Best Reads 2013

I’ve been inspired to write about my favourite reads of 2013, even though it’s already two months into the new year.
Since seeing my sister’s ardent year to year record keeping of read books, I started my own little list. Each year I managed to read a pitiful 13 to 15 books at the most. The amount would vary depending on my locations in the year because my reading time would usually be during a commute to work.
However, last years list grew somewhat from the previous years. This could have been due to my strange work schedule which gave me every third Friday off and during the summer this was prime time for laying about reading in Volkspark Friedrichshain before the weekend crowds hit.

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Volkspark Friedrichshain - The perfect summer reading spot

I was looking at my list for this year and it already has an impressive number for my standards. I think this is also due to having a Kindle. I do love having books and storing the evidence of my reads in a bookshelf for others to marvel at, plus it's always nice holding a book in hand, feeling the pages and seeing the progress evident in width, but since I have been using a Kindle I have read so much more frequently. The ease of downloading a new book upon finishing another is also quite easy to get used to!

Here are my top five 2013 reads.

Wild - Cheryl Strayed

After reading “Dear Sugar” which I was given for Christmas in 2012 I felt the immediate need to search out more by this wonderful author. Dear Sugar was a collection of advice columns written by Cheryl Strayed. I found that the most interesting columns were the ones in which she had drawn from her own experience in order to answer a readers problem. She would go into depth about the shocking past she had and I wanted to know more!
Wild is Sheryl’s account of her solo hike across the Pacific Crest Trail during an exceptionally tumultuous time in her life. It reads as a memoir, adventure, advice and biographical account and is gripping and full of raw emotion. Sheryl has an exceptional ability to portray pain, loneliness, pride and achievement through her anecdotes. Her emotive and observational writing is incredibly gripping and unapologetic. She reveals so much of herself through her recollections and through her brazen, courageous admissions her accounts become so much more than just anecdotes and hold more weight than a persons mere journal entries. Some of the trials she faces along the trail are astounding but she never over sells them or tries to dramatize the stories in any way that they feel unnatural. The book is just as much about her realisations through her journey on the trail as it is about recounting the hike itself. It is an epic and thoroughly enjoyable read, so much so I wish I could read it again for the first time.

A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway

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This may have made it to my top five list not only because of the book but because of the memories I now associate with the time I read it. I wasn’t the biggest Hemingway fan despite my brother’s avid adoration of the author. I read “In our time” for a course at university on 20th century literature and found it a bit of a struggle to get through. However, I was drawn to the auto biography of Hemingway and timed it perfectly to read during my visit to Paris. Hemingway recounts his life in Paris during his marriage to his first wife Hadley and the initial struggles he had as a writer, his tumultuous friendships with F Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein and the life among the elite Paris creative society. It was really a perfect experience, reading the account and exploring the city he described so well.

The Paris Wife - Paula McLain

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The perfect follow up to Hemingway's Paris diary. I had “The Paris Wife” with me to get into straight after reading A Moveable Feast. Even though it was historical fiction, it was like reading the other side of the story, after reading Hemingway's own account of the marriage and its break down. This was a great way to get more of a background on Hadley and how she came to be Hemingway’s first wife, and the ways she dealt with the title during his years of rags to riches. It must have been such a difficult time to be married to an aspiring and budding author with all of the new friends he was making, and the unavoidable change to his character with the growing fame. Hadley is portrayed as a very simple, compassionate woman who was quite unsure of herself and never completely secure within the partnership. Hadley’s account of the marriage was an enjoyable read and Paula McLain did an excellent job of melding fact with her assumption of Hadley’s voice and personality.

Aquariums of PyongYang - Kang Chol-Hwan

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I'd been meaning to read this ever since my friend recommended it while we were living in South Korea. The book is told by a North Korean defector, who recounts a life so unbelievably difficult it is hard to believe he survived to tell his story. As a young boy his family repatriates to North Korea, believing so strongly in the political views of the communist party. Almost as soon as they arrive off the ship, they realise their terrible error and it is too late to turn back. They survive for a few years with only minor repercussions such as having their prized car repossessed by the government and other possessions taken away from them. However, the day comes when their grandfather doesn't return one day and it is from that point that their personal safety is at threat. The family are sent to a hard labour camp and the ensuing years in abhorrent conditions are beyond comprehensible. The honest and factual recollections of Kang Chol Hwan's years in the camp are broken up by amazingly lighthearted anecdotes that Kang managed to glean amidst his grim circumstances. It is clear after finishing the book that Kang's survival and eventual escape were possible due to his indomitable spirit, a force that is carefully wound into every paragraph of the book.

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro

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My friend gave me her copy of this book when I last visited Berlin. I had already seen the movie and thought I knew what to expect. But of course the story in the book was much more interesting than the premise of the movie had been able to portray. Kathy H recounts hers and the lives of her classmates during their years growing up in an orphanage and the following years after they move out as young adults. The children are bred and raised in order to eventually donate their organs until they "complete". Kazuo manages to create an innocent and childlike character from the moment Kathy H begins to narrate, all the way through to her last perceptions and insights. The narration is broken up by reflections on experiences the children had at Hailsham, which build a curiosity all the way through the book. The circumstances of the donations, the children's relationships with each other and with their teachers is always cast in a grey light which is pushed further into shadow by the intermittent reflections of Kathy H. Her childish ignorance continues into her adult life and is always compassionate but matter of fact.
Never let me go is a sad read with absolutely no hope, not even at the end of the story but it promotes thought about organ donation and the morality and selfishness of humans and what practices society will accept and turn a blind eye to.

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Free London - Comedy shows

Free London activities are awesome. I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a city with so much readily available entertainment free of charge. From the museums and galleries to the plethora of parks and monuments.

The discovery of the free comedy shows began with my move to East London, near Stratford. I went to the comedy night at the Theatre Royal which served up some pretty decent laughs.

Last week I went along with a few friends to a recorded comedy show for BBC radio, Chat Show Roulette. The premise was based on improv and led prompts from the host with the aid of pre-written audience suggestions.

Comedians were given ten minute interview slots in which time they found out their name and job and had to run with it. The host was excellent at putting them on the spot and often welcomed them by asking them what their slogan was just seconds after finding out what their “profession” was.

One of the first comedians found out he was a famous television antiques personality and and just seconds after this revelation he was prompted by the host for his famous and well known slogan! Quick on his feet he delivered a convincing “If it’s old and your bold, it’s sold!” The poor guy was later gently reminded about the “book” that he had just written entirely in rhyming couplets about an old antique mirror he had discovered in John O' Groats. He did a really good job of quickly improvising a rhyming couplet about an old mirror which he had to transport from the top of Scotland to his antique shop somewhere in England.

The only female comedian to perform was brilliant. She was assigned a quirky name which was built out of pets names and the names of hated high school teachers from audience members. When she entered the stage she found out that she was a famous advice columnist and proceeded to regale the audience with anecdotes of help she had given to celebrities which were prompted by the host. She was so quick on her feet and didn’t miss a beat with the outrageous prompts she was dealt. Her set ended with a power ballad!

Another favourite was a guy who had to end his set with a reggae song about eggs and chips with a rap break in the middle about the perfect oven temperature for cooking chips.

Each show hosts different comedians and of course new audience suggestions. It was an excellent night out and something I’ll definitely be looking into going to again.

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Skating Escapades

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My flatmate has a real fondness for skating. A couple of weeks ago he convinced me to go along with him to an ice skating rink in East London where we spent a few hours amount several other enthusiasts and beginners.

I hadn't ice skated in a while and hesitantly stepped onto the ice making sure to stay close to the sides. But after a few minutes I got my groove back and I felt pretty confident and enjoyed an hour or so of gliding around the rink dodging the hazards and trying not to be thrown off balance by the show offs.

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It was just when I started to feel really cocky that I lost my balance and fell on my ass. I was surprised how wet I got from a quick tumble and had to spend then next 40 minutes with damp clothes and considerably less confidence!

Last weekend it was the same flatmates birthday and his activity of choice was taking us all to a roller disco! I wasn't so sure about leaving the safety of solid ground again but at least it wasn't ice this time.

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I roller bladed when I was younger, but I never roller-skated. The skates felt clunky and cumbersome and at first I was a little bit like a new born calf but just like I had with ice skating, I found my balance and started to enjoy myself.
I enjoyed it much more than ice skating because the threat of falling over was far less daunting. As it turned out I didn't fall and I managed to go quite fast and even tried to go backwards.

Now I'm thinking skating would be a really great way to keep fit. I might look into buying some inline skates and getting involved in the free London skating get togethers they have.

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Blind Tiger's The Little Mermaid

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A little while ago I saw tickets for The Little Mermaid production on Groupon (One of the better Groupon experiences I've had). I bought a couple not knowing much about it and then I found out it was all the way in Hammersmith. So I gave the tickets to my flatmate for Christmas!

But on the day of the show he told me he couldn't make it as his wife was having dental surgery that day and he was going to be playing nurse. So I printed the tickets and Dion and I planned to go that night.

Dion was visiting so we spent a while in London looking around Borough markets and the Golden Hinde and then went to Five Guys to get a bit of biting back chip action.

After our meal we were ready for our journey to Hammersmith. I know it’s still within London but when you live in the East it is such a mission going to south west London, even from Soho it took us ages to get there.

The production was held at Riverside Studios, little place tucked away in a side street and housing what seemed like filming studios and independent movie theaters. We arrived with plenty of time to spare so headed over the street for a couple of ciders among the locals watching dart competitions on the television.

We headed back and entered the theater. An older gentleman was reclining in the center writing in a small notebook. On either side of him were four other figures covered with sheets, creating curious shapes. The actors under these sheets stood patiently, with very few movements for about 7 minutes while another girl played a pretty tune on the piano. Once the show was ready to begin the man stood up and began removing the sheets from the four other actors.

One of them was a young girl seated at a harp, the next was a girl seated with a violin, next was a young man with a guitar and the last young man with a flute. Each of them played a short musical interlude and the story began to unfold from there.

The story was told as Hans Christian Anderson wrote the Little Mermaid and explained the intertwining themes of unrequited love in his own life to the trials the Little mermaid faced in hers. It was masterfully written and produced. The 6 actors were so talented and each were able to play several different instruments, as well as sing and act.

All of the action was told with the aid of excellent lighting creating blue ripple effects for the ocean scenes and golden orange for sunsets. The cast were able to evoke a roaring, thunderous storm with the use of a drum, and a sharp and hazardous violin tune.

The only props on stage were the piano, a desk and a couple of sheets, however, not once did it feel as though they were lacking anything. The story was gripping, the acting was riveting and the songs carried the drama along beautifully.

The show was produced and acted by a small theater company called Blind Tiger and they don’t have an advertising budget so rely almost entirely on social media and word of mouth. If you ever read anything about Blind Tiger upcoming shows, clear a space in your social calendar for a night you won’t forget.

At the end of the show the man announced the actors and told us all he hoped we enjoyed the show and if we had then we had just seen the Little mermaid and if we hadn't, we had just watched the Lion King!

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Oxford

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was interested in visitng Oxford initially after the allusion to Jay being an “Oxford Man” In the Great Gatsby. Clearly this title meant something of importance, that coupled with the Oxford English dictionaries spurred my interest in the self proclaimed best University in Europe. The city itself is within a nice day trip distance from London.

After a slight detour due to the floods we made it to Oxford. I love getting out of London to the smaller towns and cities where there are quaint cafes that offer cream tea and scones. I was looking forward to sitting down to a nice morning tea and found a place with cream tea advertised. It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for, it was more of a faux cream tea.

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We found our way to the street that seemed to be the meeting place for all of the walking tours and went straight to the Free Walking Tour company that I’d read about online. The guy was quite eccentric and we had a brief conversation about fox hats before heading off to quickly arm ourselves with hot drinks before the walk.

Our guide tended to go off on tangents and talk a lot about himself, but he was also quite entertaining. We walked past the first few university houses and he explained the different rivalries and threw in a few personal anecdotes for good measure, before making fun of the hat of one of the ladies in the group, which he would continue to do for the rest of the tour.

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One of the best parts of the tour was having our photo taken underneath the bridge where the Oxford graduates pose on their graduation day. Our guide asked us all to jump in unison and we could later look at our photo on their Facebook page. As it turned out we were nowhere to be seen in the photo, except for my feet and Dion's arm.

The grounds of Christchurch were flooded and it looked like it was a natural lake that the ducks had inhabited. After we had a look around for somewhere we could get a good dinner and walked into what looked like an old English pub but turned out to be a Thai restaurant.

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We had train tickets booked back to London for later in the evening but the cold encouraged us to leave much earlier and it was a good thing we did because of the detouring trains on the way back due to the floods in the area.

Oxford was a really lovely day trip and only just over an hour from London for around £35 return.

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Touristing

One of the best aspects of working holidays is being able to draw out the tourist experience when it suits me. I love exploring new cities but weekend visits always make me feel a bit anxious because I know that I will have to narrow down the list of everything that I want to see. I felt that way about Paris. There is so much more of Paris that I want to see and I gave it a pretty good go while I was there for 5 days!

So living abroad allows me to take a more relaxed approach to site seeing. Living in a city as large and abundant as London is like handing me a challenge on a silver platter! I have been doing well to keep a nice balance of being a tourist and being an expat. I've had a lot of busy weekends and a few too many lazy weekends lately. So I’m trying to cut down on the hibernation by reminding myself that London really isn’t that cold and this time last year I was surviving in minus temperatures in Berlin.

I’ve also been extremely lucky since Christmas, that our company has had a reasonably quiet workload leading us to be sent home early almost every day. I’ve taken advantage of some of these days by heading out to museums and galleries in the hope that the weekday afternoons are much quieter than weekends.

One of my favourite afternoons was spent walking around the National Gallery. By the time I managed to find it that is! It’s really not complicated at all to get to Trafalgar square but somehow it was a mission for me to get there! The tourist density wasn't too horrendous which was surprising for a day so soon after New Years eve.

The gallery was amazing. I walked through rooms full of fantastic Western European paintings. The gallery houses 2,300 works from the 13th to the early 20th century including pieces by Rembrandt, Botticelli and Van Gogh. One of my favourites was Bacchus and Ariadne. Bacchus fell in love with Ariadne when he saw her and leapt from his chariot down to her. She was eventually turned into a constellation.

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I was really impressed with the layout and maintenance of the gallery and the information displayed with each piece. Some of the biblical scenes were so fascinating and reading the information accompanying the art made the experience so much more enriching. It almost made me want to go home and read the bible again. I was reminded of all of the stories I had listened to in Church growing up and it felt quite nostalgic.

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Welcome to my blog!

I'm Sarah, a Kiwi living in London. I started this blog to share my travel and expat adventures and advice for fellow travellers.

If you want to ask anything further about the places I've blogged about, learn more about me and my blog, or contact me click on 'About me' below.

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