October Round-Up: What I read this month

In this week’s edition of ‘books by the fireplace’ as I am now calling it, I’m looking back on some of my favourite reads from October and looking ahead to what is on my TBR list for November.

Matrix, by Lauren Groff

I found this book difficult to get into at the start because it all just looks so bleak for our protagonist, Marie. Banished from Queen Eleanor’s court, where she never really fit in due to her looks and background, to live out her days as prioress of a royal Abbey. Its 1158 and everything is cold and damp and miserable. The other nuns don’t know what to make of her and she longs to be back with Eleanor but, as time goes on, a determination and ambition develops in Marie, and soon she brings the abbey back to such a state of wealth that even Eleanor has to notice what is going on.

Eleanor laughed at Marie’s refusal of her favour, mocked her. But but but. Did Marie truly think she would one day be married off? She, a rustic gallowbird? Three heads too tall, with her great rough stomping about, with her terrible deep voice, her massive hands and her disputations and her sword practicing? What spouse would ever accept Marie, a creature absent of beauty or even the smallest of feminine arts? No, no, this was better, it had long ago been decided, back in the autumn, and her entire family agreed. Marie knew how to run a large estate, she could write in four languages, she could keep account books.… Which was, of course, to say that the abbey where Marie would be installed as prioress was so poor they happened just now to be starving to death, alas. They had fallen out of Eleanor’s pleasure some years earlier and had suffered grave poverty ever since.

Matrix, by Lauren Groff

So, worth sticking through all the freezing nights in the abbey, the diseased nuns and dead birds at the start.

The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

This was a truly engrossing thriller that started off slow, each day an age, and then gathered up speed as we begin to realise the danger that the two main characters are hurtling towards.

Set in the early 1600s on a remote island in Norway, where all the adult men are killed at once in a freak storm as they are out fishing, the women left have to learn how to live with their grief and survive in the harshest of environments. But, news of their island has spread and the King sends a new Commissioner to the women to seek out any evil that may be lurking among them.

As she watches, a final flash of lightning illuminates the hatefully still sea, and from its blackness rise oars and rudders and a full mast with gently stowed sails, like underwater forests uprooted. Of their men, there is no sign.

It is Christmas Eve.

The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

This is one of those books where just have to sit back and praise the author for coming up with such an incredibly detailed plot and then have written it so beautifully.

The Lonely Fajita, by Abigail Mann

This book was a joy to read from start to finish. Simple, easy-going and completely heart-warming: I recommend this to anyone who needs a little boost of happiness.

Elissa’s life is falling apart: she has a rubbish job working for a creepy boss, her boyfriend has just told her she needs to move out of their flat share and her bank account is empty. She applies to join the ElderCare Companionship Scheme, asking volunteers to move in with elderly members of the community to offer them friendship and help in the home. When she moves in with Annie, Elissa finds herself exactly where she needs to be.

‘When he went away, I didn’t miss him. Not really. I missed rolling into the warm spot he left behind in the bed each morning, and falling asleep to a film on Sunday afternoons, and eating fajitas together.’ My throat gets prickly and I have a lukewarm sip of coffee…. ‘Suki, there’s nothing sadder than constructing a fajita on your own.’

The Lonely Fajita, by Abigail Mann

A Slow Fire Burning, by Paula Hawkins

Another great thriller by Paula Hawkins who also wrote The Girl on the Train. Her books are always engrossing, surprising, and contain a slew of deeply untrustworthy characters we don’t know if we should pity, dislike or distrust. A Slow Fire Burning is no different.

A man is found dead on a houseboat in London. A woman, who the police believe has a motive to do it, leaves the scene of the crime with blood on her clothes. But, was she the killer?

As with The Girl on the Train, the story is told through multiple narratives which are expertly intertwined giving away snippets of what may or may not have happened, as years of grief, anger and loneliness come to the surface.

‘Laura.’ She could hear Egg’s voice, concerned, reprimanding. ‘Laura, come on, don’t do this…’ But she wanted to do this, she wanted to fight. She wanted them to grab her, to throw her to the ground, to knock her out. She wanted oblivion.

A Slow Fire Burning, by Paula Hawkins

The Glass Woman, by Caroline Lea

Set in Iceland in 1686, Rósa leaves her home village to join her new husband Jón in Stykkishólmur. But when she arrives in her new village, Rósa finds the inhabitants wary of her and Jón who’s first wife, she discovers, died suddenly in the night. To further suspicions, he buried her, alone, before anyone else could see the body.

The more Rósa tries to get to know her new neighbours, the more Jón tries to force her stay within the walls of their home. Except, when he is out for the day farming the land or fishing, she is certain she can hear strange noises coming from the loft above her bedroom.

The day the earth shifts, a body emerges from the belly of the ice-crusted sea. Bone-white fingers waving, as if alive.

The Glass Woman, by Caroline Lea

This book has been sat on my shelves for a while and I’m so glad that I finally got round to picking it up. It was perfect for this time of year with just the right amount of spookiness.

The Vanishing Year, by Kate Moretti

It’s not in the photo, but I managed to sneak one more book in before the end of October: The Vanishing Year, which turned out to be a real page-turner! Following her mother’s death and falling in with a criminal gang, Hilary runs away from San Francisco to New York to take up an entirely new life. Newly married and going by the name Zoe, she tries to forget her past life, but it keeps threatening to re-appear. Who can she go to for help? Her husband, Henry, does not know about her life before him and he has his own trauma to deal with. But, as Zoe begins to realise, is he protecting her from it or is he part of the problem?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, gulping it down in twenty-four hours because I wanted to know what was going to happen to Zoe. I actually manged to guess the twist, which is rare for me, but didn’t it dampen the big reveal. This is perfect for those who like twisty thrillers where you don’t know who is telling the truth and who is lying.

We have been married nearly a year and have the rest of our lives to “complicate things.” I think about couples who giggle and share their pasts, their childhood memories and lost loves. Henry thinks all these conversations are unnecessary, trivial. He is the kind of person whose life travels a straight path, his head filled with to-do lists and goals. Meandering is for slackers and dreamers.

The Vanishing Year, by Kate Moretti

Next up, what I am hoping to read in November:

Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout

Rainbirds, by Clarissa Goenawan

How to Kill Your Family, by Bella Mackie

What have you read and enjoyed this month? What else should I add to my ‘Up next’ list?

The perfect twisty thriller for the end of October

Book review: The Vanishing Year, by Kate Moretti. Published in 2016 by Titan Books.

He smelled nice. Like soap and aftershave. He wore a wedding ring. I wondered if his wife was as young as him. Perhaps pregnant with their first child, round and glowing… He probably rubbed her tired feet at night, massaged cocoa butter into her belly. She surely had many pairs of jeans that fit her and that she washed in a machine, swirling with fresh Tide and fabric softener. She’d never done heroin. Or sold drugs in the presence of children.

The Vanishing Year

Where to start when trying to summarise the plot of The Vanishing Year without giving anything away… I feel like this is going to be a struggle!

Hilary’s adoptive mother, Evelyn, has just died and she needs to cover the cost of the funeral and burial; she seeks help from Evelyn’s off-and-on partner Mick. With him, Hilary quickly plunges into San Francisco’s dark world of drugs and violence, and her life as a college student with a happy future ahead of her quickly disappears. When she sees the chance to escape; she takes it.

The plot then fast forwards to her new life in New York, where she is now going by the name Zoe, married to wealthy banker, Henry. She suddenly has a life full of luxury away from all the poverty and hardship, but Zoe can’t stop thinking about her biological and adoptive mothers, and the life she left behind.

Both she and Henry have pasts they don’t talk about, choosing instead to live in a present-moment bubble, but when Zoe’s past starts to catch up with her new life, she has to decide who she can turn to for help.

When I emerge into the hallway, he gasps. If there is a script for this movie, this moment in my life, it would have been written exactly as it played out. My heart hammers and my hands shake and I know in that instant, like the sappiest of romance movies, that this man will change my life.

The Vanishing Year

This is a thriller that will keep you up at night to find out what happens next. The pace is relentless from the drug-fuelled streets of San Francisco to the penthouses and charity galas in New York, I felt Zoe was a believable and compelling protagonist. The sense of danger is ever-present as she finds herself increasingly isolated and scared, trying to work out who she can trust.

I’m thirty years old and I’m not familiar with contemporary pop music. Lydia would be appalled. Our apartment in Hoboken was never quiet, always bursting with underground punk, hard-core rock, and then sometimes just blasting the latest Pink song. Lydia lived her life in music. Loud, harsh, thrumming beats for Saturdays and soft jazz for Sunday hangovers. The past year of my life has been outlined in shades of silence.  

The Vanishing Year

For once I did actually guess the twist of this novel (and yes, I am proud of myself), but it didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the book. I thought it was packed full of intricate details and a serious amount of threatening energy. Good for anyone who enjoys a twisty thriller where you don’t know who to trust.

A day out at the theatre: what I thought of The Mirror and The Light

In a Luggage & Scribble first, today I am writing about going to the theatre! I recently travelled to London to watch Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light at the Gielgud Theatre. This is the third in a trilogy of books and plays based on the life of Thomas Cromwell.

I have written this post to cover who Cromwell was, as he had such an interesting life, what the play was like and also how I found being in London and at the theatre again after such a long time away from it. Let me know if the comments if you have seen this play or have any theatre recommendations for me!

First things first, who was Thomas Cromwell and what is The Mirror and The Light ?

Briefly, The Mirror and The Light is the third in a trilogy of stories written by Mantel that focus on the life and times of one of the most powerful men in Tudor England (and, arguably, in British history). You may not have heard of him, but you will have heard of Henry VIII: Thomas Cromwell was his right-hand man… right up until Henry had him executed for treason.   

The story of Cromwell is a fascinating one: he rose from rough and humble beginnings and climbed up the court’s hierarchy at a time when the right to do so was seen as God-given. In the first two parts of the trilogy, the first being Wolf Hall and the second Bring Up the Bodies, we see Cromwell’s rise to power and notoriety. In The Mirror and The Light, we see his downfall.

If you remember the old rhyme ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived’ then Cromwell was hugely involved in the first four of those fates. Cromwell helped Henry get his divorce to Catherine of Aragon when England split from the Pope and Catholicism during the English Reformation. This also meant Henry could marry Anne Boleyn, who Cromwell supported at first, but then helped engineered her execution. He was by Henry’s side during his marriage to Jane Seymour and set up the subsequent marriage to Anne of Cleves following Jane’s death. This marriage would then prove to be the death of him.

I wonder, what Thomas Cromwell would make of the level of fame he has now reached. I think, thanks to Mantel, we have grown quite fond of him; he’s almost as well known to us now as Henry and his wives. From his start in life as the “ruffian” son of a blacksmith, Cromwell has now reached infamy thanks to the books and the plays that they have been adapted into. But, what would he think of how he has been portrayed?

The Play

The play starts at the end: with Cromwell being unceremoniously dumped in his cell in the Tower of London. Here he is taunted by his enemies who have been biding their time to bring him down. They ask him about his loyalty to King Henry VIII and about incidents that have apparently called this into question. Cromwell remains tight lipped assuring them of the punishments he will met out once he is reinstated in his role. The play quickly flashes back, to Henry’s marriage to Jane, and from there we watch Cromwell’s demise unfold.

In the play he comes across as a family man, his love for his sons ever present and their safety his greatest concern. He also comes across as pragmatic to the end; Ben Miles, the actor playing him, scanning the stage whenever he enters, jaw clenched and fight-mode ready. He does not seem to relax. Although, how could you in Henry VIII’s court? and I suppose you would be tense awaiting your fate in the Tower of London!

Even though I knew going in what the outcome would be, I found I still had a small hope flickering that he would be reprieved: “I am a merciful king…” says Henry, before agreeing that Cromwell may be beheaded rather than the more gruesome death of being hung, drawn and quartered.

And then, it’s all over. A quick end after a long build up and it leaves no real time for wallowing or feeling sentimental for a man that we have all grown to know so well. A man who obviously had such a big impact on British history, struck down by a monarch susceptible to his whims. It is said he regretted the decision of signing Cromwell’s death within a month of it happening. 

Did I enjoy the play?

Once I worked out who all the different characters were (a few of the male actors did look very similar), I was completely absorbed by it and both parts flew by. I also thought the use of the scenery and lighting was very effective – there was one moment where Henry was lit with a warm orange light, to make it look like he was stood in front of a roaring fire to confess his feelings, that was very dramatic. Also at other times, the grey and austere setting was lit up with sudden pops of colour from the costumes such as the decadent robes worn by Anne of Cleves, or Henry’s blood-red stockings.

I thought the actors who played Cromwell and Henry (Miles and Nathaniel Parker), who have played them throughout the trilogy, were still just as excellent portraying that strange relationship between the two men.

It was a spectacle of storytelling: the kind you can only experience in a theatre. I have so missed feeling part of a collective experience as the story is told around you. The Mirror and the Light isn’t a comedy by any stretch of the imagination, but it had a few humorous moments in it and I liked hearing the wave of chuckles as it ran through the audience.

One of my other favourite things about going to see a play is watching the shadows of people moving scenery and props around in the darkness in between scenes, like a well-oiled machine: each person with their part to play.

Did I feel safe going to the theatre?

Before March 2020 I went to the theatre a lot: I love it. Dramas, comedies, musicals, dance – I would go and watch it all if I could. I like being part of an audience and there’s nothing better than good actors, good staging and good writing. I have certainly missed it.

At the Gielgud, the audience wasn’t as spread out as they were just after theatres had re-opened (I don’t think they have to be now), but it wasn’t fully booked. Getting to the bar and bathrooms at the interval was hard work; as with most theatres in London, it wasn’t built with a huge amount of space to allow people to move easily past each other. But before entering the theatre everyone had to show proof of vaccine or of a recent negative test result and I would say around half the audience wore a mask throughout the show (myself included).

What was London like?

London was quieter than usual (although still much busier in some places than anywhere else I have been since the pandemic started). Leicester Square and Covent Garden, the theatre district, obviously still drawing huge crowds of people. But other streets felt quieter and Bloomsbury felt almost deserted. As the weather was nice we didn’t get on the tube – I don’t think I would have gone on it, however, even if it had been raining. As with the theatre, I’ve missed travelling to London and I’m looking forward to getting back into going.

What are your favourite things to do and see in London? Let me know!

What to read this Autumn – Four book recommendations

It’s cold, wet and miserable out there this weekend, so get yourself tucked up under a blanket with one of these novels and enjoy escaping the world for a few hours.

A Slow Fire Burning, by Paula Hawkins

Paula Hawkins writes great thrillers. Her books are always engrossing, surprising, and contain a slew of deeply untrustworthy characters we don’t know if we should pity or dislike. A Slow Fire Burning is no different. A man is found dead on a houseboat. A woman leaves the scene of the crime with blood on her clothes but was she the killer?

The story is told through four different narratives which Hawkins expertly intertwines giving away snippets of what may be clues and what may be red herrings, as the characters of Laura, Miriam, Carla and Irene end up twisted and tangled together as years of grief, anger and loneliness come to the surface.

On her way to the bedroom, she stepped on her jacket, which she’d dropped in the hallway in her rush to get to the bathroom. She bent down and picked it up. The sleeve was torn, Daniel’s watch still in the pocket. She took the watch out, turned it over, slipped on to her wrist. The toilet paper around her forearm bloomed scarlet, her limb throbbing gently as the blood pulsed out of her. Her head swam. In the bathroom, she dropped the watch into the sink, tore off the paper, dropped the towel on the floor. Climbed back under the shower.

Using a pair of scissors to scrape beneath her fingernails, she watched the water running rosy at her feet. She closed her eyes. She listened to Daniel’s voice asking, What is wrong with you? ….and to her own. Set fire to things. Set fire. Set fire set fire set fire.

A Slow Fire Burning, by Paula Hawkins

The Glass Woman, by Caroline Lea

To be enjoyed as the days get shorter and the nights get darker, this is a ghostly and eery novel full of twists and turns. Set in Iceland in 1686, Rósa leaves her ill mother to join her new husband Jón in his home village of Stykkishólmur in the hope that he will share his riches with the family she left behind. But when she arrives in her new village, Rósa finds the inhabitants wary of her and Jón who’s first wife, she discovers, died suddenly in the night and he buried her, alone, before morning the next day.

‘May I look – briefly?’

His face is hard, as if she has asked something indecent. ‘It holds my farm papers and other private things of no interest to a woman.’

‘Pabbi taught me to read and write. Perhaps I may help you – and I have never seen a loft.’ She smiles expectantly, then turns to the ladder.

‘Stop!’

She freezes.

He scratches his dark beard, then says, more softly, ‘The Bible tells us that wives are subject to their husbands.’

The Glass Woman, Caroline Lea

This story, sprinkled through with Icelandic words and references to Sagas and mythical creatures, is perfect for the run up to Halloween.

Early Morning Riser, by Katherine Heiny

This is a warm and gentle novel guaranteed to brighten up even the soggiest of days. It follows Jane’s life after she moves to Boyne City in Michigan. There she meets Duncan and a whole host of interesting and quirky characters, such as Aggie (Duncan’s ex-wife) and her rather particular husband Gary who doesn’t eat: “eggplant, hummus, pine nuts, peppercorns, artichokes, bowtie pasta, American cheese, capers, paprika, anchovies, anything labelled ‘artisanal’, and every single member of the parsley family, including carrots.” She also meets Jimmy who works with Duncan, and who becomes a huge part of her following the death of his mother.

Duncan talked a lot. He told Jane that she should buy eggs from the farmers’ market, and that she should never order the clam chowder at Robert’s Restaurant, and that the dentist had a drinking problem but morning appointments were generally okay, and that Bradley Reed up on the corner had a tendency to watch folks with his binoculars if they left their window shades up, and that the olive burger at the Boyne River Inn couldn’t be beat…

Early Morning Riser, by Katherine Heiny

It will make you smile to read about Jane’s small town life that becomes increasingly chaotic as she tries to care for those around her and look for happiness.

Perfect for sofa days with a hot chocolate.

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Get lost in an entirely different world with this novel. Piranesi explores the great Halls of his own World determined to “travel as much of the World as (he) can in (his) lifetime;” so far he has reached the “Nine-Hundred-and-Sixtieth Hall to the West, the Eight-Hundred-and-Ninetieth Hall to the North and the Seven-Hundred-and-Sixty-Eighth Hall to the South.” On the level above him are the clouds and birds, and on the level below are the waves and tides. Piranesi lives in the World alone except for “the Other.”

When Piranesi, sensing that someone new has found there way into the Halls, starts to understand that he is in increasing danger, he goes through back old journals he has used to document his travels and searches the Halls for clues to put together what may have gone before.

And you. Who are you? Who is it that I am writing for? Are You a traveller who has cheated Tides and crossed Broken Floors and Derelict Stairs to reach these Halls? Or are You perhaps someone who inhabits my own Halls long after I am dead?

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

It is an unusual story, both unsettling and enthralling. To find out more about this book and who the real Piranesi was, here’s a link to the post I wrote about it: https://luggageandscribble.travel.blog/2021/09/07/book-review-piranesi-by-susanna-clarke/

I hope you have found something you like the sound of in this post – I would love to hear from you if you try any of these stories! What have you been reading to get you in the mood for Autumn?

If you only read one more book this year, make it this one…

The storm comes in like a finger snap. That’s how they’ll speak in the months and years after, when it stops being only an ache behind their eyes and a crushing at the base of their throats. When it finally fits into their stories. Even then, it doesn’t tell how it actually was. There are ways words fall down: they give shape too easily, carelessly. And there was no grace, no ease to what Maren saw.

The Mercies

The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, is a stunning and thoroughly engrossing story that will have you glued to it to find out what will happen next.

Maren lives on the tiny Norwegian island of Vardø. It is Christmas Eve, 1617, and all forty of the grown men in the village have gone fishing when a storm suddenly hits and they all drown. The women left ashore have to find ways to survive through their mourning in this harsh environment. Questions over why the storm occurred begin to surface: was it an act of God or did something evil summon it? Families begin to fallout and it is not long before divisions over how they should go forward start to appear.

Elsewhere in Norway, stories of an island of women begin to spread. Eighteen months pass in which the women manage to survive before a new Commissioner, Absalom Cornet, arrives. A man from Scotland, he has been highly praised for his work seeking out evil on remote islands, and he brings with him his new wife, Ursa.

Far from her home in Bergen, Ursa meets Maren and they form a deep bond of friendship as they realise the threat that Absalom poses to the women of Vardø. Threats of brutality and violence shadow every page as the women must now choose who’s side they are now on in order to stay safe. The book, which starts slowly as each day can be an age in the harsh Norwegian winter, soon escalates as it hurtles towards its shockingly violent conclusion.

The Mercies is a carefully crafted story with so much attention to detail; from the clothes they wore in the freezing cold of Vardø to the dinner parties in castles, to the food they ate, to the homes in which they dwelled, Kiran Millwood Hargrave so vividly paints a picture of what it was like to be there. Something that she describes so well, too, is the harshness of the weather and the sea, how it is a present danger there at all times. You get a real sense of the never ending darkness of winter and the cold that sinks into the bones.

Ursa often wonders what she would say to Agnete, were she here. She doesn’t have the words for the confusion of it: the way her body has become something unhomed, how she has already learnt the way to wield silence like a weapon.

She withdraws again from Captain Leifsson, though he has been nothing but kind, even giving her a pouch of aniseed. She can trust nobody with her thoughts: fearful and limited though they are. Inside her, they are safe, a locked box stronger than her father’s cherrywood gift. She needs them, every word, to herself.

The Mercies

Each of the characters are so wonderfully described, also. From Ursa’a wide-eyed surprise at the sparseness of Vardø to Maren who is weather-beaten and grief-stricken but cannot stop working in case the weather changes and all is lost once again. I learnt so much about a period in Norway I knew nothing about and the indigenous people of the Sámi who were persecuted by King Christian at that time. I thought Hargrave’s note at the end of the book was particularly interesting: “This is a story about people, and how they lived; before why and how they died became what defined them.”

If you read one more story this year, make it this one. It is shocking, brutal, but also beautiful and hypnotising.

The book that broke my reading slump: The Lonely Fajita, by Abigail Mann

I’ve been struggling with settling down and getting stuck into a book recently. Maybe it’s the effect of going back to the office for the first time since March 2020, maybe it’s my current feeling of anxiety due to the state of the world, maybe it’s all down to Mercury being in retrograde, but I just haven’t been able to sit down and get lost in a story… That is until I picked up The Lonely Fajita by Abigail Mann, chosen purely because of its title and bright turquoise and pink cover, and which filled me with joy from first glance. This was exactly the story I needed to help me escape and Elissa was exactly the character I needed to help me laugh and release some anxiety.

I’ve come to accept that I am honestly and truly terrible at my job. Like, seriously bad. Until recently, I thought I’d naturally ‘come into my own’, like one of those women who gesticulate wildly in front of a flip chart with red nails and swishy fresh hair from the blow bar. I’ve had jobs where I’ve been decidedly average, like the bakery gig I had at university (I overstuffed the baguettes), or the two bar shifts I managed at the campus club (I self-diagnosed sleep deprivation and had to quit), but never wholly incompetent. Ironically, I’m not even earning a wage at this internship and it’s where I feel most out of my depth.

The Lonely Fajita

Elissa is 26 years-old, living in London and working as an intern doing the social media for an unsuccessful dating-app called Lovr. She lives with her boyfriend in a flat along with other flatmates who leave each other post-it notes regarding the strict times the heating is allowed to be switched on so passive-aggressive in tone it made me glad to no longer have to live with other people. She has no money, no family close by, and only a couple of friends who are also busy with their own lives: Elissa is lonely and struggling. And then her boyfriend leaves to go to South-East Asia and, as he was the rent-payer, Elissa is forced to look for other accommodation.

Then Elissa sees an advert to join the ElderCare Companionship Scheme, asking volunteers to move in with elderly members of the community to offer them friendship and help in the home. She applies on the basis that it offers low-cost accommodation and Annie, her new companion, soon proves to be far from the dodderingly infirm old woman that Elissa thinks she will be.

This book is a tender but also a laugh-out-loud funny look at loneliness and finding your identity in what feels to be an already overcrowded market. I loved the story of Elissa and Annie, how good they are for each other and the influence Annie has on Elissa’s life and work. Annie even inspires a new marketing campaign from Elissa to try and get Lovr back up in the ratings.

I think the book was also an accurate portrayal of how it must be living in London sometimes when you’re struggling for money and getting nowhere in your career. It also made some timely points about how dangerous it can feel to be a woman in a big city, too.

Since then, I’d half-heartedly thought about jogging in the evenings, but as it got darker, the chance of being attacked in the park increased, so I settled for a speed-walk to the tube as my primary form of exercise…

I wriggle into my Lycra leggings, roll a pair of patterned socks down to the ankle, and twist my mass of hair into something resembling a bun with an elastic band. I stretch in the corridor (I’m not quite ready to perform a lunge in public) and bolt out of the door with one earphone in (just like the internet told me to do) so I can listen for the footsteps of a potential attacker.

The Lonely Fajita

But this is a warm, gloriously funny story that was a pleasure to sink into and read and, as I could see the number of pages left to go growing thinner towards the end of the book, I was so sad to say goodbye to these wonderful characters. I implore Abigail Mann to write a sequel because I would love to know what Annie and Elissa get up to next!

What books have you been reading recently? What do you recommend to read to get out of a reading slump?

Travelling in Scotland: What to do on a day out at Loch Ness and Fort Augustus

I had so much fun on this day out back in August driving round Loch Ness and seeing the sights close by. Even if the weather was a little overcast, the chance of seeing a monster more than made up for it.

I started the day off by travelling to Fort Augustus via Castle Eilean Donan which, if you have the chance to go and look at, is well worth seeing as it stands so proud and dramatic. Then it was on to Loch Ness.

I highly recommend going on the Loch Ness cruise to learn about what is going on in those deep dark waters (the answer is no one really knows because it is, well, so dark and so deep).  My recommendation is to sit at the back on the right-hand side of the boat so that when it turns to go back to Fort Augustus, you get a fantastic shot of the Loch going on into the distance.

Loch Ness is around 23 miles long and goes up to 240 metres deep in some parts and the water is that colour because of all the peat in there. The boat crew show you some of the sonar pictures they have taken on past cruises including some images of some very large fish (they say it’s a sturgeon, we all know what it really is) that live in its depths. Also, look out for wild goats up in the hills as you pass by.

Another fun fact is that if you were to fall in you would have approximately ten minutes before you would die due to how cold the water is.

After the cruise, I recommend lunch at the Caledonian Canal Heritage Centre mainly because when I went I sat in the conservatory behind the shop and the seats had warmed up in the sun, and after the very cold boat, it was like having a heated seat for my bum. Lovely!

After lunch take a quick walk around cute little Fort Augustus: there isn’t much to see but if you are lucky you will get to see the lock gates open for a boat. Fort Augustus is sat on the Caledonian Canal (which runs from Inverness to Fort William) and has a row of six canal locks that open and shut as when a boat needs to pass through. I was only there for an hour and saw a whole range of boats all slowly making their way down through the locks to Loch Ness.

Once you have had your fill at Fort Augustus, head off to spend the afternoon at Urquhart Castle which is very striking in its position next to Loch Ness. The ruins are evocatively sparse but you can see the Grant Tower, prison cells and remains of the Great Hall. There is over 1000 years of history to learn about here at the castle including its role in the Jacobite rising and some of the famous prisoners it has held in its depths.

Enjoy!

Malibu Rising, by Taylor Jenkins Reid: Fame and fortune, and everything going up in flames (Book Review)

The Malibu fire of 1983 started not in the dry hills but on the coastline.

It began at 28150 Cliffside Drive on Saturday, August 27 – at the home of Nina Riva – during one of the most notorious parties in Los Angeles history.

The annual party grew wildly out of control sometime around midnight.

By 7:00AM., the coastline of Malibu was engulfed in flames.

Because, just as it is in Malibu’s nature to burn, so was it in one particular person’s nature to set fire and walk away.

Malibu Rising

The book is set over one day: the lead up to the party at Nina Riva’s house. The party. A party that anyone can go to, so long as you are cool enough to know the address. But this year, the guests seem more excited about the party than the family who are hosting it. As the day progresses, we learn about each member of the family: from Nina and her collapsing marriage, to her siblings Jay, Hud and Kit, who each have their own secrets that need to be told.  

I really enjoyed getting to know the Riva family who are all complex characters with lots to tell. I also thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of being transported away to Malibu and it even made me want to get out on a surfboard to try and catch some waves (I doubt I would have any grace or poise out there but I would give it a solid effort). As the night wears on, and the party becomes more and more out of control, a sense of foreboding shadows each page and I think Taylor Jenkins Reid did such a good job of slowly but surely raising the tension as the book progresses.

One of the other things I love about Taylor Jenkins Reid’s writing is how she creates such rich backstories for each of her characters, even if they are only the book for a couple of pages. I loved learning about certain members of the party and how they ended up there. Everyone has secrets or things they are trying to overcompensate for, and some people just want to be in the centre of trouble.

The book is also interspersed with the story of how their parents, Mick and June, met. Mick swept June off her feet and promised her a life away from the restaurant her parents owned. He manages to break through and become a world-famous musician but at the cost of his marriage. It was heart-breaking to read about June and what she goes through in order to look after her children. 

The book is filled with salt air, sandy skin and losing track of time in the waves. From the first time they find a surfboard on the beach and go home dreaming about the sensations the waves gave them, the Riva kids are a family of surfers who each feel an affinity with the ocean.

June knew that her children had found a previously undiscovered part of themselves that day. She knew that childhood is made up of days magnificent and mundane. And this had been a magnificent day for them.

Malibu Rising

I always gobble up books by Taylor Jenkins Reid – they have such an addictive quality to them. This one was no different: we find out early on about the fire that starts at the party and it is a race to find out how. I also enjoyed the exploration fame and its impact, as well as the history of Malibu and finding out how it became the place it is today.

It’s the next best thing to sitting on the beach with your toes in the sand: a great book to read when it is miserable and damp and you need whisking away in your imagination.

Ariadne, by Jennifer Saint: A Story of Blood and Wine (Book Review)

I didn’t know much about men; between Minos, the Minotaur and now Cinyras, I hadn’t wanted to learn. Or so I thought, until I caught the gaze of a handsome hostage and on the strength of that glance, let the fire he ignited within me burn down everything I knew.

Ariadne

Ariadne is a Princess of Crete, daughter of Minos and Pasiphae, sister of Phaedra and Asterion (which means ‘star’ but he is more commonly known as the Minotaur). As she grows up, Ariadne hears of what happens to the mortals who displease the gods and goddesses, especially women who seem to be punished for the crimes of men. But when she sees the effect of the birth of Asterion on her mother, and the creature he grows up to be, she knows she has to betray her father and help the person who has come to free the world of the Minotaur. Theseus arrives with his club and she provides him with the assistance he needs to kill it. Ariadne then leaves Crete with Theseus, believing he is taking her home to Athens to be his wife. People who know the myth will know what happens to her next: I did not know the story and so don’t wish to say anymore because it had me gasping in surprise.

Asterion. A distant light in an infinity of darkness. A raging fire if you came too close. A guide that would lead my family on the path to immortality. A divine vengeance upon us all. I did not know then what he would become. But my mother held him and nursed him and named him and he knew us both. He was not yet the Minotaur. He was just a baby. He was my brother.

Ariadne

I know very little about Classics or Greek mythology (I always say I would love to learn more about them but then never find the time), and I was worried that I would miss names or references while I was reading Ariadne, but I didn’t and not knowing how to pronounce certain names (I’m glad no one could hear me attempt some of them!) certainly didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the book.

It is described in the blurb as a “feminist literary retelling” of the myth, and when I googled Ariadne after I had finished reading I was met with paintings of her asleep while a certain God looks on at her: she does seem to be famous for her hair. So I am glad that she has had her story told, and told so well! The book had me gripped and I experienced so many emotions reading it! The book also follows Phaedra and her life following the death of the Minotaur and her storyline was just as compelling to read.

The world felt poised, suspended in a perfect balance between night and day, and I felt as though I stood on the very cusp of something momentous. The day that this sun heralded would be the end of the life I had led so far. What it would start, I couldn’t imagine. I couldn’t pin down the fluttery dreams the wreathed around me. It would be exciting, it would be different, that I knew. But that was all.

Ariadne

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read about two strong women battling against the world. I would also recommend it to anyone who wants to be transported away from this world (although so many of the themes still ring true in modern life). I would say I recommend that it be read with a large glass (goblet?) of red wine, but I’m not so sure about that….

Sheffield with Friends and Cocktails

Being from Leeds I have always felt there is a bit of a rivalry between South and West Yorkshire and, as a result, I haven’t frequented Sheffield that often. However, my friend has recently moved there to start a Masters course at the University and so, on Saturday we piled on a train to go over and see her. I have to say I was so surprised by how much I loved Sheffield and how much fun we had.

First of all, Sheffield is very easy to get to by train and it is actually quite nice to walk around and look at! There are water features everywhere – as soon as you step out of the train station there is a wall of water to greet you, but elsewhere in the city there are water globes, water fountains, paddling pools, Perspex boxes filled to the brim that light up at night… all sorts. Also, there is so much greenery including the Winter Garden which is like a tropical arcade filled with plants.

On Saturday we were blessed with so much sunshine which complimented the outdoor market which happened to be running. With so many food stalls to choose from including wood-fired pizza, Indian street food and so many bakery stalls, as well as cocktails… There was also some unusual live entertainment including Elton John on a mobile piano shooting his way in between all the stalls.

We spent a lot of time at the festival enjoying the sun and the food (I had a fantastic cinnamon roll from a Russian Bakery stand) and later in the afternoon we went to a couple of other bars but we were spoilt for choice on where to go. It was also recommended that we go to Kommune in the evening which is like a grown up food hall with all kinds of different vendors as well as a bar and live DJ.

It was so good to see friends and so good to see somewhere new. I feel bad that this post doesn’t have many photos to go with it, but I was just having too much of a good time with my friends to stop and take many.

So, I am sorry to Sheffield for ever doubting that you had so much to offer. As the home of Alex Turner and the Arctic Monkeys, I should have always known better. I can’t wait to go back and explore some more (and take some pictures)!

The one photo I took…