Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Goals 2012: February Check In

I decided to cheat a little bit with my goals. As discussed in previous blog posts, I decided to kick things off on 1st February due to Epic Long Trip to America. Already I can see I'm slacking off with some of these goals. 

1To start running again and enrol in a 10k run event

I have been a good girl and joined a gym. It's one of those 'no frills' gyms that are springing up everywhere these days. I'm quite happy to pay a low fee each month and forfeit the joy of having fluffy towels to wipe the sweat away from my brow. Last week I did not enter the gym at all. It was my birthday week (I like to milk these things) and I didn't feel like spending it sweating away.

I'm sticking to the Couch to 5k program. It has been pleasantly surprising that it has not been too hard to get back into running. However I do suspect that is because I'm running on a treadmill and not pounding the pavement. As the weather gets mild and we move into spring, I'll need to try venturing outside again. The parentals got me proper running shoes for my birthday. My current pair were a tenner from a discount sports shop. They've done the job but I thought it might be wise to invest in a decent pair. Next step: actually wearing my new pair to the gym. They look lovely and shiny and I don't want to get them dirty.

2. To continue doing morning pages every day 

Urgh, I have hideously neglected this goal. Work has been very busy this month and the temptation to have an extra thirty minutes in bed has been too great. I did manage some writing this month and submited to Write in for Writing's Sake for the first time in a wee while. Not the most beautifully written story in the world but I was still getting some writing done.

3. To stick to my weekly schedules 

Bleh, another goal that has fallen by the wayside. As alluded to above, work has been insanely busy this month. Due to many factors, my workload has increased dramatically hand I have been required to work longer hours. I will get this time paid back to me so I'm going to try and treat that as a writing holiday. Unfortunately I have absolutely no idea when I'll get the time to cash in those hours.

4. To avoid getting into music ruts 

Again, I have been getting a little better with this. For some reason I have been listening to unhealthy levels of The Walkmen and Belle and Sebastian. I work in an open plan office and sometimes I do need to stick in the headphones to help me concentrate. Belle and Sebastian have been doing an excellent job of that.

Fun fact I recently found out: in 1997 Belle and Sebastian beat Steps to Best Newcomer at the BRIT awards. Apparently Steps were seriously pissed off because they had been told they were 'clear winners.'

Oh dear.

5. To keep track of the books I read and participate in the Sunday Salon once a month 

One of my more successful goals. This is probably because I only managed to finish one book in February. You can read my two most recent Sunday Salon posts here and here.

All in all, not a bad start to the year. I might toy with changing goal no. 3 just because my schedules are becoming something increasingly outwith my control. I'll see how March goes and work things out from there. 

Monday, 27 February 2012

Book Review: Smokeheads

Title: Smokeheads

Author: Doug Johnstone

Four friends, one weekend, gallons of whisky. What could go wrong? Driven by amateur whisky-nut Adam, four late-thirties ex-university mates are heading to Islay - the remote Scottish island world famous for its single malts - with a wallet full of cash, a stash of coke and a serious thirst. Over a weekend soaked in the finest cask strength spirit, they meet young divorcee Molly, who Adam has a soft spot for, her little sister Ash who has all sorts of problems and Molly's ex-husband Joe, a control freak who also happens to be the local police. As events spiral out of control, they are all thrown into a nightmare that gets worse at every turn.

Why did I pick up this book?
This book, at the time, was one of the latest offerings from Glasgow based publisher Cargo. The Kindle edition was insanely cheap and I had seen Johnstone perform at Words Per Minute. No brainer purchase to be quite honest.
My thoughts:
I read this book on the flight going across the pond to America. It was exactly the read I needed on this flight: plot driven, fast paced and full of twists and turns to keep my brain from being bored. I did laugh at one point when two 'filler' characters were killed off in quick succession. My (apparent) literary fiction tastes means I don't come across such writing very often. Smokeheads did prepare me for my next read, The Black Dahlia, with its vivid and harsh descriptions of the violence inflicted on some of the characters.
This book is brutal, quick witted and sharp tongued. Johnstone is unashamedly passionate about whisky and this is revealed through the knowledge the characters have about Scotland's national drink. I was surprised to read such a plot driven book from Cargo but it merely emphasises the diversity of the writers on their books. They are one of the few champions of new and rising talents on the Scottish writing scene. I, for one, cannot see what they surprised me with next.
Would I recommend this book?
Short answer: yes. Long answer: to anyone that has a interest in thrillers, new Scottish writing or whisky (and doesn't want to read anything written by Iain Banks).

Book Review: I Left My Tent in San Francisco

Title: I Left My Tent In San Francisco

Author: Emma Kennedy

It's 1989, and Emma and her best friend Dee head to the USA to make their fortune. But completely inept and virtually unemployable, they discover that they can't even get a job in McDonald's.

Forced to travel from California to New York with only pennies in their pockets, they bounce from scrape to scrape, surviving on their wits and the kindness of strangers. Bad luck and misfortune throw everything their way - snakes, earthquakes, black magic and incontinent dogs. They even get kidnapped by a sex-crazed midget in a Ferrari. This never happened to Jack Kerouac.
Startlingly honest and ridiculously funny, I Left My Tent in San Francisco is the miraculous story of how the hapless pair made it back alive to tell the disastrous tale.
Why did I pick up this book?
This was an impulse purchase from Waterstones. It was made roughly around the time that Him Indoors and I were planning our trip to the States. I don't normally read travel books so I thought it might be interesting to pick up this.
My thoughts:
First of all, this book is not really about travelling around America. It's part of the self-examining memoir genre that is becoming more popular in today's literary scene. The book is really about Emma's friendship with Dee, a fellow student at Oxford. Their trip to America was originally planned as a last hurrah in that gap between being a student and becoming a 'real' adult.
Perhaps that's why I was slightly disgruntled with the book. I had picked it up, expecting an account of Kennedy's travels in America. Instead I got increasingly stressed as the two women stumbled from one crisis to another. Leaving their tent behind in San Francisco (a 'brilliant' attempt to save money on accommodation whilst making their way to New York for their return flight) is merely the start of a downward spiral taking in encounters with a skunk, being pimped out as Girl Fridays by one hostess and having their bags stolen at a bus station. Surely, I kept thinking as I read the book people aren't that stupid. Are they?
Unfortunately the lasting image I have from this book is not of Kennedy's travels. It's a rather stomach turning account of her licking pieces of food out from her brace. Next time I'm looking for travel tips, I think I'll stick to my guidebooks.
Would I recommend this book?
Not if someone is looking for an interesting travel memoir.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Sunday Salon: February Catch Up

The Sunday

February has been a bit of a wash out where reading is concerned. I have spent most of the month
wrestling with Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann. Thankfully I had the Kindle edition as the paperbook comes in at a whopping 704 pages. Originally I bought the paperback when I was browsing in Waterstones sometime last autumn. At that time Him Indoors and I were discussing a trip to America and this book seemed like an appropriate choice. Fortunately the Kindle edition appeared in their post-Christmas sale so I decided to leave the paperback at home.

Yeah, that's right. I started reading this book in January. At times it felt like an utter slog. The narrative is very much focused on the 'inner self' of Evie, our narrator and the main character in this tale. The book was self published and, apparently, when it was picked up by a publishing house they wanted to retain as much as of the original text as possible. That may explain why we are treated to a great deal of Evie's inner monologues and meanderings through life. I am glad I stuck with the book (proper review to follow) but it is partly responsible why I only finished one book this month.

Fortunately I managed to start two new books this month. My bedtime read is Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson so I'm only managing a couple of pages before I nod off each night. The story is about Grace Williams (funnily enough) who is incarcerated into a children's psychiatric institution in the 1950s. I do seek out stories set in such places because I used to work in a medical records archive. There was such a strong emotional imprint on these records and many have their own fascinating stories to tell. Children were not treated terribly well in these institutions where terms such as 'imbecile' and 'spastic' were casually used by the medical professionals to describe the patients in their care. These are important stories to tell and I think Henderson is doing a frighteningly realistic job.

My second read is The Secret Mandarin by Sara Sheridan. I do have a soft spot for Sheridan because she is a champion for archives; my daytime job. Some months ago Kindle versions of her books were on offer so I snapped up a couple, including The Secret Mandarin. I had previously read the magnificent Secret of the Sands and knew I would not be disappointed. Sheridan's books are fantastic for my morning commute. In The Secret Mandarin I have been transported to China in the nineteenth century into a world of laudanum sniffing, tea plant hunting and eccentric missionaries. I have to admire Sheridan's excellent research and how easily she weaves this into her writing. At times I could lean back and smell some of the exotic scents of the plants she described. A hard task to accomplish on a Glasgow bus during the morning rush hour. I'm really looking forward to see what other twists and turns the book will take.

P.S. After I wrote this post I realised that I had read two books in February! There's a quick summary below. 

So I forgot that I had read another book in February. It was a helpful little volume called Clear Your Clutter by Karen Kingston. Alex in Leeds has been migrating her book reviews over to her new spiffy website so some 'old' reviews have been popping up in my Google Reader. She gave the book a good review and commented that Kingston was very good at suggesting tasks to de-clutter. As I finished reading the review, I looked up from my laptop and realised I could not see parts of the living room floor.

I ordered the book. Another review to follow but it gets the thumbs up from me. Kingston is excellent at suggesting good, practical attempts to de-clutter your home. The book is a feng shui guide but that doesn't detract from the good advice. Apart from the chapter on colonic cleansing which was one I skipped over!

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Sunday Salon: Long Time No See

The Sunday

Long Time No See

Wowee, my first Sunday Salon in two years. It feels rather nice to dip my toe back in that pond. One of my goals for 2012 is to post every month to the Sunday Salon. Why did I start posting in February? I spent most of January on holiday in Los Angelos and San Francisco. I figured that January would be a non starter for most of my goals. This is probably evident by the fact I've only managed to read five books in the entire month. Unfortunately I made a rather unhappy discovery on the ten hour flight to Los Angelos.

I find it very hard to read on long haul flights. In cattle class, the lights are switched off immediately after the meal trays are swept away. The darkness made my brain rather sleepy. I dipped into 'The Black Dahlia' but this was not an easy book to read on a dozy mind. This was the first time I had been on a flight longer than three hours. I had always looked forward to the opportunity to do nothing but sit and read for an entire flight. That did not happen.

In January I managed to read the grand total of five books:

January 2012

  1. The First Wife – Emily Barr (Kindle)
  2. The Black Dahlia – James Ellroy (Kindle)
  3. Tales of the City – Armstead Maupin

This was the first holiday I took my Kindle on. Books were always a battleground when I went on holiday. My mother would, quite sensibly, limit me to ten books in my suitcase. Books were heavy; ergo it would not be a good idea to take many. But the fear would strike. What if I took the risk on a new book? I might be stuck with ten awful books and have nothing to read. A tad melodramatic but one always is when they're a teenager. I remember I would slouch around the pool reading Orwell and Salinger, at the age of thirteen, thinking I was so cool. How I wish I had had a Kindle back then.

I am pleased to report that the Kindle passed all tests whilst on holiday. I galloped through 'Smokeheads' whilst the plane soared over Utah. I battled unwanted jet lag with 'The First Wife.' I shared Bleichert's nightmares about 'The Black Dahlia.'

Yes, it's good to be talking about books again.