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Venice

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School is finally out for summer and it should tell you something of the manic nature of summer term at school that I’m only just now getting around to writing about my holiday during May half term! Over the past few years I’ve been making a concerted effort to make my way to the main cultural centres of Italy, to redress my shocking lack of knowledge of this beautiful country. I adored the sun soaked streets of Naples, with their breathtaking view of the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius, and washing-strewn ochre-coloured apartment buildings that snake their way out from the main shopping streets, children playing out in front of them and black-clad women gossiping on the doorsteps, the whole scene still looking just as it would have done one hundred and more years ago. Rome was utterly magical, with beauty and history spilling out of every corner to the point where my eyes thought they could take no more of such majesty in. Florence was a little gem nestled amidst the Tuscan hills, and its black and white Duomo appearing in flashes as you wend your way through the streets was like taking part in a wonderful treasure hunt. Venice has always been a city I have wanted to see, but unlike the other tourist centres of Italy, which people have never stopped gushing to me about, Venice seemed to the place that everyone had a bad experience of. It smells, they said. It’s too touristy. It’s so over crowded. And did we mention it stinks? As such, I wasn’t sure what I would make of it. Prepared for the stench of a sewer and to be crushed by crowds of cruise ship passengers in its narrow streets, I went off with low expectations and slight anxiety as to what I would find. And when I got there, I learned a valuable lesson: sometimes you shouldn’t ask other people for their opinions. Because for me, Venice was an absolute delight.

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I love the water and waterfront cities in particular, and taking the boat from the airport and seeing Venice emerge in the distance, its pink and orange and gold reflection shimmering in the water of the lagoon, initially seems to be a mirage. How can such a city still exist in our modern world, where time seems to have stopped in 1650 and everyone still makes their way around by boat? It was like entering another universe, where life is simpler and quieter and calmer, and the only sounds you hear are of people talking and laughing and the gentle lapping of water against the shore. The canals are lined with beautiful historic buildings that contain the architectural melange of centuries of changing influences, befitting the nature of Venice as a vital trading port. Moorish designs sit alongside Renaissance structures, plain medieval buildings neighbour luxurious palazzos, and the winding cobbled streets that go up and over the canals and offer tantalising glimpses of hidden courtyards and gardens offer endless opportunities to wander and marvel at all that Venice has to offer.

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Outside of the buildings that make up St Mark’s Square, there was nothing in particular that we wanted to see; we just wanted to enjoy wandering through the streets, floating up the canals and soaking up the atmosphere. The weather was glorious, the lagoon was sparkling, and we were utterly enchanted. The light in Venice is magical, particularly at sunset, when everything takes on an ethereal, rose-gold hue. We loved climbing up the campanile at the Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore, just a tiny hop on the boat from Giudecca, the island where we were staying, where there were no queues and you get to see St Mark’s Square from a beautiful distance. We also loved taking the public vaporetto boat down the Grand Canal and getting to see how real Venetians travel and go about their daily business. Palazzo Fortuny was a wonderful discovery on one of the back streets, and next time I want to try and wangle my way into one of the fancy Palazzo hotels so that I can see a little more of the luxury of old Venice – as so many of the Palazzos are hotels, it does mean that there aren’t many left to visit, which was a shame.

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However, I have to say that one of the main reasons Venice was so special is because we blew the budget and stayed in one of its best hotels, which was worth every penny. If you’re saving up and want a really special holiday, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I am usually a total cheapskate when it comes to holidays, but the moment I saw this hotel online, I knew I had to go there – and I didn’t regret it for a minute. The Belmond Hotel Cipriani is on Giudecca, an island facing Venice, and it is surrounded by beautiful gardens, has its own Olympic sized swimming pool, and serves the most amazing food in its lagoon-facing restaurants that mean you’ll never need to go elsewhere. It was an absolute haven of tranquility and just what we needed during the boiling hot afternoons when it was too hot to walk around. Hopping on the hotel’s courtesy boat, which is the original 1950s vessel that used to transport the likes of Sophia Loren who always stayed there, you feel like a movie star as you’re whisked away across the lagoon to the palm-fringed dock of the hotel. Walking under the jasmine entwined arbour that leads to the hotel reception, you enter a world of utter peace and luxury where the staff bend over backwards to serve your every whim. We loved laying by the pool, swimming, drinking bellinis (invented at the hotel), and eating amazing Venetian inspired food, all while looking out at the shimmering, ever changing waters of the lagoon. I already can’t wait to go back!

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

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With its intriguing title and beautiful cover, I found myself drawn to this tale of an 18th century merchant the wrong side of fifty who finds himself in possession of a mermaid and unexpectedly falls in love with a celebrated courtesan. I couldn’t see how all the dots would quite be connected and I don’t normally find the Georgian period of much interest, but the writing was good and the premise too quirky to resist, so in I plunged, and I’m so glad I did! I found it charming and unexpectedly moving, and though there were elements that I felt didn’t quite work, it’s a wonderful debut from someone who clearly has a fantastic imagination, and I’m already looking forward to what she might write next.

The story opens with Jonah Hancock, a prosperous middle-aged merchant, waiting for the news of the whereabouts of one of his ships, which he is expecting to dock with valuable cargo any day soon. He lives in a respectable house in the bustling wharf-side district of Deptford, but he is lonely with only his pert young niece Sukie, who keeps house for him, for company. Indeed, his house is haunted by the ghosts of his long-dead wife and son, whose absence is a growing sadness for him as his years advance with nothing to look forward to, or hope for. He may have a comfortable home and full coffers, but life offers him little of pleasure or excitement, and he has become weary of the somewhat colourless monotony of his existence. So, when the captain of his ship comes knocking in the dead of night with the news that he sold the entire ship’s cargo for a mermaid, Jonah finally has the opportunity to break out of the rut his life has fallen into. Against the advice of others, who think him mad, he arranges to put the shrivelled, gruesome body of the gremlin-like mermaid on display in a local coffee shop, to try and make the money back from his lost cargo in entrance fees. He soon proves all the nay-sayers wrong by drawing huge crowds, and becoming the talk of all London society, from street urchins to royalty. But the mermaid’s biggest fan is the madam of London’s most high class brothel, and when she asks to be loaned the mermaid to host her own party, little does Jonah know that he is about to fall head-over-heels in love with her most famous courtesan, the beautiful and brazen Angelica Neal.

Angelica has reluctantly re-entered the brothel after the death of the aristocrat who had been keeping her as his mistress for several years. Nearing her thirtieth birthday, she is past her prime, and starting to fear for her future. Many of the other girls of her generation have settled down, and though she is adamant such a life is not for her, secretly she longs for the security of marriage, and a home of her own. She thinks nothing of the – to her – elderly and unattractive Jonah Hancock when she meets him at the mermaid party, but when she jokingly tells him that she’ll be his if he brings her another mermaid, Jonah takes the command seriously. He has found himself obsessed by this woman, whose charms have reawakened feelings he had suppressed for years. But Angelica is now ensconced in the arms of a rakish young man-about-town, and couldn’t be less interested in Jonah. Thinking if he can find another mermaid, he will be able to secure Angelica for himself, he prepares to risk everything he has to get her what she desires. But will it ultimately be worth the sacrifices he must make, and will Angelica really want what she has demanded?

The coming together of the worlds of Jonah and Angelica is very well done, as is the conceit of the mermaid, which, within the world of the novel, is entirely realistic and not fantastic in the slightest. It’s clearly meticulously researched, and 18th century London in all its glitz and debauchery comes thrillingly alive off the pages. The dialogue is sharp and witty, and Hermes Gowar makes a very good attempt at realistic-sounding 18th century speech. My only criticism is that it does rather sag in the middle and there are some characters that feel unnecessary; slightly more judicious pruning by an editor would have served the novel well and made it a much pacier read. That aside, it’s still an excellent book, full of fun and good humour as well as being a thoughtful and touching exploration of the pain and insecurity that often lie hidden beneath the surface of our lives. I really enjoyed it, and highly recommend you giving it a go!

May Madness

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May has been an exceptionally busy month here at Book Snob HQ. At the start of the month, I turned 32 in Cape Cod, where I went for a sadly all too flying visit to celebrate a dear friend’s wedding. I flew into a balmy New York at midnight, having caught a plane straight after work, and hopped in a cab to my friends’ apartment in Brooklyn; it was my first time back in the city for three years, and it was a joy to suddenly be thrust back into the pulse of the hustle and bustle of New York at night, though not such a joy to be reminded of how erratic the driving can be on its roads! I crawled into bed and woke up to a boiling hot day, during which I had a few hours to myself before my friends and I were due to drive up to Rhode Island. Despite feeling exhausted, I dragged myself out into the city, where my first port of call was Strand Books. I have to say I was a little disappointed, as I didn’t find much and I felt that the second hand book selection has definitely deteriorated since my last visit, but obviously I still managed to pick up a couple of treats – The Education of Harriet Hatfield by May Sarton, an author I can never find in the UK, and a lovely vintage edition of Edith Wharton’s short stories. I then went and shopped until I dropped on Fifth Avenue before deciding it was really too hot for my delicate English constitution to stay out any longer, so I went back to Brooklyn and sat on the waterfront, admiring the view across to lower Manhattan as I ate my lunch. After a little rest at my friends’ apartment, I went downtown to catch the PATH to my old neighbourhood, Newport, in New Jersey, where we were picking up our hire car (for those new to the blog, I used to live in Manhattan and New Jersey many moons ago!). I hadn’t yet seen the new World Trade Center; the whole time I lived in New York the area was a building site, and it was still just foundations the last time I visited. It was quite chilling and moving to see what has risen from the ashes, and I think the area is a beautiful tribute. Quite disconcertingly, however, the new shopping centre beneath the complex is a Westfield, which is the brand behind the two largest shopping centres in London, and all the shops in it are British, which made me feel like I’d wandered into a strange alternate universe!

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After meeting my friends and picking up our hire car, we drove up to our hotel in Providence, Rhode Island, with me sitting in the back and loving the view of the night skyline of New York as we made our way out and up into the beautiful wilds of New England. After a good night’s sleep, we got up to explore the very pretty capital of Rhode Island, which is full of stunning nineteenth century clapboard houses, and is dominated by the stately red brick campus of Brown University. I was beside myself at the quaintness of it all, especially as the trees were out in a glorious display of pink and white blossom, adding even more charm to the scenery. We filled up on a proper American breakfast and wandered through the streets of East Providence before hopping back in the car and continuing our journey to the Cape. At lunchtime we arrived at Chatham lighthouse, where we met up with my dearest university friend Emma and her boyfriend, who had also come over for the wedding, and we all had a marvellous time catching up and walking down the stunning stretch of white sand. It felt like an absolute dream to be by the sea with friends I so rarely get to see all at the same time, as we all now live in different countries, and I could hardly contain my happiness! My joy only increased as we reached our beautiful nineteenth century clapboard guesthouse, The Inn at the Oaks, which has an enormous porch and a firepit; two house accessories I deem necessary for a truly fulfilling life! We chilled out by the firepit with some wine before heading into the nearby town for the rehearsal dinner. I hadn’t seen the bride-to-be in the flesh for three long years, so it was emotional to see her and such a wonderful evening, surrounded by old friends from my university and New York days.

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The delights continued the next day; we went to see Nauset lighthouse, whose quintessential red and white stripes were like something out of a storybook, and then on to Provincetown for a delicious beachside lunch and a wander in and out of the lovely shops, and magnificent library that contains a full size whaling ship! The weather was glorious and the day couldn’t have been more perfect; nothing could be better than relaxing in beautiful surroundings with the best of friends. We then had to hurry back to get ready for the wedding, which was an evening Quaker ceremony in a lovely nineteenth century inn. It was a beautiful service, and we spent a magical evening gathered around the firepit outside the inn, catching up with old friends and making new ones, as the stars came out overhead. It was truly a night I will never forget.

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The next day we drove all the way back to New York, and as it was my birthday, I got to choose what we did in the evening when we arrived back in Brooklyn. I chose takeaway pizza from a local joint, and then going for a walk to my favourite ice cream parlour, Ample Hills, which does the best ice cream in the world (in my opinion). I loved walking  through the beautiful brownstone lined streets of Park Slope as dusk settled, and I felt so lucky to be able to spend my birthday with some of my favourite people in a city that will always feel like home. I had to fly back to London the following day, so I had hardly any time to truly enjoy it, but I had enough to get a top-up of the city that will keep me going for a while!

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Almost as soon as I got back, I had to go again – this time on a rather less glamorous school trip to Yorkshire for a week that I planned with my lovely colleague. We wanted to take the kids to Bronte country, and that we did. Our schedule took in Chatsworth, Haworth Parsonage and Haworth village, Salts Mill at Saltaire and the Bradford Industrial Museum, and the country’s only remaining workhouse at Southwell in Nottinghamshire. The sun shone for us, and it was such a joy to share some of my favourite places with my kids, many of whom haven’t ventured far outside of London. I loved being back at Haworth Parsonage, home of the Brontë sisters, which never fails to delight and move me, and the countryside around Haworth truly takes my breath away every time I see it. The rolling fields were studded with tiny lambs and everywhere was vibrantly verdant; truly a balm for the soul. Salts Mill at Saltaire was a first for me, and I absolutely loved it; part of a UNESCO world heritage site, it is the centre of a village built by entrepreneur Titus Salt in the mid nineteenth century to house his mill workers. He was known for his benevolence and sincere desire to better the lives of the poor, and his mill nowadays has become a wonderful community centre, fitting to be his legacy. It is the UK’s permanent gallery of David Hockney’s marvellous art, as well as being filled with fantastic shops and restaurants. The book shop on the second floor sold a good number of Persephone Books, which was a joy to see, and I could have easily spent all day there browsing!

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Alongside all of this travelling, I’ve also been attempting to write my MA dissertation, and manage the renovation of the flat I’ve bought and should hopefully be moving into this summer. It’s all go – and as such, I’ve barely read anything outside of dissertation material. I’m hoping next month will give me a bit more time to breathe!

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

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I love a good murder mystery, yet when my friend at university came rushing into our seminar brandishing a shiny new copy of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and telling us that we all had to read it, I wasn’t sure at first, as the concept sounded really quite bizarre. In a nutshell, the protagonist wakes up in the body of someone else, not remembering who he is, where he is, or why he’s there. Gradually he learns that he has been sent to a house party to solve the mystery of who murders the attractive daughter of the house, Evelyn, that night at 11pm. If he doesn’t solve the murder, he will wake up the next day in the body of another of the house party guests and live through all the events of the day again, but from their perspective. The day will keep repeating, and he will keep waking up in a different body, until the crime is solved. He has eight days; if he fails to solve the murder in that time, the whole process will start all over again. I was worried that it was going to be a lot of clever plotting that hid a lack of any substance, and that I wasn’t going to be able to suspend my disbelief enough to allow me to get into it. However, as soon as I started reading, it was very clear I wasn’t going to be leaving the house until I’d finished. It really is that good.

The confusion of the narrator at the start of the novel, when he wakes in a forest in the early morning, convinced he’s just heard a woman being murdered, but with no idea who he is, where he is, or how to find his way out of the forest, is a perfect mirror of how the reader feels for much of the way through the labyrinthine story. Aiden, as we later find out his real name is, knows he is not in his own body, but he doesn’t know who he really is either, or what has happened to him. All he knows is a name, Anna, but when he finds his way to the enormous stately home in the middle of the forest where everyone seems to know perfectly well who he is, no one has any idea who Anna is, and dismisses his fears that someone needs to find the woman who has been murdered in the woods. He is taken up to his room, but when he looks in the mirror, he sees that it is not his face, but whose face is it, and why is he in this house? As the day goes on, whispered voices and clues reveal that Anna is in the house somewhere, and that there are people who can help him, and then the Plague Doctor arrives to tell him his mission: that he is there to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, and he’ll wake up every day in the body of someone new until he does so. But the question remains: who is he, really, and why has he been sent to this awful, crumbling, nightmarish house in the depths of a dank forest, where the Hardcastle family are having a party to commemorate the anniversary of the murder of their child ten years earlier, having invited all the people who were present that day back to the decrepit home they had abandoned years ago? And who are the other people in this house, and can they be trusted? As the days go by, and Adrien starts to piece together more and more information, the reality that he is caught in a nightmare from which there may be no escape begins to grip him with terror, especially when Evelyn starts to mean far more to him than just the means to get out of this trap…

The book is so full of twists, turns, shocks and revelations that I couldn’t possibly hope to summarise it properly, and I don’t want to say too much for fear of ruining things. Suffice to say, this is an absolutely fantastic, clever, gripping and utterly addictive book that I literally couldn’t put down. I stayed up half the night to finish it, and was rapt right up until the end. It’s very easy to forget that you’re in some sort of strange Groundhog Day alternate universe, for the world he creates is so convincing that you lose yourself in it immediately. The setting of the decaying 1920s mansion and the cast of fascinating characters who Adrien separately embodies are all vividly brought to life, and the intriguing mysteries both of who wants Evelyn dead, what really happened to her brother ten years before, and of who Adrien really is and why he is there, kept me on high alert throughout, constantly trying to work out the answers, which are revealed in a breathtaking series of brilliant revelations as the book speeds towards its end. I can’t even begin to imagine how Stuart Turton worked out such a myriad of competing plot lines – it’s a work of pure genius. I loved every single moment and I know, once my memory of it has faded, that I’ll love going back to see if I can unpick the clues earlier on a second reading. I can’t recommended this highly enough – rush out and get a copy now!

Eltham Palace

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Suburban London has a lot of hidden gems, thanks to the fact that most of it used to be countryside before the growth of the metropolis took hold and everything got concreted over. If you know where to look, there are many patches of ancient woodland, remnants of great estates and palaces, pleasure parks and Roman ruins to be found, and all a short train or bus ride away from the city centre. Eltham Palace is just one of these treasures; a fifteenth century former royal palace where Henry VIII spent his childhood, it fell into disrepair after being sold by the Crown and becoming part of a farm. Just before World War One, the magnificent former banqueting hall of the palace was being used as a barn and the whole thing was close to falling down. Thankfully the government stepped in and performed some emergency repair works and in the 1930s, a phenomenally wealthy couple, Stephen and Virginia Courtauld (of the same family who set up London’s lovely Courtauld Institute of Art), bought up the remnants of the palace, demolished the Victorian villa that had been tacked on to it, and built a spectacular Art Deco mansion that incorporated the ruins. They lived there throughout the war before moving on, and the house then became the headquarters of the Royal Army Education Corps until the 1990s, when it was opened to the public by English Heritage. Remarkably, despite having been part of an institution for most of its life, the Art Deco part of the palace is in its original condition, complete with the impressive marquetry walls, wall paintings, library and built-in furniture, and is an absolutely delightful and truly beautiful place to visit.

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The palace is unexpectedly reached via a busy suburban road full of modern houses and shops; turn down the lane that leads to it, however, and the roar of traffic ceases as a delightful, rustic panorama opens before you. Greenery hangs over the road, and beautiful historic houses nestle in cottage gardens as the Palace hides behind willow trees, its front door reached by a gothic arched bridge over a stream. It couldn’t be a more idyllic setting, and the sense of wonder at this place being where it is just keeps building the more you explore. The palace is shaped like a butterfly, with two wings coming off a main circular hall; one of the wings is the fifteenth century banqueting hall, the other a streamlined 1930s construction that has echoes of the site’s medieval past while still being unmistakeably modern. Pretty plants and shrubs make up the courtyard garden at the front, and yet there are glittering skyscrapers clearly visible on the horizon, reminding you that we are most definitely not on a country estate, despite being surrounded by acres of gorgeous landscaped gardens.

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The house itself is truly spectacular; from the smooth round walls of the entrance hall, inlaid with marquetry depicting the Courtaulds’ favourite cities from around the world, lit by a gorgeous circular skylight, to the glittering gold tiles and onyx walls of Virginia Courtauld’s Roman inspired bathroom, every room offers something to surprise and delight. The Courtaulds were inspired by the interiors of the Cunard ocean liners they spent so much time on as they travelled the world, and this is reflected in the stream-lined surfaces of the beautifully made built-in wardrobes, beds and dressing tables in the bedrooms and the sinuous curves of the freestanding furniture and upholstery. The Crown fans may be interested to know that they used the house as the interior for the royal yacht in Season Two precisely for this reason! Style and glamour exudes from every surface, and it is a wonderful surprise to leave the modern wings and stumble into the medieval banqueting hall, whose hammer beam ceiling and lofty stained glass are truly breathtaking and offer such a striking contrast to the rest of the house. I’m not entirely sure what the Courtaulds used this space for, though I imagine it must have been a magnificent setting for parties and dinners, and even amateur theatricals!

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Outside of the house, the gardens are lovely, though as one would expect of late March in England, the weather was not sufficiently nice enough for us to enjoy wandering around in them for too long. I imagine in the summer they must be beautiful, as there are plenty of flower beds, a rose garden and riverside lawns to explore. The Courtaulds loved to entertain and there are plenty of photographs inside the house of them lolling about in these gardens with friends, taking a dip in the pool (which is no longer there) and picnicking on the lawns, and it seems an absolutely charmed existence. Even during the war they kept up the entertainment, transforming the service quarters in the basement into a comfortable air raid shelter, which English Heritage have recreated to give a taste of wartime life. There is also – of course – a lovely cafe in the (heated) greenhouse, and a very good gift shop that has some particularly nice art deco items for sale.

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I absolutely loved every moment of my visit, and can’t believe I left it so long – I did grow up just around the corner, after all! However they have opened a lot of new rooms over the last couple of years, and discoveries are still being made – recently when undertaking conservation work, they found maps and wall paintings in the former study, revealing the locations of Stephen and Virginia’s travels. Who knows what they’ll find next? I can’t recommend a visit highly enough – it’s a mere twenty minute train ride from London Bridge station to Eltham, and then a brisk ten minute walk from there – perfect for a little escape from the hustle and bustle!