Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Year in Books: April

So linking up rather late again with Laura at Circle of Pine Trees with my reading plans for the April and a review of my March reads.  I'm really enjoying this link up as reading about others' choices gives me new ideas.

I read quite a few books in March because I wasn't sleeping that well at the beginning of the month.  My latest way of dealing with occasional insomnia is to not worry about it and instead get up and read until I feel sleepy again.  Which is sometimes never, until I fall asleep early the next evening in front of the telly.  So I finished 'Expo 58' by Jonathan Coe and then 'Stoner' by John Williams.  Both books written by men and both featuring men with rather unhappy, disappointing lives.  'Expo 58' wasn't anywhere near as good as Jonathan Coe's other books with an unconvincing spy plot.  I liked 'Stoner' more - stayed up til 5am one night to finish it, but found it terribly depressing.  The central character supposedly falls in love with literature when he discovers it as a subsidiary subject on his agriculture course.  Again, wasn't convinced but there was something about the character and the writing style that drew me in.

I also read two other books which I enjoyed more: 'The Snow Child' by Eowen Ivey and 'The Shock of the Fall' by Nathan Filer.  I was prompted to read these by recommendations from friends and also because others on The Year in Books have been reading them.  'The Snow Child' was beautifully written with stunning descriptions of Alaska.  It also appealed because I know exactly how it feels to long for a child like the couple in the novel as it took us years of misery and four IVF attempts before we succeeded in having our daughter.   The ending was telegraphed a little, but still the kind of book I buried myself in until I finished it.  (Perhaps I do this too much, living in the worlds created in my head rather than engaging in the real world with the real people around me.)

'The Shock of the Fall' was also unputdownable.  I finished it in the airport when we were travelling back from Rome on Sunday and probably looked very odd as I couldn't stop myself from crying. Very sad (but not depressing),  and this time a completely convincing character.   I liked the unusual way the story was structured and told so that you had work hard to follow the plot.  Glad I actually bought a real copy as I hate not being able to flick back to reread bits when using the Kindle.  It reminded me of 'The Curious Incident of the Dog' and the author reveals in an interview at the end of the book that he was also influenced by Iain Banks' 'The Wasp Factory:'  both these books have troubled, teenage narrators.   'The Snow Child' and 'The Shock of the Fall' are both contenders for my all time top 20 reads, which you can check out here and here.

In April I am going to read some of the books nominated for the Carnegie Medal for children's books this year.  We shadow the shortlisted  books every year in school, getting students to read and briefly review them.  I've already read 'Blood Family' by Anne Fine which was excellent and the student in year 10 who read it agreed.  It's not suitable for younger readers as it has rather adult themes - domestic abuse and alcoholism.  I'm going to try Susan Cooper's 'Ghost Hawk' next, hoping it's a more escapist read.

I also hope to read 'The Universe versus Alex Wood' by Gavin Extence which is my book club choice.  Sounds more like my kind of book than last month's which I didn't finish, '59 Seconds, Change your Life'.  Teenager reading over my shoulder on the plane said, 'What's the point in reading that?'.  Exactly - too many statistics and very dull.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Roaming and Reading in Rome

I've just returned from a few days in Rome - a short break now the Easter school holidays have started.   Luckily the forecast heavy rain occurred overnight and we had several pleasant warm days to explore the city.  I've never been before and was a bit overwhelmed just how much there was to see.  In fact we had monument overload by the end and on the Sunday headed for the park by the Villa Medici to escape the crowds.  The collage below pretty much sums up what we did.  And a lot of eating of pizza, pasta and ice cream.  Husband's dodgy ankle meant we didn't walk too far so most afternoons were spent lazily reading and sleeping.

We stayed in an apartment by the Pantheon  (view from our window top right),  just opposite a primary school - what an unusual location.  The teenager was more interested in what was going on in the present around the Pantheon than she was in its history, despite choosing this subject as one of her GCSE options.  We were both shocked by the young beggar with bare brown legs and a club foot who moved around the square on a skateboard asking tourists for money.  She wanted to know why he wasn't getting any help. Good question.

Another day we came across this sight - rows of people reading in silence for an hour in front of the Pantheon.  I asked an organiser and was told it was a peaceful protest defending freedom of expression and also about the anti-homophobic legislation going through the Italian parliament.  I assumed they were supporting this legislation, but looking at the website I'm not so sure. So I feel a bit foolish now as I told my daughter that they were protesting against homophobia.  Shouldn't jump to conclusions, I suppose.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Love and ladybirds

The teenager has returned from her trip to France with a bad cold and an arrow through her heart.  Not a nasty accident when doing archery but a visit from Cupid.  She had a bit of a holiday romance with a boy her age from another school.  So she spent yesterday lying on the sofa coughing and snuffling; catching up with soaps and Towie; and messaging this boy.

Meanwhile I spent my Saturday doing loads of her washing and mowing the lawn.  There are certain chores I don't mind much so I tend to do these first, ignoring more tedious ones.  Hanging out the washing is one but mowing the lawn is my favourite.  I like the smell of the grass and it's very satisfying and soothing walking up and down in straight(ish) lines.  Not that I'm a perfectionist - our lawn is full of moss and weeds and yellow patches where the dog has peed too often.  It still looks ok after a good mow, though.

It was a lovely sunny day and I spotted a butterfly or two.  A peacock sat still for ages on one bush - laying eggs perhaps. There were also loads of ladybirds around.  We have had a plague of ladybirds in the house over the winter, hiding in the window frames and occasionally crawling around the ceiling in the kitchen. But we put up with them as ladybirds so pretty and, so I believe, eat other garden pests.  They are my third favourite insect after butterflies and dragonflies with their rainbow wings.

So I got out my camera and attempted a picture. No glasses so I couldn't see very well and the first two attempts were very blurry. Then I realised that I was photographing not one ladybird but two in close proximity and all over the bush were pairs of ladybirds mating.  So I have included a rather rude image in  today's post.  Oh well, I suppose it is springtime and time for love.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Gotcha nuthatch!

I've been trying to capture on camera this shy visitor to our garden for the past two weeks.  Have eventually succeeded. He's easily frightened off and is always looking around him checking for dangers.  Sounds familiar.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Things that might happen...

Early yesterday morning I waved goodbye to teenager for the week as she is on a school trip to France - staying is a chateau, doing various activities such as abseiling and also visiting war graves in Northern France.  She seems to have squeezed most of the contents of her wardrobe into her very heavy suitcase for the four nights she is there, but appears to have forgotten a rather vital accessory - her hairbrush.

Inevitably, I spent the day waiting to hear that they had got there safely.  Texted her on the coach around midday to see how the journey was progressing.  No reply.  Tried again in the afternoon. Still nothing. I knew all must be well as I'd have heard from school if there was a problem.  But kept inventing things that might have happened. Coach crash; abducted at service station; fire in Channel tunnel...Was 7.30 before she eventually got in touch with a brief dismissive text saying her phone had run out of charge on the journey. Mobiles actually makes things worse for the overanxious mother like me.  They give an illusion of security, that you can make contact quickly but then it's frustrating if you can't.

She's 14 now and so I have to let her go off and be independent without pestering her all the time.  But it's tough and not just on occasions like this trip.  A couple of weeks ago on a sunny Sunday afternoon she set out for a ride on her bike around the village with the girls who live next door. Great, I thought, a bit of fresh air and exercise for a change.  So mowed the lawn and half an hour passed.  Still not back though the circular route takes no more than 30 minutes. Went to the supermarket to stop myself stressing, certain they'd be back when I returned.  No.  Took dog for walk across fields and listened out for the usual squealing which indicates their presence.  Nothing.

It was a beautiful afternoon - sun shining, daffodils and blossom.  Attempted to banish negative thoughts and be mindful. Listened to birdsong, but imagining ambulance sirens instead.  Future nightmare scenarios spooled through my mind and I was choosing funeral songs. Visualisation comes easily to me, but only the bad stuff.  Tried instead to visualise her wedding, but failed.

Nearly back home with heavy heart when I heard the telltale squealing behind me.  Three girls with hair streaming behind them and four boys all on bikes. Nice boys, old friends from primary school whose mums I know. They'd met two of them and then called for the others.  Relief swept over me, but hid it well.

The problem is, of course, bad things do happen all the time.  Phoned NZ sister at the weekend and she told me of horrible drowning accident which had occurred on the beach near them.  Was off again, visualising the horror of this poor woman watching her husband rescue her young daughter only to drown himself.  And who could not be moved by the raw grief of the relatives of the passengers on the missing Malaysian aircraft?  I was a bit uncomfortable with the cameras intruding on this.

I'd welcome any advice on how I can stop myself worrying about things that might happen. Or is this just how it's going to be?

Sunday, 16 March 2014


Me with some my best friends - two of my sisters. 1967?  I'm on the right/

This post was inspired by a school assembly last week.  Pupils were being warned again about the perils of Facebook.  In the hands up which opened the assembly some kids claimed to have over 1000 'friends'.  My daughter has around 200, all of whom she claims to have met.  They were asked to remove from their list of 'friends' anyone they did not actually know properly - those friends of friends etc. The head ended the assembly by saying that for her friends were people she had met in person.Which got me thinking.

A friend is someone whose company you enjoy, who supports you when you need it and listens to you.  So in the last year since I've been writing this and reading other blogs I feel I've made some new friends.  I look forward to the posts from my favourite bloggers and am delighted when some of them have read and commented on mine.   I know that sometimes bloggers meet up for real - I recently enjoyed reading this post from Avril at School Gate Style who met up with other fashion bloggers in London.   I wonder whether the friends I've made on here would be as I imagine if we met and what they would think of me..... .

One of my favourite blog discoveries in the last year is written by Yvonne Watterson who is from the same area of Northern Ireland as me, an English teacher and mother of a teenage daughter. She now lives in Arizona but still has close links with NI, writing for the local newspaper in Antrim.  Her posts are proper serious writing dealing with issues and ideas, yet personal at the same time. I was shocked and saddened to hear how she lost her husband in November, around the same time I lost my father.  She wrote about her grief in a very moving yet dignified way and my heart went out to her.  She has now decided to have a break from blogging to write a book.  I'm pleased for her but will miss her regular posts.

Yvonne announced her decision to have a break from blogging.  But recently a couple of the bloggers I read regularly have not posted for a long time and I'm hoping they are ok especially since there were hints that all was not well in some cases.  I miss them as I would a friend who's gone away.

So that's why I don't agree with our head 's view that a friend has to be someone you have met.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Reading Autobiography Part 2: 10 more top reads

Our contribution to the school World Book Day extreme reading photo collage.
So as planned here is Part Two of my all time top twenty reads.  It was much harder to finalise this list - there were a lot of possibles and I've changed my mind several times.  These books made the final cut for various reasons, not all really to do with the 'quality' of the book.  Some were chosen because they are associated with  particular time or place.  Others are there because I remember the sheer pleasure they gave me when I read them.  A good book for me also has to be memorable and maybe say something about the state of the world or about the human consciousness.  No - that sounds pretentious.  Shall I just get on with it?

The Bridge by Iain Banks
Have blogged before about Iain Banks' books and how sad we were when he died last year.  This is my favourite of his books - I've read it twice.  Banks also considered it his best novel.  Almost sci-fi and not my usual kind of book at all with several overlapping narratives but there's a kind of love story at the heart of it. I suppose that made me warm to it more than some of the others like Complicity which I found too violent. The bridge is the Forth railway bridge in Fife and is kind of central to the whole novel.  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which nearly made the list, is similar in structure but The Bridge is better in my opinion - not as long or as weird. 

Praxis by Fay Weldon
Once upon a time in the early 80s before I became a teacher I'd decided I wanted to work in travel.  Did a post-grad course and got a job, working at first for an Irish tour company (my boss was John Doonican, brother of Val, for those of you old enough to remember).  Then, when that folded, found a job with Alitalia, the Italian airline.  I worked in a building on Oxford Circus and it all sounds very glamorous but it wasn't.  I worked in accounts; it was boring; the building had no windows and there was a creepy little man called Orlando who accosted me every time I went to the photocopier.  Escaped mentally by reading my way through everything Fay Weldon had ever written during lunch and coffee breaks. This one is the best in my view. She a great writer - humour and a serious feminist message mixed.  Met her once at a Chester Literature festival event - she's a very entertaining speaker.

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood
An unusual book which explores bullying and relationships between young girls. It's like another of my choices, Patrick Gale's Notes on an Exhibition as images of painting are used throughout the novel.  I also met Margaret Atwood at a Cosmopolitan book day in London (!) many years ago.  She signed a book for me. Lovely lady.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum Kate Atkinson
Still her best book in my view and nothing since has come close until Life after Life  Read a copy after it first came out in 1995 and haven't read it since but still remember it.  On my to reread list.

The Stone Diaries Carol Shields
I'm seeing a pattern in the books I've chosen.  The last three tell the stories of (fictional) women's lives.  So does this one.  It's a fictional autobiography in fact.   It's a long time also since I read this but some episodes (the birth for example) so well written that I can rerun them in my mind like a film.

Star of the Sea Joseph O'Connor
One of two Irish entries to the list though to be honest I could also have included at least of one Maeve Binchy's books.  I read every single one of these and then passed them on to my mother-in-law whose usual  reading was Mills and Boon.  Great storyteller and another sad loss recently.  Star of the Sea is a more demanding read, telling the story of a ship on the way to New York at the time of the Irish Potato famine.  Click here for a proper review by Terry Eagleton.  Like my recent favourite, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, it is narrated in a series of documents; news articles, letters etc.  So is The Stone Diaries I think.

Beloved Toni Morrison
Gave up on first attempt at reading this, but came back to it and glad I did. Disturbing and memorable and there's the chapter which begins 'I am Beloved.. which sent tingles up my spine.

Fingersmith Sarah Waters
My favourite of all her novels.  A great storyline and set in Victorian London. Has the best plot and most unexpected plot twist ever.

Notes from an Exhibition Patrick Gale
Read this a few years ago followed by all the rest of Gale's novels.  Interesting portrayal of family life and mental illness.

Skippy Dies Paul Murray
Last book on the list and another Irish writer. Have blogged before about this book here. Hard to choose between this and Zadie Smith's White Teeth.  Similar because both use humour and create a picture of contemporary life, Smith in London; Murray in Dublin. Went for Murray in the end. 

So that's it.  I'd love to hear other people's top twenty.  It's been great linking to Laura at Circle of Pine Trees for the Year in Books, but won't link this as I'm kind of breaking the rules and have done my link up for the month already.  But if you come across this post via Laura, I'd love to hear from you.