Wednesday, 16 September 2020

White chocolate and raspberry bread knot

As we enjoy the last of the summer sun this bread makes a lovely use for any leftover raspberries you may have. Delicious while still slightly warm.

Ingredients:

500g strong white flour, plus extra for dusting

5g salt

40g caster sugar

8g fast-action yeast

40g butter, melted

100ml water

100ml milk

100ml mango purée (optional, if you don’t want to use this then add an extra 50ml each of water and milk)

1 egg

100g white chocolate chips, plus a handful for drizzling

200g fresh raspberries


Method:

Mix the salt and flour together in a large mixing bowl, then add the sugar and yeast.

Put the butter, milk, water, purée (if using) and egg in a jug and beat together. 

Pour into the dry ingredients and mix until a dough forms.

Tip the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for around ten minutes, until smooth and elastic.

Place in an oiled bowl covered with either cling film or a damp tea towel and leave to rise for an hour, or until doubled in size.

Once the dough has finished its rise, tip it back onto a floured surface and roll out into a long, thin rectangle. Sprinkle the chocolate chips across the length of the dough and then do the same with the raspberries.

Roll from the long side into a long sausage shape. If your roll seems a little thick, massaged the length of it to make it a little longer and thinner. Cut across the sausage, leaving you with two long rolls. Pinch the ends together and twist them into a knot, bringing the two ends together.

Place on a lined baking sheet and leave to rise again for 45 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 180º/160º fan.

Bake the bread for 35-45 minutes, until it’s golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a cooling rack.

In the meantime, melt your handful of chocolates chips, either in a microwave, putting them in a microwave safe container and heating for 60 seconds or, put a heat-proof bowl over a pan of gently simmering water and melt in the bowl. Once the bread has cooled, drizzle the melted white chocolate over the loaf.



Wednesday, 9 September 2020

A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner, Chris Atkins

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In July 2016, film-maker Chris Atkins was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in a tax fraud scheme used to finance some of his films. He was sent to one of Britain’s most notorious prisons, Wandsworth, where he kept a diary to help stay sane. What follows is a horrifying account that leaves you in no doubt about the sorry state of our prisons. Britain has the highest prison population in the EU and a reoffending rate of 48%. Chris Grayling cut staffing by a third during his tenure as Justice Secretary, resulting in prisoners being locked up in their cells for twenty-three hours a day, only being able to shower infrequently, and no training or education provision. 


The outdated, overly complex bureaucracy of the prison system is endlessly frustrating as well as failing in severe ways, resulting in the early release of dangerous inmates, and protracted sentences for minor offences. Atkins does his best to wade through a system that doesn’t seem to make sense even to those enforcing it, but finds that the many forms he fills in generally remain ignored.


He is desperate to gain Enhanced status which allows slightly more freedom, and ultimately aims to be made category D, which would mean being transferred to an open prison. He picks up as many jobs as he can to aid in this but admits that he benefits from his race, affluence, and education. It is disappointing to see that social inequalities in society are mirrored in prisons and, although he acknowledges the unfairness of the system, Atkins happily takes advantage of the opportunities available to make prison life more bearable.


As part of his campaign to be moved into more comfortable accommodation he trains to become a Listener, a scheme organised by the Samaritans for peer support. His Listener status allows him a more spacious cell, but the burden of caring for others in a system that makes it virtually impossible for him to help them in any practical way takes its toll. He regularly sees people self-harming and rarely has the opportunity to find out whether they made it through. He talks about the fact that the complete lack of control and uncertainty experienced by inmates has a damaging effect on mental health, not to mention the isolation. Mental illness is punished as bad behaviour, meaning that those who are suffering are likely to have their sentences extended. There is an isolation cell for those at highest risk but the small, bloodstained cell that offers not a shred of privacy or comfort only serves to humiliate and exacerbate problems. The prison experience is hugely damaging to both prisoners and officers and Atkins talks openly about his own struggles to adjust to new environments.


An interesting read that mixes personal experience with facts and figures, and manages to be funny despite its dark subject. Atkins’ descriptions of the endless noise, lack of personal space, and loss of agency gives a shocking glimpse into prison life. He discusses the huge difference made by various cellmates, some endlessly cheerful, others absolutely terrifying. Whatever preconceptions you go in with, you’re bound to discover something new and reassess your views on the role and efficacy of prisons. A manifesto for urgent reform.


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Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Travellers, Helon Habila

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Habila’s fourth novel examines the motives and reception of a variety of migrants, condemning the hostile environment tactics of governments and reminding us all that no matter where we are from we are all human, with the same needs and desires for safety and love. The novel is split into six books, each focussing in on a different character, our unnamed narrator ever-present. The book opens with him and his wife Gina trying to hold their marriage together after a traumatic event. They have moved to Berlin temporarily for Gina to complete an art project and with the hope that it would help her husband to resume his halted academic work. She is painting a series of portraits entitled Travellers, and when he finds himself drawn to one of her rejected subjects he is thrown into a revolutionary world of activism. It soon becomes apparent that the circles Gina moves in hold racial prejudices that she either doesn’t worry about or chooses to ignore, something made impossible when Mark, an activist, joins them and refuses to bow under the pressure of social convention.


From here we see stories of exile, fractured families, and the narrator himself accidentally ending up in a refugee camp. There are heart wrenching tales of a husband repeatedly going to an arranged meeting point in the hope of seeing his wife again despite there being little chance of her having survived the journey, parents making heartbreaking decisions in an attempt to protect their children, and the constant judgment and resistance of Europeans to accept them. You can’t read this book without feeling guilt at the way governments and individuals respond to migrants. The book deals with heavy topics but the writing will capture your attention and whisk you along, completely absorbing you in the lives being portrayed.


These stories are not mere fiction, but based around the lives of people Habila met during his own time in Berlin. It shines a light on the systems that make migration so challenging and the unique loneliness of being in a foreign land, whether by choice or necessity. A searing portrayal of the lives that so often go unspoken, I cannot recommend this highly enough.


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Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Renni Eddo-Lodge

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Eddo-Lodge’s bestselling discussion of racism in Britain jumped to the top of the charts once more with the recent prominent protests of the Black Lives Matter movement. It takes an uncompromising look at race relations in Britain today, giving sound evidence for the structural racism that permeates every aspect of society. It is an uncomfortable but important read.


It opens with a discussion of the history of racism in a country that deludes itself into thinking it doesn’t have a problem with race. Some of the facts I was familiar with but continue to be astounded by, such as that it was the slave owners who were compensated when slavery was abolished rather than those who had been enslaved. I was horrified to discover the frequency and brutality of lynchings of people of colour throughout the twentieth century. ‘…looking at our history shows that racism does not erupt from nothing, rather it is embedded in British society. It’s not external. It’s in the system.’


The troublesome history of racism in Britain is followed by an examination of the current disadvantages faced by people of colour. It soon becomes apparent that throughout every stage of life black people are disadvantaged by racism, whether conscious or otherwise. That black students are generally marked down by teachers and only receive their true grade in anonymous examinations is particularly relevant in the midst of the current grades debacle cause by the pandemic. The book leaves you with no doubt that claims that we live in a meritocracy are entirely unfounded, which brings us on to the push-back against positive discrimination and attempts to make recruitment processes less biased. It’s common to hear cries of unfairness when attempts to even out the playing field are made. Indeed, even those pushing for more gender and class equality often seem to falter when the same arguments are made about race.


This book will open your eyes to discrimination you may never have noticed unless you were on the receiving end, making you reassess the current state of Britain. An important book that I plan to revisit so as not to lose sight of how far we still need to go. It will spark conversations, often uncomfortable, to help deepen our understanding and realise that silence is complicity.


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Wednesday, 19 August 2020

The Beast and the Bethany, Jack Meggitt-Phillips, illustrated by Isabelle Follath

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This post is part of the ultimate blog tour for the novel. Thank you to Egmont Publishers and The Write Reads for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.


Ebenezer Tweezer is 511 years old but looks like he is in his 20s thanks to a potion provided annually by the beast. All he has to do in return is to keep it well fed. He felt no qualms about feeding it the last dodo or any number of other rare and precious creatures or objects, but when the beast requests a child he is forced to question his own motives. It doesn’t take long before he decides he values his own life more than that of any child and goes in search of a suitably unpleasant child, choosing Bethany as the beast’s next victim.


From the choice of names to the little nods to other well-loved creations, there’s a lot in this book reminiscent of the likes of Roald Dahl. Ebenezer is truly terrible but grows throughout, realising that perhaps he hasn’t behaved admirably. ‘Ebenezer had always seen himself as the helper who had no choice over what he was doing. Now, however, he realised that this was not the case.’ This isn’t the only moment of clarity where the book offers insight into humanity and the choices we make. Early on we are told ‘A wonderful life can turn someone into a terrible person. It makes you forget that there are people in this world who have problems, and this can stop you from really caring or worrying about others.’ Not only does this instantly give you an idea of what to expect from Ebenezer, but is an important moment for reflection for readers of any age.


Ebenezer may have lived a selfish, comfortable life, but we see how lonely he is with only the beast for company, something he only becomes aware of as he realises the possibility for a different kind of life. Bethany too misbehaves as a result of her parents' death when she was too young to remember them and her harsh, loveless upbringing in the orphanage. For all her outward bravado and mischief we are offered a glimpse of her softer side, reminding us not to judge others without knowing what they’ve been through. It soon becomes clear that they have the potential to help each other find happier, kinder lives, but will Ebenezer be willing to give up immortality for it?


A wonderful debut full of wit, evil plans, and compassion, with brilliant illustrations by Isabelle Follath. It will have you giggling to yourself one moment, tearing up the next, and wondering how they’ll ever be able to avoid the beast’s wrath. Meet these colourful characters when the beast is unleashed this October.


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Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Sudden Traveller, Sarah Hall

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Hall’s latest short story collection is a searing look at humanity and the inevitable trauma and grief that comes with being alive. The book opens with a surreal tale of a woman transforming into something new and living with an excruciating, mystery pain. It ends with a mother comforting her child at night. The prose is beautiful and evocative throughout and you’ll find yourself wanting to just sit and let what you’ve read sink in.


Relationships, especially within families, are a recurring theme. In The Grotesque we follow Dilly as she runs some errands around Cambridge before her birthday party. She initially seems childlike but we soon discover she is much older than originally imagined. With an over-bearing mother and a family she feels outside of, she lives in fear and subservience of her more self-assured relatives. You get the sense that outward appearance is more important to them than genuine affection. Dilly’s party is full of her mother’s friends, and she is too afraid to eat a scone in case she is seen to be breaking the diet her mother enforces. Her reaction to seeing Charlie-bo, a local homeless man, at the brunt of a prank is to feel pity while commenting that others would have found it funny. Her mother would be dismissive of him. From this opening we understand that her family is not like her. Hall expertly builds character without resorting to explicit description, and allows us to feel we know far more about the characters than you’d expect in short form.


We also see death discussed in several of the stories. In Orton a woman has decided to have her pacemaker turned off, choosing death. The story has a sense of calm and control to it as she reminisces about an early sexual encounter that had happened near where she has decided to breathe her last. In Sudden Traveller we experience the heartbreak that follows death as a new mother sits in a car breastfeeding her baby as her brother and father prepare a grave for her own mother. It is a devastating read as the young woman tries to come to terms with what has happened, thinks about having to carry the coffin, and describes how they’ve each dealt with their grief uniquely. For me this was the standout story of the collection, it packed a real emotional punch.


The book is a treasure trove of intensely felt stories of ordinary people. A triumphant reminder that short stories can be every bit as compelling and affecting as a novel, the characters and events condensed into a concentrated bullet that goes straight to the heart. 


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Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Girl, Edna O’Brien

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O’Brien’s latest novel, although not explicitly named in the book, is based on the abduction of 276 school girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014. It opens with a description of the night they were taken, one girl jumping out of the truck into the unknown to escape the horrors ahead. What follows is a harrowing account of gang rape, stoning, and the daily cruelties inflicted. It is hard reading yet unputdownable. The narrative isn’t linear as our narrator, Maryam, attempts to find freedom while experiencing repeated flashbacks and ostracisation because of what happened to her.


We are forced to witness great suffering just as the other girls are made to watch their peers undergo abuse, knowing they will soon be suffering similar. Later, we are told that their abusers sometimes film their attacks, laughing and gloating, witnessing for pleasure instead of fear. They have all the power and take any opportunity to humiliate the girls. The presence of smart phones also offers a stark reminder that this wasn’t centuries ago but continues today.


There is no comfort for the girls. Maryam describes her experience of childbirth, of the uncaring women acting as midwives who leave as soon as the placenta has been removed and who made her clean the room of the mess of labour. This is one example of many that highlight how they are mistreated and made vulnerable with no reprieve or chance of human sympathy.


The tone is dispassionate, suggesting a numbing experience often brought on by trauma, and she tells us that when telling her story to officials she leaves out details of the repeated sexual assaults. In a celebration of her return she is told many times not to mention anything too gruesome, people do not really want to know the truth. Indeed, she finds that her relationship with her mother has become fraught as they both try to process what has happened. She is rejected and seen as suspicious by many, O’Brien carefully showing that it doesn’t end with the celebratory footage of their return - the consequences of their captors’ actions will follow them through life.


O’Brien has come under some criticism for writing a book from the point of view of a character whose life is so different from her own, but it is done sensitively, with careful research. She comments in interviews that she felt compelled to write it, to tell the stories and bring the cause to the forefront of people’s attention. An unflinching portrayal that demands your attention.


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Tuesday, 28 July 2020

The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell

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Gaskell’s infamous biography of Charlotte Brontë may contain some glaring omissions, but can tell us much about the time in which she was writing. Jane Eyre, although popular, had led to attacks on Charlotte’s morality. Gaskell’s moralistic portrait shows Brontë to be a devoted daughter, sister, and, briefly, wife, who put duty above her own desires. A female writer herself, Gaskell was all too aware of the unique criticisms levelled against women writers and attempted to portray her subject in an acceptable light to allow her work to be appreciated on its own merit. 


In Winifred Gérin’s introduction to the Folio edition we are given an insight into the practical difficulties that impacted on the final book. The biography was required with haste, meaning Gaskell was at times sloppy in dealing with the wealth of letters provided for inclusion. Brontë’s friend Ellen Nussey was the main contributor and carefully curated her contribution, keen also to have her friend remembered as pious and demure. Mary Taylor, a friend who Charlotte spent much time debating politics, philosophy, and religion, had moved to New Zealand, meaning her recollections did not arrive in time for inclusion in the first edition. She also, regrettably, destroyed many of her letters.


One of the most notable absences for the modern reader is Charlotte’s unrequited love for M. Heger, her tutor in Brussels. His wife refused to speak to Gaskell, and although Heger himself did share some of their correspondence, all references to her passion for him are excluded. This made things difficult as Charlotte expressed her misery in letters to friends. Gaskell brought forward tales of Branwell’s demise to this time in order to justify her distress. Both brother and father receive some harsh treatment throughout which coloured popular opinion of them for many years. In attempting to sanitise Charlotte’s life, Gaskell condemned others. The book was popular and quickly ran to a second edition but it wasn’t long before libel cases and requests for revisions began pouring in, resulting in the much amended third edition. My copy included both the sections omitted in the third edition, and the additions, providing a sense of what a different book it became. 


Armed with this knowledge I embarked on the biography with some sympathy for Gaskell and a better understanding of where its biases came from. It opens with a short history of Haworth and the family that she was born into. Haworth is described as isolated and wild, the family reserved but willing to help those in need. Charlotte is often portrayed as unhappy, anxious, and full of self-doubt bordering on hatred. We see her repeatedly disappointed when plans to see friends fall through and are reminded that beyond the legend she was just a normal young adult who needed companionship and dreamt of seeing new places, London holding a particular fascination.


Her special connection with her sisters is, naturally, examined, as well as her need to express herself creatively, her compulsion to write, and the upbringing that allowed room for nurturing imagination. A heartbreakingly detailed account of her final journey with Anne, to Scarborough, is provided by the friend who accompanied them. Gaskell does not shy away from the depression that overtook Charlotte on the loss of her sisters, the sad life she lived once those who truly understood her were gone. In her retelling of these tragic events she perhaps began the public fascination with their lives. 


Gaskell states that when Charlotte can tell her own story through her letters and writings, that no other should take her place. The result is a book overflowing with extracts that sometimes reveal a side of her that doesn’t get much airtime today. This style allows us an opportunity to see the life she lived beyond the public persona she was so anxious of, albeit one strictly edited to convey the desired effect by her biographer. The letters are sometimes mislabelled however, multiple letters run into each other, and it’s not always clear who the recipient was.


I read this out of curiosity for this much maligned book more than to discover the facts of Charlotte’s life which are readily available, but was pleasantly surprised by the ease of writing and material I’d either not come across before, or that had slipped my mind. This saccharine portrait may be at odds with the passionate, radical life we accept today, but it may have helped save her from Victorian censorship, allowing us to continue to enjoy Charlotte’s work today.


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Sunday, 19 July 2020

Mental Illness Buffet, Kunal Roy

Thanks to Entrada Publishing for the review copy of this book. All opinions expressed are my own.

Roy’s debut begins with a kick – the death of his mother when he was just fifteen years old. He explains the contrast between the happy, protected life he’d had previously and the struggles he faced after. He notices a dramatic change in his personality – he became withdrawn, hated people visiting, and began having terrifying convulsions. From here he describes his struggles with a wide range of mental illness including body dysmorphic disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia. He is very honest in his disclosures and his assessment of the treatment he received from professionals as well as attempts by his family to help see him through the difficult times.

 

The book is split into four parts and each of these consist of short vignettes of different events. The brevity of these sections and seeming disconnect to what came before at times leave you wanting more details and deeper context. For some this comes later, but the style takes some getting used to. The tone is conversational and he clearly lays out his arguments. The first couple of parts feel more like notes for a book or an unedited blog post than a well put together book, but as it progresses he goes deeper and you find yourself swept along with his story. The glossaries that felt so jarring at the end of the first part also expand with time and allow him to further his analysis.

 

One of the recurring themes throughout is the disconnect between medical professionals telling you you’re getting better even though you don’t feel it yourself. He puts this down to the daily damages associated with mental ill health, something he urges everyone supporting someone in this position to take more account of. He describes some of these daily damages as including the feeling of being rejected, the inability to cope with social challenges and the guilt associated with this, embarrassment, and over-protection. He argues that the way professionals measure progress is limited by the frequency of episodes and that they don’t take account of the daily challenges that can make you feel like you’re failing.

 

Another interesting aspect of the book is his relation to others. He repeatedly refers to his inability to have ‘normal’ relationships and his regret at not being able to have the casual comfort with others that many of his peers seem to have. His familial relationships are also a strain, even with his twin brother. He was used to being the witty, lively one of the pair and seeing his brother grow and flourish while he faltered, caused jealousy and a feeling of isolation. Similarly he felt ignored by other family members, while admitting that they really had tried but he had remained unresponsive. The most shocking revelation, both to Roy and the reader, came with the realisation that his family weren’t aware of his struggles beyond the convulsions. He had hidden that part of himself away so successfully without realising he was doing it.

 

The book got off to a rocky start but I’m glad I persevered as the insights that appear later are deep and meaningful. An interesting read for anyone looking to learn more about the lived experiences of someone with multiple mental illnesses. Short enough that you can read it in one sitting and allow yourself to be fully swept up in the story.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Vegetarian Meals in 30 Minutes, Anita Bean

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Bean’s latest offering serves up her signature no-nonsense, healthy meals. The book opens with a discussion of nutrients and their sources for vegetarians, what you need before, during, and after a workout, and even dispels a few nutritional myths. This is a brilliant resource to check back to when planning meals.

 

The recipes themselves offer a comprehensive array of options from breakfast through to dessert. Each recipe includes nutritional information and she writes about the particular benefits of each meal. There are a number of vegan recipes included, and the majority that do include dairy she offers options for making them vegan. The recipes have got richer flavours than in her previous vegetarian cookbook and I find myself using the book several times a week. It’s even encouraged me to shake up my breakfast and lunches, meals that often get the least thought.

 

Overall, a brilliant book for those wanting to ensure they are getting a healthy mix of nutrients, and proof that being healthy doesn’t mean you can’t have some treats too. There are a few recipes in here that take a little more than thirty minutes, which she highlights with a little clock symbol, but for the most part they’re quick and tasty meals perfect for any day of the week.


Pick up a copy.

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Brilliant Bookish Places to Visit in England

Over the years, England has produced huge swathes of talented writers whose words have transported us to new worlds, given us a glimpse into the lives of others, and stayed with us through the ages. Here’s a list of some great places around the country where you can walk in the footsteps of your favourite author, enjoy the landscapes that inspired them, or imagine yourself in one of their books.

 

Haworth, Yorkshire

One of my favourite places and an absolute must for Brontë fans. Their home has been carefully transformed into a museum, the house itself returned to the state it was in while they lived there, with an exhibition space at the end where you can see their famous little books, childhood toys, and some of their other creative work. Directly opposite is the church and graveyard in which all but Anne are buried, giving you a sense of what it must have been like to grow up surrounded by death. Venture a little further and you’ll find yourself on the windswept moors that they loved so much. A bracing (well signposted) walk will take you to Brontë falls, and for the heartier walkers, a steep climb up to Top Withens, thought the be the inspiration for the location of Wuthering Heights. You can either retrace your steps across the moor or loop back through Stanbury, allow the best part of a day. The moors are beautiful and feel timeless. On a sunny day you might have to share with a lot of other Brontë fans but if you go out of season you’ll have them largely to yourself. Haworth Main Street is full of independent shops selling an eclectic mix of goods, but they don’t have set opening hours and if you’re there out of season might find that most of them are shut. The Black Bull pub was frequented by Branwell and you can still enjoy a meal there or a well earned pint at the end of a long walk. Haworth also has an additional gem for fans of the film of The Railway Children as the steam train that passes through was used in the film. On my first visit to Haworth I walked from Keighley station meaning I happily got to see some of the countryside en route. It’s a beautiful part of the country and there are so many places to walk in the surrounding areas.

Brontë Parsonage Museum

Oxford, Oxfordshire

Oxford is a city that has played host to some of our most well-loved authors – Philip Pullman, Lewis Carroll, and J. R. .R Tolkien to name but a few, and is rich in literary history. Exeter College is reported to be the inspiration behind Jordan College in Pullman’s His Dark Materials. A little outside the city you’ll find Godstow Abbey and The Trout pub, both of which feature in La Belle Sauvage. The pub itself is a great place to stop for a drink and delicious meal by the river. Speaking of pubs, The Eagle and Child was the meeting place for The Inklings in the 1930s and 40s. This informal group would meet to discuss literature and included J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Any book lover visiting Oxford won’t be able to resist a tour of the Bodleian Library (which also featured in the Harry Potter films). Founded in 1602, it has a remarkable history and collection that includes a First Folio of Shakespeare and manuscripts of Tolkien’s works. All those books will doubtless leave you hankering for some new additions to your own shelves and Blackwell’s is just the place for you, the original of the chain. There’s also an excellent Oxfam bookshop.

 

Bath, Somerset

Jane Austen fans flock to Bath for its beautiful Georgian buildings and the glimpse they offer into the life of a much-loved author. It’s worth taking time to just wander around this historic spa town, but there are a few stops that no Austen fan would want to miss. The Jane Austen Centre delves into her life and what the city would have been like when she lived there (1801-6). The Fashion Museum is housed in the Old Assembly Rooms which feature in two of her novels, and in which Charles Dickens gave readings. The Fashion Museum itself is worth a visit in its own right, as well as offering the opportunity to try on some period costume yourself. Even if you’re not a big Jane Austen fan, Bath has a rich history, and some excellent bookshops, including Mr. B’s Emporium, which all bookworms will want to check out.

Hill Top

 The Lake District, Cumbria

This stunning area of England has inspired many a writer over the years, including Arthur Ransome, Beatrix Potter, and William Wordsworth. Lake Windermere and Coniston Water provided inspiration for Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, and visitors can get out on the water in a kayak or boat to experience a slice of adventure for themselves. Beatrix Potter did a lot to preserve the natural beauty of the area and the breeding of Herdwick sheep. You can visit Hill Top, preserved as she left it with a gorgeous garden you can just imagine Peter Rabbit scampering around in. There’s also a great Gallery dedicated to her work in Hawkshead, and the National Trust has put together a guide for the some less well-known places of interest. William Wordsworth wrote some of his most famous works in the Lake District and you can visit his home, Dove Cottage, where he hosted other literary giants such as Walter Scott and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

 

Dorset

Thomas Hardy spent most of his life in Dorset, and the landscape appears in all of his major novels as Wessex. He is known for his heavily descriptive writing style and the central role the locations play in the plot. You can visit the home he designed, Max Gate, where he wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. Dorset County Museum holds a large Hardy collection and have on display some of his manuscripts and a reconstruction of his study at Max Gate. Visit Dorset have put together a handy leaflet with places of interest for Hardy fans.


Ashdown Forest

 

Ashdown Forest, Sussex

Ashdown Forest, better known as the Hundred Acre Wood, makes the perfect day out for Winnie the Pooh fans of any age. A.A. Milne lived on the edge of the forest and took inspiration from it for creating the wonderful world that holds a special place in the heart of anyone who grew up with his tales. On the walk you can even play Pooh sticks on the original bridge. The forest is more rugged heathland than wood but it’s a beautiful place for a walk. In nearby Hartfield village is Pooh Corner, a shop dedicated to everyone’s favourite bear, which also has a café to refuel after a frolic through the forest. 

 

London

You can barely turn a corner in the capital without stumbling across a bookshop, a literary location, or a blue plaque relating to an author. From wandering the streets of Bloomsbury channeling your inner Virginia Woolf to heading to Baker Street to do some sleuthing, or rushing to King’s Cross to live out your childhood dreams of finding yourself at Platform 9 3/4 (and don’t forget to pop next door to the British Library for an incredible encounter with their collections). There’s the Charles Dickens Museum to visit, Shakespeare’s Globe to enjoy, and the bookshops of Charing Cross Road to browse. There’s enough literary history in London to write a whole book about. To get a sense of the huge array of independent bookshops check out the London Bookshop Crawl.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

On the Bright Side: The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 85 Years Old

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After taking a year off from diary writing, Hendrik Groen is back with his amusing observations and deeply felt musings on some of life’s big questions. The Old-But-Not Dead Club are still going strong, although they have to come to terms with the need to recruit new members as their number inevitably dwindles. Hendrik stoically makes the best of his twilight years while also planning for his end.

He continues to mock the behaviour of certain of his fellow residents while admitting to finding himself falling into some of the same traps. There have been changes to the criteria for taking in new residents, meaning a steady increase in the average age and infirmity, making life more depressing for those still wanting to exercise their minds. Despite the emotional difficulty of the experience he continues to visit a dear friend in the closed ward. Grietje herself is always in good spirits but the other patients make for a sorry sight. ‘I can’t bear having to see the humiliation of it, and the helplessness.’ He perseveres nonetheless, proving himself to be a good friend.

Along with dwindling resident numbers they also have to contend with a change in director, who quickly proves to be no more amenable than their predecessor. The Old-But-Not-Dead Club pull off a political coup in dominating membership of the Residents’ Committee but have a fight on their hands when attempts are made to sideline their responsibility exclusively to social events. Hendrik offers some insightful thoughts on the running of the home, observing that many of the residents behave like children because they are treated as such. When considering why the garden is kept locked in winter and surmising that it’s probably because they don’t want responsibility for any residents freezing to death he offers this gem of wisdom – ‘There’s a big difference between wanting to be in charge, and wanting the responsibility.’ The book is littered with these moments of clarity amidst the humour and daily updates.

Toward the end of the year he begins to struggle to keep his spirits up and highlights the importance of good friends lifting you up when needed, refusing to allow the lethargy to set in. Determined to keep trying new things and not let inaction settle in their lives, the Old-But-Not-Dead Club make life worth living.

This sequel maintains the humour and entertaining characters from the first book but allows a little more space for dwelling on the challenges of life. This is balanced by yet more ambitious Club outings and hilarious accounts of their adventures. A wonderful book about growing older but with messages that are relevant at any age.

Pick up a copy: Foyles Waterstones

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks

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Sacks’ interesting book on language use by deaf people was published in 1989, and although some of the realities have shifted since its publication, many of the misconceptions around sign language remain. The book is comprised of three articles edited into a book, meaning that there is some overlap between sections. It does nonetheless help to build your knowledge throughout so you always feel equipped for each section. The first section gives a brief history of the treatment of deaf people and the way attitudes have changed (and sometimes regressed) over time. The second is the most scientific, discussing the neurological changes that occur in native sign language speakers, and the importance of language acquisition at a young age. The final section is the easiest to get into for the general reader, discussing the protests at Gallaudet College to get a deaf president in post. It is the section where deaf culture is discussed the most and the discussion becomes less about science and more about people.

There have been debates throughout the past few centuries about the best way for deaf people to communicate. Prior to the eighteenth century deaf people we dismissed as ‘deaf and dumb’ and remained isolated. Abbé Sicard began to question why this was and Abbé de l’Epée became fascinated by the sign language used on the streets of Paris. He began to understand that there was more to it than mere pantomime, and this change in attitude paved the way for better understanding and opportunities. It came to be seen that using sign language rather than enforcing speech allowed for greater success and integration. Unfortunately, a lot of this progress was lost at the Milan Convention of 1880 when oralism was voted in as the best method. This meant deaf pupils were prohibited from using sign language, which hampered the development of students who had been born deaf especially. Since then it’s been a long and slow process to have the importance and validity of sign language acknowledged.

Research by the likes of William Stockoe, Ursula Bellugi, and Helen Neville have demonstrated that sign language meets all the criteria of language as well as being processed as such by the brain. Recognition of sign as a language helps in arguments against oralism and for the teaching of it in schools. Sacks also discusses the unique visual skills associated with those fluent in sign language and the naturalness of it to a developing child.

Gallaudet College is mentioned early in the book as a haven for deaf students to flourish. It comes as a surprise therefore to read of the less than ideal governance and exclusion of deaf people from the role of president. In 1988 there were week-long rallies against the appointment of a new, hearing, president. Sacks witnessed these rallies first hand and reports the peacefulness of the experience. He also discusses his own sense of otherness as everybody around him conversed in sign language, of which he knew none. His experiences that week made him appreciate the beauty and fluidity of sign language and inspired him to learn some himself.

This is an interesting read, but focuses more heavily on language acquisition than deaf culture. Despite some parts now being outdated, it is nonetheless a useful reminder of the struggles deaf people have been through to have their languages recognized and to be allowed to use them. It is shocking how recently some of these breakthroughs came. Sacks admits that he enjoys going off on tangents and has included these as endnotes – they are numerous and lengthy, which can distract from the main narrative. I found it easier to go back at the end and read them in isolation as there’s much to be gained. I would recommend this book but perhaps also to combine it with something focused more on deaf culture and some supplementary reading for a more up-to-date position.

Pick up a copy:

Foyles

Waterstones

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Crossing in Time, D. L. Orton

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This post is part of the ultimate blog tour for the novel. Thanks to the publishers and The Write Reads for providing me with a review copy of the audiobook.

Isabel and Diego’s relationship takes centre stage in this light sci-fi novel. They live through a time of huge global difficulty, nuclear war threatens and a deadly disease is spreading fast. It becomes clear that going back in time to mend their broken relationship is the only way to save humanity, even if it means risking their own lives. With both characters unreachable in different times and places, will they be able to save the day and find their way back to each other?

From the first time we see them together, in a chance meeting after years apart, we see how their relationship crumbled. Isabel blames Diego for letting her go after she had an affair, taking little responsibility for her own mistakes. When she goes back in time and meets a younger Diego who hasn’t met her yet, she spends her time lecturing him on how to put up with her own problems and inconsistencies, putting all the emphasis on his behaviour. In many ways she doesn’t come across as particularly likeable but the experience does at least teach her to see their past in a new light. Despite their problems, there is an undeniable attraction between them that always draws them together, whether it works out or not.

A recurring theme throughout is Isabel’s relation to men and their attempts at dominance and violence against her. From the opening, a dystopian world in which people are trading laptops for food and in which she has reluctantly come to realise she needs a gun, the men she interacts with all seem to have one thing on their mind, and they are a threat to her. Later, when she is alone and vulnerable, an anonymous attacker attempts to rape her, and, in a different way, her ex-husband tries to maintain dominion over her. He uses his position to force her hand in terms of her work and manoeuvres the situation so that she has to hand over all her research. Perhaps this goes some way to explain why she is so demanding of Diego, she sees it as a relationship she has some control over.

A sci-fi novel might seem like a good source of escapism at the moment, but there are certain parallels that are a bit too close to the real world at the moment. There are some brief mentions of climate change and the need to act, but more so is the pandemic rapidly spreading and the desperate hunt for a vaccine that hasn’t been corrupted. There are throwaway remarks about the possibility of shortages of supplies such as flour and toilet roll, the weak and incompetent leaders delivering the response, and the impact this will have on international relations as well as civil unrest. Everyone is also told to stay home yet many ignore the advice. This was an unexpected aspect of the book and it was strange seeing our own world mirrored so closely in fiction.

Overall, an average read - the plot doesn’t entirely make sense the whole time and the characters aren’t ones you particularly root for. Isabel is blind to her own faults and Diego speaks largely in platitudes and puns. There’s a lot of work around developing their relationship so if you’re after a fast-paced sci-fi adventure then this is probably not the book for you. The most successful aspects are the most human – the grief, the reaction to a broken relationship you can’t move on from, and the little quirks only one who loves you would notice add a sense of reality to the characters. The first in a series, there’s still a lot more to be uncovered.

Pick up a copy:

Foyles

Waterstones

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Lorna Doone, R. D. Blackmore


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Published in 1869 and set in the seventeenth century, Lorna Doone is Blackmore’s most famous book, and the only of his once popular novels that is still readily available. It tells the story of John Ridd, an Exmoor yeoman, and his love for Lorna Doone. The name Doone is met with fear and disgust by the locals, having been terrorized by them for years, they even killed John’s father. Lorna however, rejects their way of life and wishes for the freedom to be with John despite other plans being firmly in place to keep her within the Doone family.

John narrates the tale, although does at one point pass the narrative over to Lorna. He speaks directly to the reader at times, giving glimpses of what his future looks like as well as little asides on his views and opinions which are not always endearing to the modern reader. He is however largely portrayed as kindly if a little vain and you do find yourself hoping that things turn out well for him.

It may be Lorna’s name on the title page but she is not often part of the action, being in large part the greatest dream of John’s heart, who is utterly enchanted from their first meeting. Some readers accuse her of being weak and overly compliant yet there are glimmers of strength within. For example, she tells John that the Doones are ashamed of their villainy in front of her. She must therefore have expressed her distaste for their behaviour, to hold some kind of power over her manipulative and uncaring relatives is no small feat. She is also resilient, growing up in violent surroundings with very little love shown to her, and then trying to fit into the Ridd family when there is a certain level of distance due to her social standing.

The novel is rich in descriptive detail and the landscape is brought to life in much the same way you find in a Hardy novel. Indeed, one of the reasons the local community turn against the Doones, aside from their violence and thievery, is the way they misuse their land. In many ways this is a moral tale, but one in which people are easily forgiven if they exhibit signs of kindness. ‘Everybody cursed the Doones, who lived apart disdainfully. But all good people like Mr Faggus – when he had not robbed them – and many a poor sick man or woman blessed him for other people’s money…’ Mr Faggus is a highwayman, but his involvement in the community and the occasional kind action allow him to be embraced by the very people who may well be his next victim.

This is a long book that could likely have been cut down while still retaining its appeal. For the moments where it drags however there are many more where you become completely absorbed in the story and the writing, which at times feels almost poetic. The Doones are brilliantly drawn villains and never fail to live up to their reputation. There are moments when the tale seems to go off on a tangent and you’re left wondering quite how you got there. Nonetheless, this is a great read with a dramatic, violent climax.

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