Thursday, 24 April 2014

Out Late With Friends And Regrets - book review

Last night was World Book Night. Any event whose motto is "everything changes when you read" is always going to be worthwhile, but this year was better than usual.

The speaker at my nearest event was author Suzanne Egerton whose first novel Out Late With Friends And Regrets is highly recommended.

I met Suzanne many years ago when I did my first creative writing course. She was working on a first iteration of OLWFAR and I was also writing a block-busting best-seller. Only Suzanne's is all published and proper now while mine's still only a quarter of the way through...

Suzanne's book is bursting with fully-formed characters that leap off the page and into your head. It's a cracking story. What I really love about it is its theme of late development - the idea that it's never too late to for another chance, another go at being a more authentic version of yourself.

 

 

Teacakes - just about in time for tea

Featured guest post
Baked goods abound in our house at the moment – so much for the post-Christmas diet, eh? We’re in April already, the summer hols loom large, but, despite all my best efforts, including three half mile swims a week, no pounds have been lost, epic fail as my kids would say. Baked goods are nothing if not hard to resist. It’s the smell of them gets to me every time, especially straight from the oven. There’s a kind of no hold bars undignified race for the scrummiest looking biscuit, the fluffiest looking cake or the stickiest looking flapjack. And age or fairness doesn’t come into the race. It’s very much you snooze, you lose in our household.
So, me and the kids have got the baking bug, along with most of the rest of the audience of Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood on the Great British Bake-Off. We’ve watched all the episodes, and the Junior Bake-Off series too. And we’ve been inspired to give the recipes a try, not just watch others toil over a hot stove creating, at the tender age of 9 or 10, the most fabulous themed cakes. And we’ve branched out from bog standard, plain vanilla cupcakes in white cases. Last week we experimented with cupcake ‘fillings’ – finely chopped glace cherries make a great juicy, sweet addition. We’ve tried apricot flapjacks – yum – and we wondered, as we scoffed them if the addition of a handful of dried apricots to the oaty, buttery, syrupy mixture means the flapjacks count towards one of your five a day. Oh, wait, can’t keep up, seven a day.
And now we’re trying something new. Baking with the addition of yeast. This adds a different dimension to the whole baking thing. Because this time there won’t be any instant gratification. We won’t be whipping up cakes, and eating them within 20 minutes or so, still warm from the oven. No this time we have to wait. For an hour or so at least. Not easy, is it? Waiting. Not for children, or adults, especially when your house becomes filled with that wonderfully yeasty smell as the dough rises. But it’s a good lesson in learning patience. You lift the corner of the tea towel, and you can almost watch the dough grow. Or so you think. We chose to make teacakes this time, not unlike the seasonal hot cross bun. We all love a buttery, spicy toasted teacake in our house. And what could be better than a HOMEMADE toasted buttery teacake. We used a slightly adapted version of the Hairy Bikers recipe from the BBC website, covering them with a tea towel whilst the dough rose, rather than the cling film they suggest. It’s a tradition in our house, to use a slightly damped, clean tea towel to cover the bowl whilst waiting for dough to ‘prove’.

Kneading is great fun, if a little messy. But then that’s partly what baking is all about, isn’t it.
The mess yields edible results. You, and the kitchen, are guaranteed to be covered in a white mist of flour, especially if helped by a 7 and 10 year old. And it’s good exercise, getting those bingo wings going. It’s great fun for kids to try too. Perhaps not a great example to set, but I always think it’s a way of taking out any bubbling resentment, imagining the dough being the teacher who gave you double detention for chatting in class, or the bus driver who pulled away from the kerb as you panted towards the closing doors. Or is that just me?

Making things with yeast can become a science lesson in its own right if you want it to - in a fun, learning through play kind of way, without being too earnest. It’s quite amazing to think that a finely ground grain mixed with water and yeast (actually a living fungus! Ugh….) makes something as yummy and versatile as bread, isn’t it? And also amazing to think that, as we can discover on Exploratorium , the granules of dried yeast most of us use today lie dormant until they come into contact with warm water.
They then begin to feed on the sugars in the flour, carbon dioxide is released and bread (or teacakes!) rises.
And, when you toast them, spread them with butter and enjoy with a cup of tea, you know the wait has been worth it. There’s a great sense of satisfaction to knowing you made them, from start to finish.
Check out our wide range of catering supplies including colourful themed cupcake cases at -http://www.partythings2go.co.uk/.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Blog Tour - Travelling Without Leaving Your Desk.


I thought I was done with relays for a while, but when Audrey Birt asked if I'd like to pick up the baton from her I said yes without hesitation

I was delighted and flattered to follow Audrey whose blog is thoughtful and full of quiet passion. Knowing Audrey - and meeting her for the first time this month - has been just one of many BBBs (Brilliant Blogging Bonuses).

The Blog Tour she's invited me on has already crossed the Atlantic and introduced us to some wonderful bloggers who are intelligently facing all manner of challenges. I just love the way you can leap from one blog to another covering many miles in other people's shoes. 

This Blog Tour requires each blogger to answer four questions: 

What am I working on? 

It's hard to think of blogging and other creative writing as work, for me, it's play. Of course, it would be rather marvellous if it always paid as well as work-work...

Yesterday I did some training with Ali Campbell and Barry Collins on how to use techniques of NLP (neuro linguistic programming) in writing. I've long been evangelical about the power of a good blog to transform, support, heal and guide. For a while I've wondered how I could learn more about the actual words chosen and the order of the words - maybe that could be another significant ingredient. The answer is that of course it can. And it can help the kind of writing I do for money too. So I'm working on exactly how to do this.


Elsewhere: 

  • I'm always working on my blog - each chapter, a post at a time.
  • I'm working on my work - parsnips need buttered and all that.
  • I'm working on me - happier, healthier, fitter, more mindful... maybe even making a difference.
  • I'm working on the family - the Boys because one day they'll have to look after themselves (and if they're lucky someone else) and the Panther because someone has to. 

How much does my work differ from that of others?

As soon as a writer/blogger/person with a pencil unhitches their words from formula, then what they create becomes as individual as they are. It doesn't matter that we're all people writing about human stuff, the result is as different as a snowflake. (Hopefully, it's marginally more interesting)

Why do I write what I do?

A much easier question - or at least the why bit is. I write because I want to. It helps me understand what I really think, it gives my brain a bit of a run round the park, it's fun, I've made friends, people seem to like it which feels lovely, and writing is the best way I know to explain things. Sometimes I write for money too. 

I could get a bit serious and talk about writing from the domestic front to share experiences and shine even a tiny little light on issues that are often overlooked, but that might sound a little pomopous. But, then again, sometimes I write about poo and bogies

I write about the things in my head, it helps sort them out a bit. 

How does my writing process work?

Like digestion, sometimes it's urgent and messy and others it's a long, slow process aided by lots of coffee and a lengthy seated contemplation. Some might say the comparison goes deeper than that. 

So now it's someone else's turn. With pleasure, I'm going to hand this baton on to Daft MammaMy Mumdom and Sadie Hanson.






Things I learned from a Hotter moment...

Mercifully not one of those hotter moments. 


One of these...

I was lucky to be a guest at Hotter's Glasgow store for a special blogger evening of shoes and snacks - two of my favourite things. 

Do you want super comfy, beautiful shoes or just the chance to get out and meet people? ...Errr, yes to both. 

Not only was it fun and foot-friendly, but I learned some interesting things too. 

Americans have thinner feet than British people. Who knew? Because Hotter has followed One Direction in conquering America only in their case they do it by selling shoes from their factory in Skelmersdale they now know all about feet in the US of A. It also means staff in the call centre have to work long into the night. 

A secret gusset does exist. And if you know where to look you'll find it in the way clever shoes are created, sneakily allowing your feet some space. A bit like trousers with an invisible elastic waist. (Come to think of it, does anyone do them?) (Joke, obviously, I'm way too young and cool to even be in the same room as a pair of trousers with an elasticated waist.)

It's possible to look forward to rain. Just a little bit. Or at least I am since Hotter gave me the most beautiful brolly. 

Comfort is more than a concept. Hotter has, what it calls, a Comfort Concept. This is where clever features designed to make your shoes feel heavenly are sneaked in all over your feet. These include flex grooves in the sole so they bend, pyramid technology of squashiness at the ball of your foot, no seams inside the shoe and extra padding everywhere. It all leads up to what's been coined a "Hotter moment". Obviously this raises titters from women of a certain age for whom hot moments are far from comfortable. But heck, if you're going to have a personal heatwave, you might as well have happy feet at the time. 

A passion for shoes in men isn't always creepy. Hotter began in 1959 when Thomas and Harriet Houlgrave started making slippers. In the 1990s their son Stewart joined the business and takes the credit as the author of this remarkable British success story. He's crazy about shoes and has been known to buy the shoes off someone's feet if he takes a fancy to a style or design features. 

I'm not the only one with unfashionable feet. I have entirely reliable and very efficient feet - they've never let me down. The only problem is that they're wide. For years I thought I was the only one who couldn't find fashionable shoes that fit properly. Everyone else had funky footwear except for me. Only now I find that I'm not alone - there's a whole army of us, marching towards Hotter for shoes that are comfortable AND good looking. Plus I need shoes I can stride about in. I've tried mincing but it's just not me. 



Here are my new shoes..  and how they look in the catalogue...


Thanks very much to Hotter for a fabulous evening and very happy feet. 

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Fault In Our Stars and a few surprises

Hurtling along the motorway, homeward, Boy One, Boy Two and I sat in silence, tears tracing down our cheeks. Someone sniffed loudly.

Don't worry, we weren't en route to the aftermath of some personal disaster, nor were we fleeing domestic mayhem. No. 

We were simply on our way back from a highly entertaining couple of days in Chester and we were even in time to have lunch at our favourite chip shop (Shap Chippie, since you ask).

Some weeks previously, Boy One had discovered a book called The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. He'd bought and devoured a copy and told anyone who listened that they "must", "have to" and "can't not" read it too. "It's on the New York Times best sellers list," he said, like that might help. 


Anyhow, faced with a longish drive with the Boys, I got an audio version and we switched it on as we joined the M8. 

The book tells of a romance that begins in a cancer patients' support group. Clearly, "happily ever after" is unlikely to feature... but I won't say more than that. 

The writing and characters are engaging. It wasn't long before we were all hooked. Lots of discussion topics came up, including potentially difficult subjects like sex and death. 

A few of the teenagery bits - the idealism, the isn't-he-hot and aren't-we-clever exchanges - are so well seen for all their naivety and urgency, adults will cringe for their former teenage selves. There's a good reason we don't normally remember all this stuff. 

The Fault In Our Stars also makes excellent work of the notion that reading is a Good Thing and some. Boy One is currently seeking out whichever of the Great American Novels we have in the house (probably won't take him long). And we're considering a trip to Amsterdam. 

There's a film version out soon... of course there is. Boy One is keen to see it. Me? I'm not so sure. Not because I didn't love it, but because the sad bits (not too much of a spoiler in a cancer novel surely) might be worse when you know they're coming. 





Monday, 14 April 2014

Spring has arrived, but I'm stuck in here...

Review: Regatta Women's X-ert Capris. 

A few weeks ago the sun came out for a little while, a few hours of blue sky and optimism. It's here! Spring has arrived. 

Then it started to rain. And in between the showers it was damp. And windy. And cold. 

I spend much of the bright spell contemplating long sun soaked ascents of mountains, sleevelss clothing and cooling paddles in streams. Sigh. 

About this time the kind people at Outdoor Look offered me a pair of Regatta capri pants to wear on these explorations of the higher reaches of these great wilderness. Oooh, yes please! And they are indeed lovely (comfy and flattering) with plentiful pockets and a claim that they are both water repellant and quick-drying. 


However, since they arrive there has been frost (too cold for anything but layers of down and many socks), gales (the tombola at an outdoor fete had to be held down by at least three sturdy volunteers) and a cool (in every sense) Scout camp. The capris have languished. 

Soon they will have their day. Outdoor Look has a wide range of trousers - long and short - for whatever the weather has in mind.  

Then today the season changed. I watched it through my window while I worked (the mixed feelings of a freelancer with lots of work on on a sunny day are palpable). At least I got to wear my beautiful new suede shoes today. 


Outdoor Look sent me the capris to review. 

Concerned About Security? Consider A Garage Door Upgrade

Most homeowners completely overlook their garage door when they take steps to secure their home. For thieves, a garage door is one of the easiest ways to break into a home, so it makes sense for homeowners to take some extra measures to make sure that they are secure. The good news is that securing your garage door isn't that hard, and it won't cost you an arm and a leg. 

Take the following steps to make sure that your garage door is safe and secure:

Secure Your Garage Door Opener

Remote control garage door openers are very convenient, but they can also be a major security vulnerability. Tech-savvy thieves can use instruments to figure out what signal your garage door opener uses; once they have the proper frequency, they simply click a button to open your door.

Look for an opener that scrambles the signal after every use. When the codes are randomized, it's impossible for thieves to open your garage. If you plan on being away from home for a while, you can always power off your garage door opener; when you do that, thieves can't break in using an unauthorized opener.

Buy A Reinforced Door

Cheap garage doors are made of lightweight materials that are easy to break. When installing a garage door, make sure to work with a company like Elite Overhead Garage that offers you a stronger option. A stronger door may cost a little more, but it can prevent your home from being broken into; the extra cost is worth the safety and security that it provides.

Buy Locks

Automatic garage door technology is very convenient, but nothing beats a good old-fashioned lock-and-key system. Technologically inclined thieves don't have much problem bypassing a security code, so it's important that you add another layer of protection.

A quality mechanical lock can help protect your home against the most determined thieves. The locks that come with cheaper garage doors usually aren't enough, so you probably need to get an upgrade. Call your local garage door installer, and let them know that you want mechanical locks installed. They'll let you know what your options are based on the type of door that you have.

Securing your garage door is cheap and easy. Most people have no idea how easy it is to break into their home through the garage, so they never think of reinforcing their door. Now that you know how vulnerable your garage door is, it makes sense to put a little money into safety and security.

This is a partnered post.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Things we learned in Chester



Serendipity was on our side this week. First, that we were in Chester at all and secondly that, more or less, everything we attempted worked out well. 

In our case it began with a rota fail (not, mercifully an aeronautical term). The Panther of News didn't manage to get the bit of the Easter holidays we'd hoped for and days of just me and the Boys loomed. However, I soon found out that both Super Sister and Super Sister-in-law were in the same situation and so we decided to combine our efforts. 

Marking half-way for all of us on the map, Super Sister used the powers of the internet to find us excellent digs at The Bunkroom in Chester. Which just went to show you can have value and quality at the same time if you're lucky. 

All of which is how three women and seven children aged from two to 14 came to be staying in a couple of dormitories in a city none of us had been to before. 

Here's what I learned. 


Bats can climb trees. Not that I didn't think they could, I just - in the brief moments I'd considered it - believed that they flew everywhere. A fascinating visit to the bat shed at Chester Zoo taught me this and also what amazing beasts they are. 

When you bring your own crowd it's very easy to lose someone. We momentarily misplaced Boy Three by the penguins. He was much less inclined to wander off after that. 

A monorail isn't as exciting as it sounds. And probably not worth an all-day pass. Chester Zoo is compact and absolutely jammed with things to do without walking very far... except that, of course, you do end up walking miles. 

Spotted in the zoo

Roman soldiers wore socks. Or at least that's what our personal - hired for an hour - centurion told us. They were quite clever so it's probably true. He also told us lots and lots of other fascinating things.

Anorak jousting is very entertaining. The Boys - and their cousins - let lose in the amphitheatre at the end of our Roman tour spent a long time flailing at each other with their coats. A new sport was born. 


Being a train driver might not actually have been a dream come true. The man at the wheel (do they have wheels?) of the mini-railway in Grosvenor Park in Chester certainly didn't look like he was living the dream, unless his dream was a very bad and scary one. 


14 is the age of gustatory maturity. Boy One ate - and enjoyed - his first olives on a pizza in the Monte Carlo restaurant in Heswall. The jazz was pretty good too, thanks to Super Sister-in-law's cousin Geni and her band. 

Nursery teachers don't make children form up into crocodiles for fun. Our first attempt to travel the pavements of Chester with quite so many children was chaotic to say the least. Once we struck on the idea of making everyone under 10 hold hands with at least one other person things calmed down considerably. 

It was an excellent couple of days of catching up with SS and SSiL while the cousins alternately bonded and fell out. A good time was had by all and we even got to the Shap Chippy in time lunch on the way home. Thanks to SuperGran and Tim too. 




Tuesday, 8 April 2014

SWIB Independence Referendum Debate: Things I Learned

Pic 'borrowed' from Morag Malloy. 

Last night saw the SWIB (Scottish Women in Business) debate with a panel of Annabel Goldie, Nicola Sturgeon, Johann Lamont and Ruth Wishart chaired by Sally Magnusson. The audience was entirely female. 

Before the debate a poll showed: 
Yes: 19%
No: 55%
Undecided: 26%

After the debate the poll results were: 
Yes: 31%
No: 52%
Undecided: 17%

Here's what I learned:

The panelists share a genuine warmth and respect for each other and appeared to enjoy the debate as much as the audience seemed to. Although, perhaps slightly, the demonstration of their amiability occasionally lapsed into pantomime. 

Humour was everywhere. Laughter punctuated the whole event, even during the most serious discussions. It was, for Sally, one of the noteworthy features of the event. 



The best line... Came from journalist Ruth who described herself as "chronologically gifted". 

Margo MacDonald would have been proud. While I didn't know the late politician in person, I know many who did and I was aware of her passion and integrity. We shared a tribute to her at the start of the debate and her example seemed to set the tone. 

Facts are in short supply. Not through slight-of hand, but because the nature of the constitutional change (or not) we consider means that little is certain ahead of the game. 

Women like certainty. The consensus was that female voters are "more sceptical" of independence because they are practical and struggle with the lack of absolutes. 

Sifting fact from rhetoric is crucial. An excellent point from Annabelle was the importance of taking all claims and applying the test of asking whether the person making the claim has any control over the likelihood of it coming to fruition. I wonder how much political noise would be left...

Trust is the key. With a paucity of facts, what's left? There was recognition of the electorate's loss of faith in Westminster and the wider body politic. Can politicians of any stripe truly regain our trust? And what must they do to achieve that? 

It's possible to talk politics without having the urge to roll my eyes. This was the first political discussion of this type I've been to where I never once suppressed a sigh or felt someone wasn't being heard properly. A gender thing? Perhaps. 

The best question didn't get answered. The panel (specifically the No contingent) were asked what they'd do in the event of a Yes vote. We hoped for a little look at how the landscape would lie in a devolved Scotland, at how the other parties would play their cards because we know they've all thought about their Plan B. But then again, that's not really what we were there to talk about. 

Thanks to the team at SWIB for pulling off an ambitious and important event. 



What to wear now spring has sprung

Review Bonmarche spotted belted mac

I just love spring when - eventually - the air (or at least the rain) gets a bit warmer, the days lengthen and things start to grow. 

The season also signals a move out of dark woollen clothes and big boots into the Clothes of Summer. For me it's about belief and possibility. 

Only a month ago it was impossible to even imagine peeling off layers and facing the world with any more than face and hands exposed. It was - in spite of 46 years of experience - inconceivable that the frost and grey would be replace by bright and warm. 

But once again it has come to pass and, in the space of a week, my thick layers of down are extreme and sweaty. 

This year I was sent my solution to the 'what to wear when it's not quite summer yet, or even in summer when it's quite likely to pour down' question in the form of a navy spotted mac from Bonmarche. 


What's good about it?

The mac is light and easy to wear. I often find myself feeling constricted and uncomfortable in coats. This also feels smart and dressy enough. The fabric isn't rustly or shiny (a good thing). 


It's sizing seems pretty accurate with the coat ending mid-thigh. For £40 it's perfect of getting from winter to the (cough) long, hot, dry and jacketless days we're bound to have. 

What's less good?

The waist of the coat is higher than the waist of me. I solved this by wearing it without the belt. 

Uncertain how good it'll be in actual rain as, oddly, there hasn't been any when I've worn it. 

Buy it?

It's from a selection of coats and jackets at Bonmarche.
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