Reading and Life Post-Retirement

Blogger getting into bad habits again.  Yes, that’s right.  I haven’t posted for a whole ten days.  Bad girl!

I’ve also flunked reading a book:  Walk in the Light and Twenty-Three Tales by Leo Tolstoy.  The stories, which were all supposed to reflect Tolstoy’s Christian faith, were, in my opinion, too long, too pompous in a nineteenth century sort of way, too East European in that they were grim, and not particularly interesting.  I’ve moved on to The Last Tycoon, the last novel of Scott Fitzgerald, which he didn’t finish writing.  I intend to finish reading this one, however.  The style is very dense, involving a lot of people who come on and off the page episodically, in such a way that when one does come back, you’ve forgotten who he/she is.  I will review it properly later.

I borrowed the Fitzgerald, the Tolstoy and Cat Out of Hell  by Lynne Truss, as proper books, in printed form, from my local library, something I haven’t done for decades.  You are now expecting me, Dear Reader, to campaign for the preservation in aspic of all public libraries.  Yes, yes, take it all as having been said.  I know that printed books are very important to a lot of readers, those who say they love the weight, the smell and turning pages… and, really, they can’t be bothered to work out how to use a Kindle, and all the paperbacks they’ve ever read – once – are stacked up in Books stacked up in spare roomtheir spare rooms, as shown left.  (I shall probably get into terrible trouble for writing like this!)  In actual fact our public libraries are not in aspic at all, because, in addition to printed books, they offer a service called Overdrive, whereby library members can borrow electronic books by downloading them on to Kindle or tablet, for free, for the normal sort of period they’d borrow a printed book.   And, if you don’t see the book you want, you can request it.  You’ve probably known this for years, DR, but I didn’t, until a few months ago, when I retired from my job and actually had time to enter a library.

Of course, I’m now teaching again, albeit part-time, although class preparation is taking longer than I would like (as itFat pheasantalways does).  However, I enjoy the days when I am at home better now that I’m doing some work, than I did when I was not working at all.  Then, the days used to stretch out before me, one merging into another, even though I was doing other (voluntary) things, and seeing lots of people, but now my weeks and months have structure, and I no longer feel as if the world was going on without me.  I can now relax and enjoy things like two fat pheasants in our garden.  Here’s the male, and I can assure you that the female’s as traditionally built as he is.

In the bad old days of my previous job, the things that held me together were Classic FM on the car radio to and from work and Starbucks coffee from the college refectory.  The first thing I did when I left was to purchase a digital radio, so I can listen to Classic FM in the kitchen (although I still listen in the car whenever I’m out) and my husband makes better coffee than Starbucks.

Review of ‘Cat Out of Hell’ by Lynne Truss

You know me.  I can’t resist anything with the word cat in the title.  My own pussycat, now sitting on my lap, in the minute space between me and the computer, can’t either.  This fixation has had us read/watch all manner of rubbish.  Making the Cat Laugh is another of Lynne Truss’s titles;  I must get hold of it immediately.

The blurb on the back cover of Cat Out of Hell is beguiling.

Under a pool of yellow light, two figures face each other across a kitchen table.  A man and a cat…
The man clears his throat, leans forward, expectant.
‘Shall we begin?’ says the cat…

However, any preconceptions I might’ve had about talking animals being soft and fluffy are soon to dispelled.  In every other sense, this novel falls into the comic horror genre – or perhaps just horror – as it concerns men and cats working together to commune with the devil.   It was first published in 2014 by Arrow Books in association with Hammer – as in Hammer Horror.

When retired librarian, Alec Charlesworth, takes a break in Norfolk, following the death of his wife, he finds himself sharing his holiday cottage with a talking cat, Roger, a nine-lifer destined to live for ever.  Alec is also in receipt of some unusual computer files, sent by colleague, Dr Winterton, concerning Roger and someone else (unknown to Alec Charlesworth) called Wiggy, who has just been arrested in connection with his sister’s death.  As you can see, the plot is already involved and the first part, where Alec is largely looking at computer files, is difficult to follow, but Lynne cleverly uses a clunky and disjointed style and structure to show Alec’s distraught state of mind.  When Alec returns home to Cambridge, the catalogue of harm wreaked by the nine-lifers moves with him, but he cannot bring himself to discuss a cat who talks with anyone else.  He has difficulty believing it himself.  The tension mounts when Alec eventually commits and goes to Dorset to make his own investigations  and here things get properly sinister, although the amount of actual blood and gore and ghostliness is minimal, but Roger mentioning things things done to kittens really pressed my buttons.

Cat Out of Hell is available, from American publisher, Melville House or from Lynne’s author website.  Do I recommend, Dear Reader?  Yes, although it is one of those books you have to finish before you appreciate it.  Even though there was plenty going on throughout, the middle stalls; even though, at this point, several hooks are being laid, the thread that should have been holding it together became very thin.  Although the human characters were not distinct – too many middle-aged male academics and librarians – the cats had panache and attitude.  Anthropomorphism is one of the things writers are advised to leave alone, but Lynne proved that it could be done, and in a book for adults.

All this brings me back to my own darling cat, Clarabel, who insists on climbing on to my lap whenever I use my Author's Cat Sitting by Bookcaselaptop.  First, she walks across in front of me and over the keyboard, activating (mostly) right click menus, which I have to cancel using the escape key, but it destroys my flow.  For about ten minutes, she stands, so I have to work around this furry obstacle in front of me, and, although I try I push her into a sitting position, her bottom rides up again.    Eventually, she will sit, but then she nuzzles my jumper, so I have to roll up my sleeve.  And she malts fur all over my keyboard.  Why do I put up with it?  My husband asks why I don’t ‘just put her down’, but, if I do, she climbs back up and starts all over again.  The thing is she’s old and she’s so happy on my knee, purring like a little motorbike.

ReBlog: Five Lies Creative Writing Teachers Tell

Actually, I can’t reblog this because it came off the Writers & Artists blog, a non-WordPress blog, but here is the link.

David Savill, Programme Director of the St Mary’s University Creative Writing MA and the author of this post, is writing about those darned rules for writers and how they don’t work, well, not all the time anyway.  He has just brought out a book They Are Trying To Break Your Heart  (Bloomsbury, 2016) which looks like a very interesting read.

A Small Grammar Point!   As I was writing the paragraph above, I wondered about the words not all the time.  I always believed that all the time was correct British usage and to insert of – as in, all of the time – was American usage.  Anybody any ideas?

Btw, I’m posting on the More Than Writers blog tomorrow (13 April), about humour.  Do take a look.  (Andrew Chamberlain is on there today, but he’s always good read too.)

See below the biggest grammar ouch ever, courtesy of Tesco!

Frees spelt with apostrophe, from Tesco sign.
Creative Commons (www.flickr.com)

Two Book Reviews: ‘Blood Axe’ and ‘Murder Ring’, both by Leigh Russell

Ah, after two blogs on real life and one on travel, here are two book reviews.  I hope the people who read my blog for the first time for my India post are not too disappointed.  I love reading.  Reading has always been a huge part of my life.  No, not always.  For a few years in my teens, I decided that what I was reading was overly-influencing what I was writing, so therefore I MUST NOT READ.  I was an arrogant bitch in those days.

Leigh Russell writes about two detectives:  Geraldine Steel and Ian Peterson, who used to be Geraldine’s second-in-command but has now moved to York.  Leigh has also commenced a new series, featuring Lucy Hall (released in February, which I haven’t read yet).  Leigh has a sure touch, content well researched and with watertight plot lines, and detectives who you enjoy reading about.

Blood Axe (Ian Peterson)

The first person we meet is the murderer, who is a Viking, navigating up and down the River Ouse in a long boat, carrying an axe and invoking the blessing of Viking gods.  Is Leigh writing historical these days?  Or fantasy?  Or is the murderer the genuine Nordic article?  The murders are brutal and gory, including a decapitation, bu

Creative Commons. Wikipedia.org
Creative Commons. Wikipedia.org

t they, and the coins (not paper notes, the reader observes) stolen from victims, will earn the murderer a place in Valhalla – or so the murderer believes.

There are a lot of characters, as you would expect in a crime novel, many of them featuring intensively for a few chapters then departing from the pages, as the story moves on, which reflects what would happen in a crime investigation.  The prevailing characters are Ian Peterson himself, now promoted to Detective Inspector, his assistant, Detective Sergeant Ted Birling, and Ian’s wife, Bev.  Ian is torn between wanting to go after the next lead in his murder investigation and being there for his wife.  The Ian and Bev story judders to a terrible climax in the final chapters, and the only person able to offer Ian any constructive support is Geraldine Steele herself, but this sub-plot finishes on a tantalising cliff-hanger.  I guess I will have to read the next book, when it appears.

Murder Ring (Geraldine Steele)

Creative Commons. Wikimedia.org
Creative Commons. Wikimedia.org

The first person we meet in this book is the victim, and, after reading the initial pages, I wanted to murder him too.  The greed surrounding a diamond solitaire engagement, which two women believed themselves to be entitled, is breathtakingly shocking.  This is a complex and devious story, taking place in central London, featuring several groups of arrogant and thoroughly unpleasant villains without redeeming features.   The identity of the real murderers took me by surprise, and I was actually quite disappointed not to see one of the other suspects locked up.

Even characters as tough as Geraldine, who is as tough as her name, should have a vulnerability, and hers is being adopted.  Again, Geraldine struggles between the compelling demands of a murder investigation and family life, with the murder investigation winning, but (without giving too much away) Leigh has left the plot door open again.

Both books can be obtained from Leigh Russell’s website.  If you like crime fiction, read them both.

Twenty Things I Didn’t Know about India (Before I Went)

Everybody has a  picture of what  India must be like.  H R F Keating wrote the Inspector Ghote novels without ever having visited the country.  Having just returned from a holiday in southern India myself,  this is what I learned:

  1. To enter India you need a visa from the Indian High Commission.  Most people purchase the (cheaper) e-visa, only to find that, on arrival, they will be questioned and fingerprinted.  Indians take the terrorism  threat very seriously.
  2. The caste system continues as strong as ever.  Even in 2016, every Indian citizen must carry a caste certificate.
  3. All marriages are arranged, in all religions.   When sons and daughters reach a certain age (about thirty for aIMG_1947 man, younger for a woman), parents search the ‘matrimonials’ in the local newspaper, or online, for a suitable bride/groom, prioritising those with good education and good job, preferably non-smoking and non-drinking.
  4. When a couple marry, the bride adopts the groom’s religion.
  5. IMG_1088 - CopyAlthough 79% of Indians are nominally Hindus, there are even more churches in southern India than in the American Bible Belt, particularly in Kerala.  The Catholic churches are very well maintained, because, in Kerala, young men go abroad to work in Arab countries to earn lots of money and, on their return, they buy a business and give money to the church.  The Anglican churches (CSI), after having been neglected after the Raj, are now being restored, energetically.
  6. When you enter a church, temple, ashram, or any important building, you remove your shoes, out of respect and as a courtesy to people kneeling down on the floor to pray.
  7. Indians are always cheerful, even those who are poor and don’t enjoy the things we take for granted.
  8. IMG_1600Adult Indian women hardly ever wear western dress.  Mostly, they wear saris, which are always beautiful, clean and worn correctly with a loose sash over the shoulder, even when they are doing manual jobs like sweeping the floor or making bricks.  Schoolgirls tend to wear salwar kameez  (tunics and loose trousers), although pupils at some private schools wear British-type uniforms.
  9. Adult Indian men wear a western long-sleeved shirt with a lungi (loose wrap tied around the middle, either full-length or folded vertically so as to be knee-length).  Occasionally, you see older men wearing the dhoti, which is like a loin-cloth.
  10. Neither women nor men cover their heads, even though the heat can be intense.
  11. Indians in southern India tend to be very dark-skinned.
  12. English is spoken widely.  Also, most signs are printed in English as well as in Asian scripts.
  13. IMG_1090Motorbikes outnumber cars on the roads.  It is possible to cram a whole family on a motorbike, with Dad driving, children behind him and Mum sitting side-saddle behind them.  (Sadly, I don’t have a photo of this.)  Nobody bothers with crash-helmets.  Many of the cars were 1960s models, like the one here. IMG_1543
  14. In India, meals are often advertised as ‘vegetarian’ or ‘non-vegetarian’ – completely the right emphasis, in my opinion.  On the Sri Lankan plane on our way out, my husband asked for the meat meal, only to be told that all the food was vegetarian.  (Result!!!)
  15. In India, if you don’t eat salad or unpeeled fruit, don’t have ice in your drinks and use common sense, you won’t get food poisoning, but your poor old western stomach will not be able to cope with so much spicy food.
  16. For breakfast, Indians spicy food, just like at any other time.
  17. Tea in India is not the Proper Cup of Tea we know and love.  Indian tiffin (which H R F Keating wrote about repeatedly) is drank with – a lot of – condensed milk and sugar and tastes like warm kulfi;  it is also served in a little tin cup on a rack carried at shoulder height.IMG_1594
  18. Although most cows wander where they want, most are tethered and oxen pull carts and ploughs.  Indian cows look fitter than British ones, leaner, able to move comfortably and not stuffed with antibiotics.
  19. IMG_1166No cats.  No sheep.  Many goats, particularly black ones.
  20. Fly-tipping in India is epic.

India has been on my bucket list for decades.  Do I recommend it?  Definitely.