Don't be fooled. Inside this thin coating of sweetness is a fiery core of total insanity.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

All The Other Things Part II

Warning: There is no gardening in this post.

I've mentioned in a few previous posts, and in previous years, that I tend to get disenchanted with both gardening and blogging once Fall arrives (although Fall is in fact one of my favorite seasons, because of the return of the fall rains, which means I can haul in the hoses and sprinklers and stop artificial watering -- not to mention I sweat less, because hot weather and I are not friends). I've attributed this flagging spirit to a variety of things -- the fading of sunlight and its concomitant drop-off in Vitamin D, or the end of the gardening season, the dying of growing things, and the end of gardening activity, although that doesn't make a lot of sense either, since there is always work to do out there -- leaves to pick up, weeds to pull, plants to cut back, every month of the year in this climate. I've also sometimes attributed my end of year depression to the holiday season and its forced jollity.

But I recently read an article about burn-out and have started wondering if maybe that's it. Have I become so burnt out from gardening and blogging by Fall that somehow my mind and body have forced me to stop and engage in a kind of season of self care (i.e., enforced laziness)?

Anyway, for the last few months I haven't been doing much gardening or blogging. Mostly I've been reading and watching TV.

What I've Been Reading

I read a lot and I have pretty eclectic taste in books, everything from science fiction to mysteries to historical fiction to memoirs to popular fiction. No porn and no bodice rippers, although I don't look down my nose if that's your thing -- to each their own. Anyway, here's some of what I've been reading lately. Who knows? Maybe there's something in my list of what I read in the last few months that might interest you.

A Bitter Feast by Deborah Crombie This book was the latest (No. 18) in a series of English mysteries about Detective Inspector Gemma James and her Detective Superintendent husband Duncan Kincaid, and their combined brood of children and animals. I do read a lot of mysteries, and my list always leans rather heavily on stories set in Britain. I read a lot of series, set in either England or Scotland, as well as Ireland. I like Deborah Crombie's series, although she's an American, she never gets the details wrong.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout When I first encountered the marvelously opinionated, delightfully prickly, slightly obese character of Olive Kittredge, it was as played by the talented actress Frances McDormand in Olive Kittredge, a two-part HBO miniseries. It was only after watching it that I discovered that the miniseries was based on the novel Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout, and despite the fact that the descriptions of her in the novel didn't bear much resemblance to Ms. McDormand, I'll forever hear her voice and picture her when I read about Olive. This year Strout released Olive, Again, a sequel that was just as wonderful as the first book. Like the first, it is actually more of a series of short stories in which Olive sometimes figures only slightly as a supporting character, and sometimes as the main character.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller I like historical fiction, and I discovered this novel through a review in the New York Times that compared Andrew Miller to Hilary Mantel, a perhaps more well known historical fiction writer (she wrote the book Wolf Hall about Henry VIII, upon which the miniseries is based). I found Miller's book engaging and the characters interesting, including a pair of proto-feminist sisters from the 1800s who nonetheless do not seem out of place. It's about an upperclass English army officer who returns from war broken and suffering, and decides to decamp from his family estate to Scotland, unknowingly chased by an assassin. The thriller aspect is rather lowkey, and the book has an open-ended ending, where you must decide for yourself whether the hero survives.

A Keeper: A Novel by Graham Norton -- Yes, Graham Norton, the British talk show host. And it's a really good book too. I enjoyed his first book as well, which was a cozy murder mystery called Holding, set in a small Irish village. At times, I could hear Graham's voice in the narration. This second book is also a mystery, sort of. Not really a whodunit, more of a how did this happen and why. If you like mysteries with a bit of humor and quirky characters, you'll probably like both of his books, although the second is somewhat more serious in tone than the first.

A pair of autobiographies/memoirs -- Between The Stops: The View of My Life from the Top of the Number 12 Bus by Sandi Toksvig and How to Be Champion by Sarah Millican I adore both of these British female comedic television personalities. Sandi has been a fixture of British TV for decades, and Sarah has been on the British standup comedy scene for about 10 years now, and has had a TV show of her own (look for it on YouTube). Sandi recently took over hosting The Great British Baking Show (called Bakeoff in Britain). These books are very different from each other, but I highly recommend them both. You'll laugh, you might cry (a bit, especially at a few of Sandi's tales). Also, I read these two books in hard cover, rather than on my Kindle, because at the time they weren't available yet in the U.S. (I think they are now). I bought them from

The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan  Susannah Cahalan is a journalist whose career was derailed for a time in the early 2000s by a disease called autoimmune encephalitis, which masquerades as a psychiatric disorder. She was in danger of being diagnosed as schizophrenic and being shut away in a psychiatric ward for  most of her life (which might have been short), but for her family's insistence that doctors explore every possibility. She wrote a book about her experience, Brain on Fire, which I read a few years ago, and it was absolutely fascinating. Her current book starts out talking about other disorders that similarly can be mistaken for psychiatric conditions (such as syphilis), but eventually segues into researching one of the most interesting research projects in psychiatry, about which she makes some important discoveries. You can read an excellent review of this book here.

The Turn of Midnight By Minette Walters  This work of historical fiction by one of my favorite British mystery writers is a sequel to The Last Hours, set during the Black Death in England, about a noblewoman who realizes that she needs to isolate her entire village to keep her serfs (who she cares deeply about) and family safe, and then recognizes how the desolation and deaths will affect society in the future, and makes a move to free the serfs under her care. When I first discovered Walters' mystery books I considered her the best successor to Ruth Rendell, but she took a long break from writing mysteries and then reappeared on the scene writing historical fiction.

Disney's Land: Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusement Park That Changed the World by Richard Snow Dang, that title is a pretentious mouthful. This book is about the creation of Disneyland in California and the invention of the theme park. I'm a Disney fan, the author is a Disney fan, although he does gather together a few Disney-bashing opinions in one chapter towards the end of the book. There's a good amount of print given to the landscaping that went into the park, and I was interested to discover that an esteemed garden designer, Ruth Shellhorn, contributed to the design of the gardens and pathways. There's also quite a lot in the book about the Evans brothers, who worked on the landscape design at Disneyland. You can read a little background here about the Evans brothers.

The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire (Book One and Book Two of a three-part series called The Interdependency) by John Scalzi  Science fiction and urban fantasy make up the bulk of what Nigel reads, with a smattering of horror and auto/biography. He first introduced me to John Scalzi through Scalzi's blog, which is called Whatever (the subtitle used to be "This Website Mocks Fascists," but he recently changed it, now it simply says "Time to Register To Vote"). He's been blogging there for 21 years, about a wide variety of subjects -- sometimes long, thoughtful essays, sometimes just a picture of his cats. So what are The Interdependency books about? The story is set very very far in the future, when humans have moved far out into the galaxy. In order to move between stars, ships use a feature of physics called "The Flow," which at the start of the first book is beginning to collapse and mutate. Except no one really believes the scientists who are warning about the coming collapse, and politicians and businesspeople are jockeying to try to seize power and make money before the end comes. The final book in the trilogy is set to come out this spring.

The newest season of the science fiction show The Expanse recently dropped on Amazon, and I binge-watched that. Have you seen it? This show is based on a series of books by James S.A. Corey (actually a pseudonym used by a duo of writers), of which I read the first three, a few years ago, when the show first premiered on Sy-Fy.

A week or so ago I downloaded a couple of Expanse novellas into my Kindle -- The Churn and Strange Dogs. I enjoyed The Churn better, it's a story about the life of one of the TV show's main characters, Amos Burton, when he was still a teenager barely surviving in Baltimore.

I also recently celebrated a birthday, and for my birthday Nigel got me a book about the TV show, The Art and Making of The Expanse, which I devoured in one night. It's one of those books that's full of rich photographs and behind the scenes info. One of the things I really love about the show is the number of richly drawn, tough, courageous, kick-ass women.

Here are some takeaways from the book with some info about some of the show's female characters.

Also, here's a link to a video on YouTube with some of Crisjen Avasarala's best moments (played by the phenomenal Iranian-born actress Shohreh Aghdashloo).

The Expanse

And speaking of TV....

What I've Been Watching on TV

My husband Nigel (who is English) and I have a Britbox subscription, which we use for more than just watching Gardener's World. We also watch a lot of British shows on YouTube. There are a handful of game shows and panel shows that show up there on a regular basis. I mentioned a game show -- Only Connect -- in a previous post here.

We've been watching a game show called Pointless, which has been running on British TV for several years. Unlike Only Connect, where people compete just for bragging rights, these contestants can actually win money -- although not a lot. The goal is to make the least points possible, and the questions are easier than in Only Connect.

The show has a pair of hosts, Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman, who work well together. Nigel and I get a kick out of listening to them riff off each other, and occasionally rack up a few zingers. They've known each other since university. Alexander is the affable host who asks the questions and schmoozes the guests, and Richard pretends to be knowledgeable and professorial, although he often makes stuff up just to be funny.

Reportedly Her Majesty The Queen is a big fan of the show. Sometimes Richard looks straight at the camera and addresses her. "Your Majesty, if you're watching..."

Here's a sample episode.

Pointless Series 22 Episode 1

You can read more about Alexander Armstrong here.

You can read more about Richard Osman here. Interestingly, he was a producer and one of the creators of the show Deal or No Deal, and used to sit in the room with the Banker during filming. Did you know Deal or No Deal started out on British TV? It was decidedly less glamorous in its original incarnation.

Another show that Nigel and I have been watching on YouTube is Richard Osman's House of Games, which is a game show for celebrities that kind of defies description, but I'll try. Each week for five days a panel of four celebrities compete to win a cheap plastic trophy by playing a series of very silly games where they sometimes have to answer backwards, or answer two questions whose answers rhyme with each other, or are anagrams of each other, etc., etc., etc. Richard hosts this show on his own, and asks all the questions.

Here's a sample.

Richard Osman's House of Games Series 3 Episode 11

There is also a version of Pointless in which celebrities are the contestants, and they compete to win a small amount of money for charity. Amusingly, it's called Pointless Celebrities. Here's a recent episode where Welsh actor Michael Sheen competed.

Through our Britbox subscription I also recently binge-watched an anthology show from England called Inside No. 9, in which each story takes place inside an address that is number 9, or in the case of one episode, on the 9th floor of a hotel. Some are thrillers, some are comedies, but every one features surprising plot twists and they all have that very keen English sense of humor. They are also very cleverly written, as in the case of the episode on the hotel's 9th floor, which was written in iambic pentameter, and had a rather Shakespearean-style plot, featuring unwitting twins separated at birth, mistaken identity, etc. I've never seen Black Mirror, but I've heard it favorably compared to that. Every episode features the character actors Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, who also wrote them all.

I can't link to any of the episodes, but there is an analysis of one of the best episodes on YouTube, which you can watch here.

Inside No. 9

There is a particular type of British show that Nigel and I love that just doesn't seem to translate well when people try to adapt it for American audiences -- it's called a panel show. Think of it as a game show crossed with the loosey-goosiness of standup comedy. Actually, one recent show that did come from England that worked in the U.S. was Whose Line Is It Anyway? I never watched it, either the American or British version. But we do watch quite a few other British panel shows.

TaskMaster One British panel show that was recently recommended by the New York Times TV reviewer is TaskMaster. You can read about it here. It's another show with two hosts, Greg Davies and Alex Horne, who give five comedians a series of tasks that challenge their creativity and sometimes their ability to read and follow directions.

TaskMaster Series 1, Episode 1

Here's a short Behind-the-Scenes piece about the show.

On-set with TaskMaster

I could go on and on and on, recommending a lot of British TV shows, but I'm afraid you're going to find it tedious.

Oh what the hell, here's more, all panel shows.

Mock The Week (On Britbox)
Have I Got News For You (On YouTube)
Would I Lie to You? (On YouTube and Britbox)
As Yet Untitled (on Britbox)
QI (on Britbox)
Goodness, hope that didn't bore you to tears. Maybe finding out what holds my interest when I'm not gardening gave you a little insight into what a very strange creature I am (or maybe you already had an inkling about that...)

Anyway, Happy New Year and Welcome to the 2020s!


  1. Thanks for the book reviews, Alison! I read every evening and I'm constantly looking for new mystery series so I'll explore some of yours. (Have you read any of the Elly Griffiths Ruth Galloway series? She's an English forensic archeologist.) I read the original 'Olive Kittridge' but haven't made it to the follow-up yet. I used to read a lot of science fiction too but now tend to just watch sci-fi TV, although I haven't been able to get my husband interested in the new season of 'The Expanse' - he has an annoying tendency to critique sci-fi based on real science...

    A belated happy birthday!

  2. Hey Alison! I hear you on the gardening thing - for me it's the heat of Summer that always forces a break. Books are the best alternative! I've been reading and watching The Expanse series at the same time, although I'm starting to feel the stirrings of spring & gardening again.

  3. I didn't know you were a Brit mystery afficiando Alison. I have been reading mostly non-fiction for the last couple of years , but I have read all of Ngaio Marsh. PD James, Ruth Rendell, Josephine Tey, PD James , Dorothy L Sayers etc etc. I will definitely explore Minette Walters and Deborah Crombie.

  4. Everyone needs down time. Pick any season and recharge your batteries; reading is a perfect way to do it. Thanks for the recommendations. Since I've just retired I hope to do more reading. I do love mysteries and everything British. The most memorable book I read last year was "Where The Crawdads Sing". Apparently, the most requested book in the Seattle libraries in 2019.

  5. Deborah Crombie, yes; Elizabeth Strout, yes; The Expanse books and series yes, yes. Although the book season 4 is based on was not my favorite but the entire series is wonderful. Maybe you recommended this one but I can't find it on your blog, try Long Trip to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers and if you have never read the Murder Bot series by Martha Wells you and Nigel are in for a treat. We've subscribed to Acorn on Amazon and are really enjoying the British and Australian shows available on it (Doc Martin, Mystery Road, The Line of Duty). Thanks for the recommendations and the blog - I always enjoy your ruminations, garden photos and hilarious sidebars.

  6. I love your post and I'm making notes. I had no idea that Graham Norton is writing mysteries! I am so out of the loop these days on the book world. The best book I've read recently was Elton John's biography which is very well written and funny. I'm just now discovering Beverly Nichols and am halfway through his first gardening book. Like you, I love British shows and books. We cancelled our BritBox subscription after Gardener's World ended.

  7. I love to read other peoples list of books read. I often find something of interest and not always of the genre I usually read. Sounds like you have been quite busy. Cheeers.

  8. Really interesting post, not boring at all.

    I am another one that reads mostly in summer. Our summer is the equivalent of your winter in that the weather is too miserable to spend much time outdoors.

    From my semester abroad in the UK I remember "Mastermind" which was mind-boggling. Would never translate to the US.

  9. Fascinating post!! I loved learning about what you've read. It's given me a few ideas to suggest to my neighborhood bookclub. I am an Expanse nerd. I friggen love this show. What's better is that my 14 yr old son loves it too and we've been binging it over the holiday break. I knew it was based on a book series but didn't know about the behind the scenes or other accompanying books. Thank you for pointing them out!! And...personal opinion here but I think it's good to have balance. So..for you..seems reasonable to take a break from garden blogging and such. I ebb with my blogging. 2019 was a dry year. I'm thinking I'll post a little more in 2020 :)

  10. Wish I had had these recommendations when I was searching for good books for gifts before Christmas! I'll have to refer back to your list this year... For as much as I love to read, I do so very little of it. Shameful, really - there are so many great books, and every time I do treat myself to a good book, I vow to read more often. I think I pretty much stopped when the kids were born, and then I never picked it back up again. I went from spending entire days reading to.... well, hardly anything. Such a shame - a good book is such a treat! And I watch TV even less than I read. I am the Queen of Pop Culture Ignorati. By now I'm so far behind, I don't even know where to begin in order to catch up.

  11. I am reading a book you might like - I'm a half-breed Finn so this fills in some history for me plus living in Washington I have been to some of these places. I thought it might be dry but his writing is very compelling.

  12. I added books to my Amazon wishlist. Brain On Fire sounds intriguing!!

  13. Wow, you have done a lot of reading. I do like good historical fiction (Mantel, for example), and the ones you mention sound intriguing.


Gardening is a solitary activity. But blogging about it is a social phenomenon! I don't make money from my blog by advertising, or use it to drive customers to a business. If you liked my post, or my writing or photography, or even just one picture or turn of phrase, I'd love to hear from you. That's how I get paid.