How is it November already?

Honestly, I’m struggling to believe how quickly this year is going and I can’t believe it’s November already. As is getting to be traditional for this time of year, I’m again thinking of attempting BloWriMo.  Two years ago* was the first time I got beyond just thinking, and I didn’t exactly make a big success of it. Still, I decided that, although it probably wasn’t going to be any better this year, I might as well start and see how it goes.  As before, it’ll probably be a bit of an excuse/motivation to make some progress on some knitting/crochet projects (including, hopefully, finishing some items that have been in an “almost done” state for about a year!), getting out and about at weekends and maybe the odd book review.

Wish me luck!

* I’d originally typed last year, which I think is illustrative of my current grasp of the passage of time…

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July in books

Well, I thought I ought to make some sort of effort to write this post before August ended…

July books 1

The month began with a lot of re-reading of the various Harry Potter books (only the last three are shown in the photo, but I made my way, in a very non-linear fashion, through the whole series).  There’s nothing like revisiting familiar stories for relaxing reading, and I find children’s books are particularly good escapism.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel.* Admittedly I can’t remember much detail about this novel, but I recommend it nonetheless! I like a good post-apocalyptic storyline and this one is actually rather charming. The main players are a troupe of travelling performers who put on Shakespeare productions, coming across across the various inhabitants who hare survived a Georgian flu pandemic that devastated the world (the actual logistics of how this spread don’t ring quite true to me but I don’t think that matters much, and of course, I could be wrong!)  I’m now on the look-out for my own copy as it’s definitely one I fancy re-reading in the future.

Cat out of Hell by Lynne Truss. Lynne Truss can write amusingly (I’m particularly fond of the collection of columns and similar short writings Making the Cat Laugh), and the setting on the novel had personal appeal.  But the overall verdict is incredibly disappointing and not worth bothering with.

Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant.* Another book that I was attracted to by the setting (one of the niggling annoyances with this was that she was unnecessarily coy about naming it) this was really a modern take on the campus novel (it is told as reminiscence, but this to me seems to be the contemporary style). The student protagonists are a largely believable group of moderately exasperating students, though no more so than any group of students. At times intriguing but not especially remarkable.

July books 2

The Great Night by Chris Adrian.* This book has its own picture not because it was notably better or worse than the other books I read, but because it was due back to the library later, and I only just managed to finish it before the end of the month. I can’t quite make up my mind where I stand on this one: I started reading it at the beginning of the month but when I put it aside only a chapter of so in, I found I had no great impetus to pick it up again.  A sort of re-telling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Oberon, Titania and Puck living in modern-day San Fransisco, it’s definitely one of the oddest books I’ve read in a long time.

*denotes a book borrowed from the library.

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June in books

June 2015 books part 1Us by David Nicholls. This was a lot more fun than I’d expected. A couple with a grown up son look set to separate, but first all three of them have to get through a Grand Tour of Europe. Will it make or break them? Nicholls manages to evoke sympathy in characters that aren’t, when you think about it, particularly likeable, and also to surprise me with the ending which was something of a relief.

How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis*. A rare foray for me into non-fiction, in this book Ellis goes back to some of childhood heroines from literature to see if they still stand up to scrutiny. While I found this most interesting when she talked about books that I knew, I wasn’t sorry – on the evidence presented – not to have read the What Katy Did books, but am (slightly) inspired to read Gone with the Wind or at the very least watch the film (though I don’t really like watching adaptations before reading the original book). It had also never occurred to me before that people tend to have strong preferences for Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights – I’m definitely in the Jane camp). The sort of book that makes you want to re-read books that you haven’t thought of in years.

Longbourn by Jo Baker. A sort of retelling of Pride and Prejudice but from the perspective of the Bennett family’s servants, I thought this made good use of the familiarity of that story (I think it is a reasonable assumption that most people reading Longbourn will have read, or seen a TV of film version of, the Austen novel) allowing her to avoid unnecessary exposition and focus on her characters and the less familiar situation. I found I really cared for the fates of all the characters, as well as re-evaluating my thoughts on some of Austen’s characters (not very dramatically, just as a result of this new perspective). Recommended, especially for Austen fans with an interest in social history.

 A Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller*. I’m a bit conflicted about this book, a retelling of some of  Epic poetry, which focuses on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. I really enjoyed the first half, but once it got to the Trojan war, I found myself struggling to integrate it with poorly-remembered school lessons. I think if I had either remembered the story well or not at all I would have enjoyed it lot more.  Having said that, I think a lot of the aspects of Achilles’ heroism sit awkwardly with modern sensibilities and I think that also impinged on my empathy with the characters (despite Miller’s best efforts). Much more readable than my experience of epic poetry in translation though!

I was told there’d be cake by Sloane Crosley*. There’s an air of disappointment in the title that I found with the book.  A collection of anecdotes/essays/short stories (I’m not sure how best to describe them), I was expecting to be laughing out loud and this raised the odd smile.

June 2015 books part 2

The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle. This is very much a book of its time, and a real Boys Own adventure. A fun read, so long as you don’t think about it too deeply, and I could have done with a lot less anthropology and a lot more zoology and botany.

Hotel World by Ali Smith. I like Ali Smith’s short stories but have had mixed responses to her novels; as I’ve generally preferred her later novels I wasn’t sure what to expect of this one, which is somewhat earlier, but as a £1 charity shop purchase when I needed a light (as in mass) book while travelling it seemed a good opportunity to try it out. The novel takes a snapshot of 5 people connected to a freak accident in a hotel and makes effective use of different narrative styles (though I have to say I really missed punctuation in one of those). For me it also had echoes – in a good way – of How to be Both (though it’s probably more accurate to say the other way round). Work reading if you liked that book.

A Woman Unknown by Frances Brody*. The fourth in the Kate Shackleton series, like them this was a very readable period murder mystery  I’m just waiting for the (surely inevitable) TV adaptations.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simison*.  Much like Us, I enjoyed this much more than I expected. It was incredibly readable, and also succeeded in making hard-to-like characters very likeable (though the copy I read had the first chapter of the sequel, and I’m not sure Simison has manged to sustain this to the next book). Yes, its plot is faintly ridiculous and there are lots of aspects that stretch the bounds of credulity, but there was a lot of charm and general good feeling that enchanted this reader (I wil be giving the sequel a miss, however)

The Martian by Andy Weir*. What would happen if you were an astronaut who got stuck on Mars? The best summary I’ve seen is this xkcd comic: https://xkcd.com/1536/ which is also where I first heard about it (shortly afterwards I found a friend was also reading it, so I sought out a copy from my local library). To begin with I didn’t think I’d get into it, and throughout I found the log entries rather awkwardly written – though this may well be deliberate – and only really got interested when Weir started to integrate other narratives, from other characters on Earth and in space. The international collaboration was touching, if somewhat idealistic, and this novel does raise some interesting and disconcerting questions around the value of human life, and our place in the universe.

The Carriage House by Louisa Hall*.  This was a speculative choice from my library. It wasn’t until I was almost half way through that I realised that this was, in part, an updated version of Persuasion by Jane Austen (it only hit me when some of the characters use the same words as characters in the Austen novel).  Compared to the recent updated version of Sense & Sensibility that I read in May (and of Emma that I started in June but abandoned as being too awful), this was much more successful, largely because it wasn’t slavishly tied to the original Austen, and also only used aspects of the Persuasion storyline and wove it with others. Still I’d rather read Austen.

Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer. I’d never read any Georgette Heyer before and picked one of her crime novels as it’s my favourite genre for relaxing reading, especially early 20th century books. I really enjoyed this. Yes, it’s dated, but it was bags of fun.  It would make a fabulous TV drama too, probably on ITV with fabulous costumes and cut-glass accents. I’m on the lookout for more of her crime novels for relaxing weekend (Sunday evening) reading.

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay. A crime novel set in Oxford in the 1920s (I think; it’s definitely set in Oxford, but I’m not sure about the date), I can’t imagine this would hold much interest for people unfamiliar with Oxford. For those that do, it passes the time pleasurably, but cannot compare to the Heyer.

* Denotes a book I borrowed from my local library.

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Recently…

…I have:

  • Been to the seaside to eat fish and chips and watch a show on the pier, followed by ice cream before heading home. Add to that the great company and it was almost the perfect seaside outing (it was too cold to eat outside, which would have nailed it).
  • Read lots, by recent standards at least. I’m making good use of my local library at the moment.
  • Paid another trip to the seaside. Better weather (my nose is slightly pink) and lots of cups of tea watching the sea and the offshore wind farm. Lovely!
  • Tried out my new sandals. Making the most of the appearance of summer, I painted my toenails (navy blue) and finally wore the sandals I bought a month or so ago. They make it look like I only have 4 toes on each foot (my little toe is entirely hidden) but I have hopes that they’ll be comfy.
  • Broke my clothes line (or more specifically the post that one end attaches too). Making the most of the warm, sunny, yet also blustery weather, I thought I’d get lots off things dried and aired. Sadly, I may have over-loaded it, and it’s back to the clothes’ airer.
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May in books

May2015_booksFar from the madding crowd by Thomas Hardy. I re-read this (after a gap of more years than I can remember) because I’d seen a trailer for the new film adaptation and quite fancied going to see it. Reading the book again changed my mind; I really enjoyed it and decided that the film probably wasn’t going to do it justice.

The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin. The final instalment of the Tales of the City series, I was a little disappointed in this one. Good for fans and completists.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. I’d really enjoyed The Secret History and loved The Goldfinch (even though it did drag a little in the middle) but I found this – by and large – to be 550 pages of poorly-edited dullness. In fact the whole thing reminded me of the dragging middle section of The Goldfinch so it also had the unfortunate side-effect of cheapening that novel too. I only finished it because I’d picked it to take with me one weekend when I was doing a lot oftrain travel, and because I reasoned it had to get better. I was wrong. One to avoid.

A Medal for Murder and Murder in the Afternoon by Frances Brody. The second and third books in the Kate Shackleton series, these were quick, relaxing reads. Set in post-WWII England these evoke the classic crime era while being very much a modern product. Intriguing and fun, these books were a great choice to restore my enjoyment in reading (as well as helping to reinforce the habit) after a couple of disappointing choices.

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. It was the use of ‘puny’ that caught my eye when checking out books at the library and I was intrigued to give this one a try. Early on it was revealed (to those – like me – who didn’t recognise it) that the title is taken from Coleridge poem, which was initially a disappointment, but actually I enjoyed Toews’ use of language so it was a disappointment that soon faded. This book should come with massive Trigger Warnings all over it; it makes no secret of the fact that this deals with suicide but I found it a surprisingly traumatic read (I read it over 3 evenings and the first night I had suicide-related nightmares). Not an easy read, and not without its issues, but a good one.

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope. Part of a project to modernise all of Austen’s novels, this was the first to be released. I know there’s some talk of how the series could introduce a new audience to Austen, but I actually think it’s best for people who have read the original. I found it an enjoyable read as it gives free rein to enjoy the story as a trashy romance novel rather than a great work of literature (much is made of Austen’s wit, but this highlighted her skills as a storyteller) and seeing how various scenes and characters would be updated. My sense is that this a pretty close adaptation (though it did demonstrate how much of the incidental scenes I didn’t  remember very well). Overall, the minor characters come out very well. Margaret Dashwood (the youngest, and often overlooked) Dashwood sister was a joy, and I liked Mrs Jennings, and in fact the whole Middleton family, in a way I hadn’t with the original.  But Elinor, Marianne and – especially – Edward Ferrars didn’t update very well here. Marianne was mainly incredibly annoying and rude, with insufficient charm to override it. Elinor just didn’t seem that sensible, and the choice of studying architecture just seemed odd (surely an engineer would have made more sense?). Edward was unappealing and weak. And I can’t help but feel that Trollope really should have renamed Fanny.

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Where does the time go?

The passage of time is a confusing thing and the last few weeks have just sped by. During this time:

  • there was the excitement of the General Election. I went to a local hustings (the first time I’d ever been to one), which I definitely recommend doing. It was interesting to hear the candidates and helped me make up my mind. On the day itself, I voted on the way to work and in the evening settled down to a long night of watching the rexults come in. I’m not known for my love of late nights but amazingly managed to stay up till shortly after 7am, sustained by some crisps, tisanes (I managed it caffeine free!) and a hearty dinner of pie and chips. I did miss the Ed Balls moment (though by that time the writing was on the wall) but there was plenty of human drama throughout the night.
  • Since the election I’m trying to make more of an effort to stay informed, so I’m getting a newspaper more regularly and watching the news (local and national) more often. I’d love to get into watching Newsnight again but it I s on after my bedtime.
  • Work in the garden has progressed slowly. The grass seed has finally started to sprout but there are still substantial bare patches that need to be dealt with. I lost a tomato plant to windy weather, and the others are looking a bit peaky, and a courgette plant to slugs. But the pansies and violas are doing well, some aliums I forgot I’d planted (I asume that I did plant them…) are starting to flower, some existing irises are looking beautiful, and I have hopes that my geraniums will provide a vibrant splash of red.
  • I’ve managed to read a bit more, though I spent a lot of time reading The Little Friend by Donna Tartt, which I really didn’t enjoy.  I also read a couple of Frances Brody crime novels, which were pleasant weekend reading.
  • I’m trying to spend less time faffing in the Internet, as I realised that that’s often the  answer to ‘where did the time go?’
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Film review: A Little Chaos

How can one fail to be intrigued by the Official Film of National Gardening Week? (I didn’t even know there was a National Gardening Week, yet alone that it would have its own official film.) Not only that, A Little Chaos boasted an impressive cast, a 17th century French setting and a woman makes good in a man’s world plot. All in all this seemed like one to watch.

And I did find it very watchable. Kate Winslet plays our heroine, the fictional Mme de Barra who gets a gardening gig designing an “outdoor ballroom” in the landscaping of the gardens at Versailles because she rebels against the ordered style of M. le Notre (“the Master” – no, not that one; this isn’t a Doctor Who spin-off – played by Matthias Schoenaerts) who actually existed. She’s capable of a spot of hydro-engineering and isn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty. I liked the symbolism of the practicality of her cross-body saddle bag, which she wears when out and about; I wasn’t impressed by her do-it-by-numbers shabby chic home interior. Ultimately it’s nice to see a female character earn respect and admiration for her independence, abilities and personality rather than looks (not that Winslet is unattractive, obviously). Unfortunately de Barra has a cliched backstory that had me groan inwardly with frustration when it was introduced (I kept hoping it wouldn’t pan out as I’d expected; sadly it pretty much did).

Alan Rickman, who directed, played Louis XIV with his usual aplomb and Stanley Tucci was dependably camp as his brother, the Duc d’Orleans. Paula Paul as the duke’s wife Princess Palatine deserves a mention for being rather sweet.

Unsurprisingly this is also a love story, and I liked the understated chemistry between the two leads, in what I think worked well conceptually as a transitional relationship for both of them rather than a happy ever after (though I seem to be at odds with most film critics on that).

The look of the film is impressive, largely thanks to the costumes. The actual gardening content was disappointingly low; I was unable to glean any tips, nor was I inspired to create a grotto, or indeed a water feature, in my back garden, but perhaps that was too much to hope for.

Overall this was the right film for my mood when I watched it. One might expect a greater level of unpredictability from a film with chaos in the title, so perhaps it’s the modifier that is important: this isn’t a film that will change the face of cinema but it had small touches that made it different from the bog-standard romantic period drama. Sometimes, maybe, just a little chaos is all that we need.

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