Author Archives: Tara

C-19 Reading Diary

The book I enjoyed reading the most last year (Station Eleven) was about a global pandemic. Turned out when I actually experienced a global pandemic, reading suddenly became less enjoyable.

I found it near impossible to read when things got serious in the U.K. The difference between the world in the book and the real world feel too jarring. For a full two and a bit weeks I didn’t read at all, which was very strange for someone who reads for several hours a day. I couldn’t work it out. I’d gone through anxiety as severe as I’d ever had not so long ago and reading was a blessed escape. So why not now?

I gradually realised that this was a different kind of anxiety which had triggered a state of hyper-vigilance. I was on red alert, as if constantly scanning the horizon for signs of danger. This meant I couldn’t focus on a book because my sympathetic nervous system didn’t feel it was safe to switch off.

I’ve managed to adjust enough to the ongoing situation to start reading again. However, I’ve had to experiment with what kind of books work for me at this time.

One Word Kill, Dispel Illusion and Limited Wish (Impossible Times Trilogy) by Mark Lawrence

If you’re a fan of Good Omens or Ready Player One, you’re likely to enjoy this fast and fun sci fi trilogy.  Author Mark Lawrence on GoodReads a long time. He’s an ex research scientist currently living in Bristol. I wondered how having grown up in America, he’d conjure up life as a teenager in suburban London in the late 1980s (which was my life). Aside from a couple of Americanisms, he did a great job. Teenager Nick is dealing with a cancer diagnosis when an unnervingly familiar looking stranger explains that there is a lot more at stake.  It was a rip roaring story of 4 nerdy boys and 1 cool girl trying to save the world. I was reading it as lockdown happened so maybe that’s why I didn’t love the way I might have done otherwise. 3/5

11.22.63 by Stephen King

“Yeah, but what if you went back and killed your own grandfather?”

He stared at me, baffled. “Why the fuck would you do that?”

stephen king

Nothing on my Kindle felt right. Maybe now would be a good time to immerse myself in the Stephen King universe for the first time. I’m not up for his horror novels but was intrigued by the premise of this book: a guy time-travelling back (yes, again) to prevent the assination of JFK. One of the things that has put me off King is that his books are like door-stops. This isn’t as long as some but it did drag. We have to wait for over 300 pages before our protagonist even catches sight of Oswald. I have kept hearing how he’s a great writer but not very good at endings which made me nervous after investing so much time. A bad ending can ruin a book for me. Happily this was tied-up extraordinarily well so I did smile when in the Afterword he mentions that his writer son, Joe Hill, actually gave him a much better ending than the original one he had written. A friend has recommend I read Lisey’s Story by King next so I’l do that. 3.25/5

Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold by Stephen Fry

“Gaia visited her daughter Mnemosyne, who was busy being unpronounceable.”

mythos

The world of the Greek mythology populated with larger than life gods and monsters has proved a good place to get lost in.  Some books manage to make these stories full of sex, violence, humour and revenge decidedly dry and academic. It’s no surprise that Stephen Fry completely avoids this. I especially appreciated how he adds various examples of how many of the words we use today are derived from the myths (my favourite being the eternal punishment of Tantalus is where we get the word ‘tantalise’ from). Zeus and Hera are the ultimate dysfunctional couple and their endless dramas involving both mortals and gods, never fail to enthrall to me.  4/5

Grownups by Marian Keyes

“Her outline kept slipping, like a wonky contact lens that wouldn’t sit on the iris…  Intense feelings would surge through her, both good and not-so-good, then her outline would detach again. She was living her life a short distance from herself.”

 

grown ups

Story aside, this novel was fantastically easy to read which was a relief. I’m normally turned off by family dramas but my love of Marian’s combination of humour and darker themes made me give it a go. To be fair, the first three quarters was a 3 star read for me as breezy as it was. We are following three brothers and their wives, not to mention 7 kids, living in Dublin. We get to know the characters and their various issues (including overspendng and more seriously, bullimia) as they congregate for a number of family trips. I think I prefer to follow one main protagonist in this kind of book so that I feel more invested. Not a lot seems to develop until the 75% mark when it all starts kicking off. I was then riveted by the final quarter which was 5 stars. 3.75/5 overall.

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

“…at some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time. After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.”

Now we’re talking. This was a fizzy cocktail of a historical fiction and it went down easy. I can’t think of much Id rather read about right now than wonderfully shameless showgirls in 1940s New York City. Nineteen year-old Vivian Morris moves into her aunt’s rundown theatre in Midtown. In very short order, she loses her naivete and is kicking up her heels at The Stork Club by night and sewing costumes by day.  We follow her misadventures with a fabulous cast of colourful characters which are all vividly rendered and hugely enjoyable. Despite making a near catastrophic mistake Vivian learns that learns you can be a good person even if society doesn’t deem you ‘a good girl’.  Fairly short chapters helped to prevent me feeling overwhelmed (which ihas been my main issue). Its structure of a single 450+ page letter rather bugged me but not enough to spoil it for me. 4.25/5

city of girls

Have you struggled to concentrate on reading during this time or have books become a valued distraction? Do you have any light novels to recommend?

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Lost Days – Lockdown Lethargy

I was chatting with friends in our WhatsApp group when I said how we are all having lost days now and again. We agreed it’s not something a lot of people are acknowledging in social media but is happening to many of us. While some are publically posting about their various projects, others are quietly having whole days either under the duvet or doing precisely nothing.

Sometimes I wake up and just feel down and/or lethargic and it stays with me all day. I don’t feel like working out, turning on the laptop or even getting dressed. This used to make me feel guilty which made me feel more depressed than I already was. Now I just put it down as a lost day and write it off, knowing that tomorrow is likely to be better (and it always is).

If you have empathy, it’s very hard to carry on in your own little bubble and not let what is happening around the world affect you. Sometimes it’s just too much, even though I’ve cut down on the news coverage. As for using this time to learn a new skill, that’s great if you feel up to it but this is not a sabbatical, it’s a global pandemic. Most of us are just in survival mode, living from day to day, coping the best way we can.

I experienced my first migraine preceded by an aura during my sixth week indoors. I suddenly found my vision was obscured with bright zig-zag patterns. A terrible headache followed around 20 minutes later. I concluded it was a combination of not sleeping well, anxiety and cabin fever. I’m immunosuppressed so am having to ‘shield’ myself inside for 12 weeks. I was bound to hit a wall. It’s nothing compared to actually having the virus or being on the frontline, but we are all affected in some way.

These lost days aren’t the norm though. Most are manageable and I do feel gratitude for the positive aspects of lockdown. I’m connecting even more with family than usual and I like working from home. It’s a chance to reflect on how I want things to be after this strange period comes to an end. As much as I miss my old life, it’s worth thinking about what I want to go back to and what I want to change. It’s rare that you get the opportunity to step back and assess the way you live for this long.

So, one day I’m over the moon that I can lay in the garden and enjoy the sunshine on a weekday, the next I’m down in the dumps even though nothing has changed. Life is a series of ups and downs and as we ride the ‘coronacoaster of uncertainty’ these emotional highs and lows are more pronounced than ever.

lost days

Are you experiencing highs and lows? Do you think about how you’re going to alter your life when we come out of this?

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Lockdown Skincare Routine

It’s no surprise that my skin has been reacting to staying in as well as the rest of me. It’s normally combination but now it’s become more oily and more dry. I rarely get a spot but I had two in the first two weeks of lockdown. It’s no doubt a result of increased stress, more sugar and less fresh air.

It’s very tempting to skip my normal skincare routine, but for the most part I haven’t let it slip and I think that’s helped me feel better overall. (I was letting my hair revert back to its natural frizz-ball state but the psychological effect wasn’t worth it so I’m straightening it again).

I’m using very gentle cream cleansers that are kind to the skin. I heard lots of positive things about The Ordinary’s Squalane Cleanser and it’s as good as they say. Squalane is deeply nourishing and the cleanser has a white, balm-like consistency that breaks down easily. Although, my favourite at the moment is Superdrug’s Vitmain E Hot Cloth Cleanser as championed by The Guardian’s Sali Hughes. This has an incredibly soft feeling on the skin and like the Squalane, never leaves it the least bit tight. I always apply cleansers to dry skin and remove with a damp microfibre cloth (from Amazon). I can’t bear splashing my face with water and that isn’t very effective anyway.

In the morning, if I am suffering from dryness I may start with a face mist. I ordered La Roche Posay’s Toleriane Ultra 8 Soothing Daily Moisturising Concentrate after skin expert Caroline Hirons recommended it for stay home skin. As a result of this, it’s now hard to get hold of and my bottle is yet to arrive. It should be a nice way to boost moisture after cleansing. A face spritz isn’t a necessity but hey, I have the time.

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I don’t feel like I’ve done my routine properly without including an active and in the A.M. it’s Niacinamide Serum by The INKEY List. It has anti-ageing properties but the fact that it supports the skin’s barrier function is a bonus. Vitamin C feels too irritating at the moment.

I’ve tried to tackle flaky, dry skin, particularly around the eye area, with various lotions and creams. Nothing has worked for long. Then I kept hearing about a cheap as chips serum from Superdrug and for £2.99 thought I’d give it a try. It’s been game-changing and definitely my current hero product. It’s the Simply Pure Hydrating Serum for sensitive skin. I use it all over the face paying particular attention to the eye area. I haven’t had a single flake since.

I’m very skeptical of expensive eye creams and am currently using CeraVe Eye Repair Cream morning and evening. I tend to think my general skincare migrates to the eye area anyway and that it’s most important to keep it hydrated.

As I currently have access to a garden (hurrah!), I finish with Paula’s Choice Skin Restoring Moisturiser SPF 50. I agree with the adage that the best sunscreen is the one you’ll actually use. A cheaper alternative I’d love to get my hands on when this runs out is The Body Shop’s Skin Defence Multi-Protection Lotion SPF 50 which has had rave reviews for its light texture.

In the evening, I remove the SPF with the Vitamin E cleanser and follow with 0.05% tretinoin from Dermatica and my eye cream. I leave that to do its thing for a while and then may follow up later with the Super drug Simply Pure Hydrating Night Serum. (It was buy one get one half price so why not?) Sometimes, for extra comfort and to counteract the drying effect of the tret, I add a final layer of moisturiser which would normally be CeraVe PM Moisturising Lotion but I also use Natural Moisturising Factors by The Ordinary.

I feel like this routine is now really working for me and my skin is looking and feeling much better.

How is your skin doing during lockdown? Are you giving it a break from make-up and seeing the benefits or it is having a freakout all of its own?
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Staying Sane When Staying Home

If you’re not used to staying indoors day after day, how do you protect your sanity? I haven’t seen anyone face-to-face or stepped outside my front door for over a week now. What I have found that helps the most is forming some kind of routine. I can’t work remotely (properly) for another week so I don’t have that structure as yet. What I’ve done in the meantime is come up with a list of things to do each day that help to protect my mental health:

  • I subscribe to the Calm app and do their daily meditation, which isn’t easy to focus on when you’re anxious but it helps. I also listen to one of the excellent Sleep Stories at night. A free meditation app is Insight Timer.
  • Everyone and their granny seems to be doing Yoga With Adriene on YouTube and for good reason. She’s very down to earth and has a nice chilled, slightly quirky way with her. I’m currently doing her 30 Day of Yoga which is suitable for anyone of any level but particularly beginners and those who have slipped since the gyms/yoga studios shut.
  • It’s tempting to treat every day like a pajama day (what day is it again?) but acting like this is one long weekend only adds to the sense of this being never-ending. Getting up on weekdays, making my bed and getting dressed makes me feel like I’m in the land of the living.
  • Linked to the above is carrying on with my skincare routine. Staying inside with central heating, stress and comfort food has played havoc with my skin and it’s part of self-care. I may do a separate post on what I’m using.
  • Regular Housepartys!!! This video chat app has taken off during the pandemic – it seems everyone I have ever known is now on it. Phone calls are great but video chat makes a real difference. I have been doing this every day with my sister and it’s the highlight of my day. (We mostly talk about what we’re going to have for dinner and watch on Netflix).
  • Lastly, I do something productive. This could be cleaning out a cupboard, finally washing that throw or even putting a treatment on my hair. I use the word ‘productive’ loosely. Feeling like you should be using this time to learn a new language or how to play an instrument will only add to your anxiety if you don’t feel up to it. If we just get through this with our bodies and minds intact, that is more than enough.

 

yoga

If you have anything that’s helping you get through this strange and difficult time please let us know in the comments.

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Mxxx. by Eris Parfums

Gentle Reader, I hope all is well with you and yours at this strange and anxious time. Val the Cookie Queen will be starting a weekly coronavirus lockdown journal this Saturday. In the meantime, let’s try and distract ourselves with  perfume. 

Notes: Blue Ginger, Mace, Saffron, Olibanum, Pink Peppercorn,  Cacao, Cedarwood, Sandalwood, Vetiver, Patchouli, Benzoin, Castoreum, 7% Natural Ambergris, Pierre d’Afrique (Hyraceum), Green Vanilla.

I feel like Mxxx. is winking at me. It is knowingly playing with a few perfume tropes but you need to be in on the joke to appreciate it fully.

The original Mx. was a warm and inviting comfort scent with accords of gingerbread and saffron over light woods and cosy musks. With this 2019 Extrait de Parfum reboot, perfumer Antoine Lie has added an animalic twist as well as increased strength.

 

 

mxxx

Mxxx. starts out sweet: a swirl of vanilla and chocolate with a nice sprinkling of saffron still present. At this stage you might feel you already know everything about this perfume – yet another sugary confection. But no.

It mellows and darkens from creamy yellow/orange to deep brown. It transforms into dark chocolate praline with a background of salty feline fur. It matures and becomes a more grown-up affair in a matter of minutes. This effect is achieved by taking a cacao note and undercutting it with ambergris (the real deal no less). The result is a deceptively simple on the surface but on closer inspection, a seductive underbelly is revealed. This is my favourite part of the scent’s evolution. The moreish combination of cacao and ambergris shows just why salted caramel has become so popular.

Featuring the unholy trinity of castoreum, hyraceum and ambergris, you’d be forgiven for thinking this would be eye-wateringly sexual. It’s not quite. Somehow Lie has kept these beasts on a leash. It is more slinky and overtly suggestive than outright skanky. I am irritatingly squeamish but find it wearable.

The base is more familiar territory. It’s like one of those robust Middle Eastern sandalwood fragrances studded with spice, incense and oud. (Anyone remember Tom Ford’s Sahara Noir?) Its voice drops several octaves and in contrast with the first half of the perfume, now reads as more traditionally masculine.

Mxxx. has a good amount of throw and excellent longevity. It left a lovely sheen on my skin which shows the high content of perfume oil.

Maybe you’d like to appear as if butter wouldn’t melt but also hint at a saucy side.

Maybe you’d like a fluffy, cosy scent that flips the script later on.

Or maybe you’d like a fluid fragrance that covers the spectrum from feminine to masculine in one seamless flow.

You’ll find Mxxx. works on a number of levels.

 

damian

 

Were you a fan of the original Mx? Have you tried Mxxx?

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Romantic Reading Diary – February 2020

I thought I’d try reading romance novels for the ‘month of love’. Afterall, it is the most popular genre of fiction, so I looked up a list of the top romance books on Goodreads. Oh dear, I couldn’t get past the covers. They either looked like bodice-rippers (so many Dukes…), 50 Shades knock-offs (featuring topless men) or fluffy rom-coms (showing cartoon couples). Maybe if someone can recommend a good one I’d give it go but instead I decided to pick books in genres I already read but that featured a prominent love story as part of the plot.

Son of the Shadows (Sevenwaters #2) by Juliet Marillier

“You bound him to you with your courage and your tales. You hold him to you now. You captured a wild creature when you had no place you could keep him.”

I thoroughly enjoyed Daughter of the Forest, the first instalment in this series. Like that book, Son of the Shadows features a romance, but aside from that there is political intrigue, the Fair Folk and the dramas of the next generation of the family.  Liadan, has ‘the Sight’ and her path as a home-loving healer takes a turn when she is abducted.  The setting is one of the best things about these historical fantasy books. The ancient forest in Medieval Ireland is brought vividly and beautifully to life brimming with Irish folklore.  This was very much up to the standard of the first book and I will read on because I love this world and those that dwell at Sevenwaters. 4.75/5

This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

“Red rarely sleeps, but when she does, she lies still, eyes closed in the dark, and lets herself see lapis, taste iris petals and ice, hear a blue jay’s shriek. She collects blues and keeps them.”

time war

This one is out there guys. It’s a sci-fi novella where two female agents (codenamed Red and Blue) battle on opposing sides of a war over the future, travelling up and down the time-line trying to make changes that thwart each other and give their side an advantage. This can be anything from a swift assassination to being deep undercover for decades in order to subtly nudge events in a certain direction. They start exchanging missives first as a taunt but these letters become increasingly elaborate and heartfelt as they fall for one another. The messages come in the form of anything from a bee-sting to the rings of a tree. The imagination on display is immense and the writing often dense and poetic as you can see from the above quote. You are thrown in at the deep-end and need to concentrate on every word: there is no ‘info dumping’ here but roll with it and you’ll be rewarded by the end. It would be a good one to re-read once you have the full picture. 4/5

Time’s Convert by Deborah Harkness

“War is such a waste of women’s time.”

times converty
I thoroughly enjoyed the All Souls Trilogy which is a fantasy romance between a vampire and a witch. It was written by historian Deboarh Harkness and had a great section where they time travelled to Elizabethan London in order to escape the danger they were in. Time’s Convert comes after the events of those books and I was led to believe it centred around the relationship between two side characters, vampire Marcus and Sotherby’s art expert, Phoebe. However, the couple are apart for the vast majority of the book as Phoebe is not allowed to see Marcus for several months after becoming reborn as a vampire. We spend a far bit of the story following Marcus during the American and French Revolutions. I love historical fiction but these sections felt like they were taking me away from the current day plot (such as it was) and didn’t have a lot of relevance. It was nice to spend time with Matthew and Diana again and see their children but unlike the original trilogy, there were no stakes, no peril. It just felt like not much was really happening and sadly, I just wanted to be done with it towards the end. 2.75/5

 

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

“If he knew, if he only knew that I was giving him every chance to put two and two together and come up with a number bigger than infinity.”

call me

The narrator of this book is Elio, a man looking back on a summer romance he had when he was seventeen with twenty-four year old college lecturer Oliver, who comes to stay at Elio’s family holiday home on the Italian Riveria. I say romance, while he eventually finds his feelings are reciprocated, this is very much a study in infatuation. Elio is idolising Oliver and the introspective detail did grate on me at the start. We come to see that Oliver is almost equally taken with the idea of Elio. While Elio covets Oliver’s self-assuredness and popularity, Oliver covets Elio’s youth and musical/intellectual accomplishments. That’s why it’s less a love affair and more about wanting to possess the other person in order to get close to the experience of being them. Hence why they call each other by their own name. It works on that level but I didn’t see it as the great love story others seem to connect with so intensely. Perhaps it’s best read when you’re closer to Elio’s age.  3/5

Do you have any romantic books to recommend?

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January Reading Diary

I’ve decided to read more sci-fi in 2020 – hopefully about one a month. I know little about the genre and want to learn more about the various sub-genres and what I like and dislike. You can only find this out by reading a range of different books. It makes sense for me considering some of the most memorable books I’ve read come under sci-fi, including Never Let Me Go, Station Eleven, Flowers for Algernon and The Chronicles of St. Mary’s. But do I prefer soft sci-fi, first contact with aliens, space operas (what even are space operas?) or dystopians? I hope to find out.

 

Where The Forest Meets The Stars by Glendy Vanderah

“Sometimes bad things happen to make good things happen.”

where the forest

At the start of January, I picked up and put down maybe 5 or 6 books. It turned out what I needed was something I rarely read: light contemporary fiction with a bit of romance. This story is about a little girl who brings together two neighbours who have become fearful of a relationship for different reasons. The child turns up at night in rural Illonois showing signs of abuse. Ursa claims her home is in the stars and will go back once she has seen five miracles. She’s a bright kid and worms her way into the affections of Phd student Joanna and gruff, Gabe. It’s a sweet, hopeful tale which stops short of cutesy. Joanna is a field biologist and I especially liked the sections out in nature. I was In the mood for something undemanding and heart-warming and this fit the bill perfectly. 4/5

 

Recovery by Russell Brand

“The instinct that drives compulsion is universal. It is an attempt to solve the problem of disconnection, alienation, tepid despair… the problem is ultimately ‘being human’ in an environment that is curiously ill-equipped to deal with the challenges that entails.”

This book explains the 12-step recovery programme used in AA, NA etc. You’ll get the most out of it you have an addiction or any kind of compulsive behaviour from overeating to excessive retail therapy.  I have more generalised issues but I still found the book interesting and benefited from doing steps 4 and 5 which involve facing and releasing your past resentments. 4/5

 

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Eight different scents and eau-de-cologne were laid on in little taps over the washbasin. She turned on the third from the left and dabbed herself with chypre and, carrying her shoes and stockings in her hand, went out to see if one of the vibro-vacuum machines were free.

brave new world

 

I’ve heard that if you really like either 1984, Brave New World or The Handmaid’s Tale you are likely to struggle with the other two. This certainly rings true for me. I loved 1984 but found the writing in the other two dry with a plodding pace. In Brave New World, babies are born in hatcheries so no one has a family. Children are conditioned to consume and not to form emotional attachments.

The ideas are extremely interesting but I had trouble getting invested in the characters. Bernard sees the system’s flaws and is aware of the effects of the conditioning but is full of his own self-importance. ‘John the Savage’ acts as a contrast but this white man brought up on a Native American reservation never feels quite right. The final quarter where we learn more about rationalisation behind this brave new world is riveting but it’s all told by one of the World Controllers rather than shown.  I know it’s a monumental work of sci-fi literature but I base my ratings purely on my level of enjoyment so it’s a 3.5/5

 

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

“But I care, deeply. I find humans dull except in grief. There are very few in health, disaster, famine, atrocity, splendour or normality that interest me (interest ME!) but the motherless children do. Motherless children are pure crow. For a sentimental bird it is ripe, rich and delicious to raid such a nest.”

grief is the

I loved Lanny so much I thought I’d give this author’s debut book a try. It’s a novella dealing with grief as the title suggests.  We hear the different points of view of a bereaved family who have lost their wife and mother: ‘Dad’ and ‘The Boys’.

Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar and the third character we hear from is Crow (the title of a Ted Hughes book). He tells them he is there until they no longer need him and his parts are more in a form of prose poetry. Crow is a trickster and the most raw, brutal caregiver they could have. But then, what is more raw and brutal than grief?

They all react in both expected and unexpected ways, trying to deal with that which they have lost. The portrayal of a grieving family is touching and visceral. However, Crow is a pretty scary persona and it didn’t capture my heart in the way Lanny did.  3.75/5

 

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

dark matter

“I’ve always known, on a purely intellectual level, that our separateness and isolation are an illusion. We’re all made of the same thing—the blown-out pieces of matter formed in the fires of dead stars.”

Dark Matter has glowing reviews almost across the board. I’d classify it as a sci-fi thriller. Jason, a college lecturer with a wife and child, is abducted and drugged. When he wakes up, nearly everything has changed. People tell him he is a genius physicist but he’s also a single man without a family. It’s pretty obvious to the reader what has happens but it takes a while for him to catch up with us. I was inpatient for him to start solving the mystery and take action. When he does, the plot speeds up and it becomes gripping. I had questions about the logic of the science which meant I found it a bit frustrating. It’s a mind-binding read about identity and the turns we take and don’t take in life. 3.5/5

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

 

spinning silver

“Of course I was afraid. But I had learned to fear other things more: being despised, whittled down one small piece of myself at a time, smirked at and taken advantage of. I put my chin up and said, as cold as I could be in answer, “And what will you give me in return?”

Last year I read Naomi Novik’s novel Uprooted which had rave reviews but I rated 2/5. I loved the writing and setting but hated the way the male protagonist treated the female protagonist and their twisted relationship ruined it for me. I had the chance of reading Spinning Silver for 99p so thought I’d give Novik another try. Lucky I did, because this was just my cup of fairy-tale tea. There’s nothing I like more in January than an atmospheric, wintry read and this book is set in an imaginary realm called Lithvas (very like Russia) where the winters are getting longer and malevolent mythical creatures, the Staryk, are encroaching on the villagers more and more. One of the things I liked about the book the most is that the central family in the story are Jewish and it explores themes of anti-Semitism – not something I’ve seen in fantasy before. It revolves around three young women and the narrator switches many times without warning but it’s not difficult to work out who’s talking. I thought the way one of the women’s storylines was tied up was unnecessary but still had a great time with it. 4.75/5

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?”

Vanessa mentioned in a post on Bonkers About Perfume that I had read 50 books last year and a commenter said that it’s more about quality than quantity, citing two Dostoyevskys being worth more than 50 Mister Men books. My reading level is a little above Mister Men but I took his point and decided to give Dostoyevsky’s most famous tome a try. I think my first error was choosing a book with a theme I have little to no interest in. I don’t care for crime fiction or the motivations of criminals and this book is a philosophical examination of crime and its consequences on the psyche of the criminal. Raskolnikov is an impoverished ex-law student who kills and robs an elderly woman he pawned some valuables to. He kills more out of a feeling of superiority and an intellectual test of character than financial need. Though he suffers a spiritual crisis as a result, he never feels remorse for the woman he murdered. He’s deeply unlikeable as are most of the male characters in the book. The ‘romance’ came from nowhere and the police investigator was ludicrous. But what makes it arduous are the interminable internal and external dialogues that are either like lectures or delirious ramblings.  I will say however, that it’s easy to read, the female characters are a saving grace and learning about Petersburg in the 1860s was interesting. I was much more engaged by the final quarter but this Russian classic just wasn’t for me. I tried, Roger, really I did.  Next time, I’ll take a run at Tolstoy instead. 2.5/5

crime and punish

 

Do you feel that you should make an effort to read books that are challenging or is okay just to read what appeals to you?

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Frost by St. Clair Scents

Top Notes: Bergamot, Mandarin, Coriander, Petitgrain sur fleur, Meyer Lemon
Middle Notes: Honeysuckle, Rose Geranium, Elderflower, Petitgrain
Base Notes: Cistus, Labdanum, Vanilla, Vetiver, Cedar, Smoke, Clove

I went up to Edinburgh at the end of last year and had the pleasure of finally meeting up with crikey, whom I’ve known through the blogosphere for years now. In 2019 she set up the fabulous Instagram account @scentosaurs. Here, her model dinosaurs pose with perfume but paired with those joyous photos are heartfelt, literary snapshots sparked by the particular fragrance.

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From scentosaurs IG account

 

crikey loves indie perfumes and is much more adventurous than me. After sniffing a number of intriguing creations she kindly gave me a smaple of Frost released by American indie brand, St. Clair Scents in 2018. Perfumer Diane St. Clair produces artisanal, gourmet dairy products from her farm in Vermont and takes the same approach to perfumery, making small batches by hand influenced by the natural environment.

frost bottle

I had wrongly assumed that Frost was all about cold, icy weather. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s actually named after the poet Robert Frost whose summer writing cabin is located near the perfumer’s HQ. I was only going to include an extract from the particular poem that inspired Frost but I had to share it in its entirety:

‘To Earthward’

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of—was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Downhill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they’re gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt,
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.

The beginning of Frost is bright and zesty with the optimistic air of burgeoning love. Everything feels fresh, exhilarating and filled with a sense of boundless hope. Just below that are the sweet, tender florals of honeysuckle, elderflower and dewy roses. This is the stage where love has blossomed and all is well.

Beneath all that however, are circling wisps of smoke and spikes of spice; the foreshadowing of a heart that will eventually be charred and seasoned by the passing of a grand passion. This effect is softened greatly by a cloud of vanilla so the overall feeling is one of yearning rather than regret. The lovelorn is only focusing on the good times and longs to experience them all over again.

The fragrance ties in with the progression of the poem: we start out floating on air, enjoying the ‘sweet things’ and ‘sprays of honeysuckle’ as we travel closer and closer to the ‘bitter bark’ and ‘burning clove’, inevitably coming back down to earth. Still, the overall mood of the perfume is one of light, warmth and dreaminess.

The combination of the sparkling citrus top, delicate floral heart and vanillic resinous base works well. It’s far from a dupe, but imagine a featherlight, naturals-heavy version of Shalimar EDT and you’ll be close to the general vibe of Frost.

Being able to discern all the various facets from the start is like entering into a romantic liaison having already glimpsed how it will end, but being helpless – and unwilling – to do otherwise.

 

frost final

 

Have you tried anything by St. Clair Scents?

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Skincare – Starting Tretinoin

I’ve been using a prescription tretinoin (retinoic acid/vitamin A) cream for a year now and thought it might be worth sharing my experience.

Retinoids are the only topical skincare ingredient that have been scientifically proven to reverse the signs of aging by increasing cell turnover.

I’d been using the Paula’s Choice 1% Clinical Retinol for a couple of years with no issues but now in my late 40s I felt the need to step it up. The retinol serums produced by beauty companies can make a difference but are a lot weaker than pure tretinoin/vitamin A. As I understand it, the skin has to do some work to convert the retinol into vitamin A and some of the potency is lost in the process.

I know that in the States you can buy the retinoid acne treatment Differin over the counter. However, in the UK it’s impossible to get a tretinoin for anti-ageing purposes unless you you pay £200+ to go to a dermatologist who will issue you a prescription.

Then I found Dermatica (not a sponsored post!). They are an online dermatologist-led subscription service that supply prescription treatments for acne and  signs of ageing. I completed the online consultation/questionnaire and uploaded photos of my skin. I also provided my GP details so they that they will be informed.

 

With an introductory discount, I paid £7.98 for the first month’s treatment and it has been £20 thereafter (my subscription is set to every 45 days). They prescribed me tretinoin for anti-ageing combined with hydroquinone for pigmentation. I started with 0.25% and then they put me up to 0.05% the following month. I began very cautiously because tret is notorious for causing irritation and dryness which can leave the skin red and peeling. I applied it only once a week to begin with and gradually built up my tolerance.

After four months I could apply 0.05% every night and experienced no irritation whatsoever. I must say this is quite unusual. It may be because my skin had become acclimatised by the Paula’s Choice 1% Clinical Retinol.

As for the results, it’s still a bit early to say. With tretinoin you have to play the long game but I already feel the skin looks better even if it’s never going to shift deep frown lines, I have noticed an improvement in the skin’s quality, looking fresher and clearer with more glow. One thing to note is that retinoids increase the skin’s senstivity to the sun so you should apply at night only and use SPF the next morning fastidiously. I didn’t use it at all during the height of summer.

tret

 

Have you tried tretinoin or a retinol serum?

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Reading Diary – November/December 2019

Happy New Year!

May 2020 bring you many wonderful books as well as the time to read them.

2019 was a good reading year for me. I just missed my target of 30 books in 2018 so I downgraded last year’s goal to 25. In the end I managed 50, which I was extremely happy with but probably won’t be repeated. My favourite book of the year (though released in 2014) was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The best 2019 release I read was Lanny by Max Porter, see below.

 

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

“- ‘I bet you are not afraid of anything’, I said.
‘Of course I am,’ she said, and she pulled at a loose thread in her apron. ‘I am afraid of lies.’-”

familars

This book had a lot of promise and not just that gorgeous cover. It’s historical fiction based on the true events of the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612. I’m interested in the trials and  this period of history and it makes a change to the Victoria era I usually read about. The narrator is 17 year-old wealthy gentlewoman, Fleetwood Shuttleworth, whose midwife is accused of being a witch and we follow her galloping around the Lancashire and Yorkshire countryside trying to prove her innocence.  I felt dissatisfied because I wanted to hear the story from the point of view of the supposed witch, not a rather dull teen. Then we find out (spoiler) Fleetwood’s husband has got another woman pregnant but it all ends happily because he was only trying to protect his wife from a further miscarriage. That’s okay then. It has an average rating of 3.9 on GoodReads so I’m in the minority.  2/5

Overcoming Anxiety by Helen Kennerley

My CBT therapist recommended the ‘Overcoming…’ series of books and I started with this one. It’s a lot better than many books on the subject and has practical tools to help you cope, including breathing and relaxation techniques as well as written CBT exercises. I also liked its compassionate and down to earth tone. However, I would say it’s better for those whose anxiety causes phobias than those with generalised anxiety disorder. 3.5/5

Lanny by Max Porter

“We are but pitiful narrative creatures… obsessing over the agony of not knowing. Sisyphus, Atlas, Echo, all those poor souls, now us. It is the oldest story of them all; never-ending pain.”

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Oh Lanny, how I love you. This novel was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker Prize and while it has an unconventional format, I found it to be a page-turner. I almost read it in a single sitting but knew I had to get up for work the next morning. Lanny is one of those exceptional, magical boys who seems connected to the natural world in a way the rest of us can’t imagine. Sadly not everyone in the tiny village where he lives understands him. His mother is consumed with writing a crime novel and still sees him as her baby while his London banker father is constantly freaked out by him. The person who relates to Lanny the best is a once famous artist dubbed by the locals as ‘Mad Pete’. Running beneath all this is the ramblings of mythical bogeyman Dead Papa Toothwort who we follow as he listens to the conversations of the various villagers. He grows in power from their words and eventually reflects them back in a strange and unsettling way.

The narrator switches from character to character and to start with each is labelled: Lanny’s Mum, Lanny’s Dad etc but as events escalate so the narrative becomes more free-flowing. We see people’s prejudices amplified by quiet village life: some reassess them when Lanny is in danger but most are reinforced. It’s a call for tolerance of difference and not to rush to judgement. It’s a warning that the stories we tell ourselves and each other matter more than we realise. Most of all, it’s a very special little book and totally captured my heart. (Owing to the format, it’s best read as a paperback or audiobook). 5/5

Becoming by Michelle Obama

“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.”

I tend not to read memoirs because they are real life and that’s what I’m trying to escape through reading. However, this book has gained so much praise and was picked by Val the Cookie Queen as one of of her 2019 favourites and so I decided to try it on audiobook.  Well, believe the hype. I thought I’d be more interested in her time as First Lady and of course, the details of life inside the White House were juicy (it was gratifying that she didn’t pull any punches with Trump). But hearing about her upbringing and seeing how she made the absolute most of the opportunities her parents worked so hard to give her was what stayed with me. We learn how generations of black men were unable to progress economically because they were kept out of the unions. How her father with MS practically dragged himself to work at the filtration plant as his disease progressed. Michelle herself is a model of what dedication and drive can do for anyone given half a chance (being someone with almost zero ambition, I found it fascinating). That coupled with immense empathy and a strong belief in social justice, is a compelling combination. You just hope it gets to all those young girls who need to read it because it has the power to change the course of their lives. 5/5

Autumn (Seasonal Quartet Book 1) by Ali Smith

“All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing. All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland.”

autumn ali.jpg

Autumn is the first book in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet with the fourth book, Summer, expected next year. The books are fictional but reflect the political landscape in Britian at the time. Autumn was written around the time of the referendum and while the story revolves around the relationship between a young woman named Elisabeth and an elderly man, named Daniel, the vote is directly referenced. In fact I found myself reading Brexit into a lot of the scenes in the book. You can see nearly everything as a metaphor. Despite the age difference Elisabeth and Daniel are clearly soul mates. Daniel is now seeing out his final days in a care home where Elisabeth visits him. We go back in time to see how their friendship developed.

The main narrative takes detours into the Profumo Affair and the life and work of little known Pop Artist, Pauline Boty. I was fine with these but can understand why some find the other elaborate flights of fancy pretentious. I just let them go over my head and rolled on through until it made sense again. Overall it was really interesting to read something based on such a turbulent and divisive time and one we are still going through. I also really liked Elisabeth and Daniel and hope they’ll turn up again later in the Quartet. I decided to continue with the others books in the series. 4/5

Winter (Seasonal Quartet Book 2) by Ali Smith

“The people in this country are in furious rages at each other after the last vote, she said, and the government we’ve got has done nothing to assuage it and instead is using people’s rage for its own political expediency. Which is a grand old fascist trick if ever I saw one, and a very dangerous game to play. And what’s happening in the United States is directly related, and probably financially related.”

winter ali

The core narrative of Winter is nature blogger Art’s trip to spend Christmas with his fragile mother in Cornwall. He pays a girl – Lux – he meets on the street £1,000 to pretend to be the girlfriend he has recently split from. After realising that his mother Sophia is suffering from delusions, he calls her estranged sister Iris who arrives to help out. Happily there is a connection with a character from Autumn which becomes clear at the end of the  book. Brexit is still rolling on with fearful Sophia being a Leaver and bohemian Iris, a Remainer. Sophia has become a recluse, wrapped up in her own psychosis and scared that food is poisoned. Iris meanwhile has been living in Greece helping the many Syrian refugees arriving on boats.

As with Autumn we zip back and sometimtes forth in time to learn more about the characters. We see that Art has suppressed his sensitivities to the point where he doesn’t really know how to be himself anymore. His ex has commandeered his Twitter account in an attempt to show him up. Lux is there to illuminate them all and we later learn that she can’t get permanent employment because she might not be able to stay after Brexit. There are mentions of Trump’s election and Grenfell and we go back to when Iris protested at Greenham Common. It’s an incredibly layered book and I fear I only scratched the surface.

The books definitely bear repeated reading to get the most out them. Each one in the quartet references a different Shakespeare play and Dickens novel. Not getting these nuances didn’t bother me although some of the obtuse (to me) imagery did irritate. I have no idea why Sophia sees a disembodied head or Art, a piece of coastline floating above him. All the same, the characters and the story are captivating.  I don’t whether to continue with Spring now or read it just before Summer is released. 3.75/5

 

What was your favourite book of 2019? Do you have any reading goals for 2020?

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