This is one of those books that had to be read. Although this collection of short stories was published in 2012, the diversity debate on Twitter, which I follow quite closely, has meant that this book has been recommended by several people who know what they’re on about. Then when I walked into my local library last week it was sitting there – centre stage on the Recommended book case. I checked it out.
Until recently I haven’t been a huge reader of short stories. Some people like them as you can dip in and out of a book, but I’ve always been a committer to a long story and have been loyal to the novel. As I’ve tried to improve my own writing I’ve discovered the short story anew. It’s a real skill to be able to tell a story in a small number of words and have the reader come away satisfied. This collection takes the theme of love and the pain that goes along with it. For those who like to spend time with a character, this particular collection may be especially of interest: Yunior is the centre of these stories, a young Dominican living in New Jersey. Several stories link tightly to one another, setting up a character in one, then visiting them again later on in the book.
Diaz is a Pulitzer prize winner, so no matter whether this is usually your type of writing or not, it’s a safe pair of hands even when the words themselves are unfamiliar (there is much use of slang and Spanish but only brief moments and you can get the gist). It’s a very male voice – Yunior is a hugely chauvinistic character and, in the earlier stories especially, seems to have little respect for women. The first story, The Sun, the Moon, the Stars begins with Yunior’s girlfriend finds out that he’s been cheating on her. It’s a bit of a recurrence throughout the book, the infidelities of Yunior and other men. The good news is that cheats never prosper and so, as much as reading the misogynistic thoughts of Yunior et al can be infuriating, you just have to hold on and the retribution will come sooner or later.
There are many heart-breaking moments as well. The stories which feature Yunior’s family life are incredibly moving – Nilda is the introduction to brother Rafa, and from that moment you can watch the influence he has on Yunior and how these experiences turned Yunior into the man we have already seen. The stories aren’t told chronologically, they flit back and forwards, but it doesn’t matter. It adds in some ways as superficial judgements that I made based on the earlier stories then change later on as I learn about the boys’ childhood, their arrival in the US from Santo Domingo and about their family life.
There are many books written on the subject of love but, if you want to try something touching and funny, different, colourful and thought-provoking, you should read this.
Last Thursday I went to my first Cityread event and it struck me that an awful lot of Londoners still don’t know about this great initiative. There’s still time to get involved. Cityread is an annual month-long celebration of literature with a variety of different events taking place across the boroughs.
Each year (this is the 6th) there is a chosen novel, the focal point from which the programme spreads from. This year it is Ten Days by novelist and playwright Gillian Slovo. We were given free copies of the book at the event I attended, the aim being that Londoners are brought together to read the same book and open a discussion around the topic.
Ten Days is a thriller focusing on a fictional period of rioting in the capital (though partly based on the author’s research into the 2011 London riots) and looking at the issues through three main characters with different perspectives and agendas – a newly appointed police chief, the Home Secretary, and a resident on an estate marked for demolition. Gillian is doing a related author event on the 19th April at Chelsea Library.
I attended a talk at Westminster Reference Library – London: A City in Turmoil. I was prompted to go due to my interest in London history. It was an interesting look at various uprisings that have taken place over the last 900 years in the city. Unsurprisingly, race and religion have been key motivators in most cases, though there are other examples such as football hooliganism and other rivalries that have erupted into violence. There is another chance to catch this talk at the Kensington Central Library on the 18th April (free but booking required).
There aren’t just talks on the programme. On the 17th there is a guided tour – A Rebel’s Guide to Westminster. This walking tour (2 hours) will investigate how Westminster has not only been the seat of political power for centuries, but also the place for those excluded from power to come to try and force change. There is a virtual cruise and a virtual trip on the tube network, taking in some of the many literary sites and sights of London.
World Book Night falls on the 23rd and there are also several events across London for it. Anyone who has books to give out is invited to go along and hand them out. Check your local library for info.
There’s too much going on to list in a short piece here but do check out the Cityread London website as there is something for everyone: reading groups, story and craft for kids, and exhibitions. Almost all events are free but require booking. Free copies of Ten Days are being made available at events until stocks run out.
I have long been a fan of Wilkie Collins, ever since I first read The Moonstone as a child. Famous for being considered the first detective novel in the English language, this along with his other big commercial success The Woman in White are the books that come to mind when one thinks of Collins. Whilst researching for my own novel, set around the period when Collins was making a name for himself with his sensation novels, I read more about the man who, whilst never quite as famous as his great friend Charles Dickens, has achieved a longevity which most of his fellow sensation novelists failed to match.
Where Dickens is often criticised for his rather bland female characters, Collins, for the most part, was skilled in creating well-rounded women to populate his stories. Just as Dickens wrote about social injustice, so Collins used his pen to bring to the public’s attention those issues he felt passionately about. This particular novel is unusual in that his narrator is female. We follow this story through Valeria’s eyes, witness to the prejudiced ideas of the men around her and her reactions to them.
The novel begins with Valeria’s wedding to her beloved Eustace is overshadowed by a grave omen: instead of signing the marriage-register in her maiden name she accidentally writes her married name. This being a Wilkie Collins novel, the reader knows instantly from the second page that all is bound to go wrong! We find out that, though Valeria and her husband undoubtedly love each other very much, both families were against the match. Eustace’s family have refused to even meet Valeria. A mutual friend, Major Fitz-David dispels her concerns before the marriage takes place but we know that there is a secret there to be discovered.
In love and on honeymoon, who should Valeria stumble across on the Ramsgate sands one day but – Eustace’s mother! Coincidence has always been the friend of the sensation novel and this one is no exception. Some quick digging finds that Eustace has in fact changed his name, a fact he did not choose to disclose to his new bride. Heading back to London, she confronts Fitz-David and eventually, in a very convoluted fashion, comes across a book: the report of the trial of her husband for the alleged poisoning of his first wife, Sara. As soon as he realises that Valeria has sussed his secret Eustace vanishes, promising that she can have the marriage annulled and that he will not be a bother to her.
This is where the detective story begins. Valeria is no wallflower and is determined to win her husband back and prove his innocence. The story really hinges on the Scottish juries verdict of ‘Not Proven’. Eustace feels the shame of not being absolved of the crime (which of course he did not commit) and so Valeria’s only option is to discover who did. This investigation takes us through the trial report and into the homes of several of those who were present in Eustace’s home on the days surrounding Sara’s death.
As well as looking at the role of women, the novel also features a disabled character, Miserrimus Dexter. This gentleman receives unusual treatment by Collins. On one hand we are shown the grossly unfair prejudice that others heap upon a man who is acknowledged as highly intelligent, strong and determined to overcome the obstacles that his birth defect have left in his path. On the other, Dexter does descend into caricature, with even Valeria repulsed by him but forced into contact as he seems to hold the key to solving the mystery. It is no surprise that he meets a less than happy end, though it is suggested that his whole life has been so miserable and full of unrequited love, that this is a blessing.
Overall, this is an enjoyable read. It does not have the brilliance of Collins better known novels but is refreshing for its female narrative and lacks the stuffiness that stilts a number of other Victorian novels.
Last stop on my six week trip was the island of Bali. We flew from Singapore to Denpasar to KLM (top tip – we only paid £40 more per person to go Business class compared to an Air Asia low cost economy ticket! KLM stop off in Singapore on their way to Bali from Amsterdam and must need to fill the seats so it’s a super cheap option and gives access to the lounge). Arriving in the evening we headed straight to the resort of Sanur, our first of three stops. The first thing you notice as you get out onto the highway is the traffic – there must be a system to it otherwise there would be accidents every five minutes but between cars switching lane with no warning, the hundreds of mopeds (most with two or more occupants) weaving through impossible gaps, and the general chaos, I would consider driving in Bali to be an extreme sport. We made it to our hotel in around half an hour and were relieved to find our hotel along a quiet driveway. Another note about Bali: security is extremely high everywhere. All the hotels we stayed at have a barrier before the entrance and do a vehicle check on all cars that pull in – even if they are the hotel’s own.
The Fairmont Sanur is fairly new, only two years old, and is an all suite hotel. We had an Oceanview suite but the best views were from the resort pool (see above). For breakfast aficionados, Fairmont offer the best of both worlds: an extensive a la carte menu plus buffet. For anyone on a diet or healthy eating regime, Bali is perfect for you. Everywhere we went offered myriad low-carb, gluten-free, etc options (which I ignored) but there is something for everyone. Sanur itself is pretty large – the resort is based along its lengthy beach with plenty of restaurants and bars. There’s no noisy nightlife here so the town caters mainly to families and older couples. Beaches in Bali are definitely not of the white sand category – as you go further north the beaches turn to volcanic black – but Sanur is the better side for those who like calmer waters. The busier Kuta/Seminyak coast boasts great surfing waves which bring in the flocks of Aussies.
We stayed two nights in Sanur, mainly relaxing by the pool, and then headed up to the centre of the island. Ubud is known as the cultural heart of Bali. Think arts and crafts, rice fields, yoga and spa. Getting there took ninety minutes, mainly due to traffic. The Maya Ubud Resort and Spa is only ten minutes drive from the town centre (there are hotels right in town but the views from the resorts on the outskirts tend to be much superior) and they run a shuttle bus throughout the day (FOC). We stayed in a plunge pool villa which was stunning, and we even had a monkey visitor one day. Again, if you stay in town closer to the Monkey Forest you may see more but they are crafty creatures so I was happy to only see the one!
The town itself is quite sprawling, with little lanes and alleyways running off the main road. Monkey Forest Road is a main thoroughfare lined with shops, bars, restaurants at the top, changing into hotel driveways further down. There is a huge mix of people here from backpackers to young families, and accommodation to match. You can find cocktail 2 for 1 deals from 1pm right up until 11pm if you want to bar crawl, and we couldn’t find a bad restaurant. Local cuisine includes nasi goreng (fried rice, usually with chicken or shrimp) and we also tried mie goreng (noodles rather than rice) and kari ayam (chicken curry).
Another ninety minute took us back, further past Sanur and to the extremely popular resort of Seminyak. A favourite with Aussies for many a year, Seminyak is at the northern end of the tourist strip that starts at Kuta (think cheap beer, buckets of cocktails and crazy nightlife), runs into Legian (busy but family friendly) and then up to our final destination. We stayed at the Double Six Luxury, another new hotel just across the road from the beach. This is a modern hotel, again offering all suites, and again we had a plunge pool room. The views at sunset from the rooftop nightclub are incredible, and we never heard music from the club in our room which had been a concern. For more traditional types the hotel also have a prohibition style bar attached to their upmarket Plantation Grill which has enough varities of gin on offer to keep any connoisseur happy.
Whilst in Seminyak we booked a tour with Bali Urban Adventures. The VW Kombi Cocktail tour takes guests on a tour of the coastal region, stopping at several beach bars (suitable for everyone – despite the name, since no drinks are included in the price you can still enjoy the sights and drink whatever you wish) and a local temple. Above are some photos showing the view out from a bar at Batubelig and also the Pura Batu Ngaus, a fertility temple near Canggu, just north of the Seminyak area. Off the tourist track, it was an authentic look at the local culture. The tour finished at Ku De Ta, a well known restaurant and bar overlooking the beach in the heart of Seminyak. At around £9 each and not a drink offer in sight, this was the most expensive place we visited all week but it was worth it – they make their dark and stormys with homemade ginger beer that I’d very much like to find the recipe for!
And that is it – the end of my six week trip. I had a great time but am happy to be home and moving on to my next challenge – an MA in Creative Writing! I am going to spend the rest of my sabbatical reading and exploring some new spots around London so will update with these asap.
After five weeks in Australia I was ready for a change. Singapore is a great city – clean, cheap to get around in either public transport or taxi (our taxi back to the airport was only £7!), plenty of temples and museums for culture vultures and with great nightlife and restaurants on the river for nights out.
For this visit I was lucky enough to stay at Raffles, the most iconic hotel in Singapore (some may argue that Marina Bay Sands is taking over this mantle but having now stayed at both, Raffles is winning the battle in my view). On arrival I was greeted with a Singapore Sling, not my usual type of cocktail but delicious. Raffles has had many famous guests and especially pride themselves on the number of writers and journalists who have stayed there. The Writer’s Bar is by the lobby and is a tribute to such former guests as Noel Coward, Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham. This is an all suite hotel, even our lead-in room had separate entrance hall, bedroom and living room. The location is super central – we walked to the river in ten minutes and from there easily across into Chinatown taking in Boat Quay.
A walking tour is the best way to get to know the real Singapore. Ours was through SneakPeek (sneakpeeksingapore.com). We met our guide, Darren, at the Asian Civilisations Museum close to the river. The group was a mix of British, Americans and some local Singaporeans (it’s worth noting that Darren gets a lot of locals on his tours – definitely one for a more authentic feel!). This is a free tour, apart from an optional $5 to access a viewing deck at the end of the tour, and lasts for four hours (there are a couple of rest stops along the way). Darren is a student hence why this tour only runs on a Saturday. He relies on tips and definitely earns them.
The tour began along the river. Darren carries a Mary Poppins style bag with him – it looked like a normal courier bag but during the course of the trip he produced several props to help him explain Singapore history, fans for those who were a bit hot and local snacks for us to try. First we learned how Singapore came to be, along with the story of how Sir Stamford Raffles really managed to set up a British port here by taking advantage of a severe case of sibling rivalry. Darren showed us how the city was built, much of it according to Chinese beliefs, so that Boat Quay sprang up as that section of the river resembled the belly of a carp therefore leading to wealth and prosperity.
Crossing the river, we moved into Chinatown. Many buildings in this district are now heritage listed. Because of this many of the shophouses that Singapore is famous for are still protected. Within reason these can be painted according to the owner’s preference so there are many colourful examples.
We visited a couple of temples here, one smaller one and the much bigger and quite tourist heavy Thian Hock Keng temple. Dating back to 1842, Chinese immigrants came here to give thanks to Ma Zu, goddess of the sea. Around one third would perish on the voyage from southern China and so those who made it to Sinagpore were truly thankful. When Raffles arrived here in 1819 the population of Singapore was only around one thousand, mainly indigenous Malays. Within fifty years the population had grown to over 80 000 and over half were Chinese.
As well as swelling in terms of population, Singapore has also grown in size. At Telok Ayer MRT station Darren showed us old photos showing the old coastline and how land reclamation had changed the profile of the city. Land reclamation is an important part of future planning in the city with already around 20% of Singapore having been reclaimed from the sea. We had a rest stop at Maxwell Food Centre (recommended for anyone wanting to visit an authentic hawker centre for local food) before going on to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) where Darren used to work as an intern.
The URA City Gallery may sound boring but is actually fascinating. It’s free to enter and open six days a week. There are several models of the city on three levels. All buildings in Singapore have to be agreed with the URA, down to the colour of the glass used on the windows. In the picture above you can see all the current buildings, then the plain brown buildings at the top which have not yet been constructed. We also saw how the island has changed and grown over the years, and the process used today in reclaiming land for further building.
Our final stops of the day were at two public housing blocks. Darren took us to an older style block where the lifts only stop on every other floor! Following World War II and the Japanese occupation, the severe housing shortage resulted in many Singaporeans living in slums, with several families living on each floor of the shophouse style buildings pictured above. Without proper sanitation diseases such as cholera were rife. These housing blocks were built from the 1960s onwards and are much cheaper to buy than private homes. There are very strict regulations for buyers though – families and married couples are vastly preferred so single buyers would find it almost impossible to access public housing.
From the older style building we went to see The Pinnacle @ Duxton. Only a few years old, the Pinnacle is seven connected towers of 50-storeys with a total of 1848 units! Residents have free access to the Sky Garden on the 50th floor but tourists can go up there for only $5, much cheaper than most other viewing points in the city.
That was the end of our tour. though Darren was happy to take people back to Outram station or point out directions for those wanting to head off on foot. We went back down to Ann Siang Hill and Club Street, still in Chinatown. and had a few drinks. Clarke and Boat Quays are very well known for nightlife but I preferred this area. Drinks in Singapore aren’t cheap – be prepared to pay $80 minimum for a bottle of wine (at the moment the rate is approx. $2 = £1 so…). but the atmosphere was excellent, reminding me of Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong. From there we managed to walk back to Raffles fairly easily via the river. Overall a great way to see the city when on a tight timescale.
From Melbourne I flew up to Cairns and then took a one hour transfer to the tourist town of Port Douglas. For anyone visiting the region who is not sure of the best place to stay, think about what activities you’re likely to do.
Cairns – The main city and gateway to the region. Perfect if you’re a backpacker – there is a choice of cheap accommodation from dorms to apartment style. If you want nightlife and drinking until the early hours then this is the place for you. On the other hand, most of the big 5* chains are represented here: Pullman, Shangri La, Hilton etc so if you prefer big chain hotels then this is ideal. The downside is that there is no beach to speak of (people talk about the lagoon but really it’s just a public outdoor pool).
Palm Cove/Northern Beaches – There are several small towns around 20 minutes north of Cairns which would be good for beach lovers who don’t want to transfer too far. Think low key and quiet, though they have more of a local feel. Trinity Beach is great for families and most accommodation is apartment style. Palm Cove is quite upmarket, mainly 4-5* resorts and apartments.
Port Douglas – A compact town set on Four Mile Beach. There are a couple of big resorts out of town (Sheraton, Pullman, etc) but most accommodation in town is owner-operated giving a more personal vibe. Macrossan Street is the hub – choice of restaurants, bars, supermarkets and shopping. Reef tours depart from the marina in town and you can be in the rainforest in less than an hour.
I stayed at the 4.5* Shantara Resort & Spa on Davidson St, just a 2 minute walk to Macrossan St. My apartment was a good size with full kitchen and free access to laundry facilities. March is still classed as rainy season so the town was still quite quiet with a few businesses closed until Easter weekend.
The highlight of my time here was a day trip to Cape Tribulation, Daintree and Mossman provided by Down Under Tours.
Pick up was a civilised 8.20am in a comfortable 4WD vehicle (this tour has departures from Cairns, Palm Cove etc but these will be up to an hour and a half earlier) and it was a leisurely drive with commentary up to the Daintree River. We had morning tea here and took a one hour cruise along the Daintree River whilst our tour guide took the ferry to meet us at the end. Usually on these cruises you can spot a crocodile or two but as we were at the height of wet season they were all the water. We did see a snake, quite a few birds, and our guide was very knowledgeable about the mangrove ecosystem and the history of the area.
Once on the other side of the river it was a short drive up to Alexandra Lookout – the view above was taken in misty conditions but it shows the Daintree River flowing out to the Coral Sea.
As lunches on group tours go, this was one of the best. We stopped off at Noah Creek, right in the heart of the World Heritage listed Daintree rainforest. There was a short walking trail along the side of the creek before we reached the BBQ area. There was steak, sausages and fish, all cooked fresh (we didn’t have any vegetarians in our group but all dietary requirements can be catered for), plus a range of salads and sauces.
From Noah Creek we weren’t far from our most northerly stop of the day: Cape Tribulation. This headland was named by James Cook after he encountered a number of issues in the area. Although the beach is spectacular it is home to crocodiles and also box jellyfish during the wet season so not really for swimming!
Our last stop of the day was at Mossman Gorge. We drove back south, taking the cable ferry across the river and back into civilisation. We stopped at the visitor centre first, a new development that aims to provide an authentic indigenous experience. The traditional owners of the gorge are the Kuku Yulanji people and we had a short welcome ceremony and talk. After afternoon tea in the café (this is a great place to buy local produce such as tea and honey) we took a shuttle bus into the gorge itself, around a 5 minute drive. Once there we took a short walk on one of the rainforest trails and ended up by the edge of the Mossman River. Currents are strong and although it can be ok for stronger swimmers, on this particular day we had been advised not to swim (due to the high water level), though as usual there were a few people out in the water.
From here it was an short drive back into Port Douglas. I’d definitely recommend this day tour. You could self-drive it as well but for anyone actually interested in the rainforest flora and fauna, and the history of the area, I don’t think you’d have anywhere near the same experience.
Next on my itinerary was Melbourne, Victoria. Again, a city I’ve visited before. The one day trip I was really keen to do was the Great Ocean Road. This drive is one of the most famous scenic drives in the world. It starts from Torquay, a surf town around an hours drive from Melbourne, and finishes around 250km west near the city of Warrnambool. I did this as a day trip with Bunyip Tours and there are several other local operators. For those who have more time it’s worth hiring a car and staying in local B&Bs and guesthouses in the pretty coastal towns along the way. On reaching the end of the GOR many people continue on to South Australia to visit Kangaroo Island, Adelaide and the wine regions, otherwise there is the option to loop inland and take in the Grampians mountain range and the Goldfields region.
There’s also a lot of 19th century history associated with this route. Many European migrants travelled to Melbourne as their first jumping off point in Australia. The road itself is also known as the world’s largest war memorial, having been built by those who returned from, and dedicated to those who were killed in, World War I.
The day tour does make for a long day – 7am pickup to return approx. 8pm – but there are plenty of scenic stops. Our first one of the day was Lorne, an upmarket coastal town 90 minutes drive out of Melbourne. There is a wealth of accommodation here so a good stop-off for a self-driver. A good tip would also be to try and avoid Australian school holidays, especially over Christmas/January period which is the long summer break, as these towns become flooded with domestic tourists and holiday home owners. I was here off peak and there were still a fair number of people around!
Our second stop was at Kennett River, not the most exciting place, but all the day tours stopped here. I imagine the main reason is so that everyone gets to see a koala as this area is well known for being one of the best spots to see one in the wild.
Our lunch stop was at the Cape Otway lighthouse, the oldest surviving lighthouse on mainland Australia, its lamp having been first lit on 29th August 1848. Cape Otway was often the first sight of land for 19th century migrants from Europe after months at sea. The Bass Strait collides with the Southern Ocean at this point, making the waters particularly treacherous, and before the lighthouse was built the many shipwrecks led to hundreds of lives being lost.
The highlight of the Great Ocean Road is a sight of the Twelve Apostles (although there were only ever nine and now only eight after one of them collapsed in 2005). They are spectacular, a collection of limestone stacks formed by erosion. Due to the popularity of the site, there is a well-organised system of lookouts here and its possible to take a helicopter to get an aerial view. I’m not a fan of helicopters so I gave this a miss, but there were three or four in the air at any one time and the photos were worth it (prices were also very reasonable).
Our final stop of the day was at Loch Ard Gorge, just five minutes or so down the road from the Twelve Apostles. This spot is named for the Loch Ard, a clipper ship which ran aground in 1878 on its way from England to Melbourne. Of fifty four crew and passengers only two survived. It’s a beautiful spot with several walking trails and the beach you can see in the picture above. The perfect place to cap off a great day