Book Review: The Friend – by Dorothy Koomson

If I’m going to read 52 books this year I guess I’ll need to prove it, and I figure the best way to do that is to review them. Let the book reviews begin:

The Friend Review

 

Pages: 468

Box Ticked: A book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet.

I first fell in love with Dorothy Koomson when I was working part-time in a book shop as an undergraduate student majoring in English Literature and Philosophy. I didn’t have much time to read for pleasure. Fiction was my favourite section to organise – straightforward A to Z, having as many covers facing out as possible, because people do judge a book by its cover. Not me though, I judge a book by its title. And so, when I found “Marshmallows for Breakfast” by Dorothy Koomson, I knew I was onto a winner. And the cover with soft, comforting pastel shades of pink, blue and yellow didn’t hurt. After months of staring at it, I finally used my 30% staff discount for the first time to treat myself to a copy.

Dorothy Koomson Everywhere

I won’t lie. I was disappointed. The story didn’t live up to my expectations. But then again, how could it? I had built it up for months. But I decided Dorothy Koomson deserved another chance. So, I went back to the beginning, back to her beginning, and her first novel, “The Cupid Effect”, which I had to order. When it arrived, the cover also had those soothing tones and a catchy hook, “Dare you follow your heart?” I remember reading the Prologue on my break in the back office. My heart nearly beat out my chest. It was a list of the protagonist’s “Good Intentions”. And numbers 6 and 7 were like she had seen into my soul:

Prologue

I had been obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the spinoff series Angel for all of my adolescent years. And let’s be honest, the rest of my life since. And that year in particular I was definitely guilty of staying up too late watching old re-runs of both shows (which had long since gone off air).

The similarities didn’t end there. The book’s protagonist was like my spirit animal. I related to her in every way possible – even in ways I wished I didn’t. And the writing was sensational. It really was like she could see into my soul. She wrote the way I wished I could. And so that was it. Dorothy Koomson became my new literary best friend. She went on to make me cry in “My Best Friend’s Girl” and ugly cry in “Good Night Beautiful”. I have turned so many people onto her books – both friends and customers – and have bought so many of her books as presents I really do deserve some sort of commission by now, hint hint.

Anyway, let’s get back on track, this is supposed to be a review of “The Friend”, not an ode to Dorothy Koomson…

“The Friend” follows Cece Solarin who has reluctantly moved her three children to Brighton to join her husband who has received a shiny new promotion. Determined to make the best of this fresh start, Cece is horrified to discover that she has unknowingly enrolled her children in a school where just three weeks earlier, one of the parents, a popular mother named Yvonne, was brutally assaulted and now lies in a coma. Weary of everyone, she is somewhat relieved when she quickly makes friends in a community that seems extremely cliquey.

Her new friends, Maxie, Anaya and Hazel, couldn’t be more different from each other, but as close knit as the group seems, each has their own set of closely guarded secrets, least of all, exactly where they were on the night Yvonne was assaulted. Each friend seems comfortable confiding in Cece, but is she just a replacement for Yvonne? Or is she in very real danger of being the next victim? When the police come to Cece to help them with their investigation, she is reluctant to spy on her new friends, but as with any mother, she will do anything to protect her family.

Although this book came out in July in South Africa, with the current exchange rate as it is, I had to wait until my turn to host book club in September to buy it, and December for my turn to get my hands on it. As with “Marshmallows for Breakfast”, I was worried the anticipation would taint the final result, but not so in this case. I feel like Dorothy Koomson’s writing has matured as she has (something it makes me heartsore to say, I feel is deeply lacking in the case of Marian Keyes, another author I do really love). Her female characters have real depth and go well beyond their looks, careers and love lives. As with most of her novels, I found myself relating to the main character, Cece, particularly in that I wished I could be more like her; specifically, more brave. She was just the right amount of flawed, without being whiny and annoying at any stage; she never played the victim and you never felt sorry for her, only empathy. And I think that is a tricky emotion to invoke in a reader.

As the secrets of the other characters unravelled, I stayed up well past my bedtime, turning the pages, trying to guess whodunnit; and she had me guessing until the very end. Some of my bookBig Little Lies club friends who only read the blurb had the audacity to compare it to “Big Little Lies”, what with all the attention and acclaim it received with the release of the mini-series last year, as though my precious Dorothy was some sort of plagiarist. But prep school and precocious parents aside, that is where the comparisons can end.

Ultimately, I give it a solid 4 out of 5. It is an easy read, although it does coverDorothy Koomson Profile Pic some very intense and relevant topics on sexual assault, exploitation and racism. In a world desperate for real, realistic female role models; Cece, Maxie, Anaya, Hazel and even Yvonne from time to time, give us everyday examples of what it is to be a woman in 2018. This is an important book. Read it.

Easter Egg: As someone who judges a book by its title, I was a little disappointed by “The Friend”, but there is a deeper meaning to it…

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The Five Whys

Well it’s Tuesday as I type this and my fridge is healthily stocked and I’m drinking my green juice, which means it must be time for an update on “New Year, Same Old Me, But Trying Hard to Make Some Lasting Changes”. The juice really is quite green, but it doesn’t taste all that bad. Kale (it’s not as trendy as it used to be, so you don’t need to roll your eyes quite so much), an apple, a plum, green melon, some walnuts, turmeric, spirulina (natural algae – full permission to roll your eyes – a supposed nutrient-dense, high-protein “superfood”). It is extremely green. And some extremely overpriced macha green tea powder. For the liquid I used ginger water which Hubby made last week by boiling raw ginger. Simple as. If one thing’s for sure, being healthy is expensive and labour intensive!

Last week I spoke about how difficult it is to achieve goals when they are vague and not clearly defined. The second part of my Sleek Geek challenge was all about making these goals more concrete and ensuring you have a clearly defined reason for change, otherwise it will be virtually impossible to make it stick. To do this, you really need to dig deep and start asking yourself some serious questions about what it is that you value in life, and why; what kind of person do you want to be, and why? Are you currently living according to those values? Chances are you’re not, or you wouldn’t be in this position (unless you’re just reading this purely to follow my journey – which is ok too 😊). In this modern age it is very common for people to feel unfulfilled in their jobs, and even in their lives as a whole. As though they are not living their life’s purpose. They are falling short of the mark somehow. This is not what they thought their lives would be. Very often, this is because their life is not in-line with what they value.

Bestselling author and esteemed life-coach Robin Sharma has a saying that “Your schedule doesn’t lie”. He believes he can look at your schedule and automatically tell what it is that you value because those will be the things that you prioritise and place importance on in your day-to-day living. If you say you value family but your schedule doesn’t allow for any family time, then either you are lying, or you are living a life that is not in-line with your values. Human behaviour specialist, Dr John De Martini similarly believes that to get to the core of your value system you need to examine your life and be honest about how you spend your time, energy, and money. What are you most passionate about? What dominates your thoughts? In what areas of your life are you most organised? When you are truly honest with yourself about these questions, you might find yourself surprised by the answers, and that’s ok. It’s ok to change your value system, as long you’re prepared to change your lifestyle to align with it.

If-Words-Dont-Add-Up.jpg

Know your why

Knowing what’s important to us and why gives us direction and purpose. As with change being a skill that needs to be practiced, if we really want lasting change in our lives, we need to get to the bottom of why we want that change. And I’m not talking about “I want to be skinny” surface reasons here, I’m talking about the really deep, “five years of therapy” reasons. To do this, Sleek Geek recommends a process called the Five Whys.

Five whys

You begin by identifying what it is you want to achieve. You then ask yourself why you want to accomplish this. You then further the process by again asking why, interrogating your previous answer and asking why that reason is important to you. You ask three further “whys”, each time questioning your previous answer until you have gotten to the bottom of why that thing is important to you, what difference it will make, why it will matter. Once you have your real “why”, which is distinct and very personal to you, you will have something very concrete to hold onto when the going gets tough.

So here are my Five Whys for why I want to make some serious lifestyle changes this year:

What do you want to achieve? Overall improved health and fitness.

Why #1 I want to feel better about myself.

Why #2 I want to give myself the best chance at life, where I have a positive body image, and better self-esteem; and can give myself a better chance at a higher quality of life.

Why #3 I feel like I have more to offer the world and my health problems are holding me back from being a better wife, a better writer and a better person.

Why #4 I want to live a good life for as long as possible, where I can positively contribute to those around me and I need my health to be able to do that.

Why #5 If I don’t make significant lifestyle changes there is a very real chance I will encounter even greater health problems in the very near future and I will never be able to accomplish my dreams of having a family or publishing a novel.

So, there we have it folks. If Why #5 isn’t enough motivation to put down the chocolate and go for a walk around the block, I don’t know if anything ever will be. You don’t get much more dramatic than that.

Chief Seattle

Film Review – The Greatest Showman

Title

The Greatest Showman had me since I first saw the trailer about six months ago. They had me at Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron. They had me at original musical.

The movie tells a romanticised and very Hollywood version of a portion of the life of P.T. Barnum, widely regarded as the man who originated showbusiness with his circuses, “freak shows”, music concerts and theatre productions. He began with a museum displaying human curiosities, but went on to establish a travelling circus and can even be credited with making theatre, previously viewed as “dens of inequity” accessible and respectable to the middle-classes.

The movie follows Hugh Jackman’s P.T. Barnum on a real “rags to riches” tale as he steals his childhood sweetheart Charity, played by Michelle Williams, away from her middle-class life with promises of a life of magical dreams come true. But flash forward and he is laid off from his menial job when the company goes bang and although they are perfectly happy with their two beautiful daughters, Barnum feels inadequate and disenchanted with the life he has created for his beloved Charity. Filled with inspiration, he dupes a bank into giving him a loan to buy a run-down museum which he slowly turns into the stage for a grand production of epic proportions for performers with extraordinary talents who have been living on the fringes of society due to their perceived oddities.

Although the show draws in adoring audiences, it also attracts protestors who are less than enamoured with the “freakish” performers. The ever-ambitious P.T. Barnum is also dissatisfied that his show is being ridiculed in the press and despite his success he is still met with scorn from Charity’s parents and the rest of the highbrow community. In an attempt to give his shows more credit with the middle-classes he teams up with the esteemed Philip Carlisle (played by Zac Efron) who becomes his business partner and eventually his young protégé. He also teams up with Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, whom he meets when being introduced to the Queen of England. Without even hearing her sing, he books her for a 150-show tour of America. Barnum puts everything on the line to fund the tour, leaving the circus in the hands of Carlisle, but for all intents and purposes abandoning the performers he rescued from a life of solitude.

How will the performers react to being left behind? How will Charity react to her husband being on tour with another woman? And when everything begins to collapse around him, will the greatest showman be able to pull himself together and pull off a performance that saves showbusiness and his family?

The storytelling draws you in and the characters hold you there. The performances are spot on; from the acting to the singing, dancing, acrobatics, trapeze artists and almost anything else you can imagine. But what really gets you is the music. From the opening beats of “The Greatest Show”, to Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron’s catchy duet “The Other Side”, your foot will be tapping. And I literally had tears rolling down my cheeks when Keala Settle, “The Bearded Lady”, belts out the movie’s anthem “This is Me”. It has become my personal anthem for the year. And the rhythm of the film’s closing number “From Now On” will lift your spirits and have you ready to dance out of the theatre and onto a mission to make your own dreams come true. It’s that kind of movie.

Hubby and I came home and immediately downloaded the soundtrack. It has been on repeat in our house and cars ever since. It is that good. It should have come as no surprise to me that all the songs were written by duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, known together as Pasek and Paul. Best known for their work on Dear Evan Hansen, a Broadway Musical I would give my right arm to see (and that’s my good arm), they have already won an Oscar for “City of Stars” featured in La La Land. This extra info also led me to discover that this movie was over seven years in the making, because studio execs just didn’t have faith that a feature length musical could be successful. I also came across this video where director Michael Gracey had finally accumulated roughly eighty big wig potential investors to listen to a read through and performance of the songs, only to discover that Hugh Jackman had just undergone a procedure to remove skin cancer from his nose and would not be able to sing at the showcase. Forced to get a stand-in singer, the power of Pasek and Paul’s song writing completely overcame him for the final number and he burst into song for “From Now On”, bursting his stitches in the process and sending a stream of blood running down his cheek. That’s the power of music for you.

So, by now it’s quite obvious I am a massive fan of this movie. Apparently critical acclaim has been mixed with some reviewers calling it “faux-inspiring and shallow”. Now that just makes me sad. In this terrible world we live in, what’s wrong with a little escapism, and a heart-warming musical journey that champions the outcast. It has also been criticised for the level of artistic licence taken, for instance, Zac Efron’s character is entirely fictional. I think it’s also important to point out that Hollywood is usually very loose with the biographical truth when presenting something historical, because let’s be honest, very often the truth was a bit boring.

However, in the case of P.T. Barnum, his life was anything but boring, and while I couldn’t find any historical accounts of him doing a musical routine down a main street, it’s important to point out that this film only depicts the very beginnings of his career, and this may be a case where the truth is more thrilling than fiction. Following the hugely successful Jenny Lind tour (which in the movie is conversely depicted as an epic failure), he set about changing the public’s attitudes towards theatre and built New York City’s largest and most modern theatre, displaying everything from watered-down Shakespeare to farces and even dog shows. He started a weekly pictorial newspaper and published an autobiography that sold over one million copies.

After a series of bad investments almost ruined him, he pulled himself out of debt and public humiliation, resuming ownership of his museum where he created America’s first aquarium. Against the odds, he revived his former magic and at the age of 60 established “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome,” which survived fires, train disasters and other setbacks to bring entertainment to the country, and even London. Barnum was also involved in politics and spoke out strongly against slavery and racism in the period leading up to the Civil War. He served four terms in the Connecticut legislature and also became mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut where he worked hard to improve their water supply, bring gas lighting to streets, and enforce liquor and prostitution laws.

But most of these achievements get lost in the legend, the legend of a showman, an entertainer who could promote anything and everything and whip any crowd into a frenzy. He is credited with many, many quotes, some erroneously, but I think my personal favourite has to be “The noblest art is that of making others happy”. The Greatest Showman will make you happy. Go and see it.

Rating: 4/5

New Year New Me – Bleh!

I think it would be pretty fair to say last year was a tough year for myself and Hubby. In many ways I came full circle. I started the year in a mental health clinic, balancing my epileptic medication as side-effects from my seizures were causing crippling depression, and I finished the year in hospital having a shoulder operation to fix a debridgement of my rotator cuff – something that took over six months to diagnose. I spent much of the year in doctors’ rooms, including two other hospital stays, I went for many scans and x-rays and swallowed a lot of pills. I lost my best friend to suicide. I felt like joining him more than once. I cried. A lot.

But I also had an amazing 30th birthday party with all my best friends, a jumping castle and a homemade birthday cake with mirror glaze icing and a ninja turtle on top – courtesy of Hubby’s hard work. We had an amazing overseas holiday for my Big Bruv’s wedding in Glasgow where we also managed to squeeze in an Emeli Sande concert, a Russell Kane standup show and a stay in a five-star hotel in the heart of London (generous belated wedding gift courtesy of my Aunt). We welcomed two beautiful kittens into our family, Gazza and Seba, and have watched their individual personalities develop with amazement and amusement. I tasted the most amazing cheesecake ever. We finally finished the 150-metre “buy in bulk and save” tin foil that we bought about two and a half years ago (a proud moment). We got to visit the in-laws twice, which always involves sand between my toes and a special feeling in my soul that only the sea can awaken. I strengthened the friendships worth keeping and loosened ties that were weighing me down.

So, when people on social media are all about “Can’t wait to see the back of 2017!”, “2017 sucked, bring on 2018!”, I can’t help but think, “Did it really suck? All of it? Enough to be wishing time away?” Because the saying goes that life is short, but in truth, it’s the longest thing any of us will ever have (that we know of for sure) and it seems awfully tragic to wish any of it away, even the painful parts. There’s also this weird phenomenon that I’ll call New Year New Me, where people seem to think that when the clock strikes midnight and the date changes from December 31st to January 1st, everything will magically change and all that was wrong in 2017 will magically disappear. Everything they struggled with in 2017 will no longer be a challenge; any and all trials and tribulations will suddenly become completely avoidable. But the truth is, who you were yesterday, is exactly the same person you are today. Literally the only thing that’s changed is the date. And you probably have a hangover.

So, this is the point at which you start to talk about New Year’s Resolutions. Those grand, vague empty promises you make to yourself about the person you’re going to become this year, so that if 2018 turns out to be just as shit as 2017 was, at least you’ll be able to turn that shit into compost and grow some freaking flowers in it, cos that’s the kind of optimistic, proactive, energetic, go-getter you’re going to become. Problem is, you have no idea how to become that person. You’ve identified the destination, but you have no road map for how to get there. So, before you know it, it’s December 31st and your social media posts are looking oddly familiar: “Can’t wait to see the back of 2018!”, “2018 sucked, bring on 2019!” And you’re wishing even more of your limited time on this earth away.

Right, now let me step off this soap box before it crumbles under my considerable weight. I too have been that person, making my fair share of New Year’s Resolutions, usually revolving around wanting to lose weight and getting fitter and healthier. I’ll usually throw something extra in about wanting to read more and write more – pursue those things that make me more me. But I inevitably spend another year on the couch, watching series, eating healthier perhaps and going for the occasional walk, but also stuffing my face with junk food and before I know it another year has passed me by and I still feel uncomfortable in my clothes, I still can’t walk up the stairs without feeling out of breath, the first draft of my novel has still gone unedited and the pile of books I haven’t read has quadrupled in size.

But this year I’m determined to make things different. Because this year I’m going to have a road map. No more vague destinations in mind, but clearly defined landing points, right down to the GPS coordinates, with exact instructions on how to get there. I started off by signing up for the Sleek Geek 14-day challenge (it was free – yay!) and I have learnt quite a lot so far:

Shift in Mindset: Change is a skill and requires practice. You can’t change overnight, it requires deliberate and consistent action in the right way and the right order, over time. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. As you would build on any skill, if you want to make a change, you have to practice getting better at making changes. So, don’t start off huge with a “I’m going to lose 20kg”. That’s basically equivalent to someone who has never touched a piano in their lives saying I’m going to learn to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” flawlessly by Friday. Pick a low hanging fruit. Something small, simple, and repeatable that you’re guaranteed to succeed at. It doesn’t matter what it is, it just matters that you succeed with it. This will help you to practice change. I have chosen a few that I plan to build on once I have (hopefully) achieved success with these in the coming weeks:

  • Take my multi-vitamins and supplements every day (I have a tendency to forget).
  • Drink 2 litres of water every day.
  • Sit outside for at least fifteen minutes every day.

I think that’s a good place to start and a good place to leave it for today. I plan to post throughout the year on my lifestyle goals and their progress. Let’s see how well I do on that ‘resolution’. A prosperous 2018 to you and yours!