In which there are swings and roundabouts

And it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry, blah di blah di blah blah. Rhubarb rhubarb.

I’ve got a new job. It’s an internal move, so I’m not sure when it will start, but on Friday I drafted the job spec for my current role because I’m sticking around to help recruit my replacement. It’s an odd thing, writing a description of the job you do. The weeks mostly go by in a blur of meetings and emails, but you know what? I do a lot. At the same time, a cool reappraisal shows there are skills I don’t have that this role needs now. So it’s a good thing that I’ll be moving out of the way.

The new job is big and scary, beyond my experience and out of my comfort zone. That’s why it appealed to me and why I’m taking it. Hurrah for age and experience, because I may fall flat on my face and when I was younger, I wouldn’t have risked that.

This morning I got my car serviced, and as I’ve almost hit the mileage with about 18 months to go on the lease, I asked about changing it. Well. The story was not the one I wanted to hear. Turns out that there’s not a whole lot of an interest in a high performance car with 50k miles on the clock in under three years. I’m downgrading and I still have to put in a reasonable deposit to contribute towards depreciation and the gap between what I owe and what the current car is worth.

But. I can cover the deposit, and there were plenty of times in my life when that wouldn’t have been the case. Yes, it’ll be a hit on my savings but no one marched me into a Mercedes dealership three years ago and put a gun at my head to make me lease an extravagant car. I didn’t know then I’d be clocking roughly 20,000 miles a year.

So I write this on Saturday evening, sitting in the kitchen sink… Oops, I mean at the kitchen table, with a glass of wine. There’s a vase of flowers in front of me, bought for me because of a perception that I had a tough morning. I’ve got Thursday’s country music show playing while I cook dinner and I spent the afternoon reading a novel.

I’m a fortunate woman.

In which I fail the TBR dare. And buy books. And then read them.

So. Two blog posts ago, I excitedly signed up to the TBR dare and dug out the books that have been kicking around for a while unread.

In January, I re-read three books, faffed around online, paced the house and felt generally restless and ill at ease. The unread books remained steadfastly unread, and instead loomed at me accusingly from the window ledge.

Turns out that there’s a reason why they’re unread. It’s not that I never want to read them, it’s just that I especially don’t want to read them when they’re my only choice. But not reading anything makes me stressed and miserable and aimless.

So I did the only sensible thing and hit Blackwell’s, waving my account card triumphantly and to hell with the bill. (Which won’t turn up for a couple of months anyway because one of the endearing quirks of the account card is it runs so far in arrears and the statements are so impenetrable that I  basically never have a clue how much I’ve spent or when the amount will leave my bank account. As a result of which, I don’t bother checking.)

Anyway. I bought a lovely stack of books and I have read:

Watch Her Disappear by Eva Dolan. This is the fourth in the Zigic and Ferreira series and deals with the murder of a transgender woman. I like the concept of the Hate Crimes Unit, it’s a nice device for Dolan to explore less ordinary murders. This one explores the trans community a bit, sympathetically overall and without reduction to stereotypes. The perspective on the murdered woman, Corinne, shifts around as well. Of course she’s a victim, but as more information comes to light and the witness interviews mount up, it becomes clear that she could be very unpleasant.

Since the last book, Zigic’s wife has had another baby, and Ferreira has moved into what appears to be a grotty flat and is having an affair with a superior. But by the end of the novel, the Hate Crimes Unit is closing  – is this the end of Zigic & Ferreira?

Real Tigers by Mick Herron. In which someone has kidnapped Catherine Standish to try to get the Slow Horses to steal some files from MI5 in return for her release. As ever with the internal machinations of MI5, there are wheels within wheels and the double-crosses come thick and fast.  In this one, the body count went up a bit as well, with a splendid shoot out. On balance, I think you’d want Jackson Lamb on your side. Just not close enough to be able to smell him or let him steal your food. He does get all the best lines, though: ‘Mind like a razor. Disposable’.

Daughter of the Wolf by Victoria Whitworth. This got onto my list after a glowing review in The Sunday Times, so I was very pleased to find it. I really hope it’s the start of a series, because it felt like a story that had further to go and I found it absolutely engrossing. The premise isn’t that unusual – local lord goes away leaving untried daughter to rule for him – but the setting is pre-Norman England so the historical elements are really interesting.

And some others.

Finally, as I said to Mr W, I’ve struck audiobook gold with A Dance to the Music of Time, narrated by Simon Vance. It’s been years since I read the quartet, but I’m finding it pleasantly familiar. I may swap back and forth between print and audio for the rest, although it’s a great accompaniment to the business miles and means no risk of accidentally hearing any news on the radio. I find Simon Vance’s dry tone is perfect for Nick Jenkins. But ugh. Widmerpool.

The art of living with cats

My cats have been particularly crazy since I moved house. We are, finally, through the being-woken-up-multiple-times-a-night-by-psychotic-purring stage that gave me unwanted insight into the life of parents with a newborn. (Newborns purr psychotically, right? That’s what I heard, anyway.) I would never wear fur, of course, but there’s something about stumbling downstairs by the light of the screen on your phone, narrowly avoiding stepping on the remnants of the latest kill, and following a cat to a food bowl that already has food in it that makes one wish tippets were still in fashion. And Belle is very fluffy and stylishly black and white…

I’m still woken up mostly between 4am and 5am but I get up at 5.30am anyway so that seems completely reasonable. Or, at least, it does to my feline overlords. So, that minor inconvenience aside, here are other rules for living with cats.

  1. Understand that a cat can stretch to accommodate any size of seat. So, the same cat that will force itself into a shoebox can also fully occupy a two-seater sofa.
  2. Cats want attention when they want attention. This is most likely to be when you absolutely have to leave because you’re already running late; or when you’re just carrying something hot and heavy around the kitchen. Lazy Sunday morning, tea, papers? No cats to be seen. Uncap a pen to start on the crossword? Cats everywhere, particularly sitting on the newspaper. Bonus points for them if they have wet paws even though it’s not raining.
  3. The same cat that will sleep contentedly through the noise of the food processor will also jump off the sofa and race to the door if I turn over a page too abruptly.
  4. Cats are unpredictable gourmands. That same food they’ve been eating happily for months? No and no. They will still wake me up at 4.30am of course, but only so they can sniff disdainfully at their food bowls and go out.
  5. The best place for a cat to sit is exactly where it’s most inconvenient at the time. On my laptop while I’m working; on the exercise mat while I’m working out; in the middle of the floor in an unlit room at night. The worst place for a cat to sit is anywhere out of the way, unless you’d quite like them to keep you company just then.
  6. Cats like playing but it’s a mistake to think that you are playing with them. They are playing with you. This is why, in the middle of the fun game with the catnip mouse/ rolled up paper/piece of ribbon, they will suddenly lose all interest and stroll off as if you are the dumbest loser ever and they’re done pretending to be friends with you.
  7. Whatever is on the other side of any given barrier (door, window, curtain) is irresistible. Particularly if it’s nothing.
  8. Cats are paranoid and don’t trust furniture. The same shelf/bookcase/window sill that has been there all along will suddenly present itself to their attention as though its existence is a complete surprise and possible threat.
  9. The act of getting off a sofa without disturbing a sleeping cat requires as much flexibility as a yoga class and should be recognised as a form of exercise.
  10. Cats can choose to be stealthy or noisy. This is so they can float up the stairs in the middle of the night and then jump on you to provide maximum shock.

The 2017 TBR dare

In a moment of madness on Twitter, I seem to have agreed to the 2017 TBR dare. The things one is persuaded to do on the spur of the moment. Look on me, children, and behold my tale of social media downfall.

The rules are actually flexible but I’m going to try to stick to a pure form. So, from 1 January 2017 to 1 April 2017, I can only read books that are already on my TBR pile. I’m including anything that Blackwell’s send me as part of their curation of my TBR list as well.

Of course, this seemed fine at the tail end of last year, when I had the concentration span of an amoeba and the TBR pile looked correspondingly healthy. Now? Not so much. I’ve had to trawl the shelves, and come up with:

  1. Isaac Asimov, Foundation & Empire – there’s a bookmark partway through this, so clearly I wasn’t loving it.
  2. Isaac Asimov, Second Empire.
  3. Miklos Banffy, They Were Counted.
  4. Cees Nooteboom, Nomad’s Hotel.
  5. Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil.
  6. Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories.
  7. Samuel Richardson, Clarissa.
  8. Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver. I’ve got the rest of the Baroque trilogy sitting around unread as well, but I know I tried and failed with this one so I’m not optimistic enough to put all three on the list.

Unfortunately, Jan to March last year I read 24 books. Admittedly there are some hard hitters on this list that will definitely slow me down. It could take me a month to get through Clarissa, especially since it’s enormous and I’m not taking it out of the house. But the Asimov and the Nooteboom are the work of a couple of train journeys.

So. Either, by 1 April, I’ll have cracked the list above and have a pile of new, unread books to dive into from my moral high ground of reading smugness. I may also have a gleamingly clean house and new exercise habit if I run out of books and have to find something else to do with the rest of my time. Or, I’ll be fidgety, anxious and slightly feral,  occasionally snuffling and licking the covers of the new books I can’t yet read. Who knows?

Happy New Year, by the way!

2016 reading round up

I read 114 books this year, including audiobooks. I thought it would be fewer than that, because I don’t feel as though I’ve done enough reading at all. I did a fair bit of re-reading, but it’s been a tough year and I’m not at all surprised that I went for comfort reading.

Discoveries of the year

Jodi Taylor’s St Mary’s books, about historians who do their research by time travel and have many adventures along the way.  I raced through these, enjoying the history and sci-fi blend to start with, but then increasingly the character development. I found Max an engagingly flawed heroine and it made a real change to read a series in which the women are allowed to take as many risks and get just as beaten up as the men.

In a darker, more serious vein, there’s Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series. Lamb heads up the Slough House division of MI5, which is where the losers and failures are sent until the pointless admin drives them out of the service altogether. Caught right in the middle of internecine battles between MI5 and MI6, Lamb’s ‘Slow Horses’ (a pun on Slough House) turn out not to be completely useless after all. These burn slowly, but they’re quietly gripping. I’m two books in and pleased to see there’s a fourth volume on its way in 2017. I don’t know how I’ve missed Herron up to now, as he also writes detective novels set in Oxford, but I’ll definitely be reading more.

I defy any woman to read the title essay in Men Explain Things to Me and Other Essays by Rebecca Solnit and not identify with it. Solnit originally wrote the essay in 2008 for the Los Angeles Times, and says it’s been the most reposted of all her works. It’s not hard to see why. In the essay, Solnit describes an incident in which a man tells her all about a very important book that’s been published that year on a subject she has mentioned, while repeatedly ignoring Solnit’s friend telling him ‘It’s her book’. He finally gets the point, but despite realising he’s talking to the author and despite the fact he’s only read a review of the book… he keeps talking. It’s a classic account and explanation of mansplaining, before the term was invented.

Rediscoveries of the year

Magician, Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon by Raymond E. Feist. I first read these when I was in my mid-teens and I can’t remember when I last read them but it’s got to be about 15 years ago. Magician is certainly the strongest and I’d have stopped there but… you can’t stop in the middle of the story, can you?

Unless you’re re-reading Dune, of course. This stood the test of time but as even when I first read it I remember the series getting progressively weaker, I was content to stop it there.

Let’s just be thankful I wasn’t tempted back to The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, shall we?

Autobiography of the year

No, it’s the not the only biography I read, because I enjoyed Graham Greene’s A Sort of Life as well. But, I’m a partisan judge and Springsteen’s Born to Run is my winner. As a fan, it was fascinating to read about the early struggles and the background to the albums that have been the soundtrack to my life. It felt like a fairly open confessional, and a couple of interviews I’ve heard suggest that’s true. The only thing on my bucket list is a coast to coast drive of the US, with a Springsteen soundtrack.

Surprise read of the year

Holding, by Graham Norton. I’m ambivalent about Graham Norton himself, but generally sceptical about celebrity authors. Still, I heard him on R2’s bookclub and the book sounded interesting enough to get me over the scepticism hurdle. It’s a murder mystery, set in a nowhere town in Ireland. The local Garda officer usually doesn’t get to do anything more exciting than direct traffic outside the village fete. Then the discovery of a body up at a building site turns the town upside down. I enjoyed the unravelling of the mystery, but I was really sold on the characters. There were backstories aplenty, and that’s what brought it all to life.


Runs like clockwork

Except that, this is the time of year when the mechanism is breaking and maybe a bit over-wound. It runs slower, and it runs down more quickly. This year has been hard and long, and it’s not even as if heading into a new year will bring a clean slate. England is broken,  and those in authority are a big part of the problem. The US is facing a disaster that could well become international. No one is going to come along and fight the monsters.

It is tough to get out of bed in the mornings, and if it wasn’t for the cats demanding that I get up and feed them, I can’t be sure that I’d always bother facing the day. Once I’m up, I run like a good little automaton: shower, dress, drive to whichever the hell office it is. Tick those boxes.

Someone I was close to was killed in a car accident a few weeks ago. One of my best friends is hurting so much, it almost breaks me to see her.

I am so tired.

I don’t believe in any gods and I don’t believe in miracles, and all the feel-good Christmas ads make me furious at how gullible retailers think people are.

But what are the options? It’s basically stop or go, and I choose go because I always do. And  since the cats got me up anyway, I might as well go through the motions until they mean something more than a chore ticked off a list: order the tree, buy more decorations, plan the gifts.

And I don’t believe in gods, but I do believe in people, and so look. Look at the Blackwell’s Giving Tree, where I’ll go donate today. Look at the more than 50 shoeboxes for Shelter my colleagues put together. Look at the flowers my boyfriend bought me, and the guy at carwash telling me to it was ok to come back later with the cash. These are the small kindnesses that get us all through the days. With all this, maybe we are fighting the monsters.

In which I’m not gonna lie, guys

Things look pretty bad. This is seemingly the year in which the previously unthinkable, the events and decisions and actions and values that should still be firmly unthinkable, have edged out into the light and become commonplace.

Where to start? Pick a card, any card, so let’s go with… My Twitter feed is full of people campaigning to save the NHS.

Because of the enormity of the shit that is going down, it’s almost, unbelievably, easy to overlook this one.


The NHS.

That would be the health service that looks after everyone, beginning to end, 24/7, tirelessly and selflessly, no questions asked and certainly not ‘And which credit card will you be using?’, while its staff get paid salaries that I for one would say it’s not possible to live on, I’ve got cats to support you know.

So yeah, a bedrock system of our state needs saving and for all the people trying, really, really hard, and the doctors who’ve been pushed to strike because of the government’s overweening unreasonableness, it probably won’t be. Unthinkable, right?

I guess I can’t dodge the buffoon in the corner, so. The world got a new portmanteau word this week. Instead of needing to type out a whole list to say that someone is a racist, lying, bigoted, tax-dodging, misogynistic, sexually assaultive, narcissistic, psychopathic fascist fantasist about to go on trial for raping a 13 year old girl, we can all just type ‘Trump’. See how much neater that is? But you know what concept that portmanteau word cannot encompass? Presidency. Trump will inherit the title, the percentage of Americans that is basically terrified of everyone not them saw to that.  But he’ll never be President.

And one more, for good measure. There’s the good ole’ Daily Fail, going about its day to day business of fostering hate (towards anyone, that’s the only way in which the tabloid and its readership is broad minded). In this instance, the focus was on four judges who had the temerity to do their job and make a judgement according to the law about how Article 50 could be triggered. I’m 6 weeks into Law 101 and even I know that’s legit, so you can bet the Daily Fail’s corporate lawyers do too. But what does the truth matter when you can use a story to pander to the illiberal views of a vicious minority?

It’s Remembrance Sunday today. I don’t know how we, collectively, have the fucking nerve to say ‘We remember’ those who died and what they fought for. If we remember, we sure as hell don’t care.