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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Happy January!

No, the title of this blog isn’t a contradiction in terms. I admit that January isn’t always the easiest month to love, but, if you persevere then you will discover its good points.

I am still basking in a warm glow created by the happiest Christmas I have had for years. Possibly since I was a child myself. It was perfect. No-one was ill, no-one argued, no-one cried. The presents I had chosen for others were well-received, and the presents chosen for me were delightful. We saw family and friends, sang carols round the Christmas tree, went to the circus, snuggled up with new books or DVDs, ate a ridiculously huge amount of delicious food, drank fizz at lunchtime (not every day) and I even got a couple of lie-ins.

I was worried that such a lovely Christmas would make the return to normal this week particularly painful, but it really hasn’t. I think the secret of a contented January is to be nice to yourself. It is a mystery to me why people choose this month to start an extreme diet or a gruelling exercise regime or to dip a toe into teetotalism. I mean, seriously. This is already a month where finances and waistlines are likely to be tight, which involves getting up in the dark every single day, and which is a long, long way from the next holiday. Please don’t make things more unpleasant for yourself.

I admit that I am trying to cut back on eating chocolate with every single meal and several times in between as well. Twice a day is probably sufficient. And we’re all going vegetarian for the week this week, but that is mainly because that is the food I fancy right now, after eating goodness knows how many pigs’ worth of bacon, sausage and ham over the last few weeks. My Christmas dinner contained processed pork in no less than four different forms – sausage meat stuffing, crispy bacon over the top of the turkey, sausages to accompany the turkey and pancetta with the sprouts. But the veggie food this week is about comfort rather than self-denial. On Monday I made a potato, mushroom and parmesan gratin which we had with tomato and avocado salad. Last night was big bowls of warming lentil and spinach daal. Tonight is Turkish style baked eggs, and tomorrow veggie chilli with homemade guacamole. When I’ve run out of energy and inspiration on Friday we’ll probably have pasta with some kind of tomatoey sauce containing any veg still left in the fridge. And cheese. And garlic bread.

The house looked a little bit bare after the decorations came down, so I treated myself to some fresh flowers, and decided to try a little de-cluttering.flowers Anna was off school for an inset day on Monday, so we spent the day clearing and sorting. After a successful cake sale in the autumn to raise money to help refugees, Anna’s next project (decided on by her) is to hold a jumble sale in our front garden in the spring. We’ve already filled four nappy boxes with outgrown toys and clothes and unloved books and knickknacks, and it has never been easier to persuade Anna to part with things she never plays with but develops a sudden violent affection for when I tentatively suggest they should go. Much to my delight, Anna then decided she wanted to play at being a cleaner, so I gave her a duster and off she went.

Yesterday I spent two hours doing an extremely tedious but necessary financial spring clean, which was soul-destroying at the time, but gives me a great feeling of self-satisfaction now it’s done.

I’ve also given my blog a little New Year makeover. I needed to take the Christmas theme down, and much as I love the cupcakes I had previously, it suddenly didn’t feel quite right to go back to, and I tried to find something slightly fresher and crisper – what do you think?

ancient houseFinally, although I know I won’t be saying this by March, I am rather enjoying the colder weather for now. It’s still not really cold for January, but at least I can now justify one of the snuggly cashmere cardis I smugly purchased in the spring sales and which have been sitting, loved but unneeded, in my drawer ever since. Walking through Walthamstow Village this morning also reminded me just how beautiful January can be. Just as long as you don’t try to give up chocolate!

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.

Spring…please?

As it turns out, I was rather over-optimistic back in January when I tentatively wondered whether spring was on the way. It officially now has arrived, but there’s very little sign of any remotely spring-like weather.

Like most people, I am now officially Sick of Winter. And particularly I’m sick of my coat. We’ve had Hallow’een, Bonfire Night, Christmas, New Year, my birthday (not officially recognised as a national holiday, but significant nonetheless) and Valentine’s Day, and during that entire period every time I have set foot out of doors I’ve had to bundle myself up in my now-hated winter coat. It’s an olive green parka, which I bought three winters ago, thinking it would be practical, trendy and warm. The first and the last considerations weighing rather more than they would have done ten years ago.

It is warm, and I suppose it’s reasonably practical, but my heart sinks every time I see it. It adds about 2 stone to my hips and tummy, and then the chocolate I comfort eat to make myself feel better about looking so fat and frumpy adds another stone. And perhaps I only have myself to blame for this, but the large pockets have been distended into total shapelessness by my habit of doing the nursery drop-off without my handbag. Gloves, phone, keys, tissues, loose change, mittens, boxes of raisins, dinner money, letters from the school, bits of gravel/moss/pebbles which have taken Anna’s fancy, have all been shoved in, often simultaneously. Gazing disgustedly at my saddle-bags this weekend I instigated a rigorous clear-out, and have been carrying a bag this week, but the damage is now done.

I want it to be spring for lots of reasons – it may incentivise me to do some much-needed spring cleaning and gardening, Anna has a lovely new wardrobe of spring/summer clothes which I’m dying to dress her in, a recent blood test showed that I’m Vitamin D deficient (no bloody wonder), I’d like to feel an urge to eat salad instead of mashed potato as my go-to side dish – but mainly I just want to be able to switch to my lovely Banana Republic navy trench coat, or denim jacket, or, even, whisper it, even just a cardie. And then I want to burn my parka.