My January Books

Whoo-hoo! We made it through January! I know February isn’t a favourite of most people either, but it’s my birthday month, and I love birthdays, so that always makes it feel special. And it’s a short month, in fact it always flashes past at the speed of light, because it’s my eldest’s birthday right at the beginning of March, and so there is always a lot to organise and plan for. Right now 4 weeks seems like a long time, but I know from experience it will pass in a heartbeat.

Anyway, January books. I’m pleased to report that I’m well on track for my 52 books in 2019, with five (new) books read last month.

The first was Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. This was thoughtfully left on my bedside table by my lovely sister-in-law when we stayed with them at the end of the school Christmas holidays. Staying with family both my children adore was the perfect time to start this page-turner, because they were totally happy playing with Uncle Matt and Auntie Esther while mummy buried her head in this compulsive read and ignored them. I love the way Moriarty can tackle serious issues; in this case the sometimes complicated ramifications of blended families,  domestic violence and date rape through the medium of a misleadingly frothy seeming novel. Despite the serious issues, she tackles them with a lightness of touch and black humour which makes for a compelling rather than depressing read.

I then moved onto non-fiction with a newly published book by a Walthamstow neighbour of mine, Annie Ridout. Her first book, The Freelance Mum is an inspiring and practical guide to combining flexible freelance work with caring for your children. As one of my objectives for this year is to get back into writing in a serious way, this book was the perfect kick up the backside, as well as providing some very sensible advice and pointers.

After reading Annie’s book I was all fired up with an urge to get our home and lives calmly organised so that I could maximise working potential of the fairly limited time my youngest is in nursery, rather than frittering it away on the domestic hamster wheel. Because everyone else was I tried, for the second time, to read Marie Kondo’s famous book The Lifechanging Magic of Tidiness, a modern decluttering bible. Unfortunately (and I’m sure this says more about me than Marie Kondo) I was unable to finish it again. Her method seems like it would work brilliantly for a child-free singleton, or maybe a retired couple whose children have flown the nest, but living with a chronically untidy husband with hoarding tendencies, and a chronically untidy 9 year old, and a 4 year old who likes things to be neat but much prefers to direct operations rather than participate, and in any case only sees our things as mess, not her own, I just couldn’t see myself ever being able to follow her method.

I did, however, totally buy in to the message that clutter, having too much stuff for the space available, is what makes day-to-day living and housework so time-consuming and dispiriting. Somehow I heard about two books by an American writer, Dana K White, called How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind and Decluttering at the Speed of Light. Immediately I felt that, as a stay-at-home mum and writer with three children she would have more idea where I was coming from. And within a few pages I was hooked. Unlike most cleaning, housekeeping or decluttering books or articles I have read, she doesn’t make the fatal error of assuming that the reader is naturally neat. Dana K White is a self-described slob, and she understands the mindset of those of us to whom housekeeping does not come naturally. If you are an instinctively tidy person then these books are absolutely not for you, as it will feel like several hundred pages of stating the totally bloody obvious. But for those of us on the more, umm, chaotic end of the spectrum I would say that it is these books, rather than Ms Kondo’s, which contain life changing magic.

I finished the month as I started it, with an absolutely cracking novel. Dear Mrs Bird by A J Pearce was an absolute unmitigated joy from beginning to end. Set during the London Blitz, it is the story of a young woman who dreams of a career as war correspondent but somehow ends up as secretary to the agony aunt of an old-fashioned women’s magazine. She can’t help but get drawn into the problems and lives of the women who write in for help, and this is where her own problems start. The characters were so real to me that it felt like reading non-fiction, a journal rather than a novel. It also brought the bravery of those who lived through the Blitz, and the peculiar nature of war on the home front, to life more vividly than almost anything I have ever read. It made me think a lot of my grandmother who was a young woman during the Blitz on Merseyside, and I remembered her first-hand accounts of picking her way through broken glass and rubble to get to work each morning, and had a new appreciation of just how that must have felt. Thought-provoking, moving, hilarious, memorable – what more do you want from a novel? This is a stunning debut from A J Pearce, and as a writer I am rather jealous, though as a reader I am delighted.

img_2014

Advertisements

2019 goals

sunset sea

Happy New Year! Can I still say that on 16th January? It is still a pretty new year really, and I hope that it is being good to you so far.

As I’ve said many times, I am not a fan of  traditional New Year’s Resolutions. As far as I’m concerned, January is not the month for punitive endeavours like giving up booze or half starving yourself to lose the mince-pie based insulation built up over Christmas. However, although you can take the girl out of the middle-management strategy and planning job (and it’s now been TEN YEARS since I worked in a job with regular hours, annual leave and, umm, a salary), you can’t take the strategy management out of the girl, and I do love a bit of objective setting.

These aren’t particularly specific or measurable objectives, it was more a chance of using a little window of quiet over the Christmas holidays, when my children were being entertained by my brother and SIL, to think about my life, and our family life, and what I like about it, don’t like about it, want to do more of or less of. You get my drift.

There are a whole load of domestic/DIY objectives, which read more like a long and somewhat daunting to-do list – replace kitchen sink, redecorate kitchen, paint bathroom, organise the cupboard under the stairs etc etc. and that doesn’t exactly make my heart sing. But there are also objectives which I’m actively looking forward to – more baking with small daughter, and cooking proper meals with slightly bigger daughter. Getting into the habit of having a proper Sunday lunch as a family, and film afternoons after school on a Friday. Making dates to see my friends more often.

I have some work related objectives too. At some point I will be refreshing and revamping this blog, and I’m going to get back in the game with my writing, starting with finding a new agent and carrying on with my latest idea for a new book.

Finally, I’m going to reinstate an objective from a couple of years ago which I loved, and aim to read fifty-two new-to-me books in 2019, and blog each month about what I’m reading. I haven’t been feeling great the last week or so, as I seem to be having an ankylosing spondylitis flare-up, and the fatigue has been quite overwhelming, but reading is still achievable, and so I’m off to a good start in January, and will be blogging about it at the end of the month.

Does anyone else have any New Year objectives, or is January daunting enough without all that?

Gratitude

thank you neon

Husband and I were talking over dinner last night, and somehow the subject of who we were most grateful to came up. We challenged each other to name the five people in our lives to whom we felt we owed the most gratitude, excluding people we were related to. It was a thought-provoking discussion. After a little consideration, my list, in chronological order. looked like this:

  1. Mrs Wadsworth – she was my English teacher in years 9, 10 and 11, and she really inspired me with the love of the subject I went on to study at university. I had always loved to read, but she helped me to go further, to think about and analyse what I had read, and to get more out of reading by doing so. She gave me confidence in my ability. She also gave my friend and me a catchphrase we regularly use to this day – “Don’t worry, just work”. This was in the run-up to our GCSEs when it was easy to get paralysed by panic, and to spend longer working out your revision timetable than actually revising. Mrs Wadsworth’s breezy “don’t worry, just work” was excellent ‘get on and bloody do it’ advice, which I still remind myself of frequently when I have a difficult or unpleasant task I am anxious about. Stop fretting and get it done!
  2. Mrs Wilson – was my Head of 6th Form. It was she who persuaded me to go to Merton College, Oxford, for a student open day when I was in Year 12. I was highly sceptical, convinced that Oxford would be snobbish, elitest and not for people like me. However, Mrs Wilson stuck to her guns, and in doing so did me one of the biggest favours of my life. It only took ten minutes wandering round Merton’s exquisitely beautiful quads and garden for the chip on my shoulder to vanish, replaced by a steely determination that this is where I would study. I succeeded, and had three incredibly happy years, made some amazing friends, and met the love of my life.
  3. Jo Naylor was the Infant Feeding Advisor at the hospital where Anna was born eight years ago. For one reason or another we didn’t get off to the best start with breastfeeding, and I found many of the midwives looking after me to be unhelpful at best. But Jo was amazing. Warm and caring and sensitive, but also sharing my total bloodyminded determination that this baby was going to be breastfed. She gave me confidence in my body and in my baby when I needed it most. She taught me to express and finger feed so that I could be sure of Anna getting some food, even before she was able to latch on properly. She visited me several times a day when I was in hospital, and then came to see us at home afterwards. We got there, and I am so grateful to her because breastfeeding my babies has given me some of the most precious memories of my life, as well as hopefully getting them off to the healthiest start possible.
  4. Professor Lesley Regan – runs the Miscarriage Clinic at St Mary’s Paddington. We were referred here for investigations after my third miscarriage. I saw many lovely junior doctors and nurses, and had a plethora of scans and blood tests, culminating in an operation to see what was going on in my slightly defective womb. They discovered that half my womb was actually missing, a condition known as a unicornucate uterus. The doctor who performed the operation and gave me the results was incredulous that I had already had a full term pregnancy, and was extremely pessimistic about my chances of doing so again, and I was heartbroken. We then had an appointment with Professor Regan herself. She looked at my notes, and commented that she would never have believed my anatomy to be compatible with carrying a healthy baby to term. However, she said, you’ve done it once, so I don’t see any reason whatsoever why you can’t do it again. Those words imbued us with the confidence we needed to try again, and risk putting ourselves through the heartbreak of miscarriage again. She also advised us, contrary to our inclination to wait for a few years to let ourselves heal mentally, that I was nearly 33, that I wasn’t particularly young in child-bearing terms, especially as I had had complications, and that we should get on with it. I was pregnant with the baby who turned out to be Sophia two months later. I didn’t see Professor Regan again, but her clinic was then fantastic at supporting us through those tense and panicky early weeks of pregnancy.
  5. Francesca Best – Francesca was the commissioning editor at Hodder and Stoughton who made the decision to publish my first novel, Two For Joy. This achievement is one of the things I am proudest of, and I will always be grateful to Francesca for spotting my potential and giving me the chance. She was also a brilliant editor to chat with and work with and helped me bring my work up to a standard I wouldn’t have believed possible, and which, indeed, wouldn’t have been without her input.

So there’s my top five! Of course it’s an artificial list in many ways, because the rules of our game excluding family meant that I had to miss out many of the people (my parents, grandparents and husband spring to mind) to whom I actually owe the biggest debts of gratitude for their constant and ongoing support and inspiration. I am also lucky enough to have many friends to whom I am grateful for many things, but the five people above are ones who gave me what I needed at crucial pivot points in my life, and indeed have influenced for the better the whole course of my life.

What about you? Who are the people who have made the the biggest difference to your life, and to whom you are most grateful?

My March Books

Better late than never, as they say. My less than grand plans for the Easter holidays took a rain check when Sophia was violently sick all over herself and her pram within ten minutes of me collecting Anna from school on the last day of term! We had a few days of poorly toddler, sleepless nights and frantic bleaching, but thankfully she was well enough to go up to Liverpool as we’d planned. What I was right about, however, is that I haven’t had much (any) time for blogging. Mother-in-law has stepped up to the plate this morning, however, and agreed to look after both my little darlings for a couple of hours, so I am sitting in a cafe, relishing the perfect peace of being responsible for no-one except myself and a laptop, and thinking that it might be a good idea to get my March books post written before I’ve entirely forgotten what I read!

The Unmumsy Mum Diary by Sarah Turner

I follow Sarah on social media, and love her wryly witty take on life with young children. I somehow missed her first book when it came out, but when I saw someone selling this on my local Facebook Sell or Swap page, I leapt at it. I really wasn’t disappointed. Sarah writes so well, and she can switch gears effortlessly from laugh-out-loud funny poo stories, to capturing the anxieties and frustrations of balancing work life and family life, to moving and bittersweet reflections on mothering without a mother, as sadly her own mum died when she was a teenager. Much as I love reading blog posts online, there is nothing quite as satisfying as curling up with a nice, fat hardback book to get stuck into, and this one was a real treat.

I Found You by Lisa Jewell

Another massively serendipitous moment in a year when I’m not buying anything new, was spotting Lisa Jewell’s latest novel on the free book-share stand in my daughter’s school reception! I have to say, the offerings there are normally more along the lines of ancient copies of Gina Ford – spines battered and broken where they have presumably been hurled across the room in frustration as parents realise that diligently as they have studied their child’s ideal routine, the baby doesn’t seem to have read the book at all. But this was freegan gold!

As I’ve said before, I do feel slightly guilty about second-hand books, because writers do have to eke a living out of writing them. However, for whatever reasons, lots of people don’t like to keep books once they have read them, and will pass them on to friends or charity shops or the book stall at the church bazaar. So someone is going to buy them second hand, and frankly it may as well be me.

I like the slightly darker and more suspense driven tone of Lisa Jewell’s most recent novels, and this one was a case in point. A man turns up on a beach in Yorkshire having lost his memory, and meanwhile a young woman in the South-East is investigating the disappearance of her brand-new husband. Discovering how these situations relate to each other takes us twenty-five years into the past, and Jewell is predictably skilful at juggling different viewpoints and time periods in a way which keeps the reader’s interest at fever pitch and never ends up being confusing.

My only criticism of this novel is that I would have liked it to be longer. There are several fascinating characters introduced, and in pursuing the central ‘mystery’ plot I felt like some of their stories were under-developed or side-lined, which is a shame as I still think that Lisa Jewell’s most luminous gift as a writer is her ability to create characters as compelling as people we meet in real life. I would have loved another couple of hundred pages to explore some of their stories a little bit more.

Charity Girl, Sprig Muslin, The Corinthian and Venetia by Georgette Heyer

After breaking out of the mould and reading two completely new books, I reverted to some more comfort reading. Actually, Charity Girl, Sprig Muslin and The Corinthian are all more or less new to me – Kindle purchases this month. I may have read them from the library when I was in my early teens, but my recollection was hazy enough to make me feel I was enjoying the treat of a new book. Heyer’s effervescent, sparkling wit is the perfect tonic, and whatever horrors may be happening in the 21st century I find it impossible not to be cheered up by a trip to Georgette Heyer’s Regency world. To misquote AA Milne – “no-one can be uncheered with a Georgette Heyer novel”. Or, as a meme I saw on Facebook this week had it – “Imagination is the only thing that stands between us and reality”.

Spring is in the air

It’s back to school for us today, but with a definite hint of spring in the air to soften the blow. Actually, I don’t mind too much, and am hoping that this term my offspring might be a bit healthier and we can actually settle into our new routine, which involves me being able to write while Sophia is at pre-school. Watch this space!

daffodils

We had a lovely half term. For the first part of it I took the children up to Liverpool to see my parents. The first morning we were there, they whisked the children off to the Storybarn in Calderstones Park, leaving me curled up in my pyjamas with a good book and a warm pain au chocolat. I then managed to stir myself to have a long, luxurious, uninterrupted shower – even more of a treat because our shower at home has been broken for three weeks and so I’ve been having baths and rinsing my hair under the taps with a tupperware tub!

The children had an amazing time at the Storybarn, and their enthusiasm definitely makes me think it’s something we’ll want to do again on a future visit to Liverpool. Anna especially absolutely loves books, reading, stories and the world of make-believe. She’s currently two and a half chapters into writing her own first novel – an adventure story which shows a strong Blytonesque influence, as well as a vivid imagination of her own, and she is rarely seen without her head in a book. Definitely like mother like daughter! Sophia loves stories too, but she also likes to be on the move, and Storybarn gave her lots of chances for active play as well. She was particularly taken with the giant bubble machine.

We had a lovely family time when my brother and sister-in-law came over for the day. The children had the time of their lives playing with Uncle Matt and Auntie Esther. They went for a walk in the woods and climbed on log bridges (Uncle Matt soaking his feet in a ditch to rescue Anna when she got stuck!), played a long game of Scrabble, which I had been teaching Anna the day before, read endless stories, had cuddles and generally gave them lots of the patient, loving, one-on-one attention which aunties and uncles are really good at.

We also went to the World Museum in Liverpool, where Anna enjoyed the dinosaur trail and Sophia marvelled at the enormous dinosaur skeleton and the tanks of tropical fish. And of course, no trip to Liverpool would be complete for us without a visit to the Waterstones in Liverpool One – one of my favourite bookshops in the country, and with such an incredible children’s area.

flap-reading

Back in London we had some lazy time at home, and I was self-sacrificially devoted enough to let Anna do painting and crafts. I know. It had better be a good Mother’s Day present. In the meantime I have two beaded, sequinned, beribboned octopus/jellyfish type creations to find homes for. We also headed to St Albans for the day to visit the Roman museum and remains because Anna is ‘doing’ Romans at school this term.

And this weekend the slightly lighter nights and warmer weather inspired me to start spring-cleaning. Anna and I cleared out her desk (bio-hazard suits would probably have been a good idea), and her art cupboard, and threw away bags of lidless felt-tips, broken crayons, screwed up coloured tissue paper etc etc. We spring-cleaned her playhouse as well, and then when she started to get bored and her sister woke up from her nap,husband took them both off to the park for a muddy game of football and I blitzed the rest of the house – surfaces dusted, floors hoovered and mopped, bathroom cleaned, beds changed – and then pottered off the the florists to buy a bunch of tulips and one of daffodils to let the spring inside.