All I’m saying, Shakey.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves. Rachel Malik.

This will be brief as I am working at working less while the kids are on holidays. So far, my approach has been a complete failure. There was a pause last week, like when the TV goes snowy, while I waited for a half dozen or more promised books to land on my doorstep. It was lovely. I sank mindlessly into Book 6 of the Poldark series (bliss), I made stock and took 74 million bee photographs. Then, my loyal and chipper postman rolled up four days in a row to deliver the avalanche.

I’m digging my way out:

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves. Rachel Malik.

This is an unusual but satisfying book. It seems very mild and gentle but turns out to be quite powerful. It strikes me as being very British. Read the full review here.

GRAPE OLIVE PIG by Matt Goulding.

GRAPE OLIVE PIG. Matt Goulding.

I’ve long been a cookbook addict but never much interested in recipe-less food-writing. That may be about to change. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, loved it actually, and would happily armchair-travel again with Mr. Goulding. Read the full review here.

City of Light, City of Poison by Holly Tucker.

City of Light, City of Poison. Holly Tucker.

Ninety percent of my book diet is fiction but, every now and then, I enjoy some historical narrative. What tempts me, always, is a touch of royalty. I’m a sucker for a tiara; when I’m sick or miserable I resort to Hello magazine for the ultimate escapism. If I want to indulge the same fantasy under the cloak of literary merit, I’ll turn to Antonia Fraser.

This book turned out to be more of a gruesome thriller than a royal romance but it kept me turning the pages into the small wee hours. Read the full review here.

I’ve just finished reading Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl but I can’t decide what I want to write about it yet. I think it might be growing into a blog post rather than a review. While mulling that over I spent a lovely afternoon with the girls watching 10 Things I Hate About You. Debate is raging in our household as to whether this or Ferris Bueller is the greatest teen movie of all time. Personally, I was rooting for Michael J. Fox’s Teenwolf. Thoughts?

Teenage Son is studying Hamlet so last night we watched the BBC/RSC version with David Tennant. I thought it was excellent.

Following that, to lighten the mood, we indulged in a little Shakespearean themed Rowan Atkinson. I love this. We have resolved to end every day with a Rowan Atkinson sketch.

‘It’s five hours, Bill, on wooden seats and no toilets this side of the Thames.’

Now, I’ve promised to go play bananagrams with the Small Girl. Anyone want to see the 74 million bee photos?

PS. The title makes no sense at all unless you watch the sketch, and even then very little.

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The Ultimate Chocolate Cake and an Extraordinary Book.

Kate Atkinson. Life After Life. Cooking the books.

Kate Atkinson. Life After Life. Cooking the books.

My small girl was born half-strangled, the umbilical cord wrapped four times around her neck. Unlike the birth days of my other children, it’s not a memory I like to revisit. What-ifs crowded so closely against reality that I can’t think about what happened without also re-living the nightmare of what nearly happened. My small girl was born on…

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It’s the dreaming that matters.

Book review. gregoire delacourt. fredrik backman. sarah crossman.

 

I took a reading holiday this week. Nothing heavy. Nothing challenging. No note-taking or quotation-jotting, just reading for the pleasure of it, for a little light escapism and, I hoped, a few laughs. It ended in tears.

My Grandmother sends her regards and apologises. Fredrik Backman.

My Grandmother Sends her Regards and apologises. Fredrik Backman

See, I didn’t even take a proper photograph but the rhubarb tart is apt as my Granny grew rhubarb against the rear wall of her coal shed. Every time she made a tart she would give us a stalk of raw rhubarb to dip in the sugar bowl while she recounted the provenance of her rhubarb stools (no laughing, that is the correct term!), and the secret of their remarkable flavour (horse manure) with all the pride of a Burgundian vintner.

‘There’s something special about a Grandmother’s house. You never forget how it smells.’

I did say no quotation-jotting, didn’t I? I couldn’t resist marking a few pages in this ridiculously quotable book. In fact, I have already seen a fake hand-painted wooden sign with this one on it:

‘Nothing is really gone until your Mum can’t find it.’

In this house that would be corrected to ‘until Teenage Daughter can’t find it’ as she is our official finder-of-stuff.

The book is about a clever little girl who has a very special relationship with her Granny. In fact, it seems that Granny is her only real friend, the only person in the world who even speaks the same language. And then, Granny dies.

That much I knew before I started which was the reason why, despite rave recommendations, I put this book on the long finger for a few months. I wasn’t certain I could hack a good book about a Granny dying.

‘Sorrow and loss are constant, but if we all had to go through our whole lives carrying them the whole time, we wouldn’t be able to stand it. The sadness would paralyse us. So in the end we just pack it into bags and find somewhere to leave it.’

Elsa’s Granny has spent all seven years of Elsa’s life telling her stories of a faraway make believe land. When Granny dies she leaves a trail of apologetic letters which bring Granny’s fairy tales to life and reveal that Granny wasn’t always the superhero Elsa believed her to be.

‘the best stories are never completely realistic and never entirely made up.’

It’s a lovely book, brimming with imagination and wit, about love and loss and the power of stories to heal the breach.

One. Sarah Crossman.

One. Sarah Crossman. review.

My Middle Daughter knows good books. I know I’ve said this before but, truly, when she hands me a book and says, ‘you should read this Mum,’ I know it will be something special.

I began this book at lunchtime and couldn’t put it down. I carried it with me on the school run and read while I waited for the bell to ring. I held it aloft from splashes while I stirred the dinner and managed to overcook the eggs. I brought it to bed and read to the end while Husband sat beside me face-timing his sister through changing a blown socket fuse. That last bit kind of ruined the ending for me, it was hard to cry with ‘STOP, NO, Don’t touch that one, it’s LIVE’ as a running commentary beside me. But cry I did.

One has all the hallmarks of YA literature. Unusually brave teenagers take on the world, fall in love, get kissed and discover how to live as individuals. One pushes that stereotypical formula to the limit by presenting the teenagers as conjoined twins, Grace and Tippi, named for Hitchcock’s leading ladies. I would recommend this to anyone looking for a quick, emotionally-charged read or anyone trying to tempt a reluctant teenager into reading.

The List of my Desires.  Grégoire Delacourt.

The list of my desires. Gregoire Delacourt. review.

This is a tiny book, let’s say petit, about a French woman in her mid-forties who writes a blog. She makes lists of what she would buy with a lotto win but realises that it’s the lists, not the lotto, that keep her going.

‘Because our needs are our little daily dreams. The little things to be done that project us into tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, the future; trivial things that we plan to buy next week, allowing us to think that next week we’ll still be alive.’

This was my favourite of the three books. It’s a sweet and stylish parable, small but perfectly formed.

A list of my desires (a list, not the definitive list because it changes daily and that is the point):

New tea towels and towels.
A hoover that doesn’t come apart in three places when it hits a rug.
Fancy rose-scented soap from the English market.
A pale pink cardigan for the summer.
Maybe a pale green one too, for a change?
Cereal bowls and spoons.
Yarn. Blue and pink and pale green to throw over a comfy reading chair in the kitchen.
A comfy reading chair for the kitchen.
A fountain pen. The kind you fill from a bottle of ink. I used to have a lovely one.
A shade tolerant plant to fill a big pot in the dark corner of the patio. Any suggestions? I’m leaning towards an Acer.
A Fingal Ferguson knife. Such codswallop, I know. It’s not as though I even know how to use a knife properly but we did say desires.I can’t even bring myself to put my name on the two-year waiting list because it seems such a silly indulgence. But still, beautiful tools bring a particular satisfaction.
A wall. It’s very embarrassing these days to admit I dream of building a wall around my garden but there you go. I want a secret garden to go with my secret door.
Secret door. Oh yes, I got that one, which probably seemed the most unlikely.

Dream big, it’s the dreaming that matters.

What is on your daily dream list? I would love to know.

Book review. gregoire delacourt. fredrik backman. sarah crossman.

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Excellent Irish Fiction.

Excellent Irish Fiction

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Lá Féile Pádraig Shona daoibh go léir.

I thought I might mark the day by telling you about some of my favourite Irish authors. These are contemporary authors whose books I have loved over the last few years.

Excellent Irish Fiction

Sebastian Barry writes poetic, sparse, spine-tingling books. The Secret Scripture is built around conversations between a very elderly resident of a regional mental hospital and her doctor. We know by now that, in Ireland, you didn’t have to be crazy to wind up in a mental hospital. You can watch a trailer for the up-coming Jim Sheridan film adaptation here. It looks good and Rooney Mara’s Irish accent passes the grade.

You can read my review of Barry’s magnificent latest novel, Days Without End, here.

Sebastian Barry. Days Without End.

John Boyne. I have to steel myself to read his books because they invariably leave me in tatters. I’ve heard that his new book, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, has a bit of humour so maybe he has been listening to reader feedback!

Everyone knows The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. If you haven’t read it, you simply must.

The most recent of his books that I’ve read was A History of Loneliness. This is all I managed to write about it at the time:

‘If you want a true insight into the Irish pysche you should read John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness. I’ve been intending to write about it for weeks but I get a pain in my chest every time I think about it. It is funny, laugh out loud hilarious at times, but don’t read it unless you are prepared to know the worst of us, the evil we accepted in this country and to which we turned a blind eye. The worst was not being shocked by it because this history, to our eternal shame, is embedded in us.’

John Boyne's A History Of Loneliness will break your heart.

Roddy Doyle. A national treasure. I think the nation as a whole loves Roddy Doyle to bits. We quote him regularly but most particularly when announcing the birth weight of new babies. We are a country populated by small turkeys. There is a funny article here on Doyle’s contribution to Ireland. I think we should have a new national holiday called Roddy Doyle Day when we all listen to the soundtrack of The Commitments and eat chips from chip vans.

But seriously, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is superb.

Colm McCann. Let The Great World Spin is centred on an account of a high-wire walk which took place between the twin towers in 1974. You just have to read it. It’s brilliant.

Paul Murray. I’ve only read one of his books but I enjoyed it very much. Skippy Dies is best described, I think, as an Irish answer to Dead Poets Society. It’s very sad but very funny. More people should read it.

Graham Norton. To be honest, I just didn’t see this coming. I read Holding mostly out of curiosity but I was captivated from the word go. The book gives an honest but gentle view of Ireland rather than the harshly critical study presented by so many Irish authors. We are our own worst critics but Norton writes about West Cork with genuine affection. I wrote a review which you can read here.

Holding by Graham Norton

Liz Nugent. Again, I read Lying in Wait with reluctance (‘domestic thriller’ is not my cup of tea) but I couldn’t escape the hype. It turns out to have been well-deserved. Liz Nugent is a rising superstar. I don’t have a photo because I borrowed this one from the library (which, I’ll have you know, involved adding my name to a LONG waiting list). I’m already anticipating her next book with bated breath. You can read my review here.

book review of Liz Nugent's thriller Lying in Wait.

Joseph O’Connor. I’m a massive fan. I’ve been reading and loving his books for my entire adult life. I wrote a bit about my idolisation of Joseph O’Connor here when I read The Thrill of it All. I’ve chosen The Star of the Sea as the one I would recommend if you were to read just one of O’Connor’s brilliant books.

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Colm Tóibín. Brooklyn. My maternal great-grandparents emigrated to America as newly-weds and settled in a handsome brownstone building somewhere in Boston. My great-grandmother, according to my Granny, loved America. In 1921, my great-grandfather was summoned home to Ireland after a series of tragic accidents made him heir to the family farm. They sailed home with their small family, my Granny ‘on the way’, and as much of their new American furniture as they could manage. Granny always said that her mother bitterly resented that call to come home until the day she died, in her forties, from a brain hemorrhage. Colm Tóibín captures that tug on Irish people, to stay or to go, to stay away or come back, that has become an intrinsic part of being Irish.

It seems an opportune moment to remind you of my previous St. Patrick’s Day posts:

Teeny Weeny Shamrock Pattern. remains my only original crochet pattern. It is, as you can imagine, ridiculously easy.The work of ten minutes or less. My Small Girl has one of these clipped in her hair today and it looks lovely.

Tricolour Toast is a tasty snack in the colours of the Irish flag.

If you have 8 minutes to spare, I recommend taking this link to TodayFM and clicking on the podcast of Ireland’s Greatest Song Lyrics. Spine-tingling stuff. ‘Where’s me jumper?,”Give it to me raw, I’ll take it home cook it myself,”You’re the chocolate at the end of my cornetto,’…ah yes, we are a nation of poets, or foodies, probably both. It all comes back to the famine. But what about this :‘You are the measure of my dreams, the measure of my dreams,

Here’s the one that had me doing my best solo bop about the kitchen table. Love this:

Have a great weekend.

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Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down.

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood.

 

‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.’

My nerdy son informs me that the phrase originated with a WWII American Army General called Joseph Stilwell whose caustic personality earned him the sobriquet ‘Vinegar Joe.’ I’m certain it would give old Joe pause for thought to know that his motto has become a slogan of feminism and individuality.

I have read and enjoyed a half dozen of Margaret Atwood’s books. The Blind Assassin is one of my all-time favourites. But, to be honest, I was afraid to read The Handmaid’s Tale in the same way I remember being afraid to go to the cinema to watch Schindler’s List. I don’t enjoy being horrified. Ever since Virginia Andrews‘ Flowers in the Attic was passed around my school classroom, I have been careful to avoid any books that might fall into the genre of horror.

The word dystopia has become a throwaway descriptive remark. The YA section of my local bookshop is awash with black and purple covers claiming all sorts of dystopian future horror as if it were a good thing.

I instinctively recoil from these books. I want to bury my head in the sand of romance and happy endings. But I know, also, that dystopian fiction serves a purpose. Usually, it teaches us the value of treating our fellow humans as individuals, with equal rights, rather than members of a herd to be corralled or classified. It may be that, in an age where we are constantly bombarded with and bamboozled by information, marketing and propaganda, we have all the more call for role models of courageous individuality.

 

I studied William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Orwell’s 1984 in school. I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 last year. These are excellent books but I couldn’t say I enjoyed reading them. I also read The Hunger Games and the Chaos Walking series, both aimed at younger adults but plenty horrific enough for me. I guess I have been slowly building my tolerance to the dystopia genre. I would never file any of these under ‘Books I Love’ but, at the same time, I believe there is value in reading them.

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood.

‘Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.’

It is important that we consider how we assign and how we restrict power. It is essential that we learn how to recognise and limit anti-social behaviour.

‘They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.’

More than anything, it is vital that we each believe in the resilience of the individual human spirit.

‘But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.
Even when there is no-one.’

Dystopian fiction allows us to learn from a horrific situation without having to live through it. My problem is that I can become completely immersed in a book, so much so that I suffer the anxiety and low mood as if I was really living through it. Just ask Husband, I’ve been like a sore-headed bear all week.

It was worth it. This is one of the most powerful books I have ever read and certainly the best of its kind. It has made me think. It has added to that little store of courage I keep bottled up in my soul like one of those fireman’s axes you see stored behind a sign saying ‘break glass in case of emergency.’My own personal MayDay. M’aidez.

‘Not a dandelion in sight here, the lawns are picked clean. I long for one, just one, rubbishy and insolently random and hard to get rid of and perennially yellow as the sun. Cheerful and plebian, shining for all alike.’

The Handmaid’s Tale is undoubtedly horrific. It is also completely riveting; once you’re in it there’s no escape. Thankfully, it ends hopefully, as most dystopian novels do. As a species, we have often been led astray in a blind race towards progress but we have, usually, found our way back to sanity. It is books like this that teach us how to listen to, and even how to be, the courageous lone voices who refuse to give up.

Sometimes, we shouldn’t choose our books solely according to how much we think we will enjoy them. That would be akin to living on white bread. It behoves us, as educated members of a liberal society, to read better and know more.

After all, if we don’t keep an eye on the temperature we could find ourselves boiled alive.

Even believing this, I might not have finally dived into this book without an encouraging push from Sam at A Coastal Plot, a woman of excellent taste and good counsel.

I was at a conference at the weekend about the food industry where I heard that the mantra of the Terre Madre Slow Food Movement in Spain is this:

‘They are giants but we are millions.’

That seems to me just an alternative translation of Margaret Atwood’s motto.These are words to live by:

‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down.’

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How to make people like your food more without making your food better.

Gastropysics by Charles Spence

I reviewed a book called Gastrophysics by Professor Charles Spence.It’s a fascinating book which left me, by turns, excited and appalled.

Gastropysics by Charles Spence

Everyone who eats in restaurants or buys food in a supermarket, basically anyone other than self-sufficient farmer/foragers should read this book.Anyone in the business of selling food, or writing recipes, or posting photos of food on Instagram, must read this book. At the very least, read my review here.

Hame by Annalena McAfee.

Tir na nOg, South harbour, Cape Clear, Cork, Ireland.

I believe I have mentioned before the Irish tradition of dispatching young teenagers to remote Ghaeltacht (Irish-speaking) areas for the summer holidays. I spent four Julys on the island of Chléire (Cape Clear) and three of those Julys I lived in this house:

Tir na nOg, South harbour, Cape Clear, Cork, Ireland.

It’s not too difficult to see why I left a piece of my heart behind. On Sundays, when we didn’t have Irish classes and had hours to fill between dinner and the nightly céilí, my best friend and I would pack up our books and a packet of biscuits and clamber over the rocks to sit on the very corner of that headland. From there, the view stretches to the big lighthouse at Fastnet Rock and beyond that, America. That’s where I lay on a bed of sea thrift and read A Handful of Dust, The Pearl, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies and, perhaps most appropriately, Wuthering Heights.

When a man stands on the shore looking out to sea, he stands at the littoral of his unconscious. Grigor McWatt.

In her new book, Hame, Annalena McAfee imagined into being a Scottish island called Fascaray. By coincidence, I suppose, it’s near enough the same size and shape as Chléire and similar in almost every description except perhaps the prevailing winds. My island is just like hers but warmed by the glow of happy memories and a gentle southwesterly breeze.

I loved her book. I like big books. I like stories that suck you in and swallow you whole. Annalena McAfee made me laugh out loud in the coffee-spluttering, nearly-choked-myself kind of way (as opposed to the throwaway LOL kind of way) and she gave me an excuse to drink whiskey at lunchtime ( had to take the photos in daylight!). Best of all, she gave me a week of feeling almost as though I was back on that green rock. If I met her, I would give her a hug and say, Thank You.

Read my full review, including photos of whiskey, here.

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