Category Archives: review

My animals and other family

For the last few nights, I’ve been in bed by about ten. That electric blanket is my best friend. Last night, I thought it had broken and I nearly cried. Fortunately, it was just the thermostat and the connection and I woke up feeling warm. This is good because my extra duvet is in the wash, since Miss Tilly went for a roll on it yesterday, having come back in covered in dirt.

For a small, pretty dog, she sure does love dirt.

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Anyway, I’ve been making the most of this cocoon of evening warmth and catching up with some reading. I’ve finally got round to reading My Family and Other Animals which is something I’ve wanted to read for years and years and never have. And… I’m really enjoying it! I’ve always thought it would be cool to grow up in such a bohemian family who just jetted off for a few years in Corfu. I’m just jealous of anyone warm right now.

I’m only on chapter five, but I’m really enjoying it and I’m very sad I left it til now to read it; not only is it clever and funny, but it’s also a lovely description of all the people who he met. It reminds me of the holiday I had in Zakynthos with Andy, and although we spent a lot of time in the hotel, we went for a few days out in the mountains. I love the Greek islands. I keep looking at boat holidays around them and pining for warmth and blue and islands and sea.

I went to Kos town with my sister in 2001 and we had a great time. It was NOT a good year for us, but we had a great laugh, except for when I suggested we cycled into town and my sister insisted that we walk. I gave in. She sulks big time and whilst I may become a whirling dervish of tempers and swears, a bit like the cartoon Tasmanian Devil with a Tourette’s swearing problem, my sister has mastered the pout. We only stopped being cross at each other (I don’t know why she was cross at me, because I’m the one who gave in. However, I give in and I make you suffer for it… maybe that’s why we were walking the three kilometres in silence…) because we saw a woman with a terrific moustache.

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Can you tell I’m missing sunshine?

I dropped some magazines off today with a guy who reassured me that spring is definitely on its way. I hope so. However, I can’t get last year’s 17 days of snow and -15 temperatures out of my head. I’m not being lulled into a false sense of security until April is out. Cast ne’er a clout, and all that.

So, what have I read this year?

  • Freakonomics
  • Dude, Where’s My Country
  • On Chesil Beach
  • Follow the Money
  • Hija de la Fortuna

Honestly, On Chesil Beach was a bit of a flop. Literally. I wouldn’t mind if Keira Knightley played the lead in that. She’s neurotic enough to frighten the life out of her husband. It’s no Atonement. I like him. I don’t like her. It’s just too… Ordinary. As the Guardian said, ‘one messy outburst and it’s over.’

Ah well. I’ll carry on enjoying Gerald Durrell. I might continue reading books about warm weather just to remind myself that winter will end.

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Why girls disappear from blogs and why Anne Hathaway shouldn’t play Katharina*

*A take on one of my books of the week, Freakonomicswhich has chapters such as ‘Why drug dealers live with their moms’ and the likes. I confess, I’ve read this book before. Does it count as one of my 100 before the year is out?

I’m going to count it as one.

Just because I can.

I suppose pop-economics books took over where pop-science books left off, but I like them very much regardless of fashion. I did a sociology unit as part of my first degree that covered the history of sociology, and then later, I read Marx and Engels and their offshoots, simply because it would be rude not to. I’m from Manchester. I’d like to know what I started, as a Mancunian.

It’s funny that what is often sociology is often economics. Can you ever really separate the two? They seem to have great big overlapping bits. I like Freakonomics because I like to think about things differently. I’ve read a few academic and a few pop-ec books and I like to know about how things work; it’s one of the reasons I went to Cuba. It’s both a history lesson and a talking point. It’s also an amazing place where things work, but don’t work if you see what I mean.

It survives without many imports. There are no shops to speak of. There are produce markets and that’s it. Make do and mend is the endemic culture. There are no car franchises, people share lifts and use whatever ‘public’ transport there is. Sometimes, that is a truck up a mountain. The country is forced to be less dependent on petrol (though relations with Venezuela are helpful) and so people farm with teams of oxen. The soil is incredibly fertile and rich. Organic and bio-farming is the future. But it’s completely imposed. You don’t have a choice. There just isn’t any petrol spare. However, they produce most of what they need themselves. There are chickens everywhere. There are little vegetable gardens everywhere. It’s about the cleanest inhabited country ever, because where there’s no heavy industry, there’s no pollution.

Anyway, I like to think of things like these from time to time.

I also enjoyed Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s books too. And Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. I’m not finished with Chesil Beach yet. So… tally so far is 3.

I’m on to Daughter of Fortune in Spanish next. It’s been ages since I read anything Spanish and one of my friends said my lovely gangster-style latin-American Spanish now sounds like a French person speaking Spanish, so I was alarmed and tried to rectify it. I can’t get my mouth to do the same things it used to. And that says a lot.

I love Isabella Allende. I could read her books endlessly. She’s got these epic, dreamy narratives that are just so divine. Her writing is so rich. Hmm. But what to pair with it, if I finish this for next week? I doubt I will. I had my GCSE marking start again yesterday and I’m now up to my eyes in S scripts and MMS and CMI and QMS and TMI. That’s another three weeks of my life gone.

Luckily, this time I am not doing NaNoWriMo so it’s just normal work plus a couple of hours a day. This comes easily from Garden time and Cleaning time.

So, why girls sometimes disappear from blogs is usually because of economics. Dollars have to be earned. And then, they return to their blogs and eke out a little enjoyment from the writing process.

In all honesty, it’s not blogging that particularly takes a cut, but any downloads and broadcasts. I’m very much enjoying Fringe at the moment. I like crazy scientists, even if they do destroy the fabric of the universe. Walter Bishop is a crazy genius. Typical Walter. “Either a green unicorn just raced across the lab, or I accidentally took some LSD.” So this will have to take a back seat. I only watch an episode here and there, but that helps save me some time.

And, it also scares small children.

Small children worry when you don’t have a television. I think they wonder if you’re a witch or something. An anti-social misfit.

Or, when you do, but when it is buried under clothes in the spare bedroom.

Anyway, after my Keira rant, another casting issue has occurred. Anne Hathaway is thinking of doing Katharina in The Taming of The Shrew. 

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Miss Anne Hathaway. She was a perfectly fine secretary in The Devil Wears Prada. Other than that, I can’t really think of a thing I’ve liked or disliked with her in it. She was an okay Catwoman. Okay. She had almost zero sex appeal or edginess, but hey ho. It was a film rich in other ways. I know some people think she was a greater Catwoman than Julie Newmar, but she’s not my cup of tea. Julie Newmar was Bailey’s – cream with a kick. Anne Hathaway was probably a cup of tea. Inoffensive, widely acceptable and rather tame.

However, she has just been cast as Katharina, my most favourite Shakespeare lady. To this, I say No, No and thrice No.

Katharina is a Marmite character. Love her or hate her. She’s edgy, she’s emotional, she’s repressed. She’s a bra burner before her time forced into corsets and ruffs. She’s Julia Stiles and Elizabeth Taylor and Simon Scardifield all in one. Simon Scardifield was actually The best Katharina in The Best production by The Best theatre company in the whole world.

I confess to being a Shakespeare luvvie. I ♥ Shakespeare. I’ve seen hundreds of productions. And the Propeller version is one of my favourite plays done to such perfection that everyone walked out of the theatre in shock at the end. The Guardian reviewer didn’t like it so much, but I think he’s an idiot. He said it should be sex-charged. I think that’s an uninspired and unimaginative view. The production went from being a kind-of-comedy with a Basil Fawlty-style husband to being the most problematic of all the problem plays. Domestic abuse at its basest. You couldn’t do this play this way with a woman playing Katharina, not without all the women walking out.

Not only that, but I touched Simon Scardifield in the Press Club in Manchester, when one of the other actors asked me and a friend to join him for a few drinks and a dance. That’s how I rolled in my Manchester life. I would tell famous thespians that I liked their appendages and they would giggle and give me their mobile number. If I’d known at the time that Simon Scardifield was going to pull out such a stonking performance as he did later that year, I’d have touched him a lot more.**

I used to plan my Shakespeare teaching around what Propeller were doing that season. That season, they made all my choices worthwhile. So, no to the anodyne Ms Hathaway

** In the interests of full disclosure, I also touched Patrick Stewart’s head, among others, and flirted with a Nobel-Prize-Winning Poet. I’ve touched lots of actors. My sixth-formers said they had never seen anyone quite as shameless as me, and if Carol Anne Duffy had a head of English like I was, then her poem would have been very different indeed. I bought Mr Seamus Heaney a Bells whisky and we talked about Julius Caesar and how he felt about having his face defaced by the youth of England in the anthology. He liked that I could quote Personal Helicon by heart and he said it was one of his favourite poems. I didn’t tell him I called him the ‘logs, bogs and frogs man’ as an A level student. I was a philistine.

Finding inspiration…

I’ve been inspirationally constipated these last few days. Not sure why. It’s hard sometimes to find anything to say – even for me! Plus, it’s been magnificently hot – 27 degrees these last 4 days – and we’ve been outside for a good proportion of the day.

But… something caught my eye this morning and it compelled me to write. Not least because it’s so similar to my own views – although the list is different.

Patrick Ness is currently my favourite writer – teenage or adult fiction aside – and he breaks rules like you wouldn’t believe. Present-tense 1st person narrative with idiosyncratic spelling and font use – he breaks conventions in such interesting ways. Without that, his trilogy starting with ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’ is an interesting sci-fi-ish, fantasy-ish quest. It has all the typical quest features – teenage heroes on the cusp of manhood (and never had manhood been so important!), a female sidekick who often saves the day, an animal who proves his worth (and had some of the best dialogue for an animal. Forget Doug in Up, Manchee is the best dog character I’ve seen for a while. Especially when he comes back from his daily constitutional and says “Great poo, Todd!” because that’s what dogs would say. It has your typical villain – Prentiss – and a journey, something sought, a setback in the second novel that finishes on a downturn (think The Empire Strikes Back) but it does it in such interesting ways. It’s part Shakespearean Tempest with colonisation and new worlds being at the forefront. It’s part The Handmaid’s Tale with the subjugation and elimination of women. It’s sci-fi, but gently so. It’s futuristic, but it’s timely. I love everything about it. And then you have a guy who manipulates the written word in ways that are so easy for rule-breaking teenagers to grasp. The sentences and paragraphs that perfectly reflect the tension – I could find a million pieces of text that are as perfectly constructed, punctuation and syntax-wise, as Angela Carter’s prose, so rich and velvety and dense as it is. For all those primary school teachers who say you can’t start a sentence with ‘And’ and you should have a full stop for every other coordinating or subordinating conjunction, they need to (first read KJB and the psalms and then) read some of Todd’s perfectly-constructed prose where Todd’s actions blend seemlessly into one in a very cinematic and visually interesting way.

Anyway… his top 10 books that teenagers should be told not to read (and then they’ll read) is here…

And it inspired my own top 10, in that it mentions at least a few books I read as a teenager that probably I shouldn’t have read. Unfortunately, teenage fiction wasn’t quite as good when I was a teen – I would have loved the phenomenal amount of good teen literature these days. So in between the children’s library in Bury and the adult section, there were two carousels – meagre offerings – of ‘teen’ fiction, most of which I read very quickly – and so I ventured to the adult section, and these are the things that caught my attention:

1. Like Patrick Ness, Flowers in the Attic. I was entranced by this story. Incest, child abuse, rape, whippings, imprisonment… it might be candy-floss, but it’s as much a gothic horror in the style of Ann Radcliffe as anything else. I was hooked on the whole series, and then later by Heaven and the Casteel series.

2. My Stephen King of choice isn’t The Stand, but It. I thought long and hard about which one I’d choose – I remember reading Pet Semetery and Salem’s Lot and either of these could be the one I’d ‘not’ recommend to teenagers. I remember reading Salem’s Lot when I got back in at night and being utterly terrified. Another thing that got me hooked on Gothic Horror as a precursor (in my reading, not chronologically!) for Dracula. It, though, was so long, so intense – and the descriptions of Pennywise are remnants from a very twisted imagination.

3. James Bond. I read all the Ian Fleming books in series – not sure why – but they’re sex and violence and even though they’re repetitive, they made me dream of  a life more glamorous than the one I had. And they’re better than the films.

4. The Outsiders. I know the film came out when I was about 11 – but it was the book that got me. I read it over and over. The film launched many film careers – Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio – directed by Francis Ford Coppola… and if it did anything, it made me love poetry. When Ponyboy recites “Nature’s first green is gold” – it made me love, love, love poetry. I learned poetry by heart because of this book. It also made me read ‘Gone with the Wind’ – and subsequently watch the film. It was inspirational on so many levels: teens writing, tales of friendship I wished I had.

5. Anything by Judy Blume (although I confess I read these when I was 11 and not quite a teen!) Forever is probably far too racy for an 11 year old, but it offered fascinating insights into a world I wasn’t in yet. Plus, it made me realise that books were sometimes rude and real. I was still living in a dreamy Enid Blyton world before that.

6. Steppenwolf. I read this at the other end of my teens, when I was about 16 – and in ways that I never got with A Catcher in the Rye, which I read at 19 – it really got me with that feeling of existential angst and isolation that teens feel and adults don’t always.

7. Maurice by EM Forster. This came out in the cinema when I was about 14. I went to see it at the Cornerhouse, an arts cinema in Manchester. Small screens, old seats, smoky furniture – it was as much about watching it there as an impressionable teen as it was about the book, which I read before I went. I cried buckets. Now I’m not gay, but when you’re a teenager thinking about sexuality, this brings it to the fore. It made me a better person to understand that love is love, no matter when and where it strikes. It also made me realise that sexuality isn’t a choice and shouldn’t be defined by social constraints. The film unfortunately gave me a crush on Hugh Grant (thankfully passed) and Rupert Graves, who is still very handsome indeed. I think it’s probably responsible for a lot of my fag-hagging and attraction to hanging out with gay men. It’s probably a really crap book and I never plan on re-reading it, but for a teenager it was really beautiful and sad.

8. I misquoted the famous line from The Go-Between yesterday (I actually said ‘The past is a different country: you have no jurisdiction over what happened in it and there’s no point worrying about what’s going on there – like Libya. There’s nothing you can do about it and nothing you try to do about it makes a bit of difference’ – which I think is a vast improvement, but then, I’m full of my own self-importance!) and The Go-Between was another really important book. I must have liked reading about doomed love affairs! My English teacher, Mrs Trethewey – a genius of a woman who introduced me to Spike Milligan poetry and to John Clare – made us write a book report at the age of 15 – and this was on the list. I chose it and never looked back. I probably enjoyed Atonement a great deal from having read this. As a loose detour, I’ve just read that Keira Knightley is to star in Anna Karenina. How to ruin a good book. I despise that woman with her wooden acting. She’s like a clothes-horse. A mannequin has more personality and emotion – and not just Kim Cattrell’s Mannequin. Keira Knightley absolutely ruined Atonement with her pouty, skinny lack of emotion. This was a detestable shame, because James MacAvoy was soooooo good. When will casting agents realise that being wooden is not acting, and being British isn’t about being wooden. I digress.

9. Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells – showing how teenage fiction should be done. If ever you want to know why nuclear war is a bad thing, this makes it more than clear. This really affected my views of the world – you can see a lot of these books affected me because they were about relationships but some got me because they were about issues that would come to define me throughout my life. This was one of those.

10. On the Road by Jack Kerouac. At the time, this seemed so cutting edge to me. I read it every year for about six or seven years. It was a totally different type of writing from everything I’d read so far in my life. It seemed such a free way of writing. I think I read it when I was about 16 or 17 and it will always be my book of festivals, my book of long train journeys. My copy has got hundreds of drawings in it and on it – I used to do ink drawings over the text of places I saw, road signs, buildings… I think it really got me about how free you could be, how you could live outside of society – and then, as my teen years finished, I conformed completely for a good 15 year period! Now the romance of On the Road has had a little rejuvenation within my soul.

Kathy Reich’s 206 Bones review

I generally like Kathy Reichs: Temperance Brennan’s stories are a lot more intricate, factual and detailed than the other ‘investigative forensics’ expert, Kay Scarpetta. Where Scarpetta ended up getting in more and more dramatic situations, and needed a military strength, Brennan needs none of that. Besides, I’m such a big fan of Bones, I can’t not be a fan of her namesake – although that seems to be the only link between the two characters.

I don’t know what it is about 206 Bones. It’s TOO complex. There’s too much going on. You know there’s something afoot at the lab as soon as a new recruit turns up some ‘missed’ bones, and you know what it is. You know that character will get their comeuppance. But apart from that, the plot was thin and overly complex – like 3 not very good stories woven together.

The other problem with it, I found, was its readability. I never really thought Kathy Reichs was a fan of the ‘chop and change’ paragraph, and to be honest, it made it impossible to follow. I know it’s supposed to make Brennan’s thoughts seem dramatic and disjointed, but it’s TOO disjointed. It’s like seeing into someone’s actual mind – and that isn’t always a good thing in mystery writing.

I’ve got a Karin Slaughter to start on, although I had promised I’d go for something a little bit more stimulating and non-fictiony, but with GCSE scripts looming over me to mark, I feel I’m due a little light relief!

Lost and Flash Forward reviews

I know, I know. I’m behind the times with both. Lost finished ages ago and I’ve been waiting to watch the final four episodes, partly with packing, and then with France getting in the way. Steve summed Lost up with “What??!” though to be honest, it confirmed all the suspicions I had with the first episode. John Locke in himself was the key – with the original John Locke being a philosopher discussing good and evil, I wondered if the island was some kind of ‘proving ground’ or purgatory for people before they died, where they had to prove whether they were good or evil, and work off their sins. When Rousseau appeared, with the whole ‘nature/nurture’ thing, and a few other characters named after philosophers, notably Desmond Hume being a take on the Scottish philosopher David Hume, it seemed to me from an early stage to be about human nature, and proving whether you were good or evil. Mr Eko seemed to add to this later on, with his ‘opposite to’ John Locke – two sides of the same coin, even in skin colour.

I thought a lot of it was about belief, with Desmond just willingly entering the numbers every 108 minutes, and then John Locke. The whole fact that Locke/Hume/Rousseau come together seemed to be far too coincidental – definitely a clue left by the writing team? Perhaps a red herring, perhaps short on names for characters, but definitely a programme about good and evil, reason and belief. I think a lot of my religious philosophy studies gave me a code-breaker that I don’t think many other people had, which would definitely leave them wondering.

It took me back to the ‘watch in the sand’ debate: how we wonder when we see a watch in the sand how it got there, who made it, who the watchmaker is… Paley’s watchmaker analogy picking up the teleological argument… you wonder who made parts of the island, the village, the Dharma Initiative (another of my clues about the purpose of the island… since Dharma is ‘law’ and if you live according to the laws, you work your way to Nirvana) and who put the planes and the Black Pearl there. There’s a whole question of ‘makers’ on the island that parallels humankind’s thoughts about our own divine maker. John Locke, prior to the infestation by the black smoke, seems to be Cleanthes, the empiricist who sees and believes. “It just is.” Philo or Demea, then, would be Jack… the scientist, the pragmatist, the questioner, the non-believer… the one who takes the longest to realise the island’s purpose in the final episode. He’s the one who finally comes to realise it was a proving ground. Then there’s the matter of the ‘miracles’ – John Locke walking, Sun’s pregnancy, Rose’s recovery. It also brings into question the whole free-will debate, since so much of it seems governed by coincidence, especially in the final episodes which bring all the main characters together, such as Desmond, Sayid, Kate and Sawyer in the jail in the ‘alternate’ reality. Coincidental meetings pepper the whole storyline, from Hurley’s numbers to his meeting with Libby.

So… if it takes all this philosophical knowledge to make sense of it, is it any good? To me, it was an excellent ‘playground’ for a whole bunch of theological and philosophical theories, but did that mean it was impossible for the average Joe to make sense of it? Probably. Ending up as a potential unleashing of evil into the world, with the island as a Pandora’s box and Jack/Hurley its keepers was perhaps a bit too deep for most. But then, that’s why I liked it. It was a real puzzle to be solved, and like some piece of abstract art, it allows you to interpret it how you will.

Steve didn’t want to enter into philosophical debate about ‘what it was all about’… which kind of rendered it a bit high-brow and intellectual, though I would dearly love to hear any other philosophical interpretations of it!!

Flash Forward…. oh my word. That’s all I can say.

Book review: The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly

I’m a big Michael Connelly fan. I love Harry Bosch. He’s hard-boiled enough to pick up from the greats, but with a soft centre. I also like how the characters interweave, like some great complex ballet, some extended narrative. You make connections between them and they live their lives beyond the text… Jack McEvoy is no exception – along with Rachel Walling, who have appeared in other Connelly texts.

What I miss about Bosch, though, is the world-weary cynicism and the blues he brings to the storyline. Yes, this has pace and threat and twists, although the reader knows who the key players are and what has happened on both sides of the good/evil line. It reads like your run-of-the-mill crime thriller, where the Bosch ones have an edge. The Poet, where we met Rachel before, was clever. There’s no empathy or motivation for the killers in this novel – they seem to just do it without reason. I didn’t really ‘get’ Jack… he’s not got the edge that Harry has, the sadness, the cynicism, the drinking a beer in an empty bar at the end of the night… the Hopper painting that so beautifully conveys the sad tragedy of the gritty Bosch. In fact, I found the preview of the 2 chapters of Nine Dragons better than the rest of this novel. Sad, I know!

I love Michael Connelly. I love Bosch, and I loved Mickey Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer, but Jack doesn’t cut the mustard. Connelly is one of my top three ‘thriller’ writers, with Robert Crais and Lee Child, but this one didn’t do it for me. I don’t mind the widening of investigative repertoire… Rachel and Jack are fine with me, but they’re no Terry McCaleb, and they’re no Harry Bosch. Still, it passed the time. And that’s damned the book with faint praise, I know!