Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Read in 2014 - 39: The Blood of an Englishman

The latest installment of M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series has only been out this month, and already both my Mum and I have read it – with much pleasure! 

“The Blood of an Englishman” is surely one of the best in the series, combining all the elements fans of Agatha Raisin enjoy: 
the cast of familiar characters plus some new, case-specific additions; the setting of idyllic Cotswold village Carsely and nearby town Mirchester; fast-paced (but not too fast) plot; detail where it helps but not where it doesn’t; a case that is neither too obvious nor too complicated; and of course there is Agatha herself with all her well-known strengths and flaws. She still smokes, still suffers from low self-esteem when around anyone who is younger and better looking than her, still is quick to set her eyes, mind and heart on any even remotely attractive man in her orbit, and surprisingly, she is still in her mid-50s – even though this is her 26th adventure, and most of the books cover a whole year (some even more than that).

M.C. Beaton’s style is as brisk as always. Even by her most ardent fan it could hardly be called elegant, but that is not what she is aiming for anyway (at least not with the Agatha Raisin series). There were very few moments in the book when I thought her editor could have done a better job; one is the sentence “piles of dingy slush were piled up”. Another one was the mentioning of a date with a man on Tuesday while five pages further on, the same date happens on a Saturday.

If you have read and liked any of the former Agatha Raisin books, you will like this one, too. And you will probably also enjoy the little extra: A bonus story, “Christmas Crumble”.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Favourites First!

In 2007, 2008 and 2009, my husband and I spent our summer holidays in different places dotted around Lake Constance. In November 2009, Steve died, and I have not been back there since. Some months ago, RJ was appointed instructor or lecturer at the academy of Bavaria's administration and was asked to hold a seminar in Lindau (where Steve and I were in 2008), on Lake Constance. He suggested I come along, spend the day he would be at the seminar on my own and then have a long weekend there together. It was a good idea, and he was very kind about it, saying he would understand if I'd rather not make the trip with him, but being happy if I did. After thinking about it for a while, I decided to go, and have not regretted it one minute.

Of course, on the Thursday (the day I had to myself while RJ was teaching) I took many pictures, and a few more on the Friday. But I don't have time right now for a more elaborate and thorough account, and therefore I'll show you my favourite pictures from Lindau first:

Thursday morning, shortly after 9.00. This is the entrance to Lindau's harbour as seen from the promenade.

 A kingfisher! Not a particularly good shot, but I was so pleased to see this bird in the wild - they are relatively rare, and I can't remember the last time I've spotted one.

Thursday around lunch time. The sun is out now, but you can see how windy it was - the flags are all perfectly straight.

RJ took this on the Friday.

Friday late afternoon.

You'll see and read more about this beautiful place in future posts, and next up will be another book review.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Rosehips, Fog, and Autumn Fashion

That my favourite seaon is summer is probably not new to you, if you have been reading my blog for a while. But late summer / early autumn will always have a special place in my heart, for its colours, its abundance on fields and in gardens and its incomparable light.
Many of you who reside in Blogland with me have shown beautiful pictures of your gardens or what the area around where you live looks like this time of the year.
I have not been out and about as much as I would have liked last week, since I was in the firm grip of a big fat cold and stayed home from work for the second half of the week, but I took a few pictures earlier this month:

Rosehips against the backdrop of this incredibly blue sky. THE picture of autumn for me.


On the morning of the 2nd of October, the fog was so dense I couldn't see much further than the next house. Most of the time, such a start means the day will turn out beautiful and sun-filled.

Later that same day, I went shoe shopping with my Mum - my proven and trusted shopping companion, same as my sister - and found this pair perfect for a day at the office when it is not cold enough yet for boots, but too cold (or wet) for a pair of pumps or Mary-Janes:

Of course I didn't wait long before I wore them to the office for the first time, teaming them with a pair of purple trousers (from Aldi), a black shirt (H&M, I have 5 or 6 of this same model but in different colours) and an Esprit jacket which I like very much for its autumn colours and good quality (I've had this, part of a suit, for 12 years already). You can't see it in the picture, but the fabric has the same purple as my trousers, socks, necklace and lipstick in it. It is a very good woollen tweedy fabric (not Harris tweed, I'm afraid), never goes out of fashion and is sturdy yet business-like enough to have been worn through many a trade fair.

I felt so comfortable and good in this combination that it could very well become a favourite for this autumn, both for the office and for a (brief) walk in the city. For longer walks, I wear lower heels, although I must admit I did give these the ultimate comfort-test which for me consists in walking home from work one train stop before my actual stop, about 5 km / just under an hour. The shoes served me well enough on that occasion, but I am not going to use them again on a similar distance.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Read in 2014 - 38: Living Alone

Ever since I've started downloading free ebooks from Amazon's kindle shop, I've come across the weird and the wonderful (sometimes both being true for the same book), but "Living Alone" is certainly much more on the weird than on the wonderful side - although it does have some wonderful moments.

It was first published in 1919, just after the end of WWI, and what the war time effort was like for people at home features rather prominently in the book. Before the actual story begins (which is, actually, not much of a story at all), the reader is warned:
This is not a real book. It does not deal with real people, nor should it be read by real people. But there are in the world so many real books already written for the benefit of real people, and there are still so many to be written, that I cannot believe that a little alien book such as this, written for the magically-inclined minority, can be considered too assertive a trespasser.
Well, it was read by me, and even if I say so myself, I think I am quite real. So, should I not have read it? I am not part of a "magically-inclined minority" (in spite of my love of the Narnia books since I first read them as a little girl, and of the Harry Potter books), but I do like the witty bits where magic in this book is described in such ordinary words that you can not help but think J. K. Rowling maybe knew "Living Alone" and was - consciously or not - just a tiny bit influenced by it.

People and places are described in a manner to give the cinema of your inner eye a good show. Conversations are often like those of real people - not really talking and listening to each other, but holding separate conversations (or, rather, monologues) each. There are many ideas about magic and reality, about Good v. Evil, about death and love and war and work, and I can't get rid of the suspicion that this is, actually, a highly political book.

If Stella Benson was alive, I'd like to ask her about it. But she died in 1933 (which means she never knew of WWII) at 41 of pneumonia. The wikipedia entry about her calls her "an English feminist, novelist, poet, and travel writer" and this book "a fantasy novel about a woman whose life is transformed by a witch". 
Of course, you can put it as bluntly as that, but this brief statement alone doesn't do the book justice. I was torn between liking and not liking it, because it was weirder than any of the weird books I have been reading over the past two or three years. It is not a very long book, so if you would like to find out for yourselves, go and give it a try.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Pumpkin Royalty

In one of my recent posts (this one, to be precise) I mentioned that I had taken a day off to do my tax forms in the morning and go to the palace grounds in the afternoon. I also said in that post that you'd get to see more of that soon. This "soon" is today, so here are the pictures I took from the annual pumpkin exhibition at the park.

This exhibition has featured a few times on my blog already; for instance here and here. The theme is a different one every year, and for 2014, it was Royalty. I'd never pay money to see it, but as we have season's tickets for the park, admission is free for us, and so we usually go to have a look once while it lasts (never on a weekend, though).

Exhibits were (among others)...
... Elvis, the King of Rock'n Roll, and the Black and White Kings on a chess board...

... Fat Friedrich (the first King of W├╝rttemberg, about whom I have written on my blog before, too)...

... Tyrannosaurus Rex, King of the Dinosaurs...

... the Frog King (in case you are not familiar with it, he is from a popular German fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm's collection), and a Queen Bee with some of her subjects...

... a Royal Joust (the most "noble" game in a Medieval tournament)...

... Robin Hood, King of Thieves...

... and a large crown, about my height.

Some of the exhibits were not made to suit the theme, but simply to show what pumpkins can look like. My Mum and I found these fun to look at:

Set somewhat apart from the main part of the exhibition was this little pumpkin village. At first glance, it looked cute and idyllic. But as I came closer and looked at the pumpkins properly, I must admit I found them a bit scary. They looked as if they could be quite a  threatening crowd to an unsuspecting human finding him- or herself on their own in the park after sunset.

As every year, there is a large wooden hut set up as a shop for all things pumpkin. Not only pumpkin oil, chutney, cookies and many other such products can be found in there, but also a huge array of autumn-themed decorative objects (and some Christmassy stuff, too). If you know me a little bit through my blog, you also know that I have a hearty dislike for clutter, and want my (mostly) clean (and mostly) empty surfaces at home. Walking through this shop for me is, therefore, a bit like what riding a ghost train on a fun fair would be for some people. I see all these things and shudder at them - while at the same time of course I do admit that, taken individually, some are pretty or cute. I just can't see the point in filling every inch of available surface at one's home with STUFF. And it amazes me to see how much money people are willing to spend on these things - business was brisk at the shop, and it wasn't even the weekend when busloads of tourists from all over Germany and further away come to the exhibition.

Along the outside walls of the shop, pumpkins of all sizes, shapes and colours are displayed. I find this really interesting; there are so many different kinds! Some are edible, some are grown only for decorative purposes.

As every year, there was another large temporary wooden structure with a kitchen and counter, a "pumpkin restaurant". Here, my Mum and I usually have something to eat (pumpkin quiche, for instance, which is really nice) and to drink (pumpkin secco, which strangely enough tastes of apricots). We found a table in the sun and enjoyed our break as much as watching the world go by.

Going out with my Mum always makes for a good time, and that sunny Friday afternoon was no exception!

Monday, 6 October 2014

It's Fun to Win!

Over the 5 1/2 years and 625 posts of this blog, the pub quiz at "my" Irish Pub has been mentioned a few times; for instance, here, here and here.

The week before last, I had actually managed to get four of our team together for the quiz, but when I arrived at the pub that Tuesday night, only Martin was there - and that was how we took the quiz, just the two of us. The other two who were supposed to come never made it; of course, both apologized, and Martin and I still had fun with the questions and answers, but it's just not the same when you know from the start that your team is simply too small to have a realistic chance at ending up among the first three. Still, considering the circumstances, we were doing well, and saw it as a warm-up for the following week.

And on that Tuesday (last Tuesday, September 30), WE WON!!!

All of this year, we've not had much occasion to go to the quiz; I think we went only once or twice during the spring, what with me being away so much for my course, and everyone else being busy as well.

But now The Corner Shop is back - and we beat our "eternal rival", Lone Star*, with a tie question in the end:

What percentage of over-18s in the US are currently smokers?

Would you have known the answer?

There were some super-easy questions, which induced me to shout "booooring!", such as "What is the first name of Barack Obama's wife", or "In what country is the city of Recife". Others were harder, for instance "In which year did the sales of colour TVs for the first time exceed the sales of black and white TVs".

The prize of a bottle of Tullamore Dew was well deserved! Although I don't drink whiskey (I am never sure whether to spell it whisky or whiskey) on its own, the others insisted that I take the bottle home with me, since I am always the one to organize us for the quiz (maybe that was their nice way of saying that I am bossy and good at pestering others until they give in!). One of my team mates - a new addition, actually, someone who knows a lot about music - got a glass of coke and gave me half of it to add to the tiny amount of whiskey in my glass (we had to open the bottle there and then to celebrate, of course), and I discovered that it is quite nice then. Real whiskey connoisseurs will probably cringe at the thought of spoiling the good stuff with coke, but I'm afraid I just can't take it on its own.

Well, that was my brief update for today - it is my first home office day in two months, and I have plenty to do, so I better get back to it.

*While Lone Star are the type of people who take the quiz REALLY seriously and get truly upset if they think the landlord has made a mistake, one of them was good-natured enough to come to our table to congratulate. We thought that was rather nice of him.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Read in 2014 - 37: School's Out!

No. 7 in Jack Sheffield’s „Teacher”-series remains true to the style, form and atmosphere of its predecessors: Once again, the book starts with Jack making the first entry of a new school year in the school’s log book; once again, the reader accompanies Ragley-on-the-Forest and its inhabitants through an entire year, and once again, what happens during that year is a mixture of the dramatic and the funny, of ups and downs in the lives of Jack, his colleagues at the school, the children and everybody else in the village.

Although this well-known outer frame provides stability to the reader (making the book very recognizably part of a series) just like a time table and special events at set intervals provide stability for the children at the school, it is not boring. No two days, let alone weeks, months or years, are ever the same. It is all very much like real life, and from what I know about the author, he uses a lot of his own experience as a (head)teacher in village schools, often describing events that have actually taken place, only making slight changes so as not to offend any of the people involved.

Descriptions of the beautiful countryside, changing along with the seasons, are as beautiful as in the other six books. The characters are as familiar as they should be, but of course there are some new introductions, last but not least a new teacher who makes for some interesting developments that leave plenty of room for book 8 and beyond.

In his first book, Jack Sheffield started as Head Teacher in the year 1977. By now, we have reached 1983/84, and there have been considerable changes in the lives of many characters, while some others have remained pretty much as they were. Some changes are good, some less so, but it is characteristic for Ragley that in difficult times, the community rallies round to support the person or family in need.

As in his previous books, the author has done a lot of research and manages to convey very well what 1984 would have been like in a place like Ragley. Political events, celebrities, TV programs, fashion and music are mentioned; the prices for articles of daily use are given, but all as part of the story and never in the manner of a history lesson. 
One such event featuring in the book was the York Minster Fire on the 9th of July, 1984. I had not know about this until reading it in this book, but of course there is plenty about it on the internet, for instance this article on the BBC homepage. 
Speaking of history – does 1984 feel to you like 30 (THIRTY!) years ago?! I was 16 then, puberty in full swing, and I must say that I would not want to go back – unless it were equipped with the way I feel about life and myself now.

I enjoyed this seventh book in the series as much as the others, and have already put # 8 ("Silent Night") on my Amazon wish list.

(If you are interested in my reviews for the first six books in the series, simply type "Jack Sheffield" into the search box on the upper left corner of my blog, and you should find them all.)