Breath of the Wild art.

The comfort of the familiar

When I was a child, there were a few books that I read over and over again, sometimes in back-to-back readings.

My copy of 101 Dalmatians – one of the very few books that I actually owned back then – has been read so much that it’s held together with garish blue tape. There was a particular Famous Five book that I loved to the extent that I would borrow it from the library multiple times, and read it three or more times during a single loan period. I would flick to certain stories in The Puffin Book of Animal Stories over and over, then feel guilty about not reading the others, so I would end up just reading the whole thing anyway.

As I got older, this hankering for what was loved and familiar extended to video games, music and films. When I finally got to the end of my first unforgettable playthrough of Ocarina of Time, I went straight to the title screen and started again. There was a period when I was a child when we had *cough* not-quite-legit *cough* cable at home, and there were a few ‘unlocked’ pay TV channels that had the same films playing on a loop. I would sit down in front of the TV and watch the ones I enjoyed most over and over, endlessly. When I started building my own DVD collection, it was even easier (and more legal) to sit through my favourite films again and again. I used to listen to my favourite records over and over until I got sick of them, then went back for more a few weeks later.

I fell out of this habit as I entered my thirties – I thought that there were just so many things to read/play/watch/listen to, it seemed less justifiable to go through all of the same experiences that I’d had so many times before. I’ve always made an exception for my very favourite books, but everything else just fell away.

Then COVID-19 happened, and all of a sudden all I’ve wanted to do is reach for the familiar, like a young child’s worn and slightly stained comfort blanket.

I went back to Stardew Valley and started another game of growing crops and tending to animals, despite not exhausting my original save file. I bought Breath of the Wild on the Switch (despite already playing it to death on the Wii U) and am now several hours into another playthrough of it.

I’ve bought a lot of books during lockdown in an effort to support my favourite bookshops, but I’ve been getting through them at a slower pace than normal, and keep wondering whether it’s too soon to re-read my Robin Hobb books again (I finished my last read-through of all 16 of them last September, having begun in early 2018).

Last weekend, I put on Sleepless in Seattle for the first time in years – my ultimate comfort watch. A few days ago, I started idly looking up prices for the DVD boxset of Fringe, which I binged on when it was on Netflix back in 2015.

The album listening parties run by Tim Burgess on Twitter have also sent me back in time by featuring old favourites that I hadn’t listened to in years (hello Lost Souls and The Hour of Bewilderbeast), prompting me to seek out more lost gems in my collection.

My head knows that I have 100+ books to read, several games that I need to finish (or even start), and a huge Netflix to-watch list. But my heart just wants to return to the things that I know I love.

It’s not just me. There have been a few surveys and articles confirming that a lot of us are turning to old cultural favourites during lockdown, as well as looking at old photos to summon up the memories of happier days. Nostalgia can have a powerful hold over people at the best of times, but its grip seems vice-like in this current strange period.

One thing I didn’t know about nostalgia is that, in the early 17th century, it was originally deemed an illness with physical symptoms that Swiss soldiers went through when they were fighting abroad and longed for the hills of their alpine home. I recently read Dolly Alderton’s memoir Everything I Know About Love, in which she touches on this when looking back at the period covered by the book:

In the run-up to my thirtieth, my twenties became my alpine dreamland. My twenties were my home, somewhere I knew and felt comfortable. In my rational mind, I was totally aware that most of it had been fraught… but I was overcome with the sickness of nostalgia.

I think my nostalgia comes from a similar place. Although I’m more used to the current situation now than I was at the beginning of lockdown, and I know full well that the pre-COVID world was far from perfect, I still want to flee from the whole thing to somewhere that I know. Whether this is a good thing or not, I’m still not sure.

I recently banned myself from Twitter and news websites for a couple of weeks because I could feel the constant stream of bad news digging into my brain and sowing the seeds of anxiety. While it was helpful to cocoon myself away from the real world for a bit, I couldn’t help but feel a different kind of anxiety that by blocking out the news and refusing to engage with everything outside of my bubble, I was being selfish – especially at a time when protests are erupting around the world to demonstrate against the murder of black people. Wasn’t I being a bad ally by not keeping up to date on everything that was happening? How could I contribute to the fight against racism when I didn’t know what was going on around me?

I sometimes feel like that about my recent trips down memory lane. What’s the point of going back in time when there are writers, directors, actors, musicians and games developers putting out new works that are more relevant to the modern era? (Although I’m quite thankful that there aren’t yet any COVID-themed novels or TV shows to plough through!). How can I hope to develop my understanding of the world when I’m not engaging with it, especially as someone who hopes to write a novel one day?

Perhaps this way of dealing with lockdown is actually good for me. Perhaps, as the rules around lockdown ease (albeit in typically chaotic fashion) and we gradually re-emerge into the new world that’s appeared over the course of this strange spring and summer, I’ll be mentally stronger to deal with whatever new events are going to come our way. We’ll see, won’t we?

Silhouettes on a hill.

25 things I miss about pre-lockdown life

  1. The pure joy of locking the front door and setting off on holiday.
  2. Making a surprised “oh!” noise when the food arrives mid-conversation at a restaurant, even though I was certainly there when I ordered it just a few minutes before.
  3. Guaranteed reading time on the commute to and from work (but not the will-it-won’t-it agony of waiting for a delayed bus, or the other people on it).
  4. The first big mouthful of a pint in a lively pub on a Friday after work.
  5. Falling into a massive Gujarati food coma as my husband drives us home from seeing my mum.
  6. The sight of Manchester city centre basking in butter-soft sunshine that particularly flatters the reddish-brown buildings there.
  7. Random office banter that distracts everyone, even the managers, from work for longer than it probably should.
  8. The curtain of calm that falls over me the moment I walk into a bookshop.
  9. Spilling some of my beer on myself in the excitement of a banging, sweaty gig.
  10. Eating all of my sweets in the cinema before the film even starts.
  11. The sight of my husband bounding up a Lakeland hill like a mountain goat while I slowly struggle along several metres behind him (yes, really).
  12. The wonderful, magical Cheese Man’s enthusiastic greeting of “Hello! ‘Ow you doing?” when we get to the front of the queue at the local market.
  13. Dissolving into hysterical drunken laughter with friends, inevitably resulting in at least two of us getting the hiccups and/or choking/coughing.
  14. Sunny lunchtimes spent reading by the Old Quad at the university, bees drowsing nearby.
  15. Wandering aimlessly up and down the aisles of shelves at the library, knowing that I could take home any book I see for free, if I wanted to.
  16. Licking melted ice cream from my hand after buying a 99 (with raspberry sauce and a Flake) on a really hot day and not eating it quickly enough.
  17. Flicking through a dog-eared inflight magazine while being too excited about my holiday to concentrate on the articles.
  18. Bumping into people I haven’t seen for years and standing on the pavement either nattering for ages or having a quick, slightly awkward catch-up.
  19. Ordering a ridiculously expensive cocktail in a bar and not regretting it in the slightest.
  20. Sitting down with a pot of tea and a huge slice of cake in a cafe after an interesting but exhausting walk around a stately home/castle/museum.
  21. Walking out of Boots/Superdrug while scrabbling in a pocket for a tissue to wipe off all the make-up I’ve tested on the back of my other hand.
  22. Writing to the soundtrack of the plinky-plonky music in the cafe above the bookshop at work.
  23. Furtive glances at other punters’ sleepy under-the-table dogs in a sunny beer garden.
  24. Neck ache from looking upwards at interesting buildings in a foreign city.
  25. Coming home after- well, just coming home, full-stop.
Stardew Valley.

I hope you’re well in these strange times?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost count of the number of emails starting with the title of this blog post in the last few weeks. These are indeed strange times, but sometimes I want to reply with something along the lines of ‘OF COURSE I’m not well! Who is?’. I don’t think many of us will really be able to come to terms with how truly awful this situation is until the worst is over and we can look back at the pandemic from the safety of the future.

Still, I can at least count my blessings. So many people are in a much worse situation than me: I still have a job I can do from home to keep up some sort of routine, my husband is at home, we live in an actual house with a (very small) yard, we don’t have children to keep clothed, fed, entertained and educated, and I have plenty of books and games and music and TV shows and films that should theoretically keep me occupied outside of work. We are healthy. Our families are fine. All good, right? We just need to wait this out.

That’s what I keep telling myself as the UK death count ticks ever higher and the void inside my brain gapes wider and wider.

I have 100 books on my to-read pile, yet I can’t read.

I’m partway through the first draft of a short story and have long-held plans for an actual novel, but I’m barely writing any more.

I scroll endlessly through social media for the comfort of the voices of others who feel the same, even though I know I shouldn’t, and then try to put my phone down and feel like a failure when I can’t do anything productive.

We’re normally looking forward to our anniversary break to the Lake District at this point in the year, but we’ve cancelled it for 2020, and it’s just so depressing to not have a holiday to plan for and talk about excitedly.

This is all actually incredibly rubbish, but I haven’t broken down yet. Somehow, I just keep going, and I know deep down that we’ll eventually get to the end of all this, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the moment.

So, what’s getting me through these strange times?

Games

It seems that I’ve found it much easier to escape into visual media than written works. I’m on my second playthrough of the delightful Stardew Valley on Nintendo Switch (that’s the picture at the top!), which is providing real joy through the simple tasks of growing crops, brewing beer, milking cows and collecting eggs from my chickens and ducks. We’re also letting off steam by shouting obscenities at Toad in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe every now and then, because Toad is an absolute tool who wants to make your life hell.

TV

We’re also working our way through Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Netflix (the latest series is also free on All 4). My husband has been watching it for ages, but he suggested we watch it from the beginning together because I wanted to watch something funny and distracting. And it’s absolutely brilliant – it’s proper laugh-out-loud hilarious with wonderful characters and 20-minute episodes that aren’t too taxing in terms of plotlines. I really hope we can make the remaining episodes last until the end of the lockdown…

Food

Cooking and baking is helping too – when we can acquire flour, that is. After becoming lax on the meal planning front earlier in the year, we’ve gone back to properly deciding what we’re going to eat each week to cut down on trips to the supermarket.

We make sure to plan particularly lovely meals for the weekends, and always have a supply of biscuits in the house, because it’s not nice to run out of biscuits. If you can get hold of Lemon Puffs (we get them from Tesco), they are particularly lovely!

I’ve done a lot of baking recently – muffins, cakes and bread, mainly. No banana bread yet, though. Bananas don’t really last long enough in this house for them to make it into a cake!

Exercise

I’ve been trying to exercise every day before work, mainly from my exercise DVDs. The weight is still piling on regardless due to the aforementioned cooking and baking, but at least I’m trying to actually keep my strength up. Going running in the park nearby is the closest I get to ‘going out out’ these days!

Music

We’ve enjoyed a few of Tim Burgess’s listening parties on Twitter recently. They’re really good – choose something from the schedule on the website, then put on the CD/record/digital stream at the appointed time and follow along on the #timstwitterlisteningparty hashtag to see what everyone else is saying about the album.

Tim usually gets the band/artist in question to provide a running commentary on each song on the album too, which is incredibly interesting! Throw in a couple of beers, whiskies or teas and it makes for a really nice, distracting evening. We’ve had a couple of beer deliveries from local breweries recently, which have been much appreciated! It’s worth seeing if you can do the same, if you fancy a nice beer and don’t much like the selection on offer in the supermarkets.

Quizzes

I would wholeheartedly recommend signing up to Richard Osman’s newsletter. It’s supposed to promote his upcoming novel (which sounds great, by the way!) but is also a really nice weekly dose of gentle chat about snacks and other random things, and there’s a great quiz at the end of each one that you can do yourself or with someone else.

That’s what I’ve been doing. How have you been keeping well (or not) in these strange times?

The Secret Commonwealth cover.

My favourite reads of 2019

Yes, it’s yet another ‘best of 2019’ book list. Sorry. But if it helps, I’m keeping this one short – just 5 books on my list, even though I read enough fantastic books to fill a top 20 this year!

Below the 2019 list are a few brief honourable mentions. None of the below are in any particular order.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo.The blurb

From Newcastle to Cornwall, from the birth of the twentieth century to the teens of the twenty-first, Girl Woman Other follows a cast of twelve characters on their personal journeys through this country and the last hundred years. They’re each looking for something – a shared past, an unexpected future, a place to call home, somewhere to fit in, a lover, a missed mother, a lost father, even just a touch of hope…

My thoughts

Girl, Woman, Other mesmerised me from the moment I started reading it and is definitely one of my books of the year. The style – a fusion of poetry and prose – is unusual but highly effective, as is the structure, with each section focusing on one character and almost being short stories in themselves, despite being part of a narrative that spans the entire book.

[Read more: Booker Prize thoughts]

The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust Volume Two) by Philip Pullman

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman.The blurb

It is twenty years since the events of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One unfolded and saw the baby Lyra Belacqua begin her life-changing journey.

It is almost ten years since readers left Lyra and the love of her young life, Will Parry, on a park bench in Oxford’s Botanic Gardens at the end of the ground-breaking, bestselling His Dark Materials sequence.

Now, in The Secret Commonwealth, we meet Lyra Silvertongue. And she is no longer a child…

My thoughts

Like La Belle Sauvage, The Secret Commonwealth is darker than the His Dark Materials trilogy, with several very upsetting scenes. But the wonder of this amazing world, the very human characters and the globe-trotting, twisty plot do much to sidestep the potential pitfalls of dwelling too long on human misery.

There are more than a few nods to real-world events through themes of corporate and religious interference in state affairs, the displacement of people from their home country, poor mental health and extremism, which are examined mostly through their effects on individual people, and this is done so carefully and honestly.

I very much enjoyed getting to know Lyra as an adult, and can’t wait to read more in the final book.

Assassin’s Fate (Fitz and the Fool Book 3) by Robin Hobb

Assassin's Fate by Robin Hobb.The blurb

The much-anticipated final conclusion to the Fitz and the Fool trilogy… Assassin’s Fate is a magnificent tour de force and with it Robin Hobb demonstrates yet again that she is the reigning queen of epic fantasy.

[I’ve removed most of the publisher’s description here to avoid spoilers for the previous books]

My thoughts

I finished this in tears after re-reading/reading for the first time all of the previous 15 books over the last year or so. Assassin’s Fate is a more than fitting end to a wonderful and unforgettable series, tying up various plotlines from the Six Duchies, Bingtown, the Pirate Isles and the Rain Wilds and reintroducing many much-loved characters from all of the books.

It’s a huge book, and the middle does suffer a little from ‘characters make an interminably long journey’ syndrome, but I welcomed this because I was trying to put off getting to the end for as long as possible!

I’m going to feel bereft for quite a while. [Reader, I still do.]

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky ChambersThe blurb

At the turn of the twenty-second century, scientists make a breakthrough in human spaceflight. Through a revolutionary method known as somaforming, astronauts can survive in hostile environments off Earth using synthetic biological supplementations. With the fragility of the body no longer a limiting factor, human beings are at last able to explore neighbouring exoplanets long suspected to harbour life.

Ariadne is one such explorer. On a mission to ecologically survey four habitable worlds fifteen light-years from Earth, she and her fellow crewmates sleep while in transit, and wake each time with different features. But as they shift through both form and time, life back on Earth has also changed.

My thoughts

I loved the concept of humans being able to biologically engineer themselves to survive in what would otherwise be hostile environments. In fact, I loved all of the science in this book – it’s beautifully and simply explained in Chambers’ trademark style.

There are also some wonderfully evocative descriptions, both out in space and here on Earth – I so want to visit the gardens of the organisation behind Ariadne’s mission in real life!

To Be Taught… is a small but perfectly formed ode to the wonders of space exploration and what can be achieved through collective effort. I zipped through this in the space of a day during a week filled with particularly bad news, and it is filled with so much warmth and humanity that I couldn’t help but feel soothed.

Greetings From Bury Park by Sarfraz Manzoor

Greetings From Bury Park by Sarfraz ManzoorThe blurb

Sarfraz Manzoor was two years old when his family emigrated from Pakistan to join his father in Bury Park, Luton. His teenage years were a constant battle to reconcile being both British and Muslim. But when his best friend introduced him to Bruce Springsteen, his life changed for ever.

In this affectionate and timely memoir, Manzoor retraces his journey from the frustrations of his childhood to his reaction to the tragedies of 9/11 and 7/7. Original, darkly tender and wryly amusing, this is an inspiring tribute to the power of music to transcend race and religion and a moving account of a relationship between father and son.

My thoughts

I absolutely LOVED this memoir. There are still few books that closely and honestly examine the experience of being a second-generation Asian immigrant to England (for that is still what Manzoor is, despite being born in Pakistan), and Greetings From Bury Park articulates a lot of aspects of that experience for people like me who have generally felt more of an affinity for British culture than for the culture of their parents’ birth country – while still feeling like that they don’t fully fit into either.

I read a library copy, but if it had been my own copy I would have underlined many passages in it for how much they truly spoke to me, even though Manzoor is at least a decade older than me (my Springsteen was Britpop!).

I also loved…

  • Refugee Tales: Volume III (read my review on Sabotage Reviews)
  • Educated by Tara Westover
  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara (I read a proof copy – it’s released in 2020)
  • Ordinary People by Diana Evans
  • Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin
  • The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
  • Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
  • Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  • Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
  • Normal People by Sally Rooney
  • Restoration by Rose Tremain
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt
National Novel Writing Month Winner 2019.

How NaNoWriMo 2019 went for me

I did it! I ‘won’ National Novel Writing Month – or NaNoWriMo – by writing precisely 50,187 words of a novel over the course of November.

Considering how terrified I was back in October, this surely means that it must have been easier than I thought, right?

Well… sort of. Or not really.

No, in fact.

The bad bits

It was every bit as difficult as I had expected.

It was even worse during the first and third weeks, as you can see in my daily word count chart below:

Daily word count graph.
My daily word count for NaNoWriMo 2019

The first week because a) I decided to start again after 2,000 words or so (but I still kept those in my final word count!), and b) it just felt too hard to fit writing around work.

The third week because my brain decided to treat me to an epic four-day migraine just as I was getting back on track with my word count. Lucky me!

The good bits

Yet, somehow, I persevered.

After the struggles of my first week, I got into a solid routine of writing every lunchtime and most evenings. I also set 6am alarms on the days when I had a lot of catching up to do so I could write before leaving for work, too.

I got really good at just throwing words onto the page and not going back to rewrite entire paragraphs, change characters’ names, or add or remove whole scenes. This is pretty amazing for me, and has taught me a good deal about the benefits of hashing out a first draft before doing any sort of editing.

I ended up writing on every single day of November (not including the 30th, as my goal was to finish 50,000 words by the end of the 29th). Yes, I even bashed out a few words on my phone on those awful migraine days, just to keep up my streak. I’m astonished at myself for achieving this, when my writing routine is usually incredibly erratic and basically relies on me being in the mood for it.

A chart showing progress towards 50,000 words.
My overall progress towards the 50k goal

It was so helpful to be able to chat to other NaNo writers in Manchester, both online and in person. Talking to people who are going through the same struggles as you can only be a good thing when it comes to worrying less and writing more.

The writing itself

The only real fly in the ointment is that I never really felt like I was writing anything good (although I knew that would be the case). I did a little planning before I started, but then completely ignored my plan and essentially pantsed my way through those 50,187 words.

I had also originally intended to write my novel with multiple third-person points of view, but just went straight in with a single first-person narrative instead. As it’s a fantasy novel, this made worldbuilding extremely difficult! I don’t know how Robin Hobb does it, to be honest.

Next steps

So, will I go back and finish the novel that I’ve started?

I think so, and perhaps when I do look at what I’ve done again, I’ll see it in a kinder light. I’ll finish it in its current form, and then perhaps use the editing stage to totally rewrite it in the format I originally planned to use. The good thing about having already written so much is that at least I’ve got more of a feel for the plot and how it will develop, so hopefully rewriting won’t be as big a task as it sounds!

(I know. It will be even bigger.)

For now, I’ve gone back to writing short stories, as I came up with lots of ideas during November. Of course, I’ll have a list of novel ideas as long as my arm after a week or so of doing this.

I’ve also been enjoying going outside at lunchtimes and spending evenings relaxing instead of staring at a laptop screen.

And, as I banned myself from reading novels during November to avoid being disheartened by published authors’ actual talents, I can’t wait to read a proper novel again!

NaNoWriMo 2019.

On NaNoWriMo, or doing something really daft

What’s the least sensible thing you can do when you’ve written a handful of short stories to date and like to take a relaxed (i.e. non-existent) approach to planning? Because I think I’ve done it.

After months of contemplating an ever-evolving idea for a full-length book, I bit the bullet and registered with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which kicks off on Friday.

All around the world, thousands of people are preparing (or not) to write 50,000 words of a novel or another project throughout November. And I’m one of them.

The more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems.

Writing something approaching 1,700 words a day when I have a full-time job?

Writing 1,700 words a day when I have a house to look after, cooking and exercise to do, and gigs to go to?

Writing 1,700 words a day when I can’t do any computer work late in the evenings because it triggers bad headaches and means I can’t sleep, but the thought of setting a dawn alarm just so I can write makes me weep?

Writing ONE THOUSAND AND SEVEN HUNDRED WORDS A DAY, you stupid woman?

Okay, it’s officially ridiculous. But I do have my reasons.

  1. I need to force myself into a regular writing routine, because I’ve been severely slacking off recently.
  2. I’ve suspected for some time that one of the reasons that I struggle with writing short stories is that my heart isn’t really in that particular format. Novels are my absolute favourite thing to read, so perhaps I should be writing them, too!
  3. This particular novel idea has been floating around my head for the best part of a year, and if I don’t write it now I probably never will.
  4. This might how I discover the joy of planning. I mean, I’ve already done some planning!!!
  5. I really like the community aspect of NaNoWriMo, and have already (virtually) met other writers in Manchester who I hope will help keep me motivated because they’re all going through the same issues as me, compared with my current solitary unmotivated state.
  6. I’m definitely off my trolley.

Of course, I could just write the thing at my own pace and not bother with the pressure of something that requires me to write SEVENTEEN HUNDRED WORDS A DAY.

But I know for a fact that I just wouldn’t do it. I’d write maybe 500 words of it, tinker with what I’ve written for a day or two, then get fed up and eventually move that file into my depressingly well-stocked ‘Unfinished – archive’ folder, which is a polite way of saying that everything in there is doomed to never be looked at again.

I’m at least under no illusions that whatever I write will be any good. First drafts are pretty much always rubbish. First drafts of first novels are definitely always rubbish.

The main aim is to write 50,000 words (FIFTY- you get the idea) that wouldn’t otherwise be written. Anything else is a bonus.

Wish me luck…

Booker Prize thoughts

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.There’s been a bit of a hoo-ha in the world of books this week, thanks to the judging panel for this year’s Booker Prize insisting on awarding the prize to two authors instead of one – Margaret Atwood for The Testaments, and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other.

I’ve just finished Girl, Woman, Other, and read The Testaments very recently, so I’ve been particularly interested in the controversy around the awarding of the prize over the last few days (and I would say I usually don’t pay very close attention to literary prizes!).

As far as I can gather, there are a few reasons why some people have been up in arms about it, the main ones being that the decision broke the prize’s rules, and that this is the first time a black female author has been awarded the prize, with comments from some that Evaristo’s achievement has been diminished by the decision to award it to Atwood, a white woman.

Yet, with an ethos similar to that of the Great British Bake-Off (well, in theory… don’t get me started on this year’s series), the whole point of the prize is to honour authors based only on the quality of the work nominated. The Booker website says its aim is to “reward the finest in fiction, highlighting great books to readers and transforming authors’ careers”. (So this article by one of the judges, Afua Hirsch, who refers to judging “the titanic career, the contribution to culture” of Atwood, is rather interesting.)

On that front, I believe that Girl, Woman, Other is superior to The Testaments and should have won the prize on its own.

I did enjoy Atwood’s novel and appreciated the relevance of its themes to the real-life chaos going on around the world today, but I didn’t take to it in quite the same way as The Handmaid’s Tale, and had some issues with the build-up to the climax at the end. It was possibly a case of me going into it with very high expectations after all the hype and anticipation, and being slightly disappointed as a result.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo.In contrast, Girl, Woman, Other mesmerised me from the moment I started reading it and is definitely one of my books of the year. The style – a fusion of poetry and prose – is unusual but highly effective, as is the structure, with each section focusing on one character and almost being short stories in themselves, despite being part of a narrative that spans the entire book. I felt like I got to know each character inside out, whereas a couple of the protagonists in The Testaments seemed a little vague or out of reach for me. It’s such a brilliant, honest portrayal of life in Britain as a woman (or non-binary person, in the case of one character), and especially of the vastly different experiences that women of colour in particular have.

To me, there’s no real contest between the two. However, there are lots of people out there who feel just as strongly about The Testaments as I do about Girl, Woman, Other – and others who think neither should’ve won.

As succinctly outlined in a brief book group scene in Girl, Woman, Other, there’s a whole other debate to be had about whether it’s possible to ‘objectively’ decide that one book is definitely of a higher quality than another, as opposed to believing a book to be good because it speaks to you on a personal level more than something else – regardless of how well it might be seen to be written in general. And who should decide whether a book is good, anyway? Critics, judges, other writers, the public?

I’m certainly capable of liking one book mainly because it seems well-written compared with other books I’ve read, and then liking another mainly because it echoes my own thoughts and experiences (or because it introduces me to experiences I’ve never known). I don’t think we have to be exclusively in one camp or the other for all the books we ever read.

If all of the Booker judges felt that both books were equally brilliant regardless of which side of the debate they’re on, then all we can do as readers is find out for ourselves whether we think they’re right or not. But no doubt the controversy will rumble on for a while yet!

Loch katrine, Scotland.

Hello again

Oh dear. I realised yesterday that it’s been a whole year since I last posted on here! I’d love to say it’s because I’ve been extremely busy with all sorts of fun and wonderful things, but the more realistic reason is that old chestnut: life just got in the way and I couldn’t be bothered with blogging for a while.

If you’re interested, I’ll try to sum up the last 12 months…

We’ve been on holidays to Coniston in the Lake District and Loch Lomond in Scotland. I would fully recommend both! That’s a photo of Loch Katrine, not far from Lomond, up there ^^^

I finally got a diagnosis for something that’s been bothering me for nearly two years. Chronic illness sucks. But I know I’m lucky that I can least go about normal life most of the time.

After a hiatus of quite a few years, I finally got properly back into creative writing! I have completed one whole story and have quite a few others at various stages of completion. Don’t ask to see my writing, though. It needs a lot of work!

I have stopped drinking coffee and am down to a solitary cup of real tea a day. Yes, me.

I also stopped drinking alcohol over the summer, but fell off the wagon when we went to Scotland, because I *really* wanted to try all the single malts.

I did the Manchester 10k again in May and beat my time from 2016! But I am still very slow.

Books books books. I read 58 books in 2018 including 6 re-reads, and have already read 56 this year, including 5 re-reads! Yet I somehow still have 90 on my to-read list. How odd.

I finally re-read the Realm of Elderlings series by Robin Hobb and read the final book in the sequence for the first time last month. I’m still broken by it. I think I will always be broken by those books (in a good way).

I’m writing the odd book review for Sabotage Reviews, thanks to a former colleague who is now the fiction editor for the website. Read my reviews.

I haven’t done an awful lot of baking. Sorry. But there are currently some flapjacks (Delia’s – the best recipe I’ve tried so far) in the oven as I type.

I’ve discovered yet more ways to spell/pronounce my name since this blog post. The worst/my favourite one so far is ‘Dikpika’. *looks to camera*

I interviewed David Olusoga for work, which was a pretty incredible experience!

T’husband has started a blog reviewing Batman comics in a very funny and interesting way (and has also made a rather fantastic Batmobile animation).

Perhaps I *was* extremely busy with all sorts of fun and wonderful things, after all…?

View from the top of the Belfort in Bruges

A mini tour of Belgium (and a quick stop in London)

We went on our annual European city break for 2018 last month, hopping on the train from London to Brussels and then Bruges. Belgium’s not a particularly obvious choice for a holiday, but it sped to the top of my list following recommendations from friends who’d been to Brussels and/or Bruges and loved it.

The journey is amazingly quick from London – it’s just 2 hours to Brussels by Eurostar, the same length of time it took for us to travel by rail from Manchester to London. We did the whole journey from home in one day on the way out, but stopped off in London for a night to break it up on the way home.

Brussels

Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels
Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels

Brussels was pretty much as I expected, although I was startled by the loveliness of the Grand Place, which is the main square and the home of some particularly striking old buildings. There are some nice little streets leading off the square, although these quickly turn into more modern shopping streets.

We did a bit of sightseeing while (of course) sampling the local chocolate and beer. We visited the excellent Musical Instruments Museum and took in some amazing views from the top floor restaurant.

Jewel-encrusted harmonium
Bling at the Musical Instruments Museum

We visited the European parliament to wave goodbye (sob) and ventured out of the city centre to marvel at the Atomium (it is absolutely massive!).

European Parliament building, Brussels
European Parliament building, Brussels
Atomium, Brussels
Atomium, Brussels

Food-wise, we did really well! Our lovely B&B was located around the corner from an Italian restaurant called Pasta Divina, where we were welcomed by the owner who was clearly very proud of his Italian wife’s culinary abilities in the kitchen – the restaurant serves up lots of different flavoured pastas and sauces to go with them, so you can mix and match as you please. It was excellent!

Speculoos and banana waffle
Speculoos and banana waffle

We decided on pizza for our second night in Brussels and headed to a small place called Mirante, which does very good (and very good value!) wood-fired pizzas. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any frites while we were in Belgium, as they’re traditionally fried in animal fat. I suspect it’s not quite the same to have them fried in vegetable oil!

01_little_delirium_cafe
Little Delirium Cafe, Brussels

Of course, you can’t go to Belgium and not try the beer. The first beers we had were Jupiler lagers, which had been recommended by a friend and are, helpfully, available absolutely everywhere in Belgium and cheap to boot. We also sampled beers in Little Delirium Cafe and The Sister, which specialises in organic beer.

Ice cream from Neuhaus
My posh Magnum from Neuhaus!

Other culinary highlights were an amazing ‘build your own’ ice cream from posh chocolatier Neuhaus (I went with vanilla ice cream, milk chocolate and cacao nibs), a late-evening speculoos and banana waffle, some fancy biscuits from Maison Dandoy and a rather decadent box of hand-picked chocolates from Godiva, which we bought for the train journey to Bruges.

Godiva chocolates
Train snacks

I also managed to buy a book from a great English language bookshop called Sterling Books, where a member of staff recommended a book by a Belgian writer, Dimitri Verhulst.

Bruges

Canal in Bruges

Oh, Bruges. How pretty you are! Everyone knows that Bruges is a picturesque place to visit, but you don’t realise just how beautiful it is until you’re actually wandering its streets with your mouth slightly agape at the lovely old houses, the rambling little streets and the quiet canals.

Basilica of the Holy Blood, in the Burg
Basilica of the Holy Blood, in the Burg

We did the usual touristy things, including going up all 366 steps of the Belfort, having a beer at the Duvelorium while looking over the Markt, gawping at the old buildings in the Burg, going on a boat tour down the canals, and having the best hot chocolate (with cake and chocolates, of course) at De Proeverie.

13_hot_chocolate
Hot chocolate and cake at De Proeverie

We also went on a long but lovely walk through the Minnewaterpark and around the outskirts of the centre along the canal, stopping to look at windmills and the old city gates.

Tower, Bruges

11_bruges_city_gate
One of the old city gates in Bruges
Bruges bench with dragon supports
Even the benches are striking in Bruges

We continued our beer sampling with trips to Cafe Vlissinghe, the oldest tavern in Bruges (complete with an adorable pub dog!), and ‘t Brugs Beertje, which has the biggest beer menu I’ve ever seen!

Vlissinghe sign

Our evening meals in Bruges were slightly disappointing – we had an average and overpriced curry one night and I had a very average and overpriced stew at a Greek restaurant the next night, which I suppose is to be expected when you eat in the most touristy bit of Bruges. But we did come across a great lunch spot in the form of t’Brugs Pitahuis, which serves falafel and also some Indian dishes that we didn’t try.

Belgian Wit beer
Hilarious

I did really enjoy Bruges, though, and would absolutely recommend it if you’d like a short break in a pretty, historic town!

Also, can I just brag about how lovely the weather was for September?! It was cold and rainy when we left Manchester, then we arrived to find Belgium basking in 25C heat, which only conveniently broke to let in the rain on the day we left!

17_duvelorium
Beers at the Duvelorium

London

We only had one night in London on the way home, but we still managed to do a fair bit. I’ve been to London a few times, mainly when I was in my old job and had to visit our HQ, but I’ve never really been much of a tourist there before.

This time, I was determined to go to two places I’ve wanted to see for a while. We spent an afternoon in the National Portrait Gallery and covered quite a lot of it while we were there. There were some really interesting paintings and I learned some great facts about figures I knew of, and some that I didn’t. But I have to say it became slightly samey after a while – there are only so many portraits of dead white men that I can take before my eyes start to glaze over.

The most intriguing exhibits were definitely the paintings of interesting women and also black/Asian figures from British history who you don’t really hear about. I was quite thrilled to finally see *that* sketch of Jane Austen by her sister and a painting of Emily Brontë by Branwell with my own eyes! There was also a great little exhibition on the theme of friendship that I really enjoyed.

We also went to the British Library just before we got on the train back to Manchester, where we explored the excellent Treasures exhibition (and I got all star-struck over the Austen and Brontë exhibits… if you can get star-struck by a writing desk and some little books?!). I also went wild in the gift shop, but restrained myself in the bookshop. There were just too many books that I wanted.

Other highlights of London were visiting Daunt Books in Marylebone for the first time and finally getting some decent Indian food at Rasa W1, which we’ve been to before and is still brilliant for delicious south Indian dishes.

Giant masala dosa at Rasa W1
Man vs masala dosa at Rasa W1

All in all, it was an excellent few days away! I did start searching for ideas for our next trip away pretty much the moment we got home, though. Sometimes looking forward to your next holiday is just as exciting as actually going away!

My exercise DVDs

The joy of exercise DVDs

The first bit of actual exercise I did as an adult happened just over 8 years ago, when I decided I really needed to do something about my weight. I had no desire whatsoever to join a gym, and running wasn’t on my radar at that point (I was only really properly inspired to run after watching the 2012 Olympics). So that left me with the humble exercise DVD.

After trawling through countless Z-list celebrity DVDs on Amazon, I settled on a boxset with two Davina McCall DVDs, because she at least seemed to be genuinely enthusiastic about exercise, and not just about getting ‘beach ready’. I got past my eye-rolling at her lame jokes and her tendency to fall dramatically to the floor after a vaguely taxing section and actually found myself enjoying working up a sweat 3 times a week.

I did lose weight, and I kept on exercising, building up my collection to include more Davina DVDs (she did get less irritating after that first boxset!). While friends and colleagues talked about going to the gym or the pool and getting the bike out for a long ride, those DVDs kept me exercising regularly for a lot longer than I’d initially thought they would.

I discovered that I really enjoy workouts based on boxing moves – it helps to imagine that you’re punching someone who really gets your goat – and that graduating from lifting tins of beans to actual hand weights isn’t as scary as it originally seemed. I became able to hold a plank position for 30 seconds, then a whole minute, then got into a slump and had to work my way back up again. I have no problems doing a small number of proper press-ups (although I do still feel relieved when it’s just a knees-down position!). I hate hate HATE star jumps, but I can now keep those going for a whole minute, too.

It’s been brilliant to slowly discover the number of things my body can do, even during those periods when I can’t be bothered with healthy eating and let my weight creep back up again, or when I’ve picked up a running injury and need to stick with low-impact workouts/yoga for a while.

And I’ve been able to do it from the comfort of my own home, where no one can see me, and I don’t have to feel self-conscious about my wobbly bits or completely failing to do a full sit-up (I actually can’t do one – my back won’t let me!). It doesn’t cost the earth, I can do it any time of day, you really don’t need a lot of space to work out in, and if I ever get bored I can just find another DVD or do something from YouTube – aerobics is still my favourite, but I’ve branched out into non-Davina workouts, as well as yoga and Pilates via good ol’ DVDs.

They might seem a bit naff, but exercise DVDs are such a brilliant way to get into keeping fit if, like me 8 years ago, you want to do it but haven’t done anything vaguely strenuous since school, and would rather die than let someone else see you get sweaty. Even though I now go running in public, DVDs still form most of the exercise I do each week. And hopefully they’ll continue to do so for a lot longer.

My favourite DVD workouts

  • Cardio Box from Davina: My Three 30-Minute Workouts (my first ever experience of boxercise (ugh))
  • Davina: Power of 3 (all workouts together for a thorough hour-long session)
  • Level 1 workout from Jillian Michaels: 30-Day Shred (it’s basically 20 minutes of hating Jillian for being so mean, but it does feel like proper exercise!)
  • Letting Go of the Day from Yoga for Beginners (I’m really inflexible but this routine is so good for squeezing tension out of your body before going to bed)
  • Legs, Pump and Boxing workouts from Davina: High Energy Five (I do all three when I’m feeling really energetic, but usually do 2 over 50 minutes or so)
  • Bottom Fit from Davina: Fit (AKA the “I can’t move today because I did over 200 squats last night” workout. So good if you have weak glutes, as runners tend to do)
  • Knockout Body Blast and Fat Attack from 10 Minute Solution: Knockout Body Workout (More boxing! I love this DVD series – each instalment has 5 workouts of 10 minutes each, so you can fit in some exercise even when you haven’t much time, or combine a few routines for a longer workout)

What are your favourite workouts, from a DVD or otherwise?