Friday, August 27, 2010

Of coffee and exam results

An exciting week has just flown past.

On Monday I met lovely Miriam for a coffee. Miriam and I discovered each other in the writerly blogosphere during the last year and I was delighted when she emailed recently to say she would be passing through London whilst over here on a holiday from Israel. I was particularly thrilled because Miriam often blogs about the social anxiety from which she suffers, so I knew that for her making the suggestion to meet up was a Big Thing.

We met at the impressive new St Pancras International station. Not the most exciting location perhaps, but convenient for both of us. And Miriam needn't have worried, as I was in one of my most chatty moods as we sat in the Costa Coffee situated in the row of smart little shops. I probably bored her to death, but I hope we will be able to meet again in the future.

On Tuesday GCSE results came out. Son 1 had taken just one exam, but his preferred college placement and course for this year was dependent upon a grade of at least C and he wasn't sure he'd done it (he already had the required result in his BETEC First Diploma). He was working on Tuesday and couldn't get to college to receive his result in person, so we had to wait anxiously for the postman on Wednesday. The news was good and yesterday he enrolled at his first choice college for a BETEC National Extended Diploma in IT, which is the equivalent of taking three A levels. He has chosen not to go back to our local college, even though academically he did well there last year, and will be facing a daily commute, albeit against the rush hour mayhem. He'll just have to learn to get up earlier.

(The picture is of the statue at St Pancras which, stupidly, I forgot to go upstairs to look at. Next time...)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Lows and highs

The past week was seriously weird, a true rollercoaster.

A fatal traffic accident at the end of our road on Monday created drama and left everyone feeling shaken. In addition two friends have been seriously ill in hospital. Different hospitals and different reasons, but each another reminder of my own mortality.

It's just over a year since my diagnosis and I've been struggling with the anniversary. I'm no worse than I was this time last year, I'm actually significantly better, as I was in the throes of a major relapse back then. Looking at the overall picture there has been little significant deterioration. I am slowly learning to recognise my fluctuating symptoms and to listen to them, to accept my limitations. But it's not always easy.

On the upside, I've been out to see quite a few friends. Although Son 1 wasn't awaiting A level results, I've enjoyed hearing of his old schoolfriends getting university places. Son 1 is now motivated and doing well in his education, his turn will hopefully come. In the meantime he is working hard in a very worthwhile holiday and weekend job which he not only enjoys, but will look good on future applications.

Son 2 has been quite relaxed and enjoying the holiday, especially his playscheme sessions. We are now starting to gently remind him about his forthcoming transition to the further education unit and keeping our fingers tightly crossed.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Summer Reading 1 - Like Bees to Honey

I've never been to Malta. But after devouring Like Bees to Honey by Caroline Smailes I felt as if I had. I actually read the book three months ago and decided to wait to review it, to see if that strong sense of place remained with me. Today I can still see, smell and taste Malta.

Nina returns to the island of her birth with her son, ready to face her demons. But what she finds instead is an island full of ghosts, presided over by a hippy Jesus who loves reality TV and hangs out in a bar. The ghosts are keen to share their stories and some wonderful characters emerge. I particularly loved Tilly, the angry house ghost.

It's no secret that I have been a great fan of Caroline's writing since I first discovered her online. She has a unique voice but, whilst I personally loved her earlier novels, the subject matter was often challenging. In Like Bees to Honey she has achieved the perfect balance, taking the reader on a emotional rollercoaster ride between tears and laughter. The novel covers many important themes - cultural dislocation, the guilt of motherhood, the ambivalence of religion and the power of family to both divide and heal - yet is never didactic.

Caroline Smailes has a background in linguistics, which shows through in her writing. Excerpts of a tourist guide and the use of fancy fonts add depth and additional meaning. The careful placing of words and phrases on the page inserts pauses, while repetition adds rhythm and emphasis. In Like Bees to Honey the repetition of words and phrases of the Maltese language, always translated, add another sensory layer. The reader can hear Malta. And then there are the black-edged pages...

Such devices, if used badly, could be distracting but Caroline Smailes is a clever writer. In her hands they merely emphasise compelling stories, while adding poetic qualities to the spare, readable prose, where every single word has significant meaning. Caroline's writing style is truly individual.

I loved Like Bees to Honey. The handcrafted cover design is enticing and it's a book I know I shall return to over again, even if I never do get to Malta myself.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Joining the dots between British novelists

I just love this application from the Open University's Open Learn website, which shows the fascinating links between a number of 20th century British authors. Do go and have a play, it's quality OU material, all for free and I'm grateful to @Mslexia who retweeted the link on Twitter.

While you are there, the sidebar is worth exploring too. There are so many blog posts about literature, creative writing and the English language (and many other subjects) that I think I might be spending some time on the site in the coming days...

(The author links application needs Flash, by the way)

Monday, August 09, 2010

Reading and reviewing

Despite the fact that I co-founded a book blog, I rarely post reviews on here and recently I started to wonder why. I came up with the following reasons:

- I like to take time to digest a newly-published book, rather than immediately writing about it. As a result so many other people will already have reviewed it, that I often feel my views would add nothing new.

- I don't have a background in English Literature, so I don't feel entirely confident in my ability to comment on the literary quality of the work of others, even more so since I discovered for myself how difficult it actually is to write good fiction.

- As a linguist, however, I do tend to judge a book as much on the beauty and readability of the language as on the story itself. The craft of writing is also important and I sometimes inadvertently find myself thinking show not tell, or something similar. I seem to have started to read like a writer and I fear it may sometimes make me a little over-critical.

Oh dear, that all sounds rather pretentious, doesn't it? But it isn't really, it's just showing my own insecurities as a reader (and writer).

Anyway, just in case you all think I'm not really reading at all, I'm going to start remedying the lack of interesting posts on here this summer by occasionally throwing in some quick comments on books I've recently read.

Come back soon to find out what I've enjoyed.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Giving in

While I'm not a total techno-dunce, I've never been a major adopter of gadgets. I think it's partly due to my age and partly because I just don't have the time or inclination to learn how to take advantage of all the new technology can offer.

So I deliberately don't own an iPod, an iPhone or, naturally, an iPad. I have a Creative Zen mp3 player which serves me perfectly and cost less than an iPod of similar storage capacity. I don't have a smartphone of any kind, because right now I couldn't afford the monthly cost, so I use an ancient Nokia with a cheap sim-only contract. After all, I only need to be able to call and text, anything more would be icing on the cake.

Aside from the cost, one of the reasons that I've never been seduced by Apple products, despite their sleek good looks, is that I didn't want to be tied into iTunes. With my Creative player I can buy mp3 tracks anywhere and just drag and drop them into the player. Perfect for someone as technically challenged as I am and I really don't need the other apps offered by Apple.

So I've just done something which surprised even me. I've raided my savings to pre-order one of Amazon's new Kindles. And yes, it does mean being tied into a propriety format, something I never wanted to do. So what changed my mind?

Until now I've been sceptical about ebooks, but I've only tried to read them on my laptop. I have an increasing collection of pdf books which I rarely look at, because I don't like reading that way. I've previously looked at ebook readers and decided I couldn't afford the cost. But something is different this time, it feels as if, with the expansion of Amazon into the UK ebook market, this attractive new Kindle may just change everything.

For me, one of the selling points of an ebook reader is the size of the screen and the ability to adjust print size, while still having a gadget small enough to fit comfortably in my handbag. When my eyes went loopy last year I was unable to read normal books or newspapers, I struggled to make out the letters even with a magnifier, although I could stll read on screen. I don't know if the improved contrast on this Kindle would be readable if my eyes go wrong again, but it's a risk I'm prepared to take. Yes, I could also read ebooks on a smartphone, but I think I'd find the screen size challenging at the best of times.

Add to that the ease of buying books in a second (which could be dangerous!) and the ability to hold lots of books and documents, including my pdf books and my own writing, in one place. When I go away nowadays I have to travel light, as I find it difficult to carry luggage. I already have a collection of Audible audiobooks, another format now owned by Amazon, which I listen to when my eyes are tired. These can be played on the Kindle, as well as on my mp3 player. Then there is the included browser and free 3G web access. This will no doubt be very limited and basic, but could just be useful when visiting my parents, when I have no internet access.

For me the Kindle could never entirely replace printed books and there's a risk that it won't meet my needs at all. But right now I think that's risk worth taking. And I still have time to cancel the order if I change my mind before the end of this month...