Please don’t follow me here…

Dear readers,

I would love you to follow me at the new home of my blog below instead…

Annabookbel

Thank you.

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I’ve moved – look what you’re missing at my new home…

Dear readers,

I have a new home for my blog having taken the plunge to get my own domain – http://www.annabookbel.net.

It would be lovely if you could follow me and/or add a bookmark over there – I’d love to see you all!

 

See you soon I hope!

Annabel

What did I read pre-blog?

I’ve been doing some maintenance on my master spreadsheet. It contains a record of every book I’ve read since 2007 and some from earlier. I used to write capsule reviews on it – I was able to refer back to my one on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle just the other day during Shirley Jackson Reading Week so they do come in useful!  Once I started my blog in September 2008 I stopped recording notes in this way – but I thought it would be nice to revisit my archives and share a few of these mini-reviews with you now and then, so here are a pair from earlier in 2008 …

A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews

Feast of SnakesThe annual rattlesnake round-up in Mystic, Georgia bears no relation to ‘whacking day’ in The Simpsons at all. When the thousands turn-up to take part and watch, by the day of the actual hunt, you know it’ll have all gone horribly wrong. Throw a handful of good ‘ol boys and their women, moonshine and whisky, fighting dogs, diamondbacks and the return of the prodigal cheerleader queen into the mix and you have a heady brew that will burst its bottle in a flash. At the centre of this is Joe Lon Mackey, a former footballer who didn’t get the grades to go to further. Stuck in a trailer with his fading wife, two babies, and with nothing to do except mind his father’s liquor store, he misses his former girl – Berenice the cheerleader and finds himself taking it out on everyone …

It’s tragedy in the making, and the writing is brutal, visceral, yet not without a wicked sense of humour in the caricature of the characters. No words are wasted in this cinematic novel of murder and mayhem, and the tension builds and builds until it finally explodes in an stunning ending that shakes you to the core.

9/10  (July 2008)

NOW: I do so love a bit of Southern Gothic. I shall have to re-read this one!

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The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas

end of mr yThis ambitious novel is hard to pin down – a sort of post-modern psychodrama with Gothic overtones involving philosophy, quantum physics, mind-melding and time-travel. It’s an attractively produced book with striking covers and brilliant black page edges – does it live up to the design? Well partially – mainly because at 502 pages in the edition I read it is rather sprawling…

The main plot about a lost book, which contains the recipe for mind & time travel, and is said to curse all who read, it is top notch. Ariel, the heroine, is a sparky and independent post-doc student, yet is needy and always broke. The bad guys are suitable threatening, and Ariel gets the help she needs in the right times and places to resolve matters.

Yet interspersed with the action are myriad philosophical discussions about deconstruction (c.f. Derrida) and quantum mechanics, which while very interesting, do slow things down significantly. Their purpose as I see it is to posit a deconstructivist framework in which mind/time travel ‘could work’ using the wave-particle duality – in that everything exists as waves until you look for something and then it is pinned down in time/place. (I’m glad I have a basic grounding in the subject so wasn’t put off by it).

A novel that requires serious concentration – it took me a week to read, which is slow for me, but is no less enjoyable for that!

8.5/10 (June 2008)

NOW: Derrida? I don’t remember this part of the book at all and I’m not really up on dead French philosophers. I’d also never write a phrase like ‘posit a deconstructivist framework’ now – would I?!   I am, however, looking forward to reading Thomas’s new novel The Seed Collectors very much indeed.

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To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews, pub 1998, Scribner. Paperback 188 pages.
The End Of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas, pub 2007, Canongate. Paperback, 512 pages.

Fiction Uncovered

fiction uncovered logoTwo trips into London in one week (see here for the other), is going out a lot for me! I wouldn’t have missed last nights Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize at the Jerwood Space in Southwark for the world. Many thanks to the enterprising Simon Savidge, (I’m calling him that as he loves projects) who was not only one of this year’s judges, but was able to invite a group of fellow bloggers. So I caught up with Kim and David, but finally got to meet Simon’s OH ‘The Beard’, Eric, Rob and KateNaomi and Nina. Rob & Kate, Naomi and David have all been guest columnists on the Fiction Uncovered blog too – it was great company.

But the evening was really about the books and their authors. The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize is five years old this year, and is the only prize to solely award British writers, celebrating great British fiction. There were 15 novels longlisted and the prize-money was spread between eight of them, each receiving £5k plus a handbound edition of their book thanks to the generosity of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, and the winners were:

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L-R: Bethan Roberts, Carys Davies, Jo Mazelis, Grace McCleen, Lavie Tidhar, Susan Barker, Emma Jane Unsworth, David Whitehouse. Photo: A Gaskell

  • The Incarnations – Susan Barker (Transworld)
  • The Redemption of Galen Pike – Carys Davies (Salt)
  • The Offering – Grace McCleen (Sceptre)
  • Significance – Jo Mazelis (Seren Books)
  • Mother Island – Bethan Roberts (Chatto & Windus)
  • A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate Books)
  • Mobile Library – David Whitehouse (Picador)
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Bethan Roberts with the judges L-R: India Knight, Matthew Bates, Bethan, Cathy Galvin and Simon. Photo: A Gaskell

A special mention from me must go to Bethan Roberts, who comes from Abingdon where I live and has many a fan in the local literary community. I reviewed Mother Island for Shiny New Books and interviewed her about it here. I was so delighted for her to be ‘Jerwooded’.

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View east down Union St, Southwark. Photo: A Gaskell

It was also lovely to meet Emma Jane Unsworth and her wonderful mum!  I’m so looking forward to reading Animals now.

What a fabulous evening – and a glorious sunset was just beginning to envelop the Shard as I left just after 8.30pm to go home.

 

Reading habits: Male vs Female Authors

Elle wrote a thought-provoking post a few days ago titled Am I a Sexist Reviewer? about how she actually reads a fairly even split of female:male authors, but doesn’t blog about all the novels by men, as she finds more to talk about in general in novels by women.

It got me thinking about the balance between the sexes in my own reading. That was easy to check thanks to my huge spreadsheet – time for a quick chart…

Authors

Note: 2012 was skewed by having hosted Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week.

*NB, before I go on to ramble about the subject, I want to apologise for any sweeping generalisations I may make below!*

I like to think that I choose the books I read in a gender-neutral way – choosing mainly by perceived content. Even if I consciously opt to pick a particular author, I don’t select them because they are male or female, I strongly believe that the author’s sex doesn’t come into it.Yet, I usually read more books by men than women, and often considerably more by men in a year. Am I subconsciously favouring male authors?

As a teenager, I read as voraciously as I still do now. I devoured fiction including a lot of novels by Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy et al, but what I enjoyed most were thrillers; Alastair MacLean, Hammond Innes and Desmond Bagley in particular, how I loved these manly adventures with token women. At the same time at school, I discovered SF through Brave New World, Day of the Triffids, 1984 and their ilk.  In fact the only book I can recall by a female author that we read in class was To Kill a Mockingbird.

I make no secret of the fact that I’m nothing more than a reading enthusiast. I have no literary qualifications beyond English Language O-level. My senior school at the time (1970s) had a progressive attitude towards English Literature. We still read lots of it, mostly classics, modern classics and plenty of Shakespeare, but didn’t over-analyse it in that way that off-puts many teenagers – we didn’t do the English Lit O-level, freeing us to find what we each liked reading the best. I chose Maths and Sciences for A-Level so never went further studying English, bar a journalism option in 6th form general studies.

I went on to study an applied science at a university college with twelve male students to each female one at the time. I was the only girl engineer in the factory in my first job and was the first female scientist on the team in my second, so I’ve always been happy operating in a male-dominated world – seeing myself not as a token woman, but rather as helping to break the mould (although I have exhibited some ladette tendencies on occasion, *ahem*). It’s more unnatural for me now working in a school with more women than men on the staff!

Am I set in my ways?

I still tend to pick a novel promising a good adventure; lots of intrigue; a black comedy; or something techy over domestic dramas. Give me dystopian societies, spies, quests, science (but not necessarily SF) and literary thrillers etc. These are all types of plot-driven novels that have tended to be dominated by male authors (although that is changing, as is the balance of male over female protagonists?), and these form a large part of my reading.

Conversely, when I do take a punt on a domestic drama or novel of family life, I often find myself picking an older one from my TBR and I admit it does make a refreshing change, although I won’t deny that they can be harder for me to write about. Although I can live without reading any more Anita Brookner novels – I was entranced by the Barbara Pym I read a couple of years ago, I want to read more Edna O’Brien and Penelope Fitzgerald too, and still have quite a few ‘Beryls‘ yet to be read, to name but a few. There are still acres of female crime and suspense authors to explore – types of books I do really enjoy too.

Where do I go from here?

As I skewed the figures towards equality in 2012 by reading loads of Beryl Bainbridge, so my male:female reading ratio will likely be strongly male this year due to my (nearly) monthly dose of Anthony Powell, and multiple reads like the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer; I’m about to start my third Simenon in a week too.

Having subjected my reading habits to some navel-gazing regarding gender bias, I still believe that I don’t consciously choose male authors over female ones. Instead it’s the world I’ve grown up in and as a resolutely non-girly girl I feel comfortable there. I don’t plan to make any big changes in how I pick the books I read, but I do have good intention to select more great books that challenge my preconceptions now and then, which should include choosing some more women authors.

Hardy & Me…

I’m madd not to have read more Hardy!

I’m just back from the cinema where I saw Far From the Madding Crowd. For anyone suffering from Poldark withdrawal, it has lots of galloping along clifftops and through fields, and scything! Seriously, it was a wonderful film, with a screenplay by David Nicholls. I’ve come away with a serious crush on this Gabriel Oak (Mattias Schoenaerts, a Belgian), I gasped when his sheep became lemmings, I felt so sorry for poor anguished Mr Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and hoped that Katniss Bathsheba wouldn’t marry Sgt Troy (Tom Sturridge). You see despite being in my mid 50s now (eek!) I’ve never seen the earlier film with Christie, Bates and Stamp – just odd clips, I never knew the whole story. I could hardly bear to look at the screen when she nearly let him get away at the end, and had tears of joy rolling down my cheeks seconds later.

– 

ffm

The thing is I love reading Thomas Hardy but I’ve only read two: Jude the Obscure for book club a couple of years ago and Tess of the D’Urbervilles back in autumn 2008. Should I read FFTMC now so soon after the film, or another of his novels – I have quite a few of my late mum’s copies on the shelves.

Which would you suggest I should read next?

A near-future techno thriller…

Deja Vu by Ian Hocking

deja vuThis novel is one of the first publications from a new indie publisher called Unsung Stories, specialising in ‘genre fiction that defies categorisation’. Déjà Vu is essentially near-future science fiction with a techno-thriller slant to it.

It is 2023. Saskia Brandt is a Berlin-based detective in the European FIB. Returning from a stressful holiday during which she became single again, she finds her receptionist has been murdered – and she has been implicated. Her boss Beckmann gives her twelve hours to prove her innocence.

Meanwhile in Oxford a university professor, David Proctor, is getting up – he dresses in ‘his usual loafers, chinos, shirt and blazer; clothes that Joyce, his girlfriend, called CGC, or Consultant Gynaecologist Chic.’ (that tickled me for some reason). David is instructing his prototype AI computer, Ego, when a call comes to tell him the other Ego units have been stolen. No sooner has he finished the call than he realises that a door is open somewhere, then he feels a weapon pressed into his back and Ego starts talking to him telling him it’s been hacked, and that he has return to Scotland when he gets a call from Colonel McWhirter about Onogoro, the virtual world he had created with his old colleague Bruce Shimoda. ‘Onogoro must fall,’ the voice tells him.

In Nevada, billionaire John Crane arrives in secret at Helix Base. He searches out Jennifer Proctor (David’s daughter) in her lab. Jennifer has been putting the finishing touches to the Déjà Vu project – enabling time travel – and her employer Crane needs her to send him back in time…

Even though they don’t know it, the fortunes of Saskia, David and Jennifer are already closely linked. David had previously been accused of trying to blow up the West Lothian centre, his wife Helen had been killed in the explosion – surely he couldn’t have done it?  Why do they want him to come back there? Saskia has a big personal shock in store for her once her twelve hours are up. Surely the key is going to be Jennifer’s project – is whatever will happen already pre-destined due to the impossible paradoxes otherwise of time travel? It’s telling that Saskia has a recurring dream of the three Fates of Greek myth: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos who respectively spin, measure and snip the thread of life.

I’m not going to deliberate further on the plot of this novel as it is complicated with the layers of conspiracy and paradox. At its heart though is the simpler re-kindling of the relationship between father and daughter, wrenched apart when Helen died, together with Saskia’s search for her true self. To understand the present you need to understand the past and untangling the threads of what happens when is the key.

Published in print and e-book form by Unsung Stories last year, the technology in the book seemed too futuristic for less than ten years into the future – but doing some digging afterwards revealed that Hocking originally self-published this novel in around 2005 and has penned two more self-published Saskia Brandt novels since. So if it was originally written some more years ago, that definitely fits this vision of the near future better – although Apple are probably not so far off the Ego computer with its fledgling artificial intelligence – Ego could be the iPhone 25 or something! Much more futuristic is the implant chip in Saskia’s brain which controls and modulates her to some extent – does that make her a cyborg or bionic?

Apart from that niggling incongruity between the publishing year and the technology, what also irritated me were little bits of over-writing here and there: “The high ribwork of the orangery joined a sternum thirty feet about the floor.”  In its defence, the techno-thriller plot was quite fun, having a feel of the brilliant 1980s TV series Edge of Darkness to it in many ways (a political/nuclear thriller drama from the BBC). I did like the character of Saskia though and I hope she develops in her further adventures which are to be published too. (6/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Deja Vu by Ian Hocking. Unsung Stories, 2014, paperback 328 pages.
Edge Of Darkness – The Complete Series [1985] [DVD]

Scandi-crime time…

Spring Tide by Cilla & Rolf Börjlind

spring-tideOn Thursday 23rd April, it is World Book Night. Once again, I applied to be a ‘giver’. I picked a book from the list, and wrote my case for being awarded a batch of copies to give out. I was delighted to be accepted and even more pleased to get my first choice of book – Spring Tide – the first in a Scandi-crime series by the husband and wife scriptwriting team behind some of Swedish TV’s biggest hits (including adaptations of Martin Beck, Arne Dahl and Wallander).

I had the immense pleasure of meeting Cilla & Rolf Börjlind last summer at an event hosted by their UK publisher Hesperus, and somehow I didn’t get round to writing about it at the time. Cilla & Rolf were absolutely charming and despite my not having watched much of their TV work, they chatted about how they work together – if I remember correctly, they alternate chapters writing and editing, but also one of them will take the lead on a particular character.

Spring Tide is their first novel together and a second featuring the same team, Third Voice, was published last month and is waiting its turn to be read on my bedside table.

Needless to say, given the Börjlinds’ pedigree, Spring Tide arrives fully formed with a fascinating plot full of twists and turns and a pair of investigators that are totally original. But before we get to them, the novel begins back in 1987 with the spectacularly gruesome murder of a pregnant woman, who is buried up to her neck on a beach on the night of the spring tide – she essentially drowns. It’s witnessed by a boy hiding behind the rocks up the beach. It’s a bold start!

We then return to the present and meet Olivia Rönning. Olivia is a police student in Stockholm; her supervisor gives them all a project – to examine a cold case and report back. Olivia chooses the beach-murder – a case her late father had been in charge of; her supervisor isn’t surprised at her choice. It’s hard to get anywhere on the case though, as most of those involved are gone, dead or disappeared. If only Olivia could find Tom Stilton, her father’s colleague, a policeman who dropped out.Meanwhile, there has been spate of attacks on homeless people in Stockholm. The attacks are filmed and posted online. In the latest, they go too far and their victim, known as One-eyed Vera, dies. Her friend Jelle, a homeless man, vows to uncover her killers. Is there a link with Olivia’s case? Olivia, as you might expect, gets totally emotionally involved in the case and begins to investigate it, at great personal risk and we are taken on a roller-coaster ride through the less acceptable sides of Swedish life – from high-class prostitution and corrupt businessmen to the fate of the homeless.

There are certainly echoes of the Martin Beck books by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö (my review of the first, Roseanna, here). The Martin Beck books are famed for their emphasis on justice and exposing the bourgeois underbelly of Swedish society. However, whereas Sjöwall & Wahlöö get their cases solved by dogged detective work the Börjlinds, with Olivia and Stilton (once she finds him) being outside the formal police system, are not bound by procedure and consequently the action moves at a greater speed and in a more exciting way, although being over 450 pages long. Rönning and Stilton make a fascinating coupling as an investigating team. Both are damaged in their own ways but are totally different to the usual maverick cops – very refreshing indeed.

Spring Tide was translated by Rod Bradbury who is well-known for translating the best-selling  The 100 year old man… and there was no jarring – I was hooked on this novel from the outset with the result that Spring Tide is probably the best Scandicrime novel I’ve read. I’m looking forward to reading the next in the series, and I can hand out my copies on World Book Night knowing that I loved reading it. (10/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
Spring Tide by Cilla & Rolf Börjlind. Hesperus, 2014. Paperback, 476 pages.
Third Voice (Ronning & Stilton 2) – Hesperus, March 2015. Paperback, 464 pages.

Keywords: Thriller, Vatican, Relics!

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

fifth gospel

No! This isn’t a lost thriller by Dan Brown! Far from it (although at times I wish it had had a bit of Brown’s rip-roaring pace). The Fifth Gospel comes from the co-author of a best-selling religious thriller of ten years ago – The Rule of Four, and has taken author Ian Caldwell that ten years in the writing.

The Fifth Gospel is set in the Vatican City during the twilight of the pontificate of John Paul II, who has a starring cameo to play in the closing stages of the novel. An historical note, without which I’d have been completely lost, sets the scene for the relationship between the original Green and Roman branches of Christianity who split around 1000 yrs ago (the Great Schism of 1054 I learned later) becoming Orthodox and Catholic churches. This division was further reinforced by the Crusades in 1204.  Importantly though, one group, known as Eastern Catholics decided to sit in the middle following Eastern traditions but obeying the Pope. John Paul II wished to reunite the two churches.

So we have a pair of brothers, both priests – Simon and Andreou, who come from an Eastern Catholic family, but Simon had converted to become a full Catholic and has risen up the Vatican ladder. Andrew has remained a ‘Greek’ and thus was married, and has a young son, Peter. I didn’t know that there are types of Catholicism where celibacy is not compulsory. Ironically, Andreou’s wife Mona has left him!

To cut a long story short, the Vatican Museum is to mount an exhibit which is being curated by Ugolino Nogara. Its absolutely top secret and there is not long to go before the exhibit’s opening. When Andrew gets a call from his brother who is in trouble, he leaps in the car to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence half an hour’s drive from Rome, to rescue him. Upon arrival he finds Simon and the body of Ugo.

Both brothers had been working, unknown to each other, on different aspects of Ugo’s project. Simon travelling in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Andreou helping Ugo to understand the differences between the New Testament Gospels – how the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke are more factual and sometimes copy each other, while John is more theological and philosophical in its intent – changing some of the details to fit. Before this novel is over, we will become quite familiar with many of the differences and similarities in the four gospels – particularly in relation to the crucifixion – because… you’d guessed it – that old fake relic the Turin Shroud is to be one of the key features in this exhibit.

Shroud_of_Turin_001

The Turin Shroud (detail, plus negative image) Wikimedia Commons

As Ugo said:

“Yet even now,” Nogara continued, “when we exhibit the Shroud, it attracts millions of pilgrims. At a recent exhibition it drew two millions people in eight weeks. Eight weeks. All to see a relic that has allegedly been disproved. Put that in perspective: the Shroud draws five times as many visitors as the most popular museum exhibit in the world. So imagine how many will come once I prove that the radiocarbon dating of the Turin Shroud was wrong.”

Did Ugo find new evidence about the shroud? Was he killed for it?

Simon is arrested for his murder, and refuses to say anything. Andreou is thrown into turmoil – he suspects that Ugo had discovered something in the Diatesseron, the ‘Fifth Gospel’ their copy of which has gone missing. The Diatesseron was (really) created by an Assyrian Christian called Tatian around 160AD – in it, he attempted to pull together all the four gospels into one single narrative, reordering, getting rid of duplication, adding bridging passages etc.

The next bombshell to hit Father Andreou is that his home is broken into, he gets sent ‘we know who you are’ type threats etc – and from that point on, he moves himself and his son around a variety of ‘safe’ locations within the Vatican’s walls. Cue next bombshell: Simon is to be tried, starting tomorrow, under Canonical Law. The ultimate punishment being to be stripped of his priesthood and have his Vatican passport taken away. We are thrown into an extremely complicated trial, full of twists and turns, discoveries, betrayals, and more before it is time for the exhibit to open, and we discover the full extent of what happened!

Somewhere inside this sprawling novel which runs to 427 pages, was a good thriller trying to get out. However, due to it being based upon real artefacts and the intricacies of Canonical Law in the Vatican, both of which need a lot of explanation, the thiller had to play second-fiddle to the artefacts and theological discussion. Indeed, by the end I was more interested in whether this book considered the Turin Shroud to be real or fake than in Ugo’s murder (something they are still disagreeing about!). I also got rather fed up with Andreou the devoted father, passing his son around all his friends while he wrestled with the trial and the facts – this aspect of emphasising the differences between the Eastern and Western Catholics was quite heavy-handed (although I agree that relaxing the celibacy restrictions would be a good thing).

So as a murder mystery, this book doesn’t quite pass muster; as a theological mystery it was rather more exciting. I learned masses (pun!), and cross-checking some of the facts against Wikipedia for this review, could appreciate the amount of research that went into this book. As a non-believer, for a book to get me reading up about the last days of Jesus and his crucifixion, at Easter-time, must mean something.  (6.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, (affiliate link), please click below:

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell. Published March 2015 by Simon & Schuster. Hardback 448 pages.

A Musical Interlude

McBusted’s Most Excellent Adventure

Last night I took my daughter (and one of her bezzies) to her first pop concert – McBusted at what was the N.I.A. in Birmingham (now the Barclaycard Arena!). It was my first music night for about 15 years too and this morning my ears are still a bit affected. Our seats were in the middle of the arena floor – and I did wonder whether we’d be able to see anything once everyone stood up, but once my daughter pointed out that we were actually just 20yds away from the mid-arena mini-stage and thus in an excellent position I was ready to ‘Party on, dude.’ The show was themed on a video game based on teen films Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Adventure and Back to the Future. It being McBusted, I already knew most of the songs as they’ve been on the TV a lot – they only have one album together, and played a few of their previous McFly and Busted hits too.

I have to say – it was a most excellent show. Both support bands were good, getting 20 minutes each, then McB played for one and three quarter hours. Very slick and professional – also very fun. These boys are all lovely! One thing you can do now at pop concerts is take photos with impunity (although you’re still not really allowed) – so here’s a flavour of what we saw…

McB montage 1
McB Montage 2
McB Montage3

It was a real thrill to see the DeLorean being lowered down from the roof (middle montage) – and then all six of them climbed out of it (they obvs have an underground passage into the arena middle and pop up inside the car once it is lowered), but it’s an impressive illusion. Then they played about four songs there before returning to the stage.

I’d go and see McBusted again like a shot!  As to which of these lads is my favourite?  I have a very soft spot for Tom, love Dougie’s grin, James’ dishevelledness, Harry’s pecs, Matt’s hair and Danny is growing on me…

The only down-side to the NIA though is that being in the middle of Birmingham, with the end of the concert moreorless coinciding with chucking out time and roadworks in the city – it took forever to get out of the car-park and then the satnav led us the scenic route back to the motorway!  Didn’t get home to bed until 1.30am – aren’t I a dirty stop-out!  I shall leave you with a video for ‘Air Guitar’.