Tag Archives: family life

CHRISTMAS TRIVIA QUIZ – 2016

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merry_christmas_in_red_193358For a number of years at our Christmas gatherings we played games – not such a simple task when there are five generations taking part. It doesn’t happen now my grandmother, who loved playing them, has left us. It fell to me to construct them and so my Christmas Quiz was always a multi-choice affair which gave the youngest child as much chance of getting the right answer as my very clever father. As I devised this one, please feel free to use it at your own gatherings over the festive season, should you so wish. Merry Christmas everyone and a very Happy New Year.

1. What was the name of the girl who wove so beautifully that the jealous goddess Athena turned her into a spider?
a) Eurycleia  b) Calypso  c) Arachne  d) Charybdis

2. To whom is Alvin Stardust married?
a) Lisa Goddard  b) Pamela Stevenson  c) Joanna Lumley  d) Helen Mirren

3. Who was the treacherous knight of the Round Table?
a) Sir Lancelot  b) Sir Mordred  c) Sir Gawain  d) Sir Baldrys

4. In which city would you find Michelangelo’s David?
a) Rome  b) Florence  c) Genoa  d) Venice

5. Where is the tarsal joint?
a) The wrist  b) The finger  c) The ankle  d) The toe

6. What is the “Senior Service”?
a) The cavalry b)  The infantry  c)  The Navy  d) The musketeers

7. Which European country has a patron saint of cinemas?
a) France – Jean Bosquet b) Spain – St John Bosco c) Italy – Juliano Bosquelli d) Luxembourg – Jean Bosquet

8. What is the sacred beetle of the ancient Egyptians?
a) The scarab b) The termite c) The Death-watch beetle  d) The locust

9. By what name is Abyssinia now known?
a) Niger  b) Chad  c) Somalia  d) Ethiopia

10 What is heraldic black called?
a) jet  b) nigrescent  c) sable  d) inky

11 A Frenchman Adolphe Pegoud was the first pilot to do what in 1913?
a) Cross the Channel  b) Loop the loop  c) Fire a gun from a plane  d) Die in a plane crash

12 Who said, “The executioner is, I believe, very expert and my neck is very slender.”?
a) Charles I  b) Lady Jane Gray  c) Anne Boylyn  d) Catherine Howard

13 In Ancient Egypt the standard length was a cubit. How many palms made a cubit?
a) 3   b) 4   c) 5   d) 7

14 What is scotopic vision?
a) short-sightedness  b) long-sightedness  c) vision impaired by cataracts  d) night vision

15 Which English novelist invented pillar-boxes while working as a civil servant?
a) A.A. Milne  b) Antony Trollop  c) Hugh Walpole  d) R.D. Blackmore

16 What was “Big Willie”?
a) One of the first military tanks b) One of 3 surviving gun carriage horses in WWI  c) One of the first bomber planes  d) One of the first machines guns

17 Which wedding anniversary is leather?
a) First  b) Third  c) Fifth  d) Seventh

18 What was founded by William and Catherine Booth?
a) The Salvation Army  b) Christian Science Church  c) The Temperance Society  d) The Chartist Movement

19 In which film did James Bond drive a white lotus underwater
a) Thunderball  b) The Spy Who Loved Me  c) Live and Let Die  d) Moonwalker

20 When might you use the western roll technique?
a) Making a roll-up cigarette b) Trampolining c) High Jump  d) Pole Vault

ANSWERS

1. What was the name of the girl who wove so beautifully that the jealous goddess Athena turned her into a spider?
a) Eurycleia  b) Calypso  c) Arachne  d) Charybdis

2. To whom is Alvin Stardust married?
a) Lisa Goddard  b) Pamela Stevenson  c) Joanna Lumley  d) Helen Mirren

3. Who was the treacherous knight of the Round Table?
a) Sir Lancelot  b) Sir Mordred  c) Sir Gawain  d) Sir Baldrys

4. In which city would you find Michelangelo’s David?
a) Rome  b) Florence  c) Genoa  d) Venice

5. Where is the tarsal joint?
a) The wrist  b) The finger  c) The ankle  d) The toe

6. What is the “Senior Service”?
a) The cavalry  b) The infantry  c) The Navy  d) The musketeers

7. Which European country has a patron saint of cinemas?
a) France – Jean Bosquet  b) Spain – St John Bosco  c) Italy – Juliano Bosquelli  d) Luxembourg – Jean Bosquet

8. What is the sacred beetle of the ancient Egyptians?
a) The scarab  b) The termite  c) The Death-watch beetle  d) The locust

9. By what name is Abyssinia now known?
a) Niger  b) Chad  c) Somalia  d) Ethiopia

10 What is heraldic black called?
a) jet  b) nigrescent  c) sable  d) inky

11 A Frenchman Adolphe Pegoud was the first pilot to do what in 1913?
a) Cross the Channel  b) Loop the loop  c) Fire a gun from a plane  d) Die in a plane crash

12 Who said, “The executioner is, I believe, very expert and my neck is very slender.”?
a) Charles I  b) Lady Jane Gray  c) Anne Boylyn  d) Catherine Howard

13 In Ancient Egypt the standard length was a cubit. How many palms made a cubit?
a) 3   b) 4   c) 5   d) 7

14 What is scotopic vision?
a) short-sightedness  b) long-sightedness  c) vision impaired by cataracts  d) night vision

15 Which English novelist invented pillar-boxes while working as a civil servant?
a) A.A. Milne  b) Antony Trollop  c) Hugh Walpole  d) R.D. Blackmore

16 What was “Big Willie”?
a) One of the first military tanks  b) One of 3 surviving gun carriage horses in WWI  c) One of the first bomber planes  d) One of the first machines guns

17 Which wedding anniversary is leather?
a) First  b) Third  c) Fifth  d) Seventh

18 What was founded by William and Catherine Booth?
a) The Salvation Army  b) Christian Science Church  c) The Temperance Society  d) The Chartist Movement

19 In which film did James Bond drive a white lotus underwater
a) Thunderball  b) The Spy Who Loved Me  c) Live and Let Die  d) Moonwalker

20 When might you use the western roll technique?
a) Making a roll-up cigarette  b) Trampolining  c) High Jump  d) Pole Vault

Review of After You – Book 2 of Me Before You by JoJo Moyes

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In July, I finally got around to reading JoJo Moyes bestselling book Me Before You – see my review here. It was a wonderful read, managing to deal with some hefty issues while avoiding any kind of sentimentality. As luck would have it, Himself had ordered this from the library, so I was able to immediately pick up this offering to find out what happens next…

When an extraordinary accident forces Lou to return home to her family, she can’t help but feel she’s afteryouright back where she started. Her body heals, but Lou herself knows that she needs to be kick-started back to life. Which is how she ends up in a church basement with the members of the Moving On support group, who share insights, laughter, frustrations, and terrible cookies. They will also lead her to the strong, capable Sam Fielding—the paramedic, whose business is life and death, and the one man who might be able to understand her. Then a figure from Will’s past appears and hijacks all her plans, propelling her into a very different future.

I’ve tweaked the blurb somewhat, as I’m reluctant to lurch into spoiler territory for those of you who haven’t yet read the first book. Again, Lou sprang off the page as a wonderfully vibrant character, quirky and vulnerable without being overly irritating or victimised. And given she is at a very low ebb at the start of this book, this is harder to pull off than Moyes makes it look. I wondered if she could continue to depict the general messiness of family life, or if she would somehow tidy everyone up, as often happens in fiction.

Lou is certainly taken on an amazing journey – to the extent that I wished that maybe some of the events that seemed to mushroom out of the ether whenever she was around would just calm down a tad. However, I felt one of the huge strengths of this story, was Moyes very accurate depiction of blended families – where a second marriage brings in children from first relationships, and they have to acclimatise to a new parent and often, new half-siblings. But what if they find that adjustment really hard? What if they had bonded with the parent who is now no longer in their lives? What happens to them, then? It’s a scenario that Moyes brings to the fore with chilling clarity as Lily bounces into Louisa’s life.

Once more this book gripped me and wouldn’t let go – and while it doesn’t quite have the emotional intensity or the pitch-perfect storyline and balance of characters that makes Me Before You Moyes’ strongest book to date, in my opinion – this book tucks in to be a very close second. If you’re a Moyes fan and were blown away by Lou and Will’s heartwrenching story and haven’t yet picked up this one, reluctant to venture back into this world just in case it simply isn’t good enough – don’t worry. After You is a well crafted, thoroughly enjoyable and funny read with some sharply observed and very pertinent things to say about modern family life.
9/10

Review of KINDLE Edition Me Before You by JoJo Moyes

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One of my Creative Writing students last year produced an extract from this book, then talked about it during one of our lessons – and I immediately came home and bought it. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t read it. It then became buried – I think at one stage I even thought I had read it… until Himself brought home the sequel. And I realised that I needed to give myself a treat and tuck into this one.

mebeforeyouLou Clark knows lots of things. She knows how many footsteps there are between the bus stop and home. She knows she likes working in The Buttered Bun tea shop and she knows she might not love her boyfriend Patrick. What Lou doesn’t know is she’s about to lose her job or that knowing what’s coming is what keeps her sane. Will Traynor knows his motorcycle accident took away his desire to live. He knows everything feels very small and rather joyless now and he knows exactly how he’s going to put a stop to that. What Will doesn’t know is that Lou is about to burst into his world in a riot of colour. And neither of them knows they’re going to change the other for all time.

I knew the main plotpoints in the initial quarter of the book, but what I hadn’t bargained on, was the humour. This novel that deals with a range of hefty subjects – the constant grind of low-level poverty when trying to survive in a depressed area, of which there are far too many in Britain… Will’s despair at having had his choices ripped away from him… sexual violence that goes unacknowledged, never mind unpunished… It could so easily have been a worthy, if depressing, read. However, all the way through I found myself laughing aloud.

Lou, the main protagonist, is a delight. She is quirky with a runaway mouth and a skewed sense of humour who manages to jolt Will out of his sarcastic, dark fury. Yes – there is a love story at the heart of it, but this book is so much more. It is a close examination of one of the most difficult moral questions of our time. Given the level of medical care, we can now keep people alive who would have died several decades ago with complications such as pneumonia and a series of nasty infections. But their quality of life can be dire. Do we allow them to make the decision to die? There are a host of problems around that step, such that most countries, including Britain, have refused to legalise euthanasia. But Switzerland has… Can Lou persuade Will not to take that step?

This book is a roller-coaster, as we follow Lou’s attempts to rekindle Will’s love of life. It could so easily have descended into a syrupy mess of sentimentality – and Moyes managed to completely side-step that bear pit. I picked this book up – and found I couldn’t put it down. I should have been doing a whole host of chores, but couldn’t tear myself away from this life-and-death struggle, leavened with a raft of hilarious incidents. The ending was a triumph. If you haven’t yet read this one, do so – there is a solid reason why it has become a worldwide best-seller and is one of my favourite reads of the year so far.
10/10

Favourite Space Operas – Part 1

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I have a particular weakness for space operas. It’s an abiding disappointment that I’ll never make it into space – but at least I can do so vicariously with the magic of books. And these are a handful of my favourites in no particular order…

The Forever Watch by David Ramirez
The Noah: a city-sized ship, four hundred years into an epic voyage to another planet. In a world where deeds, and even thoughts, cannot be kept secret, a man is murdered; his body so ruined that his identity theforeverwatchmust be established from DNA evidence. Within hours, all trace of the crime is swept away, hidden as though it never happened. Hana Dempsey, a mid-level bureaucrat genetically modified to use the Noah’s telepathic internet, begins to investigate. Her search for the truth will uncover the impossible: a serial killer who has been operating on board for a lifetime… if not longer. And behind the killer lies a conspiracy centuries in the making.

Generational ship science fiction provides an ideal backdrop for any kind of drama, given that it is the ultimate closed system. And because it is also entirely imaginary, it means an author can add/tweak all sorts of details designed to ramp up the tension and increase the sense of claustrophobia… So does Ramirez take full advantage of this scenario? Oh yes. This is an extraordinary tale – and the final twist took my breath away. Read the rest of my review here.

 

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
And this is another gem that makes extensive use of the generational ship device…

The last remnants of the human race left a dying Earth, desperate to find a new home among the stars. Following in the footsteps of their ancestors, they discover the greatest treasure of the past age – a world terraformed and prepared for human life. But guarding it is its creator, Dr Avrana Kern with a lethal childrenoftimearray of weaponry, determined to fight off these refugees. For she has prepared this pristine world seeded with a very special nanovirus for a number of monkey species to be uplifted into what human beings should have turned into – instead of the battling, acquisitive creatures who destroyed Earth…

Kern’s plans go awry and the species that actually becomes uplifted isn’t Kern’s monkeys, at all. In a tale of unintended consequences, it would have only taken a couple of tweaks for this to morph into a Douglas-Adams type farce. But it doesn’t, as the ship’s desperate plight becomes ever sharper and the species continues to evolve into something unintended and formidable. I love the wit and finesse with which Tchaikovsky handles this sub-genre and turns it into something original and enjoyable. Read the rest of my review here.

 

Fledgeling – a New Liaden novel by Steve Miller and Sharon Lee
Having trumpeted this post as being all about space operas, I’m now giving you a book where there is hardly any space ship action – but that is because it is the start of a long-running series, which deserves to read in the correct order.

fledglingDelgado is a Safe World. That means the population is monitored – for its own good – and behaviour dangerous to society is quickly corrected. Delgado is also the home of one of the galaxy’s premier institutions of higher learning, producing both impeccable research and scholars of flair and genius. On Safe Delgado, then, Theo Waitley, daughter of Professor Kamele Waitley, latest in a long line of Waitley scholars, is “physically challenged” and on a course to being declared a Danger to Society. Theo’s clumsiness didn’t matter so much when she and her mother lived out in the suburbs with her mother’s lover, Jen Sar Kiladi. But, suddenly, Kamele leaves Jen Sar and moves herself and Theo into faculty housing, immediately becoming sucked into faculty politics. Leaving Theo adrift and shocked – and vulnerable…

This coming-of-age novel is largely in fourteen-year-old Theo’s viewpoint. But it isn’t particularly aimed at the YA market, although I’d have no problem with any teenager reading it. The world is deftly realised and it took me a few pages just to absorb the strangeness and different customs, as Lee and Miller don’t hold up the pace with pages of explanation. So readers need to keep alert. However, this book is a delight. My very favourite sub-genre is accessible, enjoyable science fiction and this is a cracking example. Read the rest of my review here.

 

Marrow by Robert Reed
The ship is home to a thousand alien races and a near-immortal crew who have no knowledge of its origins or purpose. At its core lies a secret as ancient as the universe. It is about to be unleashed.

This is definitely in the realm of epic space opera – with the emphasis on vastness. The ship Humankind marrowhas appropriated is immense. The population this ship supports is in the millions and the people running this ship are of the transhuman variety, in that they are all but immortal with lifespans stretching into the hundreds and thousands of years. To be able to sustain a storyline with plenty of twists and turns, and yet continue to be able to denote the sheer weirdness of the backdrop that is also key to said story takes serious writing skill. It’s one reason why science fiction is regarded with such snootiness in certain quarters – it is easy to write badly and difficult to write well.

So is Reed up to the task? Oh for sure. The only slightly dodgy pov was the initial prologue when the ship is talking and that doesn’t last long. Other than that, the mix of multiple and semi omniscient viewpoint works well. I was gripped by the story and cared sufficiently about the characters, despite none of them being all that likeable – they are too alien and inhuman. But that didn’t stop me becoming completely engrossed in the twists and turns over a huge span of time. Read the rest of my review here.

 

The Clockwork Rocket – Book 1 of The Orthogonal by Greg Egan
There are degrees of science fiction – some books are long on character development and the social consequences of futuristic living, while being short on the science that underpins it, known as soft theclockworkrocketscience fiction. Other books are far more concerned with the science and gismos that will actually power and run our future worlds – the hard science fiction. Egan, as a physicist, has always been on the harder side of the genre, but the important difference – for me – is that he is also able to write convincing characters into the bargain.

However, this time around he has produced a truly different world, where the laws of physics as we know them no longer work. He calls this a Riemannian universe as opposed to the Lorentzian version we inhabit. In Egan’s world, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity simply doesn’t make sense. Further, the basic humanoid template, so prevalent in most space opera adventures, is also off the table. Egan demonstrates a head-swivelling leap of imagination by producing a race of beings who don’t look like us, don’t breed like us… It’s an awesome achievement.

This is one of the most exciting books to be produced in the genre for years – I cannot think of another story that equals the sheer inventive genius displayed by Egan. Readers can take on board as much or as little of the physics as they wish – but his cleverness would be beside the point if the narrative was so hampered by the long passages describing the world that we all ceased to care whether the heroine prevailed or not. However, Yalda’s story gripped me from the start and didn’t let go. Read the rest of my review here.

 

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn’t expecting much. The Wayfarer, a patched-up ship that’s seen better days, offers her everything she could possibly want: a small, quiet spot to call home for a while, adventure in far-off corners of the galaxy, and distance from her troubled the-long-way-666x1024past. But Rosemary gets more than she bargained for with the Wayfarer. The crew is a mishmash of species and personalities, from Sissix, the friendly reptillian pilot, to Kizzy and Jenks, the constantly sparring engineers who keep the ship running. But Rosemary isn’t the only person on board with secrets to hide, and the crew will soon discover that space may be vast, but spaceships are very small indeed.

Is all the buzz about this book merited? Oh yes, without a doubt. If you enjoyed Firefly then give this book a go, as it manages to recreate the same vibe that had so many of us tuning in to see what would happen next to the crew. While Rosemary is the protagonist, this tale is as much about the varied crew and their fortunes as they serve aboard the Wayfarer. Chambers manages to deftly sidestep pages of description by focusing on the fascinating different alien lifeforms peopling the ship.

It’s always a big ask to depict aliens such that they seem realistic and sympathetic, without being merely humans with odd names and the occasional nifty add-on. Chambers has triumphantly succeeding in providing a range of fascinating lifeforms that explore the notions of gender and how to cope with difference, while stretching our preconceptions of parenting and family life. Read the rest of my review here.

So here you have the first selection of my favourite space faring stories – are there any glaring omissions you would like to add?

Review of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

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Anyone who has spent any time on this site will know that I’m a huge fan of Mitchell – Cloud Atlas is one of my alltime favourite books. So would I enjoy this offering?

theboneclocksRun away, one drowsy summer’s afternoon, with Holly Sykes: wayward teenager, broken-hearted rebel and unwitting pawn in a titanic, hidden conflict. Over six decades, the consequences of a moment’s impulse unfold, drawing an ordinary woman into a world far beyond her imagining.

Right from the first page, I was drawn into this episodic narrative. Holly has run away after discovering her best friend in bed with her boyfriend. Though I was reading it on an autumn night, I was whisked away to the blistering heat as Holly has an emotional meltdown. And during this starting point, events unspool during that particular afternoon that go on having consequences for decades to come. The next five episodes that comprise the whole narrative all circle around that primary event, in one way or another as we also chart Holly’s life. It’s a difficult life. Being singled out doesn’t make for an easy time of it. But Mitchell does what he does best – provide a series of sharply written, beautifully crafted slices of action that allow us to join up the dots and provide the overarching narrative. My personal favourites are the first one – ‘A Hot Spell’, ‘The Wedding Bash’ and the chilling final ‘Sheep’s Head’.

However, it is a masterpiece of storytelling and the themes are around the notion of good and evil and what makes someone a survivor. As well what the cost of survival may be. If you enjoyed Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – see my review here – you may have a clue about the narrative, but as Mitchell slowly reveals the heart of the story in careful stages, only revealing the whole enormity of the plot by the end of the fifth section, I’m not going to venture into Spoiler territory.

While you won’t find Mitchell on the shelves marked Sci F and Fantasy – he is regarded as a Literary writer – there is a fantasy/science fiction mash-up at the heart of this story. He is always worth reading and the fact that in this book, he ventures yet again into one of my favourite genres is a major bonus. And if you like your fantasy with a quality label on it, then give this a go. No one writes his particular brand of fiction better…
10/10

Review of KINDLE EBOOK Aurora: Eden – Book 5 of the Aurora series by Amanda Bridgeman

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When I selected this book from the latest releases on Netgalley, I wasn’t too concerned that this was Book 5 as I have a long and dishonourable tradition of crashing halfway into an established series while still enjoying the experience. However, with this particular book it was far more of an issue.

aurora edenIn the wake of the tragic events in Centralis, Captain Saul Harris stands with the weight of the world on his shoulders. With the truth of UNFASP revealed, he realizes that he must embrace his ancestry if he is to survive the coming onslaught. But how far will Harris go to protect the future? Will he sacrifice life as he knows it and become a Jumbo? Or can he face the future as a common man? Meanwhile Sergeant Carrie Welles has been left devastated by what has happened. Uncertain of the future ahead, and with her nemesis, Sharley, on the brink of control, she struggles to pick herself up. But she is left surprised when help comes from the unlikeliest of places. As her life veers off in a direction she never expected, Carrie soon understands that she is running a course with a destiny that lies far beyond her control.

Firstly, congratulations to whoever wrote the blurb for managing to avoid spoilers. Given we are now into Book 5 of the story arc and there was a major event in the previous book that knocked most of the protagonists endways, it is a commendable achievement. However with any long-running series, the challenge is to ensure new readers care sufficiently about the characters to want to flounder through the initial stages, so there should be a bonding moment in the opening chapters where that can happen. Unfortunately, Bridgeman doesn’t provide such an opportunity. I hung in there, hoping for some space action and expecting to grow attached to the characters as the story progressed.

Overall, the romantic element in the story was well handled, although I do wonder how fans of the series would react to the speed with which Welles recovered from her loss – I felt that aspect of it was rather rushed. It’s always tricky depicting small children in adult adventure books – they often come across as sickeningly cute or unbelievably precocious. I think Bridgeman gets away with the twins – just.

The premise is certainly interesting and I liked the sense of foreboding the predicted alien invasion produces, but I wonder if daily life would be a lot different sixty years hence. I haven’t been around quite that long, but things have certainly changed in all sorts of ways since my childhood and I didn’t feel Bridgeman has paid quite enough attention to that aspect of everyday life set in the near future. That said, it is probably the hardest type of futuristic writing to nail.

None of these issues are dealbreakers, but I do confess to being a little disappointed at the story progression. A particular plotline was well flagged at least a third into the novel, and I waited for the sudden twist, for the unexpected action to come out of nowhere and suddenly whisk the story somewhere else other than where I was predicting it would go. And it didn’t. While the book was brought to a satisfactory conclusion with all the loose ends tied up, I came to the end feeling a tad put out that there hadn’t been enough surprises. For those of you who haven’t followed this series from the start – don’t begin with this book as I get the impression it doesn’t do justice to what could be a really entertaining story.

The book was provided by Netgalley, while the opinions and writing in the review are all my own.

I’m so proud…

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Last Friday was Rebecca’s Graduation Day. After three years of hard work, studying for a Business with Marketing degree at Brighton University while looking after two children, this was the day when it we celebrated the fact it was worth it.

IMG_0033The ceremony took place at The Dome and was due to start at 10 am. Rebecca’s father and I were there, along with the grandchildren. But although it happens far more often these days, universities are slow to acknowledge their mature students may need more than a couple of tickets for parents. So we agreed to sit the children on our knees for the duration. As the seats weren’t allocated and we wanted to be situated where everyone could get a good view of Rebecca on the stage, we were sitting down by 9.30 am in our best bib and tucker.

In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t know the ceremony would continue until well after 12.30 pm. It could have been a nightmare. The seats in The Dome are closely jammed together without much legroom, but the grandchildren, aged 10 and 5 respectively, were heroically well behaved. They sat quietly and attentively throughout, clapping other people and remaining engaged with the whole procedure, which inevitably, included a fair number of long speeches and a never-ending procession of gowned students marching across the stage to shake the Chancellor’s hand and pick up their certificates. Though they did jump up to cheer and clap their mum as she walked across the stage.

She has done so very well, getting impressively high marks that has netted her a first class degree. We went for meal afterwards to celebrate her achievement, then the grandchildren and I caught the train home. Despite being on a crowded train where they both had to stand for part of the journey, their behaviour, as ever, was marvellous, finally arriving home at around 5.30 pm.

It’s never easy studying when you have children – as I know only too well. But for Rebecca to get the outstanding result she achieved, while also bringing up two such delightful, well behaved children speaks volumes for her, and of course, for my lovely granddaughter and grandson…

Great Food and Service Above and Beyond…

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It’s been a busy week on the family front. Last Tuesday, I travelled to London to meet up with Robbie, who was off to LA for several weeks on Wednesday. It’s a funny old thing – while we’re reasonably close as a mother and son, we don’t see each other all that often. But I hate it when he disappears across the Atlantic beyond my reach.

robbie-jarvisWe had planned to get together for my birthday at the end of June, but filming for an episode of Eastenders intervened at the last minute – such is the lot of an actor. What with my teaching commitments and Rob’s own busy schedule, we hadn’t managed to meet up earlier. So I was really looking forward to seeing him before he flew off.

I travelled up to London by train. As arranged, Rob met me at Victoria Station and took me to Mildred’s, a vegetarian restaurant he knew in Lexington Street, while we caught up. I had popped my travel pass in my jacket pocket alongside my phone, instead of sensibly putting it back in my purse, when we first met up. We arrived at Mildred’s a little later than planned because Lexington Street proved to be irritatingly illusive – according to the map we were nearly there three times, when it somehow shifted sideways to be the next turning along.

mildredsFinally we wound up at the restaurant a little after the main lunchtime rush, so there was plenty of room. I showed Rob my new phone as I enthused about several apps I’d recently acquired, while waiting for our food. We keep in touch online with Skype, Whatsapp and texts – but nothing beats a good old natter face to face…

The staff were friendly and approachable, the service prompt, the food delicious and we weren’t hassled to leave as soon as we’d finished eating. By any standards, it was an excellent meal and all too quickly our time together was drawing to an end. Robbie walked me back to Victoria, we said good-bye and I made my way to Gate 15 to hop on a train home. To find my travel pass gone. I searched my pockets… my purse… my bag. It was nowhere.

I eventually arrived home significantly later than planned, feeling a tad sick that I’d lost my pass and phoned the restaurant, more in hope than expectation, speculating that it might have fallen out of my pocket when I’d shown off my phone. But it was right in the middle of the evening rush, and I was asked if I wouldn’t mind ringing the following day when it would be quieter and the staff that served us would be working.

Next morning, I spoke to Anna who was very sympathetic and promised to ring me back to let me know whether IMG_0068they’d found it or not. I wasn’t expecting her to be on the phone five minutes later, when it rang. Nor was I expecting her to sound so delighted that they’d found my pass and I certainly wasn’t expecting her to promise to put it in an envelope and post it first class the same day. But that’s what she did – so it was back in my hands on Thursday afternoon.

It is clearly a busy, successful restaurant. As somone who doesn’t live or work in London, I’m not a regular customer and never will be. There was absolutely nothing to be gained by being so very helpful and kind – and yet, they were. Often social media is used, rightly, to warn prospective customers of shoddy, unsatisfactory work and offhand, rude service. I’m here to do the opposite. Mildred’s is worth a visit if you want reasonably priced, well cooked food – and just as importantly, they really care about their customers.

Review of The Humans by Matt Haig

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Anything written by Haig is worth picking up – read my review of The Radleys here, and The Last Family in England here. So when I came across The Humans, it was a no-brainer that I’d scoop it up and take it home…

After an ‘incident’ one wet Friday night where he is found walking naked through the streets of Cambridge, Professor Andrew Martin is not feeling quite himself. Food sickens him. Clothes confuse him. Even his loving wife and teenage son are repulsive to him. He feels lost amongst a crazy alien species and hates everyone on the planet. Everyone, that is, except Newton, and he’s a dog. Who is he really? And what could make someone change their mind about the human race…?

This is where Star Man meets 3rd Rock From the Sun – only in book form. And while there are touches of humour, Haig-style, there isthe humans also heartache, too. Professor Andrew Martin isn’t a nice man – and the highly evolved alien revolted about all things human, yet still landed with the job of carrying out a secret and extremely important mission inhabiting his skin has to pick his way through Andrew’s dysfunctional relationships with his family. There are moments of humour – I loved the phone call with his mother and many of the conversations with his angry sixteen-year-old son, Gulliver. Mind you, I’d be fed up if my parents lumbered me with such a name – small wonder he gets bullied at school…

Amongst the general mayhem surrounding the alien’s mission, his constant surprise about human behaviour and the resultant, often humorous misunderstandings, there are some edged, pertinent observations on what exactly being human entails. This being Haig, they never tip into anything too pompous – but do make thought-provoking reading. Although Haig never loses sight of the fact that the primary function of a novel is to tell a story – and keeps the narrative tension pinging all the way through so that I sat down and read this book from cover to cover in one greedy gulp. It is one that I am going to return to, however. Haig manages to pack a great deal into a relatively slim volume by his spare, economical writing style that nevertheless can have me grinning like a loon on one page, and near to tears on the following page… It’s a neat trick to be able to pull off – and one very few writers can regularly achieve.

Any niggles? Well, the spell in America lost the vividness and punch I’ve come to associate with Haig’s prose – and that might well be the point – that he is so devastated, everything has melted into blandness. But it seemed a shame the prose had to follow suit. However, it is a relatively short interval in a remarkable book that pulls off a virtuoso performance rivalling Jeff Bridge’s outstanding performance as Scott Hayden in Star Man. Even if your taste doesn’t generally run to science fiction, give The Humans a go.
10/10

Review of EBOOK Are We Nearly There Yet? by Ben Hatch

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Ben came to talk to West Sussex Writers last year about tweeting and online marketing, as his guidebook has become an Amazon non-fiction best-seller. He seemed a thoroughly nice chap with an endearingly honest streak. I found his book online and loaded up on my Kindle as a summer read, to use it as a reward when I had written at least half of next term’s course notes…

are we nearly there yetIf you think writing a guidebook is easy, think again… A family’s 8,000 miles round Britain in a Vauxhall Astra. They were bored, broke, burned out and turning 40, so when Ben and Dinah saw the advert looking for a husband and wife team with young kids to write a guidebook about family travel around Britain, they jumped at the chance. With naïve visions of staring moodily across Coniston Water and savouring Cornish pasties, they embark on a mad-cap five-month trip with daughter Phoebe, four, and son Charlie, two, embracing the freedom of the open road with a spirit of discovery and an industrial supply of baby wipes.

I had expected a catalogue of mini-disasters, child-centred chaos and a certain amount of family tension – I’m a granny who spends a fair amount of my ‘free’ time looking after small grandchildren, so am only too aware of what an exhausting, messy job it can be. What I hadn’t expected, was the stark honesty with which Hatch portrays family life. He gave us an intimate history of his relationship with his wife and how they weathered a previous break-up, as well as an unvarnished account of the interplay between them, including the fights.

We also got the expected small children moments, though Hatch manages to keep parental sentimentality well and truly in check. The children came across as bright and articulate – and often more than a tad hyper, probably on account of all those chocolate buttons they were being fed to persuade them to be good…

While I was aware that Ben’s father, Sir David Hatch, had been suddenly diagnosed with cancer just before they set out on their five month adventure, I hadn’t expected the very moving recollections of Ben’s boyhood and his relationship with his father, who died while they were still on the road. It was poignant and rich as Ben’s sharp, honest prose sliced to the heart of how he felt, also wrestling with the prospect of his daughter disappearing off to school once the trip ended. So what this book is all about, is family life. About a couple of bright, intelligent people haunted by the sense that they were not fulfilling the promise of their youth, but instead had somehow become other people. In the middle of looking at museums, grading hotels for child-friendliness and coping with tantrums while always being in public – I got the sense that Ben and Diane discovered a lot more about families than how many chocolate buttons it takes to make a four-year-old sick.

If you are remotely interested in family life, get hold of a copy of this book. It packs far more a punch than the light-hearted cover conveys.
9/10