Book Review

The Cactus Surgeon: Using Nature to Fix a Faulty Brain – Hannah Powell

I have the honour today of joining the blog tour for The Cactus Surgeon by Hannah Powell. Many thanks to Hannah for providing me with a copy of the book, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to be a part of the tour.


Living in London, Hannah suffered burnout and was diagnosed with a functional neurological disorder. With no information available to help her, she found her own way to get better.

Growing up in a garden centre, her childhood was full of nature and plants. This was in stark contrast to the concrete of the capital, where she became unwell. In searching for the answers to her illness, she wonders whether being torn from her pot and replanted in a more hostile environment was the reason her body started to malfunction.

After seeking out alternative therapies, and moving to the countryside of North Essex, her ‘green recovery’ continued.

It’s a book of mindful moments, savouring the small wonders of nature.


Well, I certainly got more than I bargained for with this book! I had expected a gentle book full of tips on mindfulness and the ways in which being outside can help improve mental health, and while it is that in part, it is also so very much more. The Cactus Surgeon is a raw, emotional read in which Hannah bravely lays herself and her struggles wide open. I can imagine that writing this book was incredibly cathartic. A lot of the emotions that Hannah experienced on the path to diagnosis and beyond really resonated with me, and I found reading about her experiences quite inspiring.

The Cactus Surgeon is a love story, both to Hannah’s family and the family business, and to the outside world as a whole. Beautiful photos separate each chapter and her lush descriptions of a huge variety of flora and fauna made me yearn for warmer weather, while her adventures in Australia and New Zealand ignited a long dormant travel bug.

The Cactus Surgeon was exactly the book I needed to read at this moment in my life, so thank you Hannah, so much, for sharing your story. I will be checking out many, if not all, of the books you recommend in bibliography.


Hannah Powell (née Bourne) is Communications and HR Director for the Perrywood Garden Centres she runs with her dad and two brothers. When she was six years old, she wanted to be a cactus surgeon.

Before coming back into the family business, she had a successful career in PR and marketing, running high-profile campaigns for clients, including Barclaycard and Domino’s Pizza. She was part of the team that launched Global Entrepreneurship Week, an annual campaign to encourage young people to set up businesses worldwide.

She now lives in North Essex with her husband, daughter and many plants.






Don’t forget to visit the other blogs on the tour!

Book Review

Reading Challenge Update – February

I can’t believe that’s another month gone already! I just ticked a couple more books of my challenges this month – it was more a month of catching up on reviews and reading for relaxation than picking challenge books this month. The books I did read for the challenges this month though are all firm favourites of mine.

The Island – Victoria Hislop

This was my choice for the “read a book inspired by a place in a movie you’ve watched and enjoyed.” I am pushing things a bit here because I chose the setting of Crete taken from the “In-Betweeners” film, which I didn’t love, but the location was beautiful and I have been meaning to reread The Island for a while to refresh my memory before reading One August Night.

The Embroidered Book – Kate Heartfield

This little beauty is my selection for “a book with a magical element.” To be honest, I could have chosen any number of books off my shelf for this prompt as magical books are my “go to,” but I was lucky enough to be gifted a copy of this gorgeous book by the publisher as part of the blog tour, so I just had to include it. You can read my full review HERE.

Carry On – Rainbow Rowell

I choose this as my “book that makes me happy.” I read this during a power cut in aftermath of Storm Eunice when I really needed a comfort read. I first read this book years ago, and have been meaning to re-read it for ages to jog my memory before diving into the rest of the trilogy, and honestly, I had forgotten how much I loved it.

Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor E Frankl

This was my “book that is a memoir” selection, and is a book that was recommended to me years ago, but that for some reason I had never got round to reading. I am only halfway through, so I will share more in next month’s round-up, but for now I can just say that it is a very powerful book.


The Millionaire Murders by Rachel McLean

The Hemlock Cure by Joanne Burn (read review HERE)

The Stone Monkey by Jeffrey Deaver

Rock Paper Killers by Alexia Mason (review coming soon)

The Silent Girl by Tess Gerritsen

A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee (review coming soon)

Last to Die by Tess Gerritsen

The Butterfly Garden – Dot Hutchinson

Sparks and Shadow – Ceara Nobles (review coming soon)

In case you would like a reminder, here are the challenges that I am following.

Book Review

Unspoken – Guvna B

Today I am reviewing the raw, honest memoir, Unspoken, by Guvna B. Many thanks to HarperCollins UK for providing me with a copy of this book which I received via NetGalley.


Men are bold. Men are brave. Men are strong in the face of fear. But what happens when that strength crumbles?

Growing up on a council estate in East London, rapper Guvna B thought he knew everything he needed to know about what it means to be a man. But when a personal tragedy sent him reeling, he knew he had to face these assumptions head on if he was going to be able to overcome his grief.

In this intimate, honest and unflinching memoir, Guvna B draws on his personal experiences to explore how toxic masculinity affects young men today. Exploring ideas of male identity, UNSPOKEN is an inspirational account of Guvna’s journey.


Toxic masculinity is a concept that I have only a vague awareness of, but I decided that 2021 was the year that I needed to educate myself on a number of matters, and this brutally honest memoir from Guvna B seemed a good place to start.

Isaac’s faith is a strong theme throughout the book, so if this isn’t something you are comfortable with then this may not be the book for you. Personally, it made me wish that I could be even half as strong in my own faith as he is. The warmth of his personality shines through in his writing along with his commitment to helping people. I am a long way from the target audience, but I found him so relatable and it really felt like I was talking to a trusted friend. I think it was this instant familiarity that meant parts of this book completely and utterly destroyed me, to the point that my chest hurt through crying.

I don’t know what drew me to this book. As a white, 40 something female I could hardly be further from the target audience, I am not a fan of rap, had never heard of Guvna B before, and my faith is on somewhat shaky ground. But, something made me pick it up to read and the words within went right to my soul and the grief that I still feel after the loss of grandmother. Guvna B is a man who cares passionately about making things better for today’s teenagers, showing them opportunities and guiding them to live the best lives they can and frankly we need more people like him in this world.


Trials & Tribulations of a Pet Sitter – Laura Marchant

As part of the blog blitz for Trials & Tribulations of a Pet Sitter, Laura Marchant is kindly letting me share an extract of the book with you all – many thanks for this Laura. Thanks also to Rachel Gilbey at Rachel’s Random Resources for inviting me to take part in the tour.


Hilarious and heart warming true stories of a Pet Sitter.

​Laura takes us on her journey describing the immense joy that the animals have brought into her life. But it’s not all fun and games. With sometimes as many as ten dogs around her home, things can get a tad hectic. Not to forget the every day challenges faced in keeping the pets happy and safe when out walking. Luckily she is not alone in her quest; her unusually dominant Golden Retriever ‘Brece’ is always by her side. Brece earns her keep by convincingly playing the part of the alpha female, ensuring harmony amongst the pack.

​At times, the responsibility that Laura faces becomes overwhelming. She may think she has everything covered but that hand of fate could quite easily swoop down, creating havoc for her and the dogs. Laura has endured many close calls and teetered on the precipice of disaster may a time. The longer she continues with her pet sitting enterprise, the more likely hood that total disaster will actually strike. Is she tempting fate?

​Laura Marchant is the Bridget Jones of the pet sitting world!


Amazon UK

Amazon US

Trials and Tribulations of a Pet Sitter Cover


I started referring to my car as the Ark; a means for transporting the animals two by two. Needless to say numerous disasters have occurred within the confines of the Ark. The incident with ‘Jess the Weimeraner’ was one of the most worrying, yet hilarious at the same time;

On occasions, and not surprisingly, there has been the odd bit of drama played out within the confines of the Ark, that required an industrial cleaning operation. One such incident stands out above the rest; it involved Rocky, and Jess an unspayed young Weimaraner, another dog that I had inherited from Carol. During a phone call Carol informed me that although she was due to board Jess, she had found herself in a position where she had more dogs than she could manage- cue me. Consequently, I naively agreed to take Jess off her hands and that was without ever having met the dog before,  but at the time Carol was desperate and I felt obliged. The fact that Jess was unspayed was a concern to me especially as Rocky was still intact. Although Brad had said that he was going to get Rocky castrated, he had not actually got round to getting it done. Personally I think he found the whole notion off putting. However, Carol had been assured by the owner that the fact Jess was unspayed would not be a problem, as she was nowhere near her next season. A recipe for disaster if ever there was one!

Jess checked in. From the word go she was extremely hard work, all the negatives of bad dog behaviour rolled into one; strong, extremely boisterous, out of control and not responding to any commands. Brece was not in the least bit amused. Jess is the type of dog that would never pass her vetting process had she not slipped under the radar. It was regrettable that I had ever agreed to look after the crazy Weimaraner; I couldn’t help thinking that somehow, I had been stitched up like a kipper!

To set the scene it was a warm day, late 2011, unusually warm for the time of year. I had herded the dogs into the Ark ready for our morning walk. Brece jumped into her usual position of the front foot-well, then I opened the back door and Jess jumped in, rapidly followed by Rocky who seemed very keen to be in Jess’s company. After which, I got myself into the driving position. Before I had even put the keys into the ignition a fracas broke out behind me, a hell of a scuffle had erupted. Quickly turning around, I caught sight of Rocky trying to hump Jess in a most determined manner; utter disaster in the confines of the Ark!

Jess must have come into her season, or about to, which meant that the owner had either misled Carol or just got the timings wrong, and indeed timings can go awry. The thought of Jess’s condition made me feel queasy, especially when the recollection of her standing on top of my dining table like some sort of mountain goat, popped into my head, gross. The whining and wailing from Jess grew louder, she was clearly in distress. There was no way I could have them ‘locking’, the thought of a litter of mini Rocky’s on the planet did not bear thinking about. It certainly wasn’t going to be an easy job to separate the pair, a serious task lay ahead of me. Still sat in the driver’s seat I contemplated on how to resolve the situation.

I peered down at Brece in the front foot-well, hoping for some sort of inspiration. On this occasion, she failed to come up with the goods, but she did come up with something else. Looking up at me with her big doleful eyes she produced a massive rasping burp, then proceeded to vomit across the interior of the car. In true Jackson Pollock style, the sick splattered all over the passenger seat, the floor and inside the usual nooks and crevices of a car. To make matters worse the vomit was not your usual consistency. It was thick, greyish in colour and extremely pungent, as if she had hauled it up from her bowels.

This was all I needed, but I couldn’t allow myself to be side-tracked by Brece’s tummy upset, my priority at that moment was to get Rocky off Jess. Jumping out of the car I opened the back door and was relieved to see that the odd couple had not yet consummated their marriage, but it was not for the want of trying on Rocky’s part.

With the door ajar, Jess saw her opportunity to escape and charged out of the vehicle before I had chance to grab her. At breakneck speed she ran off down the centre of the road, obviously not too enamoured with Rocky as a potential suitor. Thank God there was no traffic about. In rapid succession I chased after her. Of course, there was no way I was going to catch up with her, she was running with the speed of a Greyhound. Then a spot of good luck came my way; Sean, my friendly postman happened to be walking along the pavement halfway down the road and ahead of Jess;

“Sean, catch that dog please, she’s okay she won’t hurt you.”

I was frantic by this time. Without considering the risk to himself, Sean gallantly charged into the middle of the road and managed to catch Jess by the collar. Definitely beyond the call of duty. My marvellous postman managed to keep hold of her until I reached him and relieved him of his extra duties.

Prior to being someone entrusted to look after people’s pets, I hadn’t given too much thought to the role of the postman. But now I look at Her Majesty’s servants in a different light. They have quite a lot on their plates; often having to run the gauntlet of being chased off properties by protective dogs, good in a crisis and always happy and affable when going about their duties, even in torrential rain. I now have a new-found respect for our friend the postman.’


Laura Marchant was born in 1959 in the seaside resort of Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, England. Both her parents were born in the same town, so not exactly a family of intrepid travellers! As a child Laura and her siblings were fortunate enough to own shares in the families pets. Unbeknown to Laura at the time, her love for the animals formed the blueprint for a large part of her life. In 2011 she finally found her vocation, and in the comfort of her own home, set up a pet boarding business. For the next 7 years she shared her abode with a pack of dogs. A lot of this time was spent watching over the animals and observing their behaviour, which in turn inspired her to write her first novel ‘Trials and Tribulations of a Pet Sitter’.




Book Review

Wolf: A Story of Hate – Zeev Scheinwald & Ella Scheinwald

My review today is of the Holocaust memoir, Wolf: A Story of Hate by Zeev and Ella Scheinwald. Many thanks to Amsterdam Publishers for providing me with a copy of this book in return for an honest review.


The true story of a young Jewish man imprisoned in corporate-owned labour camps during WWII.

His name is Wolf.

He was caught up in the most vicious and disgraceful mass slaughter of people in history.

His experiences during the Holocaust are relevant today, resonating with decent human beings who are concerned about morally corrupt leaders and their admiring masses, which, together with self-serving corporations, can orchestrate tragedies against their own populations.

Imagine Wolf’s story was your story. The story of your child, parent, friend, loved one. How would you cope knowing you are hostage to a government and manufacturing firms rallying to destroy you?

Millions fell victim to political extremism and corporate greed and indifference. Alliances between political fanaticism and financial interests can quickly plunge societies into an abyss of exploitation and genocide. These alliances, if left unchecked, can once again create well-oiled machines of human destruction, where governments, corporations, and followers choose hate over kindness, murder over empathy, torture over love.

This is where hate led humanity, and where it can take us again if we are not vigilant.

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.’

Pastor Martin Niemöller



This is probably one of the most challenging reviews I have ever had to write. Wolf: A Story of Hate is not a book that you can say that you enjoyed reading because to do so would belittle the experiences of those who lived and died during the Holocaust. As the title suggests, this is a book filled with hatred, and Zeev Scheinwald’s anger makes it a difficult book to read, painful at times, but overwhelmingly powerful.

Over the years, I have read numerous books about the Holocaust, visited Auschwitz and Yad Vashem, and I thought I knew what to expect with this book, but I was wrong. Before reading Wolf: A Story of Hate, I had never even heard of the corporate owned forced labour camps and the horrors within. Even knowing what I did about the other camps, the brutality of the corporate camps shocked me.

Zeev Scheinwald remained angry throughout his life, not just with his tormentors, but with everyone who stood by and, in his eyes, did little or nothing to help those being persecuted.

Wolf: A Story of Hate is a brutally honest account of an event in our recent history that no amount of reading or visits to museums and memorials will ever be truly comprehensible to someone who didn’t live through it.

Book Review

Living Among the Dead – Adena Bernstein Astrowsky

Today I am joining the blog tour for Holocaust memoir, Living Among the Dead, by Adena Bernstein Astrowsky. Many thanks to Adena for providing me with a copy of the book, and to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours, for inviting me to take part in the tour.


This is the story of one remarkable young woman’s unimaginable journey through the rise of the Nazi regime, the Second World War, and the aftermath. Mania Lichtenstein’s dramatic story of survival is narrated by her granddaughter and her memories are interwoven with beautiful passages of poetry and personal reflection. Holocaust survivor Mania Lichtenstein used writing as a medium to deal with the traumatic effects of the war.

Many Jews did not die in concentration camps, but were murdered in their lifelong communities, slaughtered by mass killing units, and then buried in pits. As a young girl, Mania witnessed the horrors while doing everything within her power to subsist. She lived in Włodzimierz, north of Lvov (Ukraine), was interned for three years in the labor camp nearby, managed to escape and hid in the forests until the end of the war.

Although she was the sole survivor of her family, Mania went on to rebuild a new life in the United States, with a new language and new customs, always carrying with her the losses of her family and her memories.

Seventy-five years after liberation, we are still witnessing acts of cruelty born out of hatred and discrimination. Living among the Dead reminds us of the beautiful communities that existed before WWII, the lives lost and those that lived on, and the importance to never forget these stories so that history does not repeat itself.


Amazon UK

Amazon US

Living Among The Dead Cover


My interest in the Holocaust stems from my school days, and a visit to Yad Vashem when I was 18. Fast forward 20 years, and a recent visit to Krakow, plus the reading of many books on the subject, and I thought I was prepared for this book. I was wrong. When a book has you sobbing before the end of the first chapter, you know you are in for a bumpy ride. Even as I sit here now typing my review, I have tears in my eyes.

The book opens with an introduction to Mania Lichtenstein in her later life as a great-grandmother. Adena talks of her grandmother, her Bubbie, with such warmth and affection, and the strength of her spirit shines through in Adena’s words. The inclusion of some of Mania’s own writing on her experiences during the Holocaust only add to the depth of emotion in this book.

I think when reading fictionalised accounts of life as a Jew in Nazi occupied territories, it is easy to get caught up in the characters and their story, and while this doesn’t remove the horror of what happened, it does blur the edges a little. With this memoir, written in a factual manner, and also maybe because you know from the beginning how Mania’s story ends, there is none of the distraction of fiction, and at times it made me feel physically sick that people could behave in the way they did. Despite what I already knew of the Holocaust, I was shocked by the brutality of the genocide in Wlodzimierz and what Mania had to go through in order to survive. Her story is completely heartbreaking and will stay with me for a long time.

Living Amongst the Dead is not a book that you can sit down and read in one sitting. It is hard to read about the suffering that Mania, and countless other Jews, endured, and I found I could only cope with reading a little at a time. Despite this though, I would urge everyone to read this book. We must never forget this truly terrible period of history.


Adena Bernstein Author PicAdena Bernstein Astrowsky has dedicated her career to helping the most vulnerable of our society. She did this by prosecuting child sexual abuse cases and domestic violence cases within the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. She became the local expert concerning the prosecution of domestic violence related strangulation cases and taught extensively on that subject. Currently, she handles post-conviction cases on appeal and foreign extradition cases. Adena taught Sunday School at her temple for eight years, and in her last two years she co-taught “Character Development Through the Studies of the Holocaust.” Adena contributes articles to MASK (Mothers Awareness on School-age Kids) Magazine, often writing about children’s safety, drugs, law and order, etc. Once a month Adena volunteers at a local Scottsdale library with her therapy dog, Charlie, as part of the Tail Waggin’ Tales Program. Adena has also chaired events to raise money for the Emily Center of Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Recently, Adena was recognized for her professional and philanthropic work with an Amazing Woman Award from the Phoenix Suns and National Bank of Arizona. Adena’s greatest role, however, is as the mother of three very active children. She, and her husband, Brad, are kept very busy with their respective dance, theater, music, and athletic activities.




Don’t forget to have a look at the other blogs taking part in this tour for more information on this book.

Living Among the Dead BT Poster


Guest Posts

Through Dust and Dreams – Roxana Valea

It’s the one day blog blitz today for Through Dust and Dreams by Roxana Valea, and Roxana has very kindly taken the time to write a guest post for me to share with you all. Many thanks Roxanne for this, and thanks also to Rachel at Rachel’s Random Resources for inviting me to take part in the blitz.


At a crossroads in her life, Roxana decides to take a ten-day safari trip to Africa. In Namibia, she meets a local guide who talks about “the courage to become who you are” and tells her that “the world belongs to those who dream”. Her holiday over, Roxana still carries the spell of his words within her soul. Six months later she quits her job and searches for a way to fulfil an old dream: crossing Africa from north to south. Teaming up with Richard and Peter, two total strangers she meets over the Internet, Roxana starts a journey that will take her and her companions from Morocco to Namibia, crossing deserts and war-torn countries and surviving threats from corrupt officials and tensions within their own group.

Through Dust and Dreams is the story of their journey: a story of courage and friendship, of daring to ask questions and search for answers, and of self-discovery on a long, dusty road south.


Amazon UK

Amazon US

Through Dust and Dreams Cover

Right, now I am handing you over to the lady herself, to talk about the forgotten art of adventure.

I wished I had been born in the 19th century, the time of the great explorers and adventures. There were unchartered territories to discover, indigenous populations to make contact with, unclimbed mountains to conquer and far away lands to travel to.

But fate decided I would be born in mid 70s and come to age in a world that had not much mystery left. In this world, people buy a travel insurance before they leave home so that  they can claim damages in the event of anything not going to plan. They expect trains and planes to leave on time and arrive on time and get irritated for a ten minute delay. In this world, a smartphone with an automatic translation app lets you communicate in a foreign country, a Lonely Planet guide gets you anywhere and a credit card magically sorts out any issues you may come across.

I though there was no real adventure left. But I was wrong.

Because when you really look for something, the thing you look for, finds you.

Adventure came to fetch me one Monday morning, at my marketing executive desk. It starred me in the face, winked and said:

“Here I am. Do you really want to follow me?”

It was an add I saw on an online travel forum. A guy had a Land Rover, was planning to drive from London to Cape Town and was looking for two others to share the journey.

I stayed there a long time, looking Adventure in the eye and not daring to move.

“What will you do?” Adventure asked me.

“What will I do?” I echoed it.

And that what the first moment I realised the deep beauty of adventure. It’s that of not knowing. You come face to face with situations you have not met before. You don’t know what you will do. You don’t know what will happen. You can’t control the outcome. And no travel guide, credit card or insurance policy can do that for you.

I clicked the reply button of that add and this small gesture started it all: 8 months, 17 countries and 20,000 miles by car. I didn’t know it then, how could I? I didn’t know what an amazing adventure this would turn out to be. How unsafe, unexpected and raw it will be. How it would test me to my limits and beyond and how it would show me beauty that would stay in my heart forever.

As I said yes, Adventure told me that it had been patiently waiting for me. That not all is known even in our super connected world. That there are still places not chartered on any map, jungles to cross and indigenous people to connect to, just like there were in the last century. It thanked me and promised me many beauties along the way. It whispered to me the sound of the dunes of the dessert in night and told me stories of dust and dreams.

I followed its voice. I took my insurance policy, guide book and credit card with me when I left but Adventure taught me that these things mean nothing at times and that’s the whole beauty of it.

I followed it wherever it took me and I loved it for what it showed me. And I promised I would write it down so that others would learn to recognise its call.

And I did. The book is called Through Dust and Dreams. The Story of an African adventure.

Many thanks Roxana for taking the time to share this with me and the lovely people who read my blog.


Through Dust Author PicRoxana Valea was born in Romania and lived in Italy, Switzerland, England and Argentina before settling in Spain. She has a BA in journalism and an MBA degree. She spent more than twenty years in the business world as an entrepreneur, manager and management consultant working for top companies like Apple, eBay, and Sony. She is also a Reiki Master and shamanic energy medicine practitioner.

As an author, Roxana writes books inspired by real events. Her memoir Through Dust and Dreams is a faithful account of a trip she took at the age of twenty-eight across Africa by car in the company of two strangers she met over the internet. Her following book, Personal Power: Mindfulness Techniques for the Corporate World is a nonfiction book filled with personal anecdotes from her consulting years. The Polo Diaries series is inspired by her experiences as a female polo player–traveling to Argentina, falling in love, and surviving the highs and lows of this dangerous sport.

Roxana lives with her husband in Mallorca, Spain, where she writes, coaches, and does energy therapies, but her first passion remains writing.








Letters from Lebanon – Caroline Karkoutli with Sue Kelso Ryan

I was recently speaking with Sue Kelso Ryan about a lovely lady who is suffering from dementia and who wanted to get her story down on paper for future generations whilst she was still able to do so. Keep reading to find out more about her inspiring tale.


Caroline is a headstrong young woman looking for adventure, who quits her job in London for a challenging teaching career in Lebanon. Living and working in the mountain villages near Beirut, she develops two great passions. One is for Fathi, a mysterious and attractive older man, who is Muslim; a complete contrast to her own upbringing. The other is the country itself – the cosmopolitan ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’, with its exotic food, beaches and mountain resorts.

Soon her peaceful existence is shattered by civil war and the bitterly fought international tensions of the 1970s and 80s. When the first shells fall on her village, Caroline has some painful decisions to make that will change her life forever. How will she protect her new-found happiness and the lives of those she loves?

Caroline’s description of Lebanon is nostalgic for the country that welcomed her, a stranger, as one of its own.

You can order your copy of this book here.

If you want to find out more about Sue’s experiences of working with Caroline, please head over to her website where you can read all about it.

To tempt you further into purchasing this book, I am delighted to be able to share an extract from the prologue and first chapter with you.

LETTERS from lebanon Cover_23.7.19


Cheltenham, 2019

Dear Fathi,

Look what I found today, hidden among a collection of photos, in a carton that once contained Turkish cigarettes – an old black and white photograph of you in your Syrian cavalry uniform. That was a lifetime ago. What a handsome chap you were. Seeing it again, I’m not surprised I fell for your almond-shaped eyes and your smile that seemed to be only for me. Of course, I never saw you in uniform; that was when you were young. By the time we met, your face showed the creases of age and experience. Come to think of it, it’s a miracle that we did meet – a Turkish journalist who lived in Syria and was straight out of prison, and an English schoolteacher, who both happened to be on the same bus to Turkey. Neither of us knew then what was in store for us together, but I’m grateful for that chance encounter every day.

With all my love, Caroline

I glance back at the black and white photograph of the young man and turn over another. Here’s Fathi again, a slightly older man with a beard and wearing swimming trunks, posing unselfconsciously on a beach. A third picture is in colour and shows him on stone steps in front of a building with a balcony, railings, and bougainvillea growing wild everywhere. Without meaning to, I sigh, recalling our life together.

Looking back, my own adventures began because of my philosophy, “I like to travel; therefore I will teach.” I don’t know what career choices you were offered when you were about to leave school, but we were told, “Well you can be a teacher or a secretary.” That’s all we were offered. There was nothing that suggested adventure. Nothing that involved getting away from home and exploring whatever the world might offer me. Nothing appealing at all. Certainly, nobody mentioned living abroad, marrying a political activist who spoke Arabic, and raising my children in the midst of a civil war. Come to think of it, that might not have sounded too appealing to the young me either. I was rebellious but not at all familiar with the ways of the world.

I turn again to the photograph in my hand, holding it to the light and gazing again on the handsome man it depicts. Middle-aged, smiling, bearded – it is my husband and everything about him is familiar to me. But where was the photo taken? Did I take it? Maybe it was taken by a friend or family member before we met. I struggle to remember, cursing the dementia diagnosis that means my memory is ebbing away, little by little, carrying with it the memories I treasure.

A deafening crash nearby. I flinch, turning my head to locate the source of the danger, even though it is 30 years since I lived in a war zone. Realisation dawns. It was just the children next door playing. No bombs; no threat of imminent injury or death. Just my mind playing tricks on me again. My heartbeat gradually returns to normal. I let the photo slip onto the table in front of me, take a sip of my tea and take up my pen. Well, this book is hardly going to write itself, is it?


October, 1970

Dear Mum, Dad and Sheila,

This is just a quick line to let you know that the plane was on time yesterday and I arrived safely.

The school is in a small village called Choueifat, about six miles south of Beirut, and there was a driver waiting at the airport to take me there. I was introduced to Mr and Mrs Saad, the school’s owners, and had a meal with them last night. Mrs Saad talked a little to me about the school and what I would be expected to do.

I met the other teachers today. They are very kind and friendly. The kids are an excitable bunch, but I think we’ll get on OK. It has been very wet here, so it’s lucky I brought my big coat. I’m hoping to get out and explore and maybe see Beirut soon. Apparently, we can ring the UK from a local shop, but we will need to arrange a time. Shall we say Sunday at five, your time? I think this letter will reach you before then. 

I hope everything is well with you. I will write again next week with some more news.

Love from Caroline.

I peered out of the window of the aircraft as it descended towards Beirut. We flew over the port area, low-rise office buildings, blocks of flats, hotels and boulevards, all seemingly squashed between mountains and the intensely turquoise-blue sea. A surge of excitement rose in me, as the ground rose to meet the wheels of the aircraft, and we bumped along the runway. After disembarking the plane, I made my way through the bustling terminal building to the exit, clutching my small suitcase tightly. I searched the crowds outside for the driver who should be there to meet me. Someone touched my arm and I turned to see a small, slim, dark-haired man, meeting his wide grin with my own enthusiastic smile. He had a placard with my name on it.

“Miss Begbie?” he asked, taking my bag without taking his eyes from mine. “I’m Ahmed.”

“That’s me! Are you taking me to Choueifat?”

The driver nodded his head solemnly. He seemed to recognise my poor attempt at pronouncing the village name and as far as I could tell he wasn’t judging me. He popped open the boot of his gleaming black Mercedes and loaded my bag, before helping me into the back seat of the car. If anything, the interior of the car was hotter than the humid air outside and I was grateful when he rolled down the windows. The driver swung the vehicle out into the traffic, and I lost my breath as he accelerated and swerved, heading north, then doubling back onto a highway heading south. In no time, we left the city behind and the busy, two-lane road cut through farmland. My impression was that most villages in Lebanon seemed to be at the tops of hills. We passed small houses in valleys, vineyards on the terraced hillsides and an abundance of fruit and vegetable plots in the farmland at the side of the highway. But what struck me especially was the backdrop of vast, arid, mountainous hillsides that dominated the skyline. I saw what seemed like whole families working in fields dotted with vast ranks of olive trees, where they spread sheets out under the trees, beating the branches with sticks until the olives dropped down in a cloud of leaves. Others were gathering vegetables and loading reluctant donkeys with burdens that their slim legs seemed ill-equipped to bear. Before long the driver threw the car off the highway and onto a smaller road. As the road began weaving up into the hillside, I looked back at the turquoise-blue of the Mediterranean.

I leaned forward, gripping the bench seat that divided the front from the back of the car, “Is this the way to the school?” Ahmed caught my eye in the rear-view mirror and nodded and slowed very slightly, as he negotiated the hairpin bends. We still passed houses occasionally, set in the pine-forested hillside and I caught glimpses of the sea again, now bathed in an orange glow of the setting sun. Gradually, more houses and the odd shop began to cluster around the edge of the road, and we entered a village. Soon we swung left, past a gateway and along a short drive.

“Welcome to Choueifat School,” Ahmed announced, springing out of the taxi and depositing my suitcase on a rough-cobbled courtyard. Leaping back in, he departed as fast as he came, leaving me in a haze of blue diesel fumes, gazing after him. Then silence. Or rather, not really silence; there was a cacophony of bird song and cicadas as the local wildlife began to settle for the night. I looked around. In front of me was a two-storey building with a balcony and graceful arches, with two single-storey, flat-roofed buildings forming a u-shape on either side of the main block. The pines surrounding the courtyard had faded to black silhouettes as the sun set. My eye was drawn to the only source of light, which was coming from a large, square building to my left and up a steep set of steps from the courtyard. Someone appeared to be waiting for me there, so I set off towards them.

“Miss Begbie? Welcome to Choueifat. Let me take your bag and I’ll introduce you to Mr and Mrs Saad right away.” The neat, middle-aged woman took my bag and led me along a path beside the buildings, then up a flight of steps to a large stone villa with a balcony and shutters. At the door, I was handed, relay-style, to a young man, who led me along a dimly lit, stone-floored corridor. I blinked as we entered a large, grand living space and smiled as an elegantly dressed woman approached and offered her hand.

“Welcome to Choueifat School, Miss Begbie. I am Leila Saad,” she said.

“Caroline,” I said, “and thank you. It’s good to meet you in person.”

Mrs Saad did all the talking; a beautifully presented woman, she was slim, elegant and stylish. Almost without realising, I found myself trying to tidy my hair and brush down the creases in my travelling clothes with my hands.

“And this is my husband, Charles Saad.”

Casting my eyes to one side, I saw that Mr Saad had settled in an armchair and was content to let his wife do the introductions and tell me about the school. In stark contrast to his wife, he was a heavily built man, whose stomach hung down over the belt of his trousers. Evidently, he liked his food! He smiled slightly and nodded in my general direction. He seemed preoccupied with some paperwork, so I turned once again to his beautiful wife.

“I hope you had a good journey, Caroline?” she enquired. “Let’s get you settled and then perhaps you’d like to join us for supper?”

Shortly after, I found myself sitting at a dining table, chatting to Mrs Saad and being waited on as though I was the most important of guests, rather than a young, inexperienced teacher, taking up a post in a foreign country for the first time and ever so slightly out of my depth. The food I was presented with was completely new to me but delicious and I ate hungrily everything that was served. I’d not had anything like it before – what the hell was it? “Thank you,” I said, as each dish arrived. I remembered my table manners and tried to make polite conversation, though I had no idea what passed for polite conversation at a Lebanese dinner table.

Looking around as we ate, I saw that the Saad residence was tastefully and expensively decorated, with gilt-framed works of art on the stone walls and rich rugs and soft furnishings. Our food was served on delicate china and we drank from crystal glasses, which twinkled in the subtle lighting.

Darkness had fallen swiftly. Soon after we’d eaten, Mrs Saad found a torch and we took a short walk around the school site, with Mrs Saad pointing out the dormitories, the kindergarten and primary classrooms, and the buildings where the older children were taught. Then the housekeeper took me to my room, where I had time to reflect a little on what I had discovered so far. The Saad family were welcoming, and their western dress was familiar, so that was a good start.

Settling into my new surroundings, I thought of my parents, back home in London, and the plain English cooking that my mum prepared there every day. I wondered what they would make of my new surroundings. I remembered my parents waving me off at the airport just a few hours earlier. In those days, communications weren’t anything like today – no internet, no instant messaging and not much chance of hearing from each other for weeks at a time. I knew I wouldn’t get news from home for a while but if I’m honest, I was ready for a break from being accountable and looking for an adventure.

If you know me now, you might be surprised when I say I was quiet and shy in my early twenties. If you’d met me then, you would probably describe me as a listener; someone who observed life, kept their ambitions for adventure and their passions inside. When things didn’t go my way, I would accept that and deal with it, but I wouldn’t walk away.

What did my parents think, when I announced that I was heading to Beirut to teach? I hardly know now whether they were afraid for me, but I suppose they put up with the idea, realising that I was going to have to go and work things out for myself. They still had my younger sister Sheila around, after all. Like most young people, I don’t suppose I considered them while making my decision. All I knew was that I wanted to travel, and this was my chance.

I wasn’t set on going anywhere in particular, as long as it was past Europe; further away. I didn’t want to go to France or Germany or anywhere like that. Somewhere where they were likely to want a teacher. I wasn’t aiming to do good or anything; I was purely satisfying my own aim of going abroad to find out what the rest of the world was like. I was looking for travel and excitement. Most people said, “What are you doing that for? You could get a job here. I’ve got a nice job in Brize Norton,” or something similar. I suppose they were surprised that it was me who was the one going on an adventure. As I say, I was fairly quiet and shy as a youngster when I didn’t know people; quite happy to listen and comply, rather than putting my oar in. Teachers would say, “And what do you think, Caroline?” And I’d jump in surprise and give some sort of feeble response. But underneath it all I’m one for adventure, even though I don’t expect to know what will happen. I just accept things and deal with them. So, I applied for various jobs overseas and before long my appointment to a school in Lebanon was arranged. I couldn’t wait.

It wasn’t my first trip overseas; that was to Sweden, when I was in my teens. Dad had relatives of some sort in Stockholm and I was invited to visit them. I found that quite frightening, as everything was in a foreign language. I had thought that I might try to learn Swedish, but I didn’t. I am not a linguist, I don’t absorb languages easily at all, so I found Swedish hard graft. The country itself wasn’t like England; everything – including street names, food, clothes styles and architecture – was slightly different and new to me. I had a really nice time with my hosts, who were welcoming and took me to a whole variety of interesting places, such as the city of Uppsala and along by the lakes. It was a great holiday and it kick-started my determination to travel to foreign lands.

On my first morning in Choueifat, I woke early, to heavy rain and wondered what to expect. I was looking forward to it but had no preconceived ideas about teaching in a different country. I had been recruited to teach English to all the infant classes at Choueifat school, and Mrs Saad had said that meant I would be moving between classrooms at the end of each class, indicated by the ringing of a bell. All the other classes were taught in Arabic.

I was taken down what seemed like endless, slippery steps to be shown the staff room and where I would teach. The classrooms were in the u-shaped courtyard I’d seen the night before – four rooms in what I had at first taken to be some dilapidated stables. This was the infant section of the school, and as I opened the door to one of the classrooms, I spotted that the roof had already begun to leak, and buckets had been found to catch the water. I’d arrived in October and this, it seemed, was the rainy season.

The children began to arrive; a complete mixture of European and Middle Eastern complexions, dress and languages. Some were local but the majority jumped down from expensive foreign cars that seemed barely to hesitate near the driveway before swishing away through puddles on the rutted road. Many of the kids were wet by the time they reached the classroom.

The morning passed in a blur of introductions, new classrooms, noise and excitement. When the bell rang for the end of the final session, I followed some of the other teachers to the staff room and plonked myself down in a chair, feeling weary already. Soon Mrs Saad was at my elbow, introducing me to my colleagues and arranging for one to take me to lunch.

Over the meal table, I asked one of my colleagues, “How come the kids are soaked when they arrive – do they come far?”

“You’ve seen the ones in the Mercs and limos?” one replied. “They’re from rich Beirut families and their family chauffeurs bring them up the hill from the city. Then there are the expat families, and some of the other kids are boarders from Middle Eastern families who have got wealthy from oil money. They just have to come down from the dormitory buildings. The others are village kids, and many of them have walked some miles to get here. The school’s reputation is good, and the families are desperate to have their kids educated, even if that means they get soaked on their way here!”

“Have you noticed that the Saads don’t spend much of their fat school fees on roof repairs or heating?” chipped in another teacher. “You can’t fail to notice the buckets on the classroom floors, collecting the rainwater that gets in. And of course there’s no glass in the windows. Just you wait until the winter. We all huddle together for warmth!”

“I wondered about that,” I replied. “I’m already cursing myself for not bringing enough jumpers or gloves, but I thought this was a warm country.”

“Ah,” they glanced at each other, and one gave me a big wink. “Just you wait until it gets snowy. None of the kids will come at all; they can’t get up the hill to the school because of the ice and snow.”

“How long does that last?”

They laughed, obviously enjoying my surprise.

“It varies. Sometimes it’s quickly over and other times you seem to spend your life clumping about in it and trying not to fall over. It can last for weeks high up in the Lebanese mountains, even when it is long gone from the hillsides around the school. It makes for beautiful views. But eventually spring comes around again, it gets warmer and we get back to full classes.”

Back in the first lesson of the afternoon, the contrasts with teaching in England were becoming plain. One of those came in the person of a certain Miss Dalal. She had greeted me with a small smile and a silent handshake when I arrived, but without any impression of warmth; this woman was discipline on legs. At first I had thought her main job was to ring the bell that indicated the end of a lesson. On my way to a class, I saw a small child being led away by Miss Dalal and realised he must have been naughty by the expressions on both their faces. So her role also included discipline, I reasoned. Other teachers later shared with me that Miss Dalal had a fearsome reputation for beating the children, which came as a shock. This was at odds with the liberal teaching methods I’d just been taught, and it wasn’t the way I liked to do things at all.

“She has a selection of sticks and rulers, some with a metal edge to them – they cut! She is a vicious woman,” I was warned. I checked my colleagues’ expressions for any signs of teasing – half expecting them to take advantage of me as the new girl – but they were deadly serious.

“You think Miss Dalal is bad!” A Lebanese teacher confided. “At the secondary school I attended, we had supervisors controlling the corridors, making sure everyone behaved. They’re like glorified teaching assistants, mostly Palestinians without papers, and because they don’t have work permits, they are easy to get rid of. They’re afraid of losing their jobs and the kids are afraid of them.”

Now that I knew what to expect, I noticed that Miss Dalal would walk around outside the classrooms, and occasionally you would hear the whack from her stick and a child’s yell. Then one day my class was enjoying a rather rowdy singing session, and the door creaked open. The singing stopped, replaced by complete silence. I turned to see what the interruption was. At the door was a tiny, fierce creature; Miss Dalal. I soon realised the reason for the effect Miss Dalal was having on my class; she might be slightly built but she had indeed come armed with a sturdy stick. I had no intention of letting her beat any of my kids with her big stick, so I got my courage up and said firmly, “I’m teaching!”

Miss Dalal never did get her hands on my children. However, I wasn’t above taking advantage of their natural reluctance to be sent to see her. Just a single mention of “Miss Dalal—” in a voice laden with foreboding would deter any child contemplating disrupting my class.

At the end of my first day, the children dispersed. I went to take a closer look at the commotion at the end of the driveway, where you couldn’t move for all the big, posh cars collecting the children who had come up from Beirut. Who knows how their parents became so wealthy? Asking around among the other teachers, there were rumours about a lot of black-market activity, but I can’t be sure it was that. Finally, the last car door slammed, and the last Mercedes shot off down the hill in a blue haze of diesel. Walking back through the school grounds I watched, fascinated, as shrieking, laughing and squabbling children played games, many of which were unfamiliar to me. These children boarded at the school and they were allowed some freedom to play after supper and before being herded into their dormitories for the night.

My first day was over and I made my way to the staff room, where other teachers were gathered at a dark wooden table, sitting on formal sofas or chatting in groups. Some of the teachers were Lebanese locals and they had gone home to their families; others were resident, like me. It seemed that most of their leisure time was spent quietly in the school itself, with the other staff and perhaps with the odd book or a game of cards and a chat. As is usual in any workplace, there was also some grumbling about how the school was run and any problems that had arisen during the day. The teachers were mostly female, especially in the primary school classes. They were all sociable and friendly. We were a mixed bunch, from a variety of different backgrounds and countries, though we tended to fall naturally into two groups – the English gathered together and the others, which included Iraqis, Iranians and several Germans, mixed together. The English teachers taught English and the others taught everything else. It was interesting to hear their views on the school and the teaching methods we were expected to employ.

“How did your first day go, Caroline?” asked one.

“It was different!” I said, seeing some wry smiles and nods from the others.

“Yes, it’s unlike any school that most of us have taught in before. One of the main problems is the lack of basic resources to do any teaching with. I don’t know how they expect the kids to learn.”

This was something I agreed with immediately. “Yes, is it right that the only text book I’ve been given is American? The topics and illustrations don’t seem to mean much to any of the kids, whether they are Lebanese, Austrian, German or French pupils. The characters – Anita and Tony – live in a huge American house, on a farm on the prairies. It’s nothing like the village houses or city apartments that the kids here are likely to be familiar with. Are we expected to sit there repeating phrases like, ‘What can the dog see? It can see Tony. What is Anita doing? Anita is reading a book’ all day long?”

“I’m afraid so,” came the reply. “The approved method here is repetition and rote learning. Forget any creative ideas you might have!” The speaker looked jaded and sighed as he slumped down into a chair against the wall.

“The books we used at my previous school in Wembley and at my teacher training college were pretty tedious but I’m beginning to miss them already!” I said. “At least with those books you had the sense that these were real people and the kids could identify with them, but I really feel that they are going to struggle.” I looked around to see whether anyone was shocked and felt braver as I saw that nobody was disagreeing. “Isn’t it possible to adapt our methods – to teach the children, not the book, as someone once said?”

But my colleagues were wary. One whispered, “Better not to risk it. The Saads have their methods and it pays to stick to them.”

‘Hmm,’ I thought, ‘What’s the point, if they aren’t learning anything?’ I am a strong believer that young children learn best when they’re having fun and so I resolved to inject some excitement into my lessons, whether the Saads liked it or not.

The next day, we did some singing and tapping rhythms – whisper it, we even told some jokes! I soon discovered that they could learn, they just had to be taught properly. Some of the children had one English-speaking parent, so they managed the language more readily. I quite quickly recognised the children that I had to give something a bit harder to and the ones I’d have to sit with, when I could, for longish periods of time. And so I began my time at Choueifat, confident that I could make a difference by bringing in some different methods and that I could keep my young charges in order. After all, we had Miss Dalal outside…