Breakfast with Burns

There we were, a roomful of foreigners, invited by the Scottish Government to a Burns Breakfast. I looked around and found we all appeared boringly normal. With the exception of one splendid looking man wearing what I will call a Bavarian style outfit, there was nothing to point to our foreign-ness. And I suppose that’s the whole point. We are all the same, give or take the odd thing.

Nicola Sturgeon at StayInScotland

The presence of quite so many press photographers became clear when Nicola Sturgeon entered the room. I should have guessed. After all, the venue was only divulged after registering. Ben Macpherson, Minister for Europe, Migration & International Development, kicked off with an introduction, and then it was time for the First Minister. It struck me that this was the first time I’d heard her speak, after so many encounters at the book festival. Basically, Scotland wants us here. We are welcome.

Thank you.

Nicola pointed out that Scots are good at having fun, even in deepest, darkest January. So before the first half ended, a young actor whose name I didn’t catch, talked about Robert Burns, and Robert’s strong belief in his own greatness, but thought the great poet might have been surprised to learn of the existence of vegan haggis. There was a most professional address to a haggis, followed by the piping in of a plateful of haggis canapés…

In the interval there was music, and Nicola Sturgeon walked round the room chatting to anyone who wanted to chat. I daresay she’d even have talked to me if I’d been able to come up with something sensible to say. She’s the mistress of selfies, and many many selfies were taken. (Daughter – via WhatsApp – demanded one of me with the FM, but I wriggled out of that by borrowing someone else’s big moment.) The thing about our First Minister is that she talks to people as though she’s a normal person. Not all politicians can.

Nicola Sturgeon at StayInScotland

As we started the second half, Nicola was spirited away, and the rest of us were treated to more music by the trio from The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. They play very well, and the singer has the most beautiful voice. Starting with Auld Lang Syne, the audience perhaps displayed more of a foreign disposition by merely humming cautiously along, but I’d say that’s because we didn’t want to inflict our voices over that of the singer’s.

After several more wonderful songs, by the Burns chap again, Minister Macpherson thanked us, while apologising for the things Westminster is putting us through.

I had a final look at the information stalls, and helped myself to a blue and white pen. Very grip-friendly for elderly fingers, so one simply has to steal where one can.

And I never needed that book I’d brought.

All the Dear Little Animals

How could I not love Ulf Nilsson’s All the Dear Little Animals? To begin with, anything illustrated by Eva Eriksson is automatically extremely loveable. And the story of three children who hunt out dead animals so they can bury them is also rather sweet, don’t you think?

Ulf Nilsson and Eva Eriksson, All the Dear Little Animals

It starts with a bumblebee, which died of natural causes, and its death causes the poetic narrator and his friend Esther to arrange a funeral for it. Our narrator is good at coming up with poems for the ceremony.

And then Esther’s little brother Puttie discovers what they are up to, and he cries. He cries so well that he becomes their official crier. Puttie – unlike his older sister – finds death rather upsetting. He can see that when he dies, their parents will be very distraught.

Esther, on the other hand, avoids telling him that the most likely scenario might be the other way round. This, presumably, is for the adult who reads with their young child to decide to discuss. Mortality, and how it makes you feel.

Once they have hunted out a good many corpses, dug graves, read poems and cried, they are satisfied.

Tomorrow they will do something else.

(Translated by Julia Marshall, this is not a new book. Not even in translation. I would have liked the original title to be mentioned, so I didn’t have to Google it; Alla döda små djur.)

The Fowl Twins

Would it work, this move from Artemis Fowl to his twin brothers Myles and Beckett? Could they be as charmingly bad as their big brother, and would we miss Butler, and what if Eoin Colfer had lost his touch? Yes, yes, yes and no.

They seem so young! Eleven is nothing. But the Artemis we first met was similarly young and just as crooked, and intelligent, calculating everything he did to suit him. Myles is a cold fish, not hesitating to hack Artemis’s security system to get things his way. And Beckett, well, a delight, but one who would quickly wear you out if you actually met. If he was actually real. Charming, and not quite as stupid as he makes you think he is.

Eoin Colfer, The Fowl Twins

Being twins they have that unspoken way of working well together, and the mere fact that Myles has prepped Beckett to do what needs doing, when it needs doing, is a testament to both their abilities. And they have NANNI, an AI minder (who can also be a little hacked).

We have fairies. (It’s an Irish story, after all.) One Barbie-sized troll, who is quite vicious, or would be, were he not encased in plastic. One small, but ancient, non-magic pixel (half pixie, half elf), who is less invisible than she thinks.

And we have baddies. A Spanish speaking nun and a Duke from Scilly, who is very old. Plus the requisite horde of stupid muscle.

Together they all make for a fun and fast paced reading adventure.

There is no point in me explaining anything that happens in this first book about the Fowl twins. It’s just one of those times when you sit down and read and enjoy the ride. I mean, maybe not when face-to-face with the shark. But otherwise it was – mostly – lots of fun. What am I saying? It was fun the whole time. Except maybe for the nits. And, er… yes. Fun.

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet – Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet - Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity

Thought I’d treat you to another of my – our – Christmas present books. Rather than offer any kind of review, which would be fairly hard to do, I will show you some of my photos of it! The title is a bit of a mouthful, but I gather academics, even scientists, like that sort of thing. It’s called Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet – Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity.

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet - Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity

As you will have worked out, this is Daughter’s thesis, and it was generous of her to let us have a copy. I believe they cost a fortune.

Dr Giles has her foreword in no less than three languages, which is one more than they demanded. (Apologies for any mistakes in the third one; I don’t really speak ‘science’ in any language. And the visible mistake is all my fault…)

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet - Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet - Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet - Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity

Because astrophysics is such a male subject, she worked hard to put women scientists in there, from Dr Nirupama Raghavan who is the Resident IT Consultant’s cousins wife’s cousin’s mother-in-law (!), and who was Director of the Nehru Planetarium in New Delhi, to Dr Jessie Christiansen, an almost peer from CalTech.

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet - Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet - Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar ActivityG_2100

I like heavenly bodies to be eccentric; it sounds fun. And in the index I discovered that Daughter’s surname puts her right after some G Galilei chap.

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet - Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity

Also, the book is purple!

Guilty

As I tossed another book (adult crime, since you ask) aside, and recycled the press release, I congratulated myself on how easy it was to decide not to even pretend to be interested in reading the book. No sense of guilt at all.

That’s because it was an unsolicited crime novel from a publicist I don’t know, and who has clearly inherited my name and address from someone. They must also have enough of a budget for doing this with little or no checking up on any resulting reviews.

(The book might be great, for all I know. If space was not an issue, I’d possibly stack it up for my future house arrest days. But I don’t suppose I can hope to live through that many years under house arrest, seeing I’m no longer a spring chicken.)

But the word guilt triggered, well, guilt. Because the rest of the time I feel it in respect of books I’d like to read, authors I know and like, and publicists I might have made promises to.

And I have a family who are so dutiful in their general behaviour that guilt is right there, often on a daily basis. It’s hard to banish, even when you know life’s too short, and all that. Plus the fact that guilt should be saved for graver situations.

So it was quite nice to have that fleeting insouciant no-guilt-here moment.

Jane Eyre

It was good to revisit Jane Eyre after all these years. Barrington Stoke have just published a dyslexia friendly, short, retelling of the famous Charlotte Brontë novel. Tanya Landman has written a more than creditable short version, and one that I enjoyed a lot.

Tanya Landman (Charlotte Brontë), Jane Eyre

I wasn’t sure how hard it would be to make such a long novel into a short one; one that actually works. I’m certain it was neither quick nor easy, but the result is a perfect literary summary of an old classic.

Tanya’s version contains most of what I remembered, skipping over one or two sub-plots with just a few paragraphs (which is obviously how one does it) to get on with that which matters. The only major fact missing is Jane’s inheritance, but in the long run it’s not massively important.

She can still marry Mr Rochester and live happily ever after. (I hope this doesn’t count as a spoiler..?)

A classic has to be one of the hardest things to access if reading is difficult. I guess watching the film is the nearest, but won’t give so much flavour of the real deal. That’s what you get in something like this Jane Eyre.

I hope the book will be a happy discovery for many. Jane is still a most interesting heroine.

Prime fool

‘I seem to have accidentally got Amazon Prime,’ said the Resident IT Consultant some weeks before Christmas.

I tutted and offered to help him get out of it. I even thought I’d do a sample purchase to see where he ‘went wrong.’ But then he managed to extricate himself without assistance and all he had to suffer through was another 29 days of Prime membership.

Knowing how easy they make it to make the mistake, I still felt it was up to my savvy shopper to see the pit before he fell into it.

Then as I was tidying up my inbox at the weekend, I ‘dealt with’ the email from an author, telling me about his new books (because I’d asked), and decided to buy them. It felt too unlikely that I’d be able to ask for a review copy of even one of them at this late point.

And before I knew what hit me, I was also the lucky recipient of Amazon Prime.

Actually, I saw exactly what hit me. And as I thought ‘so that’s where he went wrong!’ I went wrong too. Well, I didn’t, because I had a choice of two buttons, the most tempting of which took me to Prime country, and the one below it was the get out free button. Which I selected. And it took me straight to the congratulations for having joined them page.

Going back a page or two didn’t undo the damage, so I bought my two books, which already had free postage, for free. And then I went to the help page and clicked on the ‘get me out of here’ button, and I was out again.

As the Resident IT Consultant had said, escape was really easy. But so was the trap. I’d say, it was unavoidable, as I can’t see how choosing the right button should get me the result of the wrong button.

The whole thing is even more ridiculous, because I had for some time pondered joining. I’d been seduced by the films and television shows Daughter was enjoying with hers. The main thing preventing me was that a year ago I was stupid enough to buy a television that doesn’t do Prime…

But, had I not been tricked, it’s not inconceivable I’d have given them my money. Willingly.