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IMG_20170813_220750_436It had been coming on for a while really, a few years at least, the desire for something different. It had bubbled away, simmered under the surface. I used to have a boyfriend who mocked my nerves about trying new things, and my fear of branching out or the great unknown. “I don’t like change” he used to tease, putting on a terrible Yorkshire accent.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not liking change. I think change is uncertain, it’s scary. Why would you like something that puts you out of your comfort zone? But I’ve always wanted to have stronger roots, and certainty, all of my adult life. I’m not sure where it comes from. Perhaps it’s my parents moving away from my home town. Perhaps it’s having moved for a year and ten years later finding myself settled by default rather than by design. For a while, buying my own house did the trick. I had planted myself and I would grow there.

There has been a lot of change in the last couple of years, a lot of flux. There have been friendships lost and made, changes to my job and my focus, for the better and for the worse. I have watched others move forwards – getting married, having families, building businesses, forging ahead with careers, retreating and shifting, but all the while I felt very still. Still water turns stagnant.

Half way through an aerobics class, I had a revelation. It turns out I do all of my best thinking when I’ve stopped concentrating on my racing thoughts, and started concentrating on my feet, and the music, and the beat, and the burning in my lungs as I gasp for air. It’s a type of meditation I suppose. But I had a revelation, and a week later I had the flu, and I knew that it was the right thing to do. Nothing focusses the mind like coughing and struggling to breathe and feeling very alone.

And so I started making plans, slowly, surely, carefully. I have replanted myself somewhere new, as many miles from the known as I could possibly get. I was scared. I still am scared. It was hard, and ten weeks later it still is hard. I expect it will be hard for a very long time. But sometimes change is a good thing and even things which are difficult can be right.

So it is goodbye to my twenties and hello to my thirties. Goodbye to grey stone, and hello to honey stone. Goodbye to the city centre and hello to the rolling hills.

It is goodbye to Edinburgh, and hello to Somerset.

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I push myself, moving faster and faster, trying to remember to breathe. Left, right, left, right. Glide. They shout at me as I go past. Get low! 142! Get low! And I squat and bend my knees and push harder, telling myself that it’s ok, I can do this, I’m doing fine. When we finish, we huddle, talk about the drill, and the coach asks us how we found it. When it’s my turn, I say that I’m just surprised and proud that I managed to skate for five minutes without falling over. And my voice cracks a bit as the other women clap and cheer, and I’m concentrating very hard on putting the top on my water bottle and adjusting my gum shield.

I missed a week. Low level pain has been plaguing me for months now, and I need to rest. The next week I’m nervous, like Bambi on ice again. It shows on my face, and a wise owl comes over, takes my hands. “I’m just going to propel you backwards so you know how it feels, and you concentrate on the movement”, she says.

The very first week, we sit together in a squash court. Nervous energy abounds. “If you’ve never watched Derby or skated before but you’ve signed up then you’re braver than me” she laughs. “Oh, shit”, I think, as I scrawl my number on my arm and put my helmet on backwards.

I watch my first bout. Two little girls hold posters. They cheer and wave and whoop as their mum races round, they run on track at the end to join the line of high fives, and their dad talks about me how cool it is that they can see their mum do something like this. They want to get involved when they are a bit bigger.

There is talk of kit and exercise in the car. Wheels and trucks and practice and going for beers after a roller disco. “I want to get into running again” she says. “My legs were so beefy. I should probably squat more too.” And we feel good because we are talking about positive change, full of endorphins and adrenaline and pride. And we feel good because in that moment, we don’t give a crap about the circumference of our thighs, just what they are learning to do and how we can do it better, stronger.

It is political, of course it is. It’s women coming together. It’s a DIY ethos. It’s learning from each other, more experienced skaters demonstrating and cheering and talking about what works for them. It’s tattoos and piercings and neither. It’s rainbow flags and pride events. It’s supporting local charities. It’s refusing to travel when politics prevents you from travelling together.

And so I push myself, moving faster and faster, trying to remember to breathe. Left, right, left, right. Glide. I try to cross my feet over, I feel my leg desperately try to push out to increase my speed. They shout at me as I go past. Come on, you can do it, keep going, stay low. And I squat and bend my knees and push harder, telling myself that it’s ok, I can do this, I’m doing fine, and then I have a revelation and I realise that if I fall it doesn’t matter. Because the others will yell and check I’m OK as they fly past, and because if I’m not there is a first aid kit, and because they will show me what I did wrong and help me to fix it. Because it’s about learning and supporting, and staying on our feet. And really, that’s how it should be, isn’t it?

December in books

“Books to the ceiling, books to the sky, my pile of books is a mile high. How I love them! How I need them! I’ve have a long beard by the time I read them.” Arnold Lobel

Better late than never, a round up of last month’s books. I had grand plans of spending my Christmas holidays devouring hundreds of literary treats, but devoured considerably more of the edible varieties. Never mind.

Robin Stevens, Arsenic for TeaArsenic

I reserved the next couple of Murder Most Unladylike books back in September after devouring the first, and happily this one didn’t disappoint. The second installment sees us visit our heroine Daisy at home, when her birthday tea is interrupted by… a murder. Easy reading but with some lovely attention to detail, this one kept me guessing right until the end and was arguably more enjoyable than the first.

Hannah Rothschild, The Improbability of Loveimprobability

I’m in two minds about this one. I read it knowing very little about the plot, other than it received rave reviews, but if I’m honest I struggled to see why. Following the history of the (fictional) painting of the title, I found it slow to get going and I struggled to keep interest in all of the (not particularly well written) characters, but I enjoyed the mystery in-between the less meaty plots. As a former art history student, it was always going to be vaguely up my street, but I’m not sure I’d rush to suggest it to others. It’s clear the author has a huge amount of knowledge but I’m not sure it translates to fiction.

M. C. Beaton, Death of a Dreamerdeath

After ploughing through The Improbability of Love, it was time to return to something considerably less taxing – and this hit the spot. Easy reading and decidedly comforting, we see our policeman hero Hamish MacBeth manage to solve murders, woo visiting tourists, and drink quite a lot of whisky in the process. Despite having missed quite a few of the previous books, it wasn’t particularly important as the characters are surprisingly well drawn without background information and the supporting cast were as entertaining as the plot. Reliable and inoffensive, it was an easy weekend read.

Julian Fellowes, Belgraviabelgravia

I wasn’t expecting much from this. Most folk will know Fellowes as the writer of Downton Abbey, but he has somewhat of a pedigree in historical fiction (and an Oscar for Gosford Park) so I shouldn’t have been surprised by how much I enjoyed Belgravia. Starting in 1816, and following two families over twenty five following years, the novel focuses on the importance of scandal – or avoiding it – for Victorian women, and on the snobbery and arrogance of the upper classes. I enjoyed Fellowes’ subtle portrayal of the unpleasant side of wealth, and I was surprised at how he managed to take a rather well used plot and turn it into something considerably more interesting – and dare I say – with a decidedly sympathetic feminist angle.

Robin Stevens, First Class Murderfirt class

Two in one month? Well, why not when they’re this much fun. The third of our Wells And Wong Detective Club outings joins them on the Orient Express – of course – where Daisy and Hazel are determined to detect despite Hazel’s stern father. The introduction to Mr Wong, having met Daisy’s family previously, was a nice touch, and added some intrigue to the plot. I really enjoyed the way that old characters popped up and new ones were introduced, so I was glad to read them in order. Fun, a bit silly, but an excellent homage to the Christie which undoubtedly inspired it.

India Knight, Comfort and Joycomfort

I decided to have a bash at a couple of festive novels to get me in the spirit, and this was the first I picked up from the library. An easy reading tale, it was written unusually – with the action taking place on successive Christmases with little explanation of the years in between. I enjoyed the format, it helped carry the story along and made for some interesting plot twists and turns. The characters however? I found them infuriating. It was an interesting plot, focused around Christmas for blended and ‘modern’ families but I found the hugely affluent family setting grating and Knight’s rather bitchy stereotyping, particularly of the single friend, left an unpleasant taste.

Mandy Morton, The Ghost of Christmas Pawsfeline

Another foray into the festive novel – this time featuring (bear with me) detective cats. This pastiche is either one of the best or one of the worst novels I’ve read in a long time. I can’t quite work out which. Hettie and Tilly, our heroines, are called to solve a riddle in a Cornish village, where the ghost of Christmas Paws is causing chaos. Part crime, part adventure, there’s some mildly amusing tongue in cheek jokes along the way (lots of Daphne Du Maurier references) and a lot of daft sub plots. Utterly ridiculous with a twist which made me splutter – it did what it said on the cover.

2016

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2016.

It’s been a funny old year. Politics and dying celebrities aside, I’d mark it down as ‘pretty good’ personally.

2016 has seen me learn new things, try new hobbies and reignite old interests. And I’ve kept some up, too, even when I wasn’t sure there was a lot of point. It’s seen me give lectures at universities, and overcome impostor syndrome.

I’ve made new friendships, cemented existing ones, and attempted to work out priorities. Mostly, if I’m honest, that’s involved nights in on the sofa, rather than nights out on the town. Some of the most enjoyable days this year have been spent exploring new places with old friends, and old places with new ones.

I’ve travelled – mostly for work, but also for pleasure. I spent most of this year on the road, and rapidly came to the conclusion that it wasn’t the right fit for me. I’ve learnt that I need routine, and to feel stretched. I found a new job which has given me chances for both, and where I feel considerably more at home. I’ve holidayed abroad twice, to Malta and to Germany, and felt particularly lucky that one of my trips was visiting two of my oldest friends. I’ve spectacularly failed to edit the photos or write up posts about either. At some point I’ll get round to writing up my “interesting doorways of Malta” post.

Speaking of which, there’s been quite a few half-written or mentally drafted blog posts this year. I’ve never been great at blogging regularly, particularly when life is busy. Maybe that should be my resolution for next year. But if you’ve dipped in, or popped by to say hello, then thanks. And a happy new year to you.

October and November in Books

“Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don’t abandon the book. There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book.” – Patti Smith

In October I read a grand total of one book. Actually that’s not technically true – I started half a dozen but I only finished one. I had a reading blip, one of those months where I couldn’t quite get my head into anything. And so, I turned to Harry Potter. It’s a comfort thing – for me anyway – and seems so delightfully autumnal. It’s fairly safe to say that it broke my drought, and I was back on form in November…

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secretsscreen-shot-2016-12-06-at-20-00-07

The second in our wizarding series, HPATCOS is possibly my least favourite, largely because the action all happens in the second half. However, there are some excellent sub plots, missed out from the films to cut down on time. I’d completely forgotten about several and loved revisiting them (death day party, anyone?). One of the joys of the HP series for me is how many characters are quietly brought in, particularly those who become more significant later (a feat of plotting many authors don’t seem to manage) and I love the subtleties of Ginny’s personality and the introduction of Dobby.

Rainbow Rowell, Landlinescreen-shot-2016-12-06-at-20-00-51

I think it was Janet who recommended Landline as a book to break my can’t-be-bothered spell, and it certainly did the trick. Entertaining, and easy enough to read in short bursts on my commute, the plot (LA TV writer is unpleasant to husband, thinks he will leave her, finds a phone which calls 1990s him and tries to fix things) frustrated me. I found myself rolling my eyes too frequently at our heroine, Georgie, and how incredibly selfish and irritating she was. It’s hard to be bothered about a romance when you’re not rooting for the lead…

Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets In Your Eyesscreen-shot-2016-12-06-at-20-01-42

I’ve been meaning to pick this up for ages and finally got around to it – reading it on a train journey while sitting next to someone studying a midwifery textbook gave me huge joy – and not just because I have a dark sense of humour. Doughty’s sort-of biography runs through her early years training to be an undertaker, starting off with the work of a mortician. Funny, brutal and at times very touching (she has a genuine love of her work) I really enjoyed the cultural history she inserts along the way. A surprisingly enjoyable read.

Katherine Woodfine, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrowscreen-shot-2016-12-06-at-20-02-35

Next up, this Young Adult historical crime caper. Penniless Sophie blags herself a job in the haberdashery section of a large and newly opened department store (think Selfridges, circa 1905…) and rapidly finds herself accused of the theft of a priceless gold statue. Handily she has a couple of new pals to help her solve the crime and clear her name. Easy reading, but rather stereotyped (the poor male sidekick, the rich girl looked down on her parents), it was entertaining but I won’t rush back to read the next.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabanscreen-shot-2016-12-06-at-20-03-32

The third Harry Potter instalment, and a close contender for my favourite. The Prisoner of Azkaban is where things start getting really quite dark for our teenage wizard, and the tone of the novel steers decidedly away from the children’s book writing of the previous two. I suspect this is why I like it, Rowling begins to introduce her overarching themes of injustice and darkness earlier, almost from the start and the threads from HPATPOA weave through the remaining novels. This is one which definitely weathers frequent rereading.

Hester Browne, The Honeymoon Hotelscreen-shot-2016-12-06-at-20-04-35

Every now and then you need a bit of fluff in your life. This is it. The tale of the Bonneville Hotel’s events manager Rosie and her rivalry with Joe, the controversial son of the hotel’s owner is moderately entertaining, although the only accurate depiction of working in hospitality is the talk of the ludicrous hours and low wages. I’ve read a couple of Browne’s earlier novels and found them rather fun and not too daft (compared to many others…) so perhaps this one was a dud.

Sophie Hannah, Closed Casketscreen-shot-2016-12-06-at-20-05-13

I wasn’t convinced by Hannah’s first foray into the world of Poirot… and I wasn’t convinced by her second either. Poirot is invited to Ireland for this installment, where a famous author is convinced she will be killed. She isn’t. Someone else is. While the mystery itself was passable, Hannah’s narrative style was frustrating – sticking to cliche rather than Agatha Christie’s slow and gentle unfolding of the mystery. None of the charm or personality of Poirot was there, none of his quirks. Such a shame.

September in books

“Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it” P. J. O’Rourke

A bit of a mixed bag this month – I’ve been branching in to non-fiction and really enjoyed reading outside of my comfort zone…

Tim Spector, The Diet Myth

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-20-35-43I’ve been reading this book for ages, probably about six months, dipping in and out every now and then. Written by Tim Spector, a Professor of epidemiology and lead of the British Gut Microbiome Project (i.e., someone who is *qualified* to talk about health in the way no modern food writers seem to be) it breaks down a whole lot of myths around food, nutrition, the way our bodies process what we eat and drink, and how these all relate to being ‘healthy’. I picked the book initially in the hope it’d help me stay healthy after my move into vegetarianism, particularly given there’s a variety of stomach issues in my family. While it wasn’t ground-breaking for me as someone who is fairly clued up anyway (the highlight was having my criticisms of Paleo and low carb diets vindicated), I enjoyed it and I’m sure I’ll come back to certain chapters in future as it’s nicely laid out according to food group (carbs, proteins etc.). It’s an easy read, in a chatty and accessible format – definitely worth a gander for anyone looking to improve their knowledge about health and food.

Robin Stevens, A Murder Most Unladylike

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When I saw Janet’s review, I knew I’d enjoy this – and I did. Harking back to the days of boarding school tales, it’s a rather tongue in cheek pastiche of both the ‘girls adventure’ genre, and cosy murder mysteries. Published as a children’s/teen book, it’s funny enough to appeal to adults, and the mystery itself is actually pretty decent – plenty of red herrings, some minor scandal, and some excellent lead characters in the glamorous Daisy, and her slightly frumpy best friend Hazel. I thoroughly enjoyed my year at Deepdean School For Girls.

Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train

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I’m late to the party with this one but I suspect part of the reason I enjoyed it is because I’d forgotten pretty much everything I heard when it was published. Emily, a depressed young woman, finds herself entangled in a missing person case. Her alcoholism making her a particularly unreliable witness and it would have been easy for Hawkins to stumble on her characterisation here, using stereotypes and prejudices, but I found her handling of Emily’s mental health sensitively done. The slow reveal of her demise as the book progresses allows the reader to empathise with the situation, despite being as frustrated with Emily’s narrative as she is with herself. It’s hard to review without spoilers, and the ending itself was gripping but a minor let down (maybe I have a particularly dark mind or was expecting a final twist), and I’m not sure the film will do the nuances of the plot justice.

Curtis Sittenfeld, Eligible

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I didn’t have high hopes for this one. Given to me by a friend who knows how much I enjoy an Austen, I was a little worried – I’ve detested all of the other Austen Project rewrites so far. But. I was wrong. Now – there are caveats to this. Primarily, the reason I liked Eligible was that it really wasn’t a retelling, more a reimagining and so to an extent, I was able to detatch myself from the original. The scandals and desperation of women in the early nineteenth century don’t really have modern equivalents, so Sittenfeld has been clever in the way that she’s used the plot as a guide and reinterpreted the characters (something some of the other Project rewrites could have benefited from). This does mean some of my favourite elements of the originals were missing, Mr Bennett for example was missing his resigned intelligent nature, but the general ‘feel’ and pace have been retained and it’s still pretty amusing. Daft, and enjoyable.

Susan Calman, Cheer Up Love

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Part biography, part self help book, Calman has adapted one of her best known standup comedy shows into a short book about herself, her career and her experiences of depression. As a fan of her standup and  her Radio 4 programmes I looked forward to picking it up after hearing positive reviews from a friend, and I wasn’t disappointed. Warm, honest and funny, her writing is very easy to read and I found her honesty and vulnerabilities refreshing.

Summer in books

“My personal hobbies are reading, listening to music, and silence” – Edith Sitwell

It’s been pretty quite round here on the Western Front, hasn’t it? There’s been much going on behind the scenes but alas, very little of it exciting. On the plus side, I’ve got a lot of reading done recently…

M. R. C. Kasasian, The Curse of the House of Foskett

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After enjoying the first in the Gower Street Detective series, I looked forward to devouring this one. Building on our characters and bringing them out their shells, I enjoyed the changing relationship between our personal detective Sidney Grice and his young ward, March Middleton (more than the mystery, which I found surreal and confusing at points). It’s daft, there’s some tongue in cheek humour which won’t appeal to everyone (I enjoyed the silliness in amongst the rather dark observations of Victorian London), and March’s back story was a little jarring despite how necessary it was, but I still found myself looking forward to picking it up. What can I say? Period murder mysteries are my thing.

Alexander McCall Smith, The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 22.25.16The Number One Ladies Detective Agency series books are – to me at least – comfort in literary form. The characters are warm and inviting (but suitably flawed, McCall Smith is a romantic but a realist), and despite not having read any of the more recent instalments, I enjoyed diving back in. The main plot involves Mma Ramotswe taking her first ever holiday and struggling to leave things to Mma Makutsi (the fear of being undermined or usurped is one that a lot of us probably recognise…) but it was the sub-plot involving a young boy Mma Ramotswe becomes involved with which I felt was particularly well woven in. Samuel’s tale contrasts the wealthy side of the main characters with the reality of the poverty of Botswana and without being jarring. Easy to read but thought provoking.

Marian Keyes, Angels

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After struggling to finish a couple of her later novels, I realised there were a couple of earlier Keyes’ books I’d not read – and I’m glad I gave this one a go. Rather slow to get going, it focuses on Maggie Walsh, the eldest of the five sisters, and her ways of coping with the end of her marriage. What could (particularly given Maggie’s backstory) be a rather dark tale ends up being brightened by a couple of dated and ridiculous, but still entertaining, sub plots. Cheese aside, it’s Keyes’ sense of humour combined with her uncanny ability to tap into the darkness in people’s lives which make her writing so enjoyable, and in Angels she goes one step further, adding a powerful manifesto on Irish women’s rights into the mix. Much more than the chick lit label.

Jean-Paul Didierlaurant, The Reader on the 6.27*

screen-shot-2016-09-07-at-20-57-22After seeing this pop up on other blogs and hearing good things about it, I was excited to continue my foray in to French literature. Every morning Guylain reads random pages from discarded books to his fellow commuters, as a form of therapy for the way he spends his day. Any literature lover will empathise with his predicament – his job involves destroying the very things he loves, and gives him huge amounts of pain. It was the very simple premise which drew me in, although I found myself rolling my eyes a little at the over the top descriptions in the first few chapters. I’m glad I stuck with it, as I loved how the quiet Guylain was drawn out – through his support of his former colleague and his new found elderly friends, and later as he develops a quest to find the owner of a diary he ‘rescues’. It’s hard to discuss without giving away the plot too much, but I loved the way in which so few characters told such a rich story. Highly recommended for a rainy afternoon.

Trudi Canavan, The Magician’s Apprentice

screen-shot-2016-09-07-at-20-58-20I’m a latecomer to Canavan’s trilogy, which introduces us to Sonea, a slum girl who realises during a street riot that she has magical powers. Cue a chase, and a disagreement about who will be her mentor… I’m not sure how I felt about this one. While not a fan of fantasy fiction in general, I did enjoy the back story and setting. But oh, it’s slow – so slow that I found myself zoning out a little – partly because it feels very much like the book is scene setting for the rest of the trilogy, and partly because very little happens. It passed the time, but I’m not sure I’ll be rushing out to pick up the next one.

Fern Britton, Hidden Treasures

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Every now and then I find myself picking up something ‘easy’ to read – a bedtime book, if you will. I went for it after seeing some good reviews. Oh, how wrong they were… it was terrible. The (probably not ghost-written, given how bad it was) plot revolves around Helen, who relocates to a little village in Cornwall and rapidly finds that the vicar is in love with her, while she’s got a thing for the local ‘historian’. That pretty much says all you need to know – stereotypes, clichés and some questionable subplots abound. Please, recommend some better alternatives to me!

Susan Cain, Quiet

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I’ve been meaning to read Quiet for a few years, so when I finally got around to it, after watching Cain’s excellent TED talk, I had quite high hopes.  I really enjoyed parts of the book – discussing the ‘history’ of extroversion in the USA and how the cultural shift towards group work and behaviour happened was interesting, as was the (only) scientific part discussing amygdala responses, but I wasn’t convinced by the rest. At a couple of points, I felt that Cain hadn’t quite worked out her definitions (this, by Elaine Aron, whose book I read a few years ago sums it up nicely) and I found that undermined her points somewhat. I suspect this is the downside of a non-fiction work written by an interested enthusiast. It’s very approachable, but it’s clear that Cain isn’t a psychologist (or even a journalist) and that’s ultimately what lets it down for me.

M C Beaton, Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House

screen-shot-2016-09-07-at-21-02-14Another attempt at a bedtime book – I read the first few Agatha Raisin books online a few years ago and thought I’d have a go at revisiting the series. It started off optimistically – a fun and silly Cotswold set murder mystery, but was marred somewhat by a lot of padding and a slightly daft (i.e. highly implausible) love triangle. I suspect the downside of the series is that, for the most part, the eponymous heroine’s home village provides an excellent supporting cast. When the mystery is taken outside, as in this case, the ‘charm’ is somewhat missing and it all feels a bit… flat. Entertaining enough but not the best book I’ve read recently.

Agatha Christie, Poirot’s Early Casesscreen-shot-2016-09-07-at-21-02-57Ah, this is more like it. Eighteen short stories, all featuring our favourite Belgian, as told by his sidekick Hastings. Brought together in the 1970s into one book, the mysteries were originally published in the Sketch periodical and American anthologies before being brought together, and there is an element of Agatha Christie in ‘training’ in a few of them. Coming after, chronologically speaking, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which introduces Poirot, they very much set the scene for what is to come –  murders, thefts and scandals abound. Unlike some of the novels, in places the mysteries can be a bit rushed (unsurprising, given the length) and it does feel a little like the recurring characters are in “development” but as a one-a-night collection, they’re ripping good fun.

J.K Rowling, Jack Tiffany, Jack Thorne, Harry Potter and the Cursed Childscreen-shot-2016-09-07-at-21-03-37Is it a book? Is it a play? Is it a book and a play? Given my distaste for sequels, prequels and any form of ‘spin off’ (literary forms more so than televisual), I was reluctant to read HPATCC and it took me a few weeks after the rest of the world to get around to it. Honestly? I wish I hadn’t. The plot was… sketchy (rushed, and without the padding which makes the original series so ‘real’), the characters were nothing like their younger selves (Ron in particular infuriated me, as his portrayal as a rather dim and bumbling idiot was such a step backwards from his character arc) and all I could think was “this is fan fiction”. Perhaps it works for the stage – I don’t know – but nothing about it worked for me.

Katie Fforde, A Summer At Seascreen-shot-2016-09-07-at-21-04-36I’m not sure why I bothered, to be honest. I knew it’d irritate me from the off – our heroine is Emily, a single woman in her early 30s, who loves her life… so of course the plot line is that she’ll fall in love and give it all up. Of course she will. Because a single woman in possession of a successful career must be doing it because she’s secretly in want of a husband. Add in an unrealistic set of friendships with an old lady and a young girl, a will-they-won’t-they romance, the Northern Lights, some negative stereotypes about GPs attitudes to home birth, some complete falsehoods about an English trained midwife not being able to work in Scotland, and you have yourself A Summer At Sea.

 

And so there we go, a decided mix from the last few months. It’s been rather handy to reflect back – definitely a good way of working out what to read next! Any suggestions for easy reading but not terrible books will be gratefully received…

 

*provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

In Loving Memory

imageOne of the advantages of walking, as opposed to hopping on the bus, is how much more I notice. Rather than pull my book or phone out, I have an audiobook or the radio in my ears and taking my time means little things catch my eye.

Over the last year I’ve passed this bench several times a week on my way to work, but I only noticed it recently. There’s a lot of benches dotted around the city, so it’s not until I stop to tie my shoelace on one of them that I read the inscription. Now every time I go past I wonder a little about who Ms Warne was. Her bench is outside of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, so I assume there’s a link there. But fearless and independent? What a wonderful way to be remembered – there’s so many things I want to know because of her simple epitaph.

Did she have adventures? Did she stay at home and push for things she believed in? Was she actually a bit of a nightmare – one of those people we hate to work with but are also in awe of? And would she have held court and entertained us with her stories if she’d joined me and my friends for brunch? I suspect so.

 

Art On Sundays

image Back at the beginning of May I made a bit of a pledge to myself. Do more with my weekends. Get out. See things. Go places. Be brave, and go alone if there’s no-one to go with. Be brave, and go alone even if there is someone to go with.

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Why? Well, if I’m completely honest, I’ve found myself struggling with motivation recently. My day job involves talking to lots of people, and I am an introvert. It’s inevitable that a quiet weekend of pottering about the house, going to the gym, and cooking myself something lovely is how I’ve ended up switching off.

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I’ve also realised that there’s a difference (for me at least) between switching off and relaxing. Switching off is distancing myself from work. Relaxing is re-energising by doing things I really enjoy. If I’ve got a week, that happens organically but if I’ve got two days? Not so much. I’ve mentioned before about how I struggle to relax, and after various conversations with friends I’ve realised that to relax on a weekend, I need to do stuff.

imageAnd so, back to my May pledge. I’d got myself into a bit of a rut. I was over tired from work, and verging on bored. I’d hygge-d my way through winter, but now it was well and truly summer and I was beginning to resent my own lack of productivity. When it’s 23C outside and you can hear children playing in the park over the road, it’s no longer comforting to spend the weekend lying on the sofa watching box sets. Instead it feels lazy.

imageI made plans. I put something in my diary for every weekend – preferably something I could do on my own, but also things I could combine with my usual Sunday afternoon catch ups with friends if I felt like it.

imageAnd it felt good. It worked. On Tuesdays (the worst day of the working week for me, usually my longest shift), I’d start to look forward to my activity rather than looking forward to my own space. I took part in a sketching class hosted by one of my favourite museums with a well known local artist. I spent a weekend learning the basics of ceramics and working with clay, and discovered that using a wheel is much harder than it looks on TV. I visited a local arts festival (although admittedly spent longer sampling the local beers with a friend than browsing the exhibits) and discovered a new gallery round the corner from my house.

imageIt’s been good. It’s reminded me of when I lived in London. I used to take great pleasure in visiting the V&A, stopping half way round to read my book in the cafe with a pot of tea and a meringue the size of my head. I’d head home feeling like I’d achieved something with my day off. The downside of living in a beautiful vibrant city is that it’s easy to become complacent. The museums, the galleries and the festivals will always be there. It’s been lovely to take advantage of it – and now that I’ve forced it to become a habit, I know it’s one I’ll keep.
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May in books

“Doctor Who: You want weapons? We’re in a library. Books are the best weapon in the world. This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself!” – Russell T Davies

A hit and miss month, in which I venture away from my usual crime novels – and find a gem – and attempt to build on my recent ‘self help’ disaster and get no further…

Anna Mazzola, The Unseeing*

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Sarah Gale, a seamstress with a young illegitimate child, was sentenced to death for her part in a murder – that of a love rival – in Victorian London. The case was sensational, given the brutality of the killing and the distribution of body parts across the city, but Gale’s story has disappeared into history. Mazzola has brought back Sarah Gale in this reimagining of a true crime, telling the case through the eyes of the struggling young lawyer brought in by the home secretary to investigate the conviction. But why is Sarah so reluctant to receive the help she needs? What is she hiding?

It’s incredibly difficult to review this book without accidentally letting out an enormous spoiler, partly because the plot is so very simple. The portrayal of Gale herself is the biggest success, simultaneously appealing to the reader because of her vulnerability, but also one of the most infuriating protagonists I’ve come across (there were a few times I wanted to shake her!). Characters and murder aside, I’d probably say the biggest theme in The Unseeing is how utterly horrific life was for impoverished people in the nineteenth century. Gale’s fall from grace, mirroring that of another minor character, is a stark reminder of how vulnerable many women and children were.

Frustrating, exasperating and at times harrowing – I loved it.

Heron Carvic, Picture Miss Seeton*

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When retired art teacher Miss Emily Seeton leaves a Soho theatre and finds herself a witness to a stabbing, little does she think that it will draw her into a dark criminal underworld involving drugs, murder and mayhem… 

A forgotten classic from the 1960s, Carvic pastiches the earlier Golden Age spinster detectives in Miss Seeton, who is somewhat of a cross between Miss Marple, and Mapp and Lucia. Miss Seeton isn’t the most intellectual of heroines, and I found this rather refreshing – rather than setting out to solve crimes, she does it by accident which means we get to know our supporting cast rather better than in other cosy crimes, but also allows Carvic to introduce a lot more dry humour along the way. I’ll be honest, the plot had me slightly baffled (clearly I wasn’t paying enough attention to pick up the finer details in the opening chapters – it’s both silly and subtle) but I enjoyed the period setting, and the 1960s backdrop allowed for a little bit more scandal than my usual Agatha Christie crimes. Not my favourite crime read of the month, but recommended for fans of the classics.

Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

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Brown, a social worker by background, draws on years of academic research to offer ten guidelines for wholehearted living – or – on how to live with authenticity. Reflecting on topics including courage, compassion and shame, Brown encourages her reader to develop confidence in themselves.

I was really looking forward to reading this – having first heard of Brown via her marvellous TED talks and enjoyed reading some of her online articles, I was expecting to get on rather better than my first foray into the world of “self improvement”. After all, Brown is an academic, and my inner snob was reassured that someone with a PhD in the topic would be worth listening to. And so I downloaded the audiobook, listened while I was walking home from work for the rest of the week… and that’s all I have to say. Bizarrely the entire 7hour tome seems to have gone in one ear and out the other because I remember next to nothing, other than a couple of anecdotes. I realise this makes for a rubbish review but in some ways I think it’s telling that, despite my initial hopes, this book made absolutely no impact on me whatsoever. Oh well – lesson learnt… no more self improvement for me.

Marie-Sabine Roger (trans. Frank Wynne), Soft In The Head*

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Originally published in French, the inspiration for the 2010 film “My Afternoons with Margueritte” has been retranslated and republished for an international audience. Following the friendship of Germain, a mid-40s man with a learning difficulty who bonds with mid-80s Margueritte over pigeons in the park, this gentle tale explores friendship and family – and the joy of reading.

Oh, how I devoured this one – it was the perfect accompaniment to a long train journey. Easy to read, charming and with gentle but realistic characterisation, I really enjoyed getting to know our leads, particularly gentle Germain. Roger manages to draw out a realistic depiction of someone who calls himself “soft in the head” without putting a label on him (a rather nice contrast to The Rosie Project), exploring Germain’s neglectful childhood, and allowing the reader in to understand just why the friendship is so important to both Germain, and Margueritte.

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers – this is another take with a very simple plot, but again, because it’s done so beautifully well it works. The translation was excellent (sometimes I feel that humour or wordplay are missed, both of which are a key feature here), the only criticism I would have is that it’s very French and I found myself googling references to literature at several points. That aside though, a gorgeous read. Highly recommended.

 

*provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.