Monthly Archives: October 2013

The rain in Oxfordshire falls mainly on the caravan

The rain in Oxfordshire falls mainly on the caravan

The fringes of the big storm that’s been hitting the southern parts of the UK and northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands rattled through where we are in Oxfordshire over night. Being in the caravan, you hear the weather more, and this was a real blow. K and I both woke several times in the night, as the caravan shook a bit with the most severe gusts. Nothing serious, though. We’re just not used to having actual weather again – we hardly saw a drop of rain all summer.

Dry grass in a field, under white cloud

Otherwise, the autumn weather has been a real mix. Mostly a mix of different kinds of rain, to be fair, but still a mix. I haven’t figured out how to take decent pictures of the rain from inside the van (what? I’m not going out in it, that doesn’t help) so you’ll have to imagine two or three rainy day pictures for each of these sunny ones.

We’re in a good pitch in a good place. There’s no flooding risk here, which makes a change as so many van sites seem to be on low ground near a river. I understand why you’d put short-term, easy-to-tow-away accommodation on a flood plain, but it’s still a little disquieting.

Sheep graze in a field, under a cloudy sky

All the trees around are turning colours, and starting to lose their leaves. The leaves are piling up in drifts and slides and banks. In the morning, it’s crisp and cold – or soggy, wet and cold – but in the middle of the day, it’s sometimes warm enough to go about in a t-shirt.

In our current pitch, when it’s sunny, the sun comes right in through our big back window and fills up the bed. It’s a lovely place to sit and read or work or dream. Mostly though, it’s been raining. I think we’ve had almost every kind of rain England can throw at you in the last week. We’ve had warm, gentle, ‘summer’ rain right through to fat, cold, wet drops that splat down like the sky is spitting at you.

A green field in sun, under a cloudy sky

In the van, when it rains even slightly, you hear it on the roof like a drumbeat. I love hearing the rain on the roof when I’m snug inside. It feels so cosy, and I usually don’t even mind going out in it to go for a shower (with an umbrella, ironically) or take the rubbish out or what have you.

The persistent rain has set a rhythm to my days. What’s the point in going out if you’re just going to get soaked? I wait, when I can, for the rain to ease off before I open the door to go for a wash or nip out to the shops. I’m never surprised that it’s raining, in the van, although I used to be when I lived in a bricks-and-mortar house.

A ploughed field with grey clouds overhead

You hear the wind as well, which is why last night’s storm woke us up. It whistles around and gusts shake the van, rattling cupboard doors and clattering the plastic vents. I feel much closer to nature, living in the van. We can’t afford a view like the one we have now, and yet the rent here is cheaper than any bricks-and-mortar place we’ve found. And the bills are included.

I did worry in the night though, when the wind woke me up. We’ve not really had the van that long, and I don’t know what it can take yet – quite a lot, it seems! We just had a couple of the skylights replaced, as one had blown off and the other was rickety, so I had my fingers crossed we wouldn’t lose one of the new ones. We didn’t, and as we’ve got a battery, we don’t even have to fret about power cuts – at least, not for a day or two.

Autumn trees under a cloudy blue sky

These pictures aren’t the view from our site. It was sunny last Friday, pretty much the only day of the week where it looked like the rain would hold off for a few hours. I went for a wander between Woodstock and Wootton. It’s the area around Blenheim Palace, where Churchill was born. I was, in theory, following a walk from a book I got out of the library, but as I only intersected the route about 3 times, I can’t recommend it. I didn’t find any of the locations mentioned apart from the main roads. I used Google Maps on my phone for those. Still, the trail I did find was lovely.

We’re living on a farm, so the view isn’t far off this, but I keep forgetting to take a photo when it’s sunny. Or at least daylight. There are ducks and geese loose in the caravan park part, and they come to check on me regularly in case I’ve changed my mind and decided to feed them. (I haven’t.) (Yet.) I really love having a changing view outside our windows. It’s one of my favourite things about full-timing while not moving. That said, it’s getting chilly in the evenings – time for bed, with extra duvet, I think!

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Breaking out from my male protagonist rut, I’ve spent an enjoyable day in Austen land. I even went for a stroll in the countryside and had a cream tea. At #38, Persuasion by Jane Austen is available for free on Kindle and from Project Gutenberg.

Persuasion is an enduring love story. Anne Elliot, at an impressionable 19, fell in love with a penniless young naval officer. Her friends, older and wiser, counselled strongly against the match and the young couple parted. Eight years later, chance brings them together again. They are both ready to get married now, but do their feelings still hold strong?

Personal bias
Persuasion seems to be less famous than Austen’s other works, but it was my favourite as a teen so I was surprised and pleased to see it beat out Emma by two places. I don’t like Emma much (you can click through for more detail) but it’s popular and the films have been effective. Persuasion hasn’t had a Hollywood remake, so I feel like its place is based on the merits of the book, not the costumes on the screen.

I’m going to pretend to be unbiased briefly, then go back to why I enjoy this book. Persuasion is the last novel Austen finished, and both the characters and the romance are more mature. One of the reasons I don’t like Emma is that there’s a phenomenal age gap between the male and female leads. And given how close their families are, it just gives me the screaming meemies. In Persuasion, Anne and her beau have had their first Sense and Sensibility style romance, and emerged from it scarred but wiser and fundamentally unaltered. This is the story of second love, a gentler, stronger, more lasting kind.

That said, second love isn’t famous for fireworks and champagne, and this novel doesn’t have either. Although quite a lot happens, there’s less immediate drama than in works like Emma or Sense and Sensibility. Much of what happens is easy to skip over in a short summary of the plot, and yet is essential to the gradual unfolding of the novel. The book blossoms slowly, exploring every aspect of the romance without seeming to ever tackle it directly. It’s cleverly done, but I can see how people would prefer the emotional turmoil and snippy remarks in Pride and Prejudice.

Why this one’s my favourite
I can’t say Anne Elliot is my favourite Austen character. She’s thoroughly self-effacing, dedicating her life to doing her duty by her unpleasant family members to the point where I’d want to shake her if I met her, and would certainly be suggesting moving to a different city or going back to college to train for a job that would allow her to move to a different city. And yet, she doesn’t annoy me in the way that Fanny Price in Mansfield Park does, because Anne, unlike Fanny, does know what she wants. She recognises and accepts her family’s faults, tries to steer them gently towards a better life, and isn’t ashamed to step up and seize her own happiness. While Fanny is almost completely inert, Anne is simply waiting for the right moment.

Anne’s life is shaped by duty to an extent that I don’t recognise, but I respect her choices. They seem more active than Fanny’s. Anne makes a deliberate and conscious decision to not seize her happiness at the expense of another’s, to listen to the advice of her elders, even if it causes her pain, and to act when sees a way to be happy without harming another. And yet, she’s not overly troubled by duty. Her family clearly don’t care for her, and while she is a dutiful daughter, she doesn’t take it to extremes.

Perhaps what I really like about this book is that it seems realistic. Anne’s eventual happiness is down to her own strength of character, her choices. The barriers that must be overcome are all too plausible and human – things like pride, duty, lack of money. And yet there’s a lot of hope in this book. While I don’t believe in the love-at-first-sight / soul mates / destiny school of romance, I do have faith that people can work things out, whether it’s rekindling a flame long since gone dark or preserving the romance in a relationship that lasts many years. It seems like the zip and sparkle of a Hollywood rom-com could dull as quickly as the ticker tape falls, but a romance like this one will grow and grow.

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.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

 I’ve just waded through a very blokey book, #143 High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, and I didn’t enjoy it. I seem to be working through a string of very male-centred books on the list. It’s not a surprising streak as male authors and main characters seem to outnumber females by about 4:1, but it’s tiresome.

High Fidelity is about Rob, a 35 year-old Londoner. When the story opens, Rob has just been dumped by Laura, his partner of some years. She’s moved out and moved on, leaving Rob wondering what went wrong, why it went wrong, and whether he should try to fix it. Rob owns and runs a record store called Championship Vinyl. He knows his top 5 songs to play when you’re sad, his top 5 worst break ups of all time (and Laura’s split hasn’t made the cut) and believes that anyone with less than 500 records isn’t a serious person.

That guy
I don’t identify with any of the ‘universal truths’ Rob keeps spouting and I think he’s a self-indulgent wanker. Viewed from the inside of his own head, he is so self-involved that I wanted to warn even his friends off him. By the end of the book, I was starting to think Laura was a figment of his imagination – she certainly puts up with things I never would, having had some similar experiences.

In High Fidelity, as in most books and films, the characters aren’t presented neutrally. Instead, it’s like meeting a friend-of-a-friend. The author (your friend in this analogy) preps you, giving you a guide to how they think you should feel about a character, rather than letting you make up your own mind. I find it very hard to enjoy a book or film where I disagree with the author’s assessment of a character. I don’t tend to watch action films, because I think the ‘heroes’ actions often paint them as violent criminals who are a danger to society, not the good guys the narrative suggests. Likewise, I don’t think Rob is a good guy, and yet Hornby wants me to spend a couple hundred pages inside his head, sympathising, presumably, with his (largely self-inflicted) troubles and rejoicing in his successes. Well, I didn’t follow on. I think all his exes are better off without him, and he needs to spend some time alone and grow up.

A dose of the pop
I’m not serious about music. I don’t have more than 500 records; I don’t own a single record, in fact, and would have no way to play vinyl or wax if I did. I barely had tapes, as by the time I graduated high school it was all file sharing and burning CDs. Also, I am a terrible fan – I like the music I like and I really don’t give a toss who’s in the band or even what they’re called.

I tried mentally replacing ‘records’ with ‘books’ throughout, and still didn’t get very far. There were a couple of moments I liked, one shortly after the break up where Rob gets really into his record collection, taking control of it as a way of taking control of his life.

Tuesday night I reorganize my record collection; I often do this at periods of emotional stress. There are some people who would find this a pretty dull way to spend an evening, but I’m not one of them. This is my life, and it’s nice to be able to wade in it, immerse your arms in it, touch it.

That I recognize. I’ve done that with books throughout my life. I’ve had them by title, switched to spine colour, changed it to genre, then author surname, or even just clumped ones I feel go well together. And when something is that important to you, is a significant part of how you spend your day, then it is nice (more than nice) to be able to revel in it, to physically dwell in a mess of your favourite things, and finish up feeling like you’ve put the world to rights.

High Fidelity is packed with pop-culture references, and has dated very rapidly as a result. It’s not just that Rob throws around obscure band names, some of which I assume are entirely made up, but even the mainstream references haven’t lasted, sapping the book of a lot of its power. For example, Rob compares most of the people he encounters to a film or TV star, which would be great if I’d ever heard of any of them. More than that, the focus on records and cassette tapes makes the book seem even older than it is (first published 1995). And yes, perhaps there is something special about vinyl, but High Fidelity doesn’t explain what – it doesn’t even recognize that the CD has been invented.

I appreciated Hornby’s writing in this, actually. The film star comparisons, although they left a gaping, empty hole in my images of the characters, were totally in character for Rob and an apt way to explore how he felt about and saw people without actually talking about feelings. Also, the top five list that opens the book (top five worst break ups) is a very neat way to introduce the main character, his attitudes to life and his emotional history.

Overall, I don’t recommend the book. It’s like reading through a time warp, an anachronism both in terms of setting and attitude, like the ’80s romances where the young secretary becomes the millionaire’s mistress, where both the fur coats and the sense of sin horrify more modern readers.

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.

Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz

Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz

I’ve just finished #150 Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz and I really don’t think I have anything new to say about this, having posted about Stormbreaker and Point Blanc, the first two books in the Alex Rider series. Still, it seems fitting that I posted about the first one during last year’s Children’s Book Week and I’m finishing the third (and the last on the list) as this year’s CBW draws to a close.

Alex Rider is just 14, and yet he’s already been drawn into working for MI6. Going undercover, he foils plots to take over or destroy the world, aided and abetted by a series of quirky gadgets and his almost superhuman abilities. Skeleton Key draws on motifs established in earlier books but works well as a stand alone. In this story, Alex faces his toughest challenge yet: will his longing for an ordinary life be his undoing?

Let’s talk about spoilers
I try to write these reviews without any spoilers. This is difficult as different people find different details spoilery. Broadly, I try not to reveal anything that isn’t on the back of the book (you’ll find quite a lot of spoilers there, sadly) or that would reduce the suspense, prematurely untangle a mystery or otherwise ruin the ending or the good bits in the middle.

The Alex Rider books are difficult for me because on the one hand, the broad arcs are quite predictable but the details are not. This is to Horowitz’s credit, in a sense, because I do like to be surprised. However, I find the Alex Rider books to be like listening to a toddler tell you about their plans for the future. In both cases, the technology is unbelievable and the whole thing hangs together with only a thin thread joining it. I daren’t pull to hard on any one element in the story as the plot and locations jump around so much that simply mentioning one exploit could strip the previous pages of tension. Plus, I can’t figure out how to mention one exploit since I can’t really explain why Alex is in any of these situations or why he reacts as he does except that he is both astonishingly well trained and doesn’t always think things through.

How do you like your heroes?
Alex is pretty near perfect, except that he’s sort of intolerable, and I just don’t care. I appreciate that I’m not the target market – I may get K to read these as he was once a teenage boy and still likes films where stuff blows up – but I’m not that interested in perfection of either gender. It tends to be stultifying and entirely context driven. For example, Alex seems to be able to context switch flawlessly, operating smoothly as a junior spy or a school kid, but either set of behaviour would be completely inappropriate in the other environment. Another story with this character in would be the one where the child pushed too far too fast by demanding adults turns to drink to drown their perceived imperfections and failures. I’d believe that story, although I’m not sure I’d enjoy it.

Alex is perfectly suited to handle everything the world throws at him, and the world only throws things at him that he can handle. This is a real risk with any long running hero if their competence is repeatedly tested in so many outlandish ways. The Harry Potter series were at risk of this too, and dealt with it well, I think, by ‘going dark’ and throwing things at Harry he couldn’t properly handle and having him react to failure and loss. Alex, at this stage, is unformed. He is a vessel for his experiences and rarely seems to act on any emotion. He gets annoyed with his handlers but that’s about it. I’d be interested to know if he develops over the following books, but I really don’t think I can be bothered to read them.

All in all, this was another book in the vein of the previous novels, and I would recommend it to Bond fans and action movie fans who don’t usually like reading. The pace, plotting and devices are very similar. That said, I haven’t read any of the Bond novels so I may be doing Flemming a disservice with the comparison.

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.

Point Blanc by Anthony Horowitz

Point Blanc by Anthony Horowitz

Although #105 Point Blanc by Anthony Horowitz is book two in the series, I liked it better than book one, Stormbreaker. I think it’s because I was better able to suspend my disbelief, having been forewarned by book one.

The Alex Rider series was, according to the author, inspired by Flemming’s James Bond, and even I could spot nods to the films (I haven’t read the books, although I’ve been told they’re well worth a look). Alex is about 15, and only works for MI6 occasionally as even spies have qualms about using children to do their dirty work. In this case, they need someone to go undercover in a school, and discover if something truly dreadful is afoot.

Totally implausible
In the style of Bond films or The Thirty-Nine StepsPoint Blanc focuses on creating a dashing adventure, not a realistic one. I didn’t really believe anything that happened could actually happen. My particular nitpick was a snowboarding scene. I’m a skier, not a boarder, but I think the best riders in the world would have found the course described a challenge in the circumstances, and Rider had only been boarding three times before and never on anything harder than a blue. I don’t think I’m spoiling too much if I say that using an ironing board as a snowboard is unlikely to work well. Having tried sledging on a whole number of things, snow can be, contrary to popular opinion, surprisingly sticky, particularly if it’s not compacted down or fresh powder. Honestly, I think Alex would have broken his neck, if he wasn’t already killed in an earlier stunt. 

Perhaps because book one had established quite a few of the Big Lies, I found Point Blanc easier to read than Stormbreaker. I’d already accepted that Alex was a teenage whizkid and that normal things wouldn’t happen very often, so it was easier to go with the flow. I’ll be interested to see what book three, Skeleton Key, on the list at #150, is like – I’ll probably read it next week. I haven’s started it yet, as I thought I wouldn’t be able to keep the two distinct in my head.

Enjoyable adventure
I don’t think I’ll buy book four but I did enjoy reading Point Blanc. It’s pure fantasy, and once I go into the swing of it, I enjoyed it. It was a very quick read (a couple of hours, maybe less) and a pleasant one. I found Alex quite annoying in book one, but rather liked him in this.

The book is aimed at teenagers, and it doesn’t contain anything that a 14-year-old won’t have seen on television. That said, the book does feature implausible consequences, severe risk taking, guns, violence and death. These are all treated lightly, which you may not think is appropriate – but if you’re watching Bond films, or any action films really, with your kids, you’ll struggle to ban Alex Rider without feeling like a hypocrite. Women’s roles are minimal and I’m not sure there were any people of colour in the book. It’s very much a boy’s own adventure for the computer game age, and as long as readers don’t want to emulate Alex, they should be fine. If you do want to copy Alex Rider: don’t. Real snow is hard and full of rocks. Real cranes aren’t that easy to operate and real trains will kill you if you hit them when they’re moving.

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.