Author Archives: Tara

March Reading Diary

 

How much do you push yourself out of your reading comfort zone? It’s a question I’ve been contemplating lately. I don’t want to constantly dwell in a genre fiction ghetto, but I also don’t want to spend a lot of time reading books I don’t enjoy. I did find in March that books dealing with real life issues aren’t confined to Booker Prize winners. I read a brilliant sci-fi book covering all the same topics but in a much more subtle and entertaining (for me) way. 

 

The Examined Life by Stephen Groz

“Closure is just as delusive-it is the false hope that we can deaden our living grief.”

This is a collection of stories from the couch of a London psychiatrist. Most end with some kind of twist or revalattion. Unsurprisingly, a lot of them show people in denial, consciously or unconsciously, about what is going on in their lives. I can’t say they gave me any insight into my own life, being more a diverting read than a tool for self-reflection. They do shine a light on psychoanalysis as well as human nature and shows what can be achieved with the process although these are short summaries and usually feature more extreme cases which is understandable. I found the child cases most interesting although there were only two of these. 2.75/5

A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (Wayfarer 1) by Becky Chambers

“All you can do, Rosemary – all any of us can do – is work to be something positive instead. That is a choice that every sapient must make every day of their life. The universe is what we make of it. It’s up to you to decide what part you will play.”

If it’s possible for a sci-fi book to be cosy, then this is it. Set in a time when humans have left Earth for good, Rosemary gets a job aboard a spaceship called the Wayfarer. It has a small crew made up of humans and other species, who – with one exception – are more like family than colleagues. That’s what makes this novel so feel-good. It’s mainly character focused and the relationships between those characters – including the ship’s A.I. – are really special.

There was more than enough of a plot to keep me interested and it got tense towards the end. I’ve long been curious about the sci-fi sub-genre of space operas and apparently this falls under that category. To be honest, I’m still none the wiser but I loved it. 

Can’t wait to read the rest of the 4-part series, although I believe they can all be read as standalones 5/5.

Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins

“You are in danger of living a life so comfortable and soft, that you will die without ever realizing your true potential.”

I have so much love and respect for David Goggins. He is the most mentally tough person on the planet but he wasn’t born that way; he MADE himself that way. By the age of 8 he’d endured hundreds of beating by his pimp father. As a teen he cheated his way through school and was going nowhere fast. The racism he suffered in his small Indiana town didn’t help either.

He gradually began to turn his life around by realising that no one was coming to save him and he needed to be accountable to himself. Through strict accountability and self-discipline he ‘calloused his mind’ to the point where he no longer relied on motivation to achieve his goals. He became a Navy SEAL and went on to hold a number of endurance records. He has more than his fair share of haters for having such an extreme fitness regime but they are seriously missing the point. Goggins doesn’t expect others to do what he does. He is showing you that you can do better than you are doing now – immeasurably better. That if he can transform his life, you can too and begin to fulfill your potential. 

I knew his story well already but wanted to hear the Audible audiobook because I heard it has a unique format. It is narrated by the writer who worked on the book, but every few pages he breaks off and interviews David about what has just happened and where his head was at the time . This gives an incredible level of additional insight. There are also 10 challenger throughout the books which are intended to help you become the hero of you own life.  It was the bestselling audiobook on Audible last year for good reason. 5/5

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

‘How does a man accept a woman, any woman into his house? Just like that, let alone a mermaid. Life changed quick, boy, I never plan it so. Later I saw that change came as change always comes, from a chain of events with a long history, too long to see from back to front, till it come.’

This was an odd one. It has been shortlisted for a number of prizes and won Costa Book of the Year 2020 so I expected it to be pretty accessible with relatively broad appeal. I think that’s what threw me and I might have enjoyed it more otherwise.

This is a deeply strange tale set on the fictional Caribbean island of Black Conch where a mermaid is caught by white American tourists in 1976. She is treated brutally by the tourists (and some of the locals) when she is strung up on the shore. This beginning was unpleasant to read. However she is rescued by a local fisherman, David, and they fall in love.

It is written in the local parlance and partly in verse but readable for the most part, plus it’s only short. I came to like the characters that helped the mermaid but wasn’t captivated by it. Maybe I am too skewed towards gentle fairytales and myth re-tellings so one set in the in the 1970s was a bit too jarring for me.. I can appreciate how inventive it was though and it is much praised so go for it if it sounds intriguing to you. 3.25/5

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

“You see, Megan, I learnt first hand how women are discriminated against, which is why I became a feminist after I’d transitioned, an intersectional feminist, because it’s not just about gender but race, sexuality, class and other intersections which we mostly unthinkingly live anyway”

I usually avoid winners of the Booker Prize but I’d heard so much about this one and my sister really enjoyed it so I gave it a go. I also liked the fact it was structured as a series of stories about the lives of 12 girls, women and one non-binary ‘other’. They span the twentieth century and follow a broad range of Black people from a suburban teacher, to a feminist lesbian playwright, to a high-flying banker. Some were more likeable than others, all were interesting and I liked the way the stories interconnected; the best friend of the main character in one story, became the protagonist in the next and so on. The writing is exemplary and I liked the way most of the characters came together at the end.

I still prefer to escape into the distant past or future or a fantasy land, but it’s good to spend some time in the real world. It dealt with a range of issues including race, gender and sexuality. I’ll just always struggle with literary fiction, particularly when the ‘political’ issues are upfront and centre. 3/5

Do you tend to stick with the genres of fiction you love? Do you see any problem with this?

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Vintage Magie Noire by Lancome

Top notes: Galbanum, Cassis, Cassia, Hiacynth, Bulgarian Rose, Raspberry and Bergamot.

Middle notes: Honey, Narcissus, Cedar, Orris Root, Ylang-Ylang, Tuberose, Jasmine and Lily-of-the-Valley.

Base notes: Oakmoss, Spices, Civet, Incense, Patchouli, Amber, Sandalwood, Myrrh, Vetiver and Musk

I’ve long lusted after vintage Magie Noire and been filled with regret that I didn’t buy a bottle when I first encountered it over ten years ago. Therefore, last year when Vanessa mentioned in Part 1 of her perfume collection reorg that she no longer felt any attachment to her vintage bottle, I asked if I could buy it from her. After sending me a sample, she generously gifted me the remains of her bottle. When it arrived I was thrilled to find that it was the Darth Vadar version.

I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to green chypres in recent times. There’s something about their mix of forest wildness and stern self-possession that seems to cut through any anxiety.

Magie Noire was launched in 1978 and I can’t help but wonder if a brand released a fragrance today with the name ‘Black Magic’ whether it would be in the same genre. I think it would more likely be some kind of amber oriental. It is the antithesis of Lancome’s current smash hit La Vie Est Belle with its overwhelming iris-drowning-in-caramel accord.

Magie Noire is magnificently eerie. It opens with tart, lip-staining, blackcurrants and bitter stems with a scattering of white flowers. But what gets me is the depth. I’ve read that it starts off with the base notes first and I can see where that comes from. You can pick up on the deeper, darker notes straight away. There is also just a tinge of honied, fruity sweetness but it doesn’t quite manage to blunt its thorns.

I sense I’m experiencing something greater than the sum of its parts. Its fully formed personality materialises before me. It’s every dream of a beguiling witchy scent I’ve ever had.

Vol de Nuit captured my attention because of the way it sits at the intersection of chypre and oriental. Magie Noire does something similar being half green chypre and half sultry oriental. I find the complexity and contrast between the two utterly enthralling.

Unlike most green chypres, it has the slinky texture of fur. The throw is moderate and I find its longevity to be excellent.

It possesses a maturity that is perfectly in keeping with the fragrances of its era. Magie Noire does not pander. On the face of it, it’s all wildflowers, fresh shoots and berries but they lie in the shadow of intoxicating leather, civet and musk.

I see Magie Noire as the mythological crone; a mature woman at the height of her powers. Before the patriarchy took over, discrediting and burning these astute women as witches, the ancient crone was associated with attributes of ‘wisdom, compassion, transformation, healing laughter, and bawdiness’*. This is a woman who has grown comfortable in her own skin and feels able to speak her mind because she could care less what others think of her. She rejoices in her esoteric interests and values her coven. If you look closely, you can see a wry sparkle in her eye.

Is Magie Noire a favourite of yours? Do you love the vintage version? I understand old bottles are prone to turning.

*from http://www.cronecounsel.org

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February Reading Diary

I am a big proponent of qutting books you’re not enjoying because I think it’s an important factor in having a good reading life. However I know people find this hard (hey Portia). Maybe it’s a throwback from school or the way books are intellectualised that makes it feel like a failure if you ‘give up’ on a book. We don’t feel this way about turning off a TV show though and you wouldn’t force yourself to finish a film you were finding a chore so why do it with a book? Nothing kills the joy of reading faster. I DNF (Did Not Finish) quickly and often and I encourage you to do the same.

Obviously it helps that many of my ebooks are bought for 99p (as were 3 of the 5 below). Buying Kindle offers, secondhand paperbacks or borrowing via the Libby app is a good idea.

The only exception is ‘hate reading’. I hate read The Starless Star and that brought its own perverse pleasure.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

“Here she is a puppet, a vessel for others to pour their speech. And it is not a man she has married, but a world.”

I read this book at the same time as Vanessa and Undina. I read the ebook, Vanesssa the paperback and Undina the audibook.

It was very much my style being an atmospheric, slightly eerie, historical fiction set in Amsterdam in the 1600s. Eighteen year-old Nella marries the nearly forty year-old merchant, Johannes Brandt, and moves to the city. Marriage is far from what she expected as she rarely sees Joanne’s, while his haughty sister, Marin, runs the house as if Nella doesn’t exist. Her only solace is the replica house Johannes buys her as a wedding present. She contacts a mysterious miniaturist to make items for the house but soon finds the striking little models of items and people turn out to be prophetic.

I read the first half at a leisurely pace but raced through the second half as we are hit with one revelation after another. It was nearly a five star book except that the mystery of the fortune-telling miniatures is never resolved plus it made no sense to me to have the epilogue at the start of the book instead of the end. Still a very good read. 4/5

The Four Agreements by MIguel Ruis

“Whatever happens around you, don’t take it personally… Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves.”

This is a modern self-help classic based on ancient Mexican Toltec wisdom. It’s a quick read and pretty simple in concept. The Four Agreements we are encouraged to make with ourselves are: Be Impeccable with your Word, Don’t Take Anything Personally, Don’t Make Assumptions and Do Your Best. All admirable and will make a real difference if you can implement them but you need to challenge your existing limiting beliefs first and that’s not so easy (probably more achievable with CBT). It did remind me of the Carlos Castenda books I read in my youth about the Toltec shaman Don Juan which was nice and I hope to remember not to take things personally more. 3.75/5

The Ten Thousands Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

“How fitting, that the most terrifying time in my life should require me to do what I do best: escape into a book.”

This book ticked so many of my boxes. It’s a portal fantasy with a historical setting and the most gorgeous writing. January, a girl with copper coloured skin, lives with her benefactor, Mr Locke, in Vermont during the early 1900s. Her father travels the world sending back rare artefacts for Mr Locke’s collection. At age 7, January writes in her notebook and a door opens up to another world that smells of salt and cedar. At the age of 17 she finds a book called The Ten Thousand Doors and her story is then interwoven with that of Adelaide Larson who sees a door open in a field and a strange boy walk through it. The two of them spend the following decade looking for one another again. Meanwhile, January learns that Mr Locke’s archaeological society is not as harmless as it seems and she is in fact, in grave danger.

The story is beautifully told and it was great to have a mixed race heroine in a fantasy book for once. There was also a strong olfactory element which I always enjoy. Just my thing. 5/5

A Cry in the Dark (Carly Moore #1) by Denise Grover Swank

Towards the end of February I found out shielding was extended to 31st March, so I only felt like reading something pulpy and undemanding. Years ago, I read the Rose Gardner Mysteries by this author and they were humorous with a good slug of romance, all set in the Deep South (which I love). Cry in the Dark is similar being a spin-off featuring a side character from the original series. By this point, I had zero recollection of her or her storyline but it didn’t matter. Carly is escaping a dangerous and powerful ex, with a new identity, when her car breaks down and she has to make a stop in a backwoods Smoky Mountain town. She gets a temporary job at Max Drummond’s tavern but is attracted to his seemingly hostile brother, Wyatt. On her first night in the town she witnesses the murder of a teenage boy by a drugs gang and the police are out to nail it on her.

It was not in the least bit scary/stressful because the baddies are more like comic book characters. Truth be told, the plot was a load of twaddle and the writing is sub par. I did consider DNFing it, but sometimes it’s good to read something daft if you’re feeling fragile. 2.75/5

Eat, Drink, Run by Bryony Gordon

“I learn how to do something called a burpee, which seems to involve squatting down, throwing your legs back, and then jumping back up again. Burpees look simple, fun even, but do not be fooled. They have actually been sent from the third circle of hell to punish those of us who have committed the cardinal sin of gluttony.”

I’d previously read journalist Bryony Gordon’s mental health memoir, Mad Girl. I bought the audio book about running to listen to on my 30 minute trots around the local streets because I thought it might be motivating. Actually it’s less a book about how to run and more about how exercise can help your mental health. At age 36, 16 stone, a smoker and binge drinker, Bryony agrees to run the London Marathon for the Royals’ Heads Together charity. She goes to one of those ‘body camps’ in Ibiza that rich people go to train for the marathon and is told she has a biological age of 51. However, during one of my 30 minute stints, with some ups and downs, she goes from jogging to running 10km. Sadly I found this rather demotivating as after 2 months, I still feel like I’m about to collapse running 3.7km. Why can’t I improve?!

This is a very short, humorous book though and not intended as a guide for runners. The inclusion of the podcast she did with Prince Harry in which he opened up about his own struggles for the first time was a nice bonus. 3/5

How do you feel about giving up on books you’re not getting on with?

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REPLICA by Maison Margiela – Mini Reviews

I’ve noticed a couple of perfume brands seem to be particularly popular with UK social media influencers. One is Atelier Cologne and the other is Maison Margiela. So much so that my sister bought the Maison Margiela REPLICA Memory Box on the back of one of them raving about it.

She was enamored by the REPLICA concept of the ‘reproduction of familiar scents and moments from varying locations and periods’ like Coffee Break, Bubble Bath and At The Barber’s. Yes, it’s a cross between Demeter and CB I Hate Perfumes who pioneered this concept many years ago now.

The REPLICA Memory Box is a sample set with 10 x 2ml EdT spray vials. After testing, my sister gave two of the more masculine fragrances to her husband and the rest to me.

Under the Lemon Trees

This is a simple, bright, citrus fragrance. More like zesting a lemon than walking under lemon trees. It was fine until it all but disappeared after an hour. I suspect this is because after the citrus burst, it reverted to a white musk that I can’t smell.

Springtime in a Park

I thought this was going to be super dull but it’s actually a wistful, romantic lily of the valley with a fantastic pear note. It has a lovely, soft, hazy quality. Not my usual style but I enjoyed wearing it. Really pretty and mood-lifting and gives me a hit of the much needed hopefulness that Spring brings.

Lazy Sunday Morning

This is like a sweeter version of Springtime in a Park: mainly lily of the valley but this time paired with a syrupy orange blossom. There are musks to evoke clean bedding but they are subsumed by the flowers. It’s a pleasant floral but I liked Springtime’s airiness and originality more.

Beach Walk

I thought this would be a rugged coastal fragrance but it’s actually your classic tropical beachy scent. Beach Walk leaves you smelling like warm skin and coconut sun lotion with some glorious ylang-ylang thrown in. It’s not new but this style of perfume is hard not to like.

By The Fireplace

Ooh this is more like it. I’m trash for a smoky scent and this one has a great roasted nut accord over a smoky vanilla base. It reminds me of the caramelised nutty smokiness of Aomassai by Parfumerie Generale which I always had a soft spot for.

Flower Market

A fresh floral in that straight-from-the-florist’s-fridge kind of way. It’s freesia-forward with clean jasmine rounding it out. Nothing special but it’s perfectly pretty and the kind of fragrance a lot of civilians (including a friend of mind) love.

Sailing Day

This opens like a traditional masculine but settles into something far more interesting. It’s a refreshing sea breeze over leafy aromatics lining the sand dunes. The combination of salt and herbs works well and makes it more striking than most others in the line.

Whispers in the Library

I saved this one for last as I love the name and idea of it. Sadly, it was just too sweet. Old books have a vanillic quality but this is overly sugary and smells more like a bakery. A vanilla perfume sprinkled lightly with black pepper and cedar shavings. Shame.

What’s good about these perfumes is that they are available as 10ml travel sprays which is probably ideal for these kind of ‘novelty’ fragrances. I guess my main criticism would be that the ones I tried are generally not quite novel enough.

Do you like the sound of any of these? Did you like the Demeter or CB I Hate Perfumes back in the day?

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January Reading Diary

I eased myself into January with several short books, most of which had a self-help slant and gave me a lot of comfort in a tough month.

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy

 

“What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said? asked the boy.
‘Help,’ said the horse.
‘Asking for help isn’t giving up,’ said the horse. ‘It’s refusing to give up.”

I’ve been waiting for this picture book to be released as an audiobook and it finally was at the end of last year. I decided to wait to listen to it on New Year’s Day and it was just perfect. It has been called ‘A book of hope for uncertain times.’ It’s hard to think of more uncertain times than now.  Last year I bought copies for my niece and a friend.

Charlie Mackesy has a lovely warm voice tinged with humour and fragility and the subtle musical touches are gorgeous. We follow the characters as they spend time wandering the countryside, playing, talking and saving each other literally and metaphorically.

This is a beautiful, comforting and touching tale about acceptance, kindness and hope. It’s full of gentle lessons for life. I’m happy I have it on hand to listen to whenever I need it.  5/5

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

“Suddenly I saw in front of me the Statue of the Faun, the Statue that I love above all others. There was his calm, faintly smiling face; there was his forefinger gently pressed to his lips. […] Hush! he told me. Be comforted!”

Unlike the rest of the world, I was underwhelmed by Clarke’s 2004 debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I found it chronically over-long and dry. I picked up her latest novel, Piranesi because of the effusive praise – The Times called it ‘Spectacular’ – and the fact that is less than 300 pages.

At first I wasn’t sure I’d be able to continue it considering I was shielding and the main character, Piranesi, is alone in an endless labyrinthine building consisting of massive halls lined by classical marble statues. Seas wash across the lower halls and the upper halls are draped in clouds. Piranesi spends his days appreciating the statues, leaving offerings for the 13 skeletons and collecting fresh water and seaweed for broth. He records everything in his journals which form the structure of the book. Apart from birds, the only other life Piranesi sees is a person he calls ‘The Other’ who he meets twice a week to discuss his research. The Other is determined to uncover the Great and Secret Knowledge he believes ‘the House’ possesses.

Unlike The Other, Piranesi is an endearing character, being guileless, trusting and grateful for everything within his world. The writing is atmospheric and the descriptions of the House are extraordinarily vivid. It’s one of those singular books that once read, you will never forget. The House will stay with you long after the plot has faded.

Piranesi’s isolation and the way The Other is so uncharitable towards him is unsettling. If I couldn’t have finished it in two sittings I might have put it aside. At around the halfway point, what is happening – and why -gradually starts to be revealed.

This is a multi-layered book with a myriad of grand themes including the solace found in religion and art and the corrupting nature of the pursuit of power. I imagine different people will see different things in it and no doubt some of the allegory went over my head.

For me, it was about trauma and the benefits and risks of finding ways to cope and escape from it. Sometimes you need to escape to survive but ultimately you risk living a life in unreality. No matter how scary the world is, it is at least real and there is beauty there if we can tune ourselves into it. It’s all about balance.

Objectively I can see why most people rate this is a 5 stars. It’s mysterious, gripping and evocative but I rate based on my enjoyment and because of it’s disquieting effect on me it’s 4.25/5

What I Know For Sure by Oprah Winfrey

“Whether you flounder or flourish is always in your hands—you are the single biggest influence in your life. Your journey begins with a choice to get up, step out, and live fully.”

I loved watching The Oprah Winfrey Show during my teens. As it evolved it fueled my interest in personal development and I read many books featured on the show.

What I Know For Sure is a collection of the short monthly articles Oprah wrote for her O Magazine. They are divided into several topics: Joy, Resilience, Connection, Gratitude etc. 

It’s a speedy, inspiring and comforting read. 4/5

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Tines by Katherine May

“We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.”

 

I came to this little non-fiction book via Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s about wintering both literally and metaphorically.  Katherine is a British writer who lives down on the Kent coast. A few years ago she went through her own personal winter and talks about how she got through it. We hear from various people about their own experiences and how they survived their tough times. These are interspersed with interviews with people in cold climates to learn how they cope with extreme winters. She covers her own trips to Iceland and Finland and cold water swimming. It’s an easy, personal read that focuses on how you may not be the same after your own winter but you can benefit from it and come out renewed. I also liked it’s focus on rest and retreat as I have a tendency to feel I need to be moving forward all the time. 4/5

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

“I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.”

 

Apparently this 1922 novel was popular in the late 1960s with the Flower Power generation. It’s a short tale about the spiritual journey of a young man in India – named Siddhartha – at the time of the Buddha. He goes against his father to become samana (an ascetic seeker) living in the forest. He then meets a courtesan named Kamala (apparently a common name in India meaning ‘lotus’) and falls into a life of lust, business and gambling for many years before finally coming to a point of despair. This drives him back to a simple life working as a ferryman and returning to the spiritual path.  It’s an uncomplicated story with beautiful writing and a gorgeous sense of place but that was about it. 3/5

 

What kind of start did your new reading year get off to?

 

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Fleur de Peau by Diptyque

Top notes Aldehydes, Pink Pepper, Angelica and Bergamot; middle notes: Iris and Turkish Rose; base notes Musk, Ambrette, Carrot, Ambergris, Leather, Sandalwood and Amberwood

This perfume came up on my radar when beauty journalist Sali Hughes said it was the fragrance she has worn the most during lockdown. She described it as a musky, iris skin scent which really piqued my interest. I have a gaping hole in my collection where a skin scent should be and one based around iris sounded enticing.

As you may have heard, sales of scented candles have rocketed over the last year and I made my first Diptyque purchase before Christmas, which happily came with a sample of Fleur de Peau.

Released in 2018, it won in the categories Perfume Extraordinaire and Best New Women’s Fragrance at The Fragrance Foundation Awards London.

Rather than a blast of aldehydes as I had prepared – braced – myself for, Fleur de Peau opens with a very lovely iris; the kind that smells like a fresh ream of white paper. It’s crisp and airy, borne on a cloud of clean musks and silky aldehydes which manifest as a soft wash of glistening soap bubbles.

As it settles, powder puffs up and gently covers the perfume in a light dusting accompanied by just the softest blush of rose. The whole effect is romantic, low-key elegant and soothing. It doeesn’t quite stray into boudoir perfume territory, perhaps because it’s just a tad too minimal and subdued for that association.

Iris and ambrette are often paired and this union works once again. I think ambrette is best described as a vegetal, slighty fruity musk – not animalic and not dryer fresh. It adds another nuance to the composition and prevents the white musk from dominating.

The base is when it smells most like skin, in the purest way.

I can certainly see why Sali turned to this fragrance during lockdown. It is a subtle pastel perfume that doesn’t feel out of place worn around the home. I’ve really struggled to spray anything while staying in but this has been effortless to wear. It’s a perfume to relax with: undemanding yet elevated thanks to the iris.

While it is lovely in all its parts, on reflection I think I’m looking for more of a furry musk.

As you would expect, it stays close to the body but longevity is true to its EdP strength.

If you’re not a fan of wispy scents then this won’t be for you. It is not a perfume to set the world alight. On the other hand, if you are in search of a skin scent with an iris twist, it’s a good bet. Just be sure not to try it on paper if you want it to bloom.

Have you been able to wear perfume in lockdown? What have been your go-tos?

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December Reading Diary

I have an intense fondness for fairytale-esque books with deep winter settings. For some reason I love reading about snowy landscapes and feeling the chill run through me. Examples include Northern Lights, The Bear and The Nightingale and Spinning Silver. In December I found out that there is a sub genre for these books called ‘polar fantasy’. I was happy about this because it makes them easier to find. The last three books in this list come under this category.

The First Girl Child by Amy Harmon

“Be careful what you fear, Ivo replied, grave. We draw the attention of the fates when our fear grows too loud. The fates are cruel, and they will reward you with what you fear most.”

From reading fantasy novels over the last few years I’ve discovered that I prefer those that have some grounding in folklore or mythology. The First Girl Child is set on an island in the North Sea with a clan culture following a mix of Norse gods and Christianity

The story begins with Keeper (priest) Dagmar taking in his sister’s son, Bayr, after she dies in childbirth. As she’s dying she curses the islanders to never again produce a girl child and ensures that Bayr will be their only salvation. The relationship between Dagmar and Bayr is an endearing, loving one and Bayr grows up with inhuman strength. He is tasked with protecting the first – and only – girl child who is claimed to be born to the King. However, Alba’s true parentage is hidden and as a decade passes without any more female children, the situation on the island becomes more and more fraught.

The romance in the last quarter was verging on purple prose but I understand Harmon is more known for her romance. Aside from that, I liked the dynamic between the King, the clans and the Keepers and the relationships between the various characters. 4/5

Blackberry & Wild Rose by Sonia Velton

“But there are no secrets in London. Even the houses lean across the narrow alleys towards each other and offer up their scandals in the blink of an open curtain.”

Perhaps my favourite spot in London is Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields. The artist spent years recreating the home of a Huguenot silk weaving family from the 1700s through the 1800s. The fact you have to walk through it in silence allows you to soak up its distinctive atmosphere. My love for the house drew me to this book which is set in a similar household in Spitalfields Square during the 1700s.

Esther is married to a silk weaver and offers to take in a woman from a local brothel as a maid. For the first half of the novel they have an uneasy relationship simmering with resentment. However in the second half, a revolt by the journeymen weavers throws them together during a court case. Back then you could hang for maliciously damaging silk, it was that precious. I stayed up till midnight to find out the outcome of the trial and I haven’t done that in a long while 4.25/5

The Raven and the Reindeer by T. Kingfisher

“Do you have a name?” asked Gerta. “I do,” said the raven. Gerta waited. The raven fluffed its beard. “I am the Sound of Mouse Bones Crunching Under the Hooves of God.”

This is a very modern retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen. Greta sees her childhood love stolen away by the Snow Queen and sets out for the Far North to rescue him. This irked me in as much as he never did anything to deserve her devotion but there is a nice twist to this. Along the way, she is kidnapped by a witch – and then a bandit – and helped by a raven and reindeer. It was a nice pre-Christmas read. 3.75/5

The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol

“What the . . . Look, Panas, the moon’s gone.” “So it is,” Kum agreed phlegmatically. “Right, and you just accept it, like that’s the way it should be?” “Well, what else can I do about it?” “What devil has done this to the moon, I want to know? May he never have a shot of vodka in the morning,”

Apparently this fairytale written in 1831 is still sometimes told to Ukrainian and Russian children on Christmas Eve. I wonder what they make of it. It tells the story of the night before Christmas when the devil steals the moon to wreak havoc on a village’s residents. It only gets more bizarre from there. A local witch hides her lovers in sacks to prevent them discovering each other while a blacksmith is set a seemingly impossible task to win the heart of the incredibly vain and unpleasant village beauty. By the end I was more baffled than anything else. I guess I’m used to fairytales with a moral or neat storyline. I do think I was reading a pretty poor translation though. If you know the story, please let me know your thoughts in the comments. 2.75/5

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

“In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.”

This is a reworking of a Russian fairytale about a childless old couple who build a girl from snow which then comes to life.

Set in the 1920s, ageing Mabel and Jack move to the wilds of Alaska to escape the prying eyes of others after a stillbirth. They buy a homestead out by the mountains but their isolation only magnifies their loss as they struggle to survive through the winter. Mabel is suicidal at the start of the book.

On the first day of snowfall they make a snowman that they shape into a child. The next morning they see footprints leading away from the snow child and spot a little girl in the forest wearing its scarf and mittens. This child fills the hole and gives them a new reason to keep going.

The setting and nature writing were beautiful and I truly loved the stoic yet warm-hearted Jack and Mabel. However as much as I love fairytales and fantasy I seem to struggle when books are 95% gritty realism and then 5% magic mixed in, like here.

As a result the magical element felt inexplicable and a little jarring. We find out the child has human parentage but she appears to be able to control the snow. We never really get an explanation, which left me rather unsatisfied. I think this is peculiar to me though, going by other reviews. I like clear answers! 4/5

How was your reading in December? Does polar fantasy appeal to you at all?

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2020 – What Helped

Now it’s nearing the end of 2020, I thought I’d sign off by sharing some of the things that have helped me keep body and soul together this year.

Jogging

When both my gym and yoga studio closed in March, I started doing daily HIIT workouts on YouTube. I was exhausted at the end of the 20 minute sessions but once I stopped shielding I felt I should do some exercise outside. So I started Couch to 5K and it was a life saver. I have a tendancy not to go out if I don’t have a purpose and this gave me one. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I had to get out there and make progress on my goal to jog non-stop for 30 minutes.

I find ALL exercise tough and none more so than running. I recently reached my goal (and nearly cried when I did) but I don’t find it any easier than I did at the start. However for the sake of my mental health it has become non-negotiable (unless it pouring with rain!).

A Weighted Blanket

Weighed blankets have been used therapeutically for people with dementia and autism for some time. In the last couple of years however, a whole host of companies have sprung up selling them to the general public for their calming properties and to help with insomnia.

They are essentially, quilted blankets filled with ball bearings or glass beads, providing deep pressure that many people find soothing. They retail for around the £150 mark but I took a chance on one for less than half that on Amazon at the start of lockdown. I wouldn’t say it is magically anxiety reducing but I do find it hugely comforting. I read with it during the day and sleep under it at night. I couldn’t be without it now.

Embracing my Curls

It may seem superficial but as Fleabag quite rightly said ‘Hair is EVERYTHING’. After chemically straightening my hair for the last 10 years it felt good to spend some time healing it during lockdown. It was fun to learn about the Curly Girl Method and a welcome diversion. The online community is also a very uplifting place to hang out.

Curly hair is unpredictable and I don’t always love it but accepting it has been good for me. Transitioning from damaged, straightened hair to healthy, curly hair takes on average about 6 months and by the start of 2021 I should be almost there.

2020: Bare face, curly hair, don’t care

Writing

We all have different ways of dealing with difficult emotions and writing has always been most helpful for me. The blog has been a great creative outlet but Cognitive Behavioural Therapy exercises have enabled me to get perspective and think more rationally when my thoughts and feelings are running riot. Free-flow writing has also helped me get to the bottom of what exactly has been troubling me and release that emotion.

My sister has bought me a lovely (though cringingly named) ‘wellness journal’ for next year. I have always struggled at the start of a new year and so this will form part of my campaign to Make January Great Again.

Books

Reading is my distraction of choice but at the start of lockdown I was too hypervigilant to concentrate on a book. Thank goodness this passed and they once again became the solace they were before.

By the end of the year I should have read around 45 books, though I wasn’t very diligent in recording them on Goodreads. My favourite book was the historical fiction Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Runners up were the atmospheric fantasy novels The Golem and The Djinni by Helene Wecker and Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik and the extremely troubling My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell.

 

Friends

Last but by no means least; my friendships were a lifeline. I was fortunate to form a bubble with family but I’ve only got to spend time with a friend once since March. There’s nothing like going through a tough time to bring home just how important those people who choose to be there for you, truly are.

I’ve found my friendships have deepened and been more important than ever. Aside from a couple of wonderful care packages, just being able to message someone or pick up the phone and call when I was feeling isolated made all the difference in the world. I won’t forget it.

A surprise gift from my pal in Edinburgh

What helped you during this annus horribilis? How are your Christmas and New Year looking?

I will be with my parents at Christmas but now won’t be able to have an outdoor meet-up with my sister and her family as we hoped.

I’ll definitely be spending New Year’s Day listening to Baking Bad with (Val) the Cookie Queen on the radio.

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November Reading Diary

In honour of Halloween I spent October reading gothic novels. In November I was back to my usual mixed bag which comprised magical realism, fantasy, contemporary fiction, historical fiction, and a quirky translated Japanese novel.

 

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

“She was so Southern that she cried tears that came straight from the Mississippi, and she always smelled faintly of cottonwood and peaches.”

After a month of dark books I wanted something light and fluffy. I picked this because it was mentioned in a list of books that feel like my comfort TV show, Gilmore Girls. It does have that cosy vibe but the plot is actually similar to that of the film Practical Magic (I haven’t read the Alice Hoffman book). Reclusive Claire Waverley lives in a big Queen Anne house in a small Southern town. The apple tree in the back garden wants people to eat its fruit so they can see the biggest event in their future and her aunt Evanelle is compelled to give things to people that it then turns out they will need. Claire is a caterer and uses the edible flowers and herbs she grows to create the effects her clients ask for: love, prosperity etc. She has a settled life until a new neighbour moves in next door and her rebellious sister Sydney turns up after 10 years away, fleeing an abusive relationship. It’s a nice, easy read with romance and a touch of magic. I read ii in a day and a half. 3.5/5

 

Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicles Book 1) by Patrick Rothffuss

“You have to be a bit of a liar to tell a story the right way.”

i just don’t get it. This is one of the most loved – and most talked about- series in the fantasy world. A whopping 68% of the ratings on Goodreads are 5 stars. Name of the Wind was released in 2007 and is the first instalment in a trilogy, the last book of which still hasn’t been released. I read the first book to see what all the fuss is about. The tale involves our protagonist, Kvothe, telling the story of his life to The Chronicler. He runs an inn under an assumed name but he was once a famous hero that people still tell tall tales about. Name of the Wind covers his childhood up to the age of around 16. I liked the initial set up: Kvothe grows up in a travelling performing company however his parents and the rest of the troupe are murdered by what were believed to be mythical figures, The Chandrian. From this point, he is determined to track them down and gain revenge. To do this he decides to learn Arcanism at The University. However, we spend many years and many pages following his survival on the city streets. This was readable but I just wanted it to hurry up and get to The University where he’d start learning magic. Even when he got there, it was still slow paced and only mildly interesting. Much is said of the beautiful writing and while it is well written, it wasn’t particularly lyrical and not very atmospheric. I don’t mind a slow paced novel but this just felt meandering. I could have coped better with that if I loved the world but it didn’t grab me either. 3.25/5

 

Before The Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

“She wanted to do things without having to worry what others thought.
She simply lived for her freedom.”

This is a fairly short Japanese novel set entirely in a cafe in Tokyo. If you sit in a certain seat, you can return to a time in the past, and you can come back, as long as you come back before the coffee gets cold. The other catch is that while you can see and speak to people in the past, it doesn’t change anything in the future. We follow four people as they sit in the chair including a woman who goes back to the day her boyfriend broke up with her and another woman who relives the very last time she would get to speak to her sister. It’s a simple, whimsical stale rather than time-travelling sci-fi. It’s an allegory for how changing your perspective on the past can improve things immeasurably in the present. 3.25/5

 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

“She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.”

There was a buzz about this novel when it was released earlier in the year. In the 1950s, twins Desiree and Stella are growing up in Mallard, Louisiana, a small town where everyone is classed as ‘black’ but have such light skin they could be mistaken for white. Sick of feeling trapped and cleaning for a rich white family outside town, at the age of 16 the twins run away to New Orleans. After about a year, Stella leaves her sister behind for good to start a new, privileged life ‘passing’ as a white woman. At age 30, Desiree returns to Mallard with her dark skinned daughter Jude, who is bullied by the light skinned children and looked down upon by the adults. Like her mother and the aunt she’s never met, she can’t wait to leave and never come back. Stella also has a daughter, Kennedy, who has no idea of her mother’s secret and her own heritage. We then follow Desiree, Stella, Jude and Kennedy through their lives to the 1990s. It’s a book about racism and colouirsm but it’s also a well written story about two generations of women: trying to fulfill their hopes and dreams. It has an average rating on Goodreads of 4.29 but I struggle with books based around extended family relationships. I admired the prose and I was drawn in by the ‘passing’ plot, but it didn’t grip me in the way it did others. I felt like we skimmed over all four lives in a series of snapshots. I would have liked it to go deeper and concentrate on one or two all the way through, particularly Stella and the passing plot. Do investigate further if you like the sound of it though. It’s much lauded. 3.5/5

 

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

“People don’t like to be corrected about things like that. That was one of things Mr Peterson always told me. He said that correcting people’s grammar in the middle of a conversation made me sound like a Major Prick.”

 

 

 

 

I have a fondness for stories about misfit young men and fell hard for Alex. At age 11 he is hit by a meteorite which leaves him with epilepsy. Aside from this, he is a geeky boy with an eccentric mother who runs a New Age shop in their little village near Glastonbury, Somerset. He’s bullied at school and has no friends until he meets elderly American local resident, Mr Peterson. The ex-Vietnam Vet introduces Alex to Kurt Vonnegut who starts up a book club devoted to the author. All is well until Mr Peterson is diagnosed with a terminal illness. This is not a spoiler because the book opens with Alex, age 17, being arrested returning to England from Switzerland with Mr Peterson’s ashes and a large bag of pot. There are books that makes me smile inwardly but this book made me laugh out loud several times and cry once. It’s also very British in the way it depicts daily life on a micro level, which I enjoyed a lot. 4/5

 

How was your reading in November? 

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Premium Skincare Mini Reviews

I dealt with the first lockdown in no small part by indulging my love of skincare. I bought both the Caroline Hirons Spring and Summer Kits with savings on the contents of  55%. I probably purchased enough skincare for several faces and still have plenty to see me into 2021. No regrets though. I got a chance to try some products I’ve wanted for ages and it was an excellent distraction. Here are my brief thoughts on some of them.

 

Peptide K8 Power Cream by Kate Somerville £127

Previously known as Deep Tissue Repair, Caroline Hirons has said she’d like to be buried with a tub of this. At £127, I waited 7 years to give it a go at a hefty discount. It’s supposedly a lot more than a moisturiser; essentially a serum strength ‘power cream’. Now, I’m not good with creams that have a heavy artificial fragrance and this has a strong citrusy scent. It’s not unpleasant but it feels odd to me to be putting perfume on my face. It’s listed as ‘Parfum’ on the ingredients list rather than it being the aroma of the natural materials. It certainly feels nice on the skin and I use it on non-tretinoin nights. However, I don’t think it’s quite what it’s cracked up to be. The ingredients just don’t seem to back it up. Would not repurchase at that price.

Protini Polypeptide Cream by Drunk Elephant £57

Unlike Peptide K8 this moisturiser really does have a stellar ingredients list with 9 signal peptides. The cream is a water-gel but it feels richer than this suggests. A little goes a long way. I would consider repurchasing because I want peptides in my routine for their collagen boosting properties and I like that I can do this in the moisturiser step rather than add another serum. It also has the genius push dispenser in the top so you don’t have to put your finger in it.

The Skin Recovery Blend by de Mamiel £95

Now this really does feel luxurious. I don’t know if it would appeal to everyone but I love the slightly chocolately, aromatic scent which comes largely from Blue Tansy essential oil. This also helps give it its stunning blue colour. This is a pressed serum which turns to oil with the heat from your fingertips. I find it very relaxing to apply and it soothes my sensitised skin which can get irritated from tret use. I like to take my time to apply it on a Sunday when I’m having a self-care spa day. If I had the money to splurge I’d repurchase in a heartbeat but can’t justify buying it largely for the sensorial experience.

Goat Milk Moisturizing Cleanser by Kate Somerville £32

This is a cult cleanser and in no small part because of the fragrance. I imagine for most people it’s love or hate. Those who love it find it positively swoon-inducing while those who dislike it compare it to the smell of baby vomit. I’m somewhere inbetween. I don’t particularly like it but I don’t hate it. It’s a sweet, creamy aroma that’s a little almond-y. I don’t mind fragrance in my cleanser because it’s not the skin for long. It cleanses well, needing only a pea-sized amount for the whole face, neck and chest. I wouldn’t use it to remove make-up though. Not a repeat buy.

DeliKate Recovery Cream by Kate Somerville £69

This soothing cream is intended to ‘put the fire out’. When the skin on my neck became red and scaly in April, this really did calm it down. It’s unscented and pretty solid, more like a balm. I think it’s a good product to have in your stash for when your skin flares up. I would repurchase as it’s not something you need to use regularly. There is also a serum and a cleanser in the DeliKate range.

Fractionated Eye Contour Concentrate by NIOD £43

You only a get a small 15ml bottle for your money but I literally only need one drop for each eye. It’s like water so absorbs super fast. I like it a lot but the pipette drives me nuts. I managed to knock the bottle over and lost a fair amount of the contents because they’re so runny. Won’t rebuy because of the packaging.

Super C30 by Medik8 £44

Vitamin C is a must for my morning routine but this 30% Vitamin C serum was too strong for me. It smells like swimming pools and quickly irritated my skin to the point where it stung when applied. Definitely not a repeat purchase.

C-Tetra by Medik8 £35

I got this less intense Vitamin C serum from Medik8 in the Summer Kit and it’s a hit. It smells like oranges, has a lightweight consistency and is non-irritating. It is also a 100% stable formula which means unlike most Vitamin C serums, you don’t have to worry about it degrading over time. Would re-buy, despite the dropper.

Stress Rescue Super Serum by Dr Dennis Gross £75

I found this to be a pleasant calming serum, with a nice milky texture that seemed to melt into the skin. I really liked its natural ginger scent too but I’ll stick to DeliKate for a de-stressor.

Alpha Beta Ultra Gentle Daily Peel by Dr Dennis Gross £89

You get two sachets per application of this product (pack of 30), one contains a ‘wipe’ with a trio of exfoliating acids, while the second is infused with actives which act as your serum step. People love these but I was unimpressed. For one thing, I don’t like having to wait 2 minutes as instructed between the acid step and the serum step. I also prefer specific serums targeted at my individual needs. It may be convenient for people on the go but I think it’s a faff as well as pricey.

Liquid ExfoliKate by Kate Somerville £50

I thought this acid exfoliant might be too powerful but it’s turned out to be the best one I’ve tried. It tingles slightly but doesn’t sting and I can actually see the difference to my skin. It looks noticeably smoother and brighter. It’s a bit too drying for regular use in the winter but I would consider repurchasing in warmer weather, although I do like exfoliating masks.

Have you tried any of these? Do you have any pricier skincare favourites?

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