Wednesday, 15 March 2017

The Year in Books: March

I've read quite a lot recently.  Nothing I've loved really but for the record, here's the list:

1. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
I chose this after watching the documentary about the Bronte sisters at Christmas.  Anne was considered the less talented one, apparently.  I quite like this book, though the device of the letters is a bit clumsy.  The narrator switches halfway through and there is a rather sanctimonious, moralising tone which can get annoying. It seems clear that Anne was using her brother Branwell to inspire her characterisation of Huntington, the debauched husband of the central character, which, if the drama is to be believed, didn't go down too well with the rest of the family,. Good plot if slightly telegraphed plot with a happy ending.  As I have said before, I prefer books to have a proper plot.

2. Solar Bones Mike McCormack
It was hard work following the plot of this one as it's written without a single full stop. That was a bit annoying at first and I'm not sure whether this structural device (English teacher speak) added much to the novel. It's the story of an engineer, Marcus, living in small town Ireland and, actually, I warmed to him as the narrative is basically a stream of consciousness so we can sympathise with his anxieties as a parent of an artist daughter who achieves success by painting with her own blood and his smartarse son who is currently jobless, very hairy and working his way round Australia. There's also a lot about engineering which interests me a little since quite a few members of my extended family are engineers of one kind or another and there's probably some extended metaphor going on if I were to look closely.  I didn't realise until the end that the whole narrative is framed by the fact that Marcus is dead.  This is not a spoiler as, if I were not so dim,  I would have realised the significance of the references to All Souls day in the opening sequence. He's back as a ghost observing and the last part of his life.  It's on the blurb of the print edition but, as I read it on my Kindle, I didn't know.  Husband reading this one - his Kindle purchase, not mine though his appear on mine for some reason,so will be interesting to see what he thinks.

3 A Boy Made of Blocks Keith Stuart
Another one of those books which explores autism (Curious Incident, Rosie Project etc.)  I picked it up in the library and read it quite quickly. The writer reviews video games for The Guardian and the novel is loosely based on his own experiences with his autistic son and how he connected with him using Minecraft which is, as far as I can gather, a game where you build houses etc. on the computer.  It was ok: there was too much detail about the game for my taste and the plot - marriage breakdown due to central character's failure to deal with his grief for his brother - was a little thin.

Olive Kitteridge Elizabeth Strout
Who is the writer of the moment. Top of the best seller lists, Booker prize nominated for Lucy Barton is Missing, which I haven't read, and Pulitzer Prize for Olive.  This is my book club choice and I did admire the writing and characterisation but in the end was disappointed by what promised to be a good book at first . Olive, retired maths teacher married to Henry, is quite a character and she holds together the narrative which is basically a series of loosely connected portraits of people living in a small town in New England/  No real plot which I found irritating, especially in the final chapter which doesn't include Olive at all but a character who was only briefly referred to earlier.

This month I'm going to finish The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry and some more books by Niall Williams who wrote History of the Rain which remains my current favourite book. You can read my comments on it here.  I'm rereading it and have also borrowed Boy to Man from the library. I've also chosen Four Letters of Love for my bookclub choice - it's my turn.  The reason for all this Niall Williams reading is that I have booked to go on a weekend Writing Course he is running in Ireland during April.  I'm very excited about this as I have always wanted to do a residential writing course, but am now very anxious as I'm afraid other people will be proper writers and not sloppy bloggers like me. 

Post illustrated by an irrelevant photo taken in Amsterdam by my daughter.  One reason for my lack of recent blogging is that I spent my half term on a school trip in the Netherlands attending, for the third time, a Model United Nations conference in Zoetermeer and taking my daughter too. It was a brilliant experience and the students I took thoroughly enjoyed it, but it has left me behind with other things. I've blogged about MUNA before here.

Linking again with Laura at Circle of Pine Trees

Saturday, 11 February 2017

In Praise of Cousins

I have mentally composed this post over the past few weeks and only now finding time to write it.  This morning have been woken early by the sound of retching dog. Got up and chased him outside, but it was too late.  Clearing up doggy sick at 530ish on a Saturday morning is not fun.  But I'm wide awake now and so will use the time profitably to catch up here.  Life hasn't been much fun recently: work dominating and quite stressful; my broken arm still causing me pain; and further stress because the dog has had an operation to remove a large lump from his abdomen.  We were worried it was something nasty but it seems it was just a fatty lump, a common thing in middle-aged dogs apparently.  But it was horrible as he was so miserable after the op.  And it cost a fortune and is unlikely to be covered by insurance.

But back to the main subject of my post.

In Northern Ireland when I was growing up I saw my cousins often.  I have 20 first cousins and, as most of them lived within a 5 mile radius of our home, we visited each others houses often.  Whole families of cousins would sometimes come for tea on a Sunday afternoon and mummy would make a salad and we'd maybe have coffee cake and apple creams or a sponge flan with jelly and mandarin oranges set in it.  After tea, while the adults talked, us children would run riot, playing wild chasing games or putting on 'shows' in the sitting room.  Sometimes this ended badly - I remember one occasion when we broke the china cabinet - yet these wild afternoons are some of my best childhood memories.

During the summer holidays we would, as children, take turns stay for longer periods at our cousins' houses.  This was great fun: we played all sorts of dangerous games, my favourite being the construction of a 'ghost train' tunnel in hayshed at the Derby cousins' house in Ballynagarve.  It was terrifying but exhilarating to crawl through the precarious structure we'd made with bales of hay piled high at that time of year.  And my cousins' parents were a little more relaxed about certain rules so we got away with things we weren't allowed to do at home.  I remember riding back to the farm with my cousins on the top of a tall load of hay bales on a trailer being towed by a tractor for a couple of miles on a public road. Again I was scared and a bit guilty, as I knew this was forbidden, but such a lot of fun.

One set of cousins, on my Dad's side, lived slightly further away in Maghera.  Again we would take turns to visit, usually just one of us at a time.  I liked going there as Auntie Joy was one of my favourite aunts, really kind and lovely.  I have some good memories of visiting there too: they had geese in the back yard which was exciting for us, especially being chased by the gander.  I remember going out on the tractor with Uncle Roy; he'd let us ride beside him sitting on the wheel mud guards, another thing that was banned at home.  And I remember helping to stack the turf that they burned in the range cooker.  I love the texture and the smell of turf burning; it always reminds me of visiting these cousins. I don't know whether it is still used for fuel these days in Ireland; no one over here in England has ever heard of it.

These memories came flooding back to me recently when I heard the news that Uncle Roy, one of only two of my uncles who is still alive,  had died last October.  Unfortunately I didn't hear about his death until a few months later - my cousins were too exhausted and busy to call - and, as neither me nor any of my sisters live locally, we're out of touch with local news. I've now written to offer my condolences and will visit when we next visit Northern Ireland in the summer.

I count myself blessed to be part of a big extended family.  While other friends and acquaintances have come and gone over the years, my cousins have always been there.  Although I see some more than others, mainly those who are closest to me in age and who were among my best friends as a teenager, I am always pleased when I get the chance to catch up with them as we did when we had a cousins' party in Ballyronan in 2015.  My cousins were a huge support to us in the difficult times when our parents were ill and a source of comfort when they died.  I am sorry not to have been there to offer the same support to them.

My Kate is an only child but she is lucky to have many first cousins, 16 in total.  Unfortunately, due to a family fall out on my husband's side, she has never met some of them and has lost touch with another.  However, she does see quite a lot of the cousins on my side of the family, including those who live on the other side of the world.  This summer the NZ cousins are visiting the UK again and we have planned a family holiday, booking a villa outside Barcelona for all five families.  It's looking like all of the cousins will be there, even the adult ones.  We're very much looking forward to this family reunion.

Kate and her cousins during last reunion in 2015
Sister and cousins in Portrush July 2015

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Recent Reading

Inspired by Christina's account of her December reading, I thought I'd write a book post, something I haven't done for ages.  I've read a few books recently which I really enjoyed and thought I would share these with you though to be honest there was a period in September/October when I wasn't reading very much at all.  I don't worry much about this - reading is pleasure so I don't set myself targets about numbers of books to read a year or anything like that.

For my bookclub in November I read ' A Fine Balance' by Rohinton Mistry.  It's quite a chunky book -600 plus pages - but was written so well that you don't really notice this.  It is set in 1970s India and follows the difficult lives of three men and one woman against a background of political upheaval.  It's very sad but wasn't a depressing book because of the characters' resilience and how they usually find ways of dealing with all difficulties they face. There's a huge cast of eccentric characters - in one review I read, Mistry is described as a kind of Indian Dickens. I can see what this reviewer means. At the bookclub meeting we all loved this one - very unusual.

I have also read several very average books.  My husband read and recommended Sebastian Faulks 'Where the Heart Used to Beat'. I was a little disappointed - I never really warmed to the central character and was unconvinced by the big love affair which is central to the plot. The war scenes were well done though - he'd done his research - but it was too obvious rather than feeling integrated within the characters' experiences. Then there were a couple books from the best seller lists.  'Versions of Us'  Laura Barnett and 'The Trouble with Sheep and Goats' Joanna Cannon, neither of which was very memorable.

Another more interesting read, again a bookclub choice, 'The City and the City' by China Mieville was hard work to read, not enjoyable as such,  but it was worth persevering to unravel the complex plot which was half detective story, half sci-fi. There are two cities and two communities which overlap 'geotopically'. However the residents of each city must not interact and must 'unsee' each other otherwise they will be in trouble with Breach, the ruthless secret police force for the cities.

In January, I'm planning  to read Anne Bronte's 'The Tennant of Wildfell Hall', having ignored this particular Bronte in favour of her sisters until now.  I watched the BBC drama on Boxing Day - I've forgotten the name- was it 'To Walk Invisible' ? - and this has renewed my interest in this forgotten sister.

I'll also be dipping into my lovely new cookbook  'Home' by Trish Deseine - a Christmas present from NZ sister. It's a beautiful book full of recipes and pictures of Ireland. I'd bought a copy for her birthday last year after hearing a radio review and said I'd like one too. The photography is stunning and the writer includes stories of growing up in County Antrim as well as featuring Irish chefs. The recipes are a familiar mix of old favourites like wheaten bread and buttermilk scones which I don't really need a recipe for and the sort of traybakes that my mother used to make for coffee parties in the church hall.

And a bit of more general news - my new year hasn't started too well as I've managed to chip a bone at the top of my arm having fallen over a duvet left on the floor by one of the teenagers who stayed on New Year's Eve. I didn't know I'd broken anything until five days later when I finally got past the receptionist who'd initially fobbed me off with a physio appointment next week, and saw a GP who sent me to A&E. Spent over 5 hours there watching all the little dramas unfold in front of me - NHS at its best and worst - possible stroke patient waiting for ages but then being treated with real compassion when he was seen.  I have to wear this collar and cuff thing and have a 'virtual appointment' tomorrow - someone from orthopaedics will ring me having looked at x-Ray. So can't drive. Or do much housework. Silver lining etc...

My New Year wardrobe accessory - a lovely piece of pink foam!

Happy New Year to all - I'm planning to post more frequently this year so keep reading.
I started blogging regularly about books because of the Year in Books posts by Laura at Circle of Pine Trees which you can read more about here.  I'm aiming to join her by posting one a month about my reading.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Christmas Present and Christmases Past

I've been teaching 'A Christmas Carol' to year 11 this term and this post is kind of inspired by it. As you probably know, Scrooge visits his own happier past, sees how his staff and family view him at present and is given a frightening glimpse into his potential future if he doesn't change his miserly ways. He is also taken on a journey to see  how people rich and poor celebrate Christmas.

I've just indulged in some nostalgia and reread the posts for Christmas 2015, 2014, and 2013.  It's made me realise how much my blogging habits have changed.  I used to put more effort into writing posts and the 2013 one actually says something rather than just  act as a record events.  I've become a bit lazy about it all.  So many other bloggers I used to follow have given up or moved to Instagram.  I'm going to stay on Blogger, being technically inept and preferring words to pictures.  Perhaps next week I'll try to update things a bit though.

Christmas this year is going to be fairly quiet.  We're at home mostly, though travelling tomorrow to Market Harborough to spend Christmas day with my youngest sister and her family.  We don't see them soo often now they have moved further away from here and are looking forward to seeing how excited the younger children are about Santa coming!

I've been doing a bit of Christmas baking, making a chocolate log like my mother used to do at Christmas.  She used to do two and then give one to her friend Pat, who lived across the road in the house that was also at Hawthorne's bar, a very mysterious place to us as children, with greyish frosted glass windows hiding the interior.  I remember delivering Pat's chocolate log one Christmas and the distinctive smell of smoke and wafts of stout as the door opened.  Hawthorne's is still there and so is Pat, now well into her 90's, but we've now had 12 Christmases without my mum. I suppose that's why I make the chocolate log and use dad's stuffing recipe - keeps the memories going.

Anyway a few pictures of  a Christmas past - I think this is the last one when it was just us sisters and mum and dad without partners, the year before I got married so it's probably1985. Pretty dreadful shot of me with a bad case of red eye to match my cardi. I think Mummy looks lovely in this first one.  I thought members of my family who read this might like to see these so please indulge me other readers.

Happy Christmas 2016 to you all! 

Sunday, 27 November 2016


November is my least favourite month.  The dark; the cold; the way the autumn leaves have turned into brown sludge. There are no days off at all in November in the school calendar either so it can a hard slog at work too. I've been a bit grumpy and miserable. Our new house is older and so colder than the one we moved from: it has higher ceilings and hasn't got double glazing throughout. But I have a new defence against the cold - a log burner.  I love it and am becoming more skilled at getting it burning well.  Husband, who never feels the cold,  rarely bothers to light it so it's my job on these dark evenings while he in the kitchen cooking dinner. (I've hardly cooked at all since he gave up work.) The secret to getting a good fire going is lots of kindling so I'm going to have to find a better source than the tiny bags they sell in Morrisons.

From reading other blogs, I've discovered that there's a name for this desire to sit in front of a real fire with a cup of tea/glass of wine in Pjs. It's a Danish word, Hygge, and is apparently, according to The  Guardian  one of the words of the year as well as Brexit and Trumpism.  I suppose it's hardly surprising that the country wants to hunker down in front of the fire after recent political events.  Hygge is nothing new to me, but I'm pleased to discover there's a name for my desire to hibernate. For years I've been surviving winters by drinking Baileys while soaking in a warm bath and going to bed early with a fluffy hot water and a good book. This article oHygge made me laugh. Don't click on it if you object to swearing though.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Birthday Baking

We've been enjoying watching the Bake Off over the last few weeks.  In fact, it is one of the few programmes we watch together as a family with husband claiming no interest and then watching after all.  I've been supporting Andrew, the young engineer from Northern Ireland with the lovely smile and ginger hair.  So, inspired by his performance in the final, I had a go at his Granny's recipe chocolate cake for my daughter's 17th birthday party on Friday.  This is the result - not quite as neat as Andrew's version but it does taste good.  If you try it, just be aware that the icing is liable to run down the sides of the cake.  I followed Andrew's directions precisely but there was no way that that icing was going to pipe successfully.  Perhaps I needed to cool it for longer before attempting this.

I'm not surprised that Andrew was inspired by his Granny's baking.  Northern Ireland people bake more than the English and I know some of the readers of this blog in NI who are potential Bake Off contestants themselves with  impressive tray bakes, lemon drizzle cakes, rhubarb tarts and wheaten bread.  You know who you are!  My granny always had tins full of shortbread, a Victoria Sponge with thick buttercream filling and, my favourite, a traybake with dates and nuts she called Chinese Chews, for anyone who might call in.  I occasionally attempt to recreate some of these but I've never quite managed the same success.

One of my daughter's friends organised the party for her, asking me if he could invite some of her friends back here to surprise her after they'd returned from the meal out she was expecting.  I agreed, breaking my no teenage house parties rule, as long as I could vet the guests.  So I made the cake, put up some Hallowe'en decorations and provided a bit of food for the 12 or so teenagers who arrived. Paul and I went to the pub with the dog for an hour or two and returned to find one a bit tired and emotional in the garden.  But otherwise all well and Kate happy, enjoying her surprise party when she been resigned to a rather dull birthday this year.

This is my first blog post for about six weeks. I've planned some but just not got round to writing. No excuses really - I've just got out of the habit.  I'm still enjoying reading my favourite blogs and hope regular readers you haven't forgotten me in my absence.

Monday, 19 September 2016


September comes round again and routine has returned after the long summer of lazy and, for us this summer, not so lazy days. It's back to work and a new timetable for me which is fairly demanding but at least gives me Mondays off.  I'm up early nevertheless today and have made breakfast and sandwiches for my daughter who is struggling a bit with her new routine which involves her leaving the house at 7.10 to catch a bus to college.  She's now started on her A level courses, and has chosen among others English Literature and French, still using me as a kind of in-house personal tutor.  I don't mind really as I quite enjoyed reading 'Othello' with her last night and it's good to dig out that French vocab from the dark recesses of my brain.

We've settled into our new house and are making some progress in getting it sorted out.  I'm having some built-in bookcases made for my 'reading room' and we have arranged the gas fire which doesn't work to be removed and replaced by an open fire.  We're also having a woodburner in the main lounge. This will, I hope, make things cosy when the weather cools down.  Now we just need to get curtains - I've made many trips to John Lewis and Dunelm Mill, ordered swatches and have been generally indecisive about the whole business.  Having made curtain errors in the past - I once ordered made-to-measure which ended an inch above the window sill - I'm a bit wary.  If only I had the skill and patience to make them myself, something I did once with my mother's help. She always made her own curtains.

We had a housewarming party at the beginning of September for old friends and also invited new neighbours, discovering that two doors down from our new house is a young woman from Dungannon in Northern Ireland.  We had the usual kind of exchange NI expats have on these occasions, uncovering possible mutual acquaintances. I enjoyed chatting to her and other neighbours - this street does seem like a friendly place to live.

At the end of August before returning to school we had a few days in Northern Ireland, staying with my sister in Dromore and then a night in Portrush.  The weather was beautiful - a rare occurrence on our NI trips.  So we had a couple of days out as well as catching up with family.  On the sunny Saturday of the Bank Holiday weekend we went to Bangor - the NI one, not in Wales.  We walked the dog round the harbour and then I explored Bangor Castle Walled Garden, getting inspiration for my own walled garden. It was brilliant - absolutely gorgeous and free to enter.  I'd never heard of it before and neither had any of my relatives in NI. A hidden gem it seems. I was on my own as we had the dog with us and we didn't think he'd be welcome in the garden though there were no signs saying so.  I'd have stayed longer otherwise.  I wonder if my parents ever visited there? They have loved it as there were vegetable beds and fruit trees as well as flowers.  It certainly gave me some ideas for my garden though I have a long way to go with it.  At least we can see the walls now that the hedges have been cut back.  Anyway a few pictures of Bangor Walled Garden to sign off.  Blog posting not happening much these days, but I'm still reading others and will try to check in here once a month at least.