Book Review: Liz Moore – The Unseen World

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Everybody has a secret – mine is that I scoffed a Twirl before 8:30 this morning and it was bloody lovely.

Anyway, in what literally nobody is calling ‘Gruffsdad’s long awaited return to blogging and book reviews’ I am going to tell you all about Liz Moore’s The Unseen World.

I loved this book.

Ever since I became a father I basically cry at anything, Long Lost Family on ITV every week, Wales doing well in the Euros recently and A Rainy Night in Soho by The Pogues – anything and everything can set me off with the exception of books. Books can make me excited, angry, laugh etc, etc but I can’t say that I’ve ever read a book and found myself with tears running down my face. Only last night that’s exactly what happened as I reached the end of The Unseen World.

Ada Sibelius is the young daughter of David a professor in Boston who specialises in the development of artificial intelligence. Ada was born to a surrogate and is home schooled by David and spends her time almost entirely with her father and his colleagues at the university where he works. One evening during the traditional meal to welcome the new post grads to the university David forgets the answer to riddle that he asks the new students each year and this is the precursor to David’s illness which develops as the book progresses. As David’s succumbs to his illness secrets about him are revealed and Ada resolves to find out the truth about her father and this search for answers forms the backbone of The Unseen World.

Did I say that I loved this book? I really did, it’s not just a weepy story about a kid finding herself by finding out the truth about her life – it’s way more than that. It’s a desperate account about the effects of Alzheimer’s on a person and the people they love, it’s about a young child having the world she knows and loves being torn away from her and about how resilient kids can be when inside they are being destroyed by the events raging on uncontrollably around them. It’s about love, teenage life, the horrors of school and it’s also about the 1980s and how computer technology began to take over all of our lives.

Then as the book reaches the final stages Moore ruminations about what might happen with artificial intelligence in the decades ahead and I found this section fascinating. Predictions about the future can come back to bite authors on the bum but this was different and strangely moving. I know that Spielberg’s A.I. is loved and loathed in equal measure – I loved it – and without giving anything away there were sections in the section of the book in which I was reminded of it – whichever way you feel about the film then please don’t let this put you off! Can machines develop human emotions and what are the implications of that? Moore doesn’t have the answers but those passages and her views on this will stay with me for a long time to come.

The Unseen World leaps from decade to decade, past and present and we see people grow, we see them make mistakes and we see them die. Much to my surprise I found it all incredibly moving and it was during one of sections set in the past that I found myself wiping tears from my eyes as everything suddenly made sense and the reasons for the behaviours exhibited by one of the characters in the book finally became clear and it was genuinely heart-breaking.

I felt relief albeit tinged with sadness – life isn’t all about happy endings, sometimes things go wrong and they stay wrong and we come to terms with that, learn from it and move on with our lives.

I’m sorry to resort to cliché here but I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It is book crammed full of warmth, sadness and surprises and I’ll say it again – I really loved it.

Okay that’s my return to book reviewing – a little bit rusty but hopefully you’ve enjoyed and I really, really hope that some of you might be tempted to go and read the book because it really is fab.

Thanks for reading this and thanks to Christian for telling me I should blog again – he still owes me three pints of Coke Zero for last weekend though.*

Have a good weekend everybody!!!

* My Amazon wishlist is still available

The Scottish Power Update!!!

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So here we go then.

I got home from work at 4:10 and there was a meter van outside my house – he was waiting for me…

He let me get in the house and then rang the door and started to complain that nobody had been in when he knocked earlier which was news to my wife, two sons, mother in law and cat who had all been home since lunchtime.

Anyway he opened up the cupboard with the meter in, took one look at it and and said “Nope, not doing it. You need to cut an access hole in the wall and I ain’t doing it.”

And off he went!

Scottish Power and I have been chatting on Twitter and they have been really good about it having updated my complaint and are going to issue me with two lots of compensation – one for today and one for last week which was the the appointment that never was even though it was.

I’m still going to moan like buggery about it and demand more compensation for the leave I’ve lost relating to this – I’ll let you know how I get on.

Next on my blog will be a review of a book I’m just about to finish and it’s a bloody great read so look out for that soon.

Me and Scottish Power

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Well this is exciting isn’t it? My return to blogging and I’m going to tell you all about how the change from a Scottish Power key meter to a credit one has gone – it all started seven and a half weeks ago…

6th June

Rang and arranged appointment to get key meter changed to a credit one. We get offered a good tariff and our electricity charges are due to fall from 17p a unit to just over 10p. Our monthly costs are due to fall considerably which is good news.

27th June

Appointment booked for between 4-8pm – nobody turns up, no explanation given by either people at the Scottish Power call centre or their Twitter account. Nobody has any idea why the engineer didn’t turn up – they just didn’t. £30 compensation is issued to me, one hour’s leave has been taken and next earliest appointment is booked in on 13th July.

13th July

Engineer turns up, says he can’t do the job as he can’t find the switch for the meter. Leaves. Annual leave taken = 4 hours for the morning. Ring Scottish Power and they book in a new appointment for 22nd July between 12-4pm

22nd July

Annual leave taken – 4 hours. Nobody turns up. At 2pm I ring Scottish Power and they assure me that the appointment is booked in and that someone will turn up but to ring them if they don’t. They don’t so I ring again and am informed in this phone call that no appointment was ever booked in for the 22nd July even though I’d been told two hours previously that it was all booked in for that day.

I’m told on the phone that it was actually booked in for 28th July between 8-6pm. I am asked if I wish to make a complaint and I say that I do and a complaint is raised and I am assured that the person overseeing the complaint will ring me on 28th July to confirm that the appointment is proceeding that day.

27th July

I ring Scottish Power to check that the appointment on the 28th July is going ahead – I am told that no such appointment is booked in for me on their systems and that the only one that can be found is one for 22nd July – you know, the one in the previous week which a) nobody turned up to, b) which I was told didn’t actually exist and c) which I had taken leave for.

I have now had enough and say that I am going to contact the ombudsman about this due to the amount of time it’s taken, the leave I’ve had to take and the conflicting information that has been given out to me. I am told to hold which I do and then when the Scottish Power employee comes back onto the line I’m told that he’s spoken with the contractor and that an appointment is due on the 28th July between 6-8pm – this is great but leave has already been booked for the day as I was told on 22nd of July that the appointment would be taking place between 8 and 6pm.

28th July

No phone call from the person overseeing my complaint to let me know that the appointment is taking place. I am holding my breath with anticipation as to whether anybody will turn up this evening – I’ll update you and Scottish Power later.

A few words about Jacquie James

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“It was not that long ago it first occurred to me
That my mother was a person in her own right.
And now I realise how very lucky I have been
And there, but for the grace of God, go I, go I.”*

My Mum – Jacquie James – is 70 years old today. I could write thousands of words about her but the thirteen hundred or so that I’ve done will have to do and I’m well aware that it won’t even scratch the surface of Jacqueline Muriel Alexander James nee Walker.

You may not know this – though a select band of you will – but Jacquie James is amazing woman. Born in London just after the World War II she was brought up in Clifton in Bristol where her father Frank Walker was a professor of geography at Bristol University. One of my earliest memories is travelling to Bristol on the train with Mum to visit my grandparents at their home on Lansdowne Road in Clifton. I can remember falling asleep on the train and waking up in the enormous house where they lived during term times. We went to Bristol a lot when I was growing up – it’s my home town and though I’ve never felt like a Bristolian in any way, shape or form I used to love going there and some of the happiest memories from my childhood are of the times I spent in Bristol with my extended family.

Mum trained as an Occupational Therapist in the 1960s down in Devon and having moved over the Severn Bridge to the Vale of Glamorgan, before I began school and then during my school holidays she used to take me out with her on visits up into the South Wales Valleys and all across South Wales where I met children of my own age with profound disabilities and in doing so gave me insights that to this day I am grateful for. I’m not sure the occupational therapist of today would be allowed to do what Mum did but it and I have so many happy memories of travelling with her over the top of the valleys in her Renault 4 and then her weirdly coloured Ford Escort chatting away and listening to Radio Wales – Mum is a naturalised Welsh woman – it’s an old family joke but it’s a statement of truth.

“When I was a teenager I really did believe
That my parents had adopted me.
And the way I carried on they must have thought
They’d brought the wrong little baby home from maternity.

I’d like to say I’m sorry but my
Mother dear, she already knows.”*

Mum has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis from an early age and I know that there have been times when she has really struggled with this but she never let this affect the way she was with me or my sister Cathy even when I was being a normal child and behaving in a horrible way towards her – she always let me know that she loved me and would always be there for me and she always was – save for that time when I got dumped by a girlfriend and she went off on holiday to Malta with Dad.**

Mum has a gift for anything craft related that she puts her hand to – in her time she amongst many, many things she’s had a go at, has knitted, made lace, made things out of glass that are beautiful and she does these all these things with seemingly no effort. She’s also done flower arranging and was a member of an arranging group over in Bristol which led to one of my favourite conversations that we had about popular culture.

What you need to know about my Mum is that she doesn’t really do popular culture – she was a teenager in the 60s as was my Dad and their record collection had one EP by The Beatles in it – one!?! Her and Dad were always more into classical music and jazz so for her to have heard of a pop group is a rare event – I reckon that when it comes to the bands I’ve liked over the years she’d be able to name New Order, Happy Mondays*** and Super Furry Animals. Anyway I digress, this is how the conversation went down:

Mum: “I was at flower arranging over in Bristol the other night.”

A disinterested me: “Oh yes.”

Mum: “One of the other members, her son is in a band.”

Me: “Oh right.”

Mum: “I think they’re quite famous, have you heard of Portishead?”

Me: “What?!?!? Portishead?!?! Mum, they’re only one of my most favourite bands!!! Who is her son?”

Mum: “I’m not sure, I don’t know her surname.”

And we never found out who the son was – but I love my Mum for being so blasé about such things.

One famous person she did meet was Jimmy Savile – she was a student at the time and he kissed her and whenever we sat down to watch Jim’ll Fix It back in the day she’d always comment that Savile was horrible person. Mum’s always know.

Mum is one of the most selfless people I have ever met – I’m always surprised when I ring home and actually get her on the phone. She is on the board of charities, helps people out with offers of support and amazing meals and travels the country to visit places she’s never been to before and places that she knows and loves such as North Yorkshire where her parents had their home and where we as a family spent our summers long before it became ‘Heartbeat Country’. This year she’s been to the Netherlands to visit a jazz festival and only last week she flew up to Edinburgh to meet her pen pal Susan from Seattle who she’s been writing to for over 50 years.

One of things that I’ve been really proud of Mum and Dad for doing is that they fight battles at their local church – they were always pro-women priests and in doing so they showed to me that despite their apparent conformity to middle class norms and standards they can be quite radical in their outlook on life and relationships and that’s something which has cost them friends at times and there are people who don’t talk to them anymore because of the things they’ve fought for. You might say well they are better off without those people and you’re right they are but sometimes it takes courage to take the stands that Mum has done over the years and I’ll say it again I’m proud of my Mum – she doesn’t take shit from anybody.

We’ve had our rows and silence over the years and they’ve been humdingers at times but as I grow older and my sons are turning into young men my appreciation of what she did for me when I was their age impresses me more and more. She didn’t say “No” just to annoy me or stop me having fun, she did it because she loved me, wanted me to be safe and wanted the best for me and surely that’s all you need from your Mum.

I still need my Mum every now and again.

“If I ever get arrested by the C.I.A.
Because they take me for a foreign spy.
They won’t need no lie-detector, all they’ll have to do
Is make me look into my mother’s eyes
And I’ll tell them anything they like.”*

*Taken from The Divine Comedy’s song ‘Mother Dear’ – written by Neil Hannon. See it here: 

** Okay so I was 20 at the time but I was still upset.

*** I still owe my Dad £25 for a trip to see the Happy Mondays up in Manchester back in 1990 – I know, £25 for the concert ticket and bus up there from Cardiff – those were the days!!!

My weekend at home in Cardiff

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I recently went home to Cardiff and here is what I did during my weekend there when basically I ate way too much beef, watched lots of sport on TV, went to Spillers Records, Servini’s Café, Got Beef restaurant, Joe’s ice cream parlour (the best ice cream in the world) and saw Super Furry Animals and Belle & Sebastian in concert on consecutive evenings.

Cardiff has changed so much in the thirteen years since I left and the truth is that I’ve never really missed the place much, I get to go back and see my Mum and Dad and make use of their house and go and watch the ruby and take my sons swimming before heading back to Dorset. This time however I was on my own and take some time to walk around on my own and I noticed even more of changes to the place. It felt more vibrant and more like the cosmopolitan cities and towns that I’ve been to elsewhere in the UK. I mean the city centre has the usual city centre cloned feel in places but the arcades feel different and offer you unique experiences, I saw street fairs in side streets off Albany Road in the east of the city and the amount of independent  coffee shops, cafes and restaurants that exist now is just incredible. I did use to feel that sometimes Cardiff aimed too high and that it tried to be bigger than it actually was and that what it tried to do was unsustainable but my feeling on going home this time around was that Cardiff is cooler now than it’s ever been.

My friend Owain’s mum had brought Got Beef to my attention when I was over at her house with my sons just after Christmas and Owain made it pretty clear that that’s where he wanted to go for our meal out before the Super Furry Animals gig and we all loved it  – the restaurant itself was informal with benches set around big tables and whilst the setting of the Gabalfa end of Whitchurch Road in Cardiff might not be a trendy or flash as down by the quayside of Cardiff Bay who cares when a massive burger weighed with wonderful toppings is placed in front of you? I had the double Animal Style burger which was full of way too many things and which was simply incredible. I had normal fries but also got to try some sweet potato fries as recommended to me by everybody and they were gorgeous – I’ll be having full portion of them next time. Owain had the Breaking Bad inspired Heisen Burger complete with blue onions – and that was wolfed down by him washed down by a very trendy looking German beer.

Do I have any criticisms? The only thing that I did notice but which didn’t really affect me as I was on soft drinks was that the beer list seem to have been rather depleted and my friends were limited in what they could drink but apart from that I couldn’t fault Got Beef and I’m looking forward to going back there later on in the summer.

And so on to the Students’ Union at Cardiff University to see Super Furry Animals! The first time I saw them play there was in 1996 in the small hall upstairs at the SU – Terminal 396 I think it was called then. It wasn’t a massive crowd and Owain reminded me that as he and his friends were all 15-16 years of age at the time I ended up buying them all beers for them – reader, I have no recollection of this but he swears it’s true. Anyway 2015 saw SFA reuniting to play a tour in support of the reissue of the Mwng album and having secured tickets via a secret password protected pre-sale so it was that Owain Dave and I found ourselves in the Great Hall and it was just the strangest feeling; I’d not been there since 2001 when I saw The Divine Comedy and basically the place hadn’t changed in anyway – it was freaky. I spent so much of my time and money in there when I was a student at school and university and to be there again after such a long time brought back so many good memories.

Super Furry Animals played for over two hours and performed 25 songs* – I have no complaints about the gig, they were on top form, better than I could have ever hoped to have imagined and I really think that the six years away had done them good. The last time I saw them at The Coal Exchange in Cardiff back in 2005 it wasn’t a good gig, it felt a bit forced and lethargic but this, this was amazing and just re-enforced my love for the band. It was also re-enforced that standing gigs aren’t for me anymore. Maybe I’d forgotten how rude and how physical standing at a gig can be but it was constant – I didn’t spoil the gig for me but I could some people getting angrier as it progressed and elbows were flying and feet were kicking. SFAOK!

Sunday saw me back at Owain’s house for a roast dinner before we headed out to see Belle and Sebastian. I bloody love them – some people find them too twee but I couldn’t care less, the tweeness is part of the appeal, that and just really good songs. St David’s Hall is another past haunt of mine and that hadn’t really changed either, the crowd was a bit subdued during the support act but by the time B&S came on stage the hall was packed and the crowd was a lovely one, there was singing, clapping and lots and lots of dancing as singer and band founder Stuart Murdoch got people from seemingly everywhere bar Cardiff up on the stage to dance with him. B&S are a really talented band and the set featured songs from throughout their career** including from what was referred to as the “dubious part of it” namely the ‘Fold Your Hands You Look Like a Peasant’ album which in my humble opinion is underrated.

There were short films, lots of instrument changes and lots of self-deprecating humour from Murdoch and guitarist Stevie Jackson. I’d not seen B&S for 13 years and the last time I saw them was at the same venue in my old life when I still lived in Cardiff – if I could then I would have seen them again on the same tour, it was that good and ignore the detractors, B&S are a great band with a fantastic back catalogue which should be celebrated they are a band who will never really be loved by the hipsters and media. The love and happiness I saw at that gig was infectious and their latest album is as good as anything they’ve released before and in Nobody’s Empire features one of their best songs ever – have a listen now!

*Setlist here: http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/super-furry-animals/2015/great-hall-cardiff-university-students-union-cardiff-wales-3bc83078.html

**Setlist here: http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/belle-and-sebastian/2015/st-davids-hall-cardiff-wales-33c838b9.html

The James Ellroy Reading Challenge – An Update

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I am making my way through the James Ellroy books that I’ve not read yet – I promise this is true!

Blood’s a Rover took me a week to read and whilst not quite up there with the previous books in the American Tabloid trilogy it was still bloody excellent and proved a fitting end to it. A fuller review will be posted on here in due course.

I’m currently reading My Dark Places which I first started some seventeen years ago and was defeated by. I’m obviously older and wiser now and have already progressed way further than I did back then!

My aim is to finish it and then do a review of both books so far.

A Book Review: Cal Moriarty – The Killing of Bobbi Lomax

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I know, I know – I promised a lot of things for this blog a few weeks ago and they are on their way I promise but first up I want to rave about a book that I read over the weekend.

Cal Moriarty is a screenwriter and a former private eye and The Killing of Bobbi Lomax is her first novel which is getting rave reviews all over the place. Sometimes I come to books with hype or incredible amounts of high praise behind them and having finished them come away feeling slightly underwhelmed – I will name no names – but this isn’t the case with The Killing of Bobbi Lomax  – or if you don’t mind, TKOBL.

As the book begins two people including Bobbi Lomax the young wife of a older local businessman Alan have been killed by bombs and the local police are struggling to work out the reasons behind the bombings. A third bomb has just gone off and detectives Marty Sinclair and Al Alvarez are heading to the scene where they find the third victim Clark Houseman still alive and he manages to whisper a name: “Hartman” before he is whisked off to hospital. With that we travel back a few months to Vegas where Houseman has travelled to conduct some business away from the prying eyes of “The Faith”.

This is where TKOBL got me hooked and led me spend a large part of my weekend crashed out of the sofa and in bed reading – The Faith isn’t given a name but with mentions of prophets, scared texts dictated to the prophet and his wife, polygamy and illicit alcohol drinking you don’t have to have a doctorate in religions of the world to know that we’re talking about Mormonism here and quite simply I loved this aspect of the book. The Faith permeates every aspect of the story, from the way in which the local police function to the everyday lives of every single character in the book, The Faith is invasive and leads people to do stupid and illogical things and to behave in what their leaders would deem to be immoral ways – TVs are hidden away as are drink cabinets on wheels, people vanish or leave and are never heard from again but at the same time one of the protagonists – the latest victim is seen in the flashbacks – is using The Faith’s faith to plot against them. By using his particular skills he exploits their need to keep their faith sacrosanct and pure and in doing so aims to further his own needs and social standing.

I really enjoyed this book; I liked the lead detectives’ relationship, the delicate reveal of Detective Sinclair’s backstory is subtle and all the more believable because of that. All too often damaged cops’ reasons for being damaged can be shoehorned in with the sound of a klaxon sounding but not in this instance and having been tweeted by Cal Moriarty over the weekend about her next book I really hope that this is explored further in her future work.

The details of the sting enthralled me, not just the practical details of how a forger works and how he creates his pieces but also the research that goes into it all and the sacrifices he makes, the risks he takes and how a man can be blinded by greed when initially his reason for conning The Faith are deeply personal.  It’s important to say that the level of detail contained in these passages is never overwhelming and it always convinces, it feels like it could have – and possible has – happened.*

It was however the aspects of the book that dealt with The Faith that intrigued me and drew me deeper into the story. There’s something about Mormonism that fascinates me, I’ve read a lot about their history and it’s genuinely a thought provoking story which continues to develop as they expand across the globe. The sections of TKOBL that dealt with The Faith and their meetings with Houseman reminded me of the HBO series Big Love and this really isn’t a bad thing as that was a wonderful show that really deserved a bigger audience over here in the UK.

As the story progresses we see the leaders of The Faith and their Supreme Leader seemingly blinded by their desire to own their history and in doing some becoming prepared to acquiesce to the demands of Houseman so that they can remain the one true faith whilst at the same time destroy their enemies.

The Killing of Bobbi Lomax is a book about faith, love, criminality, revenge, family, loss and the all-encompassing  panoramic experience that is the American Way.** It more than lived up to the online hype that has been growing over the last month or so and I highly recommend that you read it!

*This was only re-enforced when having finished the book I went on the BBC News website and saw a story about a first edition of Peter Pan that’s just gone on sale – when you read the book it’ll make sense why I said “No way!” to myself.

** I’m so sorry – I have serious doubts about the end of that sentence but I’ve gone with it.