Sunday, 23 August 2015

Holiday For One: Snapshots

Two days before I went away, I had a wobble. Quite a big one. There was an "oh no why am I going on my own?" panic, with an element of "why am I not excited? Why am I not counting down the hours like I usually do?" thrown in. 

Of course - I was fine. I was more than fine. At one point I found myself walking around Florence at 7.30am, having got up early to avoid the heat and the crowds, thinking - "this is amazing". And it was. There is something very liberating about being able to go at your own pace. For once, I wasn't bothered that tickets to the museums had sold out weeks before I had even realised I should book - I was happy to wander around, enjoy the scenery, stop for a cool drink or a gelato, or to take a photo when I wanted to. 

And when I wanted to chat to people, I could. I suspect that solo travellers give off a "vibe" - a little like traffic lights.
Red - no I don't want to chat, I'm happy with my beer and my book. Amber - I'll think about it, but don't be offended if I make my excuses. Green - I am open to conversation.
I discussed the price of Florentine leather, and got haggling tips from a Swiss couple who were staying in the same hotel as me. 
I laughed with an older Australian woman while we nervously descended the steep, dark, steps of a bell tower. "You'd never get away with this back home", she said. "It'd all be ruined by neon signs telling you not to hit your head". 
I shared dinner with an American mother, travelling with her teenage daughter. She told me that she had worked abroad after graduating, and how she had wanted to bring her daughter to Europe in the hope that it would encourage her to plan her own adventures. 

48 hours in Florence didn't quite give me enough time but it was a good introduction, both to the city, and to travelling on my own. I couldn't decide whether I was quite ready to move on to my Pilates retreat, which I think is a good sign. I'm already making plans to revisit. The art, the castles, the hilltop views... there's so much that I want to see. And I'll probably go on my own, because now I know I can. 

Monday, 17 August 2015

Books: July 52 in 52

"Books. Cats. Life is good" - Edward Gorey

Decidedly late this month, because I am a bit rubbish at this blogging thing when I'm busy, and because frankly, it didn't occur to me to write this up before I went on holiday. This month, I discovered a couple of new authors, and read the worst book of the challenge so far. One month to go until I'm at the end of my 52 weeks and I've already hit 52 books... I suspect I'll squeeze a few more in before it's finished!

52. Elly Griffiths, The Zig-Zag Girl. 3/5
In post WW2 Brighton, Inspector Stephens is called on to investigate the death of a young woman, found murdered - cut in three as a reference to a magic trick. Stephens quickly realises that there are links with his former war Colorado's - magician Max Mephisto - and from there we enter a lighthearted romp as the two hunt the killer. Meanwhile, the reader is treated to a second mystery which runs through the novel as a second thread. Who were the MagicGang (the war time unit linking our male characters), and how does it link with events five years later? 
This is the first of Griffith's books that I've read, and despite an impressive back catalogue it does read a little like a debut, or an author who isn't entirely sure they're on to a winner. While the characters were interesting and the subplot intreaguing, it felt a little bit like the setting and war references were an afterthought and an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of an Agatha Christie. Enjoyable, but I wouldn't rush to read one of her novels again.

53. Armistead Maupin, Tales of the City. 2/5
I read Tales Of The City after a recommendation from a colleague who assured me that I would find it hilarious. Honestly? It wasn't for me. 
It follows the experiences of country girl Mary Anne, who shocks her family when she moves to San Francisco. Set (and written) in the 1970s, it tells the tales of the people she meets, but the novel really revolves around her eccentric landlady Anna Madrigal. 
I suspect when Tales of the City was written it was somewhat shocking to middle America with plots revolving around characters being gay, cheating on their spouses, and facing affairs with people deemed below their social class. 
I just couldn't get in to it. I lost track of a lot of the characters (possibility because I was reading a chapter a day, but as it was written as a serial that shouldn't have affected it), and found most of them to be quite unpleasant stereotypes. Not my cup of tea. 

54. Jojo Moyes, The Girl You Left Behind. 3/5
After enjoying the first Jojo Moyes book I read, I thought I would go back to get after a couple of duds. The Girl You Left Behind is in many ways two novels in one. It starts in 1916, taking the reader to German Occupied France, and the difficulties of life under the regime for Sophie Lefevre, her family and neighbours.
The second part of the book is more contemporary. Liv, a young widow, is the owner of a painting - of Sophie - that her husband bought for her before his death. Unknown to her, the painting is being reclaimed as a "Spoil of War", and Liv suddenly finds herself embroiled in a legal battle, thrust into the media spotlight.
Aside from some occasionally irritating moments from our characters, I enjoyed The Girl You Left Behind. It somehow managed to be both a fluffy romance and a thought provoking discussion about ownership of art and the difficulties of establishing " rightful owners ". 

55. James Brindle, Modern Serpents Talk Things Through. 4/5
I'd not normally pick a fantasy - and I had not heard of this one - but it came up as a choice for Alex's Blogging Good read this month.
MSTTT introduces us to Tina, who is a modern dragon. She's not such a fan of setting things on fire or scaring people - and when human invades her home, she panics and locks it in a cupboard. Slowly, Tina gets to know her new human, and an unlikely love blossoms.
It's more of a novelette, a short story, but it is clever in the way that it subverts the reader's expectations. I suspect that everyone would identify with the themes - the need to be loved, accepted and the fear of judgement. If I was being cynical then I would say that at times it verges on contrived, but considering it's an early effort by an author I suspect we'll hear more of in the future, I enjoyed it. It also made me laugh, which is a rarity.

56. Lisa Bergren, Glamorous Illusions. 1/5
This book also made me laugh, but largely at it, rather than with it, and I'm not sure that was the author's aim.
When Cora learns that her father is a multimillionaire mining magnate and not the poor farmer she grew up with, she finds herself being blackmailed into going on a tour of Europe with her new half-siblings. Naturally they all hate her, she is an inverse snob, and she develops a thing for the tour guide. He is, of course, the only remotely bearable character.
To say that the book exacerbates every negative stereotype of Europeans would be an understatement. The English are snobby, the French sleazy - and they're all out to 'snare' a rich American. There's a ludicrous subplot involving a foiled kidnapping (I suspect that this attitude, combined with Taken, is why the Americans I knew at uni were terrified of travelling in Europe...) and - most frustrating of all - I ploughed through to the end in the hope that there'd be a satisfying cheesy ending. There wasn't. It stopped, mid story, to be completed in book two...
For so many reasons, avoid.

57. Neil Gaiman, Coraline. 3/5
I've been meaning to read a Neil Gaiman for ages so I was pleased when this came up as the other choice for A Blogging Good Read. It wouldn't have been my first choice of his to read - I tend to steer away from creepy - and this fits firmly in that category. 
Coraline moves into a new flat with her parents, and finds herself Very Bored. After wondering what is behind the locked door in the dining room, she manages to open it only to find a corridor to an alternative universe. Coraline has to solve the mystery of her Other Parents, to return home to safety. She's helped by the souls of three other children, a pebble, some marbles and the next door neighbour's cat.
Although it's not the kind of book I'd normally go for - both for the creepy nature, and because it fits into the Young Adult category (both areas I tend to avoid), I did enjoy it and it was an easy and entertaining read. I read an interview with Gaiman which described it as the kind of book that children would find an adventure but adults would read as a nightmare - and although it won't keep me up at night, I did find it clever. I also particularly liked how the cat was a goodie, and not a baddie, as they so often are...!