Thursday, 23 October 2008

Is it just me?

Or is Peggy Woolley THE most irritating character in The Archers? It must have been such fun though, for the scriptwriters, when it came to writing the scene where Lillian tells the hospital-bound Peggy that her Alzheimer's sufferer husband Jack has gone to a respite home.

I would have been rubbing my hands with glee at the thought of writing that scene. In all the years I've been listening to The Archers I've always found Peggy utterly infuriating though she has had a few moments of humanity every now and then with her grandchildren, and of course with Jack. However, half the fun of writing for a soap must be in hitting listeners round the face with the big wet slap that is a devastating return to teeth grindingly irritating form, after you've spent some time building up the character's more positive side. (And of course show the pantomime villain Matt in a rather better light at the same time.) Boy, did they do a good job.

In between wanting to throw something at the radio as I tuned into the story enough to sympathise with poor Lillian, and tuning out again and wondering what new depths Peggy could reach I was wondering if the scriptwriters would be moving towards a climactic moment with Peggy throwing Lillian out of the room, and yes, they were.

Having said that, it might have made the situation easier if the family had found some way to at least hint to Mama that all was not going well, and that it was hard for them, and for Jack. A desperate situation all round, of course in real life. I hope that if I am ever in the same situation I will have learned by then that I cannot do everything myself and allow other people to help.

Shall be glued to the radio tonight, however.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

The magic of scrambled egg

Today, had a day off - not a book in sight. Well, that's not true, because at lunch I spotted a large bookcase full of books, which of course I had to inspect, and did see some Andrew Lang Fairy books as well as several paperback Pullein-Thompsons. But I digress.

I went to a cookery demonstration by Sophie Grigson today, thanks to a kind friend who couldn't go so gave me her ticket. SG is excellent value, and sitting watching someone else cook and then test the results is certainly my idea of a good time, so I thoroughly enjoyed the day.

One of the dishes SG cooked was lemon scrambled egg. During the demo, she described how she made this first for a boyfriend when she was about 19. "Now," she said. "If you are going to make scrambled eggs properly, though slowly, you will do it in a double boiler." This she said, she never actually did herself, save for on the first morning at said new boyfriend's flat, when she lovingly made him scrambled eggs on a double boiler. "He said they were the best he'd ever tasted," she said.

Came a voice from the floor: "They all say that."

Friday, 17 October 2008

That jab...

I don't tend to get The Times until rather late at night when OH returns home, and as it never occurs to me to look at the online version, as I like the good old fashioned feel of paper, I tend to be a bit late in commenting on the day's events. Actually I very rarely comment on them in this blog, not because I have nothing to say but because I think it is probably kinder not to expose you to the wide range of my opinions (my family would agree here.)

However, I am breaking ranks about the Cervical Cancer jab. My children go to a church school, and my daughter has just had the jab. She brought home screeds of paper, and I had to sign the usual paper giving permission. "Not everyone's parents, are," she told me. "Why not?" I asked (rather meanly, actually, as I had a pretty good idea.) "Not sure," she said. "Some people's parents don't approve but I'm not sure why." "Because they think you'll charge off and have sex straightaway if you do, I think," I said, "though that's probably a bit too blunt a way of expressing it." "Um," said daughter. "Don't think I will." "Good," I said, "Better to wait," and then got in my usual condom mantra - readily available from a school nurse near you.

Not that I think, even for a moment, that having the jab is going to make my daughter, or any other girl think "Right! That's it then!" After all, it's not as if cervical cancer is the only thing that can afflict one; there's the whole panoply of venereal diseases as well. And even if you do wait for the one and only there is alas no guarantee that he's waited only for you; and none that he isn't carrying the virus from even the briefest encounter.

I hope my daughter will wait until she's ready, and I really, really hope that is a good few years away yet, but I can't see that letting her have this vaccination will suddenly make her leap into bed with anyone. Frankly, I'd rather save her from the horror of cervical biopsies, about which I know far more than I'd like, and the misery of sitting in that waiting room, full of women all petrified they are about to find out they have cancer. No, I didn't, but I'd do anything to save my daughter from that, if I can.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Peter Clover: The Sheltie Books

Sheltie Leads the Way
(not in print but easily available on Amazon)
Sheltie Finds a Friend
(not in print but easily available on Amazon)

Peter Clover's website
There is very little out there for the very young pony fan starting to read for themselves. The Sheltie books are then a very rare animal: not only are they aimed at the younger reader; there’s more than one. Quite a lot more than one in fact: the series now numbers 24 (though not all by any means are still in print).

The series fulfils one of the key requirements for a young reader: it is set in a constant and easily understandable framework. Emma owns Sheltie, a Shetland pony. She lives with her younger brother Joshua, and her Mum and Dad. And they have adventures. And that is pretty much it: but Peter Clover has created a good and believable world. Unlike the Lauren Brooke ponies in Chestnut Hill, Sheltie is created with the right amount of credible detail. In the opening of Sheltie Finds a Friend , he and Emma are described as playing frisbee. Bearing in mind this was the first Sheltie I’d read, my initial reaction was “WAAA! Where did reality go?” However, Sheltie is not tossing the frisbee backwards and forwards: “Sheltie bent his head and picked up the frisbee between his teeth. Then, with a sudden flick, he tossed the plastic saucer in the air.” Which I can entirely see a pony doing.

I do have a quibble with Sheltie’s portrayal: he is always described as fat, which instantly made me think “LAMINITIS!” but this is never mentioned. [For my non equine readers: Laminitis is a particularly nasty equine affliction affecting the feet. As hooves are solid, there is nowhere for the swelling to go. The pain is excruciating, and avoiding the condition is an important part of equine management. The overweight are far more likely to suffer.] In an ideal world, although being described as fat presumably makes Sheltie appealing (and most Shetlands do tend to be rotund), his size wouldn’t be mentioned. I don’t think the youngest reader necessarily needs to have the horrors of a laminitic pony paraded in front of them, but parents whose ponies tend to be laminitic might feel the need to do a little explaining.

Emma, Sheltie’s owner, is a brave and resourceful child who has proper adventures. In Sheltie Leads the Way, Emma and Sheltie and her friends manage to get a pony part way out of a bog. In both the books I read, adult help is needed at the end to resolve the plot, but this isn’t intrusive, or hard to believe. A child can quite easily believe he could do the things that Emma does, but there is always the comfort of an adult presence, not too far away.

These are cosy, comfortable books (not, as the publisher says, the first such series aimed at the younger reader: the American C W Anderson’s Billy and Blaze predates it by quite a long way.) They have the predictability the young reader needs, but have enough to them not to make you run screaming if you have to do one as a bedtime story. Unless, of course, it is the 90th time you have read it, in which case pretty much anything would be enough.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Urghhh. Arghhh. Again.

Little blogging this week as I have been head down trying to wrest order from chaos and catalogue all the pony books I've bought recently, as well as do all the other things I'm supposed to. (Though at least, unlike my friend Charlotte, I am not wrestling with accounts). I've done the catalogue anyway, at last, and it'll be on line on Wednesday 15th October. I hope. Some computing blip or other always rears its head whenever I need to do a catalogue so I wait with interest to see what the current one will be.

Further to my post about the Booker, I have bought The Northern Clemency (described this week on R4 as a page turner) - well, I haven't turned the pages so fast I've finished it, but I'm chugging on. What I hadn't realised was that it was set in Sheffield; not quite the time I was there, but a little before, though I will get to where I was as I go on through the book, if you see what I mean. It's very odd to read about Broomhill and remember the shops that were there.

At the moment, it is the physical surroundings described in the book that mean more to me than the characters. My lifestyle was completely different to those described so far; I was a tad more disorganised, with my head permanently stuck in a book, in between being a disputatious member of the Christian Union and making every relationship mistake in the book (well, not quite every, but a good selection, anyway) so I've not yet found a lot of points of contact. Possibly if I wasn't reading it with such an instant connection to my own past, I would.

Well, we'll see.

I'm also reading Kierkegaard. Yes! I am, really. I'm halfway through. I only wish I had an actual understanding of what dialectical means. My dictionary is of no help (and I am reading this book with the dictionary jammed by my feet because I need it). The one thing that strikes me at the moment is the lack of suggestion that there might be alternative points of view. He is so certain in his own faith that he never seems to suggest there might be an alternative (though of course he might get there, or might have said it in a form I haven't understood. Only too possible, I'm afraid. Boy, is this finding out my lack of intellectual application, or appreciation or indeed ability).

I had a brief dabble with philosophy in my teens and after that left it strictly alone; but I have always had the feeling that it was about the discussion of different points of view. Well, I have plenty to think about at any rate. Shall look forward to another bout of Kierkegaard after Strictly Come Dancing. I love, love, love this (and I LOVE Don Warrington), The world seems to divide into two camps here: those who absolutely see the point, and those who think it is a strange, twinkly aberration.

And I also, on another point altogether, loved Lost in Austen. I was so sorry when it finished. The way it took so very many sacred cows and rounded them up into a completely unexpected rodeo was brilliant. I loved that too.

On with the weekend now - the weekend's taxi driving beckons.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Good grief.

You know those cutesome baby clothes with ears? This is what happens when they grow up.

Thanks Susanna for that (maybe having the same difficulty working on Friday pm as me?)

The Chestnut Hill Wordle

You can tell I'm having a bit of difficulty getting down to work this afternoon can't you? Thanks to Juxtabook for the heads up on this. I did a wordle on part of my Chestnut Hill review, and here it is:

If you fancy a worldle, this is the link.

The Sorted Books Challenge

Many thanks to Juliet over at Musings for letting me know about this one. What you need to do is pluck various books from your shelves and connect them. Here's the official thing, which I hope is written tongue in cheek as my interpretation of it is considerably less august:

'The Sorted Books project began in 1993 years ago and is ongoing. The project has taken place in many different places over the years, ranging form private homes to specialized public book collections. The process is the same in every case: culling through a collection of books, pulling particular titles, and eventually grouping the books into clusters so that the titles can be read in sequence, from top to bottom. The final results are shown either as photographs of the book clusters or as the actual stacks themselves, shown on the shelves of the library they were drawn from. Taken as a whole, the clusters from each sorting aim to examine that particular library's focus, idiosyncrasies, and inconsistencies — a cross-section of that library's holdings. At present, the Sorted Books project comprises more than 130 book clusters.'

Here's a few examples (I loved these) culled from the project, to give you an idea:

and here's mine. 100% pure pony book. See Juliet, it can be done! Particularly when your mind, like mine, spends some of its time in the gutter.

The second book down is my copy of The Chestnut Filly - hadn't realised until I came to look for it just how tatty it was. A candidate for upgrading, I think.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Lauren Brooke: Chestnut Hill

Chestnut Hill: Playing for Keeps
Scholastic, £4.99

A series of (so far) 8 books
Scholastic's Chestnut Hill website

Having tackled the emotional swirl that is Heartland, I thought I might as well do Chestnut Hill next. Chestnut Hill is a different series by "Lauren Brooke" based at a girls' boarding school in America. Its heroines are a quartet of girls: Lani, Malory, Dylan and Honey, and the series follows them through the school. In this story, Lani is under threat of having to leave the school as her poor report has made her parents think she's riding at the expense of her school work.

This new(ish) series is aimed at a younger readership than Heartland. The protagonists are in Year 8, which I imagine is the same as the English one, so are aged 12-13. Those few years make a huge difference, as the emotional tempests we get in Heartland seem pretty much absent.

Heartland meets teenage fantasies of struggling against the world; Chestnut Hill addresses fantasies of a different sort. This series is really Sex and the City for young girls and horses: friends, shopping, relationships and ponies. (Ponies are not much of a feature, of course, in Sex and the City. I would rather like to know, though, what Carrie et al would make of horses - my money's on Charlotte for having a latent horsey gene.)

What matters in this book is the girl's relationships with each other; their riding, oh, and labels. I am not exactly au fait with every hip label so it took a while before it dawned on me that Heatherette was a brand and not a colour. Some of the labelling serves to reinforce the character stereotypes: the snobby (there had to be one, didn't there) villain has, of course, all the right labels, but the other characters do their bit to uphold American commerce too. There is so much mention of labels that I did begin to wonder if there was a bit of product placement going on. Here's a particularly blatant example:

"Who has a phone?" Lani demanded. Several options were immediately pulled out of pockets and offered. She picked Tanisha's brand-new Palm Treo....."

I think anyone who's read this blog will be able to predict that I am now going to weigh in with my responsible adult bit: I don't like this label stuff. It shouldn't matter if someone's favourite sweater is Abercrombie, or that they wear 501s. Yes, these girls are almost all wealthy and so that's the sort of stuff they're going to have. Maybe it's there to reinforce the fantasy: these girls are of course wish fulfilment of the highest order. They go to an incredibly cool school where you ride, get to meet cool boys (not ones that live in the town, of course - these ones go to the male Chestnut Hill equivalent) and money isn't a problem. However, there's not a lot of point making the obligatory nod to school story conventions by having a scholarship girl (Malory), if on every other page you're reinforcing the importance of having the right label.

It's also interesting to see how conventions are changing in school stories. In Enid Blyton et al, the girl turning up in the tussore silk shirt with specially tailored uniform is A Bad Thing, whose heart is not in the right place, and who needs the tempering influence of The School. In Chestnut Hill they'd ask her who her tailor was and plan a shopping expedition.

This boarding school is quite something: I imagine, in my cynical way, that it came about because of the popularity of Harry Potter, set of course, in a boarding school (though Chestnut Hill is blessedly short of fantasy). There have been a few attempts at combining school and ponies, of which the best known is probably Mary Gervaise's G for Georgia series, to which girls can take their own ponies.

The big difference between Mary Gervaise and the Lauren Brooke series is the amount of pony content. Mary Gervaise, as Sue Sims says in The Encyclopaedia of Girls' School Stories, was much happier writing school stories, and so the pony content of her books, though there, lacks the fine detail and the emphasis that the fan of the pony story would expect. No such problem with Chestnut Hill. Although it is stressed throughout the story that Lani must concentrate on her work, the actual time described in the classroom is absolutely minimal. The only teacher who says anything meaningful is the riding instructor. Even the Head, with whom Lani's parents hold a pivotal meeting to decide her future at the school, doesn't appear. Her comments are reported by Lani's father. Not quite Miss Annersley of the Chalet School, ever-present.

The other thing that puzzled me is that lack of intelligent writing about the ponies: I don't mean that what's said is wrong; but that the ponies do not emerge as characters. The stated aim of the series is:

"... this time we'll get to know the same ponies over the entire series. Although there were regular equine characters at Heartland, like Sundance and later Spindleberry, most of Amy's time was spent meeting new ponies, dealing with their issues, and returning them happily to their owners. In Chestnut Hill, we'll be able to watch the central characters forge relationships with ponies that become very special to them, even if they don't own them. If you ride at a riding stables, you'll know it's hard not to have a favorite pony. It will be great to see the main characters getting to know which ponies are their favorites, and developing their riding skills through the semesters."

It is very easy in pony stories to make the ponies vehicles, and for them not to emerge successfully as real, live ponies. Even after reading about Colorado, the pony Lani rides, I don't know much about him. I know he's a buckskin; good at Western disciplines and can be difficult, but I don't have any sense of him emerging as a real live pony. There's none of the little bits of detail that make say Don Stanford's horses in The Horsemasters emerge as characters, and that's a shame.

Chestnut Hill doesn't push the boundaries of either the school story or the pony story: it is probably the most horsey school yet created, but challenging boundaries is not what this series is about. It's about selling books by ticking yet more boxes. The books are reasonable reads; the plots are adequate and the characters not completely cardboard. I never thought I'd say this, but I prefer Heartland. At least with that series there was something to raise a bit of passion, even if what I felt wasn't quite what the authors intended. Chestnut Hill, though, left me rather bored. It's a comfortable and conventional gallop through the juvenile reaches of American commerce.