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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, July 15, 2024

Just Finished Reading: The Testimony of Alys Twist by Suzannah Dunn (FP: 2020) [273pp] 

England, circa 1554. It was the very pinnacle of achievement; she was a laundress to royalty itself. It was, even if she said so herself, a strange kind of royalty – a Queen, ruling alone, without a man, a King, to guide her. Alys thought it both disturbing and oddly exhilarating. Even so, a Queen needed a King to produce heirs and Queen Mary wasn’t getting any younger. More worryingly though was the fact that the new monarch still clung to the old religion and was, it seemed, dedicated to bringing it back to prominence with all the dangers that such an idea entailed. One of those dangers was the Queen’s younger half-sister the Lady Elizabeth. As an adherent to the new religion of Protestantism she was likely to be a lightning rod for any conspiracy against the rightful crown. But Miss Twist thankfully realised, this was none of her concern – until it was. The Lady Elizabeth needed staff and elements within the Queens orbit needed information. As Alys had only just arrived at court, she was the ideal subject to be transferred to look after Elizabeth’s laundry. Now at the very heart of things, Alys begins to wonder which side she was on and whether being on any side in such an endeavour wasn’t just a quick road to an execution. 

As usual I picked this up years ago because it looked interesting and different. It also focused on a particularly interesting period of English/Tudor history – the countries (brief) return to Catholicism following Henry’s establishment of the Church of England and the reign of ‘Bloody Mary’ so revealed in later centuries. Although both monarchs are only very briefly ‘on the page’ they have very distinct and well-known characters – Elizabeth is young, intelligent, crafty and lucky whilst Mary is wracked with doubt, pious to a fault, paranoid (especially about Elizabeth) and delusional if not actually mad. The main thrust of this often-excellent novel is, as the title suggests, the life of Alys Twist herself. Alys is a great character, maybe a little too modern for the period but I can understand why this is the case. Like updating the language to a more modern parlance – I'm not sure if more authentic ‘Shakespearian English’ would work with most readers! - a more modern mindset/personality is more palatable to a modern reader as long as things aren’t TOO modern that is. This is where the author come in for my only criticism, if I can use that word. The world the author creates and the characters she populates it with are very good indeed. The author's style is, likewise, very good indeed and I thoroughly enjoyed my reading experience. But, sometimes, I paused and thought to myself – did people REALLY say such things in the mid 16th century? Would someone in 1544 even find that particular thought even possible? I’ll explain... 

Metaphors or styles of speech have their time and place. Words, meanings and common usage are born, live and, sometimes, die. Phrases have historical roots. For example, a Roman would never have said that something was ‘a flash in the pan’ or that everything had been taken ‘lock, stock, and barrel’ - because both phrases date from the age of gunpowder flintlocks. In this novel nothing ‘quite’ like that happened, but on more than one occasion the author used a phrase that knocked me out of the narrative because it made me wonder – without any actual knowledge to back it up – if such a phrase COULD be used at the time. It certainly didn’t ruin things for me – nowhere near – but it was more than a little irritating at times. This was, however, my only quibble with the book which, apart from that, I thought very good and edging towards excellent. It’s from a very interesting period of British history, its chocked full of interesting characters and has a real sense of place which I enjoyed. There are some minor (non-conventional) non-explicit romantic elements which shouldn’t bother anyone but is worth a mention. Overall, a fun intriguing read. Definitely recommended to all history, and especially Tudor history, buffs.                

Saturday, July 13, 2024

Happy Birthday: Sir Patrick Stewart OBE (born 13 July 1940) is an English actor. With a career spanning over seven decades of stage and screen, he has received various accolades, including two Laurence Olivier Awards and a Grammy Award, as well as nominations for a Tony Award, three Golden Globe Awards, four Emmy Awards, and three Screen Actors Guild Awards. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1996 and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for services to drama in 2010.

In 1966, Stewart became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He made his Broadway theatre debut in 1971 in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In 1979, he received the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance in Antony and Cleopatra in the West End. His first television role was in Coronation Street in 1967. His first major screen roles were in Fall of Eagles (1974), I, Claudius (1976) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979). In 2008 he reprised his role as King Claudius in Hamlet and received his second Olivier Award and his first Tony Award nomination for respectively the West End and Broadway theatre productions.

Stewart gained international stardom for his leading role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1994), its subsequent films and Star Trek: Picard (2020–23). He starred as Captain Ahab in the USA miniseries Moby Dick (1998), Ebenezer Scrooge in TNT television film A Christmas Carol (1999) and King Henry II in the Showtime made-for-television film The Lion in Winter (2003). He also became known for his comedic appearances on sitcoms Frasier and Extras for which he received a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series nomination. He also starred as the lead of Blunt Talk (2015–2016). He currently voices Avery Bullock on American Dad!.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Ooooh... I LIKE that...... 

Just Finished Reading: Iceland Defrosted by Edward Hancox (FP: 2013) [279pp] 

It was an obsession, freely admitted. Iceland, the landscape, the people, the food and especially the music fascinated him beyond anything else. Travelling to, and around, the country at every opportunity mostly alone, sometimes with local friends, sometimes with his wife and, more recently, with their new born the author made new friends, experienced the strangeness of the land (and more often than not the people too!), stayed in small hotels or bed & breakfast places – complete with interesting, often delicious, food – enjoyed concerts and other concert goers, and generally had a LOT of fun. 

Almost any way you look at it, Iceland is a pretty amazing place. The scenery alone, seen in various Lord of the Rings movies as well as more than a few others over the years, would make it a holiday destination for anyone jaded by the regular destinations we’ve all heard so much about (and often been too far too often). But it has SO much more going for it than awesome lava fields, active volcanoes (as the world, and especially western Europe has found out to its inconvenience more than once) and world class waterfalls. One thing I can definitely agree with is the music. I’ve been a BIG fan of Bjork for a long time and love her vocal style. After hearing her as a solo artist I starting picking up her earlier work with the Sugarcubes and even have a jazz album by her – in Icelandic! - which is probably the strangest CD I own (at the moment). As a sometimes music journalist, the author kindly lists some of his favourite bands/singers in the back and I’m working my way through them (on YouTube) to see if I like them. Throughout the book as he travels around the country, he also interviews many of the singers he’s long admired from a distance, which is pretty cool. 

As a veggie (coming up to 25 years now) I’ll have to take the authors word on the superb fish meals he had and wrote about with great gusto. One thing I was intrigued by though was Icelandic yoghurt – specifically Skyr yoghurt. He enthused over it more than once and lamented (while in New York of all places whilst enjoying a pot there) that it was a great pity that it wasn’t on sale in the UK. Now this book was published in 2013 so, I thought, I wonder if things had changed. I’m delighted to say that it has and picked up a BIG tub of Skyr strawberry yoghurt from my local big supermarket. It’s YUMMY and deserves the praise the author heaped on it. It is fast becoming a staple part of my weekly diet. 

Needless to say, I really enjoyed this book. Not only is it simply a fun read in itself but the authors love of that island shines through in the prose. Iceland is a fascinating (if rather expensive!) place with a seriously unique history and culture – and I don’t just mean the yoghurt. If you’re thinking of trying it out as a potential holiday destination you could do a lot worse than reading this excellent travelogue first. Recommended.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Officially BLOWN away....

Ok, this is going to sound a little weird. I've just started a book and I think this is quite possibly the BEST single sentence I've ever read. Check THIS out:

"There are many shades in the danger of adventures and gales, and it is only now and then that there appears on the face of facts a sinister violence of intention - that indefinable something which forces upon the mind and heart of a man, that this complication of accidents or these elemental furies are coming at him with a purpose of malice, with a strength beyond control, with an unbridled cruelty that means to tear out of him his hope and his fear, the pain of his fatigue and his longing for rest: which means to smash, to destroy, to annihilate all he had seen, known, loved, enjoyed, or hated; all that is priceless and necessary - the sunshine, the memories, the future - which means to sweep the whole precious world utterly away from his sight by the simple and appalling act of taking his life."

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, page 7.