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

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 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:




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.

Pre-order a copy:

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

The Vixen, Francine Prose

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 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.

Monday, 2 August 2021

Reflections On A Decade Of Blogging

Ten years ago today I sat down and hit ‘publish’ for the first time. A few hours later, I was doing the same again, possibly the only time in this blog’s ten year history that two posts have gone live on the same day. What started as a vague idea to keep my brain ticking over in post-University life has blossomed slowly into a more focussed endeavour that has introduced me to innumerable fellow bookworms. It’s got me reading books I’d never have picked up on my own, and has undoubtedly kept my read count up.

The gentle ebb and flow of activity indicate some major moments in my life - personal tragedy, further study, ill health, and happiness, all have been present in the intervening years, perhaps imperceptibly to you my dear readers, but every absence, indeed, every post, takes me back to the life I was living when it was written or abandoned. There are notable absences, Wuthering Heights, for example, my most read book, has somehow evaded review, appearing only in passing comments in discussion of other books. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve begun keeping a log of my reading, mistakenly thinking that this site sufficed, and yet I’m constantly amazed by the books that have somehow fallen through the cracks.

For most of this blog’s life it’s been my own little space to muddle out my thoughts about books, theatre, exhibitions, and the occasional bit of food. In the past couple of years I’ve begun sharing my posts, getting to know other bloggers, and even being sent books to review. The supportive book blogger community has been a happy revelation, eager to share enthusiasm, but similarly happy to discuss differences of opinion. Thank you to anyone reading this, and to everyone that’s interacted over the years - your recommendations, support, and shared passion have kept me reading, writing, and enjoying book blogger life despite the ever growing to-be-read pile, ready to topple at any moment, and the self-imposed deadlines that can at times make it all feel a bit stressful.

I can’t quite believe this blog has existed for an entire decade, and if you’ll excuse the indulgence, here are the reviews of some of my reading highlights. Here’s to the next decade and all the books and friendships that are waiting to be discovered.

The Humans, Matt Haig

The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham

The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose

The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante

The Shock of the Fall, Nathan Filer

The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber

A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

How Was It For You? Virginia Nicholson

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne

Hired: Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, James Bloodworth 

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Latitude 2021

Bombay Bicycle Club on the Obelisk Stage
I arrived at Henham Park freshly double jabbed, clutching my negative lateral flow test result, a pack of FFP2 masks, and with a fair amount of nervousness about being in large crowds again. I’d book my ticket months ago with the belief that Covid rates would be low - they were last summer without a vaccine so it seemed logical that there’d be less to worry about this time round. In reality, rates were soaring and it felt foolhardy to be throwing myself into the fray. I needn’t have worried however, the crowds were considerate, it never felt unsafe, and the requirement to re-test on the Saturday morning provided some reassurance.

Walking through the festival site on Thursday evening, already bustling with activity, I felt the sheer joy of once again being surrounded by live performance and people who had missed it every bit as much. Everybody seemed to be getting into the spirit of the event immediately, and performers repeatedly commented throughout the weekend how amazing and surreal it felt being back onstage once more.

The Vaccines performing on the BBC Sounds Stage

Latitude is so much more than its music, with a brilliant comedy line-up, talks, dance and yoga classes, craft workshops, and even a full moon ritual ceremony. There were sign language interpreters at many of the events which was a welcome sight. I was struck by the broad sweep of ages in the audience, from tiny babies to grandparents and everyone in between. It was a chilled, friendly festival with everyone enjoying themselves in their own way without bothering others.

Late night entertainment in the Trailer Park
Some highlights for me were learning various dances through the decades, Katherine Ryan on the Women’s Prize for Fiction podcast, a surprisingly emotional event, Sophie Duker on the comedy stage, the surprise appearance of The Vaccines, and Kaiser Chiefs on the Obelisk stage. There were also plenty of brilliant new (to me) musicians, poets, and comedians, and I came back with a long list of performers to look up and support. Every night also offered some cheesy disco tunes to dance the night away to after the headliners had left the stage.

All in all, a fun, varied weekend which allowed for an escape from the grim realities of the outside world. It wasn’t entirely free from challenges, however, with a number of artists having to pull out last minute because of positive test results or the need to isolate. It was nonetheless a great coming together of people passionate about the arts having a blast and losing themselves in the music under a mercifully clear sky. Festival Republic succeeded in putting on a brilliant event despite all the uncertainty leading up to it.

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Such A Fun Age, Kiley Reid

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

The Chamberlains have recently moved to Philadelphia. Alix runs a successful blog which began with her writing letters to companies asking for free products and which has morphed into a pseudo-feminist career and a book deal. Her husband Peter is a news anchor and instigated the move away from New York City. Alix maintains the illusion that she  still lives there across her social media channels. With a lively three year old and a new baby to look after they hire Emira to take care of the children so Alix can make progress with her book, despite the fact her drive seems to have evaporated since the move. Emira is in her mid-twenties and works part-time in an office when not taking care of Briar. She enjoys babysitting, knows she’s good at it, but also feels the pressure of her friends’ lives outwardly progressing quicker than hers, and the need to find a more stable job with perks like health insurance.

One night, while Emira is at a friend’s party, Alix phones to ask her to take Briar for a few hours, there’s been an incident and they’d rather their daughter wasn’t there when the police arrive. The catalyst for the incident was a casually racist comment Peter had made on-air that day. Alix is already worried that Emira might have seen it, but what follows will send her spiralling into an obsession to show how different she is from other privileged white women in a way that is deeply uncomfortable and inappropriate.

While out with Briar in an upmarket supermarket Emira is accused of having kidnapped her, the altercation only being resolved when Peter arrives to clarify the situation. Another customer, Kelley, films the incident and encourages Emira to make it public, the complete opposite of what she wants. His concern at first might seem genuine albeit a bit pushy, but it soon becomes clear that his preoccupation with showing how woke he is is actually just as toxic. The event that night is the most overt incident of racism in the novel but the book is littered with micro aggressions, unconscious bias, and the privilege of people who believe they’re acting with the best of intentions. It is at times uncomfortable reading and there are many times where you wish the characters would take a step back and realise the consequences and realities of their actions. 

Emira is a strong, likeable character. She’s defensive of her privacy, avoiding social media. The mid-twenties pressure to feel like you’ve got everything figured out is relatable, as are the close friendships she has that are more like family. You want the other characters to stop trying to mould her into their idea of success. In the latter part of the book she contemplates her relationship with Briar and the aspects of it that she finds fulfilling and satisfying. She’s also torn between hoping that she grows into a self-sufficient adult and the dread of knowing she’d likely end up paying someone for the emotional labour and the cycle of privilege would continue. Emira cares a lot for Briar, and although she knows she’s being paid to love someone else’s child for them, she cares about that child enough to make it difficult to walk away. When Alix starts her campaign to get to know her she finds it uncomfortable and wonders at the privilege Alix doesn’t seem to realise she has. Emira sees that Alix can be a good mother so believes it to be a choice when she’s not.

Alix is a conflicting character. Early in the book she’s almost sympathetic - lacking confidence in herself and her blog, struggling to adjust to the family’s new life away from her support network and the lifestyle that makes her feel as if she is someone. As the novel progresses however, we see how blind she is to her own actions, how unhealthy her obsession with hiding her privilege is. When her connection to Kelley first crops up it claws back a bit of sympathy, but there’s two sides to every story and it’s not always clear whose version you should believe. Kelley is something of an enigma from the start. Overly confident and blinkered in his views, his cocky attitude twinned with Alix’s revelation make you suspicious, yet he can be convincing. 

This is an interesting read that subtly weaves a lot of different threads together, and the title could just as easily refer to Emira’s age as to the time period we’re living through. It shines a light on the pitfalls of social media, privilege, racism, and the role class plays. The characters feel natural and believable, even if you wish some of their actions were less so, this is a promising debut.

Sunday, 11 July 2021

When Will You Get A Real Job?, Elin Petronella

Photograph reproduced with permission of
Elin Petronella
When Elin Petronella met Charles Henry in 2016 it was the start of a beautiful love story, but also of an inspirational creative journey. Elin was studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics while Charles had been working as a photographer after completing a degree at the Beaux-Arts de Paris. Elin introduced him to the joy of embroidery and he encouraged her to try new styles and take her creativity seriously. Before long they were winding up their lives in Paris, gaining a significant following on Instagram, and travelling around Europe, creating as they went. When Will You Get A Real Job? Is a case study of their first year as creative entrepreneurs.

A central message of the book is that the most important thing is to keep creating. Creativity is a muscle that gets stronger the more you use it. Elin writes of how committing one hundred percent to your art, of not having a back-up job, forces you to focus and keep working hard. The idea of being busy being busy is a useful one to think about - are the tasks you are spending most of your time on really that valuable? Yes, social media presence is important, but when it takes more time than creating, something has gone awry. Similarly, it is easy to fall into endless preparation work - there comes a time when you just have to get on with the doing.

Elin writes with great honesty of the dilemmas they faced and the difficult decisions they sometimes had to make. They were very much learning as they went, and they were offered some seemingly big opportunities early on that they turned down in order to maintain artistic control and reinforce the value they place on their own work. On setting your prices and not working for free, her wise advice is  ‘…if you don’t value your time, then why would someone else…?’ Despite this, she writes of their struggles to start with, finding it uncomfortable to ask people for money, yet soon found that they had a group of fans who were more than willing to pay for their designs and courses. It’s easy to read with a little voice in your head telling you that your work isn’t as good, that you don’t have the skill they do, but Elin shows that self-doubt is a common plague on creatives.

She writes about the decision making process, and times when they had to reconsider actions when they realised it wouldn’t serve their aim. She offers practical advice such as the importance of people seeing your work more than once, that people need to see something seven times to really remember it, so for everyone constantly struggling under the pressure to put new content out there, this is a gentle reminder that it is not only okay, but beneficial, to repost your work. She points the reader to secondary sources they found useful in learning about business and marketing, and gives good advice on how to choose what to focus on by thinking about what your aims are.

I picked this book up expecting to find it interesting but was surprised to discover that it was incredibly hard to put down, it will leave you eager to find out what the next chapter has to offer. I closed the book feeling inspired to put my all into my own creative endeavours. Elin perfectly balances personal memoir and practical advice in a way that is bound to leave you fired up and ready for action. I would highly recommend this book for all creative entrepreneurs starting out.

The ebook can be downloaded from the Charles and Elin Academy.

Check out their work over on Instagram and @_charleshenry_

Their YouTube channel is full of process videos, handy tips, and inspiration.

Their podcast, albeit discontinued, has some interesting episodes and interviews with other creative entrepreneurs, as well as some sweet insights into their lives that will make you fall for them as a couple. 

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Gender Euphoria, edited by Laura Kate Dale

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. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Unbound for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

This groundbreaking anthology brings together the experiences of non-binary, agender, gender fluid, and intersex writers, focussing on gender euphoria rather than the dysphoria that usually gets the most column inches. The result is a moving, enlightening book that will give you a real insight into the lives of non-cisgender people and the experiences that give them the greatest sense of gender euphoria.

The writers are all fairly young but are from all walks of life with very individual stories to tell. The editor, Laura Kate Dale, contributes a number of essays on her experiences as a pansexual trans woman. The scenarios are different but there’s a connecting theme of joy when the writers learn to love themselves with or without the approval of people around them. Many find freedom in letting go of overtly trying to hide signs of their birth assigned gender - tales of obsessively plucking all facial hair daily, feeling the need to constantly wear feminised clothes regardless of whether they fit the mood or not, give an insight in the constant practical issues that can cause a lot of stress and feelings of restriction. A lot of this arises more from a desire for others to correctly gender them rather than necessarily needing it for their own sense of identity. The reader feels the relief and freedom of reaching a point where going out with a bit of facial hair showing is no longer seen as an insurmountable barrier, and the euphoria that comes with being correctly gendered by others. 

One essay talks of the challenges of being pregnant and breastfeeding, activities that are heavily gendered by society, as a non-binary person. Another speaks of their fear as a trans man getting married that they’d be referred to as a wife during the ceremony, and the joy that came with a celebrant that took the time to understand their concerns and helped make the day a euphoric one.

This is a book that doesn’t shy away from the challenges of those who battle not only their own insecurities but lack of understanding from society more broadly. They write with great honesty about their experiences and sense of isolation, but also of acceptance and finding safe spaces where they’re finally able to feel themselves without fear. It’s a book that will make you smile and make you cry, but most importantly, you’ll close the book with a much greater understanding of the lived experiences of the writers and the little things we can all do to make the world a happier, more accepting place.

Sunday, 13 June 2021

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne

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Boyne’s powerful novel takes us on a journey through Ireland from 1945 to 2015 in seven year increments. The book opens with sixteen year old Catherine Goggin being publicly shamed in church for having fallen pregnant out of wedlock. She’s forced to leave her hometown to fend for herself in Dublin while the man responsible experiences no repercussions. Our narrator, Catherine’s baby, is born in the midst of a violent homophobic attack that will sadly be mirrored later in his life. The rest of the book follows Cyril through life, struggling with his sexuality and the unbending, restrictive morals of a country firmly in the grasp of the Catholic Church. We will follow him to Amsterdam and New York, seeing shifting attitudes in other countries while Ireland stubbornly refuses to ease the harsh views and laws that cause misery to many.

The characters are brilliantly drawn. Cyril's adoptive parents, Maude and Charles Avery,  seemingly have no interest in raising a child and remind him constantly that he isn’t ‘a real Avery’. He is fascinated by their relationship growing up, ‘Two people who could not have been more ill-suited to each other’s company had somehow managed to find each other and sustain something resembling a relationship while apparently feeling no interest or affection for the other whatsoever.’ It is hardly surprising then that they don’t treat the latest addition to their family with much more tenderness. Charles shows disregard for his wife, having affairs and never bothering to read the books she writes. Maude has a novel approach to writing, not reading herself, and entirely against being widely read, she is furious when Charles’ run-in with the law push her books up the bestseller lists. 

Catherine appears briefly in many sections throughout, but fleetingly and tantalisingly close to her son without realising it. She proves herself to be strong-willed and loyal, successfully carving out a career for herself in the tea-room of the Dáil Éireann where she was fortunate to meet a woman willing to give her a job while heavily pregnant. There are moments where her sadness over her lost son begins to emerge only for the moment to pass before it can develop into a conversation that might reveal their true identities.

Cyril himself is shy and lacking in confidence as a child and young man. He meets Julian at the age of seven and is blown away by his confidence and sexual knowledge. From the day they first meet, Cyril is drawn to him, his feelings developing over the years to encompass lust and unrequited love. They remain friends for many years but Cyril always keeps his feelings and sexuality to himself, until they come to a dramatic climax that will change their relationship forever.

There’s so much in this novel, but the overarching focus is the changing attitudes to homosexuality and the terrible injustices that law and Church impose. For a long time Cyril believes his feelings for Julian are just a phase, but he is eventually forced to admit that they’re not. He goes to a doctor for help but is told he can’t be a homosexual because there aren’t any in Ireland, before subjecting him to a cruel treatment designed to create negative associations with erotic thoughts of men. Cyril considers killing himself on a number of occasions, denied the opportunity for loving sexual interactions. He has sex with hundreds of men, rarely knowing their real name, and always with a sense of urgency and a fear of being discovered. The idea of taking a man home with him, of having sex in a bed, and spending the night together feels an impossible dream.

By 1980, with his life in Ireland in tatters, we find Cyril living in Amsterdam where he finds a stable partner in a city where they can walk along holding hands without fear of what will happen to them. Jump forward to the late 1980s and New York, where the Aids epidemic is taking hold and shifting attitudes toward fear and hostility. The President refuses to acknowledge what’s happening and Cyril and his friends are removed from a restaurant for discussing the disease. It is a sad step backward, with him noticing that even friends seem uncomfortable with displays of affection between him and Bastiaan. In his role as a volunteer at the hospital we are witness to the isolated deaths of those shunned by family or too afraid to tell them what they’re suffering. The book ends on a slightly more positive note with the successful referendum on legalising same-sex marriage. The final sections are nonetheless heart-wrenching as Cyril nears the end of his life, reflecting on those he’s loved and lost, and repairing relationships at home.

This is a book that deals with some heavy issues and offers far more depth than can ever be conveyed in a short review. Despite the themes and suffering within, there’s also a lot of humour, sometimes revealing a deeper reflection but in a way that will put a smile on your face. This is a book that will keep you up at night reading ‘just one more chapter’ and stay with you for a long time after turning the final page.

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Self Contained: Scenes From A Single Life, Emma John

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. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Octopus Publishing for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

In this brutally honest memoir Emma John explores the positives and negatives of living a single life and the challenges of maintaining friendships as people throw themselves into their growing families. It is a meditation on independence and a challenge to the long accepted view that we aren’t complete until we find our soulmate. She does not hold back on her sometimes less complementary feelings, making this a book that I think everyone can relate to in one way or another.

Her relationship with her sister is central, their great affection for each other apparent at every turn, yet she admits to worrying about being left behind, of losing her place as the one her sister would always turn to. The news of an imminent addition to the family also throws her into a spin. She admits to these struggles, but doesn’t run away from the situations, resulting in a much happier outcome than she’d imagined. John raises an interesting idea, that when friends and family get married or have children, her life and role in theirs change without her consent. This can lead to feelings of helplessness and lack of control. She logically understands the shifts but struggles to resist feelings of rejection, of being pushed further out of the circle of loved ones.

Despite these feelings she also admits her own reluctance to engage with some aspects of her friends' lives. She’s never, for example, seen the fascination of babies and doesn’t hide this from the new parents she knows. In her desire for friendships to stay the same she inadvertently puts up barriers. She’s frequently self-deprecating and her honesty is raw, but she seems not to notice her devotion to her friends, stepping up when they’re in need and doing what she can to look after them.

There’s a definite feeling that her life lacks the markers of progress that those around her are hitting and this causes a feeling of stagnation. She tries throwing herself into work but hates knowing when everyone goes home they’re no longer thinking of her, believes that she isn’t the first person anyone would turn to. It’s when she begins to shift her focus from external forms of validation, stops thinking of herself as waiting for her future to begin and follows what makes her happy in the here and now, that she seems to really find her feet. The closing chapters touch on her experience of lockdown and the pandemic more generally, the absence of loneliness and the realisation that she has a solid support network who rely on her too.

This is a brilliant, thought-provoking book that will make you consider the way value is perceived in a life. It is about single life and how this interacts with shifting family dynamics, friendships that stand the test of time, and ultimately learning to accept yourself, setting your own priorities, and living for the present.

Monday, 31 May 2021

Love and Miss Harris, Peter Maughan

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. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Farrago Books for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Titus Llewellyn-Gwynne has fallen on hard times. The Red Lion Theatre was bombed during the war and his backer for a theatrical tour has pulled out. Luckily, George appears with a play that nobody has yet agreed to stage, and, perhaps more importantly, the money to fund it. The Company is soon on tour in an old double decker bus, travelling around the south of England, causing mayhem and unknowingly being followed by Reuben Kramer who has less than savoury intentions for their leading man.

The tone throughout is light and the humour frequently plays with farce. There are potential murders on the horizon but the string of attackers following one step behind each other is more comic than threatening. There are some very unpleasant characters, Kramer especially has a lot to dislike, and yet none inspire any great feelings of hostility.  Reuben is also graced with the most complete backstory, allowing us a glimpse into the life that has formed this somewhat unhinged, power-hungry man. Other characters also fall into a life of crime but have a chance of redemption through art.

The reader is only privy to snippets of the play which we are told is George re-writing her own love story with a happier conclusion. An unexpected consequence of putting on the play is a change in her fortunes. Indeed, it offers opportunity and joy to many involved, taking characters out of London for the first time, and creating a close-knit group that’s not without its internal troubles.

This is a light-hearted read with a lively host of characters who are sometimes difficult to keep track of. Maughan offers enough insight to give a sense of their past and the way it impacts their present. The small towns they visit are found in varying levels of disarray, and variously welcome them with open arms or treat them with suspicion. Rural bureaucracy and gossip is played up and contribute to the humour of the book. This would make a great holiday read and is perfect for anyone looking for some light-hearted entertainment with the occasional moment of sincerity.