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Review: The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes

amberWe are just under half way through GCSEs :-) They all seem to be OK, apart from the first two, where LD#1 had a heavy cold and went into the RE and then the French Listening exams coughing and having had very little sleep. Luckily, now that we live 2 minutes away from our doctor, it was no trouble to go down and get a note, which will be sent off to the exam board for the 1-2% extra that they might offer her, although for me it wasn’t so much the actual percentages, as making LD feel that she was in control and not disadvantaged in any way.

I’ve had the last couple of evenings off, because it was English Lit on Friday, and that’s the one thing I don’t feel qualified to teach. Also LD has a good English teacher, whom I trust to get her through the exam OK.

On Thursday, I watched a DVD of Persepolis, which is an animated film based on a child/teenager’s experiences of living through the Iranian revolution. It’s a film that I’ve been wanting to watch for a while because I think I should watch it, which isn’t to say that it wasn’t enjoyable, but its contents were always going to be a bit uncomfortable. LD#2 saw me watching it and I think was attracted by the voice of the little girl and she is going to have the DVD next, although I will tell her to stop watching if she finds it too disturbing. Some parts of it are heartbreaking. It’s a very realistic and spirited portrait of a teenager’s reaction to war and conflict – focussing very much on the longing for a normal life.

After Persepolis, I finished reading What Maisie Knew by Henry James. I’d been interested in reading this since watching the modern day set film a few weeks ago, and thinking that surely James’ original book hadn’t been as saccharine as all that?? I was right – it wasn’t.  The adults were far more awful in the book than they’d dared make them on screen.  It was extraordinary the way James managed to capture the thought processes of a small child, and the way they developed as she grew older, but without resorting to childish language or imagery. It was especially interesting the way he studied the damage that can be done to children through psychological cruelty and neglect, and the way children try to protect themselves from hurt. He took for granted many of the values we count as “modern” developments in the fields of psychology.

I have to admit that I did get quite bored and skipped a lot of the later middle of the book, as it just seemed to be more of the same: self interested adults and progressive realisation of the child.

Not so The Amber Fury, by Natalie Haynes, which I read last night. This is a book I heard about here, so thank you to anyone who has blogged a review of it. It’s an absolutely brilliant book, because on one level, it’s a realistic portrait of a young woman who delivers drama therapy to damaged teenagers in a Pupil Referral Unit, and on another, it ponders deep philosophical questions by using the pupils’ discussion of Greek tragedies, and the parallels with all their lives. It works pretty well on both levels! I can vouch as someone who has worked with teenagers that the book does a great job of picking up the realities of their casual nihilism, as well as turning a brutally honest spotlight on the emotional effects on the teacher – the constant insecurities of whether one is any good at the job or not.

Natalie Haynes really seems to care about getting across what it’s like to be authentically inside the worlds she portrays – whether it’s the world of the deaf, the world of the PRU, the world of theatre. And the ending is, like the rest of the book, beautifully thought out and perfectly apt.  I would thoroughly recommend this book!

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GCSEs looming

I’ve gone very quiet for me on the blog front recently because LD#1’s GCSEs start in 2 weeks’ time.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, this is the first lot of big exams they take at age 16, and cover nine or ten subjects, some of which are compulsory (Maths, English, Science) and some optional.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked whether she wanted help with Science.  She said, “OK”, so I printed out some past papers and got a bit of a shock when she couldn’t do any of them.  (She’s predicted an A…)  She can tell me roughly about the concepts she has revised, but can’t work out how to be specific enough with her language and analysis of data.

It’s a bit like those moments when they’re small and you look up and find they’ve climbed a huge tree and instead of saying what you’re thinking, which is “Aargh!”  you say, “Wow, look at you, you are so clever!” in order not to panic or scare them.

So pretty much every spare moment until mid June is going to be the two of us sat in front of some kind of GCSE textbook.

It’s given me some fuel for those conversations where people say that GCSEs are getting easier, because Physics GCSE is definitely not!  I have a Physics A-level and am struggling to get to grips with the OCR P7 module, which is all about space and the Universe.  I went on the internet to look for advice, and all I could find was these students on going “That P7’s hard, isn’t it??”

French GCSE on the other hand is ludicrously easy.  Students from this country will be fine when they go to France if they stick to the topics of the decor of their school and what they want to do when they grow up, all spoken very slowly.  Although having said that, I’m probably tempting fate now.

On a nicer note, here are some pictures from my house warming a few weeks ago:


photo (7)Made the flowers as I watched The Godfather.  I wasn’t really concentrating on the film, which is probably why it made less than no sense to me.  It seemed to be just people killing each other and I couldn’t work out why it’s supposed to be one of the greatest films of all time.  It’s quite nicely produced, I suppose.  Also, eminently parodiable.

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It was Bank Holiday and Waitrose was shut…

Waitrose may have been open earlier in the day, but it wasn’t at 6.30pm on Bank Holiday Monday, which was when I turned up.

As I had to go back to work on the Tuesday morning, this meant that I had to raid the fridge and work out what I could cook for breakfast and lunch, to leave for the LDs.

Thank goodness for lots of flour, butter and eggs.

This is “everything that was left in the fridge” flavour quiche – spinach and chive!


I have lost a box in my move :-( I am short some pillows, a large bag of cat food and lots of utensils, such as potato masher, garlic crusher and pastry brush.  So an almost empty bottle of Pimms doubled up as a rolling pin tonight.  Also the bottom of my flan tin has gone missing, so I used my tarte tatin tin instead, which makes rubbish tarte tatin, because it always sticks to the bottom, but quite a good quiche, because all the filling doesn’t drip out of the bottom, as it does with the flan tin.

Then had to make something for breakfast, but no shiny glaze without the pastry brush – pouring it on didn’t have the same effect.


Then I finally got onto the thing I was originally planning on making:


These are a strange shape – they look like Zingy.


Turned them upside down, filled them and covered them with chocolate:


It’s the first time I’ve made these with creme pat in them.  I’ve decided I prefer them filled with creme pat to whipped cream, because I ate one in Paris and it was amazing.  The creme pat holds vanilla flavour really well.  I need to work on getting the choux pastry a bit crispier – I think my new oven runs a bit hotter than I am used to and I need to start taking a good twenty degrees off the recipe.

Funnily enough, these two recipes gave me almost exactly the right proportion of puff to cream! (but with 3/4 of the ingredients, because I only had three eggs)

Lastly, I am having a housewarming on Saturday and would like to make some lychee martinis, as I had one at the Ping Pong dim sum place over Christmas, and they were delicious.  I’ve seen various recipes with gin or vodka, lemon juice and lychee liqueur.  I didn’t have any vodka or gin though… hurrah for the small independent off licence!


This one is four measures vodka, four lychee and one lemon juice.  You’re supposed to top it up with an amount of lychee juice/drink as well, but I didn’t have any.  I think I’m going to have to add it back in for Saturday though as it’s a bit potent without.

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I moved!

I moved house!

Here are my new neighbours



Here is the view down the street


And here is the roof terrace.


Oh, here is the house itself, it doesn’t look that great from the outside, but inside the rooms are lovely and big.


I have a landing and hallway now and it’s weird how not having those things, as countryside houses tend not to have, makes everything so much more difficult.  All your rooms tend to be corridors on the way to other rooms, which is annoying.  It used to be so difficult to clear up and clean and now it’s just easy, because we have enough space.  In fact, the kitchen is so big (over 8m long) that when I first moved in, I’d stand at the sink, look down the room and think, “My child is a long way away.”  Also because the carpet and wall colours are the same throughout, I got lost momentarily in the first few days and couldn’t immediately work out which way to turn to get to the different rooms.

Life is good in the town!  Although my dance teacher, who runs classes in both Brighton and Lewes, did describe the Lewes class as being full of “country people” which means that she has to adapt it accordingly :-)

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Moving house to music

I’m moving house on Thursday.

We exchanged last Friday and this morning I took delivery of my boxes and bubble wrap, although when I went to put the first one together just now, I realised I didn’t have any parcel tape.  So now I have decided to write on my blog and then watch Series 4 of Game of Thrones instead.

Last night my village got together to wish me farewell.  We had a gathering in the village shop, and then I went to friend’s house for one last evening of dinner eating-wine drinking-card playing-staggering home up the road in the pitch black.  My friend has a thing called Grooveshark on her computer, where you can stream any song you want, and we all got a bit nostalgic, and I found out that I wasn’t the only person in the world who counted McAlmont and Butler as one of their favourite artists of 1995.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Britpop, but I liked some of the artists associated with it (Bernard Butler was the guitarist with Suede) very much.  One precursor band to Britpop which I’m almost sure no-one else has ever heard of is Denim.  I was a word nerd in the nineties and they had great lyrics.  The Osmonds has to be the only song in history to cover a range of subjects as diverse as Camberwick Green, The Osmonds, the Black Panthers, flared trousers, Jeremy Thorpe, chopper bikes and death by terrorism.  My favourite Denim song (in fact, my favourite song of my whole adolescence) however is the single Middle of the Road, which proudly asserts the right to eschew trendy music in favour of what you really like.

I’ve been writing a lot recently, and I’ve found lots of music to work to.  Funnily enough, it isn’t necessarily music that is peaceful, but music that fits my mood.  Talking of nostalgia, I recently wrote a whole section with Aimee Mann’s soundtrack from Magnolia stuck on repeat.  Julianne Moore is one of my favourite actresses.

I’m also really into Massive Attack’s Blue Lines album.  Mezzanine has been one of my favourite albums for ages, but it’s a bit harsh for everyday office listening.  Blue Lines is much more mellow.

Other recent album purchases include Lost in the Dream by The War on Drugs, which is really not as dad rock as the often-made comparisons with Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac would suggest.

Some relaxing music for the office

and something to get me out of bed in the morning, when I am contemplating another day of negotiating all my household tasks around a huge fridge in the middle of my kitchen (don’t ask), Sleater Kinney, a female punk rock trio from Portland, Oregon.

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Exhibition: Charles Stewart at the Royal Academy

I’ve been having a mini-meltdown recently, as a rather on-off thing with my house sale takes place, with possible exchange and completion some time during the week beginning Monday 16th February… or possibly not, as all the negotiations and paperwork are still ongoing.

I have disappeared into a world of music and writing, which thankfully takes me away from everything, and also reminding myself to “just breathe!”  Which is why I’ve been quiet recently.

It wasn’t therefore great timing for one of my friends to mention that she’d curated an exhibition at the Royal Academy, and it was closing next weekend.  But I couldn’t not go (how often do people get to curate exhibitions at the RA??), and when Amanda said she’d be there this weekend, I thought what a great thing it would be to get my very own personal tour :-) considering I didn’t know anything about Charles Stewart.

Charles Stewart (1915-2001) was a graphic artist who became obsessed with the gothic Victorian novel Uncle Silas, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.  The novel has been the basis for several film and TV adaptations, and follows the adventures of innocent heiress Maud Ruthyn.  Stewart ploughed his energies into extensive research on the settings and costumes, and into numerous sketches, finally producing dozens of incredibly detailed illustrations for the book in 1948.  Despite the illustrations being well received by the publisher, the amount of detail meant that it would have been ultimately too costly to include in the sale copies using the technology of the time, so it wasn’t until the eighties that an edition that included the illustrations could be made up.

I think the Victorian Gothic is very interesting, and channels a lot of sexuality and emotion in an acceptable way, which the Victorians wouldn’t otherwise have been able to express in public.  Amanda said that Charles Stewart had a terribly lonely and unhappy childhood, and was never accepted or supported emotionally by his family (although they managed to pay for an expensive school).  She said it was very sad that it seemed Charles Stewart never found happiness with a partner.

I said I thought it was a problem of a certain kind of upbringing – if as a child you are taught to repress everything emotional, it’s very difficult subsequently to work out how to cope with healthy adult relationships.  What you tend to do is hide the problems and deny them, and channel the things you really want into obsessions.  I feel really lucky that I’ve realised now in my mid-thirties that there is another, warmer way to live life than what I knew until that point, but every so often, I still feel enormous grief for all the friendships I was never able to build, at school, at University, during early motherhood.  I’ve been trying to deal with the feelings of loss by writing about how people cope when they’re not shown warmth early on in their lives, and how people come to realise it and change their lives, and what happens when people don’t realise it, and don’t change.

Amanda and I talked about the difficulties acknowledging these problems the older you get, and the more of your life you have to admit that you’ve lost if you do admit where you really are, which ties in with my current interest in the phenomenon of what I call “completeness”: in fiction, there’s a need to provide for the reader an emotionally satisfying closure.  Whereas in real life, quite often things are messy and don’t turn out as they “should”.  I’m interested in bringing “messy endings,” a bit like Charles Stewart’s lack of a happy ending, to what I write, and working out how to make something emotionally satisfying out of them.

If you are near the Royal Academy before next Sunday, the exhibition is only £3 and well worth a look.  One of the most stunning parts is life size blow up of one of the small pictures – the original is so detailed that it reproduces as if it could have been that size originally!  Make sure to get a free show guide – they’d all gone by the time I got there, which meant that before Amanda arrived and got some out of the store room, the exhibition made no sense to me at all!

freegle(Click on the image to enlarge.  The detail is fantastic!)

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Review: Some French books

Our school was very big on French.  And because I was in the top set, it was very intense indeed.  We had to speak French all the time during lessons, no English at all (which I admit is the only way to learn) and by the time we were 14 we were reading full length novels, reviewing them for homework, presenting on them in class.  We were supposed to choose our own from the library, and the popular ones were Camus, Sagan, etc.  Because I hated being like other people, I deliberately chose not to read these books, and as an adult, chose to rebel retrospectively by never again doing anything in French.

It was only recently, while I was reading the very informative Existentialism: A Beginner’s Guide, that I came across Camus again and got me curious.  That, and the fact that I was going to Paris for a couple of days just before Christmas.  So I ordered myself a copy of The Outsider to read on the Eurostar and completed a piece of my education that I’d refused to allow myself until then.

The Outsider is the story of a man called Mersault who has an odd viewpoint in the world, who sees things very logically and in a very detached manner.  He has a faultless internal logic, but cannot see others’ motivations, and is hypersensitive to certain physical situations – slightly as if he is on the ASD spectrum, but that is not the point of the book.  The book looks at many fascinating questions on guilt, responsibility, judgement, but the thing that I was most struck by was the creation of a person and a world that bore close relation to all the phenomena that make up our own everyday lives, yet was twisted to be ever so slightly different.  A sort of dream likeness and detachedness, which I would pinpoint down to the precise logic with which the narrator explains the reasons for all his actions, but a pointed omission of many events in his past life which we tend to think of as making up “a life” or “a character”.  For example, Mersault’s mother dies early on in the book, and he explains his responses to this death, but reveals very little about his past life with his mother.

This made me think of one of my favourite books ever, A Certain Smile by Francoise Sagan.  So this book entered my consciousness about ten years ago when it was broadcast on Radio 4.  It’s about a student who falls for an older man who is already married.  It mirrored so closely the relationship I was in (not the being married part, but other problems that stopped the relationship from being equal/accessible for both of us) that I almost memorised the whole book, I read it over and over so often as being an almost perfect representation of the longing I had for what I could not have.  Re-reading it ten years later, and being free from those emotions, I still wonder that Sagan was so precociously able at the age of twenty-one to describe the sometimes bold, sometimes self-conscious, naivete of a twenty-year old girl with the detached insight of someone much older.  The logic of the narrator’s feelings is, as in The Outsider, faultless.  Likewise, details of the narrator Dominique’s childhood are few (“grey” and populated by distracted, grieving, emotionally absent parents), but there’s enough there to make a mental leap into discerning how the hunger of the unnoticed child turns into the subconcious hunt for a relationship that will fulfil as an adult.

Lastly, it was Victoria who alerted me earlier in the year to the existence of this year’s Nobel Prize winning Patrick Modiano.  When I came back from Paris, I decided that, while in the French mood and stuck in a period of “empty time” while away at my parents’ house, it was time to finally get to grips with what sounded like a fabulous, and important, author.  Which was when I discovered that there were no Kindle editions of the books I wanted; the one Modiano that had been translated into English was three novellas, and I didn’t want three short books, I wanted one whole one.  I didn’t want to wait until I got home for the paperback, or come to that, to pay over ten pounds for it.  So I chose Voyage de Noces (Honeymoon) and downloaded it in French, and ended up reading French after all, twenty years after having decided never to do this again.

It was quite a different experience having to hang on to every word in the story in case I got lost, as I am so used to speed reading these days.  The book is about a man called Jean who hears of the suicide of Ingrid, an old acquaintance of his, and decides to go on the trail of Ingrid’s husband, M.; Rigaud, (in the present) as well as reminiscing about their meeting as a threesome twenty years ago (past) and then some more about episodes from Ingrid and Rigaud’s own past (which takes us all the way back to the Nazi Occupation.)  There was, again, lots of detailed and earnest explanation about why people felt certain things, or did certain things, and total omission of very important facts.  For example, as a young man, on discovering that he has been robbed of all his money, Jean decides there and then that he will henceforth give no thought to the future.  Or, during the war, Ingrid decides to leave her father and wander off into curfew-ridden Paris.

There were parts when I suspected that the dreamy sense of logic was just to do with me and my dodgy French, but overall, I think that was supposed to be the effect.  I found it very impressive that Modiano managed to convey mystery and suspense within this “backwards story”, which I think are harder to keep infused with a sense of dynamism than it appears on the surface.  My favourite play, Pinter’s Betrayal, also works on a backwards structure, and on reaching the end of Honeymoon, I experienced a similar, gut-wrenching sense of loss relating to the sadness of the passing of time, and the way that things which are so intense and important at the time inevitably erode into nothing.

On a more cheerful note, here is a dusk time picture of my trip to Paris :-) Taken from a window of the Louvre, from the Decorative Arts section, I think.