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Archive for April 2015

Reading ‘Cuckoo Song’ in Mogadishu

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(Photo of Hargeisa at night, as I lost my phone with all my April / early May photos on it. Booo.)

The book: Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

The place: Mogadishu


Back in December 2004, well before I had even dreamed of e-readers, I bought Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty at Heathrow Airport, to take with me on holiday to Antigua. I read the latter (and disliked it; I then reread it several years later and completely changed my view, to the extent that I became quite smug about my own humility) but not the former, all half a ton of which I lugged from the UK to the US to Antigua and back again, only to read it in the comfort of my own home a few months later. I have a fairly woo-woo idea that books come to us in their own time, and I certainly got a lot more out of JS&MN when I did read it, at a time of quite seismic life changes (relationship ending, leaving my job and my house and my country to go and live in Sudan for the first time): there’s one line in particular, towards the end of the book, that was so resonant for me that, distressingly, when I met Susanna Clarke at the Cambridge Book Fair shortly afterwards, and was importuning her to sign a scrap of paper from my Arabic notebook, I actually teared up when telling her how much the book had meant to me. Horreur.

JS&MN is not Cuckoo Song and Susanna Clarke is not Frances Hardinge (if she were, she’d be a damn sight more prolific, she muttered disconsolately), but I mention all of this is because Cuckoo Song is hands down the best book about faerie I’ve read outside of JS&MN, and in fact I’ve found myself assuming the two books share the same universe (indeed, in my head, Significant Character from JS&MN is the same as Significant Character from Cuckoo Song; apologies for spoiler-averse coyness but if you’ve read the books perhaps you will know what I mean). The merciless amorality and blasted humour of faerie as depicted in Cuckoo Song is a bold choice for what claims to be a children’s book, but I guess that children are tougher that adults tend to assume, and certainly more comfortable with cruelty.

(Other books that I am convinced occupy the same universe: The Sheltering Sky and Revolutionary Road, the former being an alternate future of the latter, if the protagonists had gone through with their plans to travel.)

While I am very glad that Frances Hardinge has written so many books (this is the first of hers I’ve read), why can’t Susanna Clarke do likewise? Wikipedia claims that she’s working on a jump sequel to JS&MN, but I’m not sure I have the heart to believe it, given the emotional rollercoaster I have been going through for the past five years over rumours of A Suitable Girl. (It is a fairly slow and mild emotional rollercoaster, admittedly.)


Mogadishu again, or still. Hard to tell whether security is getting worse, or whether it’s just a blip. Meanwhile, however, I have had the chance to eat barbecued shark for the first time in my life, so there are always positives.


Written by Jess

April 29, 2015 at 3:25 pm

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Reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in Mogadishu

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The book: To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

The place: Mogadishu


They don’t do covers like this any more, do they? Not that I think modern covers are universally bad – there are some gorgeous ones out there – but I do get sick of the soothing colour + faded historical photo as background + stylised foregrounded photograph with tenuous relationship to the text + title in font du jour, which seems to be the fallback formula. When was the last time you saw a cover that actually illustrated a scene from the book, like this one does?

I have no idea a) where this book came from (possibly an old copy of my mother’s, or even my grandmother’s?), and b) why I had never read it before. It’s one of those books that has sort of seeped into the collective consciousness, so I have a pretty clear idea of what the main plot points are, but there are a number of details that have surprised me: quite how feisty young Jean Louise is, for example; or the background of endemic casual racism depicted. I’m pretty much exactly halfway through at the moment, and can see that it’s one of those books that have been deservedly lauded as a classic.


Back in Mogadishu today after a couple of days in chill, damp Nairobi, which – after initial indifference – I like more and more every time I visit. Highlights of this particular 48 hours (friends aside) included a particularly excellent pizza, a delicious Italian meal from Dolce Vita in Muthaiga, and a day spent in Nairobi National Park, driving about in a clunky old Land Rover and looking for animals. I had never been there before, and had indeed only been on safari once before in Kenya – to the Masai Mara in 2006, my first ever R&R experience – and had, I guess, sniffily dismissed the Nairobi National Park because really, how good could it be, given its proximity to the capital? Pretty bloody good, it turns out: we saw plenty of zebra and wildebeest and warthogs and giraffes and Generic Hoofed Animals (TM Hannah, whom I was with); we saw a load of monkeys of different types; we saw the top 10% of a number of hippos; we saw two monitor lizards undergoing an energetic courtship ritual. Sadly no carnivores, though it turned out on leaving that there had been a load of lions in the centre of the Park, having made a spectacular zebra kill, and we had more of less circumnavigated them entirely, visiting more or less every part of the Park where they were not. Next time, lions. Next time.

Written by Jess

April 19, 2015 at 3:50 pm

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Reading many hardcopy books in Glasgow

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While I don’t do it deliberately, I do tend to read hardcopy books when I’m at home in Glasgow and therefore don’t have to lug them around the world with me. I’m not one of those people who has (or claims to have) a completely different experience reading on a screen from reading on paper – a book is a book is a book as far as I’m concerned; if it’s a good enough book the page disappears (I only read Us a couple of months ago, and have already forgotten whether I read it in hardcopy or as an ebook), and I do sometimes find myself, with paper books, looking up at the top right-hand corner of the page to check the time, or raising my finger over the page because I want to highlight a particular quote. That said, passionately attached though I am to my Kindle (and the nearly-500 unread books stored shamefully therein), I am writing this from my Glasgow living room, one wall of which is lined, floor to ceiling, with actual books, and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t sometimes slip in here and run my fingers along their spines with a dopey, lovestruck smile on my face. Books: truly my first and most enduring love.

Over the past few days, then, I have burned through Fishnet, by Kirstin Innes, which is a beautifully written and fascinating (fictional) exploration of sex work in Scotland (disclaimer: the author is a friend, but I am positive that I would think the same even were she not), and then The Piper’s Son, by Melina Marchetta, and Surrender, Dorothy, by Meg Wolitzer. I loved The Interestings so much that I went ahead and bought everything Meg Wolitzer has out as an ebook, which didn’t include this, so I ordered it in hardcopy – and I liked it a lot, though not nearly as much as The Interestings, I’m afraid. The Piper’s Son was a lovely, heartening book – pretty much every Australian or semi-Australian of my age or younger read Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi as a teenager, and as a result Marchetta’s books have a sort of intense nostalgia attached to them for me, even those (like this) I haven’t read before. I think this is my favourite of hers, aside from On the Jellicoe Road; although the experience of family and friendship that Marchetta explores in her books isn’t my own, it’s one that I find very comforting and reassuring. (It also makes me a little homesick for Sydney, where I lived for seven years as a teenager, and which I haven’t visited since 2007. Not sure when I’ll have the chance to go back next, which is sad.)

Meanwhile, Glasgow is making a stab at spring, which involves long, light evenings and two days of sunshine and the air misty with pollen and then, just this afternoon, an unexpected and intense hailstorm that filled my garden with ice. I’m here for a little longer than I thought I would be, and I am trying to make the most of it, by which I mean working from bed in my pyjamas as much as possible, and marvelling at how gorgeous my flat is.


Sunset from my living room

Written by Jess

April 11, 2015 at 4:04 pm

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Reading ‘The Interestings’ in Fort William

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The book: The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer

The place: Fort William, Scotland

I have been feeling rather ground down by the state of the world lately, and so to read this book, which is kind and gentle and about a collection of genuinely good characters who are trying their best and behaving decently to one another, was like stepping into a warm bath at the end of a tiring day. Which makes it sound rather more anodyne than it is: The Interestings has a lot of very interesting (ha) things to say about the nature of envy – particularly as applied to close friends – and the various ways one fails to get what one wants, and the sometimes blighting effects of childhood promise. It reminded me quite strongly of another book that I’ve just read (and thoroughly enjoyed), AD Miller’s The Faithful Couple. Both Miller and Wolitzer write compellingly and convincingly about the malaise that seems to strike many people in their early to mid-thirties when they really start to understand – belatedly – that perhaps they are actually not that special. While I normally have very limited sympathy for novels about the plight of middle class white people living lives of enormous privilege (globally speaking), both Wolitzer and Miller write with such warmth about their characters, which I always find beguiling.

Lovely (if brief) Easter break with a few friends up to the Highlands. The original plan – following our heroic ascent of Snowdon last August, and our subsequent grand ambitions to scale the highest peaks in England, Scotland and Wales over a 24-month period (rather than the rather showy-offy 24-hour period embraced by the Three Peaks Challenge) – had been to climb Ben Nevis, but we discovered that the tourist path was still closed by snow, and group consensus was not to attempt a guided ascent with crampons and ice-axes, so we focused on fine dining (the Crannog one night, the Lime Tree the second, both of which were excellent) and what was supposed to be a fairly gentle hike into the Lost Valley from Glencoe, but which ended up with ten of us clinging to a vertiginous sheet of scree just below the snow line, while sensible people who had taken the correct path pointed at us from below and (probably) debated whether they needed to call Mountain Rescue.

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One of the world’s best train routes: somewhere between Glasgow and Fort William

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Rare photo of self, enjoying an over-ambitious outdoor beer. (That is a half-pint, I am not freakishly large.)

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Sunset over Lock Eil

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Dramatic highland weather

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And more

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At the bottom of the scree: about to make a very bad decision

Written by Jess

April 7, 2015 at 4:08 pm

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Reading ‘The Establishment’ in South Wales

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The book: The Establishment, Owen Jones

The place: Whitebrook, South Wales


Less than five weeks to go before the election, and so I thought I should whip myself into a preparatory rage. This book is doing the trick, though unfortunately the rage is combined with utter despair, thanks to the concept of the Overton Window and the lack of distance between the main parties and how utterly entrenched inequality is in this country. Meanwhile I have been googling secluded Scottish properties and considering setting up my own anarchist commune in preparation for the imminent collapse of society. Hurrah!

Photo above taken in the blasted hellscape that is Heathrow Central Coach Station, just off an overnight flight from Nairobi, and about to get on a coach to Chepstow. I have since been ensconced in the Wye Valley, enjoying the blustery spring weather, spending too much money on the sort of luxury items I can’t get in Somalia, and drinking wine with my parents. It has been lovely, and a good antidote for the intense fury that The Establishment has induced in me.

Written by Jess

April 1, 2015 at 3:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized