Book review: The Sea Sisters

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Often I find my everyday life affected by the books I am reading – caught up in other emotions, imagining what the characters are doing between the pages. This time, it was the other way around. My current life seemed to make the book more poignant, more intense, and nearly had me crying on the train. In a much happier way to Lucy Clarke’s The Sea Sisters, my own big sister leaves on Monday for 18 months of round the world travelling with her husband. As the weeks have led up to their departure, I’ve been torn between excitement for them, and sadness that we’ll miss such a huge chunk of each other’s lives. Having gained a full time job so quickly after graduation, I didn’t get the sister-filled summer I’d been hoping for. But I know that when they get back we’ll be closer than ever, with so much more big life to plan together…

The Sea Sisters is really two stories intertwined – 24year old Mia sets off on her own spontaneous, self-finding travels, and her big sister Katie follows her path with the aid of a journal 18 months later. The way the narratives mirror each other isn’t repetitive, but lets us into the intimate details of sisterhood, the darkness of grief, and the wild anticipation of searching the world for a place to belong. The kind of books that tackle difficult subjects and complicated relationships always have the potential to be overly sweet, a bit too fluffy, or in your face. Clarke manages to capture the essence of sibling rivalry and love, the never-ending frustration with one another, and the devastation of tragedy without belittling or over-dramatising the events. Instead, we get a human story of two people who barely know each other, yet have spent their lives together, and over the course of months, tears, and diary pages Katie learns so much more than she ever thought she could. I found myself flitting between the words on the page and my own fears, laughs, and quirks I share with my own sister – the power to make readers relate is something every author longs to achieve, and Clarke has done so with delicacy and art.

But this book isn’t just about sisterly conflict. It depicts a round the world trip that’s kicked my wanderlust into full gear and made me even more jealous of the upcoming adventures. The descriptions of countries, people, food, and of course numerous beaches made my cold train journeys disappear into sandy coves, bright sunshine seeping through my raincoat. It is with its simplicity that Clarke manages to capture the girls’ expeditions – it’s not a travel guide, but it is able to summon up sights and smells of places I’ve never been near, with the honesty of someone who understands what it’s like to be in an unknown yet beautiful country.

Perhaps I’m feeling more sentimental and nostalgic at the moment, but The Sea Sisters was an unexpected gem. It’s the kind of book I’ll now insist on buying in paperback so it can adorn my bursting shelves, and one day I’ll inevitably take it on holiday just so I can enjoy and sun-bleach its pages. But despite my over-emotional response, this is at its core solid storytelling, drawing you in and urging you to turn the page, read Mia’s journal with Katie, and discover a little more of yourself in the process.

Brits attempt the Matterhorn during awful season

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This summer has seen the worst conditions on the Matterhorn in 60 years, with storms, more snow than should ever fall in July, and all-round bad omens for hikers, climbers, and skiers alike. Last month, at the time oblivious to these ominous circumstances, British climbers Simon Chevis and Jez Wingate set out with the goal of reaching the summit in a weekend. Usually, the Hörnli Ridge Route is a relatively easy adventure, but the pair were to face some of their hardest winter conditions yet.

Clear skies ahead on the way up. © Jez Wingate

Clear skies ahead on the way up.
© Jez Wingate

On a spur of the moment booking, Simon (who represented GB in four rounds of the 2013 Ice Climbing World Cup) and Jez (a highly capable and experienced all-round climber) booked flights to Geneva with the aim of standing atop the Matterhorn. Not for any particular technical challenge, just more of a weekend adventure and to get the tick. Neither have climbed at significant altitude previously, but both are fit and healthy climbers and mountaineers, and the Hörnli Ridge was a reasonable objective. Aware that their timescale – leave on the Friday, summit, return on Saturday, and relax – wouldn’t allow for altitude, they figured it was still worth it to give it a go, and a little suffering wouldn’t do them any harm. Being a completely reversible route too, they were confident that should the worst happen, they’d be able to escape relatively easily.

The trip began well, arriving in Tasch in the early hours of Friday morning, and after a night in the car the team got the cable car to Schwartzsee for their 2 hour hike to the Hörnli Hut itself. From the off, the conditions were not ideal – relatively clear skies made for beautiful pictures, but the amount of snow underfoot was a picture of what was to come. After some time to sit and re-kit, they began their climb proper at 1pm on Friday 25th July, aiming to be at the Solvay Hut by 5pm, slightly overcompensating the guidebook ETA of 2 hours.

Thus began an epic 48 hours. The fixed ropes at the beginning of the route made route finding easy, and these pre-determined paths combined with straight forward soloing along the ridge were what was to be expected. Breathlessness and fatigue were setting in, already signs of the altitude they’d so hastily moved through, but nothing that couldn’t be handled with some camaraderie and bravado. As Simon and Jez continued to move upwards through waist-deep powder snow, the way began to increase in difficulty as belay bolts and abseils were hidden in the banks, and any goat tracks were smoothed over by white. It became apparent that the route was longer than anticipated, and their pace was slowing down – Jez was falling behind, something that was out of character for either climber, and indicated how much the altitude was taking effect. Sections they were soloing at times were up to HS/VS, showing obvious drifts off route and they tried in vain to follow crampon scratches and polish. The easier linking sections between scrambles were altogether invisible, and after many hours more than was healthy, Jez continued to deteriorate. It was clear that they should retreat, but having gone so far already, to turn back would mean another 6 hours descent in the dark. The judgement call was to continue to push for the Solvay Hut, which surely wouldn’t be too far, and once there they’d be warm, dry, and able to regroup. Continue reading

(Belated) Review: Avenue Q

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I’d heard a lot of good things about Avenue Q, and had caught a glimpse or two on various television showcases, but hadn’t yet had the chance to experience it for myself. So this year’s UK tour brought to us by the Sell-A-Door company (and directed by Cressida Carré)  was to hit very close to home at Guildford’s GLive, giving me no excuse to miss it again. And I’m very glad I didn’t let it pass me by, for it turned out to be one of the best laugh-out-loud musicals I have ever seen.

Whilst very much a Sesame Street for grownups, the premise of Avenue Q is relatively simple – new guy turns up in the neighbourhood, trying to find his way, inevitably gets led astray (not least of all by the hysterical ‘Bad Idea Bears’), and slowly but surely becomes accepted and a part of the tight-knit bunch of misfits. With a mixture of musical genius (courtesy of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx) which have you singing along as you skip out of the auditorium, cleverly simplistic set by Richard Evans, and fantastic puppetry, both actors and characters are in full view of their ever-attentive audience, and use this exposure to their highest advantage.

Princeton (Tom Steedon) is fresh out of university with a BA in English (ouch!!), and finds his way from Avenues A to P before finding affordable accommodation in good old Avenue Q. The girl next door is the surprisingly furry Kate Monster, played incredibly by Lucy-Mae Sumner. The innovation behind Avenue Q is not hiding that the puppets are puppets, and having the puppeteers in full view of everyone, whilst they too go through the emotions of their felt counter-parts. And Sumner was superb in portraying the innocent yet volatile Kate, as well as the saucy, and er… bouncy, Lucy the Slut, which highlighted not just great sex-appeal, but a phenomenal voice that I’m so pleased was duly accredited. Another encounter on the avenue was Trekkie Monster; reclusive, perverse, but somehow lovable oddball on the end of the row, who Stephen Arden had down to such a tee I was desperately trying to stay focused on everyone else.

With songs like “Everyone’s a (L)Rittle bit (R)Lacist” and “The Internet is for Porn”, this is most definitely an adults-only puppet show, but one which you’ll be dying to watch again and again. Relatable, memorable, and downright deplorable, Avenue Q is without a doubt a spectacle and a cheeky treat for everyone over the age of 18. See it, love it, and don’t tell the kids… or perhaps your parents.

 

For the latest tour dates, check out the Avenue Q UK Tour website.

A New Chapter

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This week, I graduated university (in case you hadn’t noticed by my Twitter account…) – I walked confidently down the cathedral aisle, managed to stand proud on my rarely worn 5-inch heels, and shook hands with three men I’ve never met before. But one of the unemployed masses I will not be. After 5 months, 38 applications, and just 2 interviews, I’ve landed an incredible opportunity in the industry I’ve been dreaming of – starting on Monday. It might not be the role of a lifetime, but it’s the most fantastic way to begin my career, get my foot in the door, and really get stuck in to the world of publishing.

Regardless of what people often say to me, these achievements haven’t been easy, but they were always going to happen. In my life, academic success has been paramount, and I’ve always strived to be the best I could possibly be in all areas and subjects. As such, despite feeling disillusioned by my degree choice, to be leaving with a strong First was always my goal – I don’t know what I would have done had it not happened, but the fact that it did is a reminder of making each opportunity worth it. Combined with a higher-than-expected dissertation grade and being named the winner of the Garrick Club Library Prize, I have been overwhelmed by the recognition I have been given for my effort, despite the highs and lows. I haven’t coasted through life – it was determination and hard graft that got me where I am today, and I’m proud to admit it. It’s not arrogance, it’s an acceptance of what I’ve put in, and the rewards I can now reap from it.

Life is what you make of it. If you sit back and just let things float by, it’s unlikely that anything will truly fall into place – of course, these things do happen, and I know many people who just always seem to be in the right place at the right time to achieve well with minimal input. But I’ve always been one for pro-activity, putting yourself out there to get what you want. If you apply for everything, the odds will most likely end up favouring your attentiveness, and if you’ve been doing your best to gain relevant experience and personal skills, you’ll be even better.

So now I’m frantically shopping for office-friendly clothes, charging up my new Kindle (thanks mum and dad!), and preparing myself for the life of a commuter. It’s been a whirlwind romance, from first letter, a brief 40-minute interview securing my passion for the company, to an offer three days later to start as soon as possible, and the HR Officer letting slip that the managers were buzzing after we first met. I’ve had little time to get my head around it, but perhaps that’s for the best – after all, I am an avid over-thinker. Instead, I’m jumping in head-first, leaping from student- to adult-life without so much as a pause to take in the scenery. This is an exciting world we live in, and mine’s about to get a whole lot bigger…

Remembering Kilimanjaro

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At this time of post-university limbo, it felt appropriate to reflect on one of my biggest achievements to date. Exactly a year ago today, my summit dream on Mount Kilimanjaro ended. At 5000m, after several hours of disorientation, fainting, and hallucinations, I was turned back suffering from altitude sickness. Hindsight is both a gift and a curse – I’ve never been able to quieten the very small voice asking whether or not it was really that bad, maybe I should have just pushed on. But when those guiding you, who have a wealth of experience and a far greater understanding of risk, tell you to go back down, I was powerless to say otherwise. After months of planning, fundraising, and preparing, I returned from the mountain unsuccessful, but healthy and alive.

It is with a strange, out of body, dreamlike view that I remember that trip – and rather than hindsight covering my eyes in a rose hue, I can remember the pain, struggle, and difficulty, but am beginning to appreciate my time in Africa more and more as the months move on. The week I returned, I vowed never to go back there. Now I can see it for what it was – an incredible experience that tested me on every level and one that I want to conquer for good. I now feel I have a far greater respect for mountains than ever before, knowing that for all the macho go-get’um in the world, sometimes you have to listen to what it’s telling you and stop. But it also revealed more about me than I ever thought, and not just during the trek.

Organised by a company for students, the hike was followed by an optional holiday to Zanzibar, one which I am very glad I chose. Zanzibar is by far the most beautiful country I have ever seen, with turquoise sea, pure white sand, and the most breathtaking sunsets – only marginally beaten by the views of the Milky Way from my night-time lavatory explorations from my tent. However, it also revealed to me a part of Africa that I was unprepared for; a culture we’d not been told about. I admit that I wanted a selfish, relaxing break after the mountain, and didn’t want to think about anything but the waves and my books. And for the majority of the time I did just that – but I hadn’t been prepared to feel so unsafe, so wary, and so lost at the same time. I can’t help but look at the pictures with a tinge of sadness at how uncomfortable I felt alone in my hotel room, the windows covered in mesh rather than glass, or lying on the beach with one eye always watching the people on the shoreline. My family all live in South Africa, where I was born, so I am of course aware of the differences between that continent and Europe. But it was a level of unease that jaded a lot of my memories, and is something I never want to feel again. It has put me off exploring similar countries any deeper than to enjoy their holiday resorts – yes, the scenery was idyllic and beyond any film, but that is as far as I now want to go.

Nevertheless, as I look back, still somewhat unbelieving, I can do so with a more educated eye – not shadowed with the romanticism of the mountain dream, nor completely corrupted by disappointment or fear. I can see it for what it was. The chance to test  every part of myself, spend two weeks with twenty incredible people who I now call my friends, and witness a whole different part of the world in the most intimate way. As I now spend my summer desperately awaiting job offers, feeling stuck in some kind of purgatory, it is nice to remember that I did achieve something great, pushed beyond my limits, and returned with a quiet determination. I can finally say, one day, I’ll do it all again…

Review: The Notebook

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After I saw Quizoola! last year, I quickly realised that Forced Entertainment aren’t your traditional theatre company. In fact, they’re as far from traditional as I think I’ve ever come across. So when it was suggested to me that I go see another of their shows – The Notebook, part of this year’s LIFT festival – I thought “as long as it’s shorter than 12 hours, it might well be very interesting”. And I was definitely not disappointed. Set in the beautiful Council Chambers at the Battersea Arts Centre (oh how I love reclaimed old buildings), this play is a disturbing but intricately simple production.

Based on the 1986 novel by Hungarian writer Ágota Kristóf, it follows twin brothers evacuated to their impoverished Grandmother’s during World War Two. In an unspecified central European country, the boys uncover secrets, explore their surroundings, and attempt to understand the world around them in an increasingly off-kilter and matter of fact way.

The format of placing two actors on stage, in perfect symmetry, each reading from the eponymous object, would always run the risk of seeming rather dry. I admit that during the first paragraph I wondered whether this would be another longitudinal play that I’d have to suffer through – however, I was happily proved wrong. At the first description of Grandmother, we were laughing, and I realised I was in for something special. The structure didn’t differ that much during the 130minute piece (with no break I might add) – bar a few movements of chairs and just one occasion of actual ‘staging’, Robert Arthur and Richard Lowdon remained resolute in their story and frame.

It is in its simplicity that The Notebook holds its power. Throughout the piece I was engaged, and could probably draw Grandmother’s house if asked, complete with a blueprint of room layouts – testament to Kristóf’s writing. But Artistic Director Tim Etchells, who led the company-devised performance, did well to focus on the complexity of the words. The temptation could have been to fully portray what the boys went through, but it is the exact opposite that makes it such a poignant piece. At times we were laughing out loud; at others we were silent with grimaces on our brows and hands to our mouths. The experiences explained were done so in such a cold, unemotional way – the ‘notebook’ being the rule-laden composition exercises the boys set themselves to maintain their studies – that we were left wondering how many events like these really took place during the war, and how many more we will never even contemplate.

By turns heart warming, heart wrenching, and just downright uncomfortable, The Notebook is a powerful piece of theatre. Do not underestimate the effect of minimalist sets, wooden chairs, and red knitted jumpers. Nor that of Forced Entertainment to leave your mind fried.

The Dreaded Job Hunt

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On the 7th June, my university career ended – I finished my three-day run of Caryl Churchill’s Fen, closed up my coursework folders for the last time, and sighed a sigh of relief once more about my dissertation marks and upcoming graduation. I still have a month to go before I get to throw that cap into the air, but I am finally relaxed, breathing in the summer, and relieved that the degree is all over.

Now begins another long journey – the one towards my chosen career, where my dreams, passions, and ambitions are to be tested and questioned, along with my patience. Since February this year I have applied for nearly 30 jobs of varying levels of practicality, likelihood, and interest. Being pro-active, my CV is thankfully bursting with relevant experience, and my fingertips filled with enthusiastic cover letters. However, now that studying is over and my part-time work is only providing half a dozen shifts a month, I begin the slow process of ever-increasing applications.

Job hunting is something that everyone dreads. It is filled with disappointment, frustration, and the tedious task of re-wording a cover letter as many times as possible in an attempt to remain enthusiastic. But what is keeping me going is the knowledge that I have found a career path that I am excited by, and that I am willing to work for. When I started university I didn’t really know where I was heading – I chose my degree because I enjoyed the subject, not because of its job prospects, and it was only through one bored summer where I got a placement at Penguin Books that I discovered publishing. It was one of those occasions where everything just clicked; the office was fun, every day was different, and even the mundane tasks were completed with a sense of satisfaction. Seeing a piece of text go from manuscript to publication is incredible, and to be a part of that journey has become an ambition.

That is undoubtedly the key – find something that excites you and keeps you interested, even at its most every day and boring. Similarly, if you haven’t found that niche yet, get some experience with a hobby you enjoy, and you might just find your calling. I emailed Penguin because I like books, and wanted to try something different. It wasn’t my intention to discover my profession, I just wanted to fill up a week. What’s the thing you do to relax? The activity you turn to when you’ve got free time? The place you dream of when you’re stuck with nothing to do? That might well be a good place to start.

So I continue to hunt – with a list of over 60 publishers to sift through daily, and increasingly creative ways to say “I’m really keen!”, my job hunt begins in earnest. In fact, just this morning I sent off number 28, possibly with my strongest cover letter yet. Watch this space… soon, I may be magnifying Editorial Assistant.