Do you feel lucky?

Late last year I saw an interview with Australian columnist, presenter and commentator Jamila Rizvi about the launch of her book Not Just Lucky. Her premise was this: Why do successful, high-powered, high-achieving women undermine what they’ve achieved, what they aspire to and what they are capable of with the word luck?

Something prickled within me.

A few years ago I was promoted into a new job. It encapsulated all of the things I love to do and that I do well – developing new ideas for the business, working with a whole range of people in a whole lot of places and creating the ways and means to keep it all going well beyond whatever my tenure in the role.

Excited beyond measure, I had emailed my happy news to loved ones abroad, veering between the pride of taking on the kind of create-as-you-go role I’d always dreamed of and the disbelief that, after all of the ups and downs I’d experienced since moving the London, it was finally happening for me. I felt liked I’d earned it, like I’d paid my dues and deserved this opportunity. At the same time, I felt like it could be gone in a flash.

And I wondered, could this ephemeral quality be what Rizvi was referring to, what had disquieted me during her interview? Her own disparaging inner voice – the one that “says things that no polite human being would ever say to someone else” – sounded a lot like mine. So I got hold of the book and started to read.

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Over the first couple of chapters, my inner voice protested: Perhaps men (and I generalise here) could do with a little more of the humility and collaborative practice associated with women. But gradually I saw Rizvi’s point. It’s not so much the issue of who has particular qualities but rather that our attachment to humility does not always serve us.

Her chapter on conditioning – that we are products of the world around us and that our initial reactions are invariably the result of this conditioning rather than any objective ‘truth’ about the situation – gave me pause.

“First comes conditioning. Next comes me.”

She writes about crying at work, something that’s seen as the purview of women. Have you done this? I have – as a result of sheer frustration, of persisting with putting my point across. Of being reprimanded with “it’s not nice / appropriate” to push or “you’ll get a reputation as a bully”.

It’s exasperating not to be heard – it builds and seethes and then it boils over…and ‘leaks’.

Rizvi (along with a whole lot of other research) points to the different ways that girls and boys are socialised as they grow up. Boys are discouraged from showing “emotional fragility” (a topic for a whole other blog post!) while girls are discouraged from showing anger and aggression. So first comes that conditioning – the collaborating, the ‘appropriately assertive’ discussion, the ‘playing nicely’ – and it gets in the way of the authentic response – me.

I’m not saying that we should adopt aggression and anger as a mantra – we have far more to offer than that. But sometimes a personal flop can show up as failing for womankind and the extra scrutiny that comes with being the first, the one and only or even one of a select few can be pretty tough to take.

So how should we be dealing with the slings and arrows of social expectation? I found three gems in Rizvi’s chapters that I thought might help me to go beyond my conditioned responses.

1. Accept that your brain is hard-wired to protect you from lions, not criticism.

Cortisol has achieved somewhat of a celebrity status over the last few years. Books have been written and experts have waxed lyrical about why society is stressed, tired, overweight and just plain grumpy. But cortisol is one of the physical ways our brain prepares our bodies to respond to danger. It used to be lions that might have eaten you alive. Now it appears, it’s criticism. Thinking about it like this made criticism seem palatable and eminently more survivable.

2. Don’t forget it’s the receiver that makes criticism constructive.

We love to be right and to make others wrong. And we judge and take the role of the ‘wronged one’ when criticism strikes, wallowing in resentment and righteous indignation. It’s satisfying, isn’t it? Before we know it we’re off on a quest for the next heady hit…but where does our righteousness get us? It is up to us to step past the conditioned response and find the courage and stoicism to unearth the lesson hidden in the censure.

3. Everyone who is good at something did it for the first time without knowing how.

I’ve spent my career in marketing, innovation and customer development and I forget how many layers of ‘knowing’ I have developed. My recent foray into the world of property has thrust me right back into the space of conscious incompetence and with each week that passes I realise just how much I do not know and how scared I am of getting it wrong. This pearl of wisdom reminded me that getting good at something, let along gaining mastery of it, takes time. It also takes the resilience to keep getting up every time you take a knock and the persistence to always keep moving forward, even if the next step is just a tiny one.

Where does all this leave me?

Well I figure the world can’t afford to wait for us – actually, make that me – to be perfect. I have far too much to offer to be squirrelling it away until it is ‘just so’.

So maybe I need to practise owning the successes along the way and stop taking the criticism as something being wrong with me instead of as an opportunity to choose who I want to be in the world.

No-one is born lucky and when I took that job, my Dad wrote to me saying among many other things, that I’d worked hard and made my own luck. (And you’d be right in thinking that I cried as I read his words.) Yes, I did work hard. I also took some risks. And I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. I’m also a big believer in that if you put it out there, the Universe provides.

But luck is hard to ‘own’ so I’m thinking that what it’s really time to start thinking, saying, and embracing far more often is that luck had nothing to do with it.

So how much of your life are you willing to own?

Do you feel grateful?

Or do you just feel lucky?

Read anything good lately?

If you’re a regular here, you’ll know that I’m prone to wittering on about books every so often. Sometimes this is inspired by an author interview or literary festival. At other times something I’ve read will have seized my imagination or evoked such a swell of nostalgia that it’s inspired me to some wordsmithery of my own (like in my recent post, Sacred Places).

Reading is one of my passions – in fact if you asked me the one thing I would never give up, it’s reading – and 2017 has been a stonking year on the reading front. In January I set myself a target of 60 books for the year…and ended up reading 118. (Website for the book-ish Goodreads informs me that equated to 43,369 pages. Phew!)

I use Goodreads to rate and review everything I read and to follow some other like-minded souls. I also participate in the Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge, an annual list of at least 50 themes to read against – last year’s included a book set in a hotel (I found Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford) and a book from a genre/subgenre you’ve never heard of (I discovered paranormal fantasy via the Goodreads-recommended The Rook by Daniel O’Malley) – that pushes me to look ‘off radar’. Rating and reviewing also helps the Goodreads algorithm-thingy to shape their recommendations for you – I have found some wonderful, off-the-beaten-track novels this way.

My average Goodreads rating in 2017 was 3.7 stars – which falls somewhere between good and great on the Gidday scale of literary love. Here’s a pie chart for the statistically-minded amongst you:

Goodreads 2017 ratings pie chart

The good news is that I finished everything I read last year, so no-one was awarded the ignominious 1-star rating reserved for the ones that I can’t / won’t finish. However, that’s not to say that there weren’t disappointments. I gave nine books 2-star ratings and of those there were four – Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Emma Cline’s The Girls, Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies and Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles – that I hope I never set eyes on again.

At the other end of the spectrum I awarded 5-star ratings to 21 reads…

5 star reads 2017

…and 4-star ratings to 51 reads. That means 72 books – or 61% – of last year’s literary exploits ranked somewhere between fabulous and life-changing.

I revisited some of my favourite writers in 2017. There were heart-pumping thrillers from Dan Brown (The Lost Symbol), David Baldacci (The Guilty) and Matthew Reilly (The Great Zoo of China). Robert Harris and Bernard Cornwell brought the conquests of ancient Rome and the Vikings to life in Imperium (Cicero #1) and Warriors of the Storm (The Saxon Stories #9). And there were poignant past-meets-present tales from Barbara Kingsolver (The Prodigal Summer), Joanne Harris (Different Class) and Kate Mosse (Sepulchre).

I also discovered some new favourites. I romped happily through Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in January then returned for seconds in April with The Final Solution. Australian writer Jane Harper had me feeling nostalgic for the hot, dusty smells of the Australian outback with her debut, The Dry while Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent turned out to be a luscious mix of myth, social mores and a woman ahead of her time. Robin Sloan introduced me to Mr Penumbra and his extraordinary bookshop while A.S. Byatt’s masterfully-drawn cast of characters held me in their thrall throughout The Children’s Story. All five writers are on my to-read list for 2018.

It wasn’t all about fiction either with 18 of my reads tackling subjects across history,  politics, food, technology, psychology, society and the future of humanity.

I spent some time immersed in tales of the future reading Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (scarily prescient given it was published in 1970) as well as Noah Yuval Harari’s much publicised histories of today and tomorrow, Sapiens and Homo Deus. I delved into politics with Nick Clegg’s Politics: Between the Extremes and on the social psychology front, devoured Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind with relish. Mark Stevenson’s We Do Things Differently was a fascinating look at some of the forward thinkers – and tinkerers – of our time while Jay Rayner’s exploration of his (and our) relationship with food in A Greedy Man in a Hungry World gave me a lot of food for thought (just couldn’t resist that pun). And reading The Silk Roads (Peter Frankopan) in January and From the Holy Mountain (William Dalrymple) in December meant that I inadvertently book-ended the year with tales from the Byzantium…and got my travel juices going.

I read about some women of note too: Royal women like the wife of Charles I, Henrietta Maria (Cavalier Queen) and Katherine Swynford, the paramour of John of Gaunt. I read about literary women, such as poet Emily Dickinson (The Lonely House) and author Jane Austen, as well as women succeeding in the world of men – from Pope Joan in the 9th century, through to Katherine Johnson (Hidden Figures) and businesswoman Karren Brady in the modern era.

There was also some unexpected weeping in my local cafe over prize-winners A Little Life and Fugitive Pieces. And the compelling stories told by Liane Moriarty in Big Little Lies and Jay Asher in Thirteen Reasons Why inspired some comfy-couch time and box-set binge-ing in an effort to recapture what I loved about the books.

What a year it was.

And now you know why, when you ask me, “read anything good lately?” I pause. It’s such a big list to choose from. So it is with this post that I offer you my answer.

“Yes, yes I have.”

So fill your boots and enjoy peeps – and don’t forget to return the favour.

Have you read anything lately that shook your world?


I have provided links to Amazon UK for all my recommendations. It seemed the most common place to send you to access reviews and/or purchase. Of course other websites are available as are bookshops – and don’t forget the shelves of your local charity shop – if that’s your bag. And if you happen to be on Goodreads, you’ll find me here…make sure you pop by and say gidday!

Sacred places

Christmas is done for another year and we are coming to the end of that strange hiatus before the new year begins and life gets going in earnest again.

It has been four years since I spent a Christmas at home and flying solo meant that I could plan a completely selfish day, with absolutely no-one to please but myself. The day was filled with favourites: foodie treats (croissants – check, duck-fat roasted potatoes – check, Pat’s mango fruitcake – check), chats with loved ones Down Under and some Singin’ in the Rain (so full of joy and well, Gene Kelly peeps, what’s not to like *sigh*). There was also a luscious stretch of comfy-couch reading and some seasonal happy telly in the form of the Strictly Come Dancing and Great British Bake-off Christmas specials.

This year, the big day also fell smack-bang in the middle of a marvellous six days cocooned at home. I spent many glorious hours snuggled under a cosy throw catching up on movies I’d meant to see and snacking on cheese and home-made fruitcake (not together). And there was plenty of time to indulge in my favourite thing to do – reading. As far as I am concerned, there’s nothing like losing yourself in a good book and for six days, I found myself utterly engrossed in a tale of adventure, mysticism and history – From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple.

From the Holy Mountain

When From the Holy Mountain was published twenty years ago in 1997, I had just started travelling. Egypt had been a passion of mine since I was 14 years old, so much so that a career as an archaeologist had held quite some allure. Unlike others I knew who’d set off post-Uni to backpack around Europe, I went to work, saved my pennies and splashed it all on an escorted group tour through Egypt.

Over two mind-blowing weeks, our tour group travelled between Luxor and Aswan listening to stories of ancient rituals and dynasties, wandering through temples and bazaars and scrutinising endless statues and heiroglyphics. We then returned to Cairo for a couple of days and early one morning four of us took a camel ride up through the dusty streets and around the great stone peaks of the world’s most famous tombs, the mighty Pyramids of Giza.

The next day our bus made a stop there on the way back from Memphis and when our guide mentioned that we’d have enough time to go inside, I jumped at the chance. To my astonishment, the rest of the group elected to stay by the bus taking photos so I joined the file of tourists entering the shaded entrance and climbed determinedly up the stone ramp to the inner chamber.

After fifteen minutes the corridor narrowed until it was only wide enough for one person to pass through. I waited patiently until it was my turn to ‘duck-walk’ under the couple of metres of low ceiling-ed passage before the chamber. I stood, stretched my legs gratefully and moved away from the entrance to let a waiting group leave. As the last person crouched into the low space behind me, their exit stemmed the incoming flow of visitors for a couple of minutes and I was left alone in the chamber. In the dim light, a broken sarcophagus hunched darkly to my right as I gazed upwards to the chamber roof soaring above me. My skin prickled and I stood awestruck by the stillness, by the silence and by the sheer moment of standing under something built 4,500 years ago.

Had I read Dalrymple’s tale back then, I would probably have wanted to spend much longer and venture much further afield than my two weeks allowed. Twenty years later, the part of the world he writes about in From the Holy Mountain fascinates me. It was home to the grand and glittering Byzantium, an empire that stretched from Greece and through Constantinople (now Istanbul), crossing the Bosphorus into the vastness of eastern Turkey, turning south through Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine and finally swinging west across the Sinai Desert into Egypt.

Following in the footsteps of two 6th century monks, Dalrymple’s memoir took me on a five month pilgrimage from Mt Athos in Greece to the Great Kharga Oasis in Upper Egypt. His historic references and stories – taken from accounts of John Mochos and Sophronius’ journey – added a fascinating richness but more than that, Dalrymple’s vivid prose brought to life the distinctive landscapes and peoples he encountered along the way. Scattering these amongst his own discussions, interviews and reflections created this wonderful sense of being alongside him as he travelled. This was his pilgrimage, a chance to slake his obsession with the monks’ journey he had read about years before – and it reminded me of mine taken in the shadow of a 13 year love affair with Egypt all those years ago (albeit mine being much shorter than his).

I stayed buried in Dalrymple’s story of civil wars, displaced peoples and sacred places for almost a week, the memories of my first adventure flooding back and the itch to travel welling inside me. I felt like I was on a wonderful journey and that my life was richer for having read this book. As I closed the final page and added this extraordinary travel memoir to my literary favourites, I made myself a couple of resolutions – to learn more about these ancient worlds and to get Dalrymple’s In Xanadu onto my to-read list.

So here’s to a 2018 full of sacred places to discover and new worlds to explore – have yourselves a happy new year peeps!

The busy-ness of life

Gidday peeps!

Sorry I’ve been lax on the posting front of late. It’s been a bit busy since I got back from stopping in Muscat seven weeks ago and while I managed to have a little rant about burgers in my last post, finding the time and head space to craft something more has proved a challenge. But I wanted to let you what’s been happening here at Chez Gidday.

First things first – I finished my fourth MOOC, this time on Democracy and Development in Africa, on 14th November and achieved 94%.

Hurrah!

This was quite a hard going course in terms of workload. In each of the seven weeks we were asked to complete several pieces of work – a mix of video lectures and interviews, reading, questions, discussions and essays – which was then capped off by a 3-part exam in the last week. Let me tell you there were many times when I cursed myself for signing up in the first place and then for not being able to walk away and let it go.

But in catching up with a close friend a couple of weeks ago, he complimented me on my commitment and acknowledged my self-discipline as a real strength. Interestingly, one of my reasons for doing these MOOCs was to ensure that my self-discipline ‘muscles’ stayed active. So I’m glad I stuck with it and am proud to say I have the certificate of achievement – as well as a whole lot of new ideas and opinions – to show for it.

My school governor role has really taken off as well. I’ve been attending the monthly marketing meetings as well as making my first visits with each of the dance and the drama curriculum leads at the school. I’ve also spent a day and evening completing my new governor induction training as well as the mandatory safeguarding training. So I’m now in the thick of it and really enjoying it.

Speaking of getting into the thick of it, I took part in an intensive 3-day Property Investment seminar at the beginning of November and also attended the Rethink Mental Illness Members Day the following weekend. Both are areas I’m very interested in exploring over the coming months. Needless to say I don’t think there’ll be any more MOOCs for a while.

Then amongst all of this was my usual smattering of out-and-about-ness.

On the culture front, I had my first ever visit to the Affordable Art Fair

…and spent another afternoon at the V&A immersed in their latest exhibition Opera: Power, Passion & Politics.

Both are areas I know little about so I really enjoyed having my eyes and my ears opened and my cultural horizons challenged.

The last seven weeks has also produced a couple of excellent theatrical highlights with the Donmar Warehouse’s production of The Lady from the Sea (by one of my favourite playwrights Henrik Ibsen) and INK (the story of Rupert Murdoch’s purchase and transformation of The Sun newspaper in the UK). And as regular Giddayers know, I love dance so it was with great delight that I went to see BalletBoyz’s Fourteen Days (and was especially moved by the intimacy of Christopher Wheeldon’s piece, Us). Then last weekend I was completely mesmerised by the provocative musical Cabaret that is touring regional theatres in the UK at the moment (and stars singer Will Young as the irrepressible emcee).

Literary-themed events got a look-in too with a walking tour of Fleet Street – called Publish and Be Damned! – on a rather chilly Saturday.

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There was also the chance to listen to readings from the Man Booker Shortlist authors the evening prior to the announcement of the prize winner, the British Library’s annual Equality Lecture by Professor Mary Evans and Gresham College’s free lecture on the wonderful Jane Austen, the last a welcome follow up to the Jane Austen exhibition I visited in Oxford earlier this year. I also went to some fascinating talks about The Future of Work, Artificial Intelligence, The Fight Against Alzheimers and The Future of our Digital Selves.

But amongst all of this, there was one lowlight.

As a long-time Agatha Christie fan, I had been looking forward to seeing Kenneth Branagh‘s remake of Murder on the Orient Express. But it had a different storyline and while the cinematography was gorgeous, the whole film was a bit ponderous and suffered from style-over-substance syndrome. As far as I am concerned, no-one writes Christie better than Christie so in tinkering with her work, Branagh’s effort left me feeling a bit flat.

And then last week I squeezed a 5-day rendezvous in Paris into proceedings (more on that later)…

…so maybe the word smattering was a bit of an understatement.

Not to mentioned that December 1st is only two sleeps away – when I get to open the first window of Mum’s annual advent calendar and put up the Chez Gidday Christmas tree…

*excited squealing*

So stay tuned. There’ll be more Gidday adventures coming to the blogosphere soon!

Oxford: Words and music

Last time I posted, I wrote about my lovely afternoon ambling around the historic city of Oxford. That was just the beginning of my mini break in this delightful city and I spent a further two days indulging my passions for literature, history and beautiful architecture.

After the gentle sunshine of Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday emerged as a bit of a damp squib, the day alternating between light drizzle and heavy showers. As it turned out, it didn’t matter as it was a day of mostly indoor pursuits beginning with a tour of the Bodleian Library.

The Bodleian Library is comprised of a number of well-known buildings including the Divinity School, the Radcliffe Camera, the Clarendon Building and the new Weston Library. The library began its life in 1488 when Humfrey, 1st Duke of Gloucester (and younger brother to King Henry V) donated over 280 manuscripts to the University. The existing library in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin (in Radcliffe Square) lacked the space to accommodate Duke Humfrey’s gift so a new library was built above the Divinity School.

Divinity School + Sheldonian

The Divinity School is on the left with Duke Humfrey’s Library on the first floor. The front entrance to the Sheldonian Theatre is on the right.

The library was stripped of its contents in 1550 as England moved away from the Catholic Church under Edward VI (The Reformation) and languished for 48 years before Oxford Fellow and Elizabethan diplomat Sir Thomas Bodley (for whom the library is named) offered to fund its refurnishing. In 1602, the library was reopened and continued to prosper as Bodley persuaded wealthy benefactors and subscribers to contribute to its upkeep and extension. Bodley’s negotiation with the Stationers’ Company of London in 1610 also meant that the library was to receive – in perpetuity – one copy of every book published.

Ongoing expansion has been a theme since Bodley’s death in 1613 and the library has grown to include Nicholas Hawksmoor‘s Clarendon Building (1712-1713), the Radcliffe Camera (1860) and the new Weston Library (2014) as well as a further 153 miles of bookshelves in an off-site purpose-built warehouse facility in Swindon (2010).

Our tour guide Matthew led us through a brilliant ninety minutes of historical facts and anecdotes. Unfortunately photos were not allowed in Duke Humfrey’s Library – the oldest part of the library with books that are hundreds of years old – or in the Radcliffe Camera to respect the privacy of students who use these reading rooms (yes they are still in use). While these were two of the highlights, it was a tour of many high points so I took as many photos as I could where I was allowed. It was an absolutely amazing visit and I’d highly recommend it.

Clarendon Bldg + Radcliffe Camera

L: Bodleian Library entrance via the Clarendon Building; R: The Radcliffe Camera

Library entrance+Quadrangle

L to R: Clarendon Building from Broad Street; delicate ironwork over the entrance; one of the old doors in the Old Schools Quadrangle

Divinity School interior

L to R: Inside the Divinity School with its marvellous ceiling; this chair is made entirely from timber taken from The Golden Hind, the ship Sir Francis Drake used to circumnavigate the world from 1577-1580.; the Convocation House was the original meeting place for the University’s Supreme legislative body and also housed Charles I’s Parliament during the Civil War from 1642-1646.

CWren door

Images of the Christopher Wren door which leads from the Divinity School directly across to the Sheldonian Theatre which was his first architectural commission.

I left the library and wandered across Broad Street to Blackwell’s Bookstore. I’d never heard of Blackwell’s before coming to Oxford but I’d noticed a walking tour sign about The Inklings which took me to some parts of Oxford I was unlikely to have found myself.

Inklings WT

L to R: The Rabbit Room at The Eagle and Child was where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien met regularly; C.S. Lewis was a rector at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin – the inspiration for his Mr Tumnus and the lamp in the woods exists in the laneway adjacent to the church (ref: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia)

I’d also heard whispers about Blackwell’s Norrington Room in the basement of store. It’s billed as the largest room built for the purpose of selling books. How many books does it hold, you ask? Well apparently it’s around 250,000 give or take a few…

Norrington room

The Norrington Room: It has an official photo point…

I wandered around for twenty minutes and was so overwhelmed that I left without buying a single book.

I headed off to the Turl Street Kitchen nearby and to the sounds of the rain pattering on the street outside, I tucked into a delicious lunch of home-made soup and bread. The wet weather showed no signs of letting up so I decided to return to the Bodleian’s Weston Library and thoroughly enjoyed wandering through the Jane Austen exhibition for an hour or so before heading back to the B&B.

Later I headed out for a little night music at Merton College with Richard Goode

Merton College

Waiting for the concert to begin – a recital by renowned pianist Richard Goode in the chapel at Merton College.

The program was fantastic – comprised of Mozart, Debussy, Beethoven to name a few – and I had a great view of both the pianist and the chapel. (The photo on the right above was taken while I was sitting in my seat.) After almost two hours of spectacular music, the audience finally released Goode from its applause and we filed out.

What an awesome day of words and music I had.

And there was still one more day to go. If you’re still interested, feel free to tag along next time…

2017: My mid-year book report

We are now in the last week of July and life has become unbelievably full with the relaxed, undulating pace from earlier in the year all but gone. The great news is that I’m still squeezing reading into every nook and cranny that I can, so much so that I am already on the cusp of hitting my book target for the year…in July.  So I figured now was a good time for a mid-year review of this year’s literary adventures.

In January I set myself the target of reading sixty books in 2017…well by the end of June I had read fifty. I’m pleased to report that I have finished everything I’ve read, so there hasn’t yet been a book tainted with the ignominy of a Gidday 1-star rating. And I’ve only had three 2-star ratings (this is essentially a nod to finishing something that I’ve dragged myself through so slightly better than a 1-star). If you are any good at maths, you’ll have worked out by now that I have read 47 enjoyable-or-better books this year – that’s 94% and a cracking strike rate!

At the literary-love end of the scale, I have awarded Gidday 5-star ratings to eleven books so far.

2017 HY 5-star montage

These have been across a mix of genres and include returns to some of my favourite writers. Australia is represented twice in this list with Liane Moriarty’s un-put-down-able Big Little Lies (now a HBO series) and Matthew Reilly’s addictive thriller, The Great Zoo of China. I’ve embarked on #2’s in two trilogies with the gripping dystopian tale Insurgent from Veronica Roth’s Divergent series and the poignant split-time novel, Sepulchre, in Kate Mosse’s Languedoc trilogy. And while I enjoyed Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard when it was released a few years back, Black Water, set in the hills of Bali, absolutely blew me away.

I’ve also loved discovering new authors. The exploration of friendship in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay left me feeling incredibly moved while Robin Sloan had me turning pages voraciously to unravel the mysteries of Mr Penumbra and his 24-hour bookstore.

Non-fiction made its debut amongst the 5-star reads this year. I attended the launch of Deborah Rowland’s Still Moving [free book disclaimer here] and really enjoyed exploring her insights into leadership and change. Mark Stevenson’s talk at the howto: academy about people doing things differently was fascinating and prompted me to buy the book. And I loved Peter Frankopan’s new history of the silk roads – it even yielded a family connection.

So the first half of the year has been fabulously bookish, my attendance at the V&A Museum‘s bi-monthly book group continues and June’s Emerald Street Literary Festival was again a highlight of the year so far. In fact, July has yielded two more 5-star reads neither of which I would have chosen had it not been for these events. I got a free copy of Morgan McCarthy’s The House of Birds at the Emerald Street Literary Festival and Maria Duenas’ The Seamstress is our next V&A Book Group read.

july17 5star montage

With the back half of the year off to an impressive start, I’m hoping the months ahead yield lots of lush literary adventures. In the meantime, that brings me to the end of my first half-year highlights so I hope that you’ve found something that inspires you to bury your nose in a book. If not, there are another twenty-two 4-star and fourteen 3-star reviews available on Goodreads or Amazon if you want to fossick about further for something I’ve read/reviewed that might take your fancy.

Remember, in the words of Lemony Snicket “Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.” (Horseradish).

As far as I’m concerned that’s an excellent mantra to live by.

Happy reading!

ps…and don’t forget there are only six sleeps to go peeps – I wonder what amazing books I will discover once I’m 48?

 

Edinburgh: Literary liaisons

The story so far: Inspired by the success of my trip to York in March, at the beginning of June I was off for another mid-week staycation, this time to Edinburgh. I had heard many good things about visiting the city and was looking forward to a few days exploring. After boarding at London’s King’s Cross station on a busy Monday morning, my seamless and comfortable train journey to Edinburgh’s Waverley Station took just under four and a half hours.

This post is the second of three and is designed to be an armchair tour of my brush with Edinburgh’s literary fraternity. Those of you that know me even a little will know that I love to read and there are a host of literary links in Edinburgh from Sir Walter Scott, J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan), Arthur Conan-Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) and Robert Burns (he of Burns night) – right through to modern masters like Ian Rankin (Inspector Rebus), Alexander McCall Smith (the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency) and J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter).

Sir Walter Scott is a big deal here – he wrote Rob Roy and Ivanhoe, neither of which I have read, but there were quotes everywhere in the train station and when I emerged onto Princes Street, there was a stonking great monument to the bloke just down the road.

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You’ll also find Scott at The Writers’ Museum – along with two other Scottish wordsmiths – Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson – and on my last day I spent about an hour here admiring the personal effects, checking out the photos and reading about the lives of these famous men.

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After three days in Edinburgh, I hadn’t found very much that paid tribute to another well-known literary Scot – Arthur Conan-Doyle who invented one of the world’s most famous detectives, Sherlock Holmes. Luckily Allan Foster’s Book Lovers’ Walking Tour plugged that gap and at one o’clock we met outside the museum and ventured off into yet another downpour.

Heading to the south side of the city, we entered Conan-Doyle territory with a couple of stops at the College of Surgeons – where as a student, he found the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes in Joseph Bell – and his local drinking hole, Rutherford’s Bar. The bar was also a favourite of Robert Louis Stevenson and the restaurant that occupies the building now is called The Hispaniola in a nod to Stevenson’s most famous novel, Treasure Island.

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Photograph of Conan-Doyle at The Hispaniola Restaurant in Drummond Street

It was an interesting, behind-the-scenes sort of 90 minutes and pretty easy walking in spite of the weather. Allan’s knowledge covered so much more than I would have discovered on my own so I’d recommend this walk if you are even remotely bookish.

There are also quite a few eateries with literary links in Edinburgh and I particularly enjoyed The Queens Arms in Frederick Street (New Town) and the Deacon’s House Cafe off the Royal Mile in the Old Town. I also visited The Elephant House whose claim to fame was as the ‘birthplace of Harry Potter’, it being claimed that J.K. Rowling used to frequent the cafe when she was writing the books. It was well-appointed and spacious but I was underwhelmed by the service and food.

So that was the extent of my literary goings on in Scotland’s capital. My next, and final, Edinburgh post will shine a light on three of my favourite staycation moments. But if you’re coming along, you’d best bring your brolly


If you are interesting in reading about my entire visit, here are the other posts in my armchair tour of Edinburgh:

Edinburgh: Inside and out (the next – and last – one)

Edinburgh: A royal trifecta (the first one)

 

Favourite things: Book chat

This time last year, I spent a couple of hours reading – and sheltering – inside a large marquee at the Royal Geographic Society for the inaugural Emerald Street Literary Festival. In spite of the damp and dreary weather, I had a lovely time – so much so that as soon as I saw the promotion for this year’s event, I snapped up some earlybird tickets.

In stark contrast, yesterday’s sun cast its benevolent warmth over the RGS marquee as it fizzed with London’s literati enjoying Festival number two. The rooms and theatres played host to author panels, discussions on themes like race, travel writing and witchcraft, and freebies. The Map Room had an Aperol Spritz waiting for each attendee and in the marquee, Headline Publishing were offering a choice of one of six paperbacks for those who’d booked multiple sessions – like me.

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My free book – The House of Birds – thanks to Headline Publishing

After checking out the lay of the land and collecting my book, I headed to the theatre for the first of the four sessions I’d booked for the afternoon. Here’s how it all went down.

1. Why do we love to talk about books?

The winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced this week and this panel was the last of the Prize’s official events. It comprised Kate Mosse – author, Prize co-founder and honorary director – Naomi Alderman – winner of this year’s Prize with The Power (it’s a great read) – and Ayobami Adebayo – whose first novel, Stay With Me, was on this year’s short-list. The trio took to the stage to chat about their own reading and writing and to explore the question: Why do we love to talk about books?

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L to R: Naomi Alderman, Ayobami Adebayo and Kate Mosse

Over the next 45 minutes, these three authors talked about their writing, the rollercoaster of confidence that comes with it and whether/what they actually read when they are writing something. (For each it depended on the draft number but the general consensus was don’t read the same genre as you are writing.)  There was also a really interesting discussion on criticism and I liked the way that Naomi answered this: There’s enormous value in paid-for constructive criticism, ignore the ‘abuse’ at the other end of the spectrum and remember that reader reviews e.g. Goodreads, Amazon etc. are ‘not really for us [the authors]’ but rather for other readers. Ayobami also loved that she’d discovered the mute conversation option on Twitter.

And what about the question at hand – why do we love talking about books? Well, Naomi likened it to finding this amazing new cafe and then telling everyone they should go. She also shared an observation about the personal affront you feel when someone doesn’t really love a book that you did. The chat about this swayed from jokes about ‘we can’t be friends any more’ (Ayobami) and the overwhelming urge to defend and re-sell [them] on your choice of reading material to feeling utterly shocked and deflated (Naomi). Haven’t we all been there!

2. Telling true stories: Explaining narrative journalism

This was a fascinating peek into the world of long-form journalism with Clare Longrigg, deputy editor of The Guardian’s Long Read, and Sophie Elmhirst, a journalist who’s written pieces for The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar and The Guardian (just to name a few.)

They chatted first about the difference between a long read and a longer celebrity profile – Sophie particularly talked about the greater amount of time invested in a long read piece to explore whatever the subject matter is (and she’s written on everything from water to Robin Wright). When a person is the subject of her article, she tries to see them at home or do something with them, and also talks to others in that world to get a range of angles to draw from. She mentioned that it’s often the innocuous thing that someone says that breathes life into the piece. For example, did you know that when Richard Dawkins‘ can’t sleep, he goes through the alphabet and assigns mammals to each letter? Well thanks to Sophie, you do now.

3. Essex Girls, Serpents and Writing a Best Seller

Sarah Perry‘s second novel, The Essex Serpent, was on the Prize shortlist in 2016 but at the time, I thought it sounded too primly Victorian to be my cup of tea. How wrong I was on both counts – it was far from prim and I absolutely loved it. So to hear Perry chat with Lucy Mangan – I have been a fan of Mangan’s column in Stylist magazine for a while – was something I was really looking forward to.

I was completely charmed by Sarah. She talked about her unorthodox upbringing, the way she has always like her eccentricity, her curious mind that ‘needed nourishment’ and her drive to explore themes in her writing to make it a worthwhile pursuit.

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Lucy Mangan (L) listens as Sarah Perry (R) reads from The Essex Serpent

Sarah spoke about exploring different sorts of love in her writing – except romantic love. She professed to being bored by exploring this as a writer and as a reader in light of her own smooth path to love and marriage – “I just found a nice man and married him.” She also talked about how her first novel, After Me Comes The Flood was published: After 19 rejection letters, her agent left the firm…and became her publisher.

Sarah’s passion, curiosity and unusual viewpoint made for a delightful 45 minutes – she’s interested in so much and for me, it’s what made her so interesting to listen to.

4. Emerald Street Presents Robin Dalton

I had never heard of Robin Dalton before the festival but she’s 96, grew up in Australia before moving to London in 1946 and has been a literary agent, TV personality, film producer and spy for the Thai government so I figured that it had to be interesting. She was promoting her memoir, One Leg Over, and read a few pages to get things started…

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Kat Poole (L) listens as Robin Dalton (R) reads from One Leg Over

She spoke of her gallivanting during the war years and her lack of ‘ambition’, preferring to live in the moment and see what happened from that rather than making any plans. And she’s had some moments – her society divorce kicked war from the front pages and her reading included anecdotes of time spent with the likes of John F Kennedy and Noel Coward.

Robin also told us that the eyebrow-raising title of the book was not intended to be salacious but rather, it captures a moment – the moment when she’s getting out of the bath, has managed to get one leg over the side and thinks to herself “that’s one leg over”.

So that was the formal part of the day. In between I found a lovely wodge of time to read – in the marquee over lunch and then later in a quiet sunny spot on the steps with a deliciously large slice of coffee and walnut cake – and indulge in a chat or two with some of my fellow bookworms.

Books, cake and glorious sunshine – what a great way to spend a Saturday!

Favourite things: Returning home

I’ve been back home in London for a few days now. The weather is about 30 degrees (celsius) cooler than when I left Melbourne on Sunday and while I love the sun and heat, I have been enjoying feeling the brisk air on my face when outdoors followed by that cosy rush of warmth when I venture inside again. The real test will come tomorrow with temperatures forecast to get down below zero overnight and remain that way for the next week. I’m guessing there will be little opportunity to show off my holiday tan.

Speaking of holidays, I am due a post about my month away – an indulgent week in a Thai resort followed by two and a half weeks in Melbourne with family – and there’s a whole lot of stuff milling around inside my head but it’s resisting taking shape right now. But rest assured that something will appear soon…in some form or other.

But right now, I am battling the jet lag and indulging in some cocoon-like time at home enjoying some of my favourite things to do.

Sleeping

I love a good night’s sleep and I haven’t slept through the night since my return. I went to my first yoga session in a month yesterday – which no doubt will hurt quite a bit tomorrow – and then managed about five and a half hours sleeping straight through last night so it’s all going in the right direction. I am trying to be patient with myself / this but I wish it would all just hurry up.

Reading

After an absolute glut of Kindle reading at the end of 2016, I returned home inspired to read some of the stuff that’s been on my bookshelf for a while. At the moment I am really enjoying Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay before I see him interviewed next week.

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Catch-up telly

My mid-December departure meant that I missed the final episode in season two of the sci-fi series Humans – which has had me glued to my TV screen each Sunday night – and the Strictly Come Dancing Grand Final. Both have been addressed and enjoyed with equal fervor. I also saw that the first episodes of two new shows – The Voice and Let It Shine – had aired so have gotten these under my belt too. My particular jury’s out on these but may return with a more positive verdict in the coming weeks.

Cooking

The thing that I’ve loved the most since being back at home is cooking. I ate so many fabulous meals during my trip but after a month, I couldn’t wait to get back in the kitchen and cook for myself. It was with much excitement that I got my grocery order delivered on Tuesday and made a quick trip to my local fruit and veg shop to fill the fridge again.

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I’ve been planning different meals each night and in my pottering in the kitchen, have managed to try some new things as well.

The day that I returned, I was so pleased to find a portion of my vegetable and chilli mince in the freezer and so I stirred that through some spaghetti for one of my favourite comfort meals.

I’ve also baked some beetroot, a tip I picked up from Mum’s partner Mr Licensed-To-Grill who BBQ’ed these scrumptious suckers while I was Down Under. It was lovely with my crumbed chicken breast and steamed greens. And I’ve been mindful of getting my leafy greens quota up again by stir-frying some chard with onion, garlic, ginger and chilli to have with my Thai salmon fishcake last night. Tonight’s plan is a roasted butternut squash and turkey bacon pasta with a cube of my kale and walnut pesto stirred in…and I can’t wait.

The funny thing about all this is that when I left Australia almost thirteen years ago, my family and friends would never have said that I was great in the kitchen. Oh I could whip up a basic tuna pasta but I was a competent compiler of platters and carpet picnics and the fridge was generally used for wine, cheese and little else. But a penchant for pottering about among the pots and pans has definitely snuck up on me and it was with some surprise that I found myself pining for it.

So until I sort the holiday stories into some semblance of interesting reading, I will be sleeping, reading and wielding my spatula with enthusiasm…and wondering at how Julie Andrews’ trilling about bright copper kettles as one of her favourite things became one of mine.

2016: My year in books

This weekend 2016 drew to a close. It was a year of change and confrontation in the world at large and personally it’s a year that’s been heading towards great change for me as well with the takeover of the company I have worked for at the end of June and my subsequent (and not unexpected) redundancy at the end of November.

I’ve been determined to use this year to explore, expand horizons and experience some new things and I have also applied this philosophy to my reading. My commitment was to read one book a week (that’s 52 books) this year and in an effort to broaden my horizons, I signed up for the Pop Sugar Reading Challenge on Good Reads. It’s a list of 40 prompts – stuff like a novel that takes place in summer, a YA (young adult) award winner, a book recommended by someone you just met, a dystopian novel, a book more than 100 years old etc – designed to encourage exploration outside your normal habits. I discovered new favourites like Veronica Roth’s Divergent (a romance set in the future) and The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen (a book translated into English) as a direct result of using these prompts to search for books I might not have found otherwise.

With much more time to read than expected towards the end of the year I well and truly overshot my target, ending the year with 75 books under my belt. Of these nine (or 12% for the mathematically-inclined among you) received a ‘coveted’ Gidday 5-star rating.

January started promisingly with three – March Violets by Philip Kerr, A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute and Mr Mercedes by Stephen King. Uncovering the next three was done at a much steadier pace with 5-stars awarded to Ferney (James Long) in May, Divergent in August and Child 44 (Tom Rob Smith) in November. And then just as it began, the year ended with another 5-star trifecta in December – Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian, The Keeper of Lost Causes and The Wonder by Emma Donoghue.

At the other end of the scale, I only awarded one 1-star rating – Snowpiercer vol. 1 (my first, and most likely last, graphic novel) – and six 2-star ratings (which basically means that I finished them and they therefore avoid the ignominy of a single star) which totals just over 9% of my 2016 reading.

When you add those two percentages and consider that almost 80% of the books I read sat in the 3-4 star region, I’d say that rates as a pretty entertaining year.

I also learnt a few things from this year’s literary exploits:

  • I don’t think graphic novels are for me although given this was a survey of one, this is probably not the most well-researched opinion I’ve ever held.
  • I like Le Carre much better on screen than in print with my reading of The Night Manager getting a 2-star rating vs my absolutely loving the BBC adaptation.
  • The two Man Booker prize winners I read this year – 2016’s The Sellout and 2015’s A Brief History of Seven Killings – were not a patch on 2014’s winner, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Far North which remains one of my all-time favourites.

(If you want to have a sneaky peek at all 75 reads from 2016 and what I thought, you’ll find it all on Good Reads here.)

And last but not least, stretching my reading habit has reaffirmed my love for it. The opportunity to experience the worlds of others whether real, fictional or somewhere in between is an absolute joy. It’s also an awesome privilege and I am incredibly grateful to my parents for the many bedtime stories, the constant encouragement to read out loud and for letting me take a book everywhere we went, the latter being a habit that remains with me to this day.

Anyway, on to 2017.

I’ve upped my annual target to 60 books.

I have signed up to the Pop Sugar Reading Challenge again, am already halfway through ‘a book about an interesting woman’ (The Cavalier Queen by Fiona Mountain) and have identified my next on the list as ‘a book with one of the four seasons in the title’ (The Winter Over by Matthew Iden).

I will also be continuing with my lovely V&A book group so need to read Rudyard Kipling’s Kim by the time we meet in February and am seeing author Michael Chabon interviewed later this month so am keen to get his Kavalier and Clay under my belt before that.

So I’m off to tackle all of these new literary adventures before time gets away from me.

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Sand sculpture from Sand Sculpting Australia‘s Lands of Imagination on the Frankston Foreshore from December 2016

But in the meantime I wish you a 2017 filled with many joys and wonderful adventures, whether they be literary or otherwise.