Wednesday, 30 May 2018

March and April and May 2018 - books and music in brief

Oh, time - you got away from me again.  Spring arrived later than ever; winter seemingly endless with freezing temperatures and April snowfall.  Hibernation appealed as I recognised the tell-tale signs of anxiety making an unwanted comeback, but I forced myself to push on.  I came close to my breaking point and I've taken some time away from writing to ease the load, but it's really, really hard to switch off from the alternate realities in my head. 

When my head's in a bad place I find it hard to focus.  As a reader that's as much of a sucker-punch as the other symptoms of my anxiety.  That said, I have managed to read a few cracking books. 

I Was Born for This by Alice Oseman was just fabulous.  It had boy bands, mental health representation and an LGBT+ lead character, which along with a fast-paced storyline made for a great read. 

I also fell head-over-heels in love with Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman, which I became aware of when the book was relaunched to tie in with the film release.  It was the painfully beautiful love story I needed, beautifully executed.  I haven't read anything since because nothing could compare. 

Those are without doubt my two stand-out reads of the spring, but I also read Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro (which had a great premise - focussing on a couple who were having a long-distance affair - but which didn't quite hit the spot for me), Spinning, a graphic memoir by Tillie Walden about ice skating, relationships and sexuality and my mother's day gift, a Penguin Little Black Book - Suffragettes.

I've been fortunate to go to some great gigs with some of my favourite people in the past three months and music has given me sprinklings of happiness when I've been low. 

Back in March me and my friend Sally saw Charlie Barnes at West Street Live in Sheffield (I blogged about that here), and I ended the month at Carrie Hope Fletcher's Cadogan Hall show which was so cathartic it's untrue - I spent most of the first half in tears. 

April brought Bastille's Reorchestrated tour to my home city, and what a line-up that was!  Charlie Barnes opened (and played The Weather, which I ADORE), followed by my first time seeing To Kill a King before the main event - Bastille with an orchestra.  My tiny mind was blown.  As if that wasn't enough excitement for one day, I made a really great friend who I'm going to be seeing again soon - hi, Chloe!  I decided to head to Record Junkie on Record Store Day to see High Hazels play an acoustic set, and on April 24th headed to the Sheffield O2 for another brilliant gig with one of my favourites - Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls.  After queuing with friends to get a spot on the barrier we were treated to support acts from Homeless Gospel Choir and Arkells (check out Leather Jacket in particular, it's a tune) before Frank took to the stage for an amazing, amazing gig which culminated in me going home with his guitar pick.

With some of the Frank Turner Army at the Roundhouse

May brought more music - Gary Barlow in Manchester (cheesy fun which had me dancing like a loon, even though I must admit it wasn't the same as a Take That gig), Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls (again) for the Love, Ire and Song night of Lost Evenings 2 at the Camden Roundhouse (Jet Lag on poor heart) and a charity gig for Music Support featuring Monty Taft, Charlie Barnes and To Kill a King at Omeara in London, which was possibly the stickiest, sweatiest gig I've ever been to in my life.  By the end of the night when Dan Smith joined them on stage for Annie Oakley Hanging everyone went bananas shouting along to 13 Steps.

Thanks so much, Dan

By chance I'd bumped into Dan when I was browsing the shops earlier in the day (although I was so overcome with shyness that I didn't even tell him I was a fan, let alone that I thanked Bastille in the acknowledgements of Joe and Clara's Christmas Countdown because I wrote most of it listening to the Wild World album.  Fun fact - a line from a Bastille song is the working title of my current project, too). I also had a chat with Charlie after his set which was nice - they are both so stupidly talented and work so hard.  It gave me the kick I needed to get back on the writing horse.

Charlie Barnes - I've seen him three times in as many months and he never disappoints.

Reading this back makes me realise how fortunate I've been to be able to see so many of my favourites multiple times lately and the only one I've not seen (Johnny Marr) I've managed to snag tickets to see in November.

Every so often I wonder what life would be like without books and music.  Then I wipe that thought from my mind, because it doesn't bear thinking about.

I'll do another post about other places and the theatre I've been to over the past few months soon, and I'm going to try really hard to put something on the blog regularly, even if it's not that exciting.  What have you been reading lately?  And have you been to any gigs?  Who do I need to be listening to?

Friday, 23 March 2018

Charlie Barnes - West Street Live 22.03.2018

Regular readers of this blog may recall my excitement for Charlie Barnes' latest album Oceanography.  Having seen Charlie perform acoustically before, as well as with his band The Society Pages, I was excited to hear he was returning to Sheffield to play at West Street Live.

Following sets by Sheffield groups Hush and K A R A, Charlie and his band took to the stage with the insanely catchy 'All I Have' which features some deliciously-jangly guitar riffs, before launching into the anthemic 'Bruising'.  Anyone who's ever tried to make a living through creative endeavours will relate to these tracks about self-doubt, imposter syndrome and the need for a thick skin and perseverance, as shown in the lyric, 'Every time I've half a mind to throw the towel in, I fight it'. 

Next up was 'Maria', a track which showcases songwriter Barnes' ability to meld a haunting verse with a pop-influenced chorus, not to mention a Queen-influenced guitar break which allowed Charlie's personality and showmanship to come to the fore.

Barnes swapped guitar for keyboard for the epic 'Easy, Kid' from 2015's More Stately Mansions, which also fully demonstrated the frontman's vocal range .  I have to admit to being close to tears as this wistful song, which would be worthy of a film score, reverberated around the venue.  Rousing title track 'Oceanography' was up next to further batter the souls of the emotionally-challenged, followed by 'MacbethMacbethMacbeth', 'The Departure' and 'Ruins'.  By the time the penultimate song of the evening, single 'Will and Testament', was played Charlie was in full theatrical swing, engaging with the crowd (including a group of students on a round of pub golf who were keen to foist a cheap green visor on the front man - they didn't succeed), briefly channelling Mr Motivator as he encouraged us to copy the hand moves he demonstrated.  However, I doubt Mr Motivator would ever swap his trademark lycra for a pink floral suit...

As an album More Stately Mansions was billed as 'big morbid death pop' and never was this more apparent than throughout angst-riddled finale 'Sing to God'.  Despite playing right up until the curfew, Barnes and his backing band left the stage to calls for an encore from a crowd who weren't ready for the night to end.

On a personal note I was over the moon that the set included old favourites as well as the new tracks that I'd previously only heard studio versions of and although there were others I'd have loved to have seen live ('One Word Answers' and 'The Weather' in particular) as set lists go it was pretty much perfect.  I was also fortunate to say a very quick hello to Charlie after the gig, although I didn't have chance to say everything I'd have liked to (important stuff like where can I get a physical copy of Geekk, as it's great music to write to?), nor tell him how much I loved the gig and how I relate to Oceanography's focus on the importance of validation as an artist with every ounce of my soul.

So, for today, Charlie, let me be your validation.  Keep doing what you're doing, because you are a fucking awesome musician and a true performer.  Your music makes me happy.

Find out more about Charlie Barnes on Facebook.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

February 2018 in brief

I've been reading...
Body Positive Power - Megan Jayne Crabbe
All Night Long (Sweet Valley High)
Dangerous Love (Sweet Valley High)
Lullaby - Leila Slimani
Everything I Know About Love - Dolly Alderton
Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli
The Cows - Dawn O' Porter

I'm still way behind on my blogging for the #SVHReadalong, but I will catch up soon - promise!  But what about the other titles I read in February? 


Megan Jayne Crabbe, aka Bodyposipanda, is well-known on social media for leading the march on body positivity.  As someone who recently lost a lot of weight but still had gripes with how I looked, I hoped this book would help me accept my body .  Whilst it hasn't solved all my anxieties, Body Postive Power reminded me of all the wonderous ways my body works and how society pushes only certain, often unachievable, body types as the 'ideal'.  Thanks to my sister-in-law who bought me this for Christmas!


Lullaby is a novel which has received much hype due to a high-profile marketing campaign and I was intrigued to read it.  It begins by explaining a family hire a nanny who kills the children and I was expecting the reasons for her actions to become apparent as the book developed.  The writing was beautiful (huge praise to both the author and translator on that front) and I appreciated the descriptions of the often humdrum aspects of everyday life, but personally found the ending lacking in the closure I had been seeking after the early 'reveal'.

I first became aware of Dolly Alderton's memoir through listening to The High Low podcast (highly recommended) and my interest was piqued when it became clear the 'love' referred to in the title encompassed friendships as well as romantic love, lust alongside familial relationships.  A gorgeously honest book which had me hooked from the off, Everything I Know about Love explores what it is to be human.  A must-read.

The Cows is the debut adult novel from Dawn O'Porter and follows three different women as they face societal judgment for differing reasons.  I'd heard about the 'wanking on a train' scene and that this was a no-holds-barred story, but I didn't expect to enjoy The Cows as much as I did.  Edgy and sassy with dubious characters (that I empathised with even when I disliked them), this page-turner of a novel leaves me excited for what Dawn O'Porter will produce next.

This was a reread as the film based on Becky Albertalli's novel is out very soon.  I loved this YA book just as much as the first time I read it, when I said 'I was charmed by Simon as he learns to understand himself and become more at ease with his sexuality.  I was with Simon every step of the way as he sought out the mysterious Blue, who he'd been exchanging emails with.  A heartfelt read.'  

Music I've been listening to...  
Lots of Morrissey in the build up to seeing him live at Leeds Arena on February 24th, particularly Spent the Day in Bed and Jacky's Only Happy When She's Up on the Stage, my favourite tracks from his latest album Low in High School.

I've also been listening to Blossoms as I impatiently await their new album.

Podcasts I've been listening to...
Besides my usuals - The Debrief, The High Low, Sweet Teen Club, Double Love, Quickly Kevin, will he Score?, Sweet Valley Why? - I discovered Homo Sapiens, hosted by Will Young and Chris Sweeney.  Pitched as focussing on LGBTQ+ lifestyle, it'll also appeal to anyone with an interest in different takes on news stories - from the first episode where they interview Owen Jones I was hooked.

I've been watching...
Coronation Street (even though I don't really care about any of the current storylines)
The Greatest Showman (Again.  The singalong version this time)
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Finally catching up with the rest of the world)
Dancing on Ice (Although I've not got a favourite who I'm cheering on)
Take Me Out (Saturday night cheese)
First Dates Hotel (I'm a romantic)
Call The Midwife (Because I love a therapeutic cry)
Queer Eye (ADORED this when it was originally on, so pleased it's back on Netflix!)
Love, Simon (Very fortunate to see an early screening of this film - so good!)
Club de Cuervos (Netflix show about a family who own a football club - becoming more outlandish with each episode)

Places I've been...

... Leeds, for a writing day with author friends Mary Jayne Baker, Rachel Burton and Rachel Dove. 

... the cinema to see The Greatest Showman and Love, Simon.  Both brilliant films.

... the Sheffield Lyceum to watch the UK touring production of Hairspray.  Feel-good brilliance!

... Pre-loved Kilo clothing weigh and pay (although didn't buy much this time), Veg Out vegan day at Peddlars, Protest exhibition at Weston Park museum (I definitely want to see this again) - lots of Sheffield goodness!

... Leeds Arena to see Morrissey, who sounded better than ever, followed by a Smiths night at The Faversham where I danced myself silly. 

I also revisited The Treehouse Board Game Café for a friend's birthday and ate delicious vegan treats at Couch in Sheffield city centre and Steel City Cakes.

I've been writing...
the first draft of the second book in the trilogy I'm working on, alongside putting the final touches on the first book in the series which is now finished - hooray!

I hope February treated you well and I'd love to know what you've been up to.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

#SVHReadalong - Power Play

If you're looking for a problematic, fat-shaming Sweet Valley book, look no further. 
Power Play follows Robin Wilson on her quest to become a member of exclusive sorority Pi Beta Alpha.  Elizabeth nominates Robin as a potential candidate, but Jessica finds it laughable that someone who is (shock horror) overweight could even contemplate being accepted into such an exclusive group and sets her humiliating initiation challenges whilst leading her on by taking advantage of her good-nature.  However, nothing can stop Robin - she's on a mission, and when Liz helps her complete the most difficult task of all - getting Bruce Patman to take her to the dance - Robin is eligible to be put forward for voting.  The anonymous voting takes place and Robin is blackballed!  The rejection causes Robin to withdraw from school life and, as a result of excessive exercising and minimal eating, lose a lot of weight in a short period of time.
I remember reading this book when I was young and overweight and empathising with Robin, wishing I had the willpower to 'run myself thin' like she did.  Robin loses weight and her life improves, because nothing good can ever happen to a fat person in Sweet Valley.  This book sends a dangerous message, and I'd go so far as to say this book is at least partly responsible for the issues I've had with my body over the past twenty-five years.    
The b plot storyline where Liz suspects Jessica is a common thief stealing scarves and rings from the upmarket store Lisette's is light relief in comparison.  When the shoplifter is finally revealed to be Lila, who blames the lack of attention from her father for her light-fingered antics, there are (in true Sweet Valley style) minimal consequences.  Seriously, Sweet Valley is corrupt.
It's fair to say Power Play isn't a favourite of mine and I doubt I'll ever reread it again.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

#SVHReadalong - Playing with Fire

Oh, this book promises so much and delivers so little, and the John Barrowman/Timothy Dalton interpretation of Bruce in the cover art is possibly the highlight of this whole volume.  Admittedly, the Jessica/Bruce storyline is interesting to start with (and I remember thinking the bikini scene was red-hot when I first read these books in the 90s), but as an adult Jessica's compliance to Bruce's manipulation makes for uncomfortable reading.

The B plot follows Jessica encouraging Robin Wilson (who we are repeatedly told is fat) to steal a test paper and post it in Emily's locker so that Emily, distracted by a music mogul in red leather trousers who's going to turn The Droids into the biggest band ever, can pass the test.  This is important because Jessica plans to cheat off her, but the plan backfires when Mr Russo changes the test at the last minute. 

The fat-shaming makes this a difficult read for me personally and although I enjoyed the scene when Bruce ends up with egg (or should that be pizza?) on his face at Guido's, the overtly cruel behaviour of so many of the characters left me feeling very uncomfortable.

Have you read Playing with Fire?  If so, what were your thoughts?


Saturday, 3 February 2018

January 2018 in brief

I've been reading...
Double Love (Sweet Valley High)
Secrets (Sweet Valley High)
Playing with Fire (Sweet Valley High)
Power Play (Sweet Valley High)
Emma Ever After - Brigid Coady
One Day in December - Josie Silver
Christmas in St Ives - Miranda Dickinson
Some Kind of Wonderful - Giovanna Fletcher

I'll be blogging about Playing with Fire and Power Play soon for the #SVHReadalong, but I've also really enjoyed the women's fiction I've read this month. 

Emma Ever After is a contemporary retelling of Jane Austen's Emma set against the backdrop of the music industry.  It's sassy and witty and a must for anyone interested in the part the media plays in celebrity and stardom.

One Day in December isn't due out until later in the year, but I was fortunate to receive an early copy.  It's already drawn comparisons to David Nicholls' One Day and Richard Curtis' rom-com films, and I can see why; and don't let the title fool you - whilst there's plenty of Christmas in it, this is a book that could be enjoyed at any time of year.  A bittersweet tale told with warmth and humour, I have a feeling this is going to be huge.

Christmas in St Ives is a prequel to Miranda Dickinson's forthcoming novel Somewhere Beyond the Sea.  I loved the introduction to these characters and as it used multiple viewpoints I finished feeling as though I'd made a whole new group of friends.  As a big fan of Miranda's work I can't wait to follow their stories.

Some Kind of Wonderful is the latest offering from Giovanna Fletcher and centres around Lizzie, a woman looking to find herself following the break up of her long-term relationship.  This was a slow-burner of a book for me which meant it took a while for me to feel involved with the characters, but I loved the idea of Lizzie rediscovering what makes her tick.

Music I've been listening to...
Bastille and Frank Turner, as always.  They're mainstays in my playlist, especially when I'm writing. 

Frank announced his new album, Be More Kind, which will be released on May 4th; and 1933, which had already become a fan favourite from the live dates, is available to download now so I've been playing that over the last few days.  It's very much in keeping with some of Frank's earlier work - angry, lyrical and with a firm nod to punk.  I can't wait for the rest of the album.

I've also been hooked on All I Have, the first track released from Charlie Barnes' forthcoming album Oceanography.  Melancholic melodies matched with wistful lyrics make for a stirring and emotional track about ambition, which particularly resonates with me as a person trying to make a living/career in the arts.

Podcasts I've been listening to...
The Debrief  (I always listen to The Debrief - Tessa and Stevie make me laugh)
The High Low (the perfect mix of pop culture and hard-hitting news stories)
Sweet Teen Club (Nineties nostalgia)
Double Love (Sardonic and amusing take on the Sweet Valley High books)
Quickly Kevin, will he Score? (Josh Widdicombe and friends talking all things nineties football)
Sweet Valley Why? (More mocking of SVH's failings)

I've been watching...
Coronation Street (Can the Phelan storyline wind up soon please?)
The Greatest Showman (Twice.  Musicals + Circus + Hugh Jackman + Zac Efron =PERFECT)
Lovesick (Binge-watched this Netflix series about love, friendship and STDs)
Transformation Street (A fascinating documentary series about people undergoing gender reassignment surgery, which featured one of my favourite authors, Juno Dawson)
A House through Time (Brilliant documentary series following the history of a Liverpool town house and the people who've lived there from the 1840s to the present day)
Girlfriends (I had high hopes for this Kay Mellor series, but I've given up on it - it just didn't have me gripped)
Love It or List It (Because I have big dreams of Phil and Kirstie making my house over)
Dancing on Ice (I know, I know.  But the outfits!  The kitsch!)
First Dates Hotel (I prefer the First Dates restaurant, but a bit of sunshine on my telly is more than welcome in gloomy January)

Places I've been...
... Manchester for the day, as Zachary was keen to go to the National Football Museum.  It's free to enter, although there are additional optional activities which incur a charge, including an opportunity to try commentating on a famous Match of the Day clip. 

... the cinema twice to see The Greatest Showman, Jump trampoline park, and watching Sheffield United's 4th round FA Cup match at Bramall Lane.  I also visited The Treehouse Board Game Café, a great little café with an extensive array of games - I'm now an expert at Dominion (could have been beginners luck)!

I've been writing...
the first draft of the second book in the trilogy I'm working on, and finishing the structural edits for the first book in the series - my agent thinks it's almost ready to go out on submission now, which is exciting and petrifying!

What exciting stuff have you been up to in January?  Any recommendations for music I must listen to or programmes I need to watch?

Saturday, 13 January 2018

#SVHReadalong - Secrets

I was really excited to get stuck into the second Sweet Valley High book, Secrets, because it's one of the books that springs to mind when I think of the series.  The cover is one of my personal favourites, showing Jessica gossiping on a bubble-gum pink telephone as Elizabeth watches on aghast, even though this doesn't represent the story inside at all.

*Spoilers ahead*

Secrets follows on immediately after Double Love, with the main plotline focussing on Elizabeth's best friend Enid's dark, rebellious past.  Enid, who is in a relationship with possessive Ronnie Edwards, has been secretly writing to her old friend George Warren, a former joy-riding drug-using delinquent (there's talk of them using bennies.  In my youthful innocence I never used to know what they were referring to - it's actually benzadrine, a pharmaceutical that contains amphetamine).  When Enid shares this with Elizabeth, and accidentally leaves a letter in her friend's bedroom, it is found by conniving twin Jessica who uses the information to wreck Enid's relationship with an angry Ronnie who takes Enid to secluded Miller's Point to have it out with her.  Enid believes it is Elizabeth who has betrayed her trust.

Jessica is keen to be taken to the upcoming fall dance by Bruce Patman so she can be crowned queen, but when she finds out he's taking a nineteen year old, she pounces on newly-single Ronnie.  The story ends with Enid discovering the truth about who revealed her secret although, as George Warren turns up on her doorstep as she's about to go to the dance solo, reformed and handsome, she is thankful that things turned out the way they did.  Elizabeth's revenge on Jessica is to fix it so Jessica gets her dream of being queen of the fall dance, but paired with nerdy Winston Egbert as king.

The subplot is based around an unsubstantiated rumour that 'young and pretty' French teacher Ms. Dalton (who is dating Lila Fowler's father) is in a relationship with Ken Matthews.  Ms. Dalton takes leave from teaching as a result of the rumour and considers resigning, but Mr Collins - 'resident hunk' and adviser on the school paper The Oracle - stands up for Ms. Dalton.  When she returns to work, turning up at the dance, she ends up dancing with him.  As a teen I remember loving Mr. Collins with his Robert Redford looks and crinkly blue eyes SO MUCH.  Swoon.

Joyous mentions in this book - Jessica's bronze, wet-look swimsuit, the first references of the series for both Jessica's 'Hershey Bar' bedroom and The Droids - the best band at SVH.

Overall, although this book has a better structure than Double Love, I didn't like it as much, partly because I really, really don't like Ronnie (I understand his trust issues stem from his parents divorce, but still...he's possessive and manipulative and really creepy).

If you want to join in with the Sweet Valley High Readalong, share your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #SVHReadalong.  Next up is the third book in the series, Playing with Fire.

March and April and May 2018 - books and music in brief

Oh, time - you got away from me again.  Spring arrived later than ever; winter seemingly endless with freezing temperatures and April snowfa...