Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Rockin Around The Christmas Tree

From the first of December I like to dig out my Christmas CDs and play them almost continuously up until ( and definitely including! ) Christmas Day. I love the traditional carols but over the years I've collected a real eclectic mix of music.
The CD that I play again and again, is James Taylor At Christmas. I love his voice and this is a great collection of jolly and some melancholy tunes, he does a great cover of Joni Mitchell's "River" and a fun rendition of "Baby It's Cold Outside" with Natalie Cole. This is such a mellow album, it makes really effective background music for Christmas dinner and other festive occasions.
Last year I bought Carol King's "A Christmas Carole" which is a very pleasant collection of old and new, there are some non-traditional tunes on the album that make a nice change to the usual Christmas songs. Similarly Enya's "And Winter Came.." mixes old and new, I love her version of "Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel", it is my favourite Christmas carol of all.
I do love Zooey Deschanel and her album with M Ward "A Very She & Him Christmas" is a delightful indie take on Christmas, really joyful. Tracey Thorn's recent release "Tinsel And Lights" is slightly more melancholy ( it includes an obligatory cover of "River"!) but I really like her voice from Everything But The Girl days and this cd is a great addition to my Christmas collection.
Finally, I caved in this year after complaints from everyone at my birthday tea party about my James Taylor overkill, and I bought the Michael Buble Christmas cd. I like his voice but find him incredibly cheesy, however, as Christmas is the season of cheese, this album does the job!
My absolute favourite Christmas songs are Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas" and "Christmas Wrapping" by The Waitresses. Which songs make your Christmas special?

Monday, 17 December 2012

Birthday treats

It was my birthday last week and I decided to throw an afternoon tea party. Afternoon tea is my favourite thing and for the past two birthdays we have been to Harvey Nichols and Cloud 23 in Manchester's iconic Beetham Tower. I have had marvellous times but in these belt-tightening days, I thought I would invite more people but do an "at home". I baked scones, my daughter baked her delicious lemon drizzle and my friend Pat baked a lovely chocolate cake. There was a superb cupcake bouquet from Stuart Thornley Bakers and finger sandwiches and wraps from M&S ( I didn't want to be bogged down too much in the kitchen!). The Prosecco and tea were poured all afternoon and the jolliest time was had by me, my fantastic friends and my dear family. It was a "ladies only" event so my husband took my nephew to see "Skyfall". I did save them some crumbs!
I had some great gifts too, I love my "Go Away, I'm Reading" mug ( someone knows me TOO well!) and my daughter bought me a new collection of Sylvia Plath's poems edited by Carol Ann Duffy. I will smell divine, be well-read, eat sweetly and be supping champers for a long time! Oh, I DO love birthdays!

Thursday, 6 December 2012

My November Reads

November is such a busy month, with both my husband's and daughter's birthday arriving, and Christmas shopping starting in ernest. However, I can always squeeze in some reading!
My book club read this month was "The Cat's Table" by Michael Ondaatje. A young boy from Sri Lanka ( Ceylon as it was then) is sent to England on a liner in the early 1950s and finds himself amongst the characters of the cat's table, that is the one furthest away from the Captain's table. The book describes his experiences on board and how they affect his adult life. This was a bit of an odd read, beautifully written as one would expect from Ondaatje, and the characters were very well drawn. However, not an awful lot happens, and the constant flip-flopping from the past to the narrator's present, made it rather disjointed. It was a bit of a "meh" read really.
Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains Of The Day" was excellent in comparison, again, not a lot actually happens but oh, how beautiful and tragic it is. Stevens, a butler at a stately manor in the 1950s, drives through the English countryside to visit Miss Kenton with whom he used to work. It is such a haunting novel, I found it very moving and the final pages had me in tears. Ishiguro is a wonderful writer, his prose is so vivid, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Monica Ali used to attend my daughter's school so I always keep an eye out for her books, I really enjoyed "Brick Lane". "Untold Story" is a strange tale, Princess Diana isn't dead, she faked it in a boating accident and is now living incognito in Kensington, America. She has a contented life, working at a dog sanctuary, until a former paparazzo coincidentally arrives in town and recognises her, this received poor reviews and I can see why. I kept on reading as I wanted to see what would happen, but it really isn't very good. The characters were all cliche-ridden, the plot full of holes and even for a work of fiction, it was exceedingly far-fetched. A strange book from such a talented writer.
Another writer I enjoy is Ian McEwan, I think "Atonement" is one of my all-time favourite books. "The Child In Time" is one of his earlier works. It is a deeply sad tale of a couple whose three year old daughter goes missing from a supermarket and the effect this has on the lives of the mother, but the father, children's writer Stephen Lewis, in particular. It takes place in a world that isn't quite contemporary Britain, and this sense that everything isn't quite right is enhanced as Stephen's deep grief can even play tricks on time. This isn't an easy read, in any sense, but it is interesting to see McEwan's development as a writer.
John O'Farrell is a very funny writer and "The Man Who Forgot His Wife" has some very amusing lines in it. Vaughan finds himself on a train with no idea who he is, he has had a "fugue" and the story follows him as he tries to find out who he is. When he comes across his wife, he instantly adores her, but discovers they were about to divorce. I enjoyed this book, it's light hearted but also deals with deep themes of love and loss and what makes us "us".
Benjamin Wood's debut novel is "The Bellwether Revivals", set in Cambridge it is an odd tale of Eden Bellwether who thinks he can cure illness through the power of music. I don't really like the plot device of putting the denouement right at the start, a lot of the tension is lost in such a way as we know what will happen. However, this was well written and I was drawn into the privileged world of the Bellwethers and the care worker, Oscar, who falls in love with Eden's sister. It has been compared to Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" and I can see the parallels. Worth a read when it appears in paperback, I got a cheap hardback from The Book People!

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

At Seventeen

My daughter turned 17 a few days ago, I'm still clearing up after family and friends descended to celebrate with us. I love the house being full of chatter and laughter, there is nothing nicer than sharing good times with those you love. Bel said in a small voice the day before, "there WILL be balloons, won't there mum?" Yes, there will always be balloons for you, my beautiful girl!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Christmas is coming..

I am a little behind this year as I usually bake my Christmas cakes in the last week of October. I bake for myself, my mum and mother-in-law and nothing heralds the coming of Christmas quite like the aroma of cakes infusing the house. I'm baking today but started last night by soaking the dried fruit in brandy.
Yesterday I went into Manchester to buy presents for both my husband's and daughter's birthdays which are coming very soon. I saw these fabulously cheesy jumpers in Primark and I could not resist one each for me and Bel. Only £12 each and to be worn in the spirit of the season, I cannot wait!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

My October Reads

There are few things nicer than snuggling up with a good book as the days turn colder and I read some excellent books this month.
Justine Picardie is an author I really enjoy, her biography of Coco Chanel is superb and her talk at the Oxford Literary Festival was captivating. "My Mother's Wedding Dress" is a beautifully written memoir. She describes outfits that have been important in her life, stories about her family, interviews with designers and so on. It's a cornucopia of essays and I loved it. My copy is signed "To Ellen, who understands the threads between mother and daughter". Justine wrote this after a conversation we had after her very moving talk. She seems an extremely nice lady, writes an excellent blog and I highly recommend this book.
"The Language Of Flowers" by Vanessa Diffenbaugh" was a lovely read. Victoria is a girl just leaving state care in San Francisco after several disastrous foster placements. She is fascinated by flowers and the Victorian language of flowers. After finding work at a florists she comes face to face with her troubled past. I found this very poignant and the author has fostered children herself, showing a real insight into their plight. I was rooting ( not a pun!) for Victoria and really cared how it would end for her. The actual language of flowers is fascinating too and the author includes a dictionary of their meanings at the end.
Andrew Motion's biography of Philip Larkin, "A Writer's Life" was a huge book but surprisingly easy to read and a deeply fascinating account of the poet's life. I love Larkin's poems but he was a difficult man, misogynistic, racist and quite gloriously grumpy. However, Motion succeeds in making him human and has added immensely to my understanding of his poems.
Sue Townsend is another author I look forward to reading. Her tales of Adrian Mole have been a constant since I was a teenager, I have grown older with Adrian! "The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year" is very funny, Eva Beaver waits until her deeply ungrateful twins leave for university, then takes to her bed. A cast of brilliantly drawn characters react in different ways to her defiance. Various lines had me laughing out loud, Eva's inept husband, Brian, comes home to find her in her scruffs, pulling up vegetables, "For Christ's sake, Eva! You look like post-war Poland". My husband had said only last week I looked like a coal man when I donned my Gillet, I may take to my bed too! My only quibble would be that I thought it fizzled out at the end of the story, it was a little unsatisfying. Still worth a read though.
My lovely friend Jo, leant me JoJo Moyes "The Girl You Left Behind" and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Set in modern day London and France in the First World War, it follows the lives of two women who have to fight for what they love. A picture of a young woman connects them and I found the story absorbing, a real page turner. One for the dark afternoons, with a cuppa and slice of Parkin!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

My September Reads

I read five excellent books this month, after last months disappointing holiday fayre! My daughter began her A levels and two of the books she is studying are "Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro and "Asylum" by Patrick McGrath. In an attempt to be able to discuss these with her ( a slim hope, those of you with teenage experience will know they communicate only in grunts and definitely not about their schoolwork!) I thought I would have a read myself.
I had read Ishiguro's novel before, it is a haunting tale of three friends, living a seemingly idyllic childhood but as the story develops we learn they are in fact, clones bred for their organs which are systematically taken from them until they "complete". They cannot escape their fate or early deaths, despite an attempt to stave off the inevitable.It is a beautifully written tale of love and loss and it will stay with you for a long
"Asylum" is a gothic story set mainly in a foreboding mental institution in the 1950s and narrated by the chief psychiatrist. The wife of another doctor embarks on a disastrous affair with a patient, but as the story unfolds the reader begins to question the reliability and motivations of the narrator. After many disturbing events, the end is chilling indeed. I thought this was dark, very well written and worth a read.
I really enjoy the Inspector Montalbano series and "The Wings Of The Sphinx" is the eleventh book by Andrea Camilleri about the world weary Sicilian inspector. This is another self contained mystery but it is the writing, gently humorous and wonderfully descriptive, which makes these books a real pleasure.
As you may recall, Anne Tyler is possibly my favourite author as I have got a little(!) older. I am slowly making my way through all her books, re-reading some I didn't really appreciate even ten years or so ago. "Back When We Were Grown-ups" is another beautiful novel and I did so identify with Rebecca, trying to keep everyone happy whilst hardly anyone seems to appreciate her! Tyler is on top form here, funny and heart-braking, wonderful characters, I loved it.
Our book club choice this month was "State of Wonder" by Ann Patchett which was an Orange Prize finalist. I thoroughly enjoyed this book which followed a young American pharmacy research fellow who is sent to the Amazonian rainforest to try and discover what happened to her colleague who has been reported as dead. It is a very original novel and the characters are finely written, it had me gripped right to the end, highly recommended.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Autumnal Love

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," so said John Keats and I have to admit, Autumn is my favourite time of year. I love the "going-back-to -school" feeling, even though my school days are a distant memory!
The nights draw in and I love putting on the lights and lighting the candles. My favourite dishes of casseroles, roasts, cottage pies and creamy mashed potatoes can be cooked again after the salads and pasta of summer. The Christmas cakes are baked and fill the house with the aroma of tradition and home.
I can snuggle up with a good book and not feel guilty that I should be doing something more useful in the garden. I love the damp, woodland walks, sniffing the air tinged with woodsmoke. I still adore opening conkers and fill my pockets with childish glee.
My dad hated this time of year, he would get depressed and mourn the summer. I could never understand that and as I get older I cherish the autumn even more than I used to. To me, it is a season of warmth, comfort, home and hearth. It is a slowing down, a hiatus before the bustle of Christmas, New Year and the coming of Spring.
The summer clothes are packed away and out come the velvet, jewel coloured jackets, the tweed skirts, brogues and FairIsle jumpers. Woolly hats, scarves and mittens are brought out of the lavender infused trunk.
Yesterday, I made Parkin. It is lying, waiting to be eaten but we must wait a few days for extra stickiness. My mum has already stolen a few slices!
Happy Autumn everyone!

Thursday, 20 September 2012

My August Reads

I read three excellent books this month, and four not-so-excellent ones!
Linda Grant is a an author I really enjoy, her books are intelligent and very well written. "We Had It So Good" follows the life, into late middle-age, of Stephen. He came from Los Angeles in the sixties to study at Oxford, gets sent down and never finds his way back to the States. Grant writes beautifully of Stephen's relationships with his friends, parents, wife and children. His relationship with his father is particularly interesting and the account of their trip back to Poland and the consequent revelations, had me enthralled.

Jane Shilling is a writer who contributes to various publications, and her memoir "The Stranger In The Mirror" consists of her musings on entering "middle age", a subject close to my heart! She is another beautiful writer, she uses many literary allusions, and her prose is exquisite. I would recommend this to anyone of a certain age, but it is not a comfortable read!

"Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?" is a fabulous book. Jeanette Winterson revisits the territory of "Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit" with her autobiography of growing up in a strict Christian household, headed by the terrifyingly bonkers "Mrs Winterson". It charts her extraordinary life, and I loved the descriptions of the North West and its people. Winterson was adopted and is reunited with her birth mother, eventually, but she is searingly honest in describing this difficult relationship. For all her many faults, Mrs Winterson made Jeanette into the person she is, and her writing stems from her strange childhood. She ponders if she had grown up with her birth mother, she may not have been the writer she is today.

I went to Italy in August and took four books that I could leave there and not mind if they got wet or covered in sun cream.
Linwood Barclay's thrillers are a good holiday read and "The Accident" was a great page turner. The twist in the tale was a bit obvious, but it wasn't at all bad.
I usually really enjoy Joanna Trollope, but "The Other Family" was a tad weak. It is a tale of a popular song-writer who had left his wife and son, setting up home with his partner and having three more children. He dies and the action is concerned with the effect on them all. None of the characters were particularly well-written and not an awful lot happens. Rather disappointing.
I loved "American Wife" by Curtis Sittenfeld, a fictional account of a First Lady, based on the life of Laura Bush. "Prep" is set in the world of a rarified American private school. It was well written and I did enjoy it but "American Wife" is much better.
"Never Going Home" by Evonne Warham was not so good. It was reviewed in the magazine we get at the library and looked like a good holiday thriller. However, it was a Mills and Boon type romance, cringe-worthy in the descriptions of the attraction between the main characters. The mother who has lost her only child only recently, falls straight into the arms of the "security consultant" who helps her, after every major shock she is in his arms. It rings so untrue and the plot was so incredible I had to laugh in the end.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

A Little Bit Of Glamour At The V & A

As a treat for doing well in her GCSEs, I took my daughter to London for the day. We had been wanting to visit the Ballgown Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and it was a lovely trip.
The ballgowns dated from the 1950s onwards and were stunningly beautiful. Unfortunately we couldn't take photos in there but believe me, the exhibits were gorgeous. There were contemporary designers on display, I loved an Alexander McQueen feather dress worn by Daphne Guiness. Bel was intrigued by the dresses worn by Beyonce and the Christopher Kane evening gown worn to this year's Met Ball by Shailene Woodley. The dresses from the 1950s and 60s were stunning, truly an age of glamour. The famous dress by Catherine Walker for Princess Diana, her "Elvis" look, was breathtaking. It was encrusted with pearls and showed how slim and tall Diana was. I felt rather sad looking at it, what an elegant lady she was.
The surrounding galleries were filled with designs from history, the top image shows  a dress from the court of George II which was fascinating, we wondered how on earth the ladies got through the doors!
The exhibition is on until January and for anyone who enjoys fashion, it is indeed, a real treat.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

La Dolce Vita

Every year we decamp to the Tuscan town of Figline Valdarno, birthplace of my late and much missed father-in-law.
We eat, we visit relatives, we argue, we drink, we swim, we cycle in the intense heat, we read and we go to Florence.
I love my in-laws and I love that my daughter can feel a sense of heritage and belonging when she returns.
The light is different in Tuscany, I'm rather short sighted in the UK, I need glasses for driving, but when I step off the plane in Pisa, the colours are sharper..nothing is blurred at all.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Books I Have Read In July

My favourite book I read this month was "The Land of Decoration" by Grace McCleen. This is an amazing debut by a writer of real talent. It is the tale of Judith, who is brought up as a strict evangelical Christian by her father. Terribly bullied at school, she makes a model in her bedroom of an ideal world, her "land of decoration" and believes that she has the power to create miracles. This book is so beautifully written I really cared about what happened to Judith and her father. Interestingly, the author was brought up in a similar situation, she "escaped" through education, gaining a place at Oxford. Judith too, has a teacher who is on her side and offers her support and hope. I could not put this book down and was desperate that Judith would be alright in the end. Sometimes, it was almost unbearable to read, especially near the end. I won't spoil what happens but I can highly recommend this novel.

"I, Partridge" by Alan Partridge is one of the funniest books I have read in a while. He is such a great comic creation and this made me laugh out loud an awful lot. The audio book version is a hoot, but do not listen to it in the car, as laughing too much may cause accidents.

Nora Ephron sadly passed away recently, and I must confess I have never read any of her works. "I Feel Sad About My Neck" is a collection of essays and articles she has written and they are excellent. Witty, very wise and had me saying "YES" at almost every page. I have ordered a couple more of her books and can now understand the praise that has been lavished upon her.

I have a soft spot for the Alexander McCall Smith series set in Edinburgh, the 44 Scotland Street stories. This latest installment is a gentle read and I do love the story of poor Bertie, who appears to be gaining some well-deserved independence as the series goes on.

I went away to Italy for a few days in July, when I go away I like to take lighter reads I can leave in hotels, without guilt. My favourite of the three I took was "Me Without You" by JoJo Moyes. I had heard good things about this on Twitter and I wasn't disappointed. It tells the story of an ordinary girl, a bit of an under-achiever, who goes to work as a carer for a severely disabled man. I thought this would be a convoluted romance but suddenly it veers off into something else, suffice to say it left me weeping quietly on the beach at Forte Dei Marmi.

I liked Jane Fallon's "Getting Rid Of Matthew" so I was looking forward to "The Ugly Sister". It was quite a good read, a bit light maybe, but the heroine's sister was an absolute monster and you get the feeling in "real life" no sister would put up with her outrageous behaviour. It didn't ring very true.

Another book that didn't ring very true was Rosie Thomas' "Lovers And Newcomers". On one hand it was refreshing to read about a bunch of more mature friends , but it seems a little far-fetched that a group from university would choose to all live together in late middle-age, especially considering the simmering romantic tension between some of them. I certainly would not consent to go and live with one of my husband's old girlfriends, yet this is what happens in this book! Rosie Thomas is a good writer but this isn't one of her best.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Preparing To Fly The Nest

In many ways our sixteen year old daughter is still very young, she is physically slight and her devotion to Harry Potter has not yet waned. Attending an all-girls school has meant a lack of contact with boys ( until recently) and whilst some other girls in her year are out at parties and clubs, her group of friends seem to prefer a meal at Nando's followed by a ride on the Trafford Centre dodgems.
However, the times are a-changing. Subtly, the signs of a growing independence are there and in only two years time, A level grades permitting, she will be flying the nest. Recently she had her "Prom" and as she tried on various frocks, I saw her transformed into a "young lady", although the sheer bloody agony of choosing a dress did eventually knock any sentimentality out of my system. After the Prom, she went to an "after-party" and she and her friends have since met up regularly with a group of boys they shared a table with at the Prom. My half-Italian husband's boy antennae are twitching alarmingly. Bel has also recently got a part-time job in that den of darkness that is Hollister, one more step on the road to adulthood.
I do not like the expression, "empty-nest syndrome", life is a series of milestones, some unexpected, you adapt and you march on. Bel is our only child and recently I have been wondering what life will be like in a couple of years. I have been an "at home" mum since she was born, what will my role be when there is no one at home for me to be a mum to? I have a couple of projects in mind, my days are always full and I would hope I won't find it too strange. However, sometimes I glance at her and see a flash of the young woman she is turning into, and my heart momentarily aches. I am excited for her, on the cusp of adulthood and whatever the future holds. I know life can be hard too, all you want to do is to protect your child from harm, heart-break and penury. So off you go, Isobel, spread your wings but know that we are always here and the nest will be kept warm for you whenever you decide to return.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Tales From The Tearooms, The Royal Exchange Cafe

 The Royal Exchange in Manchester has to be my absolute favourite place in this great city. I have seen so many sublime performances in its innovative theatre, indeed my love of theatre was sparked off by watching Robert Lindsay play Hamlet here in 1983. I love the airy space of the old cotton exchange with its original, grand, Victorian architecture and within its great hall, the futuristic theatre.
The cafe in the Great Hall is open 9:30 to 7:30 daily and serves a good selection of cakes, drinks, soup and sandwiches. The cakes are delicious and a bit more quirky than usual cafe fayre. My daughter and I love to come in for a break from shopping, but I feel equally comfortable on my own.
 The Craft Shop is a real Aladdin's cave of off-beat hand-made jewellery, pottery, glassware, art and other assorted crafts. I have bought many gifts here and could not resist this owl by ceramicist Hannah Turner.
So, if you are in Manchester and need a fuel-stop, pop into the Royal Exchange, you won't be disappointed.

Books I Have Read In June

I have been able to read a lot of books this month, thanks to daughter's GCSE revision meaning I have been under virtual house-arrest. Still, every cloud and all that. My absolute favourite read of the month was "The Age Of Miracles" a stunning debut by Karen Thompson Walker. I read this in one day, I was so gripped by this tale. The earth starts to slow on its axis and as the narrator says, "it was, at the beginning, a quite invisible catastrophe". The narrator is a young Californian girl called Julia, and her account of the strange times she finds herself in, is disturbing yet beautiful. As the world faces disaster, she faces the usual teenage troubles, friends falling out, first love, parental disharmony. However, this is all set against an impending sense of doom, as the human race faces environmental melt-down. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, it is fantastic. My teenage daughter is now reading it and thinks it is excellent too.
The Isabel Dalhousie novels by Alexander McCall Smith, are a favourite of mine, I do enjoy the gentle tales of philosopher Isabel and her life in Edinburgh. This is the eighth in the series and they are best read with a slice of Dundee cake and a nice cup of tea.
"The Captain's Daughter" by Leah Fleming isn't my usual sort of read, but it was going cheap on whilst I was buying some other books so I thought I'd give it a whirl. It is a story of two women who are caught up in the Titanic disaster and how their lives become inter-twined. It was an easy read, the chapters were short, and I did care about the characters and wanted to see how it would all end. It was a bit cheesy, however, and the ending was no surprise and very contrived. My mum is reading it now, and is really enjoying it.
My vintage read this month was "I Capture The Castle" by Dodie Smith. I first read this years ago, but lost my copy. I got this one in Oxfam and I really enjoyed it all over again. The tale of the Mortmain family is timeless and the heroine, Cassandra, is such a well written and admirable character. It is a very funny book and you do wish the best for the whole phalanx of eccentrics who populate the novel. A perfect sunny day read.
I am a big fan of Tina Fey and think "30 Rock" is utterly brilliant. Her autobiography "Bossypants" is hilarious. It contains a lot of American cultural references which passed me by, but her very non-serious account of her life does make some very important points about the role of women in show business. I laughed out loud quite a few times reading this, her account of her honeymoon is worth the price of the book alone.
Jude Morgan's book, "The Taste Of Sorrow" is a fictionalised account of the Bronte's life. I recently saw Northern Broadside's excellent play, "We Are Three Sisters" which did basically the same thing. I love anything which brings the past to life, and this novel did do that. We all know the story and, of course, its tragic end, but Jude Morgan did breathe new life into it, especially the account of Charlotte and Emily's trip to Belgium and the influence that had on them. The death of Anne moved me to tears,and poor Charlotte, once the middle sibling of six, seeing her sisters and brother all die before her.
I had been meaning to read "The Hand That First Held Mine" for ages, and I am really glad I did. Maggie O'Farrell has written a really good book set in the fifties and modern day London. The account of the days after a traumatic birth are expertly written , the brain-fog that descends is acutely described. Again, I was moved to tears as the story unfolded, I really cared what happened to the characters. Well worth a read.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Tales From The Tearooms, Airy Fairy Cake Boutique

 Whenever I go over to Stockport, I do try and come back to Salford via Didsbury so I can visit Airy Fairy Cake Boutique. Situated on School Lane, this is a delightful tea shop which sells delicious cakes and has recently started to serve sandwiches too. The decor is very shabby chic and vintage, nothing matches and a small range of gifts is for sale. I've bought two beautiful brooches from there in the past.
 The cup-cakes are excellent but so are the macroons, the lemon drizzle and I always like to think their berry cake counts as part of my 5-a-day.
Prices are not too dear and they also offer afternoon tea plus classes in cupcakes and cocktails, amongst other things. You can follow the very friendly staff on twitter @Airyfairycakes or visit the web-site

Books I Have Read In May

My favourite book I read this month was "The Art Of Fielding" by Chad Harbach. Don't let the fact that it does contain a lot of baseball references put you off. It is a super read about love, life and loss set on a fictional American college campus. Henry Skrimshander is a naturally gifted baseball fielder, but he experiences a devastating loss of form which has repercussions for those close to him. I really enjoyed Harbach's writing and characterization and thought this was a very impressive debut.

Simon Armitage is one of my favourite poets and I liked his book "Gig" which I read last year. "All Points North" was reissued with "Gig" and follows the same format of anecdotes, poems and other snippets. It was easy to dip into and very funny.

I cannot understand why I have never read the next two books. "Regeneration" by Pat Barker is the first of a trilogy set in the First World War and deals with the treatment received by shell- shocked soldiers at Craiglockhart Hospital. Barker uses real characters such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen but her account is fictional. It is a beautifully written book and I am looking forward to reading the other two. I had also never read "Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh and after my visit to Oxford, I felt it was about time. Well worth waiting for, exquisitely written, a timeless classic.

Book club choice this month was "The Last Dickens" by Matthew Pearle. Similarly to "Regeneration", it uses a real person, Dickens, and weaves a Gothic mystery around the "lost" manuscript of Edwin Drood. It was a quick read, and a page turner but not very well written. The author also seemed to think the port of Liverpool was in Kent, which is a bit of a glaring error. Perhaps I had read too many excellent books, but this was very light-weight.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Books I Have Read In April

I love reading and have decided to keep a blogging record of the books I have read each month.

First was "Digging To America" by Anne Tyler. I was reading this when I went to see Anne being interviewed and so I will keep this battered second hand copy forever as it contains her signature. I do love her books and this tale of two Korean babies adopted at the same time by two families in Baltimore was a deliciously good read. The characters were vividly painted and by the end I was rooting for them all, even the ones I had thought highly annoying at first. Warm and funny, it is a yet another excellent book from the really rather wonderful Ms Tyler.

"The Sense Of An Ending" by Julian Barnes is a slim volume that won the Booker Prize last year. The last Booker Prize winner I read was "The Finkler Question" which I did not like at all, so I was a bit wary of reading this. However, I need not have worried, it was a beautiful book and even though slim, I felt like I had read a much longer novel. It concerns a man entering old age and how his past comes back to haunt him, it is a book about love, friendship and loss and written so well I was enthralled. It was a worthy winner.

Every so often, I like to read something a little lighter, a "holiday read" really and Joanna Trollope fulfills that need very well. "Daughters-in-Law" is a family saga set in present day Suffolk and the title does give it away! It is about how family dynamics are thrown into chaos as each one of three sons gets married to three very different women. Yes, its cosy and middle-class, but Trollope is a master of the genre and I enjoyed it very much.

I am a member of a thriving Book Club that has being going for over ten years now and our book this month was "Wilt" by Tom Sharpe. I have never read any of his books, and I thought this was extremely funny in a painfully farcical way. I also could not believe it was written over thirty years ago, the themes were very comtemporary ( lecturers disaffected with educational institutions etc!). I have now got "Porterhouse Blue" on my shelf and I am looking forward to reading it.

Finally, my absolute favourite read this month was a book recommended by India Knight on Twitter and recently short-listed for the Orange Prize. "The Song of Achilles" by Madeline Miller is a re-telling of the legend of Achilles and Patroclus. It is simply a beautiful book, which taught me a great deal about the story of the Trojan War. The love story between the two men is so moving and more so by our knowledge of how it ends. They cannot escape their destinies and ultimately die for the love of each other. I could not put this book down but was sad when it had ended, really worth a read.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Tales From The Tearooms, The Secret Garden.

I live in Worsley, a suburb of Salford, whose inhabitants like to call a village, albeit one that is part of the vast urban sprawl that is Greater Manchester. Barton Road is the main road through and here you will find The Secret Garden Tea Room. Unfortunately, it closes on Mondays, which is when I usually have my shift at the library close by, curses. The tea room is quite small but after March the garden at the back opens and tables can be found there, lovely if the weather is kind.
The ladies who own the tea room are really friendly and the menu is full of the usual fayre, the home made soups are particularly tasty. I visited with Bel last week and I had a slice of lemon drizzle cake ( my personal all-time favourite) which was just lovely. Bel had a scone which she claimed was almost as good as mine ( being VERY diplomatic!), and with a pot of tea and a hot chocolate, the bill was a very reasonable £7.
I have had the Afternoon Tea there with a group of friends which was excellent value with laden plates of scones, cakes and sandwiches and pots of tea.
So, if you ever in Worsley, it is worth a visit to The Secret Garden, but not on a Monday!

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Anne Tyler at the Oxford Literary Festival

Our last event at the festival was on Sunday morning at the Sheldonian Theatre. Anne Tyler rarely gives interviews, indeed Peter Kemp ( our breakfast buddy!) said it was almost forty years since she gave her last one. I love her books, they are deceptively simple, telling stories of "ordinary" people, usually based in her home city of Baltimore. Her prose is warm, funny and her characters really do stay with you for a long time.
Unsurprisingly, the event was a sell-out with a 850 strong audience packing the beautiful venue. Andrew Holgate of the Sunday Times presented Anne with the paper's prize for Literary Excellence. Anne seemed rather nervous at first, she looked like a cross between Katherine Hepburn and Sissy Spacek and her voice was rather quiet. However, as time went on, under masterful questioning by Peter Kemp, she visibly relaxed and was funny, self-deprecating and very honest. Her insights into how she worked were fascinating and even Bel who has not read any of her books ( "I'm thirty years too young yet," she said ) was genuinely captivated.
Nick Hornby was on the front row, as were several other authors, I get the impression she is a writer's writer. Questions were taken from the adoring audience, which included people from Russia, Ireland, France and a fellow Baltimore resident!
After a well-deserved standing ovation, the crush to get Anne to sign a book was immense. It was also very comical as the hapless stewards tried to shepherd several hundred people into a queue, with some being put where they did not wish to go ( i.e. at the back!). One man behind us lost his temper, " THIS IS SHAMBOLIC" he wailed, whilst another lady started bawling about the " UTTER INCOMPETENCY" of it all. I was in the midst of a middle-aged, middle-class riot, it was delicious and surely a plot straight out of Anne Tyler's novels. One of the stewards asked a man not to shout, " I AM NOT SHOUTING, VALERIE" he bellowed. This is now mine and Bel's new catch-phrase. Bel found this all hilarious and it certainly made the long wait go a little more quickly.
Only one book each could be signed ( "SO UNFAIR" according to a peuce-face lady who had at least eight hard backs with her) I had a copy of "Digging To America" which I was reading at the time. Bel told me I couldn't just get her to sign that as it was dog-eared , came from Oxfam and had £1.99 written on it. I conceded she had a point, so I slipped out of the queue to the Blackwells stall and bought her new book, "The Beginner's Goodbye", as I rejoined Bel, I could feel the looks of disapproval at my back and I waited to be harrangued by VERY ANGRY Anne Tyler fans. Luckily, I got away with it and was soon at her table. Bel got the Oxfam copy signed, then it was my turn, "Hello there, Ellen" she said ( she isn't psychic, we had to write our names on a Post It ) and signed my book. I was star-struck, " Thank you very much," I stammered and it was time to go. The steward at the door apologised for the wait. "It was worth it", I replied and it certainly was.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Justine Picardie at The Oxford Literary Festival

After such a wonderful talk by Bettany Hughes, we scurried through the cloisters and the beautiful Tom Quad, to the Blue Boar Quad. We were in a modern mini lecture theatre to hear Justine Picardie talk about her 2011 biography of Coco Chanel. I have been an admirer of Ms Picardie's writing for some time, and I thought the subject would appeal to Isobel. I was right, Justine talked with such skill about the life of the extraordinary Chanel, aided by many stunning photographs. Her account of how she wrote the book was so interesting and towards the conclusion of the talk, she made it intensely personal. Justine spoke of the importance of fashion, memory and family ties and to my amazement and Bel's utter horror, I could feel tears welling up. The lady in front of us was sobbing into her tissue. To me it was the thought that memories of your mother and grandmother are tied up with memories of their outfits and perfume and then I thought of the generations, how my mum sewed or knitted clothes for me with skill and love, and how now Bel and I have fun together shopping for outfits.
We queued to have our books signed afterwards. Bel had the Chanel biography and I had "My Mother's Wedding Dress". Justine was lovely to Bel, she said, "Ooh, a quilted jacket, VERY Chanel" ( mine actually, just call us Kate and Carole Middleton!) and chatted about Bel's ambition to one day have a Chanel handbag. In her book she wrote, " here's to your first Chanel!". I admitted I had horribly embarrassed my daughter by finding her talk so moving. She wrote in my book, "To Ellen, who understands the threads between mother and daughter". Perfect.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Bettany Hughes at The Oxford Literary Festival

I had never been to Oxford before, nor a literary festival, but when I saw the line-up for this year's Oxford Literary Festival on the weekend Isobel broke up for Easter, I knew we both had to go.
We arrived on a Friday evening and stayed in the stunning Christ Church College. Our room was in student lodgings in the Meadow Building, comfortable, with a beautiful view of Christ Church Meadow and the Oxford Literary Festival marquee right beneath our window.
We breakfasted in the Great Hall on the Saturday, much to Harry Potter-mad Bel's delight, and fell into conversation with a very avuncular chap. It transpired he was actually conducting the interview with Anne Tyler on the Sunday, more about that later, but Peter Kemp of The Sunday Times was very friendly and told us he hailed originally from Chorley. We had a bit of Northern-type bonding, then it was time to HIT THE FESTIVAL.
The marquee at Christ Church was enormous, Blackwells had stalls upon stalls laden with books, and yes, I did succumb to temptation. There was a couple in vintage garb handing out G and T's, ten o'clock was a little early even for me.
Our first event was an interview with Bettany Hughes, historian, broadcaster and writer of books such as "Helen of Troy" and "The Hemlock Cup". She was interviewed by Nicolette Jones, a fellow graduate of St. Hilda's College ( Hildabeests, as I learnt they were referred to!). Bettany was hugely entertaining, she made the subject of Socrates' life and legacy so utterly absorbing. Isobel was entranced and whispered, "she is a real inspiration". The hour flew by and I loved hearing the bells ringing several times during her talk, it was very evocative. The questions from the audience were intelligent and included a cheeky invite to speak at Cambridge from a man who said it was the best £10 he had ever spent!
We queued up afterwards to get Bel's book signed. A lady in front of us asked Bettany if she was Mediterranean, she replied one of her grandparents was Italian,"JUST LIKE ME" said Bel, who was delighted and her admiration of Ms Hughes was growing by the second. I let her do the talking, she told Bettany she was taking GCSEs in Ancient Greek and Latin soon. Bettany replied her daughter was also doing them, (wow, what revision help she must get!) gave Bel a few tips, then said "you look bright, I'm sure you'll be fine". She signed Bel's book with a phrase that included a Greek word, I asked Bel what it was, "its the Greek for wisdom, mum, we get the name Sophia from it".
So our first ever event at our first ever festival on our first ever visit to Oxford was brilliant. Look out for Bettany Hughes on the television soon with a new series on women and religion through the ages.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Did I mention I am an Observer writer?

There was intense excitement in our house when the Sunday paper arrived yesterday. I had sent in some words and a photo for a regular feature in the New Review section of The Observer, called My Cultural Life. I didn't expect it to get published, but IT DID and apart from the teen's toe-curling shame, it caused a great deal of laughter and brightened up my day considerably.
I must say, this is

not my first appearance in The Observer, oh no. In 1984 I came second in the Northern Region section of the Observer/Whitbread essay writing competition.I won £150, a tour for my economics class around Boddingtons Brewery ( I have never before or since been so popular)and a visit to London for the grand final. This overall prize was won by Matthew D'Ancona who went on to be a Tory party speech-writer and editor of The Spectator. Not invited to the London bash were those "highly commended" in the regions. A little while back I was clearing out some stuff and came across the prize winners names. In the "highly commended" section for the Scottish Region was one Michael Gove, now Education Minister. So for one gloriously brief moment in time, I was better at essay writing than the future Secretary of State for Education. Allow me to bask a while, it was the pinnicle of my writing career to date!

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Tales From The Tearooms, Hey Little Cupcake.

I will let you into a little secret, Im not a HUGE fan of cupcakes. I prefer a traybake or a slice of something cakey. Cupcakes can be TOO sickly in my experience ( which is extensive). The absolute exception to this rule, are the divine cupcakes baked by Stuart Thornley
( I will blog about those another time.
Hey Little Cupcake is a cupcakery and coffee

shop in Spinningfields, Manchester, next door to Nando's. Bel and I have been visiting for about a year now and our last outing was after a Mother's Day brunch in the nearby Alchemist.
The shop is small but, oh, so perfectly formed, it is a piece of New York style frippery in the heart of Manchester. The pink and white, airy decor brings a smile to my face.There is a selection of gifts to buy, I couldn't resist this mug, and you can attend cake baking/ decoration classes here too.
The service is always friendly and when I have visited it hasn't been too busy, so getting a table is easy. Bel always choses a Viva Las Vegas chocolate cake, which she adores,and my mum chose a Sorrento Cello lemon cake, which she polished off very quickly. I had the New Yorker which was not too sweet due to the coffee flavour with coffee frosting on top.
Hey Little Cupcake is a great place for a quick pit-stop whilst out in town with the girls.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Another Friday, another gig: The Civil Wars

Last night I went to see The Civil Wars at The Academy 2 in Manchester. My daughter saw them supporting Adele last year and text me from the Apollo to say she was watching a duo I would love. She was right, I bought their debut album, Barton Hollow, and was hooked by their perfect harmonies and brand of Americana/Country/Folk. I snapped up tickets when their solo tour was announced. Since then, the band have won two Grammies and are returning in the Autumn to larger venues. Jo and I felt lucky to be watching them in the relatively intimate atmosphere of the Academy and we managed to weave ourselves through the sell-out crowd to quite near the front (an important factor when you barely scrape 5ft 2).

With just John-Paul White's guitar as accompaniment, his and Joy Williams' vocals were just perfect and their chemistry was palpable. They treated us to much of Barton Hollow plus wonderful covers of Portishead's "Sour Times", Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me To The End Of Love" and, as an encore that got the whole place singing along, a pared down version of "Billie Jean". The duo appeared to genuinely enjoy themselves and were very warmly received by the Mancunian crowd. If you get the chance, do go and see them, The Civil Wars will not disappoint.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Laura, Laura, I adore ya.

Laura Marling is twenty two years old and has already produced three albums of astonishing songs. I will be honest, the appeal of Adele has passed me by somewhat. I realise I'm in a very slim minority, but I find listening to a whole album samey, the lyrics do not move me at all. However, Laura's voice and poetry can transport me to another place altogether.
The Manchester O2 Apollo looked full last night and as she ambled on stage dressed in jeans and a sweater, Laura looked nothing like a star but when she sang, staring upwards, delivering lines of such beauty, the effect was mesmeric. The band were extremely adept and an "introduction to the band" slot was amusingly accompanied by each of them reciting a "fact". I now know that there are sixty two pieces of Lego for every human on the planet thanks to the keyboard player.
However, it was all about the songs. Laura opened with the first four tracks off her latest album, "A Creature I Don't Know" then we were treated to flawless renditions of older songs from "Alas, I Cannot Swim" and "I Speak Because I Can" plus some new songs.Her voice is so pure, better live than on the records, both me and my erstwhile gig-buddy, Jo, were both in tears at various points.
Near the end of a perfect ninety minute set, some witless big-mouth shouted, "C'mon, Laura, play something to get the crowd going". This was met with a few boos and general disbelief, Laura's retort, " I think you're at the wrong gig, mate" drew huge applause. Her's isn't barn-storming, sing-a-long music. It's music to be cherished, loved and I for one felt very fortunate to spend a Friday night in her delightful company.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Tales From The Tearooms, Sugar Junction.

To say that tea rooms are my favourite places may be an exaggeration, but the prospect of visiting one certainly puts a spring in my step. There are many fine establishments in the Manchester area and as I appear to have visited most of them, I have decided to write, briefly, about my favourites. Today, I visited Sugar Junction at 60, Tib Street, Manchester.

I had not been before, but several of my twitter friends spoke well of it, and first impressions

were extremely favourable. I sat downstairs in a room full of mismatched furniture, comfy sofas and tables decorated with embroidered tablecloths and fresh flowers. The effect was cosy and not at all twee. The waitress was very friendly and the service was excellent. I had a delicious Spinach and Coconut soup which came with two large slices of fresh wholemeal bread. I followed this with a sticky toffee slice (gorgeous) which I had to choose from a mouth-watering selection, with not a cup-cake in sight. A pot of China Gun Powder tea washed it all down nicely and all for less than £10. I will certainly return and it is definitely worth walking the small distance from the chains in the Arndale for something far more tasty and eclectic