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Sunday, 31 December 2017

New Year musings

Here we are, once again, on the brink of a new year and wishing a fond farewell to the year that’s passed. 2017 has been a challenging year for the world generally with worrying political situations, the loss of some well loved figures, and more terrorist attacks than I care to count. I hope for a more peaceful and kinder 2018.

Personally 2017 was quite an eventful year with its ups and downs. I want to take this time to reflect on the good times, the positive changes, the places that took my breath away, and the books that captured my imagination. If I were to sum up what I’ve learnt this year in a sentence it would be to take care of yourself and find time for the things (and people) you love. I’ve done this professionally this year, switching my focus from the daily grind to explore ways to find a more fulfilling life. That’s not to say I’m not working hard, in many ways I’d say I’m working even harder, but if you find the right focus for that work it can make you so much happier. Another thing that has become so important to me is yoga. I’d never done it before this year but now have a daily practice, mostly under the guidance of Adriene Mishler through Yoga with Adriene. Honestly, this has been one of my best discoveries of the year. If you want to strengthen your body whilst also tending to your mental health I can’t recommend her Yoga Camp series highly enough.

Other big news – I finally put pen to paper and got some words down for my first novel. I signed up for NaNoWriMo to give me a push in the right direction, and it definitely worked. I may not have officially ‘won’ NaNo but I have words on a page that weren’t there before and a much better writing routine. As far as I’m concerned that is a win. I also engaged with the group of writers around the world taking the time to create. This was a wonderful encouragement and source of advice as well as giving me a genuine feeling of joy thinking about the mass creative output happening throughout the month.

Travel has been a highlight of the year. Within the UK I had opportunity to spend more time in beautiful Cornwall as well as the chance to visit Haworth once more, a place that feels something like my spiritual/inspirational home. I was also lucky enough to go to France once more and enjoy the natural beauty of the Alps in autumn (whilst eating copious amounts of cheese). The big trip, however, was Australia. I was fortunate to travel around the east of the country and experience some breathtakingly beautiful places, including snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. More on all of this if I ever find the time to write up more detailed posts from my travels.

Reading-wise I continued with my tradition of reading books written or set in the countries I visit, which this year also included taking the plunge with books in French, which I'm still working my way through. Bill Bryson’s Down Under entertained me, but may have convinced me that I would likely die while out there (I returned mostly unscathed I’m happy to report). I also caught a glimpse of the desert through Robyn Davidson’s Tracks and Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lyndsay provided some atmospheric mystery to spark my imagination. Overall, there haven’t been any great stand-out books for me this year. Good books certainly, but none that I remember completely absorbing me (excluding the re-read of Wuthering Heights of course). There are more books in my to-read pile than I would have time for this year so it could go any way, but I definitely intend to read my first George Eliot soon.

It was a strong year for exhibitions – when in Melbourne I thoroughly enjoyed the Aardman exhibition at the ACMI. It was fun and playful and showcased some incredible talent. Closer to home, the Opera exhibition at the V&A and the Harry Potter exhibition at the British Library were definitely highlights. See my full posts for why. Both still open, so it’s not too late to enjoy them. A smaller offering from the National Portrait Gallery, The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt left a big impression. It was wonderful to see sketches done by such masters, and honestly the experience improved my own work. As for what I’ll be visiting this year – Winnie the Pooh at the V&A promises to be delightful, and Tate Britain’s Impressionists in London looks promising.

As always, let me know what you’re reading, what you’re visiting, or where you’re travelling. All that’s left to do now is wish you all a very happy and healthy 2018. See you on the other side.

Friday, 22 December 2017

The Cosy Christmas Chocolate Shop, Caroline Roberts

Set in a small village by the sea, we follow chocolatier Emma through a year of trying to make ends meet and build the courage to love again. By the second chapter it is Boxing Day and she has already been kissed by a stranger whilst out walking her dog. The mysterious man plays on her mind but her focus has to be on increasing income to help her cover the recent rent increase her landlord has imposed. With the help of her chirpy assistant Holly, and other loves ones, she has grand plans for her cosy chocolate shop.

In all honesty, I almost gave up on this book very early on. It is not well written and I struggled to see past this. I persevered however and at times got caught up in the story. There were moments that made me cringe they were so difficult to read, but even if you don’t end up entirely attached to the characters the descriptions of the shop itself do evoke feelings of warmth and comfort (and make you crave chocolate…). There is some attempt to add some intrigue with the constant referencing of Emma’s previous partner Luke, but no explanation of what happened between them. It was no great revelation when it was finally revealed, and the avoidance of explaining earlier became somewhat frustrating when it felt so obvious.

The to-ing and fro-ing with her love interest Max can feel a little abrupt occasionally but you do root for them, especially when things seem about to fall apart for good at the end. Her pain feels real however, and her reluctance to open her heart to new love is genuine.

The host of characters is likeable and if you’re looking for an easy feel-good read over the festive season then this will provide you with all the expected tropes, though I’m sure there are books that would fill you with Christmas joy with more polished writing.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Harry Potter: A History of Magic, British Library

As soon as you step into the exhibition space you know you’re in for a treat – books hang from the ceiling, the walls are decorated to look like you’re in Hogwarts, and before you’ve even got your bearings you’ve already seen the synopsis J K Rowling sent out to prospective publishers and the note from the publisher’s daughter giving it a glowing review. The British Library have clearly put a lot of effort into getting the aesthetics right. Each room focuses on a specific subject that Harry and his friends study, and the décor fits beautifully – a large celestial globe with pricks of light on dark material above, a Divination room that makes you feel as though you are in Trelawney’s classroom, and a Herbology area draped with fake plants. These touches help transport the visitor to the world of magic.

The content itself is carefully balanced between historic artefacts and books, and items from Rowling’s personal collection that no fan will want to miss. The vast sixteenth century Ripley Scroll shows you how to make your very own Philosopher’s Stone, a 3000 year old cauldron takes pride of place in Potions, and Nicolas Flamel’s gravestone is tucked unassumingly into a corner. Sadly this is accompanied by a note that will disillusion anyone under the impression that he really was an alchemist.

The glut of Jim Kay artworks on display are quite something to behold, seeing the originals a special experience. We’re also treated to early drafts of scenes from the books, and annotated manuscripts. There’s even some hand-drawn pictures by Rowling from the early days when she wanted to be able to see the world she was creating. Last but not least comes an impressive chart over multiple pages of her plotting for The Order of the Phoenix. Knowing that she had all seven books planned before Philosopher’s Stone made it to bookshelves is mind-blowing.

I cannot recommend this exhibition highly enough. Well thought out and beautifully achieved, you’ll find real treasures within, and a couple of interactive opportunities that adults and children alike will enjoy. Running until 28th February, if you love Harry Potter you need to get a ticket. For more details, visit the British Library's website

Friday, 8 December 2017

A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf - Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney delve into the archives to explore the literary friendships of four of our most beloved female authors. They believe that female literary friendships are greatly under-researched, especially when compared to the fame of many of the male equivalents. What becomes apparent throughout however, is that this is often due, in part at least, to a lack of evidence, often the result of deliberate actions of the custodians of their memories. 

This is certainly true of the first of their examples: Jane Austen and Anne Sharp, for which they explain ‘Jane’s family actively whitewashed the friendship from the official version of her life’. This results in a heavy reliance on Austen’s niece, Fanny, who Annie was employed to teach as a governess. It is the snippets and passing comments in her diaries that form the basis of this section. It often feels as though we are merely being told about their two separate lives with a few nods to interactions between them. This is natural from friends who were separated so frequently and whose letters no longer exist for the most part.

Charlotte Brontë and Mary Taylor’s friendship, which started at school and lasted through their lives, also relied heavily o the exchange of letters as Taylor spent a number of years living in New Zealand. A radical, independent woman, Taylor provided Charlotte with intellectual stimulation and challenged her to be more overtly political in her writing. Their closeness naturally ebbed due to the time in which it took their letters to reach each other, but the opinion of Taylor remained important to the end.  After Taylor’s disappointment at Gaskell’s biography of her long term friend she was not overly eager to help other biographers, meaning that it was their kinder childhood friend, Ellen Nussey, who had more control over how Charlotte was remembered.

George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s friendship also had to contend with the challenges of overseas friendship. Indeed, they never met in person, but remained important figures in each other’s lives, offering criticism and advice, and avoiding topics from their personal lives that would have caused contention. They weren’t without their fallings out however, especially in times of deep sadness for Eliot, when Stowe was unable to provide the support she needed.

Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield are somewhat unique in this group in that they enjoyed a similar level of success. History has not forgotten their association but rather twisted it into a bitter rivalry, missing the connection they shared. This was exacerbated by their membership of the Bloomsbury and Garsington groups which encouraged snide comment. Midorikawa and Sweeney don’t deny that they were envious of each other’s talent and openly cutting of their work, but also highlight the importance of the helpful criticism they exchanged and the way in which Mansfield encourage Woolf to explore new forms of the novel after the War.

An interesting and unusual book, they shed light on the importance of female literary friendship, shattering the idea of the solitary female author and challenging misconceptions passed down through history. You will notice similarities between the four friendships, the challenges they faced, and ultimately the value they placed on their literary friends. A great insight into the lives of these most famous authors. 

Monday, 27 November 2017

Delirium, Lauren Oliver

Delirium is set in a dystopian world in which love is considered a disease, conversations are monitored, and the only music available is that approved by the authorities. Our narrator, Lena, is a few months off her eighteenth birthday and having the procedure that will ‘cure’ her from ever feeling love. If the reader wasn’t already feeling distinctly uncomfortable with this world it is worsened when she goes for her evaluation where she must stand, essentially naked, in front of a group of assessors, answering questions that will ultimately decide her future – who she will marry and what social class she will be. She knows that her best friend Hana will be given higher status and they will inevitably grow apart  but is reassured that after the cure the memories will fade and she will not miss her. The cure does not only kill romantic love but familial love and passion for hobbies, it turns your life into a dull yet contented existence devoid of any real emotion.

Lena is horrified when she realises Hana is becoming rebellious – listening to illegal music and attending underground raves. Lena has always been so worried of falling into the same traps as her mum, who she is told committed suicide because of love. The flashbacks we witness reveal a happy childhood with a parent who secretly played them music and danced with her children – one perfectly normal to readers but dangerous in their world. Everything changes when Lena predictably falls in love and even braves a trip to the Wilds – the land beyond the border where the uncured and Sympathisers live. She gradually begins to realise the joy of beauty in the world, of feeling deeply, and her eyes are opened to the lies she has been fed for so many years.

We watch as she struggles with these revelations and begins to dread her fast approaching procedure, a day she has long looked forward to. As she falls deeper in love with Alex she becomes desperate to find a way for them to remain together, taking more and more risks, the authorities closing in on them, their world seeming increasingly hostile.

It took me a little while to adjust to the writing style as it’s been some time since my last YA reading, but it is a well-constructed book, the reader finding out more about the world with Lena. Each chapter is headed with propaganda, some even manipulating the Bible to fit the beliefs of the authorities. It is hard to watch as Lena comes to realise how thoroughly she is trapped in this dystopian world. The love story is sweet enough, and believable, and it is moving to read Alex wrestling with the decision to tell Lena information that will shatter the world that she thinks she knows. There is enough in here that you care for the characters and root for their success. I won’t be reading the rest of the series, but that probably says more about my reading habits than the quality of the book.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Contractions, New Diorama Theatre. 14/11/2017

Deafinitely Theatre’s production of Mike Bartlett’s Contractions is its first revival in London since its debut at the Royal Court Theatre in 2008. This new take on it creates a bi-lingual version accessible to both BSL users and hearing English speakers. It is staged in an old trading office and has only two characters – the manager (Fifi Garfield) who uses BSL throughout, and Emma (Abigail Poulton) who uses spoken English and BSL in tandem.

The play begins with Emma being called in to discuss with her manager the company’s policies on romantic activities between employees. Emma denies that she is having any such relations with any of her colleagues but her manager does not seem to believe her. After several meetings of a similar ilk Emma reveals that she has begun a relationship with someone in the office, Darren. There follows an uncomfortable scene in which she is asked how good the sex is and how long she imagines it will be until they break up. Things escalate when Emma becomes pregnant and Darren is sent to an office far away. When Emma realises the seriousness with which her manager takes the situation she suggests leaving, to which the response is that she would not find another job – with the job market as it is there are a hundred applicants for every job. Feeling trapped, Emma is forced to undergo ever more intrusive meetings and comply to increasingly unreasonable demands while her manager remains steely faced and unresponsive to any distress.

The story may take the scenario to unrealistic extremes but it makes a valid point about the impact of work on your personal life, and the point at which you should draw the line. It feels a judgment on corporations who care nothing for their employees beyond their ability to make the company money. They would rather have broken individuals, who become almost robotic, than care for and nurture their employees who they consider to be replaceable.

Garfield and Poulton do a sterling job. The audience is led to feel genuine anger and frustration at the manager as she doesn’t flinch once, intimidating and seemingly annoyed at all times. Poulton does an excellent job portraying the increasing desperation of Emma as her manager systematically strips the joy from her life. It is difficult to watch for its intensity, but it is this power that makes it worth watching.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

Barbery’s critically acclaimed novel focuses on the residents of 7 Rue de Grenelle in Paris, specifically twelve year old Paloma Josse, daughter of wealthy parents, and Renée Michel, concierge for the apartment block. Paloma’s narrative sections are labeled as ‘Profound Thoughts’. Her first section is deeply philosophical and it is startling when you realise it is a child speaking. She has decided to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday and to burn down the apartment. She aims to have and record as many profound thoughts before this time as possible. She plays down her intelligence at school, fearing she would get no peace if she showed her true capabilities. In this she has something in common with Renée who hides her love of great literature and classical music to maintain the façade of what she believes people expect from a concierge.

Both characters are fairly isolated in their own ways. Although Paloma lives with her parents and sister she does not feel part of their world, considering their concerns superficial and shallow. Renée has lived alone since the death of her husband, and in her refusal to show her true self is alone in her interests. She does have one friend, Manuela, who works in the same block as a cleaner but who hopes to leave France, much to the horror of Renée. Things begin to change when a long-term resident dies and the mysterious Kakuro Ozu moves into the vacant apartment. He sees beyond Renée's façade and extends the hand of friendship, something which she struggles to accept at first. Eventually their budding friendship leads to Paloma and Renée finding kindred spirits in each other.

It is touching to see Renée’s confidence grow and with it her happiness, though it takes sharing some upsetting memories with Paloma before she is able to see that all she has believed for many years may not be entirely true. These revelations are an important moment for understanding her character and the reasons behind her forced solitude. It is also heartening to see Paloma blossom with her new friends, beginning to see the world in a difference light and questioning her resolve to cut her life so short.

An interesting, unusual book which will challenge the mind, make you smile, and at times frustrate. In parts beautifully poetic, clearly borne of deep knowledge, it will toy with your emotions until the end.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics. V&A, London

The exhibition chosen to open the new Sainsbury Gallery at the V&A may not be the obvious choice, but when you step into this immersive exhibition you understand the great potential of the space. It takes you through centuries of opera by focusing in on specific productions and the cities in which they were premiered, fitting the art form into its wider historical context and demonstrating that it is not just a product of the time, but also a catalyst for change.

We begin in seventeenth century Venice with Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and end with Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth in Mtensk in Leningrad and the impact of Stalinist suppression, stopping along the way in decadent Paris and battle-torn Milan. Each section has a distinct look to it that sets the location and feel of the subject. In Handel’s London we are treated to a working replica of a Baroque stage, in Milan there are signs of war but also a display by Matthias Schaller of 150 of Italy’s opera houses, reminding us just what an integral role opera plays in their culture.

There are treasures aplenty – costume designs by Dali, a Rodin sculpture of John the Baptist’s head in the Salome section, and a Degas to name but a few. The Degas is accompanied by a caption explaining why the ballet traditionally appears in Act Three – it was the custom for male patrons to take advantage of the dancers before sauntering into the auditorium after the interval. When an opera decided to put the ballet in Act One there was outrage. Snippets such as these give a more intimate glance behind the scenes of the opera.

On entering, visitors are handed what initially appears to be an audio guide but proves to be a beautiful soundscape that automatically changes according to where you are in the exhibition. This combined with the expertly designed space leads you to feel transported through time and place as you travel through the history of opera. Even if you’re not much of an opera fan there’s plenty to get your teeth stuck into here. Quite pricey at £21 a ticket, but absolutely worth every penny.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is on until 25 February 2018. For more details, visit the V&A website.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Philip Pullman in conversation with Cerys Matthews, London Literature Festival, 20/10/2017

Twenty-two years ago Northern Lights, the first book in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, was published. Yesterday, the first book in a new trilogy, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage was published, transporting readers back to the world of Lyra Belacqua, to the great joy of his many fans. When asked how this new series fits into the world of Lyra he claims it could be thought of as a prequel, but he is more inclined to think of it as an equal. After the publication of the final book in His Dark Materials Pullman publicly said the story had ended there and there would be no more. The conversation started with this tonight, asking what changed his mind. He answered that the seed was lodged in his mind with the publication of Lyra’s Oxford in 2003. He knew the story would involve Lyra, but not how. It stayed with him, and finally the world is ready to embrace her return.

Speaking about his writing practice, he told of the importance of poetry, that this was how he first came to writing, in writing bad imitations of Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan in his youth. He may now have turned his attention to prose but the rhythm of it remains central. He claims to sometimes know the rhythm of the next sentence before he knows what it’s going to say. This is why he cannot write with music on as it disturbs the rhythm of the writing. He spoke also of the many voices that go into making a novel. The voice of the narrator is not that of the author, and the book also has an expected reader, which often of course turns out not to be the actual reader. Pullman describes writing as being a dictator, in control of the characters’ fates, but once it’s out in the world you no longer have control. You don’t know who will read it or how they will respond, and that there is no right or wrong way to read a text. He was adamant that children should be introduced to the magic of reading and not forced to share their responses as is so often the case in primary schools, but to let it stay with them.

Inevitably the conversation turned to religion. His Dark Materials has caused outrage among some religious groups who believe it is about killing God. Pullman is very open about his beliefs, and thinks that ‘the original sin’ is really painting curiosity as a sin. That the Fall happens in everybody’s life during adolescence, this knowledge of good and evil, and it’s important and should be encouraged. He was also asked about his opinions on some of the most well known Christian novelists – C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein. He has said before that he doesn’t agree with how Lewis concludes the Narnia series, however, today he cited the idea that his books seem more genuine than Tolkein’s in that they have the struggle of faith in them, and that in Tolkein’s there’s never any wavering of intent. This he believes is because Tolkein was a Catholic whereby he had everything theologically sorted, whereas Lewis, as an Irish Protestant, had experience all the associated tumult. He ends with the thought that Tolkein’s works therefore end up feeling somewhat trivial, an unpopular opinion with the audience.

Finally, during the Q&A session there were lots of questions coming in from Twitter regarding the films that never quite made it to the end. Pullman’s explanation for this was that books don’t translate well into films, that if you go to see a film of a book you enjoyed you almost expect to be disappointed. Inevitably huge amounts of detail from the books will be cut to fit into 120 minutes or so, and this is why he believes that long running TV serials such Game of Thrones are a much better way of translating books to screen. To the great delight of the audience he revealed that this kind of project is currently in progress for His Dark Materials.

Monday, 16 October 2017

In Touch, Dorfman Theatre, 14th October 2017

In Touch is a co-production of An Inclusion Theatre Company and Theatre of Nations in association with Graeae Theatre Company, National Theatre, the British Council, and Sense. The cast is made up of deafblind, blind, visually impaired, D/deaf, hard-of-hearing, sighted and hearing people sharing their stories. They are accompanied by Jenny Agutter and Yevgeny Mironov telling of the lives of Olga Skorokhodova and Professor Suvorov, pioneering deafblind academics.

We are told about the actors’ lives, experiences of blindness and deafness, and their hopes and dreams. The most heart-wrenching part for me was hearing what the last thing they remember seeing was. The show is not designed to induce pity, quite the opposite, it challenges any misconceptions that deafblind people are different, showing that they have the same hobbies, hopes and dreams as anyone else. It is saddening to realise just how hard it is for them to engage with the rest of the world with such a pitiful lack of inclusive opportunities.

The mix of spoken, signed, and physical theatre made for an eclectic, engaging show. Parts were in Russian, leaving me reliant on the surtitles. This, and the way the focus jumped around from actor to actor, from one theme and style of performance to another, gave a sense of disorientation, which I assume was intentional. This was probably the most inclusive event I’ve ever been to – there was audio description, surtitles, and live BSL interpretation. May this be an example of what can be achieved and its lead followed by other theatres.


Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

The first book in the Gormenghast series introduces us to a strange world peopled with eccentric and curious characters. Gormenghast castle itself is sprawling, all consuming, and with an air of neglect about it. Many of the characters are reclusive and there seems something of a dusty, forgotten feel to the lives there. The 76th Earl of Gormenghast, Lord Sepulchrave, spends his days carrying out antiquated rituals, the meaning behind many of which seems to have passed out of living memory. The book opens with two events that will prove catalysts for more dramatic occurrences – the birth of an heir, the eponymous Titus Groan, who makes few appearances, and the arrival of a new kitchen boy, Steerpike.

The birth of a younger brother displeases Fuschia Groan, the spoilt first child of Sepulchrave, who is nonetheless never allowed to forget her inferior position due to her sex. For Nannie Slagg however, this is a wonderful opportunity to feel increasingly self-important with a new little charge to nurture. Although Titus opens and closes the book, and whose story will undoubtedly become more of a central focus in the later books, it is Steerpike’s actions who shape this novel.

He is charming and manipulative and engineers his rise through underhand methods. He takes advantage of Sepulchrave’s twin sisters, Cora and Clarice, who are generally excluded from activities in the castle. This solitutde is the perfect environment for their resentment toward their sister-in-law Gertrude to fester. The power hungry twins have suffered ill health, and appear to have low intelligence, having a childish strain to their behaviour, yet maintaining an eerie lack of expression for the most part. They are intriguing figures who don’t seem to think highly of each other. Steerpike convinces them to commit arson and then proceeds to terrorise them to ensure their silence, allowing the reader to feel a tug of sympathy for the neglected pair.

A strange and meticulously imagined novel. I have heard it said that not much happens in it, and although it may not be action packed it focuses instead on building depth into its world and characters with enough dramatic events to keep the story moving. It certainly leaves you eager to dive into the next instalment.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

How To Stop Time, Matt Haig

Haig’s latest offering focuses on the life of Tom Hazard, a seemingly middle aged man who has in fact been alive since 1581. He has returned now to London as a history teacher and walks the streets remembering how they used to look, where his times with Rose, his only love, were spent. During her life he was forced to part from her, fearing that his barely perceptible aging would put her at risk as it had done his mother. He has spent the intervening years searching for their daughter Marion who also has anageria, a condition that makes them age fifteen times slower than your average human. You would be forgiven for thinking that they would not need to hide in the modern world. We don’t drown innocent women to test if they are witches after all, but you only have to turn on the news to see that anybody different, other, is still vilified. This makes the novel feel relevant rather than just a far-fetched story.

Tom fends for himself for centuries before discovering the Albatross Society in the late nineteenth century. This discovery follows him finally finding a doctor who believes in his condition and does not want him institutionalized. Much to Tom’s horror the doctor mysteriously dies shortly after their meeting. The Albatross Society is for people with anageria, the Albas, as they are known, a group suspicious of the rest of the world. In order to ensure their safety they kill anyone they consider to pose a risk to their anonymity. The Society is headed by Hendrich, who is unwavering in his belief that the rules – never to fall in love, and to create a new life every eight years (the price the Albas pay for him to arrange this for them is the occasional assassination job), is for the best. Tom begins to question the truth of this, but were he to leave he would become a target. There’s also the belief that if anyone can find Marion it will be Hendrich. Whether or not he can be trusted is another matter. The reader is made to feel for Tom, stuck in a seemingly impossible situation, unable to tell anyone outside the Society the truth. His loneliness is heartbreaking.

The storyline may sound a touch convoluted when laid out like this, but it reads easily and although the narrative hops around in time it is not difficult to follow. There’s also the odd light-hearted cameo from the likes of Shakespeare. It’s a novel that has a good balance between the humorous and serious. One theme which also appeared in Haig’s bestseller The Humans is the importance of our mortality in giving our lives meaning and a sense of urgency. This combined with musings on what makes life really worth living, and the need for love no matter the potential for pain, means his books always pull on the heartstrings and make you think. Not my favourite of his works, but worth a read (and I’ll certainly be reading the follow-up I’ve heard rumours of).

Monday, 11 September 2017

Australian Travels Part One: Sydney to Canberra

Not long after having arrived in Australia I found myself learning how to handle an automatic and navigating Sydney city centre. This is one thing that amazed me until the day I left – everybody seems to have a car, and drive through the centre of Sydney without a second thought. How different to London where most feel driving to be unnecessary, and for those that do, venturing into the heart of the capital by road is almost unthinkable. A brief drive to pick up my fellow road trippers and we were heading out of the city to make our leisurely way to Canberra.

Gumnut Patisserie
Barely had we left when the roads began to empty and the houses became infrequent. We stopped in historic Berrima for some lunch. At first it felt as though the town was closed, the first few eateries we tried either being shut entirely or having stopped serving. This turned out to be fortuitous however as we ended up in Gumnut Patisserie. We hadn’t expected to find more than a few pies on offer but were greeted with a wide range of beautifully crafted patisserie that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a French patisserie. Having sampled some of their delicious savouries and sweet offerings we went happily on our way. Leaving with pleasant opinions of the place, on further inspection I fear we may have done the town a disservice. It is widely recognized as Australia’s best preserved example of a Georgian village on the mainland, and had we lingered longer I’m sure we would have discovered many more treasures.

The Big Merino
Our next stop was the Big Merino, a 50ft concrete construct, and one of over 150 ‘big things’ dotted around the country as eccentric quirks standing out from the landscape. Originally opened in 1985 but moved in 2007 to capture the attention of more tourists it now sits beside a petrol station and McDonalds. Within there is an exhibition on the history and uses of merino wool and you can climb to the top to look out of the eyes of Rambo, as he is affectionately known. The rest of the structure is taken up with a gift shop selling you average souvenirs, merino clothing, and some merino wool yarn and knitting patterns, which naturally I couldn’t resist.

The final landmark before entering Canberra was Lake George, which admittedly did challenge my idea of a lake, being completely devoid of water. This, in part, is what makes it famous, its constantly shifting water level as well as its location making it one of the most studied lakes in Australia. It may not have had the vast expanse of water I was expecting, but a lookout point on its perimeter proved the perfect spot for some stargazing.

Remains of a telescope at Mount Stromlo
A refurbished telescope at Mount Stromlo
We arrived in Canberra after dark so didn’t see much of it on our way in, however, we did dine by the water, which wasn’t a bad introduction. With the rising sun we went to experience the city by daylight. I had heard that it’s a very green city, but nothing had prepared me for the surrounding mountains, and how much it just didn’t feel like a city. In fairness, we didn’t really explore the centre, but I’m reliably informed that there isn’t really one. Instead, we headed for the mountains and Mount Stromlo Observatory. The original observatory was destroyed in the bush fires of 2003, and as you approach you pass the burnt out shells of the previous buildings. It makes you stop in your tracks and ruminate on the haunting remains. It’s not otherwise somewhere that you’d spend a long time, although I imagine in summer it would make a beautiful picnic spot, and I believe there are a number of walking and cycle tracks in the surrounding area. Inside the visitor centre is a small exhibition and a café with gorgeous views, which seemed to be why most people were there.

Our next stop was Canberra’s Deep Space Communication Complex, part of NASA’s Deep Space Network. The exhibition space here is larger and has several interactive displays to keep visitors of all ages entertained. You can see the large antennas across the site and there are boards in the exhibition with details of what they are tracking. We were even lucky enough to see one of them move.

After a short time we were back on the road again and heading for Corin Forest, a mountain recreation resort. There was no natural snow on the mountains but they have a snow play area so icy fun can be had even when the weather doesn’t oblige. After a snowball fight or two it’s pleasant to warm up again next to the open fire in the visitor centre. It wasn’t as forest like as the name suggests but a great place for a family outing. This is also where we saw our first kangaroos of the trip, which definitely made it worth it. Slightly further down the road was a short walking track leading to a waterfall which is well worth a look.

Our trip to Canberra was short but sweet and far more scenic than I had previously imagined.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

I Hate the Internet, Jarett Kobek

Kobek’s satire of modern life rests loosely on the story of two women dealing with the fall out of their images appearing online without their consent. Adeline, a middle-aged comic book writer who resides in San Francisco, who commits ‘the only unforgivable sin of the 21st century’ – giving a lecture in which she expresses unpopular opinion and failing to notice someone filming her. The video goes viral and Adeline is forced onto Twitter to give herself a voice, much to the horror of her son. It doesn’t all work against her however, as the exposure increases sales of her previous comic books. Ellen Flitcraft, a twenty year old from a much smaller town, has no such silver lining when photographs of her performing oral sex on her now ex-boyfriend are spread online. For her, it turns her life into a living hell, she is ostracised from her community and suffers great mental torment.

Interesting and sad as these tales are, they feel sidelined by the larger focus on the problems of social media and certain other specific aspects of the Internet. Kobek explains things in a cutting style as if for someone not from this time. For example, he describes Amazon as ‘an unprofitable website dedicated to the destruction of the publishing industry’, and Instagram as ‘the first social media platform to which the only sane reaction was hate’. Some of what he writes has been redacted in the UK edition. He comments on the proliferation of entirely unimportant things that people obsess over, and the loss of privacy.

One of his main bugbears is over intellectual property and the way in which big companies exploit creators. Admittedly this is not purely a digital age problem – he cites the creation of some of the most popular superheroes and the way in which the artists who created them were shut out from reaping the rewards of their phenomenal popularity. He sees social media doing this on a much larger scale. People mistakenly view is as a great outlet for freedom of expression when really they’re just making more money for the companies with every post. The becomes even more disturbing when he points out that the death and rape threats people send online benefit the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

Overall a brazen, unapologetic criticism of the modern world. The narrative is split into small chunks, the way content is often absorbed online. This may not be to everyone’s taste but it is incredibly easy to read and oddly addictive. If you have your doubts about the impact of social media this is a book to sink your teeth into that will also keep you well entertained.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Down Under: Travels in a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson

Bryson is known for his humorous yet informative books detailing his travels. Down Under is no exception as he explores Australia’s vast emptiness by foot, road, and rail, going on detours to find locations of events of interest, even when the locals seem to have lost all memory of them. He is baffled by the attraction of creating oversized models (giant lobsters, big apples, you name it, they’ve made it) alongside roads, yet finds that after hours of seemingly endless driving they become all the more appealing, and enjoys the quirks of the culture that find such things worth creating.

He is constantly alarmed by the many dangerous creatures lurking in the sea and on-land, and the blasé attitude the Australians have toward them. He notes their eagerness to reassure, and the almost inevitable following gruesome or disastrous story. Reluctant as he is to come face to face with many of the native species, he does make clear quite how remarkable the wildlife is. Undisturbed by humans, organisms have had the freedom to evolve in ways not possible in other parts of the world. Australia is unique in the volume of species only known to reside there (and the many still undoubtedly left to discover). One of the overarching feelings of the country gleaned from the book is the power of nature, and humans’ vulnerability to it. Whether it be tales of the many lives lost in trying to find routes through the desert, or of the most experienced of divers vanishing in its waters, it is abundantly clear the humans are at the mercy of nature.

Bryson enjoys engaging with Australians, finding them generally friendly and with a wicked sense of humour (he found it particularly telling of their character that they named a swimming pool after a Prime Minister who met his end through drowning). One aspect of the attitudes he meets there that he struggles to get his head around is the treatment and opinions directed toward the Aborigines. After being startled on numerous occasions by the popularity of such views he finds himself sitting in a café watching the world go by, feeling a sense of injustice for the disheveled Aborigines who seem all but invisible to the rest of the population. Eventually, he reaches the sad realisation that he begins not to notice them either. That is not to say that he does not care however, detailing the wrongs inflicted on them by past generations.

He seems to think fondly of this oft-neglected country, and leaves with a sense of sadness that he will not hear much of their current affairs once he is outside of it. A highly enjoyable read that brings the diversity, vastness, and character of Australia to life.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

What Would Mary Berry Do?, Claire Sandy

Marie Dunwoody tries to do it all – maintain a happy marriage, raise three children, and run her own dental practice, a vocation to which she is devoted. She manages an impressive juggling act of her responsibilities, but when she is told at the last minute by her twins that she’s meant to be baking a showstopper for their school fair she feels she has failed, having to resort to Mr. Kipling Fondant Fancies. Her humiliation is reinforced by her seemingly perfect neighbour Lucy’s beautiful creations outshining her meagre offerings.  The fair proves to be transformative, however, when Marie happens upon a copy of Mary Berry’s Complete Baking Bible. She vows to become more like Mary, and in consequence, to her mind, a better mother.

Her ambition soon becomes something of an obsession as she battles her way through simple sponges, the threat of the challenging croquembouche, which she has promised to make for a friend’s wedding, constantly hanging over her. Keen bakers will feel a sense of familiarity in the frustrations and satisfaction in attempting to produce a perfect bake, and relish in the humour of Marie and her husband Robert’s split allegiance when he becomes a devotee of Paul Hollywood. The book is not all light-hearted Bake-Off references and collapsing cakes however, dealing with the pressures of marriage and parenthood, and the contrast between appearances and reality. It is this which makes the book unforgettable and drags you into the lives of the inhabitants of a small suburban street.

Marie’s son Angus is besotted with a girl he has only ever met online while completely ignoring the affections of his neighbour Chloe, the future of the dental practice is threatened by the opening of a rival across the road, more concerned with aesthetics than quality dental care, Robert’s job is hanging in the balance, and Lucy’s perfect life is a constant frustration. It all feels very real and relevant.

Through her baking endeavours Marie’s perspective begins to change and neighbourhood scandals are discovered. All the revelations may not be a total shock to the reader, but it is the journey that matters, and you find yourself becoming quite attached to the characters. A feel-good book accurately portraying the day-to-day challenges and triumphs of a modern family. This was something of a diversion from my normal reading habits, but one that I’m very glad I took. 

Friday, 10 February 2017

The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux

Gaston Leroux’s most well known title is nonetheless known more for its musical adaptation than the novel itself. Often dismissed as confused, not know quite what it’s trying to be, I feel, however, that you’d be missing out on a novel of great intrigue and atmosphere were you to cast it aside so easily. The tale of Erik/the Phantom is haunting, his genius and twisted spirit apparent as he roams the secret passageways of the Opera house he helped to create. His love of Christine is obsessive, his desperation to be loved all too obvious when one of the narrators reveals Christine allowed him to kiss her forehead, something not even his mother would. He forces the reader to question their judgment – can he so easily be condemned when he has been rejected and starved of affection his whole life? Should we not feel some pity for this man forced to live an invisible life?

Christine’s story is not without its own tragedy – her father’s death in her youth wounding her deeply and stripping her of the joy of music, making her once enchanting voice little more than average. Raoul, who had known her before her father died, understands the pain of loss, having been brought up by his brother in the absence of a parent. His love for Christine is of a very different nature to that of the Phantom. Raoul loves her and wants to protect her from the Phantom, who takes advantage of her grief to manipulate her to his will. Raoul’s feeling are changeable, often flicking between devotion and suspicion, fearing she is having an affair with another man and behaving loosely.

The format is not untypical of the time, Leroux using a common technique of addressing the reader in the prologue, speaking of the truth of the tale. The three central characters are reminiscent of those from another great Gothic revival novel  - Wuthering Heights. Erik reflects Heathcliff – treated with violence and rejection at a young age, creating a manipulative, some would say evil, man with an otherworldly feel. They both desire love and are motivated by an unhealthy obsession with a woman. Catherine is a fiercer heroine by far but faces a similar dilemma – letting go of the past or holding on to a destructive force. Edgar is a more loyal counterpart to Raoul and struggles in a relationship with a woman whose heart belongs, at least in part, to another. It is a tried and tested formula with an anti-hero that inspires sympathy.

The gradual revealing of information about Erik’s past makes him feel more real than the ghoulish tales of fiery eyes and an ever-present smell of death. He is cunning both in his exploitation of the secrets of the Opera but also in his more sinister intentions, creating a torture chamber of great ingenuity. If you want a tale of passion and mystery, drama and crime, then The Phantom of the Opera contains all that you could want.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France, Evelyne Lever

Lever’s easy-to-read account of the infamous French Queen, Marie Antoinette, brings her story to life almost as a novel might. The reader is led into sympathy for the young Queen, having been sent to a foreign country at a tender age and being forced to survive in the trying environment of Versailles in such a public marriage. Lever details how trying Antoinette found her situation and how she longed for some sense of normality, creating a haven for herself at Trianon. She disliked the constant rituals of royalty and found public duties tiresome, leading her to break with some traditions. Surprisingly, however, she did not push against one of the more invasive customs – that French queens had to give birth publicly in order to prove the legitimacy of their child.

In all other senses when it came to her children she does not seem to have wished to follow in the distant relationship expected from royals. Lever paints her as maternal, with a desire to be active in her children’s life, and even wished to breastfeed them herself. Her apparent motherly instincts seem at odds with those of her own mother, who is depicted as manipulative, using emotion against her children in order to manoeuvre them into positions of influence. Political dominance seems to have been a greater concern to her than her own children’s happiness, not uncommon at this time, but exaggerated in her family. Indeed, Marie Antoinette seems to have received very little affection from her family at large; her tragic figure imprisoned near the end of her life, believing her family would save her when in fact they had no intention to help.

Marie Antoinette is often vilified for her excesses and political ineptitude, but this biography paints a softer picture – one of a young woman thrust into court life without sufficient training to succeed. A woman whose intuition about the views of the people of France was severely lacking, but a woman of heart. One can’t help but think she would have thrived in a more domestic situation. Lever’s biography is unlikely to satisfy many academics, and the wider political and social context of events is all but absent, resulting in a somewhat misleading, half-formed version of events. The storming of Versailles especially reads more like a novel than an historical study, but the book is accessible and gives a sense of life as experienced by her. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Les Misérables, Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo’s epic Les Misérables is a broad examination of the lives of struggling citizens of France in the early nineteen century, and a polemic against a society where people are so carelessly abandoned by the State. Jean Valjean, the unifying character, is a complex man whose good intentions were forced out of him during his harsh and intolerable captivity. His crime was little more than desperation to relieve the suffering of his loved ones, and his ever present determination to escape, however slim the chance of success and however high the penalty. Readers will easily be led into sympathy, and feel the hopelessness, the injustice of the legal system. He emerges with a broken soul, all ability to love seemingly crushed. His encounter with the Bishop of Digne stuns him, his kindness a sudden bright light that dazes Valjean after so many years of darkness. It is this which allows a return to empathy and encourages what becomes a life led selflessly.

Fantine, an innocent girl who places her heart with the wrong man ends her life tragically when she finds herself pregnant and abandoned. On meeting Madame Thenardier she sees a solution to her troubles, thinking she has found a loving family to care for her beloved child, Cosette, while she works hard to support her. She suffers a double misfortune as the Thernardiers prove to be of deplorable character, only interested in what they can gain. Her workmates also prove to be unkind, causing her problems for the sake of it. She soon finds herself destitute, relying on her body to provide for the ever increasing demands of the Thernardiers. It is heartbreaking to see her resolve to suffer so much with the only comfort that her sacrifices are granting Cosette health and happiness when we see how despicably she is in truth being treated.

Valjean, now in a position of some power and wealth, comes to hear of Fantine’s story and takes on the responsibility of care for Cosette. He sees the Thernardier’s for what they are and takes Cosette away from them, making enemies in the process. Without ever explaining the reason to her, he and Cosette hide from the law, and most especially Inspector Javert, who seems incapable of understanding life beyond the confines on the law.

A whole host of characters are introduced in relation to the events surrounding Valjean and his adopted daughter. The benign Marius whose morals lead him into a life of struggle, reluctant to accept financial help, and bent on finding Monsieur Thernardier with the aim of repaying the kindness he believes was shown to his father when injured at the Battle of Waterloo. Valjean is suspicious of the young man, both for his constant fear of being followed and watched, but also for the risk of Cosette falling in love. His past life haunts him to the end.

The Thernardiers reappear many times throughout, sometimes under different guises, and we see how they treat their own beloved daughters when hard times hit. The contrast between Cosette’s life and that of the once more privileged family is stark, a fact that enrages Madame Thernardier. This contrast is made even more apparent when you realise the street urchin Gavroche is also a Thernardier, although he is left to fend for himself and seems to have avoided the undesirable family traits. He is a shining example of generosity and wisdom far beyond his years. There are few scenes more heart wrenching than his demise, and the following treatise on how easily lost children can be sucked into the city and made invisible, struggling to survive in a world that only punishes them for their attempts to be fed and sheltered.

It is impossible to do justice to the breadth of this novel in so short a space. The characters may be a little exaggerated, which can be frustrating at times, and there are many lengthy digressions (some of which have mercifully been moved to appendices in this in this edition) but it is a powerful story with characters you can’t help but feel for. The sheer length allows the characters to age and develop, experiencing the upheavals of attempts to revolutionise France. An historical novel when it was published, its message is no less relevant today.