Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Byker Books on telly!

Author Andy Rivers, whose crime novel 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' has just been published by Byker Books, is to appear on tv next week. Look out for him on Money Watch, BBC2, Tuesday 6th July, at 8.00 pm, when he'll be discussing ways to find work during the recession. Including writing crime novels, presumably. ;)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Who needs football?

We were determined not to watch The Match yesterday afternoon, partly because we're not big fans of football and partly because we had a funny feeling England weren't going to do very well.

We have annual passes for the local aquarium, so thought we'd potter off there because it's slightly off the beaten track and, crucially, nowhere near any pubs with big screens. And it was amazing! The roads weren't quite deserted, but they were very quiet compared to a normal sunny Sunday afternoon. We got a table at the cafe with a view straight up the lake - normally you have to kill someone to get one of those. There was a chap outside giving an owl display and I got to hold a beautiful Bengali Owl on my arm (with a suitable Very Large Glove, I hasten to add), and fuzz his feathers. And in the aquarium itself there were only two other couples wandering about, which gave us ample time to look at all the things we like best (the poison arrow frogs, the pygmy marmosets, the 'underwater tunnel', and even to chat to the staff about the animals.

It was a hundred times better than slobbing around and watching England lose...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Currently reading...

'The House at Riverton' by Kate Morton.

I borrowed this from my mother-in-law just before the holiday, since it looked like the perfect holiday read. Richard & Judy recommended it on their 'summer reads' list (slightly lighter than their ordinary book list) and although it was clearly chick-lit of the historical family epic variety, at first glance it was well-written with some lovely descriptions and a nice turn of phrase.

I have to admit, though, that I'm struggling. Gradually the balance has shifted from chick-lit to outright melodrama, and too often the characters are making choices or taking action based on what the plot requires them to do, rather than what they'd be likely to do in real life. Why on earth would a young serving-girl give up the love of her life, for instance, just so she could stay with her current mistress? I'd have a job believing that in the modern world; in the 1920s when marriage was the most important thing in almost any woman's life (unless she was in a professional career such as teaching, which this heroine wasn't), it just seemed silly.

On top of that, the book is narrated in the present by Grace, the 98-year-old heroine, ostensibly making an audio tape of her life for her grandson, who's vanished while on a round-the-world trip. I was looking forward to finding out whether Marcus ever reappears, and what he thinks of his grandmother's life story. But the book finishes in the past, on a note of high (and ridiculous) drama, and the present Grace vanishes with her own story left unresolved.

It's a good enough read if you want something to flip through by the pool, but I don't think the plot or the characters stand closer examination.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sod's law... alive and well and living in a supermarket in Warwickshire.

On our way home on Saturday we realised we were suffering from Empty Fridge Syndrome after a week away, so called in to a supermarket to stock up. I was reaching for a couple of yoghurts and didn't realise they were precariously balanced, with almost no 'lip' to the edge of the shelf. Inevitably, one toppled over. Even more inevitably, it landed upside down on the floor, burst, and transferred a good half of its contents onto the bottom of my skirt.

Yuck! To (mis)quote Captain Jack Sparrow, I felt sullied and unusual.

Pale cream yoghurt on a black skirt is a tad, um, noticeable, so I was glad when an assistant hurried over bearing the life-saving gift of a couple of wet wipes. I scraped the worst of the mess off and held my nose the rest of the drive back. The skirt went in the wash the minute we got in (as if I didn't have enough washing with all the stuff we wore on holiday) and luckily it hasn't stained.

But why, oh why, do these things always happen to me? *rolls eyes*

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Pining for the fjords

Yesterday afternoon we arrived home after a lovely week cruising to Norway and back. We called in at a couple of the fjords a few years ago and loved the scenery and the welcoming people so much we vowed to go back - and this was the return trip.

We cruised with P&O on one of their new super-ships, Ventura. Unlike most passengers the ship is a means to an end for us - a lazy, idiot-proof way of seeing some wonderful areas of the world without having to make too much effort. There's a certain amount of 'institionalisation' involved, but it does make for a very relaxing holiday which is important for two workaholics!

Our first port of call was Bergen, Norway's second city and a beautiful mixture of old and new with an eleventh-century wooden 'old town' and some very swanky shops, bars and restaurants, all surrounding the harbour. Its main claim to fame is as the wettest city in Europe (apparently it rains 300 days of the year) and last time we went it fully lived up to its reputation and we got soaked. Twice. This time, the weather was just perfect - warm and sunny without being too hot - and it was lovely to wander around and take photos without having to wipe the camera lens every two minutes.

Second on the list was Flam (pronounced Flaam, or even Flom, according to the locals), which is a tiny village on an arm of Sognefjord, Norway's longest fjord. This was completely new to us and utterly stunning - a tiny, quiet backwater surrounded by some of the wildest and most beautiful mountain scenery we'd ever seen. Huge waterfalls pounded hundreds of feet down sheer cliffs, rocks the size of houses had tumbled down off the mountainsides, and there was still snow on all the higher peaks, even in mid-June. We strolled up the valley alongside a racing river, and found a tiny watermill that the mill-owner had built himself three years ago, using ancient Viking designs, to grind wheat and barley for the local people. He makes his own beer using the end product and let us try a little - and it was delicious! Far more fragrant than bottled varieties.

After that it was on to Olden, at the head of Nordfjord, for yet more stunning mountain scenery, this time looking distinctly Alpine with summer meadows, snow-capped mountains and glacial lakes. The main reason for stopping here is to see the fast-vanishing Briksdal glacier, but all the trips were hideously expensive so once again we set off to explore along the river and up the hillsides by ourselves. The village of Olden isn't quite as attractive as Flam and some of the passengers were very disappointed that there was nowhere to have a cup of tea. You can't seperate British people from their cuppas for long...

Finally we called in at Stavanger, another attractive city which owes much of its wealth to the oil and gas business. We'd seen it once before so rather than plod round the same streets and shops we set off for the Archaeology Museum (fascinating) and then the Oil and Gas Museum (also fascinating, surprisngly so for me). Stavanger shared the European City of Culture with Liverpool a couple of years back and one result is the largest selection of museums I've seen anywhere outside London. We could just as easily have gone to the Printing Museum, the Canning Museum, the main city museum, the Telecom Museum, the Guards Museum, the Fire Museum, or the Maritime Museum... but we'll save those for next time.

Now all we have to do is unpack, wash pretty much everything we own, and settle back into real life. It feels rather strange at the moment.

Friday, June 11, 2010

What's wrong with quotation marks?

We didn't learn much formal grammar at school, but we did learn a few simple rules that have stayed with me for life. One of these was the use of quotation marks (" or ') to indicate speech. You know how it works - you bung one set of marks at the start of a character's speech, and a matching set at the end, and hey presto - you have a simple, instantly-recognisable shorthand or code that shows when a character is talking.

Just lately, though, I'm coming across an increasing number of books where this rule has changed. I've seen three in recent months, including 'Haweswater' by Sarah Hall which was nominated for the Booker Prize, and 'Accidents in the Home' by Tessa Hadley.

In each of these books the quotation marks had been eradicated, and the only indicator for speech was a long dash at the beginning of the dialogue. There was no corresponding mark at the end, and there were absolutely no speech 'tags' of the 'he said', 'she shouted' variety. As a brief example, a piece of dialogue would look like this:

-- Nice weather we're having.

-- Aye, not bad for the time of year.

-- How's your garden doing?

Straight away I found several problems with this system. One, I'm not used to it, so every time it was used, it dragged me out of the story. That might change, of course, if the system becomes common and I get more familiar with it, but at the moment it's a problem.

Second, as you'll see from the example above, it's very difficult to work out who's saying what. Is that conversation between two people, or three? There's no obvious way to tell if the garden question is character one again, or somebody else chiming in. In long sections of dialogue between more than two people, it's impossible to keep track and you find yourself guessing, or having to go back and count the lines to see if the seventh line is character one, two, or five.

Lastly, without a mark at the end of the dialogue, it's hard to tell when a character has finished speaking and the book has returned to narrative. In Hall's case this was handled by always starting a new paragraph after each piece of dialogue, which sort of works. But Hadley's 'Accidents in the Home' doesn't even follow this logical pattern. You get mad paragraphs like this cropping up:

-- Well, that's what I'm picking up. That's what we're all imagining... It's like a sign, a sign of cruelty and abuse. I don't even want it in the house. Seizing the tea towel again she turned her back on them all and started opening another bottle of wine.

My initial reaction to this was 'WTF? What is going on?' It jerked me right out of the story and the overall effect was so silly I was tempted to giggle, in the middle of a supposedly fraught emotional scene. Hmm. Not, I suspect, what the author or the publisher intended.

So what is this sudden thing with dashes rather than quote marks? Is it purely a fad? Is it an attempt to do away with tagging, which has fallen out of favour in some literary circles? Whatever it is, I have to say to the authors, editors, and publishers concerned, IT AIN'T WORKING, GUYS. Please find something else, or stick to what you know. The quotation mark system has been with us for a long time for a very good reason - it works. Why change that if you don't have to?

Monday, June 07, 2010

Slug's revenge #2

The slugs in our garden must have read my recent story and decided to take revenge. We got back from a week away to find one had broken into the kitchen, made a bee-line (or slug-line?) for my beautiful stainless-steel oven and spent the entire week cavorting madly around, leaving a trail of hideous slime all over the door, the knobs, the handle and anything else it could find. I spent most of yesterday evening with my head in a bucket of suds trying to wash the mess off, but the acid in the slime has etched into the stainless-steel (whoever decided to call that stuff 'stainless' got it dead wrong) and permanently marked it. And of course, the minute I'd finished and turned my back, it crawled out of whatever hole it had been hiding in... and left another gooey trail over the bits I'd just cleaned.

I didn't actually whack it with a mop, but it was a close-run thing.

Perhaps I should have put a disclaimer at the end of my story. You know the sort of thing. "No slugs were harmed during the making of this work of fiction." I'll go and add it now. Otherwise I'm likely to get back from my next shopping trip to find a whole procession of the little blighters, slithering round the floor waving 'no cruelty to slugs' placards.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Safe and sound

Just in case anyone has switched on their tv, seen the terrible events unfolding today in Western Cumbria and is worried about us, I thought I'd drop a quick reassuring line to say that both Dave and I are fine. Luckily Windermere is the opposite side of the county and although it's only around 15-20 miles as the crow flies from Boot, there are a couple of large lakes in the way! The worst that happened was that following advice from the local police, we had to stay indoors with the doors locked for a short time this afternoon, until it was confirmed that the gunman had been dealt with. After that it was business as usual - a short but hot stroll down the hill into Bowness.

It's been a lovely sunny day here which seems to make the day's events even stranger and more surreal. I'm beginning to think Cumbria is jinxed; in the last six months we've had floods, snow, ice, a coach crash and now a string of shootings. Whatever next? :(