Saturday, 21 September 2013

3 Book Reviews

Oooooh lucky you, not one but THREE book reviews.  
I've been reading at the speed of light recently, but I attribute that to the really interesting and diverse books I was given/lent.  
Me Before You, by Jojo Moyles
I was interested to read this, because it is vastly different in terms of subject matter from The Girl You Left Behind. Louisa Clark is a small-minded, simple character, whose life is upturned when she loses her job at a local cafe. She gets a job on a 6-month contract as a carer for cold, unlikeable, paraplegic Will Traynor. Inevitably, a strong bond forms, but there is a great twist, which calls into question a very controversial topic: euthanasia.
The characters themselves are divided, which I thought was a strength of the story; it certainly makes you question what you would do. While Louisa remains a simple character, her optimism and eventual desperation was affective, and I willed her plan (to convince Will to live) to work.
I felt that Camilla Traynor, Will’s mother, was written to be unlikeable, but I empathised with her brusqueness in such a bleak situation. Equally, I found the attitude and behaviour of Louisa’s sister Katrina incredibly irritating: she is celebrated as “the clever one”, but if she is so smart, why did she get pregnant and have to drop out of university, thus becoming a complete financial burden on her family?
I liked this book more for the ideas it provoked than its written quality or the characters. Worth a read if you have an interest in controversial topics. 
The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
I loved this book; it’s definitely one of my top 10, if not top 5. Set after the Civil War in Barcelona, it is a dark, violent merging of the past, present and future.
In The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Daniel Sempere takes The Shadow of the Wind, by Julian Carax. He is soon followed by a haunting, deformed man, who wants possession of Carax’s novel. Daniel’s personal life is complicated by his obsession with the blind Clara Barcelo, but it is through his pursuit of knowledge about Carax that his troubles truly begin. A haunting, sometimes verging on the gothic, tale ensues, cleverly entwining all of the characters, including the repulsive and bloodthirsty Inspector Fumero.
Daniel’s life is both mirrored and eerily foreshadowed by Carax’s, but is the love affair between Carax and his sweetheart Penelope Aldaya which provides the biggest twist. I felt genuine sadness and horror, both through the revelation itself and the way in which Zafon builds the suspense before crashing the fictional world down around the reader.
This book is truly an enigma; a combination of romance, detective, horror and history, the aftermath of the Civil War, with all its unease and uncertainty, is the perfect setting for a story like this.
The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling
This is the best reflection on contemporary British society I’ve ever read; it’s depressing, gritty, enlightening and sad. Rowling manages to write about everyday life while retaining all its complexities, as well as the mundane activities associated with the small world that is Pagford, the setting of the story.
Barry Fairbrother's untimely death leaves a casual vacancy on Pagford parish council. From the abusive husbands to desperate wives, confused children to hopeful social workers, Pagford is a good example of most British towns; good area vs bad area, with a good deal of ignorance in-between. The adult characters’ lives all intertwine through their involvement in the parish council, but it is the children's activities which are the most compelling.
Andrew Price's disgust at his father's abusiveness is darkly comedic through his highly colourful language, whereas Sukhvinder Jawanda's self harm is a tragic revelation of parental pressure and bullying. Stuart "Fats" Wall, Sukhvinder's bully, is a typical example of arrogant, seemingly wise teenage concerned with being authentic. Each of them decide to hack the parish website, and some unpleasant home-truths are revealed under the guise "The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother".
However, it is Krystal Weedon’s narrative which is the most compelling, and ultimately reveals how the class divide is still very clear in British society.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Travel Post: Rome, Italy

Buongiorno! Thanks Google translate. 
Maxx and I came back from Rome on Tuesday evening, and it's still just as fascinating as when I went in 2010. It's such an ideal holiday (unless you hate history, in which case STOP THAT) because you can walk for hours around the city looking at monuments, or relax by the Trevi Fountain, or visit a gallery, or shop, etc. 

Our days were a mix of relaxing and being extremely active; we'd have a slow morning, reading in our hotel room, then visit a few monuments for about 4 hours in the day, rest, then eat out and wander around the city at night. 

We were there for a week, from 3rd – 10th, so we managed to see most of the big monuments in the city. However, I think this is also a really good place to visit for a shorter break, such as a long weekend.  

So, if you've never been before and need some ideas, here are my top 5 places to visit!

The Vatican
This compiles both St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum. Whether you’re a devoted Christian or complete atheist, suspicious of the “Church for the Poor” or an admirer of the new Pope, the Vatican is a really astounding place to visit.

Before you even enter the Basilica, you can’t help but admire the outside of the Vatican. Statues decorate the wall encircling St. Peter’s square, and of course there is the famous balcony overlooking it. There were hundreds of seats set out for Mass, as the Vatican truly is an active place of worship for Catholics. As we were leaving, the square was heaving with different religious orders and people queuing to get in for evening Mass.
St. Peter’s Basilica is truly impressive, both in size and decoration. The statues, monuments of previous Popes and altars are richly ornate, unlike anything I’ve seen before, even when visiting the Royal Palaces in England.  


The Museum itself has miles of galleries, filled with statues, paintings, and excavations from all over the world. It’s impossible to see everything in there, and apparently, if you spent one minute in front of each thing inside, you would take 7 years to go round the entire museum. We opted for walking around freely, although there are plenty of tours on offer.

A must-see is, of course, the Sistine Chapel, but I also enjoyed the Egyptian Museum (museums within a museum – 7 years).  

Price-wise, it is €16 for a full ticket, €8 for a reduced. Personally, I think this is completely reasonable for the sheer amount of exhibitions you will see, and this price is just for the Museum (the Basilica is free).  

Be warned, though: there are strict rules about dress code in both the Basilica and Museum. Shoulders and knees must be covered, so I would recommend a large scarf or pashmina if you can’t face buying an ugly, overpriced one outside.
You should also try and get a hot chocolate at the CafĂ© Vaticano, opposite the Museum. Best hot chocolate ever! It was like a hot milkshake, yum city. 

Fontana di Trevi
This is arguably one of the most popular places in Rome. The narrow street down is full of cafes and restaurants, which is a picturesque view in itself, but then you reach one of the most beautiful monuments I’ve ever seen.

Maxx and I visited here almost every day and evening, to just sit, chat, and people-watch. The tradition is to throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain, which ensures a return visit. The coins are then collected and given to charity. 

The only annoyance is that men constantly approach you to take your photo, which I strongly recommend you say no to as the photos are RUBBISH. We saw a couple of them, and they black out the fountain behind, thus rendering the photo completely pointless.

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
The Basilica itself is beautiful once you actually go round to the front, instead of staring at the back and wondering why there are no people there but it's the archaeological site you should really go and visit.

It is the remains of a house from the first century A.D; there are large sections of wall remaining with frescoes depicting scenes from each month of the year, as well as mosaic flooring and roof tiles. I felt quite sad looking at these things, because it was once someone’s beautiful house, but equally, it’s amazing how much they’ve managed to uncover from such a long time ago.

I can’t remember how much the tickets were, but they weren’t very much at all. If you get claustrophobic, this might not be ideal for you as you do go underground.

The Palatino (and Colosseum)
The Palatino, or Palatine Hill, was the home of Emperor Augustus. Lonely Planet has a good description of the history of the ruins, which you can find here:

As well as a really interesting walk around the ruins, which date back to the 8th century, there are beautiful views of the city. As with S. Maria Maggiore, it’s really strange to think you’re walking around what was someone’s beautiful house. Some of the wall ruins are still so high, it’s hard to imagine what the Palatino would have looked like when it was originally built.
Be careful when you walk down the hill, the stones are obviously very uneven so I tripped and hurt my ankle...

 The Colosseum is most people’s favourite, and it is indeed magnificent. It’s not my favourite simply because of the mindless slaughtering of animals for entertainment which occurred within its walls.

We went when there was an exhibition about the Emperor Constantine, who ruled from 285 to 337 A.D. Unfortunately, the exhibition has now finished, but it had lots of interesting information about his reign and the gradual and complicated conversion to Christianity.

It’s also worth having a look at the Arch of Constantine, which is between the Colosseum and the Palatino. You won’t get the most picturesque photos at the moment, as it’s undergoing some caretaking, but you get the general idea of how big and glorious it is anyway.

Pincio Gardens/Villa Borghese
The area I'm talking about includes the Pincio Gardens, Villa Borghese, up to the Museum of Modern Art. It's a large area of gardens, with various monuments within them.
It was relaxing to get out of the bustle of the city for a while. On a Saturday, there were lots of people both young and old relaxing, running, or just wandering around. We originally walked there to visit the Galleria Borghese, a Renaissance art gallery full of sculptures and paintings and statues, but you have to book in advance because it's so popular. From what we saw peeking round the door, I would fully recommend visiting here.
As we couldn't get into the Galleria Borghese, we visited the Gallery of Modern Art. I'm much more of a portrait/landscape kind of girl, but I think I need to open my mind occasionally (it hurt me). The building itself was beautiful and there were a couple of fabulous portraits of women, as well as the obligatory weird pickle-in-a-jar exhibits.
There are hundreds of places to visit in Rome, and I know I haven't mentioned the Pantheon, the Piazza Navona, the Piazza di Popolo, the Spanish Steps or the Victor Emmanuel monument (also known as "The Wedding Cake". I loved all of them, and it was really hard to choose my top 5. But, if you have a week, like us, you should be able to visit everything!
PS - working on getting the photos to an acceptable size!