Five star wordsmith-ery

Last time I posted I was settling into a week of beach and books on the beautiful island of Mauritius.

Reading is my favourite thing to do so while others g0t immersed in the smorgasbord of all-inclusive resort activities or booked in for day trips involving dolphins and catamarans, I found myself a spot on the beach and spent the days – whether basking in the sun or relaxing in the shade – reading. And I read all sorts of things – old favourites, Kindle daily deal finds and even an autobiography that I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while. It was the ultimate indulgence.

I always rate and review my reads – reviews from others help me to choose – and while I love to share an absolutely cracking read, I will also share when my experience is not so great. I don’t go into the detail of the story like most reviewers – I like to discover the story and its characters for myself. Instead I share the experience of reading it and how I’m left feeling at the end.

A lot of my reads rate 3 or 4 stars – I love reading, can be quite eclectic in my choices and like to think that I lean towards being magnanimous in my reviewing – although perhaps I’m not the best judge of this.

There are few that dip into 2-star territory (where I’m left feeling pretty dissatisfied) and even fewer 1-stars where I feel like I’ll never get back the hours I spent wading through the pages or just don’t finish. The latter is rare – I don’t ever want to be tempted to revisit a rubbish read by someone saying ‘oh but it got better in the end’.

And there are the 5-star reads. These are the ones that, when I read the final page, make me go wow. They leave me excited, reflective, profoundly moved and they are the ones I will get evangelical about, saying to whoever will listen ‘you must read this’.

2015 started well with 5 stars awarded in January to C.J. Sansom’s sixth in the Shardlake series, Lamentation. Since then, the wows have come in threes – March/April saw a trilogy of 5-star ratings awarded to The Girl on a Train, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Labyrinth and then it was August before I was successively thrilled by The Devil’s Star, Far from the Madding Crowd and The Taxidermist’s Daughter.

Books 2015

I returned from Mauritius relaxed and happy, having soaked up a goodly dose of sunshine whilst devouring a book a day, six of which I gave 4-star ratings . But I felt like something was missing and when I thought about it, I realised what it was – a cracking 5-star read.

It’s been three months since The Taxidermist’s Daughter and by my calculations, it’s time to up the ante with a 5-star read again. I have a Kindle full of choices but what I’m really interested to hear is what you’d recommend. What’s taken your literary fancy of late? What have you read that has had you gripped, delighted, missing your train/tube/bus stop or staying up way too late because you just have to read one more chapter?

I would love to finish the year on a literary high so let me have it peeps – whose wordsmith-ery made you go wow this year?

Leave A Light On For Me…

I was browsing through my general clever clogs emails this week and came across a bit of a gem from Springwise.com.  

Placelamp is a desk lamp which changes colour according to the owner’s status.

Image source: www.pixelonomics.com

You link the lamp with an app on your phone and you can program it to do all sorts of things – colour intensifies when you are closer and becomes a ‘reading’ lamp while at your desk. You can also set it to change to various colours according to your status eg. out of the office or even to reflect incoming emails or messages. Cool huh?

Anyway I got a bit excited and started looking at all of these other lamps and there’s some pretty amazing stuff out there.

This is the Titanic lamp from Viable London…


It was designed by Charles Trevelyan in 2005 and while it doesn’t seem like it’s for sale any more, it was such a great design that I just had to share it.

This next one’s the Martyr, a playful energy saver designed by UK design studio The Play Coalition in 2008…its sense of fun made me giggle.

And for the slightly morbid, here’s Hung – he (or she?) has been created by enPieza! and will set you back about €185…gulp! Game of Hangman anyone?

At the opposite end of the spectrum I found this cute cottontail on that most excellent of inspired-gift-giving websites, not on the high street. The Bunny lamp is available from All Things Brighton Beautiful for £69.95.

I meandered further and discovered an illuminating and spirited trio.

First, I found Whoopsy from Lumisource which reminded me of that deliciously intoxicating flow from cocktail shaker to glass – available in four fab flavours colours for just $24.95.

Next it was this upcycled Beefeater London Gin lamp from AfterGlowsbyStacey. She makes all sorts of spirit brands light up but I loved the mix of vibrant colour and London tradition combined with the whole upcycling vibe best. It caught my eye on Etsy for the bargain price of £20.

And the last in this alcohol-fuelled triumvariate was San Remo, an oriental inspired shade made from a whole load of paper cocktail umbrellas. It’s bottoms up from Zipper8Lighting and Etsy again for £72.34

This whole upcycling thing intrigued me so I mosey-ed around a bit further on this and got a bit excited about this recycled book lamp shade from the ‘make-it-yourself’ website, Instructables – you can download the instructions here for making this little beauty.

I wasn’t really sure how I could do that with my Kindle though so the last one I found was absolutely perfect. The Andrew Lang NOD has a slot for Audrey (that’s the Kindle for the Gidday uninitiated), a nook for my glasses and a third cranny for…well something else. It’s available from Emmo Home for $220. Yikes!

Strangely enough, all of this inspiration just reminded of an old favourite. 

I saw it in a store about 18 years ago in Melbourne, the store lights glinting invitingly off the glass beads. Struck by its classically elegant shape, I paid and took it home and it stood on the table near my purple reading chair for more than seven years before I lugged it across the world, added an adapter and found it a new home.  

It is the first thing I see when I open the front door. There’s a place for my bag on the table beside it and, when I turn it on, the beads tinkle gently as my hand brushes past before the room is suffused in a soft glow. 


But best of all? 

It tells me I am home. 

The halls of power

Here I am on the last of my 5 day Easter staycation and today has been a committed pyjama day. I’ve lazed about with Audrey for a bit, been inspired by a couple of episodes of The Great British Bake Off Series 1 (the series I missed!) and am starting to prepare for a work trip tomorrow with a bit of feel-good Whoopi Goldberg (in Sister Act II) in the background.

Quite frankly, it’s a rather fab way to finish things.

But the long weekend has not been spent in a haze of nothing-ness and sloth. I’ve caught up with friends, been for a flotation tank session, and added a couple of newly discovered gems to my figurative album of London Love. I wrote about my dip into Camden Market in my last post and on Saturday I immersed myself in another cultural melting pot with a tour of the Houses of Parliament.

As I walked through security and emerged on the other side of those black iron gates, I felt a little frisson of excitement. I was soon to learn that entry to the Palace of Westminster is not restricted to those on tours but I felt the sense of history and importance enfold me in its gothic embrace all the same.

Taken from the entrance to Westminster Hall

The tour was absolutely amazing. Meeting our guide in the magnificent Westminster Hall, we headed up the stairs and along the corridors to start our story in the Norman Porch right at the top of the stairs where the Queen herself enters each year for the State Opening of Parliament. 75 minutes of anecdotes, architecture and atmosphere later we left the Commons Chamber and headed back to Westminster Hall to be surrounded by King William Rufus’ 6ft thick walls from 1097, the place where it all began.

Westminster Hall looking back towards the entrance.

For the first half of the tour, we scuttled along behind our tour guide in the footsteps of our sovereign, from the top of the stairs under the Norman Porch through the Queen’s Robing Room, down the Royal Gallery and into the Lords Chamber. We stopped to marvel at the copy of the Magna Carta and the death warrant of Charles II and gazed at the massive portraits of the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo in the Royal Gallery.

The Lords Chamber was quite spectacular. The throne is the piece d’resistance, covered with gold and filigree and is in stark contrast to the Woolpack in front of it, the seat of The Lord Speaker and a homage to the importance of wool in Britain’s economic past.

It was also under the Lords Chamber that the Gunpowder Plot was foiled. The plot was aimed at killing the Catholic sovereign King James I by blowing up the Palace during the Opening of Parliament in 1605. A ceremonial check is still carried out as part of the State Opening preparations to ensure that no gunpowder lies beneath the Palace and the plot’s failure is celebrated each year on November 5th with effigies of the captured traitor Guy Fawkes burnt on bonfires around the country.

Illustration by George Cruikshank in 1840 – source: Wikipedia

After an explanation on the ceremony surrounding the State Opening of Parliament and a tally of the roles of the various types of Lords, we were off again, down the Peers Corridor, towards the Central Lobby.

Did you know that the word ‘lobbying’ was first coined to reflect the activity in this space? It’s the place where any voter can enter and request to speak to their Member of Parliament via the Reception Desk located there – members who are present in the ‘House’ are obliged to come to the Central Lobby to meet their constituent who ‘lobbies’ them although it might pay to check that they are ‘in’ before traipsing down to Westminster and being subjected to security screening.

A hurried scamper down the Commons Corridor brought us to the Members’ Lobby, a working space for the parliamentarians complete with electronic message board and four rather formidable statues of Britain’s former Prime Ministers – Clement Atlee, Winston Churchill, David Lloyd-George and Margaret Thatcher. And this segues nicely into our next stop and the penultimate section of the tour – the Commons Chamber.

The House of Commons is comprised of our Members of Parliament (MPs) who are elected by voters in their respective constituencies. This is where David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Milliband and their ministers meet to debate the issues of the day, initiating and amending laws (called Bills) which pass to and from the Houses of Lords and Commons through quite a series of checks and balances before coming into legislation.

Voting in the Houses is also very transparent with the positions of the Members shown by their physical movement out of the Chamber into two neighbouring passages known as the Yes and No Lobbies. (In the case of the Lords, these are the corridors of Content or Not Content).

Finally we found ourselves back in Westminster Hall. The hall has served many purposes in its 1000 year history including housing the Law Courts, hosting famous speakers like Nelson Mandela and Pope Benedict XVI, the first visit by a Pope since the Reformation in the 16th Century, and the laying in state of the Queen Mother following her death in August 2009.

Britain’s links to the rest of the world were laid bare in the entertaining story-telling of our guide, Isabel and with my head crammed full of fascinating facts and anecdotes, I was glad that I’d decided to invest in the official guidebook so that I could revisit our political past in far more detail and at my leisure.

With the tour over, it was time to brave the chill outside again and with my guidebook tucked firmly under my arm, I couldn’t wait to get on the tube and lose myself between the covers. Certainly when I next emerge from Westminster tube station – to be greeted by Big Ben and the gothic spires of the palace – it will hold a whole new meaning for me and getting in to Prime Minster’s Question Time might just be next on my To-Do List of London.


Notes:

  1. Unfortunately, there are no photos permitted once the tour leaves Westminster Hall but there is an official flickr site if you’d like to see more. 
  2. I’ve also reviewed the Tour on Weekend Notes so for a slightly different perspective (as well as information on costs and opening times), click here.

Of Hearts And Minds…

As long term readers of Gidday from the UK will know, about 16 months ago I crossed to ‘the dark side’ and got a Kindle. Audrey quickly became an integral part of my daily commute and bedtime ritual and it wasn’t long before I wondered what I had ever done without her.

In short, I fell in love.

But even the best and most faithful of companions needs a little TLC so I am pleased to report that my stalwart commuting friend has a gorgeous new red frock.

Audrey’s new duds – given it was a Christmas gift from Mum, it seems rather appropriate that ‘melbourne’ appears front and centre.

Doesn’t she look fab?

This amazing cover is actually designed by artist Sharyn Sowell, a relentless traveller and blogger who is fascinated by the juxtaposition of the very old and the very new.

Just like me.

So it would appear that this meeting of hearts and minds continues…

…mine and Audrey’s that is.

Many Ways With Words…

This week the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2012 was announced, the winner to be announced on October 16th.

Of the six authors, I have heard of only one, Hilary Mantel, having read Wolf Hall last year (see #31 in 2011 in The Book Nook).

This also means I have actually read a Man Booker Prize Winner (Wolf Hall won in 2009) although now I look back through the Man Booker archive, I have also read other winners like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2002), Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) and have the 1982 winner Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally ready to go on Audrey.

But what does it really all mean? How can a small and select group of people decide what story shall be the best that 2012 has to offer?

I’ve read 42 this year and Robert Harris’ Fatherland (#17) and Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram (#1) stand tall in Gidday’s list of cracking reads so far. Neither of these are recent books (Fatherland was written 20 years ago, Shantaram in 2003) nor do they appear anywhere in the Man Booker archives.

Sir Peter Stothard, the chairman of this year’s panel of Man Booker Prize judges, contributed a thought-provoking piece in yesterday’s The Times which made me stop and think about our relationship with literature.

This year, the judging panel will have read 145 works of fiction (some 2-3 times) in the months leading up to October 16th when the winner is announced. That’s 102 more than I have read so far this year.

(Where does one find time for this I wonder? Does judging become a full-time job that you wrap around another lesser for a time full time job?)

Stothard claims that this year’s shortlist showcases some of our greatest prose-writers. He also says that he’s learnt to speak up for literary criticism, an act in itself which requires work and technique and an ability to argue critically the merits – or otherwise – of a particular book. Which, he says, is not the same as reading for leisure.

He has also embraced ‘Kindle love’ whilst still advocating both printed books and the opportunities that bookshops and catalogues provide to explore material outside the domain of the publishing houses. He implores novellists to write novels first as opposed to writing novels for big screen adaption. And with his literary journalist hat on, admits a guilty preference for writing, from time to time, about subjects and themes rather than about a book itself.

Great writing liberates us all, he says. Expect to be resisted and keep an open mind.

But consider that it’s not a fomulaic argument he poses.

Perhaps great writing is a meeting of story and subtext – the author’s story and your own subtext – and the magic that occurs when new worlds are opened up and the story shapes us, even ever so slightly, though its tone and texture and sense of possibility. I felt the rhythmic intensity of Roberts’ Indian slums, the calculated humanity in Harris’ post war world and the cycle of hope and despair in the tiny boat tossing on the sea in Martel’s Life of Pi.

Their story and my subtext: could that be the literary equivalent of a match made in Heaven?

In any case, his article has prompted me to check out the Shortlist for myself – here they are in case you’ve been inspired too:

Narcoplis by Jeet Thayli
Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
Umbrella by Will Self

I figure if over 700 books (across five judges) have been read this year to give me this shortlist, the least I can do is give them a whirl!

This post is also part of Post of the Month Club – September 2012

The Good Book…

Lately, the e-book has come in for a bit of schtick.

At the end of February, Stylist columnist Lucy Mangan said said ‘E-readers are representative of our mindless embrace of all that purports to be ‘progress”. Then a month later fellow blogger Russell Ward described the Kindle as ‘cold and calculating in its determination to deliver the electronic word seamlessly to you’.

Ouch!

Admittedly I was a slow convert, clinging on to both the physical and the ritual around my serious book habit. And I still love a good book shop browse. In fact last week I had an hour to kill before meeting A-used-to-be-down-the-hill and I spent it wandering through Foyles at St Pancras Station, perusing the latest dust jackets, dipping into travel guides (I’m off to Rome for a little city break soon) and flicking through the pages of Titanic-themed tomes in the special event section. Lovely stuff.

But the thought of finding more space in my already full bookshelf, packed with old theatre programs, illustrated coffee table books – for which I have no coffee table – and those volumes dubbed with ‘re-read me status’ or acquired in youthful nostalgia (my hard back Jane Austen set and the 7-book Chronicles of Narnia being a couple of these) before my Kindle conversion, holds little allure.

On the other hand my Kindle – christened Audrey for her stylish simplicity – goes everywhere with me. There is nothing cool or calculating about immersing myself in a few quick chapters while on the bus, waiting for a friend, in the boarding lounge and even before lights out at night. Audrey is always at the ready and the Kindle shop only a few clicks away. Apart from my favourites, both old and new, I’ve discovered authors I would never have come across and been able to support the burgeoning efforts of a couple of budding writers in my blogging circle – just check out 2011’s Book Nook numbers 51, 55a and 57.

Granted a Kindle is not the be all and end all. After all, there is nothing like a travel book for sitting on the plane, standing on a street corner in a new city or sipping espresso in a funky cafe, marking the places to be seen with folded corners and scribbled annotations and plotting my next adventure(s).

And I haven’t quite managed the conversion of my magazine or Saturday Times newspaper habit yet but let’s face it, the only way to conquer the Samurai Sudoku or the cryptic version of the Jumbo Crossword is curled up on my couch, pen in hand, steaming coffee at my elbow.

But villifying the Kindle and all its counterparts seems a little extreme. Like laptops, smartphones and iPods, the e-reader is just another symbol of our increasingly mobile lives and to my mind, something that encourages the consumption of the written word in every place or space. And that can only be a good thing.

Books still have their place in my life. But for me the power lies in the storytelling.

And I get to take that everywhere.

What Was I Looking For?

I have just been reading about our 21st century malaise. 

Flicking through The Saturday Times today, I found a guide (their words, not mine) to the latest and greatest of modern-day society’s afflictions. Being interested in social culture and all of that and having paid for my newspaper, I read on with mild interest, some skepticism and a little agreeable head-nodding.

(You on the other hand, would have to pay for all this – no more free news online from The Times – thanks to that Rupert chap.)

Anyway, I figured that if I just shared the list, a handful of links and a few of my choice-est views on the matter, you could decide for yourself whether you wanted to go to The Times website and fork out for more learned opinions on this subject than mine. So here goes.

First up it’s Decision FatigueToo many decisions make us tired and lower our performance levels. 

No sh*t Sherlock. I did not need The Times or Roy Baumeister to tell me this although I appreciate that nothing ever changes unless we label it and make it a big issue so kudos to the man for that. I think that for me, the issue may lie in something much smaller – listening to my actual choices, you know the ones I actually make. Like when I ask for tap water with no ice, don’t bring me tap water with ice in it and get annoyed when I send you away to get me what I asked for. Call me a pedant if you will but it’s the small things people, the small things.

Next there’s Erotic Capital. The Times calls this ‘monetising what the Good Lord gave you’.  Catherine Hakim calls it Honey Money and wrote a book about it.

I want to believe it’s bullsh*t. Because then what’s the point of employing all of those other things like charm, persuasiveness, intelligence, listening and just plain good manners?

Twitter Jitters is next. Apparently it relates to whether you are posting frequently enough. For what? I ask you. Is this a race? Is there a prize or something? And what about Twitter SPAM?  I am already managing this quite well thank you in my email-slash-blogging life. And quite frankly, sometimes what starts out as a delightful trickle of tweets disintegrates into retweet rubbish and I wonder what beautiful scenery I might have enjoyed by gazing soulfully out of the train window instead.

Next cab off the rank is Weekendvy. Yes, there’s another stupid word that dictionaries the world over can add to their erudite tomes in a year or so’s time. The point of this is that we lie to make our weekends seem more fun / glamorous / relaxing / exciting / virtuous / wholesome than they actually are.  (I sense a bit of Keeping Up With The Joneses here). 

And the dunderheads who actually commissioned this research and coined this phrase (according to The Times)? Travelodge. I rest my case.

Number five is Helicopter Parent Syndrome. There are words mentioned here like Child-bothering and Teacher-bullying. Ripe for provocation. Spoiling for a fight. 

But I.Am.Not.A.Parent. for a reason (many of them in fact). So no comment. Nada. Move along people – nothing to see here.

And last but not least there’s Internet Stupidity. Apparently our brains have atrophied and we spend many hours wilfing (from What was I Looking For?), wandering online from link to link to link. Although I should point out here that this is not a new phenomenon. I have been doing this from room to room in my not-large flat for many years now.

And the panacea to this malingering?  Well therein was the most sensible piece of advice in the whole article. Three little words. Right at the end. Read.A.Book.

So here endeth the rant from the Peanut Gallery.

Now where’s my Kindle?

Oh yeah…and what do you think? (WILF WILF)

Kindle Women…Audrey’s Coming Out

Yippee!!  Hooray!!  It’s here at last!!

Last Thursday my wi-fi router arrived!

So on the weekend I mastered the shopping (no great surprise there) and downloading, and this week, my very best new toy has unequivocally joined the ranks of Gidday’s Commuting Gems.

The lovely Audrey has debuted by helping me while away the hours to and from work this week with that quintessential (and sentimental) favourite, Little Women.  Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy have laid bare their girlish hopes and dreams, their foolish follies and foibles all over again and have reminded me that, despite my aversion to the slightly religious under-tones, what a truly wonderful book this is.

And for 86p, I bought all four Louisa May Alcott stories: Little Women and Good Wives (the two-in-one that we all know and love), Little Men and Jo’s Boys.

I’m about four chapters into Good Wives and, given that I have read this several times since first reading it before I hit my teens, I am still marvelling at how much I am loving reading this again.

And I still well-up when old Mr Laurence gives Beth the piano…

…sniff…

Book, Cover, Judging And All Of That…

For those of you who have been living under a rock lately (most likely hiding from the horrible, horrible rioters if you are in the UK), I recently had a birthday. And joy of joys, I got a Kindle.

I finally succumbed to Kindle lust somtime in May and so it went on the birthday wishlist in the hope that some vouchers would help me edge a little closer to its purchase. But there was no edging required.  On the first of August I opened the box from Mum/Amazon to uncover what might become the best commuting gem ever. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, meet…Audrey!

Isn’t she pretty???!!!!

So I got on the blower straight away to organise a free wi-fi router from my broadband provider and got a parcel-to-be-signed-for-and-collected card from the postman last Saturday.  Thinking I wouldn’t be able to get to the post office before yesterday and would therefore have to be patient (not my strong suit), I was all gee’d up to be waxing lyrical about Audrey today.

But no cigar.

The customer service person who answered the phone at my broadband provider couldn’t find the file note from my previous call which was supposed to ensure said router was sent to me…taking a deeeeeeeep breath, I managed to order another one (to be despatched to my work address) without reaching through the phone and strangling the person-not-responsible at the other end in disappointment and frustration. 

Breathing, breathing…

So the lovely Audrey is still download-less…and we will all have to be patient just a little while longer.

But you gotta admit – in her Diane von Furstenberg cover, she looks mighty good!

ps…oh the parcel that I collected?  It was a belated birthday present from half-sis, S (she of Fawlty Towers fame) – a fab pair of earrings that I can’t wait to show-off wear – I am a lucky, lucky girl.

Staycation…The First Day

Today is the first ‘real’ day of my little stay-at-home holiday (yesterday was a Bank Holiday here in the UK so everyone else had a day off too – which makes it feel a little less like it’s my holiday.)  I had not specifically planned to post about it but I’ve had such a brilliant afternoon, I just had to brag about it share it with you all.

It started with a routine dentist appointment. I got the usual tut-tutting around my general lack of flossing, a bit of a clean and polish and that was it for another year.  I grant you, nothing really exciting to report.  But wait, it gets better.

Next it was a visit to the Oxfam bookshop, one of my favourite things to do.  I cannot believe that I lived here for over 6 years and only discovered this little gem about 6 months ago. I have not bought a new book since and my new-found attachment to this trove of glorious treasures has merely fuelled the little voice in my head that suggests that I would never get the same unabashed joy from a KindleToday the cunning plan was to drop off a bag of books that I’d read (I am a big fan of recycling the literary love) and have just a quick fossick before grabbing a spot of lunch and seeing a movie. 

Well, it was a longer fossick than anticipated and I came out with another half a dozen to add to my bookshelf.  But the best bit was a couple that have been on my ‘list to read’ for quite a while. First there’s Leaving the World by Douglas Kennedy – I loved my first read of his, The Big Picture, so much so that I resolved to read more of his stuff (see Book 5. in my 50 Book Challenge). And there was also Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantell, highly recommended by several literary-ily addicted friends and a Man Booker Prize Winner. I left Oxfam feeling like I had discovered the Universe (or at least a small planet).

The rest of my afternoon was spent with teenage babe-in-the-woods, Hanna.  I cannot remember the last time I went to the movies on my own (probably over six years ago which was the last time I was single) but it’s such a joyfully selfish and indulgent thing to do.  I loved the movie and the girl who plays the lead is just brilliant/stunning. 

I emerged from the darkened cinema to a day turned all bright and sunshine-y so I polished off a fab afternoon with a spot of reading at home in the sunshine.

So that was my perfect, perfect Day 1 and I can’t wait to see what Day 2 will bring!