Book Review: The Switch, by Beth O’Leary

Half an hour passed. That’s not an especially long time, really. You can’t watch a whole episode of Buffy in that time, or… bake a large potato. But you can totally destroy your career.

I’ve been so afraid this was coming. For over a year now I’ve been fumbling my way through work, making absent-minded slip-ups and oversights… It’s like since Carla died I’ve switched writing hand, and suddenly I’m doing everything with my left, not my right. But I’ve been trying so hard and I’ve been pushing through and I really thought I was getting there.

The Switch

Leena has a panic attack at work in her corporate London job. The stress has been building for a while following the death of her sister and the strain this has put on her relationship with her mum. Seeing that she has taken very little of her annual leave, her boss orders her to take two months of paid leave to rest.

Eileen, Leena’s grandma, lives in a quiet Yorkshire village and she is feeling stuck. Her husband has left her (and their two cats, Ant and Dec) for their dancing teacher. Eileen wants adventure, passion and romance but when she draws up a list of the age-appropriate single men in her area (including Basil the bigot) she realises that it does not look promising.

There. A complete list. I tilt my head, but it looks just as bleak from that angle as it does straight on. I have to face the truth: pickings are very slim in Hamleigh-in-Harksdale, population one hundred and sixty-eight. If I want to find love at this stage of my life, I need to be looking further afield.

The Switch

Together they come up with a plan that they will switch lives (including all electronic devices) for two months: Leena will go to Hamleigh and Eileen to London.

In Yorkshire, Leena learns that life isn’t necessarily quiet in the village as she tries to take on her grandma’s responsibilities, including the role she plays in the local Neighbourhood Watch. In London, Eileen learns just how adventurous she can be in the big city.

Beth O’Leary’s book The Flatshare got me through Lockdown 1 with its loveliness. The Switch is just as charming but manages to not be overly sweet. Beth cuts through the sugariness with themes of domestic violence, grief and loneliness, that all run through the book. It is a reminder about the role that community can play in looking after one another. It also shows that it is not just in big cities like London that older people can feel cut off from modern life through no fault of their own.

It’s also very funny: Leena is the victim of a few comical escapades in Hamleigh and Eileen has a very dry commentary on what she witnesses in London. As with The Flatshare, there are also some great side characters who bring a lot of comedy to the story.

This is a very enjoyable read – I recommend that it be gulped down with a couple of glasses of wine whilst commenting on the height of your neighbour’s hedge.

York (Part 1?)

York is absolutely jam packed full of brilliant places to eat, fun things to do and see. In this post I have picked three of my favourite places to eat, get a drink, and go see. Now there are hundreds, if not thousands, of places to eat and see in York so I know this list is very short. But who knows, maybe there will be a Part 2 with more recommendations coming soon….

3 Places to Drink:

One of my favourite ‘facts’ about York (which I absolutely cannot verify but have no reason to doubt from walking round the place) is that there are 365 pubs – one for every day of the year. I have barely scratched the surface when it comes to where to get a drink in York, however, these are three places where you can’t go wrong:

The Market Cat

First of all this place has a prime location near the Shambles (see more about that below) and market. It is excellent for looking out through the big windows to watch all the hustle and bustle. It’s a lovely place inside and they have plenty on offer in terms of beer and gin as well as a pizza menu. The photo below also showcases the best place to get donuts from in York: Doe Bakehouse full of creative and often surprising creations. Get ready for a sugar coma.

SPARK:York

I first went here for a friend’s birthday and I’m so very sad I didn’t take any photos of it as it’s a unique looking place made out of shipping containers. It’s got a great atmosphere with plenty of places to sit and drink. There’s also a strong sense of community running through it as it creatively promotes local businesses. Well worth checking it out.

Kennedy’s Bar

Now this is an old favourite of mine mainly because they do two cocktails for £12 (good by York standard) and they are always delicious. At the moment you can get a table out on the cobbles which is great for people watching.

3 Places to Eat:

Again, York has a plethora of really tiptop restaurants and so it was hard to pick just three but here are some of my favourites:

Lucia’s

Just really good Italian food. It is in an excellent location, tucked neatly down a street not far from the Minster and Shambles, and you can sit outside (under the heaters) and almost believe you are on a piazza in Italy. I always get the fish just because they cook it so well.

The Star Inn the City

If you’ve heard of Andrew Pern, the Michelin-starred chef, you probably know this place. It serves excellent food in a beautiful, very classy restaurant. It is just down from Minster Gardens and overlooking the river: you can even sit out on the decking and watch the boats go by. The menu changes according to the seasons but the Sunday roast is always good (huge Yorkshire puddings), as are the desserts.

The Rattle Owl

Located on Micklegate, not far from the train station. It takes up the entire three floors of its building, with the top floor feeling very snug and intimate. Again, it’s great for a Sunday roast (even if I do wish you got a couple more roast potatoes with it!) and local beers.

3 Place to See:

Bettys Tea Room

Bettys is a Northern institution and does the most exquisite Afternoon Teas: gorgeous and delicious cakes galore. I did think about putting this down as a place to eat, but really you just need to and pop into the takeaway shop and see all the cakes and chocolates for sale. I recommend you buy a ‘fat rascal’ (kind of like a scone, but better) and take it to the next place for your own little picnic.

Museum Gardens

This little patch of greenery is heaven and a lovely place to sit in the sun, read a book and have a slice of cake. It is a registered botanical garden that looks so well taken care of – there are winding paths through it and even an edible garden. It is also the home of the Yorkshire Museum with some interesting Roman exhibits (well, you are in York!). Often there are things going on at the Gardens during holidays and weekends, for example, birds of prey shows where you can learn about and hold the birds.

You can walk through the gardens to the back of the York Art Gallery (last time I was here it was a heat wave and all the children were playing in the fountain out front), and from here you are not far from the Minster which is, of course, well worth a look for its size and all that stained glass.

Shambles

This is one of the best preserved medieval shopping streets in Europe and it is very striking to look at. It gets busy! Arrive early if you want a picture without anyone else there. On there you will find the Earl Grey Tea Rooms (one of my favourite places for a scone), and the Shambles Kitchen which does really good sandwiches. The Shambles is also a good place to find a York souvenir as there are lots of independent shops.

Still lots to see and write about, as I say: keep your eyes peeled for Part 2!

The North-Norfolk Coastline

All this sunshine has got me thinking about going to the beach. The Norfolk coast is one of my favourite places to go and see the sea (because we all need to see the sea sometimes).

I have some very happy childhood memories of plunging into the North Sea in Happisburgh (which is actually pronounced hays-bruh, confusingly) and walking along the pier in Cromer. Norfolk has over 90 miles of unbroken coastline, some of it a bit touristy, but a lot of it is rugged, unspoilt and bloody gorgeous in the sunshine.

The following are two of my favourite spots along the north Norfolk coast; they are around a half-hour drive from each other, so make a nice itinerary for a weekend away:

Brancaster

Brancaster is bracing whatever time of the year: take plenty of layers with you because that sneaky wind can chill your bones. But it is miles and miles of white sand, with little pools of seawater with shells and seaweed that get warm enough that you can dip your toes in and not worry about losing a toe to hypothermia.

The wind also makes it a great place for surfing and wind-surfing etc. with some brave bodies always out on the water enjoying the waves.

I love Brancaster for the shells: I’ve not seen a beach in the UK so strewn with so many different types, all so beautiful and delicate.

Brancaster is perfect for a walk with the dog (a walk which can be as long or as short as you like – the sand goes on and on and on), and a hot chocolate.

Wells-next-the-Sea

Think: lobster pots on the harbour. Think: golden sand dunes. Think: beach huts. All with that salty smell of the sea air.

Wells-next-the-Sea can be a lovely day trip, but to truly enjoy it you should stay the night. Stay at The Globe Inn (no affiliation, I just had a really great stay there). The village is quiet but there are some lovely shops to walk round (including some independent art shops that are definitely worth a look at) and there are plenty of places for fish and chips or seafood. The rooms at the Inn are modern and set around a courtyard with tables which catches the sun and makes it a fab place to have drinks. The food here is also really good.

From Wells-next-the-Sea, it’s a ten-minute walk from the harbour to the beach and you walk past the sailing school to get there which is always fun to watch.

The beach is the rugged coastline that Norfolk does best. It’s got a sense of the wild to it from the little tufts of grass that pop up by the dunes and the pine trees that run along it. But the sand is soft to walk on and there is a lagoon which is good fun to try and wade across at the shallower bits.

You could spend all day at the beach exploring. Why wouldn’t you? You could inspect all the famous beach huts which are painted in every imaginable colour and pattern. Each one unique and thoroughly charming. You will take so many photos because you’ll think that you’ve seen the best one but then you’ll see another that’s even prettier.

The beach is part of the Holkham Estate and, if you want a break from the sand, the park is also really fun to walk round. Take some sandwiches and have a picnic overlooking the house and look out for deer and pheasants as you go.

For my next trip to Norfolk, I would like to explore the Broads. I would especially like to do this by taking a gin cruise (yes, such a thing exists!) Have you been to the Norfolk Broads or to either of the beaches above? Let me know what you thought!

Book review: The Lido, by Libby Page

The sky stretches above her and for a moment she feels completely free. She rolls onto her back and tries backstroke so she can watch the birds crossing back and forth… She stops swimming for a moment and floats; for the first time in a long time she lets herself relax. The water holds her. She breathes deeply… She feels like she might cry but it’s OK.

Eventually she rolls onto her front… That’s when she spots Rosemary. The old woman is swimming elegantly towards her. She is wearing a navy swimming costume and a purple swimming cap. As she swims closer, Kate notices that her eyes are the same colour as the lido.

The Lido

Rosemary has been swimming in Brockwell Lido all her life. She’s 87 and her days start with a 7.00am dip in the cool waters. Her life has always been in Brixton and at the lido. When World War Two was raging and the bombs were dropping on London, Rosemary was not evacuated to the countryside like many of her friends, but instead stayed to help her mother. On the days she could, she would find comfort and a sense of normality during her swims at the lido. When she met her husband, George, the two of them built their life in Brixton with the lido ever present. They found their friends and their place in the community in the water and on the poolside.

The news comes that the lido is being sold by the council, who no longer have the money to fund it, to a private development firm who want to fill it in and make a members-only tennis court for their residents. Rosemary is devastated that somewhere so important not just to her, but to her part of the world, can be taken away.

Kate moved to Brixton to become a journalist, but life in London has not turned out like she hoped. She has started experiencing panic attacks and crippling loneliness that she doesn’t know how to talk about or who she can talk about it with. She is given the story of the closure of Brockwell Lido to write about and, through this, meets Rosemary. Together, they form a campaign team to try and save the lido and a precious part of Brixton history.

Step out of Brixton underground station and it is a carnival of steel drums, the white noise of traffic and that man on the corner shouting, ‘God loves you,’ even to the unlovable.

The Lido

This book is such a heart-warming and moving story. Through it, we learn about Rosemary and her swimming-greengrocer George, including some brilliant night-time escapades at the lido. It is cheeky and charming: it’ll make you laugh and put a lump in your throat.

It’s a book about the importance of mental health and asking for help when you need it. It also promotes how exercise can be a really great tool to help you feel better. Both characters experience loneliness: Kate moving to a new city (especially one as big and fast as London), and Rosemary, now that George is gone: both find solace in their daily morning swims. There is a moving chapter where Rosemary goes to the cinema each month to watch a film in the company of other people but then does not have anyone to talk to about it afterwards. The lido becomes not just a place to swim, but also a lifeline: something special that connects them to other people.

It also looks at how important places like the lido are for the community and how, so often, we have lost special places to new developments (one of the old libraries near me, for example, is now a pub targeted at University students). Change is often good, but sometimes we lose something valuable in the process. I loved that Libby Page included, every now and again, a chapter from one of the other swimmers where we get a snapshot of what the lido means to them. The doctor on her way home after a long shift who needs to bathe the day off, for example, and the pregnant woman who is contemplating how much her life is going to change whilst feeling weightless in the water.

I also thought Libby’s descriptions of swimming, moving through the water, the way the light reflects on the surface and the sensations of the coldness, were just wonderful and inviting. It even had me googling ‘open air swimming pools near me’ (there’s one less than an hour away and is now on my summer ‘to-do’ list). Although, each character does mention how cold it is, so we’ll see how brave I am… I defy anyone to read it and not want to go for a dip afterwards!

This is a lovely story about community, friendship and standing up for what’s right, and it was a perfect accompaniment for these long summer days.

Book Review: Girl A, by Abigail Dean

You don’t know me, but you’ll have seen my face.

Girl A

Lex is on her way to the prison where her biological mother has just died. She is the executor of the will, although she doesn’t understand why, given that she has refused to see her mother all of the time that she has been there. Lex is Girl A. She and her siblings were abused by their parents in their family home which became known, by the press, as the House of Horrors.

We drove to Hollowfield through the gloaming. Clouds sagged over the hills. We passed the old factories, with their spindly chimneys and every other window kicked in. There was a functional high street with a second-hand bookshop, and a café just closing. Grey men stood at the door of the pub, their collars turned up.

Girl A

One night, Lex managed to slip free from her binds and escape out of the window, running to flag down a car. The freed children are each adopted by different families and go on to have very different lives.

Included in the will is the House, which has been left to the children. Lex has the idea that it should be turned into a community centre to give the town of Hollowfield, which has had to live in the shadow of the family’s story, something positive. To do this, Lex will need the sign-off of her siblings, and so, has to go and see each of them in-person.

Girl A is the story of Lex and her family. Each chapter focuses on one of the siblings with Lex telling the reader what she knows of what happened to them after they left the House. As the book goes on, we piece together what happened to the family and what happened to the mother and father to make them do such things to their own children.

I tried to turn on a gentle light, but hit the overhead switch by mistake. Kicked off the bedcovers and lay in a stupor on the mattress. Cursed Delilah; hotel lighting; the novice percussion band rehearsing in my skull; the whisky society; the tilt of the earth; London in the heat; the distance from the bed to the shower. Under the cool, clean water, I made myself vomit, and rested my forehead against the tiles. Delilah.

Girl A

I thought Abigail Dean created a set of strong characters, each with their own flaws. The children had to try and find a way to protect themselves and were each affected in adulthood by the trauma. One of the things that really moved me was Lex’s comparison of trauma living in someone’s insides to Japanese knotweed living in a house’s foundations and how it will always impact on all future relationships.  

Each spring, fleshy roots infest your garden. They grow fast. Canes emerge, bloated and purple… You attempt to cut the plant at the canes. Within a day, it returns. You attempt to cut the plant at the root. Within a week, it returns…

Should you disclose this invasion to your buyer?… How will you feel at the thought of them unpacking their lives in your empty rooms, with the plant stirring beneath them?

Girl A

It is an addictive read and the story is so well told: slowly, Lex releases the information she knows and, slowly, she uncovers what she doesn’t from her brothers and sisters.

When I finished Girl A, I was completely shattered by it. The book was full of horror but there was nothing gratuitous or unbelievable in it. Often the worst of the violence was left to the reader’s imagination. It was a hard book to read but it was compelling and I don’t think I’ll be forgetting it anytime soon!

Knaresborough: Wild Flowers, Castles and Caves

Last week we visited Knaresborough, a small market town on the River Nidd, which we found to be thoroughly charming and endlessly photographable. It is about a 35-minute drive from York and 15-minutes from Harrogate but you could easily spend a whole day exploring Knaresborough.

After parking up (York Place is a cheap and nicely situated car park for the day), we started our Knaresborough adventure by walking down to the water and hiring a boat to go for a row on the river. We went to Blenkhorn’s Boats, which were painted a very striking red and green. I think they ended up being the slightly more expensive of the two companies, but we found the staff friendly and helpful when giving us instructions.

It took us (me) a little while to get into the rhythm of it – Ben was in charge of the oars and I was steering (which, I would actually argue, is the harder of the two jobs). But it was fun to see the town from the water.

Knaresborough is built into the cliffs that go up the side of the river and the houses all look so individual and quirky. I could have sat in the boat all morning taking pictures of the black and white checker-board houses, the houses entirely covered in ivy, the houses with the glass fronts, and the beautiful gardens. From the water you also get an excellent view of the viaduct and the remains of the castle.

You can’t go too far in the boats before you have to turn round, but we enjoyed the experience and I don’t think you can go to Knaresborough without trying it.

After the boat ride, we wandered back towards to the main market square for a mooch around the shops. Knaresborough is full of medieval streets, cobbles and surprises. There is a market in the square every Wednesday which is lovely to look round and pick up some local goodies.

There are so many places to choose from to eat in Knaresborough. We decided to have lunch at Six Poor Folk which had a lovely selection of sandwiches and local beer.

Lunch at Six Poor Folk

After lunch we headed back through the town towards what remains of the castle. The castle was built by the Normans and remained a stronghold until the English Civil War where Parliamentarian sliders largely destroyed and dismantled it. Now only a little remains but it, like all of Knaresborough, is very photogenic perched at the top of the cliff looking out over the river. We stayed a while as it is a great place to look out and watch the boats on the river.

One of the things I loved about Knaresborough that I wasn’t expecting, was all the wild flowers that were growing out of the buildings and gardens: both the castle and the viaduct had patches of pinks, yellows and blues peeking out. There is greenery everywhere and makes the place feel lush and wild, and really adds to the beauty of Knaresborough.

After watching the boats and the trains heading over the viaduct, we headed back down the stone steps which lead from the castle to the water’s edge. We wandered along the river, trying not to stare too much at the people grappling with their boat oars, to where Mother Shipton’s cave is located: this is also a must see when in Knaresborough, and also has an interesting story behind it.

Mother Shipton (born in 1488) was a prophetess famous throughout England in Tudor times for predicting the fates of several rulers and big events including the Spanish Armada and Great Fire of London. The cave (which is where she was born and lived), opened to visitors in 1630 and is the oldest tourist attraction in England. It is now part of a park which has some of the oldest and tallest beech trees in the country. Also to be found, is the Petrifying Wall where you can see everyday objects turned to stone by the running water. You can buy a souvenir stone teddy bear from the gift shop. There is also a wishing well and museum included as part of the park, so well worth a visit for something a little different!

Knaresborough surprised me with how much there is to do and I was completely wowed by how lovely it is (but then again, I shouldn’t really have been that surprised – it is Yorkshire after all!)

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/