Thursday, April 28, 2011

Book Reviews #19

The Last Kingdom - Bernard Cornwell

Set in 9th century Britain with Danelaw spreading throughout England, the Danes being determined to have this green and pleasant land for themselves.

This is the first in a series that follows the rise of King Alfred the Great through the eyes of a 10 year old boy, Uhtred, as the boy is captured by the Danes and almost becomes a Dane himself before somehow being drawn back to the service of his English King.

Uhtred is treated by his captor almost as a son and as he grows older is used by both sides almost as a pawn. Uhtred's ulitmate personal goal is always to regain ownership of the family lands that his uncle has taken over, but Uhtred is aware that if he allows the Danes to take the castle to give him 'ownership' then he will always be their puppet and so this part of the story has to wait until another book or so into the series I'm sure.

I do enjoy Cornwell's writing, Azincourt had me entranced a couple of years ago, then I read some of the Sharpe books, they are also very good, but after a couple they become a bit too formulaic and so in this series I'm able to enjoy the writing and the story and as I'm a complete ignoramous when it comes to English history (or any history come to that) I get to brush up on my history too. I shall have to download a few more and see how far Uhtred goes.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


That's the polite spelling of what I kept saying on the afternoon last week that Ben and I did the high wire adventure at Center Parcs in France.We were booking to play mini golf (or rather they were, I hate the game and was merely going along to take embarassing photos) and at the same hut there were other activities to book, including segway tours (I so wanted to do that but the minimum age was 12 and Jas is only 9) and the high wire adventure. Ben liked the idea of trying it and as Simon wasn't keen I said I'd go too...and so the next afternoon we turned up to try it out...

Nico, the teacher, quickly had us all kitted out in natty safety hats (with even nattier net under hats) and harnesses and then explained everything, in French, and then everyone got started while Ben and I got the explanation again in English, phew. This meant of course that we were last to go, not a problem, as it meant we were able to watch everyone ahead of us and try to pick up tips.

The principle of the thing was to get around the 10 (or was it 20? I think I've tried to block out some of this experience already) stage course whilst clipped to the safety wire however many metres high in the air and balance on the other wire/wobbly board/rope loop to get between trees, whilst not holding onto the cable that you're clipped to because it's not meant for that.


No problem.

That's what you think from ground level, but get to the platform on the first tree and it suddenly becomes a very different matter.

It was so high.

I should have thought it through really, the experience is called 'high wire' afterall. I'm not scared of heights (or at least I wasn't) but when you stand on that first platform and look's...well...scarey, I really had to concentrate on my breathing in order to calm down.

The first stage was 'just' a tightrope walk...Ben and I had watched everyone do this and bitched mercilessly about the speed (or rather lack of) of some people and debated which was the best way to do it - whilst at the same time having advice shouted at us from Simon on the ground (he sure took some abuse for his 'help'). In the end we both went the same way, standing sideways and sliding feet together, feet apart, together, apart, and so on - whilst clearly hanging on for dear life to the plastic coated cables there for our use.

Stage 1 done, phew.

Stage 2 was a walk in the park - a jointed boardwalk between two trees, with hand cables.

Stage 2 done.

Stage 3 was not so fun. The were two cables high up from which were suspended at intervals green rope U loops, the idea was that you step off the platform onto a rope loop, holding onto the sides of the loop and then step onto the next rope loop until you get to the next tree. Having watched Ben I had a slight advantage and managed to swing each loop to reach the next one so although this stage was stressful it wasn't physically hard.

Stage 3 done.

Stage 4 was possibly the scariest for me. There were what looked like suspended wooden lily pads with thick ropes hanging down to help you swing from pad to pad. So you had to reach off from the tree platform to grab the rope and then swing onto the pad. Terrifying. I've never been especially physical and the thought of stepping off the platform into space and entrusting my body to my puny arms and a rope. Terrifying.

There was a zip wire somewhere before the halfway point, which was fun. But as Ben and I got close to halfway we were debating whether or not to continue, we'd been told that it was at that halfway point when you came down to the ground (bliss, terra firma) before going back up into the trees, then here you could actually opt out. Before we got to the last stage before the ground Ben had pretty much convinced himself to go no further, but when I joined him it was apparent that he'd only not continue if I cried off. So of course I had to go back up again!

The second half was supposedly harder than the first and I guess bits of it were much harder physically (after one stage my arms were so tired I wasn't sure they could get me to the end of the course, and they were bruised from elbow to armpit because I'd dragged them along the cables in my attempt not to fall out of the trees) Then there were the mentally tough ones - at one point I could see two stages ahead what looked like the lily pad stage again, except there were no ropes to swing from pad to pad, you had to jump, with nothing to hold onto but the strap that was connecting you to the safety cable. And there was another tightrope except again there was nothing to hold on to except for hanging black ropes every 1.5 metres - I think Ben and I managed that by clinging (like vines) to the safety cable (the one we'd been told not to hold onto - we didn't care by that point!) Then there were two more zips and we were done, in more ways than one.

It was a blast, would I do it again? Maybe...

Monday, April 25, 2011

Book Reviews #18

Child 44 - Tom Rob Smith.

Finally after a drought of good books* here's one I want to rave about.

This was recommended to me by a friend some time ago, I'd downloaded the ebook and it sat there on my eReader, waiting for me to get round to it.

I eventually started it and very nearly abandoned it quite soon after, because since having children I struggle to read (or watch) anything that involves children suffering and as Child 44 has been murdered and left with his mouth stuffed full of what appears to be dirt and his torso cut open, I hesitated to continue.

The scene is 1950's Stalinist Russia, a world of hate and fear, where no-one knows who to trust and people regularly spy on their neighbours and report them to the M.G.B (the state security force). Leo Demidov is a successful officer in the M.G.B, having been a much decorated hero in WW II. His position is such that he and his wife can live in a nice apartment, his parents also have a decent apartment and decent jobs and he can shop in the better shops where not just the basics for life are sold.

A four year old boy (the child of the title) is found dead on the train tracks in Moscow and his parents declare him to have been murdered. The father is a junior colleague of Leo's and he is dispatched to the family home to tell them to stop talking about murder.

And this is the crux of the story. In such Stalinist times murder wasn't believed to exist.
It is not morally possible for Leo to contemplate the idea of someone being murdered. All loyal Soviets must believe that violent crime is a function of capitalist decadence. In a worker’s paradise only political-thought crimes matter. So unguarded children have nothing to fear. The child cannot have been murdered and to say otherwise is to go against the State, which is a crime, a very serious crime.

Leo would probably have put this episode behind him were it not for someone within the M.G.B. plotting his downfall by attemping to set up Leo's wife as a spy, when Leo refuses to denounce his wife Raisa they are shipped off to some far flung part of the Soviet Union, his parents are cast out of their nice apartment and jobs and Leo is demoted to the militia (a much diluted form of a police force, which has very few powers - afterall, in a society where crime doesn't happen why would you need a police force to investigate such non existant crimes?)

The militia that Leo has been sent to are just tidying up a murder case, a young girl had been found with her mouth stuffed full of dirt and partially disemboweled. They are able to label it a murder because they already have a prisoner who has confessed, the fact that he's mentally deficient and would confess to anything isn't an issue to them. At this point Leo has an ephiany, he realises that his life is only going to get worse, that the colleague in the M.G.B. will keep trying to make his life a living hell and he decides he has nothing to lose and sets about investigating the murders.

This is a great read, one that I shan't hesitate to recommend to friends, the ending was a little too trite though, but on the whole I loved it, and if as gossip has it, it gets made into a film then that'll definitely be worth watching.

* I'm not kidding, it seems to me that I've read maybe 3 books in a row that have disappointed me, the last being the so called classic 'the Great Gatsby', there was nothing great about it in my mind, so much so that I couldn't even summon up the enthusiasm to write a review of it - I'll wait until book group and give full vent then!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sunday Snaps 61

What I chose to do one day last week...I'll tell you all about it tomorrow!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Easter Hols

Sorry chaps, I'm away this week (Monday-Friday).
Back soon, ready for the build up to the wedding!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sunday Snaps 60

This is the mental torture I had to endure last night.

Husband and Number One son are on a flying visit to England to go to the Gadget Show Live at the N.E.C. today, they flew over yesterday afternoon and last night went out for what looks like a delicious Indian meal...Simon thought it highly amusing to send me pictures of what he was must be a year since I last had 'proper' curry...sigh.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Where ever I lay my hat...

...that's my home - an absolutely ancient song from Paul Young.

Germans always seem surprised when I tell them that no, we're not here on a short term or even a long term contract, but have actually sold up and moved here 'for good'. Actually that's not strictly true, although neither of us have a desire to move back to the UK, we're not planning to stay when there is no job tying us here, I want to live within sight and sound of the sea, preferably somewhere with a pleasant climate and no threat of tsunamis.

When we moved here almost four years ago I made a conscious effort to start calling this country 'home', because for me my home isn't just where my hat it but where my family is. That's not to say that there aren't things we all miss from our homeland, oh no. So whenever either we go back to the UK or someone comes to visit from there we put in requests for items that we absolutely cannot live without. Cadbury chocolate in all its various guises is always top of the list, followed by Ribena and salt&vinegar crisps. Things like that are relatively easy to carry and transport and for the most part we've learnt to adapt to what is obtainable here, but some things just don't travel and that makes any trip back to England all the more worthwhile...

- clotted cream, tricky to get hold of in England itself, but so divine that when in Cornwall for five days last autumn I think I managed to squeeze in three cream teas (picking up German habits you see, forgoing lunch for cake!)
- chinese take away, or better yet, delivery chinese take out. Am learning to make do with fantastic Italian food but it's hard. The first year we were here Si actually brought back an Indian takeaway, it was a delicious birthday treat but the towels that it leaked all over never recovered!
- Clinton's card shops, any card shop for that matter, with their shelves and shelves of funny and irreverent cards for any and every occasion. Cards here (if you can find them) are DULL and BORING and SENSIBLE. Thankfully there is now Moonpig, which is rapidly overtaking Boden as my favourite shopping website.
- decent TV, thankfully there is Sky, without which we'd have to rely solely on DVDs because I refuse to watch the trash that comes into our house via the German TV networks, complete and utter bilge.
- friends, tricky things to transport, have to make do with long chats on the phone and odd visits, sigh.
- bluebell woods. It was the mention of these in an online paper that sparked this particular blog. There just don't seem to be any here, sigh, I love the sight of the carpets of bluebells but I think I love their perfume even more, sigh.

And with that note I shall go and raid the downstairs fridge which is currently home to an impressive stash of Cadbury mini eggs, nom nom nom.

Word for the day; heimweh - homesick

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Just add water

Pinch me please, I'm in shock!

The Germans LOVE cake. Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) seems to be part of the national psyche, and no wonder, the cake here is good. Now I know other countries all do good cake (with the exception of Blighty that is, where decent cake is pretty hard to come by whether in a cafe or a bakers) but in Germany the variety of cake that can be bought in a bakers or in a coffee shop has to be seen to be believed. It's not unusual for a cafe to have a cake counter that is two metres long and one metre deep, a trip to the cafe for K&K usually requires two cups of coffee, one to drink whilst pondering the choice of cake and the second to drink with the eventual choice of said cake.

So imagine my shock when number one son informed me that "Germans don't make cakes (at home) from scratch."

This conversation came about because I was bemoaning my inability to make a decent sponge cake with the ingredients I have readily available here. Back in England a victoria sponge can be thrown together in a matter of moments from the flour, butter, eggs and sugar that you would normally have in the house. But here the supermarkets don't stock self-raising flour, if you intend to make a nice fluffy, airy sponge then you have to plan ahead and get the self raising flour from one of the Asian supermarkets because although you can use the plain flour from normal supermarkets and add in a raising agent it just doesn't work like it ought to...

I'd forgotten this when I had to make a birthday cake for Simon and despite the amount of 'Backin' that I added to the plain flour, my sponge stayed stubbornly unrisen and was a HUGE disappointment to me.

Ben has come home from school a couple of times and declared that he has to take cake into school - this is usually a punishment for forgetting homework. I have always refused to provide cake on such occasions, how does it punish the child if I'm the one having to beat butter and sugar together and then add the eggs and flour? I'd be the one spending the hour in the kitchen. But if all the German kids have to do is go to the cupboard, take out a packet of Dr. Oetker cake mix add water & maybe an egg*, throw it in the oven then bish bash bosh (à la Jamie) it's done.

I didn't believe my son (sorry Ben) I couldn't believe that a nation of cake lovers, nay, worshippers would stoop to such depths (although it would explain the variety of ready cake mix packets on the supermarket shelves and the lack of decent flour on the same shelves) And so I did what I always do in such situations, I asked the font of all knowledge, my German teacher. And she gleefully confirmed that what Ben had said was true. Germans don't (in general) bake cakes from scratch.

I don't think I've recovered from the shock yet!

* I'm guessing here, as you may realise - if I need a cake I'll make one, following Delia's perfect instructions - or I'll buy some fancy schmancy thing from the bakers.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday Snaps 59

It's back*, so winter must be officially over!
Mind you there is only one blue sheep at the moment, maybe next week there'll be more...don't fret, I'll keep you posted!

* a communal garden nearby has a small flock of blue sheep, they clearly don't like the low winter temperatures and have been hiding for the last few months.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Going Blonde

It's funny how things get lost in translation don't you think?

I can understand between two people who speak different languages but when it's between two people both who have English as their mother tongue it's more amusing.

Last night was the Thursday after bookgroup (which is ALWAYS the first Friday of the month) and so I decided in my head that it had to be Expats at Lulu's night this week. However, I'd overlooked the fact that the first Friday was April 1st and therefore Expats (which is ALWAYS the second Thursday of the month) is next week...I realised this about half an hour before setting off to join the friends I'd arranged to meet at Lulu's and so put on Facebook in my status that I was turning blonde, the meaning being that I was losing the plot and acting in a rather blonde and dizzy manner. My American friends had seen my post and commented 'but that's not blonde' (of my very brown hair) I forgot to ask what the American English for 'having a blonde moment' is...

After that misunderstanding our impromptu expats evening continued in the usual manner, wine, beer and the odd martini being drunk, much chat, gossip and mickey taking. A good night out.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


I'm quite sure it didn't escape your notice that the Friday just gone was April 1st, aka April Fool's Day.

In England the fooling has to come to a halt at midday, otherwise the joke is on the joker, but here in funny ole Deutschland the japery goes on all day, all 24 hours of it. They do take being funny seriously you know.

On Friday afternoon Jas had a friend here to play and when Rebecca came to collect Elsa she asked Jas whether what she'd heard was true...Jack (Rebecca's elder son, who's in the same class as Jas) had come home and said that after Easter they had to do four or five weekends of Saturday school because they hadn't learnt enough. Apparently they'd been given the option of going into school the 2nd week of the Easter holidays but the kids had opted for the Saturdays. And this was all due to the recent local inspection that had revealed that the children hadn't learnt enough...We were both automatically suspicious and said that surely this was an April Fool's joke but Jas was adamant, Herr B would have told them later if it were so and anyway they were just grateful they weren't in the Bear class who were so behind with their learning that they were going to have to spend the whole of the Easter holidays at school...I still wasn't convinced, where was the letter telling us about it I asked, there wasn't one, but they had been made to copy down in their homework books the details of the Saturday schooling.

Monday all became clear, it was an elaborate April Fool's joke Herr B confessed to the students.

Ha ha ha, ho ho ho.

What is worrying is that we have so little faith in the schooling system here that not only could we believe that our kids were behind with their learning and so needed Saturday school to catch up but also that such a decision (Saturdays or a week of the Easter holidays) would be left in the hands of 30 nine year olds, leaving us to be notified only by word of mouth from an unreliable source.

And so Herr B gets another strike against his name (in my book anyway) it never ceases to amaze me that the children think so highly of him!

Word of the day; the love - die Liebe

Monday, April 4, 2011

Book Reviews #17

A Week in December - Sebastian Faulks

I hate it when this happens, two books read back to back and neither lived up to their author's worth.

Sebastian Faulks is one of my favourite authors, I love his writing, the characters are so alive, the storylines so gripping, his novels tend to be unputdownable and then there's always the impatient wait for the next new release. So this was a disappointment, made all the more harsh because I'd just read Solar by Ian McEwan, another great current writer, and been totally underwhelmed by that.

This book is, of course, beautifully written but for the length of book (352 pages) there seemed to be too many storylines, all in theory converging, especially when compared to Birdsong's 500+ pages and meagre two storylines.

I liked the ending (and not just so that I could move onto something that I might find more enjoyable) in that it didn't end as I'd spent most of the book thinking it would end, very clever Mr F, but that isn't quite enough to redeem this for me. It's not a Faulks that I would recommend a friend to read, unlike Birdsong which I foist on anyone and everyone as THE book to read to understand truly how grim WW I was (I have even got Germans reading it.) This is a very different book, covering the minutiea of at least nine lives during the week before Christmas as one of these people is planning a show off dinner to which most of these other people are invited.

The setting is current day London, the people concerned are mostly too rich for their own good, all apart from Gabriel who works in the law courts and Jenni the underground train driver whose embrionic love affair we get to witness. The majority of the rest of the cast are mostly unlikeable, there is Tranter the book reviewer (who is actually also not rich) who seems to despise every single living author and makes cynicism his byword and yet by the end of the book is clearly going to live very happily ever after (Mr Faulks wanting to keep reviewers sweet by treating them nice?) Veales is a fund manager who lives only to make money, a horribly manipulative man who necessitates far too many pages being taken up with explanations of hedge funds and banking - yawn. Knocker is an amusing character, a self made lime pickle millionaire off to meet the Queen to receive an OBE, what neither he nor his wife realise though is that their 20 year old son is getting mixed up with radicals and is involved in a bombing plot. Yet another storyline follows the 16 year old son of Veales, who is left alone by disinterested parents and has money to burn, Finn's 'mild' drug useage ends up with him in an NHS psychiatric ward after he manages to short circuit his neurones.

As an essay about modern life and culture in England this certainly ticks all the boxes, maybe that's way I didn't enjoy it so much, it's too close to home, frighteningly close, a very clever man that Sebastian Faulks chappie, very clever, but I still don't think I'd recommend it on.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Sunday Snaps 58

Summer seems to think it's here, this was the view yesterday whilst out walking Logan, it was so hot I had to walk in the shade.


Book Group last night, or rather "let's see how much red wine we can drink whilst not talking about the book".

Of the 10 of us there only Marianne and I had read the book, Sing had also read it but couldn't make the night, something to do with having to drive to Paris today (feeble excuse). We did actually try to talk about the book (Solar by Ian McEwan) but kept being interrupted, first by Jenny then by Marianne's son's bedtime (she had to kiss him goodnight telephonically, but he is only one.)

We almost had a fight break out when the book for April came to be discussed. I mentioned that we have two lists now, classics that various members want to read and new stuff. As we've just read a new book then the next book should be a classic and the next on the list is "The Great Gatsby". Now I don't know if it was real anger talking or genuine Aussie frustration or just the wine, but Jen did everything bar stamp her feet over the classic/new list idea, she clearly had a book in mind for spring and when that failed she turned on Kamesh and accused him of rigging the voting for Catch 22, poor Kamesh was quite bemused and decided she was just venting her frustration at India being in the Cricket World Cup final whilst the Aussies went home a week ago...the funny thing is that Jenny put Gatsby on the classic list!

The highlight of my evening was hearing the most delicious piece of gossip (is it gossip when it's actual fact and the person it concerns tells you it?) however it would be rather scurrilous behaviour for me to repeat what I was told, so I shall merely say that one friend of mine is cooking for another friend of mine tomorrow (and no, that's not a euphemism for anything) and this is BIG, BIG, EXCITING news of the bestest kind, seeing as this is the fruition of a plan a year in the hatching. My happiness has been marred only by my fragile state as even the sun is out celebrating today!