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:




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.