Category Archives: books

Resistance, Owen Sheers

I thought it was about time I tried writing about books again, to see if it will make me a better reader.

So, I heard about Resistance years ago, on Front Row, because it had just been made into a film. For all I know, the film sank without trace, but the premise sounded interesting and I made a mental note to find the book. I then didn’t and had mostly forgotten about it, until  I found a copy on the bookshelf in the cabin we’d rented for a long weekend in the Brecons. So I picked up my own copy.

Now, counter-factual history is usually not my thing, but the small scale setting of this appealed. It’s set in a 1944 where Germany is very close to winning the war, the D-Day Landings were an epic failure and German troops are now encircling London. The broader context has the Axis powers wrapping up elsewhere in the world, America returning to a more isolationist policy and an inevitability that Britain will fall.

That’s the situation at the beginning of the novel, when all the men from a small village buried in the Welsh mountains leave their farms overnight and disappear. They have probably gone to join some resistance movement, but that’s never made really clear because they are more important in their absence. Their wives wake up in the morning with no idea where their husbands have gone, and gradually figure it out together. They are disbelieving and fearful, because the German reprisals against the families of resistance members are well known and brutal. But, in the absence of other options, they settle to the hard business of keeping their farms running.

For Sarah, her husband Tom’s absence is a sort of bereavement. She misses him, she’s angry with him, she tries to remember the details of how they first met. So that she can tell him her story when he returns, she starts to keep a diary. At first, she struggles because the act of writing is unfamiliar; later, she struggles because she’s writing her own counter-factual story.

Because, a five man patrol of Germans arrives in the valley, tasked with finding the Mappa Mundi which has been moved from Hereford for safety. They are all battle weary, and finding that no orders follow them and they seem to have fallen into a bureaucratic hole between two local commanders, they agree to stay forgotten. They should report the missing men, but they don’t. All Captain Albrecht Wolfram really wants to do is to sit out the rest of the war in this beautiful, tranquil spot.

So life goes on. The men live at the hall and mostly keep themselves to themselves, while also keeping an eye on the women. The women, with Maggie as their unofficial leader and spokeswoman, tell the Germans that they won’t help them or give them food. It’s a mutually agreed truce, while beyond the valley, out of sight and finally out of radio contact as the BBC gets taken over, the war transitions into occupation.

Not until winter lands suddenly do the German soldiers (and really, I never distinguished between them and their individual identities don’t seem that important) start to help with the farm chores. This is where you expect that the story will turn into a romance, with likely a tragic ending. It’s more unexpected that it doesn’t. So while one of the soldiers does start to develop a fondness for the young daughter of one of the women, that never amounts to anything beyond a daydream on both their sides. Wolfram does create a better sense of connection with Sarah, but that’s driven more by his need than hers. She still believes Tom’s coming home.

The relationships above all are practical. After all, digging out sheep from a snow drift, or killing a pig are tough, physical jobs. But, of course, this is still war, and tacitly everyone knows that even that is too much. Wolfram accidentally intercepts a stand in postman one day, and scribbles over all the letters coming in that the recipients are deceased. He reckons that if the women are already thought dead, no one from either side will come looking, and he doesn’t want the women dead or his men found.

Sarah’s diary meanwhile, continues in it’s record keeping vein but without any mention of the Germans at all. So with each day’s writing she fabricates the day’s activity. It’s too complex a situation otherwise to explain that the enemy isn’t really the enemy, particularly to the possible return of a husband who’s been involved in the last line of defence.

The hard winter means that the valley is held as if between moments, but time catches up. Maggie has a promising yearling, the last raised with her husband William before he left, to take to the country show. She takes one of the soldiers with her, but he’s overheard whispering to the horse in German, and then recognised.

And that’s that. The inhabitants of the valley are back on the radar, tarnished respectively with collaboration and disobedience. The yearling is shot, which shatters Maggie. Wolfram  tells Sarah they must get away, now. His radio operator goes off to radio in, and as Sarah leaves, more Germans are coming.

We don’t know that the women’s husbands are dead, but it’s likely. We don’t know that the women themselves will be punished, but that was always the most probable outcome. We don’t know if Sarah does or does not meet Wolfram at the appointed place, or if she gets away. But in the family Bible, left behind, Sarah has added her own date of death.

Resistance Movie Poster 2011

 

 

 

 

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 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!

Vacation by the numbers

I was off on a sneaky, autumn break to the Lake District. I toyed with the idea of not taking even my phone, but there’s always the possibility of emergency need. As it turned out, the cottage had slowfi and no phone reception anyway, so it sort of worked out.

Books read: 5. On day one of the holiday, I didn’t get dressed until mid-afternoon and I didn’t go out at all. I just read, drank tea and ate chocolate biscuits, which had been the vision in my head about what I most wanted to do on holiday. It’s pretty hard to disappoint that level of expectations, especially when your starting novel is The Trespassers, by Tana French. The rest was a mix of books I’d bought as holiday planning, and a couple I picked up locally: The Outrun, Amy Liptrott; The Coffin Trail, Martin Edwards; The Grown up, Gillian Flynn; The Girl with all the Gifts, M.R.Carey.

Walks: 2. That’s a bit rubbish, actually, isn’t it? We did do lots of strolling around, but in terms of proper walks, only two. And they were pretty easy ones. Oh well. What that means is, I’ve got a great excuse to get back up there and do some real walking.

Horse rides: 1. I booked this a couple of weeks before we went, and I screwed up the date. So we turned up on time on Tuesday, and no one was at the stables. Because they’d been there on Monday. We rescheduled for Wednesday, which turned out to be the first rain-free day and so a much better choice for a gentle stroll on to the fells. One day, I’ll be able to keep both feet in the stirrups when it comes to the trotting part. This time round we were four strides in and I was clinging to my horse’s neck to stay on, while simultaneously trying to get her to stop and get my foot back in the stirrup. I know it’s not that difficult, but then again, I only ride for an hour every 12-18 months so…

Days of rain: 11/2. It’s probably obligatory to spend one day driving round but not really getting out of the car for fear you’ll be swept away. The rain cleared enough for us to grab lunch in Keswick and for a brief stop at Castlerigg stone circle. This might also have been Grasmere gingerbread day.

Vegetarian sausage sandwiches eaten: 3. One of them with a pint of tea, which is about my ideal of what lunch should be on a chilly day. You would assume that, given how easy an offering it is, the vegetarian sausage sandwich would be pretty common. You would be wrong. The vegetarian and gluten free options up in the Lakes were much, much better than I’m used to. I’m assuming this has something to do with the demand amongst the walking demographic (I bet there’s an overlap between ‘people who can afford Mammut’ and ‘people who eat quinoa on a regular basis’) but whatever the reason, when a pasty shop in Keswick can magic up a gluten free pasty, it makes you wonder what’s wrong with the rest of the country.

Lakes visited:  5. Windermere, Ullswater, Derwentwater, Buttermere, Coniston. Of which I give the palm to Buttermere, because there was not a view of it that wasn’t stunning. Poor old Coniston, which could more than hold its own in any other company, was frankly disappointing afterwards. It’s been more than 20 years since I was last in the Lake District, and I had no recollection at all of how beautiful it is. Also, how close it is, really – a couple of hundred miles makes it long weekend territory. I shall plan ahead for next year.

Boat rides: 1. Last day, Windermere, sun just setting and a chill settling. An appropriate elegy for the end of a holiday.

So there you have it. I’m still fending off the tidal wave of normalcy until work tomorrow. My ideal return would have been a dead of night swoop on the house, scooping up cats, laptop and a few more items of clothing before speeding back to the motorway and the glorious north. I’m thinking new life in a cafe-cum-bookshop by one of the smaller lakes…

Hello? Hello? Is anyone still there?

Bit of an unexpected blogging break there, chaps. My laptop died unexpectedly, and it’s taken a few weeks to figure out what’s wrong and get it fixed. Back up your laptops, friends! I managed to upload my CV to Dropbox from email, but other than that, I wiped everything. I didn’t have much stored anyway, and really old photos are on my really old Mac, which still fires up if I can round up enough hamsters to power it, but still. Read my cautionary tale and be afeared! TimeMachine is synching with a shiny new external hard drive even as I type.

So, what’s been happening at Musings Towers, you cry? Well, in no particular order:

  1. The cats have killed the usual number of small birds and mammals, and memorably, one bloody huge pigeon. Belle made a valiant attempt to eat it, but after strewing feathers everywhere she gave up and slept for the rest of the day.
  2. I’m in shock (and anger, and disbelief and denial, and and and) about Brexit. Let’s just not go there.
  3. In partial response to the above, I started comfort reading fiction. I’m half way through A.S. Byatt’s Frederica quartet. I know I’d read The Virgin in the Garden and Babel Tower years ago, but I’ve never read the whole thing. Part of it was being read on R4 and it immediately became imperative to acquire the lot. Reading it has been interspersed with various other books, ranging from the last Terry Pratchet, to the latest Tessa Hadley, The Past. Fiction helps when the world’s gone mad, as it assuredly has.
  4. Not so much on the baking front, but this weekend I managed to make:
    1. Coconut macaroons that did not turn into coconut soup
    2. Some gluten free scones that didn’t rise at all, but to which all the baking powder (5tsp!) did impart a slightly metallic taste. I must be able to do better than that.
    3. Proper scones, to be eaten with proper jam and proper clotted cream.
  5. After several lovely years at this incarnation of Musing Towers, I’m moving. I will be sad to leave, but my landlords are getting on a bit and keeping the farm going is incredibly hard work, so they’re thinking about selling up and retiring into this house. I think my new place will be good, though. It’s in a village that has a shop, two pubs, a vets, a library and a doctor’s surgery. Inevitably, it also has a fair number of people in order to support all that but with any luck, I’ll never meet any of them. I’m moving over the Bank Holiday weekend in August, so I’m in that in between phase where I have to get all the moving out chores done here as well as planning packing and the purchasing of new bits & pieces for the house.
  6. After several years of being bored off my tits a lot of the time, I’ve finally knuckled down and registered for another OU course. I still can’t afford to do a PhD, and there’s no other classics stuff I can sensibly do, so I’ve taken a complete change of direction and gone for a degree in Psychology & Law instead. It will start in October, and I got very excited, anticipating the delivery of the usual OU box of readables I could dive into, but it turns out that this course is all online. Newfangled didactic methods, I never heard the like.
  7. In order to afford the OU course, I’m planning to give back my really quite nice convertible and swap it for something that isn’t a convertible and is therefore about half the price. I don’t much care what, because in my spoilt, princess way, if the roof doesn’t come down it’s not a proper car anyway, so who cares? Anyway, let’s hope that Mercedes-Benz will play along with the idea, ‘cos I don’t have a Plan B.
  8. Because some attempt at exercise was well overdue, I suffered through 5 personal training sessions. Every one of them left me aching, but I got stronger every time, too, and a decade plus old injury seems to have been fixed.  I’m definitely booking some more, and it’s beginning to seem inevitable that I’ll start running again, too.
  9. Bringing us right up to date, I drank a bit too much sparkling stuff at Battle Proms at Blenheim last night, and am slightly suffering for it today. But there were fireworks, and cannon and musket fire as well as the music, and if Land of Hope and Glory only sounds ironic at the moment? This too shall pass.

 

2016-07-16 21.46.26

2016-07-16 21.45.49

 

 

 

It’s a new day, it’s a new year, it’s a new me

Oh no, my mistake. Same old me. Well, two out of three ain’t bad, as Meatloaf so effectively, and indeed, affectingly, reminds us.

So, hands up who survived Christmas? I did, and even this year’s unlooked for but anticipated illness wasn’t so bad. It hit its peak on Christmas Eve, so that I basically slept the day away, but that did mean I was well enough on Christmas Day to wear my new PJs and socks and sit in front of a fire while reading. That’s my definition of a pretty good day, Christmas or otherwise.

After that, I was better and I bought more books, and so I book surfed triumphantly through the rest of the holiday period until reality bit today.

And I even survived that. Looks like it’s game on for another year.

I generally don’t make resolutions but a new year kicking off does rather prompt a bit of thinking. Also, I seem to have really, really needed that holiday, which suggests to me that the work-life balance got a bit out of whack in the last quarter of the year that was. Well, I know it did. New metric: if I consistently don’t have milk for tea, life is going to hell in a hand basket.

Consequently, I have two vague notions to launch me into 2016:

  1. I will do something productive every day. Let’s assume that like all the rest of us good corporate boys and girls, I’m always productive at work. Ahem. However, by the time I’ve done that, I’m a lot less productive at home because it’s much easier to flick endlessly back and forth between Twitter and Facebook. I’m defining ‘being productive’ pretty widely, to give myself plenty of scope. It could mean ‘cooking real food’ or ‘writing a blog post’, or ‘doing some exercise’ or ‘writing a letter’ or ‘doing that goddamn filing I was supposed to do over Christmas’. The goal is only one productive thing, because when life gets busy again, as it inevitably will do, I tend to try to over-achieve. This means I always have a ‘to do’ list in my head and I’m always measuring myself against what I’ve crossed off the list. But, as everyday life is made up of small tasks and chores if you let it be, the list never reduces and while I’m busy being busy, I don’t pet the cats or watch the sun set.
  2. I will use my brain every day. This is going to be much more difficult. For a start, I have to stop kidding myself that doing The Times Codeword counts, when it’s so easy that it clearly doesn’t. And, the Twitter/FB thing breeds a lack of concentration and a jelly brain. I’ve decided blogging falls into the brain using category because (you’ll have to trust me on this one) I do have to think about what I’m writing. And sometimes, the writing frames the thinking, which is a good and useful thing. Beyond that, I haven’t really solved the ‘how’ at all, although I could make a start with the pile of unread copies of The Economist that is threatening local domination…

Meanwhile, I wish you all well with whatever the year holds for you, dear reader, and I’d also like to start the year by saying ‘Thank you’. For the most part, I don’t know who reads this blog. There a few regulars, and some drop-ins, I think. Someone seems to have spent New Year’s Day reading a lot of it. (Who are you? Do ‘fess up!)  But whoever you all are, thanks for taking the time.

 

In which part 1 of the vision is achieved

Hurrah for a week off tacked on to a Bank Holiday weekend! I’m enjoying this week immensely. I haven’t bothered wearing my watch since Monday, as I haven’t had anywhere to be, and that has led to that real holiday feeling of losing track of time. So far, it’s been a great balance of getting stuff done and lazing around reading or watching DVDs, with just the right amount of red wine thrown in as a treat.

I’m rubbish at down time with no plans at all, so on the list for this week were:

Go dog walking with my sister – which we did on Easter Monday, both of us surprised by the sun and inevitably, getting sunburnt. But it was a great walk, along the Thames from Tadpole Bridge to Radcot and back. I would love to get my own dog, but until such time as I restructure my life to allow me the time, I make do with occasionally walking Bailey.

Get rid of the cobwebs – the downside of the sunny weather and some time at home is that I see my house in daylight. When I looked up, it was all getting a bit Miss Haversham up in the beams, where the cobwebs were having a party. It was time for the telescopic duster and much precarious balancing on furniture and stretching at unlikely angles.

Paint bookcases – as outlined in The Vision, I have a couple of horrible laminate bookcases that I’d decided needed a revamp. I have now been introduced to the world of chalk paint, and it’s amazing stuff. It really did go over laminate with no preparation whatsoever, and now I’m looking round for what else I can paint. I’d originally planned on white paint, but when I went to the Annie Sloane store I was overwhelmed with colour choices, and ended up going with Paris Grey.

Bookcases before

Horrible laminate bookshelves

Behold the fruits of my labours! I took the opportunity to do a bit of tidying up of shelves as well, and inevitably moving the bookcases meant wiping down walls and skirting boards too, and also vacuuming up what appeared to be the local woodlice cemetery. Ick.

Bookcase during

During painting, I’ve gone all unintentionally shabby chic

Bookcase after 1

After, and in new location. Notice empty shelves. Not for long.

Bookcase after 2

I bloody hate that printer. Step 2 will be to curtain off that bottom shelf to hide it.

Clear out the shed – This is still to be done and is pending for tomorrow afternoon. I fear spiders; but, the shed is now so full of stuff thrown in hodge-podge that it’s not useful for storage any more and I can’t get to anything.

Get my bike fettled – I think this is going to fall off the list, bumped by some of the unplanned activities.

Such as…

Having a massage – I was in Oxford to get the paint, which took me to Cowley Road, which meant my route took me past Eau de Vie. So I popped in and ended up booking a massage for later that day. It was totally worth it.

Baking a simnel cake – I’d meant to do this for Easter, then forgotten, then thought I’d bake it in time to take to my sister’s on Easter Monday. Turns out, the supermarkets are shut on Easter Sunday. Astonishingly, Easter still trumps retail and who would have predicted that? So, making the cake is pencilled in for tomorrow morning.

Watching all of season 1 of Penny Dreadful – which was suddenly available to buy on DVD, so I did and now I’ve watched it. I’ll hand the DVD on to my sister and wait for season 2 to be available.

Checking over my spring/summer clothes – I wasn’t expecting the weather to be this warm, and suddenly realized that all my warm weather clothing was in storage. So now I’ve dragged it all out, and have piles for dry cleaning, giving away and recycling.

And as well as all that, I read:

  • Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies, and Maskerade – yes, it was a bit of a minor Terry Pratchett binge but they were a threefer.
  • Anna of the Five Towns – Arnold Bennett
  • Island Summer – Tilly Culme-Seymour
  • My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
  • Astonish Me – Maggie Shipstead

And you know the best bit? I’ve still got three days left before real life kicks in again.