Wednesday, February 22, 2017

My Favorite Country Walk to a Pub: The Bell Inn at Aldworth

One of my favorite country walks in England is a five mile loop around the Bell Inn at Aldworth. I know this part of Berkshire very well. My in-laws live in a neighboring village on the Oxfordshire side of the Thames. These rolling hills along the river are called the Goring Gap.

We usually park by a farm in Streatley and walk uphill to the Ridgeway. The Ridgeway is the oldest road in the UK, dating back to prehistoric times. Keep an eye out for horseback riders, tractors, and the occasional car. Our hardy son walked and ran 27 miles of the 87 mile Ridgeway the next day in the rain. The popular Ridgeway follows high ground to avoid the mud.

On any day of the year, England can easily be in the 50s and rainy. Luckily when our kids came to visit us for their February break, we had one dry day for our walk. Wellies (rubber boots) or hiking boots were still necessary for the footpaths on the way back to the carpark. A detailed Ordnance Survey map is a good idea too if you're walking a loop including footpaths.

Back home in New England, a blizzard was raging, but February is springtime in England. Instead of snow, there are blooming snowdrops.

About halfway through our walk, we stopped for lunch. The Bell Inn has been owned by the same family for 250 years and is located in the tiny village of Aldworth. The landlord is welcoming and has a good sense of humor. The Bell doesn't serve hot food beyond soup, but the Ploughman's Lunch (cheese, a warm bread roll, chutney, and salad) was delicious. Since it was midday, I had only a half pint of Arkells BBB.

Our teenage daughter was pleased to be legal in the UK but was too jet lagged for alcohol. Sixteen-year-olds can have beer, wine, or cider with a meal as long as they're accompanied by someone eighteen or older.

Although it was cozy inside by the fire, it can be crowded. We moved outside in the beer garden to enjoy the mild weather. Sunshine was good for the kids' jet lag too.

In the far corner of the beer garden is the secret exit to a footpath.

One of the best things about the UK is all the public footpaths crossing private lands and farms.

Since the footpath crosses through swards (Merriam Webster Dictionary retweeted this photo to illustrate the word of the day!) where livestock may be grazing, be sure to shut all gates.

The walk back to the carpark is a gentle path downhill, between the fields. After a reinvigorating week off, I'm happy to be back to work revising my young adult novel set in rural England.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Loose Ends List by Carrie Firestone

Canal boat in Oxford, England on a rare sunny day. 

The Loose Ends List by Carrie Firestone was my favorite debut young adult novel from 2016. The premise was original and meaningful: a dying grandmother takes her family on a luxurious world cruise to say goodbye. Gallow humor, a comically dysfunctional family, and a sweet romance offset the sad realism of terminal cancer. Somehow this novel about dying with dignity was one of the most life-affirming, feel-good stories I've ever read.

I was initially put off by the protagonist's crass language and her popular clique, but once the ship set sail (about fifty pages in), seventeen-year-old Maddie became a sympathetic character who struggles to support her beloved grandmother while dealing with her own fear of death. Widowed Gram surprises her WASPy family by inviting along the secret love of her life, a Jamaican American jazz musician. Despite the tragedy, it's a fun trip.

The diverse family also includes a gay uncle and his husband, a Jewish father, a frustrated suburban mother, a broody artistic brother, a great aunt with dementia, and a Barbie doll cousin. The family members alternate realistically between irritating and endearing. All characters were well developed, including the other families on the cruise. I especially loved the close friendship Maddie develops with a young mother and her baby.

Although the central relationship is between Maddie and her irreverent Gram (my favorite character), a fun romance offsets the grief. I appreciated how this novel tackled teen sexuality with a positive attitude, showing what a good relationship involves without sounding preachy. The love scenes felt believably real/awkward and avoided cliche. Best of all was how the novel explored terminal illness and death from a teen perspective without glossing over tragedy or becoming overly sentimental. The book coins its own catch-phrase: "snowglobe moment."

The around-the-world setting was entertaining. I won't reveal the secret itinerary since the journey has hidden meaning. The cultural details were well drawn and interesting, and despite the variety of settings, the narrative never felt choppy or superficial. I'm guessing that the author is well-traveled and grew up watching The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Since I'd never go on a cruise due to seasickness, I enjoyed this virtual vacation. The narrative also fit my year of sabbatical travel.

The poignant voice was true to teens:
"Don't cry. Don't cry. Don't cry. It's harder to hold back than a sneeze, but I do it." 
"'My life has been fabulous because I never listened to my parents.' My grandmother is peer-pressuring me." 
"But if this trip has taught me anything, it's that the only thing guaranteed is this very moment."
Given the wide age range of characters, this YA novel would appeal to adults too, especially to families dealing with terminal illness. I read the ebook in Japan during the miserable month of November, and it was the best distraction. The story now helps me find the emotional strength to support my mother-in-law, who was diagnosed yesterday with terminal liver cancer after surviving breast cancer last year. For Hanukkah, I had bought the hardcover for my 19-year-old daughter, who is finding comfort in it too. Luckily her beloved granny is British and is therefore receiving excellent care from her Muslim oncologist and free medical insurance via the National Health Service. My children will be joining us in England next week. The granny-grandson Trans-Siberian Railway trip, planned to celebrate my son's graduation, is now only a dream. My mother-in-law will start chemo soon. We are grateful for this time together as a family.

Photo from School Library Journal: The Loose Ends List won a Best Undercover Award.

Carrie Firestone, author's photo
The undercover was so gorgeous I couldn't resist buying another hard copy of The Loose Ends List for myself at home. I'm sure to reference the book for inspiration while writing my own YA novels set abroad. I'd strongly recommend The Loose Ends List to readers ages 14 and up. You might want to read at home since you'll be sobbing and laughing, often on the same page. I'm eagerly awaiting the author's sophomore novel, The Unlikelies, due out in June. Brava, Carrie!

Included in my Best Contemporary YA Fiction of 2016 list.

Reviewer's Disclaimer: the author and I share a literary agent.

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@Barrie Summy