Sunday, January 15, 2017

January in the flatlands

Here we are already halfway through January and I haven't posted anything about the start of the year or what's been happening. Well, briefly, not a lot!

I can sum up the year's events so far in three sentences: I've finished writing my travelogue and it's now out with Beta readers as my aim is to publish it next month as a Kindle book; teaching work has started, but very slowly so we (that's Koos and I) are filling in my gaps by redecorating the crumbly cottage; we've been for lots of lovely walks and most notably our traditional New Year's trek across the beach.

This year we went to Cadzand in Zeeuws Vlaanderen, so my traditional photos with dogs and people frolicking on the sands are below.

 And these next photos are from our walks around the crumbly cottage when the sun has shone. As they say on the weather forecast, sunny intervals, and as intervals have gone, they've been just about long enough for a brisk 4kms and then it's been a case of diving inside before the sleet and hail has hit again.

My aims for the coming months are a bit more extensive: I want to finish the South African novel I started about a year ago and which was interrupted by all sorts of other commitments. I still have no real idea where it's going, but I keep writing in the hopes that a pattern and a good story will emerge from the jumble of half formed plans that I keep mentally sifting through. I then want to start on my WWII novel.

In the meantime, we have to prepare our Hennie H for going to Poland. That is the big plan for this year, and we hope to spend about four months travelling. I'm both very excited and rather nervous about it as not being the youngest of couples, I don't want to go anywhere too far from civilisation in case something happens to either of us. We will need to plan our route very carefully.

In between all this, I would like to go to Italy and to the UK again to see friends, although these are likely to be long weekends if they happen. However, I am definitely going to Spain for a weekend in two weeks, but more on that later. Last but not least, I have to finish renovating my back cabin on the Vereeniging, but I'll wait until it's just a bit warmer to do that!

Monday, January 09, 2017

My favourite reads of 2016: General fiction

I'm a bit late with this, I know, but I just needed to mention a few more books I've read and loved that aren't crime or memoirs. I think they are definitely worth a mention as they have all left an impression on me. This is a no particular category list, but I'll explain why I've chosen them in each case.

* Anywhere the Wind Blows by Jenny Lloyd. This is the third in the Megan Jones trilogy set in 19th century Wales. I've read all three books now and this was the one that wrapped the story up. I really loved this series. It has a Thomas Hardy atmosphere being set in the heart of rural life and dealing with the social issues pertinent to village folk at the time. Society was harsh and dominated by austere religious beliefs, but in the end compassion and humanity shine through. Absolutely riveting. Jenny Lloyd captures the spirit and morals of the times, the character of the people and the beauty of the Welsh scenery like no other.

* Silent Water by Jan Ruth. Again, this is the third book of a trilogy, so maybe I should be talking about all three here, and again it is set in Wales, a country I have deep affection for. This series is a modern day relationship driven saga that is so real and so compelling I couldn't put the books down when I started them. Silent Water sort of wraps the series up, but does it? I don't know if there will be another as it does leave a few questions at the end. Once again, the sense of place is paramount and it is highly character driven. I loved the whole series and this one was just the final touch.

*Best Seller and The Other Side, both by Terry Tyler.
Best Seller is a novella that speaks to many of us who seek success in writing. A well conceived story with characters that are real and believable, it deals with what happens when someone plagiarises a story...the sort of fraud that happens more often than we think.

The Other Side is possibly among my favourite Terry Tyler novels. It's actually quite genius in its construction and it answers the question in novel form of what might happen (or have happened) if we made (or had made) different choices in life. It's complicated and needs focus, but I thought it was brilliant.

*Marielle by Peter Davey. I read this first in December 2015, but I read it again over the summer. I just love Peter Davey's writing and this is one of the most beautifully crafted and moving stories I've read in a long time. The story centres on a French dentist, who, bored with his perfectly average life, wife and daughter, fancies himself in love with a woman he meets by chance in an underground car park. All three of Peter Davey's French novellas have a special quality and much is down to the superb crafting and the characterisation. Marielle, in particular, is like watching a French film in words. Wonderful writing.

* A Delicate Truth by John Le Carré. From one of my favourite writers of all time, this novel, like so many of his more recent books, focuses on the deceptions woven by those in high places against the rest of us mere mortals. To say what it is about would be to give the story away, but read it. You will never feel quite the same again about what our special forces and intelligence services do in the name of 'protecting' us all, nor about the people who are in charge of them. It's a world in which Le Carré himself has much experience, so the reader has more than uncomfortably aware that it is quite possibly true. No image for this one. There are several, so I didn't know which one to pick.

* Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald. I read this book for the first time about fifteen years ago, and only recently found it again. It is just the most beautiful story about a motley group of people living on gradually deteriorating wooden Thames barges on the Thames near Battersea. Written in the 80s, it won several literary prizes then, but I guess it's largely been forgotten. It's one of those books I would never want to be without. I'm not sure if it's even in print anymore, but if it is, it's worth buying and keeping.

*Charlie, the Dog who Came in From the Cold,  by Lisa Tenzin Dolma. A wonderful and inspiring book about the author's experiences in living with and learning from a Romanian rescue dog she adopted. Because Charlie had been living so far from human life and contact, he was to all intents and purposes completely wild and so helping him to adapt to life among humans was an amazing, learning experience for animal behaviour expert, Lisa. The book is by turns fascinating, moving and heart breaking. It is a must for anyone with a dog suffering from fear issues of any kind.

* In the Throes of Progress by Lynn M Dixon. This is the fourth in a series of inspirational novellas about a young American couple Tyre and Phoenix. I cannot really put my finger on what is special about these stories. They have a calm and restful quality and reading them is a kind of meditation. I would describe it as contemplative reading in the same way that Miksang photography is contemplative image making. This book continues the story of the couple's relationship and how they build up their trust in one another. Lynn Dixon writes a lovely blog too, which I follow.

I know I've read many other very good books this last year, but these are the ones that have stood out for me and that I remember clearly. I am busy reading again now, but I've slowed down a little as I'm also writing too. As I've already mentioned, I'm not a book blogger or reviewer, nor are these awards; they are simply books that I've enjoyed and like to share with those of you who read my blog.

Normal stories will be resumed next week. I hope you are all having a great start to the new year... despite being too cold, too wet, too windy, too hot, too everything! It's just that time of year isn't it? All the best anyway, wherever you are in the world!

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Favourite Reads of 2016: Memoirs

Since it was someone else's memoir that inspired me to start writing them, I suppose it's not surprising that I still love reading memoirs and especially boating and travel memoirs.

I've read a good few of these this year too, and the ones I've enjoyed the most in 2016 are listed below:

Jackie Parry's This is It: A riveting and exciting sailing memoir that makes you wonder how people's courage and endurance can cope with such pressure. An astonishing trip that Jackie Parry and her husband Noel make from California, where they buy their sailing boat, down to Ecuador, then to Easter Island and back across the Pacific to Australia. Thousands of miles, terrifying storms, wonderful people and fascinating places. A must read if you have a yen to break all boundaries and cast off all ropes.

Mildred Aldrich's  A Hilltop on the Marne: a fascinating collection of letters written between 1914 and 1917 by an American woman who elects to stay in France at the outbreak of WW1. Her home is in a village on the Marne and she is more than a little up close and personal with the French and British forces during much of the action in the area. I found it very interesting and beautifully written. I kept thinking about it and the different view it gave me of history long after I'd finished reading it.

Hart Massey's Travels with Lionel. One of my favourite boating memoirs ever. It's such a shame the author is no longer alive and the book is not available in e-book form. Sadly there's no good cover image of it either. However, this is a funny and fascinating account of a Canadian couple in their sixties who buy a barge in France and travel throughout the country as well as through Germany and the Netherlands too. I loved it! There is a sequel called Leaky Iron Boat which I have but haven't read yet.

Susan Joyce's Good Morning Diego Garcia. Another fabulous and exciting sailing memoir, although this one reads more like a thriller than a memoir. Susan and her husband, whom she suspects of involvement in all sorts of secret and nefarious intelligence activities, set off on a journey with friends, who also seem to be mixed up in some strange business, from Sri Lanka to Israel. Unfortunately, they leave in the Monsoon season and are subjected to a horrendous series of storms during which Susan has a chance to look into her own strengths and resources very closely. A thoroughly thrilling read.

Lucinda E Clarke's  More Truth, Lies and Propaganda. This is a riveting memoir about Lucinda's life in South Africa as a film maker for public broadcasting and education. Having been much involved in the film industry in South Africa myself, I was totally immersed in this book very quickly, but even for those who haven't had that experience, it's a fascinating, often funny, and compelling read.

* Joe Carroll's Frogs and Frigate Birds. Every time Jo Carroll goes off travelling and writes about her experiences, I have to read them. I love her writing style and she often goes to places I would love to visit myself. This is no exception. Frogs and Frigate Birds is about her trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. I lapped it up as always, and only wished it were longer. I'm now looking forward to her next travelogue.

These are the memoirs that have topped my bill this last year. My choices are totally subjective and based on my personal interests. There are also a few others I've read and thoroughly enjoyed that are worth mentioning, though, so here they are. I've posted the links to the Amazon pages too.

*Beth Haslam's Fat Dogs and French Estates (Parts 1 and 2) Amusing and well written memoirs about searching for a home in France. The author's lovely personality really makes these books.

Julie Watson's Born For Life: A Midwife's Story is a moving memoir about the author's journey to become a fully qualified midwife in the face of many personal and emotional struggles.

Shirley Ledlie's  Naked in the Wind is about how the author takes on the French pharmaceutical companies and legal system when she loses her hair permanently following chemotherapy. A very courageous, gutsy woman.

Roger Distill's Life with our Feet under water: a gentle, chatty and charming memoir about a couple's first few years of living on a narrowboat. Very enjoyable.

Linda Kovic-Skow French Illusions. Vibrant and fun.  Twenty-one year old Linda bluffs her way into a position as a nanny in a French country home, but then finds out things are not quite as she expected.

Monday, January 02, 2017

My favourite reads of 2016: Crime Fiction

First off I should mention up front and out loud that I'm not a book blogger and these are not awards of any kind. However, I read a lot, probably because I don't watch television and when I'm not marking assignments and writing myself, I'm reading. Just for example, during our five weeks faring in the summer, I read fourteen novels and one or two memoirs as well. I  often have three or four books on the go, so writing these 'favourite reads' blogs helps me to remember what I've read during the year.

I'm actually going to write three posts on the subject because there are so many books I want to mention, it will get too mixed up if I put them all here. So for this one, I'll start with my favourite Crime Fiction reads of the year, then do a blog on Memoirs I've read and then another on General Fiction.

So here we go with:

Crime Fiction

My favourite genre of books is undoubtedly crime fiction. There are several authors whose books I always read, but this year, these are the novels that have stood out for me. They aren't in any particular order, other than as they've come to me.

* LM Krier's DI Darling series:  I've read books 1, 2 and 3 of these and have bought the next three. I have thoroughly enjoyed them all, but each one has been better than the last, so I am very happy at the prospect of having three more to read! Ted Darling is a cop with a difference as well as a troubled past, and he's great! Here's a link to the first one, Baby's Got Blue Eyes.

* Deon Meyer's Thirteen Hours. Boy, what a riveting roller coaster ride that was. It stood out for all the right reasons. It's also a detective novel, but it's set in South Africa and the hero, Benny Griessel is a likeable reformed alcoholic struggling to stay that way. I loved the South African setting, of course, and the story was fast paced, intricate and challenging. Excellent.

* Deborah Crombie. I've read two of hers, The Sound of Broken Glass and No Mark Upon Her. I am totally addicted to the Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James series and loved both of these. Deborah Crombie writes mostly about London, and I feel I am there in all its multi-cultural rich diversity when I read her books. There is always something thoughtful and even poignant about the cases these two have to investigate, but even better are the 'supporting actors' who crop up in every book. They become real to the reader and the back stories, sub plots and secondary characters are major features in this series and provide good continuity too.

* Stephanie Parker McKean's Bridge Back. This is the sixth in the Miz Mike series of murder mysteries. I love this series. It's not your typical crime novel at all as the heroine is a big, buxom, Texan woman who is delightfully bonkers, dangerously outspoken and wonderfully zany. She is constantly getting into 'pickles' and (incapable of) minding her own business, which means she's always falling over murders. Fast, fun, colourful and exciting, Bridge Back has Miz Mike sorely out of her comfort zone in Scotland. Murder mysteries to enjoy!

* Terry Tyler's The Devil You Know. I was amazed by this new approach to crime writing. This is not a police procedural;  it's an intense psychological thriller in which five people believe they know the serial killer of several girls in an English town somewhere in the east of the country. Each of the main characters believes it is someone close to them and so the reader has five suspects to choose from. The Devil You Know is a riveting read that is so different from the norm, it is in its own genre.

I have read several other crime novels during the year and may well have missed a goodie here and there, but these are the ones I've really remembered.  For the rest, I've read (and continue to read) crime fiction by the following authors whose books I always love:

Donna Leon (Inspector Brunetti)
Christina James (I still have the new one to read) (DI Yates)
Carol Hedges (I still have the new one to read) (Stride and Cully)
Ian Rankin (Rebus)
Henning Mankell (Wallender, but sadly there will be no more of these)

I've also read one by Elly Griffiths (The Janus Stone) which I quite enjoyed and I've read some Dutch crime fiction by De Waal and Baantjer, which I love for their sense of place (being Amsterdam). There have been others that haven't grabbed me so well, so I won't mention those here, but they have included some very well-known names. Generally, I don't like crime fiction that's very gory and graphic, so if I get one of those, I mostly don't finish it. I like the puzzle of working out who, what and why, rather than how!

Okay, that's it for this one. The next instalment will be in a day or so!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Adventures in Public Transport

Now it's winter and we aren't faring places, I've still been lucky enough to do some travelling as readers here will know. At the end of November, we were in Poland and then the weekend before last, I was in England. Since in both places I've made extensive use of public transport, I thought I'd share some anecdotes with you that show (I think) why using buses, trams and trains is such a great way to meet local people when travelling abroad.

In Poland, for instance, public transport is very reasonably priced. I think the Poles must have heart failure when they come to the Netherlands and see how much it is here. Like most places now, the chip card system is replacing tickets in Poland although you can still buy paper tickets if you want. We wanted to pay upfront for our whole seven days in the Katowice area, so a card it had to be. Being dumbwits when it comes to understanding Polish, we had to ask at the office for help and this is where the Poles really shine for us. They are so patient and so helpful. Our lady had very little English, but between us we worked out what we had to do. It took ages: she wrote numbers down that we tried to make sense of; she tried to explain how to use the pin code machine, which I eventually understood; she gave us payment options and told us how to get our deposit back if we wanted it, but she made no complaint about the time any of this took and was as sweet as could be.

We travelled a lot by bus and tram in Poland. The Katowice network area is massive and we did quite a bit of sticking pins on the map and finding a bus going that way or simply looking at the destination and saying 'let's go there.' This led us first to Toszek with its gorgeous castle and then to Mikolow, a surprisingly pretty town with an old German square, both quite random discoveries for us. We also tried to go to a place called Halemba - twice - but didn't make it. We still don't know why, but it might have had something to do with a circular route...ahem.

On another occasion, this time on a tram, we met a man who initially told us he was diabetic and needed help to buy food. At first we were sceptical, I'm ashamed to say, but when he told us his story, I felt deeply for him. He used to work in the Netherlands until he he was diagnosed with diabetes, but he could no longer work because of the severe extent of his condition. We chatted to him for much of our journey and learned how things have perhaps not improved for everyone in Poland since the end of communism. 'Thirty years ago, I would have been looked after,' he said 'but not anymore'.

We also took a couple of train trips and while I was really impressed by the trains, I was even more impressed by the conductors. They were not only very nice, they were incredibly patient and helpful too. We had to buy our tickets on the train rather than on the station. Apparently, this is normal practice and the conductors have these onboard hand-held computers to calculate the prices and print the tickets.  You can only buy one way tickets, oddly, but that's the rule.

On our second train trip, we went to Zwardon, which involved buying a through ticket from Gliwice Labedy to Zwardon involving two changes. The conductor who sold us our ticket had trouble understanding where we wanted to go. I had the feeling she might not even have heard of it as I don't suppose many people from Gliwice ask to go there. In the end, after many attempts at trying to say the name (probably incorrectly) we had to 'spell' it for her on the wall of the carriage. Luckily, that worked, but I was again surprised by her patience.

On our return from chilly, snowy, Zwardon to Katowice, we had the same conductor as on our up trip - the wonderful Tomasz. I've never met a train conductor quite like him before. He told us so much about the history of Silesia and the area. He also showed us the most beautiful book about the Polish railways with its history and extensive maps and old photos. This was his reading material for the erudite conductor indeed.

Then a quick hop in time and over to the UK; to Shepton Mallet and Wells in Somerset at the beginning of December to be precise. Although I was staying at a B&B in Shepton Mallet, I needed to get to Wells every day. I'd hired a car, but for reasons I won't go into here, I cannot drive in the dark, so I had to take the bus on Friday and Saturday. Well, I'm so glad I did. It was such fun. I'd forgotten that people chat at bus stops and on the buses in England. That doesn't happen often here in the Netherlands, but in the UK, it's what you do when you're in the bus queue (innit?). For instance:
'Hallo love, you all right?'
'Yeah, pet, but the lumbago's giving me proper stick this week.'
'Oh no! So sorry you're poorly! It's the damp, love. I was just saying to my girls last week this wet weather's getting us all down.'
And so that's the norm. I'd forgotten this, having lived away from the UK for so long, but I was tickled to find out it's still true. On my first evening at the bus stop, after making friendly small talk with a lady standing in the bus shelter, a very nice gentleman, who reminded me rather forcefully of a garden gnome chatted to me on the bus itself and helped me with directions for when I arrived in Wells. In fact he was so helpful, he even wanted to escort me at the other end, but I told him I was more than grown up enough to find my own way. He wasn't convinced, bless him.

The following day, I was waiting at the bus stop in Wells waiting to return to the B&B and got chatting to a lass who was going to visit her boyfriend in Shepton Mallet. While we were talking, a young man came in looking a bit bemused asking if we knew when the next bus to Bristol was. He told us he'd fallen asleep on the bus and should have got off  some time before reaching Wells. He had a huge problem because his girlfriend was expecting him to collect her from Bristol Airport and his mum was expecting him home before going to fetch the girlfriend. What made matters worse, his phone had run out of battery power so he couldn't contact either of them. Oh dear. He looked very disconsolate and dishevelled. The girl I was talking to offered to let him use her phone to contact his mother. Between the three of us, we composed a text to tell his mum the bus had broken down and to ask her to come and get him from Wells. We all agreed that the truth was not an option and that he had to play the 'parent game' to smoothe things over. I hope everything worked out for him; he certainly looked a bit happier when our own bus departed a few minutes later. When we arrived back in Shepton Mallet, my young friend thanked me for the company and conversation.
'I hope you have a lovely evening,' I smiled at her.
Then she stepped off the bus into the arms of a romantic looking young man with Byronic curls, so I called out to them.
'Ah, I can see you will have a lovely evening.'
The boy looked puzzled, but the girl smiled. She knew what I knew. What a lovely way to end the day. There's nothing like a bit of random conversation with strangers on the buses to lift the spirits.

Have a lovely Christmas everyone xx

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The City of Bells

The title of this post comes from a book written by Elizabeth Goudge. I read it as a teenager and loved it, partly because the setting was (I believe) based on Wells, that beautiful gem of a city on the edge of the Mendip hills in Somerset and where the author was born. I'd been there a few times with my parents and had fallen in love with it.

This last weekend, I went there again for the first time in about thirty five years (yes, really!) and was charmed to see it has changed very little, except of course for the huge shopping malls, which are thankfully on the edge of town, and for once have done little to diminish the heart of this lovely place.

I was there to visit my very dear friend from South Africa, Moira. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will remember I spent time with her over there last year. But this year, she is in the UK, working as an old people's nurse and at the moment, she is living in with a delightful elderly lady in Wells. As an aside, I cannot think of a place where Moi would be better suited. Wells fits her like a handmade glove.

Anyhow, we had a lovely time catching up. Because the nature of her work means that she cannot leave the house, much of this was spent at the kitchen table and often included the old lady too as she had many interesting stories to tell about her own life. But on Saturday, my sister and her daughters also popped down from Bristol. I had lunch with them and a walk round the cathedral. It is breathtaking, so very beautiful with its cruciform arches in the central nave (I think that's what they're called anyway). We were also treated to an informal carol concert by the choir who were practicing for a real concert that evening. I don't know about anyone else, but a good choir singing carols in a setting like that, well, it had me quite choked up. It was just gorgeous and so uplifting.

Cathedral in the mist
The weather was typical of the west country for the time of year: foggy, mild and wet, but that didn't spoil my enjoyment at all. There was a very brief burst of sunshine on Sunday morning and I was lucky enough to catch it while wandering round the Bishop's Palace. Here are a few of the photos I took.

Bishop's Palace walls and moat

The sun bursts through for a minute

The ray that bathed the palace in gold
I had lots of other fun too: rediscovering public transport, learning to drive on the left again and finding random people to chat to, but I'll put all that in another post. I'll also say more about the history of this lovely place. For now, I just want to give a shout out to the lovely Bed and Breakfast I stayed in. It was Middleton House in Shepton Mallet and it was really fantastic. I have rarely been given such a warm and friendly welcome. Gill and Kevin are wonderful hosts; my room was not only beautiful but spotlessly clean as well; the shower was heavenly; the tea, coffee and biccies provided in the room were plentiful and very welcome. I think the views from the house must also be lovely, but the mist fogged my vision, so to speak. So to finish this post, here is a link to their website. If anyone is going that way and needs a (very reasonably priced) place to stay, this is it.

Have any of you been to Wells? If so, I'd love to hear your impressions of it.