book review, Books, Living Abroad

Review: The Book of Newcastle

Well we are living in strange times, aren’t we booklings? In the spirit of staying positive during this rather surreal period in our lives, I’ve been filling my time with the following:

  • Reading more (duh)
  • Writing
  • Working on career things
  • Yoga
  • Learning to make pasta
  • Planting herbs (a spectacular failure thus far)

As you’ve probably already guessed, the reading and writing portion of that little list has a lot to do with today’s post. A couple of months ago, the lovely people at Comma Press got in touch and asked if I’d review their latest collection of short stories: The Book of Newcastle. Naturally, I said yes, because I love the Toon for becoming my home and really respect the awesome work Comma does as a not-for-profit indie publisher. Onward to the review!

The Book of Newcastle, ed. by Angela Readman & Zoe Turner

Genre: Urban/Short story

Length: 121 pages

Publisher: Comma Press

Other bits: features short fiction by Jessica Andrews, Julia Darling, Crista Ermiya, Chrissie Glazebrook, J. A. Mensah, Sean O’Brien, Angela Readman, Glynis Reed, Degna Stone, Margaret Wilkinson.

Synopsis

The Book of Newcastle forms part of a wider series aptly named ‘Reading the City’, and offers readers a curated snapshot of the city through ten distinctive literary voices. Each story features characters looking to carve out a space for themselves; somewhere where they can get reacquainted with some part of themselves or their past, and in doing so find some sense of comfort or peace in the present.

My thoughts

This fine collection of stories doesn’t just handle tragic tales; they capture, in vivid snapshots, that great northern spirit of resilience. Every protagonist we meet, however briefly, in this collection seems to be going through something – coming to terms with something beyond their control. This leitmotif seems to reflect the way this industrial powerhouse of a city has faced challenge after challenge, transformation after transformation, always ultimately making it through to the other side often stronger than before.

Some stories will grip you more tightly than others – but this is, of course, down to your particular tastes as a reader. That’s part of what I like about short stories; reading collections like this is an opportunity to discover genres, styles, and authors you wouldn’t typically approach as full-on novels. If I had to choose three favourites from this collection, they’d be: Thunder Thursday on Pemberton Grove by J. A. Mensah, Duck Race by Crista Ermiya, and Ekow on Town Moor by Degna Stone.

First up is J. A. Mensah’s vivid narrative inspired by a two-hour storm on 28th June 2012 – but not just any storm. This one devastated to 23,000 homes across Newcastle and cost roughly £8 million in damage to residences, roads, and businesses all over the city.

There was nothing out of the ordinary about that day in June. It was another almost-summer’s day in Newcastle. Then it happened: rainwater fell and made rivers of the streets. Pulsing through the veins of the place, it entered drains and sewers. Flowing through pipes that led to toilet bowls and kitchen sinks, it revealed unseen connections as it entered people’s homes in a deluge of dirty water. The storm came, seemed like it might last forever and then vanished.

Thunder Thursday on Pemberton Grove, J. A. Mensah

The descriptions in this story are wonderfully vivid, and the author seems to use the narrative structure to mirror the physical structure of the Tyneside flats which actually emerge as protagonists in their own right as the narrative progresses. I love how the characters’ lives weave together, becoming one messy but wonderful tapestry by the end of it all.

Crista Ermiya’s piece, Duck Race, grabs us and puts us face to face with possibly one of the most awkward social situations you could think of: a weekend with your ex and his pregnant girlfriend. What?! Yes. Just imagine.

While they wait at the finishing line, Elle asks Chuck something that has been nagging at the back of her mind all weekend. She says, slowly, ‘Chuck, when you called to ask if you and Merel could stay this weekend, did you know then that Merel was pregnant?’

Duck Race, Crista Ermiya

But things are a hell of a lot more complicated than that. You really feel for these characters, starting from Elle, who has accidentally said ‘yes’ to hosting her ex and his girlfriend for the weekend, to the pregnant new girlfriend who likely feels that there’s an inside joke she’ll never get in on when it comes to the two lovers-turned-friends. You really feel for these characters. Elle and Chuck clearly still have residual feelings and perhaps hold on to hard conversations they never had, and as a reader you feel surprised that Elle isn’t angrier for what feels like Chuck’s lack of consideration for her feelings. ‘Hi, can my pregnant girlfriend and I come to stay for a weekend?’ Girl. No. Don’t do it. Why’d you do it? We want to reach into the story, hang out with Elle and drink gin with her until we talk her down from it all.

The last story in the collection was probably my favourite in terms of emotional intensity. Ekow on Town Moor focuses on three relationships – that between mother and son, man and self, man and world. For years, Ekow has used running as a way to centre himself and handle whatever life throws at him – but can he, should he, run away from the pain of losing a loved one?

The mist should have cleared by now but instead had turned into thick fog, and the city had almost disappeared from view. It was time to head home. He ran down the hill barely keeping his balance. He pushed harder until his heart started thumping against his ribs and it felt like it would burst. He wanted to keep running, didn’t want to return to his flat, didn’t want to go back to the hospice because he didn’t know what would face him when he did.

Ekow on Town Moor, Degna Stone

I enjoyed reading through such a diverse range of voices united in their passion for Newcastle, and would recommend this to anyone who’s lived here for any amount of time, be that a week, a month, or their whole lives. Getting to know the place you call home is essential, in my view, and reading about it is just one great part of that. The Book of Newcastle is in a word charming, and definitely worth your time.

-Kelly

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Adult Life, Living Abroad

4 quick tips for living in a house share

If you’re in your late teens or early 20s, you’ll probably be looking at flying the nest and moving into your first houseshare. The taste of independence only just out of reach, and you want it more than a drunk me wants pizza.

Living in a house share is obviously cheaper than living solo, but it’s also a lot more fun if you’re moving to a new city and makes the whole ‘I need new friends’ thing easier to navigate, so I’d definitely recommend it.

Renting in the North East

Property in the North East is known to be more affordable than it is elsewhere in the UK. I can testify to the fact that Newcastle, in particular, isn’t just affordable in terms of its accommodation, but the cost of living is cheap too. You can rent a lovely room, in a house or apartment bang in the city centre, for somewhere in the region of £400 to £500, bills included. I personally used Spareroom to find my place, but there are loads of options if you just hit Google with the right keywords.

Top tip: Always check reviews for the real estate agency you’re thinking about using. You’d be surprised to learn just how many shady agencies are out there, and if you’re a student, you’ll be an even bigger target for ‘questionable’ landlords.

Sidenote: why I didn’t want to rent a property in Malta

In Malta, this time tends to come along a little later in life because rent and property costs are extortionately high thanks to the obscene hike in prices we’ve seen following the gaming industry boom. The average cost of renting a property in a central location in Malta (by which I mean a room in an apartment or a one-bedroom ‘cosy’ apartment) would set you back around €700 to €1000 a month without bills.

Anything cheaper than that is either a golden nugget of a find or somewhere with questionable standards, to say the least. That’s the lion’s share of your typical Maltese salary, living very little for things like food, savings, and a social life after you’ve paid bills. No thanks. Moving swiftly on.

Tips for living in a house share

One of the best things about moving out of your parents’ place and sharing a home with people you’re not related to is that you’ll learn how to live alongside folks who come from different backgrounds to your own. You might become a little family unit away from home and watch Great British Bake Off together every week, or have an absolutely awful time because people are funny. Here are a few tips to avoid the latter, or at least help you handle potentially awkward situations.

1 | Always pay your share of the bills on time

Nobody wants to be that housemate. If one of you has taken responsibility for calculating and paying the bills each month, the rest of the house needs to put up their share sharpish.

The best way to avoid any dilly-dallying when it comes to money matters is to send out an email each month with a breakdown of the bills and the details for the account that everyone needs to transfer over to, with a deadline tacked onto it. Make sure the deadline you set for everyone gives you enough time for the money to come in before bills go out.

2 | Don’t leave passive-aggressive notes

You’re grown-ups. Kind of. You need to be able to talk things out, especially when they’re essentially nothing more than minor misunderstandings. Sticky notes and passive aggressive texts (especially ones that start with ‘can we please remember…’) just piss everybody off, so put on your grown-up panties and talk it out face to face before things get weird.

Before you get to the stage where you’re absolutely vibrating with rage because Brenda left her dirty dishes out longer than you’d like, take a breather. Remember that just because you like to live your life a certain way, doesn’t mean others have to adhere to your cleaning schedule and whatnot. That being said, if Brenda’s leaving her crap all over the house for four or five days at a time, it’s time for an intervention. Not over text.

3 | Organize house dinners

This is the perfect way to bond with your housemates, show off your cooking skills (or try and sharpen them up), and create a warm ‘family’ atmosphere.

Good food, good wine, and some background music set the scene for a little camaraderie and a lot of laughs. Also, it’s always kind of awesome to come back to a home-cooked meal once in a while when you’re no longer being fed by your mum on the regular.

4 | Respect boundaries and space

I’m going to say this one time and one time only: do not assume you can wander in and out of anyone’s bedroom. It doesn’t matter how close you are, and it doesn’t matter if Wendy left her Netflix running and you can’t stand the murmur of Orange is the New Black leaking out into the hallway. It doesn’t even matter if Brenda left her bedroom light on. You do not. Go in. Their rooms. Okay? Okay.

Beyond your bedroom, every other space in a house share is communal. Having a private space that you know people aren’t going to have access to (unless you’ve expressly given that permission) is essential if you’re going to hold on to that precious sanity and zen. For those of us who might struggle with such things as ‘personal space’, ‘boundaries’, and ‘basic human decency’, here are a few quick bits to remember:

  • It’s not your room.
  • If you’ve knocked once or twice, to no avail, do not just walk in. Silence ain’t consent (THIS ONE WORKS ON SO MANY LEVELS).
  • Just because you’re fine with people wandering into your room, doesn’t mean the rest of the world feels the same.
  • Why do you even need to get into that room? What’s so urgent? That’s what I thought. Take your hand off the door handle, Bernice.

Oh, and while we’re here, respect for spaces also applies to communal areas. Other people use that space, so make sure you leave things clean and ready for the rest of the house to use it.

Right, my fellow twenty-somethings, that’s it from me. I hope these quick tips save you some awkwardness in the long run, and if they don’t, well, I tried. 10 points to me.

If you have any tips on living with people you’re not related to, hit me up in the comments!

-Kelly

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being yourself
Adult Life, Living Abroad, thoughts

What’s a ‘tiffin’ and when will it stop snowing?

As I write this, I’m sitting at Waterstones watching snow drift past the windows overlooking Newcastle city centre. To my left – a red pot of Earl Grey tea (fitting, since I’m so close to Grey’s Monument) and a teacup, with a cherry and walnut chocolate tiffin beside it. What’s a tiffin? I have no real clue, but it’s biscuity and amazing. A few years ago I wanted nothing more than to be in this exact place, just reading a book or doing some research. And now I live here, and I do that – perhaps too often, judging by the number of Waterstones Cafe loyalty cards I fill up. Today, the sky shifts from icy grey to bright blue with sunlight bouncing off the snow – almost blinding. It’s perfect.

It’s perfect because today is one of those days where I remember that I’m doing something I’d dreamt of doing for years before getting the gumption to actually go out and do it. Sometimes, somewhere between the ever-present deadlines, self-induced crises and little worries here and there that come with living alone, I forget how special that is and how much it means to me. So when I crunched through the snow on my way down here today, I felt happy. I feel light. I won’t ramble on about it – just don’t forget to take a moment from time to time to appreciate what you’ve achieved. Just be for a while.

February is at an end and spring is technically just around the corner – although I am curious about when the season will actually show up. Winter seems intent on overstaying its welcome. Yes, spring is synonymous with rebirth (or in my case, awful hayfever), but rather than that, I find that I’ve been thinking about change recently. Small changes, specifically. Changing bits of my day or shifting my habits because it’ll make me feel better in some small way. I mean I’m doing typical things like eating more fruit (ish), maintaining a balanced diet, going to the gym three times a week and all that jazz. I’ve even cut down my coffee intake to a maximum of two cups a day. But I’ve been thinking about one thing in particular: ‘authenticity’.

If there’s one theme in all my work, it’s about authenticity and self-expression. It’s the idea that some things are, in some real sense, really you – or express what you and others aren’t.  – Bernard Williams (Philosopher)

I don’t exactly mince my words when it comes to saying what I think, and I do try to be myself, but I feel like there’s something nagging at me. I think that moving to a new country, not knowing too many people, it can be easy to say or do things that you don’t necessarily think or want to because in your anxious mind it means winning favour or friendships (even if you’re sbukkata/outspoken like yours truly). It’s totally wrong, of course. Back in Malta, your people know you and have done (for the most part) since primary school. They know how old you were when you disobeyed your parents and got wrecked in Paceville, they know who first broke your heart and how long it took you to get over them, and they know exactly how you like to take your tea or coffee. There’s no complication there, no need to ‘appear’ any certain way. Move abroad, and it becomes tempting to be a little too agreeable because you want certain people to like you. Forget ‘silly’ – it’s stressful and unnecessary and should have been left behind in secondary school. People who are meant to become your friends will become your friends anyway, bullshit or no bullshit. With that in mind, I want to work on being a more authentic version of myself, or more authentically me – whatever way you’d like to word it. It’s a strange thing to try and express, but my guess is that if you understand what I’m trying to say you’ve probably experienced it yourself. I don’t even like using the word ‘try’ up there – if you’re trying to be authentic then I feel like there’s still some kind of artifice involved. I suppose it’s something like being the you that you are when you’re alone in your room folding clothes, or happily walking to Waterstones with snowflakes settling in your hair – and not compromising that for anyone, really. The only person you should be concerned about ‘liking’ you, is you. Isn’t that who you can always depend on in the end? Anyway, that’s just been on my mind recently and I felt like sharing – it’s probably some sort of weird way of holding myself accountable to this commitment to authenticity.

-Kelly

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maltese fish soup recipe
Food, Living Abroad, recipes

Kelly’s Kitchen: Maltese Fish Soup (Aljotta) Recipe

maltese fish soup recipe

Hello, internet friends! People say that when you live abroad, you learn more things about yourself. One of these things I’ve learnt in just over two months here is that I love cooking, and can pretty much handle myself in the kitchen (so far, anyway). I find it relaxing and pretty damn satisfying, and I get to eat something yummy at the end of it all. Oh, and I live just a few minutes away from Grainger Market, a huge food market bursting with fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish and all the cheese my little heart could possibly want. How can I possibly resist?

So – let’s talk about aljotta. This Maltese classic was originally considered “poor man’s food”, but has earned a place in the spotlight in recent years, making into some of my favourite restaurants in Malta, generally as a starter dish. I find this hearty soup so filling that I’ll happily eat it as a main, though.

The Ingredients

  • Around 400g – 500g small fish/any leftover fish you might have, cut into small pieces
  • 4-6 garlic cloves (finely chopped)
  • 1 onion (chopped, quite fine)
  • 4 tomatoes (de-seeded, chopped)
  • 2 tablespoons kunserva (tomato paste)
  • 1 tablespoon dried mint (or a handful of fresh mint leaves)
  • ½ teaspoon dried marjoram (or a few sprigs of fresh marjoram)
  • 100ml dry white wine (optional)
  • 2 fish stock pots or stock cubes; alternately you can make a nice broth out of fish bones
  • 1.5 litres boiling water
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • Lemon (cut into wedges)
  • Rice (optional)

The Method

  1. Heat the oil in a large, deep pan or pot. Toss in the chopped onion and garlic and cook them on a medium heat until soft and golden brown.
  2. Add the fish, mint, marjoram, tomatoes, salt, pepper and stir gently, without breaking the fish. Cook for approximately 5 mins, stirring every so often.
  3. Pour in a (generous) glug of white wine and stir some more. Cook until all the liquid has evaporated.
  4. Add stock pot/cubes to boiling water (around half a litre); add the stock to the fish before adding the rest of the boiling water (again, about half a litre). Add tomato paste and stir gently.
  5. Bring soup to the boil and leave to simmer on low/medium heat for about 30 mins (optional: add rice).
  6. Serve nice and hot, with lemon wedges.
  7. Enjoy with a slice of crusty bread (Maltese bread, if you have it!)

-Kelly

What’s your favourite Maltese dish? Share in a comment!

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Adult Life, Living Abroad

Moving Abroad: The First 3 Days (ish)

Well it looks like I actually went through with the whole ‘moving to Newcastle’ thing, huh? It’s barely been three days (as I write this post I’ve been in the city for approximately 2 days and 18 hours), but I’ve been running around taking care of all the bits and pieces that need to be done before I settle in properly – namely:

  1. Completing registration at Newcastle Uni
  2. Registering with a GP
  3. Moving in to my accommodation
  4. Getting a UK number sorted
  5. Hitting IKEA for the first time in my life
    1. Trying not to panic about how big and maze-like IKEA is
  6. Shopping for the things I need to function as a normal adult human
    1. Such exciting items include: washing up liquid, laundry detergent, kitchen utensils, hangers, towels, etc.

moving abroad

It’s a work-in-progress..

There’s still a lot left to do, but I’m pleased with how much I’ve sorted over the past couple of days.

moving abroad

Yes, they do get sun here.

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One of my favourite parts of the city.

I was worried that I might struggle to talk to people and make friends here, but that was silly because everyone’s been so friendly. I’ve already been to The Botanist for drinks with some other postgrads, a pub quiz, and an actual night out – my first one in Newcastle. We hit a club called Flares, which was an instant winner because it’s totally committed to serving you the cheesiest music and your guiltiest of pleasures (in my case, that’s probably Despacito’). Not a hint of irony. The rest of the night was filled with indie music at a place I’m struggling to remember the name of, but anywhere that plays four Arctic Monkeys songs in rapid succession gets major brownie points from me.

 

 

 

Today I hit the Societies Fair at Students’ Union, and that was pretty cool. I was drawn to the Feminist Society and Debating Society (eek!), and I might look into the Model United Nations Society (double ‘eek!’). Anyway, what’s next? Tomorrow we’re thinking about hitting Alnwick for the day, and tonight the Mediterranean girl in me is craving pasta, so I’m hunting around for the right restaurant. Stay tuned for more northern updates and ‘toon’ quirks…

-Kelly

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