Wednesday, 30 December 2015

My Musical Highlights Of 2015

2015 is the year I got my mojo back, music-wise. For the past few years I've been pretty disengaged when it came to new bands, new releases, live music... nothing was really getting me excited.

But 2015 has fixed all that. There was so much I loved this year, so many new releases that made me heart soar with joy. I even went to two gigs in one week in November which, I know, is hardly front page news but I think I went to two gigs total in 2014. So....

Pop Crush Of 2015
Long-time readers of this blog will know that I'm enormously susceptible to a slice of great pop music (2012's One Direction obsession, anyone?) , and my pop crush this year was Charli XCX, and particularly the single Famous. She has savvy, smart and funny lyrics, a don't-give-a-fuck attitude, an all-girl live band, plus she made a documentary about feminism and pop music. What's not to love?

Gig Of 2015
Gig of the year was hands down Joanna Newsom at the Albert Hall in Manchester on Halloween, who never fails to provide anything less than a transcendental live experience. She was beating off stiff competition, however, from Ryan Adams (Leicester De Montfort Hall, 21st February), Father John Misty (Sheffield Plug, October 26th), and Sufjan Stevens (Manchester Apollo, August 31st).

Albums Of 2015
Joanna Newsom's Divers was the most exciting release of the year; a new album from her is always cause for celebration, as they don't come along often. And Divers more than lived up to the anticipation, a breathtakingly beautiful collection of songs.

Meanwhile, Father John Misty's I Love You Honeybear hasn't been far from my stereo since its release in February. Moving far from the gentle acoustic songs of his recordings under real name Josh Tillman, I Love You Honeybear is a melodic mixture of ballad, torch song, and folk rock, the highlight of which is almost always his audaciously witty, often bitter and cynical, lyrics.

Another record I loved was Beirut's No No No, a joyous and uplifting collection of songs from multi-instrumentalist Zach Condon. I am so looking forward to seeing them in the new year.

And finally, mention has to go to noisepop band Joanna Gruesome, who I resisted for a long time because of their name until, in 2015, falling head over heels first for their 2013 album Weird Sister followed closely by recent release Peanut Butter.

Songs Of 2015 (omitting tracks from my albums of the year)
As well as the aforementioned Famous by Charli XCX, I loved Bad Blood by Taylor Swift ft. Kendrick Lamar (and the Ryan Adams cover was pretty awesome too).

While I've struggled to listen much to Sufjan Stevens' 2015 release, Carrie & Lowell, with its aching sense of loss and sadness, Blue Bucket Of Gold is a standout track, the remixed single version of which I perhaps love even more than the original.

Meanwhile, although Wolf Alice's debut album was, for me, too much filler and not enough killer, You're A Germ is a fucking tune and no mistake.

Finally, the two opening songs from Bjork's ambitious and much-lauded album Vulnicura - Stonemilker and Lionsong - reminded me just how much I love her.

What were your musical highlights (or should I say high notes?!) of 2015?

Sunday, 27 December 2015

2015: A Year In Books

I found my books round-up so easy to write last year: I'd read some inspirational feminist non-fiction and lots of great literary fiction. 

This year, I found it much harder to think of anything but genre fiction - crime, thrillers, YA novels - which I think says a lot about my energy levels in 2015. I really haven't had the time or the inclination to read much that is intellectually challenging. Which is not to say that I think genre fiction is somehow lesser than literary fiction, but I personally prefer a more balanced book diet than I was able to consume this year.

Anyway, on with the books! (All links take you to the original post in which I reviewed said book.)

Best Book You Read In 2015 (broken down by genre if necessary)

I always need to break this down because choosing just one book is impossible.
YA fiction
2015 was a year of great YA novels: I thoroughly enjoyed To All The Boys I Loved Before, Vivian Versus The Apocalypse, The Rest Of Us Just Live Here and plenty more. But easily the best was Simon Versus The Homo Sapiens Agenda, which is just a perfect example of YA writing at its best.
Crime fiction
So Much Pretty has haunted me since I read it in January. As I said in my review at the time, this novel is unique in terms of thrillers. Whereas most books of the genre use society's endemic violence against women for entertainment, So Much Pretty seeks to interrogate and criticise it. Not an easy read in many ways (its narrative structure is challenging, for one thing) but an important one.
I read a shamefully small amount of non-fiction this year, but Stitched Up is nevertheless well deserving of its title. An anti-capitalist critique of the fashion industry, it was unexpectedly enjoyable and easy to read, and extremely thought-provoking.
Literary fiction
Bodies Of Light by Sarah Moss, without a doubt. It's a haunting and at times disturbing novel which touches on so many contemporary issues - the role of women, feminism, mental health, poverty and inequality - through the story of a Victorian girl growing up in Manchester with her artist father and activist mother.
Dystopian fiction
In 2015 I read a surprising amount of fiction that could be loosely termed sci-fi/fantasy (not my usual genre at all), almost all of it dystopian/post-apocalyptic. I especially loved Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, but I think The Girl With All The Gifts just edges it for me, especially the astonishing closing scenes.

Most Surprising (In A Good Way) Book of 2015

I don't read a lot of what might be termed popular fiction: it's always either genre stuff or literary fiction. But when I was part of the Curtis Brown Book Group, I was sent Letters To The Lost, a sort of romantic/ historic (WW2) saga novel: the kind of thing I'd turn my nose up at if I came across it in a bookstore. And it was lovely! Which goes to show you really shouldn't judge a book by its cover & blurb.

Book You Read In 2015 That You Recommended Most To Others

I enjoyed Simon Versus The Homo Sapiens Agenda so much that I bought a couple of copies to send to friends: luckily they loved it too.

Best Series You Discovered In 2015

I was going to say Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series, but have just realised I read the first one in 2014. So... I actually have no idea! I loved the first Enchantment Emporium book by Tanya Huff, but the follow-ups weren't as great. If two books can be called a series, then Jenny Han's To All The Boys I Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You.

Favourite New Author You Discovered in 2015

Sad to say, but apart from Becky Albertelli, who wrote Simon Versus... there's no-one else I've read for the first time this year who I'd definitely seek out more by.

Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love But Didn't

I love everything Sarah Moss has written, non-fiction and fiction alike, and adored Bodies Of Light but the sequel - Signs For Lost Childrenjust didn't engage me like I thought it would.

Best Book That Was Out Of Your Comfort Zone Or Was A New Genre To You

Considering I don't tend to enjoy sci-fi/fantasy books, don't really know anything about computer gaming, and barely remember the 80s, Ready Player One was a tough sell. But I thought it was fantastic; exciting and with tons of fun retro references.

Book You Read In 2015 That You're Most Likely To Read Again In 2016

Despite hating the Simon Snow sections of Fangirl, I downloaded Carry On - Rainbow Rowell's novel which returns to the Harry Potter-esque character of Simon - and loved it. I'm certain I'll reread it next year.

Favourite Book You Read in 2015 From An Author You've Read Previously
I liked David Nicholls' One Day (devastating ending aside) but wasn't expecting to love his new novel, Us, quite as much as I did.

Best Book You Read In 2015 That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else
I'm not sure if this counts as a recommendation, but I read Alex by Pierre Lemaitre because we have a lot of copies in stock at work and, when a damaged copy turned up, my boss said I could take it. It's bleak as fuck but an excellent crime thriller, so I'm glad I did.


Favourite Cover Of A Book In 2015
Not just the cover but the whole design - from dust jacket to page edges to chapter headings - of The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness was just stunning. And the book was utterly incredible too, pulling off the delicate trick of being light-hearted and funny (the subtle digs at the Twilight franchise and at Sarah Palin are a particular joy) while also sympathetically addressing serious issues, particularly around mental health.

Book That Had The Greatest Impact On You In 2015

I still dwell on the fates of the characters from So Much Pretty almost a year after reading.

Book You Can't BELIEVE You Waited Until 2015 To Read

I don't understand how someone as in thrall to books as I had made it to the age of 37 without reading 84 Charing Cross Road. And it was amazing: funny and sweet and heart-warming.

Book That Had A Scene In It That Had You Reeling And Dying To Talk To Somebody About It? (a WTF moment, an epic revelation, a steamy kiss, etc.) Be careful of spoilers!
There's a key scene about mid-way through Apple Tree Yard that I found extremely difficult to read, and which completely changed the direction of the plot. It's something I've wanted to discuss ever since but it's such a massive spoiler that I can't mention it to anyone who hasn't read it.

Favourite Relationship From A Book You Read In 2015 (be it romantic, friendship, etc)
I'm a sucker for teenage boys in love, so probably Simon and Baz's love story in Carry On or another Simon and Blue's relationship in Simon Versus...

Most Memorable Character In A Book You Read In 2015
Melanie from The Girl With All The Gifts.

Genre You Read The Most From in 2015
I read 42 crime/thriller books in 2015, the most of any genre, but this was closely followed by YA fiction, with 40 books.

Best 2015 Debut
Simon Versus The Homo Sapiens Agenda again! What can I say? I really loved it.

Book That Was The Most Fun To Read in 2015
I loved Enchanted August, which is an uncomplicated yet very witty, well written romp and the perfect holiday read.

Book That Made You Cry Or Nearly Cry in 2015
I tear up at the drop of a hat, so there's probably loads, but Matt Haig's clever and sentimental A Boy Called Christmas got me teary eyed most recently.
Book You Read in 2015 That You Think Got Overlooked This Year Or When It Came Out
I really enjoyed Scarlett Thomas's 2015 release, The Seed Collectors, but haven't seen much of it in the press or in the blogosphere, which I think is a shame.

Total number of books read in 2015
At the time of writing (December 27th) I've read 151 books this year, an increase by 34 on 2014. My goal for 2016 is to have more variety in my reading - less crime and more non-fiction, particularly.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

My Favourite Festive Reads

It's no great surprise that I love a festive read. After all, they combine my two great passions: books and Christmas. However, a book being Christmas-themed is no guarantee I'll like it; I recently tried one of Jenny Colgan's Rosie Hopkins books and it was the biggest pile of bollocks I've ever read. These books, though, are guaranteed to be good reads and festive as all get-out.

Let It Snow is a collection of three novellas by three YA authors, each one related to the other by location. It's romantic and funny and extremely festive without laying it on too thick.

“I’ve left some clues for you. If you want them, turn the page. If you don’t, put the book back on the shelf, please.” When Lily - egged on by her brother and his boyfriend - leaves a red notebook on the shelves of a Manhattan bookstore, it's picked up by cynical Dash, and they begin a correspondence that takes them on an adventure around a festive New York. You'd have to be as hard-hearted as The Grinch to dislike Dash & Lily's Book Of Dares.

I'm actually saving Matt Haig's new book, A Boy Called Christmas, for Christmas Eve, but it comes garlanded with amazing reviews so I have high hopes.

Moving away from children's and YA literature, Comfort & Joy follows main character Clara across three years worth of Christmas Days. Witty and, yes, comforting and joyous, I re-read this almost every Christmas.

My True Love Gave To Me is a lovely collection of YA short stories which, appealingly, doesn't limit itself to just Christmas but has stories for those who celebrate Hannukah or Solstice as well as New Year's Eve. It's also sumptuously designed: I have the fabulous pink-edged hardback but the paperback cover is lovely, too.

Landline isn't explicitly a Christmas novel, but taking place in December and having a somewhat It's A Wonderful Life-ness about its plot qualifies it as a festive read for me.

Finally, a number of novels are sort of accidentally festive: the final sections of two of my favourite YA novels, To All The Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han and Rainbow Rowell's Carry On, both take place over the festive season, and I always associate Bridget Jones's Diary with Christmas, as it both opens and closes in December.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Photo An Hour: Saturday 19th December

After a couple of months of forgetting completely, and November's day going a bit pear-shaped, I finally managed to complete another Photo An Hour! It was quite a challenge as my plans for the day consisted of staying at home in my pyjamas, doing as little as possible, which wouldn't have made for the most interesting set of photos. In the end, having the hourly prompt ensured I did a range of jobs that I otherwise might not have got sorted, so that's a win. Here's how my day panned out...

Just awake and reading in bed before I get up. Landline is set at Christmas so sort of qualifies as a festive read: I wasn't too keen the first time I read it and I still wouldn't say it's one of Rainbow Rowell's best, but I enjoyed it.

An important task: selecting which pyjamas to wear for my epic day of relaxing.

Having a little dance around the kitchen while my bread toasts. Just before I took this photo, Hughie played Mo Money Mo Problems by Notorious BIG, and I was glad Thomas had popped to the Post Office and so couldn't witness the tragic sight of an almost-40-year-old white woman trying to bust out the hip hop moves.

Updating my work Instagram account. I'm loving this element of my job so much; I mean, getting paid to use Instagram? Pretty perfect.

The postie just knocked on the door to deliver my Thrifty Gift Swap from Donna and I'm so excited at the look of these gifts!

Working on my Year in Books round-up, which is proving a challenge.

A moment of sentimentality. I finished school yesterday (after ten years there) so I have a pile of cards to read through. I've been so humbled by the lovely messages from colleagues, ex-pupils, and parents but I know I've made the right decision.

We have a lot of late December/early January birthdays in our family so I was wrapping presents. And before anyone freaks out, those are my paper pinking shears I have another pair for fabric!

Baking gingerbread biscuits to give as gifts.

A bit later than usual, but here's the obligatory Photo An Hour picture of a cup of tea.

Despite it only being me and Thomas at home, I stuck to my tradition of dressing up for the Strictly final. My sequin collar jumper is years old and only ever comes out at Christmas.

The best night of the year! Although that said, I was a bit disappointed last night: Jay & Aliona particularly made strange choices.

I decided I couldn't wait any longer to open my first swap presents (I did three swaps this Christmas so still have some to go) and Thomas opened his too. The paper his came wrapped in is just gorgeous!

No photo as we were watching Strictly.

And finally, ending the day how I started: in bed with something to read.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Gift Wrapping On A Budget

I've never been a huge fan of glitzy Christmas wrapping paper, preferring to instead use the more environmentally friendly brown parcel wrap (did you know that shiny, foil-effect and laminated wrapping paper can't be recycled?). And the recent fashion for low-key Scandinavian-style Christmas decorations means my habit of using brown paper is bang on trend.

You can get brown paper pretty easily on the high street and I usually pick mine up from the Post Office, where I found a 10 meter roll for £2. I then picked up a somewhat tatty and unloved music score for 99p in Oxfam and this, combined with a couple of brown paper bags (saved from shopping trips over the year) gave me more than enough to wrap all my gifts.

The joy of plain brown paper is the myriad ways you can jazz it up with ribbons and trimmings, and this is where my magpie-like tendencies come in handy: I've been collecting bits and pieces all year for my Christmas parcels. This is your chance to get creative: in past years I've used candy canes, pine cones, and small baubles to decorate my parcels (although not all at once. Even for Christmas-mad me that would be overkill).

This year, I went for a combination of trimmings: lace on some, ribbon on others, together with clay decorations. The length of lace is actually a collar sent to me by Kezzie in a swap. Sadly it was too short for me, but it looks amazing decorating my sister-in-law's gift and, as she's far more slender than I, it will hopefully fit her.  In a local haberdashery I found grey gingham and heart print ribbon for 50p a meter. The black & white striped butcher's string was £1 from Tiger and the white clay decorations were left over from my homemade Christmas cards last year.

Finally, my gift tags were made from brown luggage labels (they're much cheaper from eBay than from places like Paperchase), which I then either covered in sheet music or decorated with a Merry Christmas ink stamp.

In total, I spent £4.99 on my wrapping supplies this year, but with way over half the roll of paper, almost the whole book of music and most of the string left, I reckon the wrapping costs for my ten gifts comes in at around £2. And, not to toot my own horn or anything, but I think they look a million dollars.

Monday, 14 December 2015

It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas

Thanks to working two jobs, I haven't had the time this year to make my usual evergreen wreath, nor to go and forage for holly, ivy and other greenery with which to decorate the house. So I was thrilled when Blossoming Gifts got in touch to offer me something from their Christmas range to review. Finally, some festive foliage for my home!

I'd never really thought of using flowers as Christmas decoration; evergreens, yes, but not flowers. But having seen how lovely the Festive Rose & Freesia bouquet looks, I'm a convert. The bouquet is a stunning mix of red roses, scented white freesia, berries and greenery, and it's brought a fantastically festive feel to my kitchen, where it complements my handmade blackboard sign. In fact, I liked this bouquet so much that I've already ordered two more as gifts.

Even better, Blossoming Gifts are offering 33% off any bouquet from the Christmas or main ranges* using the code BGIFT33, and they will deliver before Christmas for all orders placed on or before the 23rd December

* Discount not available on the Flowers by Post range.

Disclosure: I was sent a bouquet from Blossoming Gifts in exchange for an honest review but all opinions are my own.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

A Festive Miscellany

Lacking the time to put together any new Christmas-themed posts, I thought that instead I'd round-up a few from past years.

I adore the festive season with a love that endures despite the commercialisation, the endless sound of Noddy Holder screaming, "It's Christmas", the crowded and frantic supermarket aisles, and that creepy Elf On A Shelf popping up on my Instagram feed. To combat all of that, over the past few years I've tried to concentrate my energies into homemade decorations and gifts, a few of which feature here, as well as low-key traditions that are meaningful to me and my loved ones.

Last November I wrote about how to have a conscious Christmas: "When I talk about a 'conscious Christmas', I mean one which is conscious of social justice and the environment, conscious of the things that matter in our lives - family, friends, simple living - rather than getting into debt," and there's also a how-to about making your own evergreen wreath.

In December of 2014, I shared some simple festive home updates: from embroidery to utilising Christmas carol sheet music. As I said in the post, "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."

Looking for some quick Christmas makes? Teacup candles are a doddle to make and look fantastic. Or for an edible treat, spiced gingerbread cookies are just the thing (and they're vegan, too).

Finally, it might be a bit late in the season (honestly, how is it already a week into December?), but in 2012 I shared my tips for getting organised at Christmas.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Life Lately

Life lately has been busy. I'm almost at the end of the longest school term of the year, during which I've also been working 15 hours a week in my new job at The Willoughby Book Club on top of my usual teaching, planning and marking. And, of course, it's a hectic time of year anyway. So yeah, busy...

I'm feeling pretty festive, especially as we bedecked the house and put our tree up this weekend. But as well as festive, I'm also feeling exhausted and worn out and not a little grumpy. Poor Thomas, who bears the brunt of my irritability and mood swings, has found me crying from tiredness on more than one occasion.

I keep telling myself it's not for much longer, but that in itself is terrifying. It feels completely bizarre that two weeks from now, I won't be a teacher anymore. Over a decade of my life has been spent at this school and leaving is going to be extremely emotional. I finally told my classes this morning and it was awful: they were devastated and although in one sense it's nice to feel needed, I also felt so guilty about abandoning them.

And then there's the money issue... I've been starting to panic about the financial implications of my decision and am spending a lot of time faffing with spreadsheets and redoing our budget, trying to figure out just how skint we're going to be come the new year. So yeah, I guess you could say I'm stressed at the moment!

But before this becomes one long whinge, let me tell you about the good stuff.

Thomas and I have been making a real effort to have a date at least once a week: from Christmas markets, to mulled cider in our favorite pub, to chilling out together with pizza and Home Alone, it's something that's been keeping me sane.

And one really exciting element of my new job is that I'm now managing the Social Media for Willoughby. Yep, I literally get paid to look at books and mess about on Instagram: how perfect?! I'm thoroughly enjoying the challenge of developing that side of the business and it makes for some nice variation in my day. I can't wait to be working there almost-full time, instead of fitting in the hours where I can.

And, as befits the darker nights and my utter inability to get up off my sofa, I've been spending a lot of time hunkered under blankets reading. I devoured the new Rainbow Rowell book last week (highly recommended, even for those - me included - who hated the Simon Snow sections of Fangirl) and have just started Yuki Chan In Bronte Country, which has one of the most beautiful cover designs I've ever seen.

So that's my life lately. What have you been up to recently?

Thursday, 3 December 2015

The Buyer's Archive: October & November

Earlier this year, Elise started a series called The Buyer's Archive as a way to track her purchases from year to year and figure out which items had been worth it, and which had already found their way to the charity bag (Donna and Steff are also now taking part in the series). As reducing my spending is always a goal, I decided to give it a go too.

This time around I've combined two months because amazingly, apart from the necklace (which would have made a paltry Buyer's Archive post), I didn't buy anything clothes-wise in October. We won't mention all the other stuff - gig tickets, CDs, meals out, Christmas presents and train tickets - that I spent my money on.

November was less successful, spending wise. I sold a pile of clothes on eBay at the start of the month, making almost £200. My plan had been to save that and cut my spending to the bone in preparation for the drastic reduction in salary coming up in the new year.

But it didn't really work out like that.

I found myself, instead, spending quite a bit on both things I needed and things I didn't, with the justification that I'd better spend money while I still have it! I never have got the hang of saving...

First, the items that have been on my shopping list:

Black cocoon coat, ASOS £46.40 (thanks to a 20% off code)
I've been in dire need of a smart-ish winter coat for almost two years now. I have a navy duffle coat which is warm and cosy but also has a broken zip  and holes in. But could I find a coat I liked? Could I hell. I've spent the past two winters trying on coat after coat, without finding anything I really wanted. Even this one, I'm unsure about. Bulky winter coats don't flatter the huge-boobed, and this one is designed to be quite loose-fitting (the fact it's a size 12 and still has room to spare shows you just how loose-fitting it is). So I'm not totally sure it's the most flattering coat ever but hey, I'm trying to embrace the 'fuck flattering' mantra.

Black lace dress, H&M £18.74 (with 25% off)
I've wanted a black lace dress for a couple of years and H&M do one pretty much every winter but I invariably can't squeeze my chest into their size 16s. Luckily, they go up to size 18 online and I just happened to have a 25% off code burning a hole in my pocket when this came back into stock briefly, so I pounced on it. Although it's still really tight around the waist, it fits perfectly everywhere else so I'm hanging onto it in the hope it'll stretch out a bit.

Statement necklace, John Lewis £16
Did I really need this? Possibly not. But I've been looking for a gold-coloured, simple, non-blingy statement necklace since at least this time last year, and without any luck whatsoever. So it was very much on my list of things to buy and I was thrilled to find one I liked so much.

Dark green cardigan, H&M £19.99
Ok, so my cardigan collection is ridiculous - up to about 30 at last count - but what I was lacking was both a green cardigan and a longer-line cardigan, so this super-soft H&M number was perfect.

Topshop Leigh jeans, £34.20 (with 10% student discount)
The other essential was a new pair of black skinny jeans: my current pair being now baggy of arse and holey of thigh. I was holding out for a Topshop discount code, but they're pretty rare, and in the end I gave in and ordered a new pair using Thomas's still-working student discount.

Black Peter Pan collar dress, Modcloth $41.24/£27 (with 20% discount code)
I'm more excited about this dress than one should reasonably be about an item of clothing. I've been eyeing it up on Modcloth for months - I mean let's face it, with that collar it's pretty much the perfect Janet dress - but I wasn't sure which size to go for and was wary about the prospect of hefty customs charges. But when an alert landed in my inbox about a 20% discount code, and when I opened the app to be told that it was back in stock that day, I figured it might be fate. And when it appeared on my doormat, with no customs charge, and turned out to fit perfectly, well... it's definitely fate. Me and this dress, together forever.

Peter Pan collar jumper, charity shop £3
I always need jumpers as I find it pretty difficult to find ones that don't give me a boob shelf of doom. so to pick up this M&S jumper in perfect condition, for only £3, was a stroke of luck. It'll be perfect for work now it's colder.

Navy & cream striped top, charity shop £4
I do find that buying variations on my favourite styles is never a bad thing: it means that whatever I buy ends up getting worn, rather than languishing at the back of my wardrobe. So that's my excuse for buying yet another striped top (well, that and I ruined my new-ish H&M top on Friday by spilling a tomato-based stew down the front, leading to a stain not even Vanish could, err, banish).

Which brings my total to... £169.33. I know I say this every month, but I honestly don't think that's too bad for two wardrobe staples plus the other bits, all of which genuinely fill a hole in my wardrobe (shhh, I definitely had a collared dress-shaped hole, I promise).

Finally, sorry for the rubbish quality photographs; it's that time of year when there's never enough natural light, and even when there is, I'm not at home to take advantage of it in photographs!

Monday, 30 November 2015

November Reads

1. The Rest Of Us Just Live Here is based on one of the most interesting concepts I've come across, certainly in YA literature. High school senior Mikey lives in small town America with his ambitious politician mother, alcoholic father, a sister in recovery from an eating disorder, and a best friend who just happens to be part-God. He's only interested in making it to prom and graduation, getting the girl he loves to notice him before she leaves for the summer, and hanging out with best friend Jared. Unfortunately, an invasion by Immortals is messing with these plans. The conceit of the book, which is brilliantly done, is that the Immortals are only bothering indie kids - the same group affected by the battle with the vampires a few years ago (cue some very funny digs at the Twilight franchise), the soul-eating ghosts a decade ago, etc etc - and so remain as a sub-plot dwelt on only briefly at the start of each chapter. As Mikey says, the indie kids "have always got some story going on that they're the heroes of. The rest of us just have to live here, hovering around the edges, left out of it all for the most part. Having said that, the indie kids do die a lot, which must suck." This is easily one of my books of the year: extremely witty, it deals with big issues - the mental health struggles of Mikey and his sister are a huge part of the plot - very well whilst remaining pacy and thrilling. If you read one book from this round-up, it needs to be this one.

2. 21 Proms was one of those YA books that I think are best left to, well, young adults themselves. A collection of short stories about prom, they were (perhaps inevitably, given the subject matter and restricted length) fairly shallow tales, almost none of which gripped my attention. The highlight for me was John Green's story, The Great American Morp, which had something of a great teen movie about it.

3. I'm afraid my love for David Levithan is quickly becoming sullied by one mediocre book after another. Another Day is the sequel to Every Day, which was the story of A, a teenage boy who wakes up every morning in a different body and who falls in love with the girlfriend of the boy in whose body he inhabits for one day. This is the girl - Rhiannon's - side of the story, but because it limits the narrative to exactly the period that was covered in the first book, we don't really learn anything new.

4. A woman is snatched from a Paris street, and Commandant Camille Verhoeven, haunted by the murder of his wife five years ago, is assigned the case. But solving it is going to be more complex than just discovering who her abductor was, and Alex is no ordinary victim. Alex is gory and gripping, packed with satisfying plot twists and very well written. I can well see why it won awards and accolades by the bucketload: very much recommended.

5. When Mr Shaitana, famous for his flamboyant parties, invites a group of detectives - a writer of crime thrillers, the head of Scotland Yard, an MI6 man, and Poirot himself -  to dinner, together with four more guests, he ends up dead. And so the detectives begin to look into the backgrounds of the other guests, about whom Shaitana had dropped hints regarding 'getting away with murder'. Cards On The Table was perfect for a dark autumn night, and marked the debut of one of my favourite Poirot characters, the crime writer Ariadne Oliver, based on Christie herself.

6. The Silent Wife has been compared to Gone Girl but it's nowhere near the quality of that book. Jodie & Todd have been a couple for 20 years when he betrays her with yet another affair. And so she decides to kill him. Written from both points of view in alternating third person present tense chapters, I just couldn't find it in me to care about either character, nor about their eventual fates.

7. I picked up Mystery In White from a secondhand bookshop recently, thinking it would be an appropriate inclusion for a Christmas gift swap parcel, and decided to give it a cheeky read first. A classic Golden Age crime novel with a ghost story element, it made for a nicely seasonal, undemanding read.

8. I've really enjoyed Sloane Crosley's non-fiction essays, so I jumped at the chance to read her first novel, The Clasp*. Three college friends now in their late 20s - Kezia, Nathaniel and Victor - are reunited at the wedding of a classmate, and Victor's encounter with the mother of the groom leads him to become obsessed with a legendary necklace. When, after losing his job, he disappears to search for the necklace, Kezia and Nathaniel team up to look for him. I have to say, The Clasp wasn't really for me; it's written in a self-consciously literary style and the plot took a long time to get going.

9. I read A Place Of Execution years ago and had luckily forgotten quite a bit about the plot. One of Val McDermid's only stand-alone crime novels, it tells the story of young and ambitious detective George Bennett, who one cold night in December 1963 is called to the isolated Derbyshire village of Scarsdale to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. The scenes in the dale are atmospheric and creepy, and it contains one of the very best 'reveals' in modern crime fiction.

10. I actually read Signs For Lost Children on holiday in October, but then forgot about it in my monthly round-up. Sarah Moss writes beautifully, imbuing her characters with real life, and I have adored every single one of her previous books. This, the sequel Bodies Of Light, finds Victorian-era doctor Ally beginning her married life to lighthouse designer Tom with a long period of separation, as she continues her challenging work in a Cornish asylum, where she is disrespected and distrusted by staff thanks to her sex, and her husband goes to Japan for more than a year to complete a commission. The descriptions of both Ally's descent into depression and of Tom's experiences in Japan - where the country is vividly rendered by Moss' use of language - are wonderful but I found it a less engaging read than any of her previous novels.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Photo An Hour: 21st November 2015

You know those days when you wonder why you ever got out of bed? Yeah, yesterday was one of those days. Instead of doing the sensible thing after working four 60+ hour weeks on the trot, and staying at home, I'd taken it upon myself to instead drive to Sheffield for a Plus Size Clothes Swap and to see Rebecca, then head on up to my mum's in Leeds for dinner.

Unfortunately, the day had other plans for me. And as a result, I did a pretty shit job of Photo An Hour, missing a grand total of five hours - oops! I'll have to be better next time. Thanks as always to Jane and Louisa for organising.

I woke up late (I'm so tired at the moment: working two jobs will do that, I guess) and it was freezing cold in the house so we lit the wood-burner.

A read of the paper (very depressing, do not recommend) and toast for breakfast.

Trying on a new dress, which I mostly love but which has a very tight and weirdly fitting waistband. Instagram and Twitter both say keep, but I'm still a bit undecided.

Deciding on a book to take with me to my mum's.

In the car, so no photograph.

Still in the car, no photograph. Around this time I was snarled up near Meadowhall, where it took me an hour to travel less than 3 miles.

Still in the car, having missed the clothes swap which was the entire point of my journey north. Feeling pretty annoyed with myself, I pressed on up the M1 and a few miles out of Sheffield my bloody hubcap flew off (luckily while I was pulling onto the hard shoulder, having been alerted that something was wrong by another driver).

Finally at my mum's! By this time I was in an extremely bad mood so a cup of tea was sorely needed.
I'd made an error choosing this book, though, I don't think Pratchett's for me.

Poking round in the fridge for something to eat. My mum and step-mum use their Scrabble fridge magnets to spell out key events each month (no idea who Clive and Jean are though).

Fitting in a little bit of blogging before dinner.

No photo as we were engrossed in Strictly.

No photo as I was busy scoffing cheese and biscuits and laughing uproariously with my mum and step-mum. My grump was over by now, and I really enjoyed my evening with them.

Heading to bed soon, but first time to read. I'm so glad I thought to pack my Kindle as well as a book, as I've already given up on The Hogfather.

Monday, 16 November 2015

When Outfit Photos Go Wrong II: Revenge Of The Camera

Outfit photography lesson 1: Beware the wind

Last year I wrote about how bad outfit photos had conquered my fear of cameras and I had cause to think about this again recently. My brother got married and, during the rehearsal on Friday evening, Thomas was roaming round with a camera snapping off shots.

Inevitably, I looked absolutely awful in every one: slouching shoulders, greasy hair, scrunched up face, boobs looking - as always - ridiculously disproportionate to the rest of my body. A couple of years ago I'd have had a breakdown after seeing them. I'd certainly have cried and demanded they were deleted, proceeding to spend the whole weekend in a deep funk, convinced I constantly looked that terrible. I'd most likely have refused to be photographed at the wedding.

But instead, I shrugged it off. So there were some bad photos of me? So what? I'd been driving for three hours, was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and the photographer was snapping candid shots. No wonder I looked a mess.

And at the wedding, I happily posed for photos: I had a handsome man on my arm and an outfit both classy and comfortable. Why would I refuse?

It's entirely thanks to photographing my outfits for this blog that my attitude has taken such a 180 (well, that and the aforementioned handsome man, it being hard to really hate your appearance when someone you love and admire tells you you look beautiful).

I've learnt that it's entirely possible to look completely unlike yourself in a photo: a shutter clicked at the wrong moment and I look utterly ridiculous; a moment later, radiant. The more photographs of me that are taken, the more forgiving I can be of the terrible ones.

So now seemed like a good time to release into the world the next batch of outfit photo outtakes, of which I have many. Particularly because, in the absence of a dry weekend in which to take photographs, I haven't managed to do an actual outfit post in months.

1. When I'm nervous, I move my hands a lot: as a result, every batch of outfit photos includes numerous ones of me with blurry limbs. This also features the dreaded double chin.
2. Thomas had probably just told me a terrible joke.
 1. Don't know what to do when you're posing? Me either, but I can tell you that awkwardly messing with your belt whilst talking constantly is never a good idea. 2. If I remember rightly, I was looking at a cat when this was taken: how that's made me look like a zombie, I don't know.

 And what do you do with your hands? Maybe pretending to slam-dunk a basketball wasn't the best idea. I know, I'll cup my boobs instead, that'll work.

And the ever-present eye problem. I always close my eyes in photos, but perhaps that's the better option if my only other one is to stare maniacally.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Gift Ideas For The Book Lover In Your Life

What do you mean, it's too early to start thinking about Christmas shopping? I've been picking up bits since January, keeping my gift spreadsheet updated all the while. But I'll accept that not everyone is as organised/weird/anal as me and you might only just be starting to think about gift buying.

Now, I'm not one for beauty gift sets, luxurious make-up palettes or sparkly jewellery. What I really want at Christmas is things that remind me of my greatest passion in life: reading. And if you, too, have a book lover for whom you need to buy a present, how about one of these ideas?

Clockwise from top left:
1. It breaks my heart that a similarly minimalist poster isn't available for Austen's far superior novel, Persuasion, but this Pride & Prejudice print from Etsy will still look lovely gracing the wall.

2. The Literary Gift Company is the obvious starting point when buying for a book lover and this cushion with a quote from Borges, on the topic of libraries, would be perfect to adorn any literary home.

3. Happen to know an opinionated, height-challenged lover of Shakespeare (*cough* me! *cough*)? Then this book page print from Etsy will be just the ticket.

4. I know I'm not the only book lover with a borderline fetish for list-making. Featuring beautifully illutstrated pages inviting the owner to list everything from their favourite dystopias to their favourite childhood reads, this Literary Listography would be the perfect gift for anyone with a librarian-like desire for order in their reading life.

5. Obviously I'm slightly biased here (I do work for them, after all), but I think the Willoughby Book Company provide the perfect solution for the readers in your life. We offer a range of bespoke subscriptions, starting at £29.99 for a 3 month package, and your giftee will then receive a carefully chosen (by me!), beautifully wrapped book at the start of every month. We're also offering 15% off everything in the run up to Christmas - just enter the code WBC15 at checkout.

6. I'm a little obsessed with badges and brooches at the moment, and Etsy is a treasure trove of book-related pins to choose from. My very favourite might be this Drink Tea & Read Books wooden brooch, with the literary owl a close second.