Unread, now read book 11 – Old Filth, Jane Gardam

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I bought this novel, along with Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room,  because they were part of a nice point of sale display in my local bookstore containing the 40 years of Abacus special edition books, and had lovely covers. Shallow of me, I know, but really sometimes that’s all it takes. Which is why I don’t let myself in bookstores very often.

Anyway, I digress. Old Filth.Essentially Old Filth (FILTH standing for Failed in London Try Hong Kong) tells the story of Sir Edward Feathers, a retired judge who, having spent most of his long career in Hong Kong, has now retired to Dorset with his wife. At the beginning of the novel he loses his wife suddenly to a heart attack and that is when he starts to unravel and we get the extended flashbacks to his childhood and early career. Born a child of the British Empire, a Raj orphan who is then shunted off to Wales, where he suffers dreadfully at the hands of his sadistic guardian before escaping that life to go to a boarding school where he is happy, Edward’s life arc appears to be as unpredictable to him as it is to the reader following his story. At the mercy of the whims of family members who have jurisdiction over him till he turns 18, then the war and the army, then his career, Edward seems constantly surprised by where he is in life. But he is no Paul Pennyfeather. Everything good that happens to him is a result of him showing kindness or understanding to someone in need that he has come across. But he isn’t a goody-goody either. Oh, it’s really hard to explain.

Suffice to say, I loved this book. Got to the end and wanted to read it again. I still can’t really tell you why; the writing was strong but not wow, amazing; the characters were well-drawn but most of them weren’t very likeable; the plot was interesting and the constant shift between the present and various points in the main character’s past kept me on my toes. So why so engaging? I think because when I reached the end, although I thought I understood buttoned-up, emotionally desolate Edward, the final reveal made me revisit everything that had gone before. I would normally say that I felt cheated but it’s not that. Having read the introduction written for this particular edition by the author, I was relieved to see that she felt the same way. Old Filth was meant to be a standalone, a one-off but once she had finished writing it, she felt the urge to write two more linked novels and turn it into a trilogy. The second novel (The Man in the Wooden Hat) tells the same story but from Betty’s (his wife) point of view and the third (Last Friends), focuses on the retirement of all of the protagonist from Hong Kong to Dorset. I can’t wait to read the second, I feel as if there is so much more waiting for me. So once again, I add to the list of books I want to read when I have finished my current list of unread books!

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Unread, now read book 10 – A Whistling Woman, A.S.Byatt

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Coming in at number ten on my unread, now read list (in a neat twist, as this is the tenth book by A.S.Byatt that I have now read) is A Whistling Woman. The last of Byatt’s ‘Frederica Potter Quartet’, A Whistling Woman portrays Frederica in the late 1960s and her reaction to all of the extraordinary social changes that was happening so rapidly at this time. I wouldn’t recommend reading this if you haven’t read the other novels in the Quartet (The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower) as I don’t think it stands alone as well as Still Life, and you will get more out of it if you have traced her journey from her 17-year-old self through to the 33-year-old she is in this novel.

Particularly interesting in A Whistling Woman is the general attitude towards television, which is still in its infancy; the newly-formed BBC is looking around for programming ideas, and decide they need a programme that hosts a very cerebral, political and philosophical debate with guest talking heads – reality tv isn’t even a twinkle in an executive’s eye at this point! Frederica is offered the role of hosting the weekly debate accepts and is thrust into the brave new world of television with very little, well no, training. Running in parallel with Frederica’s story, are the stories of her friends, her lover and her family, back in her native Yorkshire; an ‘anti-university’ is being promoted to students who are currently following studies at a traditional university; a cult is forming around a psychologically-disturbed man at a farm nearby; all of the stories intertwining and acting as a catalyst upon one another.

Always erudite, crammed with literary, biblical and philosophical allusions and references, but wearing her learning lightly, Byatt dazzles again in this novel. However, I have to admit though that Possession will always be my favourite novel of hers, partly because I have a weakness for Victorian-esque literature and partly because it has everything – a quest, multiple love stories, fabulous poetry. So if you haven’t read any Byatt, start with Possession, then The Game, and then move onto the ‘Frederica Potter Quartet’. If you get through all of those, come back to me and I will suggest more of hers to read!

Unread, now read book 9 – Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson

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From outback Australia in my last read, to a small-minded village in the English countryside in this one. Much as I am struggling with my (self-prescribed) reading list, I am enjoying the randomness of my current reading. Usually I read a couple of similar books in a row, maybe Golden Age crime novels, or Booker prize winners, or Australian-themed, dystopian novels, etc. Reading in such a disconnected way is quite liberating; I find the juxtaposition of the novels I am reading one after the other add, rather than detract, from my enjoyment of them.

And so, onto book 9, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Major Pettigrew is rather a dear. He could easily have been turned into a cliché by the author, Helen Simonson, but actually from the moment he is introduced, reeling from a phone call that has informed him his brother has died, Major Pettigrew confounds the reader’s expectations of how a retired major should behave. His growing friendship with Mrs Ali, the English-Pakistani owner of the local shop, is beautifully drawn as is his dawning realization that she means more to him than anything else – including the opinion of his neighbours who struggle to welcome and approve of this friendship. Throw in his self-obsessed ‘city boy’ son, a snobbish social committee, an ineffectual vicar and the casual racism displayed by the local golf club members and you have a lovely modern manners novel.

Don’t get me wrong, Simonson is no Austen but this village life novel, with its insular characters, rather charmed me. Well, to be fair Mrs Ali and Major Pettigrew did. Some of the more far-fetched plot developments felt a little forced and, in my mind, were clichés and/or distracting but on the whole a nice read. Not a novel I would necessarily re-read, or even recommend as a ‘must-read’ to friends, but a nice read.

Unread, now read book 8 – The Pages, Murray Bail

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Moving between a sheep station in rural NSW, Sydney and various European cities, the story traces Wesley Anthill’s determination to become a philosopher, the siblings that support his dream, his trip to Europe, the events that drive him back home and his life back on the sheep station. After Wesley’s death, Erica, a philosopher is employed the Anthill estate to go through all of his writings and papers and to establish if Wesley really was a philosopher of merit and therefore whether his papers should be published. Accompanying her is a friend from Sydney, Sophie, a psychologist.

I could have done without Sophie. Bail uses her as a motif, sets her psychological musings against Erica’s philosophical ideals but her characterization is very clichéd and she is given very silly things to say. And the subplot involving her father is a bit obvious. If the intention is to compare and contrast the approaches of philosophy and psychology then at the very least Bail could have provided ‘combatants’ of equal stature. However, I can forgive him this for his lyrical descriptions of the Australian landscape (which is what I loved most about another novel of his, Eucalypus, a must-read!!).

A meditation on love, the complicated dance between man and woman that is the start of any relationship, and the difficulties of thought itself, The Pages is a beautiful, tightly-written novel that stays with you long after you have finished reading.

A word of advice – NEVER start playing Candy Crush Saga

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Candy Crush, Candy Crush, Candy Crush. What have you done to me?! I used to be a functioning, socializing, engaging individual. Now? Hunched over my iPhone trying to get that one double striped candy combination to win the level. Playing. Just. One. More. Game. Ignoring my exasperated husband’s demands that I put my phone down. Pushing the cat off my lap (he affects my ‘game’ arm with his cute nuzzling). How did it come to this? Why is it so addictive? Why can’t I stop?

Being a glass half full girl, I believe it is the ‘hope springs eternal’ attitude. Every time I play I keep thinking, “ah well, the NEXT time I will definitely pass the level.” But then it doesn’t work out. And I am SO close. So I try again, having learnt from the last attempt what the pitfalls are. Nope. No go. So I go again. And again. And again. Then I hit the brick wall of ‘no lives’. No more lives for the next 30 minutes?! Aarrgghhh! I just need one more life and I will definitely get to the next level. So, and I admit this only to close friends, I reset the clock on my iPhone to trick Candy Crush Saga into giving me more lives. Sometimes I do that two or three times. That’s fifteen attempts in about half an hour. I am so ashamed.

I have read lots of articles on the addictive qualities of Candy Crush and most of them centre on the fact that there is enforced downtime, you HAVE to stop even if you don’t want to. So the game always leaves you wanting more. And it is a deceptively simple game to start with; you line up a few candies of the same colour so they explode, and repeat, to reach a certain number of points. But then the levels start getting harder; suddenly you are dodging chocolate that ‘eats’ your candy, extricating your candies from cream, trying to line up candies to get rid of the ticking time bombs, using licorice to block chocolate, sometimes doing all of this while racing against the clock. It’s heady stuff!

So my advice to those who are thinking about clicking on that cute little candy avatar in the App Store is DON’T DO IT! And to those who have already clicked. Well, sorry my friend, you are in the Candy Crush Saga dependency club now…

Melting, melting … top tips for any newly arrived northern europeans on surviving this heat wave

Melbourne heat wave

Northern europeans (and English people who don’t see themselves as European), hear me. You may think you know what it’s like to experience hot weather … but you would be wrong. Until you have lived through consecutive multiple 40C + days, you will not have a true understanding of the horror that awaits you! So with the benefit of my years of living here in Melbourne, I give you my top tips to surviving this week’s heat wave.

Preparations:

  • Fill all the ice cube trays you own.
  • Put bottles of water and face cloths in the freezer.
  • Stock up on food, preferably things that don’t need to be heated up such as salad items, yoghurt, etc. And a box of icy poles (or super dupers as Aussies call them) would not go astray either.
  • TOP TIP – grapes are great frozen, and very refreshing. Bung a bunch in the freezer.
  • Close all the blinds and curtains in your house and make sure all windows are shut tight.
  • Buy a freestanding oscillating fan, if you don’t already own one (or more).

During the heat wave:

  • DO NOT OPEN WINDOWS “to let the cool air/breeze in.” There is none, this is an English fallacy.  All it will do is make your house even hotter.
  • Do not open the curtains/blinds, unless its nighttime. They need to stay closed until the heatwave is over.
  • Soak a towel or tea towel in cold water and drape over the fan (making sure it won’t get trapped in the blades).
  • Fill a tub with cold water and put ice cubes in there (remembering to top up your ice cube trays afterwards, you don’t want to run out of ice!) and stick your feet in there. Or have a cold bath if you have a bathtub (lucky you).
  • There is no such thing as too many cold showers. And definitely have one before you go to bed.
  • Spray your bedsheets with water using a trigger spray bottle and have a cold shower before you go to bed (and if you are wearing some sort of night cover like a t-shirt, soak that in water too).
  • Sleep in the ‘coolest’ or rather, ‘least hot’, room in the house. This is not the time to get all precious about where you sleep.
  • Don’t create any additional heat in the house that you don’t have to. That means no hairdryers, ovens, stovetops, irons, etc.
  • Do not leave the house unless you have to. It is always hotter outside and don’t underestimate how difficult it is to get about in this weather.

Of course, if you have air con, you are laughing.  Unless it isn’t in your bedroom, in which case you will be dragging your mattress into the room that does have the air con and camping out there so ha ha back.

Out and about:

Obviously you will only be leaving the house if you are (a) mad or (b) don’t have air con and live in a concrete box; otherwise you will be hunkered down as per my advice above.

  • Seek out free/cheap places that have air con: Your car; cinemas; shopping malls; work (!); bowling alleys, libraries, museums.
  • Try not to be outside between 12pm and 6pm, this is the hottest part of the day.
  • Wear a hat, loose clothing and carry at least one 500ml water bottle, preferably two.
  • Walk SLOWLY and in the shade (dur) and if you don’t feel stupid, use an umbrella to keep the heat off your head.

That’s it really. All common sense stuff but I didn’t do half of it my first summer here so I thought it was worth sharing!

Oh and my ‘glass half full’ take on Melbourne heat waves… Every heat wave (eventually) leads to a cool change. Which are brilliant! The thermostat can drop up to 18C in 30 minutes. Bliss!

Rainy weather is baking weather

It’s raining, so I want to bake. The moment those rain clouds gather, I just want to make myself a nice cup of tea, put BBC Radio 4 on (hurrah for Tune In Pro radio app!) and bake. I don’t know why I have this Pavlovian baking response to rain; maybe because baking is cosy and reassuring and when the weather is awful I can hunker down inside and get a warm glow (literally!) from baking a cake in the oven.

Of course, by the time I have got out all of my flours, sugars, flavourings, etc. from the cupboard and pulled my adored KitchenAid stand mixer towards me on the worktop, I have decided that really I need to make at least two cakes, or a large cake and a batch of cupcakes, to make it worth the effort. So I do.

And every time I bake, I think of my grandmother. Although I didn’t do much baking with her as a child, I always associate cake with Nanny because every time I visited her house, I would get a piece of cake. Every time. Which sounds great, except that her cakes really weren’t very good! Nanny only made three types of cake: a banana bread that always had a slight grey tinge to it; a sort of bakewell tart – the sponge and jam were good but the pastry was always pretty bad!; and a chocolate cake with chocolate icing – my particular favourite, even when she would take it from the freezer, pop it in the ‘micro’ (as she liked to call her microwave) to defrost it ,which would result in a still frozen solid centre, warm squidgy sponge around the edges and melted chocolate icing. Still, it tasted good! And wow, were her cakes stodgy. She once handed my father a bag on a visit to us one day and as he took it he jokingly asked what was in it, rocks?!, as it was so heavy. No just a few cakes I made Nanny replied matter-of-factly, not put out at all!

Nanny passed away a few years ago now – I still miss her dreadfully but at least I can remember her every time I bake. So this article is for you, Nanny.

Nanny and me

You can find photos of some of my baking efforts on my ‘A Piece of Cake’ Pinterest board.