Monday, 29 February 2016

February Reads

1. Willowdean, known as Dumplin' to her mom, is sixteen years old, living in small-town Texas and grieving the loss of her beloved aunt when she meets Bo - tall, dark, handsome Bo - while working at local fast food joint Harpy's. She's not surprised to find herself attracted to him, but she is surprised that he seems to like her back. I adored Dumplin'loved it with the fire of a thousand suns. Willowdean's relationship with best friend Ellen, her conflicted relationship with her beauty pageant obsessed-mother, her confidence in herself and love for her fat body, and her reactions when that confidence suddenly seems eroded, are finely and tenderly drawn. What I liked most of all was the time the author gives her story to develop. I'm so used to YA novels which race breathlessly through events, whereas Dumplin gave time for the reader to get to know - and love - Willowdean. And my gosh, there are passages that if I were 16 I'd be underlining furiously in pencil, scribbling "so true!" in the margins*, My read of 2016 so far.

* I can neither confirm nor deny the rumour that my copy of Catcher In The Rye is similarly marked by banal teenage scribblings

2. I wanted to love The Art Of Being Normal, I really, truly did. After all, it's one of the first YA novels about transgender kids that's been genuinely best-selling (albeit that it's written by a cis gender author). And for the first 150 pages or so, I did love it: I loved the relationship between David and his two best friends; I loved the pitch perfect scenes in the school. I honestly, truly was on this book's side. And then it went to shit. You see, one of the main characters, Leo (who I thought was a great character in himself) lives on an estate. Or should that be An Estate, one full of broken glass, hooded gangs, smashed windows and - horror of horrors - messy gardens. The ludicrous middle class stereotyping of a council estate and its inhabitants would have been funny if it hadn't been so horribly offensive, and it made me take against the rest of the book. It's almost more frustrating when a book comes so close to being great than when it never gets anywhere near.

3. Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl is just great, everything I wanted and expected from Carrie Brownstein's (of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia fame) memoirs.  Brownstein isn't afraid to expose her shortcomings to the reader whilst also holding back personal details which she, quite reasonably, doesn't want to share (for example, anyone hoping for salacious gossip about her various celebrity romances - with Corin Tucker and St Vincent, amongst others - will be disappointed). She's best when reflecting on the nature of music fandom or, like another great musical memoir - Beth Ditto's Coals To Diamonds - the weird insularity of the Olympia music scene in the 90s.

4. Claire has quit her marketing job in order to discover her true vocation, only to find herself spending her days aimlessly surfing the internet and her nights drinking too much wine. I've seen Not Working* compared to Bridget Jones' Diary, and they do have in common an incisive wit which gets to the heart of modern life. But it manages to be so much more than that: I felt genuinely involved and invested in Claire's 'journey' (for want of a better and less wanky word). Highly recommended.

5. Hesketh Locke is a behavioural expert employed to trouble-shoot in cases of industrial sabotage. Investigating the sabotage and then suicide of a timber worker from Taiwan, Hesketh doesn't at first connect it - and subsequent similar events in Sweden and Dubai - with a series of bizarre and violent attacks by children around the globe. The Uninvited  is part-sci-fi dystopia, part-thriller and - apart from a weird quirk of the author's by which we are meant to see Venn diagrams as a) bizarre and b) worthy of explanation - extremely readable. 

6. I was intrigued by the premise of Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of Your Fist. Billed as a 'heart-stopping debut about protest and riot', it's set during the 1999 World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle. Full disclosure - at the time of writing I haven't finished it, and have struggled to engage with the central character of Victor. However, the quality of the writing is superb and it's definitely a book I'll persevere with or return to when I'm in the mood for something with narrative meat.

7. I just love the cartoons of Sarah Andersen, so jumped at the chance to read her new book, Adulthood Is A Myth*. There wasn't a page in this that didn't either make me laugh like a drain or wince in recognition, usually both. It's one of the rare titles I've had from Netgalley that I will also definitely buy a 'real' book of, too.

8. The Big Feminist Butt: Comics About Women, Men & The Ifs, Ands & Buts of Feminism did what it said on the tin: a good collection to dip in and out of. Often funny, frequently thought-provoking, occasionally infuriating.

9. How To Be Free  is somewhere between humour, political philosophy, history and memoir and deals with the knotty question of how we can be, well, free: from debt, from work, from suffering. It was an inspiration to me when I first read it in 2011 but returning to it now - after 4 years of learning a great deal more about radical and anarchist politics from Thomas - I found it all a bit eye rollingly middle class. For example, during the chapter about freeing yourself from the oppression of mortgages, Hodgkinson suggests (seemingly straight-faced) that instead the reader buy a small piece of land and build a house.

10. A Dark-Adapted Eye is touted as one of the crime novels you have to read but, sadly, I found it all a bit of a let-down. There was a wonderfully gloomy and sinister atmosphere, however the supposed twist was ludicrously easy to guess and upon finishing I was only left with a sense of wishing I hadn't bothered.

11. I felt conflicted about, but ultimately pleased that I'd read, David Mitchell's Bone Clocks, but Slade House (which shares some characters with Bone Clocks) wasn't nearly as interesting. A schlocky gothic ghost story about a house - and its two inhabitants - that appears every 14 years to claim a victim, the one positive I can say is it was a quick read.

12. I think Find Her* might mark the final Lisa Gardner thriller I bother reading. While Gardner knows just how to ratchet up the tension, her books are becoming formulaic to the point of parody - young female victim is subjected to graphic sexual  violence, lead detective does some victim-blaming, suspect ends up shot dead by lead detective because 'Murica - I find my taste for the formula has soured.

Overall, I think February's reading experiences can be best summed up by this cartoon. Pesky feminist politics, ruining books for me:

Note: I do not use affiliate links in this post, I just like to provide a non-Amazon source for all your book-buying needs!

* These books were kindly provided by the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Photo An Hour: Saturday 20th February

Thomas was away, so I took the opportunity to have a long and lazy lie-in without 6'3" of wriggling boy next to me. Once awake, I stayed snuggled under the duvet with a magazine. The Simple Things isn't my usual choice - I find it a bit too consumer-driven, all 'buy this, buy that' - but the cover was so pretty I couldn't resist it while doing the weekly shop.

Time for breakfast. Yum.

The view from where I'm sitting. And in a development which will shock everyone who regularly reads my Photo An Hour posts, I was reading The Guardian and listening to 6 Music. So, what I do every Saturday morning basically.

12 midday:
I've gone off blogging a bit recently, but I did my best to motivate myself to finish a Buyer's Archive round-up for the past year, then got bored after 15 minutes and abandoned it. Standard.

Bored with blogging, I went up to the office and got some layouts sorted for the zine I'm working on.

I went to a plus size clothes swap yesterday, so on Saturday afternoon I had a stack of clothes to try on to decide whether or not to take them or keep them. This skirt ended up in the 'keep' pile.

The house was feeling really chilly (the downside of living in a beautiful but draughty Victorian terrace) so I lit a fire and did some more magazine reading.

Making biscuits (and a mess) in the kitchen. Unfortunately, I chose a recipe with dough that needed to be chilled for 24 hours, so I couldn't enjoy the fruits of my labour. I did, though, get to use my amazing stand mixer, which was a Christmas present from my family.

A bit later than usual, but time for a cup of tea while I listen to the radio (again) and read (again). And yes, in case you're wondering, we do have daffodils in pretty much every room of the house.

Oops. I was so looking forward to being able to take some photographs of somewhere not in my house, but when I actually went out I completely forgot to a) take my camera and b) take photos on my phone. So no pictures for the four hours I spent with friends, eating pizza and gossiping. Instead, the standard final #photoanhour picture: my bed and a book.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

A Day In The Life

Since I began my new job at The Willoughby Book Club, a question I hear regularly is, "but what do you actually do?" The most common misconception is that I get to sit and read all day (I wish!). Another is that I must work from home. So I thought now might be an opportune moment for a quick peek at a day in my life...

My alarm goes off and I drag myself - reluctantly - from bed. I had a vague hope that leaving teaching might mean an end to the early starts, but my office is full of early birds and I liked the idea of finishing work at 3.30, so I've joined them.

Sitting at my desk with the first cuppa of the day. My first task at work is to catch up on any social media activity since yesterday afternoon: replying to messages, liking and commenting on new Instagram content and updating our Facebook page.

That task out of the way, I start selecting. Our office is lined with thousands of books, arranged according to genre (and age, in the children's section). Each of the Book Selection Managers have a list of customers assigned to us: mine's currently around 700-strong. Unlike most other subscription box services, ours is totally personalised, so my job is to decide which of the thousands of books we stock might best suit each of my subscribers, based on information given at the time of order. In any half hour, I'll therefore be picking up a huge variety of books: from YA to classic novels, from science fiction to the latest literary prizewinners.

Our aim is simple: to send customers a book they haven't read, but that they will enjoy and that will be to their tastes. Sometimes that's an easy task, but in other cases we need to delve a little deeper, using online reviews (Amazon and Goodreads are essential weapons in our arsenal) and browsing our stock to ensure we can find something suitable. So while I don't sit and read all day, I do look closely at our books, perhaps reading an opening chapter here, a blurb there, while I'm selecting.

I set aside time every morning for an online hunt for interesting book news and articles. Whether it's an article about diversity in YA from the Evening Standard, a fun Buzzfeed Books quiz, or a satirical piece on dystopian fiction in The Telegraph, as long as it's book-related I know our followers on social media will be interested. I spend time scheduling Tweets and Facebook posts to share what I find before turning my attention back to book selections.

Lunchtime, and because we're based on an industrial estate we all usually stay in the office during our break. I cannot tell you how good it feels to have a proper lunch break - one in which I sit on a sofa to eat my food and read a book in peace - after ten years of teaching lunch breaks which are more 'shove a sandwich in your gob while also marking books and supervising homework club."

Back to work. I often use this part of the day, when the light in our office is best, to take photographs for our Instagram feed. So out comes my box of tricks - from vintage book pages to lengths of fabric, to bookmarks - with which to accessorise my shots. I love this part of my role and have great fun getting creative (even if my colleagues must think it odd to see me perched on one leg, arched over a stack of books trying to get the perfect shot).

With the exception of Thursday and Friday - when I leave Willoughby at lunchtime and head off to my old school to run some Year 6 literacy intervention groups - I finish at 3.30pm. So, at 3 o'clock I do a final check of emails and social media notifications, then pile up the books I've selected ready for wrapping and packing, before heading home for a cup of tea, a sit down, and the blissful feeling of having no marking.

The other big question - along with, "What do you do?" - has been, "Are you enjoying it?" And ultimately, the answer is yes. It's an enormous change of pace for me: from the manic environment of a secondary school, and all the pressures teaching entails, to sitting in a peaceful office. As a result, I can find myself feeling... not bored, exactly, but under-stimulated compared to the crazy over-stimulation of teaching. But I relish this, and it seems to be just what I needed as the headaches, migraines and chronic jaw pain that have plagued me for the last two years have all but vanished. I also really enjoy the two afternoons I do spend at school, which have reminded me how much fun some bits of teaching can be. Who knows what the future may bring, but for now I feel pretty damn lucky to have had things work out so well.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

A Celebratory Weekend in Lincoln

A few weeks ago, feeling worn out and over-worked, I decided that what Thomas and I were in need of was a post-Christmas, post-PhD weekend away. And so, just a few days after Thomas aced his viva to become a Doctor, we hopped on the train to Lincoln for an overnight stay.

Lincoln was a regular destination for day trips when I was a kid but I hadn't been back in years, while Thomas had only visited very briefly, so this was a good opportunity for us both to explore the medieval lanes of the cathedral quarter and get to know the city a bit better. 

Lincoln is very much dominated by its magnificent Norman cathedral, which sits majestically atop the mound known, accurately, as Steep Hill. Entrance is free on Sundays and we were lucky to arrive just as the morning service was drawing to a close, giving us the chance to hear the cathedral choir. The cathedral itself is one of the most impressive I've visited (and yes, I'm sad enough to have visited quite a few. Apparently all those churches my dad used to drag us to visit when I was a kid have rubbed off) and the cathedral quarter is a glorious mish-mash of medieval cottages, Georgian splendour, and half-timbered Tudor buildings.

A weekend away for me and Thomas tends to be dominated by three things: the pursuit of bookshops, of cider, and of vegan food. We found the latter at Cafe Shanti, a cheerful place bedecked with batik fabric, serving vegan and vegetarian food that's both cheap and incredibly tasty (the perfect combination). For cider, we particularly liked the Wig & Mitre pub on Steep Hill, but found decent cider on tap pleasingly easy to come by in most pubs (yes, we tried a few!).

As for bookshops, Lindum Books in the cathedral quarter has a great selection of both new and used titles, while the secondhand bookshop on Steep Hill, Jews' Court Books, was great for a bargain. I also fell head over heels in love with the amazing homewares in a new shop on Steep Hill, the name of which escapes me and which I can't seem to locate on Google. Just take my word for it that it's ace! I very much wanted one of the bear print tote bags to come home with us, but totes are something I have in abundance so I left the little fella for someone else.

Monday, 1 February 2016

The Buyer's Archive: January

Last 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. As reducing my spending is always a goal, I decided to give it a go too.

Sugarhill Boutique fox jumper, £22.50 in the sale
I mean, look at it. Navy blue and with a cute fox intarsia: how could I not?

Topshop Jamie jeans, £36 including 10% student discount (not pictured)
Why, I asked The Wardrobe Angel, do my jeans always end up saggy and baggy? Had I thought about trying a size down, was Steph's reply. And no, I hadn't, because frankly I'd always thought it weird that I even squeezed into a Topshop 16 so a 14 would definitely be pushing it. Nevertheless, I took myself down to my local branch and grabbed a 14 in both the Leigh and the Jamie, and when I tried the latter on, I swear angels sang and fairies frolicked. Yep, they're that good: like a hug in denim form.

H&M floral print dress, £6 via eBay
I wear my H&M heart print dress in this same style constantly (actually, I have two, and one has had to be repeatedly mended I wear it so much) so I've been looking out for the same dress in alternative patterns for a while, and eBay finally came up trumps. I'm not crazy about the pink (it not being my colour, really) but to throw on for work with tights, boots and a cardigan, it'll do fine.

Primark polka dot top, £6
I mean, we can all see why I bought this, right? Dots plus collar is the Janet brand, and for £6 it was too good a bargain. Sadly, I failed to try it on first and it turns out to be not completely perfect: the collar sits just a bit too high and makes me feel like my boobs are a huge shelf. Time will tell, but I doubt I'll get much wear from it, so not such a bargain after all.

All together, that gives me a total of £70.50 for January, which is a little more than I'd like. However, I did sell almost £100 worth of clothes on eBay, so swings and roundabouts I suppose.