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Review: All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

All the Birds, Singing, is marvellous.  I woke up this morning and thought, “I can read that Evie Wyld book!”  Then I got home from work and felt the same.

It’s been a while since I felt that much enjoyment just from the words the author uses and the scenes she paints.

The story is about two mysterious strands in Jake Whyte’s life, past and present.  Jake has settled on a remote British island, but is fleeing from something in her childhood/early adulthood in Australia.

The mystery of the present involves the deaths, one by one, of Jake’s sheep.  There is menace on the island regarding who she can and can’t trust out of her fellow sheep shearers,

It’s got the subtle hallmarks of a proper mystery too, with all sorts of red herrings laid out in sight on the way.  Although like Jake herself, the book is very much: “Here I am.  I’m not going to explain myself, or fit myself to anything.  I’m just here.”  Characterisation is sparsely drawn, reflecting Jake’s wariness of the world, but effective.  She doesn’t dwell over much on others’ motivations or histories, just tells it as she sees it.

I do admire it when an author makes every moment count, and that’s true of this book, which is quite short at just over 200 pages, but intense.  And boy, does it get intense.  But there are some lovely moments of humanity, and a lot of the tenderness that the reader really needs from a book so as not to become overwhelmed comes from the moments with the animals – the way Jake cares for her sheep, and the way she and her dog rely on each other.

The most interesting thing about this book was the way in which it tackled the problem of current Western literature being largely about addressing the problems of the middle classes, using the language of the middle classes.  How can we use language differently, to convey different ways of thinking, without producing a piece of art that feels in some way curtailed or limited?  In finding a solution to this problem, All the Birds, Singing excelled.


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Review: Skylight by David Hare

Following on from Condoms in the Shop, our latest village development is Lurkers in the Hedge.

On Friday, one of our neighbours was out walking his dog, when it suddenly started going mad at something in a hedge.  My neighbour went to have a closer look, and was startled to find a stranger staring back at him wearing full camouflage gear.

It turned out that there were three of these surveillance people stationed at various points on a corner in the village.

The nursery was understandably not very happy about the man in the car loitering outside, so they called the police, as did the people whose hedge was being used as camouflage. The police came out and questioned the watchers, but they were bona fide PIs, so there was nothing they could do, except tell them that they weren’t actually allowed into people’s hedges as part of their activities.

This was all the talk of the town village on Saturday morning in the shop, as was the fact that all our Year 10s had gone to Berlin on a history trip, and how much we missed them.

They came back this afternoon and they all looked exhausted, including the teachers.  I did think, as I dropped LD off on Thursday morning for a 5am start on a coach, how boundless my admiration for teachers was as they took 60 fifteen year olds across the Continent for four days, right at the end of term, into thirty degree heat.  I especially thought this as I got back home, my head touched the pillow, and I went back to sleep.

It was still on my mind in the evening, when I went to see a broadcast of Skylight, a play by David Hare about a teacher, Kyra Hollis, and her ex-lover, restaurateur Tom Sergeant.

Tom’s wife has recently died and he is finding it difficult to come to terms with her loss.  He comes back to see Kyra, with whom the couple had a strange triangular relationship, which started many years ago when Kyra came to work in one of their restaurants as an eighteen year old.

Kyra has a strong sense of the worthy in her life, while Tom is driven by the success of his businesses and the worth of entrepreneurship.  The two argue politically, and go back over their personal failures.  For two hours!  And you don’t even notice because it’s fascinating.

Bill Nighy as Tom does his typical Bill Nighy thing – all arrogance and vulnerability and very, very funny  I was surprised by how good Carey Mulligan as Kyra was – she is brittle, matter of fact, using humour as a defence, through which sudden intense emotion strains to and occasionally breaks through.

I found it distracting that Bill Nighy is massively older than Carey Mulligan.  The chronologies mean that Carey Mulligan is about the right age for Kyra, but Bill Nighy, reprising the role he played on stage 18 years ago, is too old.  They were engaging with each other, but I couldn’t feel any chemistry between them as a couple at all.  However, it’s difficult to think of someone who could have played the role to the same effect, with just the right nervous energy to convince.

Kyra had some fantastic speeches and lines about the way in which public sector workers are treated. The best of these was an angry, impassioned speech near the end in which she denounced politicians and journalists who sit around and talk about how the jobs of teachers and social workers should be done – well why don’t they “fucking go out and do it?” (or words to that effect.)  There was a big round applause from the on-screen audience for that.

What made the play balanced and therefore interesting was Tom’s questioning of Kyra’s motives.  Why has she chosen to replace warm, personal relationships with the massive, impersonal needs of endless groups of students?

This line of questioning also led to the funniest moments in the play.  Firstly when Tom points out that the tower block in which Kyra lives is miles and miles away from the run down area in which she teaches: “Living in one shithole, working in another, and spending all day travelling between the two,” is how he puts it, to a massive laugh from the audience (including me).

The other involves Kyra’s one-bar electric heater.  It’s a freezing cold night in December, an atmosphere beautifully evoked by the “transparent” set, and Kyra doesn’t have central heating.  After having borne the cold all night and into the morning, Tom explodes with the point that, “There are heaters out there that you can buy, that will actually heat!  And they’re not expensive, but oh no, that’s not good enough for you!”  Never has the spirit of the Argos catalogue been invoked to such dramatic effect; he’s totally right about it being only symbolically there for heat, as well as being a symbol for her suffering.

This was a great play to highlight the work of teachers and social workers, without being too worthy.  I also thought it gave an accurate insight regarding the real motive of teachers.  It’s not so much the great big mass of people who are coming through the system.  It’s to do with finding just that one who has a spark, whose life is changed by you being there.

Skylight is still on at the Wyndhams until 23rd August.

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Review: The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

  Our village shop has started selling condoms.  I’m not sure who the target market is supposed to be considering that the population is made up predominantly of married couples. I will remember the quirks of my village with great fondness. People love living here.  If people want a different sized house, quite often they don’t bother looking anywhere else, they just buy another house in the same village.  I’m the lucky recipient of an offer on my house from a downsizing couple in the village.  Hooray!  So all I have to do is wait for them to sell their house.  I’m more than ready to move now and feeling quite impatient for the next step (even though I know that will also be stressful). I’ve had to remind myself that it will probably be winter by the time the move takes place, and by the time I move in, it will be quite a different Lewes from that of the breezy evening streets I’ve been enjoying this week after long, hot days in an office.  Never let anyone tell you that the life of a database manage is anything less than thrilling.  This week, I have been double checking that all the Key Stage 2 results for Years 10 and 11 were correctly entered.  That’s both Test and Teacher Assessment levels in Maths, English and Science for 400 pupils. So thank goodness for iPlayer and Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal. The Betrayal: BBC iPlayer The Betrayal picks up the story of Anna and Andrei ten years after the Siege of Leningrad.  Anna and Andrei first appeared in Dunmore’s The Siege, although the book also stands alone as its own story. It is 1952 and in the wake of Stalin’s Terror, everyone know that the best way to survive is to keep your head down and not draw attention to yourself.  So when Doctor Andrei is asked by a colleague to treat the seriously ill son of a prominent commander in the Secret Police, should he accept the case or decline it? Of course you can work out the answer already – there would be no storyline otherwise Nevertheless, the tension gets to you right from the beginning – the reader is presented with two characters whose past suffering is explained subtly but thoroughly, so you are already rooting for them. The story is based on the Soviet Doctors’ Plot in which a paranoid Stalin planned to set off a mass internment of Soviet Jews by framing a group of Jewish doctors for murdering high profile officials using medical means. I did find myself wishing that the historical facts of this case had been wound more tightly into the storyline of The Betrayal.  I also felt that this wasn’t a clear cut case of betrayal – it would have been interesting to have seen a greater moral dilemma, which would have led to characters making more far reaching decisions.  This could also have led to more development in the characters – I was left with the feeling that this was a beautifully rendered description of a still moment in history, rather than the feeling that I was watching something dynamic unfold.  In comparison with The Undertaking, which was searingly realistic both politically and in terms of the way war changed people, this felt a bit Leningrad-lite.  This is an earnest book, but not a serious one.  It may have been that the abridgement left out something that was in the novel, but to me this was all about what happened, rather than why it happened.

However, seeing the book as a straightforward, almost journalistic, account of what it would be to actually undergo the events in this book, you couldn’t ask for it to be more sympathetically rendered.  It’s a classic four star book for me – perfect on one level, the human sympathy one, but slightly lacking in plot, especially bearing in mind what historical and political riches there were available to draw on. Still, it’s more than worth a listen if you are at a loose end.  Or occupied on a mind numbingly boring task.

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Things that thirteen year old boys think thirteen year old girls want to hear

LD#2 came home from Year 8 Camp on Saturday afternoon.

I was nervous that she would arrive home tired, cold, grumpy, wet, perhaps even having fallen out with her friends.  But she skipped off the coach beaming all over her face.  We had a huge hug and even though I’d known she was having an adventure and so hadn’t missed her at all, I felt emotional seeing her again.  I felt proud of her positive attitude and the fact that she had made the most of her adventure away.  All my own memories of school residential trips are of struggling terribly socially. :-(

She had loads of funny stories about the activities, and about the social evenings, and about the leaking tents and just the funny things that teenagers get up to.

Year 8 was a really important year for both my girls.  This was the year during which they gradually stopped with all those frantic wasted hours of going, “I can’t do it!  I can’t, I can’t!  I’m rubbish!” about their homework, instead of actually getting on and doing it.  And me with the frustration: “Just write one sentence!  It doesn’t have to be fantastic!  You just need to write one thing!”

They became organised and independent and realised what it was that they wanted out of life.  They didn’t need me to be there in the same way that they had before.

There are some things they still aren’t ready for in Year 8, though, including some of the things that boys think girls want to hear at that age.

Boy: “I really like the dress you bought at Camp for the disco.  You should wear it again.  Boys would look at you lots.”  (Bearing in mind that this was a fancy dress disco.)

LD: “I don’t think I would like that.”

And one from my friend about her daughter’s text conversation with a boy in her class.

Boy: “I really like you.  Will you go out with me?”

Girl: “All right.”

Boy: “You’re hot!!!”

Girl: “I don’t think I want to go out with you any more!”

People, before you laugh, could this be your son’s teenage self, trying to communicate with what he imagines to be some kind of alien life form…?

Growing up is a funny thing.

I’m still sorting out the partnering up thing and I’m nearly forty…

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Shiny New Books

Shiny New Books is a newly published book recommendations website run by a group of four wonderful book bloggers, Victoria, Harriet, Simon and Annabel.

I was really honoured to be asked to write some reviews for them!

I was given a choice of which paperback fiction review I wanted to do and I reached unhesitatingly for Almost English.  I love Charlotte Mendelson.  Daughters of Jerusalem is one of my favourite books.  She specialises in the heart rending bordering on ridiculous zone where teenage adolescent angst lives, with the added benefit of understanding how life looks when you are an immigrant/outsider.

For full review click here


In non-fiction, I was assigned Music Night at the Apollo, a book I had never heard of  by an author I had never heard of, but which I soon discovered to be extraordinary.  The blurb is rather low-key – struggling writer/journalist drops out for a year and struggles with personal issues while living on a run down house boat.

This is also a book about an outsider, but this time an outsider who has moved between social classes and finds it difficult to work out where her place is.  It’s intelligent and original.  I haven’t read another book like it and I’d highly recommend it.

For full review click here

Please go and take a look at the new Summer Issue of Shiny New Books, where there are loads of fresh ideas as to what you should read next.

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Seafood salad and Thai salad

Yesterday I made seafood salad, with prawns and tinned mussels.  There was a summer a few years ago when the girls were small and I practically lived off mussels and salad, not having anyone else to cook for.

In those days, I didn’t bother with the dressing, as I love the briny oily seafood-y liquor that you get in the tin.  However, mussels are not a child-friendly foodstuff at the best of times, so I decided to make my own seafood sauce, rather than persuade LD#1 of the merits of a dressing made solely of oil and mussel parts.

When I was a child, I used to like mixing mayonnaise and tomato ketchup, and this to me was my very own sauce.  So I was disappointed to find when I was older that this combination had already been discovered, and was known as seafood sauce (two parts mayonnaise to one part ketchup).  A squirt of lemon juice, plus zest, and a splash of Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce, improved my childhood concoction even further.

Today I still had loads of prawns left over (I ate the rest of the mussels for lunch, because LD didn’t like them), and this put me in mind of a Thai salad.  Since concocting Thai salad is not a secret childhood pastime of mine, I had to look up what to do on the internet.

What I really liked about the recipes I found is that there is no oil or mayonnaise involved.  I do think that salads can be deceptive in that the dressing piles on loads of invisible fats that we are not aware of.  I’m all for a treat now and then, but also want to have a stock of low fat recipes that I can call on so that I know I’m not overdoing things.

I made my sauce as follows: juice and zest of half a lemon, two dessert spoons of balsamic vinegar, one dessert spoon of sugar (I know, I know, I’m just replacing fats with evil simple carbs…), tiny tiny splash of soy sauce, tiny tiny sprinkle (you will know your limits better than me) of chilli powder.

I didn’t think something so, well, sour would work, but it was nice.

I also made some noodles!

Since I regularly make pasta, I’ve long wondered about making noodles as well.  Although for the life of me I can’t work out what the difference between noodles and pasta is.  I wanted to make the big thick noodles, similar to what we call “yuw mein” in Chinese.  That is basically fresh noodles that are really oily (“yuw” means oil).  After a bit of looking round the internet, I decided to substitute normal flour for pasta flour (so that the noodles would be softer) and to add some butter (yeah, that most Chinese of ingredients) to my usual 1 egg + 100g flour base.  I also rolled them thicker than usual.

They are a lot paler than “yuw mein” (I’m wondering if food colouring is involved in the shop bought variety) and a different shape, because my pasta cutter won’t do the traditional thick cut noodle shape. They tasted OK though.

The other thing is that I had to buy a normal Iceberg lettuce!  LD#1 has been eating the salads fine but says that she doesn’t like the mixed salad leaves.


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Caesar salad with pasta

I worked late today, which meant that a salad was good news in the cooking stakes, but bad news in the shopping stakes, as I wanted to try something different from yesterday’s dressing, a creamy dressing rather than a vinaigrette.

Caesar dressing was the obvious choice.

“I’m working late,” I said to LD#1.  “When you come home from school, will you go to the shop for some Parmesan?”

They have some lovely cheeses in the village shop opposite my house.  How, you might ask, can I bear to move away from a shop that stocks local goat’s cheese, and olives, and different types of flour, and sweet salty perfectly cooked ham, and home baked cakes?  I wonder that myself sometimes.

A shop, of course, is no good if you can’t get to it, nor if your daughter refuses to go for you, on the grounds that she doesn’t like interacting with other people.

Luckily, I found one of those pots of ready grated Parmesan in the fridge, so when I got home, I was able to make Caesar dressing as follows:

1 egg yolk, 1 tsp Dijon mustard, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1tsp white wine vinegar, 1 tsp fish sauce dash of Worcestershire sauce.  Mix it like mad with a whisk.  Mix in finely grated Parmesan to taste.  Job done.

I’d made some pasta the night before – 1 egg + 100g pasta flour + salt.  Mix it all together and run it through the pasta machine.  Job similarly done. I know Delia says that the dried stuff from the shop is just as good, but it’s really not.

Here is the finished salad, with cheddar shavings on the top in the absence of a good, hard cheese.  Obviously this recipe could be improved by the addition of a sociable, shop-going child:


The school blog says that Year 8 have been caving and climbing and are a little wet now!  I worry about LD#2, as she gets cold very easily.  I hope her wetsuit kept her dry.

At home, things are still quiet.  I ask LD#1 whether she wants to practise her GCSE French speaking controlled assessment on me, but she says she is OK.  I hint that I could help her with her accent, as, although she is adept with the words, she pronounces them like the proverbial vache espagnole.  She says a firm No Thank You, explaining that she doesn’t like sounding too French.

The controlled assessment is a weird thing.  I remember when I learned French at school, we were taught how to write and how to speak because we would be examined in those very things at the end of the course.  I was really surprised when I found out that one of the exam boards no longer runs exams in speaking and writing.  Instead, they do controlled assessments, which are pre-prepared tasks, which the students write for themselves, then remember and regurgitate at some point during the year.  It doesn’t seem quite so rigorous as an exam, somehow.