Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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Gods of Jade and Shadow was one of a few books that I bought to help get myself out of my lockdown reading slump. Set in Mexico during the 1920’s, the story follows a young woman called Casiopea who happens to be the downtrodden member of a wealthy family, until one day she frees the ancient Mayan God of Death, Hun-Kamé, who has been imprisoned in a locked chest in her grandfather’s bedroom.

Casiopea agrees to accompany Hun-Kamé around Mexico as he attempts to restore himself to full power, and it’s a race against time as while he exists in mortal form, he draws strength from her, draining her like a battery. Their quest to retrieve Hun-Kamé’s essence (his eye, ear, finger and jade necklace) takes them across Mexico encountering all manner of ghosts, demons, witches and other supernatural beings before the final confrontation in the underworld, Xiabalba, itself, it’s delightfully sinister and macabre in places.

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Hun-Kamé and his treacherous twin, Vucub-Kamé pit Casiopea and her cousin, Martin, against each other as they battle for supremacy over the underworld; it’s an interesting dynamic as all four characters’ positions were determined by chance as firstborn Hun-Kamé became the ruler of Xibalba with his younger twin destined to serve him, while Martin is the heir to their grandfather’s fortune soley because of his gender with Casiopea assigned to a position of servitude.

Given that Gods of Jade and Shadow is just over 300 pages in length, I found it slow to start and if not for my 100 page rule I might have given up before it started to get interesting, I also thought the romantic subplot felt flat and predictable, however, I found the setting and Mayan mythology a refreshing change, and the final test of the champions and the ending itself were particularly satisfying. Have a lovely week. X

Here and There

Swans on the Sea

We’ve been making the most of our beautiful country over the last few weeks, enjoying the freedom to visit places and people we haven’t seen for months during lockdown.

At the top of the list of places we wanted to visit once restrictions around travel for leisure were lifted was Croy Shore. We were last here in January just before I gave birth, and it was so lovely to return with our little girl for the first time on a breezy summer’s day in July.

Culzean Castle Ailsa Craig

Even on a busy day, it’s a quieter beach than most so we had plenty of space to wander without bumping into anyone else, and we could take our time, relax and appreciate the refreshing wind, the crash of the waves and the familiar sights of the Isle of Arran, Ailsa Craig and Culzean Castle, and on this particular day the less common sight of swans.

Croy Shore

There have also been lots of catch-ups and reunions with our extended family dotted around the country over the last few weeks, chatting over tea and cake with some, and rambling through fairy woods with others. Grandparents were delighted to be able to cuddle our daughter again, and there were some very cute scenes when we introduced our daughter to her younger cousin (born during the lockdown) with the babies gazing and smiling shyly at each other for the first time.

My daughter and I had our first playdate at the park with a few of my best friends and their children recently too. While the youngest (my friend’s son and my daughter – born just a month apart) were too little to join in with the toddlers’ games, they enjoyed seeing other small people and grasping each other’s hands whenever they were close enough.

Here and There

Closer to home, last week I visited our local supermarket for the first time since mid-March to get a few essentials I’d forgotten to add to our click & collect shop, and had my hair cut for the first time this year. Wearing masks, standing behind plexiglass screens and all the other changes that are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future still feel strange and it’s going to take some getting used to.

Life still doesn’t feel anywhere near back to normal, but all these people, places and shared moments that would have seemed ordinary a few months ago, now feel so precious. Take care, and have a lovely week. X

A Winter’s Promise by Christelle Dabos

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A Winter’s Promise is the first in ‘The Mirror Visitor Quartet’ and follows Ophelia, a member of the Animist clan who is betrothed against her wishes to Thorn, a stranger from another clan on a different Arc (one of the floating islands featured on the cover). No sooner does Ophelia arrive on Thorn’s Arc than she finds herself caught in the midst of political intrigues between feuding clans, with her future in-laws proving to be every bit as devious and vicious as their enemies.

Ophelia has the unusual abilities of being able to read the history of an object by touching it and to travel through mirrors. Despite her abilities, Ophelia is such an unlikely heroine, a mumbling, clumsy and socially awkward slip of a girl, but she proves to be brave, determined, resourceful and honest, and I’m looking forward to seeing how she develops through the series.

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This was originally written in French, and the translation is generally very smooth with a few exceptions where the author used terms like trompe l’oeil that don’t have a clear translation and remain in French, which felt slightly jarring.

A Winter’s Promise is such a strange and whimsical story that it’s hard to describe; it’s not typical fantasy, there aren’t any great battles or epic quests, yet the plot trots along and there were enough twists to keep me hooked until the end. This quirky story is populated with such eccentric and scheming characters that it reminded me of a cross between Jane Austen and Gormenghast. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I thoroughly enjoyed A Winter’s Promise and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what happens next. Have a lovely week. X

Stories, Music and Swans

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As lockdown restrictions are being relaxed here in Scotland, I’ve been reflecting on how I’ve spent my maternity leave so far. My days still mostly revolve around my daughter’s feeds and naps but she’s always been very curious and animated, never content to just watch the world from her pram or playmat, and it’s been a fun challenge keeping her entertained without the usual range of playgroups that many parents rely on (though I have signed up for baby massage classes on Zoom).

Unable to go to the library or bookshops during lockdown, I feel like I’ve kept Waterstones in business ordering books for the three of us. My husband and I try to read at least one story to our daughter every day, and we’ve discovered some really lovely picture books (that I’ll review at some point!). Our little bookworm also has a few scrunchy, cloth books that she can gnaw the corners and practise turning the pages.

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I’ve always wanted to learn to play piano and started teaching myself last year, but it fell by the wayside and so far all I can play is a passable version of Jingle Bells. As we’ve not been able to join any of the local baby music groups, instead my daughter and I have been plunking away on the piano, and shaking rattles or clapping along to nursery rhymes at home. My husband and I also sing to our daughter (Jason Mraz and Sara Bareilles are favourites in our household at the moment), and bounce her on our knees to the William Tell Overture, Orpheus in the Underworld (the Can Can music) and other jaunty classical pieces.

Piano

Our little girl loves getting out for walks and starts grinning as soon as she sees the baby carrier. We avoided parks during the lockdown, but wandered round our local park for the first time in months when it seemed quiet recently, and our daughter saw the resident swans, cygnets and coots in the pond for the first time.

Pond

I’ve tried to make the best of it over the last few months, but at times I’ve struggled with loneliness and self-doubt. I’m very aware of all the ordinary experiences our daughter has missed out on, but fortunately she’s too young to understand how strange this year has been and for the most part she’s a lively, cuddly girl who keeps me busy and we have a lot of fun together.

As restrictions are lifted, I’m looking forward to taking our daughter further afield, sharing new experiences together and seeing the world through her bright eyes. Take care, and have a lovely week. X

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Following the Black Lives Matter protests around the world, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race was widely recommended, and I was drawn to it because it offers a British perspective on race relations.

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The book starts with history, describing the British role in the slave trade, the whitewashing of the World Wars, decades of police brutality and racial profiling, the election of the first black MPs in 1987 (including Diane Abbot), the Brixton riots and many other significant events leading up to the present day. It’s as fascinating as it is disturbing, British history is often ugly and violent but necessary to understanding racism and discrimination in the U.K.

Eddo-Lodge argues that racism is more insidious than abusive language or flag waving nationalist mobs marching, it’s the influence of people (predominantly white male) in positions of power to impact the life chances and circumstances of others. Very few white people will openly admit to being racist, yet many become defensive when confronted with evidence of white privilege.

It’s uncomfortable reading in places, the way that readers and viewers assume fictional characters are white unless otherwise described (as the furore caused when a black actress was cast as Hermoine Granger in the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, or when there was a rumour that a black actor was being considered as the new James Bond demonstrate), the backlash against intersectional feminism (black women are doubly discriminated against by being both black and female), how racism and class intersect with the idea that “white working class” are a marginalised minority that deserve support and special consideration, and how many white people ignore or accept discrimination and racism instead of challenging it.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is well-researched, thought-provoking, and a great place to start learning about systemic racism and how to be actively anti-racist. Take care, and have a lovely week. X

Summer Walks, Slugs and Sprinkles

Just sharing a quick update as I worry my posts have become a bit repetitive of late, though I still want to document this period of our lives and to remind myself that there’s much to be grateful for.

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Our daily walks have often been the highlight of my day since lockdown began. Being confined to a five mile radius has enoucouraged us to explore the local area more thoroughly than we would have when we were more likely to go to a park or drive to a forest or beach. We recently stumbled across a network of hidden lanes and have spent the last week exploring them. On one of our walks we spotted one of my husband’s favourite plants, Himalayan Honeysuckle, growing wild and I couldn’t resist taking a cutting for our garden along with a handful of Honesty seed pods.

Walks

We’ve been growing pea shoots on the kitchen window sill for a quick-growing and tasty addition to salads and stir-fries. Unfortunately, cool weather and rain has encouraged an army of slugs and snails to invade the garden, and they’ve been devouring my squash and courgette plants one by one. However, the brassica bed is doing well, and I spotted the first head of broccoli developing.

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve celebrated both my husband and father-in-law’s birthdays. Ordinarily, I would take my husband out to dinner but as that wasn’t possible this year, instead we treated ourselves to takeaway from one of our favourite Japanese restaurants, which was delicious. We also had socially distanced coffee and birthday cake in the garden with the in-laws – though my mother-in-law went a bit overboard with the sprinkles!

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We’ve had intermittent sunshine and showers here, but hoping now that travel restrictions are being relaxed, we’ll be able to have a few summer adventures soon whatever the weather. Take care and have a lovely week. X

Peaches for Monsieur le Curé by Joanne Harris

Peaches for Monsieur le Cure

I enjoyed The Lollipop Shoes (reviewed here) so much that I dove straight back into the third installment of the Chocolat series. Peaches for Monsieur le Curé is set eight years after Chocolat (reviewed here) when Vianne recieves a letter from a deceased friend in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, she decides to return to the village with her daughters. Vianne finds Lansquenet has changed dramatically in the intervening years with an influx of Muslim immigrants, and the atmosphere in the village is tense as the French villagers clash with the newcomers.

Like Chocolat, the narrative switches between Vianne and her old adversary, the village priest, Francis Reynaud, who finds himself under suspicion from both his own congregation and the Muslim community when a school for Muslim girls burns down.

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Unlike Chocolat and The Lollipop Shoes, which had a certain timelessness, I suspect Peaches for Monsieur le Curé will be easier to place in time as it reflects the real-world political tensions and suspicions between Muslim immigrants and the native French. Lansquenet is as rife with secrets and discord as ever, yet there is reason and tolerance, as well as prejudice and hypocrisy on both sides of the conflict.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find Peaches for Monsieur le Curé quite as charming or captivating as its predecessors but I did enjoy returning to Lansquenet-sous-Tannes and it had enough suspense and mystery to keep me guessing until the end. Take care, and have a lovely week. X

 

Summer Solstice

What a strange year it’s been, it seems like a lifetime ago that we were watching wildfires sweep across Australia on the news and worrying about Brexit, yet here we are halfway through 2020. It’s been a quick year for us personally as our daughter arrived in early February and caring for her has kept us busy during the last few months when a global pandemic turned life upside down.

Our garden has also been a real blessing and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve been able to get done with a baby in tow.

June Roses

June is the month that the roses burst into flower, and since we moved here I’ve been steadily filling our garden with them. There’s the rich red wine coloured Munstead Wood, the bold pink Young Lycidas, and pale sunshine of Crown Princess Margareta. Meanwhile Boscobel is patiently waiting in a large pot for a permanent home.

Every year I vastly underestimate how much space growing vegetables need so I limited myself to broccoli, squash and yellow courgettes this year; then my dad surprised us with some cabbage, cauliflower and sprouts seedlings he’d started off so the veg beds are as crowded with higgledy piggeldy rows of vegetables as ever.

We’re still getting out for walks at least once a day, more often than not with the wee one in the sling or carrier so she can look around. We haven’t ventured out of our local area yet but I enjoy having a nosy at other people’s gardens, and we found a little woodland walkway when we wandered off the beaten track.

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On days when it’s too wet to spend much time outside, we’ve contented ourselves pottering around the home, reading books or watching films and TV series, and playing with the wee one – including a few spontaneous puppet shows.

There have been more visits to and from parents and in-laws, which have helped break the monontony and given us all a much-needed boost as we remain under partial lockdown. Our daughter has been very curious about the “new” faces appearing after spending so much time around me and her dad.

Hope everyone reading is safe and well, take care and have a lovely week. X

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

As a child who loved to play outside and help my parents in the garden, The Secret Garden thoroughly captured my imagination and was one of my childhood favourites, I recently found myself reaching for my old, crinkled and faded copy again when I was in the mood for some comfort-reading.

The Secret Garden follows nine-year-old Mary Lennox who is orphaned during an outbreak of cholera in India and sent to live with her uncle in Yorkshire. Mary is left to amuse herself exploring Misselthwaite Manor and the grounds where she finds a walled garden that has been locked and forgotten about for ten years.

I’ve always loved that Mary starts the story as a disagreeable, impudent and stubborn child, so different from other heroines in children’s stories, which makes her transformation into a lively, determined and cheerful child all the more remarkable, and mirrors the rejuvenation of the secret garden itself.

Along the way Mary befriends the kind but plain-spoken Martha, the grumpy yet sentimental gardener Ben Weatherstaff, animal-charming Dickon, and her cousin Colin who undergoes his own journey of healing and growth alongside Mary’s.

The Secret Garden is a lovely story of friendship, life and nature that captures the joy of nurturing a garden, and the curiosity and sense of wonder that comes so naturally to children. In the era of TV, social media and smartphones, the underlying message championing the value of nature and spending time outside for health and well-being seems as relevant now as it did when it was published in 1911. Have a lovely week. X

Emerging from Lockdown

Emerging from Lockdown

We’re tentatively emerging from lockdown in our part of the world. Although some of the restrictions have been lifted, life has continued for us much the same as it has for the past few months, we shop for food once a week, my husband will continue to work from home for the foreseeable future, we take our daily walks for exercise, and my only other excursions have been taking our daughter to various health appointments.

This weekend though we were finally reunited with my parents and I was so glad to spend some time with them after three months apart, though it was very strange not to be able to hug or kiss them, or let them hold the baby. As much as I miss haircuts, libraries, dining out, the freedom to come and go as we please, and all the other aspects of life I took for granted before, being cut off from our family and friends has been by far the hardest part.

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It was a bittersweet reunion as our daughter has spent most of her life under lockdown, and the last time her grandparents saw her was at my nanna’s funeral when she was a tiny, sleepy 5-week-old, since then she’s grown into a chubby, curious and cheerful 4-month-old. Yet I know how lucky we are to be reunited at all when so many other families are mourning loved ones who lost their lives to Covid-19.

One benefit of the lockdown has been that my husband has been able to work from home, which has given us time together as a family that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. We’ve settled into our roles as parents, found a daily rhythm that works for all of us, and our daughter is healthy and content.

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Evening light

Throughout the lockdown, I’ve been very grateful for our garden, which has given us another environment to explore with our daughter full of sensory experiences while other activities are unavailable. The garden itself is full of life and colour at the moment.

We try to make our garden as wildlife friendly as possible, even so I’m always delighted by how many different types of bee visit the garden, and it’s fun trying to identify them all. We also heard the hedgehog snuffling around the hedge one day while we were outside so we left a bowl of water and some cat food out for it (don’t tell Mara!), though I’m wary of getting too close for fear of fleas and ticks.

Even though restrictions are starting to relax, while the virus remains a threat it’s hard to imagine life going back to the way it was before, and impossible to imagine what the year ahead will look like with all our plans from significant birthdays, friends’ weddings and other events we were looking forward to postponed or cancelled altogether, yet I’m so relieved that we’ve all weathered this storm and a little normality has started to resume. Take care, and have a lovely week. X