Sunday, 7 February 2016

The Year in Books: Binge Reading

I'm not sure the Year in Books link up is still there but I wanted to write a books post to share what I've been reading recently.  I've written before about 'The History of the Rain' by Niall Williams, a book I read last summer and then reread right away - I read it quickly as I was desperate to know what happened to the narrator so there was a lot I didn't fully grasp first time as it kind of meanders, back and forward in time and there are so many references to other books.  It's been hard to find something to match it since.

I read and admired 'A God in Ruins' by Kate Atkinson, which also jumps back and forward in time. But I found it a bit disappointing after all the hype and preferred her book 'Life after Life'.  It was obviously very well researched and I should have been interested with all the detailed descriptions of what it was like to be a fighter pilot.  But it felt like homework, improving reading, at times rather than the escapism I like my reading to provide.  'A Place Called Winter' by Patrick Gale, who I usually love, didn't grab me either.  All that bleak landscape and hard work.

I enjoyed 'Number 11' by Jonathan Coe, for its humour and portrayal of modern Britain, particularly the chapters which make fun of celebrity game shows, but, again, it lost pace towards the end.  I also read a book 'One by One in the Darkness' by a writer called  Deirdre Madden who was born and brought up near me in Northern Ireland.  She'd obviously drawn from her own experiences of growing up in the 70s and it was interesting to read about the Troubles from a different perspective.

Last week I indulged in a bit of binge reading, having found one of those elusive books that absorbs me so much I don't want to put it down.  It was passed on to me by a friend who has excellent taste. It's 'The Girl in the Red Coat', a first novel by Kate Hamer.  Reading it reminded me a little of 'Room' by Emma Donoghue as it's about the abduction of a child. Some of the chapters are narrated by the 8 year old child, the others by her mother.  Even though it was a very busy week at work, I ignored marking, housework, family and lost sleep until I got to the end within a couple of days.  Highly recommended and better than the other recent thriller books with 'Girl' in the title (The Girl on the Train' didn't appeal me much.)

Highly recommended.  Now I just need to find another to match it.  Any ideas out there?

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Celtic and Other Connections

If you read Christina's Colourful Life, you'll know where I was at the weekend.  We went to Glasgow to the Celtic Collections music festival.  My husband goes every year and this time I managed to join him, escaping from school early on Friday afternoon. I enjoyed the concert, but what I enjoyed just as much was meeting Christina who lives in Glasgow. Even though I suggested the meet up, I was a bit uncertain.  Would it be awkward? Would we have anything to say to each other in real life?  Well the answer is, yes we did - she was friendly and chatty and I felt like I'd known her for ages.  Before the concert we met her in a pub on George Square, a former bank which was very impressive.  We recognised each other straight away - she was wearing the blue duffle coat she'd made herself and blogged about.  So we talked about our families and books and work and all sorts really.  I already knew a lot about her as I've been reading her post regularly for a couple of years.  Then we went and had a meal in the fish restaurant we always go to when in Glasgow, Gandolphi Fish, and chatted some more.  I'm convinced now of the value of blogging - you can actually make friends online.  No time to write more now - need to get ready for work.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Mockingbird v Mockingjay

I've tried and failed to persuade my daughter to read 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.  She did start but it was a bit slow for her.  I suppose that bit at the beginning about the history of the Finch family is off-putting for some.  She likes more action and particularly enjoyed the 'Divergent' series by Veronica Roth.  It, like The Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins, is set in a dystopian future society and features a strong female character who takes on evil tyrants and corrupt leaders.  There's always a love interest but this doesn't distract the heroine too much from her quest to conquer evil. Both books have spawned a series of films, hugely popular with teenage girls.

Last night, as a reward for surviving a week of back-to-back mock examinations, I took Kate to see the latest of these films based on The Hunger Games, Mockingjay; Part 2.  Usually I avoid these films and she goes with friends but no one was around so I went along, expecting to fall asleep as I am prone to do on a Friday evening.  I dozed a bit at first but then woke up mainly because it was an incredibly violent and frightening film.  I had to cover my eyes in the part where Katniss Everdene (the 'mockingjay', a teenage girl who, like James Bond, seems to have an uncanny ability to survive every attempt to kill her) and her companions are attacked by zombie-like creatures in an underground tunnel. And this is certified 12A?  I certainly wouldn't be happy taking a 12 year old to this.  Sometimes I think they get these certificates wrong - the, Guardian review of the film also makes this point.  I'm worried about showing Zefferelli's 'Romeo and Juliet' to my Year 10 group because it has a 15 certificate, presumably because at one point we see Romeo's bare bottom.  This is hardly going to upset 14-15 year olds, but I bet some of the younger teenagers who watched Mockingjay Part 2 were traumatised by it: I certainly was!

There has been much discussion in the press about whether Katniss is a good role model for young women.  In general, I think she is: she is independent, strong and has a clear sense of justice.  She doubts herself but goes ahead with what she has to do anyway. But I felt the final scene of the film with Katniss cradling a baby while Peeta, the more sensitive of her two suitors,  plays with a toddler in a sunlit meadow was a bit disappointing and ultimately unconvincing. Why wasn't she leading the new regime instead of the army commander who was chosen instead? And what happened to Gale, her other love interest?

Despite the violence, these are good books for teenage girls.  Certainly better than the Virginia Andrews 'Flowers in the Attic' books they used to read when I started to teach.  But I'd still be happier if they were reading 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Look to the future's only just begun

These words from Slade's 1973 Christmas song, which is played endlessly every year, always catch my attention. So I'm going to take Noddy Holder's advice and will 'look to the future'.  This doesn't mean that I'll totally stop writing nostalgic posts about memories like my last one; I'm just going to live for now and leave behind things that hold me back or haven't worked for me. This is what is going:

1. Attempting to live a minimalist/waste free lifestyle
Inspired by Claire from Just a little Less, I have tried in the last two years to change my lifestyle and buy only what I need.  This has not worked and causes stress at home because I haven't been able to convince the rest of the household to do the same.  I tried: bought my husband a copy of Stuffocation: Living more with Less for his birthday.  He hasn't read it: I have.  And he continues to buy endless gadgets, cycling gear, musical instruments..  I am now learning to accept this rather than getting annoyed.  And I enjoy shopping for clothes with my daughter (for the first couple of hours anyway) so I'm not going to feel guilty about treating myself to the occasional frivolous purchase.

2. Extreme decluttering
Bought the Marie Kondo book 'The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up' and tried her method (Do you need/love this item?  If not bin it!)   I gave a really warm comfy, good quality Celtic Collection grey wool cardigan to the charity shop.  More fool me, as I want it now.  Our house is still relatively untidy.  This doesn't matter much.

3. Excessive Worry about Work
I've been working a lot more this year and have surprised myself as I've coped well, not getting as stressed as I have done in the past. It's getting older I reckon: I don't worry so much about what others think about me.

And looking to the future...  

Well I'm going to do the conventional New Year thing and improve my fitness.  I've been inspired by another self-help book, a Christmas present from my sister who has recently discovered yoga and has an inspirational teacher, Nicola Jane Hobbs.  She has just published this book - it features my sister's friend Carol, who is my age, as one of the success stories. (Regular readers of this blog may note that I've said before I'm giving up self-help books.  This one is different - I didn't buy it myself..)

 I've let my exercise habit slip since the summer when I was hitting my activity goal every day according to my Polar Loop monitor.  Davina Fit in 15 minutes hasn't been working for me recently as my knees aren't up to the jumping involved. The Yoga Gym is a good alternative and combined with regular dog-walking should help me feel better and maintain flexibility.  I'll track my progress on here.

Happy New Year to you all!

Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Floods...and Noah

I've just returned from a few days in Northern Ireland and managed to travel without too much disruption apart from a hour and half delay caused by the plane's steering breaking down just as we were taxi-ing away from the terminal.  That'll teach us not to choose Fly(may)be.  We (daughter Kate and I, abandoning family-phobic husband and dog) spent a few days with NI sister in Dromore looking out over the mist-covered Mourne mountains which you can see from her house and rarely venturing outside.  But in the midst of all the wind and rain there was one morning of calm winter sunshine on Sunday and sister, brother-in-law and I went for a very pleasant walk around the lake in Hillsborough and then to the pub for a hot port, a popular drink in NI which you can rarely get in English pubs. Meanwhile the turkey was cooking nicely - there were 10 of us for dinner that day as youngest sister and her family were there too.  I was in charge of stuffing following my dad's recipe for sausagemeat stuffing and basic parsley-based one.  I just about matched Granda's standard, according to nephew Callum.  Kate and I enjoyed this meal much more than Christmas day when we had an overpriced four course meal in a rather posh restaurant which was a bit too formal for her and full of older people. Then there was more present opening and board game playing.  'Taboo', which I bought for older nieces and nephews, was good fun.

All the footage of the floods in the news recently reminded me of the time we were flooded in Ballyronan 30 years ago.  It was the summer of 1985 and I'd brought the boyfriend who is now my husband to visit the family for the first time.  We were in bed (in separate rooms of course) and I couldn't sleep because of the noise of thunderstorm and the rain which had been lashing down for hours. We'd been flooded before - the sheugh (NI for open drain) was prone to overflowing. So I went downstairs to check and stepped into three inches of water at the bottom of the stairs.  I woke the rest of the household and we spent the next few hours with brushes sweeping the water out ot the front door.  It had collected in the backyard, which is enclosed by outbuildings and a high wall, and had reached up to the windowsill, coming in through the back kitchen door, down the step and then out the front of the house.  So we kept sweeping for the next few hours, while my father went outside with a hammer and chisel and attempted to make a hole in the wall to release some of the water.  Meanwhile my mother stayed in bed, weeping and unable to face the prospect of the mess she'd be clearing up. Another worry was that my youngest sister's new kitten was missing.

All was well in the end: our efforts meant the water never got too deep so most of the furniture could be dried out and there was only one carpet to replace.  My enduring memory is of the layer of slimy mud which covered everything.  And the kitten was found safe and well, on top of one of the old cupboards in the outhouse. We helped clear up and the rain stopped: the next day was glorious and I took Paul to visit the Giant's Causeway.

Miffy the kitten with a very young Paul in 1985.

Me at the Giant's Causeway, the day after the flood

With all the rain in NI in the last week I was concerned that the house would flood again, even though the drains have now been fixed.  It's not empty any more - my cousin's daughter, her husband and new baby are living there.  We visited Ballyronan on Monday and went down to the lough, where the water was very high and had flooded the playground. It seems there was one day that water had been running down the lane like a river, but not, so far, into the house. It is good to see the house being lived in and it was cosy with the Rayburn going again.  And lovely to see the new baby, the first little boy in the house since my dad was born - we were all girls.  And his name is...Noah. Let's hope this little Noah doesn't have a flood to deal with.

Ballyronan Marina, December 28th 2015

Thursday, 24 December 2015

So here it is..Merry Christmas

Card designed by niece Hannah

Merry Christmas readers, if any of you are still out there after my long absence.  No excuses really - just got out of the blogging habit.  But resolving to return more regularly in the new year, writing at least a weekly post.  And now, for the record, what I've been doing while not blogging.

more this year as I'm covering my colleague's maternity leave. Most of November disappeared in a blur of marking and preparation. I'm doing more A level English Lit. and I've been teaching poems from the Forward Anthology 'Poems of the Decade' 2002-2011. This has been a challenge but an enjoyable one.  I'll share some of my favourites on here soon.

a visit from Alfrink college in Holland which I've blogged about before.  My lovely friend Anette and four students stayed three days last week with me and other families, telling students at our school about their annual Model United Nations conference.  They impressed everyone at school with their ability to discuss complex global issues in near flawless English. They enjoyed the experience too: I cooked them a welcome meal and introduced them to Christmas pudding and mince pies, and they enjoyed exploring the Christmas market and shops in Chester, which is currently all twinkly with lights.  Their favourite shop? Waterstones book shop, Really good role models for our students,

Catching up with family and going to the theatre...
Brighton sister and brother in law came to stay overnight a couple of weeks ago and we had a night out in Liverpool, Husband and brother in law on a nostalgic trip to see Deaf School, a band they loved when they were in sixth form, many years ago.  Sister and I weren't keen on this and searched for an alternative, choosing a play at the Everyman, 'The Haunting of Hill House'.  Really excellent production. Scary though - highly recommended if you are in the area.

Then another visit to the theatre on Sunday with Manchester sister, daughter Kate and my niece, who celebrated her 10th birthday last week.  For her birthday we bought tickets for Hetty Feather at The Lowry.  This is an adaptation of a Jacqueline Wilson novel, one of my daughter's favourites when she was at that stage.  It was brilliant, Inventive staging, versatile actors - at one point they became convincing circus horses, humour, music, acrobatics and serious issues dealt with in a way which is appropriate for the audience.  Saying that, my niece found some scenes a little upsetting so it's probably not suitable for younger children. My daughter loved it and was very glad to have the excuse of taking her cousin so she could go herself without looking uncool.

And now, suddenly, it's Christmas Eve.  We're at home on the day and then more family visiting as we're travelling to Northern Ireland on Boxing Day.

Two more cards from nephews,  Dominic and Nathan. 

Sunday, 15 November 2015


Planned this weekend to write a catch up blog post - the usual kind of thing about what I've been doing, reading etc. Can't bring myself to do it after waking up yesterday to the news of the horrific terrorist attack in Paris.  All my petty concerns about workload and the messy kitchen brought into perspective.

When we were in New York at half term, we went to the 9/11 memorial. The names of all the people killed are etched on the memorial: ordinary people who went to work that morning and never came home. I wonder what Ann Walsh McGovern, one of the victims whose name I noticed, would be doing now, if those who carried out the attack had remembered their humanity.  What was going through the terrorists' heads as the plane approached the tower?  Any regrets, thoughts of family or twinges of conscience?  Or do they really believe they will be rewarded in the afterlife for their carnage?

What happened in Paris is Europe's 9/11.  A normal Friday night in the city. Young people enjoying a concert. Or at the football. Others enjoying a meal in a restaurant, as we did on our visit to the city in September. Shot in cold blood. Indiscriminately. Randomly.  Families and future plans shattered in an instant. And for what?  What do the terrorists and those who control them want?  How can we stop these things happening?

I grew up with terrorism.  Many people in Northern Ireland and in England lost their lives; many of them were innocent civilians. The violence on both sides was unacceptable.  But at least there was a 'reason' (not quite the word, but you know what I mean) behind it and leaders you could talk to and attempt to negotiate with.  Through peace talks, the violence in Northern has ended.

How can world leaders respond to this attack?  More air strikes?  That's hardly going to solve the problem when there seems to be an unending supply of young men prepared to blow themselves up to combat the evils of the west. Like young people who go out to enjoy themselves on a Friday night.

There'll be a memorial in Paris, just like the one in New York.  We'll visit it and feel sad and sorry for those who have lost their lives.  And secretly, and guiltily, glad it wasn't us, as it so easily could have been.