April favourites

About an hour after I wrote the below I went down with the most awful norovirus I have ever had. I’ve been in bed for 2 days. Yesterday I watched 9 hours of Mad Men. That is too much Mad Men. I don’t even like that show.

We are on day 3. I plan to get out of bed at some point today. But first I’m posting this because rain or shine I am determined to stick to my weekly schedule goddamnit!

To visit: The Eden Project

Based in Cornwall, England, this impressive botanical project opened in the late 1990s. I visited when I was a kid but hadn’t been back since, so when my bestie and I were planning a trip out recently we decided to head down there are check it out. Two enormous domes – biomes, as they’re known – house a wide range of plant and animal life. You’ve got the Mediterranean biome – the smaller of the two, this one is comfortable to walk around in, packed with birds and bright flowers and a cute little pizza place I’d recommend for some lunch. There are a whole of bunch of food options at TEP, but we thought this was by far the nicest one. After you’ve eaten your pizza, have a wander and make sure to check out the tulips in the spring – they’re truly gorgeous – and the weird Bacchanalian sculptures for The Secret History vibes.

After that you head into the rainforest biome, and, as much as I loved hanging out in the Mediterranean, this was really the highlight of the day for me. Hot, sticky and humid as hell, regardless of the weather come with the knowledge that whatever you’re wearing, after you’ve spent about 15 minutes in here you’re going to want to take it off.

(Also, just give up on your hair for the day.)

Packed with beautiful rainforest plants including bananas, cacao trees and the orchid pergola, which houses over 500 different species, make sure to also watch out for the birds, lizards and beetles that call this biome home. Despite the heat, which the higher you climb does become quite extreme, we spent more than an hour inside the rainforest biome. It’s full of fascinating facts about the impact loss of the rainforest is having on the planet in addition to a beautiful but utterly devastating exhibition of photography of native people – who the TEP describe as natural environmentalists – and how climate change and deforestation has destroyed their way of living in so many places.

And the biomes are really just half of your day. Beautiful gardens, fascinating exhibitions and a massive play area for the kids in addition to activities like zip lining (super expensive but looks SO FUN) mean you can comfortably spend the entire day here – and at £25 for entry, you’re going to want to!

To watch: Barry (HBO/NowTV)

Barry

This weird show about a depressed hitman turned actor is dark, menacing, depressing and very very funny. A lot of shows boast a ‘morally grey’ leading man, but Bill Hader’s fantastic turn as Barry is one of the only lovable murderers on TV I have genuinely complicated feelings about, owing to an awful/brilliant twist at the end of the first season. Watch it nooooowww.

To listen: Mitski

I have commitment issues, but with this girl I’m in it for the long haul. Mitski isn’t new to me but she is the only artist I can think of where every time I hear a song I get lost in her albums for days.

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In The House In The Dark Woods

In this ingenious horror story set in colonial New England, a woman goes missing. Or not missing – perhaps she has fled, abandoned her family. Or perhaps she’s been kidnapped and set loose to wander in the dense woods of the north. Alone and possibly lost, she meets another woman in the forest. Then everything changes.
On a journey that will take her through a wolf-haunted wood, down a deep well, and onto a living ship made of human bones, our heroine is forced to confront her past and may find that the evil she flees has been inside her all along.
Eerie and disturbing,
In The House In The Dark Woods is a novel of psychological horror and suspense told in Laird Hunt’s acclaimed lyrical prose. It is the story of a bewitching, a betrayal, a master huntress and her quarry. It is a story of anger, of oppression, of revenge and redemption.
It is a story of a haunting, one that forms the bedrock of American mythology, told in a vivid voice you will never forget.

In The House In The Dark Woods

I love following the Belletrist book club – even if I am several months behind at any given time – because almost always it introduces me to a title that never would have been on my radar otherwise. In The House In The Dark Woods, their pick from back in October, is a dark horror-fairy tale, a sinister and magical story about patriarchy, violence and coercion.

“For my own part I kept very quiet, as quiet as I have ever been, for there are things in this world that you think will never come to pass that will rob you of your voice for nothing but the joy of them when suddenly they do.”

Laird Hunt has a lyrical and strange writing style that is beautiful, but, for me anyway, took a little time to get used to. He is prone to very long sentences that follow the narrator’s rambling thoughts. They’re often lovely, but easy to get lost in. Kind of like the woods Goody, the narrator – not her real name, which we never learn – wanders, I guess.

The dark woods are filled with supernatural and formidable women. Captain Jane, self-styled queen of the woods, second only to Granny Someone, an evil force who only consumes; Eliza, a fairy-like presence with a welcoming cottage for weary wood-wanderers – well, friendly at first; and Hope, the mysterious child who always seems to show up at the exact moment you need her the most.

Everything about the narrative is unreliable – from Goody’s Man, who she initially represents as a caring presence she is desperate to find her way home to before soon revealing him as violent and abusive, to the very fabric of the woods, which seen through a magical stone turn horrifying, with even the animals transformed to monsters through its lens.

Most of all In The House In The Dark Woods is a deeply unsettling horror story. It’s hard to go into any analytical detail without spoilers – the curse of reviewing a story with an unreliable narrator – but with carefully constructed half-truths, corner-of-the-eye jumps and the sudden and jarring injection of the grotesque, Hunt winds a tight knot of anxiety in your stomach, even as you wonder what on earth is going on.

If you enjoyed the tragic twist at the end of We Were Liars or the underlying act of horror at the centre of The Walls Around Us then the complex and misleading women that populate In The House In The Dark Woods will likely catch your imagination too.

Internment

Trigger warning: Islamophobia

It’s been one year since the census landed seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her family on the registry. Five months since the attorney general ruled there was precedent for relocation of citizens during times of war. And one month since the president declared that ‘Muslims are a threat to America’.

Now, Layla and her parents are suddenly taken from their home and forced into an internment camp for Muslim American citizens.

With the help of newly made friends also trapped within the internment camp, her boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance, Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp’s Director and his guards.

Set in a horrifying near-future United States, Internment is a heart-racing and emotional novel that challenges readers to fight the complicit silence that exists in society today.

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Internment by Samira Ahmed is a chilling and powerful peek into a potential future America. Muslim Americans are forced to sign up to a so-called ‘Muslim registry’, book burnings of Islamic texts and literature by Muslim authors are a regular occurrence and exclusion laws are in place preventing Muslims from entering the country. People live under nightly curfew. Lots of Muslim parents have withdrawn their children from school, fearing for their safety in institutions that have turned against them. Muslims working in the public sector have all been fired from their jobs.

Soon the hostile environment moves into its next horrifying phase: internment. Layla and her parents are removed from their home at gun point and sent to a camp in the middle of the desert. There, people are separated into ethnic groups (classic colonialist move), given no access to the internet or any kind of news outside of the camp’s electrified fences and forced to adjust to a life of imprisonment and all the terror, random acts of violence and isolation that come with that.

Internment is very much Layla’s story. It’s an introspective look at her experience of internment: her constant fear, her frustration with her parents and their obedience to the rules of the camp – born only of course of a desire to remain safe, but nonetheless awful to Layla – and her growth from regular teenage girl to an activist and freedom fighter under duress.

Ahmed expertly crafted this book so as you read every page with baited breath, tense and unable to relax. It’s a relentless novel filled with dangers known – and perhaps even more frightening, mysterious. Some people are beaten by guards for all to see, others vanished from the camp without explanation. Even in moments of relative calm there is no escape from the ever-present feeling of danger. This is no more evident than in Layla’s developing relationship with one of the camp’s guards. A solider seemingly sympathetic to the plight of Layla and her fellow inmates, Layla’s relationship with Jake made me very uncomfortable. While Jake does act like a friend and an ally, he still works for the regime and the extremity of the power imbalance in their relationship makes every early scene between the pair – to me, anyway – almost unbearably tense and, for lack of a better word, icky. Yes, right now this man is acting as Layla’s ally, but it is impossible to forget that ultimately, he has power over her – in the form of a gun and a climate of disregard for the Muslims imprisoned in the camp. Basically, he could do what he wanted to her and no one would stop him – and even when he behaved kindly, that was impossible to forget.

Jake, unfortunately, is where my problems with Internment began. While it is a powerful story, I couldn’t help but feel that it could have been more. Though they would have been difficult to read, there were elements of life in the camp I felt could have been better fleshed out. The way internees had the potential to turn against each other, for example, was touched upon but not fully explored; different Muslim identities were acknowledged, but without much depth; in perhaps the part that upset me most, the sexual abuse almost certainly happening in the camp was acknowledged by Jake in a way that felt almost… throwaway. I think perhaps the reason these missing elements bothered me quite so much is because of the amount of the narrative that is dedicated to Layla’s relationship with Jake, the white guard. His arc of redemption was probably the least interesting to me, and, in my opinion, was dedicated far too much time and yet still not enough complexity – or criticism.

Then there was the novel’s tendency to fall into some of the tropes of YA. Layla took massive risks throughout to spend time with her boyfriend, David that felt… kind of unrealistic to me. Being forcibly separated from your partner is a kind of pain I couldn’t even imagine, but sneaking your boyfriend into an internment camp where both your lives are in danger for what basically amounted to a quick make out sesh… really?

Ultimately, Internment is an upsetting and necessary read about the impact of Islamophobia taken to one of its most extreme possible outcomes. It’s chilling because it’s realistic. I read Internment the week following the Christchurch shootings, in which there was an increase in Islamophobic hate crimes in the UK. A few days later there was a report in The Guardian from the UNHCR that 15 refugee children, mostly from Afghanistan, being held in Calais by the UK awaiting family unification – some of them for up to a year are currently undertaking a hunger strike out of desperation to have their cases finally heard. What’s upsetting about Internment is what could happen – but it’s also what’s happening now.

Internment, though imperfect, points out the ways that we are complicit in crimes being committed right now and challenges you to finally step into the fight.

Everything I Know About Love

When it comes to the trials and triumphs of becoming a grown up, journalist Dolly Alderton has seen and tried it all. She vividly recounts falling in love, wrestling with self-sabotage, finding a job, throwing a socially disastrous Rod Stewart themed house party, getting drunk, getting dumped, realising that Ivan from the corner shop is the only man you’ve ever been able to rely on, and finding that that your mates are always there at the end of every messy night out. It’s a book about bad dates, good friends and – above all else – about recognising that you and you alone are enough.

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I grabbed a copy of Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton on a whim at the checkout in Sainsbury’s. It was £3.99, I was stocking up on yoghurt and pasta. It made sense.

I knew very little about the book besides a few people I follow on Instagram posting about how great it was and assumed from the title that it was probably about boys. And, for the first couple of chapters at least, I was right. Dolly Alderton starts what very much appears to be a book about dating before she pivots into a much more complicated story about friendship, self-destruction, loss, grief, therapy and independence – and cooking. There is a macaroni cheese recipe in there that’ll make you lose your mind.

“Sometimes the gap between the little faith you have compared to the unwavering faith of others is a very moving thing.”

Everything I Know About Love is a series of funny, heart-wrenching and sometimes cringe-inducing personal essays about Alderton’s life, from her beginnings living in the outskirts of London counting down the days until adulthood finally begins, to her discovery of alcohol and its impact on her, some boys and, of course, her personal reckoning – with herself. These essays are broken up by recipes (I know I mentioned this already but the hangover mac and cheese is life changing), made up correspondence on everything from pretentious house parties to the nightmare that is the hen do in the social media age and everything Dolly knew about love between the ages of 21 and 30. From “Men love a filthy, wild woman. Have sex on the first date, keep them up all night, smoke hash in their bed in the morning, never call them back, tell them you hate them, turn up on their doorstep in an Ann Summers nurse’s outfit, be anything but conventional. That’s how you keep them interested.” (21) to “There is a reason why those with shared demons or who had similar childhoods or overlapping ancestry often end up together. I think everyone’s deepest emotional fingerprints reach out and touch each other on an unconscious level. This can be good and bad. This can lead to intimacy and connection, and co-dependency and drama.” (30). Each list is full of embarrassing misconceptions and deep truths I’ve been reflecting on ever since.

In ‘Being a Bit Fat, Being a Bit Thin’, Alderton details how quickly it is possible to fall into disordered eating habits. Always described as “a big girl” by her peers, Dolly hadn’t considered her weight in much detail before her first Big Break Up age 21. Struck down by unexpected heartbreak, for the first time in her life, Dolly found herself completely unable to eat. When she shed a stone in the first few weeks she grabbed hold of weight as one aspect of her life she could control. This is a difficult essay to read, as it speaks very directly to how ingrained diet culture is – in young women in particular. We have been so socialised into believing that thin equals happy even the most reasonable person is vulnerable to falling into that belief – and, as Alderton points out, it’s one that is incredibly difficult to ever be completely free from. Once you know something’s caloric value, it’s very hard to forget.

When I saw the title Everything I Know About Love, I assumed the love Alderton referenced was mostly the romantic kind, but the love story at the centre of her memoir is a platonic one. She and her best friend, Farley have known each other since they were children. They always functioned as two parts of a frenetic whole – that is, until Farley met her partner. Alderton writes with honesty and humility about how hard it was for her to see her best friend fall in love. It is one of the lesser spoken of aspects of friendship, but the particular heartbreak of suddenly becoming second to your friend’s serious partner is a real and horrible phase of life at whatever age it happens to you. Going from speaking to and seeing each other every day to suddenly having to fit into the newly busy schedule of your bestie can be unmooring, alienating and very, very lonely. But, slowly, you adjust to the new normal. The partner you’ve resented comes to feel like family.

Alderton illustrates that periods of closeness and distance are all a part of a long-term relationship, something that becomes very apparent when Farley’s life takes a completely unexpected and tragic twist – leading she and Dolly back to the kind of closeness they hadn’t had in years, under the most awful of circumstances. It’s not the kind of unconditional love she had always pictured, but, Dolly comes to realise, she and Farley have it. Alderton spends much of the book lamenting her supposed inability to maintain long-term love. Her life has mainly been without serious romantic relationships, and she wears her independence like a shield. But the idea that she doesn’t have forever-love in her life isn’t real. Farley is the great (platonic) love of her life – with all the joys, fights, complications and phases that entails.

All I can say to sum up this book is this: I was not ready.