April in Orkney

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

On the principle that better late than never...

I went to Orkney in April.

Kinda goes without saying that it is an extremely long way away. So many hours in the back of the car. You have to drive to Scotland, then you have to drive all the way to the very top of Scotland, then you have to get on a boat and sail off the edge of the world. But holy shit is it worth it. Not only do you get to venture to John O'Groats (always cause for an amusing selfie)...

But if you're very lucky then a rainbow is there to greet you when you get off the ferry.

Coming from a family of complete and utter history nerds, this holiday was all about the prehistoric remains. Orkney is rather well-off in this respect. There's a stone circle or a neolithic village or standing stone or burial cairn around pretty much every corner. You might think I'm joking but I'm really not. We were talking to someone from Historic Scotland about what would happen if Skara Brae fell into the sea and she said (with no hint of exaggeration) "Oh we'd just dig up a farmer's field and find another one." They have a lot of history up there.

Right round the corner from our holiday apartment were the Stones of Stenness.

Not gonna lie, this recreation of it was my absolute favourite thing in Orkney Museum. I honk every time I look at it.

Just across the causeway from the Stones is...more stones! The Ring of Brodgar to be exact.

You don't really want to get me started on why I think Stonehenge is a bit crap. Honestly people, if you're down that way then go to Avebury instead. A stone circle with a village and a PUB in it. The Ring of Brodgar is better than both of them though, plus as with most things in Orkney, you basically have it to yourself. No other irritating tourists around.

Everywhere you go is blissfully empty and incredibly beautiful.

(This is Maeshowe. Might be a World Heritage Site but shhhh, don't tell anyone. It was a bit dull. Fun Viking graffiti though.)

There are random ancient burial tombs everywhere and you can just let yourself in. Then you can climb into side tombs and poke around and it's awesome.

Some of them are a tad more difficult to get to (hello Cuween!) and you literally have to crawl inside on your hands and knees in the mud but I am an intrepid soul so in I went.

And even when you get lost trying to find one, the views from the hills are quite good as consolation.

Skara Brae is, as we expected, fascinating and breathtaking. Lifetime ambition to visit it: completed! Alas it's not that easy to take an interesting photo of. Soz.

I was also a big fan of the Brough of Gurness. Yes, we did nearly get blown into the sea but a) Shetland ponies:

and b) it reminded me somewhat of Labyrinth. A ruined, windswept, small version of the Goblin City.

Birsay was also rather fab. We found out tide times, strode boldly across the causeway and then sunbathed on the mossy ruins of a Viking house.

And just to finish, because I'm aware this is turning into a flipping essay loudly singing the praises of Orkney, here are some random photos:

Sorry, how much?

Stromness is beautiful.

View from our kitchen window.

Still kinda gutted I didn't buy this.

Couldn't resist.

In summary: GO TO ORKNEY.  It is the windiest place I've ever been in my life and I spent most of the week looking like Cousin It but it's magical. I may have spent half of this post calling things beautiful but I haven't done justice to even a tiny part of it. All these photos were taken with an iPhone camera and I haven't messed around with them at all. No filters: it really is that stunning.

Handmade Hunchback Horror

Friday, 15 May 2015

I am not happy with this frock.

Well that's sort of a lie. Also I should stop being a negative nancy so let's focus on the positives first eh?

- I made a dress - my first one since December. It didn't take me that long. Yoicks!

- I freestyled the neckline and it looks nice. Woo!

- It's made from a pair of fricking curtains which cost me a whopping £2.49 from a charity shop. Mint!

Yup, one of the skirt pieces is the wrong way round. I realised before cutting.

- It's nice fabric (not sure of the name - it's sort of waffley looking. Same as my Paddington skirt anyway). I love working with that stuff. No stupid fraying. Wheee!

- It's pretty, right? Yay!


Bad points:

- Unless I pose like this, I look like an actual square. A plump one. Dunno what I did wrong but it doesn't fit or look the same way that my other 2444's do and belts don't help. Booooo.

- It does not fit at all on the back. AT ALL. I must have a weirdly short torso - 2444s finish too high up my neck so I always cut the back neckline a bit shorter. They don't usually look this baggy and weird though. I put extra massive darts in and it helped but it still looks peculiar and hunchbackish. Methinks the pattern piece needs altering to actually fit me before I go back and attempt making any more. Don't actually know how to do that though. Oh well.

Meh, I'll probably just wear it anyway.

A Blogging Good Read - May

Friday, 8 May 2015

Crumbs, I didn't realise it had been a whole month since my last blog post! Shame on me.

Here's May's edition of A Blogging Good Read to entertain and delight you all. Joining me for book fun this month were Fi from This and That and Sharne who you can find on Twitter as @sharnek. What did we read?

Fi picked The Secret Gardenby Frances Hodgson Burnett:

There's something about the world that Frances Hodgson Burnett imagines in The Secret Garden that’s always had me completely hooked. It’s one of those books that I can't remember not loving. It's the book that I turn to when I need a comfort blanket as it’s essentially a hug in a book. A warm comforting hug that's exactly what you need when you’re not feeling tip-top. Having said all that, it’s been a couple of years since I picked it up for a read, so I was initially concerned it wouldn't live up to my stupidly crazy expectations. I needn't have worried as it was still brilliant and had me racing through it and at the same time not wanting it to end. I definitely enjoy the story more as I've grown older as I'm able to understand why Mary and Colin act the way that they do. I love how Burnett allows you to change your opinion of them as you see and hear about their lives and as an adult you can appreciate what impact these events have had on them up to this point. All in all this book most certainly didn't disappoint and is still one of my favourite books of all-time.

I haven't read this book for a long, long time - not quite sure why really as I'm the sort of reader that's very fond of picking up a much-loved book for the umpteenth time. I won't be leaving it so long next time. This was an absolute treat from start to finish and I'm so glad that Fi chose it. Come on, there's a secret garden! If that alone doesn't get you interested, there's no hope for you. I'm a complete sucker for hidden rooms and doors that lead to unexpected places so this is basically perfect for me.

Mary, orphaned after a cholera epidemic in India, is sent back to England to live with her uncle. She's a terribly grumpy, rude child, there's no mistaking that, but wouldn't anyone be if they'd been orphaned, shipped off to a strange country and basically imprisoned in two rooms? The house starts to have an influence on her though and she gradually warms to her surroundings and begins to break free and explore. Not only does she discover the secret garden, she finds Colin. The resolution of the plot is sweet, beautifully written and really easy and enjoyable to read. There's a reason why this book is considered a classic.

What did Sharne think of it?

I read this after I reread The Wrong Boy and my habit of reading in regional accents went into overdrive with Martha and Dickon. My northern accent got broader. The main character Mary said early on that she didn’t much care for people and I didn’t care for her at first, but she grew on me, which I suppose is the whole point. I loved the descriptions of the garden, animals and birds and how the main characters blossomed with the garden. Is there a sweeter boy than Dickon? Wanting to know if the staff would find out their secret kept me turning the pages and I pretty much devoured this book in one rainy afternoon. For me though the father's story and the ending were rushed. I’d have liked more time to see how the garden / relationships continued to grow.

Sharne chose The Wrong Boyby Willy Russell:

After a dull book selection for my first stint on BGR I felt I had to come up with something better and picked a book that I’ve read a number of times and on occasion put back down when I reached some of the sadder chapters. There is real warmth and humour as well as some harder issues like mental health and abuse. The Wrong Boy is Raymond Marks and he tells his story through letters to his idol Morrissey from the Smiths. Raymond pens these letters during his journey to Grimsby where a job set up for him by his hateful uncle Jason awaits. The letters narrate the painful, sad and funny circumstances which lead up to him having to accept the Grimsby job offer as well as the journey itself. Raymond is often misunderstood and reads some situations wrong which all means that his travels don’t go smoothly, but past and the present weave together to resolve one another.

Did Fi enjoy it?

The Wrong Boy was a book I'd never heard of but was excited to read once I'd read the cover blurb and reviews. It seemed like just my sort of book and one that I couldn't help but love. But for some reason or other that sadly wasn't the case. I just didn't get what all the fuss was about. I didn't find it funny or moving, rather I found it boring and odd and just wanted to get it over with. I feel I really missed the point of this book; perhaps I just wasn't in the right frame of mind for it?

Cards on the table: I don't like The Smiths or Morrissey. As in, really don't like them. I wasn't relishing the prospect of this book overmuch, I must admit. Luckily I didn't let that stand in the way of cracking on with it (I take my BGR duties very seriously, dontcha know) and rattled through it in the end. Raymond is the sort of narrator that you don't come across very often and it was a really different, unusual take on a lot of issues that can be handled quite heavy-handedly by other authors.

The Wrong Boy didn't entirely resonate with me - if I was one for giving starred reviews, it wouldn't be a five star - but it was thought provoking, funny and interesting enough to make me glad I've read it.

My choice was Brideshead Revisitedby Evelyn Waugh:

I didn't just pick this because it features a country house, I promise. As with most of Evelyn Waugh's books, there's a lot more going on than is immediately obvious from the surface. Brideshead is the story of Charles Ryder, an Oxford undergraduate who falls under the intoxicating spell of Lord Sebastian Flyte and his hedonistic, eccentric lifestyle. Waugh described it as being "infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language" and that sums it up beautifully. It sweeps in and out of a variety of exotic locations throughout the inter-war years, covering debauchery at Oxford, an idyllic summer at a country mansion, travels throughout Europe, life in Paris, a romantic rekindling on an ocean liner and a lot more.It sounds glamorous but at the core of the novel is the very real warning of how that debauchery can drive you to ruin. Sebastian breaks my heart - the carefree gilded youth doesn't remain that way for long. Equally prominent is the motif of Catholicism and the guilt and punishments it imposes on the characters. The Flytes are Catholic and it's not a religion that causes them much joy - far from it.

If I have one criticism of this book it's that I do feel as if it should come with a warning to persevere through the first section because honestly, Charles in the army is not as interesting as Charles during the rest of his life. I get why it's there: the reader needs him to see Brideshead in a different time, from a different perspective, in order to truly realise the extent of his loss but in my opinion, most of the WW2 section could have been chopped. It's not the best part of the book and it doesn't really entice you to stick with it.

Sharne sends her apologies for this as she's only a few chapters in and isn't able to review it. Her southern accent is coming along nicely though!

What did Fi think of it?

Brideshead Revisited is one of those books that I've never read and never had any desire to read. It's just never appealed. I think it's one of those classics that I just assume is impossible to get into and that I won't enjoy. To be honest with you this was certainly the case when I finally forced myself to open it for this challenge. I just couldn't get in to the book at all. It didn't help that there wasn't a single character that I liked. It wasn't even that it was a hard read, you know one of those classics that's just complicated word followed by complicated word. I just didn't get what all the fuss was about. But something happened after about 100 pages and everything just clicked into place and I was hooked. After that I couldn't put the book down and finished it in 24 hours, compared to the two weeks it took to get to that point. Crazy right? By the end of the book I was invested and loved the characters so much I was rooting for them and shouting at the book and generally annoyed at certain decisions even if I totally got why the plot went the way it had to. I'm certainly pleased I carried on reading Brideshead Revisited and I’ll be reading it again that’s for sure.

Thank you to Fi and Sharne for coming back for another go at BGR. It's been a pleasure reading your picks.

I'll be back next month with two different booklovers and we'll be reading Yes Pleaseby Amy Poehler, The Girl on the Trainby Paula Hawkins and Princess of the Midnight Ballby Jessica Day George. Hope you'll join us!

A Blogging Good Read - April

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Blimey, April already. And it's the seventh of the month so that must make it time for the latest edition of A Blogging Good Read!

 Hazel from Hazel's World of Joy and Lucy from Lucy in the Clouds both came back for more book reviewing fun.

Up first is Hazel's choice, A Cup Of Teaby Amy Ephron:

I enjoyed this short story, it's easy to read and engage with, the characters are brilliantly described. The over privileged and flighty Rosemary, the beguiling and mysterious Eleanor and the sturdy, yet romantic, Philip, combine in a tragic love triangle that had me turning pages quickly. The writing style builds the atmosphere from the very beginning. I would've easily read this in one sitting, had I had the time. I loved that Eleanor's past remained very much a mystery - we knew as much about her as her fellow characters in the book - as the reader you wondered about her as much as they did. I wondered at Rosemary's initial motivation in bring Eleanor home for a cup of tea, an act that would forever change the lives of the two of them and Rosemary's fiance, Philip. Could she really be so silly, so eager to been seen to do a good deed? Her naivety, thanks to an over privileged, sheltered upbringing, was eventually her downfall.

World War 1 tore apart the lives of the two lead women, only to see them left reeling - how they both deal with this, both in very different ways, is a direct result of the lives they led up to that point in time. And the end, you knew it was ending soon as the pages dwindled but I didn't see such a sharp and unexpected twist coming my way. 

What did Lucy think?

I was very intrigued by the premise when I read the blurb on the back of this book, but somehow it didn’t quite deliver for me. I was expecting the focus to be completely on the dynamics of the Rosemary and Philip’s marriage following the chance encounter with Eleanor, rather than a blow-by-blow account of the ensuing affair with nothing left to the imagination. I felt that seeing only one side of the story would have made for a subtler plot somehow, leaving a lot more to the reader’s imagination.

I found myself disliking Rosemary intensely, and almost glad that she got her comeuppance after having the audacity to pluck another human being from the street in order to meddle in their life, almost as a little project borne out of her own privileged boredom. It throws up the old question: can any act of kindness be truly altruistic if one derives any pleasure or benefit from it oneself?

I did warm to Rosemary towards the end of the story though, when it became clear that she had known all along, or at least suspected, about Philip’s affair, but could not bring herself to speak of it or accept it – it was only then that she became human to me and I started to feel sorry for her and could understand her actions at the end of the book.

I hope I don’t give the impression that I didn’t enjoy this book because I did, very much, I just wasn’t blown away by it as I expected to be. I did love the fact that there are a few twists in the plot and, without giving too much away, it doesn’t necessarily turn out the way you think it’s going to.

I think this is one of those books that could easily send me into rant mode. On the plus side, it really didn't take me long to read - two hours, tops. On the negative side...everything else.

I found it very frustrating. The blurb describes the author as a professional writer and screenwriter and that leads you to expect a certain level of skill but this book felt incredibly amateurish to me. One of the main rules of writing is show, don't tell and this was constant telling, not showing. There was no depth to it. No nuance. No subtlety. It felt like there was a lot of potential and that makes it worse! The plot and setting are so interesting but it's completely ruined by both the length of the story (which does it no favours) and the execution. No-one feels real and it's all just so underdeveloped. I wanted it to be good and it was so disappointing.

I chose Guards! Guards!by Terry Pratchett:

I picked this months ago, hoping to spread a little more love for Terry Pratchett and his books. It seems even more timely now that he's so sadly passed away. As to why I selected this particular one, well, the City Watch series is far and away my favourite and this is the first one. The book I reread most in that series is the wonderful Night Watch but unfortunately it really won't make any sense to people who haven't already read the previous ones, so I can't recommend it for BGR. So, starting at the beginning, we have Guards! Guards!

Carrot Ironfoundersson, a 6'6 dwarf, moves from the mountains to join the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch. His by-the-book policing style is somewhat at odds with the distinctly more cynical style adopted by the rest of the force (all three of them) but it works! And it's a good job, because the normal pace of life in Ankh-Morpork is soon interrupted by a secret society who, in their efforts to overthrow the Patrician and install a new King, accidentally summon a dragon (as you do). It's up to the guards to try and capture the dragon and save the day.

Even if you don't read a lot of fantasy, I'd urge you to give this a try. Much wiser people than me have written essays about the genius behind Pratchett's writing so I won't attempt to convince you of that. I'll just ask you to read it because it's clever, funny, thoroughly entertaining and everyone's life is a little better when it's got some Sam Vimes in it.

Did Hazel enjoy it?

This is the first, but definitely not the last, of Terry Pratchett's books I've read. I loved it. I wish I could've found a rainy afternoon to curl up under a blanket and read this in one sitting. I had to snatch moments when I could and I think this interrupted the flow of the story for me, but not the enjoyment.

You forget every once in a while that your reading about Discworld and not some version of our own world, until you're reminded by the existence of an Orangutan librarian for example, and the existence of dragons and magic. This makes for some unexpected plot twists and story lines.
And could the newest member of The Watch - an adopted dwarf named Carrot - really be King?

The story revolves around The Watch - a group of mismatched guards led by a drunken Vimes. But with a plot to take control of the city using magic and dragons The Watch find themselves defenders of the city and, in turn, heroes.

It's funny, engaging and a proper escape. I'll be reading each and every one of Terry Pratchett's books.

What about Lucy?

I’ve wanted to have a go at the Discworld novels for a while now, but the fact that there is no specific order and the sheer dizzying number there is to choose from, meant that I always felt a bit daunted by them and consequently never bothered at all. So I was pleased that I would now be ‘forced’ to read one, and not have to dither over which one to start with.

This book has pretty much everything I was expecting from Pratchett: dragons, magic, made-up words… What it also has is cynicism and humour in spades. It seemed quite a slow read for me because I was relishing every double meaning, oxymoron and satire hidden within, and I found myself chuckling along with every page.

Although it took me a while to get into whilst I got to grips with the enormous cast and unusual character and place names,  after about 100 pages I was hooked, wanting to know what happens next, rooting for the anti-heroes, and delighting in this whole imagined universe. As with JK Rowling, I find it hard to comprehend that someone can invent such detailed worlds, though I feel already that the Discworld has a lot more depth to it than Hogwarts and I hope to make at least a small dent in the series now that I’m no longer uninitiated.

Lucy picked Notes on a Scandalby Zoe Heller:

I chose Notes on a Scandal simply because it’s one of those books that has ‘stayed’ with me and kind of haunted me since I first read it around ten years ago. It ostensibly tells the story of a teacher, Sheba, who embarks on an affair with one of her students, from the point of view (in a kind of diary form) of her spinsterish colleague, Barbara.

It quickly becomes apparent that although the issues of morality and consent are touched upon, the focus is not so much on Sheba and her misdemeanours, but on the contrasting crippling loneliness of Barbara, and how it affects her reactions to Sheba’s situation.

It was not an enjoyable read for me – I was single, lost and lonely when I first read this book and I’ve kind of come full circle and am back in that position now, and ten years older. The writing is exquisite but intense, uncomfortable, and even harrowing at times. I don’t think there are many people who could read this book and not identify acutely (now or in retrospect) with some of the passages depicting Barbara’s desolation.

I always think it’s the measure of good writing when you can love a book despite disliking all of its characters and this is true of this book with bells on. If you like your fiction intriguing and unfluffy then this is highly recommended.

I saw the film of Notes on a Scandal when it was first released but had never got round to picking up the book. I can be lazy like that. So many books, so little time...

Anyway, BGR is always good for the occasional bum kick/reminder that just watching the film isn't good enough! Particularly when it comes to this sort of psychological thriller where knowing what happens really isn't as important or enjoyable as discovering how it happens. Lucy's use of the word intriguing is absolutely spot on - this book is highly unsettling but you can't stop reading it. I really enjoyed it.

Did Hazel feel the same?

I saw the film adaptation of this some years ago, so I knew the plot but had forgotten most of the detail. Of course the book was able to explore these in finer detail.

I was struck by how the fact that a teacher having an affair with a pupil wasn't the most uncomfortable aspect of the book. The friendship between Barbara and Sheba was far more disturbing. Barbara fixated on Sheba from the very beginning, feeling slighted at the smallest of actions, reacting in a hugely disproportionate manner, which eventually led to her betrayal and the affair being exposed.

Barbara is an intelligent and disciplined woman, but silly and childish, wanting to control her friend and refusing to see that anyone - even her husband and children - could or should be as important to Sheba as she was. Of course Sheba is blissfully unaware of this and uses her friendship with Barbara as her outlet, a place to revel in her affair and vent when the paring starts to eventually and inevitably goes sour.

Sheba makes Barbara feel more interesting and important than she has felt in years, normally a loner, this friendship transforms her life and the fact that Sheba chose her as confidant makes Barbara feel special and takes it as proof of the depth of their friendship.

Written in the form of Barbara's journal, it is a one sided view of events, but Barbara's nature compels her to record events as exactly as she can, it's her interpretation of events that is most alarming.

It's an interesting read, uncomfortable at times, not enjoyable exactly but certainly compelling.

Thanks ladies! It was excellent to have you both back again this month.

Next month's books are The Secret Gardenby Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Wrong Boyby Willy Russell and Brideshead Revisitedby Evelyn Waugh. If you want to read along, feel free!