Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Big Chop!

New Year, new hair
So, for the last couple of years I've been mulling over the idea of chopping off all my straight hair and going back to an afro.  It's always stayed at the idea stage though as I can all-too-clearly remember tears every morning as Mum ripped an afro comb through my hair and it's cost me so much over the years to have it straightened so I might as well keep on keeping on despite my loathing of the hairdressers.  (Does anyone else hate vapid conversations about celebrities at the hairdressers, or is that just me?)

However, in January the idea hit me again mainly because I desperately needed to have my hair relaxed so I looked at Pinterest and discovered that I could do way more with my hair than sticking it in braids or wearing a mile-high afro.  So very tempting, but also a bit terrifying.

I popped into the hairdressers one Wednesday morning in January just to ask if they thought it would suit me, and before I knew it I was sitting in a chair, listening to the snip-snip of scissors and feeling my head getting lighter and lighter.

Bye-bye hair!
I won't lie...glancing down and seeing handfuls of hair littering the floor was a bit of a oh shit moment.  I don't do impulsive, and having 90% of my hair chopped off after a two minute conversation is pretty damn impulsive!

But, you know, so far so good!  It's been a month and my hair is so much easier to deal with--I feel, well, free.  YouTube has been an absolute goldmine of information; vloggers like Naptural85 and Chizi Duru have taught me more in a few videos than I've picked up in my entire lifetime.  I do envy their nimble fingers, though!  I've also spent a small fortune on pretty accessories for my hair at Claire's and Accessorize and for once I'm having fun with my hair!

Love wearing flowers in my hair!
If anyone's considering a big chop of their own, I'd say go for it! It's a bit chilly on a windy day, but I wouldn't change a thing!!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to you all, from our (gingerbread) house to yours!  (Whether it's gingerbread or not!)

I wish you health, wealth, happiness and loads of fun in 2015!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Life lately...

Merry Christmas!
Hello! Long-time no see!

Life has been a mad whirlwind of activity since September and today is the first day in an absolute age when I've felt free to sit down and reacquaint myself with the sofa and do nothing.  (Well, almost. I'm bottling some sloe gin for a Secret Santa but that's hardly work.)

Make yourself a cuppa, pull up a chair and let's catch up a little.

In October I became an auntie again!  My brother and sister-in-law welcomed baby Zander into the world and I made him a gorgeously snuggly quilt (and began my new obsession with quilting.)  Isn't he scrumptious?  Lucas is thrilled to have a boy cousin at last, but I think he'll have to wait for a few years before Zander will want to play Godzilla v Mothra...

The Covent Garden tree was immense!
November saw me popping up to London for a fabulously decadent and boozy weekend with my lovely friend Kate.  We began with cocktails at brunch in Canary Wharf on Saturday and carried on with that winning combination all weekend.  In our defence, the weather was particularly dire so sheltering indoors was an absolute necessity. And if our shelter happened to include a friendly barman, then that was purely by accident!

We did manage to pop to the National Portrait Gallery, wander around Covent Garden, see the (disappointing) lights on Regent Street and best of all, Liberty!  I've always wanted to go there and I was not disappointed even though we could barely move in their Christmas Shop. The Narnia-esque wood panel lift put the biggest smile on my face before we even got upstairs! So many beautiful things, I nearly popped with excitement!  I managed to restrain myself and come away with just an Alice in Wonderland tea towel.  It says, "We're all mad here," which is absolutely spot on for our household!

Everyone needs a Gangsta Octopus tile in their life...
On the WI front, I've been really busy preparing for our first charity choir concert and also making beautiful things for our stall at a local Handmade Market.  I went a little crazy and crocheted thread snowflakes for a Frozen-inspired wreath as well as making sparkly snowflake garlands.

Here's our fab choir singing our favourite song, "Rhythm of Life"!

We'll be at The Royal Albert Hall in a few years, mark my words!

On the home front, we finally got the Christmas tree up last weekend and showered it with lots of gorgeously shiny baubles. The house feels so cosy with the tree lights twinkling away and all our Christmassy treasures out on show.  School finishes on Friday and I'm really looking forward to (bravely) making a gingerbread house with Lucas next week!  I may even light it...

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Get Your Knit On!

This week is National Knitting Week (6-12 October), a celebration of snuggly jumpers, woolly hats, and that thing with one too many arms (or legs) that your Grandma once made you.  The official soundtrack is the rhythmic click-clack of knitting needles.

By way of celebration I've dived into the odds and ends of yarn at the bottom of my knitting basket and started knitting little hats for the Innocent Big Knit.  It's really nice to work on a small project that gives almost immediate gratification for once--I'm still beavering away at my quilt bur the quilting design I went for feels absolutely endless.

If you haven't heard of the Innocent Big Knit, then here's a handy video for you:

I love seeing all the little be-hatted bottles on the shelves and it's much more fun than if Innocent were just to donate to AgeUK.  Plus, there are apparently collectors out there, who pay insane prices for the hats on eBay!!

I've been working my way through lots of the fantastic patterns on Jo's Big Knit and stretching my design muscles a little.  The three 'cake hats' in front are my own designs--I might have been craving cake when I came up with the carrot cake!  Thinking of things to turn into hats has been such a lot of fun.  I might try doing a jar of jam next and embroidering the label.  First though, I need to make a cup of tea to go with the cakes!

As I'm particularly pleased with my Viccy Sponge hat, I thought I'd leave my pattern for it, in case anyone else fancies making one (or improving upon it).  French knots aren't my thing, so I'm certain that yours will be better than mine!!

Victoria Sponge knitted hat

Victoria Sponge

light brown DK yarn (a sponge brown)
red DK yarn (suitably jam coloured)
cream DK yarn
4mm knitting needles
3.50mm crochet hook
wool needle

With the brown yarn cast on 28 stitches.
Purl one row.
Knit one row.
Starting with a knit row, stocking stitch (ss) 4 rows.
Join in the red yarn and knit one row.  Cut off the red yarn leaving a tail to work in at the end to secure the stitches.
Join in the cream yarn and purl one row.  Cut off the cream yarn leaving a tail.
Resume working with the brown yarn and ss 4 more rows.

Shaping top of cake: 
Purl one row
Knit one row (this creates a handy ridge for you to sew the icing to)
Starting with a knit row ss 2 rows
(K2, K2tog) repeat to end
Purl one row
(K1, K2tog) repeat to end
Purl one row
(K2tog) repeat to end.
Cut the yarn leaving a long tail enough to sew up the hat.  Thread a yarn needle and run the tail through the remaining stitches, pull up tightly and secure.  Sew hat up from the wrong side by oversewing row ends.  Work in the loose ends from creating the filling.  Turn right side out.

Crochet the icing (US crochet terms)
The icing is worked in continuous rounds until the very end, as shown in the pattern.  I use a paperclip as a stitch marker (I keep losing the proper ones!)

NB. If you wanted daintier icing, you could use 4ply yarn with a smaller hook. Thanks for the suggestion, Julia!

With cream yarn make a magic loop:

Round 1: 6 sc into loop. (6 sc)
Round 2: 2 sc in each st around. (12 sc)
Round 3: (2 sc in next st, sc in next st) 6 times. (18 sc)
Round 4: (2 sc in next st, sc in each of next 2 sts) 6 times. (24 sc)
Round 5: (2 sc in next st, sc in each of next 3 sts) 6 times. (30 sc)
Round 6: 3 sc in each st around, sl st in next st to join, fasten off, weave in the short end from the magic loop and leave the long end to sew onto the cake.

With red yarn sew a ring of French knots around the top of the icing, as shown in the picture.  Fasten securely.

Sew the decorated icing piece to the top of the cake.  I found it easiest to put the cake onto an empty smoothie bottle, pin the icing on, and then sew from just behind the frill of the icing down into the ridged row at the beginning of the shaping.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Book Benches around London

This is another one of those woefully overdue posts.  We went up to London at the end of August for the weekend as an end-of-summer treat for Lucas.  One of the big draws for me was the Books About Town book bench art trail around the city and we decided to combine tracking down benches with seeing some of the sights I've somehow managed to miss on my previous eleventy-million (slight exaggeration) visits to London.

I love these art trails which are all the rage these days.  Gromit Unleashed was the highlight of our summer last year and as I love books even more than Gromit, I was all set to absolutely adore this one.

The trail is now over, however, the benches are all congregating for one last hurrah prior to the auction on the 7th of October.  For this weekend (4-5 October, 2014) you can visit all of the benches at Gordon Square Garden WC1.

St Paul's Cathedral
We found our first three book benches in the shadow of St Paul's.  I had really wanted to walk around the cathedral and visit the Whispering Gallery but oh my god, the price.  I'm still struggling with the concept of paying to go into a church, even more with the idea of spending almost £100 for a family of three.  Still, there was plenty of gorgeous architecture for me to admire from the outside and once I'd had my fill, we went book bench hunting.

Mary Poppins
Our first bench was Mary Poppins.  I almost wish we'd seen another one first, as this was such a disappointment to me.  She looks wrong and nice.  I appreciate that it's highly stylised--check out the cherry trees--but it just felt wrong for the book.  Lucas wasn't very impressed, either.

Still, things picked up dramatically with Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch just a few steps along the square.

Fever Pitch
And I cooed over the Peter Pan bench for ages before I got dragged off to see the rest of The City.

Peter Pan bench
Isn't it perfect?  So whimsical and the watercolours are perfect for the book.  I love the gilt-edged pages and Peter's shadow is sword-fighting on the back!

The back of the Peter Pan bench
There turned out to be quite a few book benches near St Paul's.  I bought the unofficial app as we strolled along to make sure we didn't miss any along the way.

Usborne's That's not my...Bench
Lucas grew up with the Usborne "That's not my..." books so we all went a bit gaga over this bench.  His crazy-obsessive meerkat phase may be be over, but he still does a great meerkat impression.  Simples!

We crossed the Millennium Bridge--did you know it was in the Guardians of the Galaxy film?--and headed towards The Globe.  Another place I've never been to before!

Shakespeare's London
From The Globe, we walked down the Thames Path, enjoying the sunshine and the hunt.

Great Expectations
Lucas was pretty damn excited to find the Paddington Bear bench.  Unsurprisingly it was really, really popular.  There was actually a queue to take photographs!

Please look after this bear
Another super-popular bench was Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's From Scarecrows to The Gruffalo.  It even had my favourite--Room on the Broom!

From Scarecrows to The Gruffalo
It was such a lovely walk.  I've never seen the Square Mile from the Southbank so I was happily fascinated all the way.  I didn't realise until the next day just how far we'd walked in our quest for the book benches!!

Such a great view!
After a pit-stop in Leon for lunch we started our quest again.  Just outside the restaurant was the War Horse bench.  I've never read the book or seen the play, but the bench was certainly very poignant.  Stark, simple and beautiful.

War Horse
Here's my favourite bench of them all.  The Librarian of Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork.  He seems to have the same approach to filing books as me.  Stack 'em high!

The Librarian 
There was a bit of a cluster of benches around City Hall...

Through the Looking Glass
Dr Seuss

How To Train Your Dragon
None of us had any idea that the How To Train Your Dragon movies came from a book!  I was really surprised when I googled and found that there were loads and loads of them!

Clarice Bean
I'm not familiar at all with Clarice Bean--I thought she was Lola from Charlie and Lola--but I agree with the sentiment.

On Sunday we intended to track down loads more lovely book benches, but just after we'd found our first two in Russell Square it started to rain.  Honestly, it was like the beginning of monsoon season.  So there we were, the three of us sheltering under a not-very-big tree with one very small umbrella, no coats, and the rain absolutely soaking my back.  We gave up on the benches right then and squelched off to Costa.  There's a slight possibility that we might be fair-weather adventurers!

So here are our last two.

Lucas and Dave loved this bench so much.  It's so wonderfully old-school Bond and super-cool.

Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly
Our last bench was Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly.  This was an early short story which got expanded by Agatha into Dead Man's Folly and the Miss Marple short story Grenshaw's Folly.  I'd love to read the original work at some point for fun!

I really wish that I could go up to London and see the benches all laid out together.  Hopefully a blogger or two will visit and take some beautiful pictures!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Catch of the day!

Meet Bob, the bass.

I made Bob--I have no idea why I named a fish--for my father-in-law's combined birthday and retirement in July.  After years of hard graft he's looking forward to spending his days fishing, so I thought I'd start him off with an easy catch!

This is a bit of a make-ahead cake.  The bulrushes need to be made a few days ahead so that they can dry out and (fingers crossed) stick to the skewers.  You can also make the fish head in advance, too.

I'm afraid that I didn't take many pictures of the cake process--sticky hands and cameras aren't a good combination--but for the rushes I mixed 50:50 flower paste and fondant and coloured about half dark brown and the rest holly green.  Getting the fondant to stick to the skewers for the bulrushes was a bit of a mission: I tried dampening the skewers by soaking them, brushing with sugar glue, and (of all things) some jam.  I wedged the skewers into a polystyrene box insert that was lying around so that they could dry without resting on a flat surface and then draped the leaves over the rest of the skewers to give them the right shape.  Once dried out the bulrush heads stayed in place (thank God) and the extra leaves I made were easy to stick straight into the cake for a nice pond scene.

The fish head was moulded from rice krispy treats, covered in fondant, and then I spent an hour smoothing the surface and adding details.  Despite having a box of fancy tools in the cupboard, sometimes you can't beat a cocktail stick and your fingers for fiddly work!  This tutorial was very helpful, too.  I painted it the next day with food colourings mixed with lustre dusts and vodka.  A dab of piping gel made the eye nice and glossy for that freshly caught look.  (This was my first time using piping gel and it is weird but very wonderful stuff--it made fantastic ripples on top of the cake as well as a shiny glaze for the pebbles. Totes amaze!)

For the cake itself I turned to my new favourite recipe: Lindy Smith's Madeira cake.  It makes a fabulously deep cake with a lovely flat top, so there's hardly any waste.  It's really tasty, too, which is the main thing!  It's easily split into three layers and looks really impressive when cut.

Bob went down a storm with my father-in-law.  He couldn't bear to cut into Bob so, like a real fish, he's been stashed away in the freezer.  We did eat the rest of the cake, though!!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Book review: The Goldfinch

When we set off for Cornwall back in August, I carefully selected--well, loaded onto the Kindle--several books that I'd been really looking forward to reading.  And wouldn't you know it?  When I snuggled into the corner of the sofa, mug of coffee in hand after a lovely day of wandering around little villages, none of them appealed to me.

I started, and quickly closed, several books, frustration levels rising with every book that wasn't quite right for the mood I was in.  Tell me I'm not alone in this!  It's bloody miserable not being able to settle into a book.

After utterly wasting half an hour, I headed over to my Amazon wishlist and treated myself to The Goldfinch in the hopes that it would manage to hold my attention for at least five pages.

It held my attention for the next five days.

Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love - and his talisman, the painting, places him at the centre of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America and a drama of enthralling power. Combining unforgettably vivid characters and thrilling suspense, it is a beautiful, addictive triumph - a sweeping story of loss and obsession, of survival and self-invention, of the deepest mysteries of love, identity and fate.

Whist it was a definite page-turner I felt let down by Donna Tartt's writing.  The book is proudly proclaimed (on the cover) to be a Pulitzer Prize winning book and I expected a lot more from it than I actually received.

Don't get me wrong, it's a decent yarn.  I got caught up quite quickly in Theo's story, rolling my eyes as he did particularly stupid thing, and cheering him on when he was making something of himself.  (I spent rather a lot of the latter stages of the book wanting to throttle him, though.)  I loved both Andy and Boris, such total opposites but providing perfect foils for Theo's state of mind and age at the time we encounter them.  And Hobie!  A fantastic character and vividly portrayed.

Tartt does a fantastic job of capturing people and the minutiae of everyday life, but the book does rather get bogged down in long-winded descriptions of almost every piece of furniture encountered in the second and third acts, and other such little things.  Like Tolkein and J.K. Rowling, a bolder editor would have been a good friend to her...

Overall, the book is a coming of age story, with an interesting plot and about 100 pages of needless and paper-thin philosophy tacked onto the end.  I've encountered deeper and more meaningful philosophy in Terry Pratchett books, which he deftly inserts throughout the narrative, so I didn't feel overly impressed by afterthought tacked onto the end.  It felt very much as though Tartt suddenly remembered that she was writing "The Great American Novel" which must be philosophical and life-altering, so she tacked a bit on the end.

Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed The Goldfinch--I kept sneaking off to read more of it after all--I just didn't feel that it deserved all of the accolades that have been heaped upon it.  My advice is to take it out of the library and make up your own mind!


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