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Hello again!

Goodness, this little corner of the internet has been a bit quiet hasn’t it??

I thought a round-up of the things I’ve been getting up to over the last few months in the real world, to help explain my absence here, was in order before diving into some of the wonderful books I’ve escaped into this winter!

I am very lucky and travel relatively frequently for work. A lot of the time, it is less glamorous than it sounds – a litany of bland airports, hotel rooms and offices, with twinges of homesickness adding an extra little kick. However this Autumn, trips to Athens, Madrid and Paris were all magical in different ways.

Acropolis, Athens, Nov 14

Acropolis, Athens, Nov 14

I spent a week in Athens in November, escaping a grey and wet London for blue skies, lemon trees and balmy heat. In my time there, I managed to walk up to the Acropolis, explore the small streets with ruins around every corner and eat my body weight in succulent Greek salads (as well as doing some of my day job!). I hadn’t expected a lot of Athens, having heard stories of smog and political chaos. I arrived on November 17th, the date of a notorious yearly protest in Greece, and as my taxi fought through crowds and riot police, I was even more apprehensive and unsure. However, after that the culture, the people and the general friendly and calm atmosphere utterly charmed me. Not only will I be going back to Greece under my own steam again soon, but I will be building in an escape from November in the UK into my routine if I can.

In early December, I made a flying visit to Madrid which was again a lovely opportunity to soak up some sunshine, although the temperatures were just as cold as the UK. I have been to Madrid quite a few times now on business, and will continue to visit. I have yet to get under the skin of this city – my lack of Spanish not helping I am sure (why did I decide Latin was a better idea than Spanish or German at school???). I will keep trying though! This trip was the culmination of a large project at work, which had been taking a lot of my energy, leaving little left over for this blog – hence the neglect!

Finally, just before Christmas, I visited the City of Lights, Paris. At that time, still blissfully unaware of the tragic events that were due to unfold this January. The city more than lived up to its reputation for light! The Grand Palais and the Christmas markets on the Champs Elysees were stunningly illuminated and I spent a lovely evening wandering around. I also lost myself for some time in the lovely Parisian pharmacies, exploiting the lack of liquid restrictions on Eurostar to bring back lots of skin care goodies! This may be slightly heretical, but I do find it is a little tricky to find good food at restaurants in Paris when I go and again experienced very average meals whilst I was there. Any recommendations for good, central, inexpensive Parisian restaurants are welcomed!

Paris, Dec 14

Paris, Dec 14

If you are interested in my travels, I do tend to post pictures on Instagram so do follow me over there: @caro1ine_p

I then spent a quiet, family Christmas in Yorkshire. Chestnut the guinea pig came up with us and enjoyed lots of cuddles. She also got along quite well with Henry the Labrador, shown here below on his Boxing Day walk in Wass Woods!

Henry the Labrador, Wass Woods, North Yorkshire, 26th Dec 2014

Henry the Labrador, Wass Woods, North Yorkshire, 26th Dec 2014

In all of that time, I was kept company by a series of wonderful books. I loved Shogun by James Clavell. It was a favourite of my Grandad, who passed away last year, so he was very much in my mind as I read it. It was a pacey, swashbuckling adventure story with fascinating insights into Japanese culture and history. I was left longing to visit Japan and read more about its history. For Christmas, I received a book to accompany an interior decorating programme that I was addicted to in the autumn, the Great Interior Design Challenge. I enjoyed learning about design principles and techniques in a little more detail than I ever have before and there were lots of inspiring ideas that I’ll be using in future decorating projects. At the same time, I also read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am very partial to a dystopia and this future world has a heavy dose of Shakespeare as well so I was in heaven! Whilst this is not on par with great dystiopian novels like those by Orwell and Atwood, it was enjoyable and though-provoking, on the nature of fame in particular. I started The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton after Station Eleven. I didn’t finish it. It is quite rare for me to give up on a book and perhaps I just wasn’t in the right mood…I enjoyed some of the prose but found the first quarter confusing, dull and lacking in good female characters (not to say that is a requisite for me, but it helps me to stick with books even if the subject matter doesn’t grab me!). I might go back to it one day, but based on the very mixed online reviews, I don’t think I am the only one that has given up! Have you read it? What did you think? Is it worth giving another go? Finally, I am no over half way through The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I am absolutely gripped at the moment and hope to finish it this weekend, so a more in-depth review will follow.

It is nice to be back! I won’t leave it so long next time…

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Autumn: Five Favourite Things

Autumn is my favourite season, as you may already know if you’ve been reading my blog for a while. The winding down of the year and the run up to Christmas. It also encompasses one of my favourite nights of the year in the UK, the slightly eccentric Bonfire Night! Rather than associating Autumn with gloom and darkness though, I see it as a final flare of beauty from nature and a necessary period of patience before Spring can begin again.

Autumn leaves, courtesy of geograpy.org.uk

Autumn leaves, courtesy of geograpy.org.uk

My favourite things about the Autumn are:

Leaves

The leaves haven’t quite started turning here yet after a very long, warm summer, but it won’t be long. I love the rich reds, ambers and russets. Kicking leaves on the pavement and smelling the distinctive smokey, mossy aroma are both small joys on the way to and from home.

Open fires and wood-burners

I’m just getting over a cold and am revelling in my sense of smell returning. I can just about pick out wood smoke in the air on particularly cold days now. The by-laws in London to prevent smog mean that it is only when I go home to Yorkshire that I see a comforting little puff of smoke from most chimneys and smell the gorgeous woody scent

Stews, soups and crumbles

I was given a slow cooker years ago by my grandparents; every year it is brought out in October and pressed into service again. I love the routine of browning my meat, chopping bright vegetables and then returning later from a cold walk to the smell of a warming stew or casserole. For dessert, there is really only one choice for me in Autumn – crumble! Our lovely neighbours had a bumper year in their rhubarb patch, so my freezer is stocked with enough to see us through to February in rhubarb crumbles, my favourite!

Crisp walks

I will probably be on my own here but, whilst I enjoy warm, sunny days, I actually don’t like extreme heat. I could never live in a tropical country. What I do enjoy is a bright, sharp day where you shrug on your favourite cosy coat, gloves and ear-muffs and stride through the countryside with a slight frost still on the grass. I also enjoy winter snow, but as long as I don’t have to struggle through it to work!

Autumn television

I am watching less television the older I get, often preferring to pick up a book or read blogs online. However, I do have favourite programmes, the majority of which seem to be on in Autumn. Downton Abbey, Strictly Come Dancing and other new period dramas that seem to pepper the Autumn schedules mean that I am as happy as a clam most weekend evenings at this time of year.

What is your favourite season?


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A little book shopping…

Oh dear….a little bit of book shopping has just occurred!

A pile of new books


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A New England holiday

Earlier this summer, I had the good fortune to spend a few weeks in America. We started in Boston and then made our way around New England, stopping in New Hampshire and Maine respectively. We had a wonderful time and met up with friends along the way (thank you to Katie for meeting us for lunch in Boston!). I thought I’d share a few highlights, literary and otherwise, with you here.

1. Louisa May Alcott’s house

I think that, whatever your nationality, Alcott’s classic Little Women has something to say to you. All my female friends name this as one of their favourite childhood books and, as we were planning our trip to the USA, I knew I couldn’t go to New England without seeing the house where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women.

Orchard House, the home of the late Louisa May Alcott

Orchard House, home of the late Louisa May Alcott

Orchard House itself was fascinating, not only because the belongings and paintings of the family have been preserved, but also because these old clapboard New England houses are so different from anything in the UK. I was looking round with wonder at both the personal history and the architecture, marvelling at how a seemingly fragile wooden home could withstand the notoriously harsh New England winters. The intellectual curiosity, supportiveness and diligence of the Alcott family was very much in evidence, from the thoughtfully carved door frames (on an angle so they automatically shut behind someone entering the room) and Louisa’s handmade desk, to the encouragement of May’s (Louisa’s younger sister, the model for Amy in Little Women) art work on many surfaces around the home. We were shown round the house by a very knowledgeable guide who was very patient with all our questions! Towards the end of the tour, she pointed out a quilt on one of the beds, explaining that it is thought that the pattern may have been a coded message that this house was part of the underground railroad. Although this cannot, or rather has not, been proven beyond doubt, it did felt very much within the spirit of this home and the enlightened people that lived here.

2. Concord and Waldon Pond

After visiting Orchard House, we made our way into Concord. I was excited to see this historic small town and I was not disappointed. It was extremely quaint and we had a delicious lunch at the local deli cum restaurant. From there we drove a short distance to Waldon Pond. The weather was stunning and we walked round the lake slowly, taking in the scenery, listening to the gentle ‘twacks’ of swimmers in the water and examining the touching memorial to Thoreau’s cabin.

Waldon Pond

Waldon Pond

 

Thoreau's Cabin

Thoreau’s Cabin

3. Cape Cod

Sandwich, Cape Cod

Sandwich, Cape Cod

Many apologies if this is your home, but I just had to take a picture as it summed up the beautiful and serene Sandwich on Cape Cod. We spend an afternoon browsing in antique shops (fascinating for me as the goods and shops themselves are so different to antique shops in the UK) and taking in the beautiful scenery. I felt like I was on a film set all afternoon; it was such a perfect slice of New England.

4. Baseball

I was a little sceptical when my husband booked tickets to see the Boston Red Sox. I was imagining an atmosphere like a football match here in England, masculine, aggressive and not my cup of tea at all. I was very pleasantly surprised though and had a wonderful evening at Fenway Park. We indulged in hotdogs and pretzels, bought some genuine red socks for my Dad and brother (they were delighted with them!)  and sang our hearts out to ‘Sweet Caroline’! Amazing!

Boston Red Sox vs Minnesota Twins, Fenway Park

Boston Red Sox vs Minnesota Twins, Fenway Park

5. The White Mountains

The scenery in New Hampshire was beautiful and very big; big sky, big trees, big everything. We took a historic train ride and the views were spectacular. To my surprise, this was probably my favourite part of our trip if forced to choose. Historic Boston, Salem and Concord had all been beautiful and fascinating and the Maine lobster couldn’t be beaten, but New Hampshire felt both more ‘real’ and good for my soul somehow, if that is not too fanciful!

View from the North Conway Historic Railroad

View from the North Conway Historic Railroad

6. The Big Chicken Barn

Whilst I went in to many great bookshops during our New England tour, the best undoubtably was The Big Chicken Barn just outside Ellsworth, Maine. A huge old chicken shed by the side of the road (mercifully no longer smelling of chickens!) had been converted into the biggest antique and secondhand bookshop I’ve ever seen. I could have spent a fortune and a week in there (in fact, I still spent a pretty long time in there – my husband went for a nap in the car whilst I fell down the book and antique rabbit hole!). In the end, I decided that I would only purchase things that I wouldn’t be able to find at home, and so came away with a companion to American Literature, a book from the 1930s on the history of quilting (the Alcott quilt inspired me!), some embroidered napkins, a pair of porcelain Spode candlesticks with a ‘Salem’ pattern, an old American cookery book and an American first edition of Christina Rossetti’s poems. As I struggled to the car with my purchases, my weary husband informed me that I was going to be in trouble when we went over our luggage allowance!

A few paragraphs can’t do justice to all the things we saw and learnt during our time in New England, but hopefully this has given you a flavour of the highlights and will maybe inspire a trip of your own!

 


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My ten most influential / inspiring books

A little Facebook meme has been keeping me and my friendship group amused recently. We’ve all ‘tagged’ to write a list of the ten books that have most influenced / inspired us. I thought I’d share mine here to hopefully inspire a few more recommendations and inspirations!

1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The first time I read this book, the world looked a little bit different after I had finished it. I have read this book countless times now and every time I love it a little bit more.

2. Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery
My favourite childhood series and I have a very soft spot for the red headed orphan to this day.

3. Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill
* I wrote a little explanation below for my friends on this one, but if you are a regular here, you’ll know how much I love this one already!

Am I allowed non-fiction? This book is virtually unknown, but I turn to it every time I need a comfort read. It describes the author just reading from her own library for a year, without buying any new books. She discovers old favourites, remembers the authors she has met and the stories around her books. In the end she complies her list of 50 essential books…fascinating and inspiring.

4. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Not as well-known perhaps as The Age of Innocence (which is also one of my favourites) but Lily Bart’s story broke my heart. Beautifully written.

5. The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien
My Dad’s favourite book and so I absorbed this from the cradle upwards! A masterpiece.

6. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Just how did a woman who had barely left a Yorkshire parsonage imagine a man like Heathcliff??

7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
As a Yorkshire woman, I feel I am allowed two Brontes on my list. This was the first classic I read around the age of ten or eleven and so it has a special place in my heart. I have a quote from Jane Eyre engraved on one of my favourite bracelets: ‘I am no bird, and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will’ …just to remind me!

8. Othello, Shakespeare
Does a play count? I really struggled whether to choose Othello or Macbeth, but went for Othello as I don’t think anyone understands or describes human beings better than Shakespeare and all his genius is displayed in Othello. Having studied both at school and seen them many times, I can quote from them copiously!

9. Atonement by Ian McEwan
The ending astonished me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks after I had read it. A modern classic.

10. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Opened my eyes in so many ways.

I apologise to all the wonderful books that I have forgotten to mention, but this was the list that came to me on Tuesday night. My friends’ lists contained some other wonderful recommendations that I have never read: I’ve added the The Deptford Mice trilogy by Robin Jarvis and Shogun by James Clavell to my wish list! What would be on your list? I’d love to know.

 


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Last days of summer

I distinctly noticed a slight change in the air this morning and I think it means that Autumn is on its way. We escaped for a last-minute summer break to Scotland last week and I had a blissful time…this picture pretty much sums it up!

Relaxing by the loch, Highlands, Scotland

Relaxing by the loch, Highlands, Scotland

Normal service will now be resumed after a very busy summer so expect this little corner of the internet to be a lot more active from now on.


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Five Favourite Things

Here are my favourite things this month:

1. The Bees by Laline Paull

Ever wondered what it is like to be a bee in a hive? Bizarrely, I actually have and now I have my answer! Not only does Paull have a beautiful and vivid imagination, but she has clearly done a lot of research into bee behaviour as well. The two together make this a brilliant story. I couldn’t put it down and, since finishing it, I have recommended it to everyone I talk to! Interesting fact: Laline was the name my brother called me when we were little, before he could pronounce Caroline…

2. Books and Quills

Since getting back from holiday, I’ve discovered ‘Book-Tubers’ on YouTube. I have read book blogs for many years, but had been a bit sceptical about how that would translate into videos. In general, I have to say that I still prefer my blogs, but Books and Quills is an exception. Sanne, the ‘YouTuber’ in question, has a varied and interesting taste in books. Her Dutch / American accent is very easy to listen to and her enthusiasm for books is infectious. Here is her wonderful book shelf tour, which sent me scurrying to the nearest book shop to check out her recommendations!

3. Quits

This is surprising as I am not much of a crafter. I am left-handed, which meant both my Grandma and Mum’s many attempts to teach me to knit have failed spectacularly over the years. If I am honest, I’d also just rather be reading a book, which is another reason I’ve not managed to learn basic sewing / knitting etc life skills. Despite this, on our recent holiday to the U.S, I became a little bit obsessed with quilts and quilting. It started with a tour of Louisa May Alcott’s home in Concord , Massachusetts (which was amazing and I will do a post on that soon), where a ‘Flying Geese’ quilt was pointed out as a potential sign that the Alcotts were part of the underground railroad. By the time we had reached Bar Harbour in Maine, by way of a few roadside quilt shops in New Hampshire, I was fascinated. Since then, I have purchased a few books on the history of quilting, which I will share with you shortly, and I am seriously considering booking myself on a sewing course!

4. Flat peaches

Have you tried flat peaches? I absolutely adore them. An even more delicate and delicious flavour than a normal peach, but also with a much more convenient design for eating!

5. London in the summer

I’ve also fallen a little bit back in love with London this summer. A country girl at heart, I often see only the negatives in this city I live in. However, I am back working in the very centre of London with my new job and as I walk up to Piccadilly Circus and through Trafalgar Square each evening, I do reflect on how lucky I am to live in this amazing place. With a trip to the Proms to hear Elgar’s beautiful Enigma Variations just behind us and a tour of the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery planned, my renewed appreciation for London will continue.

So there are my favourite things from the last month. I am sorry my posting has been a bit sporadic. It is likely to continue to be so for the remainder of the summer, as life is a bit busy at the moment. In the Autumn I’ll return to my usual schedule of two posts a week though. In the meantime, I hope you are having a wonderful summer as well!