Tuesday 31 December 2013

What I've Been Reading: 2013

Well! This is a round-up of my reading year. Rather than doing one for December, I thought I'd go one more and do a round up for the whole year. According to good reads, I have read a grand total of: 100 books, equating to 34,511 words. Fun to have statistics like that! (Actually, to tell the truth, I had read 99 books, so I quickly read another one today!)

So, here are E's book awards for 2013.


This was set as a book for A and J's book club and I read it to accompany them in a sense, although I wouldn't be present at the meeting. I didn't expect to enjoy it at all, if I'm honest. I've never really read thrillers before, and they just haven't appealed. However, this was gripping, I enjoyed Robert Harris' pacy writing style, and the gritty story was very compelling. I have to confess that I didn't understand (and still don't) just about anything to do with hedge funds, but it didn't really matter in the end!
 Runner up: The Girl on the Landing by Paul Torday


We all spoke about NoViolet Bulawayo's debut We Need New Names here, and I truly think this was a spectacular debut.
Runner up: Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt


Did you really think I would be able to choose? Completely impossible. Chaos Walking was absolutely fantastic (really, really good) and The Hunger Games, of course, brilliant. I couldn't choose between them - similar genres, but such different books. I suppose that the Chaos Walking series is probably better written, but The Hunger Games is probably more compelling. Either way, they are both fantastic. I FINALLY got to see The Hunger Games DVD in November, and hopefully J and I are going to catch Catching Fire at the cinema before the run finishes. AND I hear that Chaos Walking will be made into films too... Not that I prefer films to books by any means, but it is fun to see adaptations (unless they're terrible...) Still, nothing will replace the pictures in my head.


(even the picture is smaller!)
Well, I realise this isn't a this year's release, but it was long-listed for the Man Booker and was one of those books that was reviewed and received lots of accolades for a while. The only question I have is: why? It's irritating, saccharine and, ultimately, pretty boring. Wouldn't recommend to anyone. Very disappointing indeed - although my expectations weren't all that high.
 Runner up: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

Another tie, I'm afraid. I loved Veronica Roth's Divergent that I read over the summer, and I also loved Ann Patchett's State of Wonder. Very very different books - but both wonderful finds. Divergent was pacy, exciting and a page turner. State of Wonder was ponderous, thought provoking, but still oddly compelling. Both were moving. Both had characters I believed in, both had characters I liked and characters I found difficult. Both had characters that I grew to think of differently as I understood them more. And both were well written. I would recommend them both - although the audiences would be probably be quite different!

Runner up: Every Day by David Levithan

Unfortunately, after Divergent being such a great read, I just couldn't get into Insurgent in the same way. I've written about it previously and my disappointment. I think that if Divergent hadn't been so good, I wouldn't have minded so much; it was the expectation that made it a failure for me. It is probably a perfectly good book in its own right, but as a sequel to such a brilliant book, it falls flat. Still, the middle book in trilogies are often the weak point, so I will persevere to read the third one (but I think I'll wait until it comes out in paperback!)
 Runner up:  A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Okay, this one was hard. I have received some truly wonderful gifts this year, and I toyed with quite a few: Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behaviour, Annabel Pitcher's Ketchup Clouds, Isabel Greenburg's The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, Atwood's Blind Assasin, Josephine Hart's Lifesaving Poetry... to name just a few. But in the end, it had to come to one that I got right at the beginning of 2013. I narrowed it down by remembering that the most important thing about a book is how much you enjoy it, not its literary value etc. So:
Brilliant, brilliant book. Can't express how much I loved it. This was actually a large part of me getting back into reading properly again, as I have managed to do successfully after a good 5-6 years of barely reading 3 or 4 books a year. Magical realism at its best - beautifully constructed, convoluted and executed. Looking out for more by Morgentern. (Was this her debut? I didn't consider it in that category...)
 Runner up: An Encyclopedia of Early Earth; The Blind Assasin by Margaret Atwood

Does this count as historical, or mythological, or pure fantasy? Don't care - brilliant, brilliant book. It was positively painful to read it if I'm honest but I couldn't put it down. One of those books that I felt a true and consuming sense of loss for a few days after reading it. Recommended to EVERYONE.


I realise most people will have discovered this years ago when it first came out, but this was my first time reading it. Fantastic. Horrific, but fantastic at the same time. I felt what was going on in this book and it was positively painful to feel along with these characters. Sensitively written and a very interesting perspective and way of looking at such a difficult subject.
Runner up: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes; A Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling


I think this was published last year, but it was my favourite 'literary' read. I read The Posionwood Bible years ago and have been sort of too scared to read another book by Kingsolver because it was so fantastic that I didn't want to sully that. (I also haven't reread The Poisonwood Bible).  Despite my reservations about the sheer 'American-ness' of this book, it is an absolutely beautiful read.
Runner up: Harvest by Jim Crace; A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki


(And, yes, this does deserve its own category because I have read so many!) Songs of the Humpback Whale is fantastic, and I have written about it in more detail here.
Runner up: The Storyteller


Just read it. You'll know what I mean. I want the sequel.
Runner up: Lost in Translation by Charlie Croker


After swearing I would never get into this e-reader business, I have succombed in the last month. J bought me back an ipad-mini from Hong Kong and I downloaded a Kindle app. I'd love to say that I hate it but... Well, I definitely prefer real books, the smell, the feel, the look of them, but there is something to be said for the convenience of an e-reader. I can read in bed under the covers without turning the light on! I can get anything at the click of a button (which is quite dangerous - I bought eleven books the other day, although it only cost me £13.50!) and they're often much cheaper. Also, if I commuted, or went on holiday, the convenience factor would feature highly. So... very reluctantly, I like my e-reader. I still prefer books. Most definitely. But I no longer shun electronic books. (Although I'm a little embarrassed at liking it).
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness was on offer for only 99p (!) so I almost had to buy it! After my intense love of Chaos Walking, I had high expectations. It's nothing like Chaos Walking at all - it's also aimed at younger readers, which I don't mind - but the depth of emotion is the same. It is raw and painful and really quite dark considering the age it's designed for. Very glad to have read it. (AND I have the latest Patrick Ness waiting to read too! This time, in real book format - a beautiful hardback that was a Christmas present from A and J.) 
Runner up: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding (not GOOD exactly, but great fun).


I still find it hard to believe this was published, let alone sold so well. Absolute drivel: boring and badly written.
Runner up: Ruby and the Stone Age Diet by Martin Millar


... are you kidding? How on earth do you expect me to choose?!? Lots of good reads, some mediocre and a few outstanding or terrible. A good reading year.

If you've read all this so far, well done! What are other people's reading highlights of the year?

E xx

Edit @ 23:23: I just finished another book (The Saddest Little Girl in the World by Cathy Glass) so that brings my grand total to 101 books! Happy New Year everyone.

Sunday 29 December 2013

A few days after Christmas

And so, this lunchtime we went up the hill behind 2,CC. 

What a lovely bright and still day it was this morning! 
I returned from a run, made orange pumpkin soup and A and I went back out and up.

A breeze had come up in the meantime, and so we looked for a place with a little shelter, some dry rock to sit on, and yet still in the bright sun.
We found it two hundred metres due south of the trig point on the top of Wavering Down, a place of some family significance for the inhabitants of 2,CC. When we first moved here eighteen years ago one of the first walks we did was up the hill. We had heard that the Mendips were famous for exciting caves, and with T being seven and E four years old, we wanted to find a suitable not too challenging cave. We found it pot holing its short way under a rock and exiting in a short cliff.
That was where A and I went back today.
We took the storm kettle

and a supply of small dry wood (it's been pretty wet and there was a moderate frost last night, so not promising for finding fire materials). I had just finished making the soup, and wrapped it in a blanket where it made for very hot carrying in a backpack.

The kettle lit immediately. boiled in less than five minutes for our tea, and then we warmed the soup back up in a saucepan balanced on the bottom of the fire kettle. 

Very satisfactory!

And as you can see, there were views all round

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Christmas Eve

All are finally together at 2 Coombe Cottages, sat around the merrily blazing stove watching the twinkling Christmas tree. It's taken a lot for everyone to be here - A and E had an epic 7 hour drive from Lomdon, T has come from Cambridge and J and J came from Lyme. But we are all here in the warmth, with the cats, to celebrate our coming together.

I prefer Christmas Eve to Christmas Day personally, and advent even more.

There's the last minute wrapping...

As well as last minute finishing of presents...

Checking and rechecking the Christmas card list... No, I haven't forgotten anyone...

Looking at the glowing Christmas tree...

And being together.

Sunday 1 December 2013

Saturday 30 November 2013

What I've Been Reading: October and November

Well, this is rather long overdue. I got so behind doing a post on November's reads, that I decided to just collate October and November together in one larger post.

It's been a funny couple of months, reading-wise. After the marvellous experience of reading The Man Booker, I found it really hard to get into anything else and felt a real dearth of reading. I had some, rather unhappy, "time off" from having a book on the go.

So, right back to October, I started with the last two Booker books: the questionable The Luminaries and the much enjoyed Tale For a Time Being. I felt a bit lost after this.

Lighter Than My Shadow, which J reviewed here, was a real delight - not in subject matter, but because it was so well crafted. The important thing about graphic novels is that they tell the story through pictures in a way that you couldn't simply do through a novel. And this certainly did - I particularly liked her depiction of the "eating disorder" as a black cloud that morphed, grew and shrink in different situations and as she grew and changed. It was a very clever device and portrayed something so effectively without words.

I read quite a lot of trash, which I won't bother writing about: Secrets by Freya North, Ruby and the Stone Age Diet by Martin Millar (one of the most unintelligeble books I think I have ever read, and absolutely DREADFUL), Theodore Boone: The Accused by John Grisham (mistakenly thinking this was an adult book, it turned out to be for young teens and was pretty poor), The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares by Joyce Carol Oates (just very banal) and... PS I Love You (why, oh why did I stoop so low to read this? I was completely desperate in my defense.)

Ahem. Let's get onto some "real" books. I had two rereads: Coram Boy and More William. Actually, I'm not sure I had read this particular William book as none of the stories were particularly memorable to me. It was quite disappointing actually - it hardly featured the outlaws and I really missed them! I was also disappointed by Coram Boy; my last encounter with it had been when it was on at The National Theatre, which was absolutely amazing and maybe I had forgotten that the novel actually isn't as good as its stage adaptation. I don't think that Jamila Gavin is a particularly spectacular author, although her stories are good. But, rereading this, even the story seemed lacking: there were too many coincidences, even for a children's book and I ended up feeling pretty irritated. I wish I hadn't reread it, and left it as a nice memory. Sometimes childhood things are best left without revisiting.

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham was a book I really... maybe enjoyed isn't the right word, because it isn't exactly pleasant. I really appreciated it, maybe? I've only read one other John Wyndham - and not the known by all Day of the Triffids - and I think this was more compelling. The children were chilling, with their collective/single persona/identity and their powers over the inhabitants of Midwich. Wyndham's style is quite factual in tone for the most part, but he does also have some very engrossing description, and his dialogue is very well crafted. It does feel a little outdated, but I suppose that makes sense considering how long ago it was written. (I just looked it up and it was in 1957 - that is a long time ago!). A good read, one I would recommend, and it has encouraged me to finally fet round to reading Day of the Triffids.

We Are All Made Out of Glue was the first book that I had really enjoyed in a while. I like Marina Lewycka, or, at least, some of her books. The most famous, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, actually has to be my least favourite of her books (or possibly Two Caravans). But this was a gem. It was, in turn, funny, absurd, moving and sad. Very real. I believed in the main character and although many of the other characters were real eccentrics and the situation someone just worked. I would really recommend this - pacy, exciting and ultimately uplifting.

I picked this up at one of those bargain book stands for £2.99 - not a very good start for a book, but the blurb sounded promising. Turns out this is an international bestseller, very very well known and I had just never heard of it! Felt a bit stupid when I realised this. Ultimately, I enjoyed this and would recommend it, but with some reservations. Being published in 1980 (I just checked), it will have been written in the late 70s, and this showed in terms of the scientific knowledge - some things just don't add up. She doesn't seem to quite be able to choose between whether the "magic" is purely explained by science, or if there is actually some validity to it. I would have preferred it if she had made it all scientifically logical. The other issue I have is, unfortunately, with her writing style. She has clearly done so much research of the period for this book and she really wants to show you everything that she has learnt. This sadly translates into huge prosaic paragraphs simply describing setting etc with little action or dialogue to break it up, which makes the book a bit sluggish at times. Still, I would like to read the sequels - the period does interest me a lot.

Wow, this post is getting a bit long. I'll try not to write too much more.

The Fear Index was the book club choice for J and A's book group - a thriller! I read it after their meeting about it actually so I was only a part of it in a very vague sense indeed. I haven't really read thrillers before and I was interested to see what I made of it. I was pleasantly surprised - it didn't go over my head, I didn't become bored with action scenes, and I did actually care about the characters. I wasn't entirely satisfied with the ending, but I did actually enjoy this book.

The Casual Vacancy is one of those books I have wanted to read since it was released, simply because it was by J K Rowling. I do quite feel for her - it's impossible for her to get a non-biased public reaction to her writing. But, this I really enjoyed. In content it sort of reminded me of Marina Lewycka's books - a mixture of real Issues but written with some real humour and fun as well. There were a lot of characters which was hard to get to grips with at first, but they were all quite characterchure-like which helped. I suppose that was a little of her children's writing coming through. In some ways it felt a little like a debut: she was trying to pack so much into this single book, she had so much she wanted to comment on, so much she wanted to say. This struck me as odd to start with but, on reflection, it makes a sort of sense. It may not be her debut but it is her first book as an adult writer. I'd like to reread it some time, and I would certainly recommend it.

Mindsight was a "homework" book to read - very well written, although not the sort of thing I usually read at all. (In fact, I barely read non-fiction at all). Worth a look at - lots of food for thought.

State of Wonder was also very enjoyable - it hadn't been what I expected by looking at the cover and I was pleasantly surprised. It's a sort of anthropological observation made through scientists' eyes as they live, work and experiment on members of an Amazonian tribe. Very interesting, and very well written too.

Finally, Starcrossed by Josephine Angelini. H picked this up for me as a freebie and I was fully prepared to slate it - it sounded too cheesy for words. The basic premise? Another teen fantasy book with super powers and falling in love, this time with the main characters being descended from demigods. That's right. At first, I seemed to be right. It was clumsily written and just too cliched for words. The characters behaved in ways that were just too accepting of the extraordinary situation. ("Somehow, she was a demigod and she was just going to have to accept it.") It was predictable. The characters were irritating. But, as I continued reading I got lost in the story and stopped caring. As I often find with this type of teen read, I (rather embarassingly) don't seem fast enough to keep up with all of the plot twists and turns that accellerando at the end of the book, but I (as always, lazily) plough on regardless and arrive at the end with a slightly hazy idea of how everyone got there. Basically, I enjoyed it - despite the poor writing etc. I'll read the sequels if they come my way, but I don't think I'll be paying to read them!

So, there we have it - October and November, if anyone actually bothered to read all that. Is it better to do it monthly or bi-monthly, or even every few books? Any thoughts? Anyone reading this at all?

E xx

Sunday 17 November 2013

Review of Katie Green's 'Lighter than my Shadow'

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ultimately wonderful. Most of the way through I was thinking "So why is this better as a graphic story than as text?" and at the same time getting it that several of the crucial concepts, especially the ED itself  as a variable sized black scribble and the self-body-image were immediate and probablÅ· just better conveyed visually. At the same time I found that the relatively simple way each picture was drawn, so that it could be grasped instantaneously a bit disappointing. But actually  in the end that was part of the point. It was a very fast read, I haven't read another such a good "how it feels from the inside" anorexic story, and the pictures conveyed it perfectly.

 I hope it sells and circulates massively, so more people both inside and outside the ED community can know a bit more and have a good read!

Thank you very much Katie Green!

Wednesday 13 November 2013

A Foxy Craft Afternoon

Some while back E and A decided to have a crafty afternoon and look at the Mollie Makes magazine free craft kits. We blithely thought we'd do them all in that afternoon - but managed only one little fox! He is very sweet though and is destined as a Christmas present for some special person...

Here are all the projects we THOUGHT we would get through:

And here is what we actually managed:

It's a very simple pattern - just two pieces of orange felt sandwiched with white felt and then some embroidery on top, with a broach attached to the back. If you want the templates you'll have to go to Mollie Makes - they're not ours to give away!


Tuesday 29 October 2013

Hong Kong visit, October 2013, Tuesday (last day)

Today was the day for visiting the Housing Society, Mum's old employer, where she was a senior manager from 1957 to 1962 (when she had me, and as the habit was in those days, stopped work) and many of whose managers she then taught at the HKU extra-mural department from 1969-1974. S had got hold of Peter Kuk, the communications director, and Wong Lai Chung, a former chief executive who retired in 2008. Wong Lai Chung (she preferred to be called LC) had arranged our day, meeting us at the hotel at 1025am, with a very plush black minivan, driven by a young man with an amazing haircut. We were taken to the far western end of HK, to Kwai Lung Lau estate, which had been designed by our friend Michael Payne and built in 1967.

It was a 5 block estate housing 20,000 people in 5,000 units (approx), until 1998, when a landslide came though the middle of the estate and killed three people. The estate was then redesigned, taking out the middle block, and building two new 40 storey blocks out the front (the original ones are 20 storeys).

This is the old estate blocks, showing the hillside where the landslide came down, and the gap created when they tore down the block it had damaged. Note that the buildings are coloured. When built and in our youth they were all "fair faced concrete" which meant uncoloured and naked grey, supposed to be the perfect building material (and still defended as such by Michael Payne).

This shows where they cut the building in half, so you can still see the floors and where the corridors would have been.

The dragon mural, created in 1967 by Merilyn Payne (Lung means dragon, so it's part of the name of the estate, I didn't understand the rest of the name, something to do with view of the sea).

View inside one of the 'units' (=flat) in one of the new blocks, where the allowance is six square metres per person, meaning two people to this one room flat. The ones in the old building were a similar size, though with more facilities. When originally built they were for four adults, or two plus four children.

Kitchen area in the new block.

Roof garden in an old block. There was also a community hall on the roof, where Amy, (back to us in this picture) gave us a very informative PowerPoint presentation about the estate. The impression was of a very socially thoughtful and well managed place.

We were then taken to lunch at the Housing Society's offices in Causeway Bay, hosted by Peter Kuk, and where we were joined by four more people who had known Mum, either working with her in the late fifties/early sixties, or having been taught by her. The meal was excellent, and the conversation very interesting. We were impressed and touched by the effort they had put in, especially as tomorrow they are running or attending a seminar for the 65th anniversary of the Society.

After this lunch we were returned to the hotel, where we flaked out for the afternoon, before heading our for our final evening, aiming for the Temple Street market on Kowloon side. We got distracted on the way by eating at the YMCA, then by the famous Hong Kong Harbour sound and light show, which we viewed from the sea front in front of the HK Cultural centre.

It was fun standing in the warm dark watching the boats and lights opposite, but the sound and light show itself (lasers from the tops of some of the buildings and some plinkety plunk music) was pretty medium.
Then Temple Street night market, and back to the hotel for the last time!

Monday 28 October 2013

Hong Kong visit, October 2013, Monday

A less busy day today, though it started with quite a big thing, going to Tai Long Wan (Big Wave Bay). This was my favourite beach as a child, and quite remote to get to by road, so we didn't go often. As the name implies, there were always big waves, so it was exciting. And I realised that as we're staying in Quarry Bay, at the eastern end of the HK-side of the harbour, we might be quite close going that way round the island. We are, as google maps reveal. There is still no road over the island at the eastern end, but there is a path straight over the ridge 1500 feet??, (seems unlikely but it was certainly a long way and very steep!).

Anyway, I took the MTR all the way to the end at Chai Wan, then found my way through the estates to the massive cemetery that takes up most of the steep hillside here, and sure enough, the path leads straight through  and up up into the forest, over the ridge, and down the other side. From the ridge I could (1) hear the surf, and (2) Big Wave Bay was signposted. Hooray!

The beach was the same, with big climbable rocks either side, and a good continuous roar of surf. Changed were the surfers! (none of them in the 70's) and that there is now a village with a few shops behind the beach. Only my phone to take photos, as I had gone wearing what I could swim in:

I left a bit of a damp patch on the seat in the MTR on the way back, but was out of sight before feeling any embarrassment: I doubt the idea of swimming would have occurred to my fellow passengers.

Then on to the main planned thing for the day, S's arranged visit back to the LRC (Ladies' Recreation Club), kindly facilitated by a young woman in the club management. It has many more facilities than it used to, but the main pool was exactly the same

and the surroundings being jungly:

Then a visit to St John's cathedral, 

 where Joyce and Michael were married, one of the wedding photos and also our christening photos taking place here:

We then crossed Garden Road to the Peak Tram, and after a little debate decided to visit Peak 
school again, as when we went on Saturday it was dark. What a good idea that was (and well done S for being persistent and bothering to ask)! She went in just as the children were coming out at the end of the day, and asked at the office if we could look round. The office manager was entirely welcoming showed us a series of old ledgers that we found our names in, and then allowed us free reign to explore!
The playground has a rain cover and a softer floor:

The classrooms are considerably modernised (interactive white boards, air con instead of fans) but entirely recognisable

(they always were very bright)

The playing field is now all AstroTurf,but the stairs, hall, toilets etc etc seemed pretty much the same.

And finally S and J went for a walk round Harlech/Lugard Road, with its amazing views and jungle canopy effect

Though you can't tell from this picture, the same tree (a rubber tree) is all the roots/trunks on both sides of the road here.