Audio book reviews March 2018

Iris Murdoch ASH

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch – audio book cover from

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie narrated by Tania Rodrigues

This is a retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone… the conflict between family and tradition and the legal requirements of the State.
Siblings Aneeka, Parvaiz and Isma are left alone when their mother dies and their father disappears. Clever Isma gives up her studies to look after her younger siblings; lost Parvaiz and his beautiful, wayward sister Aneeka. Parvaiz is befriended by an older man who tells him stories about his missing father, his heroism in Afghanistan and his martyr’s death on the way to Guantanamo. Inevitably Parvaiz becomes radicalised. Shamsie does not spare the reader details of the process. Parvaiz disappears and his twin, Aneeka, is distraught. Isma accepts an offer to study in the USA and while she is there Aneeka discovers that she has betrayed Parvaiz by telling the police that he has gone to join ISIS. Aneeka disowns Isma as her sister.
In the meantime Isma has met Eamonn, holidaying in America, and son of the British Home Secretary. He and his father have shaken off their Muslim heritage. When Eamon returns to England he looks up Aneeka. By this time Parvaiz has become disenchanted with ISIS and wants to return home. Is Aneeka’s developing relationship with Eamonn a means of getting help from his father, the Home Secretary, or genuine love?
This many layered and intelligent novel exposes so many moral and religious dilemmas facing the world today that it is a superb read. Kamila Shamsie’s writing is evocative and economical. She uses the narrative to set out the dilemma with clarity and humanity. Well worth reading.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng narrated by Jennifer Lim

What more perfect place could there be to live than Shaker Heights, Ohio, a perfect community built on the grounds of a Shaker settlement. Of course, the Shakers are long gone because of their stern views on procreation. The current inhabitants of Shaker Heights pride themselves on their openness and welcoming liberality.
Into their midst arrive artist Mia and her teenage daughter, Pearl. Elena Richardson, a comfortably off resident, rents them the top floor of her rental house. Mia and Pearl have moved around a lot, funded partly by Mia’s art and by any job she can pick up. They manage by being self-sufficient and unmaterialistic. The Richardson family are intrigued by them and soon the younger Richardson son, Moody, and Pearl become best friends. It is not long before Pearl is welcomed into the Richardson home where she experiences the bourgeois comforts she hadn’t known about.
Inevitably the contrasting experiences of the two lifestyles raise a number of questions with their differing values and experiences.
I loved this book and especially Pearl, Moody and, above all, independent, imaginative, Mia. Great read. I’m looking forward to reading more of Jennifer Ng’s novels.

And now for something different!


A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch narrated by Derek Jacobi

Liz (Adventures in reading, writing and working from home) has kindly agreed to review the same book as I do from time to time. She will read the print version and I will listen on audio. Liz has some experience in sharing these different formats with her husband Matthew. I listen because I can no longer physically read because of VI, Matthew listens partly for his commute and maybe because he likes it.
It will be interesting to see if our analysis and response varies and in what way. Liz has already published her review and I look forward to her comments on this.
It is likely that my review in this context will be longer than usual and I would very much appreciate any comments from readers.
A Severed Head is a reread for me. I last read it as a mature student more than 50 years ago. My tutor, Elsie Duncan-Jones, was a friend of Iris Murdoch but I can no longer remember if this influenced me. Hosixties and seventies Iris Murdoch was very much in the fore and I wondered if A Severed Head would seem dated.
I read all Murdoch’s novels voraciously and with a kind of fascination. At that time, because I had been studying English literature, I spent a lot of energy on linking her metaphors to her stories. This is more difficult when you are listening or perhaps I am now more relaxed about simply absorbing the richness of her prose.
Then I put the novels away and haven’t read them since. I now recall very little about them so listening to Derek Jacobi read A Severed Head was quite an intense experience. Initially his interpretation confused me and then I realised the deadpan narrative style was mischievous at times and very funny. Hmm. Had I completely lacked a sense of humour back in the sixties and seventies or was it a misplaced over-respect for contemporary authors?
One of the problems with listening rather than seeing print is keeping track of the names and relationships of people and places. It is possible to refer back on audio but I am disinclined to do that so please forgive any confusion.
In A Severed Head Murdoch has followed the convention of maintaining a small cast and limited locations. In addition the action all seems to take place in one winter. This compactness for me gives the sense of a traditional drama, which, of course, is far from the truth. (I was interested to see that Liz had also commented on this in her review here.) The story revolves around the loves and infatuations of Martin Lynch-Gibbon, wine merchant aged 41, his older wife, Antonia, his brother Alexander, his mistress Georgie, his sister, Rosemary, his wife’s American psychoanalyst Palmer Anderson and Anderson’s half-sister, Honor Klein. Confused? I’m not surprised.
I gave up on trying to follow the switches in location but very much enjoyed the use of the removal men and down to earth, organising, Rosemary as a kind of chorus to the main action, not to mention Martin’s lesbian secretaries and his right hand man, Mytton. They provided a great contrast to the high tension of the main story.
Plot? Like a play the plot moves fast against a densely woven tapestry of love, infatuation, incest, betrayal, myth, landscape, metaphor and philosophy. Murdoch writes brilliantly about interiors and the fog and rain of London. Her imagery is vivid and memorable and ranges from the sinister to the absurd.
The narrator in the story is Martin, so self-absorbed that half the time he is unaware of the tragi-comedy that is taking place around him. He then becomes shocked and hurt when it affects him. He allows his betrayers to infantilise him with promises of eternal love and inclusion and maintains an infuriating, to me, cooperation with their behaviou.

Who could be better at interpreting the solicitude of Palmer and Antonia than Jacobi? And their strangely intimate meetings.  I loved his reading of the descriptions of Palmer’s exotic silk dressing gowns and Antonia’s haggard beauty. Creepy and witty at the same time. The juxtaposition of the exquisite and the ugly in the incest scene was truly shocking.

I could not warm to any of these egotistical characters and their existential angst except for Georgie, the waif, more or less forced into an abortion to save Martin’s marriage. In 1961, publication date of A Severed Head, it is worth mentioning that abortion for those who could afford it and many who could not was not an uncommon form of birth control.
The partner swapping had me alternately frustrated and laughing. Jacobi’s reading range in this instance interpreted each situation for what it was. Georgie’s genuine anguish contrasting sensitively with Antonia’s selfishness.
My knowledge of philosophy and psychology is too sketchy to comment on the underlying meaning of the novel but I have a deep respect for Iris Murdoch’s scholarship and insight which informs the novel. She undoubtedly uses her own beliefs to shock the reader into a new understanding of relationships.
I have real reservations about Murdoch’s use of her descriptions of  Palmer and Honor as Jews.   What did make me uncomfortable and to my shame, what I hadn’t remembered, was the scene in the wine cellar which Martin thinks of as a gas chamber shortly before the arrival of Honor and his brutal attack on her. I won’t go into further detail about what I feel as I’m not sure I understand what Murdoch is saying. Until this point I had been edging away from these images of the beautiful Anderson and the ugly, scary Honor.
Overall I liked the way the plot threaded its way through the imagery of the dark, comfortable interiors, particularly the Christmas scene, against the twists and turns of the characters. The motifs of the Audubon bird prints, the Meissen cockatoos and the Japanese sword remain with me.
Was the conclusion satisfactory? I never really understood A Severed Head and believe the disposition of the main characters would remain fluid.
I know I haven’t done justice to the plot and characterisation partly for the same reason and partly because they didn’t engage me. This is not to diminish the novel. It is more a reflection on my current taste and preferences. Also it seemed old fashioned to me: important to my generation at the time with its themes of sexual liberation and a fascination with the chattering classes but my personal response is huge respect for brilliant writers like Iris Murdoch in opening up the debate about choices and freedom but not one I want to revisit. Well worth the reread and listening to Derek Jacobi reading was pure pleasure.
I’m wondering if my response is generational? What do you think?


Home Fire

Little Fires Everywhere

A Severed Head

Liz’s blog

Liz’s A Severed Head review


Posted in Audio books, books, Literature | 7 Comments

Audio Book Reviews February 2018


Image from 1833 edition of Northanger AbbeyImage source link.

This blog was originally aimed primarily at people with VI but I am delighted to have received a positive response from sighted people who enjoy audio books.
One of the advantages of audio, is that you can listen while doing other things so get through several hours of listening per month. The books I review are as varied as I can make them and, I believe, represent the most interesting of my listening. If you think otherwise please let me know.  As usual all books are downloaded from

The Dry by Jane Harper narrated by Stephen Shanahan

Chosen by our book group as our February read.

Federal Agent Aaron Falk grew up in a small town in Australia. As a teenager, following the drowning of a young woman, he and his father are more or less driven out of town. Now a successful Agent Falk is called back by the father of his friend Luke following an incident in which Luke is found to have murdered his wife and son before killing himself.
Jane Harper draws a vivid picture of a small town during a burning heatwave and consequent drought when flies abound, tempers are frayed and suspicions past and present create a tense atmosphere which impedes Falk’s unofficial investigation.
I like the way Harper portrays macho men and small town women even though some critics have found this aspect of her writing uncomfortable. I hope I’m not buying in to a stereotype.
I very much enjoy novels set in Australia and this one goes to the top of my list and is highly recommended for its style, characterisation and originality.
…and if there are any Australian readers out there I am always interested in recommendations.

Nagasaki by Éric Faye, narrated by David Timson and Anna Bentinck

I don’t know what genre to call this book so I will settle by describing it as a long short story. The plot is based on a true incident where a homeless woman lived in a house side by side with the owners without them being aware of her presence.
Nagasaki, set in Japan, is the story of a solitary and unsociable man living alone who gradually becomes aware of subtle changes in his house. Slightly less juice than he thought he had, a jug just at the wrong angle. With no specific evidence he slowly becomes suspicious. To write more would spoil the book for the reader. What I will say is that it is more investigative than alarming.
The basic premise is simple but, as the story unfolds, it becomes cleverly metaphorical using technology and isolation to illustrate the dilemmas facing modern day Japan. The subtle changes in the house reflect the sense of violation in Japanese society with the intrusion of the modern world.
Beautifully written and read with humour and perception. A curious and wonderful find.

Who Thought This Was a Good Idea by Alyssa Mastromonaco read by the author

Mastromonaco worked with Barack Obama in various capacities ending up as his Deputy Chief of Staff when he became President. At the end of his term of office she decided to take time out to write her memoirs. It didn’t happen and I can understand why. She is a woman of many parts and multiple skills and combining them to form a coherent narrative is a hard call.
Eventually she called on Lauren Oyler to help with the writing. The narrative turned into a sort of self-help book aimed at aspiring young women. I found the format awkward and some of the content difficult to comprehend. I don’t know why she included so much about her ailments for instance.
But, having said that, I found her humour, energy and anecdotes fascinating. She ranges from the tension of the climate talks to the difficulty of nipping out from the White House to buy tampons.
I would have liked more about Obama and her own political views. Evidently the title comes from Obama’s typical response when things go wrong. Clearly she and Obama worked well together with no recriminations.
I loved the anecdote when Mastromonaco had organised the return to the US after the state visit to England. Bags packed, papers boxed, cars despatched to take them to Heathrow. In jeans and tee shirt she mops her brow only to get a text from Obama saying to get on over to Buckingham Palace. All her clothes were packed so she managed to acquire a jacket and spent her time there hiding behind chairs so that no one would see her jeans. Thoughtful and thoughtless of Obama! And she did manage to come away with one of the Queen’s copies of Tatler.

Interesting as far as it goes and a good listen. Maybe one for a long journey.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, narrated by Juliet Stevenson

If Jane Austen could have chosen the perfect narrator for this novel of wit and wisdom she would certainly have chosen Juliet Stevenson… superb interpretation.
Northanger Abbey was Jane Austen’s first completed novel in 1803 but it was not published until 1817 after her death. As with all her novels the main themes are money, status and growing awareness. Serious themes clothed in a coat of humour and irony.
This was a re-read for me and I loved it.

17 year old Catherine Morland, Gothic novel reader, is taken to Bath by Mr & Mrs Allen, friends and neighbours of Catherine’s parents. Catherine is chaperoned through the pump room, balls and excursions by the vague Mrs Allen. When the Tilney family invite her to Northanger Abbey her Gothic imagination goes into overdrive.

Brilliant spoof. Comforting to know there are still teenage Goths around.

If you have read or listened or plan to read and listen to any of these books I would love to have your comments.  Any suggestions for audio books you have enjoyed would be very welcome.



The Dry


Who Thought This Was a Good Idea

Tatler Magazine

Northanger Abbey

Posted in Audio books, Australian fiction, books, Communication, Gothic, Japan, Literature, Reviews, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Reviews (audio books, tv, movies, audio described theatre, and anything else that crops up)

The Penguin Lessons

The Penguin Lessons

In the 5 or more years my sight has deteriorated further new technology has improved beyond our wildest dreams. Nowadays all I need is an iPad, a mobile phone and a smart tv to access most of the things I want. Of course, there is always more and I try to keep up but I’m happy with what I have at the moment. This blog, therefore is moving more in the direction of what I use technology for and this month I will start with audio book reviews.

At present I subscribe to as it seems to be the most accessible but I would love to hear from readers who have links to and experience of other sources. Please let me have your comments and suggestions.

Reviews January 2018

All these books are available from

The Murder Stone, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete de Quebec, book 4 by Louise Penny, narrated by Adam Sims.

This is the fourth in Louise Penny’s chief Inspector Gamache series set in or around the small Canadian village of Three Pines in Quebec province. An idyllic village close to a forest of secrets and which has more killings than Midsomer Murders. Penny explores character and environment with style, invention and superb description. The Murder Stone follows the story of the annual reunion of a dysfunctional family at a luxurious hotel just outside Three Pines. By coincidence the erudite and clever CI Gamache and his elegant wife are celebrating their anniversary at the same hotel when the Murder tales place. Satisfying formula but lots of local colour and interesting commentary about the differences between the French Canadians and the English. Although I thought this was the best of the series I have read so far I would recommend starting at the beginning in order to maintain the cast and settings. This is not a cosy read but it does fall into the category of comfortable.

Incidentally provide a free interview with Louise Penny.

The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell, narrated by Bill Nighy.

Tom Michell was a young teacher in an elite boys’ boarding school in Argentina when he rescued an oil soaked penguin from a beach of dead oil drenched penguins in Uruguay. Initially furious, the penguin allows himself to be cleaned up and smuggled into Argentina by Tom Michell who intends to donate him to the zoo in Buenos Aires. This is a true story and an ecological plea to protect our environment. Beautifully read by Bill Nighy. I guarantee you will fall in love with the penguin in spite of the serious message of the book. Who knew!

The Year of Living Danishly Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell, narrated by Lucy Price-Lewis.

Writer, Helen Russell, and her husband are given the opportunity to live in a small Danish town for a year. Initially sceptical about highly taxed Denmark’s status as the world’s happiest country they gradually get drawn in to the benefits of a truly democratic system with a grown up political agenda. They come to embrace the cold in the Danish way by either staying guilt free indoors in the warm or enjoying the environment properly clad in suitable clothing. They explore the culture from the delicious pastries to leisure activities to child raising. Inevitably things go wrong which makes the book more interesting but the way of life seems so stylish and wholesome that I wanted to book the next flight out. I was left feeling somewhat embarrassed by our greedy and adversarial policies. Ouch!

Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers, narrated by Jane McDowell.

At last Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane are married to the joy of his mother and the dismay of family and several young women. Lord Peter could have had any pretty young woman and chose instead intellectual bluestocking crime writer, Harriet Vane. They have bought an old farmhouse in a village and set off with Lord Peter’s indispensable butler/valet. Of course there is a murder which requires all their brilliance to resolve. I loved this series when I was a teenager but am left uncomfortable now by its sexism, classicism and antisemitism.  Might be worth a read for the humour and period details.


Have been watching Suits on Netflix and wondering what kind of a Princess Meghan Markle will be. Any views anyone?

Collected links

The Murder Stone Audiobook

The Penguin Lessons Audiobook

The Year of Living Danishly Audiobook

Busman’s Honeymoon Audiobook

Suits on Netflix

Posted in Audio books, books, Communication, Literature, Reviews | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Another Visit to the Barber

John Hanning Speke

John Hanning Speke (1827 – 1864) By the Southwell Brothers, 1863

Early Photographic Studio Photography and the Influence of Photography on Impressionist Painting

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, the University of Birmingham July 2017, Insight Programme

More than three years ago I wrote about the Insight programme run by the staff and volunteers at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. The programme runs on a quarterly basis and has gathered a steady group of visually impaired followers. For various reasons I have been a rather sporadic attendee but last week I was lucky enough to be included in the group.

The volunteer guides are all enthusiastic, erudite and very knowledgeable art lovers. Sometimes the demands of the gallery and the VI group call for levels of imagination and ingenuity above and beyond their remit. I suspect and hope they like a challenge and this time they met it with great success by linking the unlikely subject of 19th century cartes de visite exhibition with the influence of photography on the French Impressionists.

For readers who, like me, had never heard of cartes de visite, these were small visiting cards bearing a photograph of the visitor and were patented by Disdéri in Paris in 1854. Initially they were straightforward studio based photographs but later became more widely interesting and collectible. For more information on cartes de visite go to For those of us living in this digital age it is easy to understand the appeal of the accessibility of photography in the 19th century and its appeal to painters looking for fresh ideas.

On this occasion four of the volunteer guides at the Institute gave us a detailed and interesting account of the connection between photography and the innovative approach of the Impressionists to their subjects, both portraits and landscape. I was particularly interested in the ideas of using paint to capture the effects of how we see things with our peripheral vision. For those of us who have macular degeneration and are only left with peripheral vision it seems particularly ironic that we are unable to focus on the technique. Thank goodness for the imagination and sensitivity of the guides in describing what we cannot see. The provision of excellent reproductions of some of the work under discussion is a great help. We can then examine them closely before seeing the real thing.

Water Lily Pond - Monet

Claude Monet, Water Lily Pond 1900

After looking at the reproduction images we were taken to the main gallery where the guides talked about the Monet Water Lily Pond 1900, the Degas Jockeys Before the Race 1879 and the Manet portrait of his friend Carolus Duran 1876.

We then visited the small exhibition of cartes de visite. Unfortunately, for my particular vision, the lighting was too dim and the photographs too small for me to see them.

Following the visit to the gallery, we returned to the seminar room to discuss what we had seen. The consensus was that the morning had been an introduction to some new ideas and was very accessible at different levels to all of us. Great success!

This blog is intended to be about technology and accessibility for people with VI and so I have not gone into detail about the exhibition but I can thoroughly recommend a visit to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. It has something for everyone!

Carolus Duran - Manet

Manet – Carolus Duran 1876

PS thank you Daisy for editing and posting this.


The Barber Institute of Fine Arts

A Visit to the Barber blog

Carte de Visite – wiki entry

Posted in Art, Birmingham, Communication, Education, low vision | 4 Comments

Audio books to the rescue


Marsden, Pennine Way       Attribute: Public Domain,

The first weeks of 2017 brought Trump, Brexit and, for me, an emergency heart procedure.

Thanks again to the dedicated staff of the NHS and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Thanks too to family and friends for love, company and food.

And thank you to everyone who responded to my desperate pleas for book recommendations… especially my Australian connections who have taken my reading (listening) in new directions. I have deliberately avoided old favourites and nostalgia.

What I want to write about now is the restorative power of audio. During the last six weeks I have listened to numerous books. Perhaps not all of them have been the wisest of choices in the circumstances but they have got me through some frustrating and anxious hours. They have been chosen for their variety. I am aware that this blog is very personal so I shall not hold back on any comments and this is no reflection on the authors.

Books listened to January and February 2017

Sisters and Lies by Bernice Barrington narrated by Caroline Lennon and Marcella Riordan. One sister in a coma following an unexplained car accident, the other going back over their lives in Ireland, before they moved to London, in an attempt to unravel the mystery of the accident. Well written and suspenseful and lovely to listen to the soft Irish accents.

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift narrated by Eve Webster. Brilliant, subtle, at times erotic, evocation of a seminal day in an 80 year old writer’s early life as a housemaid in a big house. So many layers in this novella that I will listen to it again.

Walking Home: Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way by Simon Armitage narrated by Simon Armitage. Simon Armitage, the poet, decided to walk the Pennine Way. He would take no money but he would give readings and pass round a sock for contributions to his bed and board. He advertised his journey in advance and, with the help of ordnance survey maps, plotted his course. He let it be known publicly where he would stop each night and invited people to come and hear him, offer him a bed, offer him food and drink and even accompany him on his journey. I was in hospital when I listened to this beautiful evocation of a particular part of England and the poet’s encounters with people and animals. I can’t imagine a calmer, more therapeutic book. Loved it.

The Dry by Jane Harper narrated by Stephen Shanahan. Exceptionally well written and read, mystery set in Australia during a long hot drought. The small town bears an old grudge against Federal Investigator, Aaron Falk, unofficially called back to his hometown to help discover who murdered his best friend Luke, Luke’s wife and young son Billy. Harper takes the reader right into the centre of small town dynamics. For a mystery this is gentle and humane without being remotely cosy. I loved the atmospheric descriptions of the homes, the farms and the landscape. Great read.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks narrated by Edwina Wren. Geraldine Brooks is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. She has taken the true story of the 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah which was rescued by a Moslem librarian during the bombing of Sarajevo. Another librarian was killed by a sniper while trying to rescue a pile of books. Brooks describes the conservation of the exquisitely illustrated Haggadah by fictionalising its journey from, probably 14th century Spain to the present day through the hints provided by wine stains, blood, a fragment of an insect’s wing. She conjures vivid images and dangerous events mixing fact and fiction. Full of detail, this story had me riveted. But… I am uneasy about the mixture of fact and fiction so in the end I’m not sure what to think. But well written and well worth a listen.

Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, narrated by Caroline Lee. A story of bullying and the effects of misinformation set around the parents and children in an Australian kindergarten. The novel is written with a deceptively light touch. Well observed and building backwards to what seems like an inevitable conclusion. It deals with the serious topic of hidden middle class domestic violence and its ripple effect. I really enjoyed this for its wit and humanity. It has recently been made into a mini-series with Nicole Kidman.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout narrated by Kimberly Farr. Mother and daughter story, beautifully written and beautifully read but I found it intensely irritating. Put it down to my grumpy state of mind.

The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths narrated by Jane McDowell. Another Ruth Galloway mystery, forensic archaeology lecturer, investigating bones found in an ancient tunnel under the city of Norwich. Full of detail and character. Easy and enjoyable.

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor narrated by Crispin Redman. This came highly recommended and is a terrific find as I enjoy travel writing. I am just at the beginning when the eccentric author sets off as a young man to walk across Europe to Constantinople. I have laughed out loud at his adventures in Germany where he falls in love with the generosity of the people while at the same time being chilled by the Nazi movement. Can’t wait to read more of his work.

A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson narrated by Julie Teal. More about the Nicolsons and Sackville Wests. Well written and enjoyable.

Several books were returned to for a variety of reasons. One I am hesitating about is Barkskins by Annie Proulx. This is 25 hours long. I have listened to about 5 hours. It is set in the 18th century and ranges from Canada to China to Europe and America. Great characterisation and description. Very violent and am finding the environmental message a bit heavy handed. Not sure if I shall finish it.  Anyone else read it?

So these are the books which have kept me company during my convalescence. (Now well on the road to recovery.) No old favourites so far!  If you are thinking I have strayed from my brief of writing about technology, I download onto and listen on my trusty iPad.

Any more suggestions will be gratefully received. What do you like reading when you are ill?




Queen Elizabeth Hospital


Posted in Audio books, Birmingham, Health, Literature | 6 Comments

Audio Favourites 2016


January 2017

(All books downloaded on subscription from Audible UK.)

According to Audible UK I have listened to 32,787 minutes of books in 2016, bought 64 downloads, listened to 44 of them, my favourite category is fiction and my favourite day for listening is Sunday. There are 10 on my tblt (to be listened o) list.  Don’t you love statistics?

2016 was a delightfully busy year for me and I resolved only to listen to books that I would take seriously (not the same as serious books), so, using Audible’s excellent return policy, I was ruthless about returning books I didn’t like.

As I have said before, listening to a book is very different from reading the printed page. In fact, I’m not sure that calling audio books ‘books’ is the right word. For purposes of simplicity I shall continue to do so.

There are two main advantages to listening once you get used to it… it is difficult to skip so you can concentrate on every word and, particularly in the case of autobiography, the narrator can uncover nuances you might miss on the written page. The downside, of course, is that it is difficult to skip (pray for a good editor) and you have to train yourself to listen and be strict about turning the sound off when you start to drift.

One huge bonus listening to books familiar to you from the printed page is that you get a different perspective. My favourite of 2016 was Juliet Stevenson reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I can’t remember how many times I’ve read it in print but this time I was on the edge of my seat and I noticed more of the naval details and how much emphasis was placed on money. Terrific. If you haven’t liked audio books I strongly recommend working at it, to start with in short bursts, and I promise you will be well rewarded.

New Year Resolution (the only one): keep notes on the books I have listened to. And maybe to read less fiction and more history and biography.

Listed below are some of my favourites, in no particular order and with painfully poor notes but I hope my readers will choose some of them. If any authors read this I apologise for my vagueness and inaccuracy.

Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother by Anne Sebba, narrated by Joanna David. Interesting and colourful biography of American heiress who married Randolph Churchill and was the ambitious mother of Winston and Jack Churchill.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, narrated by Simon Slater. Wonderful account of the life and times of Thomas Cromwell, born into poverty and who became secretary to Henry VIII. Mantel’s brilliant writing and superb research bring the King and the Tudor court to life.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, narrated by Simon Vance. The next instalment of the life of Thomas Cromwell and machinations of Henry VIII. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom, narrated by Steven Crossley.  Very enjoyable historical mystery featuring Thomas Cromwell and lawyer/detective Matthew Shardlake investigating a murder in a monastery.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, narrated by Caroline Lee. Fun page turner from a page turning Australian writer about a woman who has a fall and wakes up having lost her memory about the last few years of her life. The reactions of her family, friends and acquaintances surprise and puzzle her. What was she like before the accident? Intelligent and perceptive. Very good read.

The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty, narrated by Caroline Lee. Another page turner from this intelligent and readable author. Set on an Australian island made famous by the mystery of a baby found in a recently abandoned house… no parents or family traced, the stove still warm. Loved it.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, narrated by Juliet Stevenson. Fascinating story starting at Kew Gardens, moving to America, set in 18th and 19th centuries. A story of evolution, naturalism, botany, history and feminism requiring, at times ‘a willing suspension of disbelief’ but worth reading.

The Burgess Boys: A Novel by Elizabeth Strout, narrated by Cassandra Campbell. Interesting contemporary novel, beautifully observed story of two very different brothers who escape small town Maine for New York City.

Persuasion by Jane Austen, read by Juliet Stevenson. Perfectly written and read. Nothing better!

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen, narrated by Bruce Springsteen. This autobiography is everything you would expect. A bit too long but well written and well read.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah, narrated by Trevor Noah. I know nothing about the mixed race South African comedian and talk show host so had no preconceived ideas while listening to this account of his family life in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. Powerful, funny and wonderful tribute to his speedy mother.

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant, narrated by Daniel Coonan. The story of two adult Jewish East Ender siblings who find themselves in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the 1940s just before the universal use of streptomycin. Witty, sad and thought provoking. Well worth reading.

The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life by Amy Tan, narrated by Amy Tan. This is a fascinating series of essays read by the author. Interesting insights into the writing process and another account of a formidable mother.

Have you listened to any of these?  If you listen to audio books, where and when do you listen? Do you have any recommendations of audio books you have enjoyed? I would be really interested to hear from you.

Meanwhile all best wishes for an interesting and peaceful 2017.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Pear Chutney


Conference Pears – By Rasbak (Own Work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Pear Chutney

Autumn 2016


More than one hundred years ago, when the houses in my neighbourhood were built, I understand that each garden was planted with a fruit tree. Mostly the tree would be apple or pear. If the trees were planted near the border between the houses both gardens would benefit from overhanging branches!

Each year I would make pear chutney from the old tree in my garden, supplemented by apples from next door. Then, sadly, the old pear tree was attacked by honey fungus and had to be felled.   Chutney made with supermarket pears turned to mush so I stopped making it.

This summer has been perfect and, as Autumn approached, I felt an overwhelming urge to get out the preserving pan. Derek, at the corner shop, promised leftovers from the Harvest Festival so two weeks ago saw me struggling across the park laden with bags of locally grown Worcestershire Conference Pears.

It hadn’t occurred to me that the preparation might be difficult with low vision. But anyway, I assembled bowls of windfall apples from the garden, green tomatoes likewise and the small, unripe, grey/green pears plus the other essential ingredients. Chopping board, sharp knife, scales for weighing, magnifying glass to examine for possible grubs or blemishes and preserving pan.  Radio on and I was ready.

I peeled and chopped through The Archers and Desert Island Discs on the radio. Eventually, there was a satisfying pile of ingredients waiting to be boiled. It wasn’t so difficult. If any alien objects were included I figured they would be sufficiently organic to dissolve into the mix.

I closed all the windows against wasps, switched on the extractor fan and put the pan on to boil. The glass jars were sterilised in the oven… different shapes and sizes. Jam covers and labels at the ready.

The recipe is below. The overall weights are fairly accurate but each batch varies and that is the fun. Filling the jars is a sticky procedure. I use a funnel but even so my low vision made me take extra care. The final result was messy but tasted good!

There is a strict rule that the chutney remains sealed and unopened until Christmas so each tasting is a surprise.


6 lbs pears, peeled and cored and roughly chopped

Approx. 6 green tomatoes chopped small

1 small celery heart chopped small

Approx 1lb apples, peeled, cored and roughly chopped

8oz crystallised ginger or less if you don’t like it

4oz each sultanas and raisins

Garlic or other according to your taste

I small bag of whole mixed spices

Salt, not too much

1 1/2 or 2lbs sugar. Soft brown or Demerara

1 or 2 pints of cider vinegar according to how much liquid the fruit produces

Don’t forget to add a small secret ingredient of your choice! I scatter in a few mustard seeds.

Boil until thick. Put into jars while hot and seal. This will boil down to approximately 6lbs chutney.

Apologies for the vagueness of this recipe and feel free to add or extract ingredients according to taste and availability.



For me this has been a great summer of fine weather, flowers, trips and celebrations starting with my birthday and reaching Autumn with Daisy and Adam’s beautiful wedding at John Ruskin’s house on Coniston Water at the end of September.  Readers will remember that without Daisy I could not publish this blog.

I will write a reading and events catch-up separately.


Happy days, Daisy and Adam


Brantwood, John Ruskin’s house


Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

EU Referendum, June 2016


No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thy friend’s

Or of thine own were:

Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.


John Donne (1572-1631)


Poem source

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Facebook Novice

facebook extract

Facebook sign in page extract, 15 June 2016

After a lot of thought and advice I finally decided to join Facebook. To be honest, it was when my cousin in Australia joined and we realised we could post family photographs.

Initially the friend who helps me with this blog activated my page on Facebook but I was still too unsure to know what I wanted to post. Unfortunately, Facebook is not very accessible to people with VI and I was, and still am, afraid of making mistakes.

Instantly cousin, her five adult children and other relatives befriended me. Photographs appeared of happy and healthy looking people on beaches, in parks and other photogenic settings. There were dogs and horses. It was like being in receipt of those Christmas letters which show everyone leading action-filled glamorous lives. It provided a wonderful window into their lives and I loved it because even though there were many people I did not recognise, I could fill in a narrative from what I already knew about them.

And then other friends started befriending me. Friends with common interests … general, political, cultural and humorous. Links appeared to other sites some of which made me laugh and most of them interesting.

It was time to bite the bullet. I went to see Lindsey, technology advisor at the Centre for Low Vision at FOCUS, Birmingham. With infectious enthusiasm she taught me the basics of Facebook. At this stage she has not persuaded me to use Voiceover which still terrifies me after my experience of switching it on and being unable to persuade it to switch off! This means that some of Facebook is visually inaccessible to me. Never mind, I can read posts and post messages with the help of my magnifier.

With Lindsey I discussed what I wanted to use Facebook for, who I wanted to befriend and who I wanted to see my posts. We decided to restrict it at this stage to just family and close friends. As my immediate family have chosen not to be on Facebook I have decided not to post photographs as I think this would be an invasion of privacy.

However, I am really enjoying looking at other people’s pages, following up links and engaging in comments. At the moment I am very much enjoying the satire and serious discussion relating to the European Union In/Out Referendum.

When I am more confident I may set up a separate page to link to this blog.

Do you subscribe to Facebook? If so, how accessible do you find it? What is your favourite use of Facebook? I would like to know how other people with VI manage


Listened to

This Must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell narrated by Thomas Judd and Penelope Rawlins. Excellent, well written book about an incognito American film star and her Linguistic Professor’s long term relationship set in rural Ireland and mercifully free of Irish stereotypes.

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook narrated by Leighton Pugh. Interesting novel set in Germany in 1946 about an English officer and his family who take over a German family’s home but allow them to live in part of the house. This takes place during the de-nazification process and demonstrates the hunger and depersonalisation of Germans at that time. Very humane view of a defeated nation but never quite engaged me.

Birthday celebrations held at the beautiful Old Downton Lodge Hotel in Ludlow.

Other birthday celebrations still continuing. Oh, those calories but lots of fun.

downton lodge

Old Downton Lodge courtyard, May 2016

Posted in Audio books, Birmingham, Education, Family, Food, Ludlow, Reviews, technology, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Review catch up May 2016


Elizabeth von Arnim by J. Burlinson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Weeks have passed, visits made, eye zapped, cataract operation,  sprained ankle and many books listened to but no blog produced. As a result I am making this a review catch up.

Books on audio (in no particular order)

Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim narrated by Nadia May.

First published in 1898 this is a witty and insightful account of the author’s life in Pomerania at her husband’s rural castle. She fills her time planning her much loved garden and playing with her three baby daughters. She calls her husband The Man of Wrath and draws some ironic and vivid pictures of the comings and goings of her home. Her husband considers her to be eccentric!

Her feminist views are delivered with a delightful lightness of touch. After her German husband’s death she returned to England and became Countess Russell. Wonderful book and one I would take to the desert island! I would like to have a printed version with illustrations and botanical information.

Troubles by J.G.Farrell narrated by Sean Barrett, first published in 1970. This fairly short novel concerns the story of an army officer who, after WW1, goes to Ireland to marry a fiancée he barely knows. Her family own a once grand and fashionable hotel in County Wexford which is now dilapidated and failing. Funny and melancholy by turns this novel demonstrates the shocking events which took place during The Troubles.

The Living and the Dead in Winsford by Hakan Nesser narrated in a Swedish accent by Jennifer Vuletic. Set in Sweden and Exmoor this gloomy psychological thriller is a page turner. Well written and well read.

The Balkan Trilogy: Great Fortune, Spoilt City and Friends and Heroes by Olivia Manning narrated by Harriet Walter. Published in 1960. These three novels have become a classic account of the creeping occupation of the Balkans by the Nazis. Newly married Guy and Harriet Pringle arrive in Bucharest, Romania in the baking hot summer of 1939. Guy immediately immerses himself in the academic life of the University and simultaneously the couple are drawn into the colourful social and political life in the city. This is a vivid and intelligent series of novels about love, war and people who don’t belong. Also made into a tv series called Fortunes of War with Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. This was a re-read and even better than the first time. Harriet Walters’ interpretation is perfect.

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke narrated by Jeff Harding. Set in Houston in 1981 this is a political thriller featuring struggling lawyer Jay Porter and covering city and corporate corruption, black power and family obligation. Good to find a new writer.

As well as a lot of listening I also attended the Cambridge Literary Festival. We were lucky enough to attend two sessions in the Cambridge Union and one in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Was pleased to surprise g/s by going to hear poet and rapper, Akala, talk, rap and read his poetry in his Hip Hop Shakespeare presentation. The session started with a quotation quiz on which quote was from a rapper and which from Shakespeare. Clever and dazzling. Link to video.

The other two sessions were an inconclusive debate on whether Labour is too left wing to be elected and Claire Harman talking about her interesting book on Charlotte Brontë, Charlotte Bronte: A Life.

Whew, that about wraps it up for now.

One of my favourite occupations is daydreaming about which book I would take if I were stranded on a desert island. As I have said earlier, for now I think it would be Elizabeth’s German Garden, so that I could conjure up tulips, roses, pine trees and the frozen Baltic Sea.

If you could choose one book to take to your desert island, which would it be (you would also be allowed the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare)? I would love to hear your choices.

Posted in Audio books, Cheltenham, Family, Literature, Reviews, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments