Sunday, 31 January 2016

What I've been reading

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King Solomon's Carpet
by Barbara Vine

narrated by Michael Pennington
"Eccentric Jarvis lives in a crumbling schoolhouse overlooking the tube line, compiling his obsessive history of the Underground. A group of misfits are also drawn towards his strange house. Damaged, dispossessed, outcasts, they are brought together in violent and unforeseen ways by London's dark and dangerous underground system."
King Solomon's Carpet is apparently another name for the London Underground, or perhaps for any tube or underground metropolitan transportation system. Not a name I'd ever heard before, and possibly invented for this book, although the author made no use at all of the figurative possibilities of the name. A group of people all come together and their stories are interwoven, but I didn't believe any of it - not the relationships between the main characters, or what became of them. They were just stick figures rather than thinking, breathing humans. Not a great read.

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The Tales of Max Carrados
by Ernest Bramah

narrated by Stephen Fry
"Max Carrados is blind, and yet he has developed his other faculties to such an amazing degree that they more than compensate for his lack of sight. Assisted by his sharp-eyed manservant, Parker, Carrados is the mystery-solver par excellence. "
A freebie download from those nice people at Audible, this was a short audio book of just a couple of stories. I hadn't come across this blind detective before, but apparently he was contemporaneous with Sherlock Holmes, which is quite a coincidence given how much Conan Doyle I've been listening to recently. It was a little unrealistic, suggesting for example that the detective could read print by feeling the paper it is written on. Apart from that, not so different from Holmes.

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by Giulia Enders
"Our gut is almost as important to us as our brain or our heart, yet we know very little about how it works. And scientists are only just discovering quite how much it has to offer; new research shows that gut bacteria can play a role in everything from obesity and allergies to Alzheimer’s."
A Christmas read courtesy of Lola II, and very interesting. I'm prepared to believe its contents on the whole, and learned a couple of things that may prove useful - best posture for Number Two's on a standard Western toilet for example. Holidaymakers over New Year were treated to quite a few gut-related 'facts', although there were some objections to the timing of delivery of my pearls of wisdom. It does get a bit less interesting in later chapters, though.

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Flowering Wilderness
by John Galsworthy

"Dinny Cherrell has been proposed to numerous times, but no one has ever come close to touching her independent spirit. That is, until she encounters Wilfred Desert. When his past actions come back to haunt him, and the disapproval of Dinny's family work against them, their love is tested to the very limit."

I can't believe how much I enjoy Galsworthy's writing. This book is all about a man who is forced at gunpoint to convert to Islam, and how this act is perceived by society back home. It doesn't sound like a promising basis for the book, but honestly I would enjoy reading Galsworthy's shopping list. All his characters are portrayed so exactly that I'm sure I would recognise them if I met them in the street. And as ever, it is illuminating to be presented with a snapshot of society and mores from the time, and see how attitudes have so dramatically changed since then.

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Titmuss Regained
by John Mortimer

narrated by Paul Shelley
"In Rapstone Manor, Lady Grace Fanner is dying, defiant to the last. Awaiting the event is the Right Honourable Leslie Titmuss MP, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Housing, Ecological Affairs and Planning (HEAP). He is alone now after the death of his wife, and the manor house becomes an essential weapon in his pursuit of the beautiful widow of an Oxford don."
I thought this was better than the first of the trilogy, then I thought again and I'm not sure, as it lacks the little mystery of the first book. Most of the characters reappear along with some new personalities, but as for the first book, none is particularly appealing or attractive. Which means, again, I didn't care much what happened to them.

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The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
by Claire North
"No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, every time Harry dies, he always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes - until now."
Lola II recommended this book, and lent it to me. Featuring a form of time travel, it's a cross between Groundhog Day and The Time Traveler's Wife, and what impresses me most knowing that the writer is just a teenager is the maturity of the writing. I have been thinking about this quite a lot when reading recent books and imagining that I could take my writing one stage further and write something bigger than a selection of short self-centred articles. But the words! I tend to cut to the chase and tell the story; most writers of 'quality' use far more words than I would. I suppose every writer has a style, but it's interesting to note when a book doesn't quite hang together - how did the editor help? what could have been done to rescue the situation? For example, Galsworthy's women are impressive, capable, articulate and I'd certainly be flattered if any of them considered me as a friend. Mortimer's women are a little two-dimensional and often serve only to move the plot forward, but I don't much like even his most likeable male characters. Women don't play much of a part in North's book, but those that appear are portrayed as reliable and sympathetic; the men are mostly brutal and deceitful. Was this deliberate? Was the writer aware of how their characters come across? Would I be able to imbue my characters with just the right personalities, and manipulate the reader into liking or disliking them just the right amount? I'm sure that a creative writing course would be an interesting experience, but I've got enough on my plate at the moment. I might add it to my Bucket List for the future, though.

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The Maltese Falcon
by Dashiell Hammett

narrated by Eric Meyer
"Sam Spade is hired by the fragrant Miss Wonderley to track down her sister, who has eloped with a louse called Floyd Thursby. But Miss Wonderley is in fact the beautiful and treacherous Brigid O'Shaughnessy, and when Spade's partner Miles Archer is shot while on Thursby's trail, Spade finds himself both hunter and hunted."
As well as all those mentioned in the blurb above there are two cops, a Fat Man, a Greek, a Youth, Sam's secretary and a Tall Man - the American fictional private eye genre often has too many characters, making it hard to follow. Often the plot is too intricate and difficult to understand as well, but this one pretty much avoided all of the pitfalls, and I could follow what was going on. It was a good read, but unmemorable.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Lola vs Lola Towers

Cat in a wooden box labelled lola
Photo credit: Hugh
It's been cold - the normal cold of a normal winter, but we were deceived by the mild weather before Christmas into mis-remembering how cold the climate normally is at this time of year. So it felt quite appropriate last week when I went to Badminton Club #2's Christmas dinner, complete with turkey, Christmas pudding and crackers. I much prefer the post-holiday scheduling. So few people signed up to Badminton club #1's traditional pre-Christmas do that we are going out in February, when take-up has been much more enthusiastic.

In the garden, I have spent a protracted and painful time 'pruning' the enormous rose bush. With the bush about 15 feet high and at least 20 feet wide, this effort took up a lot of the weekend and prompted one serious outburst of loud profanity as the horrible thorny branches slashed at my legs through my trousers and threatened to immobilise me by entangling every item of my clothing from above and from below. My legs look as though I have had a violent encounter with an angry cat.

A considerable amount of the foliage landed on the other side of the wall in my neighbour's garden. She is an older woman with some health issues, so I presented myself on her doorstep last Tuesday morning and offered to clear the stuff out - luckily her cousin was staying and offered to help, because it took the two of us at least two hours to get it all into sacks, and two trips to the tip. She now has a great deal more light coming into her living room now that it's not blocked by an enormous rose bush, and she bought me a card and flowers to say thank you - even though it is my rose bush and my neglect that allowed it to get so overgrown. There's a huge pile of the ghastly thorny foliage still on my lawn, but it will have to wait to be bagged and taken to the tip.

The rose bush is just the first skirmish in what is going to be a long campaign of Lola vs The Habitation. For too long have I lived among chaos and disorder, with the garden overgrown and weed-filled, parts of the house in serious disrepair and the garage degenerating and neglected. I have Plans, Big Plans, a Great List of Plans. I hesitate to publish the full list here because I don't want to raise expectations, least of all my own, accustomed as I am to poor outcomes when I have attempted improvements in the past - the appalling airing cupboard is just one example that reminds me of this fact every day. But I am determined, even though at the first sign of some extra holiday I turn my back on the whole mess and plan to go off skiing.

So I arranged for a Man to come on Tuesday to size up the work needed on the garage, with a rival Man scheduled to come another time. The garage is likely to need some remedial brickwork and pointing, repairs to the roof (which is asbestos and therefore challenging), new window frames and windows, attention paid to electrics and lighting, the rot on the side door dealt with, guttering replaced where it has fallen off, and the main garage door either repaired or replaced.

Initially I was going to start my campaign on Lola Towers with the kitchen, because that's actually what I would most like to improve by replacing pretty much everything it contains. But the prospect is so daunting that I thought I'd start with something simpler in the hope that it would give me confidence, and perhaps introduce me to a reliable local builder since Alf has disappeared to jobs I presume are more profitable and/or convenient than mine. Thinking about it, I might even get back in touch with Elf, although I'm not sure he's the right man for the job.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Post holiday lull

Lake District stream
Wasdale, Lake District, December 2015
Since returning from the Lake District, I have been assiduously anointing my knee with miraculous liniment, which I picked up on a skiing holiday. Either it's working or the knee injury wasn't very bad (although it felt pretty bad at the time), because I'm descending stairs very successfully again, playing badminton and even running. So that's good news.

It also means that I'm back to thinking about another ski trip. I was describing my plans to one of the other Lake District holidaymakers, who commented that she had annual leave from work that she didn't know what to do with, so perhaps we could go skiing together? That sounded like a good idea, but unfortunately her knee is playing up now, so we'll see how things go. Being over 50 is no joke.

The disadvantage of the skiing plan is that the only practical week I can take off work coincides with the Fourth Annual Lola II and Mr M Film Festival. The schedule of films has been announced, so I have lined them all up in my DVD rental list and will watch them anyway.

I have been neglecting my blog duties, and although I've been doing a lot of things, absolutely none of them is interesting enough to feature here except that Lola II and Mr M visited last weekend, so there were some fun and games. We had a massage each, went out for delicious food, and on Sunday we created some new Chinema trailers for the film festival. Poor Lola II (and to a lesser extent, Mr M) suffered terribly in my cold house, but they have planted the seed of an idea that I will explore further for my planned new kitchen - underfloor heating.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Good riddance

Wastwater and Lake District fells in the distance
Wastwater, December 2015
The year end approaches, and reflection on the past year is often indulged in at this time.

2015 has mostly been a bit rubbish. But not quite all of it.

I have read 54 books (and another two on the go at the moment).

I am currently having a lovely walking holiday in the Lake District with friends. Despite all my supposed fitness achieved from running and badminton, my legs suffered a bit of a setback due to an enormous steep downhill stretch, and I had to take it easy the following day. Luckily the worst weather arrived on that day, so I didn't miss much. Unfortunately I took part in another epic walk the next day and now my left knee is officially defunct. My badminton team will be almost as cross as I am.

My family has had a mixed year, and dad is still recovering from an operation intended to relieve various unpleasant symptoms. The stairlift has provided much cause for discussion and debate in the last few months. Lola II and Mr M are well, but are in the doghouse because they abandoned me to spend New Year in Seattle with other family members.

Work has been mostly interesting and enjoyable, although there are frequently issues that demand no little amount of forbearance. The vacant Dietitian post has now been filled and we are in training mode with the new incumbent. We may be getting cover for the nurse who has been on sick leave for a few months, but again it will be an untrained replacement who will take some time to get up to speed. In terms of doctors and management, I can only observe and usually despair at the lack of any form of rational strategic thinking.

Friends: well, let's say I need to work a bit harder on this aspect of my life. I have plenty of acquaintances but few real friends, and almost none in the region where I actually live. This has to be a priority for the coming year.

In terms of hobbies, I expect that badminton and running will continue, as soon as the knee recovers. I don't have any particular ambitions - no plans for half-marathons or even any more 10k runs. I might go back to marshalling at Run-Forest-Run next year, but we'll see how it goes. I'm still making the dress for Sister D, and because the pattern works much better with stretchy fabric I've volunteered to make yet another one for Lola II, because the one I made for her before wasn't stretchy.

My home environment is about to undergo a great deal of change, and this is another aspect I'm planning to concentrate on over the next 12 months.

On the whole I am glad that 2015 is coming to an end, and rather looking forward to a fresh start for 2016. Happy New Year!

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