Monday, 23 January 2012

Some of my favourite reads, No 2

Passage by Connie Willis
I have only read about six of her novels but Connie Willis has become one of my favourite authors.  She writes what is described as SF, but it is not hard SF by any means, just including something in the stories where a device is needed that is not available at present.  She is not a prolific writer, having only a fairly small output, but every book I have read so far has shot straight into my top 50 favourite books.  Several of her History Department novels are set in the same background and she has successfully entrapped me into wanting to read more.  The ones I know are ‘Doomsday Book’, ‘To Say Nothing of the Dog’ and ‘Blackout’.

Passage is a standalone novel, not part of her other ‘History Department’ novels and really not SF at all, although it involves going where medical research has not gone before, but what a massively good book! Passage is a fantastic read.
Based in a generic but instantly recognisable hospital, where both bureaucratic and jobsworth staff make life difficult for our heroine.  Three independent teams of people are researching near death experiences (NDE) in their own particular ways.  One of these is a writer, a Mr Mandrake, who has made a name writing about the paranormal and wants to get material for his next book about the afterlife.  He is totally non scientific in his approach and will impose his own ideas on resuscitated patients rather than let them tell him what they really experienced.  The main character is Dr Joanna Lander, who is trying to get to patients who have been revived before Mandrake, has had a chance to influence their memories. Whereas her research is attempting to find out as objectively as possible if there are any common thread in people's recollection of a NDE, Mandrake just wants to confirm his own ideas, and sell his books on the afterlife and to do this he will put words into the mouths of his interviewees. If he gets to the patients first he will feed them ideas that cloud Joanna’s research, so she is constantly trying to avoid Mandrake as much as possible. Mandrake is keen on getting her to work with him since it would add authenticity to his work, without realising what harm his kind of non research is doing but Joanna wants to keep her interviews uninfluenced and is having a hard job fending him off.
Meanwhile, a Dr Richard Wright is carrying out similar research independent to Joanna in order to understand the mechanism in the brain that produces the NDE with the idea that it may be possible to recognise when patients are close to death and stop them slipping away. 
He has identified that a NDE produces very specific brainwave patterns and these can be induced artificially by means of a particular drug, so he does not need to wait for someone to make a recovery from a genuine NDE but can induce them at will in a healthy person. 
Joanna and Dr Wright after some stormy encounters when Dr Wright believes Joanna is helping mandrake, eventually get together and using volunteers start to get some good results. The supply of volunteers dries up so Joanna lets herself be put under to induce an NDE.  She sees a passage with the light at the end as per common experience and tries to get to the end of the corridor to see what is there.   Over several sessions, she gets further along the passage and starts to realise that the passage appears to be on the Titanic just after its collision with the iceberg. 
With the aid of a long term patient Masie, a little girl who has suffered several NDEs due to her chronically poor health and whose hobby is reading about disasters, Joanna learns more about the Titanic disaster and as surreal as it seems, she starts to really believe she is actually visiting this doomed ship but cannot figure out how or why.
As the story progresses, set against the background of the nightmare hospital we have all visited at one time or another, full of maze-like corridors, restaurants that never seem to be open when you want them, violent outpatients and stressed staff, she begins to understand what is happening to her and with a sudden insight understands completely.   She sets out to find Dr Wright to tell him…. 
No I will not say what happens next, you had just better read it!
Like Connie Willis’s other books, the background is complex and believable and the story just flows along taking the reader with it. 
So buy it, borrow it, st….  ok don’t steal it, but get hold of it somehow is is a must read.
A young history researcher is trapped in the past and witnesses the ravages of the plague, helpless to stop it or aid anyone.  A tragic story but so gripping.
The same History Department trying to find a missing artifact from Coventry Cathederal lost during WWII, go back to Victorian England to track it down. Quite the opposite to Doomsday Book, much more light hearted and really funny.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Christmas – past and present

My mother’s family was quite large and for several years her Step Mother always had everyone around for Christmas day and often Boxing Day at her house. Considering this meant feeding and seating up to twenty one people from adults to quite young children in a fairly small cottage, she did amazingly well. She did have two of my maiden aunts living with her after my Grandfather died, so she did not do it all alone.
On Christmas day, after lunch, all the presents were given out in age order, usually starting at the youngest and because there were so many people, this often took up most of the afternoon. I was second youngest and my cousin Alan was only a few months older than me, so this meant that quite early on we could both disappear with our new toys and not become a nuisance by being restive and impatient as only small boys can be when dying to play with their new toys.
On Boxing Day, the children would have another round of small gifts, like a chocolate Santa or a plastic toy, usually something along the lines of a cracker gift. For several years these were taken from the Christmas tree, but later, they came from a giant cracker and later still from a hollow snowman. The cracker and snowmen were made for the occasion by someone in the family and filled with these small gifts. These little extras were always received with excitement, despite being trivia, because of the anticipation, particularly with the cracker or snowman, because you could not see what was coming and this increased the anticipation.
A few years ago, now there are grandchildren around, I decided to re-introduce this idea into our present family and we have had a giant cracker for two years running. 

One of the children was initially a little alarmed the first time the cracker appeared, because they thought it would have a correspondingly large bang, but once reassured it had no bang at all, they became quite keen on the idea.
This last Christmas, I made a change and introduced a Snowman.
Ready to be packed with the goodies
 Unlike the crackers, he is sturdy enough to be used for more than one year, since he does not have to be pulled, so he will be back again at the end of this year for Christmas 2012 and hopefully again the following Christmas.  He is just card, rolled into two cylinders with cottonwool glued on to make the snow.  The top of the smaller cylinder forms his hat.
Christmas with the family has now become a strong tradition and The Step Daughter and her husband make a huge effort to provide a wonderful Christmas for us all.
Christmas day, only seven for lunch this year
This involves a lot of preparation and hotel like accommodation chores, making sure there are enough beds, feeding everyone and so on.  This is because they live in a three story Victorian terraced house which has enough rooms to house us all without having to pitch tents in the back garden or rent out a hotel.

There were two cakes this year which were both works of art (decorated by The Granddaughter) and Christmas lunch was massive, with both goose and turkey
Unfortunately only one got photographed before it was eaten

Someone in our family got a camera this Christmas
It is a funny feature of wardrobes that if you leave any clothes in them for any length of time they tend to shrink, particularly those left in the wardeobe over the Christmas period.  It is a well know fact that this has nothing to do with the amount of food served up at this time of year as some people will try to tell you.
So it is all over now, colds and coughs are on the run and I feel up to doing another blog, be it a little late. Still only 330 something days to go and off we go again. 

Friday, 13 January 2012


So you spotted it was moss or lichen.  It was on the roof of a farm building in Cornwall and is seen at an angle so that the roof looks flat. Here is another view.

The roof was like a minature parkland.  What you are seeing is only about one metre square

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Happy New Year

I have not yet properly emerged from hibernation, I have managed to greet the new year with a cold which has gone straight to my chest, so just a brief seasons greeting and a puzzle picture.

See if you can guess what this scene is showing, you may be surprised.