Wednesday, 31 December 2014

December reads

When I think of winter reading, I think of crime novels: whether it's dark Victorian London streets on which murderers creep or a cosy Agatha Christie whodunnit, mysteries are perfect for this time of year.

1. Moriarty is the second of novelist and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz's new Sherlock Holmes novels, and is notable for having very little of Holmes and Watson. Instead it's a cracking mystery about the weeks after Holmes and Moriarty's notorious showdown at the Reichenbach Falls. I frequently forgot that it was a contemporary novel, so well did it evoke Conan Doyle's London.

2. Hercule Poirot's Christmas is everything one might expect from Christie at Christmas: a glamourous country house setting, a fractious and unhappy family, a diamond theft and (of course), murder.

3. By coincidence, one of the timelines in Dark Places takes place at Christmas, which was a happy accident. I loved this deeply creepy novel by the author of Gone Girl, about the sole survivor of a family murder, Libby Day, looking more closely at the events that led to the deaths of her mother and sisters and the conviction for murder of her brother. Day is brilliantly flawed and unlikable and the flashback chapters that relate the events of the day of the murder are steeped with a sense of insidious evil inevitability. Much recommended.

4. After a plea on Twitter for good festive reads, Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm was suggested to me. I didn't realise when I downloaded it that it's a collection of short stories, so was a tiny bit confused to begin with. I enjoyed most of the stories (even if not all of them were as festive as I'd have liked) but especially loved The Little Christmas Tree. Her 1930s settings - full of women left 'spinsters' by the First World War, servant girls with illegitimate babies, gossipy greengrocers at the centre of village life - are now entirely alien, and all the more appealing for it.

5. I'd treated myself to the (gorgeously designed) hardback of My True Love Gave To Me as a pre-Christmas present, and was looking forward to diving into this collection of twelve festive short stories by leading YA authors, including two of my favourites, Rainbow Rowell and David Levithan. Luckily, it did not disappoint (although funnily enough, Rowell and Levithan's stories were amongst my least favourite). Chock full of lovely, romantic, moving and above all, festive tales, I would thoroughly recommend this to anyone who enjoys YA fiction. I can already tell I'll be re-reading this every Christmas.

6. I loved E Lockhart's We Were Liars earlier this year, so embarked upon The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks expecting great things which were, largely, delivered. Once again set within the exclusive milieu of wealthy America - this time a prep school rather than a private island - it's a fantastic exploration of gender politics and privilege. The heroine, Frankie, is winningly portrayed as a feminist warrior determined to gain entrance to the secret all-male society at her boarding school. Her ingenuity and questioning of tradition makes for an enjoyable read.

7. The Jeeves and Wooster stories are mentioned frequently in The Disreputable History..., so on finishing that I immediately downloaded a collection of short stories, My Man, Jeeves, to see what the fuss was about. They're comic classics for a reason, and I'll definitely be keeping a look out for more novels in my trawls of secondhand bookshops.

8. I approached The Monogram Murders with some trepidation: I adore Agatha Christie, and although I read all of Sophie Hannah's novels, I've found them becoming more and more far-fetched and silly. So Hannah writing a new Poirot novel... I wasn't convinced, let me say. But I loved it! Hannah brilliantly captures the rhythms and cadences of Christie's writing, ensuring that the quiet humour of the Poirot stories is retained, and provides a most satisfactory murder mystery. When three bodies are found murdered in an upmarket London hotel, Poirot is keen to make links with a strange encounter he has had the same evening in a coffee shop, and luckily Inspector Catchpool of Scotland Yard is quick to enlist Poirot's assistance.

9. Die Again* was deliciously creepy. The premise - a brutal and unusual murder in Boston seems to have links to a horrific series of disappearances in the Botswanan bush ten years previously - is a welcome departure from some of Gerritsen's recent Rizzoli and Isles novels, which have started to feel a little formulaic. She clearly did her research, too, as the evocation of the African landscape is spot-on.


10. 11. 12. 13. While ill with bronchitis - once I'd got past the first couple of days when I couldn't even lift my head from the pillow, much less read a book - I found solace in re-reading all of India Knight's comic novels. There is much that is flawed about them (Knight does enjoy going off on a rant, which can be amusing but is more often like being harangued by a posh woman who's had one too many cocktails and thinks her every utterance is common sense rather than slightly offensive and objectionable) but they are also immensely comforting and enjoyable reads. I really do love Comfort & Joy for perfect festive reading, and I'd also recommend her other two, largely autobiographical, Clara Hutt novels My Life On A Plate and MuttonDon't You Want Me? was one I hadn't read in years, and don't think I'll bother with again.

* This book was kindly provided for review by the publishers via Net Galley, but all opinions are entirely my own.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Wherever you are spending Christmas, and whoever you are with, I hope you have a peaceful and joyous time. See you on the other side.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Some simple festive home updates

It's fair to say that I love the run-up to Christmas just as much as the day itself - possible more. The school carol service; the excitement of my pupils as we watch Shrek for the nth time; putting the final decorative touches to my home; baking up a storm; packing the car to visit family. 

Sadly, all of that fell by the wayside this week after I was taken down by severe bronchitis. Four days in bed and I'm only now able to sit up for longer than 15 minutes at a time. Luckily I'd already written my final festive post, about a few simple home updates I've put together this year. 

I am emphatically not one of those too-cool-for-Christmas people (true story - a couple of weeks ago The Boy came into the spare room to find me draped in ribbon, jingling my bells (not a euphemism) and giggling with happiness. He calls me 'Elf' when I get like this, after Will Ferrell's character in the eponymous film). Instead, the whole house undergoes a transformation. If there's a flat surface, I will cover it with fairy lights and greenery. Stand still for too long in December and I might just hang a bauble on you.

As a result, just putting up a tree and a wreath isn't enough for me: the whole house needs to be Christmasified, and preferably with stuff I've made or upcycled. A few years ago I whipped up gingham heart decorations; last year it was the turn of some needlework in the form of appliqued cushion covers and my 'Let It Snow' embroidery hoops; this year I decided to turn an old and unloved mirror into a festive blackboard.

All you'll need is an old mirror or picture frame. I used white paint (just some standard white emulsion I had in the shed) to give the silver frame a distressed, vintage look. Once that had dried, I applied a couple of coats of blackboard paint onto the mirror itself (if applying to a standard picture frame, I'd suggest removing the glass and painting the blackboard paint onto a piece of thick cardboard to sit inside the frame). Chalk pens made the slogan a doddle to write and, together with a jug full of eucalyptus branches, it makes for a very stylish display in our kitchen.

One of my bargain tips is to search out books of sheet music in charity shops. A couple of years ago I hit paydirt in Market Harborough Oxfam, picking up ten books of music that had seen better days together with a volume of Christmas Carols. The framed sheet music from Silent Night makes a simple but beautiful picture, and I also use sheet music to make gift tags, to wrap presents, and to make garlands to hang on the tree.

Do you have any favourite home updates at this time of year?

Monday, 15 December 2014

Good stuff: Links & likes

On The Hungry Vegan we've been baking Christmas Pfefferkuchen and Earl Grey Tea Loaf, and reviewing awesome vegan fast food joint, V Revolution in Manchester.

Why the notion of detoxing is a myth. An important read as we approach January and the season of 'detox diets'.

I seem to be featuring Sarah here a lot lately, but So Your Friend Is Spending Christmas Alone? is full of great advice.

A reminder that the Refuge gift list is still active at John Lewis - use list number 609505 and treat someone who'll be spending this festive season in a women's shelter.

Crysta's post - 8pm On Some Idle Tuesday - is just lovely, I do enjoy reading about happy news.

Nova just opened an online store selling her artwork on stickers, cushions and the like.

A great piece on why - in the narratives around adoption - we need to focus more on adoptees, as well as adoptive parents (found via Charlotte).

And finally something to cheer you: the badass women of 2014 you may not have heard about.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Made: Evergreen wreath

For me, nothing quite says 'Christmas' like bringing boughs of evergreens into the house. From pagan yule logs to modern wreaths, the custom of using holly, ivy and other evergreens to decorate the house in December is an ancient one that has lasted thousands of years. Wreaths made from fresh foliage can be crazily expensive to buy - understandable, as they're time-consuming to put together. But with a bit of foraging for free greenery plus an hour of patience and sore fingers, you can make a wreath that's just as beautiful as a store-bought one.

You will need:
A wreath base (usually made of moss over a wire ring - I found mine on eBay for less than £2)
Armfuls of greenery - at least two different kinds but the sky's the limit. I used cypress, holly, eucalyptus and hebe
Florists wire
Secateurs or strong scissors
3 metres ribbon
Assortment of decorations - I dried some orange slices and teamed them with foraged pine cones and some fake holly berries 

1. First, forage for your greenery. You don't need to live in the countryside for this: I picked up the pinecones from under a tree on a nearby industrial estate, the holly and eucalyptus were from my mum's Bradford back garden, the hebe from a shrub in my yard, and the cypress from a friend's garden. 

2. Soak your ring [snigger] in water before squeezing out any excess.

3. Your wreath will be made up of multiple bundles of greenery, each affixed to the base. If, like me, you're using 3 or 4 different types of foliage, gather a small piece of each type and pull together to form a bouquet. If using more, you could vary the contents of your bundles, aiming for 3 or 4 pieces of foliage in each.

4. Bend a length of wire to form a U-shape at one end, approx. 1 inch long. Place the U at the base of the bouquet (with the remaining wire pointing away from it) and then wind the wire around the bundle two or three times, to hold the bundle together securely. You should be left with about 15cm of wire still pointing away from the bouquet.

5. Push the long piece of wire through your base, bend and push back in again to secure. 

6. Repeat, laying each bundle of greenery so it points in the same direction and overlaps with the previous one, until the wreath base is covered.

7. At this point you may find some bundles need another piece of wire looped around and pushed into the base to ensure they're completely secure.

8. Again using wire, attach the decorations at intervals. 

9. Cut 2 metres from your ribbon and loop it through the inside of the wreath. Tie the remaining metre into a bow around the hanging ribbon, trimming the ends neatly.

10. Once it's hanging up you may need to trim some edges: I found my eucalyptus especially needed a bit of a prune.

11. Step back and admire your work! Wreaths made from fresh foliage will survive for about three to four weeks if hung outside in the cold. 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

What I wore: Put a bird on it

Where do you get your fashion inspiration from? For me, both celebrities and fashion magazines are so far removed from the reality of my life, budget and tastes that it's ridiculous. However, real people - whether I'm eyeing up a stranger's clothes whilst walking down the street or looking at blogger's outfit posts online - inspire my wardrobe choices all the time.

This outfit reflects a combination of influences and inspirations. First, a lunch date with my friend Hannah a couple of weekends ago, for which she'd paired a mustard jumper with one of my favourite silhouettes, a Peter Pan collar blouse. And secondly Laura, of the blog Cardboard Cities, who often wears brooches with her outfits, gave me the confidence to try a piece of jewellery I haven't worn since buying it four years ago.

A pair of much-loved New Look supersoft skinny jeans (that they don't make any more *shakes fist at sky*) teamed with a Primark blouse (from winter 2013. I've since stopped shopping at Primark for ethical reasons) and my new Oasis jumper made for a great new combination. And to pull the whole thing together? What else could I do but put a bird on it, in the shape of this adorable swallow pin. The look is a little more preppy than usual for me, but I kind of love it. And best of all, it was the perfect outfit for a long car journey followed by some family time in Bradford.

* Jeans: New Look * Jumper: Oasis via ASOS * Blouse: Primark * 
* Brooch: Primark * Ballet pumps: Dorothy Perkins *

Standard worried-looking pose here. I promise, I wasn't actually about to burst into tears.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Made: MERRY & JOY Christmas cards

Being a massive Christmas obsessive, every year I pick up a few of the Christmas magazines from the supermarket to indulge myself, and it was in the Ideal Home Christmas* mag that I saw the image that would give me the idea for these cards. Their suggestion was to use air-drying clay to make personalised gift tags (I think they'd also make great place settings for a DIY wedding) but I had the idea to make them into cute hanging decorations to put onto the front of Christmas cards.

* I know, I really am rock & roll till I die, aren't I!

You will need:
- White air-drying clay (mine was from eBay)
- A flat surface, such as a glass chopping board or clean worktop
- Rolling pin
- Biscuit cutters
- Alphabet stamps (a lot of tutorials specify metal stamps, but I used standard rubber stamps from Paperchase and they were fine)
- A skewer or chopstick
- Very fine sandpaper
- Thin ribbon
- Washi tape
- Coloured card

1. Pull out a good handful of clay and knead for a minute or two. Roll out to approximately 4mm thick - too thin and the shapes will tear or warp when you stamp them. As you roll, keep lifting and flipping the clay or it will adhere to your work surface.

2. Use the biscuit cutters - I used two sizes of hearts and stars - to cut out your shapes. Remove excess clay and lift the shapes off the board again, to prevent sticking. I can't emphasise how important this is: not lifting regularly will leave you will lovely, neat shapes that are thoroughly stuck to your work surface!

3. Use a skewer or chopstick to make a hole towards the top of each shape. I found this easiest to do if I held the shape in one hand while pushing the chopstick through with the other.

4. Placing the shape onto the board again, use the stamps to spell out your message. I used MERRY for my larger shapes and JOY for my smaller ones. You could also personalise these by stamping the recipient's name.

5. Flatten out any slightly curled edges and leave to dry. This will take upwards of 48 hours.

6. Once completely dry and set, use the sandpaper to very gently remove the rough edges from your shapes.

7. Thread some pretty ribbon through the hole and use a small piece of craft or washi tape to affix to the back or inside of your folded card, leaving the decoration hanging over the top onto the front of the card. I used red card, because it's what I had to hand, but I think they'd look stunning hung with silver ribbon onto dark blue card.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Spending ban update: month three

If you recall, I ended October bemoaning the fact that every month seems to bring a new and unexpected expense. And lo and behold, just 3 days into November our washing machine broke, so it was goodbye to £90 for my share of a new one. Other than that, though, I had a really successful month.

When I started the ban, I made a short list of clothing items that I needed and would allow - winter shoes, a jumper, a new bra and a black skirt. I'd put jumpers on my 'allowed' list because incredibly, I only owned one (and live in a cold house). So, when I sold a few bits on eBay at the start of November, I decided to spend some of the £80 profit on buying the clothes I needed. I got two jumpers for £31 (hooray for discount vouchers, an H&M giftcard found at the bottom of my purse, and an ASOS code) and also bought a bra for £28, leaving me with a tiny bit left over in my PayPal account.

Apart from that, I managed to limit my spending to Christmas gifts and a few meals out with either The Boy or friends. I've done most of my Christmas shopping, spending about £80 in total plus £50 more from my Nectar points. However, as we creep ever closer to Christmas it's becoming harder and harder to stick to my rules. Although in theory I was always allowed to spend money on gifts, once I start splashing the cash on one thing it gets more difficult to put my wallet away when I see something I want. It's also been hard to separate actual essential spending (do I need Christmas craft materials? What about if they're being used to make presents?) from discretionary spending. So I'm going to suspend the ban for the month of December. I'd intended to finish at the end of the year, but will instead start again in January and continue for at least another month into 2015.

Overall, and even accounting for washing machine breakdowns & gift buying, I still managed to put £400 into my savings, which is an amazing result. I also got a surprise £195 cheque (relating to an old loan I used to have with Tesco Bank) and have put that straight into my savings account too, rather than splashing the cash like I usually would. As much as I do enjoy shopping, it's nice to see my savings growing so after break in December, I'm keen to get back to the ban and see if I can add to my current total.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

How to have a conscious Christmas


When I talk about a 'conscious Christmas', I mean one which is conscious of social justice and the environment, conscious of the things that matter in our lives - family, friends, simple living - rather than getting into debt. I love Christmas with all of my heart, but I'll be the first to admit that every year the 'noise' surrounding it becomes more and more focused on capitalist consumption, with all the exploitative practice that implies. So I thought I'd put together a few ideas to help make your Christmas more conscious.

Have an Amazon-free festive season
Amazon don't pay a living wage. They evade tax to the tune of billions of pounds. They don't respect the rights of their workers, don't engage with unions, and use zero hours contracts. And yet, because they're convenient to use, we continue buying from them even though we know it's wrong. This Christmas, think before you click and look elsewhere. eBay usually has similar prices on many goods you might usually buy from Amazon. For online book shoppping, Hive supports independent booksellers and you can arrange to collect your orders from a local store. Record Store are comparable, price wise, to Amazon and are excellent for niche, indie releases.. This Christmas, there's no excuse to keep giving money to a company that contributes nothing to the British economy.

Handcraft to your heart's content
Every Christmas I try and make a few gifts by hand, and they almost always turn out to be the ones that are most appreciated. This year I've been making personalised tote bags and teacup candles. Home-baked biscuits, chutneys or jams are always well-received, and Lily also wrote a good round-up of handmade gifts last week. Or, instead of more 'stuff', think about giving something more precious: time. Make a voucher for an afternoon tea party round yours for your friends; pick up tickets for a play or gig for your hard-to-buy-for brother; treat your mum to a slap-up dinner and cocktails.

It's all in the detail
Andrea's lovely post about her festive to-do list reminded me that it's the small things that matter at this time of year: an open fire, listening to some Christmas music (my favourites are Ella Fitzgerald, Sufjan Stevens, and She & Him), or baking up a storm. The small details, often cheap or free, are what really make the festive season special. How about going out for a winter walk foraging for evergreens to make a beautiful Christmas wreath? Watch out for a how-to on the blog later this week.

Give a gift that matters
2014 is the third year that John Lewis have partnered with Refuge to run their gift list, providing Christmas presents for women and children in shelters around the UK. Other local charities run similar projects, enabling you to buy toys for children in care or children from families who otherwise couldn't afford anything. If there's one thing I will encourage you to spend you money on this Christmas, it's this. And thanks to @OddSocksAlex who reminded me about foodbank donations. As criminal as it is that one of the richest countries in the world has so many foodbanks, do think about giving something to help them provide for people over Christmas. Fareshare are currently collecting in Tesco stores around the country, so why not add a little extra to your weekly shop.

Shop local; shop independent
This year, make your Christmas shopping count by spending money at local and independent businesses rather than handing it over to exploitative multinationals. Here in Leicester we're lucky to have a whole quarter - The Lanes - housing small businesses, as well as fabulous food shopping at the famous market. But Leicester isn't unique; every town or city in the UK has independent shops crying out for your custom. From gorgeous handcrafted jewellery, to toys, homewares, and clothing, there's often no need to grace the big chain stores with your presence at all this Christmas. Or visit a maker's mart or craft fair: I'm looking forward to hitting up the Bust Craftacular in London on December 14th, but there are events around the country in the run-up to Christmas, giving you a chance to buy directly from makers.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

The Hungry Vegan is here!

The Boy and I have started a blog focusing on vegan food - recipes and reviews - and vegan politics, called The Hungry Vegan. I'll still be blogging regularly here, but we fancied having a joint project (and an excuse to eat insane amounts of delicious vegan food).

We went live yesterday with an updated review of The Lansdowne here in Leicester. Coming soon will be delicious vegan cake recipes and some recommendations for vegan food UK-wide.

I'm so excited about this new project and hope to 'see' some of you over on The Hungry Vegan from time to time. You can also follow us on Bloglovin and Twitter.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

November reads

Nine books this month: nine or ten seems to be the number I can comfortably read during school terms. It also takes my total for 2014 to 114 books so far, smashing my target of 100 books this year, with a month still to go. And there were some great reads this month too...

1. I thoroughly enjoyed Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boy Boys*, the autobiography of 70s punk and guitarist in The Slits, Viv Albertine. She pulls absolutely no punches, launching into a treatise on masturbation on the first page and from there on discussing everything from yes, clothes music and boys, to abortion and her failed marriage. Each chapter take the form of a short vignette, which makes it ideal to dip in and out of. There is a tendency to name-drop, but when your mates included Sid Vicious and your teenage boyfriend was Mick Jones, there's not really a way to avoid it.

2. With reproductive rights constantly under threat, Every Third Woman in America* is a timely reminder of the enormous benefits of legal and accessible abortion: benefits to women, yes, but also to children, families, employers... all of society, essentially. The author is a doctor and abortion provider, and he writes persuasively that America has "lost its collective memory of the 'bad old days' of illegal abortion," leading to increasingly stringent restrictions on women's reproductive rights. Author Grimes makes no pretence at being unpartisan, and why should he when opponents of legal abortion make no such effort? Instead, he forcefully lays out the scientific, social and cultural arguments for keeping abortion access open and easy for women. Scattered amongst the statistics and science (which was nevertheless easy enough for a layperson to read) are the words of the women and families themselves. The details of the illegal procedures are stomach-churning, leaving the reader in little doubt that those "bad old days" truly were terrible.

3. I read Sarah's thoughts on This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage and immediately put it onto my library request list. A collection of essays from novelist Ann Patchett's long history of writing for periodicals such as Vogue and Granta, ranging across subjects as diverse as her writing process, her failed first marriage, her attempts to join the LAPD training programme, and her friendship with the nun who taught her to read at primary school, this was never less than well written and engaging.

4. The Miniaturist was beautifully written and I was quickly captivated by the story of teenage bride Nella, arriving in Amsterdam to take up her position as wife of leading Dutch East India Company trader Johannes Brandt. There is so much that's great about this novel: the sense of secrets bubbling under the surface, the tension in the household as Nella attempts to assert her authority as head of the house, and especially the vivid descriptions of 17th Century Amsterdam and the way in which Burton precisely pins down the Dutch national character. However, I was left with a sense that the book - so close to perfection - hadn't quite attained it. Some narrative elements felt forced and the reader was sometimes told rather than shown. I am holding it to a very high standard here: The Miniaturist is better than the majority of what I've read in 2014. I just believe it could have been even better.

5. A Song For Issy Bradley was also one of my favourite books of 2014. Written by an ex-member of the Mormon Church, it tells the story of a family: mum Claire, a convert to the religion, dad Ian, a Mormon bishop, and their children, Zippy, Al, Jacob and Issy, who dies suddenly within the first few chapters. The rest of the book is taken up with looking at how the remaining members of the Bradley family come to terms - or fail to - with her death. Each character comes alive on the page, each has a distinct voice in their point-of-view chapters, from teenage Al, constantly needling Ian about his Mormon teachings, to seven year old Jacob, who believes in miracles and is just waiting for one to happen. The mundane details of grief are vividly and movingly described: the hollow in Issy's beanbag taunting them when they return from the hospital; the stench of Claire's skin as she retreats to bed with her sorrow. Fascinating, too, are the insights into the Mormon religion, and the ways in which their faith both helps and hinders them as they struggle to recover from Issy's death.

6. I usually love Jennifer Weiner's novels, and I think what stopped me enjoying All Fall Down as much is that it very much focuses on an unhappy marriage and the struggles of motherhood, which I just can't begin to imagine myself. As a result, I found myself getting a bit frustrated, rather than empathising, with heroine Allison, who takes to painkillers to help her through the stress of a demanding job, a cold husband and a highly-strung child. As always with Weiner's novels, each character feels fully rounded and believable, and at time of writing I haven't quite finished the book, but it's one I'd recommend to mothers rather than those, like me, who are childfree.

7. I've enjoyed each one of Susan Hill's crime novels featuring DC Simon Serrailler and this was no exception. In many crime thriller series, the reader can relax, rest assured that their favourite long-term characters will be safe no matter what carnage goes on around them. I quite like the fact that Hill provides no such reassurances, lending a tension to the reading of each book: who might be harmed next? What I also enjoy is the fact she gives equal billing she gives to Serrailler's family: his sister Cat, a GP, and their cold, unpleasant father Richard (who becomes even more repellent this time around), lending the books an extra human dimension that many thrillers lack. The Soul Of Discretion is not for the faint hearted, containing a disturbing rape scene and a stomach-churning plot based around a child abuse ring, which Simon must go undercover to try and infiltrate. But it's brilliantly written, as always, and well worth a read.

8. The End Of Everything was the third book by Megan Abbott that I've read in as many  months, and I think in retrospect I would have left a longer gap between them. She evokes girlhood brilliantly and all three novels are tensely plotted, however they are all similar in terms of their themes, and this made The End Of Everything a tad predictable and repetitive for me.

9. I had read rave reviews of David Almond's new YA novel, A Song For Ella Grey, so when a free copy arrived in our department at school I leapt at the chance to take it home. It is undeniably accomplished, with a poetic, lyrical quality to much of the prose. However, I sometimes suspect that Almond is an author who adults 'get' more than his target audience. With frequent classical allusions and Blakean references in his previous novels, A Song For Ella Grey continues the theme, being based on the Orpheus myth. As an English teacher, I'm not convinced that kids appreciate these elements, and as an adult familiar with the story, it makes the plot entirely predictable. That said, he perfectly conjures the madness and beauty of being 17 years old and in a gang of friends.

* These books were kindly provided for review by the publishers via Net Galley, but all opinions are entirely my own.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Giving thanks

As family and friends in the US prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow, every year at the end of November I like to spend some time considering that for which I too am thankful.

This week, I've mostly been thankful that Oftsed came into school on Tuesday and Wednesday, meaning that for the third time running I've only been present for half of the inspection (2014 - day off; 2011 - school trip; 2008 - sports day).

I'm thankful to have the most kind, considerate, silly, cute, intelligent, feminist, funny, foolish guy crazy in love with me (and of course, I'm crazy in love with him too).

I'm always thankful to my pupils, who make me laugh and work so hard for me. If you could have seen my Year 9 class this morning when we got observed... they were so desperately trying to be perfect and show the inspectors how good I was, bless them.

I'm thankful for my blog. This year it has become everything I set out to achieve: a space to discuss everything from the frivolities of fashion, to my own fears and dreams, to books I love and feminist thought. I'm also endlessly thankful that through blogging I have met so many amazing people: 2014 was my year of blogger meet-ups and I'm proud to now count them as friends.

I'm thankful that this year has been one of joys for our family - an engagement for my brother, a new half-brother for my niece, visits from Canadian family - after the losses of 2013.

I'm thankful to have a lovely home with an affordable mortgage. As I sit writing this, curled up on my huge sofa with a fire roaring in the log-burning stove, I can hardly believe my luck.

I'm thankful that I'm taking measures to become debt-free, the first step in achieving my dream of going back to university to study for an MA.

I'm thankful that after a frankly terrible start to 2014, my health has improved steadily, with both my chronic pain and my IBS easing over the past few months. I'm sure it's made me a more pleasant person to be around, now I'm not constantly taking painkillers and complaining.

I'm thankful, most of all, to finally be in a place where I feel comfortable and confident with myself.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Good stuff: Links & likes

Roxane Gay and Lindy West on the Bill Cosby rape allegations are righteous and brilliant, as always.

Sarah's piece on loss and family is amazing and moving and you need to read it now. Out of all my friends who aren't childfree by choice, I know of only one who hasn't experienced either infertility or miscarriage. It's an issue that will affect the majority of couples at some point, yet it's hardly ever discussed. Kudos to Sarah for putting it out there.

I sort of rolled my eyes a little at all of the talk of 'community' and 'inspiration' in this post (I'm sorry - I'm a misanthropic loner and and Englishwoman, I can't help it), but these ideas for creating and giving thoughtful gifts with friends are excellent.

Andrea once again hitting it out of the park with this superb rant about benefits 'scroungers'. There is something profoundly wrong with a society that thinks its weakest and poorest members need punishing while handing billions upon billions to the rich.

One of my bugbears is when dads in charge of their kids are said to be "babysitting". Nope nope fucking nope: if they're his kids, he's not babysitting, he's performing the most basic of his duties as a parent. And on a similar note, this is a great post on why the washing up is a feminist issue"If you do exactly half of the housework and you never moan about it or expect unnecessary thanks, then you are good. But not ‘good’ in the sense that ‘you get to sit on a moral high horse and shout at women who are frustrated by the traditionally unequal split of household chores’, just ‘good’ in the sense that ‘you meet the minimum standards of human decency.' " Warning - the post is on Girl On The Net, which contains NSFW content.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The magazines I've been reading lately

It's not always easy to find decent print media if you're after more than the diet tips, high end fashion, and articles about botox that seem to proliferate in mainstream women's mags. I do quite like Oh Comely and Frankie but they can be a tad hipster at times, and I've always found their focus on young, skinny white women in their fashion spreads disappointing.

There are, however, alternatives out there if you look hard enough...

When B, E & I visited Laura in Nottingham last month, we popped into Ideas On Paper, which specialises in esoteric mags and journals from around the world. I picked up a copy of Things & Ink, which I hadn't heard of before. A quarterly magazine aimed specifically at women and covering tattoo culture, I loved the interiors shoot (I'm always up for a nosy at other people's houses) and the stunning images of - what else? - tattoos. An article on the current trend for Disney tattoos was thought-provoking and explicitly addressed it from a feminist perspective. At £6.95, Things & Ink isn't cheap, and obviously has a fairly niche audience, but I'll certainly pick up another issue should I see it in future.

I quite understand why someone who doesn't identify as lesbian, bi or queer might not think to pick up a copy of Diva, but I honestly think they're missing out. Diva provides the only truly radical, left wing, feminist voice in mainstream women's publishing. Recent issues have included articles on the Health At Every Size movement, the history of squatting, why more women are freezing their eggs, and a brilliant piece on privilege. If you're interested in critical feminist perspectives or queer politics, it's a must-read.

Bitch began as a Riot Grrrl fanzine back in 1996 and has grown over the years to encompass an entire non-profit organisation running out of Portland, Oregon. The content skews slightly towards more academic writing - it's accessible, yes, but it'll make you think. I especially loved a recent piece on how food trends are a form of gentrification, often taking foodstuffs that poorer minorities have as a staple, making them trendy and thus pushing prices beyond the means of the original buyers. Their book, music and film reviews are always a great starting point when I'm seeking out new media and their frequent subscriber offers make it affordable to have the quarterly issues sent directly to you.

Bust is of a similar generation to Bitch (it started in New York in 1993) and explicitly apes the look and content of a mainstream women's magazine, but from a feminist perspective. When a friend visited us recently, he flicked through it for a while before exclaiming, "Hey! This is a feminist mag not a trashy one!", which is both the strength and weakness of Bust. If, like me, you love traditional print media and want a decent alternative to Glamour or Cosmo, then Bust is great. However, it can sometimes feel just a tad too glossy - being a subscriber to Bitch at the same time offers me the balance of more in-depth analysis along with the pretty photoshoots, travel articles and celeb interviews. Bust is also particularly strong on craft, cooking and fashion (all with an alternative perspective, such as their regular food contributor being vegan chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz).

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

My Christmas wish list

What I'd really like for Christmas is the destruction of patriarchy, a Green/SNP coalition at next year's General Election, and an end to our reliance on fossil fuels. But other than that, I'm a simple soul: cool prints, feminist anything, a pretty dress, or a slogan tote bag will always be on my list.

1. I so, so want this ace 'Smash patriarchy' t-shirt from Cafe Press. I'm already planning my SS15 wardrobe, which if I have my way will mostly be this tee teamed with a rotation of midi skirts.

2. I already have the Sugar & Vice 'Feminist' necklace but would love this cute brooch to match. It's a mere £7 from Kate's Little Store on Etsy.

3. I'm crazy in love with this lace dress from H&M. How perfect would it be for Christmas Day dinner?

4. The totes from Alphabet Bags are all amazing, but I'm particularly taken with this Hello Sunshine design. Or perhaps I should continue the feminism theme with the Riots Not Diets tote bag from Miss Harry on Etsy, which would go perfectly with my necklace.

5. One of The Boy's nicknames for me is 'Plan It Janet', so this Ok Here's the Plan notebook would be ideal for my lists. And it's 25% off at Debenhams at the moment (thanks to Hook, Line & Sink Her for alerting me to this news - I do love a bargain).

6. Having for years relied on sagging Primark pyjamas, last winter I treated myself to a pair of Fat Face pj trousers and it was a revelation, I tell thee. The quality and comfort is well worth the price tag (particularly as I spend at least 80% of my free time in pyjamas during the winter months). These reindeer ones would be a lovely to wear on Christmas morning.

7. I've had Steal Like An Artist (a guide to creativity) on my book list for ages, and would love to find it in my stocking.

8. Art for my walls is always a good bet - I love black & white photography or anything featuring text and typography. This print from Red Bubble would be perfect in our bedroom.

What's on your Christmas wish list this year?

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Weekend scenes

At this time of year, a common image heading up 'what I did at the weekend' blog posts is a misty field, or a beautiful woodland walk. But me? I lead with a Lego castle. Because instead of spending our weekend taking blog-friendly snaps of autumn leaves or pumpkin spice lattes (yuk), The Boy and I did something far more fun. We spent our time visiting my mums*, playing with my niece and nephew, and watching my step-mum's choir. She's a member of Gay Abandon, Leeds' LGBTQ choir, and their annual performances are well worth the trip up the M1.

* That's mums plural, not a missing apostrophe

The wonderful Gay Abandon: image source here

Our weekends recently have been pretty hectic. Last week, The Boy's parents came to spend the weekend with us and we took them to Stratford-upon-Avon for a visit to the Shakespeare birthplace, a wander around the beautiful town (and a random visit to Poundland).

I was equally intrigued and creeped out by this straw gardener at the Shakespeare birthplace house.

And then, in a complete contrast to the quaint beauty of Stratford, we spent the first weekend in November in Manchester, visiting vintage shops and design emporium Fred Aldous, taking photographs of street art, and eating great vegan junk food at V Revolution.

We were celebrating our second anniversary, but don't think that means we were out partying till dawn. In reality, a sudden IBS attack left me feeling rubbish so, after an amazing dinner at Ning in the Northern Quarter, we headed back to our hotel  and spent the rest of the evening in our giant bed, watching Midsomer Murders and swigging Cava from mini bottles. Rock n roll.

After three weekends of travel in a row, we're both feeling pretty wiped out. But how special to be able to spend so much time with family and the dude I love. I'll take the tiredness any day.

Friday, 14 November 2014

What I wore: Riots not diets necklace

A while ago I got a yearning for a necklace featuring the classic Riot Grrrl/Fat positive slogan 'Riots Not Diets'. I knew the awesome Sugar & Vice Designs would be able to help me and, sure enough, after a few emails my beautiful custom necklace was in the post.  It's the most glorious saying and one I like to remind myself of whenever I have a body confidence wobble. No diets for me, I'll concentrate my energies on revolution, thank you very much.

A striped Breton top and skinny jeans are my weekend staples at this time of year, teamed with either ballet pumps or brogues. I like the fact that the necklace - together with my lipstick - adds a pop of colour to an otherwise monochrome outfit.

* Striped top: H&M * Jeans: New Look * Tote Bag: Alphabet Bags *
* Shoes: Clarks * Necklace: Sugar & Vice * Lipstick: MAC Ruby Woo *

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Made: Personalised tote bag

It's safe to say that I adore anything personalised, and I recently had the notion to make some personalised tote bags as gifts for Christmas this year. I found a great deal on plain cotton bags on eBay, so they worked out at less than 80p apiece, and raided my fabric stash for small, colourful scraps, to make gifts that are not only pretty and personal, but thrifty too.

I can't say that this make was simple ('What I wish I'd realised' below), but even allowing for my panics and mess-ups (I had to unpick the first section a couple of times) it only took an hour from step 1. to completion.

You will need...
- A plain tote bag
- A letter template (I used Commerce SF in font size 700)
- A scrap of patterned fabric
- Iron-on interfacing
- Contrasting cotton thread

1. Using a hot iron, first iron your fabric flat and then affix the interfacing (shiny side facing up) to your fabric.

2. Pin the template to your reinforced fabric and cut round neatly using fabric scissors. 

3. Carefully pin the fabric letter to the front of your bag (not through the whole bag, as I initially did!). I used a measuring tape to ensure it was exactly centred.

4. Set your sewing machine to the correct setting - you want very tight stitches for the applique to look neat and tidy.

5. Placing the edge of your fabric in the middle of your presser foot, begin sewing slowly. You may, like me, panic that your fabric isn't moving. Don't worry! The tightness of the stitches means it moves through the machine very slowly.

6. Take extra care around corners. The straight lines are simple but I struggled with guiding the fabric neatly around curves and in the corners where two lines met. Remember: less speed more haste.

7. Once the sewing is finished, give the bag a final press with the iron to neaten it up. It will have been squashed and folded while sewing.

What I wish I'd realised...

- That maneuvering the bag around the needle - and ensuring I didn't sew it shut - was going to be a tough task. But persevere - it is possible. This could be solved by making your own bag in the first place, which is a longer - but not difficult - process. That way, you could sew the letter onto flat fabric before assembling the bag.
- That sewing curves was going to be such a bitch: I apologise now to whoever receives this one for Christmas as the bottom curve of the J is a hot mess. I think in future I'll stick to letters with entirely straight edges!