Tuesday, 20 January 2015

What I Read Over Christmas: Mini Book Reviews

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to read more so I’ve set a target of 25 books this year (my baby is due in late April so I’m trying to not set the bar too high). It may be a little shameful that a librarian has to set a target like this in the first place!! But ever since I got a smart phone around two years ago it has encroached upon my reading time - and time spent flicking between apps at night does not lead to a peaceful night’s sleep. So the plan is to put my iPhone at the other side of the room and make books my night cap again.

I read three books over the Christmas - one of which was a re-read. I adored two and alternated between enjoying and wanting to shake the third! Here are my condensed thoughts on each of them.

'Breakfast at Tiffany's' by Truman Capote

"Never love a wild thing,[...] If you let yourself love a wild thing you'll end up looking at the sky."

This was my re-read and I loved it as much the second time as the first. I loved the movie too ('Moon River' was mine and my husband’s first dance song at our wedding) but the book is a lot darker than the film and apparently Truman Capote stated the adaptation made him want to throw up! Not a glowing endorsement and I can see how he may have felt the book was overly sentimental but for me the two versions of Holly Golightly are two completely separate characters.

The book, or novella rather, follows ‘wild thing’ Holly Golightly’s whirlwind life in New York as she tries to outrun her small town past and reinvent herself as a glamorous, charming, socialite - leaving a trail of mystified jilted men, some dodgy dealings with the mob and the scent of perfume in her wake. When a writer moves into the apartment downstairs from Holly the two become friends and we begin to see the cracks in her facade appear.

Like her cat - which Holly simply calls ‘Cat’ because to name him anything else would be to stake an unfair claim over him - she is terrified of being caged up and tamed by anyone but also terrified of being alone.

I loved this book as much as on the first read - and Capote’s Holly is so much more complex than the film version. It’s really a character study of a very scared and lonely woman and can be read in an afternoon. A must-read and re-read!

Rating: 9/10

'Noughts & Crosses' by Malorie Blackman

“I used to comfort myself with the belief that it was only certain individuals and their peculiar notions that spoilt things for the rest of us. But how many individuals does it take before it's not the individuals who are prejudiced but society itself?” 

I’ve been reading more teen fiction lately partly because it’s nice to be able to chat to teens at work about what they’re reading and partly because I recently read the Hunger Games trilogy and it opened my eyes to how clever modern-day teen fiction can be (well aside from the final instalment in the trilogy that is!!).

I loved the concept at the heart of Noughts and Crosses - it’s set in an alternate historical reality where black people rule over white people and slavery has only recently been abolished. It revolves around two star-crossed teenage lovers - Sephy who is a Cross and belongs to the dark-skinned ruling class and Callum who is a lowly Nought. But in their world the classes don’t mix and the racial tension and prejudice begins to encroach upon their relationship. Can they find a way to be together….drum roll...

So good concept but not so good execution in my opinion. I just found the characters too underdeveloped and one dimensional and the writing too melodramatic. Maybe the Hunger Games made the romantic sub-plot a little too restrained and simmering, but Noughts and Crosses is guilty of the opposite. It felt like the relationship drove the plot points rather than the other way around - and drove it down some slightly ludicrous avenues for that matter. I’d have loved more exploration of the racial background. But having said that this probably is a good book to provoke debate amongst teenagers and maybe I’m just too old and cynical for the melodrama!

Rating: 5/10

'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage' by Haruki Murakami
"One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss."

I should probably preface this review by saying I’m a huge Haruki Murakami fan and he can do very little wrong in my eyes. So maybe this book could be accused of being a little paint-by-numbers in terms of featuring his signature checklist of characters and themes - the lonely, detached male protagonist, some musings on classical music, a beautiful woman who offers some form of redemption, and a side helping of surrealism - but if it ain’t broken don’t fix it as far as I’m concerned! The fact that I got to meet Murakami at the Edinburgh Book Festival and get my copy of this book signed also gives it a special place in my heart. (Let’s not dwell on the fact that I was so dumbstruck when standing in front of him that I was reduced to incoherent mumbling!).

The book follows Tsukuru Tazaki, who in his 30s is still haunted by his sudden and unexplained social expulsion from his close-knit gang of four school friends. The ‘colourless’ part of the book’s title comes from the fact that in the group, Tsukuru was the only one whose name did not include a colour, making him question if he contributed anything to the group dynamic in the first place or if his personality is equally colourless and bland and at the heart of the rejection.

Upon the insistence of his new girlfriend that ‘you can hide memories, but you can't erase the history that produced them’, Tsukuru sets out to find his old friends and discover why they cast him out so brutally and irrevocably.

This book is a really interesting exploration of the value and meaning of social ties and that sense of belonging. What happens to someone’s sense of self when it becomes so detached and isolated from the world around them and what effect do we have on the people closest to us in the first place?

I wrote a little about my own personality in this post a while back and how I feel I’m primarily an introvert but with extrovert tendencies, and I think that’s partly why I love Murakami’s books so much. I need a balance between being a wallflower and watching the world unfold around me and interacting with it. Most of Murakami’s protagonists in the novels I’ve read hover somewhere on the boundary between these two traits also (albeit on a more extreme level)- and while they may detach themselves a certain amount there’s still an invisible thread connecting them to the world around them and anchoring them.

The book left me with a few unanswered questions and a couple of underdeveloped plot lines but I like that it made me fill in these blanks more myself. It’s not my all-time favourite Murakami novel - but that would be a tough feat - but I found it a really absorbing and gentle read.

Rating: 8/10

So what have you been reading? Any must-read gems you can recommend?

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Tantallon Castle

In exactly 3 weeks I’ll be loading up a removal van and moving back to Ireland. I haven't fully processed it at all! It’s very much a bittersweet move – while I've missed my family and friends and lots of other little things about Ireland these past few years, I love my job as a librarian and so many of the amazing people I’ve met here in Scotland. So in the spirit of making the most of our last few weeks here, my husband and I have drawn up a bucket list and are trying to see as much of Edinburgh and its hinterlands as we can before we leave.

And another castle (or two) was high on the priority list. Scotland has the most amazing castles ever – it definitely trumps Ireland in this category. And they’re all so unique looking – I've visited one that looks like Rapunzel could be harboured there, another covered in psychedellic grafitti and another that looked like it was perched on the edge of the world. And I've only seen a teeny tiny per centage of them in the 4 years I've lived here.

Last week we took a quick drive out of Edinburgh to Tantallon Castle (about 45 minutes away and just outside of the town North Berwick). This particular one looks like a giant, formidable sandcastle and is perched on a promontory so it also has the whole dramatic edge-of-the-world feel going on.

The castle dates back to the 14th century and it’s semi-ruined so it was really fun to explore and to picture the crazy battles and banquets that took place here in the past. And like all good castles it’s rumoured to be haunted - with ghostly figures apparently occasionally photo bombing unsuspecting tourists. It made me a little nervous glancing at my own snaps – but I think they kept their distance.

I managed to snap a couple of outfit pictures a little bit away from the castle – where the bitingly cold winds were a little less severe. But being almost 6 months pregnant now outfits are getting trickier. I’m reverting back to a more boho style just because looser things are obviously more comfortable. But everything is sitting that little bit higher on me because of my bump – so I wouldn’t normally advocate such short hemlines for freezing cold Scottish castle visits! I’m going to have to transition into proper maternity wear pretty rapidly but it’s hard to get at all excited about buying maternity clothes – the range seems so limited, boring and pattern-shy to me. But maybe I’m just shopping in the wrong places. Plus Edinburgh’s maternity sections are pretty tiny in the likes of Topshop and H&M. So if anyone has any tips or advice please send them my way.

So just three more weeks and a whole lot sightseeing, packing and goodbyes to get through. It’s going to be pretty hectic! 

Outfit: Dress, Urban Outfitters; cardigan, Urban Outfitters; scarf, Urban Outfitters.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Out With the Old, In With the New

Happy New Year everyone...or anyone who happens to still be reading! Long time no blog post! 2014 hasn’t been a very prolific year around these parts but – off-line – it’s been wonderful in all sorts of other ways…the main one being that I’m 6 months pregnant. Which has meant lots of sickness, lethargy, nerves and excitement but not a lot of energy for blogging. It’s also the year that my husband and I decided to move back to Ireland and in early February that’s finally happening. We’ve lived in various spots around Scotland for nearly four years now and Manchester in England for a year before that, so I’m ready to put an end to our nomadic ways and to grow some roots back in Dublin surrounded by old friends and family. 

So although I haven’t blogged very much in 2014, now that I’ve got more of a pep in my step I’m hoping to change that this year. So that’s the first (and kind of a staple!) resolution for this year (1). The rest are as follows:

2) Spend my free time more constructively

This basically means less mindless TV, Internet browsing and general faffing about. My baby is due at the start of May and I’m sure free time is about to become a lot more precious. So slumping in front of the TV and watching Come Dine With Me or Made in Chelsea probably isn’t the best use of my time. And that’s where the rest of my resolutions come in…

3) Complete my Edinburgh/Scotland bucket list

I have a list of historic sites, coffee shops, restaurants and other touristy things I still want to visit before moving back to Ireland. So I have a month to pack them all in. I’ve already ticked one off the list today with a visit to a castle. Were I to live in Scotland for another 4 years I’d never grow tired of its castles – nor run out of new ones to see.

4) Read at least 25 books

I’m trying to be conservative with this number as I know from May things are going to be a little crazy. But even in between nappy changes, feeds and all the other fun and games, there’ll have to be some down time and I’d rather spend that reading a book than switching off in front of the TV. I’m off to a good start so far and have just finished Haruki Murakami’s new book Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage which I loved – a review to follow. If anyone has any must-read recommendations please send them my way.

5) Crochet a second baby blanket

The first baby blanket was part of last year's resolutions. You can see the finished product here. But this time round the baby blanket will be for my own baby rather than my niece. I started making a cushion cover this time around then when I found out I was pregnant the plan was to just keep going - things have since ground to a hopefully temporary halt.

6) Travel more around Ireland

All of my trips back to Ireland over the last 5 years have generally involved intensive catching up with family and friends so I’m looking forward to having the luxury of time to be a tourist in my home country again. I’ve see very little of Northern Ireland so that’s top of the list – especially the Giant’s Causeway. So whether it’s day trips or the occasional weekend breaks I’d love to try and get out and about a lot more in Ireland.

7) Learn to sew

This is one from last year that I didn’t get around to. But perhaps one beginner needlework project per year is sufficient. So now that I’ve gotten the hang of crochet I want to finally dust off my sewing machine and try some small projects – a baby Christmas stocking being amongst them.

8) Write up my dissertation and submit it for publication

This is a rather boring one but almost two years after submitting my dissertation for my library and information studies masters I want to finally write it up as a paper and try and get it published in a journal. 

9) Take more photographs

Photographs are like a visual diary for me and I usually put together an album of the previous year’s adventures each December. This year has huge gaping holes though. Less blogging has meant less photo taking! So this year I want to change that. And if possible even squeeze in a photography course before May.

10) Find a new job in Ireland

Moving back to Ireland mid-pregnancy makes things pretty complicated work-wise. I love my job in a public library here in Edinburgh and having to leave it has been one of the hardest parts of deciding to move back to Ireland. So fingers crossed it all works out and I find something as good back in Ireland given time.


So it’s a fairly eclectic list of resolutions set against a challenging backdrop – a new baby and moving country. But I haven’t been as excited (and admittedly maybe a smidgen terrified too) about a new year before so I’m ready to jump straight in. So what are all of your New Year resolutions? Any similar ones to my own?


Oh and as per tradition, here’s a snapshot of some of the highlights of the past year… 

Favourite Films (watched in 2014)

Boyhood, In Order of Disappearance, The Skeleton Twins, Nightcrawler, The Guest, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Favourite TV Series

Homeland (Season 4 – except for the final episode!), Love/Hate, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black
Favourite Books

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, the first two Hunger Games books (unfortunately not the third) and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.

Favourite Memories

Holidays to New York, Hungary and Romania plus a girly holiday in Amsterdam, going from part-time hours to full time at work, finding out I was pregnant, a long overdue college reunion, a low key New Years with my husband, our cat Midge and bump.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

My NYC Tips

I spent a week in New York last March and amongst the sightseeing highlights were some of the places we ate, drank and lounged in. So I thought I'd share a couple of my recommendations. They're a motley crew spanning different neighbourhoods and boroughs but they all get a huge thumbs up from me so I wanted to pass them on for anyone planning or daydreaming of a visit to New York.

Dinner Favourites

The Shake Shack | 366 Columbus Avenue
Succulent burgers and cheese-covered fries oh-my! If you're planning a trip to the Museum of Natural History then this is the perfect indulgent stop-off to refuel as there's a branch just around the corner. It's a pretty widespread chain though so there are plenty of other ones to choose from dotted around the city. The fries here were perfect - though if you douse something in enough melted cheese it's hard for it to taste bad - but I had a control portion in my husband's plain fries and they were equally yummy. Fast food at its best!

Big Daddy's Diner | 239 Park Avenue South [There are also branches on the upper east and upper west sides]

We met friends here for breakfast on our first morning in New York after grappling with lost luggage and delayed flights the night before so we were impatient for our NYC experience to begin. I'm a total sucker for retro decor and this was the perfect all-American diner experience to kick start our holiday. It was so good we came back a second morning. I ordered a Big Wow Wow each time - we're talking waffles drenched with maple syrup, bacon, hash brown, scrambled eggs and a choice of fries or fruit - fries all the way! The portions are so big it was more like a breakfast and lunch rolled into one - just leave your conscience at the door. Holiday calories don't count!!

239 Park Avenue South
239 Park Avenue South
239 Park Avenue South
The Spotted Pig | 14 W 11th Street [West Village]
Another great dining find courtesy of our friends. This place is nestled in the West Village - very close to the famous Magnolia Bakery from Sex and the City so you can grab some cupcakes here for dessert afterwards. The Spotted Pig is known for its burgers and shoestring fries - which are wispy and delicious - but the menu is fairly varied so you don't just have to eat burgers and all kinds of other badness at every meal like me! I loved the decor too - it's more of a gastropub than a formal restaurant and the dim lighting and cluttered walls makes it feel like someone's cosy living room. We arrived around 8pm and had to wait an hour for a table so probably best to get there earlier if you're hungry!

Coffee/Lunch Favourites

Le Pain Quotidien [Branches all over the city]

This is actually a chain of bakeries across America and Europe that do a really good job of feeling unique. We just had coffee and cake but the lunches looked great too. It feels like an old farmhouse canteen with long wooden communal tables. It didn't hurt that Bruce Dern (who starred in the amazing film Nebraska last year amongst loads of other great films) was munching on his lunch with his wife next to us. This is a lovely stop off.

The Rabbit Hole | 352 Bedford Ave, Brooklyn

This was my favourite stop-off of the entire holiday and given the overall high quality that's saying a lot. We had brunch here before making our way to the Brooklyn Flea Market but their dinner menu looked great too. Everything was prepared to perfection, from our cappuccinos to my French toast and my husband's sandwich - it was so fresh and tasty. And the decor is the rustic style I love so much. We had a bit of a wait for the table but it was worth every minute.

Drinking Favourites

The Back Room | 102 Norfolk St [Lower East Side]

New York seems to specialise in speakeasy style bars whether intentionally or not - lots of the bars we went to were discreetly tucked away and not very noticeable from the street. The Back Room actually operated as a speakeasy bar during prohibition times and cocktails are served in tea cups as in the good 'ol days. It feels very opulent with chandeliers, plush couches and a gilded Victorian style bar. The bar is accessed via a dark dingy alleyway that makes the interiors all the more surprising.

Freemans | 91 Chrystie Street #2F [Lower East Side]

This is a popular lunch/dinner spot but we just stopped in for drinks. This place has rustic decor in spades - with taxidermy all over the walls and fairy lights adorning the entrance. It also had Andrew Rannells (aka Elijah from Girls) propped up at the bar on this particular night - though unfortunately he's most likely not a permanent fixture.

Shopping Favourites

Awoke Vintage | 132 N 5th St, Brooklyn

I love vintage but I can be a little lazy about rummaging for diamonds amongst the rough so I love curated stores and you could tell that everything in this shop had been very lovingly and carefully selected. Everything was beautifully displayed too and there was loads of room for the clothes to breathe. The prices are a little high but so is the quality so it's a good balance.


The Brooklyn Flea Market | Williamsburg, Brooklyn

This flea market completely surpassed my expectations. There's a little bit of everything - from your typical market bric a brac to great food, giant pink elephant sculptures, funky jewellery and cool art. The prices are less typical and are quite high for a flea market but that's probably to be expected given the location. Plus even if you don't want to buy anything just find a nook and sit back and people watch.

Fish Eddys |  889 Broadway at 19th Street

This store is my idea of kitchen decor heaven. I stumbled upon it by accident and just wish I'd had more room in my suitcase. It was full of cute quirky patterned crockery and glassware and other kitchen trinkets. It was like the Anthropologie home section except reasonably priced and even cuter!

Sightseeing Favourites

New York Public Library | 5th Ave at 42nd St

Like any good nerdy librarian on holidays the public library is one of my first stops. I just have to try and restrain myself from sidling up to the staff and whispering to them that I'm a kindred spirit! The flagship New York Public Library is very grand and very beautiful. They had an amazing exhibition on children's literature when I was there and a series of lunchtime author visits with some huge names - oh to have access to this library on a regular basis. The building itself is stunning - and the reading rooms on the first floor made me want to pull up a seat and put pen to paper confident in the knowledge that you couldn't but write something half decent in an environment like that!

The High Line

The High Line is a disused freight rail line that has been converted into a public park. It’s a beautiful oasis of green that gives you a great vantage point of the rest of the city scurrying along beneath your feet. It stretches from the Meatpacking district as far as 34th street. It’s a lovely way to see New York without having to brave the mean and traffic-clogged streets.

DUMBO Street Art | Brooklyn
DUMBO stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. Not only does this area provide a fantastic waterfront view of the NYC skyline but there's some amazing street art around here too that's worth the trip alone. And make sure to stop off at the Brooklyn Ice-Cream Factory for some yummy sundae goodness.

The Museum of Natural History | Central Park W & 79th St

I feel like I've visited this museum so many times before through books, TV shows and films! Some parts of the museum are better than others (there are a few that feel a little stale and in need of a makeover) - but when it's good it's great. The fossil exhibits are incredible and the diorama mammal halls are like perfect little peep holes into the natural world. There were some really good temporary exhibitions on while we were there too which cost extra but were well worth it. One was on the history of poison, while the other was a butterfly conservatory you could stroll through while all kinds of butterfly and moth species fluttered about. The exhibits change all the time but the two I saw were great.

And that's my tuppence worth on New York - please feel free to add any suggestions of your own. These are just the highlights from my week but you could probably spend your whole life in New York and still only uncover a fraction of its gems. Hopefully some day I'll get to revisit.