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!