“Through the open middle sash is visible the crescent-curved expanse of the Bay as a sheet of brilliant translucent green…On the left hand white cliffs stretch away till they terminate in St. Aldhem’s Head, and form a background to the level water-line on that side. In the centre are the open sea and blue sky…” – Thomas Hardy “The Dynasts”
The Dorset Coast – Image courtesy of HerbyThyme via Wikimedia Commons
Well, it’s nigh on impossible to discuss novels set in the beautiful English county of Dorset without beginning with Thomas Hardy.
Hardy’s novels may have been written more than 150 years ago, but they have well and truly stood the test of time; his literary themes spilling down through the generations of writers that followed.
Location was extremely important to Hardy, so much so, that he made up an English county in which to set many of his books, calling it Wessex. Wessex did really exist as a medieval Anglo-Saxon kingdom but became extinct as a political unit around the time of England’s unification in the 10th century. Hardy decided this would be a great name for his ‘fictional’ West Country county of which present day Dorset is at the heart, but which also spreads into a good chunk of south-west England including Hampshire, Wiltshire and Somerset. Hardy’s Wessex (and the area it actually covers) causes much fascination amongst his fans and even gets its own Wikipedia entry. Within ‘Wessex’ Hardy uses fictional names for real places. To find out what place is where in the Dorset-based novels, this article is a great help. Some of the more famous Dorset locations include ‘Casterbridge’ for Dorchester, ‘Budmouth’ for Weymouth and ‘Havenpool’ for Poole.
If you haven’t read any Hardy, I really urge you to give it a go. My favorite ever description of English weather comes from his Far From the Madding Crowd, in which he describes a day as having “a summer face and a winter constitution”. It’s something that I first read when I was 15 and is such a perfect description of a crisp, winter day I have never forgotten it. As a ‘landscape novelist’ he really brings Dorset and its surrounding counties to life, but also creates some truly memorable characters and great stories. Hardy favorites with clear Dorset connection are Tess of the D’urbervilles, Far From the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge – but there are many others.
If you happen to be in Dorset itself, check out the Thomas Hardy Society website which has lots of info about locations and holds talks and walks galore to really take you into Wessex life. For a taste of what’s available for Dorset explorers, here’s a Hardy walk recommended by The Guardian newspaper. And for some real Hardy indulgence, get some friends together and take this week-long guided tour!
Finding fossils on the beach
Turning to other novels, beaches figure quite heavily in Dorset-based fiction, and so they should as the county has a fantastic coastline; so good it has been designated a World Heritage site. But where I just see dramatic cliffs, amazing rock-like formations in the shape of arches and pebbled beaches, people with far more scientific minds know that the Dorset coast is in fact a geological marvel, so much so that it forms part of the area given the rather grand title of The Jurassic Coast and has rocks which apparently record 185 million years of the Earth’s history.
Now if you are like me – then you need a novel to bring all that science alive – and with Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures we can make a start. Famous for her book Girl With A Pearl Earring, Chevalier is renowned for her ability to take real historical figures and create a compelling work of fiction around their story. This novel tells the story of Mary Anning, a 19th century working-class woman form Dorset’s Lyme Regis who became one of the world’s most well-known fossil hunters. By combing Dorset beaches she made some of the most significant geological finds of all time. Chevalier explores the challenges Anning faced coming from a poor, uneducated background at a time when women struggled to be taken seriously by the scientific world and as she says herself, the aim of the book is to “make fossils sexy”.
Here are some of the comments on Amazon.
“This book is one of the best I read this year. Don’t look any further if you’re looking for some good entertainment mixed with interesting history.”
“This book is a must read. You will learn so much about fossils and yet, while fossil finding and the creatures discovered is so very scientific, Chevalier makes it so totally interesting and wonderful.”
“Tracy Chevalier’s writing is perfect. I felt myself discovering the fossils, the wind in my face, the obstacles of being a woman at that period of time. For those who loves a very good book.”
“The way Chevalier was able to describe the Lyme Regis area in England has compelled me to put it on my list of travel interests! But, regarding the story itself, I enjoyed learning about this would-be heroine that actually changed the course of scientific history by just doing what she was gifted to do… very inspiring… I have read it again and again. Each time, I walk away refreshed and aching to see those cliffs and beaches! I WANT AN AMMONITE!!!”
And here’s one other interesting fact about Mary Anning – she is apparently the inspiration for the tongue twister “She sells seashells on the seashore”, so I think we’ve all grown up with a little Mary Anning in our lives and never ever knew it. If you find yourself in Dorset, you must pop in to the Lyme Regis Museum to find out a lot more about this fascinating woman, and you can even go on a Mary Anning Walk around the city.
Just 25 miles to the east of Lyme Regis is Chesil Beach, an 18-mile shingle (pebble) beach which also has significant geological importance. It is the setting for Ian McEwan’s novella of the same name. At barely 200 pages, this book tells of the agonising first night of a young couple’s marriage in the early 1960s. They have booked into a small Chesil Beach hotel, and while they are very much in love, they are both virgins and are approaching the evening with trepidation, if not dread.
What follows through the course of the evening is a breathtaking example of how a lack of communication and comfort with intimacy can have devastating effects on a relationship.
There are plenty of Amazon readers who adored this novel.
“What an amazing, amazing book! Days later, I re-read the last 50 pages or so, aloud, to a friend, and even knowing it all ahead of time, had to stop several times. Couldn’t go on. The last chapter, the fifth one, is among the most moving pieces of writing I have ever encountered.”
“I am awed by this book. McEwan is a master, a compelling and powerful storyteller, with an all-important message to convey.”
“Despite its brevity and simplicity, On Chesil Beach is not an effortless read, but it is beautifully written and a fine, sensitive piece of literature. I loved this book.”
On Chesil Beach is a very short book, which some reviewers weren’t happy about. Others found it depressing. But I thought the novel was stunning; McEwan has an amazing ability to express things I have thought myself but never thought to put into words, and his insight into how human beings respond when they are trying to protect themselves from hurt is very powerful.
To be fair – we don’t see a great deal of Dorset itself; most of the action takes place in the hotel, the past and the characters’ heads – but we do get some glimpses of the water and a sniff of the salty air from time to time, until the final scenes when the beach takes on a greater role. But the impact of this novella is such that I could never walk along Chesil Beach without thinking of Edward and Florence, and remember how tragic it is when human beings are unable to express their love and fears.
One more honorable mention for Dorset before I leave you to explore all the books selected for yourself. The coastal town of Lyme Regis was a popular spot for 19th century visitors and Jane Austen was one of them. And while she rarely set her novels in real places, Lyme Regis has a pivotal role in her classic novel Persuasion. Read more about it here.
Finally, if you are planning a trip to Dorset make sure you first head over to the official Jurassic Coast website to read about all the great things you can do to really explore the area, such as walking the Dorset bits of the South West Coast Path which sounds sensational. Just don’t forget to pack that Tracy Chevalier to take with you!
Find my selection of books set in Dorset here. You’ll need to look over to the menu on the right hand side and select ‘Dorset’.
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And on a recent trip to Istanbul I managed to do that with a bit of a twist – it was more like bringing a book alive by visiting a real live place!
Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence is one of Turkey’s most famous novels. It is set in Istanbul – mainly in the 1970s – and tells the story of one man’s obsessive love for his distant relation Füsun. Over time this wealthy businessman, Kemal, collects objects connected to his relationship with Füsun – such as her hair clips, cigarette butts and dirty coffee cups. These objects become a ‘museum’ to his obsession. As well as a love story, the novel is seen as a glimpse into the lives of Istanbul’s wealthy classes and the dilemma they faced in balancing their traditional values with the increasingly attractive Western culture of the time. It addresses issues of sexuality, gender, modernisation and religion, while whipping us along the streets of Istanbul in vintage American cars and taking us on ferry journeys up the Bosphorus.
But Pamuk has gone a giant step further than most novelists. Several years after writing the novel, he has built a real life Museum of Innocence in the part of Istanbul where Füsun’s parents have their home, and where Kemal spends a lot of time hoping to catch a few moments with his love (and stealing the odd tea cup for his collection). I have to tell you – I couldn’t wait to go and see it!
Having worked out the museum should only be about a half hour walk from my hotel, I set off on foot – my preferred way of getting around when exploring a new city. Before long, I’d left the main road, and not having the world’s best map with me, found myself slightly disoriented on some steep residential streets. But after a few wrong turns and some energetic twisting of the map, I saw what I was looking for – a corner building painted in a deep maroon color. This was it…
The Museum of Innocence – Istanbul – Image by Suzi Butcher
Now I had heard that if you brought along your own copy of the book, you could gain entry to the museum for free. That is because in the book itself, there is a printed ticket for the fictional museum – well it was fictional when the book was written in 2008 because the museum didn’t exist, but since 2012 when the museum opened, I guess it can no longer be considered fictional – very confusing! The entrance to the museum is a tiny little door with this unobtrusive plaque…
Entrance to the Museum of Innocence – Istanbul – Image by Suzi Butcher
…and you have to walk a few feet further on to find the ticket office, where I handed my book through the bars for stamping. It all felt like I was on some kind of secret mission…
Ticket office at the Museum of Innocence – Istanbul – Very blurry image by Suzi Butcher
And finally I had my own very special stamp and my ticket. Yay!
Very excited to have the ticket in my copy of the book stamped! – Image by Suzi Butcher
I have no photos of my own from inside I’m afraid, as cameras are strictly forbidden. But one of the first items you are met with is a giant wall of cigarette butts, 4213 of them in fact, all of which have apparently been smoked by Füsun. Accompanying each of the butts is a little handwritten note which refers to something relating to the day on which she smoked that particular cigarette. Are you beginning to get the idea of how much detail is involved in this exhibition?
The rest of the museum is made up of 83 glass display cabinets, one for each of the chapters in the book. Inside each cabinet are items related to that particular chapter. There are photographs, crockery, glassware, ashtrays, jewelery; a plethora of everyday items that provide a snapshot of life in Istanbul at the time.
Of course – as a visitor you are then faced with a challenge. How do you reconcile what you are seeing with the book in your hand? Can you really stand in front of each cabinet and read the chapter it relates to and see exactly where the items fit into the story? I have to tell you – I did try. But, I only had three days in Istanbul so it wasn’t exactly practical…even for me, who doesn’t mind spending many hours in a museum!
So instead – I just had to pick some random display cases and read those chapters as I stood in front of them, cross-checking the items with the novel, and then speed-gaze through the rest. It was slightly frustrating as I wanted to know about EVERYTHING and I really wished it hadn’t been such a long time since I’d read the book.
Next time, I’m going to re-read the novel first and then sign up for one of their guided tours, which apparently you can book via email before your visit. I’m not sure how enjoyable the museum would be if you hadn’t actually read the book, though some of the comments on Trip Advisor suggest non-Innocence readers also found value in it. It gets a good four and a half stars from reviewers, though I suspect that most of those who make the effort to visit are already big Pamuk fans, so are pre-conditioned to enjoy it.
What is evident is that this is a huge labor of love for Pamuk. He spent years collecting all the objects as he wrote the novel and a pretty penny putting it all together. Apparently it cost him about as much as he earned for his Nobel Prize – 1.5 million dollars.
After your time in the museum, I’d suggest you wander further up the hill where you will find an interesting array of antique and second-hand shops and a few lovely cafes… all in all, a perfect way to spend an afternoon in Istanbul as a Packabooker.
Enjoying a cup of tea (and a little bit of a read!) after the museum visit – Image by Suzi Butcher
If you are becoming as obsessed as I am, here’s some further reading (some with pictures of inside!)…
Visiting Orhan Pamuk’s ‘Museum of Innocence’ – The Monthly
Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence opens in Istanbul – CS Monitor
Slideshow of images from the Museum of Innocence – xinhuanet.com
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After a bit of hunting and foraging, I have found more than 50 novels set in Arizona for your sojourn to this south-west American state and put them up on the main Packabook site (just click on ‘Arizona’ over to the right of the page).
Arizona has a bit of everything — well ok, no beaches, but I guess the Grand Canyon kind of makes up for that — there are deserts, forests and mountain ranges to explore, as well as a border with Mexico that provides plenty of action and intellectual fodder for readers and writers alike.
So, the only question now, is where to head to first on your Arizona journey
You could make your way along the Colorado River…
Get your adrenaline flowing (well, as much as you want your adrenaline to flow sitting in your armchair!) with Elizabeth Hyde’s In the Heart of the Canyon. Fifteen people and a dog make a 13-day journey along the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Forced together, there’s plenty of physical and emotional challenges for this disparate group as they navigate the rapids and their own dramas.
Here’s some of the glowing reviews from Amazon readers…
“How much did I love this book? I couldn’t resist gulping it down in two sittings, oblivious to my own real life (yeah, sorry about that frozen pizza dinner, honey…but I was busy rafting down the Colorado River). A huge, enthusiastic thumbs-up for this riveting page-turner.”
“Hyde is a stunningly vivid writer who reveals the natural world of river, canyon, and sky with color and accuracy. A consummate storyteller, she surprised and entertained me with In the Heart of the Canyon.”
“I was enthralled by her imagery, captivated by how well nuanced she captured the inevitable transformation that happens to anyone who opens their heart to the navel of the West that is the Grand Canyon.”
You could also travel back to 1928 with Lisa Michaels’s Grand Ambition where honeymooners Glen and Bessie Hyde, inspired by other adventurous couples of the time, decide to run the rapids of the Grand Canyon; Bessie hoping to be the first woman to negotiate such a treacherous stretch of the Colorado River. Based on a true story, the novel weaves the story of the young couple’s journey with the search to find them when they fail to arrive at their destination.
Amazon reviewers had this to say…
“A rare poetic adventure novel. This is a tremendous book, the story is captivating and the writing is lean and beautiful.”
“Lisa Michaels not only succeeds in resurrecting and imagining Glen and Bessie Hyde, two obscure historical figures, she also blesses them with beautifully felt inner lives and engaging dialogue.”
“This book could be called a real page turner except one wants to linger over the gorgeous sentences describing the Grand Canyon and the wild rapids. The novel richly paints an intimate portrait of two young people striving for a charmed life.”
Or head down to the borderlands…
Arizona shares a border with Mexico which (according to the Wikipedia gods) is the most frequently crossed international border in the world; 350 million people crossing legally each year. Add that to the inevitable illegal crossings, and you’ve got a whole lot of border action going on, creating an environment ripe for dramatic and challenging fiction.
In Philip Caputo’s Crossers, a wall street financial analyst tries to overcome his grief after the death of his wife by moving to his cousin’s cattle ranch on the border. Soon he finds himself caught up in illegal border crossings, drug cartels and a family history he can’t run away from. The novel tackles the divisive issues of illegal immigration and people smuggling, in a manner many readers found illuminating.
“Crossers is an amazing read– layer upon layer we are introduced to the complexities of border life from all the different angles.”
“The book is grand in scope, historically vivid and magnetic in its attraction.”
“The action is brisk and well plotted, the characters interesting, the story compelling. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and so will you.”
Similar themes are tackled in Bella Pollen’s Midnight Cactus in which Englishwoman Alice Coleman attempts to escape her loveless marriage by taking her two small children to the wilds of the border area. Alice is forced onto the horns of an ethical dilemma when she inadvertently hires a gang of illegal workers. There is plenty of praise in the Amazon reviews
“I never wanted to turn the last pages, of this book. The more exciting the climax became the more I dreaded coming to the end. Midnight Cactus is romantic,exciting, scary,tender, and above all passionate. I loved this book.”
“This book and its stunning resolution stayed with me long after I had finished reading it. Highly recommended.”
But if you are actually from Southern Arizona, you may join a few of the reviewers who were appalled at apparent geographical and factual errors about the region, as well as some bad Spanish translations. While they conceded the story had great value – the “lack of editing” completely put them off. Don’t say you haven’t been warned!
You could even meet with some feisty women of the past…
If the following novels are anything to go by, Arizona has definitely raised some spirited women, so if you in the need for a bit of ‘girl power’ these might inspire you.
Four generations of Sarah Prine’s family. Prine is third from left. Image courtesy of Nancy Turner.
These is my Words is the first of three diary-format novels by Nancy Turner which chronicle the daily struggles of Sarah Prine as she and her family set up home in the Arizona Territory of the 1880s. It sounds like Sarah is one tough cookie and mighty handy with a rifle as she deals with all the trials of pioneer life and love. The books are based on the author’s family memoirs, and sound like a terrific read….
“Like many other reviewers, I read this book in a few sittings, staying up until the wee hours of the morning, and neglecting my husband and kids (except for reading parts to my 7-yr. old daughter), because I was so involved in Sarah’s life. I read it on the treadmill, in the car, making dinner, at work…just couldn’t put it down.”
“Nancy Turner’s characters are vivid, believable, real. They grow through the course of the novel to become your friends, family and loved ones. I have never cried, laughed and sighed with relief so many times through one book.”
“I really loved this woman, and this book. It rang so true. I read it in one day, as I couldn’t put it down.”
“This book was so fascinating that I didn’t want to finish reading it because I loved the characters so much.”
And there’s more…
Also worth mentioning are a couple of big name authors who have set books in Arizona – Barbara Kingsolver gives us The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams, while in S John Updike writes of an upper-class New England matron escaping her marriage (Arizona appears to attract such women if these books are anything to go by) to live in an Arizona commune.
And if you are after a bit of crime action, then the J.A. Jance novels featuring Sheriff Joanna Brady come highly recommended by Packabook reader, blogger and Arizona local Vera Marie Badertscher from A Traveler’s Library…
These are just a taste of the novels set in Arizona you can explore over at Packabook – enjoy, and let us know of any others you can recommend in the comments….
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A little while back I came across the story of some modern day pilgrims who had decided to retrace the steps of Chaucer’s pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, by walking from London to Canterbury. I was intrigued, and thought I’d investigate further. The result was this little video…
Does this inspire you to read Chaucer’s Tales for yourself?
If so – which version of this 14th century collection of stories should we be tackling…?
According to Henry Eliot, it’s worth having a go at the original Middle English version if you can cope with a bit of a challenge. But if you feel the need for a modern day translation, then this one comes highly recommended.
Henry’s main advice is to not read the tales in order. He reckons you should go for the “juiciest” tales first to get your love of Chaucer flowing, and then tackle the less raucous ones. Dive in and read The Miller’s Tale, The Merchant’s Tale, The Pardoner’s Tale, The Franklin’s Tale, The Reeve’s Tale and The Wife of Bath’s Tale to give you a great taste of what Chaucer was about and then take it from there.
And what if you want to do your own pilgrimage to Canterbury? Here are some more details of Henry’s route from his 2012 pilgrimage that can help you figure out where to go. You will pass some stunning medieval towns and villages as you make your way along the North Kent coast and Canterbury, with its famous cathedral, is a treat. If the four-day walk is a bit much, then you could even do it on a bicycle.
I hope you enjoy the video – it was great fun making it, despite the rain! If you liked it, it would be great if you could give it a thumbs up or a comment on YouTube – it all helps to spread the word.
“Look.” Mahina pointed at the sea below them. She spun slowly in a circle. ‘’Horizon. All around.” It was true; for an entire three hundred and sixty degrees, Greer could see the hazy line of ocean meeting sky. This, then, was the grandeur. Other sights were of things: monuments, snowcapped mountains. This view was one of absence: a horizon unblemished. (Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes – p396)
Rano Kao crater on Easter Island. Image courtesy of Professor X via Wikimedia Commons
Easter Island is a long way away.
Even if you lived on Pitcairn Island, Easter Island’s closest neighbor, you would be more than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) away.
Because, dear Packabookers, this is one fascinating island. In fact, National Geographic uses adjectives like “legendary” and “enigmatic” to describe it and who am I to argue with that?
Not only is Easter Island, or Rapa Nui to give it its Polynesian name, shrouded in intrigue – it has the most amazing gigantic statues you’ve ever seen dotted along its coast and nobody knows the details of how they got there. It has a vast network of caves, some only recently discovered, a writing system no-one has been able to decipher and the island was once apparently filled with all manner of trees and land birds which mysteriously disappeared several hundred years ago.
There’s definitely a novel in there somewhere – and Jennifer Vanderbes appears to have found it, giving us a story of love, betrayal and intellectual pursuit in the process.
Vanderbes takes us to Easter Island during two different time periods.
In 1913, a young Englishwoman called Elsa, her much older academic husband Edward, and her intellectually disabled sister Alice set off on an expedition to study the island’s culture, history and most enduring legacy, the moai — the more that 800 monolithic rock statues that represent the ancestors of the Rapanui people. While many moai stand majestically on stone platforms with their backs to the ocean, others lie fallen on the ground, or have never even been moved from the quarry in which they were carved.
“Dozens more toppled moai littered the coast below. From a distance, some simply looked like rocks. Through her binoculars, though, the slope of the shoulders and the indentation of the eyes fixed to the ground became clear. The twenty-foot statues of volcanic tuff had all been carved with identical features — they looked like slender giants with huge rectangular heads. They were neither lifelike nor ornate, but the size of them and the sheer number were impressive…Carving hundreds of stone giants, then positioning them along the island’s coast — impossible to imagine.” (p113)
Sixty years later Dr. Greer Farraday, one of the world’s foremost experts on pollen, also travels to Easter Island (this journey is by plane, so its quite a bit quicker than Elsa’s year-long adventure!). She’s hoping that by taking core samples of the earth, she will find pollens that reveal clues as to how an island which was once filled with trees had became almost barren.
Although they live more than half a century apart, both women are doing their best to get to the bottom of the island’s mysteries, while at the same time trying to escape the academic dominance of their husbands and be acknowledged for their own scientific contributions – which are indeed hefty. I especially enjoyed Elsa’s determination to decipher the ronorongo writing/symbol system carved on wooden tablets throughout the island, despite her lack of formal training in this area.
“The tablet could record a genealogy, a legend, a codification of ancient law. It might help unravel the story of this island. If she can learn to read it, or grasp some small part of it, it will mean all her choices have served some higher purpose… She is thankful, now, for the distance from England, from scholars, from those qualified to take on this job. She knows it’s not the kind of project for a former governess, even the daughter of a professor. But she is here. And what, after all, is better than opportunity and desire?” (pp208-209)
Today, only about two dozen objects with rongorongo appear to have survived, none of which are on Easter Island itself. It seems as if the wooden tablets were a favorite souvenir for various ship captains and foreign clerics over the years, and the local people themselves may have used them for firewood after those who could read them were captured or killed by Peruvian slave traders and the small pox they so generously gave to the islanders. I told you there was a lot of story behind this island!!
This novel is beautifully written and even though I sometimes found myself glossing over the science, I was intrigued by how much history can be learned from a few specks of pollen.
What to do on Easter Island
Of course – if you happen to be heading off to Easter Island for a visit anytime soon, Vanderbes’s novel should be compulsory reading.
Seeing the moai for yourself would be enthralling no matter what the circumstances, but it could only be enhanced by having read this book, and shared in the experience as one of Greer’s fellow scientists attempts to re-enact the moving of the statues from the quarry where they were carved, to the island’s edge up to six miles away.
But the moai are not all there is to see on Easter Island. There are white, sandy beaches as well as opportunities for scuba diving and snorkelling. And if you are feeling particularly adventurous, you could consider exploring the caves – though you may want to take a local with you, it would be pretty easy to get lost in there.
“Sliding forward, Greer saw a small crack in the face of the rock, a sliver of an opening. Of course, a cave. The whole island was perforated with relics of its volcanic past: lava tubes left by the magma that flowed thousands of years earlier. Beneath the yellow grass, beneath the basalt, these caves formed a subterranean world of elaborate passageways hidden from view, littered with the skeletons of ancient islanders.” (p117)
Meet Hoa Hakananai’a
For those of us who can’t get to Easter Island (which now belongs to Chile in case you were wondering) in the near future, perhaps you can do your own bit to track down the remaining rongorongo. I found it surprisingly difficult to find out this information on the internet, so thought I’d take a stab in the dark and try the British Museum, given that it has a pretty good record of ‘acquiring’ extremely important artefacts from other people’s countries. Bingo! Not only does it have a rongorongo tablet – it has somehow managed to obtain a moai of its own. His name is Hoa Hakananai’a and appears to be quite an imposing character. Goodness knows how the crew of the English ship HMS Topaze managed to get all four tons of him onboard in 1868, but it seems they did.
I’m now very anxious to meet him, so intend to take a trip to the British Museum sometime soon. I will of course update you when I do!
Have a read of Easter Island. It’s a fascinating novel, and I hope there are more to come from this great location. I, for one, want to know more about the Peruvian slave traders and their dastardly deeds with smallpox….