Spring in the garden and beyond

This time last year we were still adjusting to life under the very first lockdown, and it’s such a contrast to have the world opening up after another three month lockdown and nature waking up after a long, cold winter. We’ve spent a lovely Easter bank holiday weekend strolling through parks, playing in the garden and visiting family.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about our garden, but we’ve continued working on it right through the winter months, replacing the fence separating our garden from our neighbours’, constructing more pemanent raised beds and building a summerhouse. We’ve already enjoyed morning coffees and evening meals in the summerhouse, and it’s such a lovely spot of shade in our sun-trap garden.

The daffodils I planted last autumn have begun to flower, providing a burst of yellow sunshine under the window, and it won’t be long until they’re joined by the tulips. As the daylight lengthens and the weather improves we’re spending more and more time outside, and our daughter has taken to bringing us her shoes and coat whenever she wants to toddle around the garden, play hide-and-seek in the summerhouse or fly on her swing.

We’re still regular visitors at our local parks, and the cycling seasons is obvious there too as the Greylag geese that spent winter in the pond have flown North again, and the bare trees have burst into blossom.

Yesterday, we took a trip slightly further afield to Rouken Glen and combined a walk around the park with our first trip to a garden centre this year, where we bought a plum tree and I went a bit wild stocking up on seeds.

We’ve had a strange combination of sunshine and low temperatures over the past few weeks but despite the cold, spring has definitely sprung and I’m so grateful for the changes in nature and the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions. Take care, and have a lovely week. X

First Quarter of 2021 in Books

Spending winter under lockdown has helped get my reading off to a great start, and I’ve somehow powered through 19 books in the first three months of 2021, and thought I’d share a little round-up of short reviews here.

The House with the Chicken Legs and The Castle of Tangled Magic by Sophie Anderson

Twelve year old Marinka lives in a house with chicken legs along with her grandmother, Baba Yaga, a Guardian who guides spirits of the dead through the gate from our world to the Afterlife. Marinka is training to become a Guardian, but she feels lonely and trapped, longing to choose her own destiny. I adored this original and poignant story about growing up, full of big themes and big emotions from grief, regret and loneliness to family, friendship and home.

I was disappointed by the spiritual sequel which follows Olia as she tries to save her beloved home from tangled magic leaking out from another world. It’s a fairly straightforward hero quest, but I felt most obstacles were too easily overcome, and I was disappointed that Marinka’s adventures ended when marriage and motherhood began, though I did like some of the supporting characters, Cascadia and the spirit of the Castle, Feliks.

Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou

My first non-fiction read of the year was a re-read of this collection of short essays, anecdotes and poems on a variety of topics from charity and philanthropy, gratitude, travel, parents and children, faith and religion to rape, grief, racism and segregation. It’s a short but thought-provoking and inspiring read.

The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie

The narrative switches between Poirot, the victim’s father, husband and lover, as well as another passenger on the train, Katherine Grey, who is drawn into the murder investigation and the theft of the victim’s rubies. The clues are carefully placed, there’s some clever misdirection and even a bit of romance, and I was pleased I solved part of the mystery before Poirot’s reveal at the end.

The Secret Chapter by Genevieve Cogman

In the 6th instalment of The Invisible Library series, the mysterious, Mr Nemo, hires Irene and a team consisting of thief, thug, gambler, hacker and getaway driver to steal a painting with significance far greater than its value. I love a good heist, but it was after the theft when the team starts double crossing each other that things really start getting interesting and the suspense ratcheted up when Irene has to choose between saving one world she cares about and preventing a war that could destroy countless other worlds.

The Diabolical Bones by Bella Ellis

The Bronte sisters are investigating the mystery of a child’s bones interred in the wall of a local landowner’s home. I found this slower paced and lacking the steady stream of clues, suspects and suspicious circumstances that made The Vanished Bride so riveting. However, the siblings’ interpersonal dynamics are almost as fascinating as the mystery they’re trying to solve, and there’s a good mix of humour, eerie and thrilling moments in this sequel.

City of Ghosts and Tunnel of Bones by V.E. Schwab

Twelve year old Cassidy Blake is the daughter of professional ghost hunters recording a TV show about the world’s most haunted cities, unbeknownst to her parents, however, is the fact that following her own near-death experience, Cassidy has the ability to see ghosts, including her “corporeally challenged” best friend, Jacob. City of Ghosts is set in Edinburgh and I loved seeing somewhere familiar from a different perspective.

The sequel takes place in Paris, where Cassidy has drawn the attention of a poltergeist whose behaviour quickly turns from mischievous to malevolent. Cassidy and Jacob’s friendship is the emotional touchstone of the story, and I really enjoyed learning more about Jacob’s life and death in this spooky and moving follow-up.

Take care, and have a lovely week. X

The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale

I was looking for something a little bit whimsical and magical to help me through the winter lockdown and picked up this because of comparisons to one of my favourites, The Night Circus (reviewed here).

The story of The Toymakers spans almost fifty years, starting in 1906 when sixteen year old Cathy runs away from home, answering an ad in the newspaper for a job in exchange for bed and board at Papa Jack’s Toy Emporium. Cathy finds a new home and family with Papa Jack and his sons, Kaspar and Emil, at the Toy Emporium until 1917 when the war intrudes on their safe, little world.

I loved the complexity of Kaspar and Emil’s relationship as the brothers compete for their father’s attention, praise and ultimately to become his successor, and there are parallels with the story of Cain and Abel here. I also appreciated the contrast between the magic, wonder and innocence of toys and the Emporium with the horror, suffering, violence and death of the Russian Katorga (penal labour camps) and the first World War. One of the brothers goes to war a charming, brilliant, young man but returns a shellshocked shadow of the toymaker, husband, father, son and brother he was. Yet even after the end of the Great War, the brothers’ own conflict continues right up to a bittersweet ending.

The Toymakers is an enchanting but haunting story of love, grief, family, secrets, toys and war. Have a lovely week. X

Sculpture Trail at Cairnhill Woods

Last week was a busy one for our family as I started my phased return back to work after almost 14 months off on maternity leave, and our 13 month old daughter had her taster sessions and first full day at nursery. It’s a big transition for all of us but one that I’m feeling positive about as our daughter will get to play and socialise with other toddlers during her three days at nursery, something she’s missed out on through national and local lockdowns over the last twelve months. I couldn’t be prouder or more relieved about how quickly she’s settled into nursery, and I’ve so enjoyed getting photos and little updates about her snacks, lunch, naps and activities through the day from the nursery staff, and she brought home her first stamped artwork for Mother’s Day much to my delight.

As we adjust to our new routines, I feel we’ve got a good balance between work, nursery and family time, and despite the lockdown we’re still enjoying little adventures together.

We recently took a wander around Cairnhill Woods for a change of scene from our local parks. Even on a cold, grey day with the trees still bare and the paths muddy, it was a pleasant place to explore and I was delighted to see so many signs of spring in the forest from frog spawn in the little pond to daffodils, crocuses and primroses lining the paths. The highlight of the trip though was finding all the wonderful wooden sculptures hidden around the forest, from toadstools and fairies to the Green Man and various animals, and as Cairnhill Woods is near Bearsden we also spotted lots of bear sculptures.

It was a short walk but one we all enjoyed, and somewhere I look forward to visiting again when it’ll be lush and green. Take care and have a lovely week. X

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Blogging has fallen by the wayside lately as other aspects of life demanded all my time and attention, but I’m easing myself back in with a review that’s been sitting in my drafts folder since December. I loved the first book in the Gentleman Bastards series, The Lies of Locke Lamora (reviewed here), but I probably left it a little too long before picking up the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, as my memory was a bit fuzzy about some of the characters and events that it references from the first book.

Red Seas Under Red Skies takes place a couple of years after The Lies of Locke Lamora, and the story jumps back and forward describing how Locke and his best friend Jean, left their homeland and began setting up their latest elaborate heist. What makes heists so much fun to read is how the characters have to improvise when their carefully laid plans invariably go awry; Locke and Jean have barely set their own plans in motion when they’re press-ganged into another scheme by a naval commander who recruits them to incite pirates into attacking the coast that his navy protects in order to secure his own power and influence.

Much like The Lies of Locke Lamora, this has a long set-up and the story didn’t really grip me until about 300 pages in (roughly halfway) but after that I was hooked and it kept me guessing until the last page, though the ending wasn’t quite as clever or satisfying as the end of The Lies of Locke Lamora.

Locke and Jean’s friendship is at the core of the story, their banter is laugh out loud funny and their loyalty to one another is genuinely touching, yet Red Seas Under Red Skies is not lacking in romance as Jean falls head over heels in love with the dashing, diminutive and utterly delightful pirate, Ezri Delmastro.

Despite a slow start, Red Seas Under Red Skies is a swashbuckler full of humour, friendship, romance and pirates which ended on a cliffhanger that had me almost immediately reaching for the third book in the series. Take care, and have a lovely week. X

One ~ A Lockdown First Birthday

Last week we celebrated our daughter’s first birthday at home with balloons, decorations, music, lots of presents, and a few inches of snow courtesty of Storm Darcy.

Fair haired with grey-blue eyes like mine, but bearing a strong resemblance to her dad at the same age, she is part of me, part of my husband, and all of those that came before us, yet every day becoming more and more herself. Our daughter is strong-willed, curious and cuddly with such a cheerful, sunny disposition (most of the time!). It’s incredible to compare the difference between the tiny, squirming newborn who could barely lift her head a year ago and the boisterous infant now standing unsupported, so close to taking her first steps, and saying her first words (“mmmum” and “hiya Rara” ❤️).

I’ve tried to record her first year on the blog, noting significant milestones, and yet they’ve come so thick and fast from the first smiles and giggles to sitting up, rolling, crawling, standing and now crabwalking around the furniture, her first teeth and solid foods (she’s turned out to be quite the adventurous little epicurean whose favourite foods include enchiladas and paneer/tofu masala, as well as the more mundane cherry tomatoes, peas and fruit).

Along the way, there have been moments I’d rather forget too: a surreal and scary trip to A&E after she had a reaction to her first set of immunisations at six weeks old during the first lockdown, struggles with breastfeeding, getting to grips with her silent reflux and a suspected lactose intolerance.

In the absence of baby groups and playdates, I’ve been looking for ways to keep our inquisitive and lively daughter entertained at home, we’ve built a den filled with teddies in the corner between our couches, her old bath has been turned into a ballpit, we’ve created tunnels out of cardboard boxes, and her big present from us was a swing in the garden. We’ve spent happy hours building towers out of blocks for her to topple like a little Godzilla, bouncing around to her favourite songs with rattles and shakers, and chasing each other around the coffee table. There have been more walks than I can count, at least one every day whatever the weather, trying to make up for the fact that her world is so much smaller and more local than it should be. I do feel that my daughter and I have missed out in some ways, but I hope that she’s also benefitted from having both parents at home for her first full year.

My blog has always been a record of family life capturing the highs, lows and all the ordinary moments in between. In 2020 it felt even more important to document it all because it was such a strange year when life as we knew it was completely disrupted, but caring for our daughter kept us grounded in the present and reminded us just how fortunate we are.

Now approaching the end of my maternity leave, I’m full of nerves about returning to work and anxious about how our daughter will settle into childcare, but I hope we will find our way – or at least muddle through – just as we have together up to now. Take care, and have a lovely week. X

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside follows, Sancia, a former slave turned thief with some unusual abilities, when she’s hired to steal an ancient artifact for a life-changing sum of money. The magic system of scriving – a system of commands that objects are compelled to obey which can alter reality – is also fairly unique, though there’s a lot of exposition describing how it works, and what is and isn’t possible throughout the story.

The narrative switches between Sancia, Gregor Dandolo who happens to be the founder and leader of the city law enforcement, and Orso, a mad-scientist scriver – who became a surprise favourite character. I can’t say too much about him without spoiling the story, but Clef, a sentient scrived object, was also a brilliant character, and his bantering dialogue with Sancia and their friendship was one of the highlights of the story.

Foundryside is a fun fantasy heist with some clever ideas, plenty of twists that kept me guessing and lots of humour, though it was somewhat weighed down by exposition about the magic system. Foundryside is the first book in the trilogy and I’m looking forward to reading the next installment. Take care, and have a lovely week. X

Midwinter Moments

January has been full of cold, crisp days and subzero temperatures with the sun casting a golden glow over everything it touches but barely warm enough to thaw the frost. I started the month feeling at a low ebb with rising infection rates and increased lockdown restrictions, but there have been some lovely, little moments that have lifted my mood along the way.

We’ve continued to take daily walks, and we visited the Botanics on a very frosty day, our first visit there since March. A turn around the Botanic Gardens used to be one of our regular walks when we lived nearby, and it was lovely to spend some time wandering the familiar paths after so long, feeding the grey squirrels and spotting witch hazel flowers that always remind me of party streamers. I did take an embarrassing tumble on the ice but luckily my bum provided a padded landing.

Walking has become a part of our daily routine and our main form of exercise over the last year. I’m not at all sporty but I’ve always been fairly active, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised that I’ve managed to lose the baby weight just walking a few miles every day – though I reckon crawling around and chasing after my 11-month-old daughter probably burns off a few calories too. I’m missing my old yoga class though, which I’d attended almost every week for the last five years and right through my pregnancy. Lately, I’ve noticed tension, stiffness and aches creeping into my body, and I’m determined to get back to my yoga class even if it’s only on zoom for the next wee while.

A couple of weeks ago, we woke up to find an inch of snow had fallen overnight, and skipped an afternoon walk for some time playing in the garden instead. Our daughter was delighted to be crawling around in it, pulling herself up to lean on the raised beds, tugging off her mittens so she could feel the snow and giggling at the strange transformation of our garden.

I’ve been making more effort to read books instead of doom-scrolling through the news, and there have been lots of cosy evenings spent snuggled up with our cat Mara and books. On the coldest nights she burrows under the duvet with me, which is like having a furry, purring hot water bottle.

On so-called “blue Monday” I attended the NHS Louisa Jordan for my first dose of the Covid19 vaccine, and my husband received his first dose a few days later. We’re incredibly fortunate that we’ll both receive the vaccine through our work. Seeing the SECC where I’ve watched concerts, attended wedding fayres and other events transformed into a field hospital and a steady flow of people receiving their vaccinations was a heartening insight into the extraordinary, collaborative efforts that are being undertaken to save lives and bring the pandemic under control.

We also had an exciting visitor in the garden this week, a sparrowhawk. It’s only the second time we’ve seen a sparrowhawk in the garden, but it sat on our fence opposite the kitchen window just long enough for my husband to snap a photo.

Despite the pandemic and lockdown, we’ve had a pleasant start to 2021 full of wrapped up walks, golden sunshine, glittering frosts, powdery snow and little midwinter moments. Take care, and have a lovely week. X

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I’ve been finding a lot of comfort in fiction lately and decided to re-read The Night Circus when I was in the mood for something whimsical and romantic. I first read The Night Circus back in 2013 but I’d forgotten almost everything about it and felt like I was discovering it all over again.

The story follows two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, bound together in a competition between the two rival magicians who trained them. The Night Circus or ‘La Cirque des Reves‘ becomes their battleground as they seek to find out who can create the most stunning illusions.

I was captivated from the very first page, drawn into a world full of illusionists, contortionists, acrobats, fortune tellers, costume designers, architects and clockmakers, and it’s full of sumptious descriptions of the costumes, food, perfomances and, of course, the illusions that Marco and Celia create. The plot is meandering but not uneventful or lacking in suspense or twists. I was enchanted by circus life, the competition and courtship between the protagonists, and I really didn’t want it to end.

The Night Circus is a delightful, whimsical and romantic story, and given that most of the story takes place at night is a perfect cosy, comfort read for long, dark winter evenings. Take care, and have a lovely week. X

2020 in Books

A combination of sleep deprivation from caring for a newborn and too much time spent watching news of the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests and the US Election unfold meant whole weeks passed with me barely managing to read a single page. Having said that, I was much less concerned with quantity than quality in 2020, and although I only managed to read 28 books (and shared 24 reviews with a little backlog still to post), I’ve loved so many of them and discovered some new favourite books and writers. The vast majority were fiction, and almost half of those were fantasy, though magical realism was also well represented. I also read my first mystery novel, and that’s a genre I plan to explore this year.

I enjoyed so many of the books that I read in 2020 that it’s genuinely hard to pick my top five, but Crooked Kingdom, The Vanished Bride, The Lollipop Shoes, The Night Circus (a re-read) and A Conjuring of Light were the highlights.

On the flipside, I’m of the opinion that there are too many books in the world to force myself to read something I’m not enjoying. I have a 100 page rule but after that I give myself permission to give up without feeling guilty, and there were three books that I didn’t finish in 2020. I had high hopes of a Latin-American inspired fantasy with Nocturna, but I found it too derivitive of the Shades of Magic trilogy and lacking in the Latinx mythology and setting I was looking for, I gave up on page 154 of 471. I loved the Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson, but I’ve been underwhelmed by the rest of the trilogy and the third book just didn’t hold my interest so I gave up on page 369 of 724. The Architect’s Apprentice was a bit different from the stories I normally read, and I left it on page 195 of 452 because I found it too slow-paced and couldn’t sympathise with the protagonist.

I’ve set myself a reading challenge but beyond the numbers I’d like to read at least five non-fiction books, and I’m hoping to finish or catch-up on a few series that I’ve started (The Invisible Library series, The Daevabad trilogy, The Bronte Mysteries and the Broken Earth Trilogy to name a few) before starting any more. I never stick to book-buying bans but would like to prioritise reading what I already own, though there are a few books that I’m eagerly anticipating coming out in paperback that I know I won’t be able to resist; there are also a few old favourites I’d like to re-read, something I typically don’t do because there are so many new books to read.

I’d love to know what your favourite reads of 2020 were, and have you set any reading goals for 2021? Take care, and have a lovely week. X