SIX: The Musical – A Right Royal Time

Last month, my friend Lydia, (she wanted me to name drop), took me to see SIX: The Musical, on the basis that I love all things Tudor-related, because the stars of the show are – you guessed it – Henry VIII’s six wives!

SIX is shown at the Arts Theatre which is modest in size compared to the more widely known theatres in Covent Garden. There’s no fancy foyer, it’s just straight in to the bar and ticket stand, then up or down the stairs to the seating. We were in the stalls.

Until recently, I’d developed a very narrow-minded view of musicals as being too cheesy for my liking. However, after hearing so many people rave about The Book of Mormon I bit the bullet in January and was far from disappointed! My problem with SIX was that nobody I knew had seen it to reassure me.

When the show started I still had my dubious hat on, but by the end of it I was part of the standing ovation, whooping as loud as my lungs would allow.

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The stories of the six women may be over 400 years old, but their experiences are still well-remembered today, and SIX conveys a modern relevance that is funny, heartbreaking and empowering.

The show is staged as a kind of sing-off and so each of the queens has her own song about her relationship with Henry.

Catherine of Aragon’s song was compelling and resilient.
Anne Boleyn’s was light-hearted and nonchalant – not the stance I would have liked but I’ve always been defensive of Anne!
Jane Seymour’s song made me eye-roll at first but within about a minute the tears were flowing.
Anne of Cleves delivered the much-needed comic relief, making us cry with laughter instead.
Catherine Howard’s song annoyed me at first but then she completely brought it back and surprised everyone.
Finally, Catherine Parr’s solo was unexpectedly heart-wrenching and bittersweet, which led on perfectly to the group performance at the end.

The costumes deserve a special mention here – gorgeous, glitzy and badass in equal measure, and each of them well-suited to the queens. We couldn’t decide whose we liked best!

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What I loved most about SIX was that it exploited popular stereotypes of the queens, and then completely broke them down in order to convey much more humanity to their characters than generic history books will allow. The cast portrayed individual transitions from vulnerability to strength that culminated in a stunning sense of unity and power by the end of the show.

So, if you love history, strong women and a good sing-along, SIX is a must-see! You’ll be coming out of the theatre humming ‘we’re six’ and asking ‘Henry who?’

Good news – SIX is now running until January 2020! Get your tickets here.
(This post is not sponsored in any way, I just want to spread the word.)

Thanks for reading!

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My Trips in 2018: Edinburgh

Long overdue, but it’s time to share my second trip of last year with you all – Edinburgh!

It’s taken me longer than I expected to collate this all; I was originally going to make it a short post but I loved this city so much I couldn’t help myself, so strap in…

My best friend and I began a list towards the end of Uni of all the towns in the UK we hadn’t yet been to, and Edinburgh was one of them, so we booked a long weekend away for April 2018.

The Hotel:

We found the Residence Inn by Marriott on Expedia and chose it mainly because of its central location, (only a few minutes’ walk from town), and the fact that we could get a twin room with double beds and breakfast included for a very reasonable price.

The room itself seemed huge – we had a sofa and foot rest/coffee table, a large desk and chair and a television on the wall. As all of the rooms at the Residence Inn are also self-catering, we had a kitchen/utility area which was equipped with cutlery and crockery, a fridge, kettle, microwave and dishwasher. Very handy if you want to save some money – conveniently there was also a small Sainsbury’s about ten steps away!

Residence Inn

In terms of wardrobe space in the room, there was enough for the two of us but we’d mainly brought jumpers and jeans with us anyway so ended up folding most of our stuff. I didn’t take a picture of the view but we were opposite one of the offices, (the hotel is in Edinburgh’s Quatermile, a mixed redevelopment of the former Royal Infirmary), so be careful if you’re staying mid-week and want to open the curtains in nothing but your underwear!

Residence Inn Kitchen

Residence Inn Desk

One of the things we did find strange was that to the left of the living/bedroom area, there was a basin and mirror and after that was there a separate door, which led to the toilet and shower. I think it’s odd to separate the toilet from the sink, especially if one of you gets up during the night and wakes the other up with the running tap! Also, the breakfast area was part of the lobby so there was no privacy between those of us stuffing our faces with food and people checking in and out, which felt weird. Nevertheless, it didn’t ruin our trip, and surprisingly neither did my horrific flu that decided to make an appearance the morning of our flight!

Day 1:

The transfer from Edinburgh Airport to our hotel took around 40-50 minutes. We’d pre-booked our transfers and it was relatively easy to find the Airlink bus shelters with the help of friendly staff.

Our first stop was to Greyfriars Kirkyard, where burials have taken place since the 16th century. The kirkyard’s most famous graves belong to John Gray and his skye terrier Greyfriars Bobby, who, when his owner passed away, was rumoured to have guarded John’s grave for fourteen years until his own death. In other words, Bobby was a very good boy, and has earned posthumous fame because of it. His statue stands just outside the kirkyard and the pub named after him.

Greyfriars Bobby

The kirkyard is also famous due to some of the names that stuck with J.K. Rowling when she visited, and later featured in Harry Potter! We saw the grave of a William McGonagall and a Mrs Elizabeth Moodie, and it took us some squelching through mud but finally we found He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named himself:

Thomas Riddle

The graveyard itself is beautiful yet eerie. I wouldn’t like to experience it on a dark and foggy night. It came as no surprise to find out that evening ghost walks are regularly held there.

Kirkyard graves

Kirkyard church

Kirkyard gravesAfter this, we passed The Elephant House, a cafe J.K. Rowling visited during the time she was writing Harry Potter. We didn’t go in as we’d already had a snack and it looked like a bit of a tourist trap. We were on our way to Victoria Street, the street that is meant to have inspired Diagon Alley. As you can probably tell already, Edinburgh is an ideal city for Harry Potter fans to visit.

Victoria Street is a small curve of colourful shops and some eateries, leading down to Grassmarket, (originally a medieval marketplace, and a spot for frequent public execution). The bright colours of the shop faces on Victoria Street contrast brilliantly with the traditional stone buildings associated with Edinburgh architecture.

Victoria Street 1

Victoria Street

The street wasn’t as narrow as I’d expected, but I could envisage its transformation in J.K. Rowling’s mind to the hustle and bustle of Diagon Alley. There is a jokes and novelties shop called Aha Ha Ha just before Grassmarket which can easily be recognised as the Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes of Victoria Street, and there are now also two Harry-Potter themed shops on the street, The Boy Wizard and Museum Context (pictured above: the purple shop with the number 40). The former is a more modern space with Harry Potter gifts you can probably buy at any merchandise shop. However, the latter holds the same and much more, from unique gift ideas such as hanging hot air balloon and boat mobiles to other film collectibles and memorabilia. Museum Context also uses its exposed brickwork and staircase to its advantage, making it seem more like an old curiosity shop than a typical tourist attraction. I also liked their Chamber of Secrets-inspired stairway decoration!

Museum Context Balloon

Museum Context Enemies of the Heir

Our next stop was Dean Village. We got an Uber from town, wanting to save our feet. The drive took less than 10 minutes, and I couldn’t believe the difference in atmosphere and location within that short time. We were transported from the busy town to this tranquil place, sheltered from any sound save the stream that runs through it. My photos don’t do it justice!

Dean Village stream

Dean Village bridge

Dean Village structure

After this, we walked back through town to the hotel to unpack, then went out again for dinner and some cocktails (so I could try to forget how ill I was).

Day 2:

We got up early enough to avoid the huge queues for Edinburgh Castle! This was one of our favourite visits because there was so much to see. Even more enjoyable for me, too, because the castle is high enough as it is, so no scary winding steps to climb!

Edinburgh castle exterior

Before we roamed around ourselves, we decided to wait for a free guided tour. I think this ran every half hour or so. It was very informative – we learned about the castle’s origins and its involvement during Edinburgh’s turbulent history, including the Jacobite rising. The castle has consequently been named one of the most besieged in Great Britain.

After the tour, we visited one of the castle shops as our guide had told us they were serving whisky tasters. We tried out some Bruadar malt whisky liqueur, which was lush! It tasted quite like honey too, so must have been really good for my throat… I bought a little bottle to take home. After warming up, we had a look in the castle’s impressive Great Hall, then ventured to the Royal Palace and the Crown room to see the collection of jewels stored there. I’m like a magpie so I enjoyed looking at all the sparkles.

Edinburgh castle great hall

The castle is also the site of the Scottish National War Memorial, a magnificent and somber building to commemorate the men and women who saved lives and sacrificed theirs during the World Wars and other conflicts. There was no photography allowed inside but here it is from the outside:

Edinburgh castle war memorial

Also on the castle grounds is St Margaret’s Chapel, built in the 12th century which makes it the oldest building in Edinburgh. David I, St Margaret’s son, was thought to have built the chapel in her memory.  It’s a tiny structure, but worth a look inside. People are allowed to marry there, but I can’t imagine they’d be allowed to invite more than ten people to the ceremony! My pictures of inside the chapel are poorly lit and blurry so you’ll have to see it for yourself.

Turns out Greyfriars Bobby wasn’t the only pet grave we’d see on this trip; the castle houses a small cemetery for soldiers’ dogs, which we could see if we poked our head over the top castle wall:

Edinburgh castle pet semetary

The castle’s prisons of war and military prison cells were poignant and also a bit spooky; my friend accused me of trying to scare her by the stairs in the military cells, saying she’d felt a hand on her shoulder…!

Before our reluctant departure from the castle, we had a look at Mons Meg (the huge cannon gifted to James II), viewed the panorama of the city and finally gathered in the crowd to hear the famous one o’clock gun.

Edinburgh castle panorama

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It started raining in the afternoon so we decided to pay a short visit to the National Museum of Scotland. We were dragging our feet a bit by this point, so didn’t see a great deal but had a walk around the Fashion and Natural World sections, and saw Dolly the sheep along the way!

Clearly we just hadn’t had enough of walking, though, because in between looking for a restaurant to return to for dinner that night, we found ourselves on the way up to Calton Hill. This is another viewpoint with incredible views of the city and Arthur’s seat, along with its own monuments and observatory. Unfortunately, the observatory was closed for construction and it was still tipping it down, so we didn’t stay as long as we’d liked, nor did we get spectacular pictures. I can imagine it being an ideal place for a picnic in the sunshine, though.

Calton Hill

Calton Hill panorama

The main event for our Saturday evening was The World Famous Frankenstein & Bier KellerMy friend had heard about this beforehand, and initially I thought it would be another tourist trap. How wrong I was! We arrived quite late, I think it was about 11pm, only wanting to have a nose around and a couple of drinks. I immediately regretted my choice of a warm, high-necked dress because there was a party going on in there that I wasn’t prepared for! There were a number of hen and stag parties, and the music was thumping. We were blown away by the decor.

Frankenstein sign

Frankenstein

It was clear to see the owners’ effort into making this a unique experience; not just a trip to the bar. We went upstairs at first, and I read a poster on our way up about a ‘monster show’, so I asked the barman when the next one was. He replied it was at 12am, and advised us to stay in the upper bar for it, and so we did.

Spooky, gothic VIBES. It only lasted a few minutes but it was such fun. Don’t look the monster show up online before you visit – just enjoy the thrill!

Anyway, long story short we got a little bit merrier than previously planned, joined the downstairs party and stayed dancing and talking to the DJ until the bar’s 2am close. Whoops.

I would LOVE to return to the Bier Keller at Halloween. I imagine it would be insane. And even if you’re not a party person, you can go during the day or early evening to avoid the noise. It will be great for children, too. Either way, it’s not to be missed!

Day 3:

I at least had the advantage on this beautiful, sunny (!) day of not knowing whether it was my flu or a hangover that was making my head pound. Still, a couple of ibuprofens down and we were on our way to the Palace of Holyroodhouse!

Palace of Holyroodhouse

Palace of Holyroodhouse lanterns

Again, the cab ride only took around 10 minutes. There was hardly any queuing to do so we were soon equipped with our free audio guides. Inside was not quite as gold and glamorous as I was expecting, but then it is still a working royal palace so I guess rooms are maintained to be more functional compared to palaces with displays in every room. I remember there being an enormous amount of tapestries, which is decorative and practical, keeping the rooms warmer in what is usually a cold Northern climate!

The highlight for me was seeing Mary, Queen of Scots’ chambers. Looking into the ‘supper room’ it was chilling to know that Mary’s private secretary, David Rizzio, was violently murdered there. In another chamber there was a box containing a lock of Mary’s hair on display, and I couldn’t believe I was so close to such a crude piece of history.

When we exited the palace we came out by the remains of Holyrood Abbey, which were breathtaking in the crisp, clear sunshine. More beautiful views of Arthur’s Seat and its surrounding hills awaited us as we made our way round the back of the palace.

Holyrood Abbey

Holyrood Abbey outer

Holyroodhouse grounds

After lunch, we headed to the The Writer’s Museum. This rather narrow, quirky looking building houses information, records and objects related to three famous Scottish writers: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. To be honest, I knew next to nothing about Scott and had only read To a mouse by Burns at school so it was interesting to learn about some of the events which shaped their lives and writing. It was also fascinating to read about Stevenson’s experiences at sea, knowledge which would have helped him greatly in the creation of Treasure Island.

Writer's Museum

We saw an advertisement for a Book Lover’s tour outside the museum which takes place on Sundays at 11:30am. I’d definitely be keen to do that on my next visit!

This was shaping up to be a literary afternoon because we stopped in the National Library. Unfortunately it was near closing time, and you had to own a library card to access the reading rooms, so we were limited in what we could see. However, there was a free Muriel Spark exhibition on, so all was not lost! I studied The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie during one of my university semesters, so it was great to see letters of praise for it from Spark’s friends, critics, and even Vanessa Redgrave, who played Miss Brodie on stage in the 1960s. I found it inspiring to see snippets from Spark’s notebooks; nothing fancy, just lined paper, a blue biro and determination. It’s always comforting to see crossing-out in drafts of famous novels. It’s good to know their authors were only human too: making mistakes and self-criticising.

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Our next visit was exciting, magical and alcohol-fuelled… Harry Potter style! We couldn’t resist another themed visit. I can’t remember if it was mine or my friend’s spot on social media before our trip, but we’d discovered that the Pop Up Geeks were offering cocktail making in the form of Perilous Potions. The location was a small bar in the Edinburgh Arches, near Waverley Station. We’d booked because we’d heard how busy it could get, and I’m not surprised seeing as there was only capacity for about five small groups. This only added to the ambiance, though, because we felt like we were in a small potions classroom! Filch’s framed proclamations were hanging on the walls, the sorting hat rested on top of the bar, and there were cauldrons and candles a-plenty.

Perilous Potions - Bar

Perilous Potions decorationsWe were greeted by our witch-turned-barmaid, and given the book to begin our potions journey, property of the ‘half-cut prince’ (ingenious):

Each cocktail was rated by potion-making difficulty level, so you could choose how experimental (and patient) you wanted to be. We went for the easiest first and then made our way up the scale. Nothing blew up or brought us out in warts, so I’m guessing we did pretty well! We were given pieces of parchment with the ingredients and methods on after our orders were taken for each cocktail.

Perilous Potions - drinks

My friend picked a prosecco-based cocktail which took about ten minutes of pipette work to get right! That was entertaining to watch. My favourite cocktail was whisky-based (can you tell I decided to like whisky this weekend?!) and the final effect was a sparkly blue concoction not dissimilar to the glowing surface of Dumbledore’s pensieve.

After our two-hour slot we were feeling pretty tipsy so it was time to get dinner and sober up as our last visit was later that night.

We had tried to book a tour of The Real Mary King’s Close the afternoon before but they were fully booked, so to my dismay we were going to go below ground-level in the dark! I’m a wuss.

The Close is a series of historic streets underneath the city’s Royal Mile, and was named after one of its merchant residents who lived there during the 17th century. Our guide was dressed up and in character as a maid in a merchant’s household during the 16th century. She told us about the types of families that would have lived in the Close and the hardships they would have faced during times of plague and poverty. We also learned what the traditional calling of ‘gardyloo’ meant (hint: see the last three letters of the word!)

The Close had an eerie atmosphere, and the darkness was no good for photos – hence the absence of them here. There was a moment where we all had to sit down in front of a fireplace and listen to a ghost story – I was of course terrified even though I knew a gimmicky jump-scare was coming! There was also a room filled with a pile of children’s toys. We were told that a young girl called Annie haunts this room, and is only appeased when she’s gifted things to play with, so people sometimes bring things to give to her on their visits! Amongst the cuddly toys we did see a Westlife CD, though. Poor Annie.

Ghosts aside, it was fascinating to be able to walk through a different world from the streets above. Most of the original foundations are still in place, which does make some parts of the Close inaccessible, but the parts we walked through felt safe enough, and my claustrophobia was under control!

At the end of the tour was a very steep hill which we were told would have been rife with people selling their market wares, farm animals roaming and children playing. The road was cobbled and possibly the narrowest we’d ever seen! It must have been chaos, but it was admirable to know that even in difficult circumstances, the residents of the Close were able to make it work and that life endured all the same.

Sadly, there ended our trip!

Edinburgh

Now that I’ve written about it, I realise we crammed so much into our last day, let alone our trip, but it didn’t even feel rushed! I think part of that was due to the fact that everything was so close by; we didn’t use any transport apart from a couple of cabs! This is what I loved most about Edinburgh. Large cities can sometimes feel too busy and claustrophobic, but in Edinburgh you can escape the liveliness of town in no time at all. The hills dotted about offer a real sense of comfort and tranquility, reminding you that you’re never far from nature.

If it wasn’t so far away from family and friends, and colder and wetter than down here in the South, I would move to Edinburgh in a heartbeat! I will definitely be visiting again. Writing about this trip has made me miss it so much.

Now, I haven’t forgotten the important bits to end on:

Food & Drink – Lunch: On our first day, we ate lunch at Makar’s Gourmet Mash Bar on the Mound (up the big hill, opposite the Museum on the Mound). Like the name suggests, their specialty is potato! It was quite a hearty lunch and warmed us up, (helped by the local beer and ciders). I can’t remember what my friend ordered but I had the smoked sausage, cheese and egg rosti fritter stack. Despite violently blowing my nose every ten minutes, my tastebuds hadn’t gone by this point so I can say that my food was tasty!

On our second day we tried Civerinos Slicea pizza place near our hotel offering ‘pie-sized’ pizzas or huge slices for lunch! I went with the vegan and veggie option and wasn’t disappointed:

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On our last day, we went to Hemma, a stroll away from Holyroodhouse. The exterior is all glass and there is seating outside with some AstroTurf to make it look even more inviting in the sunshine. Inside was bright and modern, with chilled-out vibes – I think they had a table football in there, and also an area at the front with book shelves (which is always a winner with me). The food is advertised online as European/Swedish. They have an area available to hire for parties. There there were a couple of large groups when we went so it did take us a while to be served. However, the food was amazing! I had a salad which I’m not sure is still on their menu, sadly… (that’s what I get for posting so late), but here it is:

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Mixed leaves, couscous, avocado, halloumi, some spicy-ish green sauce and oranges – I’ve never had oranges in a salad before but it seemed classy so I went for it. I probably needed the vitamin C for my flu, anyway.

Tea, coffee and cakes: Before heading to the Writer’s Museum, we stopped off at Zebra Coffee Company, just round the corner from the mash bar. It’s small inside but we managed to nab two seats on the end of a bench out the back. My friend had a coffee and a brownie and I had a chai tea and a rocky road slice! They were LUSH. The chocolate was so rich but without being sickly, although I don’t know I’d be saying the same if we’d just eaten lunch!

Dinner: On our first night we visited Cafe Andaluz for tapas in the new town, (there’s also one in the old town). I can’t remember what we had but I think it was some sort of chorizo dishes, and fish. We enjoyed it, anyway!

Our second dinner was spent in the Cellar Door, conveniently opposite the Frankenstein Bier Keller. This is a traditional Scottish restaurant. It was slightly more up-market and therefore more expensive, but we enjoyed our food all the same! I had the Scotch venison, which came with butternut squash, potatoes and a red wine jus.

As I said, we needed to sober up after our cocktail making on the last night, so I went for a hearty pie at the restaurant in The Inn on the Mile. My friend went for a haggis topping on her burger, which I tried (because when in Rome, right?) but I’d lost all sense of taste so it really wasn’t worth it. I’ve tried haggis since, though, and it’s a no from me.

I’d love to say my flu ironically disappeared after this trip, but I actually ended up keeping my rattly cough for nearly three and a half months afterwards – which included the next trip I will write about, Zakynthos! That’s Zante to all you lads out there. But it wasn’t that kind of holiday at all…

Thanks for reading!

Review of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

I watched this on Friday and MY GOODNESS. I need to talk about it. This is new, bold, exciting, and may change the way we view film and TV from now on.

The premise of Bandersnatch, (set in an ironically significant 1984), is that the main character, Stefan, is developing a game based on a fantasy book in which you can choose different options in order to form your own storyline. The author of this book Bandersnatch, Jerome F. Davies, famously ended up insane and decapitated his own wife. Stefan has the chance to develop his game for a big company.

And that’s as much as I can tell you because what happens is up to you. During scenes, two options pop up and you must decide the focus of the plot by guiding Stefan’s behaviour and actions. We start with the basics: choose what Stefan has for breakfast, Sugar Puffs or Frosties. Then, as you would expect from having watched any previous Black Mirror episode, the decisions get tougher, the plot more serious, the options darker. You’ll find yourself considering whether Frosties really was the best way to start Stefan’s day.

Bandersnatch

A glaring metaphor echoes throughout Bandersnatch, (if you choose similar options as I did), due to one particular scene with Colin Ritman, the well-known games developer, (brilliantly played by Will Poulter). Colin makes an LSD-fuelled speech about messages embedded within every game, stating that the PAC in Pac-Man stands for Program and Control:

He’s the Program and Control man. The whole thing’s a metaphor, he thinks he’s got free will but really he’s trapped in a maze, in a system – all he can do is consume, he’s pursued by demons that are probably just in his own head, and even if he does manage to escape by slipping out one side of the maze, what happens? He comes right back in the other side. People think it’s a happy game, it’s not a happy game, it’s a f*cking nightmare world, and the worst thing is it’s real and we live in it.

Bandersnatch is undoubtedly a maze, as Colin describes. I think it’s safe to say that, in an Inception-like way, not only is Stefan the ‘Pac-Man’ of this situation, being controlled as he believes by some external force, (that force being us), but so are we. If we can play Bandersnatch, then it can also play us, and very early on it does seem to do this. I watched the film with four friends and after choosing what we judged to be the better option of the two for Stefan, we were proven wrong. We were eventually taken back to the same scene, to make a different decision. We thought we were being clever and purposefully chose the same option again. Obviously that’s not how Bandersnatch is to be played. We thought we were ‘slipping out of the maze’ but we were once again transported back to the scene, manipulated into choosing the other option in order to ‘unlock’, as it were, the rest of the film’s content and pathways.

Being ‘played’ isn’t all bad once you’re past that initial hurdle. If you’re curious enough to view most, (or all), of the different pathways in Bandersnatch, then the insidious confusion and at times ridiculousness of Stefan’s various storylines is a welcome treat. The running time of the film, when you come to the end of your first chosen pathway, is around an hour and a half. I think my friends and I racked it up to double that time; we kept clicking on the options presented at the end of each version of Stefan’s story until the final credits rolled. We wanted to find out what happened if we hadn’t chosen to ‘follow Colin’ or ‘shout at Dad’. Without wanting to spoil too much, we stumbled upon a fourth-wall-breaking moment that was quite special, and brought an Orwellian feeling to the forefront.

BlackMirror

After viewing Bandersnatch I was reminded of fanfiction and all its possibilities. Normally, viewing of characters in film and TV is limited within directorial and written constraints. Fanfiction allows a new space to be created for these characters; whether you are a writer or reader of fanfiction, you are driven by a want to see beyond what the characters have already done on-screen. You wish to explore these characters exhibiting different behaviours and reacting to new stimulants and situations.

Bandersnatch does not have any of the conventional constraints of film and TV. It is its own type of fanfiction, really. I admire Charlie Brooker’s boldness in creating such diversity and even contradiction within his writing, because I’ve always believed a peculiar kind of selfishness is attached to writers, (of course I’m including myself here). There’s the ever-present mentality of ‘these are my characters and I’ll direct where they’re headed‘, even when you do have help with writing along the way. Brooker has let go of this mentality with Bandersnatch, and I think we may thank him for his selflessness.

For the record, I’m not saying all film and TV should be like this from now on. We’d never have the time to live our own lives. But it does herald an exciting future for script writers and film makers who wish to explore the same kind of path as Bandersnatch, if you’ll pardon the awful pun. Being granted some free will and the choice to guide the action of what we’re seeing may also teach us more about our own viewing preferences, and what it is we wish to gain from them.

Rarely has anything on Netflix deserved more than two viewings in a row, but with Bandersnatch, I tell you to view it as many times as humanly possible. Choose your options well. Then choose again. Then change your mind. Get weird. Get deep. Enjoy. Then scour the internet for theories, hidden meanings, ways of watching, and fascinating facts about the filming process, like I’m about to do…

Thanks for reading and I hope you all have a Happy New Year!
See you in 2019.

Remember me..?

Five months and it’s finally time I came out of hiding.

This isn’t an exciting post to end the tumbleweed gracing this blog, I’m saving that for the next one. This is just to say, I’m back, and I’m not about to give up on writing like I almost also gave up on helping myself this year.

I’m not going to go into every detail; I’m not trying to be one of those awful ‘influencers’ that shares everything about their life and wants people to see what they’re doing every minute of the day. As I’m getting older I’m realising the value of privacy during certain moments of life. I only want people to be invested in my writing; interested in reading and discussing hobbies and whatever else I post about. Nevertheless, it won’t do any harm in explaining (not justifying) my absence on this here blog.

Since I graduated last year, I’m slightly ashamed to say I’ve struggled adjusting back to ‘non-student’ life. I’ve felt lazier (I stopped taking my car to Uni after first year so walked everywhere); more isolated (due to the distance separating myself and the friends I gained over three years) and less confident in writing.

As you may have guessed, I really don’t like putting my words out there until I know for sure that I’m happy with them, (the joys of being a perfectionist). Socially, I don’t tend to overthink conversations I’ve had, or hesitate to speak my mind, but when it comes to writing… Well. Every time I’ve sat down to write something this year I’ve experienced a sinking feeling and thoughts along the lines of ‘nobody wants to read this’ or ‘this is never going to be as good as you want it to be therefore there’s no point in wasting your time’. Awful, I know. But I’ve been stuck in this rut for a long while.

On top of this, my family suffered two huge losses this year and to be honest what with grief to deal with among other things it’s been hard for me to even want to get out of bed some days, let alone attempt to write. Which the two people I’ve lost would have berated me horribly for, I know it. But these things take time. You can’t plan grief.

HOWEVER, you can plan recovery. Which is what I’m aiming for currently…

To start with, I’ve created a coping mechanism to snap me out of melancholy, which involves writing down every little thing I’m grateful for. I really shouldn’t be all ‘boo-hoo-I’m-so hard-done-by‘, because I’m really not. I’m sure many of you have experienced loss and the kind of self-doubt I’ve had.

I have to remind myself I’m lucky enough to have quite a few privileges in life and one of these includes an amazing support group of friends and family. I’ve also had some amazing trips away this year which I’m now eager to share, along with some well-overdue book reviews. I haven’t read many new releases in the past few months; I’ve been re-reading the Harry Potter books for comfort, (and to further fuel the obsession, obviously), but I did read some fabulous things earlier on in the year. There are about 5 titles of reviews in my drafts waiting to be written! Also, any recommendations would be very welcome, I’d love to know what you’ve all been reading and enjoying.

So, to end this rather strange ramble, from now on I’m all about focusing on the good stuff and making more good stuff from it. As much as it might be difficult to keep to my resolution of exercising more next year, I am going to make more time to visit friends further afield, and to share my writing with some old English Lit. pals like we did in Creative Writing workshops – the more feedback, the better. I’m still new to this blogging lark and, after all, only human. There’s only so much I can edit of my own work without my brain being fried.

Anyway, I hope you all had an amazing Christmas,  and I’ll return very shortly. There’s a new Black Mirror film to discuss!

If you’ve made it to the end, congrats, and thanks for reading and sticking with me!

My Trips in 2018: Paris

I swear these posts are always going to start with an apology note because I take months to actually publish something on here, and for that I’m sorry… Life actually did get in the way this time, but I’m hoping things are on the up now, including this blog!

Anyway, although I will definitely keep posting book reviews I thought I’d break it up a bit and start writing about my trips away this year, starting with Paris. You’ll be glad to know this means a few more pictures in between the long paragraphs!

My boyfriend and I have always booked a weekend away at the end of January/beginning of February to celebrate each year we’ve been together – this year was our sixth, and we decided we’d go to Paris. My boyfriend had visited the city before but was very young at the time and couldn’t remember much, and I’d been to Disneyland but not to the capital, so this felt like a good time to go.

The Hotel:
I’d already heard that Paris was expensive to visit, and I had to trowel through hundreds of hotels over our budget before spotting the perfect one on Lastminute.com – Hotel Pastel Paris. The hotel had recently been renovated and though I was only able to read a few reviews because of this, all were positive so I was really excited about staying there.

Hotel-Pastel-Paris-Door-NumberLike the hotel’s name, all the rooms are decorated in pastel and overall the feel is vintage Parisian. One of my favourite touches were the Chanel-esque perfume bottles indicating the room numbers on each door.

The building itself is quite compact – the entrance to the lobby/reception area has no porch and the breakfast room could only hold just over half a dozen two-seater tables, however this did give the place an intimate and homely feel which I liked. (See below right for picture of the lobby). The rooms are equally as small but really cute. Our double bed was annoyingly comfy – we could have stayed there much longer every morning but we had so much to see!

We didn’t struggle with wardrobe space as we were only staying for a few days and folded most of our winter clothes anyway. If you like privacy, though, you might want to keep your underwear in your suitcase..! As you can see from the photo on the left below, there were no doors on the wardrobe and storage spaces, but again this didn’t bother us. My only criticism with our room was the shower – I’m tiny as it is and I struggled for elbow space in the shower!

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The location of the hotel was perfect – only a short walk to the Arc de Triomphe and Champs-Élysées but nicely tucked down a side street to ensure a peaceful night’s sleep! The staff were also lovely and helpful with directions and advice on transport links. I didn’t find out who runs their Instagram but after I’d posted a picture of our room, (the one on the right), and tagged the location, they kindly asked if they could feature it on their account. Of course I was happy to oblige, and they even tagged me in it which was thoughtful – you can see their post here.

Now on to what we crammed into our 4 days of being tourists…

Day 1:
We arrived at the hotel around 10am after navigating our way via the metro from near Gare du Nord, quickly unpacked then went exploring.

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Surrounding the Arc de Triomphe is the craziest roundabout I’ve ever seen, the Étoile. I don’t understand how we didn’t see anyone crash because you have to give way to everyone entering the roundabout, and I think around 12 different roads lead to that roundabout? Baffling. Luckily, you access the Arc de Triomphe via stairs underneath the chaos.

 

 

Once there, we saw the tomb of the unknown soldier and its eternal flame, but didn’t manage to go to the top of the structure as it was quite packed. We decided to return later or in the next couple of days. All the same, the symmetry of the architecture was beautiful to admire.

We then strolled along the Champs-Élysées – take some serious money if you want to treat yourself in the shops on this avenue! We looked in Louis Vuitton for a laugh and felt very out of place… I was afraid to touch anything! Although the bags in their ‘Masters’ collaboration with Jeff Koons looked stunning (not sure on the promo film of it though…! Have a watch if you want). We also saw what we thought was the entrance to some grand mansion, and followed the stony pathway round to find the entrance to an Abercrombie & Fitch! Check out their doorway below… (did slightly remind me of the Jack Wills in Chichester).

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After lunch, our next stop was the Eiffel Tower! This Friday was a particularly windy one, so unfortunately the top floor to the tower was closed and we could only venture to the 2nd floor. I say unfortunately… I’m not sure I would have loved being at the top so much as the 2nd floor felt high enough to me! I’m glad there were lifts to take us up.

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Although it wasn’t the clearest day it was still amazing to see panoramic views of the city (which also helped us get our bearings). It was good to learn some information about the Eiffel and its construction as I didn’t really know much before. There were also videos showing how the structure is maintained – every 7 years loads of VERY brave people abseil down and across and hang at all sorts of terrifying angles in order give the iron tower a fresh coat of paint.

After watching what we could see of the sunset from the café on the 1st floor, we headed back down to watch the tower light up and glitter. Magical.

Paris-Eiffel-Lit-Up

Day 2:
After breakfast at the hotel, we got an Uber to the Louvre. This was a rainy day so we were glad to have planned an indoor visit. Thankfully we didn’t queue too long for entry. First we learned a bit about the Louvre itself. I never knew it was originally a fortress, and it was great to see some remains of the old building, to sense how important this place was to French history even before it became a museum.

Paris-Louvre

We then moved through to the Egyptian Antiquities, royal collection and Greek Antiquities sections before stopping for lunch and resting our feet in one of the cafés. I wasn’t expecting much in terms of food quality but I enjoyed the huge slice of veggie pizza I ordered – plenty of cheese, pesto, and even potatoes! Carbs upon carbs, mmm.

After realising that we wouldn’t have time to see everything we wanted in the Louvre, (it really is HUGE), we decided to head straight to the main attraction – the Mona Lisa, of course. On the way, we passed the Winged Victory of Samothrace, which is spectacularly displayed at the top of the first floor staircase. We could tell without looking at our museum map which room the Mona Lisa was in. We had to wait for some of the crowd to disperse before we could move nearer. A glimpse is all you can really get of the Mona Lisa, as the distance between the front of the viewing barrier and the painting’s glass protection is quite far, considering how small Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece actually is (if it is the real deal)! Here’s me looking a little unimpressed after battling my way through the mass of selfie sticks:

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Still, at least I can say I’ve seen her in real life now! After this, we looked at some American and English paintings and when we left we strolled around the Louvre‘s grounds and the Roue de Paris which is a big mobile Ferris wheel. We didn’t go on it but it was very photogenic in the evening light:

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After dinner, we had a much needed nap then got ready for our late night entertainment at the Moulin Rouge! This was a belated anniversary gift from my boyfriend. We wanted to see the show and had been recommended it, but when I looked at ticket prices initially we decided against it because most showings including dinner and drinks cost more than our hotel and travel combined! However a couple of weeks prior to our trip I found out Jamie had booked it! It was meant to be surprise but he’s not great at being secretive…

Paris-Boulevard-de-Clichy

We got our second Uber of the day to Montmarte because the walk would have been too long and it was still raining. Plus, our showing was at 11pm so we didn’t want to tire ourselves out before we’d even arrived! We went straight into the theatre but if you wanted to get there earlier there are plenty of restaurants and bars amongst the bright neon lights of sex shops and strip clubs illuminating the Boulevard de Clichy.

 

 

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Once inside the theatre we did have to queue for a while but this was expected. The staff were helpful and when we finally got to our seats we weren’t disappointed. We were just a few tables away from the front of the stage, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that we were accompanied at our table by other couples from the UK so that just shows how well-planned and thoughtful the staff were. Before the show started we spoke to a couple from Leeds in between sips (glugs) of our champagne, (the bottle was included in the price of the tickets). The ambiance was perfect – low lighting and vintage Parisian decor around us and then dazzling bright lights on stage.

The Féerie show was absolutely amazing. The set pieces and costumes were incredible. Yes, the costumes are ‘revealing’ but if you’re worried about the show being overtly sexual then think again – the show caters for everyone and allows children from the age of 6 into the venue if accompanied by an adult. I knew to expect singing and dancing but there were also some wonderful surprises included in the performance. The cast clearly love what they do and that radiated through to us.

I can’t share any pictures of the show as no photography was allowed and rightly so – iPhone pictures wouldn’t do it justice and it was great just to immerse ourselves in the show. If you can save up, definitely book tickets! It makes a change from the normal touristy activities of looking at buildings and monuments (much as I love that). It was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. Now for another one of my highlights…

Day 3:
We had a bit of a lay-in due to our late finish the previous night, so we grabbed some pastries from a nearby boulangerie and hopped on the metro, then the train to The Palace of Versailles! When we booked our trip I discovered that the journey to Versailles from our hotel was around an hour, so we decided to make a day of our visit and I’m so glad we did.

The walk from the train station to the palace took around 15-20 minutes and it was pretty much a straight line so there was no way for us to get lost (my sense of direction is usually awful). We greeted Louis XIV’s statue and arrived at the golden gates around 11am. We received audio guides for free, and entry was also free to everyone as it was the first Sunday of the month (see their website for free entry eligibilities).

Paris-Versailles-Chapel

Prior to going, my only knowledge of the palace’s history came from the BBC One drama Versailles and the factual after-show Inside Versailles (which sadly they’ve stopped doing for the third series). The audio guides really helped expand on what I already knew as well as teaching me more. My boyfriend didn’t know anything about it so he found it really handy. There are numbered audioguide options for each room you pass through. I won’t go into too much detail about the interior but the obvious ‘wow’ rooms were the chapel (above) and the Hall of Mirrors. You could imagine how much pride the Sun King took in showing his exclusive guests the ethereal creations within his palace. Top tip for when you go – remember to look up in every room to see the beautiful paintings!

Paris-Versailles-Ceiling

My other favourite aspects of the palace were the gardens and fountains. When we went outside the sun started to shine which felt miraculous after a misty, drizzly morning. The wind was still bitterly cold, but when we sat on the edge of the lake eating our baguettes, the sun warmed my face and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so serene, (may have to do with the fact I was stuffing my face with bread too – but you decide). I can imagine how gorgeous the gardens are in warmer weather and I’m thinking of taking a weekend off to have a picnic there this summer or next.

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We stayed exploring the gardens until closing time at 5:30pm. We reluctantly made our way back to the station, stopping off at an antique store on the way.

Paris-Versailles-Landscape

Day 4:
On our last day we woke up to snow! We had experienced all types of weather over our long weekend. Once again we got breakfast at the local boulangerie then headed to the Notre Dame. As we queued up to go inside the bells started chiming and so accompanied by the blizzard it all felt aptly gothic.

The inside of the cathedral is a wondrous sight. I’m not religious but it’s hard not to sense some sort of magnificence when you enter. We bought audio guides for €5 each and had a slow walk around, learning about the cathedral’s many pieces of iconography, as well as about the building’s long history of construction. There was no photography allowed inside however my boyfriend not so subtly took this beautiful picture below before he read sign properly…

Paris-Notre-Dam

After an hour or so we headed out to the snow flurry again to queue for the tower. Unlike inside, you have to book a time slot as understandably only small groups of people are allowed up at any one time. We had to hop about a bit in the 10 minutes’ wait to keep warm!

Paris-Notre-Dame-Gargoyle

There were a fair few stairs to climb. We had to wait in the shop, which was halfway up, before progressing to the tower, so I panicked knowing we’d have to ascend more narrow winding steps again. Ironic that a history lover has such a fear of old stone staircases! Anyway, one we were up and I’d caught my breath, the view wasn’t as spectacular as it would have been on a day with clear sky, but it was still great to see a small section of snow-covered Paris. I love the picture on the right that I took of one of the tower’s gargoyles.

Once we’d taken enough snowy pictures, we had the option of scaling more stairs to get to the very top of the tower but I passed on that as the steps looked slippery and even more narrow! I didn’t want to chance it…

When we were on safer ground again, we headed across the short bridge from the cathedral to what is now one of my favourite book shops in the world: Shakespeare and Company! My boyfriend found out about this place online. It’s an American company, opened in 1951 and later re-named in honour of the original Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, owned and opened by Sylvia Beach in 1919.

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I could have stayed there all day! As you can see from the picture on the left, I was pretty comfortable. It was so warm and cosy inside, the perfect reading environment. They have a dedicated quiet reading room in memory of Sylvia Beach, and stools dotted about the rest of the two floors so you can sit down to read blurbs or beginnings of the books you may fancy taking home. There is a resident cat to keep you company, and a few quirky things such as a (working) typewriter and desk, and a pin board next to the cat’s bed where visitors can stick their thank-you notes – we added ours to the collection. And, of course, their Shakespeare section is wonderful. I picked up a little pocket book of sonnets to take home.

Before we went back to our hotel to pick up our bags, we went up the Arc de Triomphe to see the Champs-Élysées and of course the Eiffel Tower from above, all lit up. The perfect end to a wonderful trip!

Paris-Arc-de-Triomphe-view

 

To end, I thought I’d impart the slightest bit of knowledge, if you are travelling into Paris for the first time like I was!

Travel Tips:

Transport to Paris – We travelled via Eurostar from Ebbsfleet International, which took around 2 hours so super quick. Try to find companies online (like Lastminute) where your train is included in the price of your trip, as we found it worked out cheaper than booking the Eurostar separate to the hotel. Make sure you download the Eurostar app for easier check-in before your travel date.

Transport in Paris – As I mentioned, we used Uber for when it was raining or in the evenings for simplicity, but the Metros are as easy to navigate as London tubes, and if you don’t know there are always staff at the kiosks who may be able to help. We thought there would be closures at many underground stations, because at the time we went the Seine was flooding and no boats were in operation, but thankfully we didn’t encounter closures on the lines we used! A few of the stations were dotted with large puddles but unlike in England, the people of Paris didn’t seem to worry and just got on with it!

We only travelled by overground train once (excluding Eurostar), to Versailles, but that was easy enough to catch. Live train times are available online, if you have roaming on your devices. The train we went on had two floors, so like excited kids we naturally sat on the top floor!

Food & Drink – Breakfast: The breakfast at our hotel was a small buffet of pastries, yoghurt, fruit bowls, eggs and bacon along with fruit juices, tea and coffee. This cost €15 per person per day, hence why we only had breakfast here one morning out of four. Local bakeries were much cheaper – a drink and croissant or baguette cost around €7. I had a croissant without fail every day!

Lunch: Bakeries were also good for quick lunches but if you want to have a more relaxed lunch be prepared to pay extra. On our first day we made a mistake by going into Vapiano, an Italian chain we know from London which is usually quick service (you pay at the counter and the chefs cook your food in front of you), but every tourist in Paris clearly had the same idea as us and we queued for way too long! On our last day we went to a restaurant near the cathedral and had lighter versions of the menu’s main meals which cost us €18 each with two drinks but it was worth it.

Dinner: Apart from the Saturday when we went to a Hard Rock Cafe – a weird tradition of ours – we went to two reasonably priced local restaurants, a French and a Lebanese, both were delicious. We booked our tables online as we weren’t sure how busy the restaurants were going to be, and lucky we did because we found in both restaurants that this entitled us to a 30% discount off the price of our total bill! I’m really not sure if this is a general thing across Paris but if the restaurant you want to go to has a website, it’s worth a try booking in advance. The wines we tried were really good –  a decent bottle was around €25 and obviously the prices went up depending on the type and quality!

Planning ahead: This is mainly concerning entry fees – out of all the places we went to, the only entries we paid for were the Eiffel Tower, (though they offer discounted entry for under 25s), and obviously the Moulin Rouge. We got in free everywhere else due to being 1) under 26 and/or 2) EU citizens (for now!) The only last thing I’ll say is make sure you check opening times of the places you want to go to, in case you get caught out like I did! I wanted to spend our last few hours in Paris in the Musée d’Orsay, but when I went on their website on our last day, which was a Monday, I discovered that the museum is closed on Mondays! Oh well. That’s just another excuse for me to re-visit the beautiful city of lights/love/whatever you want to call it – I think it’s both and more.

Thanks for reading!

 

Why every history lover should pick up The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England

Welcome back!
Thanks to everyone who read my first post, and for all the lovely encouraging comments 🙂 Sorry for the long break in between posts, I’m still apprehensive about posting anything unless I’ve edited it to the death but hopefully I’ll stop worrying so much soon.

Anyway, this post is dedicated to:

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England – Ian Mortimer [London: Vintage, 2013]

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This may have been the most fun I’ve ever had reading. Anyone who knows me will be able to tell you that over the past couple of years I’ve become a bit obsessed with learning about history, particularly the Elizabethan period. And that’s not only because of my steadily-growing appreciation for Shakespeare, (believe it or not I wasn’t so keen on the Bard at school, but how things change).

Mortimer’s book kept grabbing my eye in various bookshops in Chichester last year but once again I held off buying due to it only being available in hardback (this was when I was a student with little to no money and a dissertation to write, may I remind you). It was only when I’d begun to forget about it that I visited Rochester in November and found it in one of the many charity shops there for £1 in paperback. Bargain!

This was the first non-fiction book I’d genuinely been excited about buying. Before, the only reason I’d open a non-fiction book was because I knew it would count towards supporting an essay at uni. However, The Time Traveller’s Guide is not the kind of standard historical non-fiction I’m familiar with.

Instead of presenting you with some basic facts, and hinting at what Elizabethan life might have been like, Mortimer immediately places you in the 16th century.  Using the present tense, he transports you around the country and offers various insights on ways of life for each social class, appropriate to different time periods during the century. In one short paragraph, Mortimer allows you to experience the lifestyle of both aristocrat and peasant. You are informed of what to eat; how to speak depending on who you’re talking to; what to wear, whether practical or fashionable; what recreational entertainment is available nearby; how to build your house or make alterations to it depending on your income and location… The lists are endlessly informative and entertaining, and I learned a great deal of unique information that I never even realised was missing from conventional history books. For example, Mortimer details some sensible and some insane home-made remedies for curing ailments and making cosmetics; the best methods of cleaning and whitening fabrics; terms and codes of the criminal underworld; and the varying rules of early football.

Aside from the quirky facts, Mortimer also dispels common misconceptions of the era, clichés that have been reinforced over the years by film and television adaptations. For instance, Mortimer discusses how conscious Elizabethans actually were about personal hygiene, even though he explains that the word ‘washing’ held a slightly different meaning back then. I won’t spoil it for you. You may not think it sounds fun now, but it’s actually surprisingly interesting.

The sheer amount of research that must have gone into this book is something to marvel at. I thought initially that visualising the reality of nearly 500 years ago would prove difficult, but the clarity of Mortimer’s writing is astounding. Every piece of information is supported by examples from historical records. Mortimer gives names of real people and real events, and will refer back to some of them numerous times throughout the novel so you become more acutely aware of societal and regional contrasts. This awareness comes with emotional responses, and not every detail Mortimer offers is enjoyable or amusing. Reading about the destitute occupants of ‘Shipdams’ in a Norwich parish: some disabled, some abandoned with many children, who must either knit or beg all day because they receive no alms, and then later reading a passage in the ‘Women’s Clothing’ section from ‘Lady Ri-Melaine’ (pg.162) rudely demanding all sorts of unnecessary wardrobe changes from her servant inspires anger about the extreme injustice between both ends of the social scale. It is even still depressing to realise that Lady Ri-Melaine only possesses her frivolous lifestyle because of her husband’s wealth. She is lucky, unlike ‘Helen, the wife of John Williams… heavily pregnant, about to give birth, and cannot work. Her husband has disappeared off to Cambridge and left her with no money.’ (pg. 58) No additional detail is required; it is clear how dangerous a situation like this is to an Elizabethan woman. Mortimer effectively highlights women’s oppression and some of their achievements despite it respectively, which resonate with ongoing conversations about feminism in the current day.

Mortimer’s afterword is the perfect summary of his intentions with this book: that although many aspects of Elizabethan life were wildly different, (and considerably more violent), compared to now, the Elizabethan era was not just some curious time period isolated from our idea of the ‘real world’. The people Mortimer presents to us are our ancestors, people who shaped our world in some way, whether they were conscious of it or not. Mortimer’s final word turns our attention to the arts, those marvellous pieces of work from Elizabethan England that have conquered time itself and which we always return to because they act as connections to our shared humanity. I think The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England will live on in the same way for me, as I hope it will for many other history lovers. I’m grateful to Ian Mortimer for offering such an immersive reading experience.

(Side note – The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England existed before this book, and The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain was also published last year – so I’ve still got some catching up to do, more exciting and unusual things to learn, and I can’t wait!)

 

Thanks for reading! Let me know if you’ve read this, or if I’ve convinced you to give it a go 🙂

See you in the next post!

Mysteries & Truths: My Favourite Reads from 2017

My first blog post is finally here! (After I proudly announced on Twitter that I would upload it THREE months ago… whoops.)

Seeing as we’ve recently waved goodbye to 2017 I thought I’d start things off with reviews of two books I most enjoyed reading last year. Considering the first half of my 2017 was spent reading texts on the curriculum of my final year university course, I still managed to get a fair bit of ‘leisurely reading’ done afterwards.

I adore books that surprise me and the following two did just that. There’s another book I would have loved to add to this post but I haven’t actually finished it yet, and I might just do a separate post on it because there will be quite a lot to say… But anyway, let’s get on. Without further ado…

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry  

[Synopsis from the blurb. London: The Serpent’s Tail, 2017.]

London 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness. Retreating to the countryside with her son, she encounters rumours of the ‘Essex Serpent’, a creature of folklore said to have returned to roam the marshes.

Cora is enthralled, believing it may be an undiscovered species. Setting out on its trail, she collides with William Ransome, Aldwinter’s vicar, who thinks the cure for hysteria lies in faith, while Cora is convinced that science offers the answers. Despite disagreeing on everything, he and Cora find themselves drawn together, changing each other’s lives in unexpected ways…

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(Disclaimer: Yes, I know this book was published in 2016, but I only stumbled across it this year and I know people are still loving it so it deserves its place in my 2017 list!)

Even though this book was literally everywhere I looked by springtime this year, I was initially dubious about buying it and held off for a few months. I think the beautiful cover actually made me think that it would be more style than substance, a typical historical fiction attempting more than its author was capable of… Of course, I was completely wrong. Waterstones’ Book of the Year 2016 wouldn’t be like that. I judged a book by its cover again. Don’t do it, people.

The blurb states that this novel is ‘a celebration of love in all its incarnations’ and I was honestly astounded at how many representations of different kinds of love exist in every single character. William and Cora’s friendship is one of the most beautifully complex I think I’ve ever encountered in historical fiction. Their love is founded on their ability to intellectually stimulate one another despite their wild differences of opinion. Perry’s writing style is sophisticated and persuasive, aiding belief in such an innovative relationship between two characters who couldn’t be more contrasting. What I found most unique and endearing about the vicar and the widow is that they seem to find comfort rather than distress in their physical separation. When Cora says to William ”I like you better on paper” (181) she does not mean it in the way that the more modern expression would suggest. Cora and William write to one another frequently when apart, and it seems that on paper they can express more clarity of mind and better connect to one another, which I think is such a stunning homage to the power of the written word by Perry.

The serpent of the novel’s title, which was inspired by a 1669 pamphlet Perry came across, (click here to read more), is the undercurrent of every conflict the novel explores, from science to faith, to rumour to myth. Real or not, (no spoilers here), the idea of the serpent acts as a sort of malevolent force exerting its power over every inhabitant of Aldwinter, creating a frenzied unease which is most marvellously epitomised about halfway through the novel in a chapter involving a classroom full of hysterical schoolgirls. Within one short section Perry manages to encapsulate such a stunning, unnerving moment of mental instability. Seeping through every page of The Essex Serpent is Perry’s masterful utilisation of the Gothic style, and I couldn’t help noticing that Perry confronts the gruesome and strange with similar unashamed authorial voice to the great Hilary Mantel. The big ‘reveal’ of The Essex Serpent causes characters to confront a disturbing yet in some ways revelational reality.

You don’t have to like history to thoroughly enjoy this novel because Perry’s winning focal point is the complex hearts of her characters, and if you don’t love William and Cora’s love by the time you’ve finished reading, you need to start again. I can’t wait to read what comes next from Sarah Perry, but for now, I’m off to buy her debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood.

 

Into the Water – Paula Hawkins

[Synopsis from the blurb.  London: Doubleday, 2017.]

In the last days before her death, Nel Abbott called her sister.

Jules didn’t pick up the phone, ignoring her plea for help.

Now Nel is dead. They say she jumped. And Jules has been dragged back to the one place she hoped she had escaped for good, to care for the teenage girl her sister left behind.

But Jules is afraid. So afraid. Of her long-buried memories, of the old Mill House, of knowing that Nel would never have jumped.

And most of all she’s afraid of the water, and the place they call the Drowning Pool…

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I finally got round to reading the famous The Girl on the Train in August. In true cliché fashion, I read it on the train to visit my friend. Annoyingly, I finished it at her house, (we did socialise, honest!) and so before I returned home I ran to the station’s W. H. Smith and saw Paula Hawkins’ new novel on the shelves, blue and hardback… and expensive. But, after looking at the mass of monotonous celebrity autobiographies and seeing that my train was due to leave in five minutes, I bought Into the Water. I’m glad I trusted my impulses because that was money well spent!

Like The Girl on the Train, Into the Water is structured, (in its four parts), in chapters by different characters. However this time there are considerably more perspectives to familiarise ourselves with – fourteen to be precise, including short historical accounts from other women who have encountered death the same way as Nel – by drowning in a natural pool in Hawkins’ fictional town of Beckford. Having so many characters to keep track of was confusing initially. I did have to keep flicking back to previous chapters to discern whether or not the character in the current section had been mentioned beforehand. Nevertheless, I think writers who make readers work for their fiction should be greatly admired because the results are always rewarding, and often novels like this warrant another read, (which surely is a writer’s dream?!)

Although Hawkins’ characters seem dispersed at the beginning, the uncovering of private relationships intrinsically link them to others, which enforces the underlying sense that ‘everyone knows everyone’ within Beckford’s community. Every character has a relevant part to play in heightening the scale of suspicion regarding Nel’s apparent suicide. Hawkins is able to utilise more layers of truth, misjudgment and lies here than she could in her previous novel. The complexity of the plot showcases Hawkins’ flair for using multiple narrative voices. The portrayal of Lena, Nel’s teenage daughter, is particularly poignant due to the raw anger and confusion she exudes throughout the investigation into her mother’s death. Hawkins’ explorations of childhood and adolescent trauma are essential to Into the Water‘s success.

The supernatural connotations that Beckford’s ‘Drowning Pool’ inspires are what sets this novel apart from typical crime dramas. When she is alive, Nel is obsessed with history of women submerging themselves in the pool and never returning for air. She can’t believe that her favourite place has been the location of such dark events. The untold motives of the women who died there drive her to seek answers from her research. She begins writing about the Drowning Pool, the incomplete prologue of which Hawkins includes near the beginning of Into the Water. Nel also converses with Nickie, whom most people in Beckford choose to ignore due to her self-proclaimed ability to interact with the dead. This, along with Nel’s discovery of the ‘swimming of witches‘ (38) that once took place at the Drowning Pool, creates the sense of something unearthly pulling Nel too dangerously close to the secrets of the unfortunate women’s deaths. The short chapters of accounts from the women Nel researches therefore act as powerful catalysts for developing intrigue, allowing Hawkins’ readers a limited yet exclusive insight into the disturbing female struggles that lead these women, including Nel herself, to this place of finality, but not necessarily of rest.

‘Some of the women left something of themselves in the water, some say it retains some of their power, for ever since then it has drawn to its shores the unlucky, the desperate, the unhappy, the lost. They come here to swim with their sisters.’ (38)

If you loved The Girl on the Train or not, invest some effort in Into the Water and enjoy trying to untangle the mysteries in between the weeds of its murky depths…

 

Thanks for taking the time to read my first post, congratulations if you made it to the end! I’ll try to make my future reviews more compact.

Please leave me a comment if you’ve read either of these books or if my reviews have maybe encouraged you to pick a copy up for yourself. See you in the next post!