The Shell Collector

(c) Tash Turgoose

—   R E V I E W   —

"Every six hours the tides plowed shelves of beauty onto the beaches of the world, and here he was, able to walk out into it, thrust his hands into it, spin a piece of it between his fingers. To gather up seashells - each one in amazement - to know their names, to drop them into a bucket: this was what filled his life, what overfilled it."

I've figured it out. I know where this obsession is coming from. 
Anthony Doerr is the David Attenborough of the literary world.

Given my Attenborough love affair, this is a big, big call, I know, but read just a page or two, and you'll get it. Doerr's stories are a love affair with nature, laden with detail and fact in equal portions – like an Attenborough documentary type journey, making you fall in the love with the beauty of the world, and teaching you about it along the way. I can't imagine how long Doerr spends researching each story, but it's so worthwhile - knowledge seeps from every page in the most beautiful way.

The Shell Collector is the first in Doerr's short story collective, his debut book, also called The Shell Collector. So far, I've only read this story, but there are eight in total... so plenty more reviews (and illustrations!) to come! The Shell Collector tells the story of a blind malacologist (shell scientist) living on a tiny island in Kenya, studying shells whilst collecting them for a mainland museum. Each day he wades out onto the shallow reef and searches the corals with his fingertips, almost instantly identifying his finds by touch. The richness in Doerr's language means you feel the ridges, valleys, swirls of the shells alongside the protagonist as he collects... 
Along the way, there is love, heartbreak and miracles — it's a quick read, coming in at 35 pages, but a powerful one. 

Another wonderful thing about Doerr's writing is the Easter eggs — in The Shell Collector you can see the footprints leading to All The Light We Cannot See. Both title characters are blind, and just as The Shell Collector studies shells, Marie-Laure would spend her days in the shell sections of The Museum of Natural History, running her fingers over the grooves and twists... 

So, the Doerr love continues... 
I've acquired all but one of his books now (Memory Wall, I'm coming for you), and am slowing working my way through them. Damn, if I can write even HALF this good one day, I'll be content. With each review, I'll be creating illustrations to go along with them, too. 

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I'm @TashTurgoose on everything. :) 

'til next time x




—   R E V I E W   —


"What mazes there are in this world. The branches of trees, the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals, the streets her father recreated in his models... 
None more complicated than the human brain, Etienne would say, what may be the most complex object in existence; one wet kilogram within with spin universes."

Oh, this book.
This beautiful, heartbreaking, perfect book. 

I picked up All The Light We Cannot See in the midst of a Doerr frenzy. A chance encounter in a Melbourne bookstore, where I found his travel memoir Four Seasons in Rome, and I'm hooked. There's just something about the way he writes, like he sees every single detail that the world has to offer, and has researched this Earth so meticulously, with such love, that his books become a love letter to nature, history, science... 

All The Light kicks off in WWII Europe, following the soon-to-be interwoven threads of Parisian girl Marie-Laure LeBlanc, and German orphan Werner Pfennig. Now, I think it's the intricacies, the tiny details, that make this book so moving. Werner loves science, and spends his days playing with the wires of radios, and his nights listening to forbidden broadcasts from across the continent. This spurs his story in more ways than one, landing him in the Hitler Youth and chasing memories from his past. 

Marie-Laure is blind, but that doesn't stop her love for the world around her. Her father, Daniel, is a wood worker, and a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. Marie-Laure spends her days in its halls, feeling her way through the molluscs, befriending an old scientist and learning from his works. She's mostly uninhibited by her blindness, due to her father incredible works, crafting precise models of the towns they live, so she can learn her way with her fingers, and then with her feet. 

Sometimes, there is so much detail, is seems quite heavy, but as every one of those details pulls together in the second half of the book, you'll feel a strange sense of nostalgia, and pride for having followed the threads. 

More often than not, my heart ached. It's one of the first books to ever make me gasp out loud, and feels as though I'd lost a friend. I was so deep in Doerr's world that a voice from the other side of my room would make me jump. I was there, feeling my way through the streets of Paris, fiddling with the wires of transceivers, desperately breaking open tins of precious food, hiding in secret places, rebelling through the radio waves. 

All The Light We Cannot see is historical fiction at its very best, it doesn't retell WWII occurrences like the echo of a textbook, is seamlessly weaves fact into beautiful, haunting fiction. 

I'd recommend reading his memoir Four Seasons in Rome before you read this, though. It's not a necessity, by any means, but the memoir follows a year in Rome, as he begins to write All The Light. He wrestles to find inspiration for the novel while in a city spilling with so many more stories, and having read those intimate thoughts, and then the book from which is spurred, you feel a little more connected to it, as if Doerr is a friend to whom you spoke as he wrote, and now you get to read the finished piece. 

Whatever you do, read something of Doerr's. 
You must, it's a treat for your soul. All The Light We Cannot See is haunting, heartbreaking, but above all, beautiful. 



Tash Turgoose Bruges

It's hard to pinpoint where to start with Bruges — it all feels like a dream, a daze, a fairytale land — a Wes Anderson x Disney theme park, a perfect, quirky village shaped mirage. Perhaps I slipped into a dream state

Tash Turgoose Bruges

on the train? Never truly woke up, until the train looped back around to London, 36 hours later? That's what it felt like, at least, and not just for the surroundings. Everything about the place is surreal. 

I arrived by train from sweet Paree, just after midnight. After spending most of my life in Australia, something seems so magical about being able to step on a train in one country, and jump off in another, just a few hours later. Back home it takes almost as long to get to the closest major city. Perhaps that's where the dream began, racing down the tracks at 200 km/ph, cutting through the darkness, travelling in a portal from one country to the next. There was no conductor or guard, and the carriage was all but empty, save a few serious looking business men and a mother and child. Once we crossed the border from France to Belgium, all of the announcements switched to a different language, one I didn't recognise, and I guessed it must be Dutch — there was no moon in the sky and hardly any lights outside the windows, and I had no idea where I was. Hurtling through the dark in a place I didn't know, where I didn't speak even a little of the language, I panicked a little. Surely, surely I would recognise when the driver announced Bruges, right? One of the aforementioned businessmen spotted my panic, and asked where I was heading, in French, and then English — Bruges, I said, and he said he was too, so he would show me when to leave the train. Good job, it turns out, as the announcement seemingly didn't include the name 'Bruges'. 

Outside the train station, men yielding chainsaws and picks worked through the night, preparing ice sculptures for an upcoming snow festival, beginning just days later. I looked around for a taxi, but there were none in site, and no one to ask. There was, however, a charming young Dutch boy, waiting by a horse and cart. "Into Bruges?" he shouted, and I blinked at him, confused.  Ice sculptors, horse carts and a cobbled station car park? What is this place?

Tash Turgoose Bruges

"There is no taxi this late, we are the taxi!" The boy signalled to his horse - "How much?" "Same as a taxi, miss, 7 euros." - and that was it.  He hoisted my giant, bursting backpack onto the carriage, then helped me up, and the fairytale started to unfold. What better start to this beautiful side trip, than hooves on the cobblestones, carrying me to my next adventure?



The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas [Illustrated Edition]



For the past few months, I've had a total obsession with illustrated books. It started at university, in a class devoted to them and their creation, and just ballooned to a point where I have my own illustrated book coming out in three months time! Eep!

So, when I found out that one of my favourite books, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, was being released as an illustrated book to honour it's 10th year anniversary, I HAD to have it... and I was NOT disappointed. Author John Boyne joined up with his friend, illustrator Oliver Jeffers to create a beautiful, understated book that I am totally in love with. 

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas Illustrated Edition

The illustrations are simple, yet brimming with emotion. Only three colours are used throughout the book - black (or shades of), blue and red. One of Bruno's shirts is highlighted throughout the book, as the only blue piece of clothing, and becomes incredibly significant at the end of the story. Those who have read the book (or seen the movie) know what I mean... 


It's an important story, highlighting the dualities of the Nazi era, made even more powerful by the child's perspective. Bruno refers to Hitler as 'The Fury', and thinks that 'Heil Hitler' is another way of saying goodbye, have a good day. It starts by playing with your heart a little, giving you all the feels along the way, and then all of a sudden, the end just grab your heart, tears it in half, and sets it on fire. You've been warned. 

All in all, it's a beautiful story, and the illustrations make it even better.    >> ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ <<


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It's exactly as you imagine it.
The smells, the colours, the sights, the sounds. 
Street hawkers swoop the second they see you -- Would you like a postcard, a souvenir, a cartouche, a mint tea, lanterns, rugs, keychains, spices, wallets...? Please, special price, just for you! 

There's a medieval feel about the place, with the beautiful old stone buildings, cobbled streets and labyrinth-like layout. Gates seperate different parts of the souk, which used to signal the change in wares, once upon a time when the markets were divided into sections of gold, silver, leather, brass and foods. It's almost as if you've stepped back in time to an ancient Cairo - shops display bags and buckets overflowing with spices, with their wares hung from the walls and sprawled about the streets.


In the past, before the revolution, Khan El Khalili was often painted as somewhat of an unsavoury place to visit - it was too busy, the hawkers were too persistent and it was the perfect setting for pickpocketing - but now, the streets are empty. The shopkeepers play backgammon and smoke shisha, greeting you as you enter their store, but not hassling. Some hang from their doors, and joke with you as you pass - I have the greatest gold chains in the whole of Egypt! You must buy one for all of your friends at home! Or, your friends will like you more if you take souvenirs home! I have them all in my shop, come and see! But most of all, the traders thank you. They thank you for visiting Egypt in a time when most don't dare - they thank you for recognising that it is safe again, and that it's time for the tourists to return. Tourism is the number one industry in Egypt, and most people rely on it to live, yet no one visits since the revolution, despite the violence being over. In most places we had the streets, temples and tombs to ourselves, save the locals - a wonderful, yet heartbreaking experience. 


What struck me most of all was the way in which the bizarre was so colourful, yet so grey at the same time. Everything seemed slightly dulled by the dust and the hovering smog, but it was still vibrant and full of life. Once the sun disappeared, however, the grey seemed to fade, and the colours and lights took centre stage. It was like the movies. We lazed at a cafe, watching the streets come to life, and the stone buildings turn orange from the lanterns, which seemed to be everywhere. We drank mint tea and tried our first shisha, as hawkers came by our table one by one, trying to spruik their goods. Bizarrely, I think the smell I'll remember most from Egypt is apple smoke, drifting from the shisha's in every cafe, on almost every street...
Walk the streets with me in pictures, through the photo journal below. ✨


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Elephantine Island

Somewhere close to midnight, Albeer and I had climbed aboard an overnight train and left Cairo behind. A steward, Mohammad, greeted us, and the sight of him knocked me back. Just a week earlier, at home in Australia, I’d been watching my favourite documentary with my parents, Joanna Lumley’s Nile, and Lumley herself had been greeted by the same man, and led into the same carriage. My mind wandered back to the film, when she stood in this very hallway, and fussed with the tattered curtains, pulling them straight and hooking them back onto their rails. The train shuddered into motion, and I remembered her advice for walking on a moving train:

“Walk with your feet apart, it looks as though you’ve wet your pants but it’s okay,” she reassured.

I giggled a little at the thought, but took on the advice — it worked. I wanted to ask Mohammad about Joanna, but I was embarrassed. Instead, I settled into my cabin. Seats folded out into bunk beds, and a basin and mirror sat concealed inside a hard plastic cupboard. A window spanned the width of the cabin, and right up to the ceiling, making for a great view from the upper bunk, where I had made myself a nest for the night. I think I chose the top bunk subconsciously, because I know you would have chosen the bottom, Nana. That way, lying in the darkness of the midnight commute, I could imagine that you really were here with me.

The tracks led us southward, into Upper Egypt — the home of the Pharaohs, both in life and death. It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Travelling South but entering an Upper region. That is the fault of some of the earliest Pharaohs. See, Ancient Egypt was divided into two regions, Upper and Lower Egypt. Middle Egypt also existed somewhere between, though boundaries always remained ambiguous, changing with the rulers, and the times. To the north was Lower Egypt, where the Nile branched out into the Delta, spilling into the Mediterranean Sea. To the south was Upper Egypt, the region almost every Pharaoh called home — where they devoted temples to the gods, and buried their dead in grand, sprawling tombs. The labels of Upper and Lower were drawn from the flow of the Nile, northwards from the highlands of East Africa towards the Mediterranean. It feels wrong to say it, but, alas, Upper Egypt lies to the south of Lower Egypt.

Just as the gentle sway of the train had rocked me to sleep the night before, it woke me as the sun began to rise. In the night, the train window played movies of cities and stars, but the morning brought a new fairytale — the Nile. I’d seen it before, up in Cairo in the days just passed, but the Nile of the city was different. Here, in the South, the river was fringed with reeds and stone, framed by grass and date palms, not city streets and towering homes. In the North, daily life seemed to rush by the Nile, not paying attention to its ebb and flow, but not here. Through the train window, the day sprung to life. Boys waded through marshes, dipping nets in grassless pools, thrusting them back into the air empty, before collapsing into a fit of giggles and trying, again and again. A man, almost as old as the waiter in the hotel, sat atop a makeshift cart stacked high with bundles of wheat. He led his donkey toward the Nile, letting him dip his head into the water for a moment before they continued on their way. Another man trailed behind a buffalo-drawn plough, ankle deep in the spills of the river, tilling land that had been treated the same way for centuries.

I’d seen countless recreations of Ancient Egyptian life, in documentaries, movies and television shows, but this seemed to be the real thing. Perhaps, because my views of Upper Egypt were thus far framed through a window, my mind slipped back into seeing this as a dream, a fantasy land, nothing more than the films I’d watched before. But, the people here seemed to live as their forefathers had done for generations. Were the recreations true, nothing much had changed since Pharaohs ruled these lands.

We sped through stations more reminiscent of shacks, crowded with men in jellabiya, and young boys flogging their wares. Some saw me watching through the window and chased the train, waving, shouting and smiling, wielding scarves and cigarettes above their heads.

Though I knew I was in Egypt before, and I knew that it felt like home, I couldn’t feel close to the ancients when skyscrapers and tarmac stood between us. As much as I loved Cairo, I knew that this was the Egypt I had come to see. If this country felt like home before, this was turning the key and walking inside.

The Egyptians seem to have an obsession with carbs. Breakfast came, as the train chugged on, and Mohammad shifted my cabin configuration from bedroom to seating. Breakfast comprised of a cheese bun, a plain bun, an ordinary croissant and a chocolate one, and, to finish, a slice of banana bread.There were two types of butter, two types of jam and some of that horribly artificial cream cheese in a bowl to the side..

“Is this all for me?”

“Of course, ma’am,” the man chuckled as he busied himself, pouring glasses of orange juice and tea.

“Habibi, you will not believe it!” Albeer’s voice reached the cabin before he did, appearing with a boy around my aged appeared — a Westerner. “This is Sammy, he’s from where you are!”

“Oh, Australia! Cool, hi.”

“No, no, it’s better than that.” Albeer smiled.

“I’m from the Sunshine Coast, too,” Sammy said, and thrust his hand towards me, shaking mine enthusiastically.

“No way, where abouts?

“Maroochydore,” he replied.

“You’re kidding...” my eyes widened.

“Nope, where are you from?”

“Maroochydore,” I laughed, “Duporth Ave.”

Sammy’s eyes widened. “Err... same.”

Albeer watched on, cheerfully, “how great is this?”

The first Westerner I’d seen in Egypt, and he lived one block from my apartment back home. We traded Facebook friend requests and Sammy left to pack his bag before we reached Aswan.

“Sleep well?” Albeer asked, leaning against the door frame.

“Really well, actually.”

“I hope you’re ready to meet the real Egypt.”

From the rooftop of the Nile Hotel, its namesake sparkled a deep, rich blue. The sun cast silver diamonds upon its surface as feluccas bounced against jagged rock formations. Beyond the waters lay Elephantine Island, so named for the elephantine boulders that form its banks, and it’s use as an ivory trading station long ago. There were rumours of elephants living there once, too, but there’s no actual proof. Now, it’s the home of Nubian tribes, relocated after their homeland was lost to the Aswan Dam project in the 1960s. Though unhappy at first, Nubian life now flourished on the island, with traditionally painted houses, crafts and farming.

Albeer popped his head out of the stairway.

“Let’s go to the market, and get some lunch. Then we’ll go out to Elephantine.” I could tell he was happier here, in the South. It was his homeland, after all. He and his family lived in Luxor, one hundred kilometres to the North. It was a different Egypt here — it felt distinctly more African than Cairo. I understood his happiness. I felt it, too.

In the hotel lobby, Albeer sprung to his feet as I emerged from the elevator.

“Yala yala, habibi!” He was outside the door before I was. “I have to take you for a kebab here. They are so nice. Only a ten minute walk.”

“Can we walk by the Nile?”

“There is no other way!”

Rocky outcrops speared from the esplanade-like walkway by the river, dotted with feluccas and larger touring vessels.

“That one is ours tomorrow, for Philae Temple,” Albeer pointed at a boat — The New Titanic. “Don’t worry, if it sinks, we can just swim,” he laughed, “the Nile is easy. And, there aren’t many crocodiles, not anymore. The Ptolemy’s sacrificed them all.” As we passed a large group of men leaving prayer, I couldn’t help but notice grey marks pressed into their foreheads. It was something I had noticed in Cairo, too, though I kept forgetting to ask Albeer of the significance.

“Oh, that’s their prayer bump,” he said, “from pressing their head to the floor over and over again during prayer. It’s a sign of a deeply devout Muslim. But, a lot of people draw them on. Others purposely hit their head hard on the matt, over and over, making a bruise that never goes away.”

The Nile from The Nile Hotel, Aswan.  Digital oil painting.

The Nile from The Nile Hotel, Aswan.
Digital oil painting.

After lunch, we boarded a rickety boat and made our way through the waters of the Nile, towards Elephantine Island. In ancient times, the island marked the boundary between Egypt and Nubia, and acted (dependant upon needs at the time) as an important trading post, or a defence fort. It was also the home to Khnum, the Ancient Egyptian god who controlled the Nile from caves underneath the island. 

It's name is attributed to a number of things - from the air, the island is said to look somewhat like an elephants tusk, thinning out Northward into a point. However, from the surrounding waters, many of the rock formations around the island also look a lot like elephants. On our way across to the island, we did see one, and I have to admit, it did look a lot like an elephant.

In modern times, Elephantine Island is home to two Nubian villages. The inhabitants were relocated from their homes further South, when their homelands were to be flooded by the construction of the Aswan Dam. Though unhappy at first, Nubian life has now flourished on the island, and many Nubian customs, such as the colourful painted houses you can see below, are present in the villages. 

We wandered the village streets, befriending locals and listening to stories of Nubian customs and traditions, before finishing the day by the water, watching the sun go down on the Nile.