Saturday, 28 January 2017

My Little Castle

Yes, well, January may not be the best time to chose to go away in this country but I have adopted the habit of taking a break during the first month of the year and so ...

This is Shute guesthouse, owned by the Landmark Trust and rented out to visitors.
Or, as I came to call it, my little castle.

I wasn't entirely sure when I first arrived.
Am I alone in feeling uneasy on the first night in a strange place? 
I've been to beautiful hotels, guesthouses, friends' homes, all over the world and that first night is always a time of feeling out-of-place, not-quite-right, ill-at-ease. So much so that I have been known to consider checking out in the middle of the night and making my way home - not always practical or feasible if I am in Iceland or, as once happened, a luxury hotel next to the beach in Tel Aviv.

Call me nuts...

Anyway, when I climbed the path at the side of the gatehouse and unlocked the heavy wood door the smell of faintly-musty, old-cooking, unaired-rooms was not welcoming and I really did consider getting back in the car and driving home. Except that it had taken me four hours to get to Devon and I had approached the journey much like a modern-day Columbus setting sail for the edge of the world, and I was not in a mind to retrace that drive back to the M5 and along the M4 and up the A34. 

Not without a cup of tea first.

I carried our luggage in, mine and the dog's, and dumped it by the front door. Ready for a middle-of-the-night flight, should that become necessary, and then climbed the stone spiral staircase to the top floor, because that's where the sitting room and kitchen are, at the top.

Two bedrooms on the first floor with a bathroom, sitting room and kitchen at the top.

And the dog loved the little window on the way up.
In fact, every time he padded up and down the stairs he paused to peer out.

And I was quite taken with the view upwards.

When I was first looking at houses in France my agent took me to a place in a field. It was, really, in a field. A stone house in a field. It was quite alarming, for one who had only ever lived on streets, to find a house in a field, and when I saw the bath full of dead spiders and the walls full of damp I was not keen at all, but it did have a spiral stone staircase and that almost sold me on it.

I am irrational like that.


 And then upstairs the sitting room was quite charming.
And once I had opened the windows to air the place and popped the kettle on for a cup of tea, I began to relax, a little.

And then I lit the stove.
I had bought smokeless fuel and kindling with me, be prepared, it was the wilds of Devon, after all, and I knew I would not be keen to venture forth to find shops, even if there should be any nearby, which I doubted.

There were, as it happened, but I had come with a siege mentality to this mini-castle and was happy to have brought all that I needed with me.

Pull up the drawbridge, I thought, we are safe and sound and none shall breach these walls!

Have I ever admitted to having a thing about fortresses?
Especially of the impregnable kind?

So the dog settled himself and got comfy. I knew that he would not be welcome on the chair, no-one likes smelly dogs on soft furnishings, so I had a waterproof rug and a throw for him.

And I cooked dinner.
Because cooking immediately makes me feel at home and relaxed, something to do with standing over a simmering pan and stirring...

I should have taken more pictures, suffice to say that the kitchen is in a turret and is tiny but perfectly equipped and spotlessly clean. Immaculately clean. Clean enough even for me, and I have been known to thoroughly clean kitchens in holiday accommodation before I will so much as pop a teabag in a mug...

And now I am giving the impression not only of being neurotically nervous but also obsessively clean, which I am not. I just like to be sure...

OK, maybe I am obsessively clean, blame the chemotherapy.    
When you are pumped full of poisons that destroy your immune system, along with your taste buds, the lining of your mouth, stomach and gut and all of your 'friendly bacteria', you tend to take food hygiene seriously.  

So, this is the window at the of of the stairs
Since it's the other turret you can see the size of the kitchen.

The third bedroom is in the tower.
I didn't take a look.
Truth to tell, I had so much trouble with the locks on the main door I wasn't keen to try opening up towers too.

So, there we were. Me and the dog.
Imaginary drawbridge pulled up, door locked, intruders barred.
Safely in our castle.
Fed, watered, walked and warmed.
Ready for a few days at the Jurassic Coast.

We would, I decided, stay after all.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Iceland Noir

I used to have very conservative tastes in reading.

The list of the books that I read last year shows that I have dipped my toe into more genres, especially of the dark and twisted type. Sometime in 2016 I discovered Nordic Noir and, having some Scandinavian genes on my mother's side of the family, and being a huge fan of Finland, I was hooked.    

And then I discovered a new, small publisher who was producing books from Icelandic authors and once I started to read them one thing led to another and before you could say Eyjafjallajökull  I was halfway up an Icelandic volcano on a horse.

Books have that effect on me.

So, last Wednesday I went to London to the launch of a book by the Icelandic author Ragnar Jonasson. And being a little shy I could not pluck up the courage to speak to him so my son took this photo of the author and me.

That was ok, I was happy to be there and quite chuffed to see Ragnar in the flesh and to meet Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books and a few other people that I know only in the virtual world of Twitter and Facebook.

And although I used to hate having my photo taken, since the cancer diagnosis, well, my priorities have changed and now I don't mind so much.

I'm just happy to still be alive and to have hair again...

And it was lovely to catch up with my son and to have dinner together after the book launch. We should do it more. we agreed, especially if I get another late-night tour of his favourite spots in Soho.

So here's to Ragnar and his latest novel, Rupture.

From the shy little old lady with a special affection for it

Saturday, 31 December 2016

A Year of Reading

I have spent much of the last year in a book.

Well, in a great many books, to be precise, the challenge that I had set myself in January was to read one hundred book in 2016.

It helped that I have not worked for the last twelve months, extended sick leave gave me the time to read and reading distracted me from worrying over-much about my health, so a win-win in my opinion.

It also helped that I spent so much time on cross-channel ferries, having taken six, or was it seven, trips back to Brittany meant that I spent the equivalent of a whole week on Le Bretagne, which gave me a lot of time to read.

So my 2016 book list...

It is, you will notice, heavy on Nordic Noir and twisted tales, having cancer will give one an appetite for such stories. And a few authors crop up several times; when I find one that appeals to me I tend to read as much of their work as possible, so several Sarah Addison Allen's magical feel-good novels and Val McDermid's serial killers are here.

Some books were a delight, some were disappointing and several taught me that having a story to tell is not necessarily a good reason to write a book. Time was when bad writing would be weeded out by the publishers, now anyone can put their words into print and there are some truly bad books out there. Enough said...

I have to mention A Little Life by Hanya Vanagihara, it is so uplifting and distressing and full of hope and of despair and will play your emotions like a finely-tuned instrument. I think that it should have won the Man Booker Prize.

And how is it that I had not read The Picture of Dorian Gray until last week? I suppose that leaving English Literature at the age of fifteen to focus on science meant that I missed out somewhat.

I am not sure that I will manage to read so many books in 2017.
I have some major changes to make in my life including an upheaval on the home front and, hopefully, a new profession to occupy me, and I really would like, finally, to get that horse that I have been requesting from Santa for the last fifty-five years, but who knows? Reading is addictive and in the tales told by others we can often find an escape from a world that is not always nice so...

Here are the books in the order in which I read them.        

The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto   The Winter Children by Lulu Taylor   The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman   Dark As My Heart by Antti Tuomainen

Follow You Home by Mark  Edwards  The Healer by Antti Tuomainen    Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma  Healey    The Cambridge Curry Club by Saumya Balsari 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler    The Widow by Fiona Barton  The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt    Viral by Helen  Fitzgerald 

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware    The Gingerbread House by Carin Gerhardsen    The House at Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse  Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

Disclaimer by Renée Knight    Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen    First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen   The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen

In Her Wake by Amanda JenningsTry Not to Breathe by Holly Seddon     The Neanderthals Rediscovered by Dimitra Papagianni   You Sent Me a Letter by Lucy Dawson   

The Silence of the Sea by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir   The School of English by Hilary Mantel    Maestra by L.S. Hilton     Alpha by Colin F. Barnes

The Arsonist by Sue Miller    A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara   The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen    The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mckenzie 

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel    Ordeal by Jørn Lier Horst   The Unquiet House by Alison Littlewood    When She Was Bad by Tammy Cohen 

Path of Needles by Alison Littlewood    The Vegetarian by Han Kang    Strangeness on a Train by Julia Crouch    Cuckoo by Julia Crouch

A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable    Human Acts by Han Kang     The Caveman by Jørn Lier Horst    See How They Run by Tom Bale   

 The Helper by David  Jackson   A Tapping at my Door by David  Jackson   Cry Baby by David  Jackson      Ruby by Cynthia Bond 

The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge     Only in Naples by Katherine  Wilson  Pariah by David  Jackson   Leaves from the Tree by Annabel Bailey   

 The Improbability of Love by Hannah Mary Rothschild  Her Last Tomorrow by Adam Croft     The Girl Who Broke the Rules by Marnie Riches  THE STREET by Bernadine Bishop

 The Ice House by Minette Walters    Nightblind by Ragnar Jónasson    The Yorkshire Shepherdess by Amanda  Owen    The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent     Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent      Tales from High Mountain by Tara Austen Weaver   Vacant Possession by Hilary Mantel   

 The Many by Wyl Menmuir   The Truth About Us by Simon Kettlewell     Untouchable by Sibel Hodge      The Wire in the Blood by Val McDermid 

 Becoming Human by Scientific American     The Last Temptation by Val McDermid   Siren Song by Erik Boman     Paris-London Connection by John Morgan   

 Diana's Nightmare by Chris Hutchins   A House for Happy Mothers by Amulya Malladi     The Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid     The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn   

 You Are the Placebo by Joe Dispenza    Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski   Some Kind of Peace by Camilla Grebe    The Torment of Others by Val McDermid

Iceland, Defrosted by Edward Hancox     A Small Place in Italy by Eric Newby    The Little Book of the Hidden People by Alda Sigmundsdóttir   Rupture by Ragnar Jónasson 

Five Go On A Strategy Away Day by Bruno Vincent   Ashes to Dust by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir     The Biology of Belief by Bruce H. Lipton    The Magpies by Mark  Edwards

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley     What You Wish For by Mark  Edwards   Five on Brexit Island by Bruno Vincent     The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde   

 Becoming Magic by Genevieve  Davis   The Upanishads by Anonymous     Beneath the Bleeding by Val McDermid