New Year’s Resolutions in Books – 2017


My reformed reading habits have me meandering through books, and I often end up too safely cloistered in my favourite genres – travel writing, fiction and classics. In an attempt to ensure improved dietary reading diversity here are the books I have pre-selected for 2017:


The non-UK Islands of Identity Read – The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa based in Sicily

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    Travel to the island of Sicily to witness a fading aristocracy in 1860 via book and film – the ideal escapism to ward off the post-Christmas slump.




Written in Spanish, set up in the Pyrenees. A lonely novel of haunting memories that I anticipate will resonate with the gloom of February. Unlike January, this month will embrace bleakness as opposed to escape it.





The male biography – Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life by Philippe Girard


In 2016 I resolved to read at least one biography, and having enjoyed Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters I will move to the island of Hispaniola and read about Toussaint Louverture based on my interest in Haiti, its history and slavery.





The River Novel – Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River by Alice Albinia


I absolutely love fluvial tales. I’ve been up and down the Congo river several times in Heart of Darkness, Blood River: A journey to Africa’s Broken Heart and Facing the Congo. Now it’s time to navigate another famous river by book – the mighty Indus.




The Non-fiction Read: The Soul of an Octopus: A surprising exploration into the wonder of consciousness by Sy Montgomery


I’ve stopped eating my fellow mammals. I am an aspiring, ever failing vegan. I’ve also realised I don’t read enough non-fiction. Perhaps this read will take me a step closer to the vegan goal. Two birds one stone. Ouch. Failed vegan yet again.




The UK Islands of Identity read – The Guga Hunters by Donald S. Murray




A remote Scottish island read. What more could I need? Well perhaps a Summer holiday visit to the Scottish islands as well……




The Historical Fiction read – Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel



This will feed an ongoing Tudor fascination of mine. High acclaimed winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2012. A long overdue read.




The Female Biography read – Mary, Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser



Following on chronologically from July, this month I move into the regal Scottish world. There are so many biographies about male historical figures so I’d like to balance 2017 out with a female one as well – and better still by a female author.





The Book that’s been unread on my bookshelf far too long read  – The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt


I acquired this book second hand at a book fair in September 2012. It stares at me longingly, accusingly. I glance at it guiltily every time it’s time to choose the next book to read, and inevitably betray it in favour of another book. Come September shall be the chosen one.




The Travel Writing read – An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie


Travel writing is too heavily dominated by the Westerner’s perspective of travel and distant lands, and consequently so is my reading on the subject. I am intrigued by Greenland, and I look forward to seeing it through the eyes of an African traveller. Winter will be setting in, and travelling to Greenland will be a suitably icy introduction to winter.




The Arctic Read – Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez



Come November I will plunge deeper into winter with this classic Arctic read, and be reminded that it really isn’t all that cold in England after all.





The Christmas Read – Tidings, A Christmas Journey by Ruth Padel



Poetry is so noble; the most powerful form of art and expression. It takes great talent to be concise, obey form and conjure up lasting images with words. What better way to end 2017 than with a festive book of poetry?



Have you read and reviewed any of these books? If so, I will happily post your reviews here.

Can you recommend any films or documentaries to complement the books I have chosen? Please do get in contact and let me know.

Happy 2017 fellow bookworms!


Sylvia – Queen of the Headhunters by Philip Eade

queen-of-the-headhunters “The magic of it all possessed me, sight, sound and sense; there was in this abundant land everything for which my heart had yearned” – Sylvia, Ranee of Sarawak.

Where did I hear about this book? The beguiling title caught my eye on a bookshelf in a flat in Pimlico, London. When I enquired about it, the owner enthusiastically told me it is her favourite book. I was sold.

Brace yourselves for a roller coaster foray back to the turn of the last century, to Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. The Kingdom of Sarawak, now a long-forgotten stretch of jungle in Borneo, bursts back from memory through the dazzlingly detailed biography of Sylvia, Ranee of Sarawak.

The biography naturally begins at Sylvia Brett’s early childhood in England, following the antics of the high society Brett family. The reader journeys through Sylvia’s painful but fascinating childhood, through to early adulthood where in 1903 she meets, and eventually marries, Sir Vyner Brooke – a ‘White Rajah’, heir to the Sarawak throne. It is from this point onward that the mysterious Kingdom of Sarawak unfurls.

Throughout the book, the presentation of Sarawak oscillates between images of savagery and gentility. Before the reader experiences any first-hand accounts of Sarawak through Sylvia, it has already been alluded to as a place of savagery and violence – the biography title alone (Queen of the Headhunters) suggests this. The regal wedding is publicised in the national media under lurid headlines such as: “Queen of the Wild Men of Borneo” and “Grand-Uncle of Bridegroom Won Savage Realm as Reward for Aiding Oriental Ruler.”

Despite this horrifying imagery, Sylvia has an unbiased approach to her new Kingdom, which allows her (and us vicarious readers) to experience Sarawak in its entirety. Her initial reaction is largely positive: “There was something fearsome about the richness of this ancient foliage in a land of mysterious legends and beliefs; and yet, as I gazed at all its luxuriant beauty, I knew that a long dark chapter in my life was ending.” Sylvia’s brother is more frank in directly challenging prevailing stereotypes: “It is too lovely a place here…. The idea that it is barbaric or primitive never occurs to one – it is a completely civilised and very, very comfortable life.”

The reader is offered glimpses into the scenery, customs and cultures of Sarawak, but with this being a biography, it is somewhat limited. Moreover, Sarawak is presented through a colonial, foreign, outsider’s lens. We experience the hospitable culture of the Dyaks through the meticulously detailed welcoming ceremonies, we learn about their loyalty to their rulers when jostles for the throne take place, as well as during the eventual cessation. We gain insight into the expectations of female subordination through Sylvia who initially struggles to comply, but then adopts behaviours that remain with her for life. “The Ranee Muda should be a thing apart, but what about Syv, the mad, wild Syv, must she be choked and killed just as she has come to life?” writes Sylvia about herself, followed by (many years later) ….”or break myself from the habit of standing whenever Vyner entered a room, or walking dutifully four paces behind him?” And of course, we do get an understanding of the headhunting practice which continued to thrive despite the White Rajah’s attempts to eradicate it.

Media coverage throughout Sylvia’s life continues to perpetuate the notion of a savage Sarawak Kingdom to lure in readers. In her later years, Sylvia takes advantage of this hyper-exoticisation of Sarawak to propel her own career in writing and lecturing on the subject. Sylvia and her daughters are chiefly able sustain themselves due to Western morbid fascination with the obscure far-flung Kingdom, and its unusual family dynasty. Strangely, the author uses the same ploy to lure in readers, and I discovered I too am not immune to this. As a reader, I am guilty for responding to the appeal of exotic morbidity; – the title was so beguiling I simply had to read the book. Ultimately, this book does not need to rely on such a misleadingly sensational cover to appeal – the vibrancy of Sylvia and her dynasty suffice. Readers seeking an exotic morbid fulfilment are likely to be disappointed.

This biography’s focus is on Sylvia as an individual, and less so about her Kingdom. Thoroughly researched and detailed; it can be heavy on the minute details, so the reader must be prepared to persevere. It is worth it – the myriad of blindingly colourful facts and events will astound and delight in equal measure. Experience the final hurrah of the White Rajah dynasty through this biography; it is a fascinating journey, in which we readers are privileged passengers.

You can also read this review on TripFiction’s website

More reviews for the biography Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters:

The Guardian’s review: Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters

The New York Times review: Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters


10 Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading in 2017, Mirrors, Blooms, Wonder, War, Not Nothing

Some great travel fiction here!

Word by Word

I’m not really into making reading lists, but I do make lots of reading piles of books I think I might read next, which often then get changed, as I’ll read a great review of a book I have on the shelf and be convinced I have to read it sooner, now it’s come to my attention.

So here are five books on my pile at the moment and five waiting on my kindle to start the year with, though don’t be surprised if you find me reading and reviewing something entirely different!

Five From The Shelf

2017-readsthousand-mirrorsIsland of a Thousand Mirrors, Nayomi Munaweera (Sri Lanka) – Last year I read her second novel What Lies Between Us and it made my top 5 fiction reads and this one is her debut which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Dublin Impac Prize and won the Commonwealth Regional Prize…

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