Wednesday, 31 December 2014

December reads

When I think of winter reading, I think of crime novels: whether it's dark Victorian London streets on which murderers creep or a cosy Agatha Christie whodunnit, mysteries are perfect for this time of year.

1. Moriarty is the second of novelist and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz's new Sherlock Holmes novels, and is notable for having very little of Holmes and Watson. Instead it's a cracking mystery about the weeks after Holmes and Moriarty's notorious showdown at the Reichenbach Falls. I frequently forgot that it was a contemporary novel, so well did it evoke Conan Doyle's London.

2. Hercule Poirot's Christmas is everything one might expect from Christie at Christmas: a glamourous country house setting, a fractious and unhappy family, a diamond theft and (of course), murder.

3. By coincidence, one of the timelines in Dark Places takes place at Christmas, which was a happy accident. I loved this deeply creepy novel by the author of Gone Girl, about the sole survivor of a family murder, Libby Day, looking more closely at the events that led to the deaths of her mother and sisters and the conviction for murder of her brother. Day is brilliantly flawed and unlikable and the flashback chapters that relate the events of the day of the murder are steeped with a sense of insidious evil inevitability. Much recommended.

4. After a plea on Twitter for good festive reads, Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm was suggested to me. I didn't realise when I downloaded it that it's a collection of short stories, so was a tiny bit confused to begin with. I enjoyed most of the stories (even if not all of them were as festive as I'd have liked) but especially loved The Little Christmas Tree. Her 1930s settings - full of women left 'spinsters' by the First World War, servant girls with illegitimate babies, gossipy greengrocers at the centre of village life - are now entirely alien, and all the more appealing for it.

5. I'd treated myself to the (gorgeously designed) hardback of My True Love Gave To Me as a pre-Christmas present, and was looking forward to diving into this collection of twelve festive short stories by leading YA authors, including two of my favourites, Rainbow Rowell and David Levithan. Luckily, it did not disappoint (although funnily enough, Rowell and Levithan's stories were amongst my least favourite). Chock full of lovely, romantic, moving and above all, festive tales, I would thoroughly recommend this to anyone who enjoys YA fiction. I can already tell I'll be re-reading this every Christmas.

6. I loved E Lockhart's We Were Liars earlier this year, so embarked upon The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks expecting great things which were, largely, delivered. Once again set within the exclusive milieu of wealthy America - this time a prep school rather than a private island - it's a fantastic exploration of gender politics and privilege. The heroine, Frankie, is winningly portrayed as a feminist warrior determined to gain entrance to the secret all-male society at her boarding school. Her ingenuity and questioning of tradition makes for an enjoyable read.

7. The Jeeves and Wooster stories are mentioned frequently in The Disreputable History..., so on finishing that I immediately downloaded a collection of short stories, My Man, Jeeves, to see what the fuss was about. They're comic classics for a reason, and I'll definitely be keeping a look out for more novels in my trawls of secondhand bookshops.

8. I approached The Monogram Murders with some trepidation: I adore Agatha Christie, and although I read all of Sophie Hannah's novels, I've found them becoming more and more far-fetched and silly. So Hannah writing a new Poirot novel... I wasn't convinced, let me say. But I loved it! Hannah brilliantly captures the rhythms and cadences of Christie's writing, ensuring that the quiet humour of the Poirot stories is retained, and provides a most satisfactory murder mystery. When three bodies are found murdered in an upmarket London hotel, Poirot is keen to make links with a strange encounter he has had the same evening in a coffee shop, and luckily Inspector Catchpool of Scotland Yard is quick to enlist Poirot's assistance.

9. Die Again* was deliciously creepy. The premise - a brutal and unusual murder in Boston seems to have links to a horrific series of disappearances in the Botswanan bush ten years previously - is a welcome departure from some of Gerritsen's recent Rizzoli and Isles novels, which have started to feel a little formulaic. She clearly did her research, too, as the evocation of the African landscape is spot-on.


10. 11. 12. 13. While ill with bronchitis - once I'd got past the first couple of days when I couldn't even lift my head from the pillow, much less read a book - I found solace in re-reading all of India Knight's comic novels. There is much that is flawed about them (Knight does enjoy going off on a rant, which can be amusing but is more often like being harangued by a posh woman who's had one too many cocktails and thinks her every utterance is common sense rather than slightly offensive and objectionable) but they are also immensely comforting and enjoyable reads. I really do love Comfort & Joy for perfect festive reading, and I'd also recommend her other two, largely autobiographical, Clara Hutt novels My Life On A Plate and MuttonDon't You Want Me? was one I hadn't read in years, and don't think I'll bother with again.

* This book was kindly provided for review by the publishers via Net Galley, but all opinions are entirely my own.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Wherever you are spending Christmas, and whoever you are with, I hope you have a peaceful and joyous time. See you on the other side.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Some simple festive home updates

It's fair to say that I love the run-up to Christmas just as much as the day itself - possible more. The school carol service; the excitement of my pupils as we watch Shrek for the nth time; putting the final decorative touches to my home; baking up a storm; packing the car to visit family. 

Sadly, all of that fell by the wayside this week after I was taken down by severe bronchitis. Four days in bed and I'm only now able to sit up for longer than 15 minutes at a time. Luckily I'd already written my final festive post, about a few simple home updates I've put together this year. 

I am emphatically not one of those too-cool-for-Christmas people (true story - a couple of weeks ago The Boy came into the spare room to find me draped in ribbon, jingling my bells (not a euphemism) and giggling with happiness. He calls me 'Elf' when I get like this, after Will Ferrell's character in the eponymous film). Instead, the whole house undergoes a transformation. If there's a flat surface, I will cover it with fairy lights and greenery. Stand still for too long in December and I might just hang a bauble on you.

As a result, just putting up a tree and a wreath isn't enough for me: the whole house needs to be Christmasified, and preferably with stuff I've made or upcycled. A few years ago I whipped up gingham heart decorations; last year it was the turn of some needlework in the form of appliqued cushion covers and my 'Let It Snow' embroidery hoops; this year I decided to turn an old and unloved mirror into a festive blackboard.

All you'll need is an old mirror or picture frame. I used white paint (just some standard white emulsion I had in the shed) to give the silver frame a distressed, vintage look. Once that had dried, I applied a couple of coats of blackboard paint onto the mirror itself (if applying to a standard picture frame, I'd suggest removing the glass and painting the blackboard paint onto a piece of thick cardboard to sit inside the frame). Chalk pens made the slogan a doddle to write and, together with a jug full of eucalyptus branches, it makes for a very stylish display in our kitchen.

One of my bargain tips is to search out books of sheet music in charity shops. A couple of years ago I hit paydirt in Market Harborough Oxfam, picking up ten books of music that had seen better days together with a volume of Christmas Carols. The framed sheet music from Silent Night makes a simple but beautiful picture, and I also use sheet music to make gift tags, to wrap presents, and to make garlands to hang on the tree.

Do you have any favourite home updates at this time of year?

Monday, 15 December 2014

Good stuff: Links & likes

On The Hungry Vegan we've been baking Christmas Pfefferkuchen and Earl Grey Tea Loaf, and reviewing awesome vegan fast food joint, V Revolution in Manchester.

Why the notion of detoxing is a myth. An important read as we approach January and the season of 'detox diets'.

I seem to be featuring Sarah here a lot lately, but So Your Friend Is Spending Christmas Alone? is full of great advice.

A reminder that the Refuge gift list is still active at John Lewis - use list number 609505 and treat someone who'll be spending this festive season in a women's shelter.

Crysta's post - 8pm On Some Idle Tuesday - is just lovely, I do enjoy reading about happy news.

Nova just opened an online store selling her artwork on stickers, cushions and the like.

A great piece on why - in the narratives around adoption - we need to focus more on adoptees, as well as adoptive parents (found via Charlotte).

And finally something to cheer you: the badass women of 2014 you may not have heard about.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Made: Evergreen wreath

For me, nothing quite says 'Christmas' like bringing boughs of evergreens into the house. From pagan yule logs to modern wreaths, the custom of using holly, ivy and other evergreens to decorate the house in December is an ancient one that has lasted thousands of years. Wreaths made from fresh foliage can be crazily expensive to buy - understandable, as they're time-consuming to put together. But with a bit of foraging for free greenery plus an hour of patience and sore fingers, you can make a wreath that's just as beautiful as a store-bought one.

You will need:
A wreath base (usually made of moss over a wire ring - I found mine on eBay for less than £2)
Armfuls of greenery - at least two different kinds but the sky's the limit. I used cypress, holly, eucalyptus and hebe
Florists wire
Secateurs or strong scissors
3 metres ribbon
Assortment of decorations - I dried some orange slices and teamed them with foraged pine cones and some fake holly berries 

1. First, forage for your greenery. You don't need to live in the countryside for this: I picked up the pinecones from under a tree on a nearby industrial estate, the holly and eucalyptus were from my mum's Bradford back garden, the hebe from a shrub in my yard, and the cypress from a friend's garden. 

2. Soak your ring [snigger] in water before squeezing out any excess.

3. Your wreath will be made up of multiple bundles of greenery, each affixed to the base. If, like me, you're using 3 or 4 different types of foliage, gather a small piece of each type and pull together to form a bouquet. If using more, you could vary the contents of your bundles, aiming for 3 or 4 pieces of foliage in each.

4. Bend a length of wire to form a U-shape at one end, approx. 1 inch long. Place the U at the base of the bouquet (with the remaining wire pointing away from it) and then wind the wire around the bundle two or three times, to hold the bundle together securely. You should be left with about 15cm of wire still pointing away from the bouquet.

5. Push the long piece of wire through your base, bend and push back in again to secure. 

6. Repeat, laying each bundle of greenery so it points in the same direction and overlaps with the previous one, until the wreath base is covered.

7. At this point you may find some bundles need another piece of wire looped around and pushed into the base to ensure they're completely secure.

8. Again using wire, attach the decorations at intervals. 

9. Cut 2 metres from your ribbon and loop it through the inside of the wreath. Tie the remaining metre into a bow around the hanging ribbon, trimming the ends neatly.

10. Once it's hanging up you may need to trim some edges: I found my eucalyptus especially needed a bit of a prune.

11. Step back and admire your work! Wreaths made from fresh foliage will survive for about three to four weeks if hung outside in the cold. 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

What I wore: Put a bird on it

Where do you get your fashion inspiration from? For me, both celebrities and fashion magazines are so far removed from the reality of my life, budget and tastes that it's ridiculous. However, real people - whether I'm eyeing up a stranger's clothes whilst walking down the street or looking at blogger's outfit posts online - inspire my wardrobe choices all the time.

This outfit reflects a combination of influences and inspirations. First, a lunch date with my friend Hannah a couple of weekends ago, for which she'd paired a mustard jumper with one of my favourite silhouettes, a Peter Pan collar blouse. And secondly Laura, of the blog Cardboard Cities, who often wears brooches with her outfits, gave me the confidence to try a piece of jewellery I haven't worn since buying it four years ago.

A pair of much-loved New Look supersoft skinny jeans (that they don't make any more *shakes fist at sky*) teamed with a Primark blouse (from winter 2013. I've since stopped shopping at Primark for ethical reasons) and my new Oasis jumper made for a great new combination. And to pull the whole thing together? What else could I do but put a bird on it, in the shape of this adorable swallow pin. The look is a little more preppy than usual for me, but I kind of love it. And best of all, it was the perfect outfit for a long car journey followed by some family time in Bradford.

* Jeans: New Look * Jumper: Oasis via ASOS * Blouse: Primark * 
* Brooch: Primark * Ballet pumps: Dorothy Perkins *

Standard worried-looking pose here. I promise, I wasn't actually about to burst into tears.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Made: MERRY & JOY Christmas cards

Being a massive Christmas obsessive, every year I pick up a few of the Christmas magazines from the supermarket to indulge myself, and it was in the Ideal Home Christmas* mag that I saw the image that would give me the idea for these cards. Their suggestion was to use air-drying clay to make personalised gift tags (I think they'd also make great place settings for a DIY wedding) but I had the idea to make them into cute hanging decorations to put onto the front of Christmas cards.

* I know, I really am rock & roll till I die, aren't I!

You will need:
- White air-drying clay (mine was from eBay)
- A flat surface, such as a glass chopping board or clean worktop
- Rolling pin
- Biscuit cutters
- Alphabet stamps (a lot of tutorials specify metal stamps, but I used standard rubber stamps from Paperchase and they were fine)
- A skewer or chopstick
- Very fine sandpaper
- Thin ribbon
- Washi tape
- Coloured card

1. Pull out a good handful of clay and knead for a minute or two. Roll out to approximately 4mm thick - too thin and the shapes will tear or warp when you stamp them. As you roll, keep lifting and flipping the clay or it will adhere to your work surface.

2. Use the biscuit cutters - I used two sizes of hearts and stars - to cut out your shapes. Remove excess clay and lift the shapes off the board again, to prevent sticking. I can't emphasise how important this is: not lifting regularly will leave you will lovely, neat shapes that are thoroughly stuck to your work surface!

3. Use a skewer or chopstick to make a hole towards the top of each shape. I found this easiest to do if I held the shape in one hand while pushing the chopstick through with the other.

4. Placing the shape onto the board again, use the stamps to spell out your message. I used MERRY for my larger shapes and JOY for my smaller ones. You could also personalise these by stamping the recipient's name.

5. Flatten out any slightly curled edges and leave to dry. This will take upwards of 48 hours.

6. Once completely dry and set, use the sandpaper to very gently remove the rough edges from your shapes.

7. Thread some pretty ribbon through the hole and use a small piece of craft or washi tape to affix to the back or inside of your folded card, leaving the decoration hanging over the top onto the front of the card. I used red card, because it's what I had to hand, but I think they'd look stunning hung with silver ribbon onto dark blue card.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Spending ban update: month three

If you recall, I ended October bemoaning the fact that every month seems to bring a new and unexpected expense. And lo and behold, just 3 days into November our washing machine broke, so it was goodbye to £90 for my share of a new one. Other than that, though, I had a really successful month.

When I started the ban, I made a short list of clothing items that I needed and would allow - winter shoes, a jumper, a new bra and a black skirt. I'd put jumpers on my 'allowed' list because incredibly, I only owned one (and live in a cold house). So, when I sold a few bits on eBay at the start of November, I decided to spend some of the £80 profit on buying the clothes I needed. I got two jumpers for £31 (hooray for discount vouchers, an H&M giftcard found at the bottom of my purse, and an ASOS code) and also bought a bra for £28, leaving me with a tiny bit left over in my PayPal account.

Apart from that, I managed to limit my spending to Christmas gifts and a few meals out with either The Boy or friends. I've done most of my Christmas shopping, spending about £80 in total plus £50 more from my Nectar points. However, as we creep ever closer to Christmas it's becoming harder and harder to stick to my rules. Although in theory I was always allowed to spend money on gifts, once I start splashing the cash on one thing it gets more difficult to put my wallet away when I see something I want. It's also been hard to separate actual essential spending (do I need Christmas craft materials? What about if they're being used to make presents?) from discretionary spending. So I'm going to suspend the ban for the month of December. I'd intended to finish at the end of the year, but will instead start again in January and continue for at least another month into 2015.

Overall, and even accounting for washing machine breakdowns & gift buying, I still managed to put £400 into my savings, which is an amazing result. I also got a surprise £195 cheque (relating to an old loan I used to have with Tesco Bank) and have put that straight into my savings account too, rather than splashing the cash like I usually would. As much as I do enjoy shopping, it's nice to see my savings growing so after break in December, I'm keen to get back to the ban and see if I can add to my current total.