Bad Girls by Jacqueline Wilson

Bad Girls by Jacqueline Wilson

At #117 Bad Girls is the 13th Jacqueline Wilson novel I’ve read for this challenge, and I think it’s too many. They’re all starting to blur together, and the tears and traumas in this one just felt too familiar.

Mandy is the opposite of a bad girl. Small and dressed in frilly frocks, she looks closer to 7 than her actual age of 10. Since her best friend joined Kim’s clique, Mandy has been the target of all their taunts. She’s lonely until she meets Tanya. At 14, in foster care and separated from her younger siblings, Tanya is happy to have someone to care for. But bad habits are hard to break.

Have I read this book before?
Wilson’s strength is the natural way that she combines issues (foster care, absent parents, shop lifting, bullying) with a plot that children can relate to. Bad Girls is, objectively, a good book. It isn’t preachy, and shows that there can be complicated responses to issues. It never labels the ‘bad girls’ of the title, and juxtaposes two different sorts of ‘badness’ in a way that might make people think, or perhaps be unconsciously less judgmental. So it’s good, and I recommend it.

I did like the emphasis on creativity, particularly drawing and writing, in the story. The rainbow theme helped me notice how much time Wilson’s characters spend making stuff. It’s not just in this novel. Her characters are constantly making things, drawing pictures, dreaming and living in their imagination. It makes drawing, writing, art, dance and similar seem really accessible and achievable. I think it would be encouraging and inspiring, if I were 10.

Have I read this book before?
That said, I feel like I’ve read this book before. The chapters have a gimicky theme (colours of the rainbow this time), the characters all feel familiar. Tanya and the foster family she’s staying with are even in Dustbin Baby, so it’s more than a generic likeness. I struggled to work up any enthusiasm for the novel, and feel like I can’t give a clear review.

Broadly, I think this is a good book for kids age about 10. As with all Wilson’s books, there are challenging issues addressed, so some parents might want to read through it ahead of time. It only took me an hour, so that shouldn’t be much of a chore.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Trip countdown: 3 weeks to go

Trip countdown: 3 weeks to go

Branches of a tree with a few white flowers at the tips reach up against a blue sky

In three weeks, we’ll be in Iceland on the first stop in our World Tour. It’s starting to feel really close, which is good and bad! I’m ready to go, but if we left tomorrow, my affairs would be in a bit of a state, and I’d have to spend a bunch of time getting organised down the road. It’s much harder to do petty admin while you’re away, but it’s such a drag to do it when the sun’s shining…

On the plus side:

  • We’ve been vaccinated (well, mostly)
  • We’ve got somewhere to store the caravan (and a now owe a big THANK YOU)
  • We’ve got passports and visas
  • We’ve got plane tickets and hostel bookings

We’ve also been to the local library, and borrowed as many guide books as they would let us carry away in one go. I’m constantly impressed by how good public libraries are. We’ve had so much automatic help from libraries, and they often let us join when we’re only temporary visitors. Our ‘home’ library, in Cambridge, has an excellent travel section. We’ve had guidebooks on Boston, New Orleans, Texas, Fiji (sadly I think that’ll have to be for another trip) and I think that as I type K is reading South East Asia on a Shoestring. It’s an amazing resource, and I’m very grateful!

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

I’m back in Cambridge, which means I can use my library card to break out of my rut! I’ve made a list of all the books you recommended – and now I’m reading other things, until the plan takes off in May! First up, one of the books I’ve been rationing: #69 Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett.

Ankh-Morpork is the Discworld’s largest, smelliest city. Its stench is usually enough to warn off invaders, but not when the marauder is a dragon. Faced with a fire-breathing menace, the City Watch swing into action to defend their city. Shame there’s only 3 of them, plus the new recruit…

One for the NPCs
In role playing games, both computer and table-top, characters that aren’t controlled by the player are called ‘non-player characters’. These NPCs may give you the last jigsaw piece, kidnap your party, or serve drinks in a bar, but their main role is to die a lot. In Guards! Guards! Pratchett has taken those characters and brought them to centre stage.

I hadn’t reread Guards! Guards! since I read John Scalzi’s Redshirts, another fun book which takes a look at the same sacrificial lambs from a different angle. Coming back to Guards! Guards! I had a different perspective, which is always fun. It makes reading a book for the dozenth time feel fresh. I’ve also played a lot more games since I read the book for the first time, and I can confirm that it’s fun whether or not you’re a role playing / gaming / fantasy geek.

Character development
Pratchett introduces a lot of characters that he later developed and reused in this novel. It’s the 8th Discworld novel, first published in 1989, and introduces (if I remember correctly) several key characters, including Captain Vimes, Nobby, Sergeant Colon and Carrot, swamp dragons, Lady Ramkin and the Patrician. It’s also the first book to really dive into Ankh-Morpork, as in the earlier Rincewind largely runs away from the city, the witches mostly stayed in Lancre, and the wizards in the university.

I reread Snuff, the 39th Discworld book, recently. It features many of the same characters as Guards! Guards!, and it’s interesting to see how they’ve all evolved. It’s hard to recognise the later characters of Vimes and Carrot in their earliest incarnation, and yet the seeds are there. I do feel that Pratchett doesn’t always ensure a logical character growth, particularly when he’s off and running with a new idea. He doesn’t usually reinvent people whole cloth, so the arcs tend to sort of work, but I do sometimes feel the bumps.

While Guards! Guards! isn’t my favourite Pratchett novel, it’s still a good book and a very enjoyable read. I’m glad I found it at the library, and I’m happy to break my slump with a new review for you.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

30 days to the next adventure

30 days to the next adventure

It’s official: we have our flights (yes, flights!) booked for our next adventure – and it’s a big one. Over the last couple of years, K and I have travelled extensively around Europe, going as far north as Stockholm and Glenshee, and as far south as Rome and Barcelona. Now we’re going further – much further.

Starting on 6 May, K and I are going to travel all the way around the world. We’re starting with a brain-bendingly early flight to Reykjavik, Iceland, and from there we’ll be heading to the USA, travelling across it by train and plane, then hopping over to Japan. From there we plan to explore South East Asia, and eventually wind up in Australia and New Zealand. After that, we’ll be heading back to the UK, and our route depends entirely on how much money we have left and whether we’ve got travel fatigue or are still excited about seeing new places.

I am so excited about this trip, and I can’t really convey it in words. Imagine me jumping up and down and squeaking. It’s the trip of a life time, the latest incarnation of the Grand Adventure I’ve been planning since I was a teenager. Unfortunately, there’s a catch-22 with work/money/time: when we’ve had time (no job), we haven’t had the cash (on account of not having a job…) for a big trip and visa versa. Now, as K’s recent contract has ended, and my freelancing has been going well, we have both!

It’s going to mean a bit of a shake up for the blog – I didn’t do very well at recording where we were or what we were doing last summer, as we were too busy doing stuff. I’m going to think hard about how I update on the road, and if there’s anything you want to see, just ask. Nag me, in fact!

Now, if you’ll please excuse me, I have to go watch the rain beat against the caravan window and day dream about sunnier climates – if I can stay awake! I’ve come down with an infection which has just wiped me out. Still, as long as it’s over before we go, I don’t care!

25 things I’m looking forward to

  1. Swimming in a hot spring in Iceland
  2. Buying yarn in so many different places
  3. Visiting with school friends in Boston
  4. Meeting a friend’s new baby in North Carolina
  5. Dipping into the Old South in Atlanta
  6. Riding the train across half a continent
  7. Exploring the different areas and cuisines of New Orleans
  8. Discovering cowboys in Dallas and why Austin should stay weird
  9. Taking a million photos, and sharing some with you
  10. Seeing friends and Alcatraz in San Francisco
  11. Star-spotting in LA
  12. Landing in a new country, one I’ve never, ever visited before
  13. Skyscrapers and temples in Tokyo
  14. Exploring Osaka with K
  15. Eating new things and discovering new flavours
  16. Beautiful beaches and busy cities in Thailand
  17. Learning to say please, thank you and no! in a new language
  18. Seeing monkeys, temples and where my friend grew up in Indonesia
  19. Skyscrapers and street food in Singapore
  20. Visiting family in Australia
  21. Spotting strange (to me) wildlife and birds
  22. Hitting the beach and the streets in Sydney
  23. Swimming in so many different pools, rivers and seas
  24. Skiing in New Zealand
  25. Spending the next 200 days with K

Skiing in Scotland

Skiing in Scotland

Glenshee resort under thick cloud. Mountains have streaks of snow where the ski runs are.

I got a bit of a shock when we went skiing in Scotland earlier this month. I like to think I’m not a judgmental traveller, but there are some things I have fixed ideas about and skiing is clearly one of them. I’m used to skiing in the Alps, having some of the best skiing in the world on my doorstep, and having everything done in a tidy, Swiss way. Plus, I really, really like it to be sunny, and when you pick a random day in March, there’s a low chance of sun in Scotland. So I was inclined to be a bit snobbish about the skiing, but actually, given what they were starting with, the Glenshee resort put on a pretty good show.

Weather – clearly no one can control this, but it has a big impact on how enjoyable the day is. It was very windy when we went, not sunny but not raining either. Not a white-out, where you ski in clouds, but not super-enjoyable either.

Snow – there really wasn’t much snow! I realise it’s been a very warm winter, but honestly, I was a little shocked. The Glenshee team had managed the snow there was very well. While the areas off-piste were totally bare, the pistes that were open mostly had coverage, although we were scraping heather in places. I always worry that this will be particularly bad for the mountains.

Ski lift base station in a deep puddle of water

Lifts – like skiing in the early ’90s! Glenshee is a low station, with a short drop from the highest peak (Glas Maol, 1068m) to the station (Glenshee, 650m). As a result, it makes sense to have mainly drag tows (button lifts and T-bars). At the larger Jura and Alpine resorts, chair lifts have been replacing these over the last couple decades, as they have much better throughput. Plus, due to the wind, the existing chair lifts were shut.

View of a button tow from the tow

Runs – the runs are short and easy. We skied everything that was open, and I don’t think we skied a proper red. It’s a good choice for beginners and families, as it would be hard to get lost! That said, the runs weren’t very well connected – we seemed to have to hike at the top and bottom of each lift, often into a strong headwind.

Food – there is only one option, really, as it seems that all the canteens are run by the same team. It was a bit limited: think greasy spoon or chip shop menu. I had macaroni pie, which is macaroni and cheese in a proper pork pie style pastry case.

Cost - relatively cheap. I think we paid £20 for skis, boots, poles and a helmet (although they did, also, look like they were from the mid ’90s) and another £25 or so for a day’s ski pass.

Would I go back? Probably not. It was a 2h car drive from Edinburgh to Glenshee, not counting time spent picking up the rental kit. I don’t think it’s worth it. That said, if you do live in the area, it’s a great way to introduce people to skiing or snow boarding without the commitment of a full week’s holiday.

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

The reason I haven’t posted a Big Read review in a while is that I’ve been stuck. I hate this book. Fortunately, #190 Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence is free on Kindle and from Project Gutenberg, so I didn’t have to pay to hate it.

Sons and Lovers is bleak. It’s set in a hamlet near a coal mine outside of Nottingham, in a family where no one seems to choose their life partner very well. It starts off in a gritty-family-drama sort of vein, then slips into hundreds of pages of wallowing in a young man’s confused and depressed ramblings, interspersed with coded descriptions of his sexual adventures.

Worse than a boring dinner party
Reading this book reminded me of being depressed or talking to someone with serious clinical depression. I don’t think the state is interesting, almost by definition. It’s a state of not-doing, where anxiety overrides normal actions, decisions are avoided and everything is dragged out and discussed until it’s painful. Where everything seems pointless and wishing for the end seems reasonable.

I realise there’s an idea of the artist as a tortured soul, but this book doesn’t read like that, at least for me. It’s not the late-night-party, let’s-go-to-Paris manic-pixie-dream-girl or the vibrant-but-damaged-artist. It’s like a long conversation with someone who is deeply unhappy and so anxious they can’t change anything. It’s the person who can’t get out of bed for the week, because finding clothes is too hard. The one who never smiles. And then, at certain points, it’s cruel. I definitely do not recommend reading this book if you’re grieving. At a certain moment, I stopped wanting to slap a certain character and started wanting the whole parcel of them locked up for cruelty and murder. That makes it sound more interesting than it is: you’ll wait about 390 pages for this section.

Why do people love this book?
I have no idea, and I can’t guess as I found the whole thing frustrating and tedious, after the initial pot-boiler phase. I googled around a bit, looking for clues, and found two articles that might interest other readers. One is a review published in The Guardian in 1913; the second a review published in the same paper in 2013, to mark the centenary of the book’s publication. Both are in favour, neither explains the greatness very well. Perhaps I’m missing something. Which reminds me: as a content note, it seems that I missed a physically incestuous element in Paul’s relationship with his mother, or perhaps I read the original 1913 edition which had been edited more strictly than later versions.

Help me get unstuck
When I started the year, I gave myself permission to not finish a Big Read book every week. I intended to focus on some of the longer books left on the list, like Les Misérables and David Copperfield. Instead, I’ve gotten stuck. I started Lord of the Rings and got stuck. I moved on to Tess of the d’Urbervilles and got stuck, skipped on to Sons and Lovers and got stuck. I’m starting to feel like there are no cheerful books left on the list. I’ll be travelling a lot for the next few months, so I can only read books on Kindle. I’m listing the ones I have available below. If you enjoyed any of them or they made you laugh, please let me know and I’ll read that next! You can also look at the list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed, and recommend ones I should buy.

The Count of Monte Cristo
The Wasp Factory
Lorna Doone
The Woman in White
Bleak House
David Copperfield
Crime and Punishment
Silas Marner
The Magician
The Forsyte Saga
Sunset Song
Anna Karenina
War and Peace
Far from the Madding Crowd
Jude the Obscure
The Mayor of Casterbridge
Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Les Misérables
Brave New World
Moby Dick
Vanity Fair
The Lord of the Rings 
(parts 1, 2 and 3)
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Any suggestions?

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.