Everlasting January

Every year. Every year it gets me. Every year I am frankly smug at the beginning of January. We’ve had a lovely Christmas, but now it’s time to get back to real life, new year, new goals, new excitement, new challenges. Ok, so it’s cold now, but come on people, spring is just around the corner. Fast forward three weeks (Or three years? Who knows?) and I’m just over it. Over the freezing cold, the (still) dark mornings, the (still) dark evenings. The fact that a child’s request to go to the playground fills me with horror, so we either have over-energised children bouncing off the walls inside, or I go and spend 30 minutes freezing the very marrow of my bones so they can run some of it off.

There’s been a lot going on this January as well, which makes it feel longer I think. Some of it has been pretty rubbish. My husband’s office was broken into not once, not twice, but three times in the space of a week, and the police didn’t seem even remotely bothered. Running a start-up can be stressful enough at the best of times, and having three lots of computers stolen, three lots of replacement doors and locks to organise and pay for, three lots of reports to make to police officers who don’t even have the time/inclination to see you in person, three lots of insurance reports to file doesn’t exactly decrease that stress. Luckily he has a fantastic team, and they all really pulled together and kept on with business as usual, but I found it quite frightening to see just how deep the cuts to policing have bitten.

I have been having a flare-up of my ankylosing spondylitis which hasn’t been much fun. Looking back, it is something which often seems to happen in January. I don’t know if it’s eating a lot more red meat and sugary food over Christmas, or the hard work that goes into creating a lovely family Christmas, or just the cold weather, which always seems a bit of a trigger for me. Either way I have been feeling a bit sorry for myself with a sore foot (plantar fasciitis, which is very common with AS) and really bone-aching fatigue. One week I basically spent all the time my youngest was at nursery lying on the sofa to try and conserve energy for when I collected her, and subsequently I have felt much better than that, but still having to be very careful to manage my energy levels as even quite a normal level of exertion can wipe me out.

We saw an optometrist about my eldest’s eyes, as she is having problems with her distance vision which is not corrected by appropriate lenses. One possibility is that she has Irlen’s Syndrome (sometimes called Visual Stress Disorder), which is a problem with the brain’s ability to process visual information, rather than an issue with the eyes themselves. It isn’t the same as dyslexia, although around 50% of people with dyslexia are thought to be affected, and it can cause blurred vision, or the words to seem to move around the page. It seems likely that she is affected by that to some degree, but equally not all her symptoms are explained by this, so we are now awaiting an ophthalmologist appointment for further tests, which is all a bit worrying.

And then just a few days ago my poor Henry Cat was attacked by a vicious marauding cat in our garden, and has a nasty bite on his ear, which needed a hasty trip to the vets and now some antibiotics.

poorly henry

So all in all, nothing awful, but a bit of a feeling that things are rather relentless. However, in between all this, we have also been making the most of January with a positive whirl of social and cultural activity!

Our Christmas present to our 9 year old was tickets to see Matilda, the hit West End musical. my MIL had agreed to look after the 4 year old, and we went to see a matinee on Saturday, followed by a ‘grown-up’ dinner out. I had read really good reviews, and my little book-worm daughter adored the original Roald Dahl story, so I thought we were probably onto a good thing, but I was taken aback by how absolutely amazing it was. It was very well adapted, and the script, music, lyrics and choreography worked so beautifully together that it was an absolute sensory delight. I’d go again in a heartbeat.

matilda 1

My MIL had also decided to give ‘experience’ gifts this Christmas – tickets to a comedy show for my husband, and for a live cinema screening of the National Theatre’s Richard II for me. Coincidentally these were on consecutive nights just a couple of days after we saw Matilda! We saw James Acaster performing a brilliant one-man show in the West End, and then the next night had a complete contrast with some Shakespeare. Being somewhat (ok, totally) out of touch, I’d never heard of James Acaster, but he was absolutely hilarious. And as most of his show related to either Brexit or Bake-Off it was almost uncannily appropriate for us. Richard II was one of the plays I studied for A-level, and I don’t think you ever get to know any text quite like your A-level ones, so I have very strong opinions on Richard, and I wasn’t totally sure about this production. Simon Russell Beale was magnificent as Richard, and the language and themes are so powerful, poignant, thought-proving and relevant that it’s hard to go far wrong. However, I didn’t love the production which was based around the conceit of all the characters being continually shut up together in the same windowless room, in very simple modern costume. As many of the characters also doubled up it had the slightly disconcerting feeling of a GCSE Drama production in the school sports hall.

We also went as a family to see an exhibition at the British Library called Cats on the Page; which was a quirky and sweet look at the role of the cats in literature, both for adults and children. I love cats, and of course I love books, and some of my children’s favourite books – Slinky Malinki, Tabby McTat, Mog,Gobbolino, Atticus Claw, TS Eliot’s Cat poems – have featured feline protagonists that it was equally enjoyable for all of us.

cats on the page

Less cultural, but we also had an impromptu snowball fight in the street one bedtime, when the snow started falling thick and fast at about 6.30pm and miraculously settled. I decided trying to put them to bed under those circumstances was like holding the tide back, and most of my neighbours clearly thought the same as the front doors all opened and streams of excited children poured out. I’m so glad I was spontaneous as it was pretty much melted by the next morning. Which is pretty much my ideal snow – come quickly, look pretty, allow some rosy-cheeked, wholesome making of childhood memories, go again before getting grey/slushy/icy/necessitating days off school!

snow fight

We’ve also had friends we haven’t seen for ages over for dinner, and I had a lovely catch-up brunch on the South Bank with two friends from university last week, so there has definitely been more good than bad.

I’ve also treated myself to a great selection of new books with some Christmas money I got, so I’m doing well with my 2019 reading challenge so far, and will be reporting back on January’s choices at the end of the week.

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My October Books

I am on Day Twelve of a horrible cold and cough, and getting very fed up of not being able to breathe through my nose, and feeling like my head is full of cotton wool and my limbs are full of lead. So this might not be the most sparkling blogpost ever, but hey, it’s the first day of November, so it’s time to review my October books.

october-books

The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders

My mum saw this book reviewed and suggested I might like it too. She was right! This is, hopefully, the first of a new series of mysteries, featuring middle-aged Victorian widow Laetitia Rodd as the sleuth. Her brother is a famous barrister, and has taken to asking his Miss Marplesque sister to help him out with discreet enquiries in some of his cases. As she is living in genteel poverty, she is only too happy to oblige.

In this case, the discreet enquiries quickly lead to multiple murders. This novel was extremely well written, with more than a knowing nod to Dickens in both plot and style. Letty Rodd is an extremely engaging and pleasingly unlikely heroine, the plot was superbly constructed, and the atmosphere of Victorian upper middle-class life compellingly realistic. I’m looking forward to the next in the series being published!

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Back at the beginning of October, I was chatting with one of my friends, and she mentioned how much she loved Liane Moriarty’s books. I was pretty sure I hadn’t read any, but the name rang a vague bell. After  bit of rummaging on my bookshelves I remembered why – I had a Liane Moriarty novel which my sister-in-law passed on to me with a pile of other books she’d read with her book group, but which inexplicably I hadn’t got round to reading.

So I started straight away, and it was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read all year. Alice suffers a head injury which is fairly minor, other than for the fact that it wipes out her memory of the last ten years. She comes round believing that she is 29, happily married and pregnant with her first baby, so it comes as a shock to realise that she is now a mother of three schoolchildren, separated from her husband and estranged from her beloved sister.

This book is about how the things which shape our lives often aren’t big decisions, they are just an accumulation of tiny little ones, all seemingly insignificant, but which when taken together can drive our lives way off course. Most of us won’t have a brain injury to force us to take stock, but it made me want to pause and think seriously about my life decisions, what I really want to be doing and what I get funnelled into accidentally or because I feel it is somehow expected.

My friend described Moriarty’s books as being the kind that leave you feeling bereft when they end because you don’t want to leave the characters you’ve got to know. I found exactly the same, it was a book I didn’t want to end but equally couldn’t read fast enough.

Afternoon Tea in the Sunflower Cafe by Milly Johnson

A Spring Affair and The Yorkshire Pudding Club by Milly Johnson are two of my all time favourite comfort reads. I have enjoyed all her books, but they are the ones I have read again and again. Afternoon Tea in the Sunflower Cafe was a fun, light read, but I don’t think it will go down as an all time favourite.

The Year of Taking Chances and The Secrets of Happiness by Lucy Diamond

Two absolutely cracking ‘chick lit for grown ups’ books. They’re not perhaps books to make you think particularly deeply, but they are well-written, uplifting and all round feel-good reads.

The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude

Another in the brilliant crime classics series being re-published by the British Library. This is definitely a murder mystery in its pure puzzle form. I didn’t enjoy it as much as some, including some by John Bude, as I felt the characters were somewhat superficial, and there to make the plot work, rather than the characters leading the plot. Having said that, it had interesting and original twist, was very cleverly and tightly plotted, and I managed to guess whodunnit, which is always satisfying!

 

Stronger together: Why I’m voting In

I am a European. I am British. I am English. I am a Northerner. I am a Scouser. I am a Londoner. And I am a European. I see no contradiction in owning  these multiple identities. Moving to London hasn’t eroded my pride in where I’m from, and I will always, always, always have a bath not a barth, but I’m happy to have the chance to live in the greatest city in the world, raise my children here and call it home. Similarly, I am no less British because we’re part of the European Union.

I am voting in because membership of the EU provides us with a potent and irreplaceable mix of security and freedom. EU law protects our employment, our maternity benefits and our human rights to name but a few, whilst EU membership enables us and our children to travel, or to live, or to study, or to work in Europe at will.

I am voting in because I have read  the history books. For centuries the great European powers were almost continually at war. My grandparents’ generation made enormous, unthinkable sacrifices to ensure a peaceful Europe, and when they had done so Winston Churchill laid the foundation stones of the modern-day European Union to secure that peace for future generations. And it has worked. The main European powers have been at peace for seventy years. That has never happened before, and it is hardly coincidence that it has happened now. Looking at some of the terrible situations round the world it would be beyond hubristic to say that we are protected from war closer to home by good luck or inherent moral superiority. We are protected because we chose to work together rather than to fight each other. If Britain left the EU, that could be the beginning of the end of decades of unparalleled peace and prosperity.

I am voting in because I have worked in the NHS and been treated by the NHS, and I know that without European doctors, nurses and midwives the NHS could not function.

I am voting in because I have good friends and neighbours who are Spanish, Belgian, Polish and Italian (to name but a few) and I see them working hard, paying taxes, contributing to our community and I know that this microcosm close to me is replicated across the UK.

I am voting in because I want the best possible future for my children, and that includes living in a country which attracts vast amounts of investment in business, research, science, technology, medicine, education and the arts explicitly because of its membership of the EU.

I am voting in because, when push comes to shove, I will always want to be on the same side of the argument as Barack Obama, Stephen Hawking and Carol Ann Duffy rather than Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Vladimir Putin.

I am voting in because, instinctively, atavistically, I know in my heart that human beings are always stronger when we work together. That no progress has ever been made from looking inwards instead of outwards. Because, in the words of Jo Cox  MP – tragically murdered because she stood  up for tolerance and inclusion against fear and hate –

we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us

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My April Books

Yes, I know I’m a little late with this. My excuse is that given it was snowing on Friday I found it a little hard to believe that we were really going into May Bank Holiday weekend.

April booksRecipe For Love  by Katie Fforde

I had read this this fun and frothy Katie Fforde novel in the past, but was tempted to re-read it because I had been binge-watching  the early series of Great British Bake Off, and this seemed a suitable accompaniment. The main protagonist is a contestant on a TV cookery competition and she falls in love with one of the judges. Fforde was inspired to write it after becoming addicted to Bake Off herself, and it seemed highly appropriate for matching my reading to my viewing. Does anyone else do that?

Death on the Riviera by John Bude

This book is part of the British Library re-prints of Golden Age classic crime novels. It was a birthday present from Anna back in February, but I saved it until April because I knew we were going on holiday to the South of France then, and so it seemed appropriate. I think John Bude’s novels are probably by favourite of the British Library series so far, and this one didn’t disappoint. It was well-written, excellent at creating the atmosphere of the French Riviera in the 1950s, and had a very clever solution. Good present choice, Anna!

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

This was another birthday present, from my parents this time, which I also saved for our holiday in France.  The week before my birthday I’d coincidentally chosen this novel as a present for a friend, so I was very keen to read it and see if I’d made a good choice!

While I was reading it I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not, and I’m still not entirely sure. It was an interesting and though-provoking read, quite different from my habitual literary diet of chick lit and detective fiction. The characters were intriguing and sensitively drawn, and the concept – of a man running a ‘literary pharmacy’, able to prescribe books to cure all human emotional ills except his own – really appealed to me, not least because this is often how I tend to treat books myself.

The downside for me was that I found the language and some of the scenarios just a little too far-fetched and verging on self-indulgent. Perhaps some of the language issues are related to translation as this novel was originally written in French. I always worry about translated works as, inevitably, the translator has as much influence on the finished text as the author, and that gives me an uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty as to who actually intended what. However, not much to be done about it as there is no way that my nearly two decade old A-level French is up to this!

I don’t think this is something I will re-read as I didn’t absolutely love it, but I am very glad to have come across it.

Murder at Ashgrove House and Murder at Dareswick Hall by Margaret Addison

I felt a little bit low last week for some reason, and Sophia was teething and having a horrible time of it, so I was tired, had even less time than usual to read, and when I did get a chance I wanted something interesting  but undemanding and comforting.

This modern series of detective fiction set in the 1930s which I discovered on my Kindle turned out to be absolutely perfect.The sleuth is a London shop girl, Rose Simpson, who gets almost accidentally mixed up in aristocratic circles with a very high suspicious death rate. The books are an open pastiche, or perhaps tribute, to Agatha Christies’s country house classics, with a strong element of Downton Abbey thrown in.

They follow all the conventions of classic detective fiction, are cleverly plotted and fun to read. You definitely have to be a big Golden Age detective fiction fan to enjoy them, but I am, so that’s alright.

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.