Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Recent Reading and some snowdrops

Irrelevant photo of snowdrops taken on recent annual visit to see them at Ness Gardens

It's time for a book post.  Here's my list since my last round up in November. I'm continuing with my marks out of 10 policy as used by the Waverton Good Read.

Waverton Good Read (First Novels)
'Himself' Jess Kidd  7
'Conversations with Friends' Sally Rooney (Unfinished) 4

'Fahrenheit 451' Ray Bradbury 7
'1984' George Orwell 8

Audio Book 'La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume 1' Philip Pullman 8

'Midwinter Break' Bernard MacLaverty 9
'The Green Road' Anne Enright 9

I'm enjoying taking part in the Waverton Good Read which I blogged about recently.  I liked 'Himself by Jess Kidd, a kind of darkly comic murder mystery set in Ireland. Brilliant characterisation, my favourite being an elderly widow Mrs Cauley who assists the main character in his quest to find out what happened to his mother.  The dialogue is also spot on but the plot fell apart a little at the end.  My other Waverton choice 'Conversations with Friends' has been widely praised in the media - it's a debut novel by a 24 year old -and was one of the recommended Guardian books of the year.  I didn't like it at all and in the end didn't finish it because someone else had requested it in the library so I had to return it. I'm not sure I'd have finished it anyway as I found the central character and first person
narrator intensely irritating - self-absorbed and selfish.

I also reread '1984' in full for the first time since I was a teenager.  I loved it then and enjoyed rediscovering the bits I'd forgotten. The chapter about Room 101 which had shocked me so much last time wasn't so terrifying this though I found the section where Winston and Julia are discovered quite disturbing.  We saw a theatre production of the novel a few years ago which captured in full the horror of their treatment. I also read another dystopian novel 'Fahrenheit 451'.  Both written 60-70 years ago and scarily accurate in their predictions of a world dominated by TV screens, mind-numbing entertainment and our movements and actions monitored by CCTV and the innocently named 'cookies' or are they algorithms (?) that track our internet searches and shopping.

My top score goes to Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty, who is a writer I've loved since reading 'Cal' many years ago.  This is his first novel for 16 years and so I chose it when it was my turn at bookclub.  It's an excellent portrayal of a marriage with the writer switching between alcoholic in denial, Gerry and Stella, who was badly injured in a shooting during the troubles in Northern Ireland and is still affected by this memory many years later.  Stella is increasing intolerant of Gerry's drinking and looking for a new direction for her life in her 60s,  There's not much in the way of plot - the couple go to Amsterdam on a break in February, visit the Rijkmuseum, Anne Frank's house, eat good meals and have afternoon naps. Stella visits a place she hopes will hold the key to her future while Gerry attempts and fails to conceal his secret drinking. There's lots of detail; maybe too much (reringing the taxi which doesn't arrive on time to pick them up, going through security at the airport).  Even so it was memorable because he really explores the complexity of the relationship and the characters are convincing. And the writing is beautiful - seems effortless. I was there with them in Anne Frank's house looking at the pencil marks on the walls.  Perhaps it's because I have done this myself - there was a lot in this novel I could identify with.  But even so this is an excellent book.  My bookclub friends last week largely agreed, though some found it slow to start.

The Philip Pullman audio book 'La Belle Sauvage' helped me through the misery of my January flu virus.  I have signed up for free audiobooks and magazines at my local library and this was my first download. Great service and costs nothing at all.  I loved the Northern Lights trilogy and this book, which is the first of three in the series, is a kind of prequel with Lyra, the heroine of Northern Lights as a baby.  Lots of action and adventure in this one - perhaps too much plot and too many encounters with villains - it is a children's book. Or young adult I suppose. There were loose ends in the plot but I suppose these may be picked up later in the series.  I'm a recent convert to the audiobook and enjoy the luxury of being read to, though I am prone to falling asleep when listening in bed and then can't find my place again.

I have started a new bookclub with colleagues at school so now have two choices a month which are not my own.  Good as it widens my horizons.  School bookclub choice is 'The Ragged Trousered Philantropist' Robert Tressell which I have heard of but never read.  And I have already read my other bookclub choice, Anne Enright's 'The Green Road', another Irish novel. It was also excellent.  And there's another Waverton Good Read by my bedside: 'The Witchfinder's Sister' I'll review these next time.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Catching up with Sisters in London

Our hotel was by The Tower of London

View from the Sky Garden

I haven't written a post for ages and so I thought I'd use this rather damp, grey but quiet Saturday morning to write a brief round up of the last month or so.  I was spurred into action by a lovely letter from my cousin in Northern Ireland who says she missing reading this.

So what have I been up to? Well except for one weekend in London when I met up with my sisters, it has been a quiet time here.  No more builders and we're getting used to our new kitchen which is no longer pristine but more lived in. And a big chunk of January was wiped out because both Paul and I had flu - the worst flu I've had in years.  I had to take a whole week off work and really it was over two weeks before I was back to normal.

So our weekend trip to London cheered up a rather grim month.  It was all a bit last minute - NI sister and husband coming over for optics conference and wondered if any of the rest of us living in England could come and join them on the Saturday evening.  Turns out all of us could  - we hadn't seen each other at Christmas so it was a good opportunity.  I took Kate with me, having promised her a weekend in London. We arrived on Saturday afternoon and before meeting the others went to the British Library, a wonderful building which was full of young people of all nationalities studying or writing on laptops, and had a look at some of the historical documents stored there.  Kate was interested in Chamberlain's letters and one written by Mary Tudor.  I discovered the original handwritten draft with corrections of Sonnet 43 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the one that starts 'How do I love thee, let me count the ways', which I am currently teaching to year 11; they were not that impressed when I told them.

We got a good deal and stayed in a hotel with great views of Tower Bridge from its Sky Lounge where we met on the Saturday night for cocktails and were joined by the eldest nephew Matthew and his new girlfriend.  There was much talk of Matthew's recent TV appearance.  He was one of the engineers who was volunteered by his company to be involved in 'The Biggest Little Railway in the World,' a Channel 4 documentary about building a model railway track through the Scottish Highlands.  Then we walked to St Katherine's Dock and ate in an Italian restaurant.  There were 10 of us in total and I suspect we were a bit loud.  Thanks to the wonders of technology, the missing sister, Maureen, who was on a boat somewhere in the Bay of Islands in New Zealand, was able to join in the conversation for a while via Facetime.

On Sunday morning we went to the Sky Garden which is at the top of a tall tower block in Fenchurch Street.  You can get in for free though you need to book tickets in advance.  I loved it: a tropical looking indoor garden with palm trees and spectacular views of London, even on a fairly grey, overcast morning.  There's a cafe and a posh restaurant and it wasn't too busy as they restrict the numbers up there at one time.  After that we went to the Covent Garden area.  Sylvia, who is still a child at heart, wanted to go to the Lego shop.  She was disappointed as it wasn't as big as she expected. By mid-afternoon everyone was getting weary and we went our separate ways.  Kate and I had an hour or so before the train so we went to Camden Market where we purchased a Turkish lamp for her room.

A lovely weekend (it's two weeks ago now) and a break from the grim, grey routine of January/February.  One thing I have been doing a lot of  recently is reading.  I am currently enjoying 'The Green Road' by Ann Enright.  So I'm planning a book post soon.  We have a new laptop too - it is faster and easier to type on than the old one which expired last week after Paul dropped it.

Coffee in the Sky Garden

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Happy New Year!

Skip in the snow before Christmas. Now, at last, it has gone.
Christmas is over for another year and, now the lovely lazy lull between Boxing Day and New Year has ended, I feel the need to get going with things again. I've been blogging now for five years - my first post was on New Year's Eve 2012 - though in the past year rather sporadically.  I'm keeping going but won't make any promises as life gets in the way. (Access to the laptop to write posts is limited too as Kate has requisitioned it for her history coursework which I've just had a sneaky look at: nearly 6000 words on Civil Rights in America. She'll have a job cutting that down to the acceptable word limit.)

Back in November I went to a blogging workshop run by blogger Simon Savidge.  It was interesting and he gave lots of good advice to anyone who wanted to start a blog and acquire readers: write a witty bio, prepare posts in advance, link to Instagram and Twitter etc.  All the things I don't do and I'm not going to start now.  I'm happy enough with the set up as it is and not that bothered if there aren't that many readers though I do love it when I get comments.

Our Christmas was peaceful and mainly spent preparing and eating lots of good food in our new kitchen.  This was a real pleasure after months of preparing meals on one single pot hob and a microwave.  I even enjoyed clearing up: it is bliss to have a dishwasher again. We had a very pleasant New Year's Eve meal with old friends.  Paul cooked, my contribution being a fairly successful Sticky Toffee Pudding.  As usual, I struggled to last until midnight and actually fell asleep for a bit, stretched out on the floor in front of the log burner watching Jules Holland, but woke to greet the New Year watching the fireworks in London on TV.

The chef at work on his new island

Ronan the dog likes the underfloor heating and has now stopped peeing in the new kitchen.

I've got a view over the garden so I can watch the birds again

It's all looking a bit showhouse at present.  Soon we'll add our personal touch - general mess and clutter. I chose a Belfast sink like we.had when I was a child. And because of the name.  

I love the roof lantern though I had to lean out of the upstairs window with a mop to remove the bird poo on it.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Happy Christmas

 I'm up alone on this Christmas morning waiting for the rest of the family to emerge.  The presents are wrapped, the fridge is full and, for the first time in months, the house is clean and tidy. Our kitchen extension is complete at last. Santa has filled Kate's stocking though she's no longer up at 5am to open her presents. Still I'm enjoying the peace this morning and happy to be having a quiet Christmas at home after all the chaos.

Happy Christmas to all!

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Books of the Year

I haven't written a book post since March so instead of my usual The Year in Books entry I'm going to do a summary of my reading year in the way they do in newspapers.  I've been inspired to do this because I've signed up to a blogging workshop next Sunday run by Simon Savidge who writes a book review blog called Savidge Reads.

So here's the list.  I've decided to give each a mark out of 10, according to how much I enjoyed them..

On Kindle:
The Light Years: Book 1 of The Cazalet Chronicles Elizabeth Jane Howard  9
Hard Times Charles Dickens   (Reread) 6
Thomas and Mary -A Love Story Tim Parks  6
History of the Rain Niall Williams (Reread) 9
O Come Ye Back to Ireland  (NF) Niall Williams   8

Bookclub Choices
A Spot of Bother Mark Haddon         7
Four Letters of Love Niall Williams   6  (My choice)
The End of the Affair Graham Greene 5
The Underground Railroad Colson Whitehead 9
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine Gail Honeyman  9
Good Me, Bad Me Ali Land  7

From library/school/own bookshelves:
Bad Dreams Tessa Hadley (Short Stories) 7
A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled Ruby Wax  5
On Writing Stephen King 9
The Kite Runner Khaled Hosseini (Reread) 9
The Essex Serpent Sarah Perry 8
The Road Cormac McCarthy 8

Waverton Good Reads
The Things We Thought We Knew Mahauda Snaith  7

I've recently been taking part in The Waverton Good Read. Every year since 2003 the residents of Waverton, a village not far from Chester read novels published in the last 12 months and make an award for to the one they judge to be the best.  I don't live in Waverton, but have been allowed to take part.  It's great as I get to read new hardback books for free.

Listing the books like this reveals quite a lot to me about my preferences.  My favourite kind of book is a family saga with strong characters I can identify with and a good plot.  If I was to nominate my top read for the year in terms of sheer enjoyment it would be The Light Years - The Cazalet Chronilces.  I'm looking forward to reading the other four books in the series. Eleanor Oliphant made me laugh out loud. I'd like to think that other Eleanors in the world would have a similarly happy ending but I suspect they won't, which is why the ending is a little unconvincing hence 9 out of 10 rather than full marks.  I do enjoy a book with humour and Eleanor's observations about office life are hilarious.

The 'best' books here are The Underground Railroad and The Road, both of which were very powerful but actually not great bedtime reading because of the horrors they relate.  You can read the Simon Savidge review of The Underground Railroad  here.  I read The Road because we are using it as a coursework text for A Level.  It is a bleak account of the attempts of a father and son to survive in a world destroyed by the effects of climate change.  Very powerful but not easy to read with only glimmers of hope through the portrayal of the father/son relationship.  I suppose these are the 'best' books because they are ultimately more memorable and have something to say.

I'm now reading another Waverton Book 'The Pinocchio Brief'  which is a kind detective/court drama, not my usual kind of thing.  Bookclub book of the month is 'Surfacing' by Margaret Atwood.  I'm looking forward to this as I've read quite a few Margaret Atwood books and always enjoy them.  I also would like to try a Stephen King novel as I read his book 'On Writing' and found it fascinating.  I reserved a copy of 'The Stand' through the library but it's an expanded edition which is over 1000pages so I think I'll return it and read the original.


Saturday, 4 November 2017


This little girl turned 18 last weekend and yesterday passed her driving test.  It seems no time since I was organising her 5th birthday party, where the photo above was taken.  I'm sure she won't be happy with me publishing this picture of her with a mouthful of jam sandwich, but I think she looks so cute.  Where does the time go?  At present she is making big decisions about her future.  She has visited universities in Sheffield, York, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Nottingham and Warwick.  I went with her to some of the open days and was amazed by the way universities are now selling themselves and competing for students. As we were looking around both Warwick and York, Kate spotted Andy Burnham with his son who seems to be interested in the same kinds of courses as Kate. She was very excited about this but not brave enough to talk to him.  I hadn't spotted him in his casual gear and no one else seemed to recognise him either, even though he was presumably surrounded by A Level  students of history and politics. We also had a look at Oxford and Cambridge, as she'd been encouraged by teachers to consider them. That was an interesting experience - I liked getting the chance to look around - there were some beautiful gardens - but the comment from a girl showing us around Christ's College in Oxford about being allowed to play croquet on the lawn in summer kind of illustrated how far away from any kind of student experience elsewhere these colleges are. And they seem to eat their meals in halls which look like Hogwarts.  Her UCAS form is now in and she's applied to study History and Politics at York, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Sheffield.  She's had some offers so now she just needs to get the grades.   Exciting times but hard work ahead.

She certainly seems to have had more advice than I did when applying for university.  I felt I ought to do some kind of vocational course as people kept asking me what I wanted to do.  I insisted at that stage that I didn't want to be a teacher.  I like books, I thought, and so applied for some librarianship courses, changing my mind after the form went in as a helpful careers' officer said he thought librarians were bitchy( !!!!! I'm sure he didn't use this word but this is how I remember it)  and I would be best to do a more general degree in subjects I liked and then a postgraduate course.  This left me with only a couple of options.  I had an offer from Queen's in Belfast and one from Salford over in England.  I thought I might like to go to England so I chose it first, not having a clue about where it was or anything at all about it -  I'm not sure there were open days then.  I couldn't even say the name properly. I didn't real expect to get the grades they were asking for so it was a bit of a shock when I headed off on the ferry to Liverpool, then a train to Manchester and found myself in Coronation Street. It was a bit grim in Salford (it was the 1970s) but I didn't really mind as I was too busy enjoying myself. I'm not sure I made a wise choice but it turned out fine in the end.

Other news since my last post ( I only seem to manage about one  month) is that our building work is progressing so we hope to have a new kitchen for Christmas.  The old one is now completely demolished.  This has made life difficult this week as we only have a microwave to cook with and are existing on ready meals and toast.  But at least we have hot water and central heating again now the boiler is operational.

That's it for now.  Need to go and vacuum up the layer of dust left all over the house after builders' knocked out a new window yesterday.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017


Newcastle, Co Down 

September has been a busy month. Back to school and routine again which I like... for a while.  Now as the nights draw in and it's getting colder, I'm longing for the lazy lie-ins of summer.  Today, Wednesday, is my day off so I thought I'd add a post here.  My posts this year have been so infrequent that I'm in danger of giving up altogether. It's not that I don't have time or that I have nothing to say - it's just laziness really.  This morning I'm going to rejoin the weekly creative writing class I attended last autumn in the hope that it will encourage me to do a bit more writing.  Since my course in Ireland last year I've been meaning to start a new project but again haven't got round to it.  I borrowed the Stephen King book 'On Writing' from the library and he advises setting a fixed amount of words to achieve everyday.  I'd have to set the target low - 500 maybe. Surely I could manage that?  I have managed a bit of self-discipline recently on the exercise front so now need to extend it to my writing.

So a quick round up for the record of the last month or so.

Summer ended with a visit to Northern Ireland with husband, leaving teenager and dog at home.  He completed the 'Lap the Lough' cycle event with his brothers-in -law while my sister and I returned to Ballyronan to visit family there.  On Bank Holiday Monday, which was damp and cool in NI, while the sun shone in other parts of the UK, we had a day out in Newcastle, County Down.  My sister couldn't believe I'd never been there.  We had lunch in the 'Percy French' bistro of the swanky Slieve Donard hotel.  I didn't know who Percy French was. It seems he wrote the song about the Mountains of Mourne sweeping down to the sea.  The words of the song were  printed on the wall of the restaurant:

Oh Mary, this London's a wonderful sight
With people here working by day and by night.
They don't grow potatoes or barley or wheat,
But there's gangs of them diggin' for gold in the street.
At least, when I asked them that's what I was told
So I just took a hand in this diggin' for gold,
But for all that I've found there, I might as well be
Where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

Newcastle is a pleasant enough little seaside town with the mountains providing a dramatic backdrop. but the beach is very poor compared to those on the North Coast.  We drove back via the Spelga Dam, but it was too wet to do much walking in the Mournes that day.

In the 'Percy French' I had a very nice fish soup accompanied by Wheaten Bread. Inspired by this, I did a bit if baking back in Chester, trying to recreate the taste of home.  My fish soup was Cullen Skink - not Irish but Scottish but it was very nice indeed.

I'll sum up the rest of September in list form:

1. The builders are making progress with a little delay because of the rain.  We should have a kitchen extension with a roof soon.
2. Because of the building we have no central heating and have already been lighting the log burner.
3. Kate has been writing her personal statement for her UCAS form. This was hard going for everyone. More on this later.
4. I took advantage of some free personal training advice at the gym and was doing quite well in the summer months, following the routine she gave me.  But I'm lapsing a little now.  I'll keep going with the Zumba classes. Yes I do look ridiculous, but I don't care.
5. Work is easier this year now I have a new colleague running the English department and I'm enjoying it again.

That's it for now.  Do have a book post mentally written so hope to get round to that soon.