Friday, 20 January 2017

Read in 2017 - 2: Driving Home for Christmas

This was the last of my 2016 Christmas reads - I started it just before Christmas, but finished it only a few days ago.
It still fitted my mood, not only because Christmas was just a few short weeks ago, but also because of the weather: We've had snow, fog, more snow and sun, and it is freezing cold.

In "Driving Home for Christmas" by Emma Hannigan, we meet the Craig family. They and their house in the countryside near Wicklow (Ireland), Huntersbrook, are the main characters.
Paddy and Holly are the middle-aged parents, running the country house by hosting hunts, renting out their stables to rich customers and leasing their land to nearby sheep farmers and others.
Their three children Lainey, Joey and Pippa all live and work in Dublin, but are frequent house guests back home with Mum & Dad.
Then there is Maggie, Holly's 80-year-old mother, who last year very suddenly left Huntersbrook to follow her lover to his Australian home. Last but not least, Sadie is the one who, along with Holly, keeps the house spic and span and food on the table.

This year, Holly approaches Christmas with mixed feelings. She loves this time of year and adores all the decorating and so on, but it will be the first time without her mother, whom she has not really forgiven for upping sticks and going to live on the other side of the world.
Also, there are financial worries; if the effects of the recession keep getting worse, she seriously will have to consider selling Huntersbrook, the Georgian country pile which has been home to her family for several generations.
She keeps all her worries hidden from her family, determined to give them the best Christmas ever, even if it should be their last one here.

The grown-up children have troubles of their own: Lainey is still suffering after being dumped by her boyfriend. The growing friendship with a new colleague at work makes her realise a lot about herself, and truly changes her life.
Joey's girlfriend is a personal trainer and sports fanatic who does not like country life one bit. The meals at Huntersbrook are inconsolable with her extremely strict health regime, and she feels like an alien among Joey's family. Getting away with him for Christmas therefore seems a great idea... to her, but not to Joey.
Pippa, the youngest, is a living Barbie doll who has no grip of real life whatsoever. She thinks she can walk over people, spend money that is not hers, dress always in the latest fashion in spite of not having a proper job, and still get away with it. For a while, it seems so, but then events take a turn for the worse, reality hits, and she has to grow up and face her situation like she has never done before.

A lot of what happens in this book is foreseeable, but there are some unexpected twists, too. There is humour, and a rather realistic depiction of friendships and family relations, where everything is not always what it looks like on the surface.
The characters develop - maybe with the exception of Paddy, who remains the good, solid husband and father in the background, seemingly without much going on with him.
I didn't like Pippa; even when she did come to her senses and finally took some responsibility for her own life, I was not reconciled, as she still came across very much the spoiled brat. With Lainey and Joey I could sympathise, and even with Holly to an extent.

The descriptions of Christmas preparations and the actual festivities were nice and not so over the top as to be unlikely.

Altogether, this was a pleasant and engaging read, editing was good, and should I happen to come across another Huntersbrook novel, I would read it just to know what happened next in the lives of the Craig family.

If you like, you can watch the author introduce her novel in a short video here:

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

A Place For All Seasons

It is the middle of January, and I don't know how long winter will last this time. We've had years when there were spring-like days already in February, warm enough to venture out short-sleeved, with snow and ice coming back with a vengeance in March.
Other years, spring came late and I was nearly going mad with longing for warmer days.
No matter how the seasons will be playing out this year, I like observing the change. And one way to make the change visible is by taking pictures of (almost) the same place throughout the year.

This is what I did with a place near O.K.'s, the view towards Schloss Ortenberg (Ortenberg Castle) from one of the paths we're on regularly for walking or running.

Vineyards in March
Nearly the same view in October

Speaking of which, I have not been running since before Christmas - it is simply too cold, and sometimes too wet, for me right now. I miss it, and hope I'll be able to go for a nice leisurely run again soon.

Anyway, I hope no matter what the season in your part of the globe is right now, you are well and enjoying the good things each season can bring.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Another Walk in the Snow

As opposed to Monday's walk (see previous post) in the snowy woods, where we really could not see very far due to the thick fog or mist (what's the difference?), Tuesday looked brighter. We spotted patches of blue in the sky and wanted to see what the fields, orchards, woodland and vineyards directly around the village looked like in the snow.

Off we went, and found some very beautiful play of sunlight and clouds.
The first set of pictures is as seen through the camera of my mobile phone:

This is what O.K.'s mobile phone camera made of the same route:

It was wonderful, and the only downside to it was that I knew I was going to have to board a train home a few hours later. By then it was dark, and I could not see the beautiful scenery from my place near the window. But I knew it was out there, and will be there next time - which will be soon!

Thursday, 5 January 2017

A Snowy Walk

On Monday, I was still at O.K.'s, and the plan was to go on a hike. We woke up to a grey day, though, with rain or snowfall threatening any time, and decided against a hike. But we still wanted to go out, stretch our legs, breathe some fresh air, and went for a walk instead, not venturing too far from the car in case things would be getting worse.

A few random snow flakes were beginning to fall just as we got into the car. Driving through Offenburg and out at the other end was more wet than white. But as we left the town centre and parked the car at the bottom of a hill called "Hohes Horn" ("High Horn", at 547 m the highest elevation closest to the city), it was snow instead of rain, and there was already a thin layer of it on the ground.

The day was still grey, and we walked into a dense fog, plus it was snowing more and more by the minute. We were dressed for it, though, and determined to reach the top of the hill, with 3 km of a (mostly gentle) uphill path ahead, through the woods.

A viewing tower - its fourth incarnation since the first tower was built here in 1891 - is at the top, and we very carefully climbed it, even though we already knew we were not going to see much. Still, I found the very quiet, still atmosphere in the woods enchanting, and we can always return here another day when beautiful views of Offenburg and across the Rhine valley all the way to France in one direction and back across the Black Forest towards the Kinzig valley in the other direction can be enjoyed.

 View from the top platform - you can just about make out the path we came up on:

As far as I know, on a less foggy day you could see the city of Offenburg here:

Or is it this way?

The wooden hut at the bottom of the tower came in useful for us to at least for a moment take down our hoods, wipe glasses and get rid of the snow that had been accumulating on our coats.

The way back down:

As it had not stopped snowing since we had come up, the further down we came, the less visible our original footprints were, until they completely disappeared.

 Can you see it? There are houses there, barely visible:

The vineyards look very different now from when I showed you their beautiful autumn colours!

Walking up had made us think we had dressed in too many layers, but going back down required a lot less effort and we were just beginning to feel a bit cold by the time we reached the car again.

We had worked up quite an appetite, too, and were ready for steaming mugs of hot coffee at home.

Read in 2017 - 1: A Brief Guide to Star Trek

Actually, I only finished the very last chapter of this book in 2017, having read most of it still in 2016. Nonetheless, it is when I finish a book that it counts, not before.

The full title of this book by Brian J. Robb is "A Brief Guide to Star Trek - The Essential History of the Classic TV Series and the Movies". I bought it either in 2014 or 2015 while on holiday in Ripon, at a massively reduced price of just £1,99 pounds, and then put it on my To-Be-Read stack on the shelf. There it sat, silently waiting until I would be inclined to read it.
And after the sometimes overly sweet Christmas-themed books I have been reading on my kindle, it seemed perfect to counterbalance all the sugar.

As a Star Trek fan of old, I was really looking forward to reading this. But to be honest, I found it hard to get into. I hesitate to blame the rather "dry" writing (with that I mean it is not the most chatty, entertaining and amusing style). It could also be due to my own set of mind, and that I simply am not the Trekker I used to be.

There was a time when I avidly watched anything Star Trek I could find on telly, and read several books such as "A Stitch in Time" by Andrew J. Robinson (the actor who played Garak, the mysterious taylor/spy on Deep Space Nine). In fact, I met my late husband through Star Trek! We were both hanging out at a Star Trek chat room back in the late 1990s, when chat rooms were nothing more than typed conversations - no pictures, not even avatars. This one was then hosted by Paramount Pictures and consisted of several rooms; the one where I made friendships lasting for years was called Klingon Great Hall. You can guess from the result (that I found myself a husband there) that we did by no means merely talk Trek there!
But priorities and interests shift as we find ourselves facing changes in our lives and the world around us, and while Star Trek will always hold a special place in my heart, I would not call myself a fan these days.

Anyway, back to the book. In 14 chapters, it explains not only how Star Trek originally came about, but also follows the development, rise and fall of everything that came after the original series. The author shows the different approach to the Star Trek universe each team of producers and writers had, and explains the role of fandom in the process.

The book ends with the highly commended 2009 film and a brief outlook of how (and if) Star Trek will survive in popular culture with its latest incarnation.

What I found really interesting was the dismantling of the Gene Roddenberry myth. Apparently, much of his "Great Bird of the Galaxy" nimbus was self-created, and he took credit for things he never did or wrote. In fact, the author says that "This Great Bird had feet of clay". Still, the original idea was his, and he is cited on the first page: "The job of Star Trek was to use drama and adventure as a way of portraying humanity in its various guises and beliefs. [It] is the expression of my own beliefs using my characters to act out human problems." And problems are certainly something humanity will never run short of, so that there will always be art in its many forms (including storytelling via movies and TV series) to pick them up and look at them from various angles.

Another interesting chapter was the one about "Unmade Star Trek" - ideas that never made it to the screen. Some of them emerged later as novels, others can be in parts detected in an episode or film, but a lot of what was written (sometimes by very well-known authors, or by the actors themselves) will probably be collecting dust in a drawer forever.

Brian J. Robb has written several biographies of film stars and directors, and for more than 10 years, he was editor of "The Official Star Trek Magazine".

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

How 2017 Began

For millions of people, I guess 2017 began worse than I can imagine. There was the shooting at the night club in Istanbul, fatal car accidents induced by either drunk driving or heavy fog and icy roads and undoubtedly unrelented atrocities going on in many parts of the world.

In contrast, my year was off to a good start - just look at the view from my kitchen window on January 1st. This is what it was like at just before 12:00:

And here is (almost) the same view less than an hour later:

By then, we had finished a late, lazy breakfast and were ready to go for a walk. I did not have my camera with me, but O.K. was kind enough not only to take the following pictures but also to allow me to show them here.

It was cold, especially when we reached a windy corner. But the sun, while it was out, was beautiful, and the contrast between the fog and the sun made it all the more interesting.

Later on, we drove the roughly 1 1/2 hours to O.K.'s home, where we were invited with his family for an excellent meal and clinking glasses with them. (New Year's Eve had been with my family, at my sister's, for a fun-filled party with music, food and drink - and listening to invisible fire works at midnight, because of the dense fog.)

I stayed at O.K.'s until last night. We went for more walks during the two days I was there, and I am going to show you pictures straight from Winter Wonderland in my next posts.

Hopefully, you are all well, and 2017 began at a pleasant pace for you.

Read in 2016 - 47: Yorkshire - A Very Peculiar History

Even if you have not been reading my blog for long, you will probably be aware of my love for all things Yorkshire. When a friend of mine gave me this book by John Malam, "Yorkshire - A Very Peculiar History" for my birthday this last year, I was very much looking forward to reading it.

Can you believe it took me until the end of 2016 to finsih it? Well, it is easily explained: I didn't read it in one go. Instead, I kept it handy on a shelf where I walk past several times a day, and whenever I found a spare minute or two, I would open the book and read a few pages.

This book lends itself beautifully to such short reading sessions. It is divided into 12 chapters plus an introduction, a glossary, a timeline of Yorkshire history and an index.
The history chapters span the period from Prehistoric times to the conflict between Royalists and Roundheads in the 1700s. Chapter 11 is titled "Made in Yorkshire and proud of it!", while chapter 12 offers a "Yorkshire factfile", which is interesting and amusing and could come handy in the odd pub quiz.

Historic facts are presented in an easy-to-read and often witty way (without trying to make the past look better than it was). What happened is described in a detailed enough manner, at the same time keeping in mind the bigger picture. I really enjoyed reading up about things I only had a sketchy idea of, or didn't know anything at all. It is a small enough book to keep within easy reach, and a good source for reference.

About the author, I found this brief note on the publisher's website: "John Malam attended the University of Birmingham before working in publishing. He is now a writer and editor with over 20 years experience in producing books for children. He lives in Cheshire with his family."