Monthly Archives: March 2012



Close up of some bright yellow daffodils growing in green grassDaffodils are probably my favourite flower. I love the bright yellow cheerfulness of them and the fact that they are early spring flowers, so when I see the daffs start to come out I know the sun is on its way.

Last weekend we went to Thriplow Daffodil Weekend. The village put on a good show and people came from as far away as Liverpool, so I imagine they raised quite a lot of money for charity. Unfortunately, no one had told the daffs what was expected so they didn’t turn up! There was plenty of rain instead though…

This weekend, K and I were driving back from the watching Arsenal Ladies beat Everton and had to go near Thriplow so we decided to see if the daffs had come out. They had and it’s really quite an impressive show!

Heidi by Joanna Spyri

Heidi by Joanna Spyri

The third book I’ve read off the list is #189. Heidi is available to download for free through Project Gutenberg.

I’ve got mixed views of this book, because Heidi and I have a long history. I’m Swiss – I have dual nationality, so I’m British too – which affects both how I read Heidi (in English, not German for a start) and how other people read me. The most popular icon of Swiss femininity is (as far as the British public is concerned) a rosy-cheeked cherub with a fondness for goats. Martina Hingis is definitely in second place.

Heidi Goes to University
I’m not surprised that the novel made it into the top 200. I started university around the time the list came out, and it seemed that most of my fellow students had learned about Swiss culture and geography from Heidi. (They’d learned French from Moulin Rouge, which also made things interesting…) Just to clarify – in case anyone was left in doubt – my family didn’t have any goats, we didn’t live on an alp and in this sense, that’s not just up a mountain but in a high pasture. We didn’t live up a mountain. And I don’t speak Swiss (there’s no such thing). Or Swedish.

Memories of a Swiss childhood
I think I read Heidi for the first time in Torquay – that’s Devon, not some curious coincidence – and my memories of the book from childhood are entwined with my English family. I remember reading the book with my mum and I don’t remember ever thinking that Heidi was like me at all. Her life (sorry to disappoint) was nothing like mine – and I didn’t think I’d like hers much. For one thing, it’s easy enough to whisk up and down a mountain on paper – or on a ski lift – but actually walking up is several hours of increasingly dull and painful work. And Heidi’s goats never headbutted her in the stomach so she fell over, or ate her coat.

The book itself
Joanna Spyri has written a charming ode to the beauties of the mountains and the simple life. It’s a lovely daydream and pleasant to read. If anything, it’s over-sweet as the pure mountain air and goats milk perform enough miracles to qualify them for sainthood – although they do stop short of making the blind see.

The novel is definitely a product of its time, and it seems somewhat unfair to criticize a book written to please children in 1880 for being so wildly successful that, almost 150 years later, it’s how people imagine life in Swiss farming communities was like. It wasn’t. Switzerland is beautiful and picturesque and – to all but a very few of the 7 billion people on the planet – foreign so people assume that the landscape is as kind as it is fair. It isn’t. And although the sunsets are brilliant enough to make artists faint, they don’t have any particular effect on the goatherds – or the goats. Agricultural life was – and is – hard up in the high places. The ski season lasts from December to April because there’s usually at least a metre of snow on the ground that whole time. Spyri glosses over this – no one grows anything in the books, and the winters pass quickly and easily. Heidi’s grandfather always has enough money, and the fact that Peter and his family are slowly starving isn’t commented on. There are other dark secrets in Swiss history and many children sent to the alps weren’t as happy as Heidi.

All this makes it hard for me to whole-heartedly recommend the book. The novel itself is typical of the period with a clear moral message for the children it was intended for. Heidi learns about Christianity part way through, and the message gets even more heavy handed after that. It endorses several ideas I can’t support as well – like the idea you can’t be happy until you’re healthy or that goats’ milk is better than medicine.

That said, I did enjoy the book while I was reading it  – it’s so happy and light that it’s hard not to. Just don’t expect to enjoy thinking about it much afterwards…

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.

Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

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.

The second book I’ve read off the list is #160 Cross Stitch (Outlander 1) by Diana Gabaldon. I’d never heard of this book before finding it on the list. I chose to download and start reading the Kindle sample because of the title: I like cross stitch and thought the book might have something to with the needle arts.

I was completely wrong. In fact, having read the book all the way through I still have no idea why the publisher chose this title for the British edition. I think the title used in the USA, Outlander, makes a lot more sense.

That aside, the book is totally absorbing and I’d definitely recommend it.

What’s it about?
Time travel. Well, sort of. Claire and her husband are on a sort of second honeymoon in the Scottish highlands. It’s 1946 and they’ve spent most of the war apart so they’re trying to reconnect. Their peace is shattered when Claire walks through a stone circle and finds herself 200 years in the past. The 1740s were a violent and dramatic period in Scottish history, and Claire – with her English accent and odd manners – finds herself under suspicion from all sides.

Is the time travel any good?
It’s really, really easy to write bad time travel stories. Cross Stitch is a very good one and escapes a lot of the usual problems (pointlessly confusing narrative, characters accepting odd happenings for no reason, implausible levels of coincidence, to name just three) for reasons which might be spoilery to relate. Suffice it to say that although there were a couple moments which jarred, there were far fewer than I find in a typical episode of Doctor Who.

There are a few, well, very fortunate events. Claire is a nurse, which is handy, with an interest in medicinal plants, which could follow, I suppose, and her husband’s ancestors were from the area they’re visiting, so Clare is unusually well informed about the local history. He’s a historian, which is why they’re in that part of the country and poking around stone circles in the first place, but all in all I do feel Clare was quite well-equipped for her tumble into history.

That said, as the period she lands in is quite unfriendly, without a useful skill and a little local knowledge she would probably have died before the end of the second chapter. So I can’t fault Gabaldon for her choices and feel that she was quite restrained in outfitting Claire with useful knowledge.

Men, women, warriors and history
I know hardly anything about this period of Scottish history, but the book feels well researched. Even better – and possibly as a result – the author hasn’t fallen into the trap of writing women who watch and men who do. Claire is a fabulous character and there are strong and active male and female characters woven throughout the story while remaining faithful to the gender divides recorded at the time.

The only warning I have is that there is quite a lot of sex in the book and while most of it is consensual, there is some that definitely isn’t (which is treated as rape) and some which, on my reading, was a bit suspect. On a couple of occasions I felt there was a mistmatch between the information the reader had (yes, do go on) and the information the other character had (no, stop). This happens a lot in fiction, particularly in romance novels, but it always makes me uncomfortable when I spot it.

On balance, I very much enjoyed Cross Stitch and the only thing stopping me from buying book 2 in the series is the relatively high price tag – it’s £5.84 for the Kindle edition right now so I think I’d better finish Great Expectations or Heidi first.

A friend reposted her 2004 review of the book at her blog this week, which is the sort of coincidence I would deplore in a time travel novel. Check out Alex in Leeds’ review of Cross Stitch for a different perspective.

49 Free Books

49 Free Books

Since I wrote about my goal to read all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list, I’ve been looking through my collection to see which ones I already have and looking on Project Gutenberg for free ebook versions of the out-of-copyright works on the list. Thanks to this site, I’ve got nearly a quarter of the list on my Kindle already.

Project Gutenberg – in case you haven’t heard of it – is bloody brilliant. Volunteers scan, proofreed and upload out-of-copyright and other public domain books and make them available to download for free. Most pre-20th-century classics are on there, as well as loads of minor works by less well-known authors. It’s an amazing resource – particularly as most of the books are formatted for most ereaders, so you can just download and go.

Most collections of free classics you’ll find around the web are a subset of the Project Gutenberg library and there are new books in progress on PG all the time – you can help out by proofreading a few pages, if you’ve got time.

If you’re in Australia (which seems to have a slightly different out-of-copyright period) then you can find a few more off the list at Project Gutenberg Australia. Their collection includes five Big Read books which aren’t on Project Gutenberg:  1984 (8), Gone with the Wind (21), The Great Gatsby (43), Animal Farm (46) and The Little Prince (180) although this last, it should be noted, is in the original French.

49 Free Books

2    Pride and Prejudice    Jane Austen
10    Jane Eyre    Charlotte Brontë
12    Wuthering Heights    Emily Brontë
16    The Wind in the Willows    Kenneth Grahame
17    Great Expectations    Charles Dickens
18    Little Women    Louisa May Alcott
20    War and Peace    Leo Tolstoy
26    Tess Of The D’Urbervilles    Thomas Hardy
27    Middlemarch    George Eliot
30    Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland    Lewis Carroll
34    David Copperfield    Charles Dickens
36    Treasure Island    Robert Louis Stevenson
38    Persuasion    Jane Austen
40    Emma    Jane Austen
41    Anne Of Green Gables    LM Montgomery
44    The Count Of Monte Cristo    Alexandre Dumas
47    A Christmas Carol    Charles Dickens
48    Far From The Madding Crowd    Thomas Hardy
51    The Secret Garden    Frances Hodgson Burnett
54    Anna Karenina    Leo Tolstoy
58    Black Beauty    Anna Sewell
60    Crime And Punishment    Fyodor Dostoyevsky
63    A Tale Of Two Cities    Charles Dickens
72    The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists    Robert Tressell
77    The Woman In White    Wilkie Collins
78    Ulysses    James Joyce
79    Bleak House    Charles Dickens
101    Three Men In A Boat    Jerome K Jerome
104    Dracula    Bram Stoker
106    The Pickwick Papers    Charles Dickens
111    Jude The Obscure    Thomas Hardy
114    Les Misérables    Victor Hugo
115    The Mayor Of Casterbridge    Thomas Hardy
118    The Picture Of Dorian Gray    Oscar Wilde
122    Vanity Fair    William Makepeace Thackeray
123    The Forsyte Saga    John Galsworthy
128    The Hound Of The Baskervilles    Arthur Conan Doyle
138    The Thirty-Nine Steps    John Buchan
158    Heart Of Darkness    Joseph Conrad
159    Kim    Rudyard Kipling
161    Moby Dick    Herman Melville
166    Lorna Doone    RD Blackmore
171    Frankenstein    Mary Shelley
182    Oliver Twist    Charles Dickens
184    Silas Marner    George Eliot
186    The Diary Of A Nobody    George and Weedon Grossmith
189    Heidi    Johanna Spyri
190    Sons And Lovers    DH Lawrence
194    The War Of The Worlds    HG Wells

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

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.

So my first reread and review is #102 Small Gods by Terry Pratchett. There are three good reasons for this: (1) this is one of my favourite books, (2) I already had a copy and was saving it for a rainy day and (3) it’s been a rainy day, literally as well as metaphorically.

Small Gods is brilliant. It’s a story about people and gods and where ethics come from and doing the right thing. It’s also a fast-paced tale about nearly getting killed a lot. Philosophy, it turns out, can be quick on its feet.

I’ve read Small Gods before, so I knew what to expect. It’s my favourite Pratchett novel but as I haven’t read the book in at least a year, I’d forgotten about some of the small details. As in most Pratchett novels, the joy is in the details. There are lots of little puns but there are beautiful, big ideas too. The ending – the last couple of lines – always stay with me but I won’t quote them as they’ll make no sense out of context. Plus: spoilers, sweetie!

Read it if…
If you like Pratchett, or Neil Gaiman or Diana Wynne Jones or Douglas Adams or any sort of comic fantasy, you should definitely read this.

If you’re interested in ethics and atheism/religion, and how the two intersect, then read this. It’s a surprisingly thorough and complex while being as easy to read and digest as a banana.

If you’ve never read any Pratchett before, Small Gods is an excellent place to start. It’s a stand-alone novel which doesn’t involve any characters from any of the previous novels so you won’t feel like you’ve missed out or worry about spoilers. It’s also – did I mention? – brilliant.

BBC Big Read – challenge accepted, 10 years later

BBC Big Read – challenge accepted, 10 years later

In 2003, the BBC ran a series of programmes about books. People talked about books they loved, and nominations were opened for Britain’s best-loved book. Votes were cast and Lord of the Rings won.

Nearly ten years on, I think the BBC Big Read Top 200 is still the best pick for ‘books to read before you die’. So I’m going to try to read AND review every book on the list over the next few years. I’m going to start with the the top 21, then the top 100, then – if I stick to it – I might finally get all 200 done.

Why this list?
Because it does what it says on the tin: it’s a list of 200 books that people care about – that people cared about enough to nominate, vote for and probably encourage their friends to vote for, too.

Most lists of books whether they’re the best books of 2010, the longlist for the such-and-such prize or the 532 books you simply must read to be considered well read are collected and curated by a small group of people. As a result, the titles are often missing a bit (e.g. best books (that Tom, Jeff and John have read) of 2010, 532 (novels in the western canon, genre fiction doesn’t count) books…) and the lists are full of DWM and wankers.

DWM stands for Dead White Men. I like dead white men well enough – heck, I’m descended from a number of them – but when you get enough of them together, they turn into some kind of zombie hoard which means you can read all 101 or 1,001 books on a must-read list and still only encounter the following perspectives: young white male, older white male, really old white male, Jane Austen, Love in the Time of Cholera.

Wankers are authors who, when I see their name on the list, I go ‘wanker!’ in my head. I have strong personal objections to a number of the authors the lists often venerate. I find their personal politics are objectionable and invade their work so much as to make it unreadable for me. And I don’t care if they were a shining example of liberated thinking or artistic merit in their time – I’m reading it now and I don’t want rape, anti-semitism or slavery (for example) lauded as A Good And Right Thing. Particularly when there are so many authors from the same period who somehow avoided those pitfalls.

The Big Read list has lots of DWM but very few wankers and it’s not touted as the best of anything. It’s books which are loved by people in the country I live in which means it probably includes a lot of books which have shaped the cultural offerings in this country but mostly I expect the books to be enjoyable: the list looks fun, not painful. That’s important.

What’s the plan?
To review the books on the list I remember well, to read or reread the rest and then review them. I’m aiming for about 1 review a week or 50 per year, so I expect this to take 4 or 5 years. I’ve already read almost half the list and although I don’t remember them all very very, it includes a number which I can talk about for hours (lots of Pratchett, for example) so that should give me a head start. I won’t beat myself up if I don’t finish all the books on the list, but I intend to read the first 50 pages of each – enough to form a judgement and write a review.

What first?
As it happens, I’m already reading Great Expectations (number 17) and there are at least 40 books on the list which are available for free on Project Gutenberg so I’ll start there. I’m looking forward to reading more Jaqueline Wilson – I read some of her books as a teenager, but missed a lot. I’m glad to have an excuse to go back to them. I’m not looking forward to reading Tolkein, Hardy or Eliot – I tried all three as a teenager and didn’t enjoy the experience.

I’m going to try to finish Great Expectations on the train this week, so look out for the first review mid-March!

Paris on the cheap

Paris on the cheap

There are plenty of things to do in Paris which don’t cost very much. We bought the Secret Paris
guide book, which is well worth it as most of the quirky things it suggests are free. Several things on this list came from the book.

1. Visit the Promenade Plantée (free)
One of our favourite spots in Paris for a walk. The Promenade Plantee is a disused railway which has been turned into a public park. It stretches from the city centre right out to the ring road, so it’s probably best not to try to walk the whole route. My favourite part is the old viaduct, a raised garden on top with quirky artisanal shops tucked under the arches. Official website. Wikipedia.

 K (a white man, about 25) stands under an arch of greenery. Through the arch you can see that the gardens continue into the distance.

2. Walk under the Eiffel Tower (free)
It really is much more impressive close up – and looking is, of course, free. Between the Eiffel tower and the Ecole Militaire there’s a long park which is great for runners, dog walkers and small children (there’s a kid’s playground here, too).

3. Go up the Tour Montparnasse (€7 per person)
At 56 floors, this is the tallest sky scraper in central Paris and gives you amazing views of everything else. When we went (mid-February) there was no queue and the weather was clear and bright. There’s a restaurant at the top (shut for rennovation on our visit) which might be a nice place to eat, although I suspect that would not be cheap. Official website.

 View from the Tour Montparnasse. Paris is spread out under blue sky with white clouds. The city looks white cut up by brown roads. The Eiffel Tower is visible on the left.

4. Have a traditional Breton crêpe (€5-10 per person)
The Tour Montparnasse is right next to the Gare Montparnasse, which is where the trains from Brittany arrive. Walk out of the station into the back streets and you’ll find plenty of crêperies. You can have pretty much anything you like on a crêpe here, from ice cream to spinach to alcohol.

We ate at the Crêperie Josselin (56 rue du Montparnasse) where the food was very good, prices were reasonable and the interior was all wood and traditional bits and pieces.

If you prefer a quiet place to eat a picnic, the Gare Montparnasse has a roof-top garden which is rather lovely.

5. Walk up to Sacre Coeur (free)
Another high point, this beautiful white church is on a hill so getting up there can be a struggle. However, the views are lovely and the crowds attract lots of street performers including musicians and fire-dancers. Another lovely place for a picnic.

Sacre Coeur, a white church with domes and saints, at night.

6. Check out fabulous Metro stations (€1.70 per person)
Several metro stations have been decorated to reflect the area they serve and are worth visiting in their own right. Trains run frequently and you can travel as convoluted a route as you like on one €1.70 ticket, so if you’re not in a rush, hop off and have a look. We liked Arts et Metiers (all brass and copper, like a steam-punk version of itself), Louvre-Rivoli (models of some of the art from the museum) and Concorde (covered in words – apparently it’s the text of the Declaration of the Rights of Man). More detailed metro station list, with photos.

Paris by film

Paris by film

I like seeing places before I visit, and tracking down places I’ve seen on film when I get there. The following three films are all ones I enjoyed enough to watch at least twice, and which show chunks of Paris, both famous and mundane locations.

Before Sunset (2004)
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke wander around Paris and talk about life, love and good coffee. Celine and Jesse  first met nine years ago, and spent one passionate night wandering around Vienna – as described in Before Sunrise (1995). Now they’ve met up again and are finding out who the other is and what’s happened since they parted.

A hard film to describe as it’s all about the conversation but Before Sunset is a beautiful, brilliant film. And you get to see lots of odd corners of Paris.
Filming locations for Before Sunset.

How to Steal a Million (1966)
Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole on a madcap romantic adventure. Nicole is the daughter of a forger, and to help keep him out of jail she needs to steal a statue from a museum – with a little help from a charming, irritating man.

Glamorous city, glamorous woman. See how things have changed and feel a bit smug when you see all the Breakfast at Tiffany’s posters for sale on the streets – wrong film, Paris!
Filming locations for How to Steal a Million.

Amelie (2001)
This film is so well-known for it’s Paris link that the cafe where Amelie (Audrey Tatou) works has become a top-10 destination in its own right. However, it’s still a lovely film and it does have some great shots of working Paris – the train stations and the small streets – as well as famous landmarks.
Filming locations for Amelie.