Thursday, 16 November 2017

Books of the Year

I haven't written a book post since March so instead of my usual The Year in Books entry I'm going to do a summary of my reading year in the way they do in newspapers.  I've been inspired to do this because I've signed up to a blogging workshop next Sunday run by Simon Savidge who writes a book review blog called Savidge Reads.

So here's the list.  I've decided to give each a mark out of 10, according to how much I enjoyed them..

On Kindle:
The Light Years: Book 1 of The Cazalet Chronicles Elizabeth Jane Howard  9
Hard Times Charles Dickens   (Reread) 6
Thomas and Mary -A Love Story Tim Parks  6
History of the Rain Niall Williams (Reread) 9
O Come Ye Back to Ireland  (NF) Niall Williams   8

Bookclub Choices
A Spot of Bother Mark Haddon         7
Four Letters of Love Niall Williams   6  (My choice)
The End of the Affair Graham Greene 5
The Underground Railroad Colson Whitehead 9
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine Gail Honeyman  9
Good Me, Bad Me Ali Land  7

From library/school/own bookshelves:
Bad Dreams Tessa Hadley (Short Stories) 7
A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled Ruby Wax  5
On Writing Stephen King 9
The Kite Runner Khaled Hosseini (Reread) 9
The Essex Serpent Sarah Perry 8
The Road Cormac McCarthy 8

Waverton Good Reads
The Things We Thought We Knew Mahauda Snaith  7

I've recently been taking part in The Waverton Good Read. Every year since 2003 the residents of Waverton, a village not far from Chester read novels published in the last 12 months and make an award for to the one they judge to be the best.  I don't live in Waverton, but have been allowed to take part.  It's great as I get to read new hardback books for free.

Listing the books like this reveals quite a lot to me about my preferences.  My favourite kind of book is a family saga with strong characters I can identify with and a good plot.  If I was to nominate my top read for the year in terms of sheer enjoyment it would be The Light Years - The Cazalet Chronilces.  I'm looking forward to reading the other four books in the series. Eleanor Oliphant made me laugh out loud. I'd like to think that other Eleanors in the world would have a similarly happy ending but I suspect they won't, which is why the ending is a little unconvincing hence 9 out of 10 rather than full marks.  I do enjoy a book with humour and Eleanor's observations about office life are hilarious.

The 'best' books here are The Underground Railroad and The Road, both of which were very powerful but actually not great bedtime reading because of the horrors they relate.  You can read the Simon Savidge review of The Underground Railroad  here.  I read The Road because we are using it as a coursework text for A Level.  It is a bleak account of the attempts of a father and son to survive in a world destroyed by the effects of climate change.  Very powerful but not easy to read with only glimmers of hope through the portrayal of the father/son relationship.  I suppose these are the 'best' books because they are ultimately more memorable and have something to say.

I'm now reading another Waverton Book 'The Pinocchio Brief'  which is a kind detective/court drama, not my usual kind of thing.  Bookclub book of the month is 'Surfacing' by Margaret Atwood.  I'm looking forward to this as I've read quite a few Margaret Atwood books and always enjoy them.  I also would like to try a Stephen King novel as I read his book 'On Writing' and found it fascinating.  I reserved a copy of 'The Stand' through the library but it's an expanded edition which is over 1000pages so I think I'll return it and read the original.


Saturday, 4 November 2017


This little girl turned 18 last weekend and yesterday passed her driving test.  It seems no time since I was organising her 5th birthday party, where the photo above was taken.  I'm sure she won't be happy with me publishing this picture of her with a mouthful of jam sandwich, but I think she looks so cute.  Where does the time go?  At present she is making big decisions about her future.  She has visited universities in Sheffield, York, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Nottingham and Warwick.  I went with her to some of the open days and was amazed by the way universities are now selling themselves and competing for students. As we were looking around both Warwick and York, Kate spotted Andy Burnham with his son who seems to be interested in the same kinds of courses as Kate. She was very excited about this but not brave enough to talk to him.  I hadn't spotted him in his casual gear and no one else seemed to recognise him either, even though he was presumably surrounded by A Level  students of history and politics. We also had a look at Oxford and Cambridge, as she'd been encouraged by teachers to consider them. That was an interesting experience - I liked getting the chance to look around - there were some beautiful gardens - but the comment from a girl showing us around Christ's College in Oxford about being allowed to play croquet on the lawn in summer kind of illustrated how far away from any kind of student experience elsewhere these colleges are. And they seem to eat their meals in halls which look like Hogwarts.  Her UCAS form is now in and she's applied to study History and Politics at York, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Sheffield.  She's had some offers so now she just needs to get the grades.   Exciting times but hard work ahead.

She certainly seems to have had more advice than I did when applying for university.  I felt I ought to do some kind of vocational course as people kept asking me what I wanted to do.  I insisted at that stage that I didn't want to be a teacher.  I like books, I thought, and so applied for some librarianship courses, changing my mind after the form went in as a helpful careers' officer said he thought librarians were bitchy( !!!!! I'm sure he didn't use this word but this is how I remember it)  and I would be best to do a more general degree in subjects I liked and then a postgraduate course.  This left me with only a couple of options.  I had an offer from Queen's in Belfast and one from Salford over in England.  I thought I might like to go to England so I chose it first, not having a clue about where it was or anything at all about it -  I'm not sure there were open days then.  I couldn't even say the name properly. I didn't real expect to get the grades they were asking for so it was a bit of a shock when I headed off on the ferry to Liverpool, then a train to Manchester and found myself in Coronation Street. It was a bit grim in Salford (it was the 1970s) but I didn't really mind as I was too busy enjoying myself. I'm not sure I made a wise choice but it turned out fine in the end.

Other news since my last post ( I only seem to manage about one  month) is that our building work is progressing so we hope to have a new kitchen for Christmas.  The old one is now completely demolished.  This has made life difficult this week as we only have a microwave to cook with and are existing on ready meals and toast.  But at least we have hot water and central heating again now the boiler is operational.

That's it for now.  Need to go and vacuum up the layer of dust left all over the house after builders' knocked out a new window yesterday.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017


Newcastle, Co Down 

September has been a busy month. Back to school and routine again which I like... for a while.  Now as the nights draw in and it's getting colder, I'm longing for the lazy lie-ins of summer.  Today, Wednesday, is my day off so I thought I'd add a post here.  My posts this year have been so infrequent that I'm in danger of giving up altogether. It's not that I don't have time or that I have nothing to say - it's just laziness really.  This morning I'm going to rejoin the weekly creative writing class I attended last autumn in the hope that it will encourage me to do a bit more writing.  Since my course in Ireland last year I've been meaning to start a new project but again haven't got round to it.  I borrowed the Stephen King book 'On Writing' from the library and he advises setting a fixed amount of words to achieve everyday.  I'd have to set the target low - 500 maybe. Surely I could manage that?  I have managed a bit of self-discipline recently on the exercise front so now need to extend it to my writing.

So a quick round up for the record of the last month or so.

Summer ended with a visit to Northern Ireland with husband, leaving teenager and dog at home.  He completed the 'Lap the Lough' cycle event with his brothers-in -law while my sister and I returned to Ballyronan to visit family there.  On Bank Holiday Monday, which was damp and cool in NI, while the sun shone in other parts of the UK, we had a day out in Newcastle, County Down.  My sister couldn't believe I'd never been there.  We had lunch in the 'Percy French' bistro of the swanky Slieve Donard hotel.  I didn't know who Percy French was. It seems he wrote the song about the Mountains of Mourne sweeping down to the sea.  The words of the song were  printed on the wall of the restaurant:

Oh Mary, this London's a wonderful sight
With people here working by day and by night.
They don't grow potatoes or barley or wheat,
But there's gangs of them diggin' for gold in the street.
At least, when I asked them that's what I was told
So I just took a hand in this diggin' for gold,
But for all that I've found there, I might as well be
Where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

Newcastle is a pleasant enough little seaside town with the mountains providing a dramatic backdrop. but the beach is very poor compared to those on the North Coast.  We drove back via the Spelga Dam, but it was too wet to do much walking in the Mournes that day.

In the 'Percy French' I had a very nice fish soup accompanied by Wheaten Bread. Inspired by this, I did a bit if baking back in Chester, trying to recreate the taste of home.  My fish soup was Cullen Skink - not Irish but Scottish but it was very nice indeed.

I'll sum up the rest of September in list form:

1. The builders are making progress with a little delay because of the rain.  We should have a kitchen extension with a roof soon.
2. Because of the building we have no central heating and have already been lighting the log burner.
3. Kate has been writing her personal statement for her UCAS form. This was hard going for everyone. More on this later.
4. I took advantage of some free personal training advice at the gym and was doing quite well in the summer months, following the routine she gave me.  But I'm lapsing a little now.  I'll keep going with the Zumba classes. Yes I do look ridiculous, but I don't care.
5. Work is easier this year now I have a new colleague running the English department and I'm enjoying it again.

That's it for now.  Do have a book post mentally written so hope to get round to that soon.




Friday, 25 August 2017

End of Summer Catch Up

The long school holidays are coming to an end now and routine will be back soon.  I'm ready for this now, a bit restless and also keen to escape the noise and disruption at home. Work has now started on our downstairs kitchen extension and this is the view outside the back window.

As I write this the builders are filling the large trench with wheelbarrows of concrete from a lorry parked on the road - tough work and it will take them a long time.  Over the past few days I have developed huge respect for the two men who are here all day.  I've watched them demolish the existing porch, fill several skips with rubble and dig the foundations.  They had a mini digger to help with the digging but otherwise it is just hard, dirty and fairly unpleasant physical work. Despite this, they are friendly and uncomplaining. Makes me feeling guilty about moaning about my own work, which is really very enjoyable most of the time, especially when viewed from the perspective of the summer holiday.

The last few weeks have been fairly quiet and uneventful.  I've been attempting to improve my fitness by going to the gym more often and after writing this I'm off to Aqua Aerobics which is a bit of variety.  I'm not that keen on treadmills and machines and prefer classes, my favourite being Zumba, where I generally make a fool of myself but don't care much as it is good fun. We had one evening out to another Storyhouse production - 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' in Chester's Grosvenor Park. I'm always wary of rain on these occasions but luckily it was a lovely clear evening if a bit chilly: we were prepared with blankets.   Another excellent production, really inventive with the fairies being represented by...... cut-off red rubber gloves waved around.  Sounds crazy, but it worked. The ending was really magical as the skies darkened and the lights came on.

Theatre in the Grosvenor Park
We also had a day trip to Anglesey mainly  to pick up Kate who had been staying with a friend on a caravan park there.  En route we called in Caernarfon where I'd never been and had a walk around the pretty town and the outskirts of the castle - couldn't go in as we had the dog with us.  Then we had a leisurely drive around the Anglesey coast, stopping for lunch by a beach in Rhosneigr.  Wales is so beautiful - we should explore it further. I've resolved to take more advantage of all the the lovely places to visit nearer home n the next few years.

Husband and half of dog at Caernarfon Castle.  

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Summer Outings: Dunkirk and NGS visits

I'm trying to get back to my habit of weekly blogging. No excuses really as I have lots of time at the moment with three more weeks of summer holidays before we return to school.  I'm making the most of my time of this year, mixing the usual list of household tasks with more pleasant activities.

On Friday evening we went to see Dunkirk at the local Vue, paying the extra for the IMAX which promises a better experience because of the bigger screen and superior sound quality as recommended by the reviews.  It was worth it: I felt completely 'immersed' in the action as Mark Kermode described in his review, with the sound of the gunfire seeming to come from below us.  This isn't my usual kind of film - I prefer more dialogue and usually dislike nonstop action - I despise Bond films for example.   Kate had seen the with a friend just on a standard screen a couple of days before us and she said she felt she was there and didn't notice the time passing when she watched.   The big draw for the younger female audience was Harry Styles, who plays one of the young soldiers, trying desperately to escape and behaving in a fairly ruthless and unpleasant manner while doing so.   Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance also appeared, though there were no real star parts as there were three interlinked stories and the action shifts from one to the other.  This was sometimes confusing but I didn't get so lost that it was frustrating.  I also usually object to blood and gore and I suppose this is where the director Nolan made compromises in his attempt to capture the reality of the soldiers' experience. Although there were plenty of explosions, gunfire sinking ships and dead bodies, none of them were badly mutilated, so the film was awarded a 12A.  Go and see it if you can before it finishes on the big screen.

A totally different outing this weekend was a trip to another garden.  I've got the little yellow booklet provided by the NGS, the National Garden Scheme, which arranges for people to open their gardens to visitors for charity.  Every Sunday this summer I have tried to visit one of these and this week it was Abbeywood, not a private garden this time but somewhere which is a wedding venue.  But one of the best gardens I visited was actually walking distance from home, a small suburban gardens which backs onto the railway and was absolutely packed with plants.  Abbeywood was full of dahlias which used to be popular when I was a child in NI, but fell out of fashion for a while.  Now they are everywhere - B&Q had rows of colourful pots when I went there the other day.  We also went to Eaton Hall, home of the new Duke of Westminster, who is 26 and apparently the 9th richest man in England. The garden is open for charity four times a year and is very impressive.   I loved the rose gardens - there are four with different colour themes and the kitchen garden.  I'd dragged Kate along that day, promising cake and she was less impressed, thinking it disgraceful that one family has so much wealth. Here are some not terribly good phone photos which will give you an impression of the gardens I have visited.  The first four are from Abbeywood, the others Eaton Hall.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Summer Outings: Julius Caesar at Storyhouse

It’s been a year since we moved into our new house close to Chester town centre.  I do miss being close to the countryside and my more peaceful garden but this is outweighed by the fact that we can now walk most places we want to go.  This summer holiday I have been taking advantage of this more, going to all sorts of events in Chester, which I may not have bothered with if I had to find a parking space first.
So in the last couple of weeks I have visited our new library/theatre/cinema Storyhouse on numerous occasions. I dragged slightly reluctant Kate to see a performance of Julius Caesar (Guardian review here - Chester doesn't often get a mention so I feel quite proud.) Kate enjoyed it in the end and so did I.  I sometimes feel a little ashamed to admit that I don’t tend to enjoy performances of Shakespeare’s plays much, but this was an exception, probably because I have never taught it. It began in the auditorium outside the theatre where the audience formed part of the crowd greeting Caesar as if he were a victorious politician.  Echoes of Donald Trump. Then we all took our seats in the theatre and watched him address the crowds.  I also liked the scene where Caesar does his morning yoga routine while his wife tries to persuade him not to go to the senate on the Ides of March. .  It was all modern dress and Mark Antony was played by a woman which some people in the audience didn’t like.  I thought she was very good, and especially convincing in the scene when she changes the crowd’s response to Caesar’s death through her powerful speech. The performance has now transferred to the open air theatre in Grosvenor Park.  I’m not sure how they will recreate it there without lighting and the clever device which provided blood for the murder scene by dropping it from above.

I've also been to a poetry workshop at Storyhouse and an exhibition of modern art in the cathedral. But I'll keep these to another post.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Family Holiday in Barcelona

Last week my daughter Kate and I were in holiday in Barcelona, or to be specific, Cabrils which is 30 minutes away from Barcelona.  We spent the week in a lovely villa in a quiet (or at least until we arrived) residential area with my sisters and their families.  For a few days the whole family, including all of Kate's 10 cousins, were there, with the exception of my Paul who couldn't be persuaded to join us: he doesn't like flying, the heat or, to be honest, large family gatherings which last more than an evening. 

We had a brilliant time. The villa was a perfect location for a family gathering - it took some time to find a place that would accommodate all of us.  It was very impressive with chandeliers and a grand piano as you can see from the pictures below, but affordable since the cost was split between five families. There were eight bedrooms and three bathrooms and plenty of space including a shady balcony where I spent quite a lot of time reading and catching up with sisters including NZ sister who we haven't seen since our last reunion. I'm not keen on lying in the sun. In fact, to venture out at all in Spain I have to cover myself in a layer of factor 50, as I burn so easily, and then top than with a layer of Jungle Formula insect repellent. And I still got bitten - we all did. I had the best bedroom with a balcony and a huge painting covering one wall, not because of my status as the eldest sister, but because I wasn't bothered about air-conditioning and this room had a fan instead.

The view from my bedroom window
The painting covering one wall of my bedroom

Meanwhile the kids, big and little, spent most of the week in the pool.   The small boys enjoyed using the woggles as weapons on their 22 year old cousin. The older ones played games involving pushing each other off the lilo and an inflatable crocodile until the early hours of the morning, making so much noise one evening that the neighbours complained. There was also a table tennis table and cousin Callum organised a family table tennis tournament.  I went out in the first round, losing by one point to sister Sylvia, a good job  too as she is very competitive would not have been pleased. The tournament was won Dean, one of the older nephews, in a tense and closely matched 5 set final against his brother Callum, which we all watched one evening after dinner.

The view of the pool from the shady balcony.

Kate, warming up for her match against NZ cousin Will.

We were also fascinated by the family of baby falcons at the villa.  It seems they had fallen from the nest but the mother was still feeding them and we were advised to leave them alone as interfering or feeding them would cause the mother to abandon them. They were huddled together and looked rather forlorn when we first arrived, especially the one with a damaged leg.  But they gained strength and by the time we left some were able to fly up to higher walls.  The injured one, who eleven year old Hannah named Stevie, seemed to get stronger too though still wasn't flying.  Hannah checked on him every day.  I think this is Stevie in the picture below.

Shopping and cooking for up to 20 was a bit of a challenge but luckily we had champion BBQ expert, Simon with us, occasionally assisted by the other brothers-in-law. Living in NZ where I suppose imported food is pricey, Simon actually enjoyed going to the supermarket and was amazed by the range of food and drink available and how cheap it was. Thanks to him and sister Diane, who at one in her life was a restaurant manager, huge quantities of lovely food appeared every evening with very little effort from the rest of us beyond a bit of table laying and washing up.  One evening we had this spectacular paella which tasted as good as it looks.

We spent most days at the villa but did go into Barcelona one day.  It was too hot to walk around much so after a fairly unpleasant visit to a very busy McDonald's in Place Catalonia to get lunch for the children, we took a bus tour round the city.  Here's my one wonky phone photo of the Sagrada Familia which is like no other church I have ever seen.  We also drove past Nou Camp, Barcelona's football ground.  The younger nephews went back there the next day for a longer visit and a tour of the dressing rooms etc. We also had a day at the beach in Vilassar de Mar, with the kids enjoying the huge waves as it was quite breezy and a bit overcast that day.  I was pleased as it meant I didn't frazzle.

Both Sylvia and I celebrated our birthdays during the week and so, on the day of my birthday, us five sisters and Kate went for a meal in a shady restaurant in Cabrils, the nearest village to the villa.  The meal was nothing special but we did have very good strawberry mojitos to start and enjoyed our more peaceful afternoon out.  Here I am with my mojito wearing the necklace Kate bought me for my birthday.

So certainly a different kind of reunion than the last one I wrote about two years where we were on the beach in Portrush.  I was a bit sad we weren't in Northern Ireland and so were some of my sisters but the NZ cousins were keen to see a bit more of Europe and have a holiday where it didn't rain quite so much.  And everyone certainly enjoyed themselves.