Monday, 29 December 2014

My best reads of 2014

Of the fifty or so books I read this year, these come out as my top ten. They are not only books published this year. As always I choose them not necessarily on literary merit but enjoyment and the impact they had on me. Here they are in the order I read them and how that came about.

The Buffalo Thief  - Yojana Sharma. I heard something about this author and looked her up. I liked the sound of this book and ordered a copy. I wasn't disappointed.

After the Fall - Charity Norman. This was a selection made while browsing in my local bookshop.

The Ghost of Lily Painter - Caitlin Davies.  Caitlin was a speaker at The Finchley Literary Festival and needless to say I bought a copy - especially interesting as it had local Finchley references.

And the Mountains Echoed - Khaled Hosseini. I gave this to my daughter as she loves his books and she lent it to me.

The Aftermath - Rhidian Brook. Another bookshop browse. I have often heard Rhidian's Thought for the Day and guessed his novel would be an interesting read.

Someone Else's Skin - Sarah Hilary. I had linked with Sarah via Twitter and Facebook as fellow writers. When Sarah published this, her first novel, I had no idea it would take the book world by storm.

The Shock of the Fall - Nathan Filer. My daughter, a mental health nurse, bought this. She thought it very authentic. I borrowed her copy.

Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut. When I went to the book section of our local recycling centre to take some very tatty books which would not be worthy of a charity shop, I spotted this classic and rehomed it.

Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese. This was a birthday present from my daughter. She chose it because she knows I love books set in other lands.

Life after Life - Kate Atkinson. Another bookshop browse (after all you can't buy only one book at a time).

Here's to great reading in 2015.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Wishing you all a Happy Christmas...

I wish my readers a happy Christmas - whether you celebrate this or not - and hope that 2015 makes our world a more peaceful place.

This is my Christmas tree: it represents many wonderful hours of reading, which has taken me around the world, back and forward in time, has made me laugh and cry and made me think about any number of issues. It has accompanied me on my own travels and has comforted me when things were dark.

Thank you to all the wonderful writers who helped create my Christmas tree.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Dreaming of a White Christmas...part 2

Childhood Memories of a West Country Christmas.

If I looked carefully I could spot exciting looking parcels piled up on my mother's tall wardrobe. Signs appeared on my sisters' bedroom doors: 'Do Not Enter' or 'Please knock.' Rustles of paper smoothed from last year's presents accompanied shrieks of 'Don't look!' Soon presents began to appear beneath the Christmas tree. It was easy to identify those from Judy because they were the most imaginatively wrapped and tied in tinsel bows with coiled ends. My own were rather lumpy with lots of Sellotape. This year there were tiny presents with the tags saying 'With love from Stephen' in my mother's handwriting, because he was only three months old.

At last the school term ended and excitement mounted. When I helped unpack the large cardboard carton from the grocery delivery I found boxes of Turkish Delight and jellied fruits, nets of mixed nuts and boxes of dates bearing pictures of camels beneath palm trees. I loved to see these far away places in my mind and imagine visiting them.

One evening we heard the sound of singing: the carol singers had arrived. The front door was thrown open to 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing' with the singers' breath pluming in the cold night air. As they crowded into the hall they began on one of my favourites, 'The Holly and the Ivy' finishing with the very best: 'Silent Night'. My mother and sisters handed round mince pies and hot drinks, while the mistletoe attracted stolen kisses and giggles amongst the singers.

With just two days to go, my father went to the local market and returned bearing an enormous turkey. My mother plucked and eviscerated it and lay it the roasting tin in the cold pantry. Would it fit into the oven? The next day I helped pick Brussels sprouts and select potatoes from the shed. My sister, Colleen, peeled and cut the potatoes into chunks and placed them in cold water while Alison prepared the sprouts, putting them in a saucepan with a tightly fitting lid. Everything was ready.

That evening we all sat around the blazing fire, the presents lay expectantly beneath the tree and for once bedtime could not come too soon. Would I see Father Christmas? Of course I knew the reality but never had I spotted my parents delivering the gifts to the stocking hanging on the end of my bed. Pyjamas on, I climbed up on the window sill to look out into the night. Would it snow? The weather forecast was predicting it. Please let it snow.

I awoke early in the morning and could make out the satisfyingly lumpy shape of a filled stocking hanging on the end of my bed. I knew it was still early because all was silent outside. Light on, I woke Alison and together we tipped the brightly packaged parcels on to our beds along with the familiar apple, with a shilling stuck in it, from our neighbour and the tangerines and nuts in the tip of the toe. Delights of chocolate, coloured pens, crayons and colouring books, story books and toy animals for my farm set were unwrapped while Alison found books, stationery, toiletries and accessories as befitted her twelve years but the chocolate was exactly the same. As we tasted the chocolate we heard the hum of the electric milking machine start up. As always, our father had an early start. Cows needed milking and animals needed to be fed as on every other day. We made our way down to the kitchen for a light breakfast, while our mother battled with stuffing the turkey and checked there were sufficient potatoes and sprouts.

His morning chores completed, my father, carrying the daily gallon jug of milk and a smaller jug of cream, came in for his well-earned breakfast. He then changed in to his Sunday suit and took my sisters to the morning service while I helped set the table, both leaves extended, in the sitting room. I spread the white cloth, usually reserved for Sundays, and set out the cutlery with a cracker at each place. By the time everyone was home from church, the kitchen was steamy with roast turkey and the pudding was having its final two hours. Father sharpened the carving knife and carved the turkey. Everyone carried their own plate piled high with turkey, crisp roast potatoes, sprouts and carrots, bread sauce and gravy to the dining room. Father said grace and we all tucked in. Stephen lay in his carrycot. Next year he would be able to join in.

Plates cleared, our mother brought in the pudding with a sprig of holly on the top. The jug of fresh cream accompanied it. We pulled crackers and read out the silly jokes and wore the paper hats which slid off at every opportunity. After dinner we sat around the fire while the family presents were exchanged: toys, games, books and clothes. We played the games, modelled the clothes and began reading the books. The huge box of chocolates from our neighbour was passed around and I waited my turn in agony in case someone chose the Turkish Delight or the Orange Crème but to my relief both were still there, only to give me the terrible decision of which to choose.

We played consequences and charades and as darkness fell, my father changed back into his working clothes for the afternoon milking, Judy and Colleen went to help with the feeding and bedding the animals for the night while Alison and I helped wash up and set the table for tea later on. Somehow there would be room for turkey sandwiches, fruit trifle and Christmas cake.

Before bed each of us arranged our presents in a pile, with a smaller pile for Stephen, to be enjoyed all over again tomorrow. Tired and happy I went to bed wishing it could be Christmas every day, but I knew that next year I would have anther lovey Christmas just like the all the others I could remember. In the night the snow began to fall.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Dreaming of a White Christmas...part 1

Memories of a West Country Christmas. I grew up on a farm in south Gloucestershire in the 60s. It was a way of life that has gone forever.

When I reached home, red cheeked after the mile and a half walk from the bus in the cold sharp wind, I could smell a warm spiciness in the kitchen. My mother was making the Christmas puddings. The mixture was waiting in the large china bowl with the wooden spoon, ready for me to give it a stir and make a wish - and taste a little bit. I helped spoon the mixture into several smaller china basins and my mother tied large pieces of cotton cloth over the tops making a handle from the ends. Tomorrow the kitchen would be a warm haze of steam while they sat for hours in the large galvanised steamer, the water at a steady simmer.

Christmas had begun, but it was still an achingly long time to wait for an eight year old. Gazing into the toy shop on the way home from school where I changed buses I'd already picked out some items for my Christmas list; mostly things to add to my toy farm and miniature garden. I planned what to buy for my three big sisters and new baby brother and wondered how far my savings would stretch.

The next day there was more mixing and tasting: the cake. My mother always left plenty of the rich and fruity mixture in the bowl to be scraped out and eaten raw. At the weekend my eldest sister, Judy, would carefully ice and decorate it with coloured lines of icing spelling 'Happy Christmas' and green marzipan holly leaves and red berries. The smell of the cake baking was complemented by the fresh aroma from the annual crate of oranges. Each brightly coloured fruit was wrapped in tissue proclaiming its provenance from an exotic sunny country. This year there was a crate of apples too. Every evening each member of the family would choose a fruit to be eaten after tea in front of the roaring log fire.

Mince pies, with the mince oozing out, were baked and stored in tins for visitors. Stu, the postman, his pipe clamped firmly in his teeth while he rode his rounds on his Post Office bicycle came laden with cards and the occasional parcel, but he still had time for a cup of coffee. The sweet aroma of his pipe tobacco lingered in the air after he had gone.

Judy retrieved the Christmas decorations from the musty cupboard beneath the stairs and examined them, selecting those she deemed fit for another year. This year she added baubles and tinsel leftover from her Christmas window display at the department store where she worked as a display artist. The crepe streamers might just do once more. Strings were pinned into the sitting room’s old walls to hold the numerous cards that were arriving. Those from our mother’s friends and relations in Australia came in the first batch, their pictures of koalas and kookaburras contrasting with robins in the snow and carol singers outside quaint English churches.

The arrival of the Christmas tree brought a new aroma into the house; its sprucy scent  mingling with the rest. The fairy lights, as always, didn’t work the first time but patient testing of each minute bulb to find the culprit was rewarded and the colours shone out once more. This year Judy made a star for the top of the tree, declaring the fairy doll to be too old-fashioned. Our father came in from his farm chores with two fine bundles of mistletoe cut down from apple trees in the orchard. While my sisters hung the smaller one from the light fitting in the centre of the sitting-room he fixed the large one to sway from the ceiling in the hall. Everybody helped cut the holly bearing bright red berries and arranged it around the room, with shrieks when fingers were stabbed by its dark shining prickly leaves.

The whine of the bench saw in the shed started up every evening as our father cut more logs to be piled up in the log baskets for the winter fires. Ash logs burnt the best. Sometimes I would watch, not needing to be told to stand well back out of  danger, as the sharp teeth tore into the wood. The logs smelt of woodland walks.