Book Review: Miss Benson’s Beetle, by Rachel Joyce

Until now, Margery hadn’t shared her father’s love of insects… Yet as her finger met the golden beetle, something happened: a spark seemed to fly out and her future opened. She went hot and cold. She would find the beetle. It was that simple.

Miss Benson’s Beetle

Margery Benson is working in a school teaching home economics to a group of girls who don’t want to listen to her. It is 1950 and England is still recovering from the War. The girls in her class are passing round a note, a cartoon of Margery as a “lumpy old woman… Her nose, the girls had done as a potato, while her hair was mad bird’s nest.” She sees the drawing and something inside Margery snaps: she steals a pair of boots from another teacher, she picks up a few other random items from the School, including a fire extinguisher, she heads home knowing she cannot return to that job. She remembers the golden beetle her father had shown her in a book as a child and she decides she must go to New Caledonia to find it.

Realising she cannot go alone, Margery advertises for an assistant and eventually hires Enid Pretty who said, in her notes written on the back of old shopping lists, that she wants to ‘Liv life and see the worlb!’ They are two very different women with very different attitudes on life and how it should be lived. But, together, the odd couple set sail from Britain to Australia where they will then travel on to New Caledonia to search for the golden beetle.

As the ship slid free, the band on the jetty struck up with a round of ‘Rule Britannia’, and the passengers hurled down hundreds of thousands of streamers that filled the dock in a giant web, while Enid whooped and blew kisses, ‘Goodbye, ol’ Blighty!’ After that, Margery stayed on deck, watching as everything she knew pulled away and lost shape – the docks, the coastline, fishing boats – until even Britain was a small grey hat on the horizon. She was doing it – she was finally doing the thing she’d dreamt about as a child, the thing she’d given up on in her twenties. And deep inside she felt a leap of excitement because it was finally happening and she could hardly believe it. It was so easy to find yourself doing the things in life you weren’t passionate about, to stick with them even when you didn’t want them and they hurt. But now the time for dreaming and wishing was over, and she was going. She was travelling to the other side of the world. It wasn’t just the ship that had been unmoored. It was her entire sense of herself.

Miss Benson’s Beetle

I absolutely loved this book. It was pure joy from start to finish. It was full of adventure, exploration and friendship, as well as overcoming other people’s judgements of you. Both Enid and Margery are judged by every person they meet on their travels, including each other, but they find a way to work together and learn that you can never truly judge a book by its cover.

Rachel Joyce has so thoroughly researched what New Caledonia would have been like in the 1950s, and what the journey there would have been like, and from that has created a story so gripping and enjoyable. She mentions in the acknowledgements that when she began writing she knew nothing about beetles or New Caledonia and I am so in awe of the amount of research she must have done to create such a rich and vibrant world.

As the sun lifted, the sky flashed with bright colours that belonged to other things. Traffic-light green, birthday-candle pink, egg-yolk yellow, pillar-box red.

Miss Benson’s Beetle

I loved the language and the descriptions of foreign and exotic places – you really feel as though you are treading on jungle and mountainous terrain as you go through it. It keeps the tension going right to the very last page. I didn’t want it to end!

I never would have guessed a book about beetles would capture my imagination so much (this was another one of my mum’s recommendations – for which I am so grateful!). It is a book that has sat on my shelves for a couple of years, each time I have seen it I gave thought: Ooh yeah, I must read that next, or I’ll definitely come back to that one later. The book has sat there quietly and patiently, waiting for me to choose it. And now that I have picked it up and read it I feel so guilty that such an incredible story has had to sit there for so long and wait for me to give it my attention. But, now it has finally had it, I want to encourage the world to go and read it!

Two Month Review: Women Who Travel

My blog is two months old today! It has been another fun month of writing, reading, learning and getting to know people. For this month’s round up I thought I would continue highlighting some of the women who have been keeping me inspired.

“My relationship to travel has always been… a kind of ferocious eagerness and a pit of my stomach driven desire to be in all the places at the same time.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, interviewed on the Women Who Travel podcast (Conde Nast, first released 4 June 2019)

A few years ago I decided I was going to cycle round Cuba. I hadn’t been on a bike since I was a kid, I had no inclination to get on a bike here in the UK, but something about cycling around Cuba called to me. Destiny took the wheel, or the handlebars in this case, and booked me on a flight.

Once the giddy ‘oh my God I’m doing this,’ had passed and the real ‘oh my god, I’m doing this,’ set in, I realised I was going to have to get to a gym sharpish and build up some leg muscles. To inspire me I googled podcasts about solo-women travel to listen to while I was on the bike machine. Women Who Travel, the Condé Nast podcast, came up with an episode about the women changing the food industry in New York. So I plugged my earphones in, they still had wires at that time (my goodness, do you remember walking round the gym with your earphones attached by a wire to your phone?!), and immediately fell in love with the hosts Meredith Carey and Lale Arikoglu.

Since then, I have listened to each episode. I have learnt so much: from what safari I should go on, what it is like to be a professional diver, what it is like to be the first women to visit every country, and, my favourite episodes, what books I should be reading (not always travel related). They have so many interesting guests who really know what they are talking about – you can learn so much about travelling solo and what it’s like to live the life you’ve been imagining. What’s it like to pack up your life and live in a van? There’s a few episodes on that. I was introduced to Yaa Gyasi’s incredible writing through Women Who Travel. So many travel stories, so much advice = my happy place.  

For my two-month review, I want to celebrate the Women Who Travel podcast and one of my favourite writers (who also has happened to be a guest), Elizabeth Gilbert. Come on, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a solo woman traveller, aged 30 or over, owes a certain amount of her bravery and travel addiction to Gilbert. I was bound to talk about her eventually. She was the one who made me think it would be ok, made it seem possible, and then gave me the tools to do it (just fucking do it, basically).

“After a break-up you either go on a trip or you cut your hair.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, interviewed on the Women Who Travel podcast (Conde Nast, first released 4 June 2019)

When I decided to go to Cuba I had not had a break up. I had got a job: a proper 9-5 job. In an office. The kind that Dolly always warned us about. I was flooded with a sudden need for adventure: to prove that I was not settling down. That I was still a free spirit with itchy feet that couldn’t be controlled.

I read Eat, Pry, Love whilst I was travelling round Australia when I was 18 which seemed to be the place you went to if you had a gap year. Eat, Pray, Love made me think about India and South-East Asia and all the amazing places there that were waiting for me to discover. I’m devastated that I seem to have lost my original copy that had all my flight tickets stuck on the inside of the front cover. But, armed with that knowledge, I didn’t worry about booking myself on flights to these places.

Listening to the WWT podcast episode, Gilbert sounds like a fun person to travel with: first of all, she’s up for drinks on the plane and a nap upon arrival. Two big ticks from me. She’s not into museums or galleries: me neither! I’m “a cultural dolt” too, Liz, I like to be outside experiencing a place on foot until my feet feel swollen and happy. I love that feeling.

After Eat, Pray, Love, then came Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (which, I’m pleased to say I’ve managed not to lose my copy of). It’s full of tips on how to write and general encouragement that you can do it! You don’t have to make money from it, if the need to write is there, it’s there regardless. And that’s fine. I also found her description of inspiration as an energy that chooses you, if you show it that you are ready for commitment and hard work, to tell great stories.  

In the end, it’s all just violets trying to come to life.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

So if you are looking for some pure escapism to Antarctica or Ghana, Italy or a big American road trip, if you want to know what it takes to complete the itidarod (a dog sledding race I’d never even heard of) or to bike the Silk Road, Women Who Travel will fill that travel-shaped hole. And for something to read, other than Eat, Pray, Love or Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls, set in a 1920s New York theatre, is packed with so much fun and is a great read for these summer nights.

I’m so glad I found the podcast when I did, building up my confidence to fly to Havana alone. Thank you Meredith, Lale and Elizabeth.

The episode with Elizabeth Gilbert was first released on 4 June 2019 and again on 12 May 2020.

Link to Women Who Travel: https://www.cntraveler.com/tag/women-who-travel-podcast

Jordan: Three Things to See That Aren’t Petra*

*but you should still definitely see Petra

Wadi Rum

People go to the desert to see nature in all its vastness and magnificence. They go expecting something other-worldly: to be transported away to Mars. To be inspired. Wadi Rum. Even the name calls up images of heat shimmering across sand dunes under an open sky.

People wanting something alien and awe-inspiring will not be disappointed by Wadi Rum. Looking out over the sun-burnt cliffs and rocks that rise up out of the sea of red-orange sand, you will be amazed at the sparseness of it all and the sheer colour spreading out into the horizon.

When we arrived, and after having lunch on what can only be described as a bubble from the set of The Martian, we clambered into the back of an open-top jeep, where thin wooden benches covered in brightly coloured rugs had been nailed into the frame, and drove out over the sand. Not the most comfortable of rides, but a spectacular one seeing the red rock cliffs, the camels and a spectacular sunset.

We stayed at the Wadi Rum Space Village where we ate and drank under the stars before going back to our ‘tent’ to a surprisingly comfy bed and striking guest bathrobes. If you have ever wondered what they are like on the inside I have popped a couple of pictures below.

Go to Wadi Rum if you want a break from planet Earth and to experience the amber sand dunes.

Jerash

A ruined city: fallen columns, skeletal archways, ghostly avenues and temples, a vast and empty hippodrome. It is imposing and impressive and will ignite even the most lacklustre of imaginations.  

Jerash is the ruins of a Roman city but it’s incredibly well-preserved – you are left feeling that you’ve had a glimpse of what it might have been like. The forum still stands tall and impressive (it is quite unbelievable when you are standing amongst all the giant columns), and the hippodrome feels like it could have been used yesterday to put on a show for the masses.

Go to Jerash for history and architecture. As with most places in Jordan, wear comfortable shoes – there’s a lot of walking on uneven ground but it so worth it!

Mount Nebo

Taking a drive along the iconic King’s Highway (an ancient route used by traders travelling from Arabia to Levant), Mount Nebo is said to be the place where Moses first saw the Promised Land and also where he died and was buried.

There is a church which is home to a 6th century mosaic map of the Holy Land but the special thing about Mount Nebo is the incredible view out across the Jordan Valley where you can see the Dead Sea, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Being here at sunset, you can see that it is one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Go here to see the beauty of the Jordan landscape in all its glory.

Petra

You came to Jordan to see Petra though, right? One of the New Seven Wonders of the World and arguably one of the most famous images on Instagram: Petra and the Treasury. Don’t let the pics showing a deserted and empty place fool you, though, this place gets busy!

But not without reason does it draw the crowds. Despite all the people trying to get that famous shot, it retains a calmness and sense of peace – maybe something to do with it being kept a secret by the Bedouin people for so long. It is a special place that leaves its mark on you.

Petra was built in 3rd century, carved into the cliffs of the gorge that surround it. It was built to be impressive: to show of the richness of the Nabataeans who lived there, and it still holds so much magic and majesty. It is a long walk down the Siq (the crack in the gorge) from the entrance to the Treasury, but that just adds to the excitement of when you first see it. It appears just as a slither through the gap in the rocks and is unforgettable.

Once you can tear yourself away from the Treasury, the rest of the ancient city opens itself up to you. We spent a full day exploring and didn’t manage to see everything so be sure to have plenty of time dedicated to it in your itinerary.

For me, the most spectacular part was the Monastery which is an interesting trek to get to. You climb a stair case, cut into the rock, which can be challenging at times. Also beware of the donkeys that have a tendency, once they have carried people to the top, to charge back down. It all adds to the excitement of when you get up there. Once at the top grab a hibiscus tea from the little stall and sit and look out. There are a couple of places all touting ‘the best views in the world’ and I’m not inclined to disagree with them.

I hope you have a fantastic trip to Jordan, one the friendliest and most fascinating countries I have visited, and come home with memories to last you a lifetime.

Book Review: Leonard and Hungry Paul, by Rónán Hession

What kind of things do they usually ask? I’ve never had an interview before…’

In general, they usually like to know if you’re a born leader, a visionary and a can-do sort of person.’

I suppose there are probably lots of things I could do if were to try them, but generally I don’t try them, so maybe I’m more of a could-don’t person?’

Leonard and Hungry Paul

Leonard and Hungry Paul are two men who live quiet and solitary lives of family routines and board games. Leonard, who has just lost his mum, works writing encyclopaedias but does not recognised for his talent. Hungry Paul lives at home with his parents, picking up shifts with the Post Office when he can, but otherwise enjoying his own world and company.

The book is full of beautiful, and often humorous, observations of ordinary people in normal situations. One of my favourite descriptions of Hungry Paul, for example, was that he “lived on a knife edge between a passion for board games and an aversion to instruction booklets” which made me chuckle. I also think Hession so wonderfully captured Leonard’s childhood with his mother, in the following:

His mother understood with intuitive good sense that children like Leonard just need someone to listen to them. They would set off to the shops discussing conger eels and have a deep conversation about Saturn’s moons on the way back; they would talk about tidal waves at bath time, and say goodnight with a quick chat about the man with longest fingernails in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Leonard and Hungry Paul

The book is set in the lead up to a wedding (Grace, Hungry Paul’s sister’s wedding). From seeing my friends get married, and the full myriad of things they have had to organise for their big day, I felt there were some on-the-nose descriptions of the level of administrative skills and diary management that a wedding can require.

While the book does focus on Leonard and Hungry Paul, there are some chapters that describe the other members of Hungry Paul’s family. His mum and dad and their competitiveness over University Challenge, for example, but I also enjoyed the chapters about Grace and her life leading up to the wedding. It was also interesting to see the juxtaposition of Grace’s busy corporate job compared to Hungry Paul doing his own thing and how everyone chooses to live their lives differently.

At its heart Leonard and Hungry Paul is a story about friendship and family. It’s a gentle and funny book about being ordinary and what happens if you let go of trying to control everything: just be ok to just go with the flow knowing that nothing and no one needs to be fixed.

What I learned is that everyone in your life has an invisible number on their foreheads, which represents the number of times you will see them again. It might be zero or one, or it could be a thousand, but it’s a number: We don’t have unlimited time with people. I don’t mean that in a morbid way. It’s a lesson for us to appreciate people while we can.

Leonard and Hungry Paul

Leonard and Hungry Paul is published by Bluemoose Books and I just want to mention them because they are an independent publisher based in Hebden Bridge (which is in West Yorkshire, not far from me) and I do this with no sponsorship or affiliate link, just purely because I enjoy them and their books so much.

Bluemoose Books publish books that are genuinely different from the crowd. As they say, “If you’re looking for orange headed celebrity books” you’ve gone to the wrong place, “but if you want brilliant stories that have travelled from Hebden Bridge, across the border into Lancashire, down to London across to Moscow, Sofia and Budapest… India, Colombia and Greenland…” then they are the publisher for you. They have a great Twitter page full of information about their books and also what it is like to be an independent publisher. Every time I go on their website, a new book pops out at me as one that I need to add to my ‘to-be-read’ list (I’m thinking Captain Jesus next).

They also published Should We Fall Behind which was recently featured on the BBC’s Between the Covers (a programme which is also excellent and, in my opinion, should be a full hour at least to properly get into the books). So I do encourage you to go and check them out for something a little different to read and enjoy (I’ll put the link below).

As for Leonard and Hungry Paul, my suggestion is to read it in the garden on a sunny day with the birds singing in the background, a huge cup of tea, and a tub of Roses chocolates handy.

Link to Bluemoose Books: https://bluemoosebooks.com/

Helmsley: Something for Everyone

Helmsley is a small market town in North Yorkshire that has everything you need for the perfect day out or weekend trip. It has lovely restaurants, shops, a fabulous spa, as well as plenty of interesting things to go and visit including a castle and an art gallery. But be warned, Helmsley may wake up all quiet and sleepy, but by lunchtime on any sunny day it will have attracted the crowds!

The view from The Black Swan

When you arrive in Helmsley, the first thing you will see (because it’s huge) is the Feversham Monument situated in the centre of the market square. Grab an ice cream and sit on the steps of the monument to people watch. On Fridays the local street market held here if you want to pick up a souvenir from your trip.

Also, quick note, the square is the only place in Helmsley you have to pay for parking – try to get yourself on a side street or up on the cobbles up in front of Browns. Another tip is to arrive after 5pm, if you are staying the night, as many of the people who work in Helmsley will have left for the day so there will be more available spaces.

Set around the square are some of the restaurants, pubs and hotels in Helmsley: it’s small and picture-perfect. For a walking tour that allows you to see the sights, I suggest that you walk away from the monument up towards The Black Swan hotel (which has a nice beer garden out the back), go left and into the church yard. Walk through here, past all the graves and the church (anyone else like looking at names on graves?!), and leave through the gate at the back of the yard onto Canons Garth. Turn left and walk towards the Feversham Arms (where the lovely spa, including rooftop pool, can be found) and onto Church Street. Have a walk round here – the houses are lovely.

When you’re ready, make your way back down Church Street towards the direction of the square. At Claridges Book Shop you can stop a little rummage amongst the shelves. Keep going down this street which turns into Castlegate and have a pause to watch the little stream that runs down between the side of the road and the houses on the other bank.

Here you will also have a pick of tearooms and cafes for a quick rest stop and a scone.

Back out on Castlegate, as the name suggests, you are now near the atmospheric ruins of Helmsley Castle (and the tourist office) complete with deep banks where the moat once was. A bit further out past the Castle is the Helmsley Walled Garden a must-see for all those with green-fingers.

Once you’ve seen these, walk back on yourself to come back to the road for a short walk on Castlegate to find yourself at the Helmsley Brewing Company (where tours run on Wednesdays). Otherwise, come out onto Bridge Street and walk back up towards the market square. Make sure to have a look in Hunters of Helmsley, a food shop with all sorts of fantastic things on sale. Also, be sure to call in at The Oak pub for a proper pint.

As well as all the above, Helmsley also has Duncombe Park (the historic house and over 450 acres of estate belonging to the Duncombe family), the National Centre for Birds of Prey, and an art gallery. It really does offer something for everyone!

For food in Helmsley there are plenty of places to choose from but try to book in advance as it is so popular. For the fish and chip fanatics, you will love Helmsley – there’s Scott’s Fish and Chips and Deep Blue. Helmsley Spice serves up delicious curries and La Trattoria’s pizzas are divine. For breakfast try Café on the Square for very reasonably priced full Englishes or pancakes.

The Black Swan and The Feathers also have very good restaurants and, having stayed at both, they are lovely places to spend the night.

Eaten and walked your way round Helmsley but still want more? Helmsley is around an hour’s drive to Whitby or Filey for some sea and sand (I can’t promise the sun). York city centre is about a 50-minute drive for more history, art and culture. For something a bit different, head over to Yorkshire Lavender, a 25-minute drive away, to get lost in lavender mazes and stare out with a cuppa over some stunning Yorkshire scenery.

Yorkshire Lavender

Or for a lovely walk, head to the Hole of Horcum which is about a 30-minute drive away. It is a huge “natural amphitheatre” and absolutely stunning on a sunny day (or in the mist, very atmospheric). Legend has it, it was formed during an argument between Wade the Giant and his wife when he scooped up a handful of earth to throw at her. How very rude! Other people say it has just been caused over time by the rain…

The Hole of Horcum

And if you don’t fancy driving on your next adventure, Helmsley is one of the starting points for the Cleveland Way: a 109-mile walk which will take you from Helmsley Castle to the Brigg at Filey, skirting the North Yorkshire Moors.

You will be spoilt for choice on your trip so grab some comfy shoes and get on out there!

Book Review: Unsettled Ground, by Claire Fuller

The morning sky lightens, and snow falls on the cottage. It falls on the thatch, concealing the moss and the mouse damage, smoothing out the undulations, filling in the hollows and slips, melting where it touches the bricks of the chimney….

The worries of seventy years – the money, the infidelity, the small deceits – are cut away, and when she looks at her hand she can no longer tell where she ends and dog begins. They are one substance, enormous and free, as is the sofa, the stone floor, the walls, the cottage that, the snow, the sky. Everything connected.

Unsettled Ground

The book starts with a death: Dot, an elderly woman who lives in a farm cottage with her 51 year-old twins, Jeanie and Julius. Dot has brought them up away from the rest of the world; after their father died and they find out Jeanie has a heart condition, they have been kept safe within the walls of the cottage. Jeanie and Dot grow their food, sometimes selling vegetables to make some money, while Julius tries to find farm work where he can. They live an idyllic life together, with no television or mobile phones, and limited interaction with others. When Dot dies, Jeanie and Julius’ lives are turned upside down. The struggle to make ends meet becomes much harder as they soon learn that the cottage, which they believed they lived in rent-free, is owing rent to the farmer who owns it and soon they will be evicted. The more they try to find out, the more secrets they find they have to uncover. Unsettled Ground is a heart-breaking exploration of grief, family bonds, betrayal and hope.

Jeanie is past the farmhouse, cycling faster than she knows she should, the trailer rattling along behind. Anything could happen: she could fly over the handlebars or the animal in her heart might burst out, but right now she doesn’t give a monkey’s.

Unsettled Ground

When Jeanie and Julius are in the local village people look at them differently and treat them as though they are odd. Similar to one of Claire Fuller’s other novels, Our Endless Numbered Days, she explores what it is like to be different and to be on the outside of society looking in. In Our Endless Numbered Days, a young girl is taken from her family home by her father, an obsessive ‘survivalist,’ to live in a hut in the woods, telling her that the rest of the world has been destroyed and they are the only two left. In both books we run away from modern life which is shown to be so very entangling, cruel and fake. There is a moment in Unsettled Ground where Jeanie watches another character make her dinner using a jar of pasta sauce and when she suggests using fresh vegetables she is told no. Wouldn’t it be nice to leave it all behind and live a simpler existence where you grow your own food and your evening entertainment comes from your own family making music? But then we see how devastatingly hard it is. In Unsettled Ground everything is a struggle: there’s never enough money to buy the things they need, people take advantage of them, and there’s not enough work. What will they do when they lose their home and don’t have any savings or even a bank account?

When Julius gets home, again there is no tea cooking and no hot water on to boil for his wash. Jeanie is sitting in the same chair as yesterday, head down over her guitar, playing. Only (the dog) looks up to great him. This time, rather than the surge of sympathy and sorrow he felt yesterday, he has a burning irritation that she hasn’t done anything with her day while he’s been working, earning money. Why is it she hasn’t ever had a job?

Unsettled Ground

It’s a beautifully written book that slowly depicts the twins’ lives and does, at points, definitely leave you feeling unsettled. There’s also lots to think about how society treats people who don’t fit ‘the norm’ and the cruelty that can be unleashed. Claire Fuller so devastatingly describes the poverty and the harshness of the twins’ world, but hope can be found in the determination that Jeanie and Julius have to try and move forwards to stay together and look after each other.

I’m now off to track down Claire’s other two novels Blood Orange and Swimming Lessons because something tells me they are also going to be very good.  

Book Review: Silver Sparrow, by Tayari Jones

James sighed and bounced me on his lap a little bit. “What happens in my life, in my world, doesn’t have anything to do with you. You can’t tell your teacher that your daddy has another wife. You can’t tell your teacher that my name is James Witherspoon. Atlanta ain’t nothing but a country town, and everyone knows everybody.”

“Your other wife and your other girl is a secret?” I asked him.

He put me down from his lap, so we could look each other in the face. “No. You’ve got it the wrong way around. Dana, you are the one that’s a secret.”

Silver Sparrow

Silver Sparrow follows the childhoods and teenage years of half-sisters Dana and Chaurisse. Their father, James, is married to both their mothers, choosing to live publicly with one of his families and keeping the other a secret. But, the truth will always find a way to reach the surface. The sisters meet and form a friendship which results in the unravelling of all that has been hidden.

The book is split into the two narratives of Dana and Chaurisse. In the first part, Dana is looking back on her childhood and her mother Gwen’s relationship with her father. She describes how they met at the store Gwen worked at as a gift-wrapper when James comes in to buy a carving knife for his wife, Laverne, as an anniversary gift. There is a sense in the book of Dana taking her time to tell their story, there’s no rushing over small details which build up the history of her family. Like the long drags of the cigarettes Gwen smokes as she tells the story to Dana, a lot of thought goes into how it should be presented.

Dana grows up knowing about her father’s other family and understands that her needs will always come second to that of Chaurisse: if Chaurisse wants to get a part-time summer job at the same place she does, Dana will have to find a job elsewhere. Gwen has worked hard trying to build a better life for her daughter, and trying to ensure that Dana gets the same opportunities as Chaurisse. There are descriptions of Gwen putting cucumber in their water jugs, for example, when she knows James is coming because “a doctor’s wife had told her they serve it at day spas” to make their lives that little bit fancier compared to the other family he goes home to.

They are fascinated by James’ other family and they see Chaurisse and her mother as getting whatever they wish for. When Dana finally meets Chaurisse she is full of questions about their father and the mundanity of their lives, such as where he sits at the dinner table and how often Laverne cooks.

It matters what you call things. Surveil was my mother’s word. If he knew, James would probably say spy, but that is too sinister. We didn’t do damage to anyone but ourselves as we trailed Chaurisse and Laverne while they wound their way through their easy lives.

Silver Sparrow

What we learn when the narrative changes to Chaurisse’s voice for the second part of the book, is that their lives are just as tough. For Chaurisse, her parents were married when Laverne was only fourteen years old:

This mess came as a consequence of her cousin Diane falling in love with Uncle Raleigh… So Mama went along with her cousin after school, and when her cousin disappeared with Uncle Raleigh, Mama was by herself with Daddy. This whole situation was just a matter of who was sitting next to who, when. Next thing Mama knew, there was a baby growing inside here and the was nothing that anyone could do about it.

Silver Sparrow

Laverne had to leave home and move in with two boys who were only a little older (James and Raleigh, a brother-like friend and business partner) and learn how to be a wife. In her narrative, Chaurisse describes Laverne having to stop her schooling and her favourite teacher commenting what a waste it was that she was pregnant. Laverne has also worked hard doing people’s hair, building up her business to make something of herself.

The book explores the tender teenage years when childhood innocence is lost and the girls start to realise that things might not all be as they seem. Dana tries to push the boundaries with her parents and Chaurisse worries about not fitting in with the other girls at her school. Both sisters are united in their loneliness and sense of separation from those around them.

I recommend Silver Sparrow, especially if you enjoyed An American Marriage which I read a couple of years ago and loved. As with An American Marriage, I felt drawn in from the first page. Tayari Jones has a wonderful way of picking up on small details such the cracks in a leather couch, or the smell of freshly washed laundry, that makes the story so immersive. For such an uncomfortable subject matter, the story is a quietly powerful one as it leads towards the moment where the truth comes out.

Book Review: Writers & Lovers, by Lily King

All problems with writing and performing come from fear. Fear of exposure, fear of weakness, fear of lack of talent, fear of looking like a fool for trying, for even thinking you could write in the first place. It’s all fear. If we didn’t have fear, imagine the creativity in the world. Fear holds us back every step of the way.

Writers & Lovers

Books about the process of writing are so interesting to me (as someone who wants to write a novel but has a million and one reasons why I’d never be able to do it), and Writers & Lovers so perfectly captures the struggle of writing: how hard it can be one day to drag up the words from your soul and how they can flow through you the next. Only for you to then be crippled with self-doubt that every word you have written is rubbish, of course.

The hardest thing about writing is getting in every day, breaking through the membrane. The second-hardest thing is getting out. Sometimes I sink down too deep and come up too fast. Afterward I feel wide open and skinless. The whole world feels moist and pliable. When I get up from the desk I straighten the edges of everything. The rug needs to be perfectly aligned with the floorboards. My toothbrush needs to be perpendicular to the edge of the shelf. Clothing cannot be left inside out. My mother’s sapphire ring needs to be centred on my finger.

Writers & Lovers

The story is about Casey who is, by day (and evening) a waitress, but all she wants in life is to be a writer. She struggles putting pen to paper because she feels like a failure, an imposter, a fraud. For Casey, summoning up her writing it’s a kind of painful ecstasy.

The blurbs on the book cover, from the Sunday Times for example, describe the book as “extremely funny” but I disagree – it’s painful to read and made my nervous system jangle. Casey’s descriptions of anxiety and panic, feeling like bees under her skin, and her observations of just how hard life can be, are so brutally honest:

All I want is to write fiction. I am a drain on the system, dragging around my debts and dreams…

I can’t go inside until I slow down. My heart and mind feel like they are in a race to the death. I watch my breath. I squeeze my muscles one by one…

I go inside and lie on my futon and wait to explode.

Writers & Lovers

In fact, I would tear up the blurb on the book (apart from the review from the Guardian which describes it as “a kind of gorgeous agony” which I wholeheartedly agree with). But the others, which make it sound like a cheeky little comedy about a woman falling in and out of love with two men and who also happens to be writing a book, don’t do it justice.

Writers & Lovers is about what it takes to write a book, the fear that drives an author and lives in every sentence. It’s about a young woman trying to find her place in the world, about overcoming the shit that life has tried to drag her down with. It’s about creativity being stifled by the need to pay the bills. It’s about talent and dedication, and passion for the art of story-telling. Maybe I took the book too seriously. As someone who often feels like a fraud admitting they want to be a writer, I didn’t see it as hilarious but as an accurate reflection of how hard it is to be creative in a world where so much pressure is put on how much you get paid.

That might all be a bit over zealous. There are a few comic moments. At one point, for example, Casey leaves her manuscript at a friend’s to read and she worries it might be picked up by a neighbour who will read it and then publish it to great success under their name. She imagines she having to go to court with her scraps of notes to win her book back. I’ve definitely thought this when emailing bits of writing to friends – what if it gets lost on the internet and someone else passes it off as their own.

And there happens to be male love interests in the book too: Oscar and Silas. One is a famous author and the other is trying to become one. I loved all the comments in the book about writers and how they present themselves. There is a scene where Casey it is at a party at her friend’s house and a recently published author called Eva is there. Casey comments how Eva seems to have changed since her book was published:

I met Eva six years ago, when she was working on the collection. They aren’t stories, she told me, they’re hard little polyps I’m training to remove from my brain. She was sort of ablaze with a lot of nervous energy then. All the stuffing seems to have gone out of her since. She looks embarrassed, sitting on that stool, to be who she is now.

Writers & Lovers

Casey has also recently lost her mother who went on a holiday to Chile and died while she was there. Memories of her mother intermingle in the story as little things pop up and remind Casey of her; “My mother used to bring me here when I was little,” she comments at one point, “She’d let me borrow a hard leather purse from her closet, and I’d wear it the way she wore hers.’ I tuck a pretend purse under my arm.” Or when she is playing the card game crazy eights with Oscar’s children, who have also lost their mum, she quietly remembers “my mother taught it to me when I had chicken pox in kindergarten. I made her play for days.” These surprise moments of grief which are constant reminders of her loss pepper throughout the book.

I was reading my mum’s copy of the book. It was a story that has she said she’d loved. When it came to an end, she told me as she passed it on, she had been left wanting to know more as she had grown so fond of the characters and she genuinely cared about them. As I was reading the book, I was aware of the spine that had been bent and broken, the way my mum does when she is reading, the way I’ve noticed I’ve also started to do too.

There were moments in the novel when I really did wonder how Casey was going to be ok: the horrible job as a waitress with the rotten men, the shed she lives in that smells of mould and soil, the struggles of writing. But there was so much resilience in Casey (as I think there is in a lot of artists I admire), and that internal deep-driven need to create that kept me turning the pages. I highly recommend this book to any writer or anyone interested in the process of writing, as well as anyone who just enjoys a well told story of modern life and the struggle to be creative.

Laos and Parts Unknown

As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small.

And in return, life – and travel – leaves marks on you. Travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering in the unknown.

Anthony Bourdain

Like a lot of people, I imagine in this pandemic, I have taken solace in the words of Anthony Bourdain. I am slowly making my way through Parts Unknown on Netflix. And I mean, really taking my time. Sometimes I immediately go back to the start of an episode to re-watch it so that I can fully soak in all the goodness. His knowledge and ability to talk so eloquently about his experiences, the places he visits – I just want to go to each and every one of them. Maybe not eat all the things he does, I’m not sure how I feel about anything with brain or tongue in it.

I recently watched the Season 9 episode filmed Laos in 2017. I went to Laos in 2016 and the episode brought back so many memories of the food and the absolutely beautiful landscape but it also taught me so much that, I’m ashamed to say, completely washed over me while I was there.

I remember Laos as an adventure holiday. I arrived after being in Vietnam which had been unseasonably cold and wet, I didn’t have any warm weather things packed, and ended up with a fearsome cold. So the minute I stepped off the plane in Vientiane, the first thing to hit me was the humidity. I loved Vientiane – it was so bright, and steeped in colours of reds and golds.

Pha That Luang

I then went on to Vang Vieng with a group where we went tubing and caving and it was good fun! I remember jumping off cliffs into cold water and bobbing along in a big rubber ring. It felt like endless days of sunny adventures and fun, followed by evenings of card games over beers. We went hiking up hills to watch sunsets and try and find the sources of waterfalls. In Luang Prabang, we visited the Kuang Si falls, which are the most gorgeous shade of turquoise and blue, and saw the bears.

The thing I remember the most about Laos was sailing for two days on the Mekong River aboard a houseboat. We were constantly surrounded by the lushest vegetation on the river banks as our narrow boat pootled along down the river. I had also managed to pick up a paperback of an old John Grisham from one of the hotels (my first new book in a while) and I was so happy sat in the sun reading and watching the world go by.

Watching Parts Unknown, I learnt about Laos’ history. Looking at it on a map, Laos is a small country surrounded by China and Myanmar to the north, Cambodia in the south, Thailand to the west with the Mekong river, and Vietnam on the east. When the Cold War was raging, Laos was also in the midst of a civil war between the Pathet Lao communist group (who were largely dependent on Vietnamese aid), and the Royal Lao government.

The US supported the Royal Lao Government as part of their war against Communism and spent nine years bombing Laos in the ‘Secret War’ trying to disrupt communist supply routes – the Ho Chi Minh trail being key for the Vietcong and North Vietnamese ran along Laos’ eastern border. Eisenhower commented if Laos was lost to communism “the rest of Southeast Asia would follow.”

The Secret War resulted in Laos becoming the most heavily bombed country (per head of population) in the history of warfare. As Bourdain comments in the episode, more high explosives were dropped on Laos than on Germany and Japan combined during all of World War II. After ten years of bombing, the Pathet Lao came to power establishing the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR).

The Secret War left behind a devastating impact that is still affecting the country today. The cluster bombs, or bombies, that were used had an estimated 30% failure rate in perfect conditions. Around 78 million of the bombies dropped on Laos failed to explode and many are still in the ground today. As a result, Lao PDR has the highest rate of post-conflict cluster munitions casualties than anywhere else in the world. Children pick them up and play with them. A very moving moment in the episode shows UXO (unexploded ordnance) workers with metal detectors slowly moving through the fields trying to pick up the beeps that signal an unexploded bomb. At one point, the beeps go off and a woman slowly kneels down and begins to scrape away at the soil with a trowel. Bourdain and the crew then get the chance to safely detonate it.

I remember Laos being fun, friendly and vibrant. I remember it being beautiful, even their public restrooms have some of the most spectacular views in the world (the picture below was taken in one of the stalls).

Loo with a view

Like in Parts Unknown, I got up before dawn to give alms to the Buddhist monks. This is where the monks walk through the street before the sun comes up with their alms bowls and receive food donations, such as sticky rice, as they walk. It is just a truly unforgettable and beautiful place, like no other.

To write this post, I used the following resources:

https://explorepartsunknown.com/destination/laos/

https://www.history.com/news/laos-most-bombed-country-vietnam-war

https://voxeu.org/article/devastating-legacy-secret-war-laos

Edinburgh: Fringe and Blossom

It was August 2013. The now disgraced ‘Blurred Lines’ had been number one in the charts for what felt like a decade and I was in the back of the car, stuffed in by my belongings, on the way to Edinburgh to start my Masters in American History.

As I watched my parents drive away, I remember thinking ‘ok, what now?’ I was in a brand new city feeling nervous, excited, and like I had a stomach full of demented butterflies. That buzzing feeling we enjoy as travellers when we find ourselves somewhere new!

I decided to walk through the city to get to know my new surroundings. I was renting a room in a tenement flat in Marchmont which is about a twenty-minute walk from the heart of Edinburgh. And what a gorgeous twenty-minute walk. Just for anyone wondering, a tenement building is a huge, beautiful building made of bright stone; they tend to come in a row and look simply stunning in all weather. They can be three or four (or sometimes even more) storeys high, each floor its own flat, and they often have great big windows that let in lots of light. I remember ours had a big bay window in the lounge that you could see the castle from. Looking back, I was so lucky to have been able to find such a nice place to rent a room in.

The bright red door that led to my flat

I decided to walk through the city to get to know my new surroundings. I walked up and down the main streets, through snickets, round hidden corners, and up so many sets of stairs, trying to learn how everywhere linked up. I just followed my feet and they led me to Regent Road and the base of Calton Hill. I climbed up the steps with no idea what to expect when I reached the top.

Calton Hill is a spectacular collection of monuments sat in the middle of Edinburgh. You can see little sneak peeks of stone from the main road, just popping up from behind the trees, and you’ll be so intrigued that you’ll find the little slip of a path that takes you up (a fair few) stairs to the top of the hill. There it opens up and you’ll find Nelson’s Monument, which you can climb up if you haven’t had enough stairs, the National Monument, which you would think has come straight out of Athens, and the City Observatory. Beyond that is a stunning view of the whole city (if you’re there on a clear day), and it is truly beautiful. On that day, I stood there and felt on top of the world, ready to take on my studies and conquer my nerves. 

I arrived at the start of August with no real clue about the Fringe festival or the sheer scale of it. Like a complete novice I wandered around the city in the first month, watching the street performers and singing groups the full way up the Royal Mile, and it felt as though everyone wanted to give you a flyer. The city was heaving with people and full of excitement, every inch of it covered in posters with the barmiest designs.

I felt like I became a comedy connoisseur during my first time at the Fringe: if I heard a show was good, I would try and get myself there. I saw so many acts in the most random of locations from cellars, to lecture theatres to graduation halls. I saw performers who I’d never heard of before who then became household names like Luisa Omeilan, Aisling Bea, Sara Pascoe and Romesh Ranganathan. I became an expert at finding the small alleyways to decrease my travel time between venues. I saw comedy shows, plays, podcast recordings. Being alone meant I could I always find a single seat close to the front to slip into. In that first month I spent the majority of my money and developed a horrible cold, but it was exhilarating.

I was lucky that two Fringe festivals book ended my time in Edinburgh. It is one of the greatest festivals on earth and an experience that I thoroughly recommend.

Oh, the plans I had to explore Edinburgh and Scotland whilst I was studying. I had envisioned trips to the highlands to stay in remote cottages and write essays overlooking lochs and mountains. Nights in B&Bs, getting up early to go on long hikes in the great outdoors to get inspiration. In the end I never really got the chance to open the Rough Guide to Scotland that I resolutely carried round in my backpack until it became dog-eared at the corners. I actually spent most of my time in my room, nose to book, questioning my own intelligence. It was years later when I went to Glasgow to visit a School friend that I booked myself on buses up and down the country to see all the lochs, castles and hills that I could.

One thing I never tired of, no matter the pressure I felt when I was studying in Edinburgh, was the walk from my flat to the University. Each morning that I stepped out of the flat, went down the three flights of stone steps and out of the huge red door, I would come out at the top of a hill overlooking the Meadows. I would set off down the hill past the other tall tenement houses with their brightly coloured doors and neat privet hedges, down and down over the cobbles. The Meadows is, as it says on tin, a grassy area, and one of my favourite spots to read in Edinburgh when the sun’s out. It is full of trees covered in pink candyfloss blossom in Spring and drunk students having bbqs in Summer. Edinburgh was the city that looked after me.

So, what to do for a weekend in Edinburgh? If the weather looks cold and/or rainy, good footwear is a priority! Have a good walk around the city and go up Calton Hill for my favourite view. The Royal Mile which has the castle at one end (which does great free tours), and the Palace of Holyrood (great giftshop) and the Scottish Parliament building at the other (which also has a really interesting tour). My boyfriend and I climbed up Arthur’s Seat the last time we visited Edinburgh having been assured it was an “easy” walk. We nearly died, but we had had a late night at the Fringe the night before…. Great for views from the top though and an all round sense of achievement. Also: good hangover cure.

After all the walking it’s time for cake in cafes to warm up – the Scottish Café in the Scottish National Gallery always has a great selection of hot drinks and cakes with a lovely view over Princes Street gardens. Dough on Rose Street does fabulously delicious pizza. Hadrian’s Brasserie in the Balmoral Hotel is also a lovely place to eat, for something a little fancier. In Marchmont, there is a fantastic café called Toast that does the best breakfasts.

My other hint is to book a hotel in Haymarket, it’s sometime a little cheaper and not that much of a walk to the main city centre.

Outside of Edinburgh, Glasgow is a fantastic city to visit with so many museums to wander round (the Kelvingrove is gorgeous), also the botanical gardens are lovely to sit in and have a coffee. I also used it as a base to travel to Loch Lomond and Luss, and Loch Ness. I used Discover Scotland Tours – the guides were all friendly and they fit a lot into a day’s travelling. Through them I also saw a very damp Glencoe (well, I saw a lot of mist, but I really got the atmosphere of the place!) and Stirling Castle.  

Glencoe through the fog

There’s still so many places I want to visit in Scotland including the Isles of Mull, Iona and Skye. One day… Any recommendations for these places? Let me know!