Tuesday 29 April 2014

The Year in Books: May

April was a busy old month, book-wise.

Firstly I read the Alexander McCall Smith book I mentioned here (and thoroughly enjoyed it). I know some people find them too simplistic and even formulaic but the Precious Ramotswe books are, to me, comfort reading at its best. Funny, occasionally didactic, uplifting. Yes, they're an easy read but there's much to be said for that. Especially at then end of a long day.

I then started on The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The reason was I'd seen it appear so many times in Laura's link-up (and people were giving it high praise), so I joined the waiting list at the library and was pretty shocked to see the sheer size of it. Needless to say, I didn't finish it. I didn't even get halfway through before it had to be returned and passed on the next person on the list.

I'd actually been enjoying it but was fully aware from the beginning I was reading on borrowed time. Still, I gave it a good go. The writing was great; the character observation spot-on and the story unusual and compelling. I'm now back on the waiting list (which has, inevitably, grown since the book won the Pullitzer Prize for fiction).

So, back to the library. I picked up The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart. Not quite a random choice as another of her novels, Thornyhold, is an all-time favourite of mine. My mum brought it home from work once when I was in my teens; a dog-eared, yellowing paperback I idly picked up and absolutely loved.

Not so much The Ivy Tree. I just couldn't get into it. I tried. I gave up.

Next (and this is the end, I promise): The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen. It was on a display shelf labelled 'Book of the Month' so I read the back cover, liked the sound of it and gave it a go.

I couldn't put it down. Told by Judith, a young girl who lives with her widowed father, it describes the religious group they are involved with, her strange views and ideas, and the resulting bullying she endures at school. Judith is convinced the end is nigh, and that she can perform miracles by acting them out in a make-believe world she has constructed in her bedroom from little bits of rubbish.

There are echoes of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit in the book, particularly in the way the religious meetings and group members are portrayed. Unlike The Goldfinch, I zipped through The Land of Decoration and found it at times sad, at others funny, and a real page-turner. I would definitely recommend giving it a try.

So: May. Someone gave me a copy of The Crow Road by Ian Banks. I've made a start and have been surprised - it's shaping up to be a good read so far. I didn't expect that; I usually read books written by women. There's no reason behind this - it just seems to happen. I admit I never really fancied reading Banks - something to do with the masculine-looking covers, the subliminally disturbing-sounding titles.

It's good to try something new. 

Sunday 27 April 2014

Gardens, and other happy-making things

I've not been sleeping well of late. I seem to be stuck in a pattern: falling dead asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow because I'm so tired, waking up again in the early hours with my mind flitting from one thing to the next, and then nodding off again just before I have to get up with Joe.

The doctor doesn't want to prescribe sleeping tablets. I have a few things going on at the moment, what with my mum being unwell, and something else I wasn't going to mention just yet in case I tempt fate, but around six weeks ago we accepted an offer on the house. Surveys have been completed, forms filled in and all the rest of it. The house is officially off the market. There are long periods of waiting and hearing nothing.

There isn't a chain involved so hopefully all should proceed smoothly, but I'm on tenterhooks because these things can fall through at any time. We've wanted to move for so long.

Anyway, the doctor suggested a 'talking therapy' to discuss dealing with these anxieties a little better. I'll give it a try.

So, house moves. We're tentatively looking for somewhere else to rent initially. And this weekend we dug up a lot of our favourite plants and potted them ready to take with us. Some of the bigger ones can stay put until nearer the time. The gooseberry bushes are definitely coming to the new place (wherever that may be); after three years of nothing - and last year being stripped of all their leaves by caterpillars - they're covered in flowers with a tiny fruit forming at the base of each. We should have a bumper harvest.

My mum has planned a summer spent at home this year and wants to fill her garden with all manner of plants and shrubs so we have the perfect place to take our pots. There are also plenty of roomy beds for the big perennials like Solomon's Seal, the euphorbias and hellebores.

Last week I took Joe out walking near his grandparents' house. They live on a big housing estate inhabited by mainly retired people. The houses are on roomy plots; the roads are wide and quiet and tree-lined. It's nice to walk around and nosy at the gardens to the hum of lawnmowers and the smell of freshly-cut grass.

The daffodils are on their way out now, replaced by tulips and wallflowers. Other people's gardens are always fun to see. There are seaside-inspired ones with gravel and succulents and thrift, unintentionally retro ones with rockeries and heathers, dwarf conifers and azaleas, and traditional ones with perfectly manicured lawns and herbaceous borders. 

We went out walking this weekend near home. The weather has been mostly good with a warm breeze and sunshine and you could smell the hawthorn blossoms (one of the things I like the most about having a May birthday).

Something else which made me smile this past week was stopping in a line of traffic to wait as a mother duck and her tiny duckings (at least ten of them) filed across the road from one field to another. I wasn't the only one smiling - so were the other drivers.

Hope you've had a great weekend.

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Easter miscellany

We've had a wonderful Easter - I hope you have too. This is the first year I can remember where we've made such an effort (Easter eggs, spring lamb, card-making) and it's because of Joe. Being a parent makes you realise the importance of creating happy memories for little ones.

So, lots of family time with parents and siblings and grandparents and cousins. Lots of walking and discovering and enjoying the mild, sunny weather. And, of course, lots of photos.

Gillian kindly mentioned my photos on her blog because I'm keen on collaging. For me, it's not only fun to play around with colour but it allows me to use a lot of photos when I've been a bit snap-happy. If I included these as single images posts like this one would go on and on for ever.

Anyway, back to my miscellany. We've eaten a lot of chocolate (there's a whole lot more in the fridge), baked (and devoured) a lemon cheesecake and enjoyed said lamb and some very pricey but delicious Jersey Royals.

In other food news I picked up a few random - i.e. not on the shopping list - bits and pieces at the market: a punnet of little sweet red peppers which ended up roasted with tomatoes and blitzed into a tasty pasta sauce, and some Cheshire rhubarb (now stewed with a few slightly past-it apples).

John Lewis honoured their promise and the extra fabric arrived. It's now laundered and cut to size so I managed a bit more progress on my dress/tunic/smock. I encountered yet another obstacle with the neckline and, upon discovering the bias binding would be on show, sent off for a bias binding maker. I'm a bit of a perfectionist and want the whole thing to match so will be trying my hand at making my own binding.

I also returned The Goldfinch to the library despite not being quite halfway through it. It was so disappointing to have to do that and I'm now back on the waiting list for it. In fact I fired off an email suggesting they reconsider their fortnight limit on 'in demand' books if they happen to be as long as this one is.

I emailed because I'm too scared to mess with our local librarians in person.

Anyway, I hope you had a lovely Bank Holiday weekend - there's another one just around the corner too, hooray!

Friday 18 April 2014

Happy Easter

We're getting some truly gorgeous weather at the moment... Good Friday started with pancakes for breakfast and a leisurely walk through the fields followed by a picnic in the park.

Other plans: 
Cooking lamb for Easter Sunday (and baking a lemon cheesecake for dessert)
Treating ourselves to a meal out later with Joe here
More walks and a visit to Ramsbottom for fruit and veg shopping tomorrow
Trying to get to the end of The Goldfinch - I may have to concede defeat as the library is snapping at my heels
Quite possibly indulging in some chocolate.

I hope the weather's as lovely where you are. Have a nice Easter.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

The Great British Sewing Fiasco

You may be interested to know that - deep breath - I'm making a dress. With a pattern and everything.

Call it the Sewing Bee effect, call it necessity... You see, I love these dresses and smocks and tunics. But I'm currently a Girl of Slender Means. I'm also one of those people who pictures something specific in their head then goes out looking (unsuccessfully, because it only exists in my imagination) for it in the shops.

The path thus far has not been a smooth one. I started out by purchasing a pattern for a very simple dress. Size Medium. I then carefully cut the pattern out. It didn't look like a Medium to me. Not by any stretch of the imagination (or the material). I decided to be cautious and not cut into my lovely new fabric (a dark indigo, lightweight denim) but instead to cut up an old sheet. Not a vintage sheet, don't worry.

Having cut and pinned the thing together it looked decidedly petite. Wide at the shoulders and bust, narrow at the waist, and no room for those things we women have called hips. It looked, hanging up, like an upside-down triangle. Like the sketches fashion designers make. I'm pretty sure the only person with a body shape like that is Barbie.

Disappointed but relieved at having saved my fabric, I measured myself. Size 12 (or thereabouts) in off-the-peg clothing bears no relation to a size 12 in Planet Dressmaking. Or Planet Butterick, anyway.

So a week or so later I went to the dressmaking department at John Lewis. It was a bit of a journey through a lot of traffic. I bought a different pattern (Simplicity this time, in a bigger size) for a tunic along with some different fabric: a 'busy' floral to hide the inevitable first-timer mistakes. The assistant talked me through the whole process. She explained the pattern, what I needed to do and how much material was required.

On Sunday afternoon I lay the pattern pieces out as per the instructions. There wasn't enough fabric. It was literally a few inches too short. I was mortified. I had plenty of spare but only in long, useless strips. I phoned John Lewis and explained. It can't have been down to me having washed it (having only used a cool cycle on 100% cotton fabric). To be fair they said they'd post me an extra half-metre free of charge so I could cut the last piece and get cracking. It looks as though the pattern's wrong and has underestimated how much material is needed. The fact that it spells 'sleeve', 'sleve' doesn't exactly fill me with confidence either.

Anyway, now I'm waiting for a parcel to arrive. 

Fortunately I'm a stubborn Taurean type who, more often than not, refuses to lose heart because of a few setbacks.

If this tunic ever does get made (I haven't even got to the hard part, i.e. sewing, yet) I'm going to put it on and go and buy myself a bottle of something fizzy and celebratory and quite possibly spill it down my front and not care.

Monday 14 April 2014

The weekend in pictures

Farmer's market: purchases included tulips, sausage and bacon butties, lamb for Easter...

Early evening walks bluebell-spotting and enjoying the sunshine...

And lots of other small delights... baking (and eating) rhubarb cake; re-potting houseplants on the garden table; finishing one book and starting another; drinking hot chocolate; a Saturday morning library visit, and plenty of outdoor fun with the little one and his new toy tractor.

Hope you had a lovely weekend.

Thursday 10 April 2014


We have been: Watching the weather (bright sun, stormy skies, sharp showers, gusty winds - all within moments of one another)...

Displaying little finds from our Tweed Valley walks...

Making - and sending - Easter cards (Joe did the painting)...

Bringing home hedgerow snippings...

Admiring these beautiful frilly daffs (they look like two flowers in one)...

Growing on a little gift: a cutting from a lemon-scented geranium (gorgeous scent when pressed between the fingers)...

Planning to re-pot a recent purchase: a deeply purple succulent which could not be resisted.

In other news, we have been:

Eating double ginger cake (I baked two: one for my mum, as ginger is helping with the nausea caused by her current treatment, and one for us - on Jay's insistence);
Drinking a new flavour of Fitzpatrick's cordial: sour cherry, red grape and hibiscus;
Spending lots of time outdoors with Joe.

April is so far proving to be a bit rainy but still lovely. There are primroses in the garden, ferns beginning to unfurl and the hosta is putting forward conical shoots from the soil. There is also much feathered activity outdoors (blackbird fights) and not-so-welcome visitors in the form of snails and caterpillars...

Oh, and lambs everywhere!

Sunday 6 April 2014

Making do and quite liking it

When we were away on our little break in Scotland, I had something on my mind: a wedding. No, we didn't run off to Gretna Green. We'd been invited to one held on the day after we returned and the stress of what to wear was getting to me. Yes, really. So during our afternoon in Edinburgh I took it upon myself to buy something new, glamorous and wonderful.

The whole process wasn't fun at all. I had an hour to myself and could almost hear the clock ticking in my ear as I darted about. First stop: Anthropologie. I'd read about this shop and had never actually been inside. It was heavenly: beautiful home accessories, jewellery, clothes, gorgeously scented candles... and all were eye-wateringly expensive. So I headed up and down Princes Street, rushing in and out of shops and seeing precisely nothing, all the while glancing at my watch and getting more and more down about the whole thing.

When I met up with Jay and Joe in the castle gardens I was in a thoroughly bad mood, tired and defeated. That didn't stop me dragging them around a few more shops before we set off back to the cottage though. Sharing the misery.

That evening, I had an epiphany. I realised that - wait for it - you don't have to buy something new for each social occasion you attend. Not even that frothy, gauzy dress (three figures) in the sweet little boutique that I'd spotted. Fact is I'd probably never wear it again. I didn't actually know anyone at the wedding anyway, it being the nuptials of an old schoolfriend of Jay's who now lives near Newcastle.

I also have some beautiful things hanging in my wardrobe, bought when I had more disposable income and fewer responsibilities. Expensive things. Things I keep 'for best' (and I started 2014 promising this wouldn't be something I did any more).

So instead of buying a new and impractical frock, I decided to wear a lovely beaded top to the wedding with cropped, cuffed trousers, dangly earrings and patent heels (all languishing in the wardrobe back at home and wondering when they'd see daylight again) and instead I picked up a few little souvenirs in Peebles. Things I'd wear again and again. Versatile things which would remind me of our holiday every time I wore them. Like the pink 'Make do and Mend' scarf with pictures of sewing machines and food stamps on it, bought from a haberdashery on the main street. And the long string of beads I spotted which look just like rowan berries (they are, in fact, real berries). 

These are things which I'll keep for ever and wear all the time with different outfits. And I spent far less on them than I would have done on a whole new get-up for one day out.

You see, despite our best intentions, sometimes the pressure to spend overrides all those sensible resolutions. I no longer buy fashion magazines. I dress how I like, often with one statement - a piece of jewellery, red lipstick - and that's all it takes. A bit of perfume. A scarf. Whatever. And the more unique, the better (probably why I'm keen on charity shopping or making things).

I felt great at the wedding and even picked up a compliment or two on my old blouse. It was a beautiful day with good food, music and company, a red double decker bus and lots of spring sunshine.

No more 'must buy something new' silliness for me...

Thursday 3 April 2014

The Year in Books: April

Joining in with Laura...

Last month's book of choice was Cranford. I really enjoyed it; there's something I love about stories set in communities where women dominate the social scene (I suppose another series of books which is similar in this respect is the Anne of Green Gables stories - those of you who have been reading Mitenska for a while will know all about my long-standing love of them).

Cranford appealed to me in all kinds of ways: the 'elegant economy' principles by which the ladies lived; the gently comic way in which Gaskell describes the social mores of the time; the episodic format (the book was initially a set of papers, later put together). Verdict: recommended!

This month's choice is a world away from the twentieth century classics I've been reading of late. I'm jumping through time and continents (in my imagination, at least) to modern day Botswana.

A friend suggested I read The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency several years ago, just as it took off in terms of popularity. I was a little dubious as I'm most keen on fiction set from around 1900 to 1960 (give or take). I'd never read anything set in Africa and the only detective novels I'd gone for were by Agatha Christie.

But read it I did, and was hooked. Alexander McCall Smith's books are wonderfully uplifting, funny and life-affirming. They transport you to Botswana and its slower pace of life; you can almost feel the warmth and dust and smell the sun-baked earth. To me, they represent total escapism and feel-good reading. High-brow? Maybe not. Pleasurable? Most definitely.

So April's choice is The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, the latest in the series. To be honest, I've already made a start so it's likely I'll have finished it within the week... Good job as I collected The Goldfinch from the library on Tuesday. It's huge! And I can only have it for a fortnight as it's an 'in demand' title. Can't see that going well somehow.

P.S. We've just returned from the Scottish Borders and I was so disappointed to learn that  Alexander McCall Smith is giving a talk at the Eastgate Theatre, Peebles in May. It's located at the end of the very street we stayed on! Oh, and the photos are from another visit to Barter Books on our way home (via Northumberland). On a chilly day the fires were lit, the aromas of cake and coffee were in the air, and 1940s music was being played. Comfy old chairs, books on top of books. A bibliophile's heaven...

Purchases were made.

Happy April reading.
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