Commuter reads: What Remains – Tim Weaver

Another gritty crime thriller novel, with just the right amount of mystery and suspense; the kind of novel I love reading. Some of the details are gruesome and bloody, particularly the brutal murder of ten-year-old twins, April and Abigail, whose unjust murders at the hands of a psychopath is what drives Detective Healy throughout the story.

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Again as part of Weaver’s David Raker thriller series, Raker and Hea
ly form the perfect partnership equilibrium. Both wanting the same thing, with the same drive but Raker with slightly more rational and logically reason ways of achieving it. Although, I did find Healy’s fall from grace in this book quite upsetting, particularly the way he was driving himself away from his wife and sons.

However, having read Never Coming Back previously, I have to say What Remains was slightly underwhelming. It had all the great tropes of a thriller no doubt, maybe my expectations after Never Coming Back were too high. But although it kept me reading, I wasn’t as absorbed in the story as I was with Never Coming Back or many other crime thrillers I’ve read, such as Mo Hayder. I felt Weaver’s descriptions and writing style was trying to hard this time: resonating images such as red tail-lights in the snowy traffic with looking like blood. No. If you’re a crime thriller writer, don’t try to be poetic if it isn’t your style; stick to what you are good at.

Having said that, this is well worth the read and the twists and turns at the end were suitably unpredictable if slightly understandable. If you’ve like Weaver before or are looking for a new thriller series, I would definitely recommend this one.

Commuter reads: Saturday – Ian McEwan

I chose to read this because I read Atonement and loved it, so thought I would branch out and try some of his other works.

I found the themes of the book, set after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, to be very current still and the internal monologue of the protagonist, Henry Perowne, provides a fascinating mix of the global and the everyday mundane life of a middle-aged surgeon on his day off.

This intriguing mix and meandering of his thoughts managed to keep me reading although at the same time, the technique made for some very long-winded sentences and wordy, descriptive passages that I didn’t exactly enjoy on the packed 8am commuter bus.

The story hooks you in from the start with Henry witnessing a plane on fire over London, presumably heading to Heathrow. His frustration is mirrored by the reader’s as he waits for the news story to appear on the morning bulletin to find out what happened. It is almost disappointing when he, and the reader, learn that the crash landing was only a cargo plane making an emergency landing and that the outcome was very mundane. Henry is clearly anticipating another terrorist attack, as is the reader.

The book continues in this way, with many ups and downs, seemingly leading to something exciting before it fizzles to nothing. However, the last 80 pages are like a shock of cold water as suddenly everything kicks off and the events of the day and the lives of every character culminate in one long scene. The uncertainty, threat of violence, presence of old age, terminal illness, disease and new life all come together to create a metaphorically cliché mix of themes and ideas.

While the whole book tries to act as a poetic microcosm and can get confusing, the finale really is enjoyable and I would recommend this book purely for those last 80 pages.

Commuter reads: Cecelia Ahern – Where Rainbows End

I need to clarify that I read this book by accident.

Firstly, I didn’t realise this was the book that the film, Love, Rosie, is based on. I hated that film, I think it was the only option playing on a three hour flight I took somewhere.
So I hate romance, rom-coms, happy endings and all the clichés that come with them but I was 50 pages in before I recognised the story and realised I couldn’t remember the ending. So obviously I had to read it to find out.

I skim-read the entire 566 pages in three days of commutes (for those counting, around 3-4 hours) which was very easy since the book is an epistolary.

Anyway, Rosie and Alex have a series of near-misses and get close to revealing their feelings for each other about 100 times in the whole story, it’s painfully drawn out until they finally get together in their 50s after several divorces/failed marriages/continent changes/career changes.

The only feature I found redeeming was the letter-writing format. I think that’s a really interesting way to tell a story which spans over decades.

I would whole-heartedly recommend this book if you enjoyed the film, as with most book-to-film adaptations I’d say the book is better. I’d also recommend it if you enjoy the frustration of secret love, drawn out over years, or if you are a fan of romantic, chick-flicks and if romances make you cry.

Maybe I should have guessed from the title, maybe I shouldn’t have let someone recommend it to me, but I wish someone had warned me!

Commuter reads: Hanging Hill – Mo Hayder

There’s nothing I love more than a gritty crime thriller, particularly if it’s by Mo Hayder (who I think is a genius in this genre).

Hanging Hill is one of her stand-alone thrillers, not one of the Jack Caffery thriller series. Although I like the Caffery series, I really enjoyed having a story that stood by itself and didn’t come with characters whose history is recorded in previous books.

I think my enjoyment of this book was increased by how vividly I imagined it. The small cottage that Sally and her daughter, Millie, live in reminded me exactly of a small country cottage my family owns, in the middle  of nowhere with winding roads, it even has a shed in the corner of the garden like the shed Sally and Steve work out of when they are disposing of the body.

Having somewhere real to image the story taking place added to the slightly unnerving and unsettling feeling that is always so well-crafted in Hayder’s stories.

Predictably, I also loved Zoe Benedict. Strong-headed, independent, no nonsense, no emotions, that’s always the kind of female protagonist I love to see and identify with. Although, also slightly predictably, she has to be given her own sort of happy ending, not a happily ever after, but a satisfactory one for those readers who love to find some love in any story they read.

My favourite part of the book is by far the ending. Hayder leaves you completely hanging in the balance, with the possibility of something awful happening and the killer is revealed but not caught. In 2012, it caused many fans to beg Hayder for a sequel. But her response was

“The ending is like that because I’m evil and because I believe YOUR imagination is better able to fill in the spaces than mine is!”
[Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorMoHayder/posts/445109978858193]

That’s what I really enjoy, the book clearly provoked my imagination and leaving the ending open is a perfect way to continue that. I would much rather an open, cliff-hanger shock ending than a neatly tied up happy ending, am I the only one who feels that way?

Series: island hopping in the Caribbean – BARBADOS

I might be a bit bias about this island but that’s only because I spent a week here and I was here for Christmas Day! Barbados is absolutely beautiful and as well as the stereotypical white sand beaches and the swimming with turtles, there is so much activity and everyone is so friendly on the island that you’re really never short of anything to do!

I stayed in a very nice self-catered apartment in a hotel complex called The Blue Orchid and I can thoroughly recommend it. The staff were wonderfully welcoming and the manager was lovely and always made an effort to talk to you and check how your stay was. The hotel also put on special events, we had a Christmas Eve BBQ and rum punch around the pool for free!

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The great thing about the hotel is that it is right on the beach and although the beach is not private, it is only about 1km long and runs behind private residences so it’s extremely quiet and it seems like a private beach because no one else seems to even know it exists. The sand is white and beautiful and the sea is warm, although the waves and the current were quite strong so if you aren’t a strong swimmer there is a bay beach 5 minutes up the road with little current.

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There is too many parts of the week in Barbados to describe them all here but I’ll pick the bet bits which are really great tips for anyone visiting there.

  1. Hire a car. Unless you’re the kind of person who is happy to stay glued to your sun lounger for a week (this blog might not be for you), hiring a car is a great way to see what the island has to offer. We saw a huge variety of beautiful beaches for starters but also seeing the other towns besides Bridgetown was brilliant and driving inland into the hills meant we really got to see the local life and village life that still looks so chilled and happy but a far cry from the beaches. We drove to the west side of the island which is met with the Pacific Ocean (the east side where I stayed is the Atlantic) where the waves are far bigger and there is lots more jungle-like greenery.
  2. You don’t need to pay to swim with turtles. This is a little bit cheeky but a massive money saver. Barbados is well-known for its clear waters and up close turtle encounters but this often leaves tourists and their money open to exploitation. If you’re a confident swimmer, swim out into the bay yourself and I can guarantee you will see turtles. We saw four just on the swim out where the max depth was three metres. Once your away from the splashing and paddling on the shore the water further out is full of turtles and if you manage to swim out far enough to tag onto a catamaran tour, you will be surrounded by them!
  3. Don’t go all-inclusive. You cannot go to such a vibrant and colourful culture and continue to say chips and pizza. The caribbean flavours and spices are something that need experiencing and I’d say our marinated caribbean spice meats we had on Christmas Day was some of the best chicken I’ve had. Where else are you going to try Barbadian food if not in Barbados?
  4. Go on a day boat trip. There are loads of grey deals around for one of these. Anything from trips that include turtle swimming or water sports, to relaxed sunset sails including a candle lit dinner. Again don’t go for the big companies from home that advertise these; we asked a local man who lived near our apartment and he told us about a friend who did a brilliant deal. We ended up paying half the price of the big tour operators for a catamaran for about 25 people. It left port at around 4pm and sailed the east coast of the island to see all the celebrity beach front properties. It included a buffet meal, a free bar and swimming with turtles and you watched the sunset from on board.

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  5. Don’t forget your suncream and hat.You might not look cool but you’ll be cool and you’ll need it.

Series: island hopping in the Caribbean – DOMINICA

Dominica: the island that exceeded expectations.

This island was an odd one because on the one hand I was really looking forward to it – it’s where they filmed a lot of the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies, particularly the bits where you see Calypso in her shack in the jungle – but I also had relatively low expectations for some reason. You’ll be pleased to know that it massively exceeded those expectations and I think I would say that it was my favourite island we visited.

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We arrived very early in the morning which gave us plenty of time to find our footing and again to assess the best option to see as much as possible – we had learnt by now that negotiating with locals for prices and trips was usually better than the pre-advertised tourist options.

There are lots of wonderful market stalls selling a range of handmade and craft items, everything from the typical woven bracelets in bright colours to intricately carved wooden bowls and vases made from bamboo. It is well worth doing a bit of shopping here but have a look over the whole market first, the ones further from the port entrance are slightly cheaper.

We eventually came to a deal with one very friendly man (after asking several prices from the eagerly waiting taxi/tour drivers) who took us in his minivan car on a tour of the island. Although it may seem strange for us to get into unregistered family-type cars for a tour, it’s important to remember that the Caribbean lifestyle and culture is far more laid back and easy going – no commercial tour firms and branded cars – just think of it this way: by choosing to do your research and take a small local or individually run tour, you’re contributing to the island’s economy NOT the huge corporate tourism travel agencies back home.

I have to say the tour and the whole day was wonderful. Our guide was so informed and intelligent about the island and didn’t just have the daily knowledge of living there. He told us the historical origins and development of the island, he had a huge knowledge of the local flora and fauna and would frequently pull over to select a piece of plant for us to examine (smell some raw cinnamon straight from the tree? check. Crack some vanilla pods for us? check.) I mean, did you know that banana plants only grow one bunch of bananas and then sprout a new plant next to it for another bunch? and if you farm bananas you must cut down the old banana tree as soon as you have harvested the bunch? Agriculture is a bigger trade on the island than tourism. Our guide had so much knowledge of the surroundings and customised the route to ensure anything we wanted to see he included on the tour.

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This was the first day of the whole trip that it had been rainy but that all seemed to be part of the island’s atmosphere which was far more tropical than other Caribbean islands. The huge hillsides covered in jungle growth were reminiscent of scenes from King Kong or Jurassic Park. And the steamy wet atmosphere was due to the amazing fact that there are 365 rivers on the island: one for everyday of the year! Our driver took us up into the hills to see small villages, he stopped on the way in a wonderful jungle roadside bar, for a beer in the rain with an amazing view of the jungle valley. He took us to the sulphur spas (they smell pretty horrendous) allowing us a walk through the jungle terrain, we also saw breath-taking views from hillside view points around the island, local botanical gardens and he delighted in telling us odd local stories like the one about a bus that was crushed under a tree during a hurricane – you can still see the bus under the tree which has now grown around it (no one was on the bus at the time, don’t worry!)

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After our incredibly informative and value-for-money tour we were recommended a bar to have a drink and of course try the local rum (what else in the Caribbbean?). The bar was called ‘Ruins’ and I 100% recommend it to anyone who visits Dominica as an absolute must visit – even if you don’t drink. It is the first road back from the main port road so very easy to find (turn right out the port entrance, then first left and it’s on the corner of the next block).

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The bar is literally Ruins. It is the ruins of an old brick building with a corrugated iron roof, colourful walls and scaffold, rustic/authentic wooden furniture with water sprays in the ceiling for the hot, humid days. There was a live music act in there, singing and on the drums doing caribbean covers of popular songs and they were amazing. Your drinks come in hollowed out bamboo cups with a coconut lid, the staff were wonderful and friendly. A definite must visit.

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Tips for Dominica:

  • Again, don’t be afraid to negotiate a deal with local tour guides waiting in the areas around the port.
  • If you are interested in the history, local culture, the flora and fauna of the island, a local tour guide really is the way to go.
  • Don’t spend all your money on souvenirs on islands like St.Barths, islands like Dominica are a lot cheaper and with a much bigger, far more authentic range of items.
  • Take a rain coat and wear trainers/comfy shoes for some jungle walking.
  • Visit the Ruins bar.

Series: Island hopping in the Caribbean – ST. KITTS

So I know this one is really behind but I’ve been working at at Literature Festival [look out for the blog post] so hopefully I’m excused!

This post is all about St. Kitts which I think I really underestimated in terms of it’s historical interest. I thought it felt really colonial from the moment we arrived at the port.

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As always it’s definitely worth taking a wander through the town to get a feel for the place. St. Kitts felt a lot less touristy once you were outside the port area and in the main town.

 

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Make sure you take a walk to Independence Square, it’s got plenty of lovely grassy areas if you fancy taking a break and picnicking in the shade of a tree.

 

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We decided to head out to one of the beaches but not one of the touristy recommended ones. We took a slightly difference approach and asked around a couple of the taxi drivers in the port area what they thought the best beach was, then we compared prices with the drivers.

I know a lot of people think this is a risky strategy putting your money in the hands of a local driver and not perhaps a tourist recommended cab company, but honestly they are not trying to rip you off. The prices we were quoted from three difference cabbies were all very reasonable and similar in price, if not cheaper to some of the tourist ‘recommended’ ones.

Our lovely cabbie was called Bernard and he was a really lovely and jolly chap, he offered to take us to a secluded beach with a beach bar shack on it. He wouldn’t take payment until he had picked us up from the beach and returned us to the port again later in the day so this solved the problem of getting a return taxi – Make sure you factor that in if you’re planning on going somewhere secluded. He even stopped at various view points on the island and took pictures for us.

The beach was lovely and quiet and the beach bar was reasonably priced with great staff and it seems a similar situation on most beaches on that eastern side of the island. The actual seas was rocky underfoot so you might want to consider swim sandals but the whole day was understated and enjoyable.

Tips:

  • shop around for taxi prices, don’t just take the the first one and don’t just assume the tourist recommended one is the cheapest – use your initiative and common sense.
  • get chatting to taxi drives/locals/shop owners and find out what they recommend, again it may be vastly different and more enjoyable than what the tourist guides tell you to do.
  • Swim shoes for rocky beaches.
  • suncream and water as always.
  • If you do plan to go off the beaten track, make sure you arrange your taxi ride back to your accommodation/port. Going somewhere secluded is great but you’ll never hail a cab from there!