My February Books

Feb booksThe Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

This book caught my eye last month when I was reading the January book reviews of one of my favourite bloggers, Mostly Yummy Mummy. She strongly recommended this fascinating account of a British journalist’s decision to move, for her husband’s job, to one of the most remote parts of Denmark. She made it her mission to discover why this cold and dark country regularly tops world happiness polls. Part sociology, part memoir, part lifestyle, this is always brilliantly, wittily written and certainly made me long to be Danish. It’s highly unlikely my husband will be offered a job in Denmark any time soon, but if he was this book would tempt me into encouraging him to accept. With my political hat on I found it interesting and inspiring that Danes are willing and proud to pay high taxes in order to provide top quality public services for everyone, and that this has resulted in an equal, contented and economically successful society. There’s a lesson there, Mr Osborne…

The Light Years, Marking Time & Confusion by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Wow! My best friend and fellow bookworm bought me all five of the Cazalet chronicles for Christmas, and I love her more than ever for it. I’ve read the first three, and am half way through the fourth, and I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed reading anything so much. The novels are a proper old-fashioned family saga, following the lives of the extended upper-middle class Cazalet family in the years leading up to, during and immediately after the second world war.

Howard has a superb gift for evoking that world and drawing you so deeply in to the lives of her characters that they feel almost more real than the people around you. She switches effortlessly from character to character, storyline to storyline, skilfully treading the fine line between dissatisfaction and satiety. I wept, agonised and laughed along with the main protagonists, but I also particularly enjoyed the intricate pen portraits of incidental characters who would be passed over by many other novelists.

These are the kind of books you can’t stop reading (I hope I haven’t neglected my children too severely), but never want to end. They are also books I know I will read again and again, and the characters will live vividly in my head for the foreseeable future. If you haven’t read these, get to a library or bookshop immediately, you have a treat in store.

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, Carry On, Jeeves, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, Thank You, Jeeves Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

February hasn’t been the best month ever for me, as I seem to have been feeling unwell for most of it. I was so ill with tonsillitis that I actually ended up spending three or four days in bed, which is almost unheard of. At the time I was in the middle of the second Cazalet novel, and, although I was loving it, I felt too headachy and under the weather to properly appreciate it, and I wanted a good old comfort read. My husband is a huge P.G. Wodehouse fan, as was my late father-in-law, so we have a huge stash of his work, and husband suggested there was nothing better as a feel-good-pick-me-up. I took him at his word, and motored through five Jeeves novels during my enforced rest.

One of them had an introduction which included this quote from Evelyn Waugh:

Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity which may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I couldn’t have put it better myself. One of my favourite things about reading is that there are worlds and people I can visit whenever I want to. Anya Seton can take me to medieval England, L.M. Montgomery to late Victorian/Edwardian Canada, Maeve Binchey to 1950s Ireland. Whatever is happening in my own life, those alternate realities will never change. And frankly, when you are lying in bed in the 21st century, feeling miserably sorry for yourself, and worrying about your husband being left on his own to cope with two poorly, grumpy children, and the housework all piling up, then escaping to a 1920s Piccadilly bachelor flat, or luxurious country house, with a butler on hand to smooth all life’s difficulties is pretty good. When this world is depicted so hilariously and in such deliciously rich language, then being ill in bed becomes almost a pleasure.

Nigellissima by Nigella Lawson

My husband got me this for my birthday, knowing that I love a good cookery book, and I especially love a Nigella cookery book. I adore her writing style, and her recipes tend to be my go-to favourites. They always work, they’re always delicious, and they suit my slightly freestyle kind of cooking. I haven’t actually made anything from this book yet, but there are loads of dishes I’m dying to try. Chilli Crab Risotto, Eggs in Purgatory, Prawn Pasta Rosa, Cappuccino Pavlova or instant Chocolate Orange Mousse, anyone?

 

 

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February Blues

I said I was superstitious, and didn’t want to tempt fate by proclaiming how great 35 was. Hmm. Fate was tempted anyway.

Since my last blog post I have been quite poorly with tonsillitis, Anna has had conjunctivitis which was really horrible for her, Sophia had a teething-plus-cold-plus random-temperature thing which meant she was breastfeeding every 2 hours all night, and she has also had another head bump where she lost consciousness and we ended up in A&E again. Arrgghh!

valentineI spent the morning of Valentine’s Day mooching around in my pyjamas, still feeling pretty washed-out, and the afternoon in paediatric A&E. I definitely wasn’t in the mood for a romantic evening, so settled for putting my pyjamas back on again (I had got dressed to go to the hospital), and having a takeaway curry on the sofa. My lovely husband made up for it the next day, though, by bringing me a card, a dozen red roses, some chocolate truffles and a super-cute mini Cath Kidston rucksack. The man knows me well!

I’m still feeling that I quite fancy making like a middle-class Edwardian lady and retreating to the seaside for a few weeks convalescence. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be an option anyone is offering me. I did have a fairly quiet week – half term, so thankfully free of school-runs, and my parents came down for a day or two on a mercy mission to entertain the children and stock up my fridge, freezer and cake tins with some home-made goodies, which was lovely Am now having an equally quiet weekend before hopefully  getting back into the swing of things properly next week.

Coming of Age

Picture 152

Yesterday was my thirty-fifth birthday. I have always joked that I have been naturally 35 since I was about 17, so it’s quite nice that my biological age has caught up with my psychological one. My mum described me as now being “old young as opposed to young young”, and I can live with that.

I was absolutely useless as being young young. I hate late nights and night clubs and loud music. I’m not particularly keen on film or TV, so I never quite know who the latest celebrity is – or not until they’re interviewed in the Guardian Weekend magazine, anyway.   My alcoholic drinks of choice are G&T, prosecco or half-decent wine. Even in my student days I never drank so much that I threw up or passed out, and since having children my dread of having a hangover is so pathological that I stop at half a bottle (of wine rather than gin) unless I have childcare lined up for the next day as well.

I like being at home and making a home. I like baking and cooking. I like having friends round for dinner. I like lighting a candle and setting the table properly and cooking a delicious meal to share with my husband while we talk about life, love and everything (‘everything’ could be Anna’s spelling test, whether the filter on the dishwasher needs emptying or geopolitics). I like snuggling under a blanket on the sofa with a good book, or cuddling up with a DVD and a takeaway. I like romantic dinners or family brunches at local restaurants. I like early nights and warm pyjamas and cashmere cardies. I like meeting friends for lunch or coffee or drinks in places where we can actually hear ourselves think and have proper conversations. I like notebooks and pens and Cath Kidston floral prints, and think Great British Bake-Off is practically the best television ever. I was definitely doing hygge before it became an Instagram watchword.

I realise that quite a lot of that makes me sound 75 rather than 35, but there are a few things which hopefully make me ‘old young’ rather than young old.

I also like travel and adventure. Maybe not that adventurous by some standards, but I love home swap holidays which give us a little window into another culture, and travelling across Europe by train, even (especially!) with two young children in tow. I like fish finger sandwiches and nachos eaten messily with my fingers while I read. I like being out and about in London Town, exploring as many different areas and trying as many different foods as I can. I like shopping for and wearing new clothes. I like my Mac Book Air and my blog and other people’s blogs and Instagram, and I think that Sherlock is absolutely and indisputably the best television ever.

I like this stage of my life. I like being established, in my home and in my relationship, but still having the potential to travel or explore different career options. I love having young children and generally revel in the sweet responsibility of being so needed and loved, whilst also having a tiny part of me looking forward to the greater freedom I will have again when the children grow older.

One of my personal challenges for this year is to relish the moment. That was very easy yesterday, because the moments included champagne, chocolate cake, prawn and chilli linguine, presents and cards. But today is a better test. Today I have a clingy teething baby, a head cold that has stolen my sense of smell, a mountain of dirty laundry, a 6 year old with conjunctivitis and torrential rain being lashed against the windows by the 50mph winds, but I still feel pretty content. One of the things which gets in the way of me appreciating the moment is a superstitious dread of tempting fate. I can’t shake that completely, but while I cross my fingers, touch wood, look out for black cats while avoiding ladders and single magpies I will risk saying that thirty-five feels pretty good.

 

Baby Broadway

Life with small children is all about the routine. You get up at the same time (early), provide three meals and two snacks to a fairly rigid timetable, and woe betide you if you’re late for nap time or bedtime. It’s book bag on Tuesday and Friday, running kit on Tuesday, choir practice on Wednesday, Toy Library on Thursday. Any breaks to the routine generally involve impromptu wake-up calls at 1am (3am, 5 am etc) because someone is teething or has a bad dream, or an unscheduled trip to A&E for a bumped head.

Which is why it was a bit surprising this Tuesday at 11.30am to find me in a local church, along with a lot of other parents and under-fives, singing along to hits from the shows performed out by bona fide West End artistes. I only found out about Baby Broadway last week when a friend shared a link on Facebook. To me it is quite simply an idea of genius. Parents/carers take their small children along to a concert of greatest hits from shows like Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat  and Grease. It is totally informal, with children able to crawl/run around to their heart’s content, and audience participation actively encouraged.

baby broadwayI was far more excited than I should have been to discover not only that this concept existed, but that there was actually a concert happening in Walthamstow this week. It cost £9 for me, and was free for Sophia – not the cheapest morning’s entertainment, but so worth it. I didn’t get to sit down for a single minute of the hour-long concert because Sophia was so excited to be in a new environment with lots of other babies that she certainly wasn’t going to waste a second sitting on mummy’s knee. She loved the music though, and I loved the chance to have a proper sing-song. My only regret was that it was in school time and so I couldn’t take Anna, because she would have absolutely adored it. It is fair to say that my husband does not share my passion for old-fashioned musicals, but I am gradually trying to indoctrinate Anna, with remarkable success. The programme for Tuesday has given me some ideas for new films to try as well – perfect for the still-long winter evenings.

The singers were amazingly talented, both at singing and relating to their pint-sized audience. There were tantrums and rice-cakes galore, none of which detracted from the fabulous singing. I went home on a total endorphin-high, belting out Somewhere Over the Rainbow somewhat louder than I probably should have been. I can’t wait for the next Walthamstow performance.

My January Books

At the start of this year I resolved to read 52 new books by the end of it, and review them as I go. Here we are off the blocks with January’s selection.

January booksThirteen Guests by J.Jefferson Farjeon

One of my strongest literary passions is the detective fiction of the Golden Age – roughly speaking the first 60 or 70 years of the 20th century. It was the subject of my dissertation at university, where it made a very pleasant change from Chaucer, and, in the highly unlikely event I ever have the time and money to indulge myself in an entirely useless PhD, it will be the subject of that too. Obviously I love Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey and Michael Innes, but many of the other novels which were wildly popular in their day have been out of print for decades.

It probably makes me a geek to admit it, but some of the happiest hours I have ever spent were sitting in the warmth of the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian Library perusing some of these books which I had ordered up from the stacks (the Bodleian is one of only three libraries in the country which has copies of every single book published in the UK).

Sadly my life now does not permit me, let alone require me, to spend hours at a time shut away in a library in a city I don’t even live in. Happily, to get my fix of Golden Age crime, I no longer need to.

The British Library have started re-publishing whole swathes of these forgotten novels, and they are a pure delight. They are lovely editions with attractive vintage style covers and intelligently written introductions.

Thirteen Guests was a Christmas present from my parents, and it took a good deal of self restraint to wait until after I’d cooked Christmas dinner before diving in. Good thing for my hungry family that I did, because it is a real page-turner. It is a proper classic of the genre, well-written and pacy, with a classic country-house setting. I felt that parts of the novel, especially a few of the characters, owed quite a lot to Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys. Perfectly possible, as Christie had published that a decade earlier. More intriguingly, a key element of the plot recalled a plot device used by Christie herself in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. That wasn’t published until the 1970s, although it had been written many years earlier, but still considerably later than The Thirteenth Guest, so, if any borrowing occurred, in this case it must have been Christie borrowing from Farjeon. Either way, it is a cleverly plotted novel, and the period setting is a pure delight. Throroughly recommended!

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

I bought this sequel to Notes from a Small Island as a Christmas present for my husband, in the sure and certain knowledge that I would enjoy it as much as he did. I wasn’t wrong. Bryson is still side-achingly laugh-out-loud funny, and his wry observations are absolutely on the nail. A favourite in our household!

Any Way You Want Me by Lucy Diamond

I’ve read some of Lucy Diamond’s other books, and enjoyed them, and so was very pleased to spot this on the swap shelf at the church where I take Sophia to a play group. Sadie is a stay-at-home mum to two young children and feels her sense of self has been totally subsumed under the dirty nappies and pear puree. When registering on a Friends Reunited site she invents a much more glamorous identity to impress an old boyfriend, and things get much more complicated from then on. This was a fun read, but also frustrating as I wanted to give Sadie and good shake and some sensible advice. People have said something similar about Ella, the lead character of my novel To Have and to Hold, and I’ve always felt slightly indignant on Ella’s behalf, but I get it a little more now. I was also left with the feeling that I’d like to read a book starring a mum who feels she has lost her identity, but doesn’t re-discover it through a traumatic but passionate extra-marital affair. Maybe she gets a hobby, or takes evening classes or goes back to work or her husband has the kids more so she can see her friends. If you know of one, let me know! Otherwise I’ll just have to write it myself…

Finger Food for Babies and Toddlers by Jennie Maizels

Well, I did say that there’s probably be cookery books included. I spotted this on the book stall at the school Winter Fayre and, given that I am proud possessor of a baby spoon refusenik I thought it had to be worth 50p. It really was. Jennie Maizels has created loads of delicious sounding, imaginative recipes which you’d think would tempt any child, however finicky.

I want to be the kind of mum who cooks from this book regularly. I really do. However. My only foray into it so far was making cherry tomatoes stuffed with feta and couscous. I didn’t resent one moment of the fiddly preparation when I was basking in the glow of giving my child a tasty and healthy lunch. I did slightly resent it when said child threw them all to the floor without tasting a single one. I picked them all up (waste not, want not) and ate them for my lunch, and can confirm that they were really yummy. But for the moment I am back to being the kind of mum who gives the baby what her sister is having, lets her dive in with her hands and clears the mess up afterwards.

Also this month…

The purpose of this exercise is to motivate me to read new books, and so I am not going to review old favourites I have re-read, but I will list them for completeness. This month I have re-read Artistic Licence by Katie Fforde, and enjoyed it as much as ever – Fforde is one of my ultimate comfort-read authors. I am also half way through The Ballroom Class by Lucy Dillon, but that is going to be pushed onto February’s page as I haven’t finished it yet.