Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Christmas Countdown is nearly over...

There’s something very different about the build-up to Christmas once you are no longer in full-time education.  Having graduated in June, this is my first Christmas with a full-time job, and my first Christmas that doesn’t fall in the middle of a nice long 3-week holiday.

For a start, the month of December is racing by! Without the routine of timetabled lessons, followed by a formal end to the term and some free time to relax and finish Christmas shopping, the big day seems to be catapulting nearer. The windows on my advent calendars (I have 3 – is that acceptable?) are flying open and the countdown is well and truly on.

December is a month full of events, both recurring annual ones and one-off catch-ups, and all of those are now being fitted in after days at work, or fitted into the couple of bank holidays we all have off. It’s been a busy couple of weeks so far…

First came ChristmasFest, in the village where I live. An annual event, all of the shops stay open late and there’s street food and fireworks. I went this year with my friend Laura and her parents and brother, to begin the Christmas countdown. In the same week came a visit round the houses from Father Christmas.

On a Friday early in the month was my sister’s Sixth Form Fashion Show. It seems to get better every year, and this year blew me away. It’s a fashion show featuring clothes from local stores, and has lots of dance routines in between. My sister choreographed this year’s show and it was brilliant! Here are a couple of blurred pictures of the ‘Night at the Movies’:

The Christmas tree arrived, and evenings out with my boyfriend and friends like Laura, Helena, Matt, Harry and Jen followed, and my mum performed in her choir’s annual Christmas concert. 

And now here we are: it’s the 22nd December, there’s a day and a half left for me of work, and then Santa will arrive. The weeks have raced by, and the presents are wrapped. It’s nearly here!

How has your build-up to Christmas been?

Sophie x

The Reading List #9

It’s been a busy week, but I’ve still found time for reading! Here’s the latest round-up of things I’ve read:

The Lollipop Shoes, Joanne Harris

This novel returns to visit the family of ‘Chocolat’, which I have actually not read yet, but the story can stand alone as well. Yanne lives with her daughters Rosette and Annie above a chocolate shop, until Zozie de l’Alba enters their lives and changes everything. Yanne and Zozie both have pasts, and Zozie’s presence forces Yanne to confront things she has blocked from her mind. This novel has it all: mystery, ruthlessness, fraud, family, love and friendship – there is a lot going on!

One thing that slightly confused me was which character was narrating each chapter, until I realised the picture symbols at the beginning of the chapters were a sort of key, identifying Zozie, Annie or Yanne. Once I had figured that out, I got completely lost in the narrative, and it is superbly written, with distinctive voices. You have to suspend reality a little for certain elements of the book, but if you just let it wash over you it’s an enjoyable read.

Snowdrops, A D Miller

Nick is writing a confession about what really happened during his time as a British lawyer in Moscow. He was drawn into a world of corruption and lies, and the story unfolds quite rapidly. The novel starts very strongly, and the explanation of the title is intriguing. However, I felt this element of the story could have gone a lot further, as it all fizzled out a little. It was written as a confession, but there actually wasn’t much to be confessed.

Moscow sets a stunning backdrop, and the city and its underworld are beautifully described, but the story did nothing for me. It’s a quick read and a simple thriller, but there was a lot missing for my personal taste.

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

A Sunday Times Book of the Year, this novel tells the story of the lives of 5 people all connected to one college, over the course of a baseball season. A college president has fallen in love, Owen is having an affair, Schwartz is guiding Henry’s career and neglecting his own, and Pella is on the hunt for a new life. The five lives overlap, and are neatly contained within this one place, over one season.

I’ll start with what I loved – the realism and the complexity of each character was brilliant, and the descriptions well done. It certainly kept me turning the pages. Schwarz and Henry’s story, in particular, really stood out to me. What I felt was missing was my own connection with sport. I think there would be an extra level in the book you could only connect to properly if you understand that mindset of devoting your life and all of your time to a team sport. This was certainly what my dad loved about it. Either way, it is really worth a read for the fantastic writing of Harbach.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, Marina Lewycka

Sisters Vera and Nadezhda put aside their sibling feud to get rid of 36 year-old Valentina, who has seduced their 84 year-old father. Valentina is Ukranian and desires Western wealth, and the book follows the sisters’ campaign to oust her. The book manages to fit in a fairly wide spread of European history, as well as playing out the inter-family feuds.

This book was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, and was much-hyped when first released, but it was another book that I just thought was silly. There was a lot of potential, and the humorous way it examined European history and wars worked well, but it then became too much when also combined with a silly story at the forefront. A lot more could have been done by using the humour more cleverly, nestled between some more real moments that might allow you to connect more with the story. I’d be interested to hear what anyone else thought…

And now let the final Christmas preparations begin! Who is excited? And what will you be reading over the break?

Sophie x

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Reading List #8

Oh dear, oh dear, I missed a week of The Reading List! I’m really going to try and stick to a Saturday upload, or I’m speeding through books then not blogging them until weeks later. Without further ado, here’s the latest selection:

Wish You Were Here, Graham Swift

This is one of those books that’s been hanging around on my shelf for ages, but gets shunted out of the way by newer, shinier options. I have a feeling one of my parents read this a while ago, and I then poached it from their bookshelf.

Jack’s brother, Tom, is killed in Iraq, and this loss causes Jack to confront many issues in his life, past and present. Jack is a man of simple pleasures, but incredibly complex, and the writing of this character is what makes the book. It faces a backdrop of war – both the Great War and the Iraq War – heritage, marriage and grief, but is never too heavy-handed.

The emotional current of the book is believable, with sometimes very abrupt changes in mood or in the way characters interact, which made the emotions seem more raw. The last few chapters, for me, were unnecessary, although I’m sure many people would disagree. I don’t want to say much more about the story, for fear of giving anything away, but it is a thought-provoking read and worth a try if you’re on the hunt.

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, Jon McGregor

This is a short book, and lends itself beautifully to being read in one sitting, which is how I read it. It covers one day on one, ordinary, northern street, full of ordinary people doing ordinary things. We peep through the keyholes of people in a huge range of life circumstances and moments, but glimpse them only for minutes. Some characters are returned to, some are not, and very few are named.

Against this scene, something big happens. This book is just stunning. It’s so beautifully written and the observations are measured and precise. The topic doesn’t sound particularly interesting before reading, but you can’t help turning every page, because the dull and mundane are captured with beauty. Read it now!

Queen Camilla, Sue Townsend

The royal family has been thrown out, and banished to the ‘exclusion zone’. The satirical tale unfolds on this council estate, and offers a social commentary on modern Britain. It is a very ‘relevant’ tale and does address some issues a lot of people are currently worried about or protective over.

The novel is, of course, silly, but it is also very clever, and Townsend clearly has a reason for every scenario she plays out. I could admire that this book was well written, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m glad I read it, as I am trying to widen my horizons a bit genre-wise, but I wasn’t a huge fan.

Once in a House on Fire, Andrea Ashworth

This was another book from my parents’ bookshelf, and it has no blurb so I really had no idea what I was going to find as I began to read. What lies inside is the memoir of the writer, who endured an abusive and turbulent childhood. It was a bit of a shock, considering I wasn’t sure what was inside at all, but it is a well-crafted memoir.

Her memories are painful ones, and it is a difficult read. Some of the situations she describes are incredibly upsetting, so I think only a certain type of reader would want to pick it up. Somebody like my sister, who is fascinated by memoirs and tales like these, though, would receive this as a well-delivered piece of writing. If you fancy a try, just be warned it isn’t easy to forget.

I feel like I say this all the time, as I’m really happy with the range of things I’m reading at the moment, but it was another varied selection! I love getting comments on what you’re reading or what you might try, so please keep them coming.

Having missed a week of this post, I’ve already read my next four books, so will try and get the post up on time for once!

What are you reading now?

Sophie x

The Challenges #1 December 2013

I held off on posting this at first, as I didn’t want to publicly set myself a challenge I couldn’t stick to! I have decided that I will begin each month by setting myself a challenge, which can cover any aspect of my life, and do little updates on here. It might be a good way to set myself in the routine of new habits, or just prove to myself that I can stick at something for the month.
December’s challenge is a toughie: NO spending on toiletries or cosmetics. Anyone that knows me knows I have a huge collection of these things, far more than I could ever be using in one go. My mum moans about it all the time… until she needs to borrow something, that is!
Although I don’t waste all my money on these things, and I do budget and have money to save at the end of every month, it can never hurt to save a little more. I thought that, in the months where I was finishing Christmas shopping, it might be a good idea to reduce spending on myself. And so December’s challenge was born. 16 days in and I’m finally blogging about it, because I think I’ll actually stick to it. In fact, because I’m steering clear of certain shops (the temptation!), I’m just spending less all round.
I’ve got to admit, a beauty advent calendar has helped out the challenge a little, as I’m getting little treats every morning, but it’s still not made me not want to add other things! In the lead-up to Christmas every brand seems to have such incredible offers running, and when you add in tempting launches, like the Naked 3 palette, it’s not the easiest month to have chosen.
When the month is up, I will be very happy to add a couple of bits to my collection that I have had my eye on, but it’s given me the chance to really think about what I want and when I’ll use it. Hopefully, my spending will become a bit more measured and my savings can start to build up more quickly. With both Andy and me now working full time, getting back into a place of our own is the priority into the New Year, so it’s nice to know exactly what I’m saving for.
Have you ever tried a spending ban? How did it go?
Sophie x

Monday, 2 December 2013

The Reading List #7

The weekend seemed to fly by and I didn’t get around to finishing my reading list post, so here it is now. I’m still going through my period of pulling lots of books off shelves that I haven’t read yet, so the wide mixture of books continues…

The Sea, John Banville

I read two Banville novels at university and was more than impressed, so was excited to find this gem on my parents’ bookshelf. In ‘The Sea’, art historian Max returns to a place he holidayed as a child, following a personal loss. The novels flits between two periods of his life - the then and the now - leading to themes of childhood discoveries, maturing, and loss. The time periods almost blend into one another, yet there is something distinctly separate about them too, so it is not confusing.

It reads almost like poetry, and is utterly beautiful. Any literature fans, or fans of superb writing and narrative, need to give it a go.

A Small Part of Me, Noelle Harrison

Christina’s mother, Greta, walked out on her as a child, and Christina is now at a point in her life as a mother where she may take the same path. This is a novel of journeys, discovery, and family relationships, with chapters told by four or five different characters. Again, this is a novel that flits around in time, and there are no dates given, but it isn’t confusing to follow.

I didn’t find the story hugely gripping, and didn’t connect with many of the characters, but it was a nice story, and some of the passages describing families and relationships were brilliantly written.

Wedding Babylon, Imogen Edwards-Jones and Anonymous

Sorry, I promise this is the last of the Babylon series for a while! They are just such light, easy reads, making them perfect to separate books with heavier subject matters, so I’ve been enjoying revisiting them. This followed the usual set-up of a week behind the scenes in a glamorous industry.

It is told by a wedding planner, and features excess, huge budgets, tantrums and celebrities. It is pure trash, and you know exactly what you’re getting. Sometimes, after a long day, that’s all you need!

Lady Oracle, Margaret Atwood

I’m definitely an Atwood fan, but the blurb of this book made it sound a lot more unusual or intriguing than it actually was. Joan Foster is a writer who hides behind many different guises, and this is the story of her life. Whilst some of her experiences and the situations she finds herself in are a little silly or over the top, it really just reads as a bit of a memoir.

It’s worth reading though, for the character of Joan. Her voice is so distinctive, and charismatic, and her quirky ways are believable. It wasn’t my favourite Atwood novel, but it was a good story and kept me reading.

So there we are: the latest instalment. I’ve had a slightly quiet week reading-wise since these four, so I’ll get myself back on track and back into the land of fiction ready for next weekend.

What have you been reading recently?

Sophie x
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