Tuesday, 30 May 2017

What I've Been Reading Recently

I have read some utterly brilliant books recently - prepare yourself for many 5 star reviews! - together with one absolute stinker, which is sometimes as much fun to write about as a great book. What are you reading at the moment? I'm currently enthralled by Kraken by China Mieville, after it was recommended to me by my brother, and although it's out of my comfort zone it's completely absorbing.

The Upside Of Unrequited*
Becky Albertalli
Rating: *****
Molly and her twin have always been best friends as well as sisters, but when Cassie meets the girl of her dreams and falls head over heels, Molly's suddenly left behind. It's not that she's never been in love - she has, 26 times - but it's always been unrequited. Luckily, Cassie has a cute friend, Will, who's showing an interest in Molly... so why can't she stop thinking about her nerdy co-worker Reid?

Albertalli's first novel, Simon Versus The Homo-Sapiens Agenda, is one of my favourite books ever and the one I'm most likely to press upon friends while shouting, "READ THIS!" so it's fair to say that anticipation was running high for The Upside Of Unrequited. But I absolutely loved this sweet, charming, funny romance. It's fantastically diverse and, best of all, Molly is the fat YA heroine of my dreams. What leaps off the page is that Albertalli knows teenagers - knows what makes them tick, knows the cadences of their speech - and, perhaps more importantly, likes them. Her characters are fully-rounded, interesting, flawed beings, with whom the reader cannot help falling in love. This book would have been so, so important to me when I was a teenager and I'm not too proud to admit that even now, I cried happy tears at seeing a fat girl (with lesbian moms! It me!) represented on the page. And for Simon... fans there's the added Easter Egg of a guest appearance by the man himself.

One Of Us Is Lying*
Karen McManus
Rating: *****
Five students enter detention, only four come out: the jock, the swot, the homecoming princess, and the rebel, leaving the much-disliked Simon Kelleher - the brains behind a devastatingly accurate school gossip app - dead. And so begins a police investigation that has the power to destroy all their lives and root out secrets they'd all prefer were kept buried.

One Of Us Is Lying is an absolutely brilliant read. Despite accurately guessing whodunnit at about 20% - I read a lot of thrillers and this is frequently an issue for me - I still felt compelled to keep reading. The characters of Cooper (jock), Bronwyn (swot), Addy (princess) and Nate (rebel) are so fully rounded that I was more than happy to go on this journey with them, despite knowing where we'd end up. Comparisons to The Breakfast Club are inevitable, but this is so very much more than that film: more complex, with more likeable characters, and with much greater tension and higher stakes.

The Pearl Thief*
Elizabeth Wein
Rating: *****
Sixteen-year-old Julie Beaufort-Stuart is returning to her grandparent's ancestral home for one last summer, after the death of her grandfather forces the sale of the house and land. This, together with the mysterious disappearance of the family pearls, followed closely by the discovery of a body in the river, leads Julie into a summer of self-discovery. Although The Pearl Thief is being marketed as a 1930s period mystery, in the vein of Agatha Christie, it's so much more than that. Yes, there's a mystery element, but it's less important than the exploration of topics as varied as burgeoning sexuality, disability, anti-traveller prejudice, and privilege. Julie - who could so easily come across as just another poor little rich girl - is instead winningly self-aware and willing to examine her own privilege, and the novel has a beautifully elegiac tone (the more so when you realise it's set in 1938 and that the shadows of war hang over all). A lovely book that will appeal to readers of all ages.

Sometimes I Lie
Alice Feeney
Rating: *
Amber, our narrator, is in hospital in a coma. We know this because she tells us immediately, along with two other salient facts: her husband doesn't love her anymore, and sometimes she lies. Sounds intriguing, right? Well, within the first 10 pages of Sometimes I Lie Amber had employed "rape" as a verb to describe something other than sexual assault, and used horribly derogatory language to describe a fat character, so it's fair to say I wasn't well-disposed towards it from the start and, unfortunately, it doesn't get any better. The plot - switching from Amber's hospital bed recollections of the days leading up to the accident that put her in a coma, to childhood diary entries - is utterly ridiculous and the only reason I read to the end instead of DNF-ing was because I was stuck on a train with nothing else to read. If you're in the market for a ludicrously far-fetched thriller, in which virtually every character is thoroughly unlikable and completely unbelievable, and with a laughably bad denouement, then maybe this is the book for you. It certainly wasn't for me.

The Lauras*
Sara Taylor
Rating: ****
Alex is 13 when Ma pulls them out of bed and into the car and embarking on a road trip across America, sometimes settling in one place for months at a time, at others staying briefly before moving on. The Lauras is so named for the girls and women from Ma's youth, which she spent in and out of foster care, and about whom Alex is regaled with tales. It is through these stories, told during their years on the road, that Alex learns to view Ma as more than just a mother but as a person too.

The novel has an episodic feel and, despite the potential for repetition inherent in the narrative moving from gritty motel to dusty road to gritty motel, each stop along their journey is beautifully drawn in immersive and lyrical prose. Neither Alex nor Ma have uncomplicated lives, and it's not a book that ties everything up in a neat bow at the end, but there was a sense of hope nonetheless. By far the best coming of age novel I've read in years.

Who Runs The World?
Virginia Bergin
Rating: ***
"They said that," he murmured, "They said you was lost without us."
"We are not lost," she said, calmly, "We are running the world."
Sixty years after a virus wiped out almost every man and boy on the planet, teenager River is being brought up in the Matriarchy, a place where war has ended, greed and violence not tolerated, and empathy is the prized quality in a person.

Who Runs The World? has a brilliant premise and it is, for the most part, well executed. Because it's a middle grade/YA novel it's not always as complex as, say, Naomi Alderman's equally feminist dystopian novel The Power. And as the pace picks up towards the end, things become over-complicated and under-explained. However, River is a great protagonist - well-rounded and sympathetic, although not always likeable - and the world that Bergin creates is entirely believable. A warning, though: it's impossible to read this without the Beyonce song cycling constantly through your head!

* This title kindly provided for review by the publishers via NetGalley

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Some Small Home Updates

You know when interiors magazine say, "You can jazz up a space with just new cushion covers!" and you think, "Yeah whatever, pull the other one." Turns out they're not lying. Something I've learnt since buying my home is how easy it is to update a room with comparatively tiny changes. 

Prior to moving to this house I'd lived in fourteen places in twelve years: I'd never really had the chance to get tired of a room or flat before it was time to move on. But I've stayed put for almost nine years, which is more than enough time to want to make changes, both big and small. We've just finished renovating our bathroom and I wrote about our kitchen on a budget last year, but it's the little updates that I enjoy the most and today I'm sharing some of them.
Living Room
Something I'm not crazy about in the living room is just how much brown wood there is. In an ideal world, I'd strip and paint the floorboards but just thinking about the dust and mess (and little cat prints on a freshly painted floor) makes me shudder. So I was lucky to find the perfect rug for the space, in simple shades of grey, from my favourite local homewares shop Harriman & Co.

As the living room is at the back of the house it can easily feel dark, so over the past 9 months or so I've collected sunshine yellow accessories to being a welcome pop of colour to the room. I picked up the yellow cushions from Habitat when they were having a discount event, the Hello Sunshine print is from Moonko in Sheffield, the retro-style yellow chair comes from My Furniture, and the vintage floral cushion cover (on grey chair) was from a local charity shop.

Total cost for this room's colourful new look? Chair, cushions and print all came to a total of £120. I've also re-used items where possible - "shop your home" as the fancy interiors bloggers call it - relocating a painted basket IKEA hack from our bedroom and the blue cushions (originally La Redoute) from the spare room, while my beautiful but broken 1960s typewriter sits happily in a corner with some of Thomas's vintage book collection.
Our Bedroom
Our room has always been a space that most reflects my tastes rather than both of ours; it was my pink-toned retreat for years before Thomas moved in and it's been slow to change. The addition of things specific to him - including the bear on a bike print, the custom portrait painted by Laura, and the (in-joke) All I Do Is Win embroidery - plus prints that he's chosen (such as the It's A Wonderful Life poster), and the introduction of teal and yellow as accent colours, are all my attempts to make it feel as much his space as mine.

The geometric cushion covers were a bargain £6 apiece from La Redoute, the Hello Sunshine cushion came from Tesco, while the battery operated string of ball lights are from Tiger and help to pull the different colours in the room together. At a cost of just £27, the room is now a light, bright, colourful space.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

A Buyer's Archive: April

Since February 2015, inspired by Elise's Buyer's Archive project, I've been keeping a record of all my clothing purchases in an effort to track what works and what doesn't and - in theory - cut down on my spending. 

This time last year I went slightly overboard buying midi skirts - three, to be precise, only one of which (the floral charity shop bargain) I wear regularly - a Gap t-shirt that went into a charity bag long ago, and a tote bag that I still love and use all the time. This year? It's not looking like my stripes problem is going anywhere fast, let's put it that way.
Striped t-shirt, originally New Look via charity shop £2.49
I picked this up in a charity shop in Wells and, despite being a size 12, it's the perfect fit to tuck into jeans and skirts. I'm very happy with this purchase as my Primark top of a similar style has recently shrunk in the wash, making it almost unwearable. And as I've already worn this at least six times, I'd say I've got value for money, too.

Button-front chambray skirt, La Redoute £23.40 (with 40% off)
I cannot tell you just how thrilled I am with this skirt. I've spent the last four summers looking for the perfect midi length, button front, chambray skirt and so to find this one for 40% off - and with pockets! - was extremely exciting. I'm not crazy about the buttons so will keep my eyes peeled for ones I like better, then I just need the weather to improve and I'll be wearing it constantly with tan sandals and a white stripey tee.
Polka dot t-shirt, Zara £7.99
Another salutary lesson in not paying attention to size labels - this is an M (and a Zara - home of the tiny sizing - M at that) and fits me perfectly, so I reckon an XL would fit up to a 22 or even 24, depending on height. There's not much more to say about this, I don't suppose: it's navy blue, it has polka dots, it's very very Janet. I'll be wearing this in summer tucked into high waisted jeans and with a headscarf tied rockabilly-style.

Breton top, La Redoute £11.40  (with 40% off)
Funnily enough, last April I bought this same top from La Reodute but in a white/black stripe and had got tons of wear out of it, until a recent encounter with tomato-based pasta sauce saw it relegated to gardening wear. I'm gutted that they don't still do the original white top, but this navy and cream is a decent enough substitute in my wardrobe.

Overall, then, I'm still ploughing away at my blue, striped, polka dotted style rut, but it's not for wont of trying: I swear the shops are full of rubbish at the moment, it's either cold-shoulders or bell sleeves as far as the eye can see. That's my excuse, anyway.

Total for April: £45.28

Total so far for 2017: £240.69

Total this time last year: £203.64

Look out for the #buyersarchive hashtag on Twitter and Instagram to see the other bloggers taking part.

Friday, 5 May 2017

The Thrifty Gift Swap: Summer Edition

My friend Rebs recently got in touch to ask if I fancied running a summer gift swap like my annual Christmas swap. Never one to pass up an opportunity to send and receive parcels, I leaped at the chance. So here's the Summer Thrifty Gift Swap! If you want to take part, have a look at the guidance below and then get in touch with either Rebs or me.

1. Send your name, address, social media links and blog address (if you have one) to jbistheinitial@gmail.com by May 31st. Please also include in your email as much detail about your likes and dislikes - including any dietary requirements - as possible, so your giver has a starting point.
2. Once you receive the information about your recipient , you can start putting together a box of bought, thrifted and handmade goodies you think your recipient will love.  In the Christmas swap there have been a huge range of thoughtful gifts exchanged: last year my haul included enamel pins, a tote bag, secondhand books, a beautiful handmade embroidery hoop, and zines.
3. Limit yourself to a £10-12 spend (not including postage).
4. Pop your parcel in the post by June 30th.
5. Sit back and wait to receive your own box of delights from a mystery giver!