Autumn into Winter

Time seems to be slipping away as the end of the year rushes towards us. The end of November brought nights so cold and clear that we could see the stars glinting above the city, frosty mornings and on Sunday we woke to a very light dusting of snow – barely enough for a snowball, let alone a snowman but enough to put me in the festive spirit.

I’m usually rushing right up to the last minute but this year our Christmas preparations are well under way. I’ve baked two cakes, my family have always preferred a rich Dundee cake but this year I decided to make a traditional Christmas cake too, both are bursting with raisins, sultanas and glace cherries. Presents have been bought and we’ve treated ourselves to a new decoration for the tree – a handpainted portrait of our cat, Mara, from Maggie’s Studio. We haven’t put our decorations up yet, but we’re hopefully going to get our tree this weekend, and I couldn’t resist putting up a bit of tinsel when I brought the decorations box down last night, and Mara couldn’t resist playing with it.

We’re preparing for another upheaval as our new kitchen is being fitted next week, and I’m keeping everything crossed that it’ll be finished in time for Christmas – which we’re supposed to be hosting, because I don’t fancy cooking a full roast dinner with a microwave and a toaster!

Aside from our Christmas preparations and home improvements, the last few weeks have been busy, we’ve had a family trip to GlasGLOW, I’m still taking my daughter to her sensory class but we’ve also found a local playgroup that’s a fun alternative to the park on cold, wet mornings; there’s no let up in the run up to Christmas as we’ve got a few toddler Christmas parties and at least one more winter light show on the horizon. Have a lovely weekend. X

The Empire of Gold by S.A. Chakraborty

My most anticipated book of 2021 was the final part of the Daevabad trilogy, The Empire of Gold. Having been in a bit of a rut before this arrived, I was relieved and delighted by how quickly I was pulled into this wonderful story full of romance, suspense, betrayals, revelations and Arabian mythology.

Set almost immediately after the end of The Kingdom of Copper (reviewed here), the narrative switches between the three protagonists Nahri, Ali and Dara. When Nahri and Ali fled Daevabad, they find themselves transported to Cairo, while Dara has helped Nahri’s long presumed dead mother, Manizheh, to slaughter her enemies (including Ali’s family) and reclaim her throne. The stakes couldn’t be higher as Manizheh turns out to be every bit as ruthless and tyrranical as the King she replaced, forcing Dara into slavery again, and Nahri and Ali to ally with their enemies.

I’ve loved watching these characters evolve and The Empire of Gold is full of bargains, sacrificies and betrayals as the protagonists fight to save the city they all love. Nahri has always been a firm favourite, growing from a con-artist and thief who only dreamed of practicing as a physician to a gifted healer and surgeon, and a brave, compassionate leader, and it was so satisfying to finally learn her identity and parentage. Ali has changed from the idealistic and self-righteous Prince to a self-sacrificing warrior and wise leader. Finally the redemption of Dara, the most loyal warrior of Manizheh and her people who committed unforgivable attrocities in their name, was genuinely moving.

The Empire of Gold was such a bittersweet read in that I’ve fallen in love with these characters and their world, and I was desperate to know how it all ends, but didn’t want to be over either, The Daevabad trilogy has become one of my favourite fantasy series and one I’ll definitely reread. The Empire of Gold is about destruction and healing, love, friendship and family, loyalty and slavery, revenge, sacrifice and redemption, and it’s an incredibly satisfying conclusion to a brilliant trilogy. Have a lovely week. X

Dark Nights and Winter Lights

We recently took a wrapped-up trip to the Botanic Gardens which had been illuminated for GlasGLOW. I’ve found it hit and miss in previous years, but I couldn’t resist the appeal of an event located so conveniently close to where we live. I’ve really missed light shows during the pandemic, and this was a welcome return to one of my favourite ways to spend a dark and wintry evening.

My husband and I have been visiting The Enchanted Forest and other light shows for a decade, but this was our 21 month old daughter’s first light show, and she was fascinated by it all. We deliberately chose an early slot (living in Scotland means it’s usually dark by 4pm in Winter) but even so it was a slightly later night than the little one was used to.

The theme of GlasGLOW this year was gloop – a toxic substance created by an evil scientist that was polluting the city – which seemed slightly topical given that the event coincided with COP26.

My favourite parts of the show were walking through the strings of lights and the walkway over the grassy meadow that was festooned with lights leading to Kibble glass house, though one disadvantage of the one-way circuit around the park is that it discouraged us from lingering too long in one place or returning to our favourite parts of the show.

It was a well-organised event, we barely had to queue at the entrance, and it never felt too crowded. We were pleasantly surprised by food vendors that offered a decent range of vegan and vegetarian food, and my husband really enjoyed a gluten-free pizza. We also had toasted marshmallows. We had a lovely time and I loved seeing our daughter’s reaction to it all. Have a lovely week. X

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

A Deadly Education is the first part of The Scholomance trilogy which follows Galadriel “El” Higgins a student at a boarding school for witches and wizards that is a bit like Hogwarts except that there are no teachers, no holidays and the school itself and about half the other students are trying to kill you before graduation. El has an affinity for spells of mass destruction but is trying her hardest not to become the evil sorceress fate seems to have cast her as. Rude, sarcastic and terminally unpopular, she finds an unlikely ally in her ridiculously and infuriatingly heroic classmate, Orion Lake.

I adored El with her extensive range of creative insults (“you tragic blob of unsteamed pudding” is a personal favourite), she’s such an outsider and outcast who is just trying to survive high school in the most literal sense, and I was rooting for her the whole way as she finds her own little circle of friends and a slow-burn romance, and starts questioning the wizarding enclaves that hoard power and resources leaving everyone else to fend for themselves.

There’s quite a lot of exposition throughout the story explaining the rules of magic, generating mana for spells, the maleficaria (wizard-eating monsters) and maleficers (wizards that kill others for mana), but it didn’t really slow the story down and the plot – covering just a couple of weeks in the school year – trots along at a brisk pace.

The narrative cleverly combines the painful and awkward adolescent experience of trying to fit it and social rejection with the high stakes of constantly scheming students and monster attacks, as well as the rather more mundane stress of trying to pass exams and coursework. The Scholomance seems like the antithesis of Hogwarts, and really captures the loneliness and homesickness of boarding school life.

A Deadly Education is a really refreshing twist on superpowered teenagers and boarding school stories, I was hooked from start to finish and this is easily one of my favourite books this year. Have a lovely week. X

Autumn Moments

It seemed like autumn was slow to start this year with the leaves clinging to the trees and remaining stubbornly green until mid-October when they seemed to skip all the shades of red and began to create a carpet of muted oranges, yellows and browns on the ground.

We’re an outdoorsy family, but it’s been too wet to play in the park most days so instead we’ve been kicking our way through fallen leaves, splashing in puddles and collecting pine cones with our toddling daughter. We’ve also had plenty of fun inside with homemade playdough, baking cakes (the little one takes her job stirring the ingredients very seriously) and reading stories together.

There’s also been playdates in the park with my friend and her daughter, watching the girls throw handfuls of leaves and chasing each other around while we chatted. Last weekend, we followed a little pumpkin trail at my husband’s cousin’s farmstead where all the kids ignored the pumpkins in favour of feeding the hens, grazing at the buffet table and generally running amok.

This weekend we’ve enjoyed some Halloween fun, our daughter has had fancy dress parties at nursery and her toddler sensory group, and carving a pumpkin lantern at home – though my imagination always exceeds my ability.

The weather this month has been wet and wild, but we haven’t let it dampen our spirits and have embraced so many simple and seasonal pleasures inside and out. Happy Halloween and have a lovely week. X

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

I read and loved the Six of Crows duology (reviewed here and here) last year, and I was curious about Leigh Bardugo’s first adult novel set outside of her Grishaverse series. Ninth House is about the eight most powerful secret societies at Yale and how each one specialises in a different type of arcana. Into this world of wealth, privilege and the occult, comes high school drop out and stoner Alex Stern who is admitted for one single reason: she can see ghosts. Alex is invited to join the Ninth House which oversees the rituals of all the other houses. Haunted by both the ghosts she can see on campus but also the mysteries of her past as the sole survivor of a gruesome multiple homicide, she finds herself investigating the murder of a girl on campus and unravelling a more sinister conspiracy in the process.

The narrative switches between Alex and her mentor, Darlington, which was a little confusing at first because Darlington’s narrative is all set in the past while Alex’s runs from the past to the present. This is incredibly well plotted and there are several different mysteries running through the story, the murder on campus, her mentor’s disappearence, the night Alex survived a multiple homicide that she has no memory of, and another related to one of the ghosts haunting New Haven that Alex accidentally befriends, yet the story has a very clever resolution and still sets itself up for a sequel too.

I loved the setting, the descriptions of Yale and New Haven, and the awkward juxtaposition of student life and frat parties with ghosts (or grays as they’re called in the story) and the occult practices of the secret societies. I also adored the characters from Alex who is just trying to survive and make the best of the second chance she’s been given, Darlington the gentleman scholar, and Dawes, the reticent PhD student who works as the Ninth House’s housekeeper to Turner the straight laced detective who is Yale’s liaison with the local police department and the ghost of a local murderer who wants to clear his own name.

I enjoyed Ninth House so much that I tracked down a second copy in hardbook to survive rereads and because I will definitely be buying the second part in the series in hardback as soon as it comes out rather than waiting for the paperback like I normally do. Ninth House was thrilling, original, addictive and delightfully macabre, it’s a story to keep you up reading late into the night but one that might give you a few nightmares too, and a perfect read for Halloween or a dark and stormy night. Have a lovely week. X

3rd Quarter in Books

Evenings have been cold, dark and dreary lately in our part of the world, good for nothing except curling up under a blanket with a cup of something warm to drink and a book to read. Earlier this month, I hit my reading target for the year ahead of schedule and thought I’d share a round up of some of the books I read between July and September.

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

I’ll preface this review by saying that I loved Practical Magic, it was one of my favourite books last year, and at the end I wanted to know more about the aunts that raised Sally and Gillian, and more about their parents, which is exactly what The Rules of Magic is about. Unfortunately, this had a very different mood and atmosphere from Practical Magic, and I found it quite heavy as the aunts, Franny and Jet, and their brother, Vincent, try to navigate the family curse that love leads to ruin against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. I was disappointed by this prequel which lacked the charm and suspense of Practical Magic.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

Set on board a steamboat cruising the Nile, this murder mystery seems like a simple crime of passion with the jilted ex-lover murdering the rich, beautiful and charming rival who stole her man, except that the most obvious suspect also has the most solid alibi and the victim had other enemies among the passengers. One by one the murderer picks off the witnesses before they can expose them, but the retired Detective Hercule Poirot is there to investigate. I thoroughly enjoyed this clever mystery that kept me guessing until the end with plenty of clues and misdirection.

This Poison Heart by Kaylynn Bayron

A young adult fantasy about a girl with the ability to grow plants and a natural immunity to almost all poisons finds herself caught up in a family legacy to prevent a very rare plant falling into the hands of people who would use it for their own nefarious purposes. This Poison Heart was like a cross between The Secret Garden and Poison Ivy and a dollop of Greek mythology thrown in too, I enjoyed the mystery but found it too slow paced and I probably won’t read the sequel.

Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko

Raybearer is very likely to be one of my Top 10 favourite reads this year, and I read the sequel as soon as it came out to find out if Tarisai succeeded in annointing her own council as the first Empress Raybearer and survived her journey through the underworld to end the sacrifice of hundreds of children to appease the spirits who threaten to bring war, disease and chaos to their lands if they don’t. I found Redemptor a little bit too meandering in places and I missed some of the supporting characters from Raybearer who drop in and out of the sequel, although I enjoyed getting to know a few new characters too. Tarisai’s journey through the underworld was the highlight of the story, a true physical, mental and spiritual challenge with sacrifices and betrayals that me gripped up to the very satisfying conclusion.

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

I’ve been a fan of Brene Brown since watching her TED talk on shame several years ago, and have been working my way through her books ever since. Daring Greatly is a book about how to recognise and overcome shame, and practice vulnerability in different spheres of our lives in order to cultivate connection, creativity and integrity. I didn’t think this is one of her best works, and it didn’t have the profound effect on me that I Thought It Was Just Me or Rising Strong did but I did appreciate the blend of research and personal experience, and how Brene practises and models vulnerability, courage and empathy for her children and in her family were the highlights for me.

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Spin the Dawn is the most charming and captivating story about a young woman, Maia, who pretends to be her brother in order to become the Emperor’s new tailor – a role forbidden to women. At court, Maia finds herself drawn into the political intrigues between the young Emperor, the Lord Enchanter and the Warlord’s daughter reluctantly betrothed to the Emperor in order to restore peace between the North and South following the Five Winters War. With the gift of her grandmother’s enchanted scissors, Maia embarks on the Warlord’s daughter’s seemingly impossible challenge to create three wedding dresses made from the laughter of the Sun, the tears of the Moon and the blood of the Stars. I simply adored this story that is as much a romance as a coming-of-age quest, though unfortunately I didn’t find the sequel, Unravel the Dusk, as charming or gripping.

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The Inheritance Games is a fast paced and gripping YA mystery about a seemingly ordinary girl, Avery, grieving her mum and trying to get the money and grades to get into a good college whose life is turned upside down when Tobias Hawthorne – a billionaire she’s never met – disowns his entire family and leaves his fortune and estate to her instead. This reminded me of Knives Out and Rebecca as Avery tries to solve the mystery of why Tobias Hawthorne chose her and finds herself caught up in the scheming Hawthorne family, working with and against Tobias’ four charming and clever grandsons to solve an elaborate treasure hunt with a few assassination attempts along the way. The only thing that let this story down for me was the fairly predictable love triangle between Avery and two of the Hawthorne brothers, but this was a fun mystery with plenty of suspense and I’ll definitely be reading the rest of the trilogy.

Have a lovely week. X

Happy 6th Anniversary to Mara

Our family has been enjoying a little celebration this evening as it was six years ago today we adopted our cat, Mara. As she was an adult when we adopted her, we know almost nothing about her life before she came to live with us, we don’t know when her birthday is or even her age, but I always like to mark the anniversary.

My husband and I had just returned from our honeymoon when we decided to ask our then landlord for permission to add a pet to our household. Both having grown up with cats, there was never really any doubt what animal we’d choose, and as I’d only had rescue cats (some quite literally rescued from a sack abandoned on a building site) I was determined to give a cat a second chance to have a safe and loving home. As it happened, Mara’s previous owner had just passed away and she’d only been in the rehoming centre for a week, but she was so happy when we brought her home and every bit as eager to bond with us as we were to get to know her. It feels like we’ve been through a lot together in the last six years, we’ve moved out of our little rented flat and into our own house, Mara’s survived cancer and our daughter’s birth to mention just a few of the biggest changes, but Mara’s adjusted to everything without any fuss, seemingly content as long as we’re all together.

I often feel very lucky that we found Mara before anyone else claimed her, she’s always been the most affectionate, gentle and playful companion, who follows us around the house curious to see what we’re doing, keeps me company when I’m working from home (often waltzing across the screen while I’m on videocalls), snaffling for scraps at dinnertime and loves to snuggle up while I’m reading in the evening before curling up at the bottom of our bed to sleep every night. Yet I also realise how lucky Mara was that we adopted her as we found the cancerous lump on her tail so early that none of the vets who treated her had seen one at that stage before, and we’ve always been quick to notice and react when she seems out of sorts. I’m relieved that Mara appears to be back to her normal, happy and hungry self after her mystery illness a few months ago.

This evening has been spent at home spoiling Mara with treats, and appreciating all the love, affection and fun she’s brought to our family. Have a lovely week. X

Autumn in the Garden

Blogging has fallen by the wayside over the last few weeks as we’ve all been off but not really enjoying much of a rest or holiday as our daughter caught hand, foot and mouth at nursery, and we’ve spent the last wee while taking care of her and pottering around the home and garden.

We’ve not managed to do much gardening this year as it was turned into a temporary building site while we were doing some home improvements. Nevertheless, it’s not looking too bad for this time of year. We’ve trimmed the bamboo, which has “clumped” since we planted it three years ago, and the climbing rose Crown Princess Margaret has been providing beautiful bouquets of peachy roses all summer. Hardy perennials like Crocosmia, Scabiosa, Asters and Geraniums are all still providing bursts of colour in the main flower bed.

The only thing I grew from seed this year is Crown Prince Pumpkins, which I trained to grow up over a frame my husband made to save space and protect them from slugs. This week I harvested three blue-ish pumpkins, the smallest weighing just over 2kg and the largest 5.1kg.

We’ve always enjoyed the wildlife that inhabits and visits our garden (with the exception of the slugs) but the upheaval and extra human presences during our renovations caused a temporary exodus, but over the last couple of months, the sparrows, blue tits and great tits have all returned. We’ve also had some bold grey squirrels coming right up to the window demanding nuts – much to our daughter’s delight. At the end of the summer, we also had a hedgehog wombling around the garden in the evenings.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that I love light shows and I’ve added a few solar lights to enchant our little garden (though my husband thinks I’m at risk of causing pollution if I add anymore). As daylight fades and the city begins to quiet, the lights flicker on one by one, and the garden starts to feel more peaceful and mysterious.

No sooner had our daughter started to recover than the tell-tale spots and blisters appeared on my hands and feet, but I’m hoping I’ll recover quickly so we can all get back into our routine and out for some autumnal adventures. Have a lovely weekend. X

Becoming by Michelle Obama

I’ve been binge-reading lately, finishing one book and immediately starting another, but a little while ago in the midst of a reading slump, I decided to try listening to the audiobook of Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming. I found it really easy to dip in an out of while washing the dishes or cooking dinner, and giving it my full attention at other times. At 19 hours in length it did feel like quite a commitment, but I found it so easy to listen to Michelle Obama narrating her story, from her wry comments (usually poking fun at herself or Barack) to the way her voice cracks slightly when describing her father’s death.

Unsurprisingly, Michelle manages to combine the personal and political describing the discrimination and racism that limited the educational, housing and employment opportunities of her parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents that were mirrored for black people all across the United States. Although there’s no doubt that her own determination, courage and work ethic helped her rise above her humble beginnings, she’s keen to acknowledge and full of gratitude for her parents, teachers and friends who supported and enouraged her every step of the way. Becoming is highly informative, inspiring and relatable and there’s so many themes running through this memoir about race, sexism, disability, poverty and social class but also about family, community, hard-work, determination and ambition.

Michelle’s story covers everything from her childhood in South Chicago in the 1960s, through her awkward adolescent years, her first romances, studying at Princeton University, her career choices, meeting and falling in love with Barack Obama, their struggles with infertility, motherhood, and entering the maelstrom of public scrutiny as he campaigned for and won the Presidency. I really appreaciated how open and honest she is about the resentment she felt about when Barack’s political aspirations interfered with their family’s life, and the compromises they made to find a balance for their family as well as the huge adjustment to life under the spotlight, it’s a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes into their marriage, family life and the inner workings of the White House.

Becoming is an informative and inspiring autobiography, full of humility, humour, vulnerability and candour, and I’d thoroughly recommend the audiobook. Have a lovely weekend. X