Monday, 4 April 2016


Now, I am writing this post from a privileged position; I lived with sand for the best part of eight years.  A beach ten minutes away and two small children meant that sand was pretty much everywhere, all the time.  We had (naively) chosen a broadly in vogue style of floor tile when renovating our kitchen which in actual fact took on all the qualities of an ice-skating rink when sandy.    For years I was consciously trying to ensure that neither myself nor my children slipped and hit our head on the Aga.

In recent times though, having moved away from the coast, I have forgotten the perils of sand.  While staycationing, we recently spent the day at our nearest beach.  I quickly remembered how much I loved, properly loved, the coast.  The air is so clean and fresh, the sea breeze bracing (especially in March) and the inducement of well-being inevitable.  This is fantastic and our smaller children not having been brought up by the seaside and used to holidaying at Center Parcs, were wildly happy digging holes and flying kites.  It was even suggested that we might forfeit our Center Parcs summer break for a seaside holiday.

This is not to say the experience wasn't without issue however.  Firstly we had trouble with sand in the eyes.  The first time we visited the beach we left home in beautiful sunshine but arrived at the beach forty five minutes later in a hail storm.  We ate our packed lunch in the car while we waited for it to pass.  The weather did return to a more normal state and the wind did subside, but given that we were staring from a gale I would definitely describe the conditions as breezy.  The sand swirled and whirled and settled happily in our eyes.  This did cause a fair amount to distress to the little ones as we tried to teach them to dig with their back to the breeze rather than looking into it. I was totally unprepared - I had totally forgotten - how sand has a remarkable quality of being able to stick to you and stay stuck for a significant number of hours.  On the way home in the car I managed to rub sand into my eyes and was still attempting to properly clear it our at bedtime.  

Secondly, given the strength of the breeze, I had not remembered that sand gets everywhere and into everything.  We had taken a couple of bags with us containing buckets, spades, drinks, wet wipes, that kind of thing (although in fairness there is nothing less useful than a wet wipe on a beach) and the aforementioned swirling, whirling breeze swirled and whirled the sand straight into the bag.  Even my rucksack, which I thought was closed the entire time, filled impressively with sand.  On returning home and emptying out the bags it turned out that we had in fact brought half the beach home.  We learned pretty quickly that Amtico flooring, while not as good as terracotta tiles, does still have ice-rink like qualities when combined with sand.

Thirdly, and closely related to point number two, not only did the sand fill our bags, it also somehow managed to fill our wellies, particularly the children's.  Having bundled them back into them car the wellies were pulled off only to literally fill the car with sand too.  Given that I drive the 'family car', fitted with car seats various, the chances of the sand ever been hoovered up are fairly remote.  The children enquire every time we go to the car as to when we can go to the beach next.

Finally, having had two sets of children some ten years apart I had forgotten the desperate need children have for wet sand.  On the beach we went to the tide went out for what seemed like a hundred miles.  Playing on the water's edge was clearly not an option as the conditions became colder and more windy the closer we got.  This resulted in us setting up camp near the sand dunes where there was at least some shelter from the wind when the right spot was found.  But.  The children 'needed' water for their various sand constructions.  I walked the three miles to the water's edge a number of times with different combinations of children.  The first couple of times this was really enjoyable; the bracing, life affirming wind, the children stopping to explore every shell, stick and ridge.  But after a couple of times it wore a bit thin.

What was the outcome of all of this?  The next day the children we asking when we could go to the beach again and four days later there we were, a little more experienced, back doing it all over again.  It seems my time of living with sand is not as over as I had once thought.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

I first read this probably 25 years ago as a teenager when I went through an Agatha Christie phase.  I remember enjoying the stories, although the detail is all but lost to me so many years and so many books later.  I'm not sure what quite prompted me to read Christie again; I am reading a lot and want to be varied in my choices and she came to mind.  My aim to read the Booker Prize long list each year is all well and good, but these are not the sort of books that I particularly want to read back to back.  A little respite is certainly needed and I thought that this would provide it.

My initial thoughts were how much less easy to read Christie's writing was than that of other author's I have been recently been reading.  I was surprised and somewhat perturbed that I found the book so difficult to get into.  Perhaps this was just the style of her writing, perhaps that my initial reading was a little disjointed and so I found it difficult to track so many characters introduced so early in the text.  This all aside, once I sat down to read with a good run at it I did indeed get into the story and became engaged and interested in the characters.  I found the main storyline and its various twists and turns engaging and well thought through and broadly plausible.

Somewhat surprisingly though, having been brought up with Joan Hickson's Miss Marple on a Saturday evening, I found the manner in which Clement described her to be at odds with how I remembered her portrayal.  I remember her to be a kindly, intelligent 'harmless' older lady, yet he really did describe her for the best part as an interfering busybody.  Perhaps I misremember.  Perhaps I find and watch this episode and see...

I suppose, given when the book was written, it is no surprise that the text is something of an interesting study in how times, roles and ideas have changed.  I found this an added interesting dimension to the novel and one that could not have been predicted at its time on conception.

Overall, this was a quick and unchallenging read; a good story, well thought through, with characters that I found to be interesting.  I could happily have read an additional hundred pages so as to determine backstories in more detail, but the story pottered along without very well.

Sunday, 27 March 2016


I read an interesting article in the Guardian overnight (small children woke me up, went promptly back to sleep, I was awake for an age) about books that we choose to keep on our bookcases.  The essence of the article was that the books we actually like to read we perceive to be too trashy or unimpressive to be put on public display.  These books we probably picked up in a charity shop and will probably take back to remove all trace of them.  Proof of this phenomenon is that this week charity shops have reportedly requested that 'Fifty Shades of Grey' is no longer donated as they are rather inundated with copies.

The implication is that our bookcase is a public display of who we are as determined by what we are prepared to show others we have read.  This is all pertinent to me right now as we are in the process of building bookcases.  Having lived in various rental properties over the last nine years the amount of books that we had space to display has been varied and limited.  Last year we finally got our act together and bought our very own renovation project.  Some books that have been recently read were crammed on an IKEA bookcase but aside from that all our reading material has been neatly presented in sealed boxes in the attic.

On first reading the Guardian's article I was quite resolute that this didn't reflect me. Certainly with two small children I am unlikely to go to any shop, charity or otherwise, to actually buy a book.  Amazon all the way, next day delivery and I can buy the Kindle version too which enables middle of the night reading while sitting with a small child.  I do recognise I am probably the only person in the world who buys every book they read twice for this purpose - once for the bookcase, once to actually be able to read.

However...three years ago now and at a reading impasse I decided to give my reading habit a kick start.  For Christmas I asked for the Booker Prize Shortlist books in an attempt to take the choice out of selecting books.  With a baby, a toddler, a pre-teen and teen I hardly had time to eat let alone search for books that I'd like to read. Everything I encountered I found hard to get into, most books indeed sent me to sleep within about five minutes.  When my first box of Booker Books arrived however they took pride of place on the end of the mantle, all hardback copies proudly showing themselves off.  I received general public approval for choosing this as a 'thing to do' and certain amount of status as a serious reader.  Perhaps there are elements of me in the article after all.

I have given some thought to how our books will be presented on the bookcases when completed.  I am a great advocator of alphabetical order having worked in the university library while studying for my degree - I am perhaps a little pedantic about book organisation in fact.  Once a colleague described to me how over the weekend she had reorganised her bookcases arranging her books by colour.  I was, in fairness, aghast, however looking at an image in a Conran book of a bookcase presented in this way I have to say the pleasing aesthetics rather took me aback.  Whatever is decided about our organisation, and I suspect our books will be alphabetical, I had envisaged that the Booker Prize books would have their own section, separating them from the other, more mediocre text.

Not believing myself to be a book snob it seems that I almost certainly am.  I find this to be a disappointing realisation about myself as I thought I was simply a great advocator of reading.  As a teacher I would rave about the joy to be found in a good book and would painstakingly cajole my pupils to learn to read and to seek text of interest to them in an attempt to make a small contribution to tomorrow's reading community.  As a parent I have so far taught three our of four children to read and number four is just starting to recognise some phonemes.

It seems I have a choice to make; am I comfortable being a book snob sending my children the message that not all books are equal, or should I just bite the bullet and display fiction as one complete alphabetical section?  To my dismay the answer is obvious.  I will have to settle for being a closet book snob.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

We Only Know So Much by Elizabeth Crane

I began reading this book with high hopes; although I read reviews and blurbs I am drawn to aesthetics and I loved the presentation. 

On starting to read I was taken aback by the forthright and bolshy attack of the storyteller. Certainly different from my recent reads and I rather liked it. I too enjoyed the early stages of the book, getting to know the characters and their relationships. 

Jean is a mother of two children, a tiresome teenager (Priscilla) and a nine year old boy (Otis). Her relationship with her husband (Gordon) is frayed and she has been having an affair for some time. Her lover commits suicide and she falls apart. Gordon is entirely peculiar, possibly a little too peculiar to be realistic. He has a habit of talking - just talking at people (no one else really gets a chance to join in), giving a detailed explanation of any and every occurrence, mostly learned by reading Wikipedia and by virtue of a good memory. He becomes entirely distracted on learning that his memory might not be what it was and struggles to accept that normal aging might be the reason. I have to say, almost from the start, Gordon is autistic was screaming out at me and goes a good way to explain some of his behaviours. Priscilla is not sold well to the reader, described consistently as a bitch and presented as self centred and impossible. Otis also presented as if on the autistic spectrum too and is a clever, literal boy who falls in love for the first time. I liked him particularly but was troubled by the extend to which his mother confided in him over her affair. Just wrong. Add to the familial home Gordon's father (Theodore) who has Parkinsons and his Grandmother (Vivien) who is fighting fit at 98 and loves to talk about herself and we have the Copeland complement. 

The book tells us the comings and goings of the their family life, with some historical content thrown in. We learn more about Jean's affair, Gordon's memory loss, Priscilla's drive to do something she is proud of and of Otis girlfriend. The older members of the family provide backdrop and humorous interludes. For the best part I enjoyed being in their lives and although I wouldn't necessarily want them as friends they were good company. 

Latterly though I found my self wondering how this would all tie together. How would the author draw on the many ongoing threads to conclude the story? I was expecting some great event where everything came out in the open and somehow they muddled through, or didn't as the case may be, towards an ending. Somewhat disappointingly, and hence the reason for the two star review, it simply didn't happen. Certainly there was resolution for Theodore in that he passed away and for Priscilla, who showed signs of growing up and who had had a lightbulb moment. Why didn't Otis conversations with him mother come out into the open however? It was alluded to that Gordon may have an inkling of his wife's indiscretion but this was not developed. Indeed Gordon was taking some mood altering, probably illegal drug for memory loss, bought on a shopping channel which it seems totally changed his personality but this was not uncovered either. I could go on. I felt disappointed and the ending where the author asks the reader "What do you think?" is just weird. 

No review would be complete without some consideration of the feasibility of the tale told, if indeed it was intended to be feasible. Jean's grief for her lost love was well constructed, I believed her sense of loss, devastation and confusion. Her involvement with the priestess church though? A step too far for me. Gordon's fear of memory loss was plausible too and again believable. His reaction to it, less so. His family not saying anything after his personality transplant? Ridiculous in spite of their preoccupations. The memory loss thread was never really concluded either which is unfortunate. I don't even want to get started on what happened to Vivien towards the end. Ridiculous.

What is here is not complete. It is as if the author, on realising that there were enough written words to make a novel, just stopped writing rather than actually finishing the book. This is a pity; the text is well written, the voice different and engaging, the characters interesting and some of the plot lines believable. I enjoyed much of the reading but as a whole this novel was disappointing.