Saturday, 27 June 2009

Competitions & roses

Here is the picture of the impostor rose that Debbie encountered not long ago. She's thinking of writing to Gardener's World Magazine about it to try to win some goodies. Recently she's gone on another competition binge, scouring magazines for competitions. Holidays or weekend breaks are the big draws but we'll probably end up winning the one piece of gardening equipment that even Titchmarsh couldn't find a use for. Her dream competition would be to win a VW camper van.

Thursday, 25 June 2009


It may seem like I'm sleeping this week. My six year old laptop went barmy on Tuesday. I've managed to recover most of my files but I've also had to re-install Windows. I really don't want to be fiddling around reinstalling everything and the like during all this good weather. I'm posting this from my old PC which is over ten years old and not the most relaxing of venues to work at, so the blogs and reviews may thin out for a while.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The Letters

Yes I know publishers use the cover of a book as their primary method of targeting a specific readership. But I've never fielded so many, "Oh my god. What the hell are you reading, Michael?" and "Michael. You are reading a romance - what!!" as I did reading this. If I'd bumped into Violet (main character) while I had my head in this, she would have muttered something scathing about chick flicks or bloody Mills and Boon. I'm sure she would have been horrified to be a character in either and would probably have much preferred to be horribly murdered on page 33 of a Minette Walters detective novel. These headless women photos are just too redolent of pulp romance or even mail order catalogue to carry around in public. I think I could have lived with the compromise of a quirky though still misleading chick lit cover.

I didn't enjoy this one as much as Fiona Robyn's other book The Blue Handbag. That book was well structured, with a mystery that developed along with the characters. The Letters doesn't seem to have much structure at all. It reads more like a prolonged character study, interspersed with some old letters that seem to have no connection to the narrative. They do have a connection but it is so obliquely hidden and largely ignored by Violet that it is hard to even care what it is. That's not to say the book isn't worth reading. Violet is an abrasive, impulsive, opinionated, sometimes volatile, though interesting character, who has a softer side hidden below all the brash bossiness, and she does have some stories to tell. Her relationship with her children, mainly her son add a dash of amusement, as does the hopeless ensemble of the Village Committee, which kept giving me flashes of The Vicar of Dibley minus vicar and bottomless puddles.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Teabreak ducks

I wish there had been internet when I was growing up. The best I could manage was getting on-line in the mid 90s. Back then, if you were a boastful sort, you could dazzle folk with the lightning speed of your 33.6k dial up modem and scoff at the snail-like pace of all the 28.8k users. This duck and duckling would helpfully take so much time to download you could easily make a cup of tea and chat to your neighbours before it resolved itself. Google and Wikipedia didn't exist. The main search engines were Yahoo and Alta Vista. Social networking was a bunch of folks franticly typing into a text window and swapping emails. And none of it was free. If you were on the internet for an hour it would cost you an hour in phone charges. The phone bill became as feared as The Grim Reaper.
If I'd have had just one website from today's internet it would have changed my life.
If Goodreads had existed for instance. Just think of all the different books I could have read and all the rubbish books I'd have avoided. The friend lists and the people you would have met. The authors you admired from afar swapping jokes and gripes with you on their blogs or recommending their favourite books. Just being able to keep track of authors and organize the books you read would have made such a difference. Bonuses like being able to write and read book reviews or just rate them - honest opinions from the people who actually read the books for fun or interest, rather than somebody paid to write about books they would never read by choice. Budding writers or best selling authors all posting samples of their work to the same place (here is one of mine Lucky Ticket). There are book clubs to join or even start yourself. In the past I was always struggling to find good books to read. Now there isn't enough time to read them all.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Happy as children?

Every time I write anything about Susan Hill I worry that I'm repeating myself. She's just a brilliant writer. Reading her books is like watching an artist create a picture brush stroke by brush stroke, sentence by sentence. She writes with great economy, achieving with ten words what some writers struggle to convey with fifty. The Beacon is about how isolated in themselves people can be, shaped by their memories, perceptions and expectations. Or at least that is how it seemed to me. Susan always leaves room for ambiguity. You are never quite sure who is the villain or the victim or even if it is ever quite that easy to believe things are ever so black and white. This might seem to be a very short novel but even after the last word has been read there is plenty to think about and to wonder about.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Bombus and the impostor

We're not easing off on the save the bees strategies this year. These little guys are massively important in our ecosystem. Here is a white tailed bumblebee visiting one of Debbie's foxgloves. We're trying to provide nesting places as well as favouring plants they like. My sister and my dad are the hands on gardeners in my family. Debbie is my resident horticultural expert (she watches Gardener's World y'know). She loves being able to name flowers at a glance, although she still makes the odd gaffe. She's been envious of a flower in a neighbour's garden recently. The other day she was passing that way hoping to catch the neighbour to ask about getting a cutting. She was in luck - the woman was talking to a friend.
"Excuse me. Could you tell me what that flower is?" Debbie asked.
"It's a rose," the woman replied.
"Oh, but..."
"It's plastic! I told my husband it would look ridiculous!"
The neighbour's friend exclaimed incredulously,"I've been admiring that for ages!"
Debbie slunk away.

Thursday, 18 June 2009


I've just finished reading the last of the first four Shardlake books by C.J.Sansom. I discovered them earlier on in the year and have been working steadily through them until now. They follow the life of a hunchbacked lawyer in the sixteenth century. The first book begins shortly after the execution of Ann Boleyn. Shardlake is a sympathetic character rapidly becoming disillusioned with his former reformist beliefs by the maelstrom of politics, religion, greed and courtly intrigue that rages around him. Tasked by Thomas Cromwell and latterly Archbishop Cranmer to investigate politically sensitive crimes, he tries to solve several murders while steering clear of falling foul to the many powerful players that vie for position in Henry VIII's favour. The dissolution of the monasteries is in full swing during the first book, which takes place in a monastery at Scarnsea but the strong portions of the books are set in amongst the throng of London. London is a character in its own right. The only parts that seemed to drag too much were in the third book which took us north to York Minster in the aftermath of the northern rebellion, which gives us the one short appearance by the old Mouldwarp himself King Henry VIII. Even though the king has little physical presence in the books his shadow is always there. Anyone could inform on anyone at anytime, for advancement, for cruelty or to save their own head from the chopping block. I've read a few books set during this part of Tudor history but these books rank very highly. Sansom is never the most economical of writers but he does tell a good tale in a world with enough detail to always feel authentic.

Monday, 15 June 2009

The sound of otters

I've never seen a wild otter. I've done my otter appreciation apprenticeship. I've read the books. Tarka the Otter was a childhood favourite book. I saw the movie at the cinema. Ring of Bright Water was nice too. I've watched all the documentaries. Checked up on them on Springwatch. Sketched them and scraperboarded them. I've even holidayed many times near rivers and lakes. But still I've never set eyes on a single one. I have heard one though. It was when I was staying at a cabin at a place called The Tranquil Otter. The place has a large lake with a path that circles it. There are special hides where you can um... hide and espy all the wildlife doing their thing. I heard my otter when I woke up at about 3am in the morning. It was a warm night and I'd left the bedroom window open. From the lake I could hear something splashing about, submerging and surfacing. It could have been anything. But then I heard the chittering that I'd heard so many times during my otter appreciation apprenticeship. Unmistakable.
Unfortunately the night was still pretty dark. I strained my eyes anyway but couldn't see a thing. Still the place has many other attractions. It's really great for chilling out with a stack of books. The lodge I stay at is specially adapted for people using wheelchairs, with ramps, wide doorways and a large shower room. There's a log fire for when the nights go chilly. There are ducks. My goodness there are ducks. One duck has even gained a special notoriety. Previous guests have named this crazy individual Henrietta. Her exploits are detailed in the lodge's guest book. I have met her too. Crazy duck. There are swans that doze on the lawns with their cygnets crowding around. There is a row boat that Harry has captained at least twice, sometimes pursued by the swan. One year a Moorhen used to come right onto the decking seeking birdseed to feed to its solitary chick. Make the slightest sound and both would leg it down the lawn like Roadrunner escaping from Wile E. Coyote. Those woodpeckers were there too. The variety of birds was amazing. A full feeder would empty in a day. Sometimes the feeder would have nearly twenty birds on it with others queued up on the railing.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Nostalgia bites

I like old films. Some old films though have an extra ingredient attached. I'm talking about films that I watched when I was growing up. Those old horror movies from the 1930's and 1940's by Universal always make me nostalgic for those Friday nights when Debbie and I would stay up and watch the horror double bill. The thing about this series of films is there are some great ones like The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney Jr or Dracula with Bela Lugosi and there are some real stinkers like The Mummy's Curse (1944) which I watched last night. This was the fifth and last of Universal's mummy movies and the blandest of the bunch. Believe me I've watched all five this year. I wouldn't bother mentioning it but it does have one thing going for it. Virginia Christine. She is fabulous as the Princess Ananka. The scene where she gradually comes alive from her swampy grave and walks into the sunlight is spellbinding. It's a real shame that it's not part of a better movie.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Kenny a.k.a. Mofo

This little guy originally arrived with his own entourage and moved into the close. His followers soon realised they weren't good enough for him. They moved out and left him to fend for himself. That phrase about cats landing on their feet seems to be true as he promptly acquired new followers and moved into my sister's house. Originally we didn't know he was called Kenny so now he has two names. He has piercing green eyes. Harry and Mofo are not friends. Mofo likes tripping folk up. He likes tidying up after Harry - especially his dinner. When he hears Debbie's car he spreads himself on the drive so that he can be worshipped with all due haste. Maybe he should do this after she parks the car.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Spring resides

So spring has sprung and summer is supposedly here. The bluebells and the blossom have all done their thing, the trees are wearing their summer best and all those little chicks are going, going...gone.
Spring moved in with us this year. The roof is due for repair which means all the nesting birds took full advantage. I think there were four different families reared in the front roof and fascia boards. I could see their tails poking out from above my bedroom window and I could certainly hear them when the chicks hatched. Some moved into the back as well. One family managed to get into the walls via the roof. At one stage the Starling chicks started dropping down into our boiler cupboard. Fortunately each one was rescued and relocated in the garden where the parents continued to feed them. They were all fine. Starlings aren't really my favourite birds. They scoff all the fat balls before any of the smaller birds get a look in.

I'm pleased at all the different birds coming to the feeders and the garden this year. Blue tits, coal tits and great tits. Thrushes and blackbirds. Sparrows and dunnocks. Wood pigeons and collared doves. Nuthatches and chaffinches. Lovely robins and wrens by the dozen. That elusive greater spotted woodpecker. The sparrow hawk hasn't shown his beak yet; avian sighs of relief must abound. Our tawny owls seem to be absent at the moment. The bats are back this year. They are great at twilight if you can catch a glimpse. There are ducks in the back field (yay) and pheasants who haven't discovered Bjorn's beans yet. I always like seeing the horses too. Here is a gratuitous picture of a duck and my dad. This blog should always have a surplus of ducks.
The mice haven't returned yet and the rabbits have stayed in the back field. A rabbit dropped into our garden a couple of years ago. We couldn't catch it. It scoffed half the garden before it decided to go home. Phil hasn't had to wrestle any sheep out of Debbie's garden this year yet. The squirrels seem much reduced after last winter's chainsaw massacre of the trees and the orchard at the farmhouse across the road. The huge sycamore that dominates the neighborhood was also quite heavily cut back and probably was only saved because it is a protected tree.

Lots of folk are saying we are going to have a glorious summer this year. I hope they are right.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Introducing Harry

Harry is a black Labrador. He's not my dog. He belongs to my sister - who lives right next door. Harry spends quite a bit of time at my house. Like Pickles (see The Blue Handbag) he's a sensitive soul. He doesn't bark much. If he does bark it means the window cleaner is here. He doesn't like any kind of shouting at all. So don't even think of cheering your team on if you happen to be watching football while Harry is in residence. If you do he'll be through the door and tucked up in bed before you can breathe out. "Sorry Harry," just won't cut it. You might coax him back at half time. But remember it's sotto voce cheering only for the rest of the match. Don't put anything with butter on it anywhere near him as this will result in much drooling. He likes to give raw spuds a fair chance to escape before devouring them. Only little dogs like Harry. Big dogs hate him. He loves collecting sticks. One stick won't do though. He has to have them all - at once. If you let him he will soon look like he's trying to disguise himself as a small tree. He adores swimming. Though he's restricted to paddles in the sea now. He's not as young as he used to be. He thinks his arthritis tablets are great treats. When he's bored he will grumble by softly growling followed by a sigh. I call him Grumple when he gets like this. If you stroke him or scratch his ears he will want you to continue - forever. If you stop he will poke you with his paw.

Harry and I didn't hit it off right away. Even as a youngster he was a far bigger dog than I was used to. Young Harry liked me all right but it took him a while to work out he couldn't welcome me like he welcomed his other friends. He welcomes his friends usually by running up to them and jumping on them. Every time he tried it with me he would bowl me over through the door I'd just come through and we would end up in a crumpled heap. If I was unlucky I'd hit the door casing on the way through. On one memorable occasion he knocked me right though the doorway, across the hallway and smacked my head into the radiator. Much swearing (from me) ensued. Eventually he worked it out. Jump on Debbie = good. Jump on Michael = bad. So now we get along fine and bruise free. In fact I think he loves me more than anything. Well, apart from Debbie, and Phil, oh and buttered toast, and don't forget those custards, and Uncle Peter (my god he has an Uncle Peter fetish) and that squeaky thing Debbie just bought him, and......

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Ducks, books and woodpeckers.

On finishing up a recent book review I noticed I'd gone a bit overboard on the personal comments. Some of these were far from being relevant to the book review but I was a little reluctant to get brutal with the self editing that obviously needing doing. The solution was to post two different versions. I'd wanted to start a blog someday so using this as my first post was a good excuse to get off the mark. Here is the full uncut review with the self indulgent bits still included.

On the morning that Fiona Robyn emailed me to tell me I’d won a signed copy of The Blue Handbag I also got another unexpected though pleasant surprise. A Greater Spotted Woodpecker was seen in my garden… or so I’m told. I didn’t see him myself. I missed him. I’ve seen them before on my travels but never in my own garden. Maybe he’ll come back.

A few days later the book arrives. There is still no sign of my elusive new visitor and the weather has gone to clouds and showers, turning the garden into an unfit place for either bird watching or book reading. I start the book anyway and begin to get acquainted with the main protagonist. I like Leonard almost from the start. He has a quality that reminds me of my Grandad, who was probably one of my most favourite people in existence. But Leonard is far too fanciful, and on occasion silly, for that comparison to stand much scrutiny. I soon realize that a closer mark for comparison might be myself. The clowning about, the wandering imagination and sadly the Ta-da! moments are all things I’ve been guilty of. The paragraph about Leonard not being able to stop himself mimicking accents even elicited a 'Bloody Hell!' of recognition from me. Unfortunately with me it often used to stick for a while. I once came back from college talking like a character off Only Fools and Horses - I’m told. My best friend at the time was from Peckham. The characterisations throughout are one of the books strengths. The book never overloads with too many characters at a time. You can imagine these people having a life beyond the last page of the novel. I caught myself wondering what Leonard thought of the new bloke on Springwatch this year. And was he missing Bill? Was he drawn to the science or the aesthetics of nature? Probably a mix of the two I conclude. I’m glad he learnt that ducks aren’t just for kids. Ducks are great. So nosy though. I remember guarding a stunned Woodpecker from a badelynge (love that word - sadly obsolete) of ducks crowding onto the decking at a cabin I stayed at. Being pecked by ducks is a little like being poked by a blunt sliver of soap. Doesn’t hurt at all but not what you want when you’ve just flown into a window at a hundred miles per hour.

The mystery that begins with a blue handbag takes it’s time to unfold, small clues are uncovered as the months pass and the seasons turn. I like Fiona’s writing. Some of the passages seep into your head like a cool balm straight to the brain. The only time my eyes started to slightly glaze over was the penguin sequence.

It was such a shame that the weather remained dull over the weekend when I read this because it would have been a perfect read in the garden book. I haven’t read The Letters yet, so I’ll just add that to my to-read list after I finish up here. Maybe by the time I read it I’ll have caught a glimpse of that woodpecker. The tree he landed on now has a new birdfeeder. He’s out there somewhere - probably in the wood further up the hill. One day he might come back.