Saturday 14 September 2013

The beautiful blanket raffle

Thank you so much to everyone who has contributed to this fund raising event for Studio Upstairs. Today the beautiful blanket left Coombe Cottages for our village Community Associations annual Michaelmas Fair. It is well travelled. Not only did the individual squares come together from many individuals in different places in their lives, but the blanket itself has been on tour to be with Ellle and to a friendly gathering in Lyme.
Lots of people pledged money before the fair, for which we are very grateful indeed. Prior to the event we already had many donations pledged but overall we sold £489.70  worth of tickets (some odd money collection error here as the tickets were 50p each or £2 a strip)  -  a minimum of 1275 individual tickets! Wow! Thanks must go to friends from Somerset who joined me at the fair and to all those who helped E sell tickets at Bethlem. 
The draw itself was done as the fair came to an end beside the willow ' dome ' which adjoins the Michaelmas field on the edge of the railway walk in Winscombe. The woodcraft group A E and T were involved in for so many years planted the living willow structure there in 2000 and A prunes it annually to keep it as a house like structure for the children of the village and particularly the neighbouring playgroup. One of the children playing around the dome was asked to be our independent verifier. He chose a green ticket from our old blue basket and it was unwrapped to reveal 117 and K's name and phone number. As K actually did the crocheting together of all the squares it did seem very appropriate. So now Beautiful Blanket is off down the motorway again to Wellington and its final home. It feels very good to think of it being appreciated and understood as well as having raised so much money.
So E is going to talk to Studio Upstairs and work out what the money should be dedicated too and we will report again. Meanwhile here is the unfolding of the raffle...

The raffle's home at the fair was in the Art Shed next to the photography exhibition and some great paintings.
The tickets looked rather wonderful all massed together...

The jewel colours of the blanket looked so beautiful against the grass that we decided to do the draw against a green backdrop with the help of a very kind and totally independent adjudicator (ie. a bemused random child!).

And the winning ticket was .... ( The suspense was huge..) 

Once home the kittens decided - in the night - to do the raffle themselves so first thing on Sunday this is what I discovered! They have been very discerning as I am findIng tickets they have carried (proudly as 'prey') to other rooms of the house. My cleaning isn't great so I guess I will be reminded of the raffle for some time with tickets under and in various pieces of furniture. 

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Sorting the Booker's Dozen

So, the Man Booker shortlist was announced yesterday! Although I wasn't there, J and A's book group had a special Booker evening - each person had read one book and presented it to the rest of the group, and predicted if they thought it would make the short list (instructions were to not listen to the news during the day!) For those not there (me included), we sent our notes forward. So, here are the highlights of everyone's thoughts on the WHOLE long list for the Man Booker. I'll "announce" the results at the end, although you may know already, of course.

Harvest by Jim Crace - reviewed by DW

Jim Crace is an experienced author with lots of previous prizes, and this is a very literary work.
Genre/plot: a tale, set of events. No particular time or setting, extraordinary events and circumstances. Author is an outsider, but commenting in the first person - a difficult feat to pull off, but done successfully.
Cover: quite good - outdoorsy as the book is and ties in with the harvest, which the book is much about.
Readability: believable, although fantastical. Ends with lots of unanswered questions - as life! Quite short, but very compelling when you got going. Short readable chapters.
Characterisation: characters were not what it was really about, but you ended up wanting to know about them.
Overall: very much enjoyed it. A book of real literary heritage.

Did DW think it would make the Short List: YES.

The Kills by Richard House - reviewed by DF

Previously unknown author; House brought up in a military family and probably lived in Cyprus, Malta, Naples and the US.
Genre/plot: is this a novel, or is it 4 novels in 1? It's about the Iraq war and afterwards, disposing of ordanance in 'burn pits' that produce lots of dangerous toxins. Central character is being set up to take the blame for some of the corruption and goes on the run. Very long! - 1000 pages.
Readability: somewhat compelling, although not finished!
Characterisation: good.
Overall: first novel good, second novel sordid. Interactive book with attached websites, but no literary heritage. R didn't finish it, but would like to.

Did A think it would make the Short List: Yes, due to wackiness.

Unexploded by Alison Macleod - reviewed by CG

Genre/plot: set in WW2 in Brighton - anxiety over German invasion and rounding up of enemy aliens. Husband of the central protagonist is a bank manger with a secret in a box, and we do find out what it is.
Readability: twee, not gripping. Overdone writing - longed for some narrative to break up the first person writing.
Overall: not gripping, pretty short and too many commas!

Did CG think it would make the Short List: it shouldn't.

Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson reviewed by CF

Charlotte Mendelson is an established British author of Hungarian parents who went to Oxford.
Genre/plot: story of elderly Hungarian people and families. It's semi-funny with heavily accented old aunts poking the younger ones, and the youngest manages to escape to a boarding school. Describes how a girl copes in a mainly boys school and a mother copes with the pangs of an empty nest.
Cover: is understated, like the book itself.
Readability: believable plot - but what plot? No conclusion. Unengaging, frustrating, but just about wanted to find out what happened. Clever and witty in places.
Characterisation: didn't care about the characters.
Overall: only just managed to finish it. No one would like it.

Did CG think it think it would make the Short List: No.

  A Tale for the Time being by Ruth Ozeki reviewed by AJ

Ruth Odzeki was born the US and brought up in Japan

Genre/plot: refers to a Buddhist 12th century philosphical work, so AJ was very excited. Started optimistically but found it trash by page 1. It tells the story of a Japanese teenager, written as a diary that gets washed up by the tsnumai in Canada, so 1st person. Zen master grandmother comes into it quite a lot, and lots of Japanese culture.

Overall: trash!

Did AJ think it would make the Short List: No.

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw reviewed by CN

Tash Aw is Taiwanese living in London and brought up in Malaysia.
Genre/plot: possibly a family saga? Set in the present day and about people's ambitions etc.
Cover: like the inspirational books the characters are into. Second cover (endpapers) show the dreary, smokey Shanghai tenements where these people live.
Readability: smoothly written, easy to read, fun, amusing. Not trivial, although quite lightweight.
Overall: CN didn't finish it - but wants to, probably because of the element of Eastern exoticism. Not sure if there will be a message, a resolution, but would like to find out! It's not significant in a literary sense, but does open a window into the hugeness of China we're all so interested in. Many of the book group would like, but not love, it.

Did CN think it would make the Short List: possibly, because of the topic and setting.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo reviewed by RA

NoViolet grew up in Zimbabwe, went to study in the USA at age 18 and stayed there.
Genre/plot: the story of someone who grew up in Zimbabwe and went to study in the USA... Told first person point of view, relatively short.
Cover: very colourful!
Readability: to begin with it was fascinating, but soon descended into a somewhat formulaic production. The author clearly had a number of issues she wanted to get over and the chapters seemed to be a way of ticking them off one by one - seemed disjointed at times, and RA had no idea why Bulawayo had depected the sometimes dreadful scenes she did. Floated between compelling prose and mundane drivel.
Characterisation: the names were as interesting as the author's own! If the characters were realistic, he didn't particularly like any of them.
Overall: not significant in terms of literary heritage.

Did J think it would make the Short List: he wouldn't Short List it! If it makes it, it's only because it's very much 'of the moment' and tells part of much needed to be told tale.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan reviewed by CG

Mr Ryan is a 36-year-old civil servant, living and working in Ireland. Debut novel, although the second he's written - will be out soon!
Genre/plot: set in rural Ireland in the recession. All the characters are suffering, including those affected by a 'celtic-tiger' developer who has gone bust and absconded leaving some inhabitants of a village high and dry. Structure was the most notable part - a 'story' is told successively by 21 different narrators, all of whom add a bit of their own (largely miserable) histories as they go. Therefore, lots of unrelated material and 'mysteries' that are never explained.
Cover: uninspiring.
Readability: the plot was compelling in that you wanted to know what happened next, but one was continually side-tracked by the next character's history. Different 'voices' were well presented but the changing vernacular and dialect kept you on your toes and slowed you down a bit.
Characterisation: shallow. Difficult to come up with 21 unlikeable characters, but he seemed to succeed - C didn't care much for any of them. No character particulary well drawn, possibly to do with length? (only 160 pages).
Overall: not a classic - maybe a film?

Did CG think it would make the Short List: No, although it has won the Irish 'book of the year' award, so it is an outside possibility.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton reviewed by JT
Eleanor is Canadian born, New Zealand raised and has a US degree in creative writing. Youngest over nominee for the Man Booker!
Genre/plot: historical realist fiction/'whodunnit.' Very long, over 800 pages.
Cover: striking and intriguing (although he didn't like it!)
Readability: the first half very slow, which was the back story being told by 12 characters - confusing and boring. The second half became compelling, much faster and in shorter chapters. Ponderous and very Victorian.
Characterisation: all seemed a bit analytical and cold. Didn't care much for any of them.
Overall: not signficant in terms of literary heritage, first half too much to get through for the better second half.

Did JT think it would make the Short List: hoped not, but thought it would.

The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann by Eve Harris reviewed by ET

Eve Harris born and brought up in London to Israeli Polish parents. Lived in Israel for 3 years, and taught in inner city comprehensives. Debut novel inspired by experience of teaching at an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish all girls' school in NW London.
Genre/plot: contemporary. Story of various different characters (3rd person) - 19 year old Chani, her betrothed, Baruch, the Rabi's wife, her son Avromi. Winds through different time periods. Themes of uncertainty over matched marriage, personal tragedy, difficulties of Ultra-Orthodox life and reservations to do with it.
Cover: bright. Gives nothing away.
Readability: compelling and eminently readable. Simply told, not a 'literary' book, which eases reading. Good length, easy to read in a day or two.
Characterisation: believable characters - fearful, humorous, fallible, and, ultimately, human. Cared about each and every character.
Overall: very enjoyable. Contemporary, relevant themes - learnt a lot about Orthodox Jews (the glossary helped!)

Did ET think it would make the Short List: no, as it isn't literary/high brow enough, but would recommend it anyway - brilliant story and cared about the characters.

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann reviewed by AB
Irish author, published lots of novels including 'Let the Great World Spin' which won lots of awards .
Genre/plot: historical novel - based on fact but with fictional characters woven in. Clever and well crafted book - almost too crafted/structured. Presents 3 different real stories from different eras - an emancipated slave coming from the USA to Ireland, the first flight from New Foundland to Cork, and the Irish Peace Process (Good Friday agreement and senator George Mitchell).
Cover: didn't like - why are the characters sitting in baby-swing-like-chairs? They all look early 20th century rather than the 3 eras the book covers.
Readability: the fictional characters and story didn't work for her - too fragmented and unclear. Loved the style and the language - sparce and short sentences at time and languid at others. Almost like petry with lovely imagery. Beautifully written langugage, and dialogue too.
Characterisation: more plot than characters, but well drawn.
Overall: tremendous crafting. All of the book group would like but in a relatively mild way.

Did AB think it would make the short list: yes.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin reviewed JG
Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist and poet, aged 58 and openly gay. Currently professor of humanities at Columbia University, grew up in Wexford and studied in Dublin.
Genre/plot: fictional account of Mary's view of the life of Jesus in first person, based on the gospels and implies that much of the gospels are fictional - a product of what the writers wanted to have happened, rather than an accurate historical account. Stream of conciousness with Mary reflecting on events leading up to the crucifixion, linking up the stories in the bible, the effects on her and subsequent attempts of the disciples to encourage her to contribute to writing the gospels.
Readability: very readable - so short she had no choice but to read it twice, just to be sure! Easy reading - an attempt to portray the real person rather than the iconic figure. Interesting use of metaphor.
Characterisation: sensitive, interesting and detailed. This Mary does not believe in her son's holiness - a marked contast to the usual portrayal of the saintly Virgin Mary. Disapproving of the willingness of his growing group of friends, who she believes to be a negative influence on him and willing to collude with the notion of him being the "Son of God." Also hints she thought the "miracles" were fake.
Overall: not significant, although a stimulating read.

Did JG think it would make the Short List: no.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri reviewed by NO ONE

This only came out on 8th September - so no one had time to read it! The question is, why did the publishers choose to publish it so close to the Short List announcement? Seems like they're missing out on a lot of sales... Anyway. No comments from the book group! Here's the summary from the Booker website:

From Subhash’s earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there. In the suburban streets of Calcutta where they wandered before dusk and in the hyacinth-strewn ponds where they played for hours on end, Udayan was always in his older brother’s sight.


As the two brothers grow older their lives, once so united, begin to diverge. It is 1967. Charismatic and impulsive, Udayan becomes increasingly drawn to the Communist movement sweeping West Bengal, the Naxalite cause. As revolution seizes the city’s student community and exams are boycotted in a shadow of Paris and Berkeley, their home is dominated by the absence of Udayan, out on the streets at demonstrations. Subhash wins a place on a PhD programme in the United States and moves to Rhode Island, never to live in India again – yet his life will be shaped from afar by his brother’s acts of passionate political idealism.


Udayan will give everything for what he believes and in doing so will transform the futures of those dearest to him: his newly married, pregnant wife, his brother and their parents. The repercussions of his actions will link their fates irrevocably and tragically together, reverberating across continents and seeping through the generations that follow.
So... for anyone who has made it this far, here is the Man Booker shortlist 2013:
We Need New Names
The Lowland
The Luminaries
The Testament of Mary
A Tale for the Time Being

Not exactly what the book group would have chosen! Oh well! Next stop: the Winscombe Man Booker event for announcing the winner, watch this space...

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (Chatto & Windus)
The Harvest by Jim Crace (Picador)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury)
- See more at:
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (Chatto & Windus)
The Harvest by Jim Crace (Picador)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury)
- See more at:

Monday 9 September 2013

Planning to get sheep!

You may have read earlier that we acquired a field. And not just any field, but the one in front of the eponymous Coombe Cottages. The process isn't quite as simple as that, so in fact at the moment the field belongs in its entirety to our immediate neighbours Pat and Richard, and they bought it with the pooled funds of us, them and Bob and Maureen across the other side of the field. When the legal stuff is sorted, it will be in joint ownership. So far, PRBM say that they don't want anything for the field other than that it should stay as meadow, so it will need grazing, and we're the people to organise that!

This morning, A and I went up the hill to prospect. Actually I have been prospecting for a while when out on my runs. I have seen:


Too horny.


  Too twee.

 Dorset Downs

   Too hairy faced.

And on two of the farms up the hill I had seen some lovely sheep that I didn't recognise.
We arrived at Quarry Farm just as David Caple was going out to look at the lambs in the field in front of the house. Lovely lambs! They'd do very nicely. They are Charolais

 crossed onto Mule

which is itself a cross of Blue Faced Leicester

onto Swaledale

No pictures available on-line, so A will have to take her camera up next time, and meanwhile you'll have to imagine what a combination of the above four is like.
The Caples couldn't have been more encouraging and friendly about the whole thing, inviting us in and chatting for over an hour about sheep, what different sorts are like and where to find some, and feeding us some very good shortbread with tea.
We felt very encouraged.
David said 5 ewes with lambs at foot, and we will top the field mid summer to take off what they can't eat at that time of year.

Sunday 1 September 2013

What I've been reading this Summer

So, summer seems to be officially over... well, it's still sunny but there's a definite bite in the air, and, for me, September 1st marks the official end of Summer. Does anyone else feel like this? I suppose it's completely arbitary, but that is how it feels to me.

So, here are the books I've read over the Summer! Quite a mish mash of different things - from YA, classics, science fiction, dystopias, chick reads, children's, modern, literary... I won't review them all, but I'll give a few highlights. (There may be some spoilers, you have been warned...)

Firstly, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. It's one of those series of books that I have put off reading for a long time, feeling a little bit snooty about all the hype, wondering whether they were really any good. Well, I have to say that I am so glad that I read them! In case anyone doesn't know the basic premise - it's a dystopic future in which America has been split into various districts, each providing a commodity for The Capital, where the more privileged citizens live. Each year, The Capital holds a reality TV show called 'The Hunger Games' in which two "tributes" (chosen by ballot) from each district are placed into an artificial landscape and manipulated into killing each other, until one victor remains, reminding the districts of the might of the capital. Our heroine is Katniss from District 12 (responsible for the production of coal) who enters 'The Hunger Games' in the place of her younger sister, Prim. From almost the first sentence, this was a page turner - I literally couldn't put it down. I borrowed the first book, and then realised I wasn't going to be able to borrow the second one until I saw the person after the weekend, so I had to go out and buy the next one because I was too engrossed! The first two books follow a similar sort of format - they both centre around the games themselves - whereas by the third book the whole of Panem (the name for where current day America is) has dissolved into revolution and it is more of a war story. I loved these books. They were progressively more and more violent, but it was a violence that I could cope with (I'm not usually a huge fan.) Suzanne Collins writes very well - it is very pacy and the twists and turns were fantastic. You literally wanted to shout at the characters sometimes when you worked out something before they did. The ending wasn't exactly as I expected either - she didn't completely conform to expectations for a YA novel. Overall, brilliant.

There is a film of The Hunger Games on video (and the second is coming out soon) which J has bought for me, so we just need to find a nice time to watch it together.

The second lot of books I'm going to talk about is the Chaos Walking series. It seems like I've been on a real YA kick recently - it's actually made it harder to read "real" adult books as the pace is generally a lot slower and they're just... less easy to read! I feel sort of unintelligent for reading so much YA fiction, but I do enjoy them, so I'm trying to let it go.

So, Chaos Walking. Fantastic. Again - pacy, page turner, twists and turns, believable characters, compelling plot... It was great. Originally recommended by a friend of J's, he got a Kindle sample on his ipad and then I was inspired to buy the first one - and read it in about a day or two (they're quite long books!). It's another sort of dystopia where people have left this world to populate a new one. Of course, many problems ensue. Men in this world have something called "noise" which means, basically, that you can always hear what other men (or animals) are thinking. Women have no noise, although they can hear others'. As the series progresses, it turns out that noise can be controlled, but it's a really horrible thought all the same. (It also leads to some comic moments - Todd's dog Manchee has very simplistic thoughts: "Todd. Poo. Poo. Todd." I miss Manchee...)

Now, although The Hunger Games are violent, these take violence to a new level. The Knife of Never Letting Go (book one) is violent on a sort of intimate level and it is taken further and further up as the books progress, until the violence reaches truly epic proportions by Monsters of Men. I did find the violence a little difficult, but I'm quite sensitive to violence, so maybe most people wouldn't find this much of a problem. Mostly, it was just a brilliant story. I loved the central character Todd - and watching his moral decline, his numerous dilemnas, the way in which he's manipulated... it's all so horrifically believable.

The first book I got of one edition and the other two matched; the second two had a short story at the end of each of them, and I wonder whether the first one would have done if I'd had the same edition? (That's something else that annoys me - they don't match! I'm sure I'll get over it!). I really enjoyed these short stories - they're set in the same world, but not focusing on the central characters and it made me see more of Patrick Ness' vision of this entire created universe. They really added to the overall reading experience.

These, too, have been made into a film! (it's seems to be all the fashion - what with the Cassandra Clare trilogy coming out soon.) It's still very much in the preliminary stages, but I can imagine these making brilliant films. J and I both remarked at how cinematographic they were as were reading them - I wonder if Patrick Ness was hoping for a film contract, or that's just his natural style of writing? Either way, I'll be interested to see these converted, although I do hope the violence is toned down a little.

... and another YA novel! I promise I do read other genres, honest! (And another one that's being made into a film). I joined the library close to me recently and this was one of the first books that I got out. Another good one. Basic premise: when teenagers turn sixteen, they must choose between five "factions," each focusing on a particular trait - Candor (honesty), Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (bravery), Erudite (intelligence) and Amity (peacefulness). Our heroine, Beatrice, goes against her family's faction (Abnegation) and chooses to become Dauntless. It follows her initiation into her new faction and the gradual discovery of corruption throughout the society. I'm looking forward to the next two in the series - I have them ordered at the library ready to read next.

This one isn't a YA novel - see, I do read other genres! Jodi Picoult is my fall back for easy-reads, I always go for them when I'm finding it hard to get into other books, which I was finding the case after reading so many pacy YA novels. I didn't have great expectations for this one actually - it was another one from the library, and I hadn't heard particularly positive things about it. It's her debut novel, originally published in the US in 1992 when she was 25. It is different to her other novels, there's no doubt about that. Most of her novels are characterised by medical or legal issues - they mostly centre round court cases - and huge twists and turns in plot. This had one character, Rebecca, telling the story backwards, so you already knew the general ending at the start. It is told from the point of view of a number of different protagonists - Rebecca, her mother Jane, her father Oliver, her uncle Joel and two other men who work with him. Despite knowing the outcome, it still managed to be very compelling - I couldn't put it down. I was very pleasantly surprised - and this might actually be one of my favourite Jodi Picoults (and I've read a lot of them!).

Congratulations if you have made it this far! The final book I'll talk about is The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris, which has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013. As A talked about in her post earlier, the Winscombe book group are collectively reading the "booker's dozen", but since there are only twelve of them, I get to be a part too, and this was my allocated book (we chose randomly). Again, I really enjoyed this book. I worried it might be dry, but it wasn't at all. It's basically about ultra orthodox Jewish life, in particular the marriage of a young woman named Chani Kaufman, but there are a lot of other stories interwoven - the Rabbi's wife who coaches her, her betrothed, the Rabbi, their son who strays from orthodox life... It was really eye opening for me actually - I didn't know very much about the details of an orthodox Jewish life and this was presented in a very accessible way. Eve Harris managed to explain things without it just seeming like you were being taught, you were actually shown things through the way the story progressed. Ultimately it was a sad and happy book, and made me think a lot. I think it's a brilliant narrative and very skilfully told - I'd be pleased to see it make the shortlist, but, as I haven't read the other books (yet?), I don't know what it is up against. I would definitely recommend reading it either way.

Well, here are a few highlights of my summer reading! It has made me realise that I possibly read too much YA fiction and should read more literary things in the future, but maybe I shouldn't worry too much. Joining the local library has been a joy - and I hope to discover lots of interesting new reads there.

Happy autumn everyone.

Preparing for the Michaelmas Fair

Our village has a traditional fair to celebrate Michaelmas at the beginning of September. It's a conglumeration of exhibitions and competitions to honour the season of fruitfulness and harvesting,  an opportunity to raise money for our community centre and the usual eclectic collection of minor children's entertainment, dancing dogs, and local brass bands. For some reason I have run the photography exhibition for the last 10 years which has over 500 entries which have to be pinned on boards on their classes, judged and rearranged with all the award cards displayed in the right place by 1.45 and the opening of the festivities. This means getting together a band of volunteers to meet me at 7am and accept photos, number them carefully with the exhibitors individual code, and allocate them to the appropriate board for the 25 classes. It's a long hard day as we have to then do the same at the other end of the fair!
I also have to set the classes and some of you may have noticed that I do tend to do everything in the colour blue so it's no surprise that last year one of the classes was indeed the colour 'blue'!

Despite the hard work and the marathon of the day its always a really happy occasion and I do get round the giant vegetables, jars of jam, elaborate cakes,  crocheted hats, wonderful calligraphy and exotic flower arrangements and see which of my friends and acquaintances have won this year. We have also exhibited ourselves over the 16ish years of living here, but have never won the elusive family trophy! We have had other major successes. In the past it has been giant pumpkins and  children's art work, and this moved on to cheese scones, shortbread and craftwork.

For the last 2 years E has won the Thomas Trophy for Creative Arts for her knitting, pottery, collage, card making and paper creations. Her knitting in particular has been outstanding.

Sadly this year the trophy will move on as she has not been able to do any craft work since last Summer. I have polished the beautiful cup in the sunshine of the garden, and returned it to the butchers (the rather bizarre collecting place for the trophies to be handed in to in readiness for the next fair). Here it is 'growing'  in our garden. I have real hopes that it might return to her again in the future...

So the preparations this year are primarily my making posters and class headings, finding the right sticky tape that doesn't mark the back of the photos, and reviewing with the other volunteers our tried and tested system. We await the influx of eager exhibitors clutching tickets and pictures at 7am on the 14th! !