En route to Christmas

I am currently sitting on the couch at my sister’s place in Melbourne. It’s been a hot day and the night is balmy and warm meaning that we have every possible window and door open in an effort to catch the breeze. It’s my bi-annual pilgrimage Down Under for a family Christmas, it’s day number two and with Christmas Day looking like a scorcher, I couldn’t be much further away from the chill of a London winter.

It’s a long way so as is my usual habit, I paused for a week on the way through to soak up some sun, read lots of books and enjoy some amazing food. This time the pause was in Hua Hin in Thailand at the gorgeous Anantara Resort.

I had a room overlooking the pool…

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After a ‘busy’ day poolside, I would spend a couple of hours curled up on this comfortable couch before heading out for dinner.

…and there was a lovely message from Dow, my room housekeeper, on my pillow every evening.

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Speaking of locals, there were elephants everywhere – this cutie was my favourite…

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A welcoming hello at the entrance, just one of the Elephant Parade installation scattered throughout the grounds.

…and Alex, the resident blue and green macaw, was a colourful sight around the resort.

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Apparently Alex is bi-lingual (English and Thai in case you were wondering)

All up nature was at her best whether big and breathtaking…

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View from the beach bar at the Anantara Hua Hin resort…it’s a tough life for some.

…small and delicate…

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There are orchids of all sorts everywhere. I passed this one every day on the way to breakfast.

…or there for just a moment.

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This water lily had blossomed overnight so I got this shot on the way to breakfast in the morning – the flower had drooped by mid afternoon and was gone by the evening.

The food was delicious..

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A traditional Thai appetiser. Take a leaf and add a bit of everything – peanuts, dried shrimp, dried coconut, shallot, garlic, lime, chilli and palm sugar paste. Wrap up the little parcel and pop it in your mouth. Delicious!

…and the cocktails many and varied across the balmy evenings…

…but in the main, I lay by the pool – cooling off with a dip in the water every so often – and read.

I devoured four magazines (two Vanity Fair and one each of Raconteur and The Economist’s 1843) and five books: Emma Donoghue’s absorbing The Wonder, Jeffrey Archer’s sixth in The Clifton Chronicles (Cometh the Hour) and the eighth novel in Bernard Cornwell’s Viking series (The Empty Throne), a light and fluffy Lift and Separate by Marilyn Simon Rothstein and the utterly gripping How I Lost You from Jenny Blackhurst. I was also halfway through Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings when I left.

It was such a blissfully solitary and self-indulgent week. Reading is my favourite thing to do and is exactly what I book the holiday for (as well as a much-needed dose of sun). It also stands me in good stead for the next phase of my trip – a little me-time before the hustle and bustle of Christmas and the inevitable flurry of activity with family and friends.

Which brings me back to where I started – a balmy night in the Melbourne suburbs on the night before Christmas. So before I embark on the various opporunities for festive cheer scheduled in the days ahead, all that remains for me to do is wish you a happy holiday season however and wherever you are spending it.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Much ado in July & August

The advent of the August Bank Holiday in the UK heralds many things. Holiday-makers return home sporting skin ranging from gently flushed to glowing bronze to fire-engine red. School starts again albeit in fits and starts depending on where you are and how much you pay. And the British Summer ends, folding its wings away to let September take flight.

I missed my July out and about update, overtaken as I was by my birthday-ing in Geneva at the start of August. As sharing July’s gadding about is well overdue, this post will bring you a double dose.

Let’s start with a Gidday First.

I had my first open air theatre experience at Morden Hall Park seeing a performance of Much Ado About Nothing. A beautiful summer day had segued into a lovely evening as we shared a picnic supper, made our way through a bottle of wine and watched a full male cast give their multiple roles and catchy ditties a hefty dose of ribald fun. It was full of hilarious moments and I felt that this was how Shakespeare was meant to be performed, to an appreciative audience in the open air without all the smoke and mirrors of modern theatre. I absolutely loved it.

Staying with the Bard, I also saw a live screening of Kenneth Branagh’s staging of Romeo and Juliet starring Lily James (you may remember her as Lady Rose from Downton Abbey). It was my first experience of the stage version versus reading the play/story or seeing it on film – interestingly Branagh’s interpretation had a black and white cinematic quality (nothing to do with being a live screening!) lending the story a 1950s feel. Lily James was an extraordinary Juliet and simply outshone the rest of the cast but for all that, I was reminded why the play, with all of its melodrama and outpourings of eternal love, was never my favourite.

Speaking of favourites, the return of the fabulous Paco Pena to Sadlers Wells with Patrias was quite different from the high energy flamenco shows I’d seen before. His tribute to the impact of the Civil War in Spain was reflective and haunting and I left the theatre incredibly moved by the beautiful music and poignant story-telling.

I returned to Sadlers Wells a few weeks later to see Vamos Cuba!  I was looking forward to being energised by sexy Cuban rhythms but instead of a slick high-octane show, it was bland and limp and actually felt a bit under-rehearsed. I was bored through most of it and struggled to stay engaged – unusual for me. It was very disappointing.

I had a musical foray of a completely different kind with the Sacconi Quartet, a chamber music group who manage to pierce my heart and capture my imagination every time they play. They were as brilliant as always, playing with their usual passion and intensity. However, they had a male soloist join them after intermission and I felt like that got in the way of the music. I experienced the same reaction earlier this year with another quartet I like so I suspect it’s more to do with my preference for ‘unaccompanied’ chamber music rather than the quality of the singing.

I do like a great female protagonist so I took myself off to see the movie Maggie’s Plan starring two fabulous women – newcomer Greta Gerwig and Oscar winner Julianne Moore – and the rather fabulous-looking Ethan Hawke (forgive my objectification peeps but really…*sigh*). Gerwig plays Maggie, the woman with the plan, as adorably gauche while some of the film’s most hilarious moments come from Moore’s world-weary Georgette. The movie wasn’t on wide (or long) release but it’s an absolute delight so if you get the chance, I’d recommend you see it.

I was also thrilled to snap up a Bank Holiday deal to see Sheridan Smith in the musical Funny Girl (see my reaction  here). It was extraordinary and wonderful and all of those great things.

And last but certainly not least, I discovered Divergent. After a run of average-to-good reads over last few months, I was overdue to be blown away and I fairly inhaled Veronica Roth‘s dystopian tale of rebellion and belonging. It follows a similar plot to The Hunger Games but I liked Divergent more, particularly the use of the factions – Amity, Abnegation, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite – and the underlying thread that a little bit of each is the key to humanity. I’ve heard mixed reports about the movie but I’m much more interested in seeing if the second book, Insurgent, is as unputdownable as the first.

So that was July and August and as we leave the heady ‘hot’ days of British summertime behind, September beckons with promises of coloured leaves, cooler mornings and the hope of an Indian Summer. I’ve got a few interesting things booked but like always I’ll be working hard to make the most of whatever opportunities appear…and keeping my fingers crossed for a deal or two.

Have yourselves a fabulous September.

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Real-life female protagonist Boudicca overlooks the River Thames from her chariot (in the shadow of the tower of Big Ben).

An anthology of literary ladies

I love to read and those of you who know me even remotely will know this. As a little girl, I went everywhere with a book under one arm (and my favourite doll Cindy-Lou under the other) and whenever we went into ‘town’ (that was Brisbane in Australia peeps), Mum would let me choose one new book to bring home with me. Little Golden Books like The Poky Little Puppy, Dr Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat (and the one where he comes back) and the Meg and Mog series were among my pre-school favourites.

I’ve been doing reading challenges on goodreads over the last few years, essentially setting a target number of books to read each year. I start with the minimum of a book a week with a little extra added for my book-and-beach holidays where the rate can rise to as much as a book a day.

This year, I’ve set a similar target but in an effort to explore new genres, have also signed up for another challenge – to read 40 of these books across different themes: Themes like a book set in your home state, a dystopian novel and a novel with a protagonist who has your occupation. (This last one has me a bit stumped so if anyone knows of a book where the protagonist works in marketing, let me know!)

So far I’ve read twelve from the list of themes (out of the 29 books read so far this year) and loved East of Eden (a classic from the 20th century), A Town Like Alice (a book that takes place on an island), The Lake House (a book with over 600 pages) and Ferney (a book recommended by a family member).

I also love author interviews. Not just the authors I know and/or love like Jo Nesbo, Kate Mosse, Robert Harris and Chimamanda Adichie but also ones I haven’t read like Howard Jacobson or ones whose stories I’ve preferred on the big screen rather than on the page like Helen Fielding (she of Bridget Jones fame).

So yesterday’s inaugural Emerald Street Literary Festival was right up my street. Held in the Royal Geographical Society buildings in South Kensington, the £20 ticket offered three ‘events’, a free drink on arrival and a rather gorgeous outdoor marquee to while away the time in between.

I started my afternoon with the Jessie Burton interview (she wrote The Miniaturist – read it, it’s fabulous) and loved her vivacious and self-deprecating take on changing careers to become a writer.  Her new book, The Muse, is out at the end of this month. I can’t wait.

I had two hours to kill before my next event. I had thought I might dash down the road to the V&A to wander through the Jewellery Gallery (which I’ve wanted to linger over since being marched through by security en route to an evening talk last year). Instead, I spent an entirely pleasant time in the marquee reading (The Book Thief – moving and lovely despite the grim themes) and chatting with the three other ladies sitting at the table about who we’d seen at the festival and what we’d read.

My second event was upstairs in the Library Room with Scarlett Thomas. I’ve not read any of her books but have recently downloaded her latest novel, The Seed Collectors so this was a great opportunity to listen to her chat about all sorts of things.

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The Library Room at the Royal Geographic Society. I still get a bit weak-kneed at the thought of a room lined with books despite my Kindle love.

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Scarlett Thomas (right) chats with Alex Peake-Thompson

Unlike Burton, Thomas is more established in her writing career and I found her refreshingly down to earth as she spoke of her books being borne of the collection of things that she’s interested in at the time – She referred to The Seed Collectors as her ‘Biology’ book. In her reading a few passages from it, she’s moved it up my list into ‘read next’ status. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit neatly into any of my goodreads challenge categories…oh well.

And finally, it was a return to the theatre to hear from Maggie O’Farrell. I’ve read Instructions for a Heatwave and rated it 4-stars so I was interested to hear O’Farrell talk about her latest (and 7th) novel, This Must Be The Place. Her website promotes the book as being about “who we become as we search for our place in the world” which really struck a chord and listening to her talk about some of the characters and the editing process as she developed the story was fascinating. Even better, there were no spoilers so that’s another one on the “to read” list.

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Maggie O’Farrell reading from This Must Be The Place

After this luscious literary afternoon, I walked back to the tube station full of new things to read and inspired to keep writing (or tap-tap-tapping away as is the case right now). All three authors I saw spoke about the first step being just finishing the d***ed book – word by word, paragraph by paragraph – and the many, many times they wrote snippets on the tube and in the car (in all sorts of places really) which have ended up either in their novels or inspiring some other piece of writing.

And I was left with this thought: who knows what yours truly might end up cobbling together one day…

May: Between the bookends

The month of May has the dubious privilege of being book-ended by bank holiday weekends here in the UK and it has to be said that the weather on both occasions was worthy of a patio session or two. But true to form, the temperatures in between have dipped considerably so this month I have found myself veering between layering up from my Spring wardrobe and delving back into some light woollens.

But the flowers (and other green things) were out and about…

…and so was I, starting with two contemporary dance shows at Sadlers Wells.

The first was from one of my favourites, Rambert, and their triple bill – the moody seamlessness of Terra Incognito, a dichotomous look into the mind of Macbeth in Tomorrow and the exuberant joy of the Brazilian Carnival in A Linha Curva – left me breathless and thrilled. Then I went to my first Nederlands Dans Theatre show. Actually it was Nederlands Dans Theatre 2, the 2 referring to the company’s troupe of ‘up-and-comers’ – if their extraordinary programme was anything to go by, the main company might just blow my mind. They were awesome.

Staying with the stage, a friend and I went to see Kit Harington (yes he of Game of Thrones fame) in Doctor Faustus. It’s a story I know, having seen the play for the first time on a school trip to the Adelaide Festival in my teens and it also provides the overarching serial killer narrative in the movie Seven. This was edgy, swinging between being absolutely hilarious and intensely shocking. There was even a nod or two to modern times woven into Christopher Marlowe’s 1604 script. It’s received quite polarised reviews but I really enjoyed it. It probably helped that Mr Harington spent quite a long time on stage in his underpants. After all, I’m only human.

I also heard Chris Anderson speak at the Institute of Directors last month. Who is Chris Anderson? He’s the CEO and curator of TED and has been doing the rounds promoting his book, TEDtalks: The official TED guide to public speaking (as opposed to the Talk like TED tome that has been doing the rounds since 2014). In any case, spending an hour listening to him speak and handle some Q&A before I started my work day definitely gave me a bit of pep in my step.

On the food front, I cooked my first BBQ – ever…

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…I went to a masterclass on being good to your gut with Eve Kalinik

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The goodie bag

…and then topped the month off with a visit to a free chocolate museum in Brixton which, being underneath a chocolate cafe, meant that Aussie-K and I were inspired to indulge after our visit – the gingerbread hot chocolate was absolutely delicious.

In literary news, the best of the five books I read this month was Ferney, a ‘time-slip’ novel by James Long. It may have been published in 1998 but right here in 2016, it earned itself a big fat five-star rating from yours truly. An inspired recommendation that I’m glad I took on…and there’s a sequel. *squeals with joy*

And speaking of time-slip, I managed to find some time to slip across the road from work to enjoy a bit of sunshine…

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The view from the grass in Victoria Tower Gardens

…and sculpture.

It’s really just as well that the month ended with a long weekend – June is beckoning.

The test of time

There’s a lot of change being debated in the UK at the moment. The election for next Mayor of London – aka “on ya bike, Boris” – seems to be a bit of a two horse race and the EU referendum is looming in a matter of weeks. Everyone has something to say about it, including those from many a foreign shore, and it’s dividing both nations and political parties.

At the same time some of the world’s great voices – Alan Rickman, Sir Terry Wogan (the voice of Eurovision for many years), David Bowie, Jon English, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood, Prince and Phil Sayer (we hear his dulcet tones telling us to “Mind the Gap”on London’s Underground network) – have died in the first few months of 2016, leaving a swathe of public tribute in their wake.

In the midst of all of this comes the Shakespeare400 celebration.

On the 23rd April in 1616 – that’s 400 years ago – William Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil. He was 52 years old, a husband and a father of two daughters as well as a playwright and poet. He was a contemporary of other literary greats like Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe and left a legacy of 38 plays – comedies, histories and tragedies – and hundreds of lines of verse in his sonnets and long-form poems. In short, he was a man of many, many words and Shakespeare400 was designed to celebrate his contribution.

I attended a live screening of Shakespeare Live! from the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon last night. Shakespeare is viewed by many as hard going with its tangled prose and its forsooths and makeths, but this show was fantastic. It was a mix of some of his most famous scenes – A Midsummer Night’s Dream was brought to life with much hilarity by Judi Dench as Titania and Al Murray as Puck-turned-donkey – as well as other performances that have been inspired by his works. Romeo and Juliet has spawned the likes of the musical West Side Story as well as a ballet score by Prokofiev and choreography by Kenneth MacMillan. Another Broadway musical, Kiss Me Kate, is a re-telling of The Taming of the Shrew, whilst the bloody tragedy of Macbeth has been transformed in cultures as disparate as Japan and South Africa. And we were treated to all of these and more over the two and half hours.

Hamlet is enjoying quite a resurgence in the UK with actors such as David Tennant (2008), Jude Law (2009) and Rory Kinnear (2010) as well as Maxine Peake (2014) and Benedict Cumberbatch (2015) taking on some of literature’s most famous phrases. One of the highlights of last night’s show was this year’s Hamlet, Paapa Essiedu, receiving a note on his “To be or not to be” from Australian comedian and composer, Tim Minchin…and a slew of other British acting royalty. I don’t seem to be able to embed the video code for you to watch but it is on youtube here for you to enjoy.

Anyway, the point of all of this is that William Shakespeare stopped wielding his pen four centuries ago yet his work remains prolific, whether as inspiration for other artistic expression – dance, opera, musical theatre, hip hop and the big screen (think of Baz Luhrmann’s brave and modern take on Romeo and Juliet in 1996) – or in its original form, on the stage.

Shakespeare’s work was written for everyone, from monarchs to the man on the street, and last night I left the cinema thinking how relevant and powerful his stories remain some 400 years on. Whilst current propaganda and politics may change the course of history, I wonder who in today’s pantheon of cultural expression will be as celebrated and accessible 400 years from now as this talented wordsmith from Warwickshire.

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Memorial plaque on the site of the original Globe Theatre in Southwark, London

Finding Wonderland

It was wet and grey in London yesterday and if it hadn’t been for some existing plans I would have been perfectly happy to curl up at Gidday HQ on the comfy couch. But the British Library beckoned and so just after lunch, friend Aussie-K and I stepped out for some literary loitering.

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It was our first visit to the library. Yours truly has been here twelve years and until yesterday, had only managed a passing acquaintance last year by way of a talk at the conference centre next door. Given how much I love literature and reading, I am delighted to have ticked this visit off my London bucket list and to have moved from ‘I must’ to ‘I have’ at long last.

And what, I hear you ask, made me get off my backside and go?

Well, Wonderland of course!

2015 was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It’s a story that’s been told in a myriad of formats and iterations over the years, its other-worldly characters and trippy plot making it the subject of much interpretation and debate. I saw Robert Douglas-Fairhurst interviewed about his biography on Carroll – The Story of Alice – last year (which I am currently reading) and the Library has been running a temporary free exhibition which closes in April. So we entered the fray and hustled – with what felt like hundreds of half-term families – along the cabinets and displays.

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The front part of the exhibit was taken up with a series of twelve (or was it thirteen?) decorated mirrors featuring quotes from Alice in Wonderland whilst in a rather cramped section at the rear, there was an opportunity to learn about the author himself, his real-life Alice (who happened to be a brunette rather than the blonde we’ve come to know and love) and see the ways in which this famous story has been communicated over the last 150 years. It was interesting – however the area was poorly-lit with little opportunity to linger and I found it difficult to read all of the information and look at the details of the books and manuscripts on display. I’m not sorry that I spent the time to shuffle through and see it but it’s just as well it was free otherwise I might have been a little put out!

It seemed a shame to leave after such a short visit and as it was still raining outside, we meandered across to the Library’s permanent exhibition, Treasures of the British Library.

Now THIS was my Wonderland and I spent quite some time poring over…

…drawings & notes from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo…

…musical scores from as early as 1050 and from geniuses like Mozart, Debussy, Chopin, Beethoven, Bach (just to name a few) as well as a page of Puccini’s scribbled stage directions for his opera Madame Butterfly and a touch from the modern era, a burst of scrawled lyrics for The Beatles’ hit ‘Help’…

…pages and pages of penmanship from literary giants: 16th century greats like Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson, acknowledged classics like Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and even a little something from Ian Fleming, the man behind James Bond – who you could argue is one of the 20th century’s most iconic literary creations – and his short story, The Living Daylights…

…sacred texts, beautifully illustrated, from as early as the 4th century and from a  variety of religions including Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Buddism…

…and one of the four Magna Carta documents dating back to 1215 which was sitting right alongside the original papal bull that annulled it just 10 weeks later.

It was absolutely awesome – in the true sense of the word – and these were just the highlights.

And after such a deluge of inspirational history, it was time to venture back out into the real weather, make a damp and concerted dash past St Pancras Station…

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…and around to the YumChaa Cafe in Granary Square for a warming hot chocolate and a slice of apple and apricot loaf…

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All in all, it turned out to be the perfect way to spend an inclement February afternoon in London.

January’s bucket list

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. My resolve tends to scatter across the year and is generally underpinned by my penchant for exploration and variety. However I do love moments, snatches of time when I am completely caught up – and sometimes out – by intense feeling, largely a mixture of delight, wonder, melancholy, outrage and curiosity. I carry this image of a bucket in my mind and I often imagine putting a particular moment into it. Somehow they all combine into a life that inspires me.

I was checking something in my calendar earlier and it occurred to me that while I share about particular experiences, I don’t often reflect on all of the things I’ve done. Fellow blogger, author and longtime Gidday follower Jack Scott commented recently “you do get about” so I thought that it would be interesting – for me anyway – to end each month this year by checking out what’s ended up ‘in the bucket’.

So here goes.

This month it all started with a new chapter in an old story and I absolutely loved Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I then moved into a Kenneth Brannagh double bill: All On Her Own, a maudlin 25 minute 3-stars-from-me soliloquy, and the hilarious 4-stars-from-me farce, Harlequinade.

A trip back in time with the Museum of London and a tour of an old Roman fort inspired my historic sensibilities so much that the Museum became a new Friend. Five days later I joined hundreds of women at the Central Methodist Hall in Westminster to listen to the Women’s Equality Party and left non-plussed and suprisingly uninspired: lots of valid and important messages but the whole thing was a bit ‘rah rah’ for me.

A decidedly French tone emerged in the second half of the month with the NY MET’s performance of Bizet’s opera The Pearl Fishers and the National Theatre’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) being live streamed at the Phoenix Cinema just a ten minute bus ride away. When I was raving about the latter in the office the next day, I was informed by a young French colleague that the book continues to be part of the literature curriculum in French schools and is considered “a classic”. By the way, both productions were ‘magnifique’.

I’ve also read six books this month and rated three of them a mighty 5-stars, an excellent 50% hit rate. March Violets by Philip Kerr and A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute were my first dip into these respective writers and my return to Stephen King (and introduction to his criminal mastermind Mr Mercedes) was the recommendation of another Gidday follower, author Charlie Wade. (Thanks Charlie!)

In between all of this I embarked on some new cooking adventures with a foray into pastry (albeit frozen) as well as ‘cooking with beetroot’ and I managed catch up dinners with three different friends, one long overdue.

I also inadvertently fell across London’s Lumiere Festival on the face of the Abbey…

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…and delighted in the lighter mornings on my walk to work.

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Speaking of commuting, this gem really lifted my tube ride home one night.

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It also snowed…

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…and I celebrated twelve years in London.

So Jack was right and January was full to the brim with moments that were both planned and completely surprising. (And that’s doesn’t include what happens in my job.)

In any case, I’ve quite enjoyed this retrospective approach to bucket list-ing and am curious to see what reflecting on February might bring.

What would a look back at your January moments yield?

Let’s make it a good one

Here we are at New Year’s Eve again. The year’s gone by so quickly and it doesn’t seem that long ago that I was trying to stay cool last New Year’s Eve Down Under. Time flies doesn’t it? And speaking of fun, I’ve managed quite a bit of it over the last 12 months.

After returning from my bi-annual pilgrimage to Melbourne (and a fab top-up visit from Lil Chicky) in January, travelling-for-work was much less frequent this year but I managed to find some cash and conquer some new frontiers. Ten days in Seattle with Seattle-A heralded my first trip to Canada, I spent four fabulous days in Stockholm at the start of August and then jetted off for a week of sun, sand and a whole swag of reading in Mauritius in November.

Speaking of reading, I smashed my book-a-week target by 25% (I read 65) and 8 of them got a Gidday 5-star rating (that’s 12.5%). I discovered Henning Mankell recently and will be reading more of his Kurt Wallander series next year. And while it doesn’t count in 2015’s quota, I am in the middle of my first Philip Kerr – March Violets with protagonist PI Bernard Gunther – and if things continue as they are, the new year looks set to start with another big fat 5 star rating. Awesome.

There have been many theatre outings over the year, Death of a Salesman being one that I studied at high school yet hadn’t seen and the most recent being Hangmen which featured a cracking ‘noir’ plot and really great characterisation. I’ve also been back to Sadlers Wells to be swept away by the Rambert Dance Company and transported to Spain at the opening of the London Flamenco Festival.

I’ve upped my Live Screening ante enjoying some new (well new to me) Shakespeare – Love’s Labors Lost, Othello and The Winters Tale – and several operas including my first Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Mikado. Live Screening also delivered a theatre highlight – Man and Superman – and a new crush, Ralph Fiennes. When seeing his face alight with joy in taking the final bows, well I may have had a little weak-at-the-knees moment…okay maybe not so little.

I’m finishing the year with a two week staycation. Christmas was spent with friends in SE London and aside from an outing to Borough Market and Southwark Cathedral with another friend yesterday, I have just enjoyed being at home. I’ve still got five days off before I go back to work so plenty of time of time to complete my Christmas jigsaw puzzle, finish March Violets and catch up with friends for a little Star Wars, drinks and dinner.

It’s almost midnight here, Bryan Adams is rockin’ it out on the telly and before long, the crackle of fireworks will be heard overhead as those locally organised start the new year with a bang. All that remains is for me to wish you the very best for 2016…

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Let’s make it a good one.

Five star wordsmith-ery

Last time I posted I was settling into a week of beach and books on the beautiful island of Mauritius.

Reading is my favourite thing to do so while others g0t immersed in the smorgasbord of all-inclusive resort activities or booked in for day trips involving dolphins and catamarans, I found myself a spot on the beach and spent the days – whether basking in the sun or relaxing in the shade – reading. And I read all sorts of things – old favourites, Kindle daily deal finds and even an autobiography that I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while. It was the ultimate indulgence.

I always rate and review my reads – reviews from others help me to choose – and while I love to share an absolutely cracking read, I will also share when my experience is not so great. I don’t go into the detail of the story like most reviewers – I like to discover the story and its characters for myself. Instead I share the experience of reading it and how I’m left feeling at the end.

A lot of my reads rate 3 or 4 stars – I love reading, can be quite eclectic in my choices and like to think that I lean towards being magnanimous in my reviewing – although perhaps I’m not the best judge of this.

There are few that dip into 2-star territory (where I’m left feeling pretty dissatisfied) and even fewer 1-stars where I feel like I’ll never get back the hours I spent wading through the pages or just don’t finish. The latter is rare – I don’t ever want to be tempted to revisit a rubbish read by someone saying ‘oh but it got better in the end’.

And there are the 5-star reads. These are the ones that, when I read the final page, make me go wow. They leave me excited, reflective, profoundly moved and they are the ones I will get evangelical about, saying to whoever will listen ‘you must read this’.

2015 started well with 5 stars awarded in January to C.J. Sansom’s sixth in the Shardlake series, Lamentation. Since then, the wows have come in threes – March/April saw a trilogy of 5-star ratings awarded to The Girl on a Train, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Labyrinth and then it was August before I was successively thrilled by The Devil’s Star, Far from the Madding Crowd and The Taxidermist’s Daughter.

Books 2015

I returned from Mauritius relaxed and happy, having soaked up a goodly dose of sunshine whilst devouring a book a day, six of which I gave 4-star ratings . But I felt like something was missing and when I thought about it, I realised what it was – a cracking 5-star read.

It’s been three months since The Taxidermist’s Daughter and by my calculations, it’s time to up the ante with a 5-star read again. I have a Kindle full of choices but what I’m really interested to hear is what you’d recommend. What’s taken your literary fancy of late? What have you read that has had you gripped, delighted, missing your train/tube/bus stop or staying up way too late because you just have to read one more chapter?

I would love to finish the year on a literary high so let me have it peeps – whose wordsmith-ery made you go wow this year?

A contract of invention

In a few weeks time, this year’s Man Booker Prize winner will be announced.

The last two years have seen the prize awarded to antipodean writers with epic tales: New Zealander Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries in 2013 and Australia’s Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North the following year. It is the latter who will pass the winner’s baton to Marlon James, Tom McCarthy, Anne Tyler, Hanya Yanagihara, Chiozi Obioma or Sunjeev Sahota on 13th October.

I have not read any of this year’s books so cannot offer a view as to who my ‘vote’ would go to, although I have been an on and off fan of Tyler since reading Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant as part of my high school English curriculum. And dipping into prior short lists for reading inspiration in recent years has given me the beautiful prose of Tan Twan Eng (The Garden of Evening Mists was short-listed in 2012 and I then discovered The Gift of Rain) and sent me back to 1982’s winner, Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark, following my visit to Krakow some 30 years after.

But I will say this: the 2015 winner will have big shoes to fill.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is one of the most extraordinary books I’ve read in a long while. It’s a story that cuts right to the heart of what it is to be human and left me profoundly moved. So I was thrilled to come across an opportunity to see Flanagan interviewed last week as part of The Guardian Book Club.

Flanagan talked thoughtfully and easily for about 90 minutes, answering a myriad of questions with his antipodean twang and laconic Aussie style. I was struck by his open-ness in answering, whether it was his views on books vs movies (thumbs up for books) or research vs invention (the creativity in ‘making it up’ is what he loves).

(Actually, now I think about it, he’d make a great dinner party guest.)

Despite his father’s experiences in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II and his coming face-to-face with his father’s captors during a recent trip to Japan, Flanagan was at pains to say that this was not a researched book and certainly not based on his father’s particular experiences. He talked about daydreaming, imagining the horror of the death railway or catching the moment when the sun caresses a lover’s shoulder as he sat at his table and then setting out to describe what he was seeing in his mind rather than telling the reader what to see or think.

A novel is an invention of the human spirit….a contract between the writer and the soul of the reader who connects to give the story its meaning and depth.

Flanagan described the book as something he tried to escape writing, likening it to ‘a boulder on his chest’ that made it difficult for him to write anything else…since its completion, he mentioned the writing being ‘released’ and that he has a couple of projects in the pipeline.

It was difficult to write that last sentence without making it sound like some melodramatic realisation on Flanagan’s part. I’m not sure I succeeded but it didn’t come across that way at all – it was understated and sincere and I was left with a quiet feeling of admiration for this articulate Australian…and maybe just a little bit of national pride.

There is nothing left for me to say except that in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan has created a story that is poignant, unyielding and richly-drawn.

Read it – it will touch your soul.

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