Books, life the universe

Thursday, 30 April 2009


The title of a book by Stephen Amidon which I've just read. Set in small town America it deals in an understated way with the goings on - legal and illegal - of the people who live there. Edward is a security expert whose company installs alarm systems. He has a serious insomnia problem and an ex-girlfriend who seems to occupy his current thinking more than is wise. His wife, Meg, is an up and coming local politician. Doyle Cutler is a powerful local figure. Edward happens to be in his office when the telephone operator receives a message of an alarm activation at Doyle's house. Even though Doyle himself answers the phone and says everything is all right, Edward feels there's something strange going on and drives out to the house to re-assure himself.

A few days later Mary Steckl, a student at the local university claims she was sexually assaulted at Cutler's house on the night of the false alarm. Edward believes she is telling the truth and tries to find out what happened. His wife meanwhile has reasons of her own for putting a different interpretation on Mary's story. You can almost feel the claustrophobic atmosphere of this small town through the author's writing.

I thought the characters were interesting and believable and the writing was stylish. The book wasn't too American - which some American fiction is with loads of references it is difficult to understand if you live this side of the Atlantic. The ending also fitted the rest of the book even though it wasn't quite what I expected.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Is this really a pandemic?

Flu of any description is very unpleasant as I know from personal experience. certainly the last time I had it I didn't really care whether I recovered or not for about 3 days - which is bad. I can't help feeling the dangers of the swine flu are somewhat exaggerated just as they were with SARS and bird flu. Having lived through a smallpox epidemic - not that I remember much about it except queueing until late in the evening for the vaccination; as well as two serious flu epidemics and the Cuban missile crisis I'm not sure I'm going to lose any sleep over it.

Are a few cases in most of the major countries the criteria for a pandemic? As a percentage of world population the numbers seem trivial at present. Just looked it up in Wikipedia which quotes the World Health Organisation. It has to be a new disease and one that causes serious illness and spreads easily amongst humans. So now we know.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009


I am interested in earthquakes having experienced two in this country. I keep the British Geological survey and the US equivalent in my Internet favourites and look at the latest quakes most days.

There was one near Ulverston in Cumbria today which was pretty large by British standards - 3.7. I've just added up the number in the British Isles in the last 30 days and realised that this last month seems to have been quite active. 8 on the mainland and 3 in the English Channel including one today. Admittedly the British Geological Survey record quakes under 1 in magnitude but even so this seems to be quite a large number for us. Normally it's perhaps 4 or 5 and sometimes there's only one or two. Today the map is full of red dots! should you be interested too. American version and covers the world.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Currently reading

I'm still reading People with a Purpose by Trevor Barnes about Teach Yourself books over the last 70 years. In total contrast I've also started reading Awakening by S J Bolton - whose Sacrifice I thought excellent some months ago.

People with a Purpose is brilliant for showing how ideas and attitudes have changed over the last 70 years. For example equal pay for equal work was just a pipe dream and considered a little stupid at that in the 1940s. On the other hand Teach Yourself Mothercraft stated quite plainly that bringing up children should be a joint effort involving both husband and wife which in the 1940s was perhaps ahead of its time.

Awakening is scary if you have a dislike of snakes. If you have a phobia then you'd be better not to read it at all. This author does suspense as well as anyone I've ever read. More when I've finished it.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

People with a purpose

I've just started reading a fascinating little book called People with a Purpose by Trevor Barnes. It was written to celebrate the 70th anniversary recently of the Teach Yourself series. It consists of a very amusing commentary on books in the series from its inception in 1938.

First in the series was Teach Yourself to Cook in 1938. Shortly after there was Teach Yourself Flying - which was recommended to people wanting to join the RAF during World War II. It included a section on acrobatics and how to do them but included a comment about this sort of thing only appealing to young men. I don't believe there is a modern equivalent of Teach Yourself Flying!

In the early days there was one called Teach Yourself how to Live which was perhaps the forerunner of the modern phenomenon of popular psychology. War time titles reflected the restrictions on all aspects of daily life and Teach Yourself Dressmaking featured ways of recycling old clothes.

I'm finding it really interesting especially seeing how the style of writing has changed over 70 years and of course the subjects covered.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Dr Crippen rehabilitated

I finished reading Martin Edwards' Dancing for the Hangman - a fictional recreation of the events which led up to this infamous murder case. Crippen writes his version of his life in between conversations with his solicitor - who seems to have done him no favours - newspaper cuttings, extracts from evidence given at his trial and other contemporary documents.

Crippen himself comes over as a determined individual on the fringes of medicine even though he was a qualified doctor. It seems as though one of his main motivations was to earn enough money to keep his wife, Cora, in singing lessons and music hall costumes.

Crippen did not have private means and so he gravitated to the charlatan side of medicine in order to earn enough to support himself and his wife. He does not appear to have been terribly successful as a business man and was consequently just scraping by much of the time. He was by turns naive and knowledgeable about people and possibly trusted some to have his best interests at heart when they were simply furthering their own ends. Did he murder his wife? Will we ever know? This book certainly raises some interesting questions and puts forward one possible theory of how it happened.

I found the book fascinating and well written - though I have to confess to skipping over the gory bit! I thought the relationships between Crippen, his wife Cora and lover Ethel Le Neve were very well done and believable as was his relationship with the policeman in the case - Walter Dew. Did he think he got the right man? The way the media - then only newspapers - treated the case was also fascinating. Did they influence the outcome? We are never likely to know. Well worth reading whether you like crime fiction or true crime.

Thursday, 23 April 2009


Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I like watching ducks. I was waiting for the bus yesterday morning and idly watching a family of ducks - mother, father and 5 tiny baby balls of brown fluff. They were pottering about the kid's playground - which is a large grass expanse with swings etc.

I noticed the mother duck was shaking out her wings and then preening her chest feathers and the babies were copying her. Of course their wings are hardly developed at that stage but they were doing their best to follow suit! Then they all curled up in a hollow and went to sleep with the father duck apparently standing guard with one eye out for danger.

Motorists round here stop for ducks to cross the road - especially at this time of year when there are babies about. Even buses and lorries stop so quite often you'll see a queue of 3 or 4 vehicles patiently waiting while a group - or even a single duck - cross the road. It's rare to see a squashed one.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Letting go of the Glitz

I cannot remember the last time a book made me as annoyed as Letting go of the Glitz by Julia Stephenson. Like many people, if they're honest, I'm only really interested in a greener way of living if it also benefits me. Like a good child of the 1950s I abhor waste and dislike the throwaway aspects of modern society so in that sense I am all in favour of a greener way of life. Recycled paper? - bring it on. Recycled glass? - yes I really like the look of chunky tableware made from the stuff.

But this book is too precious for words. This lady is a socialite who has jumped on the green band wagon because she suddenly realised too many possessions didn't buy her happiness. She is also very pro animal rights and almost advocates any sort of action to see animals are not ill treated including breaking and entering in order to get film of pigs in crates. I've got news for you - sows have to be put in crates when they've just had piglets otherwise they may squash them by rolling on them. It is done to protect the piglets.

According to her, medical research on monkeys does not work. The drug trial which nearly caused the death of several people at Northwick Park Hospital a while back proves this as the drug had been tested on monkeys. She conveniently forgets to report that it has since been found these people were given way in excess of the dosage they should have been given because of an administrative mistake. Good though carrots are for you - if you eat them to excess you will turn orange and may die.

She installs a wood burning stove in her flat as burning wood is carbon neutral. Maybe my scientific knowledge is at fault here but anything with carbon in is going to produce carbon dioxide when burnt - even humans who are carbon based life forms in the words of the best science fiction.

Yes there is food for thought in this book along with the absolute rubbish but it is so unlike how the majority live as to seem like living on another planet. She does not buy new clothes but she tries to get on with cycling and finds it too difficult in London. So she continues to travel around the capital in black cabs rather than on buses or the tube. She'd prefer it if cyclists could ride on pavements. Maybe she would but the pedestrians wouldn't. Housework - even with eco friendly cleaning materials - is so tiring and she usually leaves it to her cleaners - note the plural.

I cannot take seriously any self styled 'green goddess' who takes not one but two travel kettles with her when she stays away overnight so that she is sure to have the wherewithal to make her essential cup of Harrods Earl Grey Tea in the mornings. Or one who thinks that vaccinations in childhood trigger allergies in later life because they weaken people's immune systems. When she suddenly develops hay fever she must see the only specialist in the world who can rid her of it who happens to live in Switzerland.

This is life, Jim, but not as we know it.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Trisha Ashley and First Edition magazine

I like Trisha Ashley's books. They're light hearted with interesting characters and backgrounds. Her latest Wedding Tiers is no exception. Josie is living in an idyllic Lancashire village with her artist boyfriend Ben. She makes individually designed wedding cakes such as the marvellous one she made for an Elizabethan themed wedding in the shape of a pomander. It seems as though her life will become even more idyllic when her long time best friend Libby returns to the village and decides to settle there and buy the local manor house, Blessings. When she plans on setting up a business organising wedding receptions it seems as though it will be a partnership made in heaven.

But as with any Eden there is a serpent in the shape of Ben, Josie's boyfriend, who is being less than truthful about his activities in London. Josie's revenge on him is priceless. The eco friendly lifestyle which most of the villagers live partly through necessity and their informal barter system is well described. I didn't even feel the message was being forced on me! Loved it - real feel good fiction.

First Edition Magazine which Anne Brooke was kind enough to mention is excellent value for money - 18 short stories as well as poetry, interviews, news and competitions. The latest issue - no 3 - contains an interesting interview with Anne herself and is well worth reading. It can be obtained direct from the publisher - - or from newsagents for the princely sum of £3.00.

I thought the quality of the stories was somewhat uneven but there were some gems amongst them as well. Even the serial was good in spite of the fact I've not read the first two installments! Long may the magazine continue especially as it welcomes submissions. I get the impression short stories are becoming more popular.

Monday, 20 April 2009

New meme

I don't always like these but this one interested me as KCM over at Zen Mischief supposed it would.

All you have to do is pick a musical artist then using ONLY SONG TITLES from that artist, answer the following questions about your life.

I chose ABBA
  1. Are you male or female? I am just a girl
  2. Describe yourself Sitting in a palm tree
  3. How do you feel about yourself? As good as new
  4. Describe your parents Knowing me, knowing you
  5. Describe your ex-boyfriends/girlfriends Thank you for the music
  6. Describe your current boy/girl situation Lovelight
  7. Describe your current location Crazy World
  8. Describe where you want to be Happy Hawaii
  9. Your best friend(s) is/are? The way old friends do
  10. Your favourite colour is? Honey, honey
  11. You know that People need love
  12. If your life was a television show what would it be called? Dance while the music still goes on
  13. What is life to you The Name of the Game
  14. What is the best advice you have to give I let the music speak.

Saturday, 18 April 2009


There seems to be a sort of horrible fascination among the book buying public for vampires. I wonder why? I think it started with Stephanie Meyer's books - Twilight, Eclipse,Breaking Dawn etc. Since she published the first one in the series there seem to be nothing but vampires coming out of the woodwork. I've just checked the Amazon bestseller list and 4 out of the top 10 are Stephanie Meyer.

Then if you look at the top selling new and not yet published books there are several dark fantasy themed offerings. Looks to me as though everyone's gone over to the dark side. To be fair I haven't read any of Meyer's books but it seems as though people either love or hate them. Predictably some religions abhor them and there are parts of America where they're banned, but this happened with Harry Potter and other less famous works.

I wonder whether it's to do with the economic situation and reading for escape?

Friday, 17 April 2009

Marika Cobbold

I've just read Marika Cobbold's Aphrodite's Workshop for Reluctant Lovers which involves some of the Gods from Mount Olympus, a romantic novelist who has suddenly lost her faith in romantic love and Coco the clown who is an 'imaginary friend' of the novelist Rebecca Finch. A recipe for disaster you might think but I thought it was excellent. Beautifully eccentric characters, smooth writing, Gods behaving like humans and ordinary flawed human beings sorting out their lives.

I remember reading the same author's Guppies for Tea and finding it not at all to my liking but this was different. The title interested me as did the blurb so I gave it a chance and I was not disappointed.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Strawberries for tea and cash machines

They weren't English unfortunately but Spanish as it too early for the English varieties. I've taken to popping into Marks & Spencer on my way home as they reduce prices on perishable items about 4.00pm. The strawberries were £1.00 which is as cheap as buying home grown ones in season. Unfortunately much of what they reduce is things like cream cakes which I avoid but fruit and veg is often a bargain - and it's a useful place to get cash back as I don't like cash machines.

A work colleague is in dispute with his bank at the moment as drew a 3 figure sum from his account by means of the cash machine inside the bank - and did not receive his money. He did what any sensible person would and went to the human being at the counter and explained. They said they would need to check the cash machine at the end of the day to see if it had too much in it and 'Yes, Sir it has happened with that machine before.'

Which begs the question why didn't they get it looked at to see why it malfunctioned? I didn't get chance to speak to him today to see if the problem had been resolved but I rather think he may not win especially as he has a receipt and the money has left his account. I've had it happen to me some years ago now and it was sorted within 24 hours - in my favour. Maybe I was lucky . . . This is one of the reasons I don't use cash machines.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009


I had thought a couple of blackbirds were going to take over last year's nest in our Rowan tree. But they've been eyeing it up for other purposes entirely. I think it probably belonged to sparrows last year from the size of it. The workmanship was so good I was reluctant to remove it when I pruned the tree at the beginning of winter. I'm trying to keep it about 7 or 8 feet tall as we don't want it overshadowing the house.

It turns out the blackbirds wanted it for nesting material and it has gradually disappeared over Easter. I suppose that is the ultimate in recycling and it reminded me of all the 16th century villages dotted about the country which have been built out of the ruins Henry VIII left behind following the dissolution. Nature obviously jumped on the recycling band wagon ages before humans thought of it.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Book about sleep

I've been fascinated over the last couple of days by Sean Coughlan's book The Sleepyhead's Bedside Companion. Leaving aside the rather twee title I found this well worth reading. There is no index though the contents list is comprehensive. It is not a scholarly book and there is no list of sources but there is enough information given with each subject to allow you to identify its source if you wished.

I was intrigued to learn that the basic design of beds has not really changed since human beings first started looking for somewhere to curl up. I was not aware that sleep deprivation can be more dangerous and more quickly fatal than starvation. Pyjamas come from an Indian word and at one time sleep was not considered an indication of idleness as it is today.

This is a book for dipping into - perhaps if you are unable to sleep. Though insomnia, if it is real rather than simply a fashionable pose, can kill you. If you were that way inclined you could start worrying about the effects of your insomnia and make the problem worse. Apparently human beings right up until the nineteenth century didn't confine sleep to one block of time during the day.

They might sleep until about midnight then wake up for an hour or so to talk, eat, drink or read or write and then go back to sleep. The human system is far better suited to this regime which probably accounts for the fact that if I stay up until midnight - rare these day - I seem to wake up rather than get more sleepy.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Snobbery and chocolate

I started reading an article about posh chocolate being recession proof and came across this paragraph:

As a child I never ventured much beyond a Yorkie bar or a Kit Kat. I thought a Turkish Delight was the height of sophistication. My mother would come home with a slab of Dairy Milk or Fruit and Nut and we'd all go into paroxysms of joy. I think of these days with horror.

Shame on you Lucy Cavendish, who is writing in Can't give you the exact link because for some reason I can't copy and paste anything into this blog at the moment.

This is just snobbery of the most blatant kind. I know there's a huge difference in taste between Dairy Milk and 70% cocoa solids expensive one plantation chocolate, but that's all it is - a matter of taste. Ultimately it's what the individual prefers. Yes I love very expensive chocolate - but in general cannot afford it - though Lidl and Aldi do some bars which are relatively cheap. But in my opinion snobbery should not come into it - each to their own taste.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The 19th Wife

I have been working my way through this doorstop of a book for quite some time now and I'm finally nearing the end. It's by David Ebershoff and is about the Mormons past and present and polygamy.

Jordan - an outcast from the Firsts - the polygamous bit of the Latter Day Saints - has heard his mother, a 19th wife, has been arrested for the murder of his father. He feels she could not possibly have done it and sets out to prove she's innocent. His story is interweaved with that of the 19th wife of Brigham Young - Ann Eliza. She escaped from the sect and travelled round America giving talks on the evil of polygamy. As a result of the publicity the church was forced to disown the practice and today it is only the Firsts who continue to practice it even though it is technically illegal in America.

It was this sect which hit the headlines last year because of the child abuse accusations which were subsequently found not to be true. It fascinates me that this way of life can continue even though it is illegal. If people want to live like that I have no problem from a moral point of view but judging by the small spate of autobiographies which have been published over the last few years by people who have escaped, it is far from clear whether people live like this of their own free will. That I do have a problem with.

Even tho this book is marketed as fiction it is clear a lot of it is fact and based on recorded testimonies. I've found it interesting though if you have no interest in this murky part of America's past and present you might find it a little dry.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Lovely weather for ducks

I was hoping it would rain today - which sounds odd. I'd raked the lawn yesterday to get all the dead grass out of it and I wanted to put the 'weed and feed' on it. This is supposed to be done just before it rains so it gets watered in otherwise you have to do it yourself. I was just right with the timing and it started raining almost immediately the stuff had been spread on the lawn and has rained on and off for the rest of the day.

In the space of less than 24 hours the Rowan tree in the front garden has started into leaf. Wednesday when I came home from work there were no green shoots but by the time I came home from work on Thursday the leaves were clearly visible. The old nest in this tree - which is about 7 or 8 feet tall - is currently the subject of a turf war between the local blackbirds. I'm not sure why as it was formerly the home of some sparrows and I would not have thought it was big enough for the blackbirds.

Spring is sprung in this part of the world and the grass verges are starred with daffodils. We get more than our fair share of daffodils lining our country roads because farmers grow them for the bulb industry and there are always some which get left behind or thrown onto the verges. I love this time of year because everything seems new minted and fresh. The colours are more vibrant than they become later in the summer months.

Happy Easter everyone.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Hungry Ghosts

I'm currently reading Hungry Ghosts by Anne Berry. Lots of different narrators - but at least it's made clear who is doing the talking - including a ghost. It is a book which is not for the squeamish, though there are only sporadic unpleasant scenes which you could probably read with your eyes half shut and miss out the worst bits. It is well written and is about the family of a British diplomat stationed in Hong King before the handover - well so far it's before the handover. The British in general do not come out of it in a very good light.

The Safford family seem an ill assorted collection - mother Myrtle, father Ralph and children Jillian, Nicola, Harry and Alice. Jillian and Nicola seem to think about nothing but boys and sex and tart is probably too polite a description of both of them. Alice is a little strange - almost fey - and Harry is a glutton.

Alice is taken over by the ghost of a murdered Chinese girl for reasons which aren't made clear - up to page 200 that is. It is an intriguing story which would not have suffered if the nastier scenes had been left out or merely hinted at. So many writers these days seem not to have learnt the art of showing a nasty scene through one small object - splash of blood on a curtain or a wall say - or through someone's expression. To me this sort of writing is far more powerful than the blood and guts and let it all hang out style of so many modern novels.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The Flying Troutmans

It sounds like a book that ought to be about characters in a circus instead it's about a road trip from Canada to America in search of the father of two children. Hattie returns to Canada from Paris at the request of her sister Min who is suffering from unspecified mental problems. Hattie shoulders the burden of 15 year old Logan and 11 year old Thebes and on a whim, because she thinks Min is dying, decides to go in search of the children's father.

I found it very annoying that there are no speech marks in the book which means you almost have to read it 'aloud' in order to understand who is talking and to whom. Why do authors do this? I'm sure if they listened to their readers' they wouldn't do it. Apart from that I found the book good in a weird way. The author has caught the banter between family members and her portrayal of the distinctly weird Thebes is excellent.

There was a tension underlying the story about whether Min was going to be all right in the end. This was emphasised by the regular flashbacks to Hattie's and Min's childhood. I found the book definitely grew on me - The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Computers . . .

. . . .don't you just love them? I do actually - when they work properly. Unfortunately something I use every day of the week at work was not working today. It's been playing up for a while but I thought I'd leave it until after the weekend as they were installing updates to all sorts of things. If anything this made my problems worse!

I did all the usual things - switch off and start again; see if the same thing happens on another machine - etc etc. So I had to ring the dreaded helpdesk. Whilst they didn't solve the problem - which has now been escalated - they were at least polite and seemed as though they cared. We will see what tomorrow brings . . . It's almost as though my computer has given up on me already and is sulking!!

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Donna Leon

I am currently reading Donna Leon's latest Brunetti novel - About Face. As ever it repays careful reading. There are so many nuances in every conversation. This time it is corruption in the disposal of hazardous waste. This is a subject which has cropped up before in Leon's stories especially with regard to the industrial side of Venice at Maghera and Mestre. Anyone reading fiction set in any part of Italy will know that all official operations are based on corruption or the Mafia - usually both.

In Venice the Mafia have not yet managed to gain very much of a hold but are starting to make progress. Brunetti's father -in-law - Conte Falier - asks his advice about a businessman he is considering dealing with. Brunetti finds his personal and professional loyalties in conflict and wonders how much the business man is connected with the murder he is investigating. This looks like it is going to be one where no one is arrested for the crime - but we will see.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Google Street View

Why are some sections of the population making so much fuss over this? How can it be an invitation to burglars when they can just as easily go and stand outside the house to case the joint? I'm not sure why a photograph of one moment in time on one day can be any more an invasion of privacy than anyone walking down the street and stopping outside the house. But then some people are just Luddites at heart!

There's been a Google car in this area recently because it came past our office and then later on I saw it parked in Sainsbury's car park with a bag over its head - as it were. I look forward to seeing my local area on the Internet

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Ivy Brown and others

I did enjoy The Reinvention of Ivy Brown by Roberta Taylor and I shall be looking out for more of her fiction. The plot revolved round the relationship of three women to Brian - or Arthur as Ivy refers to him. It is well written though perhaps the last few chapters are a little rushed. The writing was understated with many happenings left very much to the reader's imagination. I thought the book was all the better for that. The characters are interesting though some are not pleasant people. The flamboyant Pandora stuck in my mind even though she played very little part in the story. The tragic ending is foreshadowed in the beginning so it is not a total surprise though nonetheless chilling. Well worth reading in my opinion.

I've also been reading A Spring Affair by Milly Johnson. Lou Winter - unreconstructed Stepford Wife - is starting to come out of her chrysalis when she reads a magazine article about de-cluttering. From this small beginning stems major upheaval in her life, and the lives of those about her. Will she give smarmy devious husband Phil the boot? What about hunky skip company boss Tom and estranged best friend Deb? Light women's fiction with some good points to make about fulfilling the expectations of others.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

I thought I'd seen it all but . . . .

You certainly see all human life on bus journeys! This evening there were two ladies on the bus - mother and daughter I should think - with two Yorkshire Terrier dogs and two shopping trolleys. They also had something folded up on one of the shopping trolleys and one of them was carrying a large cardboard box with a picture of what looked like a child's push chair on it.

All well and good at first glance but if you actually read some of what was on the box and overheard the conversation they had with two people sitting near them you realise the 'push chairs' are not for children at all. They're for pets - in this case small yappy dogs.

At £90 a time I'm afraid I came to the conclusion they must both have more money than sense!