Monthly Archives: April 2014

Notes from an Essex island

Notes from an Essex island

Just a reminder that the UK can be beautiful…

Sea at Mersea Island

… and sunny.

From left to right, the sea, beach and footpath on Mersea Island

We’re on Mersea Island, in Essex, spending a few days with my mum before we leave on our Grand Adventure. It’s really pretty here. We’re staying in a 3-bedroom static caravan, which is as neat and carefully designed as our own van (it’s even made by the same people: Swift). I rather like it – I think there’s plenty of space for a permanent home, and easier to keep clean and tidy than a flat or house. The park is lovely and green, too, and very close to the sea.

I’ve also been trying out my new camera, and am really impressed by how much I got for my money. I bought a Panasonic Lumix TZ35 for about £120 (we had a voucher) and took this standing in the sea, pointing downwards. The snail was about the size of my thumbnail.

Sea snail at Mersea Island

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel

I haven’t read #92 The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel since I was about 14 or 16, when it was one of my favourite books. My dad recommended it, and I remember being really pleased when I got a copy of Shelters of Stone (the fifth book in the series) for him, before he knew it was out. I wish I could remember what he thought of the books, beyond liking them. He told me he had suggested them to my 6th grade teacher, as we were studying the period. Mrs H apparently agreed that they were a good topic match, ‘apart from all the sex’, so he decided to wait a few years before handing them over!

The Clan of the Cave Bear is set around 25,000 years BC. Ice covers northern Europe, and woolly mammoths, aurochs and the giant cave bears roam the land. The stone age homo sapiens share their world with Neanderthals, not always peacefully. When an earthquake destroys the home of 5-year-old Ayla, a homo sapien girl, and the cave of a Neanderthal tribe, their paths cross. The Neanderthal group take Ayla into their clan, and she tries to become a good clan woman. But her differences are more than skin deep, and as she grows up both Ayla and the Clan wonder if she can truly become one of them.

Not as good as I remember
I enjoyed revisiting Ayla and the people of the Clan, but honestly, the book isn’t very good. It’s one of those sweeping epic stories where impossible things happen regularly and million-to-one chances come through nine times out of ten. This first book is about 500 pages long, and there are six in the series. Ayla is the main character, and she changes and grows (quite literally: she grows up) but I don’t feel like the other characters developed much.

Ayla is boringly perfect and lucky. I complained about the convenient back story issue when I reviewed The Thirty-Nine Steps, and Ayla suffers from the same affliction. She has just the right background to make sure she shines in any situation, and the author struggles to find someone who isn’t won over by her charms. However, it’s important to add a bit of strife, so one person resists, and conflict ensues.

I probably wouldn’t mind the clumsy narrative devices, such as how many discoveries Ayla makes (approximately 10,000 years worth, over the next few books, if I remember correctly) if the book was internally consistent. It isn’t. There’s a lot of detail to remember, but in a couple of places the story was definitely revised as it went along, so something happened for the first time at least twice. I found it jarring, but other people may not notice these details.

Fake pre-history
The blurb for the book says it was praised by scientists and paleontologists. Although my understanding of the period is severely limited, I can’t imagine that praise was unambivalent. As I’ve said, I’m no expert, but I’d be highly surprised to discover that the prevailing understanding of Neanderthals is that they were telepathic, with a race memory that extended back to the primordial seas.

The characters are also very well equipped with accurate and effective herbal remedies. Medical training is a recurring theme, and the characters involved seem to have a surprisingly modern understanding of illness and health. They have a few blind spots, where narritively convenient.

All the sex
I would give a content warning for the sex, and not because of erotic or pornographic descriptions. The sex is strange, and uncomfortable. It’s not described in much detail in Cave Bear (although I have a feeling that there’s a more graphic and steamy account of consensual sex in Valley of the Horses), but the sex is primarily non-consensual, and exists in a culture where meaningful consent is impossible. In Clan society, any male can demand sex from any female, and it’s culturally impossible for a female to refuse. Most females wouldn’t even consider refusing.

A culture where refusing sex is impossible is something I find weird and creepy as it is. That most of the characters are under 16, adds an extra dimension of weird uncomfortableness, even though Auel establishes that lifespans are abbreviated and adulthood comes earlier. As if wrapping one’s head around the idea of a 10-year-old being an adult and a 20-year-old being a senior citizen wasn’t hard enough, sex in Auel’s Clan society starts in childhood. Children apparently imitate what they see their parents doing, the games getting more realistic as the children age. But, she clarifies, there’s no prohibition on adult males having intercourse with female children, it’s just less common.

Auel switches between dry, almost academic detachment and in-character view points. She doesn’t really give us an in-character view of what a healthy, normal sexual life in the Clan would be like. An abnormal one is portrayed, and we’re given a little lecture on how sex occurs in this society, but there’s little emotional information. It’s not a big part of the book, but it’s not handled well, and it does stand out.

All in all, I’m not sorry I read the book again, as it made me think about my dad, but I don’t think I’ll ever read it again, and I’m unlikely to hunt down the other books, even though I don’t think I ever read book six, Land of Painted Caves. I got Clan of the Cave Bear out of the library, as I couldn’t find Dad’s copy – he tended to lend books he liked out, and didn’t worry too much about getting them back. His rule was ‘when you lend, mentally give’, which is a sound one, even if it leaves a few gaps on the book shelf.

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.

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