Saturday, 29 August 2015

Portable Magic: 'The A-Z of You and Me' by James Hannah

Hi you.

Now, here's a thing to admit in a book review: I don't want to tell you about this book:
Not because it's isn't worth talking about. Far from it.

And not because I'm being precious and I want to keep it all to myself. It's just ...

I want you to come to it as I did: oblivious.

Oblivious to its depth; to its craft; to it's well tuned tone but, most importantly oblivious to its plot; especially to the predicament of the narrator who we gradually get to know inside and out.

Gradually. And that's the point.
  • I don't want to tell you the plot of this book right here, right now before you've even had a chance to crack its spine for yourself.
  • I don't want to tell you about what is happening to the narrator throughout the novel.
  • I don't want to tell you because, trust me, it's quite the experience when it just unfolds before you. Line by line. Page by page, in an organic unfurling of detail, of location, of situation. 
Because if you don't know any solid plot 'facts' from the start, if you don't know any better, you can sustain yourself by speculating on what's happening, or what might happen, and even on what part of you knows probably can't happen ... but you still hope that it can.

So how did I come to be so in the dark about it? How did I come to it blind? Why I didn't intuit the true nature of The A-Z of You and Me at the start? Well ... it all started in the library ...

I picked it up from the shelf not knowing anything about it, turned it over in my hands, and read this blurb:
And what did I pick out?

  • 'wonderfully quirky', 
  • 'contemporary', 
  • 'love story', 
  • 'funny and sweet'. 
Couple that with the pretty, swirly, blackboard-chic, cover design and I stood there thinking "Mmm ... OK, looks like some light summer reading, I can do with something a bit breezy.". [I'd just finished reading about the persecution of Jews in Edmund DeWaal's exquisite The Hare with Amber Eyes]. And so I popped it on my pile of books to borrow.

Reading light fiction is more of an exception rather than a rule for me and the library is the ideal, commitment-free, place for me to indulge in it. And I don't mind admitting that I can be a bit of a literary snob, often preferring something I can really get my linguistic teeth around. I tend to treat lighter fiction like I do custard custard slices: wonderful to drop my face into when I need a top up of something sweet, but, equally, no way to feed my brain on a regularly basis.

But if, like me, you pick up The A-Z of You and Me thinking you'll be getting a custard slice then, be warned, that it's more of a side-serving to what is essentially a meal of beautifully rich writing, and bittersweet storytelling with a garnish of salty tears.

It's certainly not as light and casual as some of those review phrases and jacket design would suggest and whether later/alternative editions [it came out in paperback this week] come closer to presenting the real marrow of the book, I can't say, I haven't seen those copies.

But, for me, this disconnect turned out to be a positive experience ... I was pleasantly surprised that I found myself reading something far more stylish, literary and deep than I was expecting ... and maybe it's the exceeding of my expectations that's been a part of the reason the book has endured in my mind after reading.

But I'm getting ahead of myself talking about having finished the book ... here's a glimpse at the opening lines, so you get a feel for the prose yourself:

It's Hannah's debut novel and, like so many first novels this feels like a beloved collection of ideas, thoughts, phrases, distilled into a rich and satisfying end result.  Distilled, not condensed; this isn't a novel over-crammed with plot twists or research or high concepts - it's a novel of clarity, focus, and immediacy which while you might not want it to, puts you right there on that bed, in that room with it's narrator.

And you stay there with him from start to finish. Inside his life, his room, his head; meanwhile you learning about his wider life, his past, his story beyond the room through the conceit of him listing body-parts, A-Z, and attaching a story to each one. For example:
... which is probably the first time I've seen the word 'chesticles' written down! [A recommendation in itself, surely?]
And with that ... that's all I'm going to say to whet your whistle, to stir your curiosity, to tempt you to add The A-Z of You and Me to your 'To Read' list because, remember, I don't want to tell you about this book. 

What I will tell you is that it made me cry.

And I feel I can tell you this because I say that so often here, about so many things,that perhaps you'll write it off as nothing noteworthy. I'm quite literally the girl who cried wolf. [And then cried again because no one believed me that there was a wolf, and then again worrying if the wolf was OK out there on its own and what would happen if they did believed me and then went and killed the wolf ...]

So yes, I'm easily moved, but the emotional reactions it stirred were not cheap, easy ones. The tears were drawn from my eyes not jerked

Some were to be expected, others came in waves, [the scenes with the girl with the yarn-bombing for example] and they kept coming, gently, until the final page.

So, make of this review what you will because that's it, I'm not going to tell you anything more about it ... in fact I've probably already told you too much, and I didn't want to tell you about it in the first place ...

But if you do want to know more then:

  • find a copy of the book and push your nose firmly into it! Or ... 
  • there's currently an official blog tour happening which you can follow by heading to the #AtoZofYouandMe hashtag on Twitter. Within those tweets you'll be able to find plenty of other reviews which give more of the game away. [I'm not part of the blog tour, I'm just gate-crashing! It just happened to coincide with my just having finished the book].
  • And for further details you can find the author - James Hannah - on Twitter here 
  • or on his website. 

Your turn ...
  • Have you read The A-Z of You and Me? How would you tell someone about it without telling them too much?
  • Or are there other books that you'd love other people to read ... but you don't want to spoil the plot before they begin? 
Do share your thoughts and experiences. 

More book talk

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Summertime Photography Scavenger Hunt 2015: The London Edition

Hi hi. 

Did you catch my post earlier this week, the one where I blurred the lines between rational adult on holiday and complete Sherlock super-fan? A post which, for balance, also involved gnomes and black-bean burgers?  Well, if you didn't read it, you'll want to go catch-up ... because that's quality journalism you're missing out on right there..  

But not so quick! Because I've got more scavenger hunt photos to share as I'm almost finished my version of the 21 items we needed to find! 

So, have I mentioned I've been to London? Once or twice? Well, ever since I knew I was headed there I'd been holding off photographing this next particular category as I thought a snapshot of the Thames would make the ideal document of my mini-break.

The thing is ... as you'll see, I didn't really stop at ONE photo ...

20. A natural body of water
The Thames, glittering in the morning sunshine:
The thing we came to realise about the Thames is that it's so ubiquitous you can see it from all kinds of locations throughout the city.

So much so that while our hotel sat right on the river with the front door being just metres away from the water's edge we could also see it from our room located at the back of the building:
And we couldn't really go far without bumping into [although, happily, not falling into] it. So here are a few additional takes on my chosen 'natural body of water ...

... with essential London landmarks in the background:
The London Eye:
Tower Bridge:
And while we're on the subject of bridges here's a glimpse of the Thames taken...

... while on a bridge:

... and while under a bridge: 

... then with the tide out: 
It was a little strange to hear the tidal lapping of the water, a familiar sound from closer to home where the coast is just a few minutes drive away, but not necessarily something I thought I'd hear in a city.

And from moving with the tides we go back in time to  ...

...when it froze over:
 One of a series of plaques depicting the frost fairs held between the 17th and early 19th Centuries when the Thames would freeze over.

And while we're on the subject of doing brave things on the river [I'm much more of a landlubber] ... here's a view of the Thames ...

... from the back of a boat:
 My friend Kirsty and I took a trip up and down the river, to and from Greenwich, and it was on our return that we sat in the splash zone, with various small boys and other people who didn't mind getting wet when the engines were going full speed.

While I was there I took this photo as proof that, this summer, I did at least one activity that required the creation of an official 'Escape Plan':
Makes me feel almost adventurous. Almost.

And finally, for today, here's yet another shot of the Thames, again with an famous London landmark in the background [the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben] only this time, in the foreground, I've sneaked in another Scavenger Hunt category:

21. A photograph of you with a sign reading "2015 Summertime Photography Scavenger Hunt".
I'll admit that I did worry if I'd feel silly holding that up while on a very crowded bank-side footpath; then I saw just how many tourists were selfie-sticking with gay abandon. And I got over myself!


I've now got just 2 categories left to find and my summertime hunt will be at an end!

Is that autumn I can feel in the air? *starts thinking of what to document as the days begin to darken *


p.s: If you'd like to catch up on my discoveries then do drop by my other Scavenger Hunt posts here:
And if f you wanted to join in the hunt then you still can, it doesn't end until summer does. Just visit Rinda as it's her brainchild and you can share your discoveries either via your blog, or on Instagram with the hashtag  #‎rindas2015photohunt or even join the Facebook group and make sure to visit Rinda's blog to catch her regular round-ups and link posts.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

If we've popped-up and setlocked ... then this must be London.

Hi you. I'm back.

I'm now post London. Post Hamlet. Post Cumberbatch. Although, as you'll see from where this post finishes up ... it's fair to say I'm never entirely post-Cumberbatch; I'm more a case of 'permanently in between Cumberbatches'.

But until the next batch comes along [a few paragraphs down in fact] ... let's talk about the serendipity I stumbled over in the big smoke; let's talk about things that pop-up with the power to delight, and let's talk about finding gnomes, and Holmes, where you'd least expect them ...

The Popping-Up:
While I may not live in or even particularly close to a city I still like to think of myself as pretty up-to-date with what's what, with what's on the up, with what's going down.

I may live 250 miles from the capital but, for several reasons, I don't live under a rock with a whippet for company. Heck, I read; I can use a hashtag; I have at least 5 kinds of tea in the cupboard, I watch SkyArts documentaries for pleasure and I can even use the manual settings on my camera.

Basically, what I'm trying to say is, as my Grandma would've put it: I'm not as green as I'm cabbage-looking. And yet, until last week I'd never been to a pop-up restaurant [they tend to be such city-style phenomena don't they?] so when we stumbled across one in 'real life', in the OXO building on London's south bank, just metres from our hotel, dare I admit that I really felt I had to go? Perhaps so that, at the very least,  I could later proclaim, like, in a blog post or something [ahem] that: "I went to a pop-up restaurant ... in London".

And while I was really looking forward to it I found myself being slightly unsure at the same time ... and began to feel like maybe there was slightly more green around my cabbage leaves as I'd been willing to accept!

Which was only appropriate considering the theme of this particular pop-up:
The Garden Gate at OXO2 [open until August 30th] is decorated like part summer fete, part English garden, part woodland picnic:
Its laid back atmosphere [there were people playing table tennis and jenga] was just what two tired, achy people needed who'd been walking around London for 3 days,  one of whom may or may not have been so emotional that they wept in a theatre one night and then again over breakfast the following morning [For the record: that last person wasn't James. But then you'd guessed that already hadn't you?].

And what's better for lifting a crafty, kitsch-loving girl's spirits than sitting her on a gingham covered tree trunk next to a wall of fake hedging and artificial flowers?
Not to mention the fact that if I'd had the foresight to bring a garden gnome with me I apparently could have bagged myself a free drink in exchange. [And I ever-so-nearly packed one too ... just in case. But, it was that or my make-up ... and needs must ... ;-) ].

You can just make out here - behind me - the shelf where the donated gnomes end up:
And to continue the theme, cocktails [which I didn't have ... like my heightened Hamlet-influenced-emotional state needed any alcoholic encouragement to tip over into hysteria ...] were served in watering cans. And the food  ... well ...

... my black bean burger with guacamole [which was the best thing I've eaten all month] was presented in a wooden garden crate complete with fries [again, amazing] in a plant pot! 
While James's steak arrived in a terracotta plant pot saucer:
And as if the experience couldn't get any better the price for both main courses came to just £18.00. I know!

After having paid £80.00 elsewhere for our first meal in the big bustling we-can-charge-anything-if-you-can-see-the-Thames-while-you're-eating-it metropolis, this couldn't have been a more pleasant and welcome end our stay.

So, if you're anywhere near the south bank in the next 5 days I can't recommend a trip to The Garden Gate highly enough. And don't forget to take a gnome with you!

And, while you're there you - like James - can look out for this ...
Sherlock: The Great Game. Season 1 Ep. 3. BBC
Before you get too excited on my behalf this is NOT a holiday snap shot taken by me! [Just as well really as there's a dead body laying just out of shot!]

No, it's a screenshot of a scene in 'The Great Game' ,Season 1 Episode 3 of Sherlock, which was filmed on the south bank. A fact which ... thought I'm not entirely sure why ... had been lodged in James's head all the time we were there. And so ...

The [accidental, after-the-fact] Setlocking:
For the uninitiated 'setlock' is the hashtag used by those people who trek around London seeking out, finding, and generally loitering around the set of Sherlock while it's being filmed.  And, while I love the show, I'm not so obsessed as to do that. Heck, we were in London for 3 days and I didn't even insist we go to Baker Street so, y'know, I'm not that much of a crazy-fan-girl ... [maybe next time?].

And so ... as we'd been walking along the riverside path each day James had been convinced that the scene, which he could clearly picture in his head, must have been filmed fairly near our hotel and/or the pop-up restaurant nearby.
  • He knew you could see St.Paul's in the background and that there was a wooden jetty/wharf in shot.
  • Meanwhile the main thing I could remember about the scene was a  play on words between Lestrade and Sherlock [Sherlock: "Meretritious". Lestrade: "And a Happy New Year."] which had made me laugh. [Still does. p.s: I've found a clip of it here, enjoy!].
[BTW: that fact - that one of us remembered buildings while the other honed in on the word play - tells you all you need to know about our respective differences!]

Once we'd settled back in at home we re-watched the episode so James could settle with himself, once and for all, if his savant-like location hunting had been correct ... well ... here's the scene again ... and there's the dome of St.Paul's on the left ... and the wharf on the right ...
.. but wait ... isn't that? And that? Why ... yes, yes it is ...
And with that, James was vindicated!

And wouldn't it have been even more entertaining, and indeed a bit strange, if, entirely coincidentally, we'd walked along that very same wharf on our first night and if, James had stopped to take a photo of our hotel, and me [hoping my skirt didn't whip up in the breeze], while we were there?

Well, yes, that would be strange ... and yet ...
As much of the series is filmed in and around the city I don't doubt that we'd inadvertently done lots more after-the-fact 'setlocking'. We just don't have the photos to back that up. Which may be just as well ...

... otherwise you'd be beginning to think by now that I was a little bit of a Sherlock geek ... and, goodness me, we couldn't have that ... could we ...?


Thanks for taking time to read me today. Do feel free to:
  • share your own experiences of pop-ups, or ..,
  • let me know if you too have visited The Garden Gate, or London's south bank,  or ... 
  • dare to admit you've setlocked ... 
  • or maybe you've visited locations where your own favourite shows/films were filmed. Whether you were aware of it at the time or not! 
I'll be here, waiting to hear from you, mulling over my time in the big smoke, sneakily wiping away the Shakespearean tinged tears ... 


Monday, 17 August 2015

Summertime Photography Scavenger Hunt 2015: Architectural Columns or "how I even found a way to get old books into the hunt!"

Hello hello. 

We seem to actually be having a summer here - which is better late than never - and it means there's still time for me to complete my Summertime Photography Scavenger Hunt 2015! 

After I've shared today's item I'll be left with just 4 categories to find:
  1.  a natural body of water
  2. a photo of me with a sign reading Summertime Photography Scavenger Hunt 2015
  3. someone walking a dog / other animal and
  4. people playing a board/card game.
While I'm pretty hopeful I'll find most of those, just in case, I've already secured one of the 'alternatives'. But now on to today's find, my architectural columns. 

I was planning to leave this category until I take a trip to London thinking there'd be more than plenty iconic buildings there whose columns I could capture ... but something nearer to home has grabbed my attention first.  And ... when you see what, you'll know why ...

5. Architectural columns
Imagine my delight at coming across these beauties made from old books inside the new-ish Teesside store of furniture retailers Barker and Stonehouse

And people think I buy-up / misuse lots of old books!!!

I have no idea of they were all stuck together or if they're just free standing a la dry stone walling.

And, with my history of clumsiness there was no way I was even tempted to go and remove a single volume 'just to see' ...
And while were on the subject of piles of old books ... here's another [of many] occasions they've made their way into my summer ...

A few weeks back I was in a charity shop [so what's new eh?] and while I was wanting to browse the book shelves in my way stood a young woman and her friend gathering toward them armfuls of old, hardback, books similar to those in these columns.

When the lengths of their arms, from finger tip to armpit were filled I heard them counting up to at least 12, calculating the cost, then taking them to the till.

There the young woman explained to the shop assistant that she planned to use them as centre pieces for her wedding tables and the assistant sounded delighted and effused over the idea wishing the bride-to-be all the best for the big day as she left the shop.

So far, so sweet. [And so very Pinterest-y too!]

And then, as I took my rightful place at the book shelves [Yes, I did buy a book, of course I did. You wouldn't expect anything less.] a second shop assistant emerged from the stock room and the first began to fill her in on this tale of nuptial creativity ... only this time she wasn't quite as enthusiastic and supportive ...

"She said she's going to use them as centre-pieces or something. Like sort of open, around jam jars [see, I told you Pinterest must have been involved somewhere], I don't know really. A bit weird."


And if she thinks that's weird .. goodness knows what she'd make of those fabulous Barker and Stonehouse columns! 


So those are the latest spoils of my hunt but I'll be back before Autumn with the remainder! 

See you soon.

Julie :-)
If you wanted to join in the hunt then you still can, it doesn't end until summer does. Just visit Rinda as it's her brainchild and you can share your discoveries either via your blog, or on Instagram with the hashtag  #‎rindas2015photohunt or even join the Facebook group and make sure to visit Rinda's blog to catch her regular round-ups and link posts.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Type, print, handwritten signs, script, grafitti, holiday reading and Magna Carta: my summer break, in text.

I write a lot here. 

I find it hard to nip in, write a quick update, and leave. [You might have noticed that by now.]

I like stringing sentences together, weaving words, compiling paragraphs but today I thought I'd try to write a post with fewer words and more images which is ironic really as ... the uniting theme of the photos is 'text'.

While browsing through my recent holiday photos from Lincoln I noticed that there was a recurring theme of writing, text, type, scripts etc traced around them, drawing them together. 

So here's an alternative look at my break, here's my holiday - in text. 

1. An intriguing sticker on the walkway around the walls of Lincoln Castle: 
It turns out that 'All Type No Face' is some sort of graffiti group. Maybe? This quote from their About page doesn't exactly answer all my questions: "We stand by living a life from a path you create, rather than what is dictated to you by others." Why put the sticker there? Who knows?

Now, appropriately enough ...

2. The grafitti-style artwork on the 'Young Baron' one of the 25 'Lincoln Barons' on the Charter Trail [a kind of treasure hunt through the city]:  

3. A rather painful handwritten 'Dear John' note taped to a shop door:
A rather painful handwritten 'Dear John' note taped to a shop door
I spotted this on a Sunday evening. 

I can only imagine the embarrassment of this shop owner when he/she came to open up on Monday morning and was greeted with this. 

Imagine knowing that passers-by had seen this before you. [And some of them might even photographed it. Forgive me.] 

4.A rather more quaint sign in which some marketing savvy hens tap into Lincoln's history:
A rather more quaint sign in which some marketing savvy hens tap into Lincoln's history:

5. The two books I read while on holiday:
I took comedian and actor Rob Delaney's memoir 'Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage' along with me but, once I'd finished that, I challenged myself to find the remainder of my reading matter from second-hand / charity shops in the town. Which is where I found Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey; a book I've always intended to read but never got around to, and it made perfect light holiday reading. 

And while I was browsing for something to read I picked up two additional books, that I've since read on my return:
6. A window blind at Doddington Hall featuring the text of letter from 1762:
It's a blown-up, printed, reproduction of a letter sent to the Lord of the house informing him of the installation and mending of various tapestries in the house. In case you can't make it out it reads:
"Honorable and Most Worthy Sir. I am hanging the tapestry in the bed chambers according to Lady Hussey Delaval's orders. I have had a tailor all of this week mending the tapestry before we hang it up."
[You can read about the tapestries in question here].

*Makes a note to pick out a tweets/emails to have printed on my curtains ... *

7. Detail of an embroidery in the Doddington Hall 'Voices From the Inside' textiles exhibition:
I'm kicking myself that I forgot to take a photo of the details of this piece. The wording says "I can change my mind" and all I can remember is it is old, and was by a woman who I think was in a mental institution.  If anyone knows the full story please do let me know! 

Also at Doddington Hall ... 

8. A sample of the Cornelia Parker 'Magna Carta' embroidery project: 
The full work, exhibited elsewhere, is an embroidered reproduction of the Wikipedia page of Magna Carta sewn by prisoners, the Embroiderer's Guild and others, [including Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Jarvis Cocker who sewed the words 'Common People' of course!]

The democratic nature of Wikipedia is meant to reflect that of the original document but you can find out lots more in this video.

And, finally, on to the document in question:

8. The wall of the purpose-built subterranean vault in Lincoln Castle, home to one of the copies of  Magna Carta:
A version of the document is depicted on a vast, double-height, wall as you enter the building.
And while the guide informed us we couldn't take photos once inside the vault, he did say we could photograph the wall. And I don't need to be told twice! 
Some of the more famous, and important, phrases have been picked out in gold leaf: 
Now I know the Magna Carta wasn't perfect.

I know it didn't herald freedom and rights for all. [Those 13th Century law makers weren't exactly renowned for their feminist idealism or their concern for the working class] and yet ...

... it was a pretty good start. 
And well worth pausing to read a wall over.  [Find out more about the exhibition here.]


So, how did I do? Not sure I used a lot fewer words than usual. What can I say? I was surrounded by text and script in these photos so it was hard to resist rambling on about them!

Feel free to contribute some text of your own by leaving me a comment today.