Sunday, 30 November 2014

Books: November Fifty Two in Fifty Two

"Why can't people just sit and read books and be nice to each other?" 
David Baldacci, The Camel Club.

A slightly paltry selection this month, somewhat hampered by my having started reading a 850+ page tome (can I count that as 3 books?), and a 19+ hour audiobook after finishing these four. Unsurprisingly, I've not finished them yet. Roll on December, month of candles, blankets, port, cheese - and more books.

12. Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana. 4/5 
Graham Greene has popped up a few times as a suggestion in my Goodreads list, as I have quite a few classics on there. I wasn't completely sure what to expect, having (if I'm completely honest) not really heard much about his books before, but I really enjoyed it. The tale of how an English vacuum cleaner salesman living in Cuba accidentally becomes a spy somehow managed to be funny, despite a definite dark undertone. Even though it's a fairly short character based tale, the atmosphere of 1950s Cuba, pre-missile crisis, is very evocative and although being deliberately farcical, Greene's own experiences of working for MI5 make it strangely believable. I really enjoyed it, although I did crave daiquiris for several days afterwards. 

13. M. C. Beaton, Death of a Nag. 2/5
Aside from Our Man in Havana, most of the books this month have been decidedly un-taxing and comforting. However, after a couple of duds in a row, I think it might be time to extract myself form the Hamish Macbeth series, and move onto something else as my fluffy bedtime reading. Our lead character was still pining over a broken heart - and tragedy comes in threes, as another loss knocks him for six, and someone staying in his holiday B&B is murdered. 
As with some of the others I've read where the setting is Macbeth's hometown, the characters just felt flat and one dimensional. I was surprised at the murderer, but to be honest I wasn't overly bothered, having got bored of the unpleasant stereotypes about handsome men and spinster women along the way. Disappointing. 

14. Carola Dunn, Fall of a Philanderer. 4/5.
Ah, this is more like it. I do like the Daisy Dalrymple series - it's as cheesy and fluffy as Hamish Macbeth, but with a cracking female lead (think a young Miss Marple) and a brilliant supporting cast. The characters have grown with the series, so reading them in order has been a good choice, but they'd be fun as standalones as well.
This one - set while Daisy is on holiday - was an entertaining romp, with characters that veered on the right side of believable for a very camp novel. The prejudices and realities of life in 1920s Britain were nicely explored - the poverty of farming families, the emotional impact that war had - without being forced. It's also one of very few "crime" novels I've read where I didn't guess the twist, which is always quite satisfying.

15. Hester Browne, The Vintage Girl. 3/5.
I started off quite liking this one. Evie is a massive antiques geek - obsessed with buying "treasures" that noone else wants. She has a bit of a thing about country houses, and so she is in her element when she finds herself invited to value the contents of a castle in the Scottish Borders. So far, so predictable, I thought. Except - unlike the Katie Fforde I hated last month, it wasn't. There wasn't a massive neon plot device sign, things were a bit more complicated than that, which is always a good thing. 
However... It still irritated me. Clearly written for the American market, the details of Scottish dancing and stereotypes that accompanied it were excruciating. The leading lady began to grate after a while, and the ending all felt rather rushed and sudden. Not bad for a bedtime read when you can't concentrate on anything else - but not exactly good either.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

25th December, 1914.

It feels like October, the clock changes and Halloween were ages ago. The pumpkins, ghouls and wizards disappeared quite literally overnight, and shiny plastic tinsel and chocolate oranges took their places. We're now well into November, and for most of us there's only one payday left until Christmas.

It's the time of year when advent and advert are easily confused. 

I've seen a lot of bloggers singing the praises of the John Lewis advert this year. Some of their posts are probably sponsored, some not. JL adverts have become the "thing" now - the sign that the year's biggest shopping occasion is nearly upon us, and that we must frantically buy stuff to show our loved ones how much we care about them (my Scrooge-esque opinions are nothing new, I've mentioned my disdain for Christmas gifts before. It's another entry on the Why I'm Not A Lifestyle Blogger list). 

To say I was surprised by the Sainsbury's advert this year would be an understatement. No emphasis on bankrupting ourselves on a single meal - instead a simple, and incredibly poignant message. 
No one knows for certain how or why the Christmas Ceasefire happened. It seems to have been spontaneous, perhaps triggered by Germans decorating trees with candles (after all, the habit is German in origin) or singing hymns on Christmas Eve. Silent Night is the most likely to have bonded the troops, as it's one of only a small number of carols commonly sung in English, French and German. Hundreds of small breaks in the war spontaneously erupted.

Maybe it happened because the lads had a moment of realisation that really, regardless of who they were or why they were there, they were all missing their families and trying to make the best of a pretty dire situation. Maybe it's because they were all volunteers, who had signed up early under the impression it wouldn't last long. They were not yet made bitter by the brutality and propaganda that was yet to come. Both sides had thought that it would all be over by Christmas. 
'Over The Top' 1st Artist's Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1918, John Nash. (Imperial War Museums)
Christmas Day probably started in most places in a way typical to a ceasefire. In traditional battlefield combat (after all - World War I is often regarded as the turning point in warfare, when hand to hand fighting was overtaken by technology), ceasefires were often called to allow each side to safely collect their dead. 25th December 1914 started in the same way in many places. Anecdotal evidence tells of men from both British and German armies burying their men alongside each other just outside Lille. 
Burying those killed in the attack of 18th December. Imperial War Museum: Q50720
Most of the men wouldn't have spoken each other's language. Inevitably, exchange of rations and trinkets would have happened in lieu of conversation. Treats from home - jam, boiled sweets and chocolate from the British ration packs, vegetables from the Germans. The British packs were considered the "best", but undoubtedly after some folk had spent six months without a vegetable, a fresh carrot would have been worth swapping a bar of Cadbury's for. 
Men from the 2nd Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers with German soldiers, Boxing Day 1914. Imperial War Museum: HU 35801
Captain Sir Edward Hulse reported singsongs around campfires, which "ended up with 'Auld lang syne' which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!" 

Makeshift football games cropped up - mostly as a kick-about between battalions on the same side, but again there's anecdotal evidence that Britain vs Germany matches took place. Sadly not the first example though, as many jokes claim. The rivalry had been alive and well since the first England vs Germany game in 1899. 

As darkness descended, flares went up, a signal that the fighting was to restart. 
Wire, Paul Nash. (Imperial War Museums)
The Christmas 1914 ceasefire was the only long break in fighting. A British press embargo was immediately arranged to stop any news getting back home, but it was broken after a week by the New York Times. The stories would have slowly got home in letters anyway. When public opinion began to turn against the war, and fears of refusals to fight increased, arrangements were made to prevent troops from fraternising with the enemy and to increase propaganda in the trenches themselves. But still - the sentiment remained on a small scale. Historian Tony Ashworth has described how the "live and let live" ethos developed in some areas, with an unofficial avoidance of attack during meal times. I find this incredibly poignant. A small act of rebellion, a small act of recognising that despite the fighting, they were all human.

"I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. ... I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. ... I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. ... The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck." - Bruce Bairnsfather

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Exploring: Lisbon

I've just spent 4 days in Lisbon. I didn't really know what to expect - if I'm honest, it wasn't really on my radar as a place to visit before the chance popped up. I think that made exploring enjoyable though. No preconceptions or assumptions about what I would see or where I would go, just a couple of days of wandering and exploring. 

There were things I was expecting - plazas with fountains and pavement cafes. Narrow streets and old buildings. North African and Indian influences. Seafood. Pastries. All the pastries. There were also things I was surprised by - how varied the architecture is, going from faded grandeur to brutalist to modern in a single street. The warm temperature. The beggars and homeless, mostly men, almost all disabled. A city of contrasts.

It's a photogenic place, if unusual buildings and small details are your cup of tea. I may have got a bit overexcited with my camera. In the mean time - a few pictures from my phone.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Books: October Fifty Two in Fifty Two

"Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them" 
Lemony Snicket, Horseradish

Two months in, and I'm really enjoying the 52 books challenge. It's definitely encouraging me to find an hour or two each day (usually running away from the office at lunch time towards a local coffee shop) to just sit down, read and relax.

5. Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. 3/5.
This was my selection for Alex's Blogging Good Read series. I'd heard really good things about it (it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) but couldn't get my head around how it could be that good when my other Karen Joy Fowler experience was The Jane Austen Book Club.
If I'm honest - I'm still not completely sure about it. It didn't grip me in the way I had hoped, and I found the lead character quite irritating. The time-hopping narrative style didn't really draw me in, even though it was actually quite a clever way of telling the story, and unusually done - the story was told more in themes than a linear way. 
Because I knew next to nothing about the book, I didn't "see" the twist coming (I won't reveal it just in case you're also completely in the dark) and was genuinely shocked by it, but after it was out in the open it felt more like a campaign manifesto in parts than a novel about a dysfunctional family. There were really quite traumatic details that I wasn't expecting - animal based, nothing in a Dave Peltzer zone - and that instantly turned me off. Maybe I'm just too much of a softie to read a painful book. Saying that though I did think it was well researched and written (I loved how the philosophy was weaved in) and a great read for anyone interested in family dynamics - just not my cup of tea.

6. Katie Coyle, Vivian Versus The Apocalypse. 4/5
Another of the Blogging Good Read choices - I'd not heard of this one and it really wasn't the type of book I'd normally pick (I usually stay away from anything remotely sci-fi, and tend to steer in the opposite direction to teen fiction). I will quite happily say thought that my initial prejudices were wrong, and I really enjoyed it. I found the characters surprisingly realistic the more we got to know them, their reactions to difficult situations (booze, normally) and the bickering was all reminiscent of actually being eighteen. Coyle managed to toe the line between irritating characters, and realistic flaws pretty well. 

The story itself - about a new religion which appears to correctly identify the date of the apocalypse - I thought was really well executed. For a tale which span almost a year it was fast paced, and I enjoyed getting to know more about what may have actually happened as the characters did. I find that sometimes in "unusual situation" books the characters keep things from the audience, or the narrator lets the secret slip but because so much of this book is based on conversation, it unravelled quite naturally. 
My only criticism is that the ending - which was nicely handled, I wasn't sure where it was going to go - was a bit fast for my likes. I might have to re-read the last couple of chapters in a week or two if I've not remembered it all. 

7. Agatha Christie, 4.50 From Paddington. 3/5.
The third - and final - Blogging Good Read choice. I'd not read this one before, despite being quite a big Agatha Christie fan. I listened to it on audiobook, read by Joan Hickson, who was perfect. She just is Miss Marple. However - Miss Marple isn't really in this one much, and I think that's why I didn't enjoy it as much as others. The charm and powers of her reasoning (Miss Marple is a wonder for matching murderous situations to small time scandal in her home town) were lost, and that's what makes Agatha Christie's stories so enjoyable normally.
Even though it wasn't quite as riveting as I'd hoped, I still enjoyed the story and the mysterious romp, and I found it strangely comforting.

8. Katie Fforde, The Perfect Match. 2/5.
I picked this one up from the library as an audiobook. To say that it isn't my usual choice would be an understatement. Bella is going out with an estate agent, which we all know is synonymous with being an arse. Except she is one too - the rare type that actually cares about her clients and wants to help her 80 year old friend stay in her mansion. She's just too nice, frankly. She's got a thing about a former colleague, a lawyer, which we also know is synonymous with being an arse, and therefore chaos in her love-life should ensue. Except it doesn't and we know how it ends from the beginning because there are massive plot hinting klaxons. I found myself more interested in the sub plot involving her godmother (because living with a godmother is more socially acceptable than your actual mother), and a stranger on a train. That one should have ended in some sort of 1940s mystery. Except it didn't. We know how that one ends from the beginning too. Unoriginal, uninspiring, but surprisingly good to have on in the background while you're deep cleaning the kitchen.

9. M. C. Beaton, Death of A Charming Man. 2/5.
I do normally really enjoy my silly murder mysteries, and have been working my way through this series, but this one (number 10) didn't quite do it for me. It's premise - a handsome man turns up and everyone goes gaga for him - is quite similar to one of the others in the series but somehow missing the usual charm. Hamish, our protagonist, is miserable, his love interest is being unpleasant, the additional characters (none of the local neighbours in this one) were all unlikeable and it was all just a bit... much. I just wanted it to be over so I could move on to the next one in the hope that's back to the usual funny and relaxing cheese. Fingers crossed.

10. Edward Marston, The Painted Lady. 3/5.
Another audio book. I picked this one because it was a historical mystery (there's been a theme in the type of book I choose at the moment) and to begin with, I wasn't sure whether I could keep track of the characters. But I carried on, and enjoyed it. The parallels between 18th Century London's prejudices and modern day Daily Mail scandals amused me - he must have been the murderer, he was a Foreigner And A Catholic! Not particularly taxing, not an especially historically accurate read, but quite entertaining.

11. Marian Keyes, Rachel Goes On Holiday. 4/5. 
I really wasn't expecting to enjoy this as much as I did. It was another fluffy audiobook to have on in the background. Fluff is doing Marian Keyes a miss-service. Yes, there is a romance tangled up in the story - but there's also tales of drug addiction, alcohol abuse, chronic loneliness, and how close people get to really, really messing up. The story of Rachel, and her rapidly declining mental health, is told slowly. It's a weighty tome. But I think that's why it works. Keyes has been open about her own drug and alcohol addictions in the past, and I did find myself wondering whether there were autobiographical elements here.
There are parts of this which are surprisingly bleak for a "chic lit". Rachel's spell in rehab, the main part of the story, manages to discuss addiction with a sympathetic but brutal reality and I found myself really warming to the characters, all of whom had their own stories which unravelled alongside Rachel's.
Not at all what I thought it would be - I really enjoyed it.