Thursday, April 16, 2015

Nesting Birds

I absolutely love Spring and one of the finest things about the garden just now is all the birdlife. Yesterday I took a break to sit in the garden and there were birds flying all over the place, many with twigs and moss in their beaks!

We made a big effort in January year to take part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, setting up some bird feeders with various treats in the old pear tree and getting ourselves nice and organised to spend a happy hour watching out for birds.  I wasn't sure how much the girls would get into it to be honest, an hour is a long time to just sit and watch, and there's always the question of will any turn up! However the RSPB have a great app you can use to count the birds which includes trivia questions and I also printed out a load of bird colouring pages which the girls loved.

I was really surprised by quite how many did appear!  We saw a huge number of blackbird, great tits, blue tits, robins, and what I now know as a Dunnock. Nothing unusual, but it was great to identify these fellows early on in the year as they have been regular visitors to our garden since! All these photos were taken at maximum zoom through a window so I apologise for the quality.

That same weekend we went to an event at the Castle where you could do various bird related activities run by the RSPB. One of the things we really enjoyed was making bird boxes. The pieces were all pre-cut and it just required us to assemble in the correct order. It was a neat and easy design and pretty simple to copy if you wanted to. There's a pattern here.

 Obviously nothing so plain would be allowed in this house so we spruced them up with a lick of paint and chose two sites just hoping that one at least would be suitable. The first was on a fence facing North, but is probably too close to the ground to be interesting, but the second was about 3m up in a tree facing North East. I had high hopes for this one. Who wouldn't want to live in such a beautiful house?

In a hopeful mood, come March, I decided to make use of some of those odds and ends of wool I had and make a nesting ball for any comers. We used a wicker ball and stuffed short lengths of garish wool and then hung it on the food tree hoping the birds would spot it when they drop in for a snack.

And then we waited....and watched....and didn't see any interest in either box.

Until early April, when a couple of blue tits started spending a lot of time hanging around.  And finally this:

I tried to leave them to it but I was so fascinated and hopeful!  I don't have a huge amount of time to just sit and watch, so I didn't actually see them looking around until Little My and I spotted Mrs blue tit going in with a whole beakful of moss. I say going in, it took her a good few minutes to poke all the moss in the entrance hole. I didn't have my camera on me when we saw her, and I didn't want to rush inside in case I missed it.

But today we've had some real fun. The hot weather has caused the exciting loss of Blackberry's dewlap. Check out this girl packing some chin last week: baby got front!

This morning the whole lot was gone, mostly in a big ol' chunk, so I picked it up thinking the blue tits might like it! This morning the blue tit was hard at work bringing feathers and moss to the nesting box

so when when I saw the blue tit was high in the tree singing away I went over and placed the fur high on the fence and as soon as I walked away she was down like a shot grabbing that fur.

We played this game for a little while, with me putting fur up when she was singing and then her coming and taking it to the nest. I knew she needed a little bit of colour in that nest so I gave her the option of some yarn too, but the fur was preferable

Still I knew she was tempted

And finally she succumbed to the temptation.

I can't wait to see that nest when it's empty again!

We've registered our nest with the BTO, and if you have any nesting birds you can do the same here.  I'll be posting updates as and when we have babies.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Book Review [2015:12] The Winter Garden by Jane Thynne

432 pages

This is the second of the Clara Vine novels, which I discovered earlier this year when I read Black Roses. 

The year is now 1937, and Clara remains in Berlin which has changed considerably for the worse since the early 30s of the first book. Clara continues to tread a dangerous tightrope, feeding information to the British Secret Services and also to the Nazis via Joseph Goebbels (a complex double bluff). The focus of this book has moved slightly from the fascinating Magda Goebbels and on to the bizarre and notorious Nazi Bride Schools. It's not a topic I know much about and the incidental characters in the bride school are well drawn and the experience very believably described.
Again, Clara is confronted with the apparent murder of one of her acquaintances and has to tread carefully to try and determine the truth in a complex world of Nazi smoke and mirrors. Clara now has care of the son of one of her friends and this is a really good addition to her character, as she has to deal with his fascination with the Hitlerjugend without compromising her beliefs.

Thynne bravely continues to introduce real characters into the story, this time involving The Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson, The Mitford Sisters and Charles Lindburgh, as well as Eva Braun and Ernst Udet. I often find that sort of contrivance frustrating and false, but such is Thynne's ability as a writer that they pass into and out of the story, often as rather believable sideshows, and the wonderful Clara often doesn't pay them too much attention, not realising their significance until later. Unity Mitford in particular is such a marvellous addition. Clara's unwitting stumbling into the lives at centre of the Third Reich proves a brilliant foil for some amusing background stories.

The complex story of the progression to the second world war is handled competently and the war in Spain is weaved into this story without becoming too much of a historical exposition. Clara's character is totally believable and her behaviour having found herself in this rather dangerous, unpredictable situation never seems too fictional. I did balk slightly at the central premise of one of the main points of the plot which I won't discuss to avoid spoilers, but such is the joy of Thynne's writing all was quickly forgiven.

I'm really enjoying this series of books, and I look forward to the third!

Book Review [2015:11] Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds

136 pages

I have a warm place in my heart for Tamara Drewe. For me it conjures memories of happy times reading the paper over a slow weekend. It's the first comic strip that I followed week on week, and I loved it. D bought me the book for Valentine's this year and I have happily settled down to reread and reminisce.
This is what I think you are meant to call a graphic novel, which means a comic for grown-ups. I'm not going to pretend to be some sort that is knowledgable about such things but I really love Simmonds' creation, and not just for nostalgia. Her drawings are actually beautiful. Every single panel! Have a look at these two pages:

All the characters look like real people and the writing and storyline is totally engrossing. Her observation of naughties life is so perfect, particularly the teenagers. Each character has a depth that you don't always find in 'normal' novels. Is this because you can see them as well as read their stories?  
When I first read the comic strip in the paper, I didn't recognise the story as Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd. I'm sure I'd read it before that time but the conversion to modern day is so well done you don't immediately harken back to the original. Hardy's tale happens to be one of my favourite classics, so perhaps there was a subconscious attachment to the tale. In any case Simmonds has created something quite wonderful here, and it's worth a read if you get the chance. It's absolutely a keeper and I will enjoy it again.

On a side note I enjoyed the movie of this book as well, and I thought the characters were extremely well cast, and true to the book. It's worth a watch if you can!

Monday, March 09, 2015

Yarn Bomb: Random Acts of Generosity

I was given the long awaited change to take part in a yarn bomb earlier this year. One of my good friends posted a "hookers wanted" shout out for crocuses. Once I'd checked out The Willow Wanderer I knew I had to take part. The stars aligned with a day in bed with a stinking cold, and a fittingly purple yarn stash. Happy joy of hooking, the crocuses were quick and easy, and I was able to get them in the post to NYC in time to take part. Yes that's right, a few of those teensy crocuses are mine *proud*.

by: Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)
In blue and yellow from its grave springs up the crocus fair, 
and God shall raise those bright blue eyes,those sunny waves of hair.  
Not for a fading summer’s morn, not for a fleeting hour, 
but for an endless age of bliss, shall rise our heart’s dear flower.

If you get the chance, take a good look at Naomi's blog. She makes beautiful yarn bombs that really serve to brighten up the environment. I love that they are not about whimsy, as yarn bombs often are. My favourite has to be the orange day lily. Absolutely gorgeous! Who wouldn't want this on their fence?

Book Review [2015:10] The White Pearl by Kate Furnivall

448 pages

The first few chapters of this book are terrible. I actually gave up on it the first time around, the first chapter in particular really put me off.  What kept me from ditching it completely was the fact that the blurb on the back didn't seem to match at all the style or substance of the beginning of the story. It was this incongruence that led to me trying again. I'm pleased I stuck with it!
The story is set in Malaya in 1941 and is centred around Connie Hadley, wife of a successful rubber plantation owner (although parts of the story are told from other character's points of view, Connie is the main protagonist). Connie is a naive Imperial wife at the beginning of the book, longing for her England, and totally misunderstanding the world in which she lives. Everything changes with the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Whilst all around her refuse to believe that the Japanese would frankly have the gall to attack the mighty Brits, she sets about planning her escape to save her young son. Her efforts are juxtaposed with those of white mercentaries, supersticious locals, and Japanese militia.

This book is so packed full of plot the reader becomes quite incredulous as to what on earth could happen next.  Perhaps that's what life really was like?  I have to admit my knowledge of Second World War activities on the Malay Peninsular is limited to A Town Like Alice and Tenko (both of which are first rate, incidentally).  So perhaps a rather limited fictionalised idea. However neither of those come close to the insane antics of Connie Hadley. Her crazy life reminded me somewhat of Life of Pi; I was waiting only for a toothy island.

So if you like the idea of a prim young lady dealing with murderous spies, sharks, giant man-eating monitor lizards, ruthless spies, men who fall in love with her at any opportunity, pirates, natives calling down curses apon her, mercenaries, ladyboys, kamakaze Japanese, ...then this is the book for you. I loved it.

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.

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.