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How Do You Like Me Now? – Holly Bourne

Posted in Books, Five Star, Reviews
on August 16, 2018

Guys, I think I’ve finally cracked it.

I’ve finally found a hyped book that I actually like!

I know, nobody is more surprised than I am. And I went in full sceptical, only to find myself hooked by about page five.

I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review. 

How Do You Like Me Now? By Holly Bourne is a fast-paced, contemporary novel, in equal parts funny and heartbreaking.

In her twenties, Tori Bailey wrote a memoir come self-help book entitled ‘Who the fuck am I?’ , which propelled her to social media stardom, as a lifestyle guru and all round envy of all. She seems to have it all. Now in her thirties, she’s struggling to write her follow up book, as the happily ever after she wrote about is unravelling day by day.

It goes without saying that between your twenties and your thirties, things change. Your friends change, their priorities change, and the things you once thought were wonderful don’t seem that way anymore – and sometimes the things you once thought were awful don’t seem so bad. Holly Bourne really captures this feeling of change and uncertainty in a very neat way – and a way which feels particularly visceral and real. This novel is, in many ways, the story of Tori Bailey realising that the world does not necessarily move at her pace, and things change whether you want them to or not.

There is a sort of hubris at play. Tori is not an unlikeable character, not by a long way, but because of the life she’s led, she does assume that most people envy her and want her lifestyle. She is somewhat shocked when faced with the realisation that people don’t. When her best friend (who, though she never says it in quite so many words, Tori clearly regards as less cool, less pretty, less thin, and therefore unable to be as happy as her) chooses a settled relationship and a family over going out and getting drunk, Tori sees it as a betrayal. There is a lack of empathy for the fact that people might want a baby, a husband, a job which is secure but not necessarily exciting, and that’ll be enough to be content. From this point on it’s a steep learning curve for the woman who is still cashing in on the belief that her life is just a slightly more glamorous version of what it was when she was in her twenties.

Tori’s problem is that she always seems to be chasing the next big dream – aka the way of capturing her fan’s attention, and Instagram likes. And it is quite clearly apparent why quite early in the book. Her relationship with Tom – ‘Rock Man’ from her book – is at its best neglectful and at its worst abusive. There is one particular passage which is hard to read, and is very powerful – you’ll know if when you read it – where Tom’s behaviour moves from disinterest and into abuse of trust. It’s heartbreaking to see how desperate Tori is for him to love her or show her any affection – or really just have a good time with him. As a reader you’re screaming at her to just leave him, but of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. Tori is crippled by the idea of letting her fans down, of losing her dream and fairytale ending. She blames herself for Tom’s behaviour – believing that if she was just a little bit prettier, or more exciting, Tom would come back to her. Tom, in turn, gaslights her and throws her a bone every time she’s about ready to end with him, and generally treats her appallingly. Real life, for Tori, is a vicious circle that is a world away from the fiction she portrays on her social media.

There are times when this novel reminds me of the Black Mirror episode where your social media rating affects everything – your life, your job, where you live… Only it’s as if Tori is the only person who knows she’s in this bubble. She is so afraid of facing the truth because she’s made such a public display of how wonderful everything is. Social media penetrates every moment of her life; if she’s not posting on it, she’s reading it. All her friends are posting their life events on there (babies, weddings, engagements etc etc), as if they’re living a second life on the platform. And for Tori, social media is very much a competition. She’s bet her livelihood on it. She’s consciously made her life public on a scale that none of her friends has, so when it starts to unravel, she feels forced to keep up the appearances.  It’s not quite as narcissistic as I’m making it sound (well, it sort of is), but it’s also desperately sad. Tori is trapped by the walls she has built herself, and though deep down she knows what she needs to do, she is paralysed against doing it. So instead it manifests through her acting out in different ways.

I think it is this which makes Tori so relatable, even though she is a social media celebrity. She’s flawed and she’s sad. Everyone has been in a situation which doesn’t quite feel right – be it a job, a relationship, a lifestyle, a place – and making a decision to change is not an easy one. We’ve all had moments where our lives seem to be switching upside down, our friends are moving on without us, we’re running out of time to achieve everything we want to. Holly Bourne does a very good job of capturing the emotions related to this.  We’ve all said things we don’t mean to our friends. Tori’s feeling of betrayal as her friends move on and she’s forced to look at her life in a new, harsh, life is very visceral. Her feelings are so raw and well written that it made me pause as I was reading.

I was in places moved to tears, in others frustrated and annoyed with the characters. And if that doesn’t capture the feeling of being in your late twenties and early thirties, I don’t know what does. So yes, Tori does occasionally grate on you, she is self obsessed, she is a little vacuous occasionally, but she’s meant to. Bourne manages to write a book about, essentially, “finding yourself” for the second time, without it being twee and preachy. That’s impressive. The ending is open, and I do hope there will be more from Tori. I would love to see her what happens next – and how she recovers her sense of self.

I completely recommend this book, 5 stars (and a couple of tears). 

A Station On The Path To Somewhere Better

Posted in Books, Five Star, Reviews
on March 25, 2018

I received a free ARC version of this book from Simon and Schuster UK Fiction in return for a fair review.

For twenty years, Daniel Hardesty has borne the emotional scars of a childhood trauma which he is powerless to undo, which leaves him no peace.

One August morning in 1995, the young Daniel and his estranged father Francis – a character of ‘two weathers’, of irresistible charm and roiling self-pity – set out on a road trip to the North that seems to represent a chance to salvage their relationship. But with every passing mile, the layers of Fran’s mendacity and desperation are exposed, pushing him to acts of violence that will define the rest of his son’s life.

I hold my hands up. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book very much. This was something I’d chosen based on the very fact that it was so different to anything I would normally pick up. (Apparently, just reading the same five books over and over again doesn’t make for a great book blog – who knew?).

And I am so glad I gave it a go. This blew me away. This is such a well written book. It is a novel of two parts: the first, a thriller, of the lead up and description of the traumatic event, the second, a more psychological take on the after effects of witnessing something so awful, and Daniel’s attempts to craft a life from the fragments left behind. A shift in narrative and pace like this could throw a lesser author off, but Wood handles it very well.

The story builds and escalates as you read. We learn that, from the beginning, Daniel’s mother is not keen on the idea of her estranged husband taking Daniel on this roadtrip. But we assume that this is for no other reason than because he is a flakey father, he has let his son down numerous times before, and that he can’t be trusted not to take Daniel somewhere unsuitable. And the first part of the novel is just that; we start to see the unravelling of Fran’s lies –  he takes Daniel to a seedy pub, he feeds him junk food. Because we are seeing the story through Daniel’s memories (or indeed, his interpretation of his child-self’s memories as an adult who has already had to recount this story numerous times, to police, to relatives, to therapists…more on this later), dark hints are laid throughout the narrative that the worst is still yet to come. We know, almost from the offset, that something terrible is to happen, and that Daniel himself will survive it, but the other ‘twists’ are, in effect, told to us far in advance of them happening. It adds a terrible sense of foreboding to the narrative, everything becomes heightened and claustrophobic. It is very powerfully done.

The narrative style is worth a comment. It is a complex mix of the childhood naivety of the young Daniel, combined with hints to the emotional damage of the older Daniel, the sense that he’s had to recount the story many times before, and a fear that he’s forgetting, or misremembering. There are times when his guilt comes through, when he tries to justify his behaviour or the fact that he didn’t realise what was going to happen. This is very much the story of someone still in the grasp of PTSD – which becomes evident as we hear of Daniel’s life post the road trip. It is very cleverly, and sensitively handled.

That Daniel is a fan of the programme his father works on is no coincidence. He listens to the audiobook of it at first to pass the time in the car, but it soon becomes apparent that this isn’t the only work of fiction that he is listening to. Once the lies and inconsistencies from his father first start to reveal themselves, they steamroll. There is something very poignant in the description where Daniel, desperate to distract himself from what’s going on, makes calculations as to how long the battery on his walkman will last. It is a moment of stark contrast; reminding us how young and childlike Daniel is, and yet how terrifying and adult the situation he finds himself in is.

The prose is beautifully written, and quite often as I was reading I found myself outrightly admiring the writing style. It may be the English nerd in me, but I really appreciate the way that Wood handles language. It is rich and brilliant, and also chilling in parts. On the one hand, there is the description of the physical geography of the road trip, which carries a preciseness with it that fit’s Daniel’s attempts to recreate the story as accurately as possible. On the other, Wood manages to capture the uneasiness a bad gut feeling which creeps across Daniel and the novel, until you are certain that the only outcome can be tragedy.

The ending, for some, could be seen as slow paced, but personally I enjoyed the shift in tone. We see the enduring effects those fateful days have had on him, and how he lives under the shadow of his father – a man who he is terrified of turning in to. This is not quite a story of healing – that would be too simplistic – but there is something almost like hope at the end. It is a realistic hope, it is not the fairytale kind, there is still work to do. (Work has already gone on, of course, there is mention of his coping mechanisms, therapists, the things he has done to counteract the wrongs of his father, but as in life, there is no magic solution, these are all just stations on his path to somewhere better.

Overall, this is a very strong, dark, thriller. Not for the faint hearted, it doesn’t shy away from trauma and the aftershocks in a way that stays with you long after you’ve read the last page. I couldn’t tear myself away, and I would thoroughly recommend to anyone.

Five Stars

For never was a story of more woe

Posted in Five Star, Reviews, Theatre
on February 21, 2018
Romeo And Juliet

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo…

 

I had the chance to see Guildford Shakespeare Company’s Romeo and Juliet this week, and, my gosh what a treat.

I have it on good authority* that the GSC can be relied upon for exceptionally good interpretations of the marvellous bard. I’m glad to say that, even with a play that by rights should have been forever tarnished by GCSE English, my boyfriend and I had a thoroughly good time, and spent a merry evening unpacking all its cleverness. Yes, that’s right. My boyfriend, the engineer who has only ever read one book in his whole life** actually wanted to discuss Shakespeare with me. I really don’t need to write any more of this review, surely that is testament enough?

To set the scene: the production takes place at Holy Trinity, a large Georgian church situated in the middle of Guildford. Director, Charlotte Conquest, has taken inspiration from these surroundings to set her Romeo and Juliet in 18th Century Verona – and the audience is transported to this decadent and dangerous period. From a visual point of view, the play is extraordinary. There is some clever silhouette work at the beginning, and the use of red lights at key moments in the play adds drama. This is a very visually impactful production, and it is clear that the staging has been well thought out.

The masked ball, where our doomed lovers meet for the first time, was a beautiful piece of theatre. As the two teenagers tried to connect, the adults found ways to block them. Seemingly innocent, there was an undercurrent of something else not far from the surface. With perfect timing, and exceptional choreography, in the dance, the sinister side of this world revealed itself, exacerbated by the red lighting that would used. The two young lovers are not as free to move as they might think, they are trapped in their world which may seem glamorous and opulent, but that masks an ugliness and danger.

This theme is carried through, particularly through Lord Capulet, who is on one hand seemingly reasonable, personable and kind – but on the other terrifying and formidable. Gordon Cooper and Sarah Groban convey this well; the latter’s reactions to Lord Capulet are well worth noting as it is she who really gives the audience a clue as to his private demeanor. Her flinches and trembles give subtle nod that he is a character that cannot be defied – and that Juliet would be wise to behave.

Lucy Pearson’s Juliet is a fireball. She is, in parts, awkward, stroppy, shouty, determined, stubborn – the list goes on. She is absolutely teenage and all that goes with it. Clearly they’ve had fun with this interpretation. A very talented actress, her heartbreak is tangible when Romeo is exiled, and so raw – in the way that only teenagers can be. This is her play, she will heed no advice, she decides so forcibly on Romeo that she simply will not have it any other way. And Ricky Oakley’s Romeo plays off this so well. Again, so tangibly teenage, this production does not shy away from the fact that his affections begin elsewhere. But he is happily to be latched on to by Juliet. The accent was at times distracting… Overall his guache affections and slight bashfulness at the receipt of Juliet’s love had charm to them. He carries the more serious speeches of the play well, and there is a youthful vulnerability to his last words which reinforces the tragedy of the play.

The supporting cast must also be mentioned. Harriet Thorpe’s Nurse is a joy to behold. She stole the stage with every scene she was in; streetwise and hard, but with soft edges and a very motherly and protective streak towards Juliet. She added must needed humour – as did Benvolio and Mecutio (Robert Elkin and Jack Whitham respectively) who played off each other beautifully. And anyone who wasn’t touched by Noel White’s Friar’s remorse must have a heart of stone.

Overall, a truly fantastic production, with good casting, staging, lighting and music. Only occasionally, were the limitations of space felt, but the strong cast and wonderful direction made up for this elsewhere. There were no weak links in the cast, no falterings and try as I might I cannot pick fault.. The creative team should be congratulated on what they have achieved in this production.  

This alone was worth moving back to Surrey for.

5 stars.

Guildford Shakespeare Company

*my parents.

** And I’m not even sure if he finished that. I know. It’s a sore point. I’m working on it.

A Girl In London: An American In Paris

Posted in Five Star, Theatre
on March 30, 2017
souvenir programme

I was in London at the weekend – I was actually staying in Westminster. It felt a little odd going to Westminster for frivolous reasons given the tragedy that unfolded last week, but I really was heartened by what I saw.

I’m not going to turn this into a political blog – don’t worry about that. I just want to express my overwhelming feeling of pride in my fellow countrymen.

On Saturday there was a protest about Brexit (or Brexshit as perhaps it would be better to refer to it as). Parliament Square was heaving. People, they were out there in their hoards to use their democratic right to protest and freedom of speech. Recently I have found myself frequently being the ‘outsider’ point of view – so it was reassuring to feel that there are others who share my opinion, and are still prepared to fight for it. The best bit? Everything was peaceful, well formulated and respectful to those that had lost their lives only a few days before.

On Sunday things were very much back to normal around Westminster and Parliament. The bridge was heaving with tourists, as people snapped photos of the area and generally went along their business. Why am I mentioning this? We are not afraid. We haven’t stopped visiting places out of fear. am very proud of how we, as a United Kingdom, have united together over this.

You’re probably wondering when I am going to get to the point. It’s now.

The reason I was in London in the first place is because my boyfriend extraordinaire, got me tickets to see An American In Paris. The film version of the musical – starring none other than Gene Kelly – is one of my favourites.* I deliberately didn’t re-watch it before seeing the stage musical for fear that I might spend the whole time comparing it in my head. Now, I know it was silly to even think that as they are very different.

 

The stage version of An American In Paris contextualises the story in a way which the 1951 film doesn’t. This is understandable – in 1951, people did not go to the cinema to be reminded of the war which they had just lived though. As one of the characters in the musical remarks – if you can make people happy through your art, that’s what you should do. The film exists in this almost timeless era, where only the clothing and set design gives you an insight into the period in which it is set. Conversely, the stage version starts with the Nazi swastika being replaced with the French tricolour, and a dance sequence where you can see the French reclaiming their country. Throughout the stage version too, is the underlying feeling that this is a country which is repairing – there is a little bit of suspicion about those families who seem to have profited from the war, and nobody quite knows how – there is a sense of obligation to the American soldiers which you don’t quite get from the film.

Seeing a stage version of a film is a very different experience. Everybody knows how impressive Gene Kelly’s ballet sequence is – it’s what the film is famous for after all – but seeing (very different) ballet sequences on stage is something else. As someone who has two left feet, I was amazed by these sections of the musical. They were so beautifully choreographed, and so well complimented by the staging.

It’s hard to pick out the best moments of the musical, it was stand out from start to finish, with high energy and high impact throughout. (Even my boyfriend who has never seen a musical before, and expected to have fallen asleep before the interval said ‘I finally understand why you love musicals so much’.) Gershwin’s music, of course, is so opulent, exciting and wonderful. The score really comes alive when performed with such passion. My favourite moment of the show was ‘I Got Rhythm’. It won’t spoil anything to say that this was an ensemble moment done with aplomb.

I realise I have a tendency to gush a lot on this blog. I think it’s probably because I’ve decided life is too short to waste on things I don’t enjoy (I mean, I used to finish every book I ever started, and now I have much more patience). I’m trying my hardest not to gush here, but it’s so difficult because it was such a wonderful production. If I was being extra picky I suppose I might mention the French accent which sounded a little more German – but that is really very minor. All in all it’s an extravaganza.

This is the sort of musical that I adore. Perhaps controversially I have no interest in seeing things like Aladdin, the Lion King, Wicked – musicals of that ilk. Instead I prefer these golden oldies. They’re old fashioned, they’re understated (the staging and set for An American In Paris was stunning but it’s not the pyrotechnics you might get at one of the musicals I’ve just mentioned), they’ve got some great – and enduring – sing-a-long songs, and some iconic dance numbers. I also like the cheeky humour you tend to get in these musicals – Cole Porter’s would be another example of this.

If you’re expecting to see a remake of the film than this is not that. If you’re excited by a re-imagining of the story, then go. Go in your droves and enjoy. Because it would be impossible not to. A

Once again – it’s five stars from me.