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Olympic Fever

Friday, 27 July 2012

On Monday I will be at Greenwich Park to watch the cross-country day of the eventing competition in the London 2012 Olympics and I am so excited about it that I feel sick.  Seriously.  It's worse (or better?) than that feeling of anticipation and joy that you get on Christmas Eve.  I am having to actively stop myself thinking about it because I just want to go ARRRRRRRRGHHHHHHHHHHHHH extremely loudly every time that I do.

Here's the thing.  I love sport, even though I don't take part in anything other than swimming with any great regularity.  I volunteer with British Eventing and that's about as close to competition as I'll ever get.  But watching sport is brilliant.  I will watch almost anything (not golf.  It is the most tedious and pointless thing ever and especially the Ryder Cup with all those annoying Yanks bellowing "GET IN THE HOLE!") and this is only heightened during the Olympics when I become truly sports obsessed and plan all my time around what's on the tv.  Yes, I am that crazy person who books time off work just to make sure that I can watch certain events.  I devour excessive amounts of sports that just don't get much, if any, tv coverage the rest of the year and I love it.  I've watched things that I won't ever forget.

I remember Atlanta in 1996 and having a sleepover at my friend Ruth's house.  A houseful of 12 and 13 year old girls who, when we weren't busy drinking ridiculous amounts of coke or putting toothpaste in each others' hair (yeah, I don't know why we did that), were absolutely hooked on watching the gymnastics.  A small amount of drooling over Alexei Nemov as he won multiple medals may have taken place...

obviously known to us as Sexy Alexei...

I remember the rowing commentary from so many Olympics - that "Just!" for the four in Athens or "Go boys. Go boys!" for the eight in Sydney or the whole world going mad when Steve Redgrave won his fifth gold medal.

I remember this face:

I remember staying up all night for Sydney in 2000 watching something with very little British involvement that I didn't even understand the rules of (judo or something like that), desperately trying to stay awake so that I wouldn't miss Audley Harrison's gold medal fight.  And I don't even like boxing. 

I remember holding my breath as the stadium lit up with flashbulbs when Cathy Freeman sprung up out of the blocks at the start of the 400m final.

I remember sitting there utterly gobsmacked at how bad some of the riding was in the modern pentathlon at Bejing - one of the very few times I will ever think "I really could do better than that" about any type of top-level sporting event.

I remember those moments that truly define Olympic spirit.  Not just the world records and the gold medals and the superhuman performances.  Although I was young at the time of the Barcelona games and not even that interested in sport back then, I do remember Derek Redmond's semi-final race very vividly and it still makes me cry to watch it now.  Ditto Kerri Strug battling on through injury to win team gold in the gymnastics in Atlanta.  Even things like Eric the Eel struggling his way up the pool sum up exactly what it's all about.

The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

So this year, although I'll no doubt watch an enormous amount of tv coverage and sit through some iconic commentary, it won't be the main way I remember these Olympics. I'm going to remember it because I'm going to be there.  Watching my sport, in my country, cheering on my heroes. I cannot wait.

What ho, chaps!

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

A half wooden car!  Exciting eh? 

I went to a vintage fair at the weekend.  Extreme lack of fundage meant that I didn't buy anything but it was the most glorious sunny day, so this didn't matter so much.  It wasn't about the shopping anyway. 

It was about having a picnic:

Alas, no ginger beer, but corned beef sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper are quite retro, non?  Best ignore the sneaky packet of mini Party Rings...

And lying on the picnic blanket reading and taking random (bad) pictures of the back of my head:

And trying on silly hats: 


And deciding which of the cars we'd most like to be driven around in.  Ffion favoured this Alvis:

Modelling her lovely Cath Kidston frock

And looking admiringly at the lovely things:


Who needs money?

A Capital Frock

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Clothes are funny old things.  Although I am in undoubted love with this frock, I do spend quite a lot of time feeling both wide and short in it.  I have frocks that are a similar length so it's not that it needs shortening.  Perhaps it's just the quantity of fabric in the skirt.  I'd rather whack on an extremely high pair of shoes for morale and height boosting purposes but that isn't always practical.  Sometimes I just have to accept my shortarseness and wear flats.

Let's look on the bright side though.  At least five people at work said "I LOVE your dress!" (including my boss, who is not normally the most observant man in the world when it comes to clothes).  The print is fanbloodytastic.  And it was only £15 in the sale! This, dear readers, is where it pays to be a bit cheeky.  I'd happily have paid the £20 asking price but one of the belt loops on it was ripped - the sort of tiny belt loop that would take two minutes and two stitches to repair (and as it turns out, is completely useless anyway as I prefer a different belt than the one that came with it).  But it's always worth asking, however minor the problem, as sometimes the sales assistants are happy to knock a fiver off.  Yoicks!

Apologies for the BOOBS photo but I keep getting told off for not showing off the bodice part of my frocks and, well, this is the only way to really do it.

Dress - River Island
Cardi - Matalan
Belt - Primark
Flats & pearls - Dorothy Perkins

Cake, Glorious Cake

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

What's lurking behind the brolly?

Me of course! And my amazing cake print shirt.

I really wasn't meant to be buying anything new this month as the budget has been heavily clobbered by booking theatre and ballet and trains and hotels and holidays and suchlike - all will be amazing, I'm sure, but it has left me el skinto in the meantime.

However Char pointed this out to me during one of our regular email sessions - they go along the line of "Ooh I like this" "Me too! And THIS!" Honestly, we are as predictable as two very predictable people who like shoes and frocks and #wardrobezoo themed things.  I was still pondering it when I saw Sarah wearing it at the Brum bloggers meetup earlier in the month (and looking amazing) so that made my mind up.  I had to own it. T'wasn't so very expensive after all. Look, it's still in the sale!

Dress - via New Life. Wish I knew what make it was!
Shirt - ASOS
Necklace - market stall in Dubrovnik
Shoes - Dorothy Perkins sale

It's got party rings on it for goodness sake.  Why would you not want to own it?!

Something New

Saturday, 14 July 2012

I bought myself some jewellery this month.  Quite a rare thing for me, as my jewellery buying tends to consist of scooping up rings in the Dorothy Perkins sales and little else.  I hit my favourite Etsy shop, MerCurios, instead.  MJ created my favourite ring ever (seen at the top of this post ) but I was in the mood for something a little bigger this time.

Because it's all handmade and personalised (and because MJ is a lovely person who doesn't mind you asking "um, could I have it a bit more like this?"), you can get exactly what you want.  I liked this necklace but thought it would be a teensy bit big for me, so my fancy fell upon this one, except that my chosen phrase was a bit too long.  Et voila, a cross between the two is now mine!

As for the chosen phrase, it's from Coriolanus.  For him, it's about turning his back on the city that has banished him.  For me, it's nowhere near as dramatic: I don't exactly live the life of a Shakespearean hero!  I do spend quite a lot of time in the world of my fictional characters though, so it partly reminds me of that and partly acts as a general reminder that annoying though everyday life may sometimes be, this isn't all there is. 

It hangs to just the perfect length and looks lovely - what more could you want?  For a more full-length view, I'm wearing it in my last outfit post, although it's mostly obscured by hair and tucked up a bit higher than usual by my collar.

Next on my wish list is one of these beautiful bracelets, if I can ever work out what I want on it.  There's just too much quotable literature! 

Usual disclaimer applies - this is not a sponsored post (I make it clear if I'm doing one of them), it's just an item and a seller that I absolutely love.

Half Preppy, Half...Not

Thursday, 12 July 2012

I like to try and tone down the madness slightly for work. Whilst I was very definitely in a silly dressing-up sort of mood yesterday, I felt that perhaps toile patterned shorts and rather high shoes might tip over the edge into "wtf are you wearing today, Alex?" territory unless I made at least a partial concession towards sensibleness. Hence the shirt and jumper combo. Nothing says sensible workwear like a shirt and jumper, right?

(if you're wondering where my face has gone, well it looked atrocious in ALL of the photos, so I'm hiding it)

But really we should just be talking about the shorts. TOILE PATTERNED SHORTS, EVERYONE!  I spotted them in Primark at the weekend and made a positive beeline for them.  They were the last pair on the rail and therefore clearly destined to be mine. Who cares that they're two sizes too big? I actually consider this a bonus as it means they sit much lower down and end up being a respectable length rather than hotpants.  You all know how much I love toile.  Love it.

Jumper - H&M
Shirt - Gap, stolen from my brother
Shorts - Primark
Shoes - Next

Because I had to take my outfit photos at home for once, you get bonus cat photos.  Oscar is the inquisitive type so naturally he likes to see why I'm posing in front of the shed door. This is us saying "Mrow" to each other.

Mostly he pretends he's still a kitten and chases his tail on the lawn.  Is this not the most amazing photo ever?

Swap Time

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

I signed up ages ago for the Jubilee swap organised by Lakota at Faith, Hope and Charity Shopping - her themed swaps are always great fun so keep your eyes peeled for the next one.  I was very pleased to be paired up with lovely Lucy from Lucy in the Clouds.  I don't think that Lucy will mind me saying that we were both very last minute on this one, despite the amount of notice that we had! The deadline was 7th July and both parcels have just arrived so we barely scraped in.  You'll have to ask Lucy what she thought of the parcel I sent her (I hope she liked it, even if I did totally run out of inspiration in the handmade category) but I can quite safely say I loved what she sent me.

It started off with this fab card:

And then there were lots of excitingly wrapped presents with intriguing labels:

Firstly, beautiful vintage fabric bunting.

And wonderful book themed writing paper.

Cor blimey, this is the most fantastic find!  A proper 1953 Coronation biscuit tin.  I shall keep treasures in it.

A gorgeous green brooch.

Eep - she knows me well.  Cats and books are two of my absolute favourite things.

Thank you so much, Lucy. You are amazing at picking and making presents!

A Blogging Good Read - July

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Welcome to the July edition of A Blogging Good Read.  Joining me this month are Ruth from Ruthcrafts and Danielle from The Oxford Comma.

Up first, Danielle's pick.  She said:

I'd like to choose Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf for my book. I'm not sure how many people will have read it; I was scared of Woolf because she's a big, scary, modernist that I put off for as long as possible, but that might just be me. It's set during one day in June, shortly after the Great War, with various characters whose paths through London intersect during the day. On the surface it's the tale of a party that Mrs Dalloway is hosting that evening, but because of the way that the story shifts between different characters it jumps back in time so you can see why they've ended up the way that they have. I love it because it's such a wonderful evocation of a summer day in the city. Also because Woolf's ability with words to match up fact and metaphor is amazing.

I'm one of the people who hadn't read it.  In fact, I've never read any of Woolf's books, which is odd when you consider how fond I am of inter and post-war fiction by female writers (honestly, if I was rich I'd be Persephone Books' best customer). Having finally got round to reading one of them, I loved it.  It's amazing how a book where essentially nothing happens still manages to be so full of incident and history.  Every single character, whether lightly sketched or fully described, seems vivid and real.  I can see why it might divide opinion amongst readers because you either like the stream of consciousness style or you don't.  I do, with the full appreciation that it isn't always an easy one to read, but in this book it's done with such verve and panache that it's utterly captivating.  There's none of that wanky Jack Kerouac self-indulgence that irks me so.  This is like sitting down with a particularly chatty friend who's prone to rambling off topic on just about everything she tells you, but is a joy to converse with nonetheless.

(nb - if you do want to try this book, the complete works of Woolf, along with essays, plays and biographies is available here for £1.95 which is a total bargain)

Ruth said:

Mrs Dalloway has been on my 'to-be-read' pile for longer than I care to admit, and I was so grateful to Danielle and Alex for the motivation to knuckle down and actually read it! Having read it, and pretty thoroughly enjoyed it, however, I'm finding it very hard to describe – much as I found the blurb on the Vintage Classic edition I read rather hard to map onto the actual novel I was reading. I presume this is because Woolf's project remains a revolutionary one – I heard bits of the coverage of Bloomsday (16th June) as I was reading this, and Joyce's modernist project is clearly related to this one – and does not fit into our general expectations of what a novel is. Tracing the events of a day in the life of London socialite Clarissa Dalloway (as she prepares for her evening party) through the thoughts, memories and experiences of not only our protagonist, but her acquaintances, friends, and even those she and they encounter on that day, this novel creates a sense of lives intersecting and overlapping while maintaining a clear awareness of the ways in which all of humanity is a stranger to one another. Drawing on experiences in what was still simply The War (1914-1918), and the way those experiences affected those who survived, as well as on ideas about what might have been, and the effect of self-perception on both yourself and those around you, and full of a sort of stream-of-consciousness which travels from mind to mind as freely as glances across a room, it is hard to imagine what readers more used to the nineteenth-century novel might have thought of it – and it is not necessarily easy to read now. I loved it, for the lyrical prose, for the insight into characters, their motivations, and the way they related to other people (especially the sense I got of Clarissa and Peter and the relationship that they might have had, but didn't), but I'll admit that I did not find it an easy read – I needed powers of concentration to follow the meanderings of the minds it depicted, and a certain determination to continue. I am so glad I have read it, though, and I'll be adding more Woolf (no longer afraid!) to my holiday reading lists (on holiday I have more ability to concentrate).

My choice for this month was The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis.

This book has been in my mystery/crime bookcase for as long as I can remember.  It's an ancient copy with tiny print and a rather bizarre cover and I wouldn't trade it for a shiny new one if you paid me.  I fell in love with Falco in the very first chapter and I haven't changed my mind on that ever since.

It's the first in the Falco series of novels which are set in the Roman Empire under Vespasian.  Oddly enough, the Roman period isn't the author's true love. She's fascinated by the English Civil War but if you're thinking of trying Rebels and Traitors then I'd strongly encourage you not to - it's quite stonkingly dull.  That is not something you can level at the Falco books though as Rome and various exotic and not-so exotic parts of the Empire are brought wonderfully, vividly to life in them.  Falco is a private informer (investigator), ex-military, living in a tatty apartment and eking out a living solving run-of-the-mill cases.  In this book he discovers a conspiracy about the trading of silver ingots (the "pigs" of the title) and whilst trying to resolve it, ends up solving a murder, really not enjoying himself in a very wet and miserable Brittania and meeting the delightfully crotchety Helena Justina.  All of the books in the series (and there are 20 so far) are technically crime books but I find myself enjoying the world and the characters on a level that far outweighs the potential "whodunnit" interest.

What did Ruth think of it?

I read a great deal of mystery novels, and am partial to a bit of historical fiction too, so I was expecting to rather enjoy this novel, especially as I had a dim memory of having read or heard dramatised other works from the Falco series (BBC 7 did a series, which may be being repeated now it's BBC Radio 4 Extra). And I did – I found this an enjoyable read. What I was surprised by was that I didn't find it a gripping one – the suspense of the mystery just didn't quite hold my attention, and I missed the sense of a puzzle to be solved. Instead, I found myself enjoying the novel for its characters and for a certain sense of style, rather than the plot as such. The characters certainly repay your effort, as Falco in particular, but also his mother, and Helena, and a couple of others, seemed to me finely drawn, and created through actions and dialogue rather than description. Indeed, Falco's voice was one of the elements which kept me reading, and smiling away to myself as I read! His disparaging tone and the insight the reader is given into his thoughts are at once amusing and infuriating – a depiction of the narrator as flawed yet still likeable individual which requires particular skill to pull off! I also enjoyed the portrayal of a less exalted Rome than I've come across before, and found the portrayal generally convincing. I particularly enjoyed the appearances of Vespasian as 'minor' character, and some of the passing references to his story helped me round out some bits of Roman history that I've only learned about through fiction! All in all, I found this an enjoyable read, with a well-written first-person narration, and pleasing characters, which made up for a less gripping plot.

Danielle starts off her review with an apology but I think we'll forgive her:

Oops. I ought to have written my review at the beginning of June when I read The Silver Pigs, so here is my best one-month-later impression.

Firstly, archly satirical narratives are my life-blood, so I was surprised that I'd not heard of either Lindsey Davis or her 'private informer' Marcus Didius Falco before. Now, however, I am thrilled that I have twenty glorious books ahead of me, because I doubt that I will tire of Davis and Falco any time soon. Now I'm sorry to witter on about language all the time, but Davis's novel is a fine example of someone who can write intelligently, using the first person for comic effect. It actually reminds me of a strange combination of Adrian Mole and Bertie Wooster (idiocy masked by a thesaurus and similes). I think a good example would be:

 'I dreaded that the foundations would collapse and six layers of habitation collapse in a puff of plaster dust, or that one blazing night I would sleep through the fire watchers’ alarm and fry in my own fat.'
I also appreciate that the world of Classical Rome is so richly alive in the novel. I always find it relieving when it's clear how much research has gone into a novel, especially when the social ladder is so important to the relationships between characters. One of the reasons I adore Mrs. Dalloway so much is the detail Woolf goes into in recreating the hustle and bustle of Bond St, and the sensual experience of a summer's day in the city. I find something similar happening in The Silver Pigs:

'Steam billowed out to flatten us. Washerboys stamped the clothes, sploshing up to their cracked little knees in hot tubs. There was a great deal of noise slapping the linen, thumping and pounding it, clanging cauldrons all in a close, echoing atmosphere. The laundry took up the whole ground floor, spilling out into the courtyard at the back.'

Davis's description is just so vivid and real that it seems like you could touch it. To me, that is the hallmark of a brilliant writer, and an absorbing novel. I think this book is great, and I'd like to thank Alex for selecting it!

Well, things seems to going well so far, don't they?  Onto the final book, Fire by Kristin Cashore, which was Ruth's selection.


It's a YA fantasy novel set in a world where there is a class of creatures (a mutation of every type of animal, if you will), which are beautiful to the point of mesmerising everyone who sees them. Fire is the only living human 'monster', the daughter of a father who used his power over others to manipulate and control. As his daughter, Fire must not only negotiate the difficult role of a superlatively beautiful woman, but also his legacy at the heart of a kingdom in need of protection. What I love about the novel is the way it uses the fantastical elements to confront the notions of beauty, power and ideas about femininity. It is well-written, an adventure story with heart which creates really believable characters you end up wanting to spend more time with. I hope other readers will enjoy it too - for me, it's a young adult novel that approaches its readership as if they are intelligent and sensible, a fantasy novel that uses its setting to ponder our own cultural baggage, and an adventure story that creates characters who stay with you.

Over to Danielle first:

I have to apologise to Ruth because I am about to tear Fire apart. Until I studied fantasy literature at uni I tended to avoid it like the plague, but after reading some Tolkein, some Alasdair Gray, and some Le Guin, I changed my mind. Sadly, Fire is a book that I just could not enjoy, and I was irritated before I reached the end of the prologue. I'm terribly judgemental of writers who don't write properly – if you're making a living out of words then you should at the very least use them properly – and I was annoyed by Cashore's tone within a few paragraphs:

'Now she found the baby who conversed like a miniature adult while he drank at her breast, who made an eloquent announcement whenever his underwrappings needed to be changed, positively creepy'. Remove the adverb. Get out your thesaurus and look under 'creepy'. Select 'disturbing'. Better. Or, better yet, get rid of the whole awkward sentence. There's nothing eloquent about excrement, no matter how old this prodigy is.

A short way into Chapter One, a man says 'glumly', 'Now I'll have to kill you'. Fire begins to 'address that rather bizarre statement'. 'Rather bizarre statement'. I don't know about anyone else, but if someone said they'd have to kill me, I'd start running away, not addressing bizarre statements. I read on a little more, and it seems that her beauty is a weapon she can use. I just don't see the need for this in a heroine in YA fiction in the 21st century. Her narrative is jarring, I disagree with her use of femininity, and for those reasons I am afraid that I have to admit that I didn't read much more of the book.  I know, I know, I should give it a chance. I've read so many reviews on blogs and Goodreads about the whole series that sing the novel's – and Cashore's – praises, but I can't look past the bad writing to see the plot.

I also had serious problems reading this book.  My initial impression of Fire was very heavily coloured by how irritating I found the formatting. I know I should have been able to overlook it but I couldn't. I bought the Kindle version of this book and at £4.99 and from a "proper" publishing house, I expect better standards. The spacing was so huge and gappy that it made it an incredibly irksome book to read. It didn't make it any more comprehensible either - as Fire can transmit thoughts into people's brains, not all of the dialogue is italicised or in speech marks and when you don't know the difference between a paragraph space and a section break/POV switch, it can make things tricky! I ended up requesting a refund after I'd finished it (which Amazon gave me with no problems) so if you do want to read it, I definitely recommend getting the paperback!

Anyway, my actual thoughts on the book would probably be helpful, yes?  Well, they're very mixed.  By the time I finished it I enjoyed it but I nearly didn't get to that stage. It was probably partly due to the above issues and partly due to the extreme info-dump that was Chapter 2 (we really did not need that much back story about her father) but I absolutely could not get into it at the start, to the extent that at one point I was seriously contemplating not bothering to read on.  I'm glad I did, because it dramatically improved for me around the point when Fire arrived at the royal palace.  Whereas the world building and characters had been sketched in with quite a heavy, dull, hand earlier on, it really seemed to change here.  It was so refreshing to find a royal family that weren't just cardboard cutouts with crowns on and the whole world of the palace and the army was very nicely done - a little reminiscent of Tamora Pierce (and I mean that as a compliment). 

I think I was so pleased that it eventually improved from such a poor start that my overall impression is slightly skewed.  The more I think about it, the more nagging doubts I have.  As Ruth mentions above, the author has clearly really thought about how femininity and power are displayed in this world, but I wasn't at all comfortable with her portayal of it.  A teenage heroine who's a continual target for attempted rape by people who just can't prevent themselves, whether for mystical reasons or not, does not sit well with me, and in some ways it's more disturbing that the author deliberately chose that route than if it had just been casual misogyny.  Also I did have issues with Cashore's writing style.  Danielle has gone into more detail but there's one particular page of conversation later on in the book that really stood out because it read like something out of a Janet & John book - X said this, Y said that, Z said the other.  The writing does feel curiously passive at times too. There's a lot going on in this book (wars, intrigue, political machinations) and although Fire is a slightly more detached observer of some of these events, it comes across as slightly sub-standard writing rather than a conscious choice of tone.  On balance, I think I'll just reread my Tamora Pierce books instead.

Well, I suppose two out of three ain't bad!  Have you read any of these three?  Will anyone level the balance and say they liked Fire?  Do feel free to join in the discussion below.

Thanks so much to Ruth and Danielle for taking part this month.  I'll be back at the start of August with two other contributors and three new books.  I'd best get reading!

If Wishes Were Clothes, My Wardrobe Would Be A Lot Bigger

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Do you ever have wishes about clothing?  You must do.  I am forever browsing the rails in shops and thinking "I wish this came in a different pattern/wasn't made of vile sweaty polyester/wasn't so flipping expensive/wasn't emblazoned with logos" (delete as appropriate, unless the shop is River Island in which case they probably all apply).  My main wish at the moment is that this top came in a different base colour.  I love it so hard but I've tried it on about six times and it still hasn't stopped making me look sallow as hell.  I wanted the dress version (like this but with a cat print top half) even more but it did not suit me at all. Sad Alex.

This is about the only pale top I really have in my wardrobe and I think it escapes the sallow trap by virtue of being so print heavy.  I do still have a wish about it - I wish the shape was a teensy bit different as I have a horror of it looking like a maternity smock - but basically the print is so flipping amazing that I will forgive it a lot.

I call it my vintage ladies top.  I like it very much.
Blazer - Warehouse via Oxfam
Top - Uttam London @ Dorothy Perkins
Jeans - Dorothy Perkins
Boots - Marks & Spencer Limited Collection