Thursday, 31 July 2014

July reads

1. I read a glowing review of We Were Liars in The Guardian a couple of weeks and bought a copy straight away when it appeared as a cheap Kindle download.  Teenager Cadence Sinclair is a member of a moneyed family who summer each year on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts.  Cadence and her cousins are entirely believable and likeable, which makes the darkness that lurks within their family all the harder to bear.  It's a wonderful book, revealing its secrets slowly until a powerful and shocking ending.

2. After hating, and abandoning, the updated Northanger Abbey, I approached the first in Harper Collins' Austen Project with trepidation.  No need, because Sense & Sensibility as re-told by Joanna Trollope was brilliant.  Trollope was an inspired choice for what is essentially an Aga saga of the 19th century.  I loved her long-suffering Elinor and stroppy teen Margaret especially, and the supporting cast were also well done, with a Johnny Boden-esque Sir John Middleton raising laughs.

3. Mrs Hemingway was a beautifully written and evocative book about the four women who married Ernest Hemingway.  I particularly liked the way in which Hemingway himself became very much pushed into the background of the narrative, the focus very much resting on the wives themselves.  Wood's description of place was astounding: I felt as if I could see and smell every detail of a lush Florida Keys garden, the Antibes in the roaring twenties, and 1940s Paris at the end of the Occupation.

4. I've loved everything else Rainbow Rowell has written, so Landline had a lot to live up to and unfortunately didn't quite deliver.  Georgie is a 30-something TV writer in LA and her marriage is in trouble.  When husband Neal takes her daughters to Omaha for Christmas, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with him in the past.  Sound ridiculous, right?  It sort of is, and I found it fairly repetitive too: Georgie wakes up, goes to work where she fails to perform because she's basically having a breakdown, comes home and uses the landline to phone past-Neal and rehash details of their relationship problems, repeat ad infinitum.  Being Rowell, it's all very well written and full of nice detail (I particularly liked the romantic sub-plot involving her teenage sister) but I found the central storyline hard to empathise with.

5. Despite having an English degree and being a card-carrying feminist, somehow I'd never read Angela Carter's collection of updated fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber.  I have to admit, I did find some of the language overly flowery (I suppose that's to be expected when updating traditional stories that are themselves rather flowery) but I enjoyed a number of the stories.  The tale from which the book takes it's title is a sinister modern reworking of the Bluebeard story, and I also enjoyed The Company Of Wolves, a subversive version of Little Red Riding Hood.

6. I honestly didn't expect to enjoy Love, Nina much but, after reading glowing reviews, when I spied a copy in the library I decided to give it a try.  I'm so glad I did.  A collection of letters from the teenage Nina to her sister, written during the early 80s when Nina was working as a nanny for a North London family, the book is a joy to read.  Nina's naivety about London life and the literary world in which she finds herself (Alan Bennett pops round for dinner most nights, and Claire Tomalin is a close neighbour) is extremely funny, with echoes of Adrian Mole.

7. I worked in a Waterstones bookshop for two years in my early twenties, and can absolutely guarantee that not one strange, wacky or offensive thing contained within Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops was made up; as a bookseller, you get used to hearing utterly bizarre questions from customers every day.  This little collection was a fun read to fill a quiet hour.

8. When 60-something journalist and writer Nik Cohn fell in love first with New Orleans and then with hip-hop music, he embarked upon a project to become a rap mogul there. Triksta: Life & Death In New Orleans Rap is his account of the various successes and  - more frequent - failures during this journey.  I've always been a little bit obsessed with New Orleans and will happily devour anything about it, so I enjoyed the way in which Cohn evokes the strange atmosphere of the city.

9. Last month I read the first two of Ariel Schrag's high school diary/comics, and with Potential I completed the trilogy.  In Potential, Ariel attempts to lose her virginity before turning 17, dates a series of girls, and witnesses the disintegration of her parents' marriage.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

A day in Cambridge

The first two weeks of my summer holiday have been manic (entirely my fault: I decided that instead of winding down from the busy school year, I'd instead redecorate the kitchen and then make a three tier wedding cake for one of my best friends), so on Thursday I welcomed the chance to take a break with a short trip to Cambridge.

The Boy and I packed our bags and headed down the A14 to meet up with a couple of friends of mine for lunch, before spending a peaceful afternoon sitting by the River Cam with a pint or two. Our plans for the evening got completely banjaxed by the sudden onset of a migraine (mine), but the following morning we were up bright and early to properly stroll around the town centre in the glorious sunshine.

I've visited Cambridge pretty regularly over the past few years but almost always with a group of pupils in tow, so it was lovely to have a chance to explore the city without a gang of Year 9s dogging my every step!  We rummaged for secondhand books, admired the beautiful flowers in the market, peered into the ancient colleges through doorways and railings, and then headed home for an afternoon of baking.

Monday, 21 July 2014

What I Wore: Gingham checks

I debuted this skirt on Twitter & Instagram last week, asking the social media hive mind whether or not I should send it back it.  After a resounding cry of, "Keep it!", I'm so glad I did.   The fabric is very synthetic-feeling but I love the swishy circle skirt and the gingham check, and it's magically cut to make both my stomach and my bum look flat.  This was an ASOS find, the sort of thing I bought on the off-chance while I was filling my basket with other stuff I was more sure about, and which turned out to be the only thing I kept from the whole order.

I am really into midi skirts this summer (almost as much as I'm into putting my hands to my mouth in photos: seriously, in every outfit post, my hands are up there faffing around  What is that about?).  It's all thanks to Polkadot Pink who convinced me that yes, short girls can wear midis.

I wore this to go down to London on Saturday for my best mate's birthday drinks.  It turned out to be the perfect outfit for a hot and humid afternoon in the pub; it didn't exactly keep me cool, but I felt comfortable at least.

There are some cracking outake photos from this outfit too.  I might have to put together a "When outfit photos go wrong" post, because they really are hilariously bad.  I'm also a pretty terrible fashion blogger, cos I've just realised I've worn this belt in pretty much every outfit post so far. Oh, and you can see the sunscreen stains on my t-shirt sleeve.  And a bit of fluff.  Wow, I am so good at this fashion lark.

* Skirt: ASOS * T-shirt: H&M * Sandals: Marks & Spencers * Belt: Peacocks * 

Friday, 18 July 2014

List #29: My favourite books

I've said it before, but you'd just as well ask a parent who their favourite child is as ask me which are my favourite books.  At the moment I have just a shade under 1,000 books in my house and each one is precious, kept because I loved it.  Anything I don't feel passionately about gets passed to a charity shop so, if it's in my house, it's one of my favourites.  I didn't think anyone would want to read a 1,000-strong booklist, though, so I managed to narrow it down a bit (although I'm already thinking of others I forgot, I Capture The Castle being the most egregious lack).


1. Persuasion Jane Austen.  A hard choice this, but Austen's last novel won out over Pride & Prejudice because of its wonderfully world-weary heroine and the most romantic ending ever.
2. Longbourn Jo Baker, which I've raved about here rather a lot lately.
3. Regeneration Pat Barker, set during WW1 and featuring a cast of characters both real (poets Wilfred Owen and Seigfried Sassoon appear) and imagined.
4. Drawing Blood Poppy Z Brite.  This has been a favourite for years and years and I never get tired of it.  A sort of horror/love story/thriller mash-up that's far more than the sum of its parts.
5. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower Stephen Chbosky.  I just love this.
6. Generation X Douglas Coupland.  Everything he's written since about 1997 has been pretty terrible IMHO, but the first, and best, of Coupland's novels will always have a place on my favourites list.
7. Interpreter Of Maladies Jhumpa Lahiri, which is a collection of short stories loosely set within the Indian community living in the Eastern USA.
8. Boy Meets Boy David Levithan.  The author describes this as "wish fulfillment, a gay fairy tale," and it very much is that.  High school life with the homophobia (largely) taken out, and a very lovely story.
9. Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel is just the most brilliant novel of recent years and got me into reading more about Tudor history.
10. A Clash Of Kings George RR Martin is the second and, I think, my favourite of the Game of Thrones series of books.

11. Michael Tolliver Lives Armistead Maupin.  I couldn't quite get away with putting the entire Tales Of The City series onto my list, so I narrowed it down to my current favourite of the series.
12. The Song Of Achilles Madeline Miller is the book that I have felt most passionate about recently (well, apart from Wolf Hall.  And Longbourn).  I sobbed and sobbed when it was over, and then turned to page one and began reading again.
13. Winnie-The-Pooh & The House At Pooh Corner A.A.Milne.  Slightly cheating with two books by the same author, but hey ho.  Lovely, funny and well worth a re-read in adulthood.
14. Anne Of Green Gables L.M Montgomery was my absolute favourite heroine as a child.
15. Fangirl Rainbow Rowell (if you take all the cheesy Simon Snow extracts out).
16. Prep Curtis Sittenfeld.  The boarding school adventures of Lee are like a less murderous version of those of Richard in...
17. The Secret History Donna Tartt, which is a peerless example of the campus novel, given sinister new life in the tale of a group of privileged students who take their studies of Ancient Greek rather too far.
18. The Night Watch Sarah Waters is my favourite of hers (although Fingersmith is also amazing).  Set during WW2, the narrative is cleverly structured, moving backwards through the war so that we initially see the main characters after the war and then learn why their lives became what they are.


1. Everybody Loves Our Town Mark Yarm.  A gripping and entertaining oral history of grunge and the Seattle music scene.
2. Girls To The Front Sara Marcus.  A history of the Riot Grrrl movement.
3. How To Be A Heroine Samantha Ellis, which I reviewed here.
4. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson is her beautifully written and moving memoir.  Very much recommended for her thoughts on class and the North-South divide.
5. Ex Libris Ann Fadiman is a collection of short pieces about books and reading, and had me howling with laughter - and nodding in recognition - at many times.
6. True Notebooks Mark Salzman.  Salzman was a struggling writer when he got a job teaching in a juvenile detention centre in LA.  Working with young men convicted of violent crimes, he gives them a voice to write about their own experiences.  A wonderful book.
7. Meat Market Laurie Penny.  I've just bought her new book, Unspeakable Things, and hope I enjoy it as much as this collection of essays from last year.  Penny writes with a passion and integrity which I find inspiring.
8. It's So You ed. Michelle Tea, which I reviewed here.
9. How To Be A Woman Caitlin Moran.  Leaving aside some problematic elements of this book (Moran has been accused of transphobia, amongst other things, and can at times be frather self-aggrandising), this is an exciting and accessible book that sought to bring feminism once more into the mainstream.
10. How To Be Free Tom Hodgkinson. This book - which is part comic writing, part political polemic, part philosophy, part manual for changing your life - was just what I needed to bring my thoughts into sharper focus a few years ago, at a point when I felt disenchanted and overworked.  It genuinely did change my way of thinking, and my life.
11. Three Letter Plague Johnny Steinberg. Steinberg is not a well-known writer here at all, but has published many books in his native South Africa, each dealing with an uncomfortable element of post-apartheid society: home invasion and murder, land reclamation, gang crime, and here in this book, HIV/AIDS.  The story of one man - Sizwe - living in the impoverished Eastern Cape, Steinberg as always writes captivatingly about the problems that lie at the heart of the 'new' South Africa.
12. My Traitor's Heart Rian Malan.  Malan is related to one of the architects of apartheid, D.F Malan, and in this book he attempts to come to terms with white guilt and Afrikaans guilt in the shadow of South Africa's struggle to establish itself as a new and democratic society.
13. All Point's North Simon Armitage is a wonderful mix of travelogue, poetry, comic writing and sheer love for the beauty and weirdness that is West Yorkshire.  As a Bradford girl, I loved every word.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Made: Letterpress & linocuts

When I picked up a flyer for a very decently-priced letterpress workshop run by Nick Birchall, the man behind Cleeve Press, I was immediately interested.  And when I told Laura of Make, Do & Mend about it, she jumped at the chance of a trip to Leicester to learn some new skills.

Letterpress looks deceptively simple.  Surely you just pick out some letters and start printing, right? Mmm, not so much.  Did you know that a two hundred years ago, the apprentice period for a printer was seven years?!  Even now it's a not-to-be-sniffed-at three years.  The workshop - which covered everything from the history of printing, to making linocut blocks to print from, to how to 'lock' your frames for printing - gave me a whole new respect for anyone who works with letterpress.  This is a slow and painstaking process, and not one I was awfully good at.  I tend to fall down on anything arty: I'm a words person (which is why letterpress appealed in the first place), so my attempt at linocutting, an open book to accompany the Smiths lyrics I wanted to print, wasn't terribly impressive.

By the time I'd cut my lino, assembled my letters, blocked out the frame to lock the letters in place, inked up and made ready to start printing, about four hours had passed in the blink of an eye.  It left me with a just a bit of time at the end to put together a text-only print of the Tolkein line, "Not all who wander are lost," which I've already framed to put on the living room wall.

All in all, the workshop was really rewarding and enjoyable, and I left buzzing with ideas to utilise should I ever be let loose on a printing press again.

My inked-up block in the press ready to print...

...and the final product (after four tries: getting the ink on and even is harder than it looks!)

Nick helping Laura to lock her block

Friday, 11 July 2014

School's out for summer

I didn't strike yesterday.  Despite wanting to be part of the #J10 day - I like how the unions have pretty successfully spun the strikes as past of a wider anti-austerity protest - today is our last day of the school year (Leicestershire schools always break up in the middle of July and go back at the end of August), and I just couldn't justify being part of a strike that would close the school and disrupt the end of year activities.  For example, last night was our Year 9 Leaver's Do, which wouldn't have gone ahead had we been on strike.  As important as it is to me to act with my union and stand up for the larger fight, it's more important that the kids I've taught and got to know for the past four years get a fair deal.

All of which is a convoluted way of saying, "Yay, school's out!".  I'm beyond exhausted this year, and disillusioned with my job for many reasons.  I hope that a long summer break will do me good and remind my of the good things about teaching.  But for now, this extract sums up pretty well how I feel.  It's one of the best summations of a teacher's lot that I've ever read; I found it in a Guardian short story many years ago and the author of it has been long forgotten, but the scrap of paper lives on my fridge...

"Every year, first of January, I'd tell her 'I'm going to start my Montaigne book this year'.  But school would kick off, some crisis or other would mug February, Easter sprung upon us, and before I knew it, the June exams would kick down the doors, and July marched off a new platoon of pupils, some to universities, some to fall through a "gap year", some to the Services, some to Tesco, one or two to prison.  Then September marched in the new recruits.  The pupils stayed eternally young, whilst I grew steadily old, and never once did I find room for Michel Eyquem de Montaigne on this annual Merry-go-Round.  Can it really be true that the more people's lives you acquire influence over, the less influence you have over your own?"

The end of a school year is a cause for celebration in many ways (and believe me, when I wake up on Monday morning after I lie-in I will definitely be celebrating!), but the last day always feels bittersweet.  It's a reminder - more so even than New Year's Eve or my birthday - that time is passing by so quickly, and with it my chances to do anything constructive.  Ok, so I don't want to write a book about Montaigne but there's tons of stuff that I want to do and explore, and just not enough time to do it in.  I love so many elements of my job but of the things I hate, the utter exhaustion and endless workload during term time has to be the worst.  The school year passes by in the blink of an eye, and every year the goals and aspirations I set for myself seem to crumble into dust in the face of marking, report writing, lesson planning and my urgent need for sleep.  Always a new batch of pupils to get to grips with; never quite enough hours in the day to do everything I want to.  These six weeks off are hard-earned and desperately needed, and I have all sorts of exciting adventures and quiet relaxations planned: I can't wait!

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

List #28: My goals for the future

Mmm, this prompt was one is a tad similar to list #13: The things I want to do before I die, although I've tried not to repeat myself too much.  Isn't it funny, when it comes time to make lists like this, how contradictory some of the items are?  Not sure how I'll manage both #9 - 'Be debt free' AND #1 - 'Work less'!  But I can try...

Monday, 7 July 2014

Living room tour

The back room of my house has now been through three different incarnations.  When I moved in almost six years ago, money was tight so it was very much a case of using what I already had: mainly cheap Ikea staples.  As you can see in these photographs, it wasn't exactly a look to set the heart on fire.  My house has good bones - plain white walls, stripped floorboards in almost every room, lovely high ceilings - but is a typical Victorian terrace in that it has relatively small, square rooms.  I couldn't ever quite see how to make the fairly dark and poky back room into a welcoming living room with character and style.

Last summer I decided to update the colours from dark purple and red to a more contemporary grey, blue & green scheme, and ever since then I've had an image in my mind of a more midcentury modern look for the room.  Wanting original pieces, however, means it's been a matter of waiting to come across the right secondhand finds.  I've struck lucky lately, and the combination of the vintage bits plus a new curtain pole, new mantlepiece and new bookshelves (all thanks to the DIY skills of The Boy) has completely changed the feel of the room.

The coffee table was my first bargain, picked up for £30 from a secondhand warehouse near my mum's last year, and earlier this spring I found the mirror at a junk shop in Leicester - a steal at only fifteen quid.  In May, my beady eyes spied the glorious 60s globe in the marketplace in Hay-On-Wye and then, joy of joys, we stumbled across the most perfect chest of drawers for only £20 at Leicester's newest secondhand furniture store, Plank, last week.

Combined with framed prints (how ace is my new typewriter print, which was a birthday gift from The Boy?!), vintage books, an Eames DSW chair and homemade cushion covers - the blue made from South African batik fabric and the white from two fat quarters of Orla Kiely fabric via eBay - the whole look is beginning to come together.  The result is a room which is so much lighter, brighter and less cluttered than previously.

* Furniture: all vintage thrifted apart from TV table: Ikea; sofa: Ikea via eBay; chair: eBay * 
* Picture frames: all Ikea * Chevron lampshade: BHS * Table & floor lamps and shades: Ikea * 
* String of ball lights: Cable & Cotton *

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

June reads

1. Telling the story of one summer in which protagonist Ben's girlfriend moves to New York from their home in the Bay Area, suggesting they "take a break," and he flits from one unsatisfactory encounter to another, Shortcomings was beautifully drawn but my gosh, Ben was an unlikeable character!  Which, based on the title of the graphic novel, was obviously kind of the point but didn't necessarily make for an enjoyable read.

2. Having never heard of Ariel Schrag before, I stumbled upon her collected high school comics, Awkward & Definition, in Hay-On-Wye and was drawn to her chaotic style.  Very obviously written and drawn by a teenager (which is no bad thing), the comics took me back to being 15, with all the friendship drama and music obsession that it involved.  I'll definitely be hunting for the follow-up volume, Potential.

3. Embroideries is a short graphic novel by the same author as the wonderful and highly-acclaimed Persepolis.  Billed as an 'Iranian Sex & The City', it surprisingly lived up to that claim.  Based around a series of intimate chats between women at the author's grandmother's house, it was witty and wonderfully drawn in a simple woodcut style.

4. Two Boys Kissing is the latest novel by acclaimed YA author David Levithan and consists of three interwoven stories following seven young gay men as two of them  - Craig and Harry - attempt to break the world record for the longest kiss.  Narrated by a Greek chorus of men who died of AIDS, a touch I at first found affected but quickly came to enjoy, it's a well constructed and very moving portrayal of what it means to be young, queer, weird, unhappy, in love, out of love, or all of the above.

5. I love crime novels, and I love Harry Potter, so I'm surprised it's taken me this long to read the first in J.K.Rowling's detective series, The Cuckoo's Calling (published under the name Robert Galbraith).  I did like it - the main character, Cormoran Strike, is convincingly well-rounded (even if his name is rather contrived) and it's well plotted - but in common with some of the later Potter novels it's vastly over-long and there are some weird attitudes to race in it that bothered me.

6. The Vacationers was recommended to me on Twitter after I asked for something fun and easy to read in the vein of Where'd You Go Bernadette.  The thing I most enjoyed about The Vacationers was the stunning way in which Straub evokes the Mallorcan countryside; it made me want to get on a plane to Spain right this second.  It's hard, though, to ever sympathise too deeply with the cast of characters - the Post's, whose marriage is in crisis, their adult children Sylvia and Bobby, his girlfriend Carmen, and Franny Post's oldest friend Charles and his husband - who flit from one fairly predictable crisis to another.  It really was fun and easy to read, I just could have done with a bit more depth.

7. I absolutely loved Paul Mason's Why It's Still Kicking Off Everywhere, an account of the uprisings, protests, revolutions and occupations that marked 2010-2011.  The book is at it's best when he's on the ground, talking to activists in Greece or Egypt or London as riots occur around him, but he also sets the unrest into a political and historical context.  As viewed from 2014, however, where austerity continues to bite but most seem content to just put up with it, it seems rather depressing that nothing more came of the Arab Spring, summer riots or autumn Occupations.

8. An Utterly Exasperated History Of Modern Britain was peppered with amusing and weird facts.  I didn't enjoy it quite as much as John O'Farrell's first history book - once he reached the 1980s and Thatcher it became pretty depressing, in fact - but it was still a very funny and enjoyable guide to modern British history.

9. When I heard that Harper Collins had contracted a number of my favourite authors to write updated versions of Jane Austen's novels, I was tentatively excited.  Sadly, on the basis of Northanger Abbey, my excitement was misplaced.  I love Val McDermid's crime novels but in trying to recreate the breathy satire of Austen's earliest novel, she falls flat.  Her Cat Morland is a one-dimensional creation, unconvincingly obsessed with vampires and Facebook and talking like a stereotype of a teenager, rather than a real one.  I couldn't even finish the book, and approach the next one on my list - Sense & Sensibility re-told by Joanna Trollope - with trepidation.

10. The List is completely and utterly not my usual kind of book but, after seeing Siobhan's recommendation and then finding it was something like 98p on Kindle, I decided to take a chance.  Following 32 year-old single woman Phoebe over the course of a year, as she goes through a list of challenges to improve her sex life, its resolutely trashy but nevertheless a quick, funny and sexy read.  I hated the ending though!

11. Finally, a re-read.  I first reviewed Mutton last summer, you can read what I thought here.