My January 2017 Books

jan-17-books

Well, January did eventually come to an end! Actually quite a while ago now, but this post has been in my draft folder for a while, waiting for me to get a moment to finish it.

I know in some ways February isn’t much better – still dark, still cold etc, but I have a February birthday, which always cheers things up for me, and it’s also half term next week so we get a little break from the relentless school run routine. My books during January have been a really mixed bag, both in terms of genre and a mix of new reads and old favourites.

Scarlet Feather by Maeve Binchy

This is my must-read-every-new-year book. Partly because it starts on New Year’s Eve, and follows the characters through a whole year in their lives. And partly because I find it a spirit-bolstering combination of comforting and inspiring. The central characters, Cathy and Tom, have been best friends since college, and are just in the process of fulfilling their dream of setting up their own catering company. The novel follows them as they battle to achieve their dream, through all sorts of family and relationship dramas and crises;  Binchy skilfully weaving in the stories of other protagonists as she goes. This novel always gives me a warm glow, and a desire to get up and get on with the new year. Just what you need in January.

The Sherlock Chronicles by Steve Tribe

I don’t watch very much telly, and what I do watch is usually courtesy of CBeebies. It’s not some kind of weird snobbery, it’s just that generally I prefer reading and talking to viewing. I don’t think I’m a very visual person really. However, husband and I did eventually come late to the Sherlock party; binge-watching the box-sets of the first two series, and then breathlessly waiting with half the country for subsequent series to be made and shown. It is quite simply the best television I have ever seen. I know. Even better than Charlie and Lola or Topsy and Tim. That good. And it’s not just because I inevitably have a lamentably cliched crush on Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s just amazing. Fast-paced plot, witty dialogue, moving characterisation, breathless suspense, stunning cinematography. I really couldn’t love it more. I actually wasn’t such a fan of the last (ever?) episode, but the end of another horribly brief series still left me feeling more than a  little bereft, and I remembered that we’d been given this book as a present a couple of years ago when we first got into the series. I hadn’t read it at the time, but the day after the last series finished I put Sophia down for her nap, resolutely ignored all the things I ought to be doing, and curled up with this book and indulged myself.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

And then, of course, I wanted to re-read some of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. I was struck anew by just how amazingly good these are. It’s very easy to see why they were the stories which spawned the wildly popular genre of detective fiction, not to mention thousands of films, television series, spoofs and translations. The acting in Sherlock is so compelling that I could hear all the dialogue in Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s voices, but that enhanced rather than detracted from my reading experience.

And in a little ‘how life changes’ vignette, I found a 1st class train ticket to Bristol, dating from 2006, tucked in the book. Over ten years ago – I was working for an organisation which generously provided 1st class travel for its employees, and I had a conference to attend in Bristol. Off to Paddington early one morning in my vertiginous heels and a business suit, tapping away on my laptop and Blackberry on the journey out, busy at a conference on medical regulation all day, and then sinking into my seat for the journey home and pulling a favourite book out of my smart little handbag. No first class travel, or conferences, or high heels in my life now, but I can still read and enjoy the same book in my cosy but chaotic house with my children sleeping (or not) upstairs. I think 25 year old Helen would be pretty happy at how most things have turned out for her a decade later, but slightly horrified at a) how little sleep I survive on and b) what I now feel constitutes a good shoe.

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P.D.James

For me, P.D. James is one of the Golden Age Queens of Crime, who just happened to write in the second half of the 20th century (and well into the 21st!) rather than the first half. Writing in the modern age means her novels are often somewhat edgier, too much grit and realism to class as ‘cosy crime’, but they share with her earlier counterparts a strong focus on intricate and original plot, a vivid depiction of place, and a charismatic and often almost super-human detective. This is a collection of short stories from early in her career, two featuring Adam Dalgliesh and two not. I’m not a massive fan of the short story genre in general as I like to feel luxuriously submerged as I begin a new book, but I did enjoy this collection very much, and in the sad absence of any more novels from P.D.James  they are a lot better than nothing. I also pleased myself by guessing whodunnit in all of them.

The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking and The Book of Hygge by Louisa Thomsen Brits.

These aren’t the kind of books you necessarily sit down and read cover to cover, but I have been enjoying dipping into them throughout January (and, indeed, into February). They were both Christmas presents – one bought by me for my husband, one bought by my husband for me! No-one can say we’re not well-suited. Hygge is a bit of an in-joke between us, because a few years ago, well before hygge was the in trend under discussion in every lifestyle supplement, husband read an article about it in The Economist. He told me about this concept of warmth, candles, blankets, cosiness, delicious drinks and food, sharing with family and close friends, mainly because it basically sums up how we tend to live.

Suddenly in 2016 the concept of hygge was being discussed everywhere, and I teased husband about being the first to spot it – possibly the first time ever he’s been ahead of the curve in identifying a lifestyle trend, as his interest is normally entirely taken up with politics, current affairs, business and technology.

Anyway, we both independently decided to buy the other a beautifully designed and presented book on hygge as a Christmas present. It turns out that, although I don’t believe either of us have any Danish blood, we have indeed always been devotees of the hygge lifestyle. For me it is so obvious as to be sheer common sense. Small intimate groups of family and/or friends are my happy place. Lighting candle or a fire provides spiritual  as well as physical warmth and light. Baking an indulgent cake or  kneading the dough for a batch of cinnamon buns or simmering a  tasty stew is an excellent way to demonstrate love. Curling up with a good book keeps the unpleasant realities of life at bay. Every sofa needs a blanket to be snuggled under. Hot chocolate is a necessity of life. Who wouldn’t agree with that as a manifesto for living? Especially in January and February!

 

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The delights of being cosy

It’s now quarter to two in the afternoon, and hasn’t yet got properly light today. There’s been a constant drizzly rain and, according to my friends on the BBC Weather page, the temperature isn’t going to get above 5 degrees. This is a day when I am very glad to be able to stay indoors the entire time, with the exception of a couple of brief school-run forays.
fireplace

In a way I’m quite pleased that the weather has taken a turn for the worse. I’m about to give birth, so I don’t want any dramatically bad weather thank you very much; snow drifts, freezing fog and black ice can all stay well away, but the unnaturally warm weather we’ve had recently seems, well, unnatural. It feels like we’ve been cheated out of autumn really. There haven’t been any crisp frosty mornings, or excuses to scurry home quickly and curl up by the fire with a mug of hot chocolate (although I might have done this anyway). I haven’t even been upset that my enormous baby bump stops me fitting into my favourite jumpers, because I haven’t needed them.

The weather today, though, isn’t the kind that invites you to wrap up warm and go for a long invigorating walk. On the contrary, it positively begs you to get home, shut the door and ignore the world outside. I had a fairly long and boring list of jobs for today, luckily all home based, and I’ve been working my way through them whilst also indulging myself with some cosy, feel-good moments as well. So far these have included:

1) A long, long cuddle with one of the cats. Henry Catten is a confirmed lover of hearth and home. On a warm, summer’s day he might venture as far as a sunny spot on the patio, but he wouldn’t dream of leaving the house on a day like today. And, of course, if he’s home and I’m home, then he won’t be able to think of a single reason why I shouldn’t devote myself to him entirely.IMG_0002

2) Turning on the central heating at 11am. Normally if I’m at home all day I’m running around doing jobs, and so manage without heating until well into the afternoon. Today, though, I was feeling particularly self-indulgent, and so on it went. Luckily for both our gas bill and my environmental conscience, it was hardly on at all through October and November, so we’ve surely got some credits built up now.

3) A nap on the sofa. Well, I am very pregnant…

4) Beans on toast for lunch. Total comfort food.

To round things off, I’m contemplating turning on all the fairy lights and cranking up the Greatest Christmas Hits album while I try and get ahead of the game with some present wrapping, hot chocolate for two when Anna gets home from school, and possibly, just possibly, syrup sponge and custard for pudding this evening. Just to balance out the healthy stir-fry I have planned for a main course.on the third day of christmas cover

I hope you’re all able to indulge in a little cosiness as well. In a shameless plug, I will point out that my new novella, On the Third Day of Christmas is published today, and would arguably provide the perfect accompaniment to a cold, wet evening snuggled by the fire. You know it makes sense.

Return to normality

After an absolutely lovely Christmas and New Year period, today has so far seen me doing the school run in the pouring rain, trying (and failing) to unblock the kitchen sink and doing a supermarket shop. Back to reality with a bump.

It would be easy to sink into depression, and wallow in nostalgic longing for the good times we’ve just enjoyed. However, I am going to channel my daughter and focus on the positives. I managed to get out of the most depressing task of the year – taking down the Christmas decorations – yesterday, but my husband reports that Anna spent the entire day sighing contentedly and saying “Isn’t it nice to get the house back to normal?”. And she’s right, getting back to normal should be a positive thing, and I am lucky enough to enjoy my normality most of the time. After all, I chose to call my blog A Life More Ordinary. 

New Year Resolutions have always seemed a peculiar concept to me. Why, in the coldest, darkest month of the year, with Spring still a distant dream but our credit card bill a recurrent nightmare, do we think that we should suddenly resolve to change all the things we weren’t able to manage in warmer, drier, lighter and wealthier times? September is the natural month for initiating positive change in our lives, January is for hunkering, for embracing the normal and everyday. Great expensive blow-out meals are wonderful, but so are meals from leftovers and frugal veggie curries. After a social whirl it’s incredibly satisfying to curl up somewhere warm with all the books you were given for Christmas, and, possibly, a mug of hot chocolate.

There’s a lot of extraordinary to look forward to in 2014 – my second book, To Have and to Hold is being published in June, we’ve got some exciting holiday plans and several of my good friends are expecting babies – but, right now, this afternoon, my chief excitements are going to be rearranging my cookery book shelf to accommodate the new titles I received for Christmas, putting fresh sheets on the bed and inputting all the scribbled info on the back pages of my 2013 diary into my pristine 2014 diary. A life more ordinary. And hopefully I can get the sink unblocked soon as well…

Post Office Stress Disorder

With no apologies or prevarication I am going to launch straight into an Angry Old Woman style rant. The Post Office and Royal Mail. Arrgghh!

This morning I had a letter to post which needed definitely to arrive by tomorrow. Now, in the good old days, there was a little something called a first class stamp which would take care of that; pop it in the post box, job done. But not now. In a cunning sleight of hand, by making first class post so notoriously slow and unreliable Royal Mail have created a market for themselves to charge £6.22 for one letter in order to guarantee next-day delivery’. Win win or what. And for ‘Guaranteed Next Day Delivery’ you can’t just pop a letter in the convenient box at the end of the road, you have to go to the Post Office, which leads me on to gripes number two, three and four.

The small post office counter which used to exist in our local newsagents closed a few years ago. Several local businesses have expressed interest in opening a new one, but have always been defeated by the sheer amount of bureaucracy involved. So my local post office is now a mile away. Not that far, maybe, but I’m not in a rural village, I’m in densely populated transport Zone 3 in London. I also have a four-year-old, and, for anyone who hasn’t tried this, motivating a small child to walk a mile in very cold temperatures and light snow (April is proving indeed to be the cruellest month) with only the promise of a visit to the Post Office at the end of it is very difficult indeed. In fact probably impossible. I only managed to get there by throwing the additional incentives of a babyccino at Costa and a browse in Waterstones into the mix, and it still took us over half an hour and more coaxing and cajoling than my limited supplies of patience can easily cope with.

When we finally arrived at the Post Office, chilled to the very marrow of our bones, the queue was out of the door. As we inched forward and finally made it into the building, I could see why that was. Only two, out of a potential nine, windows were open for regular business. There were dedicated windows for passport checks and travel currency (surely not because they’re money spinners?), but all but two of the other windows were resolutely closed. I will gloss over the next half hour. Suffice it to say that my already frayed patience did not receive the convalescence it so badly needed. I think that, of the two of us, my daughter actually coped better, deciding to use the queue barriers as bars for an impromptu gymnastic display.

I will admit to a degree of puzzlement and irritation at the member of post office staff standing a little to one side of the queue at a booth advertising quotes for Post Office mortgages. He didn’t receive one enquiry the entire time I was there. Strangely enough it would seem that most of the people visiting the Post Office this morning were there to post a letter or a parcel rather than to take out an impulsive secured loan. I suppose it is hard to predict these things. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that this member of staff could have been better employed by opening another window and serving customers. I subjected him to a series of Paddington Bear hard stares, and thought that he’d got the hint as he disappeared into the dim recesses behind the counter. I was overly optimistic though; he never reappeared in any capacity, so I think I must have just scared him.

When we finally reached the front of the queue my letter was dealt with very competently, albeit at eye-watering expense. Did I mention? £6.22 to ensure a letter gets there tomorrow. However, gripe number four arose when the lady behind the counter concluded our transaction by giving me the hard sell for a Post Office credit card. Now, ignoring what you may think are the rights and wrongs of credit being pushed on people when the pusher has no way whatsoever of knowing their financial circumstances or ability to repay, when you have a very long queue and very limited availability of staff it would seem to me to be simple common sense to stick to providing the services which have actually been requested. You know, just to save a little time.

So there we go. Rant over. I’m feeling a little calmer for having got that off my chest, so I won’t raise my stress levels again now by discussing the Call & Collect system for parcels delivered when you’re out. I’m sure there are excellent reasons why a parcel not delivered on Monday morning cannot be made available for collection at the sorting office down the road for at least 48 hours.

Anna and I refuelled with babyccino and hot chocolate at Costa. An Easter nest cake may have been partaken of as well. And then had a very enjoyable half hour browsing in lovely Walthamstow Waterstones and taking advantage of their ‘Buy One, Get One Half Price’ Easter holidays offer on children’s books. There was no way I could face the walk home in the now near-blizzard conditions though, we gave in and got the bus.