Guest Post: A Ginger Cat, Children’s Books and New Year’s Resolutions

Today’s post is by the lovely Alice. Enjoy!

It’s funny, and possibly a little bit weird, that I keep finding myself drawn to Alice in Wonderland. For years, I sort of resented it as a book because people would always associate it with me, just because my name was Alice, which at the time was quite an unusual name. Luckily (although that is debatable), soon everyone who used to shout ‘Hey! Alice in Wonderland!’ at me learned two new songs, ‘Alice the Camel’ and ‘Living next door to Alice’.

The thing is, I really like that book now. It’s a collection wonderful, unexpected bits, and stuffed full of great writing. And last year, I went through a phase of following other Alices on Twitter. Which is actually how I found Steph (WutheringAlice is a bit of a mash-up of two of my favourite books.) I like Steph’s blog because we share lots of the same interests – books – magpie-ing, craft – unlike Steph though, I can’t knit, which is a shame. And I know very little about beauty products. But then, that is why it’s great stumbling on blogs that you not only identify with, but you can learn from.

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Anyway, back to Wonderland. I found this quote the other day:

“Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago: and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.”

My new years’ resolution – you may as well make resolutions you know you can keep – is to keep reading interesting and magical books. To myself, but also to my children. They are at the point (aged 4, 6 and almost 8) where they are keen to be read to, but also want to read things for themselves. We’ve had years of enjoyment reading the Julia Donaldson books to them, and Oliver Jeffers remains a favourite, as does anything Lauren Child has written. The biggest girl has just discovered Harry Potter books, and is ploughing through them at an alarming rate. And now, on some nights it is just easier to let them read to themselves (or in the 4 year olds’ case, recite a Charlie and Lola book she knows off by heart. ) But there is something about reading stories out loud to children that is especially magical. With loads of kids owning tablets, kindles and e-readers now, I have become more and more determined to continue to read books to the children; actual books they can touch and turn the pages of. I’m all for technology, and I don’t stand in their way of exploring it, but the thought of reading everything on a handheld device gives me the creeps. And so I’ve started by buying a book that made me laugh out loud the first time I ever read it.

Orlando

It’s a book about Orlando the Cat : A Trip Abroad. He goes on holiday to France, by accident. (He was supposed to go to Newhaven! As you do, when you are a cat.)

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It’s just a wonderful story, with great illustrations. The writing is hilarious; there is a bit where Orlando is so excited, he jumps on to a table does his world-class impersonation of a ham. And the illustrations are so brilliant that the book is every bit as attractive to adults as to children; I would own this book even if I didn’t have kids. There are loads of stories in the Orlando series, he goes on lots of interesting, and slightly bizarre adventures. The first ones were written in 1938, so they are dated in places, but haven’t lost any of their charm or wit.

As well as Orlando the cat, I want to read more young fiction. Just because you are essentially a grown up, with a mortgage and a kitchen that includes more than one type of pasta and an actual recipe book (this is basically my criteria for being a grown up) doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy fiction aimed at teenagers. It’s a genre that just seems to get better and better! The Fault in Our Stars and Wonder are two of the best books I’ve read in the last year.

Happy Reading! New Year, Same You,  but with added book-based adventures.

Guest Post: The Map That Came To Life- A means of escape

I’m really happy that Michael (one half of TheBigForest) agreed to guest post for me- I hope you enjoy today’s post as much as I do!

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When I was young I was given a large scale picture book for older children called The Map That Came To Life. It had been published more than twenty years earlier in 1948 and showed an England that had already disappeared.
The story tells of John and Joanna who are on their summer holidays. They walk, with Rover the farm dog, from their Uncle Georges Farm to Dumbleford Fair. Uncle George has shown them the previous evening how to read a map and the book unfolds in large picture book double spreads juxtaposing the map with illustrations of the ‘real’ countryside that comes to life and a written narrative about the children’s adventures.

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I’m not sure what held my imagination as a child, perhaps that I have always seen maps as an effective means of time travel or that my grandparents owned a farm in rural Sussex and I too walked across the fields to the village. I’m sure it couldn’t have been an identification with John all rocked up in shorts and long school socks or a wish to be friends with Joanna with her shiny plaits and large white bows. They look about 12 or 13 and, well, all rather uncool.
There is a beauty and simplicity to the world A Map That Came To Life portrays. Like so many children’s books there is drama (a fire, a lost child) but you know it is all going to be fine in the end. Uncle George will pick them up in his horse and trap and take them home for a slap up tea with Aunty Mary.

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A couple of years ago I was surprised to find another copy of The Map That Came To Life dated 1963. Someone, perhaps Ronald Lampitt who drew the original, had tried to update the 1940’s illustrations. The perky hats and shoulder pad dresses had been blurred to a softer silhouette, the steam train replaced by a diesel and the cars had sleek lines rather than the older ‘sit up and beg’ profile. The biggest change was that the gentle lithograph colours had become all bright and shiny and so much was lost.
I was thinking about the comfortable world of the Map That Came To Life the other day when things were a bit tough. There is something so wonderful about escaping in to a story book land where tigers who come to tea are not the slightest bit threatening or everyone just comes together and builds a house for their neighbours.
Is there a story book you would like to escape in to?

Guest blogger: Michael is a consultant in the arts and culture sector he is also one of the designers at TheBigForest a business based in Brighton and London. Find TheBigForest blog here.
If you want the reading list here it is!
The Map That Came To Life by HR Deverson and drawn by Ronald Lampitt; A House In The Woods by Inga Moore; The Tiger Who Came For Tea by Judith Kerr.

What I’ve learnt from my book buying ban

Image: Musee D’Orsay

Back in July, I decided to put myself on a book buying ban. Originally, it was going to just be until November 1st, but then I got cocky and extended it to Christmas Day. I broke only once- to buy this (which was cheaper than a copy of Marie Claire):

1385497_10151678726832267_669650736_nThere have been many times in the last few months where I’ve desperately wanted to buy a book, but refrained. I’ve also probably not made a massive dent in my ‘to be read’ pile- but I have made SOME progress.

So what have I learnt?

  1. Book buying is almost a habit with me; I buy books when I’m sad, when I’m bored, when I’m celebrating. It’s just a reflex.
  2. Moving is a good thing, because then I will be able to house more books.
  3. I prefer novels in eBook format and non-fiction in paperback (I like seeing pictures properly).
  4. I am lucky enough to live in a city with a REALLY good library service. I’ve read many books that I probably wouldn’t have bought.
  5. Maybe I should go on a book buying ban for a couple of months every year. Like a book detox, if you will.
  6. I have a serious weakness for craft books. A SERIOUS weakness. Magazines don’t really replace those for me.
  7. I’m utterly bored of most magazines.
  8. I’ve read more fiction in the last few months than I have in the last couple of years.

Now, local bookselling establishments, I will be spending ALL MY MONEY in your shops as of December 26th. Brace yourselves!

 

‘Tis the season… for Edgar Allan Poe

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Image: Wikipedia

I joked recently that most of my life references come from watching hours of The Simpsons; in Poe’s case, this is true. I only know The Raven and The Tell-Tale Heart because they were featured on the programme. I also have a vague recollection of reading The Black Cat as a teenager (it’s really grisly). Anyway, recently, Poe has been creeping into my life: a friend sent me a letter on Poe notepaper, Benn and I watched The Raven (which stars John Cusack as Poe- it’s a brilliant, slightly daft film. I highly recommend it!) and then I stumbled upon a documentary that dealt with his troubled relationships with women. I was hooked. I do love reading the work and biographies of damaged souls.

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As the nights draw in and Halloween moves ever closer, Poe’s tales seem to appeal more and more. That such a troubled person could write such visceral and haunting tales is fitting. So I decided to get the collected works out of the library and I am on the hunt for a great biography of him; let me know if you can recommend one!

Have you read Poe? Where should I start? I’ll let you know how I get on…

From spendthrift to… actual thrift.

From next month, I am going to be significantly poorer than I am now. This is not necessarily a bad thing because it means we’re finally moving! Hurrah! Into an actual house that I like, that doesn’t have steps leading up to the front door, or an infestation of woodlice and that has charming Victorian fireplaces and an extra room for Fidget. However, extra rooms mean extra money and I’m going to have to economise. Sigh.

This probably won’t be so bad once the baby arrives and I completely forget what it’s like to wash my hair, let alone put on a full face of makeup/choose a co-ordinated outfit/finish reading a complete book, but I think putting the groundwork in now is a good thing. So, I’ve been taking a leaf from A Thrifty Mrs and looking for cheaper alternatives to things… Here are my plans:

Makeup

I’ve already been extolling the virtues of budget eyeshadow and I’ve been looking at cheaper alternatives for most of my makeup- I’ll be posting a full write-up of thrifty makeup in the future, but I am making a start (although I’m still not sure if you’ll be able to wrench my MAC foundation from my cold, dead hands just yet… the jury’s still out on this one.)

I’m going to have a really good clean out of my makeup bag and throw out any old, past-it stuff and focus on using things I already have, instead of impulsively buying more. For example, I have a brilliant blusher compact that I got from Boots at Christmas; there’s still loads left and I have no need to buy any more! I may stock up on a few bits now, but will make sure that they’re not opened until they need to be (thus extending the shelf-life of the products- they go off as soon as you open them!) Then, I will only buy things on a need-to-replace basis. In theory. Hopefully this will lead to a reduction in impulsive-lipstick-buying, if nothing else.

Skincare

My main skin staple, cold cream, is dirt cheap, so I’ll stick with that- although I have loads of acqueous cream that I think is pretty much the same (and doubles up as both a good eczema cream AND nappy rash cream. Hurrah!), so I will try and use this as a cleanser and see how I get on. As for moisturisers and so on, I’m a big Body Shop fan- but I will be investigating similar products in Superdrug that are half the price.

Clothes

I already buy most of my clothes from eBay, but I will also have a look in charity shops (I often don’t have the patience to root around in the racks of clothes…) I have bought some excellent quality baby clothes from really good second-hand shops and I think car boot sales may also be in my future. I’m not going to go as far as saying I’ll learn to sew because a) I’ve tried before and b) I’ll be too knackered.

Books

I love books. To the point that one time, the bookcase collapsed while the cat was sitting on it. I am a hoarder of books and this must cease. I now will aim to:

  • Read all the books I have already
  • Use the library more
  • Check out free Kindle books- particularly classics
  • Try not to buy so many secondhand books

Crafting

Those who know me know that I’m an obsessive knitter. I am trying not to buy any new yarn, as I have well over 50 skeins of the stuff (maybe more- I haven’t counted, so it’s an estimate!) that needs to be used. I am also planning on making small presents in the next few weeks to stockpile as Christmas gifts, as with a young baby I am NOT going to be in the mood for shopping/making. So I am hunting around for craft bargains while I have the money and making stuff while I have the energy. Yes, I am aware it’s July.

This is going to be a hard challenge. But I think I may be up to it. Feel free to add any suggestions/comments/ideas- I’m going to need all the help I can get!

 

Holidays!

So, I’m on holiday for six weeks. Usually, the long holidays are fun, with a bit of work thrown in (don’t believe what you read about teachers in the papers!), but as I will only be back in school for four weeks, I won’t be teaching. Ergo, no planning. Hurrah!  So, what are my plans for this long stretch of loveliness?

Well, although my initial plans are to slob around in my pyjamas watching DVD boxsets (I have missed so much pop culture in the last couple of years; I have The WireMad Men and Downton Abbey to watch), I do think I should use this time wisely. After all, this time next year I’ll have a small child to look after. I won’t get the same opportunities to lounge around, reading and eating biscuits at will. It’ll be all feeding and naptime. Which I’m sure* will be a different kind of fun in itself.

Anyway, I reckon when setting goals and targets, you should really make something that’s a) easy to achieve and b) enjoyable. No point putting pressure on yourself unnecessarily. These are not groundbreaking, nor will they change the world, but they are simple!

1) I am going to wash my makeup brushes. They are horrid and I’m probably wise not to think about what’s on them. I will also, finally, purchase a kabuki brush. I will also chuck out any makeup that’s past its best. Ugh.

2) I will not complain about the weather. If it’s sunny, I’ll go for a walk or sit in the garden. If it’s raining, I’ll stay inside and do something productive or fun.

3) I will blog loads. I’ve got quite attached to my blog (even if people don’t read it, I enjoy writing it!)

4) Stay positive, especially with the house move. No need to dwell and get upset about something that is stressful anyway.

5) Knit the things on my list from a few weeks ago.

6) Get some new music on my iPod. I get bored easily!

7) Sort out the photos for Ladies in Monochrome. It’s a massive undertaking and the blog itself will be a year old in a couple of weeks. So a few hours in front of a hot scanner won’t be too arduous in the long-term.

8) Finally get round to reading the rest of the Hunger Games trilogy! I’ve been putting it off for months, but now’s the time I bite the bullet!

Do you have anything you want achieve before September?

 

*I’m not entirely sure that this is an accurate statement

Spring Goals

I figured, as it’s nearly the end of February and we’re predicted a really warm end of the week, I thought I would look ahead and set myself some goals for the next few months; the period between now and June is busy at work and I need to make sure that I’m not just doing work stuff. So, with that in mind, I’m going to set some goals for the time period until June 1st.

1) Read more fiction- and enjoy it! I’ve written about this and I’m determined to continue with it. I’m slowly getting to grips with the problems I’ve had. Maybe I read a few rum books, but it’s getting better. I am currently loving Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Vile Bodies’, so I will read more of his books in the coming weeks.

2) Be positive- it’s really easy for me to get bogged down in my job, so I’m going to try and take everything as it comes. This target also means I need to not allow stress to envelope me. Which leads me to…

3) Get into exercising- I started both jive and yoga this weekend and I really want them to become things I really, really enjoy, even when the novelty has worn off. I’ve started to read up on the history of both and this is really helping me get my head around what I’m doing.

4) Do more writing- and be brave about it! I need to make sure that I start work on the ‘novel’ and maybe put myself forward for writing competitions, solicit some work (perhaps) and really get going with the work. Writing is the thing I love doing more than anything. I should do more of what I enjoy.

5) Knit some yoga socks!

6) Make something with my sewing machine.

7) Buy some utterly brilliant shoes that I will actually wear.

I think that’s a pretty comprehensive and achievable list… Do you have any goals for spring?

I’d like your reading suggestions, please!

So, a couple of days ago, I wrote about how I was struggling with reading fiction and I’m still finding it a bit of a struggle. I’d quite like suggestions, if you have any, of books you think I should read or would like. To give you an idea of what I’ve read so far in the last few weeks:

 The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

 I really, really loved this novel. So much so that I went out and bought a few more of hers. I still haven’t bought ‘Tipping the Velvet’, so I’d like to know others’ opinions on that.


Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

This had been on my bookshelf for a while and I remember buying it because I’d enjoyed the film. It’s a claustrophobic and uncomfortable read, which I think I would have enjoyed more had I not seen the film, but I really enjoyed reading Yates’ style.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

This is a book that I judged by its cover (which was more exciting than the actual contents.) It’s a beautiful book in terms of description and visual imagery, but the story itself wasn’t particularly strong or compelling. I thought there were too many characters and that the story jumped around a bit too much.

When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

It’s not often I loathe a book. I loathed this one. I hated the story, I hated the main character, there were stupid grammatical mistakes… If one of the events that happen in this book, it would be remarkable. For all of them is stupidly unlucky. I was bored and only finished it because I hate leaving a book unfinished. This will be straight to the charity shop.

I’ve just started reading Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West and Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, which I’m too early in to say anything about.

What are your favourite books? Which authors should I take a look at, in a bid to shake off my fiction ennui?

Reading Fiction

I’m reading a lot of fiction at the moment and this, for me, is odd. I tend to read a lot of non-fiction, particularly biographies. I have a slight penchant for dead queens and Hollywood starlets of the Golden Age. (I also tend to like my subjects tragic and glamorous. Not sure why; I’m sure there’s something in it. Marie Antoinette and Jean Harlow are favourites.) Anyway, I’m trying to write some fiction of my own and, alongside factual research, I’m reading lots of fiction.

I read about 55 books a year, roughly, and I have a book that I list the titles of what I read. I also tend to have two books on the go: a paperback to read in the bath and either a hardback or a book on the Kindle. At the moment, the ‘bath’ book is When God was a Rabbit and the book on my Kindle is The Night Circus. I’m not fully immersed in either, to be honest. I find that a lot of writers write children badly- they are too precocious or too adult in the way they speak- and I’m having problems with this in both books. I’m also finding that The Night Circus is a book that would much rather be a film by Tim Burton than a novel. It’s highly stylised and I’m sure it will make a beautiful film, but I can’t ‘settle’ into it as a book. It’s odd, but I can’t explain it any better! I also don’t like that it’s written in present tense, but set in the past.

I think because I read so much non-fiction, I find the unpredictability of fiction difficult. If I pick up a biography, I know that the subject will more than likely die at the end and I’m interested in the person enough to pick up a book about them in the first place. Compared to this, fiction is more of a gamble.

What’s really odd is that as a child, I was a voracious reader of fiction. Non-fiction didn’t interest me in the slightest, apart from Anne Frank’s Diary and books about pets I was soon to acquire. Like one of my all-time favourite characters, Matilda, I quickly read most of the children’s fiction section (that I was interested in) in the library that we visited and moved onto to adult books at quite a young age. I wasn’t precocious, I was just curious. And Matilda was a role model of sorts, as she spoke like a real child. A telepathic, genius child who enjoyed reading Steinbeck at the age of six perhaps, but still a kid.

So, what’s changed in me that I dislike fiction so much? Do I need to retrain my brain? Am I lazy? I dislike the uncertainty of fiction, especially when very little is written in the blurb. I’m tired, I need something I can read easily (a lot of non-fiction is not easy reading though.) I also think my training as a writer of non-fiction is to blame; you read and write so much of it that it becomes second nature. Is there something wrong with me? Can I, and should I, do something to change my reading habits? I’ve also not read a great deal of ‘classic’ fiction- I’m not a fan of Austen, I find Dickens too long winded and I much prefer Emily and Anne to Charlotte Bronte. I feel like a fraud of an English teacher.

This year, I’ve also read Revolutionary Road, which is pretty depressing and claustrophobic (but the film is surprisingly faithful to the book) and The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, which has led me to fall head over heels with her work- I’ve not wanted to read so much of an author since I discovered Roald Dahl aged six. I enjoyed the complex narrative and found it fairly easy to get hooked into the story, despite the story working backwards. Strangely, I didn’t hate this.

So, I suppose I need to give fiction more of a chance to ‘settle’ before judging it and to accept that there is good fiction and bad fiction and that by reading both, I’ll hopefully discover a style I like that I can write in myself. If there are any suggestions for what I should read, give me a shout!