2019 in Review

Yet again, I’ve managed to take an accidental two months off from even looking at this blog. No, once again, I have no legitimate explanation as to why I keep doing this; all I can really say in my defence is that although I love the festive season, it’s a lot of bloomin’ work. I have almost a whole turkey, half a pecan pie and fifteen pigs in blankets in my fridge as proof of this. And as for the pine needles matted into my dog’s fur and sprinkled around the house like confetti, I’m now just pretending not to notice. Still, it’s only once a year, eh? (Low key wish I’d done a Christmas with the Kranks and skipped it all though; joking…a bit).

Anyway, it’s been a pretty big year for me; although a year is a very long time when you really think about it so it’s not actually that surprising that I managed to cram a lot in. Still, I’ve been doing some reflecting, as we all seem to do at this time of year (though it’s mostly fuelled by Buck’s Fizz and a lack of anything better to do in the absence of anything worth watching on TV), and have compiled a list of the main life lessons I’ve learned this year, to pass on to you as a gift of wisom because I’m just nice like that.

Wedding Planning is like Childbirth

Okay so I haven’t actually ever given birth, so I can’t confirm this with ny real certainty, but if we can accept the premise that childbirth is painful and horrible while it’s happening but produces something lovely at the end, which is so lovely that the mother forgets all the pain, then this analogy works. My struggle with planning my wedding this year has been well documented, and whilst I think it’s really important to acknowledge that it can be quite a lonely and really challenging time and never dismissed as “one of those things” we must endure, the one piece of advice I would give to anyone in that scenario is that all the horrible bits are quickly forgotten. I would say this is the one piece of advice which I wish I had been given, but every married person I know told me this at the time, yet I just chose to ignore it whilst I was in the midst of a stress akin to the level of pain during the ‘crowning’ phase of birth. I genuinely thought that the damage done to relationships between myself and various family members and friends during the hard parts was irreprable, but that was honestly forgotten by about three seconds into the vows, and I was having normal conversations with said individuals within forty eight hours of getting married; as if the last ten months of absolute warfare had not happened at all. Trust me, just wade through that mud because it does get easier and all is forgotten.

Pretty much everyone has mental health issues of some kind

Mental health is one of those things that we talk about all the time on social media to try and “break the stigma”, which is great, but unfortunately I think sometimes it’s like the polar opposite to your address and phone number; something we’re happy to discuss with strangers on the internet but not our own family and friends. For various reasons which I won’t bore you with, I found myself in a position this year of needing some extra support to feel ‘okay’ again, and each time I mustered up the courage to try and explain it to a friend, colleague or family member; every time I was met with some variation of “oh yeah that happened to me too” or “oh that’s nothing, when I was in that position I…”. It could just be that I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by people who are supportive, but even people I don’t know that well met this with the same response. Basically, if I’d known it was pretty much a normal, run of the mill thing to have those kinds of issues at some point in life, I wouldn’t have ignored it for so long and let it get worse; so don’t do that if you find yourself in that position at any point.

Smear tests are fine

I’m not even going to bother labouring that point. This year I hit the age bracket to be eligible for smear tests (when did the things you become eligible for on birthdays stop being fun? I’m guessing at 18). I wasn’t particularly nervous but honestly it was so uneventful in every single way that it’s barely worth mentioning, except to make the point that they’re not an issue at all and I don’t understand why some people turn it into one.

Eating healthily and exercising actually does work

Again, this sounds obvious, but like most people I’ve spent a lot of time over the years trying to instantly lose weight or tone up in some way through the next fad – I have a Nutribullet in the cupboard gathering dust to prove it. For various reasons, including a desire to not die at fifty if it can be helped, I started doing a mix of different exercise classes and eating a bit better on weekdays (weekends are junk food time; and that is a habit I will never be able to change); and quite unexpectedly became fitter and healthier. I don’t know when it exactly happened, I just sort of noticed one day that I could get up the stairs without stopping for breath and could fit into clothes a bit more easily. Whilst I realise that my variation of specific eating patterns and exercise routines would not be healthy or advisable for everyone, I’m just making the point that it is literally that simple. It takes a while yes, but there is no magic Joe Wicks-inspired, keto-ing or Nutribullet-ing formula; it’s pretty much just eating better and moving more. Who knew? Certainly not me.

If you’re not sure about eggs, put them in water

I’m not just mentioning this on account of my love of using prime numbers and therefore a desire to include five points, but also because this is a genuinely useful life hack I learned this year. My uncertainty about whether eggs are good to use always seems to occur on a Sunday before 10 a.m; specifically before the shops are open so I have no real other option than to use them. Well, unless I were to not have Sunday morning pancakes, which would be entirely ridiculous. But yes, fill a bowl with water and if the egg is off it will float to the top, if it’s fine it will stay at the bottom, and if it’s okay but not the freshest, it will stay at the bottom but stand up vertically. You’re welcome.

 

Review – Christmas with the Shipyard Girls

“Sometimes in life, love has to be sacrificed for a greater love.”

Yes, that time of year seems to be upon us once again. No, not just me getting prematurely excited about Christmas before the clocks have even changed, but me getting excited about a new installment of my favourite saga which features the best girl-power tribe since the Spice Girls. Although, The Shipyard Girls is set fifty years before Girl Power stormed into our lives one platform shoe at a time, so maybe our squad of welders were actually the original? The timeline boundaries between fictional and non-fictional feminist heroes are not entirely clear.

As usual, I digress. Christmas with the Shipyard Girls is, maybe second only to the Gavin and Stacey reboot, the Christmas special we have all been waiting for. I love Christmas, and as you’re all well aware by now, I love this saga; so I felt an odd mix of excitement and apprehension ahead of reading it, with my main thought being “please, please don’t mess this up, Nancy.” Needless to say, of course Nancy Revell has once again, smashed it. I love a Christmas spin-off of an existing saga – like a TV special, it’s always exciting to see your favourite characters against a festive backdrop, but a common mistake with Christmas editions is to have a short novella which, although usually festive enough that you can practically smell the roasting chestnuts diffusing from the pages, don’t actually have much of a ‘point’. Christmas with the Shipyard Girls however, I was pleased to discover, is actually a full-length novel with a good, meaty plot which happens to take place around the festive season; i.e. not one of those mistletoe-infused, pointless novellas which are clearly just marketing ploys to boost royalties (she says like she doesn’t also buy those whenever they come out).

Ironically for a Christmas story, I think this is possibly the darkest intstalment in this saga so far. Not in a depressing way, but we’re now almost half way through the war and that is clearly starting to take a significant toll on our characters. We’ve had some really impactful, emotional moments in previous stories (still not over the air raid at the end of ‘Victory’), but this was the first time I’ve read a Shipyard Girls book, or anything for that matter, and felt consistently emotional throughout – I found myself reading the entire thing with tears prickling in the back of my eyes. Having said that, I think it’s definitely important to include the darker or more challenging sides of the characters’ journeys, it would’ve been really easy for Nancy Revell to turn this into a Bing Crosby-esque yuletide scene of all our principal characters enjoying the festivities by a warm fire as if they were drawn on a Christmas card. Unfortunately, although they certainly made the festive season as magical as possible, the sad fact remains that this is a group of people who are existing in one of, if not the most, tumultuous and challenging periods of modern history.

The relationship between Polly and Tommy is very much in the foreground at this point in the saga, and although I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t finished yet, I initially found myself firmly cemented on ‘team Polly’. It reminded me of an ongoing discussion within my friendship group, in which most of us are in agreement of ‘I could never have a boyfriend who was in the army, imagine that lifestyle and periods of not knowing where he was, why would you do that to yourself?’. Thankfully, we are all lucky enough to live in a period where we have that choice, but unfortunately for Polly, and most other women of her time, sometimes that choice was taken away from them, and the context in which she is living intensifies every emotion like petrol on a bonfire which, as always, Nancy Revell evokes perfectly for the reader.

“Polly and Tommy’s love had become another casualty of this damned war.”

Despite the darker elements of the story, as always Nancy Revell has graced us with yet another gripping plot, which is also peppered with little pockets of emotion which remind us of the intense bond shared by these characters. My favourite part was when Martha and her parents receive the gift basket in true ‘A Christmas Carol’ style. Although this made little, if any, difference to the overall plot, it was the most genuinely touching moment – and Martha going to bed on Christmas Eve with her hot chocolate and biscuits gave me an image of her as Tiny Tim which, for any existing Shipyard Girls reader, is just heartwarmingly hilarious.

Although Christmas with the Shipyard Girls isn’t explicitly ‘Christmassy’ throughout every chapter; the generosity, selflessness and love between all the characters flows through every page, showing the ‘true’ meaning of the season of good will, before building up to the festive finale which is sure to ignite that warm, festive feeling in even the most ‘humbug’ of grinches.

Why not have a look at the rest of the blog tour?

Christmas Reads

Somehow, December is upon us. I know, I can’t believe it either (and I have confirmed this shock with every shop assistant, colleague, friend and stranger with whom I have come into contact in the last 48 hours – ah, Britain). So between the general festivities, a very busy job and planning a wedding, both reading and blogging have taken quite a hard hit for me over the last few weeks. December is a bit effing stressful generally though, and finding that selfish time to lose yourself in a book seems to get moved further and further down the priority list. But, the beautiful thing about most Christmas books is that they’re shorter than the typical paperback (ah, those tight deadlines to get it on the shelves by October – must be a total nightmare for the authors but such a win for the reader), so even in the Christmas craziness there is still plenty of time to get through at least a couple. Plus, Christmas books are actually the only books I will actually read more than once, so if that doesn’t convince you to partake then I don’t know what will. But anyway, here’s a list of some of my favourites, in no particular order (cue dramatic X factor music).

Christmas With Billy and Me – Giovanna Fletcher
This was the first Christmas novella I came across which related to an existing book, and it was beyond thrilling being able to re visit characters I already knew and loved and see how they spent Christmas. Although it does work as a standalone book in that you can follow the story without knowing the background, I would say that you don’t get the full effect of the plot if you don’t have the back story. But, it’s the perfect length for a quick festive indulgence when you get a spare moment, and like all of Giovanna Fletcher’s characters you feel like you’ve known them for years after only a few pages. And who doesn’t love a heartwarming love story set in a rustic countryside cake shop, Christmas or not?

Dream a Little Christmas Dream – Giovanna Fletcher
Just like the former, it’s the literary equivalent of a beloved rom-com you find yourself re-watching each year – think Love Actually but not several hours long and without all the unpleasantness -throws a quick glance in Alan Rickman’s general direction-. Again, I loved this particularly because it’s a spin-off featuring characters I was already invested in, but it still hits the spot for a little injection of Christmas romance for unfamiliar readers.

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
Honestly, if you don’t know the plot of this one then why are you even here? Obviously I knew what I was getting  myself in for when I first read this a few years ago, I was raised on the Patrick Stewart film adaptation every Christmas Eve on the BBC (but the Muppet version still takes the prize in my humble opinion). But, that didn’t make it any less enjoyable. I love Dickens and it’s a constant source of embarrassment that I haven’t read more of his work (reading leave from employment needs to be a thing, my to-read list just keeps growing), but everything of his that I have read I’ve become completely immersed in. When I read this for the first time I wasn’t picturing Richard E Grant trying to stand up to Patrick Stewart, or Miss Piggy scoffing the chestnuts before dinner was ready, I was visualising entirely different people because his descriptions just make your imagination go wild, but the magic of the story is retained nonetheless. I have only one problem with this story though, and I say it every year, but WHY DOES MARLEY’S GHOST TELL SCROOGE HE’LL HAVE A GHOST VISIT HIM EACH NIGHT AND THEN ALL THE GHOSTS COME AT ONCE? IT MAKES NO DIFFERENCE TO THE STORY SO WHY IS IT WRITTEN IN THERE?
Seriously, if someone knows the answer to that then PLEASE tell me and put my out of this annual misery.

Ruth’s First Christmas Tree – Elly Griffiths
I want to be Ruth Galloway, I’ll just get that out of the way first. It’s ridiculous that I haven’t given this series its own post yet, but that will definitely come with time. This installment is quite lesser known even by existing fans, I’m pretty sure it’s only available as an e-book, but it’s very unique in that while it does work as a standalone story, at the same time it doesn’t drastically move the overall series’ plot forward to make things tricky for readers who missed this one. That’s a difficult task to master when there are already so many established characters and sub plots in the saga so far, so well done to Elly Griffiths on that one. If you ask me, all established sagas need a short Christmas story somewhere in there because there is something magical about revisiting your old friends (fictional characters who I see as my friends) at Christmas time. And what’s not to love about Ruth’s cosy cottage on the breathtaking Norfolk coastline in the winter? Honestly, the image I have in my head of her house since this book has been of Kate Winslet’s house in The Holiday, and if that’s wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

A Family For Christmas – Helen Scott Taylor
I came across this as an e-book a few years ago when I was looking specifically for a festive book to enjoy over the Christmas period, and I was not disappointed. I must confess I haven’t read anything else by this author, I have no idea whether she’s even written anything else, which is really shameful considering how much I love this book. It ticks all the boxes for the perfect festive story: a career woman who wasn’t looking for love until she found it, a widower not realising he’s ready to love again, a cute child, a quintessentially English country cottage in the snow, some sheep, you get the idea. In a nutshell, it’s heartwarming without being corny, but for some reason is not very well known – which is a bit of an injustice if you ask me.

One Perfect Christmas (and other short stories) – Paige Toon
Confession time – I bought this book three days ago and haven’t had a chance to read it yet. However, I love Paige Toon and have never not been totally overtaken by the story when reading one of her books so I have no doubt that this collection of short stories will be anything shy of their full length counterparts. Again, I just love the idea of being able to revisit your already beloved characters and see how they’re doing at Christmas. It’s like the literary equivalent of the Friends Christmas specials.

If you haven’t guessed already by this point, I LOVE a Christmas novella from an existing saga. When I rise to power, all sagas will have Christmas editions at regular intervals. Even the ones that have no real influence within the overall plot are so special, and they must be so fun to write by just having free reign to let your characters enjoy Christmas without worrying where the plot is going or whether you’ve tied up all the loose ends. Well, if anyone wants to hire me as a freelance Christmas spin-off writer for their existing sagas then please let me know. That is definitely my dream job right there.

The C Word

So I was in Superdrug today just minding my own business, buying mouthwash and cotton wool (crazy spender, I know – treat yo self indeed), and I noticed they’ve started putting the Christmas gift sets out. Let’s get one thing out of the way right now, I fucking love Christmas. The earlier the better if you ask me, but I overheard some other customers giving it the old ‘bah, humbug – keep Christmas in December’ nonsense, and you know what? I feel like I need to stick up for Christmas now. Poor thing can’t turn up to the party a little bit early without getting told to go back to the North Pole until the first door on the Advent calendar is open. It’s okay, Christmas, Esther wants to hang out with you and you can cry on my shoulder when people are so mean about you.

Here’s the way I see it. Christmas, or December in general if you don’t personally observe Christmas as a holiday, is the reward for getting through the year. It’s like Friday nights, even if you have nothing special planned, that feeling starts building  the moment your alarm goes off and by 5 p.m. when you get in your car and start that journey home, you know that’s your time – your chance to relax and do whatever you want as a reward for getting through the week. December is a full month of ‘treat yo self’, whether you observe Christmas or not. It’s the only time of the year when it’s totally acceptable to gain weight, wear jumpers and leggings every day, meet up with friends and family you haven’t seen for ages and just  generally spoil yourself. Everyone is in such a good mood in the run-up to Christmas you can’t help but get caught up in it and no matter what you’ve done that particular year, you deserve that break. Personally, I’ve had an absolute shitter of a year so I cannot wait to laze around and do nothing from mid-November onwards. Once that John Lewis ad airs and people start saying “what the hell, it’s Christmas” I am done, don’t expect to find me doing anything more strenuous than slicing cheese to go with my crackers and stretching to put the star on top of the tree.

There is a lot of pressure around Christmas though and I totally understand that side of the argument. People spend money they don’t have buying things they don’t need to impress people they don’t really need to, and there’s such a focus on being with family/friends/a significant other that when you’re on your own it can feel like hand sanitiser over a papercut. I’ve been on that side of the coin; I lost my mum when I was a teenager and my sister moved abroad shortly after so the family Christmases I grew to know and love were taken away from me before I really got the chance to really appreciate them. Hell, one Christmas Eve I woke up to the news that one of my closest friends had been found dead the night before. I’ve spent many a Christmas morning in tears and have been known to spend Christmas Day eating frozen pizza and doing dissertation research, so I get it when people have personal reasons for finding Christmas hard and therefore feel bitter about it seemingly arriving earlier every year. However, to those people I ask – why are you stressing yourself out about it? Just because you might not be able to have the day exactly how you want it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it in your own way. How many people dream of getting married at the Plaza in a Vera Wang dress but still have a magical day in a hotel marquee wearing a high street dress and suit? Just because you might be without certain people or your life might not be exactly where you want it doesn’t mean you can’t veg out in front of Home Alone having some ‘you’ time with a sharing box of cheese and crackers.

December is the reward for getting through the arduous task of life for another 11 months, so stop being so bloody miserable and find a way to enjoy it. I’ve been on both sides of the Christmas debate, and the lesson I learned was that life is far too short and we work way too hard not to treat ourselves somehow, and who doesn’t love the feeling of being snuggled up in your PJs in front of a favourite childhood festive film with a box of chocolates, even if you are on your own. Me personally? I prefer it that way anyway!