Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Book Review [2015:9] Pompei by Robert Harris


416 pages

There are some books that I happily return to time and again. I even have some books that I purposefully read once a year because of their feel-good factor. Since I have embarked on a book challenge for 2015, you will no doubt be hearing about some of those books throughout this year. 

I haven't read Pompeii since the first time I read it in 2007. I couldn't normally specify the year that I read a book but this particular one sticks in my memory as I was incredibly fortunate to fulfil a lifetime ambition to visit Pompeii and Herculanium later that same year (actually I was pretty disturbed when we were there that the water stopped flowing). This was the first Robert Harris book I read, and led to one of my classic back catalogue read-a-thons, and the firm foundation of Harris as one of my favourite authors. 

Thus it was that I very happily picked this book from the shelf to reread (not least because I needed a pick-me-up after the disaster that was The Shock of The Fall). The plot follows Marcus Attilius, the aquarius of the Aqua Augusta, the greatest aquaduct in the world, supplying the bay of Naples with its drinking water. He is an engineer, brought in after the mysterious disappearance of the aquarius, who's interest lies only in determining the cause of the sudden loss of water in the towns around Vesuvius. He is dragged into a mystery and witness of the if the greatest natural disaster of the Roman world. 

It's a beautiful description of Roman life. In the UK, the Romans are a huge part of school life, a topic that tends to be covered multiple times in your school career, and as such it's so easy (as with much of history) to view the people that lived in that time as very 'other'. Harris' skill lies in creating a window into a world that is very much like our own, and is peopled with men and women just like us. Understanding how the average person would react to a sudden unexpected total destruction if life as we know it makes for compelling reading. The journey of the aquarius from visiting engineer, to sole prophet of oncoming disaster, to Pliny's right-hand-man, to lone broken shell of a man attempting to survive something incomprehensible is incredibly involving. For those interested in what it must have been like to closely observe this disaster, Harris works Pliny's observations of the 'manifestation' into the story, and begins each chapter with explanations from volcanology textbooks. 
This is a must-read book.

Book Review [2015:8] The Shock of The Fall by Nathan Filer


320 pages

I reluctantly read this book as it was one of the texts for our book club. Usually I steer well clear of books dealing with mental illness.
The protagonist of this book is a young man who has schizophrenia (which the author annoyingly and persistently refers to as "a disease with the shape and sound of a snake". What on earth does that mean?) and it charts his decline from seeming good mental health as a child to complete loss of self-awareness, abandonment of medication, and sectioning.
It's unclear to me whether the author us trying to make a comment on the care of mentally ill people in this country. His description of the psychiatric ward is cold, and the care in the community is ineffective. There were a few glimmers of light in the descriptions of family, and their efforts to relate and care for Matthew. However, many have praised this book, and its descriptions of mental heath, most notably to me, Jo Brand, so maybe I just don't get it. I'm struggling to think of a good part to comment on, but there was a very poignant few lines where Matthew describes life on the ward and notes that the mugs there are all provided by drug company reps and are stamped with the "brands of medication we hate". I feel pretty bad saying that was the best bit of the book, but I thought it was poignant and had something to say about life on a psych ward.
I did love the final description of the psychosis: the coming together of all the random odd things that have been going on, and the realisation of what exactly has been going on in Matthew's mind. But it wasn't enough to pull the book out of the 'out' tray.
Central topics aside, the book reads like an exercise in creative writing. Suspense is crudely created where the story does not require it, and for the first few chapters an odd style is adopted that owes a lot to the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. As psychosis deepens, text changes suddenly to explain that Matt is using a typewriter. Presumably the reader is unable to imagine this without the excess serif.
It's not a book I'll be reading again.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Review [2015:7] The Hypnotist's Love Story by Liane Moriarty


544 Pages

As you may have gathered, I'm working through the Moriarty back catalogue!
Another book looking at the complexity of relationships, but this time following a female hypnotist as she embarks on a relationship with a widower who reveals that he has a stalker - a previous girlfriend.  As in many of Moriarty's books, the story is told in first person narrative from the point of view of more than one character, and although at first your sympathies lie completely with Ellen (the hypnotist of the title) and with her new boyfriend, very soon you begin to sympathise with the stalker, and suspect that there may be more than meets the eye to the new boyfriend.
It was interesting in this book to find my sympathies directed towards someone that was not the central protagonist. For the first time in one of Moriary's tales I actually found little to like about Ellen, and really began to find her boyfriend quite sinister. I longed for the sections that were narrated by the stalker!
If I did have any complaints it was that I didn't quite buy into the progression of the central relationship. Perhaps this was why I found it hard to like these characters. It just seemed to move too fast, particularly as the boyfriend has a child, who seemed far too eager to welcome a new Mum into the family. It's the first time I've felt that I didn't believe in a character in Moriarty's books and for that reason was disappointing.
I was also disappointed by the relationships and characters of Ellen's parent's generation. As I'm entirely against spoilers I can't be more specific, but several incidents seemed quite unbelievable and the characters just not quite as well drawn as I've come to expect.
It is definitely worth a read, but I don't think it's one of Liane Moriarty's best.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Piano Stool - a New Look

Many years ago, and a long way away, we bought a piano for 50 quid. It seemed like a good idea at the time, I'd really missed having one while we lived in a shoebox in London, so I was delighted. It was a little out of tune, but we all loved tinkering with it, and I think I have a picture like this for each of my babies


Sadly the time came when the keys started to become detached from their hammers.  Day by day more and more failed to work, as the glue powered off and it became a write off. We kept it for the kids to hammer away at, and they loved to do so. It was unplayable really by this stage, but that never put off the kids


One day of course I had enough, and I started to take it apart one day while D was at work. Yes it was madness with 3 children running around. Soon it was no more than a beautiful mechanism.



I had a lot of trouble getting rid of the iron frame. It weighed an absolute ton, and no metal merchants would take it from me. In the end I let the local dodgy geezer do the job for me.

However you'll notice from the photo above that the piano stool was something special. Full length, big enough for 3 kids, huge amount of storage for music and also very useful for those times when you don't have enough chairs at a dinner party. So we kept it and it moved house with us. But it looked like this



I know my photography skills leave something to be desired, but it was actually that colour. Stained and manky, and one half lighter than the other.

As of today it looks like this




This makes me super happy. It's been on my to-do list for about a year and I finally pulled myself together and did it. The fabric is from IKEA (bought years ago from their offcuts bin) and in the end I had to make liberal use of hot glue, as the tacks I bought were too long and would have made for an uncomfortable seat.

We bought another piano, a posh digital Yamaha one. I'd love to have a 'real' one of course, but this is good and the sound and feel are brilliant. Plus you can plug headphones in and play away without annoying anyone else.







Crochet: Baby Beegu



Those of you that have known or followed me for a while will know of The Bug's obsession with Beegu by Alexis Deacon. She has loved this book since she was tiny, and I'm sure it informed her choice of yellow as her favourite colour. Well age has not wearied, nor the years condemned her love, and shortly before Christmas she informed me that she thought that her soft Beegu's tummy was getting a bit fatter, and that perhaps Beegu was going to have a baby!  There was a little discussion of the parentage, and it emerged that Boogle-Jinni was the father of this baby. I asked when the baby might be born (not being fully aware of the usual pregnancy length of yellow aliens) and it was revealed that the baby was due on Christmas day!
Thankfully this gave me a few weeks to get to work, and sure enough, on Christmas morning there was a special parcel under the Christmas tree, labeled Beegu (sorry this photo is not a good one, there was a lot of jumping around involved).


Baby Beegu has been named Beeyana. She is just about half the size of Beegu, and her pattern is below (as usual I've used American crochet nomenclature, and I use little polybeads to weight the legs, arms, bottom and ears).

Teachers! I've had a huge number of requests for knitted/crocheted Beegus over the last 18 months. If you want to make a little Beegu for your class I suggest this pattern, it's so much quicker to put together.

Head (including muzzle) -
magic circle 5
Row 1: 2 sc in each sc (10)
Row 2: *sc 1, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 5 (15)
Row 3: sc 6, *sc 2, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3 (18)
Row 4: sc 6, *sc 3, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3 (21)
Row 5: sc 6, *sc 4, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3 (24)
Rows 6 and 7: sc 24
Row 8: sc 2, *3 sc in next sc* repeat 2, sc 2, *sc 5, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3 (31)
Row 9: sc, 2 sc in next sc, sc 6, 2 sc in next sc, sc, *sc 6, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3 (36)
Row 10 - 14 (5 rows): sc 36
Row 15: *sc 4, sc2tog* repeat 6 (30)
Row 16: sc 30
break here to attach eyes and stuff almost to the top
Row 17: *sc 3, sc2tog* repeat 6 (24)
Row 18: sc 24
Row 19: *sc 2, sc2tog* repeat 6 (18)
Row 20: *sc, sc2tog* repeat 6 (12)
finish stuffing
Row 21: sc2tog repeat 6 (6)
Fasten off and weave in end.

Body
magic circle 6
Row 1: 2 sc in each sc (12)
Row 2: *sc 1, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (18)
Row 3: *sc 2, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (24)
Row 4: *sc 3, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (30)
Row 5: *sc 4, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (36)
Row 6 - 18 (13 rows): sc 36
Row 19: *sc 4, sc2tog* repeat 6 (30)
Rows 20 and 21: sc 30
Row 22: *sc 3, sc2tog* repeat 6 (24)
Rows 23 and 24: sc 24
Fasten off, leaving a long tail for sewing on the head.

Legs (make 2!) - this is a confusing pattern to read.  If you keep in mind that you are making a sole of a foot to start with, starting with a chain then working along one side and then back again to form an oval shape, it might make more sense!
ch 5
Row 1: sc in 2nd chain from hook. sc 2, 3 sc in last sc
then turn and the following is in the same foundation chain stitches:
sc 2, 2 sc in the first sc. slst to first sc (10 stitches in oval)
Row 2: {sc 2, *2 sc in next sc* repeat 3} repeat 2 (16)
Row 3: {sc 2, *sc 1, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3} repeat 2 (22)
Rows 4 and 5: sc 22
Row 6: sc 2, *sc 1, sc2tog* repeat 3, sc 11 (19)
Row 7: sc 2, sc2tog repeat 3, sc 11 (17)
Row 8: sc2tog, sc 3, sc2tog. sc 11 (15)
Rows 9 - 18 (10 rows): sc 15
Fasten off, leaving a long tail for sewing on to the body.

Arms (make 2!)
Magic circle 5
Row 1: 2 sc in each sc (10)
Row 2: *sc 1, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 5 (15)
Rows 3 - 17 (15 rows): sc 15
Fasten off, leaving a long tail to sew on to body

Ears (make 2!)
magic circle 6
Row 1: 2 sc in each sc (12)
Row 2: sc 12
Row 3: *sc 1, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (18)
Rows 4 and 5: sc 18
Row 6: *sc 1, sc2tog* repeat 6 (12)
Row 7: sc 12
Row 8: *sc 2, sc2tog* repeat 3 (9)
Row 9 - 68 (60 rows): sc 9
Fasten off, leaving a long tail to sew on to head.

Book Review [2015:6] - The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty



448 pages

Liane Moriarty is fast becoming a favourite author of mine. Her work is easy to read, but that's not to say it's not intelligent or thought provoking. Her excellent portrayal of inner monologue is better than any I've read before. Or maybe her characters just think like I do. Either way, I can identify with each of her characters in what they say and think. 
I have heard several people describe this book as her best yet, but I didn't find it as compelling as What Alice Forgot, or as funny as Little Lies. The story follows a woman who discovers a letter addressed to herself in her husband's hand, to be opened in the event of his death. The question is, will she open it and thus open a whole can of worms? Or stick with the status quo and nagging doubts about what it might contain? 
It's an interesting conundrum, and reminds me of stories of 'deathbed confessions' where the confessor then survives. I'm guessing this is what Moriarty had in mind when she wrote it, and it's certainly an interesting theme.  The secret of the title is not the only secret buzzing around in this book, and the affect of keeping these secrets on the characters is really well illustrated. Underlying all of Moriarty's books is the examination of modern relationships close and distant. In this book themes of family, guilt, and forgiveness are covered, as well as the damage assumptions can cause in relationships.
As for the secret?  Well, you'll have to read it to find out.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Photo-a-Day: Week 4

365:22 Babycino joy

365:23 Big Brother and the beach

365:24 The Great Garden Bird Watch

365:25 Fungal Sector

365:26 Sunset over the marsh

365:27 Clouds and trees

365:28 Blue Sky


Sunday, February 01, 2015

Eat this: chocolate caramel pretzels



These are always a big hit wherever I take them, and they are so easy to make. The picture is of fancy Christmas pretzels which for some reason are cheaper than the ordinary ones, but any salted pretzel works well. All you need are pretzels and some chocolate caramels. I usually use Rolos or Galaxy Bites. The Galaxy Bites have the advantage of a higher caramel to chocolate ratio, and often they are cheaper by weight, but they do roll around if you aren't careful, so you need some balancing skills to get them on to the pretzels and into the oven. If you do a whole baking sheet of these (and I recommend you do) you're going to need about four rolls of Rolos.

Lay your pretzels on a lined baking sheet and put one chocolate caramel on top of each one. Put them into the oven for 3-5 mins at 180 degrees or until the caramels are soft. Press another pretzel on to the top of each caramel. You should have a sandwich of pure joy.

They can take a while to harden. As I'm usually preparing these about 15mins before I leave to go to book club, I put them into the freezer for 10 minutes. Once they are hard they slide off the baking paper no problem. 

Book Review [2015:5]: Black Roses by Jane Thynne



496 pages

If there's one thing I like in a book is it a believable,  ordinary character. On the face of it this is a spy story set in Berlin in the 1930s. So far, so standard. What's very different is that this is a book about a girl who ends up in Berlin almost on a whim, is befriended by Magda Goebbels and an English secret service officer (almost at the same time) and is forced to decide what she really believes and where her loyalties lie.

Into the complexity of 1933 Berlin steps Clara Vine, a English girl who longs to be an actor and has been offered a chance of work at the Ufa studios. She sees this as a timely get-out-clause to escape her unsatisfactory engagement to an English oaf. Her progress from young na├»ve actor to crucial intelligence-gatherer is woven neatly into the study of the world of 1930s Berlin: the rise of national socialism, and the confusing position of journalists and ambassadors in this unsettled time. Hitler's obsession with defining the role of the woman in German society, down to the clothes and jewellery she wears (or doesn't) and the ambitions she should have, is well exemplified. The juxtaposition of the 'good German hausfrau' and the fashion conscious and high-society loving female upper echelons of the Reich are excellently described. 

I really enjoy historical fiction, and I'm sure my knowledge of the Second World War is similar to most; I'm no expert in either politics or economics. Previously my knowledge of Magda Goebbels was limited to the fact that she killed all of her 6 children with cyanide before killing herself, as the Red Army took control of Berlin. Clearly every person is far more complex than the tiny nuggets that posterity afford them, but Magda Goebbels really does deserve a second look. Her life as the wife of Joseph Goebbels, and First Lady of the Third Reich seems at odds with her background of Philosemitism (is that a word?). 

Was the Magda Goebbels - Haim Arlosoroff relationship a work of fiction? I can't find any evidence online in my cursory search. It seems to be a shame to have invented something integral to the story and yet really totally unnecessary. The only down point to an excellent novel. I will certainly be reading the second two books of the trilogy.

Book Review [2015:4] - The Silent Tide by Rachel Hore




528 pages

If there's one thing that makes me put a book straight down it is turning to the back cover and seeing a synopsis along the lines of  "1984: Petra is a struggling artist finding her way in the big city.... 1944: Philomena is trapped by her class...". Honestly I hate the whole 'parallels across time' genre! However this was an emergency library selection when I had three girls mucking around and desperate to leave and probably eat or watch TV or something other than immerse themselves in the wonder of books. Choose your battles! I grabbed a couple that had nice covers. I admit it: I judged the books by their covers. There could be a whole post about book covers, as I frequently do this, especially in charity shops. This book is nothing like its cover, which to me looks like an easy read, female 1940s detective story, perhaps with a mysterious ghost backstory. It is apparently her "best novel yet" which is a dreadful thing to put on the cover. Why don't they stop the quote at "beautifully written"? Anyway, I digress, but I can tell you my heart sunk when I actually got time to read the cover and the back of the book. Whoops!

Having said all that this book is captivating. It follows the story of two women whose connection is initially unclear. Both are single women making their way in the publishing world, Isabel in the 1940s/50s and Emily in the present day. The characters are well drawn and convincingly complex, both eras are immersive and atmospheric. 
Whilst the book's subject is ostensibly the complex relationships and life of Hugh Morton, the focus is really the parallels between life as a single woman in the 1940s and present day. There's plenty of complex characters and events are rarely as simple as they seem. The 'nearness' of both eras lends another layer of complexity, as characters frequently overlap both. I loved the way the focus shifted from the life of Emily to the life of Isabel, and the difficulties faced by career women in the mid-20th century. The relationships described are so believable, and not all neat and tidy, as fiction sometimes prescribes.

I was really pleasantly surprised by this book, and it serves me right for pre-judging it on the genre. I'm glad I took the time for it, and was delightfully engrossed.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Book Review {2015:3] The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths



288 pages

Distractingly flowery in the first couple of chapters, the writing nevertheless settles down into a pleasing little detective drama. It reads very much like TV, and leaves the reader with a distinct feeling that the author has one eye to possible dramatisation. 
The plot follows a university 'forensic archeology' lecturer and her surprising co-option by a police detective to solve his cold child abduction case. There's stereotypes aplenty: gruff detective, moody birdwatcher, new age druids that interrupt archeology digs - what you might expect to see in a standard episode of Midsomer in other words (even a poor woman who starts helping the police and then finds herself in grave peril).
A couple of real niggles. The chief protagonist is obsessed with bring overweight and goes on and on a boat being over 12 stone.  Perhaps she's only 4ft tall and that's the issue, but I for one don't consider myself to be a heifer, but haven't seen 12 stone for quite some time.  In addition her inner thoughts and behaviour are so bizarre at times I wondered if Elly Griffiths was a man. I'm still not sure. 
There's nothing new here in terms of storyline, there's no surprises, but enough twists and turns to keep the reader amused. I didn't hate this book, but it's not a keeper. 


Photo-a-Day: Week 3


365:15 Freshly Baked Bread

365:16 Friends

365:17 Aspalls
Still can't get over the fact that I live somewhere where this is on tap. Nectar.

365:18 Ice Crystals

365:19 Planning a Vegetable and Fruit garden

365:20 Frost on Gum 

365:21 Crossed branches
This is my quince tree that has clearly been left for many years to its own devices.  I'm going to have to tackle the pruning of this beast at some point, but where to start?


Friday, January 23, 2015

Book Review [2015:2] - Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Little-Lies-Liane-Moriarty/dp/1405918462


Another wonderful book from the author of What Alice Forgot. Little Lies is a delightful read start to finish with some real laugh-out-loud moments. The story is based around a murder amongst a group of primary school parents. Liane Moriarty's skill is in highly accurate observations of everyday events and wonderfully believable characterisation. Describing events from the point of view of different characters, with attendant internal monologue, is so often badly done; Moriarty proves her self well able to worm her way under the skin of her characters totally believably.

If you've ever been primary school parent you will enjoy this, and perhaps recognise more than you'd like to admit. 

464 pages

Book Review [2015:1] - Fall of Giants by Ken Follett



http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fall-Giants-Century-Trilogy-Follett/dp/0330460552/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1422045028&sr=8-1&keywords=fall+of+giants

I'm a huge fan of Ken Follett's epic duology Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. Actually I'm not sure that quite covers my feelings for those books. You know those books you have on your shelf to read again and again, like old friends? Something new every time, but also something warmly comforting about them. That's Pillars of the Earth for me. Consequently I've been awaiting this Century trilogy with bated breath, but also a sort of nervous excitement. The publication at the end of last year of the final in the series led to my excited embarkation of the trilogy over Christmas.

At first I was disappointed. The excellent writing and atmospheric descriptions were there but something was missing. I think the biggest issue is the sheer number of characters. Follett has attempted something quite remarkable in telling the story of the First World War from the point of view of Welsh miners, upper-class English, Russian peasants, American, and German families. Because the characters are not introduced slowly or piecemeal, the book requires an initial heavy commitment to buy in to them all, and to fully distinguish them from each other. Just as you fully inhabit one storyline, focus switches to another character.

Having said that this commitment is quickly rewarded. If there's one thing that Follett can do it is weave an engrossing story. There is some strangely clunky text; I found descriptions such as "pints of beer in glasses" very sticky.  There are some beautiful set pieces here, and some real stand-out storylines, intermingled with some frankly unbelievable coincidences. But it's fiction! I'm not particularly educated in the details of the first world war and the descriptions of daily life the trenches on both sides as well as technical discussion of the strategies of politicians and military was fascinating.  
Sadly not as immersive as Pillars of the Earth, but definitely worth a look if you are interested in the machinations of the early part of the last century. I look forward to reading the second in the series.

864 pages