Friday, 31 December 2021

Another Year Over

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Another year draws to a close in a gentle fizz. The world is still under the ever-changing grasp of Covid and although here in England parties and family gatherings are allowed, many have opted for a more cautious approach. Despite spending less time under restrictions than in 2020, looking back over the past twelve months it feels like a familiarly uneventful year, in part because of Covid, and in part because personally the final five months of the year have been host to a lot of debilitating ill health. Here’s hoping that we will soon emerge from this pandemic without too many more casualties. My heart goes out to everyone who has been impacted.

Eilean Donan at sunset


Never one to dwell on the negative, let’s close this year out focussing on some of the positives. The return of live theatre has been a particular joy, with Hairspray and Amelie featuring among my most joy-filled visits. The uncertainty around travel abroad led to finally heading to Scotland (along with seemingly half of the population of England…), a trip oft-talked about but never realised until now. I was so grateful for the opportunity to explore some more of that beautiful country, and it proved to be one of my most beloved trips. We were unbelievably lucky with the weather, and the late sunset encouraged long days of walking. We spent almost the entire trip outdoors, marvelling at the natural beauty all around. After over a year of largely being confined to a flat and a small local radius, it was just the salve I didn’t know I needed, and I came back with a full heart.


It’s been a good reading year with a few books that have been on my to-be-read pile for many years finally making the transition to ‘read’. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Wide Sargasso Sea were among them, and provoked quite different responses. Other fiction highlights include The Story of a New Name, the second in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, a powerful, consuming book. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne offers a sweeping look at life in Catholic Ireland over the course of one man’s life, tinged with discrimination even before he breathes his first. It was entirely captivating and I can’t wait to read more by Boyne. The Vixen by Francine Prose introduced me to an assured writer who crafted a beautiful tale that transported me to 1950s America. Perfect for book lovers as it heavily features a publishing house, as well as fans of intrigue. Another intense, troubling read was Born of No Woman by Franck Bouysse. Set in nineteenth century France, it has a truly despicable villain, and doesn’t let go of your heart until the very last page. After quite a few challenging reads, Midnight in Everwood by M. A. Kuzniar made for a nice close to the reading year, although it was darker than I had anticipated. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful, magical festive read.



It’s been a bumper year for non-fiction reads with The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry offering a personal look at her family’s connection to Elizabeth Bowen, and the way history is created. How Was It For You? by Virginia Nicholson was an eye-opening account of gender and sex in the 1960s. Most recently, I thoroughly enjoyed Threads of Life by Clare Hunter, a fascinating look at the history of needlecraft and its ever-changing position in society.


I already have a tempting stack of books waiting to be read, including the latest Elena Ferrante, and Ali Smith’s Summer, as well as some intriguing looking non-fiction variously about women’s health, motherhood, and the Jacobite cause. What are you looking forward to reading over the coming months?


Finally, I want to wish you all a happy and healthy year full of good times with loved ones, and many excellent books.

Sunday, 26 December 2021

Midnight in Everwood, M. A. Kuzniar

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Nottingham, 1906, Christmas is on its way and with it, the end of Marietta’s dreams of becoming a professional dancer. Ballet is her life, the thing that gives her voice, yet her status-obsessed parents require her to give it up to marry well and live the life of a society wife. When the mysterious Dr. Drosselmeier moves to the neighbourhood he is met with countless invitations, parents falling over themselves to match him with their daughters. It soon becomes clear however that Marietta has caught his eye, and he becomes fixated on possessing her. In an attempt to escape an unhappy fate she finds herself stumbling into Everwood, a magical land that appears to hold wonderful potential. It doesn’t take long for the cracks in this sweet world to begin to appear, and Marietta wonders if she will ever find her way home.


The figure of Drosselmeier is deeply unsettling. He is manipulative and over-confident, invading Marietta’s personal space and lacing their outwardly polite conversations with thinly veiled threats. His behaviour is masked by the charming persona he puts on with the rest of her family, and even Marietta’s beloved brother Frederick dismisses her concerns when she raises them. In the depths of Everwood she continues to be haunted by Drosselmeier, who appears in her nightmares, and at times seems as though he might be there in person. He is a textbook abuser, but has the advantage of magic, making her situation feel all the more helpless.


Marietta lives a stifled life of expectation in her family home, denied the possibility of even expressing her desires. She has an ally in Frederick, who is also forced to deny his true self to fulfil the role demanded of him. Marietta does have moments of disobedience, but once she enters Everwood she becomes increasingly defiant. At times entirely warranted, at others foolhardy and excessively contrary, she can be a slightly frustrating protagonist. We see her grow over the course of the book however, her captivity offering her freedom in other ways. She learns to open herself to others, and to re-evaluate her perceptions of her own privilege. Her experiences in Everwood prove her strength and change the way she views the world and her place within it. 


Everwood itself is richly drawn and decadently described. You can easily picture the lavish balls, smell the sweet scent of the sugared world (and worry at the state of their teeth living off a diet predominantly consisting of sugar), and imagine the gorgeous creations that Marietta, Dellara, and Pirlipata are dressed in as the king’s pets. We see the world as Marietta does, and witness her disillusionment as she discovers the world outside the palace and the suffering inflicted on the many for the benefit of the few.


The tyrant King Gelum displays some uncomfortable similarities to Drosselmeier - a desire to possess at any cost. He delights in the suffering of others and does not think twice about destroying those who cross him. Marietta soon learns the harsh consequences of defiance, but also the power of friendship and the willingness for sacrifice that comes with such fierce bonds. In such an intense environment passions run high and despair and love are intensified. Marietta learns not only of the power of sisterhood, but feels her first flushes of romantic, heartbreaking love.


This is an enjoyable, enchanting read that’s perfect for the festive season. Pedants like me will find the constantly odd sentence structures distracting, as well as Kuzniar’s passing fixations with certain slightly unusual word choices that feel unnatural. Nonetheless, you will be so swept up in the magical world, and keen to find out what happens next that this can be forgiven. Recommended for fans of modern fairy tales, light fantasy, romance, ballet, and cosy winter reads, this book ticks a lot of boxes.


Pick up a copy:

Bookshop

Foyles

Waterstones

Thursday, 9 December 2021

Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature, Natural History Museum, London

A little slice of magic has arrived in the Natural History Museum’s Victorian halls. Step through the archway into a world of unicorns, dragons, and nifflers. This exhibition uses the Fantastic Beasts franchise as its starting point to explore the mythologies of human history that included weird and wonderful creatures, considers the real life animals that might have inspired them, and likens Newt’s work to that of modern day conservationists. It is a wonderfully realised experience with mysteriously opening drawers, projections, and interactive displays that make you feel as though you really have stepped into a magical world.

The first section looks at evolving ideas about magical creatures - mermaids and dinosaurs lurk here, including one named after Hogwarts itself! There are medieval manuscripts, incredible tapestries, and gruesome relics  of generations past trying to profit off of people’s superstitions. You’ll also learn about some fascinating real life creatures that may have inspired travellers’ tales. The one that stood out for me was the giant oarfish - a bony fish that can grow to seventeen metres long!


We learn a little about the life of those who searched for wildlife and how their findings were recorded. There’s a quick nod to the fact some of this activity and the items museums now house because of it, have links to colonialism, but this isn’t explored in any depth.


Next, we’re thrown into a highly interactive section (with plenty of hand sanitiser stations - all, unfortunately, empty) alongside rather too much taxidermy for my liking. Magical creatures are side by side with real animals that exhibit some of the same behaviours, and a few that don’t live up to the folklore around them. The final section looks at endangered animals and the work being done to protect them, ending the exhibition on a thoughtful note. 



All in all a thought-provoking display that has plenty for fans of the Wizarding World and those interested in nature. Its design is engaging and works well for adults and children. Props from the films mix with computer generated depictions of some of the magical creatures, offering a captivating and interactive experience that will satisfy even if you do skip past the non-magical sections (although I’d recommend giving them your attention too - there’s a lot to be learned in a fun and interesting way).


The exhibition is on at London’s Natural History Museum until January 3rd, 2022. If you can’t make it in person, there’s an accompanying exhibition on Google Arts and Culture which is well worth a look.

Thursday, 25 November 2021

The First Woman, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

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Makumbi’s prize-winning novel tells us the story of Kirabo, twelve years old at the start but a young woman by the end. Brought up in a rural Ugandan village by her grandparents, her father is a fleeting presence, having made a life for himself in Kampala. Her mother is notable by her absence, one keenly felt by Kirabo. As the book progresses we see Kirabo grow and mature, becoming more aware of the political turmoil that has provided the backdrop to her formative years.


The story is not told in first person narrative yet it feels as though it is Kirabo telling it to us. This means that in her younger years things she doesn’t understand are glossed over. Figures such as the dictator Idi Amin have the potential to dominate attention, but he remains at the periphery, becoming clearer as she ages, and offering us a glimpse of life as a teenager during such a tumultuous and dangerous period. 


Feminism and the role of women is a central theme in the novel. Kirabo herself ‘ignored it because as far as she knew, feminism was for women in developed countries with first-world problems.’ Makumbi instead chooses to focus on mwenkanonkano, highlighting the different forms of feminism that exist, that different circumstances lead to different approaches. The women in the novel are strong and influential in Kirabo’s life. We learn also of the Ugandan creation myth of the first woman, Nnambi, and Kirabo is taught by Nsuuta how these myths tie in with modern misconceptions and fears around women.


Attitudes to sexuality are also explored. Kirabo is taught that menstruating is dirty and it is referred to as her ‘ruins’. A refreshing alternative view is offered by her Aunt Abi who provides a more liberal outlook, encouraging her to get to know her body and sexuality before sharing it with a boy.


Kirabo is eventually sent to an all-girls school where they attempt to remove all male influence. She sees that it’s already too late however, noting that they have already learnt that their worth is linked to their usefulness to men. She is observant and questioning, seeing girls removed from school pregnant and pondering the fact that the lives of the boys who got them pregnant continue unchanged.


At the heart of the novel are notions of family and the women Kirabo turns to for advice. She is horrified when she discovers her father’s other family and his wife’s reaction to this unknown step-daughter turning up at her home. Kirabo’s desire to find her mother preoccupies her mind, and when she finds out who she is she acts recklessly, hurt by the stinging rejection. Despite this absence, she is loved and supported, sometimes slightly spoilt. We see as she comes in to her maturity the shift towards being able to see situations from the perspectives of others and to truly appreciate those who raised her.


This is an interesting read with a lot to sink your teeth in to. Kirabo is a believable, likeable character with relatable flaws. It offers us an insight into growing up with huge political upheaval and violence happening all around with the contrasting personal struggles and pains of approaching womanhood. 


Pick up a copy:

Bookshop

Foyles

Waterstones

Thursday, 18 November 2021

Harry Potter: A Forbidden Forest Experience

As the sun sets over Arley Hall in Chesire, its woodlands come alive with the sound of werewolves, owls, and mischievous pixies. Until 3rd January 2022, budding wizards and wise witches have the chance to come face to face with some of their favourite creatures from the Harry Potter universe. From entering through an arch of floating lamps, wandering through an illuminated forest, and the final showpiece, this is an incredibly well-thought out experience that will delight visitors of all ages.

Unlike many ‘creature’ experiences where animatronics are set along the route, this requires a little more attention. Yes, there are animatronics and plenty to see directly off the course, but stop and look a little deeper and you’ll see the glint of eyes, the rustle of leaves, and even the odd unicorn if you’re really lucky. This adds a sense of adventure to the evening, and the capacity means it never feels overly full, you can take your time exploring without constantly feeling rushed or overcrowded. The atmosphere is enhanced with audio clips from the films, music, and sound effects that help to bring the forest to life. 


You can spend as much or as little time as you want enjoying the experience - we took around two hours to walk the route, although you could do it faster if you didn’t want to stop and take photos every few steps. There are a few interactive sections dotted throughout that give you the chance to find out what your patronus would be, and see how successful you’d be in a wizard duel. Naturally, there’s also plenty of food and drink options, with bottled butterbeer available and soft drinks in your house colours. 


At the end of the route you’ll find yourself in a magical village where you can refuel, roast giant marshmallows over an open fire, and warm up with a cup or two of mulled wine before heading into the Magical Emporium to snag some magical souvenirs of your night. 



Friday, 12 November 2021

Non-Fiction November Week Two - Book Pairings

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I’m late to the Non-Fiction November party this year, but when I saw the week two theme (provided by Katie of Doing Dewey) I couldn’t help but join in. 




The first two books of Gabaldon’s best selling series centre around the time leading up to the infamous Battle of Culloden. For a look at the expansive history of the Jacobites which includes, but is no means limited to, the activity around Bonnie Prince Charlie, Seward’s book offers an overview of almost 120 years of the Jacobite movement.




Dark Emu
by Bruce Pascoe, Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia edited by Anita Heiss and The Secret River by Kate Grenville


Grenville’s novel explores the relationship and violence between colonists in Australia and the Aboriginal people who have looked after and lived in the land for thousands of years. Dark Emu challenges the impression of Aboriginal people as hunter gatherers and shows how white history has retold their history to suit their own prejudices. Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia gives us a glimpse of life in modern Australia that reveals the ongoing impact of colonialism.



Black Tudors: The Untold Story by Miranda Kaufman and A Book of Secrets by Kate Morrison


Morrison’s book centres on a strong, intelligent, black woman in Tudor England. Enslaved, but later saved from slavery, she overcomes a number of challenges to succeed in a time where the colour of her skin and her gender would have led many to underestimate her. Kaufman’s book seeks to raise the voices of those who are often erased from the history of the Tudors, and reassesses the view that slavery was almost inevitable, urging us to think again about what caused a radical shift in perspective in the seventeenth century.




The Shadowy Third
by Julia Parry
and The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen


Parry’s enthralling book traces her grandfather’s affair with the writer Elizabeth Bowen through their correspondence, bringing her grandmother to the fore, who had destroyed her own letters from the time. This is a fascinating book that makes you think about how history is constructed. Reading it will definitely make you want to explore some of Bowen’s writing and The House in Paris is the novel cited as being central to the family’s myth around Bowen, so makes a good place to start.






Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England by

Sarah Wise and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë


Brontë’s ‘madwoman in the attic’ speaks powerfully to us through the years, inspiring creative responses and intriguing the casual reader. Wise’s book gives a startling insight into the way those considered mad were treated in Victorian England, as well as those who weren’t but were conveniently diagnosed as such to keep them out the way.

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Born of No Woman, Franck Bouysse, translated by Lara Vergnaud

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

Trigger warning: This novel contains scenes of sexual and emotional abuse, and includes descriptions of violent deaths.

Bouysse’s searing novel brings nineteenth century France to life in chilling detail. The narrative voice shifts throughout, but it is Gabriel, the village priest, who bookends the novel. It opens with a mysterious confession requesting he remove a series of diaries from the body of a woman at the asylum, the contents of the which will haunt him for the rest of his days. It soon becomes clear why, as a bitter tale of abuse, intrigue, and deception unfolds.

Fourteen year old Rose is sold to a blacksmith by her father, desperately trying to save the family farm. The castle in which the blacksmith lives with his mother is cold and unwelcoming, reflecting the souls of its inhabitants. Rose quickly realises that no matter how well she performs her tasks the old woman will always find something to complain about. She accepts her new position with quiet resolve, but the true evil of her owners will soon reveal itself, making her life unbearable. There is some slight relief in the presence of Edmond, a kindly employee who warns her off staying, but without giving full reason why. Her affection for him is soon tainted with the disappointment that he didn’t do more to protect her.

There is one more inhabitant - the wife of the blacksmith, confined to her bedroom due to ill health, and never seen outside it. The doctor visits regularly, and Rose becomes curious about what’s wrong with her. The wife locked away is not an uncommon presence in either nineteenth century novels or modern books set during the period. The visits by the doctor will make those familiar with such novels as The Crimson Petal and the White distinctly uncomfortable, but the truth, when it is revealed, is far darker than anything I had imagined. 

The various threads of the story are constructed to devastating effect. At times we see the same events through different eyes with heartbreaking results. Rose, having been sold without her knowledge or consent, can only imagine the thought process of her family, completely blind to the consequences caused by the foolish actions of a desperate man. At many moments you wish the truth could be communicated between the unhappy inhabitants, but the despicable villains ensure this is never possible.

The blacksmith and his mother are truly abhorrent, their cruelty seemingly knowing no bounds. Often incredibly difficult to read, the sections revealing their unforgivable actions will have you boiling with anger. They are carefully realised villains that inspire no sympathy. They manipulate and abuse, and the image of Rose trapped with them in a forbidding castle where no-one will hear her screams is truly bone chilling.

The writing is confident and lyrical, creating a vivid, believable world that will take hold of your heart and not let go. The clever little details littered throughout drop hints of the full picture, which will only become clear after a series of twists and revelations that subvert many assumptions made from the off. Bouysse successfully draws you in to a dark and dangerous world with characters that will inspire strong emotions. At many times a difficult read, it is nonetheless almost impossible to put down.



Friday, 22 October 2021

Drinking Custard: Diary of a Confused Mum, Lucy Beaumont

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

Beaumont’s amusing memoir of deciding to have a baby, pregnancy, and early motherhood will have you laughing out loud and sympathising with the challenges of parenthood. Written in a relaxed, honest style, with the content taken from her diaries, you see how her feelings about parenting change from day to day, and feel the exhaustion and joy that comes with raising a small human.

The introduction felt a bit much, with an excess of exclamation marks and a writing style I wasn’t sure I’d get on with, but as you get into the bulk of the book you see Beaumont’s personality shine through, and enjoy the candid approach. Her list of reasons for wanting a child are largely influenced by adverts showing an idyllic version of parenthood which trick her into thinking white shirts and carpets mix well with babies, and that a preference for going to bed early will put her in good stead. She also talks about deciding she wants a baby but knowing it would be best if her husband, Jon, thinks it was his idea. 

Naturally, things don’t go to plan, starting with the birth. Her daughter Elsie turns out not to be a good sleeper and cries when not held. This leads to her pounding the streets with a pram, unable to stop for a moment for fear of the shrieking that will ensue. She begins to realise all those beautiful, happy families you see probably aren’t out for a peaceful stroll after all, but are instead forced to walk endlessly to keep their little angel happy.

She talks about the trials and tribulations of trying to find the right playgroup for them, and her desire to fit in with the other mums. She’s also very honest about the contradictions of motherhood - the lack of a sense of self and need to go out into the world as an adult, and yet the crushing difficulty of leaving Elsie at school for the day.

This is an insightful, funny book that will have parents nodding in recognition, and give those thinking about having a baby a small taste of the realities of it. A great book with a big personality.



Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Brilliant Baking Books

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With the return of the Great British Bake-Off to our screens, the nation once more reaches for the flour and bakes up a storm, inspired by the incredible creations that the contestants produce. As a keen baker at any time of the year, I thought I would take a look at my overflowing cookbook shelves and pull out some of my favourite baking books.


GBBO Alumni:


The end of the series always brings with it an outflowing of baking books from contestants, as well as the official GBBO publications. Here are a few of my favourites from series past.


Baking with Kim-Joy - A finalist in the 2018 series, Kim-Joy is well known for her beautifully designed bakes. This book is one that offers inspiration, although you do feel that there’s a level of artistic skill involved that the average baker might not possess. These aren’t quick projects, but if you have the time they are more than worth it (you can, of course, just make the bakes without the decoration if you’re short on time). There are some brilliant tips for creating bakes that look impressive but are much easier than you’d imagined. I’ve mostly used this book by picking out certain design ideas to incorporate into slightly different, simpler designs. Really useful for those who want to up their showstopper game.


John Whaite Bakes - He might currently be gracing our screens in the ballroom on Strictly Come Dancing, but he came to fame as the winner of GBBO in 2012. This book is the first in a series of cooking books he’s released and has a great selection of recipes, organised by the mood they best match. I’ve made quite a few recipes from this book but every time I flick through there’s more that catch my eye. The black cherry doughnuts are next on my list.



How Baking Works (And What To Do When It Doesn’t)
, James Morton - a finalist in the 2012 series of Bake Off, Morton was known for his fair isle knitwear and turning baking disasters into successes. This book is brilliant for anyone who really wants to understand how baking works. Armed with your new knowledge, it may even inspire you to get experimenting with your own recipe ideas.


A Passion For Baking, Jo Wheatley - Winner of the 2011 series, Wheatley was welcomed into the hearts of the nation with her low self confidence in direct contrast to her skill in the kitchen. Her recipes are family focussed and will have you baking on a regular basis. This book has been used time and again and contains my go-to chocolate chip cookie recipe.


Brilliant Hardbacks:


Peyton and Byrne: British Baking - Peyton and Byrne once had an impressive range of bakeries across London, with outlets at many of the main cultural attractions. Sadly, many of these have now closed, but you can whip up your own delicacies with this book. Simple, no-frills recipes that work, this is a great book for family favourites to make again and again. My most baked cake from it is probably the chocolate marble cake.


The Hummingbird Bakery: Home Sweet Home - for those with a sweet tooth and a soft spot for
American style bakes, this is a great book. An impressive range of cupcakes, layer cakes, and indulgent desserts, there’s much to tempt within its pages. Some favourites include the cookies and cream cupcakes, and lemon layer cake with cream cheese frosting.


The Clandestine Cake Club Cookbook, Lynn Hill - the Clandestine Cake Club, a supper club focussed entirely on cake, with bakers bringing along their creations based around an unusual theme, and meeting at a secret location. For those of us who haven’t been lucky enough to attend in person, this book helps give us a taste of the experience. The recipes are from members of the Club, and although they can be a little hit and miss, there’s a lot more hits than misses. This is a brilliant book for those wanting to bake something a little out of the ordinary. I’ve particularly enjoyed the elderflower cordial cake with white chocolate ganache, and the chocolate nut rum cake.


Patisserie: Mastering The Fundamentals of French Pastry,
Christopher Felder - This is a weighty book both in physical form and in content. Containing hundreds of recipes for delicious French patisserie, this is one for the ambitious baker who has some time on their hands. Each recipe is accompanied by multiple photographs, giving you confidence at each stage that you’ve not made a mistake, although you do need to remember to read the written instructions too so as not to miss anything. The hazelnut buttercream may take some time commitment but it is absolutely delicious (and can be frozen to save some time when the cravings next strike…)


Budget-Friendly


Easy Baking (M&S) - a brilliant selection of recipes for everyday baking. Cakes, cupcakes, brownies, and pies, this book is full to the brim with tempting bakes. A recent favourite is the cranberry and banana loaf, giving that lockdown staple a slightly different edge.


BBC GoodFood, 101 Tempting Desserts - cheap and cheerful, with photographs for every recipe, this is a great book for fans of cream, puddings, and ice cream. The strawberry toffee tart is a longtime favourite, but I’m currently making my way through their ice cream ideas, next up blueberry, coconut and lime. 

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

How To Be An Olympian, Harry Reardon

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

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

This easy-to-read book follows two Olympic hopefuls as they prepare for Tokyo 2020. Jess Leyden faces the struggles of working in an ever-changing team made up of personalities that are not always complementary. Hannah Dines battles to reach the overly harsh targets set out by British Cycling, while a potentially inaccurate classification leaves her competing against those with far fewer physical challenges. Both women show huge determination as they balance training with study and work.

The writing style is relaxed, creating the feeling that a friend is telling you the story, which makes you feel close to its subjects. There is a candidness that brings to the fore the bureaucracy that can make an already intense situation much worse, and generally conveys the level of commitment and sacrifice needed to stand a chance of success. It was surprising to learn about the way British Cycling and British Rowing treat the athletes that come under their umbrella. It’s no great secret that competing at the highest level is an intense and often lonely experience, but there’s also a perception that athletes are nurtured by their teams. This often seems to be far from the truth, and for Hannah especially, their endless changes of priority threw off her training regime as she tried to meet their demands, before realising that her energy would be better spent elsewhere.

It will come as no surprise to any readers in 2021 that the pandemic significantly impacted their journey to the Olympics. Both were faced with the challenges of not being able to train, becoming isolated, and making decisions not to bend the rules in order to get back to some semblance of normality. Having spent so much of their young lives in focused preparation for competing professionally, the sudden emptiness of their days was a sharp shock. Knowing that they only have a short window of time in which to achieve their dreams meant watching the time pass idly came with additional stress.

This is an interesting read that opens up the world of sport beyond the events we see on TV. It highlights how much work goes into every race, how many people are involved behind the scenes, and the very real financial challenges that can end careers before they really get off the ground. Coming to this as someone who doesn’t particularly follow sport, there was still a lot to enjoy. I closed the book with a huge amount of respect not just for Jess and Hannah, but for everyone who embarks on their own journey in the field.



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’.

Pick up a copy:

Bookshop

Foyles

Waterstones