failings yet offers a compelling case for getting to know ‘the Great Unknown’.

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Wednesday, 25 August 2021

Fireborn: Twelve and the Frozen Forest, Aisling Fowler

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This post is part of the Ultimate Blog Tour for the novel. Thank you to Harper Collins and The Write Reads for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Ember is full of monsters, and trainee Hunters enter the Lodge to hone their craft and become formidable fighters. They give up their names and are instead known by numbers until they are given their Hunter name. The heroes of this story are therefore known as Five, Six, Seven, and Twelve. This feels a little clunky and awkward to start with but you do get used to it. When one of their number is taken, these young huntlings set out on a mission that will take them through the Frozen Forest and the monsters it contains who will force them to admit truths about themselves that they thought were safely buried. 

Twelve is a promising huntling, but makes enemies easier than friends, and lashes out whenever she feels vulnerable. In time the trauma she has experienced is revealed, and the desire for revenge that drives her. She is haunted by her past and relies on dream milk to keep flashbacks in her sleep at bay. On the road, however, she doesn’t have this safety net and it leaves her open to attack, but also offers the opportunity to see the vulnerabilities of her fellow travellers. We see her grow throughout the course of the novel and learn to see beyond her prejudices.

The other characters play a supporting role but all have their own uncomfortable secrets and desires. These include regret, love, and the desire of a creature made of stone to be able to experience taste. The trajectory of each of their stories is not unpredictable, but there are surprises to be found and struggles that readers can relate to. The book deals with some serious issues including grief, betrayal, and forgiveness, and you feel the characters’ hurt and reluctance to trust.

The world itself is richly described without slowing down the pace. Twelve takes a magical bestiary with them and so when they encounter creatures we are given their bestiary entry so you never feel particularly lost. Many of the monsters are reminiscent of those that appear in other popular fantasy worlds, so will feel familiar but with some striking differences.

Overall, this is an enjoyable read that lets you throw yourself into the world it builds around you. There’s a steady stream of peril and a dramatic climax that will keep you hooked. It also pulls at the heartstrings with its examination of the depths of human emotion and motive.

Fireborn is due to hit shelves 30th September.

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Wednesday, 18 August 2021

The Vixen, Francine Prose

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thank you to Harper and Random Things Tours for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Simon Putnam has recently graduated from Harvard, seemingly stuck in limbo between his ambitions and ‘a future that looked alarmingly like the past.’ He is back in his parents’ home, watching the countdown to the execution of one of his mother’s childhood neighbours, Ethel Rosenberg. They watch in tense distress as the final formalities play out on the screen, hoping something will save them but knowing they can never express that desire to anyone outside their home. 

Simon is soon working at a publishing house thanks to his Uncle Maddie’s connections. He has a hard time settling in, being widely ignored and fearing he might lose his job at any moment. One day, out of the blue, Warren Landry, one of the founders, entrusts him with a book set to be a bestseller. It’s more commercial than their normal catalogue, but they desperately need the money it will bring in. The problem is, it’s a terrible book, and worse still, it features a heavily eroticised representation of Ethel Rosenberg that would leave readers with no doubt as to her guilt. Simon finds himself suffering under the weight of the moral dilemma before him, a desperate desire to please and fit in, and an author who makes clarity even more evasive. Before he knows it, he finds himself entangled in a passionate love affair, in a company that clearly has some dark secrets that he can scarcely imagine, and a book that fills him with such guilt that he feels compelled to move out of his parents’ home.

Simon makes for an interesting, at times infuriating, narrator and protagonist. Many readers on the cusp of adulthood will recognise the agonies of uncertainty and desire to start moving forward into the life they’ve been working toward, but which might not end up looking quite as they’d imagined. He repeatedly points out how naive he was about love and sex, but it goes much deeper than that. He is surrounded by shady characters who drop hints at their insincerity, but in his youthful optimism, mistakes their manipulations as genuine affection. There are revelations that come later that will not entirely surprise the reader, yet it does not feel that you’re meant to be shocked. Indeed, by hinting at the truth throughout we see the extent of Simon’s naivety as he blunders through excruciating encounters.

He is juvenile in his approach to sexual relationships, apparently falling in love with any woman who he speaks to. He fantasises about his feelings for two women simultaneously and finds it hard to separate his nightly imaginings and reality. Despite his innocence he also has a sense of superiority. When talking with Anya, the author of the dreaded book, he is constantly surprised that she knows about art and literature, and he believes his parents feel unqualified to discuss his studies with him. He repeatedly makes judgments about people that he reminds himself he shouldn’t. He is at times a sympathetic character, at others infuriatingly oblivious, and not always kind.

Life at Landry, Landry and Bartlett throws him many curveballs which make him feel as though he’s always one step behind everyone else. Warren Landry drinks heavily and talks more freely than he should, but there’s the feeling that he isn’t ever entirely upfront. His business partner, Preston Bartlett, was institutionalised after they got into a fight at a Christmas party, the subject of which is not widely known but has a decidedly sinister air. When he meets the enigmatic Anya there are many suggestions that she has spent a significant amount of time with Warren, despite his claims they’ve met only once. Simon notices these inconsistencies but attempts to reason away any doubts. His sense of betrayal is heartfelt when the truth is revealed, knowing that the instigators went out of their way to toy with him for their own amusement.

His family life and sense of identity are also touched on throughout. He struggles between love for his parents and his desire to forge his own way. ‘I felt disloyal to my parents, ungrateful for their love and care, but I told myself that they would approve of my need - it was time, after all - to separate my history from theirs. I affected the carefree air of a recent Ivy League graduate, Simon Putnam, a literary aristocrat born for the job he’d rightfully inherited.’ He hides his heritage and closely guards the fact he grew up on Coney Island, desperately trying to fit in with his peers and rejecting his true self in the process. It takes maturity to realise what he already has, and to appreciate it before it slips through his fingers.

This is a self-assured book that makes you feel you’re in safe hands from the get-go. It is peopled with fascinating characters that make you want to dive in and uncover their secrets. The intrigues and concealments are multi-layered and it is a pleasure to witness the gradual peeling back of each layer, keeping track of every hint, eager to discover the whole story. Whether or not you fully trust Simon as a narrator, this is a thrilling read. There are a few little conclusions that feel a tad awkward but all in all this is a book that will keep you up at night. 

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

A Young Lady’s Miscellany, Auriel Roe

This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thank you to Dogberry Books and Random Things Tours for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

This memoir follows Roe from her teenage years through to a burgeoning career and early motherhood. It takes her from Cumbria, South Wales, Devon, and even Amsterdam, as she seeks to find her place in the world. The blurb suggests her misadventures largely arise from following the advice of a Victorian self-help book by the same name. This doesn’t turn out to be the case however - an odd paragraph here and there mentions it but mostly in reflecting on the time from a distance rather than it ever having been used as a guide. Despite not being quite what I expected, it was still an enjoyable, relatable read, written in an engaging style. 

Her family naturally feature heavily. Her two grandmothers receive the most detailed descriptions at the start, highlighting how greatly they contrast, and how the period in which they were born (late Victorian and Edwardian respectively) shaped who they were. Her memories will likely evoke nostalgia for childhood interactions with grandparents, but she also highlights regrets at not having taken the opportunity to get to know them better, to learn from them. Her descriptions of their actions and habits make the reader consider how unique the experience each generations has is, and the ways in which this can build barriers if time isn’t given for understanding. 

Her grandmother Manda and Manda's husband Wiff seem the most welcoming of the family. Her father is largely neglectful and always puts his own concerns ahead of his offspring. Her mother spent years in an unhappy marriage but shows great strength in trying to build a life for the two of them when she finally leaves. Her mother’s brother, who remains in the family home, terrorising their elderly mother, is selfish and literally pushes them out when they come to stay, encroaching on his territory. The disruptions in family life means she frequently has to change school, at times just as she is beginning to settle in and excel. One school is so badly run and contains such unpleasant students that she rarely attends, a fact that goes unnoticed by both the school and her mother.

Her romantic life also stalls many times, with her early attempts at intimacy leaving her cold and believing its only purpose to be procreation. She unwittingly falls into relationships, and at other times finds herself changing her style completely to match that of someone who has caught her eye. She is brutally honest throughout, both about her own shortcomings and of those around her.

Nothing particularly extraordinary happens in this memoir yet perhaps this is why it’s so easy to read, it all feels relatable and reminiscent of many a young person’s experiences. In guiding us through her own coming of age Roe discusses family dynamics, issues of class, travel, love, and learning to accept yourself. It will have you chuckling to yourself and nodding in recognition.

Thursday, 5 August 2021

Beauty and the Beast, Madame de Villeneuve

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A tale as old as time, but not as you know it. Madame de Villeneuve’s original Beauty and the Beast is darker and more complex than the Disney version. Beauty’s father has fallen on hard times and is under pressure from Beauty’s selfish siblings to provide them with treasures. When he goes away for business he insists Beauty request a gift. She chooses a rose, knowing that he’ll easily be able to find one for free. Unfortunately, he tries picking one from the Beast’s garden, condemning her to a lifetime locked away with him.

The character of Beauty is sympathetic to begin with. She is kind and thoughtful despite her immediate family. As the novel progresses she begins to feel more otherworldly - she is selfless to a fault, beautiful beyond belief, and can play any and every instrument, speak countless languages, and generally excel at anything she tries her hand at. Despite the lavish praise that is heaped upon her however, we do see glimpses of capriciousness later in the tale, and a tendency toward the dramatic.

Her family don’t come off particularly well, even her father doesn’t argue against her being the one to go to the Palace. Later in the story we see how unwaveringly loyal to her family Beauty is despite the fact they insult and reject her. They feel in many ways more realistic - they have their human weaknesses and respond naturally, albeit not admirably, to events.

The Beast, for the most part, keeps to himself. He proves himself generous and kind through his actions but spends only a short amount of time with Beauty each day, simply asking for her hand in marriage. His counterpart appears to her in her dreams, her great Unknown. She falls for this mysterious man and wonders if he is also held prisoner in the Palace. Her feelings for him almost get in the way of her relationship with the Beast, despite the repeated advice not to be fooled by appearances.

This was an interesting and fairly enjoyable read that draws on a lot of familiar themes from other fairytales. The final section of the book, which seeks to explain the events that led up to it, is overly complex, convoluted, and frankly detracts from the rest of the tale. There are some shock revelations and a few lessons to learn from, but ultimately it would have been a stronger story without it. Nonetheless, it was fascinating to explore the original.