Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

New Christmas recipe

Happy Boxing Day!

I’ve been rather quiet of late, I know. It’s been a difficult few weeks for me – I always struggle this time of the year with feeling low and lethargic and slightly bewildered, but some years seem to be worse than others, and this year seems to be one of Those Years. So I’ve struggled with doing more than the basics, and of course it’s been a time when more than the basics has been required of me – come to this carol service/Nativity play/concert, order presents/a turkey/tickets to things, write Christmas cards and letters (and I confess that my Christmas cards this year were written with very little joy or good will), remember birthdays which people keep on having, even though it’s Christmas. I feel I might well be part-human, part-small aestival creature when part of my brain seems to be bellowing Just hibernate – HIBERNATE, for goodness’ sake! from late October onwards. Although this year I, and a couple of friends, have noticed that this experience has had a later onset, which I put down to the beautiful summer weather we had – it appears that we can store up so much sunlight to last us further into the darker times.

Ann Voskamp‘s book The Greatest Gift, and her advent posts in her online journal have helped me enormously by reminding me to keep turning my focus back to Jesus when things get fraught, remembering that he’s what it’s all about – all the time, not just at Christmas. Something she said that really struck me (and I might be paraphrasing here as I’m typing this on my phone and it’s hard to crosscheck) is that whatever we do/don’t do, we’re not “ready for Christmas” until we’re ready for Christ.

But even with that in mind, gifts do need to be given, and especially to those to whom we’re really grateful for all they do. Southern Daddy and I have felt truly blessed by the school our girls attend and by the effort and sheer hard work the teachers so obviously devote to encouraging, challenging and enthusing the children in their learning (so much so that we’ve had to work quite hard ourselves seeking a suitable secondary school for the Bookworm next year that’s as similar as possible. But that’s another story for another time). Each year, as I’ve said in the past, I try to make or bake something special for them as a Christmas gift, and again in summer, to express our gratitude. This year I had the particular challenge of catering for a teacher who is gluten-free and another who is dairy-free. One or the other would be quite straightforward, but it’s much easier and more economical to whip up a couple of batches of something and give the same to everyone, so I worked on a gluten- and dairy-free recipe and was quite pleased with my final result (particularly as I’d been putting off trying it for so long I’d reached the point where if it hadn’t worked I’d have been in trouble!). Based on Mary Berry’s recipe, it’s a shortbread with (I think) a Christmassy twist that uses gluten-free flour, polenta as a gluten-free substitute for the semolina which gives it crunch and a combination of dairy-free margarine and vegetable shortening in place of the butter (as I felt the margarine on its own would not have provided the shortness you’d get with butter). I’d read that those fats would provide a rather less enjoyable flavour than butter, hence the inclusion of my Christmassy flavourings, which, at a different time of year, could be substituted with something else, such as lemon zest or lavender.

Spiced Satsuma Shortbread

225g/8oz gluten-free flour (I used Dove’s Farm)
100g/4oz caster sugar
100g/4oz dairy-free margarine (I used Pure)
100g/4oz vegetable shortening (I used Trex)
50g/2oz polenta
50g/2oz cornflour
Grated zest of 2 satsumas (and possibly the juice of 1)
Ground cinnamon and cloves, to taste (I used about 1tsp cinnamon and a pinch of cloves)
25g/1oz Demerara sugar

1.Grease a tray bake tin of about 30x23x4cm/12x9x1.5″ and line the base with a sheet of foil if you are worried about marking it with a knife. Preheat the oven to 160C/325F/G3. (In the Over-Zealous Oven I do it at 140C, this may be a good guideline for fan ovens in general but you know your own oven!)

2.Rub the flour into the margarine and shortening, then add the other ingredients and work together to form a ball of dough, or process everything together in a food processor.

If it’s not coming together add the juice of one of the satsumas (more likely with gf flour as it requires more liquid).

3.Press the dough into the tin and spread it as evenly as possible. Sprinkle the top with Demerara sugar.

4. Bake for 30-40 minutes until pale golden and cooked through. Allow to cool in the tin for a few minutes, then cut into about 30 fingers. Lift out and finish cooling on a rack. I do recommend you try at least one warm, as there’s nothing to beat the delicious crumbliness of fresh shortbread straight from the tin!

There are no photos of these at present (another casualty of my bleak mood, I’m afraid), but in appearance they are not so different from ordinary shortbread. Everyone seems to have enjoyed them and I had a lovely email from one teacher (the dairy-free one) to thank us for considering her.

I’ve also had a couple of goes at 2-ingredient fudge from Beth Woolsey’s blog. I was skeptical about fudge you made in the microwave but I’ve now tried it twice (once with whisky and once with crushed candy canes) and it really is as good as she claims and useful for handing out to delivery people over the festive season!

Do share your Christmas cooking discoveries with me, I’m always on the lookout for new ideas!

Thankful for

The readings and the friends that sustained me through the busy, difficult weeks

The chance for a big rest for all of us!

Hearing my girls playing together and having the chance to “just be”

The sunshine in between the abundance of grey weather


Longbourn by Jo Baker: audio edition read by Emma Fielding (Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge: November)

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200Once again I’m blogging this review in the nick of time – tomorrow is the last day of November and I’ll be out all day anyway.

I’ve had Longbourn downloaded to my phone for some time and finally got to listen to the bulk of it whilst driving to and from my sister’s in the North West at the beginning of last week. In the little car I’d hired there was nowhere to plug my phone into, so I had to rely on its own speakers and the volume turned up as high as possible to compete with the sound of the engine and variable road surface, but I discovered in the end that I could hear it quite well if I had it in my lap, and only had to pull over a couple of times when, frustratingly, the Audible app froze and needed restarting (it’s a very elderly iPhone which I’ve somewhat overloaded and occasionally it protests and requires kind words and soothing taps to placate it).

Anyway – for those who haven’t heard of it, Jo Baker’s Longbourn is a novel which takes place over roughly the same time period as Pride and Prejudice (with a flashback to some years before, and a continuation at the end), but is told from the point of view of the servants who work in the Bennets’ house. Mrs Hill, the housekeeper, at least, will be known to the readers of Pride and Prejudice (and certainly to the viewers of the BBC television adaptation, thanks to Alison Steadman’s frequent screeching of her name!). Alongside her, the staff comprises her husband Mr Hill and housemaids Sarah and Polly. A manservant, James, joins them early on the story, and readers also meet some of the staff of Netherfield and Pemberley at times.

The story piques the reader’s interest from the outset – who is the fleeting figure Sarah glimpses in the road outside the estate, whilst she’s hanging out the washing? Why is Mrs Hill shouting at Mr Bennet in his library – and how does she have the nerve? As Sarah goes about her daily business of laundry, cleaning, cooking and dressing the young ladies of the house, not to mention the seemingly endless washing up, she’s aware that there might be more to life than what she’s experienced so far. With vague memories of her life before she came to Longbourn and ideas from the books she borrows from the Bennet family, she wonders if she should be content with her lot in life. The new arrivals at Netherfield bring more upheavals and romantic notions and Sarah begins to question who she is, and who she wants to be. Meanwhile Mrs Hill and James are both struggling with secrets from their past which affect their hopes for the future, and the Bennet family’s concerns about their future security when Mr Collins inherits their home are echoed by the staff, whose own future is in jeopardy if they fail to impress him during his visit.

As the events of Pride and Prejudice progress, observed in part by the servants (although sometimes with their own take on things, such as the occasion on which Jane falls ill at Netherfield and it is proclaimed in the kitchen to be “just a cold” that she would soon be over), they have as much impact, in a different way, on the lives of Sarah, James, Polly and the Hills as on Elizabeth, Jane and their family. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler, however, to say that ultimately all the loose ends are tied up in a very satisfying – if at times unexpected – way.

On the whole I really enjoyed this book. It’s very long – quite a commitment, as it mimics the traditional three volumes popular in Regency times, and covers a long period of time – but for me that makes it more of a worthwhile read (or listen, in my case). I found the insights into life in service at the time fascinating and enlightening, and a vivid contrast to the world portrayed in Pride and Prejudice – I’d never thought, for instance, despite the fact that it’s pretty obvious when you consider it, that whilst the girls are dancing and enjoying themselves (or being snubbed and offended) at balls and assemblies, the drivers who brought them and who will take them home are sitting outside waiting in the cold, unless a kindly housekeeper invites them inside for a while. Elizabeth’s petticoats, famously three inches deep in mud, need to be cleaned and perfectly white again for the next wearing, however much scrubbing and soaking and bleeding chill-blains that entails. There was a lot of local colour, sometimes in the form of swearwords (which took me by surprise at first, when the language and style is similar to that of Austen herself, but as time went on felt more natural to the characters), and sometimes in rather bald references to differences between then and now, which I found rather jarring. For example, in a passage describing Sarah dressing Elizabeth, there’s a reference to the “musky down” revealed when Elizabeth lifts her arms (I think those were the words – that’s the difficulty with audiobooks, it’s harder to quote from them reliably), which felt almost as unnecessary as if Baker had written “in those days, of course, women didn’t shave their armpits”. As it was so common, it would hardly have been remarkable to Sarah (from whose point of view the story is being told at the time), and therefore really not worth mentioning.

Those moments aside, however, there wasn’t much that I disliked about the book. As I mentioned, there were a few surprises about some of the characters which I found interesting, but not necessarily in a negative way. I’m not sure how I feel about the development of Mr Bennet’s character, as I thought it was a real departure from what we see in Pride and Prejudice – not impossible, but in Longbourn he seems rather spiteful and hard at times, rather than merely weak and acquiescent. I really loved the way Baker allows Wickham’s true colours to be revealed amongst the staff, whilst not for a moment making him into a pantomime baddie, but a charming, confusing, complex man who wants it all without having to lift a finger for any of it. And it was good to see Mr Darcy taking his proper place as a man of whom little, if anything, is seen until the later moments of the book!

I haven’t much to say about Emma Fielding’s narration, which I think is in itself an endorsement – it was never intrusive, her character voices and accents were helpful to the understanding of the story and her gentle narrative tones were easy to listen to. Altogether, it was a very different experience from the previous audiobook I reviewed here.

I’d definitely recommend this to anyone, particularly lovers of historical fiction and Austen-lovers who’d like to consider more of what was going on below stairs and out in the gardens and fields (and battlefields), whilst Austen’s heroines are closeted in their relatively safe little worlds. I’ll also be looking out for more of Jo Baker’s novels to read myself.

Finally I’d like to thank Jane of What Jane Read Next for reminding me that this book was in existence, since I’d meant to read it when I first heard about it (pre-publication) and then completely forgotten about it until I read her review. This was one I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on, and a useful way to pass two long and tedious car journeys.

For my next (and final) review, I’d really like to cover the BBC TV adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley which is scheduled to be broadcast in three episodes over the coming Christmas period. However, I’m not sure if this will be contained within December or whether it will spill over to January, in which case it wouldn’t qualify! No doubt I’ll discover more when the Christmas issue of Radio Times comes out shortly. I haven’t read PD James’ novel, so it will be fresh to me, but the cast looks like a good one and I can particularly imagine Jenna Coleman (of Doctor Who fame) making a wonderful Lydia Bennet.

Thankful for…

  • Some time with my sister and her family last week, and the opportunity to visit the care home where my Gran now lives.
  • A lovely friend who has taught me to crochet
  • Christmas preparations coming apace, including being very close to finishing my Christmas shopping (just a few stocking bits to get now)
  • Really uplifting choir rehearsals, preparing for next week’s performance of Handel’s Messiah
  • A couple of days spent with the Butterfly whilst she’s been off school with a bad cold
  • The prospect of advent’s being almost upon us, and two new books (this one and this one)
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Doctors Austen week, 2013 BBC series (Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge: October)

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200Wow, this was confusing!  First I read that there’s a whole week of Austen-related specials on Doctors.  I watch two of them (Austenland: Part 1 and 2) and judge by the preview of the supposed third episode (Charlotte’s Web) that it has nothing to do with Austen and that in fact it was just a two-part special.  Before I get round to reviewing it, we find a letter in the following week’s Radio Times discussing the Austen-inspired episodes on “14-18 October” and realise that I need to watch the rest after all.  In fact, it turns out that there are six in all – seven, if you count the episode in which the main, stand-alone story hasn’t anything to do with Austen (that I could spot) but the ongoing story arc does – spilling over into the start of the following week.


For a summary of the series as a whole, see my previous post.

The background to the specials is that there is to be a Jane Austen exhibition held somewhere in the locality, which one of the regular cast is encouraging others to attend.  Also ongoing seems to be a sponsored read they are taking part in to raise money for charity.  Some of the characters who have never read any Austen are being sponsored to get through one book, but must pay the money themselves if they fail in the attempt.

Plot summaries and comments

Austenland: Part 1 and 2

The two Austenland episodes (nothing to do with Shannon Hale’s novel of the same title) seemed distinct from the rest of the series, except for a few references to the sponsored read and a shot of the poster advertising the launch of the exhibition.  The story concerned a girl in her late teens or early twenties who had been the victim of a mugging some time before and was now selectively mute, choosing to carry around a computer tablet on which to write any communication.  She was shown with her head in an Austen novel from the outset.  I felt that the design of her costume was very clever as she looked quite Regency in style whilst wearing modern day clothing – a long dress with a high waist and a cropped denim jacket with a very Spencer jacket look to it.  Unfortunately this was about the only thing I did like, and to be honest if I hadn’t decided to review the episodes (and that I wouldn’t have time left this month to listen to the audio version of Longbourn) I’d have stopped watching after the first one.  The girl, whose name is Lizzie, visits the the GP for a reason that now escapes me, although it can’t be connected to her trauma problem as the doctor quizzes her about why she hasn’t been attending her counselling appointments.  The girl becomes even less communicative but it’s clear she doesn’t want to belong to our world, but to retreat into the society of Austen’s novels.  She falls suddenly unconscious and begins to dream a strange version of Pride and Prejudice in which she is Lizzy Bennet and other characters from the book are played by characters she has met around the surgery.  She has clearly developed a crush on one of the doctors and casts him in the role of Darcy, whilst a practice nurse plays Lydia (the only other sister present) and a receptionist plays Mrs Bennet.  Before long Mr Collins appears on the scene (played by one of the nicest doctors – I felt a bit sorry that he had to have such a ghastly part but he did it very well!), along with – inexplicably – Frank Churchill and General Tilney.  Despite her confusion over where these characters have come from, she’s enjoying herself and goes out, only to find herself at the picnic scene from Emma.  Mr Woodhouse and Miss Bates are there, and Lizzie insults Miss Bates in the way Emma does.  Embarrassed, she leaves the party and finds Mr Darcy, who scolds her.  She returns to the house and discovers she’s now at Northanger and must endure a terrifying night during a storm.  From then on things deteriorate further – she’s discomfited by Mr Collins’ lecherous looks as he proposes and won’t take no for an answer, she’s alarmed by the violence Darcy shows when he rescues Lydia from a gypsy and she’s horrified when she discovers Darcy and Caroline Bingley in a passionate embrace in the gardens.  Everything is going wrong, and she’s confused because it’s a world of her own creation.  The doctor finally succeeds in wakening her and she is now able to speak.  She agrees to return to her appointments to help herself reintegrate into real life, but by the time she has got through the very busy reception area she’s obviously having second thoughts and as she leaves she spots a man who’ll make a perfect Captain Wentworth…

I really wasn’t sure what to make of those two episodes.  There didn’t seem to be any clear message in them and it looked rather like the cast had all had the chance to pick an Austen character they wanted to be and a story had been woven around that.  I thought they all did very well in their characters but the whole thing didn’t hang together very well, the doctors were unable to help the patient and the status quo was restored by the end of the episodes.

Charlotte’s Web

The other episodes focused on one book each.  Charlotte’s Web was a modern take on the story of Charlotte Lucas.  I think I found this the most interesting.  It investigated the idea of marrying for money and security, but the main difference was that the modern-day Charlotte seemed to be doing this out of laziness and a disinclination to work, rather than the need for protection that a Regency woman would have had.  However, it examined the effects on her other relationships, including with a close male friend who obviously has feelings for her, and raised the question over whether, like Austen’s Charlotte, she would sacrifice as much as she gained in the marriage.

Northanger Bungalow(!)

This covered the story of Catriona Morbrook, a teenager living with her recently separated mother, and obsessed with horror films and zombies.  She becomes convinced that the previous occupant of her home had murdered his wife.  Whilst searching the loft for evidence she believes she sees her own mother who has now become a zombie.  It turns out to be a type of epilepsy, but whilst it was a good way of updating the story, I was unimpressed with the hallucinations and the very casual treatment of apparent mental illness (similar to the Austenland episodes).


This episode was a reworking of Emma in which a young girl from a council estate becomes frustrated that she can’t be as in control of her friends’ lives and events around her as she would like.  It turns out that this is her reaction to the discovery that she has rheumatoid arthritis and her fear that this will stop her dancing, which she wants to pursue as a career.  I quite liked this story apart from its rather laboured use of signs such as “Hartfield Estate” and “Randalls Park”, in case we couldn’t work out the connection!


This was the story of a man who’s celebrating his five years clear of cancer.  As he arrives at the health centre to invite the staff to his party he bumps into his former boyfriend, who disappeared overseas during his illness with little explanation.  The staff work together to uncover the cause of the split (the mother of the recovered cancer patient who had in fact given the impression in an email that her son was dead!) and reunite the pair.  Although this was a little predictable at times, it was probably the best updating of one of the stories and I also liked the title, which was enough to give a clue to the source novel but also describe the focus of the medical storyline.

Background story

Running throughout the latter four episodes, and continuing into the subsequent, non-Austen, episodes, was the ongoing story of a mother and daughter who were opening a beauty salon locally.  It quickly became clear that this was a Pride and Prejudice idea, the twist being that the mother was both Mrs Bennet and Jane.  They turn up at the health centre to register and Gloria, the mother, quickly becomes convinced that Kevin, a young GP, will be the perfect partner for her daughter Sigourney.  Sigourney, however, is unconvinced that she’s in need of a man and has a low opinion of the medical profession.  Gloria falls for an older doctor, Heston, who’s quite flattered by her attentions, but Kevin convinces him Gloria’s a gold-digger and he’d be better off steering clear.  At the launch of the Jane Austen exhibition Kevin becomes keener on Sigourney and “rescues” her from the attentions of her landlord who’s also the security guard at the health centre (in fact, this was one of the most poorly attended launches I’ve ever seen, since everbody there, but for Gloria and Sigourney, was a staff member of the health centre!)  Next day, Barry the security guard turns up at the salon to mend a leak and takes the opportunity to impart some information about Kevin’s past (it’s all true – I knew just enough about the history of the programme to know that! – but slanted to make Kevin look bad).  Kevin turns up later and tries to ask Sigourney out, but she throws it all in his face, along with the accusation that he split up Heston and her mum.  Before he can leave, the leak – which Barry had repaired badly so he’d have to come back again – bursts and Kevin comes to the rescue.  He defends himself against Barry’s rumours and then storms off.  Later, however, he encourages Heston to think again about Gloria and finally Sigourney turns up in the health centre car park and kisses Kevin.


My thoughts on the short series are that the on-going story was well thought through, although I’d imagine the more familiar you are with the series and the characters, the more you would get out of it.  There was another storyline in which Emma, a doctor, and Howard, the practice manager, were seen separately on several occasions reading Persuasion for the sponsored read, usually with the other’s voice heard as a voice-over reading the passage from the book.  I assume they have had a previous relationship a long time ago but I don’t know this as the last time I watched it, Emma had not yet arrived.  If I were a regular viewer, no doubt those scenes would be more meaningful to me.

I didn’t feel that the individual stories worked very well, however.  Because there was no time to develop the guest characters, a very broad-brush approach had to be used in order to establish their personality as well as make the link between the episode and the source book.  This led to the issues I’ve already highlighted surrounding mental illness, along with the fact that everything felt rushed and forced.  And why no Mansfield Park or Sense and Sensibility episode?

Overall I was disappointed; when I was still a regular viewer I saw a short series of Shakespeare-themed episodes which were much better constructed.  The stories were developed over several days, making them more believable and involving, and nobody had to dress up in period costume! In addition, much of the action took place on location in Stratford-on-Avon itself, which made it seem more of a special event.  A shame the Austen season didn’t achieve as much.

My November review will definitely be of Jo Baker’s Longbourn (audiobook).

Thankful for…

  • An enjoyable (if brief) trip to Kent to visit friends and relatives
  • Surviving the storm whilst we were there, with no damage to property or person
  • Ann Voskamp’s recent series on Missing Jesus, which I’ve found encouraging reading
  • The chance to spend time with my parents, who arrive today
  • The decisions over the Bookworm’s high school applications finally completed
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Heads up for my next review

As I explained in my September review post, my intention was to review the audio book of Jo Baker’s Longbourn for my October selection in the Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge. However, I discovered last week that the BBC daytime medical soap Doctors is running a week of Austen-related specials and I’ve decided to watch and review them, for a different angle, and defer Longbourn to November.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, Doctors is based around a GP surgery in the fictional West Midlands town of Letherbridge. The staff (medical and admin) are the recurring cast and their patients are usually one-off or short-term characters. You can read more about it on the Wikipedia page. I used to watch it regularly but these days I only do so occasionally if I’m ill or if I read that someone famous is making a guest appearance. They’ve done themed weeks like this in the past, including a very good Shakespeare week that I managed to catch. I thought that this week’s episodes might each focus on one novel, starting with Pride and Prejudice, but having seen today’s I’ve realised it isn’t going to be like that so I’ll have to watch all five episodes before I review.

The purpose of this advance notice is to bring it to the attention of anyone else who might like to watch it, because by the time I post the review, today’s episode will be close to being removed. I know some of you are in other countries where Doctors might be running behind the UK, or not screened at all, but if you are able to access BBC iPlayer from where you are, you can find the first episode here. The episodes are available for a week, so today’s will disappear next Monday night.

Today’s episode both intrigued and confused me, and I’m interested to find out more. In the meantime, I’m trying not to become distracted by what may or may not have happened to the long-standing characters since last I saw them!

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Feels like home


Last Wednesday marked 20 years since I first arrived, as an eighteen-year-old student, to live in the North East (it was a Saturday, so today is sort of the anniversary of the day!). As I’ve mentioned before, I’d already fallen in love with beautiful Durham earlier that year when I came up for interview, and was overjoyed to learn that I had gained a place there to study languages (after a couple of hours’ panic over a dodgy English Lit result, a lot of tears and two phonecalls – the second because I needed to check that they really had said yes!). I still love the little city (as cities go, it’s tiny and earns the title by virtue of its cathedral and university) and enjoy visiting whenever we can. Throughout my time there I got to know each street, riverbank, bridge and view like the back of my hand, declared every season my favourite each time it rolled round, with the flame-coloured leaves which first greeted me, through the snow on our return after Christmas, the daffodils which came into bloom if you hung around long enough into the Easter holidays and the sleepy sunny days after the exams. Durham, of course, has special memories for me as the place I met Southern Daddy (well, technically we first met in the Yorkshire Dales on a Christian Union weekend, but our courting all took place in Durham), and I am, if required, able to give a guided tour of the city based around significant events in our relationship!

During our student days my friends and I held a slightly skewed picture of the local geography: Durham was (naturally) the Centre of the World, with the satellites of Newcastle (good for shopping and the theatre, and – once – a nightclub in a boat on the river Tyne) and Sunderland (which we visited once to go to a different theatre) situated nearby and accessible by train or bus (preferably train, We took the bus to Sunderland, it took ages and when we got there we didn’t know where we were in relation to anything else and finished up going for tea and cake in a little church hall whilst seeking directions). But the villages around Durham and the towns en route to these two other cities were unknown and uninteresting to us – apart from the almost-mythical Pity Me, home to a branch of Sainsbury’s frequented by those students who had a car, setting them apart from the rest of us who were forced to shop at Safeway. We visited Sainsbury’s the first summer when a friend’s parents let her have a car up after the exams. I seem to remember we bought ice creams and then went back to college. But I digress – my point is that I wasn’t aware at that time of the variety of scenery, landscape or attractions held by this glorious part of the country.

Had Southern Daddy and I not met – or, rather, had we not decided to get married – I should probably have remained in blissful ignorance. I didn’t really intend to stay here – the best places for the Masters degree I wanted to do were elsewhere, and anyway, despite its beauty, North Eastern winters can be miserably cold and dark, which doesn’t suit the temperament of a mild SAD sufferer. But, graduating a year apart, and wanting to see one another regularly, we agreed that the best thing would be for SD to find a job locally until I was ready to leave Durham. We didn’t know then that he would find not only a job, but a church, and a circle of friends, and a life here – and thus the die was cast. Two months after my graduation we moved into our first home as newlyweds, the first of three homes in Newcastle.

It was strange beginning to live in a place I’d previously considered as merely a shopping and cultural centre. For one thing, it was also my place of study now, so the part of the town centre I visited most frequently was further from the station than I’d ever ventured before. I came to know some of the suburbs, and learned that Byker was a real place (and my new home) but that it possessed nothing called, or resembling, a Grove!
I discovered that there are parts of Newcastle almost as beautiful as Durham, that some of the architecture is simply stunning, especially if you look up above the shop fronts, and that there are plenty of places worth visiting outside the cities. I also discovered that it’s not worth taking the Metro from the Central Station into town, as it’s a 5 minute walk, tops (we’d been paying about £1 for this tiny journey, for FOUR YEARS!) and that, with concentration and practice, it is possible to enter and leave Fenwick’s department store by the same door!

Soon after my studies were complete, Southern Daddy was made permanent at work and we bought a house nearer church. I worked for a little while before the Bookworm was born in the impressive Royal Victoria Infirmary, and three years later the Butterfly arrived in our third Newcastle house (in which we still live).

Since becoming a mother I’ve had more chance to explore what the region has to offer families, with its museums, beaches and parks. The girls and I had an unforgettable day last year in summer when we travelled by Metro, bus and foot visiting cultural venues around Newcastle to fill in their Sustrans Green Explorer cards (we took the photo that day – you can see the Olympic Rings on the Tyne Bridge).

One of the elements of our Newcastle life which has proved invaluable is our church family. As well as being supported and nurtured spiritually through our involvement there, we’ve been blessed with a family to fill in for the biological one which is spread across the country. There we have stand-in parents who have taken babies for long walks so we could get some sleep, brothers and sisters who’ve given us advice, shoulders to cry on and babysitting exchanges, and imaginary cousins for our children to play with in the same way they dote on their real ones. We really could not have had the same quality of life without them.

As we make decisions about a secondary school for the Bookworm and move towards the next phase of our family life, it doesn’t look like we’ll be moving away any time soon, and I realise I’ve now lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere.

I didn’t expect to stay this long, but now it really is home.

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Lions and Liquorice by Kate Fenton (Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge: September)

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200It is a truth universally acknowledged – at least according to certain shiny magazines – that a single actress in possession of fortune, fame and more work than she can handle, must be in want of something.  Otherwise life wouldn’t be fair, would it?  And when that actress has reached the age of twenty-nine, it seems reasonable to assume that she might be in want of a husband.  Babies, even.  In fact, it would be nice to think she’s secretly yearning for some plain, routine domesticity of the kind experienced by us ordinary mortals who read such magazines.

This is the modern twist on the opening of Pride and Prejudice, which forms the not-quite-opening (there’s a prologue and a quotation first!) of Lions and Liquorice, Kate Fenton’s modern twist on the novel itself.

Despite the light, rom-com feel of this book, I found it extremely clever.  I knew from the start that it was a version of P&P in which all the genders were reversed, but picking it up to read at a time when I was exhausted and under the weather, I decided I didn’t have the energy to be on the look out for parallels all the way through – I’d just read it, and see what I thought.  Well, I didn’t have to be on the look out, because they were all there – not in a blindingly obvious, in-your-face-can-you-see-what-I’ve-done-here sort of way, but popping up and surprising me in every chapter.  Well, often after I’d finished the chapter and gone onto the next one, and then suddenly thought “oh yes! ha!” (I did say I was tired!)

Now, at this point I’m going to have to deviate from my stated aims regarding spoilers (you can read about them in this post), because I absolutely can’t continue to review this book without discussing the structure, and that means I have to talk about the content.  You’ll see what I mean if you read on – I’m not going to tell you everything that happens, but if you’d like to read this book and come to it fresh then I’ll bid you farewell now and welcome you back for my next post in October!  If you do read it, please pop back and see if you agree with my comments!

So, the book begins with the prologue – a phone conversation between author Nick Llewellyn Bevan and his ex-wife Caro.  She’s needling him about his recent lack of success and his current writer’s block.  He mentions that he’s about to appear on an arts programme alongside a bestselling romantic novelist who’s now publishing a book of tips for those interested in following in her footsteps.  Anyone could write that kind of trash, though, he remarks, to which his ex responds that if that’s true, she’s amazed more people don’t, given the money it makes…

Episode One begins by looking at by introducing various characters – Candia Bingham (the actress described in the opening paragraph), Bernard and Sarah Nuttall, proprietors of the Red Lion pub, their son Christopher, Nick (known, in the Yorkshire village where they all live, as Llew) and his friend John, a widower, who lives in a converted outbuilding of Llew’s house.  Mary Dance, Roderick Chatterton and Patrick Mather.  Candia, Roddy and Patrick are starring in a new production of Pride and Prejudice which is being filmed in the local area and directed by Mary.   The arrival of the cast and crew in the village gives Llew the idea of writing a modern version of Pride and Prejudice, and the events which follow provide him with plenty of fodder for his story.  The characters all meet up at a cricket club disco in the village and, to everyone’s amazement, John is singled out to dance by the lovely Candia while Llew, who sees Mary as a potential contact who might help him get one of his novels filmed or televised, finds himself snubbed and described as “halfway presentable”.  Time passes, John and Candia become inseparable and Llew and Mary begin to form a friendship.  However, Mary, keen to impress upon Candia the need to stop relying on her looks and work harder at furthering her career, is horrified to hear that her young friend plans to move John down to London when they leave Maltstone.

A sub-plot begins to develop surrounding the freehold to the Red Lion, which until recently was held by Bernard’s elderly uncle.  It was always expected that it would pass to the Nuttalls on his death, until he unexpectedly remarried, aged 72, and then died, leaving the pub to his recent bride Irene (pronounce Irenee).  As Nick is sitting writing one day, the doorbell rings and there stands Irene herself.  She’s looking for John but has come to the other house by mistake.

At this point, for few minutes, I became totally confused.  The narrative stops half way through a word, there’s a gap in the page and then the text begins again with another ring of the doorbell.  This time it’s Caro, who becomes confused when he tells her it was supposed to be the Reverend Collins at the door.  Caro discovers and reads the half-written manuscript of his modern-day Pride and Prejudice and it becomes clear that the previous 100 pages of the book were, in fact, that manuscript.  I’m not sure if the reader is intended to understand that in advance (looking back for the purposes of this review, I realise that there is half a page in which he’s described as Nick, not Llew, and contemplating the next scene, so it’s possible I was just being a bit dim) but it certainly took me by surprise!

Episode Two covers “real life”, which means all the surnames are changed – it’s a bit confusing for the reader at times, but no more so than for poor old Nick who even struggles on occasion to remember that they are real people and not characters he’s invented!  Most of the events in his story really have happened, as he explains to Caro, although Bernard and Sarah own their own freehold and their son Chris actually belongs to Nick and Caro!  The film party leaves Maltstone and a devastated John is abandoned by Candia, who heads off to New York.  The story progresses loosely along the lines of Pride and Prejudice, with Nick visiting his friend Charlie (the real husband of Irene, who is every inch the female Collins!) whilst in Llandudno for an arts festival.  He meets Mary again and their relationship progresses, despite negative stories he’s heard of her from her former employee Sasha, but when he hears that Mary was responsible for the end of John’s relationship with Candia he’s furious and walks out on her.

In Episode Three, Nick receives a letter of explanation from Mary.  His agent, George, mistakes his misery since returning from Wales as upset over Caro’s imminent remarriage, and arranges for him to accompany George and his wife on a trip to America, ostensibly for networking purposes.  Nick searches for Candia in New York and eventually tracks her down at a party held by Mary’s father.  Life begins to imitate art ever more seriously as Candia immediately asks after John (despite Roddy’s attempts to steer her away) and Nick and Mary are reconciled over the phone, only to discover before they can be reunited that Christopher has gone missing and Nick has to return to the UK to search for him.  This parallel to Lydia’s crisis in Austen’s original novel was very well-conceived, I thought, and accurately portrayed the sense of panic experienced by parents when a child disappears.

If you know P&P, you’ll be able to guess how things turn out, although the finer details are slightly different.  I really enjoyed this novel – there’s plenty of comedy and enough twists to keep the reader’s interest, even one as familiar with P&P as I am!  I thought that the story within a story element worked very well (despite my initial confusion) and demonstrated that sometimes real life is more exciting even than anything we can imagine.  There’s a lot of knowing references to Nick’s writing and its relationship with the events taking place, which I found entertaining, and the structure overall worked really well.  Altogether, I think this book was better than I expected – I felt I would enjoy it, but I had anticipated a “re-write” of a Jane Austen novel to be more predictable and have less of its own plot.

There’s an interesting story behind the writing of this novel which you can read on Kate Fenton’s website here.  The only thing the website didn’t tell me was why the title was changed for the US market to Vanity and Vexation.  Lions and Liquorice has a somewhat tenuous connection to the plot (in case you’re wondering – Mary found the location for the Pride and Prejudice shoot when she was researching for a film about liquorice making which is a local industry; Llew is Welsh for lion – there you go!), but I don’t think the ideas of vanity and vexation are any more representative.

For October I intend to review the audio book of Longbourn by Jo Baker, which I’ve heard a lot about and am looking forward to.

UPDATE: In fact I shall be reviewing Longbourn for November, as for October I watched a short Austen-inspired “season” on the BBC daytime soap Doctors.

Thankful for…

A smooth(ish) start to the school term

A lovely coffee morning on Friday, which raised £25 for Macmillan Cancer Support and was a good time catching up with friends

The reappearance of a missing schoolbook which has caused much stress

Progress in looking for a secondary school for the Bookworm (to start September 2014)

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Top Ten Summer Memories (that couldn’t be caught on camera)

As I’ve mentioned several times, it’s been an amazing summer. The weather has been consistently better than I can remember for a long time, and has seemed particularly good when compared with last year’s torrential downpours and dull, chilly days.

In addition, we as a family have experienced so many unexpected pleasures and moments of serendipity throughout our six weeks of holiday (despite some really last-minute changes of plan and a departure from our usual summer routine), that this one is going to be remembered for a long time to come.

I’ve taken scores of photos during the last few weeks but there are some things that could never be encapsulated in a static picture.  Here are my favourites, in chronological order as they occurred.

1. Getting soaking wet during the wet games at holiday club.  It’s not something we’re accustomed to finding enjoyable during our usual chilly North Eastern summers, but for once, the prospect of having a glass of water tipped suddenly over your head in “Drip, drip, drop” (a wet variation of “Duck, duck, goose”) was particularly welcome!

2. Walking in our street in the early evening after a very welcome thunderstorm.   Everything was silent and calm, still really warm, and steam was rising from the roads in a pleasantly eerie way.

3. Eating ice cream with the Butterfly after dropping the Bookworm off at camp.  We called into the chocolate factory on a whim and watched the chocolates in progress, then bought a few of the kind we’d seen being made (cherry truffles) to take home.  We treated ourselves to a Brymor icecream each and sat in the tailgate of our car, collapsing with giggles as we tried -and repeatedly failed- to take a selfie that actually included both our faces!

4. My two-year-old niece serenading us with key lines from Alicia Keys’ Girl on Fire and Mika’s We Are Golden.  Imagine any two-year-old of your acquaintance doing this and you’ll get the general impression;  imagine them doing it with a Lancashire accent (this girl is on FA-YUR…!) and it will be even closer to the reality.

5. Finding the tickets all sold out for the Norfolk Broads sightseeing boat, but ending up eating a glorious impromptu picnic on a “self-drive” motor boat we hired.  We spotted wildlife on the banks, got into a game of “chicken” with an extremely arrogant  duck and the Bookworm and the Butterfly both had a turn at operating the boat (under the watchful eye of my dad).

6. Zooming down a water-slide with the Butterfly in my lap.  When we were invited to join my sister’s family, along with her sister-in-law and children, for some time at the swimming pool local to where our parents (and my sister’s in-laws) all live, I had my reservations.  Swimming isn’t one of the things we choose to do for fun and the girls have only learned the basics with school, but they were keen so we went along.  I realised that taking six children to the pool for fun is a lot different from “swimming” and we actually had a great time.

7. Finding the perfect parking space in Stratford-upon-Avon.   With only two minutes to go before the open-air performance of Twelfth Night* began, we were fairly sure we’d be missing the beginning by the time we’d unloaded our camping chairs, rugs and picnic bag and found our way The Dell, where the play was to be performed.  We then discovered that our roadside parking space was directly outside the gate and managed to find a spot right alongside the stage, just as the show began.

8. Discovering that the spot we’d chosen to eat our picnic at Legoland, Windsor was actually the prime position for watching the Pirates of Skeleton Bay.  As we ate, we noticed more and more people coming and sitting all around us on the terraced steps around the lake.  It turned out we’d arrived on the early side for the 2pm performance of the acrobatics and stunt show, which we hadn’t even realised was there!  In the event, it was one of the highlights of the day and highly recommended if you visit.  Get there early for a good seat!

9. Finding ourselves surrounded by dragonflies whilst on a walk in the parkland at Nostell Priory, where we spent the final day of our family holiday.   The Bookworm and I were following a “Stroll and Sketch” trail and she had just been looking around for something to draw at her next “sketch point” when they all appeared.  They seemed to be drawn to a particular plant growing there and it was magical to be able to observe them at such close quarters.

10. Getting hilariously lost in the labyrinth  – and soaking wet in the sudden downpour that followed – on a day trip to Cragside.   We each took a turn to choose a path when we reached a fork, and some of us had a better sense of direction than others…  We did get to see some beautiful wooden sculptures in there, however, and felt very fortunate to be able to dry off once we returned to the safety of the car!


* For me, this was the high point of the holiday and the HandleBards project is well worth reading about if you click on the link, or also here on their blog (hoping they’ll complete it and cover the rest of the tour at some point!).  The concept of pared-down performance, using only what you’d find on a bike or a campsite, worked to hilarious success (hope it wasn’t quite so hilarious for the people who saw Romeo and Juliet!) and the actors and local musician were hugely talented.  I considered devoting a whole post to this but, as the tour was almost over by the time we came home from holiday, it seemed a little bit late, and like “rubbing it in” for everyone who wasn’t able to attend!  I hope they do something again next year – I, for one, will be looking out for news and will share it with you when I hear anything!

Thankful for…

All of the above!


Georgiana Darcy’s Diary by Anna Elliott (Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge: August)

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200It’s not often I get the chance to read a whole book in one sitting these days, but on Friday, after a busy morning and lunchtime entertaining friends who dropped in on their way further south, I found myself feeling a little under the weather and Southern Daddy offered to entertain the girls whilst I had a quiet rest (to be honest, I don’t know how much entertaining he did – they’re fairly self-sufficient so I suspect he sneaked off somewhere to fine-tune the sermon he was preparing for Sunday morning!).  I decided to use the time to make a start on Anna Elliott’s Georgiana Darcy’s Diary, which has been hanging around on my phone’s Kindle app for over 6 months now whilst I somehow keep finding other things to do, and ended up reading the whole way through before I was called upon to read a bedtime story!

I think I was a bit nervous of reading another tribute set in a contemporary time to Pride and Prejudice after my dislike of Darcy’s Story – you’ll see that everything since then has been an updated version in one way or another.  However, I very quickly got into this and I enjoyed it very much.

The story is told in diary form, as the title would suggest, and begins in April 1814, just over a year after the events of P&P come to an end (admittedly there are no dates in P&P itself, but Georgiana states that that amount of time has elapsed since Darcy’s marriage to Elizabeth).  It’s a light and easy read and concerns itself with the events over the course of five weeks or so, during a houseparty at Pemberley.  Peace has been declared, Darcy and Elizabeth are still enjoying married life, Caroline Bingley is still bitter and Lady Catherine de Bourgh is still attempting to dominate everyone around her.  “Aunt Catherine” has invited several eligible young (and less young) gentlemen to stay in the hopes of marrying off the 18-year-old Georgiana to one or other of them, and she’s not particularly bothered which one.  In the meantime, Georgiana is already in love and attempts, in turn, to avoid the attentions of some of her suitors, to force herself to fall for another, to forget the true object of her affections and to encourage her cousin Anne (daughter of Lady Catherine) to enjoy life a little more.

To add to the intrigue, there’s the arrival of a French aristocrat, recently restored to some of the fortune he left behind in his homeland and in search of an English estate to settle in, the young granddaughter of a local couple who is staying in the area and intending not to return home until she’s “engaged, at the very least” and the mystery of a missing necklace which creates conflict throughout the household.  The action culminates in a ball which is given in Georgiana’s honour at Lady Catherine’s insistence, and several matters come to head that even leading to a satisfying conclusion.

I felt that Elliott captured the spirit of a teenage girl’s diary very well, focusing on the typical romantic and somewhat self-centred concerns, and using the device cleverly to give background to the story by having the girl imagine that, although this is a personal diary, it might at some future time be discovered by “members of a future generation [who] will come across it one day in a musty old trunk and waste countless hours trying to puzzle out who everyone is.”  This means that the book can be read on its own, as well as being a sequel to P&P, since all the characters are described and explained.  The book also contains some line drawings which are referred to as Georgiana’s sketches, which I found interesting and quite natural for a diary.

At the same time the narrative shows Georgiana’s character developing, so that she’s able to overcome her shyness (without ever becoming too bold or rude) and develop more of a genuine concern for others which will enable her to become a respectable and sensitive woman.  There are several strands of dramatic irony, in which Georgiana herself is too innocent to interpret events which the reader will have no problem understanding, and whilst the eventual outcome is predictable, that doesn’t prevent the story from being enjoyable and there are still plenty of surprises in store along the way!

This is an enjoyable and undemanding sequel to Pride & Prejudice and I’d recommend it to those who enjoy Regency romance.  I can’t vouch for the authenticity of all the references and turns of phrase, but there was very little which felt uncomfortably out of place (the only phrase which springs to mind is smart aleck, which feels more modern – a google search reveals that its earliest known use was in the 1860s, so it is a little anachronistic, but not as much as I’d thought!).  If you have an e-reader or a Kindle app, the Kindle edition is available free.  I’m not sure I’m as keen to read the next in the series, however, partly because it’s priced at £3.08 and I generally try to stick to cheap or free Kindle editions, but mainly because it seems to be set at Waterloo and that doesn’t appeal as much.  One of the reasons I enjoy reading Austen’s novels, I think, is the small social microcosm they focus on, with no reference to anything particularly political or martial.  I am still stuck in the middle of Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army because of its inclusion of precise military detail so I’m not that excited about reading anything else set at Waterloo just yet!

My September choice for the challenge will be Lions and Liquorice by Kate Fenton.  I’ve never read any of her novels but I’m looking forward to being introduced to a new writer and, hopefully, a new seam of fiction to mine in my future spare moments!

Thankful for…

Time with many different friends over the Bank Holiday weekend (and our anniversary weekend – all anniversaries should be on a Bank Holiday Friday!)

The on-going beautiful weather which continues to astound and delight us

A surprisingly easy trip to town to buy school shoes yesterday – the Bookworm got shoes and trainers for less than half price each, the Butterfly was miraculously fitted with a pair of Clarks, meaning no trip to the expensive shop where they sell European shoes for people with tiny feet this year, it was all over in half an hour and we celebrated afterwards with milkshakes and waffles at a lovely 50s American-style diner we’ve “discovered” recently

The prospect of meeting a new friend tomorrow

The pleasure of spending time playing the piano, which I’ve neglected recently

Great news about the start of a new season at choir

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Do you know your tables?

A long time ago, before the concern over the appearance of our resting face, the fascination with how to treat introverts and even the quizzes revealing which Disney princess/Jane Austen heroine/Hogwarts house we were, the trend du jour was to ascertain our learning style.  There are three main categories that people fall into: visual learners, who are most receptive to information when it is presented in written or pictorial form; auditory learners, who best remember what they’ve heard; and kinaesthetic learners, who benefit from using movement, touch and texture when studying.  Most of us use a bit of everything, but there’s probably one you can identify as your main strength.

I’m most definitely an auditory learner.  I remember things much better if I hear them spoken or say them out loud to myself – especially with numbers, which I often confuse when I see them written down (bizarrely I always confuse the same pairs, because to me, certain numbers look like one another).  At university I once gave a friend the wrong date for a ball we were planning to attend together, because I’d only seen it written on a poster.  Thankfully, I realised my mistake in time to pass on the correct information, which was pretty lucky for me, as the friend in question was Southern Daddy and the occasion was the evening on which we decided we were actually more than just friends!

It’s useful to be aware of your own learning style, but all the more important to be aware that others may not share it, especially if you are involved in any form of teaching!  When I’m leading Bible studies (both for adults and children, at different times), I have to remember the importance of using visual information and interactive methods as well as just speaking.  We have a small whiteboard which we use at our ladies’ Bible study group – the hardest part for me is deciding what I should write on it that might be helpful to others!

I’ve been reminded of learning styles on a couple of occasions recently because of the issue of Times Tables.  I’m not an especially political person and, I’m afraid, pay less attention than I probably should to the news, but I read a few weeks ago on a blog that one of the planned changes to the school curriculum (which are pretty much a constant thing just at the moment) is to encourage children to return to chanting tables.  This has caused something of an outcry amongst teachers, along with maths experts such as Carol Vorderman, who don’t believe this is a helpful or effective way to learn them.  My first response was to wonder why they are all so against the method, since to my mind constant repetition is the best way to learn anything.

Then I realised I’d answered my own question: to my mind.  My auditorily-focused mind, which relishes hearing the spoken word, takes in sounds other people don’t notice, learns all the lyrics to a song by the third time through.  I learned my tables by reciting them, out loud, repeatedly, until they were stuck in my head.  (The last one to stick was 8×7=56 which I recently found out is recognised as the most difficult one).  But I’m told that auditory learners are in the minority, so it’s not surprising that teachers are concerned that this method won’t benefit their students.  Clearly what’s required is a bit of everything, so that each learning style is accommodated and all the children find something helpful to them (and, by the way, I don’t think I’ve just revealed anything especially groundbreaking there, if they trusted consulted teachers more they’d discover loads of little gems like that one).

All this has coincided with the Butterfly’s transition from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 2 this coming September (for those of you unfamiliar with the terminology, it’s what used to be called “going into the Juniors” – her year group will be turning 8 during the school year and work has a tendency to become noticeably more difficult) and the expectation that she will learn most, if not all, her tables over the coming months.  This proved more than a little difficult with her sister, who preferred to perform the calculations in her head rather than learn the answers.  Whilst mental arithmetic is a useful skill and one in which the Bookworm is very proficient, what’s required in tables-learning – whether you like it or not – is an instant recall of the answer.

So, in an effort to avoid the stress and misery which came with our last journey through Year 3 Tables Homework, I’ve been researching a variety of fun and interesting ways to learn them.  I started with a bit of googling, which threw up some ideas of games and websites.  Carol Vorderman’s site, The Maths Factor, offers a variety of courses aimed at children of different ages (primary school level).  It covers all kinds of numeracy work, including tables, but although I agreed with Vorderman’s overall approach (understanding patterns, working through tables spoken and written, aiming towards an instant recall of the individual responses and not just an ability to recite the table as a whole) when I read about it, the courses on the site are expensive and a big investment if you’re not sure your child will take to it.

I canvassed opinion via Facebook and discovered some other, much cheaper, resources from friends who are teachers or parents (or both!), including Teaching Tables which has various different free games, some of which work on learning and performing the calculations, including looking at the patterns, whilst others focus on the speed element.  Both the girls love Table Mountain, in which you have to answer a series of questions correctly in order to propel a climber to the top of the mountain (and successful participants get the fun of watching him slide down the other side!). Another teacher-recommended site is Education City, which caters for both schools and families.  However, membership is payable, and although a free 10-day trial is available we decided not to register as we were about to go on holiday and wouldn’t be able to use it (we may still try it!)

With the holiday in mind I wanted something portable to keep things ticking over (we didn’t do much but I feel it was better than nothing!), and took up another parent’s recommendation in the form of the Squeebles Times Tables 2 app from Key Stage Fun.  It’s available for iPhone, iPad and Android and cost me £1.49, but I think it will be well worth it.  As with Teaching Tables there are various tables-related activities and participation earns equipment for a just-for-fun game called Bubbleball.  When a stage or level of the tables activities has been completed, a Squeeble is rescued from imprisonment at the hands of the Maths Monster!  The games are customisable in the PIN-protected parents’ zone, e.g. at the moment I have removed the harder tables that we’re not working on and it’s easy to switch these back on again once we’re up to that.

I’m fairly sure that both my daughters are auditory learners like myself, so I wanted to find something we could listen to – particularly in the car – which might reinforce the learning almost subliminally.  To achieve this, the songs would have to be a) clear, b) fun and c) acceptable for parents to listen to several times over.  There are dozens of CDs and downloads of tables songs, and many of the samples I listened to were performed in unusual voices (singing cats, etc) which made the content unclear.  In the end, after a lot of review-reading, I plumped for what has possibly been my best decision in years: Professor Mathmo and the Voyage to the Times Tables.  This is written and performed by Giles Hayter, who conveniently happens to be a musician, artist, composer… and maths teacher.  On listening to this CD, my children have proclaimed him “The Colin of Maths” which, as you’ll agree if you’re a Colin fan, is no half-hearted accolade!  I have to agree that his approach is appealing, catchy and parent-friendly (no irritating squeaky voices… oh, OK, one irritating squeaky voice – but it’s for one line only and it’s actually very funny!).  The CD was £7.99 and over our two-week holiday we’ve probably listened to it over twenty times.  The songs are cheerful and clear – easier tables such as 2s, 5s, 10s, are sung as they stand, whilst the more difficult ones have rhyming lines as an aide-memoire – sometimes a whole line in between, sometimes just a little comment to tie together a section, such as:

One eleven is eleven

Two elevens is* twenty-two

Three elevens is thirty-three

And four is forty-four – who knew?

*Yes, it should be “are”, but as Southern Daddy pointed out, he’s a maths teacher, not an English teacher…

The girls have picked these songs up quickly and sing along to them whenever the CD is playing, as well as sometimes when it’s not.  I think this will be a winning move in the war on Tables Homework!  My only criticism would be that more could have been made of the “voyage to the times tables” concept.  There’s a booklet included which shows the answers in each table on a different page (in a random order), and the listener is encouraged to point to the numbers as the song plays (the idea obviously being to get quick enough at remembering the answers to be able to do this in time).  The numbers are represented by alien characters that Mathmo and his sidekick Walter meet, and I thought that there might be more of a story on the CD about the intergalactic voyage and goings-on on each planet.  A missed opportunity?  Perhaps, but at least there’s nothing to detract from the task in hand.

Still keen to use a more structured approach as well, I bought Carol Vorderman’s Times Tables Book, published by Dorling Kindersley.  As someone who’s worked with educational literature and seen a lot of it – good and bad – I’m a long-standing fan of Dorling Kindersley’s contributions, and was further reassured by the fact that this book uses Vorderman’s approach (detailed above) and that it has only good reviews on Amazon.  We’ve not gone far into it yet as we chose not to take that on holiday, but it seems helpful and informative, whilst colourful and imaginative enough not to come across as boring to children.

Altogether, my approach to the whole Tables journey is now a lot more positive, which can only be helpful to the process!

So, what about you?  What’s your learning style? What helps you take things in? Do you have any resources to add to my list of recommendations?

And do you know your tables?

Thankful for…

A really refreshing holiday with beautiful weather and many good memories

Some great times with extended family

A tidy, peaceful house to come home to (still reaping the benefits from Susan‘s planner!)

A couple of weeks to get ready for back-to-school

The prospect of a long anniversary weekend approaching


Love, Lies and Lizzie by Rosie Rushton: audio edition read by Kate Byers (Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge: July)

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200So, the school term is finally over and summer holidays have begun.  For Southern Daddy and myself, along with several others at our church, the first week of the summer holiday is always Holiday Club week, where 75+ primary school children descend on the church building, 5 hours a day for a week and we entertain them with songs, games, crafts and drama, as well as teaching them about Jesus and the crucial difference he makes to our lives.  It’s exhausting but ultimately feels very rewarding and it’s lovely to get to know the children so well, and especially to see them coming back year after year and seeing them grow (in their understanding as well as their height!).  The teaching is a challenge in many ways as most of the children aren’t familiar with the Bible passages and explaining them at holiday club is very different from teaching Sunday School or a Bible time with our own children, but the unexpected ideas and questions which cropped up helped us to examine the way we explained our faith to them and make sure we were really clear.

One of the things I was especially thankful for was that throughout the week I didn’t suffer from any migraines.  Not that I feel I’m indispensible, but I know what a complication it would have been for the co-leaders in my group, especially when having to decipher the notes I’d made for my teaching times!  So I was very glad to be able to be there all week and not struggling at any point and wishing I could go home.

When I’m suffering the best course of action (after appropriate medication has been administered) is to lie down in a darkened room, and to help me relax and pass the time I enjoy listening to audio books.  It can take me a long time to get through one as it generally relaxes me enough to fall asleep, meaning I have to find my place again when I wake up, but they’re very useful when I’m not able to read.  Recently I listened to a recording of Love, Lies and Lizzie, an updated version of Pride and Prejudice written for the YA market by Rosie Rushton and read by Kate Byers (Chivers audiobooks).

I had high hopes for Love, Lies and Lizzie, as I’d already enjoyed reading three of Rosie Rushton’s Jane Austen in the 21st Century series: Secret Schemes and Daring Dreams (her version of Emma), The Secrets of Love (Sense and Sensibility) and Summer of Secrets (Northanger Abbey).  She’s adept at translating the situations into a modern-day setting, using modern communications technology to good advantage, and also applying them to teenage characters (which works well with many of the elements of Austen’s novels, such as the amount of spare time the characters have, the absence of a work life or any real responsibility, etc).

What I found, on listening to the recording, was that my responses to the book and to the reading were very different.  Kate Byers, the reader, is an actor, producer and communications coach (although I’m not familiar with her work in any of these spheres) and has recorded several audiobooks spanning various genres.  Sadly, I was not impressed with her work on this recording.  I didn’t find her reading to be that clear, her emphasis in certain sentences was off the mark, making it difficult to understand what she was saying, and the voices she adopted for the various characters were nowhere near wide-ranging enough to provide the necessary distinction.  Now, I read to one or both of my daughters every night, and I know that Doing The Voices isn’t at all easy.  It’s not bad if you can make each character come from a different region or country (although on one famous occasion I got half way through The Gruffalo and couldn’t remember what voice I’d used for the Fox, much to the disgust of the pair of two-year-olds who made up my audience!), but an obligation to voice a whole group of characters from the same social and geographical background can present a challenge.  Nonetheless, there are things you can do to provide distinction.  (For one thing, ensuring that men have lower voices than women is a fairly fundamental requirement, and Byers didn’t always manage to achieve this).

Despite the presentation, however, I found that I enjoyed Rushton’s story.  I felt that she took rather too long to set up the scenario, although that was at the same time as I was contending with the confusing character voices (and I did fall asleep during the early part) so it could have been that which made it more irritating.  But once it properly got going, the plot flowed quite well. I loved the way she had expanded the range of travel to suit the modern setting, so that the equivalent of the Hunsford/Rosings visit became a work placement in France, and the (kind of) Pemberley equivalent is India.  Pride and Prejudice is a well-populated novel so the author had done well to find parallels for all the characters, from the arriviste Mrs Bennet and the eco-warrior Mary (now Meredith) to the pompous hospitality intern (Drew) Collins and the ultimate bad boy George Wickham.

One of the challenges of a modern-day Pride and Prejudice is obviously going to be Lydia’s scandal.  Obviously, in the present day, a teenage girl running away with an older and unreliable man is cause for concern, but even though Lydia is under age, there would be nothing like the resultant scandal that would have ensued in Austen’s day, and which was only partially averted by Lydia’s marriage to Wickham.  Rosie Rushton has here managed to find a treatment of the situation which is believable and fits well with Darcy’s testimony of his experiences the previous year.  What intrigues me, however, is the way in which both this book and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries chose to provide redemption for Lydia, rather than making her the incorrigable character she is in Austen’s original, where she’s left to lie in the bed she’s made for herself.  I’m not saying I don’t like it, I’m just not sure about its being so different.  Is it, perhaps, just too difficult to find a modern parallel which fits well enough for Lydia to continue to be the unapologetically spoilt, silly, selfish girl she always was, rather than emerging chastened and wiser from her experiences?  I certainly don’t have the answers – it’s just something I’ve observed.

A couple of things I didn’t like were the unnecessary changing of names – why does Charlotte Lucas have to be Emily?  And why James Darcy?  It’s not as if Charlotte and William, Will even, are less popular names amongst young people – and the fact that, having taken a while to get started, the book ended in quite a rush – I was expecting it to go on for much longer and in the end Lizzy’s two trips (to Hunsford and to Derbyshire) were rolled into one to save on time.  Lady Catherine (Katrina) de Bourgh made very little impression on me as a character, which feels wrong, given her presence in P&P which overshadows much of the book, despite her comparatively small number of appearances.

All-in-all, however, I enjoyed the story and feel I’d have enjoyed it still more, had I read the book rather than listening to the recording.  I’d really like to read the other two in the series (yes, I’ll even give the one based on Mansfield Park a try!), but I don’t think I’ll take the risk with the audio versions!

August’s pick for the challenge will most likely be Georgiana Darcy’s Diary by Anna Elliott as I’ve had it on my phone for months now!


Thankful for…

  • The AMAZING weather we’ve been having
  • A really wonderful Holiday Club week
  • Keeping free of migraines for all of last week
  • Our holiday plans (which had to undergo a rather dramatic change very recently but are still lots to look forward to!)
  • A chance to relax with my girls now
  • The prospect of seeing my parents next week
  • My new vacuum cleaner, which arrives tomorrow
  • A really sweet friend who turned up with crocheted toys for the girls this morning
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