Friday, 1 January 2016

New Year, New Blog

A new year is such a good opportunity for a new start. Or a new blog.
I've moved, come say hello...

Monday, 21 September 2015

On Exercise

I've never been a runner but I've always wanted to be. I have a romantic image of pulling on my trainers and flying along, clocking up the miles, feeling fit and strong, sunset and scenery behind me.
My overwhelming memory of PE lessons at primary school revolve around "cross country" running - laps of the neighbouring high school's football fields. I hated it. I hated how our teacher spent the class standing in the middle, yelling at us for stopping or going too slowly. I was always, always at the back, struggling and panting, trying not to throw up in a bush, embarrassed.
High school was a little better, but the downside of going to a school where much of the reputation is built on how many girls make the Yorkshire hockey squad is that if you're not the athletic type, it's a constant game of catch up. When I was fourteen I rebelled, in what I still consider to have been one of my finest hours. I refused to do the Bleep Test. I refused to drop out first and be humiliated, and I refused to acknowledge that running up and down in time to an electronic metronome was the best way to determine our health or fitness. I still do. The thing is, as a teenager, I swam. Not competitively as speed was not my forte, but long distances. I did my bronze, silver and gold badges, working my way up to swimming a mile, and I qualified as a poolguard. I could swim a mile, but I couldn't run a kilometre.

As an adult, not much has changed. I still can't run. I am exactly the target audience for the This Girl Can campaign, and when it came under fire from university sports lecturers I laughed at how much they missed the point. Those critics? They will have been the hockey squad girls who teased me for my inability to keep up.

A couple of years ago I started Pilates classes after the sports therapist sorting out my joint pain suggested it. Slowly my strong swimming muscles started to come back, my aches went away and I felt good about exercise for the first time in years. I started walking the 2 miles home from work instead of getting the bus. I started weight training. And I love it. The more I get the hang of finding the right exercise for me, the more I'm learning about my body. I have a new found respect and gratitude for how it moves and for the fact that, despite the physical flaws, my flat feet and troublesome joints - it works

A couple of weeks ago my friend Smidge asked if I fancied doing a 10 mile charity walk with her to raise money for Maggie's Centres. I immediately said yes, quietly panicking the next day when she reminded me. Three weeks to train? Starting at 6.30pm on a Friday night after a week at work? I suspect I'm going to find it hard. But sometimes hard is worth it.

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Sunday, 23 August 2015

Holiday For One: Snapshots

Two days before I went away, I had a wobble. Quite a big one. There was an "oh no why am I going on my own?" panic, with an element of "why am I not excited? Why am I not counting down the hours like I usually do?" thrown in. 

Of course - I was fine. I was more than fine. At one point I found myself walking around Florence at 7.30am, having got up early to avoid the heat and the crowds, thinking - "this is amazing". And it was. There is something very liberating about being able to go at your own pace. For once, I wasn't bothered that tickets to the museums had sold out weeks before I had even realised I should book - I was happy to wander around, enjoy the scenery, stop for a cool drink or a gelato, or to take a photo when I wanted to. 

And when I wanted to chat to people, I could. I suspect that solo travellers give off a "vibe" - a little like traffic lights.
Red - no I don't want to chat, I'm happy with my beer and my book. Amber - I'll think about it, but don't be offended if I make my excuses. Green - I am open to conversation.
I discussed the price of Florentine leather, and got haggling tips from a Swiss couple who were staying in the same hotel as me. 
I laughed with an older Australian woman while we nervously descended the steep, dark, steps of a bell tower. "You'd never get away with this back home", she said. "It'd all be ruined by neon signs telling you not to hit your head". 
I shared dinner with an American mother, travelling with her teenage daughter. She told me that she had worked abroad after graduating, and how she had wanted to bring her daughter to Europe in the hope that it would encourage her to plan her own adventures. 

48 hours in Florence didn't quite give me enough time but it was a good introduction, both to the city, and to travelling on my own. I couldn't decide whether I was quite ready to move on to my Pilates retreat, which I think is a good sign. I'm already making plans to revisit. The art, the castles, the hilltop views... there's so much that I want to see. And I'll probably go on my own, because now I know I can. 

Monday, 17 August 2015

Books: July 52 in 52

"Books. Cats. Life is good" - Edward Gorey

Decidedly late this month, because I am a bit rubbish at this blogging thing when I'm busy, and because frankly, it didn't occur to me to write this up before I went on holiday. This month, I discovered a couple of new authors, and read the worst book of the challenge so far. One month to go until I'm at the end of my 52 weeks and I've already hit 52 books... I suspect I'll squeeze a few more in before it's finished!

52. Elly Griffiths, The Zig-Zag Girl. 3/5
In post WW2 Brighton, Inspector Stephens is called on to investigate the death of a young woman, found murdered - cut in three as a reference to a magic trick. Stephens quickly realises that there are links with his former war Colorado's - magician Max Mephisto - and from there we enter a lighthearted romp as the two hunt the killer. Meanwhile, the reader is treated to a second mystery which runs through the novel as a second thread. Who were the MagicGang (the war time unit linking our male characters), and how does it link with events five years later? 
This is the first of Griffith's books that I've read, and despite an impressive back catalogue it does read a little like a debut, or an author who isn't entirely sure they're on to a winner. While the characters were interesting and the subplot intreaguing, it felt a little bit like the setting and war references were an afterthought and an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of an Agatha Christie. Enjoyable, but I wouldn't rush to read one of her novels again.

53. Armistead Maupin, Tales of the City. 2/5
I read Tales Of The City after a recommendation from a colleague who assured me that I would find it hilarious. Honestly? It wasn't for me. 
It follows the experiences of country girl Mary Anne, who shocks her family when she moves to San Francisco. Set (and written) in the 1970s, it tells the tales of the people she meets, but the novel really revolves around her eccentric landlady Anna Madrigal. 
I suspect when Tales of the City was written it was somewhat shocking to middle America with plots revolving around characters being gay, cheating on their spouses, and facing affairs with people deemed below their social class. 
I just couldn't get in to it. I lost track of a lot of the characters (possibility because I was reading a chapter a day, but as it was written as a serial that shouldn't have affected it), and found most of them to be quite unpleasant stereotypes. Not my cup of tea. 

54. Jojo Moyes, The Girl You Left Behind. 3/5
After enjoying the first Jojo Moyes book I read, I thought I would go back to get after a couple of duds. The Girl You Left Behind is in many ways two novels in one. It starts in 1916, taking the reader to German Occupied France, and the difficulties of life under the regime for Sophie Lefevre, her family and neighbours.
The second part of the book is more contemporary. Liv, a young widow, is the owner of a painting - of Sophie - that her husband bought for her before his death. Unknown to her, the painting is being reclaimed as a "Spoil of War", and Liv suddenly finds herself embroiled in a legal battle, thrust into the media spotlight.
Aside from some occasionally irritating moments from our characters, I enjoyed The Girl You Left Behind. It somehow managed to be both a fluffy romance and a thought provoking discussion about ownership of art and the difficulties of establishing " rightful owners ". 

55. James Brindle, Modern Serpents Talk Things Through. 4/5
I'd not normally pick a fantasy - and I had not heard of this one - but it came up as a choice for Alex's Blogging Good read this month.
MSTTT introduces us to Tina, who is a modern dragon. She's not such a fan of setting things on fire or scaring people - and when human invades her home, she panics and locks it in a cupboard. Slowly, Tina gets to know her new human, and an unlikely love blossoms.
It's more of a novelette, a short story, but it is clever in the way that it subverts the reader's expectations. I suspect that everyone would identify with the themes - the need to be loved, accepted and the fear of judgement. If I was being cynical then I would say that at times it verges on contrived, but considering it's an early effort by an author I suspect we'll hear more of in the future, I enjoyed it. It also made me laugh, which is a rarity.

56. Lisa Bergren, Glamorous Illusions. 1/5
This book also made me laugh, but largely at it, rather than with it, and I'm not sure that was the author's aim.
When Cora learns that her father is a multimillionaire mining magnate and not the poor farmer she grew up with, she finds herself being blackmailed into going on a tour of Europe with her new half-siblings. Naturally they all hate her, she is an inverse snob, and she develops a thing for the tour guide. He is, of course, the only remotely bearable character.
To say that the book exacerbates every negative stereotype of Europeans would be an understatement. The English are snobby, the French sleazy - and they're all out to 'snare' a rich American. There's a ludicrous subplot involving a foiled kidnapping (I suspect that this attitude, combined with Taken, is why the Americans I knew at uni were terrified of travelling in Europe...) and - most frustrating of all - I ploughed through to the end in the hope that there'd be a satisfying cheesy ending. There wasn't. It stopped, mid story, to be completed in book two...
For so many reasons, avoid.

57. Neil Gaiman, Coraline. 3/5
I've been meaning to read a Neil Gaiman for ages so I was pleased when this came up as the other choice for A Blogging Good Read. It wouldn't have been my first choice of his to read - I tend to steer away from creepy - and this fits firmly in that category. 
Coraline moves into a new flat with her parents, and finds herself Very Bored. After wondering what is behind the locked door in the dining room, she manages to open it only to find a corridor to an alternative universe. Coraline has to solve the mystery of her Other Parents, to return home to safety. She's helped by the souls of three other children, a pebble, some marbles and the next door neighbour's cat.
Although it's not the kind of book I'd normally go for - both for the creepy nature, and because it fits into the Young Adult category (both areas I tend to avoid), I did enjoy it and it was an easy and entertaining read. I read an interview with Gaiman which described it as the kind of book that children would find an adventure but adults would read as a nightmare - and although it won't keep me up at night, I did find it clever. I also particularly liked how the cat was a goodie, and not a baddie, as they so often are...!

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Junk Food

The pop up restaurant scene in Edinburgh seems to be having somewhat of a revival. After the initial wave a few years ago, based in peoples homes, the second round is a little different - more in the form of themed takeovers in established venues, advertised through word of mouth and social media.

My friend Steph told me about the Real Junk Food project as she knew it'd be something I'd enjoy - and she wasn't wrong. The project "intercepts" food that would be discarded as waste by local small businesses and social enterprises, and refashions them into a communal meal, inviting diners to "pay as they feel".
This weekend, the venue was the Edinburgh Larder Bistro, a relaxed little spot in the heart of the Old Town. The menu was simple - three options for starters and mains, with a choice of two puddings. I was impressed by how much the cooks had managed to create a variety with such limited resources (vegan and coeliac friendly options were both available).

I picked the garlic mushrooms and the cauliflower and romanesco cheesy bake, followed by the brownie (chocolate courtesy of a restaurant that didn't get through their supplies before the "best by"). I helped myself to some of the delicious organic bread to soak up the sauce, which had been rescued from a local independent bakery. It was heartening to hear about local companies who were willing to hand over their leftovers, and served as a little reminder to me of how fantastic Edinburgh's independent retail provision is. The stovies and crumble also looked rather good (my friend was a little, er, possessive, so I didn't get a taste!).

I really enjoyed the evening - good food and good company in a relaxed setting - but I did find myself wondering what the "point" was. My gut feeling is that most of the folk at the dinner are probably quite like myself, in that they already have an interest in the ethics of food and where it comes from. But generally, if it gets people thinking about waste and leftovers then that's no bad thing. I also really enjoyed the ethos of paying what you could, with some people making small cash donations towards keeping the project going, others providing musical accompaniment to the meal, and a few folk helping to wash up as their contribution. It certainly opens up eating out to people who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford a pricy city centre meal or an exclusive supper club ticket. I'll be keeping an eye out for their other events in future!
For more information on The Real Junk Food project, visit their website:

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Books: June Fifty Two in Fifty Two

"Have books happened to you? Unless your answer to that question is yes, I'm unsure how to talk to you" Haruki Murakami

48. Michael Robertson, The Baker Street Letters. 1/5.
I love a mystery and I love a Sherlock Holmes so it was inevitable that I would give this a go when I saw it in the library. I was sorely disappointed. 
Two brothers, both lawyers (cue stereotypes) rent 221B Baker Street, on the understanding that all letters addressed to the famous detective are saved. When one if the brothers opens a letter from a girl whose father has gone missing, a transatlantic adventure begins. 
I was so disappointed by this - as an initial concept it had so much potential but it quickly became clear that the author was using the Sherlock connection as a marketing opportunity rather than part of the plot. The lead characters were all very one dimensional and frankly unpleasant, and its pretty telling that a month after reading it, I can hardly remember a thing.

49. Jane Austen, Persuasion. 5/5.
After starting and stopping a couple of books, I decided to go back to an old favourite as a comfort read. Persuasion is probably my favourite of Austen's works, probably because it explores the characters and situation in so much more depth than some of her others - and because its hard not to feel her sadness and anger radiating off the pages. 
Anne Elliot, our heroine, a spinster at 27, was stopped from marrying Captain Wentworth by her father. Now that their house is bring rented out to his family, a reconnection is inevitable. 
The romance is really a side note in Persuasion, which is rather scathing in its critisicm of misplaced snobbery and the role of women in the upper middle classes. Accusations are frequently thrown that Austen only wrote about love and rich people but Persuasion dispels that myth. Numerous rereads later and I still love it.

50. Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White. 3/5.
After reading and enjoying a couple of 'classics' recently, I thought it was time to have a go at The Woman In White, which has been on my shelf but sadly neglected for at least ten years. I loved The Moonstone when I read it a few years ago but I was disappointed in The Woman In White. 
Walter Cartwright, a drawing tutor, is employed to teach two wealthy sisters - and on his way to Cumberland, makes the acquaintance of a woman on the run - dressed in white. Inevitably he falls in love with one of the sisters (not the dark haired sensible one. Oh no.)... And his banishment from the house is where the mystery begins. 
I don't know if its because I'm a bit immune to Victorian 'mystery' but I struggled with this in parts. It was long, overly so, and there were too many subplots to make the ending satisfying. The characters were, again, Victorian stereotypes, and I guessed the major twist about half way through. Not bad, but probably one of those classics where watching the BBC adaption will suffice. 

51. Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. 4/5.
I started reading this by accident after a case of mistaken identity, but found myself really enjoying it. It a gentle tale of a widower, the eponymous Pettigrew, and his everyday battles - with his obnoxious son, his angry sister in law, and his opinionated neighbours. Initially I wasn't convinced, I struggled to find anything likeable in the Major, but Simonson did a fantastic job of drawing his personality out as the tale went on, and he transformed from a snobbish and grumpy man into a principled and honest lead character. I found myself rooting for him as he befriended Mrs Ali, the widowed convenience store owner in his village, and as he supported her troubled family. 
A gentle but really lovely read, if a bit slow at times. It would lend itself to a cinematic portrayal well, and I wouldn't be surprised if it gets the Marigold Hotel treatment soon.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Books: May Fifty Two in Fifty Two

"After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world" Philip Pullman
After a couple of months of struggling to concentrate on reading, I finally got my mojo back half way through May, and now have four books on the go that I've not quite finished yet. From one extreme to the other...

44. Joel Dicker, The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair. 3/5
Harry Quebert, a famous and respected writer and university lecturer, is arrested rather suddenly for the murder of a teenage girl nearly thirty years before. His young friend and protoge, Marcus, decides to give up writing his Difficult Second Novel in order to dash to Harry's side and find out the truth about what happened to Nola Kerrigan. 
It took me a while to get into TTATHQA for a couple of reasons. Firstly - none of the characters are remotely pleasant. Secondly there's an element of the awkward about both the current day tale, and Harry's retelling of the 1970s in that it's difficult to work out what is true and what isn't, but it's quite slowly described and I struggled to really get absorbed in either narrative. However, despite that, I still enjoyed it. There was a slightly unpleasant sub plot involving a disabled character (hard to say more without giving a massive spoiler away) which I felt played too strongly to stereotypes, but the small town setting was atmospheric and it reminded me quite a bit of "True Detective". I wouldn't be surprised if it's adapted for screen soon.
45. Jules Verne, Around The World In 80 Days. 4/5.
A completely different kettle of fish - I listened to this as an audiobook, which was just perfect. I knew absolutely nothing about the book before I started it, and quickly found myself absorbed in the tale of Phileas Fogg and his manservant, Passepartout. It all starts when Fogg gets a bit drunk, and bets some of his friends that he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days. What, you've never done the same?
The best way to describe Around The World in 80 Days would be a stereotypical adventurous Victorian romp. It's dated, there are elements that would be deemed, er, racist nowadays (some eyebrow raising descriptions of Indian and Japanese cultures), and it's really rather daft... but it still works. The sub plot, involving a case of mistaken identity and Fogg being accidentally chased on his quest by a policeman, keeps the momentum going, and results in a rather marvellous ending.
Best read, or listened to, aloud.

46. Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. 4/5.
Speaking of Victorian classics... I realised a while ago that I've lived in Edinburgh for seven years, and I've never read Jekyll and Hyde. I realised while reading it that it isn't actually set in Edinburgh after all.
Having no preconceived notions of what the novella actually involved, other than my wrong one about its setting, I enjoyed hearing the tale unfold. It is told from the perspective of two cousins (Utterson and Enfield) who become involved the eponymous characters after worrying that Mr Hyde is blackmailing Dr Jekyll. A year after their initial worries Utterson is presented with a letter, written by a man murdered by Hyde, and the plot thickens further...
I really enjoyed the dark and frankly unnerving tale of Jekyll and Hyde. While it could be seen to be a Victorian attempt to understand complicated mental health issues, there's something deliciously gothic about it. I'm not sure it really worked during bright and sunny evenings in May, but it's another one that would be wonderful read aloud in the depths of winter.

47. Barbara Taylor Bradford, Cavendon Hall. 1/5.
And a dud. A massive dud. A colleague recommended BTB to me ages ago after we had a chat about how much I'd enjoyed reading Ken Follet's sagas, so I was quite looking forward to delving into another historically set tome. Disappointed is an understatement. The entire plot revolves around Something Terrible happening to one of the Cavendon women, and the desperate attempts by her family, the Ingham's, and their servants, the Swanns, to Sort It All Out.
There are so many holes in the plot that the book is bizzarely reminiscent of the Important Lace Dress, which is described in more detail than a lot of the lead characters. There's some sort of strange pact by the Swanns to always protect the Inghams, which was both highly unlikely and completely unexplained. Why would servants be so keen to drop everything for over-priviledged and unpleasant rich folk? Why are they all in love with each other? Despite finding myself ploughing through in the hope that it'd all be revealed... it wasn't. At least it helped me get off to sleep. Avoid. 

Thursday, 21 May 2015

On Vegetarianism

I've been debating vegetarianism for a while - on and off for about a couple of years. The last couple of months though, I've been thinking about it quite a lot and this year's Vegetarian Week has tipped me into making some changes.

There's quite a few reasons. The first is the cost of meat. I'm not a fan of low cost meat (the amount of additives, the quality, and frankly, how on earth can it be produced that cheaply and still allow a decent quality of life for the animal? Short answer - it can't.) so I buy outdoor reared, free range or organic when I can. The thing is though, that the cost of meat has risen hugely in the last ten years or so, and I'm not willing to compromise on how in order to keep eating it.

The second reason? I don't really like it that much. My parents didn't eat a lot of meat when I was growing up, so I never quite got into a lot of "comfort" meals. I can't stand cottage pie. I really don't like hot pot... so I never cook them anyway. I avoid pork and lamb (because - to me - they taste like farmyards smell) and beef, especially fatty cuts, triggers my IBS. What's with the national obsession with hot dogs and burgers that is currently doing the rounds? Not for me.

Bearing in mind that I don't really eat that much meat anyway, so why not just go the full whammy and go completely veggie?

Because I really like the "off cuts" of meat, the bits most other folk could do without. I can give or take bacon, but crusty bread smeared with pate and topped with fresh tomatoes? Yes please. There's no replicating the tang of chorizo, or the strong iron taste of black pudding with poached eggs, regardless of what spices you use. I'm also vainly attached to my leather jacket.

I've concluded... although full vegetarianism isn't for me, I can certainly choose more carefully. I'll still eat sustainable fish, largely because it's full of nutrients, and it has fewer ethical issues for me than 'meat' does. It'll also give me a few more options when I eat out - because there are only so many mushroom burgers or goats cheese salads that a girl can deal with (that is, of course, assuming that there isn't an interesting and healthy veggie option available). The other thing, which I've been doing anyway but need to focus more on, is choosing "cruelty free" beauty products. If I have an issue with the way my food is reared, I should also be mindful of how the products I put on my body are developed, so I'll stick to Leaping Bunny approved cosmetics too (a quick scan of my bathroom has reassured me that a lot of my existing products already are - three cheers for Sainsbury's, Superdrug and Liz Earle!).

So, off I go to rummage through and sticker my recipe books and read up on nutrition. Any existing veggies have any tips for me?

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Live Below The Line: Reflections

Food for five days. Not pictured: 10 green tea bags.
When I sat down to work out my Live Below The Line menu, I was feeling pretty smug. Five portions of fruit and veg? Easy. Two portions of protein? Not a problem. Bit of dairy? Boom 
And then I began...

rice, peaches, yoghurt
pasta, kidney beans, tinned tomatoes
rice, 2 eggs, frozen vegetables
"I can totally do this. I'm so organised with my measured out portions and I'm not even hungry. What if I find it easy? Is that cheating? Ooh, someone sponsored me!"
Pretty tasty actually. The only thing I wasn't bored of by day 5.
rice, peaches, yoghurt
pasta, kidney beans, tinned tomatoes
rice, frozen vegetables, half a tin of chilli 
"My head hurts a bit and I'm desperate for some salt. Time to crack out the chilli. Urgh it looks like cat food.... Dear lord this is the best thing I've ever eaten."
Filling, but really dull.
rice, peaches, yoghurt
rice, 2 eggs, frozen vegetables
pasta, tinned tomatoes, very small apple
"Ugh, nightmares. Ugh, I have to buy cakes and fruit for a training course I'm running and not eat any of them. Ugh, egg fried rice for lunch, which I'm not able to finish because I feel a bit sick and dizzy. Desperate for something fresh tasting... I'll cash a tin of kidney beans in for an apple from the corner shop on the way home."
Rice with eggs and vegetables is as boring as you'd imagine, even if it is quite healthy.
rice, peaches, yoghurt
pasta, tinned tomatoes
rice, half a tin of chilli, frozen vegetables
"The only thing getting me through this bowl of pasta and the mild nausea it's causing is knowing that I have chilli to look forward to, and realising that I've hit my fundraising target."
55p a tin chilli - finally some salt and fat - marvellous.
rice, peaches, yoghurt
rice, 2 eggs, tinned tomatoes
"Ooh, I've somehow managed to under measure my peach rations and now I have loads left. Hooray! Ooh, I'm working from home, I'll make something more interesting for lunch. Oh. That means I only have plain pasta for dinner. Really didn't think this through..."
Baked eggs in tomato rice. Despite a lack of herbs or spices - pretty good.
Saving the worst until last...
What I learnt doing Live Below The Line:
- If you're looking for Asda smart price products on their website, you have to put in "smart price pasta" otherwise it won't come up. I tweeted them to ask why, and they said it's categorised differently. Found myself getting really cross about this - not exactly easy to find the products if they're hidden from a generic search, which I suspect is the point...
- One green tea bag will make 3 cups, if you use a tea pot. 
- Ready meals are cheaper than vegetables and beans. My disgusting chilli was 55p - cheaper than half a tin of tomatoes with half a tin of kidney beans. 
- I didn't crave the things I expected. I spent the first two days thinking about mackerel, and the final three obsessing over fruit.
- You can lose weight if your diet is 70% carbs. I did - I lost 3.5lbs in 5 days, because I physically couldn't ram in enough calories. I felt awful for it though, and put it all back on the week after.
- Food becomes fuel. I didn't look forward to eating, it was just something I had to do. I felt queasy during most of the week, which meant that forcing myself to finish a bowl of rice was really difficult.
- I listened to my body more the week after I finished the challenge. Instead of eating biscuits absentmindedly without enjoying them, I snacked on yoghurts and fruit - and I felt better for it.
- You can buy considerably more if you pool your £5 with a friend. I found myself debating whether I could do it for 10 days next year, and I suspect it'd be marginally easier because of the variety.
- Ultimately, the only reason I was able to eat "well" doing the challenge was because I had a full kitchen - I had a fridge to keep yoghurt in, a freezer to keep my veg in, and a hob to cook on. A colleague told me about a homeless hostel she worked in, where the only cooking facilities available were a kettle and a microwave. It's hardly surprising that people have poor health and nutrition in those circumstances.
- The thing that got me through? Support from my friends and colleagues. Every time someone sponsored me, offered to bring me a mug of hot water, or texted to ask what my dinner was, I was grateful. If I really was living in extreme poverty, that wouldn't be a reality.

I've raised £280 for Unicef, which I'm pretty staggered by. If you sponsored me, thank you so much. If you can chip in a couple of quid, the link's here

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Books: April Fifty Two in Fifty Two

"There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it" - Bertrand Russell
I've really struggled to find books that I've been absorbed by recently. I've started half a dozen - but just couldn't concentrate on them. April shall therefore be known as The Month When I Watched All The Box Sets. 

40. Marian Keyes, Anybody Out There? 2/5
Oh, Marian. I thought I'd give Marian Keyes a second chance after really not enjoying her latest - I was so optimistic that this earlier one would be as good as Rachel's Holiday - it's got quite a few of the same characters, but no. It was dire. 
There's a bit of a formula to Keyes books. We start in the present with a bit of a "mystery". Why is Anna at home? What's wrong with her? We then do a flip back to "the start" and work out how she got to the present. Then we see the after effects... It's formulaic in structure, and unfortunately in plot line. 
I just wasn't bothered about Anna - compared to her sisters and their pretty rediculous plot lines, she's a really one dimensional character. The elements about grief and loss were well written, but it's a shame that Keyes ended up overshadowing it with a massive plot about psychics and mediums. Really not for me. I won't be going back to her others. 

41. Margery Allingham, The Crime At Black Dudley. 2/5
I'd heard such good things about Allingham's Campion mysteries - as one of the golden age of crime authors I was expecting to adore this as much as I love her contemporaries. Sadly not. When an odd bunch turns up for a house party, you know something is going to go wrong- when a tradition involving a dagger is reenacted, you almost want to shout at the characters. 
Campion, our hero and detective, is a decided oddball, but he's also very much a background character, bumbling around without our knowledge to find the villains. At the risk of giving the plot away - it's not your average murder mystery. There's a criminal gang, someone gets locked in a wardrobe, and a major plot line involves the syphoning of petrol... I suspect the main problem really is that it's very much of its time. I'll give another of her novels a go, but probably pick a later one, when Campion is more established. This felt slightly more like a farce. Not my bag.

42. Louise Candlish, The Sudden Departure of the Frasers. 4/5
It took me ages to decide whether I enjoyed this month's Curtis Brown Book Group choice. You know there are some books which make you feel uncomfortable and a little voyeuristic while reading them, but you can't quite put it down? It's one of those.
Christy and Joe Davenport manage to buy number 40 at a bargain price - the previous owners left in a hurry, and no one on the street will tell them why. There's whisperings behind curtains, and people actively cross the road to avoid them. Clearly something is going on. The book is really two stories weaved together - as Christy begins to delve deeper into the mystery, we get to know Amber, who sold number 40 in a flash, and the reasons why she bolted. She's the opposite of Christy - manipulative, popular and flash with her cash. You just know something is going to go wrong - and it does.
I found it particularly clever how I was drawn to both sides of the story equally. There's an element of the 'haunted house' about the novel - Christy's dreams come tumbling down, and there's an unwritten question of whether it's because of her own actions, or because of Amber. Or did they both become victims of the house itself? There are parts which are decidedly difficult to read, as you see how the tale unfolds it's a bit like reading a car crash - but I was absorbed. It's hard to review properly without giving a major part of the story away, but I really enjoyed how Candlish handled a difficult subject and showed two sides of a situation incredibly well. If you're a fan of the current "female protagonist thriller" genre which is popular at the moment, I'd highly recommend it.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Live Below The Line: An Introduction

I signed up to Live Below The Line on a whim about six months ago, and promptly forgot about it. It's easy to do, isn't it? I guess that's half of why running a marathon is so impressive - aside from the running bit, there's months of preparation that go into it. I am not a runner. Marathons are not for me. But something involving food, and a challenge which I knew I'd find difficult in my own way? More my kind of thing.

My memory was jogged a couple of weeks ago when a letter thanking me for signing up came through the post, along with a leaflet about Unicef which made me cry. After the recent pictures from Nepal, of the horrific earthquake, my mind was made up. No backing out.

So - what is Live Below The Line?

It's pretty simple - participants have £5 to spend on 5 days worth of food and drink. It's up to them how they spend it, but that's all they get.

Where did it come from?

Two Australian charity workers came up with the idea in 2009. They gave it a go after a discussion about how difficult it was to explain their jobs when they lived in an affluent society - "we decided to be crazy, we took on the challenge for three weeks in September and documented our experiences. Friends who had never shown an interest in our work were suddenly engaged... living below the line created a window into the world of extreme poverty." Since then over 30,000 people worldwide have taken part, and over £7million has been raised.

Why £1 a day?

The World Bank classifies extreme poverty as living off less than the equivalent of £1 a day - we're talking food, drink, medicines, housing, and education, all for less than £1.
1.2 billion people in the world, around 20%, are classed as living in "extreme poverty". For context, that is more than the populations of the European Union, The USA, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Canada combined.

Who are you fundraising for? 

I picked Unicef (United Nations Children's Fund), because they work worldwide in areas which need help urgently. They've recently been in Syria, Nigeria and Yemen, and are now in Kathmandu, supporting survivors of the earthquake. Despite their links with the United Nations, Unicef don't receive a penny from them, and they operate wholly on donations.
Put more simply - a child dies of malnutrition every 15 seconds, and Unicef provides 80% of the world's emergency food.

What are you eating?

This lot...

...which cost me a total of £4.45. The remaining money is going to be "spent" on 10 green tea bags (19p), 2tsp of dried mixed herbs (14p), 6tsp of soy sauce (11p), and 30ml of vegetable oil (5p). I've worked myself out a meal plan, which I'll post with an update on how I found the challenge.

I have no doubt that I'm going to find this tough. I'm so used to grabbing something from the fridge when I want a snack. I can't do that this week.

If you can - please sponsor me:


Thursday, 2 April 2015

Books: March Fifty Two in Fifty Two

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid" Jane Austen

A varied selection this month, albeit quite a small one, including both the lowest and the joint highest rated books of my Fifty Two Books in Fifty Two Weeks challenge so far.

36. Jacqueline Winspear, Pardonable Lies. 3/5.
The third of Masie's forays into crime solving see her embracing an unusual task - proving that her client's son did actually die in the war. Undaunted, she delves in to the case, and the novel sees her exploring France, revisiting her own past and experiences along the way. 
I struggled a bit with this one, having enjoyed the first two. I found some of Masie's characterisation a bit laborious - and her reactions not quite in keeping with the fiesty and self aware woman introduced to us in the first two, although the reintroduction of an old friend provided a contrast from the doom and gloom of wartime memories. I also found the conclusion way too convenient, to the point of irritating. I'd guessed part of it (it was obvious from the start), but the remainder slotted into place too conveniently for me. Maybe I'm just getting cynical and dark in my tastes. 

37. Val McDiarmud, Northanger Abbey. 1/5.
I debated whether to go with the maxim of "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all" but I'm worried that you'll be intreagued and decide to give this a go. For the love of all things literary - don't. It is a strong contender for the worst book I've ever read (slash listened to as an audiobook). We see our heroine, Catherine Moreland, transplanted into modern day Edinburgh during the festival. Gone are the balls and awkward social situations, in are ceilidhs and unpleasant bankers. 
The main issue I had with it, aside from the cringeworthy descriptions of the city I love (what's with the constant street and theatre name drops?) was the complete lack of awareness of the original Austen and why it is a masterpiece. Instead of a pastiche on the gothic and romantic tales of the late 18th century, McDiarmud has given us a teenage romance and references to Twilight. The subtleties around the pressure on young women to "marry well" to avoid destitution later in life are lost, replaced with gold diggers and snobs. 
My suspicion is that Northanger Abbey just doesn't translate into modern culture - that's probably why it's not been reinvented as Clueless (Emma) or Bridget Jones (Pride and Prejudice) - but I suspect part of it was the author selection. I ploughed on with it, expectinf it to take a dark and sinister turn, but was disappointed. Such a shame. A lesson in avoiding pastiches of a pastiche.

38. Holly Smale, Geek Girl. 4/5.
had absolutely no idea what Geek Girl was about until I downloaded it and started reading - it popped up as a suggestion on the local library's online books website as one that I might enjoy, so I thought I'd give it a go. I'm glad I did. 
Geek Girl introduces us to 15 year old Harriet, a self proclaimed geek. After being persuaded by a friend to go along to The Clothes Show Live (side note: yes they're still going, and yes teenage girls still go in the hope of being "spotted" a la Erin or someone else), Harriet ends up getting herself, somewhat awkwardly, signed to a modelling agency. 
As a quiet girl with very little confidence, badly bullied at school, Harriet sees this as Her Big Chance to start afresh and carve a new identity for herself, but in typical young adult novel style, it doesn't all go to plan.
Now, the likelihood of me picking this up and deciding to read it would normally be pretty slim. It doesn't tick any of the categories of any book I'd normally go for, but it's good to read out of your comfort zone every now and then. I enjoyed the escapism, the "moral story" was well handled, and it was great to have a teenage female lead who was funny, clever and incredibly likeable. It certainly made a change from the books I remember hating as a teenager. 

39. Iona Grey, Letters to the Lost. 5/5.
This month's choice for the Curtis Brown Book Group was a spot on choice for me after the first couple which weren't quite my cup of tea. 
In 2011, Jess is running from her abusive boyfriend. Desperate to find someone where to hide when she has nowhere to go, she breaks into an abandoned house and stumbles across a letter from an elderly man in America who has never forgotten the girl he fell in love with during the Second World War. And so our story begins - a complex but beautifully written double tale. On the one hand, we have Jess, struggling to rebuild her life, and on the other - Stella, a young woman in a semi-arranged marriage at the start of war. 
I'm not usually a fan of multi time frames narratives, but this works incredibly well. I think the key is that nothing is rushed. It's an incredibly long book - but in a good way. Our six main characters are slowly introduced and very well written - each has a realistic personality and their flaws are explained, so nothing seems particularly out of character. Grey tackles so many issues in a subtle way - poverty, homelessness, mental health and domestic abuse - but at no point does it feel like any of the issues are laboured, they're just part of the story.
It's really hard to review Letters To The Lost without giving too much away. We know from the start that Stella and Dan's relationship is doomed, but their story is still beautifully written, and it's an unusually uplifting book. Be warned - I'm hard hearted and cried twice (one in a brimming eyes way, once in an ugly way where I had to put it down to blow my nose), but I think that's testament to the story and how well written the characters are. 

Friday, 13 March 2015

Holiday For One

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single girl in possession of a spare room must be in want of a flatmate. Except, I'm not. It was one of the many things that surprised me about becoming newly single, the frequency with which I was asked whether I was looking to live with a friend. Generally speaking, I've found that living on my own is ok. I'm used to spending time on my own, I like my space, the peace and quiet is lovely, and I'm happy pottering around entertaining myself. When you've got tea, books, the cat, and box sets on demand, what more could you want?

There is a limit to my introversion though. I am really lucky in that it is largely a choice - if I'm teetering on the border of lonely then I can take myself out for a coffee, go to the gym, or give a friend a call.

The only thing that is bothering me? Holidays.
I never used to think of myself as a beach holiday person. As a child I'd hide inside during the summer, playing on the computer or reading. It'd never crossed my mind to go away with a group of friends while I was a student - we spent our summer holidays working, with music festivals as our equivalent of a week in Ibiza. It wasn't until I found myself desperate to escape to the drudgery of work and the constant Scottish summer rain that I really began to see the appeal. Four years on Greek islands... and I'm hooked.

The thing is that I'm not the kind of person who finds it easy to relax. My weekends usually involve one day of cleaning, tidying, cooking and going to the supermarket, and one day of seeing friends. I feel guilty when I lie on the sofa watching a film or reading - I can't enjoy it if I've got housework to do. No offense to my lovely family - who between them have some of the most beautiful parts of the UK covered - but I want warmth. and to be able to crack open a beer at 11am because it's cheaper than a can of Coke.

So, where does the single woman go on holiday?

I've been thinking about a Yoga retreat somewhere sunny and beautiful. There's something very appealing about the thought of a week spent relaxing both my body and mind, with the backup of company or solitude, depending on what I fancy. But the thought of sharing a room with a stranger terrifies me, and I'd be worried I'd pull a muscle on the second day.

Or then there's a city break - Barcelona perhaps - exploring and adventuring, visiting museums and wandering, eating picnics in parks. But is there a limit to how much you can enjoy an experience if there's no one to share it with, and is it wise to travel somewhere alone without speaking the language?

To follow the old cliché of finishing a blog post with a question - has anyone had experience of holidaying alone, and what wisdom would you share with me?

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Books: February Fifty Two in Fifty Two

"It's not that I don't like people. It's just that when I'm in the company of others - even my nearest and dearest - there always comes a moment when I'd rather be reading a book" Maureen Corrigan

I've sort of lost the motivation for reading this month. I've started, and given up on, quite a few books, and mostly found myself listening to Desert Island Discs while walking to and from work, or cooking my dinner. Maybe it's a February thing, several folk have said they've struggled to concentrate recently - I've still not finished this month's Curtis Brown Book Group pick, which isn't like me at all. Anyway, a round up of February's reads:

32. Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. 4/5
Ah, Poirot. After feeling the need for a lot of comfort books last month, I turned again to a favourite author this month. Styles introduces us to Poirot and his sidekicks Japp and Hastings in rather spectacular style. Christie's debut novel, set in 1916, sees Captain Hastings on leave from the army and recuperating from a minor injury at Styles Court, a country estate owned by family friends. When the matriarch of the house is murdered and the family begins to fall apart, Poirot (who has recently moved to England as a Belgian refugee) is called in to solve the crime. It's a fairly easygoing romp, an excellent introduction to the well loved series with a rather good twist at the end. I was surprised that I'd somehow never read this classic. Thoroughly enjoyable. 

33. Marian Keyes, The Woman Who Stole My Life. 2/5.
When this came through the post as part of my Curtis Brown Book Group welcome pack, I was really looking forward to devouring it. Having enjoyed another of Keyes' novels recently, albeit one that is part of a series, I had really high hopes for this standalone novel which has had rave reviews. However... I was disappointed. It started off promisingly, with the introduction of our lead character, Stella, who develops the life changing Guillain-Barre syndrome and finds herself suddenly paralysed. As the weeks in hospital pass, Stella begins to form a friendship with her neurologist, Mannix Taylor. The book has a really odd structure - it's sort of three books in one - spoiler alert - the "present", the "past" and the "book in a book". While this helps the narrative move along, and creates a bit of mystery, I found myself guessing what was coming up due to clues earlier on, which spoilt it for me a bit. 
The other thing that really spoilt it was, if I'm honest - I couldn't stand any of the characters. Stella, the lead, was wishy washy. Her husband was an arrogant arse. Her kids were unbearable. Most frustratingly - Mannix Taylor should have been struck off the medical register at about fifteen points in the novel. I also got really, really frustrated with how unpleasantly Keyes describes the nurses - a little point, but it really jarred and was borderline offensive. I feel a bit like Keyes had tried to write a 'lighter' novel with this one, but for me it flew way past the mark. 

34. Sue Townsend, The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year. 3/5. 
I'm not sure that reading this straight after another book entitled "The Woman Who..." but after starting this a couple of years ago and leaving it on a train several chapters in, I spotted it in a charity shop I thought I'd give it another go. It tells the tale of Eva, who goes to bed on the day that her twins go to university, and refuses to get out of it again. She's not mad - she's just exhausted. Her obnoxious family don't appreciate her, her husband has been having an affair, and she hates her job. As far as key themes go - it's certainly one which a lot of people will identify with. 
I'd been expecting this to be a funny and wry look at mental health and 'normality' so I was surprised when it began to get into a slightly surreal plot. I spent a lot of the book wondering where it was going to 'go'. I'm not sure that's a good thing. What could have been a really interesting exploration ended up being a little bit of a farce - the most interesting parts were the tiny subplots involving the conspiracy theorists who take up residence in her front garden, and her friendship with Alexander, a Rastafarian White Van Man who she hires to get rid of all of her furniture. Speaking of Alexander - the other thing I wasn't a fan of was that he was one of only two characters in the book who were bearable, the other being an elderly man who was horribly disfigured in a plane crash during World War Two.
It passed the time, but I wouldn't rush to recommend it to anyone. 

35. J K Rowling, The Casual Vacancy. 4/5.
Having spotted The Casual Vacancy on my Sunday night TV schedule, I thought it'd be a good idea to give it a read first - it has been on my 'list' for a long time. Inevitably publishing anything off the back of Harry Potter was going to be a struggle (hence, I presume, the Robert Galbraith scandal) and this book has ended up a little bit like literary marmite.
When Barry Fairbrother, member of the Pagford Parish Council, dies suddenly, a 'casual vacancy' is created on the council. It becomes apparent how much one man is held in high regard by his neighbours, and without his input, competition for power emerges. Existing councillors begin to question themselves and their allegiances, and prospective candidates begin plotting. 
At the heart of The Casual Vacancy are some really dark themes. Drug addiction, child abuse (physical and neglect), bullying, depression, alcoholism - all are portrayed so casually that I was almost impressed when I'd finished the book. It wasn't hard hitting as such, it was so well written that it took me a while to really realise how subtly the characterisation had occurred. The contrast between the 'rich' Pagford old town and the 'poor' Fields council estate was slightly overegged (although a family member who is a social worker in the West Country, where it's set, assures me it's pretty realistic), but the snobberies and casual racism thrown about by both sides was very realistic and well written. I really enjoyed the multi character nature too, particularly how well drawn the teenagers were. Arguably they were the most pleasant and enlightened folk in the whole town - unusual to read a novel where teens are portrayed in a positive light. Dark, brutal and thought-provoking - worth reading.