Monday, 26 January 2015

The naughty girls guide to reviewing.

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
Marcus Aurelius

Thankfully I am not often in the habit of quoting the stoic philosophers but I found this quote by accident and it keeps popping into my head so I hope you will forgive the pretention. However this week, I have been pondering the rise of the value of opinion, especially on the net and in particular the enormous popularity of the review site; Goodreads, Rotten Tomatoes, Tripadvisor. Every product on Amazon is under constant review scrutiny, every seller on eBay will rise and fall on the positivity or otherwise of their feedback. It seems that we just love poking around on the net to see what other people like and what they do not. The ascending phenomena of book clubs shows no sign of diminishment and increasingly book clubs are being courted by publisher and authors as opinion gauges and seller aids and the symbiotic relationship between reader, author and publisher is becoming exponentially closer.

Indeed the very best blogs (I am not immodestly including myself here!) construct an art of opinion and personal subjective taste, albeit carefully edited and photographed preferably in close up. I read your blog because I like your taste, that sweet crochet pattern, lovely tea towel and perfect cake, enviable street style and trusted book recommendations. So, there is nothing wrong with a little judicious editing is there? I blog, I comment, therefor I am...Hmm but is it always a little too sunny and saccharine here in the blogosphere and the wider internet?

Sometimes not as some cocky vested interests do not welcome an honest opinion. As in the case of the unedifying row between self-published author Jacqueline Howett and online reviewer BigAl's Books and Pals, and the case of the hotel guests 'fined' 100 pounds for their bad review of a Blackpool hotel on Tripadvisor. We posted up an honest but poor review over the unbelievably unprofessional conduct of a plasterer we engaged via and while not surprised by the reviews speedy removal, we were made evermore cynical and certainly shall not be trusting the veracity of the tradesmen's 'references' on that particular site.

When we were hip young students we generally gravitated to those groups of people who shared our taste in humour, music, films and books, albeit a crude compatibility test but one which generally stood us in good stead. We managed to navigate the sometimes choppy waters of nascent adult relationships with relatively few tears. People that I bonded with over a love of Guinness, Withnail and I, Nick Cave and the comedy of Bill Hicks are still friends. We all had strident opinions about everything, usually passionately argued out in the gloom of the student union bar. It was important that you could back up your opinion and stand over it.

Now, life is a little slower and grounded, I certainly am less quick to judge (out loud at least); so one blog post that I had planned but consciously chose not to publish was one exasperatedly criticising the predominance of the use of the cup-cake as a plot device in novels sometimes irritatingly categorized as 'women's fiction'. It seemed that every book last summer had the plucky heroine saving their home, business, relationship etc. etc. via the boundless power of the cupcake. So why didn't I post it, perhaps it is just nice to be nice, praise that which is good and ignore that which is considered second rate?

Bitches are far more fun though, aren't they? Kenneth Tynan had pinned to his desk 'Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds,' one of my favourite restaurant reviewers is The Observers Jay Rayner simply because he is unafraid to smoothly yet waspishly skewer any restaurateur failing the customer on food, service or value for money. It is probably easier to write an honest review through from the safe vantage point of a salaried position and many peer-reviewed articles. For the independent blogger the lines are more blurred, certainly I think for the book-bloggers especially if they perceive that they are dependant on authors and publishers for content.

So then a quick guide for the naughty girl:

1.Do not make friends with authors/filmmakers/restaurateurs.
So, you have been effervescently praising this fantastically creative individual and are thinking about meeting for coffee/twitter chats when their third novel/film/cupcake comes out and it is shite -what do you do now? Cut your 'friends' down in their prime for the sake of a blog post! Seriously it is not going to happen.

2.Do not waste your time writing negative opinions for publishers so called review sites, they won't print them.

3.Do not accept solicited products to review, you cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, your opinion is now tainted but hey you have lots of free stuff! 

4. Sharpen your red pencil and keep the comments open. Sometimes a great critique is good for the soul and it works both ways.

5. If you can't take it don't put it out there. :)

Friday, 23 January 2015

Frilly Frou Frous

Hello all out there in blogland. It has been very cold here, sometimes crisp and beautifully frosty but also that grey dampness which I think is particular to January that seems to penetrate down to your very bones. My poor feet are like mini icebergs! So we have been indulging in some cheery projects to keep warm and cosy.

Myself and the kids had great fun making this sweet little pom-pom garland from this cool tutorial.
I have to say that these are so quick to make and so cute they become highly addictive. Miss E is planning to make a necklace and a bracelet and O wants a scarf for his toy dog. I think a long garland made in shimmery whites and frosty blues would make a lovely Christmas decoration. (Sorry, the very mention of the C word at this time of year does make me wince! )

Candle-light is so necessary for me at this time of year, warming and atmospheric, I think just a couple of well-placed candles and tea lights manage to create that homely feel beautifully. We especially need a little bit of soft focus here as we have yet to re-paint the house after its re-plastering, so we have super smooth walls but in a monotonous grey all over! I was actually re-visiting my pinterest albums one evening when I saw this simple make. It is a good use for those nice but empty candle jars that hover around without a true purpose and for my bag of coffee beans bought in error.

Finally, it has been marmalade season, I just love the brevity of the availability of these gorgeous sour oranges because it make one very organized and single-minded for a change. Marmalade must be made immediately! My local independent green-grocer, who is I think, the only supplier of Seville oranges around here, announces their arrival on his Facebook page and oh my goodness if you don't get a move on and hightail it down to his shop very quickly they just disappear for a whole year. Little O threw a bold tantrum when last years supply ran out so he had a lovely time perched up on his high stool watching me completely ruin the stove by letting the pot boileth over and laboriously ladle litre and litres of hot Spanish sunshine into warmed jars.

I followed the Darina Allen recipe that I found in this rather annoying article - so why even mention that marmalade making 'also appeals to guys'? Is the ancient art of preserving supposedly a predominantly female girlish occupation, until a huge chopper is to be welded with masculinity? Certainly the 'guys' in my house do like to munch the marmalade on crusty toast but are quite content to leave all the arduous hours of peel slicing and pip-squeezing to me, perhaps my knives are disappointingly feminine...

Apologies, I digress. I would indeed recommend Darina Allen's recipe and especially the whiskey version but I would be a little more heavy handed with the uisce beatha as I cannot really taste the whiskey in my marmalade. So, what about you? Any crafty or foodie plans for the weekend? I hope this weekend is a lovely one for you and that all your plans turn out great! xxxx

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Great reads of 2014.

H is for Hawk
by Helen MacDonald.

(image from

This beautiful multi-layered book just makes it into the list as I was gifted it by Mr S's Mum and could not stop dipping into it in between all the Christmas festivities. This method of reading should not have been successful, how was it possible to disappear into MacDonald's sometimes bleak grief filled world while surrounded by all the hustle and bustle of a family Christmas and the urban glitter and sparkle of  holiday London? However, my complete immersion into this book shows the precise power of this authors writing, the deft recreation of her obsessive training of Mabel the Goshawk, the compassionate biography of T.H White, and her seductive portrait of the English countryside were just perfect.

I don't usually make New Year resolutions but this book was probably partly instrumental in strengthening my resolve to get back into hill walking and trekking again this year, well and partly due to the fact that I mistakenly put on a pare of Mr S's jean and they did fit! Ohhh feck. I do spend quite a lot of time out in the countryside already but really want to experience the exhilaration to be found in our increasingly rare wild margins, the mountains and the coast.

Fractious gust of wind rattle the hedgerows, blowing voluminous shoals of leaves over us as we walk up the tract. There's sticky mud and pheasant prints in it. Flocks of fieldfares chak chak and dodge in the hawthorns by the cow field, breaking low when we get too near, bouncing over the hedge and away in thrushy strobes of black and white. It's nice to see them. Proper winter is here. And Mabel is fizzing with happiness...

This book is in places a dark read but it is so much more than the usual misery memoir, it is a deep meditation on grief and the stark raw loneliness of grieving. It is a lament for loss and of the debilitating power of separation from those we have loved but it is also a celebration of life, the beauty inherent in our natural world and the elemental importance of human interaction with the wild and indeed each other. It is one of those books that I could turn back to reread immediately after finishing. Caught by the River which is a fascinating online resource for all matters outdoorsy has an interview with Helen MacDonald here.

Another such book which demanded such an urgent reread was:

The Closet of Savage Mementoes
by Nuala Ni Chonchuir

(image from
I have posted about this beauty in this post back in the summer when myself and some fellow bookish ladies had the pleasure of meeting Nuala Ni Chonchuir and had the chance to discuss with her, the impact that this book had for us and of-course the fascinating process of writing from conception to publication. I ordered this novel on kindle and immediately regretted it as I so needed a touchy feely print copy in order to return again and again to favoured passages of writing. I have to admit that I considered buying this book as a gift for someone and then quickly hesitated, reluctant as they might not  'get it'. Do you get that feeling of extreme annoyance when someone criticizes your beloved books? Anyway, this is a great book, funny, poignant and compelling - go and buy it. Nuala Ni Chonchuir's forthcoming book Miss Emily has been included in stellar company on the Huffington Post's Most Anticipated Books of 2015 list (as Nuala O'Connor)
My final amazing book of 2014 is:
To Kill a Mocking Bird
by Harper Lee.

(image from

Ok, this has to be filed under the 'My Jaw is dropping, why have I not read this before!' subtitle. I have found it very hard to desist from the inclusion of multiple exclamation marks and OMG's. You don't need me to review this masterpiece for you so if like me, you have neglected to add this book to the culture section of your brain then do not tarry. Of course, the film is a sublime bonus to add to the experience.

I'm so excited for 2015, there are 12 whole months of reading time to be filled. Have you any recommendations for me? What has been your favourite read of last year? xxxx

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Normality is overrated.

We were very lucky this Christmas, as well as a lovely trip to London where we were very spoilt by our friends and relations, we four also had a luxurious whole two weeks together. This was thanks to the way Christmas fell in the week this year and some astute saving of annual leave by Mr S. However, it was at breakfast on Saturday 3rd January, that I began to think longingly of a return to our normal routine. Breakfast was being served at 11.00 am in the shape of a Star Wars space ship thingy.

The reason why breakfast was so late was that the kids had stayed up late putting stickers into the new Star Wars sticker book, myself and Mr S had overdosed on wine, chocolate, cheese and The Killing. The kids were already bickering over whose turn it was to have a go on the iPad to play their new Star Wars game and Mr S was talking about buying some actual Star Wars Lego for himself. Can we detect a theme here? I had with monotonous regularity lifted acres of Lego from the living room floor - daily. The dog had developed separation anxiety thanks to the need for a buster collar and a short holiday in the kennels, this had manifested itself in unprecedented 2.00 am crying and wailing sessions to be allowed upstairs.

(image from

So, it was with a strange mixture of regret and delight that I faced our first Monday back -to-school/work day...but be careful what you wish for because Oh how quiet the house was and how austere it looked without all our decorations. How large my pile of neglected OU reading loomed! If I put something away, it stayed there, I could hear myself think! They had left me all alone with the substantial remains of the Christmas selection box mountain...

One of my Facebook friends J was musing about how many of the mums in the school playground were celebrating getting some January peace and quiet without their children while instead she was really missing her daughter. I would be a little in both camps, I'm afraid. I really miss having the kids off all day and having all that time to spend with them and play with them. These days of beautiful excited innocence at Christmas will not last for long so I must remind myself to be mindful of them. We had some lovely long walks and on the rainy mornings had breakfast in bed and all piled in under the duvet to watch Christmas films. Bliss.

I do have however many Very Important Jobs to be getting along with now, so the wee ones need to be packed off to be educated. Mr S needs to adorn his bowler hat  and return to The Office to replenish the decimated bank account. I need to catch up on two weeks of degree reading and plan my next essay. I need to browse some seed catalogs and organize the planting for the allotment this year because this year will be the one when we actually produce a reasonable quantity of fruit and veg. (I say this every year. Normally we yield a couple of baskets of produce and that is it. Embarrassing) And, I need to play with my Christmas presents: Ta Dah! I cannot wait to get chopping and sewing.

So goodbye Christmas, you have been a blast,

Santa Motorcycle Club? Greenwich, London.

But the year is turning and already I can see the first tentative signs of spring.

Happy New Year from all of us to all of You! xxxxx