Saturday, 12 October 2013

My September Reads

The nights are drawing in, we are in the midst of university open days and personal statement revisions, and I have read some really great books this month.

Our book club choice this month is "Stoner" by John Williams, first published in 1965. William Stoner is a college professor who spends his entire adult life at the University of Missouri, first studying, then teaching English literature. His life seems to be insignificant, he lives, gets married, retires and dies. However, John Williams writes so vividly and beautifully about his story, we realise that even the most humdrum-looking lives have so much going on under the surface. The relationships Stoner has, with his colleagues, his wife, daughter and lover, are drawn with simplicity but in devastating detail. The blurb on the back of the book says it is "a novel to be savoured" and I would totally concur.

I first read "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt when it was published twenty one years ago. Since then she has only produced two more books, one of which is on my Christmas wish-list ( The Goldfinch). I decided to re-read her debut novel in preparation but also because it concerns a group of classics students, which is the subject my daughter is hoping to study next year. However, I hope she doesn't get dragged into a murder plot which is what happens to Richard Pappen when he becomes entangled and enamoured with an eccentric group at his New England university. This is a terrific book, intelligently written, darkly funny and with great characterisation. It is now on my daughter's "to read" list, I'm only hoping it won't put her off studying the lives of the ancients!

"Reconstructing Amelia" by Kimberly McCreight was an excellent, if harrowing, book. Kate Baron is a successful New York lawyer who is faced with an unimaginable tragedy. The central thesis of the novel, is how well do we know our own children, and how Kate refuses to believe the official reason behind the tragedy and her dogged pursuit of the truth, is a real page-turner. It was very well written, and I had enormous sympathy for Kate and Amelia, the ending was not obvious, and I stayed up until the very wee small hours to finish it. I cried at various points too, but maybe I was very, very tired!

Another book that had me in absolute buckets of tears was "The Light Between The Oceans" by M.L.Stedman. Tom and Izzy are the lighthouse keeper and his wife on a remote island off the coast of Australia in the 1920s, happily married but unable to have children. When a boat washes ashore containing a dead man and a very-much alive baby girl, the couple make the decision to keep her. The novel then goes on to describe the consequences of that decision. This is such a haunting book, the reader's sympathies lie with all the characters and the conclusion is so heart-breaking. One for the chilly autumn nights, make sure you have the tissues ready!

I have enjoyed Salley Vicker's previous books and "The Cleaner of Chartres" is another very good read. Agnes Morel is a a lady with a mysterious past who life is now inter-woven with those in the beautiful city of Chartres. Her story is a sad one, and I did like how all the threads came together to give an almost happy, but realistic, ending. Vickers writes quite beautifully and her description of the cathedral is very vivid. There are some excellent characters, I liked the subversive nuns in particular, and you really do root for poor old Agnes. It reminded me of some of Joanna Harris' novels in a way, no bad thing.

Finally, after such sadness, India Knight's "Mutton" had me chuckling. I wasn't too keen on her last book, "Comfort and Joy" but this was much better, not as mean-spirited. Clara is forty-six and quite comfy in her skin, until her school friend, the impossibly glamorous Gaby, moves in. Being of that certain age myself, I found the book very funny and could recognise a lot of the character's sentiments and traits! India has described some characters very well, I loved the author of "Game of Thrones" type books who had writer's block. A light read, but after all the emotional novels previously read, a bit of relief!

Monday, 9 September 2013

My August Reads

The nights are definitely drawing in, the teen is back at school and soon the lazy, sunny days of August will be a distant memory.....

I found "The Shops" by India Knight in Oxfam and at £1.69 I thought I'd give it a go. India loves to shop and this book is full of her recommendations interspersed with vignettes from her ( very interesting) family background. Although its ten years since it was published, it still seems relevant and most of the shops are still around! I like India's chatty style of writing, and I do prefer her non-fiction to her novels.

Book club choice this month is "Miss Savidge Moves Her House" by Christine Adams. I didn't really fancy this book about a lady who, when faced with her medieval house being earmarked for demolition in the 1960s, dismantled the whole thing and moved it 100 miles to Norfolk. However, I could not put it down. May Savidge spent the rest of her life putting  the house back together and left the unfinished project to her ( initially very unwilling) nephew and his wife, Christine. This is a book about resilience, love and loss, family ties and a very remarkable lady who literally never threw anything away. Christine becomes intertwined with May's world and I won't give away the ending, but it is a delightful tale and all the more remarkable for being true.

I really can't make up my mind about Sophie Hannah. I've read all her books now, and some I really enjoy and others leave me a bit cold. This is her latest psychological thriller and I'm sure if you hadn't read the others you wouldn't have a clue who all the police characters are. This book follows Amber Hewerdine, who is accused of a crime she did not commit after seeing a psychologist and muttering the words "kind of cruel" which were written on a note at the scene of an unsolved murder. The book is a good read, the character of Amber is well written and I didn't really guess who had "dunnit" until near the end. However, I am getting a bit tired of the same setting and police characters in all her books, they are just very uninteresting and as I say, could put off someone who picks up her books as a "one-off".

I enjoyed "The Weird Sisters" by Eleanor Brown, a tale of three sisters who grow up as passionate readers with a Shakespearean scholar for a father. In adulthood, they all follow very different paths but after their mother falls ill, they return home to their small mid-western American college town. This reminded me in some way of Anne Tyler in that nothing much happens but the characters are very well written and do elicit our sympathy. I loved the tag-line on the book's cover, "there is no problem a library card can't solve", I totally agree!

Finally, "A Secret Alchemy" by Emma Darwin was a book I was really looking forward to as it intertwines a modern day plot with the story of Elizabeth Woodville, the subject of the recent BBC series, "The White Queen". However, I was rather disappointed. The modern day story concerns a family who own a threatened printing press in London, Una returns to London following the death of her husband and is researching the lives of Elizabeth and her brother, Anthony. I simply could not engage with the plethora of characters who popped up in the present day story, there were so many I lost the thread of who was who. I preferred the subplot of what happened to Anthony, but I do like that era of history very much. Anthony's tale is deeply tragic and I did like the way it linked to Una in the end. This was not as densely written as a Hilary Mantel historical fiction nor as light as, say, Philippa Gregory, but I thought the modern day plot could have been a lot better and so I can't really recommend the book overall.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Very last "first-day-back-to-school"

It was back to school for my daughter this week and as she set off into Year 13 ( Upper Sixth in my world) I took my usual photo. She started school at the age of three and I now have fifteen pictures of her setting off at the start of the school year. However, this is the last "first day", next year she will have left school behind forever. Oh heck, I appear to have something in my eye.......

Friday, 9 August 2013

My July Reads

I have read some really good books this month, there is nothing nicer than a sunny patio, a cool glass of something refreshing ( have you tried Fentiman's Rose Lemonade, it is utterly divine ) and a great book.

"Where'd You Go Bernadette" by Maria Semple was a quirky delight. Bernadette Fox was once an award winning architect, now a reclusive Seattle resident with a husband engrossed in his work at Microsoft, a precocious daughter and a highly annoying neighbour. This is an account of how Bernadette disappeared, gleaned from documents given to her daughter. This is a highly original, very funny and oddly moving book from a very gifted writer. Her descriptions of the "tiger moms" and the Microsoft geeks are hilarious, but ultimately it is a book about the strong bonds that shape us and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I read Bernardine Bishop's "Unexplained Lessons in Love" after coming across her obituary in the paper. This is a beautiful book about two women who have both had cancer and consequent colostomies. It was very refreshing to read about older characters with these, frankly unsexy, conditions and as someone who has had colon cancer, I found it absorbing and searingly honest. It is a story of family, of love and loss, never cloyingly sentimental, very funny and wonderfully written. How sad that the author is no longer here.

Our book club selection this month was "The Sisters Brothers" by Patrick DeWitt. Eli and Charlie Sisters are notorious killers for hire in the Wild West who go after a man who claims he has invented a potion that can show gold up if it is thrown in creeks. A few people in my group didn't like the violence in the book, it is very violent in parts but I thought it was quite entertaining, funny in parts and it did keep me turning the pages until the rather satisfying ending. I can imagine Quentin Tarantino adapting this for the big screen.

My vintage read this month ( and my choice for book club later in the year) was "Little Boy Lost" by Marghanita Laski, written in 1949, and republished by Persephone Books. This is a beautiful book, set in post-war France as Hilary Wainwright returns to find his young son, lost as a baby five years before. Hilary is an exasperating character at times, he vascillates and makes odd decisions but he is honest and does hold the reader's sympathy..just. He is lead to a boy in an impoverished orphanage who may or may not be his son and the scenes are full of pathos. The descriptions of the shattered countryside and people are very powerful and I won't reveal the ending, but it made me gasp aloud. 

One of my favourite books of the year has to be "Beautiful Ruins" by Jess Walter. I have seen a lot of people rave about this on twitter and I must agree with them. The action occurs in Italy in 1962 and modern day America and begins when a beautiful American film star arrives at a run down Italian hotel in the middle of nowhere, fifty years later the hotel owner turns up in Hollywood at the home of a sleazy film mogul, looking for his lost love. It is such an original story, very funny and I love how all the strands of different stories came together at the end ( which moved me to tears). This is the perfect summer read, especially as I was on holiday just south of the Cinque Terre region where a lot of the action takes place.

Anita Shreeve is an author who I like, her latest book "Rescue"was a tad underwhelming really. A young paramedic is called to the scene of an accident and he falls in love with Sheila who has crashed her car in a drunken haze, escaping an abusive relationship. Sheila is an alcoholic who cannot cope with motherhood and leaves Peter and their baby daughter. The action then jumps forward to where the now teenage daughter begins to go off the rails and Peter tries to do the right thing by reuniting mother and child. Nothing much actually happens really, a bit of a "meh" read, very nicely written though, but still rather disappointing, especially compared with the rest of this month's books.

I read two thrillers on holiday which I take then leave in the hotel ( if you ever at the Hotel Mirabeau in Forte dei Marmi, you are very welcome!). Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay write excellent page turners that are not very demanding but nevertheless are good reads, worth taking because its not a disaster if they get covered in sand and sun cream!

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

My June Reads

I thoroughly enjoyed the four books I read this month ( makes a change!), must be the summer sun making me a little less critical!

My lovely friend Jo lent me her copy of 'The Book of Human Skin' by Michelle Lovric and I could not put the book down. The action is set in the late eighteenth century Venice and Peru, with the dastardly Minguillo Fasan plotting terrible things against his sister, Marcella, who is set to inherit his beloved palazzo. Some of the action is definitely not for the squeamish, in many ways it reminded me of 'Perfume' in its graphic details. The portrayal of the mad nun, Sor Loreta, is excellent, she and Minguillo are equally depraved and you are gripped with the hope they will receive their retribution. The story is told from various character's points of view and I highly recommend it.

I haven't read any of Michael Frayn's novels before and as 'Skios' was a Booker long-lister and in Oxfam, I thought I'd give it a whirl. Oliver Fox arrives on the Greek island of Skios and on a whim, decides to pose as a visiting academic, Dr Norman Wilfred. The absurd plot had me chuckling away and Frayn certainly is a master of farce. His depiction of those attending 'self-improvement' holidays with the exceedingly bored guest speakers going through the motions, is very funny as is the pseudo intellectual rubbish spouted by Oliver being lapped up by the unsuspecting audiences. The action zipped along, was very well written and I now have 'Spies' by Michael Frayn on my 'to be read' pile.

Our book club book this month was ' The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry' by Rachel Joyce. Harold receives a letter from an old friend who is dying in a hospice in Berwick on Tweed. He goes to post a reply from his home in Hampshire on the south coast, but decides that by walking to Berwick, he can delay her death. What could have been rather a twee idea, is nothing of the sort. It is poignant but also gritty and funny. As his walk continues, he attracts followers and the input of social media and the once well-intentioned 'followers' of Harold almost manage to de-rail the whole journey. I loved the ending, as it was beautifully under-stated and 'real', not a Hollywood-style reunion and denouement. The last few chapters had me in tears, and it was Rachel Joyce's lightness of touch, that made it so moving.

Finally, you MUST read 'Heft' by Liz Moore, one of my favourite reads of the year so far. Arthur Opp is a housebound recluse in Brooklyn, who is terribly over weight and socially awkward. He receives a phone call off a former student, this sets off a train of events that has life-changing consequences for Arthur and Kel, a seventeen year old boy who may or may not be Arthur's son. This was an utter delight from beginning to beautiful end, I truly cared about the characters as Liz Moore has written them so wonderfully. Again, the book moved me so much, it is a tale of being an outsider, of rejection, of trying to find your place in the world. I loved the ending and wished I hadn't read it, so I could discover it again for the first time.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

The Masque of Anarchy

Manchester International Festival is in full swing, I did try to get tickets for Kenneth Branagh's "Macbeth" but I was in hospital when they went on sale, so I wasn't successful. I was luckier in getting hold of tickets to see Maxine Peake perform "The Masque of Anarchy" and I am so glad I did.
The poem was penned by Percy Shelly in response to the Peterloo Massacre, the events in 1819 where the militia charged on a peaceful gathering in Peter's Field, Manchester. The crowd of over 60,000, listening to calls for democratic reform, were charged upon by Hussars on horse back after the local yeomanry had tried to arrest the speakers. Fifteen men, women and children died and many more were injured. Shelly was in Italy when he heard of the appalling events and, outraged, he wrote the response that was banned from being published for twelve years.
The recital of the poem by Maxine Peake took place in the Albert Hall, very close to the site of the massacre. Above a bar area, currently being renovated, is an old Methodist chapel which has been closed to the public since 1969. Hundreds of candles flickered as Peake took to the platform in a ghostly white dress.
The recital was mesmeric, Peake perfectly captured the outrage, the pathos and the hope the poem brings. The final lines...

'Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number-
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many - they are few'

..echo across the centuries and are as fresh today as they were in 1819. It was a truly spine-tingling night and I felt privileged to have been there.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Tales From The Tearooms: A Right Royal Tea Party

I went to visit my friend Sue in the fantastic town of Rawtenstall. The high street has many great independent shops, including the excellent "Sunday Best" boutique, as recommended by Mary Portas!
Tucked away in a side street is " A Right Royal Tea Party" a lovely little tea room that serves the best value afternoon tea I've ever had. For two people at £10.95 there is a huge pot of tea, two choices of sandwich filling, crisps, salad and a delicious coleslaw, scones with jam and clotted cream, plus two scrumptious cupcakes baked on the premises. That's all for £5.47 each, amazing!
The shop has very recently been redecorated, it's very vintage-y, a lot of Cath Kidston prints, and has an area for toddler tea parties in the rear of the shop.
I will definitely return here and if you find yourself at the end of the M66 or at the last stop on the East Lancs steam railway, do give " A Right Royal Tea Party" a twirl.


Bel's boyfriend was one of fifty brave souls who cycled from Geneva to Venice in aid of Kidney Research. Not being so brave, indeed being rather lazy, we flew to Venice to meet him. 
Alex had no idea that Bel would be at the finishing line and it was a very touching reunion!
So, what about Venice? 
Bellinis at Harry's Bar, sublime pasta at a hidden away trattoria, circumnavigating the island on a vaporetto, gelati and Camparis at the Lido, walking the warren of streets and alleys, St Marks's Byzantine splendour, an exhilarating water taxi ride to the airport and more. I loved it. 

Saturday, 22 June 2013

My May Reads

It's been a busy month as we have started the slog around the country known as "University Open Day", that's my excuse for being a little  tardy with my May reads.

"Death Comes To Pemberley" by P.D James was our book club choice this month. Written as a"follow on" to Pride and Prejudice, the action takes place after Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years and a murder mystery occurs at their family seat. I haven't read any other P.D James books before and I'm in two minds about this one. I did enjoy the way it was written, it flowed along and it was a page-turner. However, I couldn't really see the POINT of it and far from being the sparky heroine she was, Elizabeth has turned into a bit of a bore. Maybe it's because I ( like millions of others) hold a special place in my heart for P&P, but this was a pale shadow and doesn't make me want to rush and read any more P.D James.

I do like Nick Hornby's novels and "Juliet, Naked" was another good read. Duncan is obsessed with an American singer who has become a recluse and his long suffering girlfriend, Annie, is starting to despair that their fifteen year old relationship is going anywhere. When she begins an email correspondence with the elusive star, it is the start of a relationship which profoundly affects all those involved. Hornby's writing is very funny and warm, he reminds me of Anne Tyler in the way he brings magic to everyday mundanity. He has been quoted as saying Tyler is a great influence on his work and it does show.

"Whatever You Love" by Louise Doughty was a Costa Book Award short-lister a couple of years ago. It is a disturbing story of the effect the death of a nine year old girl and her friend in a hit and run accident has on Laura and her ex husband, David. Doughty does write quite beautifully, you really do feel Laura's pain acutely and it did make me tearful more than once, especially at the end. Laura tries to take revenge on who is responsible for her daughter's death, whilst her husband's new wife has her own problems which culminate in a dramatic ending. I'm not sure I would describe myself " enjoying" the book as the material is so raw, but it certainly is a powerful account of an unimaginable loss.

Finally, summer means Italy, so to get me in the mood I read "Elements of Italy" by Lisa St Aubin De Teran. I've had this book a while, I'm a big fan of her fiction but had never got round to reading these snippets of writing about Italy, where De Teran lived for many years. It's a lovely book, including descriptions of all aspects of Italy from authors such as Eric Newby, D. H Lawrence, Truman Capote and Guiseppe Di Lampedusa. It really put me in the mood for my holidays!

Sunday, 2 June 2013

A Day Trip To London Town

I thought a day trip to London would be a nice distraction for my teen who is mired deep in AS level revision. Her boyfriend came too, so as they went to explore the delights of Camden, I visited The National Portrait Gallery. I loved the pictures of Florence Nightingale, Mrs Pankhurst and the Brontes but deary me, the recently commissioned portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge was not at all impressive. Stark and hugely unflattering, it was the face of a tired, middle-aged women staring out, I bet she was secretly mortified.
The weather was kind, and I walked up to Bloomsbury for a nice lunch at Beas of Bloomsbury, then I went to Persephone Books on Lambs Conduit Street. This is such a beautiful shop, they publish books by largely forgotten or over-looked women authors and their covers are a distinctive grey. I treated myself to The Persephone Book of Short Stories and look forward to dipping in.
I met up with the teens in a busy Covent Garden and we walked back up to Bloomsbury to the British Museum. We had a good mooch around the Greek and Roman antiquities then we went around the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition. This was simply brilliant, the exhibits were fascinating; carbonised bread complete with the baker's stamp, olive oil still in a glass bottle. The casts of those who died were very moving, caught forever in their death throes, as was the carbonised cradle whose tiny occupant perished.
For my daughter, who is a huge Harry Potter fan, the highlight of the day was a visit to King's Cross and Platform 9 3/4, we didn't catch the Hogwarts Express though, merely the Virgin Pendolino back home to Manchester and back to revision.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

My April Reads

Spring is finally here, hurrah! Soon I'll be able to sit out on the patio with a good book, bliss.

My bad read award this month goes to "The Pilgrimage" by Paulo Coelho. This was a book club choice and it's fair to say it got the thumbs down from all the group. I did enjoy "The Alchemist" but this is a rambling mish mash of mysticism and travelogue. Coelho is travelling across Spain on the road to Santiago De Compostela, accompanied by his guide. He is aiming to find a sword ( we never find out what this is for) and he is taught RAM exercises ( no, me neither) as part of his journey of self-discovery. This was really badly written, just mumbo-jumbo, glad I bought it second-hand!

I have really enjoyed Marina Lewycka's three previous books and "Various Pets Alive and Dead" continued this trend. She has tackled the thorny contemporary subject of immigrant workers ( in Two Caravans) whilst this book is a biting satire of the banking industry. Doro and Marcus are children of the sixties who lived in a commune and brought their children up to embrace the ideals of a free society. However, their children live very different lives and there is a lot of humour in how the whole family interacts, especially their son who desperately tries to keep his existence as a city trader a secret from them. Lewycka writes so well, her characters really sparkle and it manages to be both a funny and very touching book.

Esther Freud's "Lucky Break" was a bit of a disappointment, a real "meh" read. It follows a group of students at a drama school in London over the years, but nothing really happens. Some make it "big" but most do not. There are cliched characters galore and I really didn't care about any of them. I've read a couple of her books and had high hopes for this, but it didn't add up to much at all.

Barbara Trapido is another author I enjoy and "Sex and Stavinsky" was a real delight. Her books always contain such great characters whose lives intertwine and come together at the end like a Shakespearian comedy. The settings of Oxford and South Africa are beautifully drawn and I couldn't wait to find out what will happen to Josh, Hattie, Caroline and her truly awful mother. It is hard to describe the plot really but trust me, it's a good read!

Charlotte Rogan's debut novel "The Lifeboat" was another excellent read. A ship sinks in the Atlantic in 1914, and forty people make it onto one of the lifeboats. We first encounter Grace as she stands trial for murder. How she survives and how she ends up in jail is truly gripping and does make you think about how you would behave faced with extreme circumstances. I did like the Irish Times review "just don't read it on a cruise"! It is a very well written book and the characterisation is excellent, I couldn't put it down.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

A Few Thoughts On Mrs T

I was thirteen when Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister and twenty four when she was ousted by her own party. As a teenager, I became actively involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and fervently anti-Thatcher, much to the bemusement of my true blue parents. I have to report I WAS that earnest young woman in the John Lennon specs, wearing my badges to school and scribbling "CRUISE FREE 83" on my school bag. Whilst all my classmates in their O level English talk, gave presentations on their Spanish holiday or five-a-side football, I lectured on the CND equipped with handouts AND slides. I was so utterly convinced I was RIGHT ( still do!) with that self-righteous conviction of teenhood!
I had great times travelling the country, Greenham Common, Aldermaston, London and Barrow-in-Furness. I was a bit of a rubbish demonstrator though. I collapsed into fits of giggles when a bloke in Barrow told me to "Gerrup ya daft bugger" when I part of a "die-in" against trident missiles and at Greenham Common my symbolic red balloon did not soar away but landed, sadly in a field and was stamped on by a BLOODY FASCIST ( whom I now realise was probably a fed-up farmer!)
After rattling a few buckets for the miners, I started work in an NHS already in the midst of the disastrous reforms that have wreaked such havoc since. I joined a union, but slowly my days of political activism died away. So my hey-day of political awareness coincided with Mrs Thatcher's premiership. This was not a coincidence and I am grateful to her for politicising me, admittedly in opposition. I will always be a Labour supporter and to the left of the political spectrum, so how do I feel about the death of my nemesis of my youth?
My eighteen year old self would probably have said "good" but even then I would have winced at the terms "bitch" and "witch" that are being bandied around. There is a strong undercurrent of misogyny in these insults, which is utterly abhorrent.
My forty seven year old self also feels it is wrong to gloat over the death of an elderly woman, who died alone and in the grip of dementia. She died with only her doctor and paid help to keep her company. Both her children, knowing their mother must be close to the end, chose to be on holiday. Could they not have arranged for at least one of them to be with her?
I had a very fractious relationship with my father, whose behaviour over the years had alienated us all. Yet, in his last weeks he was never alone, I moved into his flat until he was admitted to a hospice. At the end, he died clutching the hands of myself and my brother. Mrs Thatcher would forget her husband had died, when reminded she would say, "oh, were we there?". Well, no one was there for her.
So, whilst I can understand those who lives and communities were irrevocably wrecked by her premiership raising a glass to her passing, I do think a bit of compassion is also called for. Maybe I'm getting soft, maybe I'm also recognising a major figure of my youth has gone. Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, over and out.

The photos are of me and my friends at Greenham Common in 1983. I'm the short one with a red balloon.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

My March Reads

Well, spring is taking its time springing but I became more mobile this month. I'm back behind the wheel, which feels fab, and I've been increasing the lengths of my daily walks. Luckily the weather has been dry and the woods are on my doorstep, so I have no excuses not to get out in the fresh air and build up my strength.
I read four good books in March. "You Had Me At Hello" is the debut novel by Mhairi McFarlane.It is set in Manchester and tells the story of Rachel, a court reporter, who breaks up from her long-term boyfriend, only to have an old university flame arrive back in town. I enjoyed the story and thought the characters were very well written. Maybe I liked it so much as I live in Manchester and my other half knows the courts very well indeed! I did tweet the author to tell her I liked the book although I didn't think any northern bloke would say he was cooking "dinner" at "tea time". She gamely replied I was right, (of course!) I do like authors who take the time to reply to you on twitter. I've had interactions with JoJo Moyes, India Knight, Judith O'Reilly, Mary Beard, Amanda Foreman, Emma Kennedy and others. I never expect a reply but it's always nice when people take time to engage with their readers.
I read Judith O'Reilly's book on doing an act of kindness every day at the beginning of the year and enjoyed it so much I bought her earlier book, "Wife in the North". The author was pregnant with two young children when her husband persuades her to move from her beloved London, to a small village in Northumbria. Judith does write so vividly, she is very funny but can also move you to tears. The reader does feel part of this chaotic but loving family, I love the parts about her aged parents. She writes an excellent blog also called Wife in the North, well worth a read.
"Sleep With Me" by Joanna Briscoe started off really well. Richard and Leila are expecting their first child when a mysterious woman enters their lives, Sylvie ingratiates herself subtly with the couple and their friends, with disastrous consequences. I did think it lost its way, from being quite eerie and unsettling, the plot became a little too preposterous. I thought it was well written though, quite poetic and the air of unease caused by such a seemingly benign presence as Sylvie is very effecting.
My vintage read this month was "The Last of the Wine" by Mary Renault. Published in 1956, this is a novel set in Athens during the thirty year Peloponnesian war. It tells the story of Alexias and his love for Lysis. The story of his blossoming from a youth to young manhood is beautifully described and real historical figures such as Socrates, Plato and Xenophon are included in the action. I sometimes find historical fiction quite badly written and a tad "dumbed down" but this is good stuff. The prose can be quite dense at times, but it paints a very vivd picture of the golden age of ancient Athens

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Tales From The Tearooms

It's been a while since I have scribbled about an afternoon tea. It was a great treat to get out over the Easter weekend and even better to go out for tea somewhere I hadn't been before.
The Edwardian in Manchester used to be The Free Trade Hall, a beautiful Victorian building built on the site of the infamous Peterloo Massacre. Until recent years it was Manchester's premier concert venue; the Halle orchestra had their home there, Bob Dylan was called a "Judas" for playing the electric guitar there and the Sex Pistols kicked off punk there.
In many ways it is sad to think a building that was such an iconic symbol of civic pride, is now a Radisson hotel, but better that than falling into decay and disrepair.
Afternoon tea is served in the Opus restaurant at the front of the building and if you are having champagne ( goes without saying) you can sit in the atrium area directly overlooking Peter Street. This is great for people-watching and on Easter Saturday hordes of hopefuls were auditioning to be extras in The Rocky Horror Show at The Opera House. Needless to say we had fun waving to the fabulously attired crowd.
The tea was utterly delicious. For £26, I had the traditional tea with champagne. This consisted of four delicious finger sandwiches, two scones with jam, an elderflower jelly, a mini lemon meringue tart, a blueberry tart and a white chocolate tart. Pots of tea were topped up on request at no extra charge. The cakes were exquisite and even I had to admit defeat and leave one scone.
My friend had the Gentleman's Tea, this included sandwiches, a mini pork pie, a mini Yorkshire pudding, mini fish, chips and mushy peas plus scones. It looked fabulous and I will order that next time. The waiters and waitresses were very friendly and attentive.
I think it is advisable to book at weekends, and I can thoroughly recommend The Edwardian for an afternoon treat that will not disappoint.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

My February Reads

As I couldn't do much else this month, I read quite a bit. Nothing too taxing on the old post-anaesthetised brain, and I was prone to falling asleep many times mid-sentence. However, there is nothing more relaxing than snuggling under a cosy cover with a book, several pillows and a restorative cuppa.
My Anne Tyler read this month was an early novel, first published in 1974, "Celestial Navigation". It is the story of Jeremy Pauling, an artist who is agoraphobic and has serious issues which appear Asperger-like. He owns a boarding house and in 1961, a beautiful woman with a young child comes to stay. The story spans thirteen years, Mary and Jeremy never marry but have several children together until Jeremy's fragile state of mind, forces Mary into a decision. Once again, Tyler writes so well, you feel as if know these people, and I felt such pity for Jeremy, a man who navigates life as if by the stars, the celestial navigation of the title.
I've mentioned before that I enjoy the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexander McCall-Smith. The latest about the Edinburgh based philosopher is called "The Uncommon Appeal Of Clouds". Isabel is asked to help investigate a case of a missing painting. I do like these gentle stories, I like the character of Isabel with her younger partner and her endless lapses into musing on the meaning of almost everything. The stories are not at all dynamic, but like an old slipper, they are comfortable to return to when required!
Barbara Kingsolver is another author I really enjoy. Her latest book, "Flight Behaviour" is excellent. Dellarobia is a young wife and mother, smothered by boredom and poverty in rural America. She accidentally discovers an environmental phenomena which brings scientists and the media to her door with life-changing consequences. Kingsolver is never didactic but I felt informed and educated by her writing on the effect global warming and other environmental issues are having on, in this case, Monarch Butterflies. By using the story of Dellarobia, the larger subject is 'humanised' and brought into every-day relevance. Farmers, like Dellarobia's in-laws, desperate to scratch a living, can earn money by de-logging but this quick fix solution leads to devastating mud slides and the further annihilation of the natural habitat of species, such as the butterfly. Increasingly wet weather, caused by global warming, adds to the air of gloom that pervades the novel. I thought it was written very well, the characters were vividly drawn as was the landscape of back-woods America.
Whilst I was in hospital, I read "I Remember Nothing" by Nora Ephron, a series of reflections on getting older. This is a particularly poignant read as Ephron died not too long after publication. It is very funny and full of bathos. It concludes with a list of things she will miss and not miss when she dies. She won't miss washing her hair or Fox TV but oh, butter and pie...I totally concur!
I also read "Maine" by Courtney Sullivan whilst in hospital and it was an ideal book for the occasion, easy to read and not too demanding! It tells the story of a family who own a holiday home in Maine, the elderly matriarch decides to bequeath it to the church, and the novel explores why she came to this decision and the effect it has on her dysfunctional family. I liked the characters, thought it was well written and it kept my interest to the end. It would make an ideal holiday read.
"Alys, Always" by Harriet Lane was another good read. When Frances, a young woman with a fairly unexciting life, comes across a car accident involving the wife of a novelist, she is drawn into the bohemian world of the bereaved family. Frances is quite a chilling character, her metamorphosis from mouse to arch manipulator is compelling, a real page turner.
Finally, to cheer myself up, when I came home, I read "Moranthology" by Caitlin Moran. This had me straining my stitches, she really is a very funny writer. I enjoyed being able to dip in and out of these essays, mostly previously published columns in The Times.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Phewee we went to the consultant to hear the results of the pathology of my ovarian mass. I've been through this before, I know if there is a nurse with him, and a box of tissues in a prominent position, it's not good news. There was no nurse in the room, the doctor leapt up and shook my hand, beaming. He gave me the report to read, and all I could see was the conclusion, it wasn't cancer, it was endometrial tissue.
The term, "a weight was lifted off my shoulders" is such a cliche, but honestly, I felt like I could float away with relief. My husband looked stunned. I couldn't wait to phone my daughter, my mum, my mother-in-law, my best friend.
There is an advert on television at the moment for Macmillan nurses and it states that over 800 people a day in the UK are told they have cancer. Today it wasn't me and I am so profoundly grateful but others aren't so lucky.
I'm still rather sore but I am not complaining! I am not complaining about anything for now. Life is so sweet.
Thank you to all of you who left comments on my blog or on twitter. I've been truly grateful for all your kind words. Spring is just around the corner, the days are lighter and I am happy.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Post Op

Well, that was a start to the year I did not envisage. A seemingly routine trip to the GP and I am now writing this, lying on the sofa without many of my "lady parts"!
I had a cancerous polyp removed from my bowel seven years ago. It was caught early and after a spot of internal plumbing, I was as right as rain. To be honest, I thought " well, that's my brush with cancer done" and slid back into normality. I am getting to an age where menstrual patterns become less predictable, so when I had a period that lasted a lot longer than normal, I wasn't going to bother going to the doctor, but my husband insisted. My GP is lovely and recommended some hormone tests, I asked if I could have the ca125 test too. This is a marker for ovarian cancer. This came back slightly raised so I was sent for an ultra sound. "Was that ok?" I asked the radiographer, I had trotted off on my own to hospital as I had no reason to worry. "No," she said, reluctant to meet my eye, " you've got something on your ovary which needs urgent investigation." It's strange how your whole life can suddenly come crashing around you. An hour before I'd been wondering what to get for tea and now, well I feared the very worst.
I went to see a consultant who now talked of a "mass" and was sent for an MRI scan which I wept all the way through. I wish I could tell you that I am brave but I'm not. I cried and cried for days, for my poor, bewildered husband, for my daughter on the cusp of adulthood. All I could envisage was their lives without me. I was a nurse many aeons ago, and if there is a worst case scenario, I will plump for that. Ovarian cancer is known as "the silent killer", mine was a 12cm mass that had given me no symptoms at all. I was pole-axed with fear and grief.
The MRI was not as bad as we had feared, the consultant spoke in quietly reassuring tones, he used words such as "curable" "Grade 1" "no evidence of spread" words that I held onto for hope.
Last week I went into The Christie and had a full hysterectomy and half omentumectomy. As I had previous bowel surgery, it wasn't too straight forward, but all things considered, I am recovering well. The skills of the surgeons and the anaesthetist were brilliant. However, it is the love and care of my friends and family that has left me so humbled. My increasingly hysterical texts and phone calls have been answered with unswerving patience. My daughter's friends and parents have shown such kindness. I have been inundated with flowers and cards, texts, tweets and emails. A lady I have never met, except on Twitter, sent a bouquet from Edinburgh. My mum and mum-in-law, both in their seventies, have worked out a rota so one is always here, cooking, cleaning, nurturing and loving.
I am beginning to feel a little more like my old self now, I'm reading lots and listening to plenty of Radio 4. Have you ever made the mistake of watching daytime tv? Oh, it truly is awful. I cannot drive for six weeks but I sat out in the winter sun today and turned my face towards it with relish.
I am seeing my consultant this week, I hope I can face whatever comes next with a little more courage than I've shown. I love my life, I'm not ready to leave it just yet.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

My January Reads and other news....

Well, I have quite a bad start to the year to say the least. I will explain later.
My reads this month were four very good books. "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn was recommended on a lot of "best of 2012" articles so I sent for an American import, only for it to come out over here in paperback in January! It is an excellent thriller told by a husband and wife. Nick's wife Amy has gone missing on their fifth wedding anniversary and the action unfolds through her diary and Nick's narration. The plot is very clever and has many twists and turns, the reader's sympathies veer from husband to wife and back again many times.
"The One Hundred Year Old Man.." By Jonas Jonasson was an absolute delight. Allan Karlsson goes on the run from his own 100th birthday party and becomes embroiled in a big adventure. He has also been involved in the most momentous events of the twentieth century, in a Zelig/Forrest Gump type of way. This was a funny, original read and the characters were drawn so well, I could not put it down.
My daughter is studying "The Turn Of The Screw" by Henry James for English so I read it too, it comes with the novella, "Daisy Miller". I enjoyed Daisy Miller, a tale of an ill-fated free spirit ( for her time) in the fashionable resorts of mid nineteenth century Europe. The Turn of The Screw was very spooky and quite different to the recent BBC adaptation. It ended very abruptly and I had to re read it to see if I had missed anything. It is extremely gothic, spooky stately homes, strange children, ghostly presences. One is left wondering if the poor governess imagined it all or if it was real.
Finally, I read "A Year of Doing Good" by Judith O'Reilly. The title says it all, Judith resolves to do a good deed every day for a year. She is a writer who lives in Northumberland and I found this delightful, funny and very moving. She examines what it means to be "good" and how we can benefit from altruism. She describes people she comes across who do great deeds without fuss or thanks. She is also very honest about hard it can be to try to do a good deed. I found this a very inspiring read and was determined to go off and try and do more for the local community after I had finished it.
However, life can sometimes hold nasty surprises and I will be taking a break from my blog for a while. I hope to return as soon as I am able but I have got a major health issue to face which I don't feel like writing about at the moment. So happy reading everyone and thanks for reading thus far!

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

My December Reads

December is a busy, busy month for everyone, but I can always squeeze reading time into the day!
For the season, I read "Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm" by Stella Gibbons, which I found in Oxfam. It is actually a collection of short stories and only one is set at Cold Comfort Farm, a case of a publisher definitely cashing in! However, I like to read short stories over Christmas, they are easily digested ( unlike my cake, boom boom) and these were light vignettes written in the 1940s. Some were very poignant and beautifully written, others not quite so good. Only two were set at Christmas, so a little mis-sold, perhaps for only the most ardent of Stella Gibbons fans.
Another festive collection was "The Twelve Poems of Christmas" edited by Carol Ann Duffy. I really like these Candlestick Press editions, they are reasonably priced and come with lovely bookmarks. Reading these poems made me feel very festive indeed, they would make a great little present for a literary friend.
"Fire and Rain" by David Browne is a book which describes the musical scene in 1970, a momentous year when The Beatles recorded their last album; Crosby, Stills and Nash made their debut; Bridge Over Troubled Water was completed and James Taylor produced Sweet Baby James. Browne recounts each month and how the wider context of a society in various states of unrest, shaped the music. For someone who loves the music and history of this period, I really liked this book. I read it with the CDs playing in the background, very atmospheric!
SJ Watson's "Before I Go To Sleep" was another Oxfam purchase, and I thoroughly enjoyed this thriller. After a supposed accident, Christine loses her memory every time she goes to sleep. She awakes with no recollection of her marriage or her history since she sustained a head injury many years ago. Slowly, she comes to realise that her husband isn't all that he appears to be. This was very well written, very taut and I had difficulty putting it down. I am not a huge thriller fan, but I recommend this one highly.
Lastly, I finally got round to reading my SIGNED copy (!) of Anne Tyler's "The Beginner's Goodbye". When the author said she initially intended this to be her last book, there was an audible collective groan amongst the audience at the Oxford Literature Festival. However, she said she realised she loves writing too much to ever retire, phew! This is just exquisite, a tale of how Aaron comes to terms with his wife's bizarre death. It has Tyler's usual warmth and wit, together with an actual HAPPY ending. So many of her books leave me wondering what on earth happens to these fabulous characters, but in Aaron's case, we find out. This was such a treat to read, with my annual purchase of Rose and Violet Cremes, wonderful!

Wednesday, 2 January 2013


Well, Epiphany has been and gone and although I love Christmas, I also enjoy the feeling once all the decorations are packed away and the last of the pine needles are vacuumed up.
It is the time for New Year resolutions, I have made all the usual ones in the past and never really stuck to them. My cupboards are littered with diaries which never have entries past March and I know I will never ever give up chocolate. Last year I decided to make a resolution I really wanted to achieve and that was to get in touch with friends I hadn't seen in years. I don't know about you, but I always seem to write in certain Christmas cards, "we MUST meet up", then another year passes without having done anything about it. So last year I decided to REALLY meet up with two old friends. One is a wickedly funny lady I worked with 18 or 19 years ago, I wrote to her with my mobile number, asking her to text or phone when she could. She did and we had a fabulous lunch where we became helpless with laughter over the same things we did all those years ago. We will meet up again in the spring. As we parted she gave me a huge hug and said how pleased she was that we had actually made the effort to physically meet.
The other lady was one of my best friends at school but we had a falling out in our early 20s. The falling out was over such a trivial matter, but we never spoke again. A couple of years ago, I attended a school reunion and was so nervous to see her again, I was afraid of being snubbed. However, we were soon chattering away and swapping numbers. After exchanging letters and cards, I phoned her in the spring and we met up for lunch. Again, it was so nice to share memories and we could not understand how we had let such a trivial thing ultimately wreck a great friendship. Age certainly makes you wiser and I am so glad we are now reconciled. I am happy to report we have since met up a few times, and have managed not to fall out yet!
So, why not take some time to look up old friends and definitely arrange a date to meet? It was one of the best resolutions I have made. I have another two old friends I intend to contact soon so I have kept the same resolution for 2013. Much better than avoiding wine and chocolate!