The Leopard – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

“There’s Italy’s Lucky Star, they say. But you know better than me, Prince, that even fixed stars are only so in appearance.”

Where did I hear about this book? Well, I’ve been hearing about it for years, and after stumbling on it on Goodreads I finally added it to my to-read list.

the-leopard A handsome, humorous novel that beautifully captures Sicily’s fading glory during the Risorgimento in 1860, culminating in the decline of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The Leopard provides us with a rare access to the elite world of the Sicilian nobility during a time of change and uncertainty. The status quo is under threat and the gradual erosion of aristocracy murmurs in cloistered places. Meanwhile wider tensions and uprisings rumble distantly across the Sicilian landscape.

The novel opens in Prince Fabrizio Salina’s Lampedusa palace where after a quick introduction to his family, the Prince and his beloved dog seek refuge in the walled garden. The romantic notion of a summery Sicilian walled garden soon dissipates as its insular atmosphere is likened to a suffocating cemetery. This is further emphasised by repeated reference to disruption, decay and death. This opening scene presents a microcosm and a prelude for Sicilian nobility at this time. Throughout the novel we follow the Salina family as they thread through enclosed exclusive places; occasionally venturing into the alternative reality unfolding in the open countryside. Despite the political upheaval and insurgence the Salina family appear to be more preoccupied by domestic intrigues, high society parties and marriage prospects.

Decline of traditional values: Aristocratic traditions are continually challenged when the Salina family travel from Lampedusa to Donnafugata in pursuit of balls, lavish dining, romance and hunts. Reference to the slow demise of traditional forces such as social class and the church are peppered throughout the novel, in both the natural and manmade world. Donnafugata is a seductive, rambling, dilapidated, semi-abandoned palace where decay permeates right down to the delicate details. This is painfully illustrated when the Prince despondently observes his faded golden initials on a wine glass. The main reason for the relocation to Donnafugata is to attend the great summer ball, and the book builds anticipation for this event page by page. Everyone is excited about the ball, with the exception of Prince Salina who finds it all very tiresome and dreary. He is seemingly unable to enjoy manlier pastimes, such as hunting, either. The hunting and killing of animals serves as a reminder of what is happening in his country – dead animals become akin to dead soldiers. The hopelessness of the hunted rabbit also mirrors that of the dying aristocracy: “still-living symbol of useless flight.” Even the seasons reek of death; the summer is stifling, its heat expedites decomposition.

A time of change: The two main male figures – the Prince and his nephew Tancredi give us a glimpse into the political upheaval unfolding in the background. Prince Salina and Tancredi are often polarised – whereby the Prince resolutely clings to a disintegrating way of life, Tancredi embraces imminent change; a more modern, adaptable Sicilian. Tancredi carves himself out as an unusual figure in this family; unconventional both in his political views as well as his choice of marriage. He famously reasons with his uncle about these choices: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” These choices lead him into the backdrop of the wider world where he joins the military fighting for Garibaldi, and becomes engaged to the beautiful, wealthy – but notably not aristocratic, Angelica. It is often through Tancredi’s choices that we see the Prince reflect acceptance of imminent change: “…this marriage was not the end of everything, but the beginning of everything. It was the very best of traditions.” The two main male characters display a chauvinism that is discomforting and disconcerting. Throughout the book women are likened to land; as something to be conquered, owned, and possessed. When Tancredi makes a public sexual joke about taking advantage of nuns, it has the opposite effect – rather than entertain, it disturbs his audience, reader included.

The author is a direct descendent of Prince Fabrizio Salina, and therefore has an exclusive insight into Sicilian aristocracy and its history. He combines this with a unique narrative gift; his is one of the most distinctive voices I have come across. He writes sensuously, in exquisite detail, with a dark self-effacing humour. Characters are shaped with a delicate balance of complexity and simplicity, charming the reader throughout. The writing is so sumptuous, that despite the ongoing reference to decay, the island of Sicily becomes morbidly alluring. Elaborate scenes of squalid opulence are perfectly contrasted with the refreshing simplicity of the rustic countryside. This deepens the reader’s enchantment with the location, and we want to experience it all firsthand ourselves; the lost splendour, the sun baked landscape and the fading memory of a long-departed way of life.

This review was also posted on: TripFiction Book reviews

More reviews of The Leopard:


Visit Sicily and Prince Salina’s palaces:


Notes from a small island

The beautiful Isle of Arran.

More holidays than Judith Chalmers

I’d done my usual trick of not researching where we were going, therefore I was instantly and pleasantly surprised. It started on the surprisingly short journey up to the ferry port in Ardrossan. It continued when I realised there was a bar and a restaurant on the ferry. And it reached its peak as we started our journey across the Isle of Arran to our home for the week and saw our first highland mountains in two years.

George had offered up their holiday home Balmara to the group last summer, and we were the first of the gang to visit. We thought we may be the last after a minor incident with a wine glass, but luckily that was only house related calamity of the week.

Apparently (I didn’t know this, having done no research) Arran is often referred to as Scotland in miniature, and it’s easy to see…

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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

  • the-leopardthe-leopard

    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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Sarawak – Borneo

Borneo – the largest island in Asia – carved up between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, famous for its ancient orangutan filled rain forest. It has a population of 19.8 million (2010), most of whom live in cities dotted along the coast.

Sarawak – One of the two states that occupy the Malaysian part of Borneo. Sarawak has the unusual, and relatively unknown history of having hosted the ‘White Rajahs’ as monarchs for just over a century. In 1946 the reigning monarch – Charles Vyner, ceded Sarawak to the British Colonial Office. For more about this see the book review of Syliva – Queen of the Headhunters by Philip Eade.


                                                               GPS: 1° 0′ 0″ N, 114° 0′ 0″ E


Pacific Destiny

My people do not need white man’s help”


Directed by: Wolf Rilla
Written by: Richard Mason & Jack Lee
Starring: Denholm Eliott, Susan Stephen, Felix Felton
Duration: 1 hour 37 minutes
(Set on Tarawa, Kiribati. Filmed in Samoa)
Pacific Destiny is based on the novel ‘A Pattern of Islands’ by Sir Arthur Grimble.

Set sail and cast your net into Kiribati’s past for comedic colonial mishaps and well intentioned cultural adoption. The film follows a sprightly, young colonial officer Arthur and his beautiful new wife Olivia as they journey from London to the Gilbert and Ellice islands (now Kiribati and Tuvalu).

Once in Gilbert and Ellice islands they encounter a senior colonial administrator who makes no attempt to disguise his disappointment at the level of Arthur’s inexperience. Both Arthur and the other colonial officers are portrayed as people with good intentions hampered by a certain superiority complex and a recurring bungling. A disgruntled senior islander voices this with stern disdain: “My people do not need white man’s help” (for justice).

Arthur begins to redeem himself with his attempts to understand the local people he is living amongst, in what are often cringe-worthy scenes. This is felt most acutely in the scene where a meeting takes place in someone’s bedroom, which although perfectly innocent, does come across as inappropriate. Nevertheless, the ongoing buffoonery and exasperation gives the film a light-hearted, humorous vibe.

Arthur’s hapless blunders result in him and Olivia being ‘punished’ with a posting to an even more remote island – modern day Tarawa. Riddled with self doubt they try to make the best of their new austere surroundings. It is here that both Arthur and Olivia bloom – free from the oppressive disapproval of their peers. Arthur learns to appreciate the people he is living amongst, to integrate and to gain acceptance. The acceptance is formally established when undergoes the ritual of being tattooed, an outward sign of belonging, after which one of the islanders often refers to him as his ‘son’. This then entitles him to participate in key island social events such as re-claiming the soul of a deceased islander by hunting down the killer shark.

In spite of the film’s humorous criticism of colonialism it does not do enough justice to the islanders who do not hold central roles, and are almost always portrayed as rowdy and infantile. Perhaps it is intended as a reflection of how they were perceived by the colonials, but the end result is too shallow a portrayal.

Pacific Destiny gives a superficial glimpse into the culture and rituals of the people of the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati), but it is still a worthwhile watch. Save it for a winter Sunday afternoon where lush, colourful scenery provides a gorgeous backdrop for this very British colonial comedy.

The Shoeshine Killer by Marianne Wheelaghan

 “Tarawa was so far from land…by the time the air got there it was super pure.”

Where did I hear about this book? From the lovely folk at TripFiction

Magnifying glasses at the ready for murder mystery intrigue on the tropical islands of Tarawa and Suva. The book’s main protagonist is a bold, clinically fastidious but endearing detective; Louisa of mixed Scottish and Pacific heritage. Her mixed heritage gives the reader a unique perspective of these Pacific islands – both an outsider’s perspective and, to a lesser extent, an insider’s. The novel opens with Louisa’s bumpy touchdown in Suva, where things continue to deteriorate – lost luggage, a deserted airport and a political coup. The only salvation for the night appears on a dark, lonely road in the form of a lift from well-meaning strangers. Yet this chance encounter plunges Louisa deep into a turbulent, gritty world of gangs, murder and police paranoia. At the centre of it all is the shoeshine trade in Suva.

The tropical islands are the perfect background for a murder mystery; where the sultry idylls of the tropics are a stark contrast to violence, deceit and murder. The mystery unravels as we criss-cross between Suva and Tarawa where detectives, thugs, hoteliers and evangelists collide. These characters challenge the stereotypes of the carefree tropical island; giving the reader an insight into the varied realities of life on these islands. Through the shoeshine boys we learn how limited opportunities lead them to join the trade, one that can be violent and exploitative. We learn about battles with alcoholism and its consequences. We learn about the confounding role of the church in these contexts.

The book also exposes the contradictions of sun-blanched island life. Suva and Tarawa are tourist destinations – cheery places for people to escape to on holiday. Yet so many of its inhabitants are keen to leave, and seek their fortunes elsewhere. This contradiction of escapism is a key theme weaving its way throughout the book, binding all of the characters.

The most impressionable part of the book is the maneaba (meeting house) scene, which reveals the celebration of community in Tarawa. The whole village comes together in construction of the new maneaba: “Building a maneaba is as much about making villagers feel connected to one another and their village as building a village hall.” The opening ceremony of the maneaba is written fluidly and mesmerisingly; the drumming, the dance, the colours, the perfume move the reader right into the centre of the swelteringly packed maneaba in Tarawa.

High suspense, a nimble plot and the intrigue of remote far-flung locations make for an enjoyable, fast-paced read. Although Suva and Tarawa are captured well in this novel, I would have enjoyed an even deeper exploration of these places. What better excuse to read more from the Scottish Lady Detective series then?

This review was also posted on: TripFiction Book Reviews


Location: Central Pacific Ocean. Tarawa, one of a string of atolls that make up the Gilbert Islands.

Governance Status: The Republic of Kiribati. Tarawa is the administrative capital of Kiribati.

Population: 50,182 (2010). Over half of Kiribati’s population reside on Tarawa.

Languages: Gilbertese & English.


Map courtesy of Reeftraveler




Tarawa in Literature:


On my to-read list:

Read a review of this from Reeftraveler here


Tarawa in Film:

  • Pacific Destiny – based on Sir Arthur Grimble’s book A Pattern of Islands


Tarawa in Pictures: