Y is for Yann Martel

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I can’t believe I’m on Y already. This year has disappeared – nearly half way through 2009…

Anyway, my Y book is Yann Martel’s “The Life of Pi”. I’ve read this once before, about six years ago.
For those of you who haven’t read it, it’s the story of a boy called Pi (Piscine Molitor Patel) who finds himself stuck in a boat with a 450 pound Royal Bengal tiger. The obvious irony is that he’s called ‘Swimming pool’ in French and a large part of the story’s spent in the water, but actually that didn’t irritate me at all.
I don’t want to tell you a lot of the plot, as I hate reviews that give away too much. However, I will say a couple of things.
Firstly, a lot more of the book is on land than I remembered. In fact, the whole first part is in India, where the reader gets to know Pi and his family life, as well as his love of God in his many forms.
Secondly, you know what happens to Pi from the beginning of the book, as his adult self narates the story. This takes the tension out, but it’s intriguing to know how he conquers the tiger, and stays alive on the ocean for so long.
I found the character arc to be brilliantly written. Pi is forced by circumstance to inhabit a brutal role, one where he kills whatever he can to keep him and the tiger alive.
The imagery in these sections is breathtaking. When Pi kills a big fish, he describes how the colours of it’s skin change rapidly, through all of the camouflage it knows. Pi likens this to ‘killing a rainbow’, an incongruent metaphor that drives home the brutality of his actions while maintaining the ‘Pi’ character.
Apart from Pi, the rest of the ‘cast’ are colourfully rendered and well rounded – surprising in a story which is about a boy and a tiger, trapped in a boat.
Pi is deeply religious, and follows Hinduism, Islam and Catholicism to the point where he is the subject of an argument between three holy men. This underlying faith runs through the whole book, allowing the reader to question and believe to a point where they ultimately make the same leap of faith as Pi does.
It was my birthday last week, when I read Life of Pi. I looked up Yann Martel in good olWikipedia, only to find that his birthday is the same day as mine! Just as in the book, life contains strange coincidences that you can either put down to life, or make that leap of faith which elevates them to miraculous.
Next week, I’m reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I’ve tried reading it before, and it’s pretty hefty, so wish me luck!
Have a great week, lovely readers.

Accessibility issues

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I have Macs at home, and I get quite frustrated when websites don’t function on Macs as they do for Windows, especially as I test websites and know how easy it is to check basic stuff on Macs and Windows.

There are loads of examples of this (your suggestions welcome!) but this is the worst one I’ve come across:

HQhair.com
The site stocks a huge range of high end cosmetics, accessories and other pamper products at decent prices. The shipping is a bit steep, but you can quite often get hold of online codes which reduce or get rid of the costs, which is nice.

The problem is that the site looks good on a Mac (Firefox and Safari, both latest versions), but once you come to checkout, you can’t. It looks to me as if a third party hosts the actual payment, and when it comes to that, there’s a blank space on the page where you should be able to enter the card information.
I have e-mailed them a couple of times about this, but have yet to hear back. As it was at least eighteen months ago, I’m not going to hold my breath.

I tend to use Beauty Bay now – it stocks most of the same stuff, for similar prices but most importantly, I can complete the order in the comfort of my living room!

When independent goes wrong

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Amira Wear
December 2009, I saw a stall outside Norwich’s Chapelfield Shopping Centre, selling dresses. They were pretty and reasonably priced, at £35 for a handmade tea dress. I picked up a dress to purchase, but the girl on the stall told me they were there for display, and my dress would be sent out within five days. This was on December 7th.
To be honest, after the order I realised I’d been a bit daft, giving out my credit card number to be charged later. I e-mailed ‘Amira’ to confirm the order. She sent me an e-mail back on the same day, assuring me that she would confirm the order and contact me ‘directly’.
She never did, so on the 24th of December, I sent her an e-mail asking for my order to be cancelled.
Please cancel my order.
I was told when I ordered that it would be with me within five days, and now it’s been more than two weeks.
I had originally wanted the dress for a weekend away on the 12th, but it didn’t arrive. I then decided I’d have it for Christmas instead but it did not arrive.
Please confirm the cancellation and, in future don’t promise your customers something you cannot or will not fulfil.
Thanks,
Suzanne

Harsh? Probably. Fair? Definitely.
To my surprise, I got this back, along with an answer machine message in the same vein:
Hi Suze,
My sincere apologies for any delay, I’ve been working away from home for a whole month traveling the country and I actually couldn’t get back to my office until 1 day ago. Unfortunately for the last 5 days I’ve been hit with a very bad flu and need the couple of days over Christmas and Boxing Day to recover before I can visit the girl who ran the stand at Norwich. The girl you spoke to at Norwich was unable to work at the stand after 2 days as she fell seriously ill and was in and out of hospital so I couldn’t visit her yesterday as planned as it would be totally irresponsible of me to be in close contact to her when I have such a bad flu because she needs every opportunity to get better and I wouldn’t feel happy about passing on this horrible flu to her when she is already in such a delicate state. Both our well-being has to come first I’m afraid as I run a small independent fair-trade fashion label which comes from my heart, so yet again I’m so sorry for not being physically able to deliver your order to you at this time but hopefully you will understand the circumstances, I’ve only just starting touring the country after a year out from the business when I was caring for my mum who had terminal cancer and passed away recently, the last few months have been a very difficult time for me and I’m only just picking up the pieces and rebuilding my life and business. As I didn’t personally guarantee your order I felt it only right to explain what has happened in the meantime, and I have no problem at all with canceling it.
I’m not even aware at this stage what item you ordered, can you please let me know as I still don’t have any of the details of your order to hand? It would be very kind if you could confirm the details so that I know which order to cancel, as I don’t guarantee any order until I know that it is still available, and there may be a chance that I have the item with me and can dispatch it Special Delivery as soon as the post office opens after Boxing Day as long as you can supply the payment details again.
Please let me know the details of your order, and thank you for your kind understanding.
Best wishes,
Amira

Wow. Talk about a guilt trip…
I didn’t reply to this, mainly because if I did I would probably have written something regrettable about how plenty of people have parents who die, or manage to send e-mails with the ‘flu, especially as a struggling business.
On February 3rd, I checked my credit card statement, and the money had been taken out! FEBRUARY 3RD! That’s nearly eight weeks after I ordered the dress in the first place, and six weeks after I’d forgotten all about it.
An e-mail conversation:
Hello,
I was very disappointed to check my card statement this morning to find that a charge of £35 has been made to my account. As you can see, and as you know, I cancelled that order at Christmas time.
Please refund me as soon as possible, and confirm when this refund has been processed from your end.
Thanks and I look forward to hearing from you.
Suzanne.

Hi Suzanne, I did ask you to confirm what the order was for otherwise I wouldn’t know what order to cancel, and I met the girl who ran that stand at Norwich last week and she explained that she had phoned everyone 2 weeks ago and that everyone still wanted their order. I’m so sorry for any confusion but I have just sent all the orders out yesterday. I suggest that the best way to resolve this is that when you receive this dress please return it to me, and as soon as I receive it back I’ll issue you a refund, as this is standard procedure. It’s a really lovely dress and obviously I’m unable to refund until I have the item back in stock. Looking forward to resolving this matter. Kindest regards, Amira

Hi Amira,

My apologies, I thought you would have been able to find my order by my name.
I will return it to you as soon as I receive it – I wouldn’t want to wear it as frankly, my dealings with you have been difficult, to say the least.
The girl who ran the stall did not call me, so perhaps you should take that up with her.
I expect my postage to be added to my refund because it’s your fault that you can’t keep your records straight.
It’s a shame – the dress is lovely. You ruined it for yourself from the outset.
I look forward to receiving the full refund.
Suzanne

Hi Suzanne, yes thank you, the dress arrived yesterday and I have already issued you a refund through WorldPay, please be aware that it will take 7-10 working days to show in your bank account. Again, my sincere apologies for any inconvenience caused, it has been a really difficult time in the last few months since the death of my mum and I know that she will be glad that I have continued with my business as she knows it comes from the heart. I experimented with work experience girls doing concession stands and have realised from this experience that it does not necessarily work out well, this is my business which I’ve been working very hard on and can not be held responsible for anything that voluntary helpers may have said. In future, I shall not be doing any concession stands to avoid circumstances like this. I never personally guarantee any orders as I’m aware of the responsiblity that comes with running a business, and all I can do is apologise for any misunderstanding that may have occured. The postage came to £1.45 so I’ll have to send you a postal order for this amount in the post shortly. Thank you for your kind understanding, and I wish you all the best for the future. Kind regards, Amira

Really? So, only does she blame the fact that she cannot keep up with the orders, fails to communicate and steals money from people on her dying mother, she also blames the people that are helping her out, including the girl who was at death’s door six weeks ago. Nice.
I also like the fact that she wheeled out the phrase “standard procedure”. Nothing about this was “standard procedure”.
If she had admitted responsibility for her business, carrying her name, I would’ve cut her some slack. But she never did, blaming the weather, illness, cancer, work experience girls and everything else she could think of.
I’m avoiding her like the plague, and I’ll definitely be more wary about online orders taken through stalls in the future.
NB I’m not putting a link to her website on here, as I don’t want her getting more hits than deserved. You can search for it if you want though, it’s pretty easy to find.

Indie Online

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Cute, independent websites that sell cute, independent stuff like t-shirts and jewellery.

1. Shana logic
I stumbled across this site while looking for a padlock necklace. I know, I know, but it wasn’t emo at all. Also, I’m still looking, so if you see any, please send them my way.
Shana logic’s motto is “Shop indie”, and the site displays everything from canvas prints to sushi jewellery. Some of the stuff is expensive (taking into account the cross-Atlantic shipping as well), such as the limited edition prints. Most of it is very reasonably priced – you can get brilliant earrings for $10, and the sushi charm bracelet is a mere $60 – all handmade pieces, and some of them include Swarowski crystals. That may sound expensive, but the rest of the sushi range is half of the price with the same beautiful attention to detail.

2. Crowded Teeth
I found this website by accident a good few years ago – I don’t remember how. I do know that I was instantly in love with the designs. Michelle Romo is a hard working artist who has the ability to make simple clothing, accessories and stationery designs that are instant classics. Some of her t-shirts have been worn on Scrubs. As she does it herself, stock changes all of the time. I have a couple of t-shirts, a hoodie and a scarf/glove set, and always get compliments on them.

The pictured apple necklace is only $15!

Where do you go for online shopping?

Do you check your receipts?

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In the past couple of months, I’ve been double charged twice, in separate shops.

1. Jarrold’s.
A department store in Norwich, spread over a number of sites and stocking everything from scones to shovels. I bought some clothes in there and when I got home, realised that I’d been double charged for a jumper. Two things struck me: firstly, why didn’t I notice that I’d been charged nearly forty quid more than I’d expected and secondly – how do I return an item I don’t have?

I rang Jarrold’s the next day to explain the situation, and without hesitation the lady I spoke to got me to come in and get a refund, at my convenience, of course. She was very apologetic and there were absolutely no hassles.

2. TK Maxx
The second was last week, in a Scottish TK Maxx store. This is relevant because I only figured out that a t-shirt I’d bought was on my receipt twice, while waiting for the train back to Norwich at Peterborough. Whoops. It was less than a tenner and, I’ve got to be honest, I thought about not bothering. Then I realised that these are difficult times and I may need that tenner at some point, so I visited the Castle Mall Norwich TK Maxx store the next day.

I was appalled by the so-called ‘customer service’ they have there. In previous times, I’ve been served by shop assistants who push you out of the way to get past, don’t utter a single syllable while serving you and even, on one occassion, closed the changing rooms twenty minutes before closing. It shouldn’t have come as a suprise, but it did. The tills in TK Maxx (for those of you who are unfamiliar) usually incorporate some sort of exchange/refund position. As it was a Saturday when I went in, the purchase queue was about thirty people long. There was someone at the refund till, so I stood next to the sign that pointed to the exchange/refund and waited. When that customer was done, I walked over to the assistant and said hello. He replied with “Do you want a refund or exchange?” which I confirmed, but also warned that it was a little bit tricky. After we’d established that, he pointed to the queue and told me I’d have to queue. I asked if he was joking. He confirmed that he was not. After I’d pointed out that it was the shop’s fault that I’d had to come in, and I absolutely refused to wait in the queue, he brought a manager over.

I explained what the problem was, and the manager asked me to contact the store in Scotland. Odd, but fair enough as they may need to confirm stock counts. I called the shop when I got home, and explained what had happened. Now, I know I’m biased, but the service I got over the phone was light years ahead over the face to face in Norwich. Both people I spoke to apologised and gave as much information/advice as they could. I spoke to the deputy manager, who said that they were actually unable to refund over the phone as their security requires a card to be present. I took his name and number, and promised to call if I needed to, as I went to tackle the other TK Maxx shop in Norwich.

I didn’t need it – once I’d explained what had happened, I got my refund without an issue. The only thing I objected to was that they asked me to sign for it, but that is a security measure to stop staff stealing from the tills, and my signature tells you nothing about me, so I didn’t really mind.

Three lessons learned, then.

A. ALWAYS check your receipt. If you’re buying a lot of stuff, add them up, at least to a rough count. This will alert you to a higher total than expected and you won’t do what I did and just pay it.

B. Customer service varies between locations and stores for TK Maxx.

C. If at first you don’t succeed, ask someone else until they do it for you.

X is for Xiaolu Guo

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My X is for Xiaolu Guo. 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is the second book I’ve read by this young Chinese author, and the second one where I’ve read it as if written by a man. It’s strange how it affects how you read books when you don’t know who’s written it (ah, Barthes will be having a field day) in the same way as you watch films differently when you don’t know anything about the actors/actresses in it. I for one, am wholeheartedly with Daniel ‘James Bond’ Craig, when he says that he prefers his private life to be kept private.

When I read Shopgirl, I said it was difficult for me to divorce what I knew of Steve Martin, funnyman and Oscars host, from what he was telling me as the writer.

The other book of Xiaolu’s I’ve read is A Concise Chinese-English dictionary for lovers, where part of the joke was that the title is obviously not concise. For both books, the main characters are female, and I was going to applaud the author for managing to express himself in a feminine voice, without reverting to standard male tactics to prove how sensitive they are. Of course, that backfired on me because I didn’t check first.
Perhaps I should commend her instead on how well she writes as an emotionally detached woman – modern and sometimes shocking in her language, without being needy and dramatic. No Jimmy Choos or Louboutins in sight!

In 20 Fragments of Ravenous Youth, Fenfang moves from her village to Beijing at seventeen. She then writes in snapshots of her life as she encounters boyfriends, cockroaches and menial jobs. It’s written beautifully – it’s stark and startling at times. One episode sees Fenfang visit her parents, and the journey takes her three days and three nights. It’s then that the magnitude of China itself, and Fenfang’s decision to come to Beijing, sinks in properly. I enjoyed that you don’t see every twist and turn, every lights out or first meeting for Fenfang. People come and go without fanfare – just as in real life. At the end of the novel she is ten years older – physically and mentally.

Her time in Beijing has been difficult, but somehow you feel that she is better for it – more fulfilled than she would have been if she’d stayed in the village she grew up in. Incidentally, in the book she describes this as so small it’s not even on the map, but she mentions that it’s home to thousands. It’s the little comments that mark the location out as different, and yet Fenfang wants the ‘shiny’ things in life – just like the rest of us.

I would recommend this to people who enjoy Murakami – it’s definitely the ‘lite’ version, but has the same minimalist feel to it. It’s also really quick to read – this took me a couple of hours on the train to read.

W is for Wendy Holden

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Wendy Holden used to write for Tatler. That is basically, all you need to know.

Not really, I will discuss her book as well. Fame Fatale is about two women, Grace Armiger and Belinda Black. Grace is an unassuming, hard working PR girl for a failing but honest publisher. Belinda is a scheming, manipulative tabloid hack whose only goal in life is to snare herself a rich husband, preferably from the pages of the Tatler’s Little Black Book. Quelle Surprise.  On a side note, I’ve just wikipedia’d Tatler and their list of past editors is made more interesting with the inclusion of a list of why they stopped being editors – one of them was killed by a train, while another died ‘in office’… Intriguing. Continue reading