Event Review: Marian Keyes in conversation with Laura Jane Williams, Words Weekend 2019, 7th December 2019

It’s the last event review from 2019. So from this point on I will only be a year behind with the reviews!

I booked to see this Marian Keyes talk at the Sage Gateshead as soon as I heard about it. I’ve always enjoyed Marian’s appearances on Strictly: It Takes Two, but I wasn’t familiar with her work. However, when I was newly sober at the start of 2019 and exploring a lot of quit lit (sobriety-related books), I kept coming across recommendations for her novels, and was interested to find out that Marian is many years sober herself. As such, I thought it would be good to go along to the Sage and hear her story!

Marian Keyes at the Sage Gateshead
We were sitting at the back, so my photography is as blurry as ever I’m afraid!

Marian is a lively speaker and talked a lot about her early life, sobriety and how she started writing her books. This was obviously of interest to me as a sober writer, but Geth really enjoyed the talk too – it was warm and funny and very relatable.

I was surprised not to have heard about Words Weekend up until that point – despite being on Sage Gateshead’s mailing list since shortly after I moved to Newcastle in 2015! However, it turns out that it was a brand new festival, and one that moves around, as it was scheduled to take place in Salford in 2020. Hopefully they’ll be able to get going again once the pandemic is over.

Meanwhile, I’ve now got a few of Marian’s books on my to-read list. Rachel’s Holiday looks like a good place to start!

Book Review: The Sea Of Monsters

This is the second in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series – I reviewed the first here. I’ve been getting through the series (and now the sequel series) a chapter a night since last summer, so it’s about time I caught up with my reviews!

The Sea Of Monsters

It’s a year since the events of the first book, and after getting attacked by monsters at (and then expelled from) yet another school, Percy returns to Camp Half-Blood for another summer. The magical tree guarding the camp has been poisoned, and the only thing that can cure it is the Golden Fleece. However, this time it’s not Percy who’s granted the quest to find the Fleece, but instead his camp arch-enemy Clarisse. Of course, Percy follows her and gets himself involved anyway, because he’s certain that it’s the only way he’ll find his missing satyr friend Grover.

It’s another good adventure story, probably with a slightly tighter narrative and faster pace than the first one, and the tale is livened up by the introduction of Percy’s Cyclops half-brother Tyson, who at first is a target of mockery but gains the demigods’ approval and Percy’s affection over the course of the story. There are also a lot of fun sideplots with evil goddesses who turn humans into guinea pigs and the like, and more of the background plot by the Titan Kronos to vanquish the gods is revealed.

Overall, I’d say this one has the edge over the first entry in the series for me – if for no other reason than the pirate ship that shows up in the second half. I love a pirate ship!

Book Review: I Know This Much: From Soho To Spandau

I’ve been going through a bit of a spate of rock star autobiographies lately, and I have several more lined up on my Kindle for the year ahead. My most recent read was I Know This Much, the memoir of Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp.

I Know This Much

It’s a very enjoyable read and probably my favourite of the rock autobiographies I’ve read so far. The story covers Kemp’s childhood in the pre-gentrification Islington of the ’60s and ’70s, his teenage successes in music and acting, the formation and early days of Spandau Ballet, their heyday in the first half of the ’80s, and the decline of the band and Kemp’s move towards acting as the ’90s approached. It then jumps forward to the royalty court case brought by other Spandau members in the late ’90s, and finally the band’s reunion a decade later.

The narrative is warm and engaging, and I found the focus on Kemp’s parents – who seem to have provided a form of stability, never changing in outlook or lifestyle even when their sons became famous pop stars – very touching. It’s their lives that bookend the story, and in some ways they are the central figures.

Kemp’s account of his band’s role in the story of London’s Blitz club and the wider UK music scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s also paints a vivid picture – it’s fascinating to realise how small a scene it was, with every other face in the crowd a future international pop star. It’s difficult to imagine a more modern equivalent – maybe this kind of scene is just something that doesn’t happen anymore. One part I really appreciated was the story of how True, which is probably Spandau’s most enduring song, was inspired by Clare Grogan, who’s one of my favourite fellow Scotswomen!

The highlight of these pop star cameos, though, is Boy George, who shows up in the narrative approximately once per chapter – on stairwells, in recording studios, in the street – purely to heckle Kemp and the other members of Spandau Ballet, like a slightly bitchier Statler and Waldorf. I like to imagine that this is still happening to this day.

I’m going to try and read the other Spandau memoirs sometime soon, while this one is still fresh in my mind – it’ll be really interesting to compare and contrast.

Book Review: Riders

In the mid-’00s, I used to watch the BBC programmes Grumpy Old Men and Grumpy Old Women, which involved older celebrities complaining about the modern world and was very funny. One of the contributors to the latter was Jilly Cooper, who always came across as quite jolly and cheery despite the show’s title. I made a mental note that I should probably give one of her books a go some day.

Because I am a terrible procrastinator, it took me over a decade to get round to it, meaning I downloaded Riders on my Kindle and thus had no sense of how long it might be (one of the disadvantages of ebooks). It’s long. It’s super long. 278,000 words of long, according to the internet. I’d actually be interested to see a physical copy, ’cause it’s probably a real doorstopper.


The story is a saga about showjumpers and their love lives that spans the ’70s, culminating in a finale set at the 1980 Olympics. There are what feels like hundreds of characters, and almost every single one of them is an awful human being. The one exception is treated so abysmally by the other characters that she ends up attempting suicide towards the end of the book. None of the others get any kind of comeuppance whatsoever, which is a bit frustrating when you’ve spent 278,000 words really hating them and are looking forward to the freak fire that burns all of them to death in a glorious blaze of justice.

Oh, hang on, there were some other characters that I liked! They were all horses though.

The book’s apparently famous for its sexual content, but in all honesty it’s fairly tame by today’s standards, and the characters are so horrible that it’s just depressing anyway.

I thought I might read the whole series, but I think one will probably do me.

Book Review: I’m OK – You’re OK

Geth and I have a good-sized pile of classic productivity and self-help books that were donated to us by Dad a few years back. Last year, when I was going through our books after the move, this one caught my eye, and I put it aside for reading.

I'm OK - You're OK

It’s about human psychology, which I always find quite interesting – it focuses on the way that our experiences in the first five years of childhood, during which we are constantly told that we’re doing things wrong and are therefore ‘not OK’, form problematic habits in feeling and thinking that last into adult life. It also gives advice about ways of mitigating this problem – for instance, understanding that others’ reactions may be coming from their ‘not OK’ child inside – although I didn’t find that part hugely helpful.

The book was written in the ’60s, and so a lot of the context is hugely dated nowadays (for instance, an example of conflict is given where a white man gets upset about his daughter bringing a black boyfriend home, and this is presented as a normal thing!). As such, I’d be keen to read a modern discussion of what is introduced in this book, as I think it is an interesting way of looking at things.

Book Review: Now We Are Thirty: Women Of The Breakthrough Generation

I picked this book off Mum and Dad’s shelves while visiting as it looked really interesting. It focuses on the reflections and fears of women around my age (well, a little younger, I suppose – now that I’m thirty-four I’m very definitely ‘mid-thirties’!), but as it was written and released around 1980, it’s really about Mum’s generation. This made it even more interesting to me, as I’m fascinated by 20th century social history.

Now We Are Thirty

The author, Mary Ingham, based the book on interviews with women who had been in her year at school, all of whom had gone on to live very different kinds of adult lives – a stark contrast to their mothers’ generation, where almost all women ended up living a similar existence as housewives and mothers. In childhood, Ingham and her schoolfriends had expected that they would live similarly to their mothers, but as the world changed beyond imagination in the ’60s and ’70s, many of them found themselves working, studying, flatsharing, travelling, and only realising as they approached thirty still unmarried and childless that their lives had not gone quite as they planned. Others did live more traditional women’s lives, and the contrast in mindsets is very interesting.

For me, the best thing about the book is the very vivid picture it paints of the rapid societal change in the mid-20th century and the way it so drastically altered women’s options that many of them felt adrift. It’s also very interesting that, although we now see thirty as still relatively young, in 1980 the mindset seemed to be that if you’d focused on your career or studies during your twenties, it was probably too late to have a husband and family (this is very definitely prior to the ‘women should have it all!’ pressure that arose in later decades). Of course, this kind of thinking is strange in hindsight – my own mum spent her twenties working abroad and didn’t meet my dad until she was in her thirties – but the book demonstrates that at the time, it really was considered a decision that you had to make very early in adult life.

Mum said I could keep the book, so I expect I’ll reread it at some point!

Book Review: The Lightning Thief

I’ve been rereading Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series lately, as I’ve never managed to finish the Heroes of Olympus sequel series (despite them all sitting on my shelves for years) and wanted to read the whole thing again from the start.

The Lightning Thief

I didn’t get into this series until about 2011/2012, by which time the whole of the first series had already been released and were ready on Amazon in a handy boxset for me to devour in one go. The reason, I think, why I hadn’t been interested in reading them – despite being a fan of well-written ‘middle grade’ children’s literature – was the advertising for the film version, which made it look very similar to Harry Potter. This did the books a disservice, I feel, because they have a very different feel and a very different writing style (Riordan’s voice, which is personable and humorous, has become one of my favourites in this genre).

The Lightning Thief does a great job of introducing a world of teenage demigods and fantasy creatures. The story kicks right into action and doesn’t let up till the end, with Percy and his new friends Annabeth and Grover embarking on a desperate mission to find Zeus’ stolen lightning bolt before it causes a war among the Greek gods.

The story is actually very educational – I studied classics at university and yet there are Greek myths I remember better due to this series than due to my studies – but never in a dry or po-faced manner. The way the myths are translated into a modern context is always very fun, and the classic mythical figures are characterised really nicely.

I’m already several books down in this series, so I’ll be reviewing the others soon!

Book Review: The Boss

I’ve been reading author Jenny Trout’s blog for quite a few years now. She’s very active around fighting problematic messages in women’s fiction, and writes very funny recaps of books that have these kind of messages yet are inexplicably popular.

Under the pen name Abigail Barnette, she’s contributed her own series to the subgenre of ‘billionaire erotic romance’ with the aim of portraying a healthy relationship rather than the borderline abusive ones so common in romance as it stands. The first entry in the series, The Boss, is free to read, so I gave it a shot.

The Boss

The protagonists, Sophie and Neil, meet again six years after a chance encounter in an airport hotel…except this time, she’s an assistant at a fashion magazine, and he’s her new boss. Despite a world of ethical issues to deal with – Neil is also twice Sophie’s age and extremely rich – romance blossoms again, although the book ends on an unhappy cliffhanger, setting up for the sequel.

I’ve not read much erotic romance before, and I find it’s not really my thing – I prefer romances to be less sexually explicit – but I did enjoy the story, especially all the stuff to do with the fashion magazine, as I’m fascinated by the fashion world.

I also really like Trout’s writing voice, and so I’ve been reading her new YA story on Radish, Nightmare Born, which I’ll review once I’ve finished it!

Book Review: The Complete Beauty Book

I bought this impressively heavy tome on Amazon Marketplace a couple of years ago. I’d been browsing YouTube tutorials for ’80s makeup looks, none of which were quite 100% period accurate, and a commenter recommended this book – it came out in 1985, and was apparently considered one of the ultimate hair and makeup guides of the era.

The Complete Beauty Book

Like everything else in life, I like my hair and makeup to look vaguely ’80s – not full on backcombing and Boy George blusher (unless I’m going clubbing!), but using the correct techniques for day makeup that were popular at the time. This book provides a really good immersive experience in that sense. There are also a lot of very pretty pictures of ’80s bathrooms and dressing tables with lots of plants everywhere!

It also gives a really interesting insight into the mindset of beauty specialists at the time. This is a little tangential, but when I studied history at university, the realisation that made the most sense of the passing of time to me was that you don’t know you are living in a particular period of history while the world is still going through it. Since the mid-’90s, society has had this very particular cultural view of the ’80s that it was the decade of excess – in fashion terms, that means big hair, big shoulders, excessive makeup, everything over-exaggerated. But reading the words of the authors in 1985 paints a very different picture. From their perspective at that time, it was the ’60s that were stark and over-exaggerated in makeup trends – white panstick, black eyes, no nuance – whereas ‘nowadays’ the trend was a lot softer and ‘more natural’. Given that we’ve been told for more than twenty years that ’80s makeup looked anything but natural, I found this standpoint absolutely fascinating!

I’m not the greatest at makeup, so I haven’t really perfected all the eyeshadow patterns yet, but the book does give a lot of tips to try out. It’ll be staying in my collection!

Book Review: Five Give Up The Booze

This book review’s fairly timely for me, seeing as it’s my last day of drinking today.

I think it was a couple of years ago that Bruno Vincent’s ‘Famous Five for Grown-Ups’ series started appearing in shops, and Geth and I bought a couple of them as gifts for people for Christmas 2016. However, it wasn’t until last summer that I actually got round to reading this one.

If you’re familiar with the original Famous Five stories, there’s a lot to enjoy in these. The kids from the original books have grown up and are now dealing (very comedically) with adult issues, in this case deciding to do Dry January after a particularly heavy New Year. Their resolve is complicated by an upcoming wedding, and some characters find they replace drinking with alternative bad habits. Timmy the dog, meanwhile, just puts his head down and waits for it all to be over.

It’s very well done and very funny and I will definitely be picking up the others in the series. I may even dip into my old childhood copies of the original Enid Blyton stories!