February’s reviews

Two months in a row and sticking to my resolution to keep up with fiction reading. Yay me.

Let’s ignore that it’s already March and I didn’t notice or remember to hit post… and that I only finished two books in February.

***

This Golden Flame by Emily Victoria

Received an ARC from Netgalley.

This Golden Flame is an excellent debut novel that blends humanity, machine and magic. Essentially, a group of characters – with slightly different agendas – is thrown together by happenstance. They unite to take down a corrupt leader.

Through Alix, an automaton, Victoria explores what defines a person in a manner that is accessible and interesting. Alix’s existential crisis reflects the human condition and will resonate with the novel’s target YA audience.

Victoria refreshingly avoids romantic entanglements between the narrators, Alix and Karis. The book passes the Bechdel test with top marks! I didn’t pick up that Alix and Karis are depicted as asexual until after I’d completed the book, when I read more about the it. Frankly, it works whichever way the reader interprets the characters. Equally pleasing was Victoria’s matter-of-fact approach to inclusion and representation. Different cultures, faiths (if scriptwork is imagined that way), classes, sexualities and genders are effectively woven together as part of the characterisation and the plot.

The dual narrative was tricky… The voices of Alix and Karis aren’t distinctly different so the split first-person narrative seems unnecessary. Maybe this was deliberate – showing how Karis is different to other people and how similar Alix is to her? But then it feels like the narration often focuses on internalisation and perhaps misses the chance to depict Tallis and Valitia more convincingly. Victoria is clearly a skilled writer and I’d have enjoyed more time with her world building. Moreover, the book feels like it has three protagonists: Alix, Karis and Dane. Despite this, only two narrative perspectives are included.

Really, that’s my only gripe. Unless you count wishing it was longer so I could find out more about Zara and her crew! There was so much to enjoy about This Golden Flame. I look forward to Victoria’s future work.

Rating ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍

***

The Supreme Lie by Geraldine McCaughrean

I love this book cover. Also an ARC from Netgalley.

McCaughrean writes across the spectrum, for children, teens, young adults and those of us who no longer belong in this category; it’s one of the many reasons I admire her as a seasoned and skilled writer. The Supreme Lie fits comfortably somewhere within the YA bracket. In terms of genre, however, I’m at a loss. Drama, certainly, with splashes of fantasy, dystopia, political intrigue and adventure. It feels art deco in period but simultaneously very modern. I’ve found this with McCaughrean in the past – she frequently straddles genres and styles with impressive grace.

In essence, the country’s leader ‘does a bunk’ when unprecedented floods bring chaos to a region. To hide the leader’s cowardice, her husband hatches a plot to pretend the leader is still present by dressing up the 15 year old maid, Gloria. As you can imagine, the situation gets pretty fraught. It’s quite Shakespearean – think Twelfth Night or Measure for Measure.

Having read other reviews – after finishing the book – I can see some readers have criticised McCaughrean for being a little bizarre or far-fetched. First, the bizarre is a characteristic I always enjoy in McCaughrean’s work. In The Supreme Lie, we are often treated to the perspective of Heinz, a loyal dog. His adventure, trials and worries during the flood are expressed through his internal monologue. It’s beautiful – not bizarre – to see canine loyalty given so much page. In terms of being far-fetched… pffft. I’d argue that having watched the last American administration coupled with having experienced the handling of 2020-2021 (stares hard at 10 Downing Street), McCaughrean has sculptured a plausible political landscape. Scheming public servants, environmental crisis, mass media scare-mongering, biased news reporting, power grabbiness and dis/mis-information: what’s far-fetched about that?!

Overall, it’s funny and dark. Often, for young people such as Gloria, the solutions to real world issues appear simple. McCaughrean illuminates that this isn’t the case but that decisions made with a strong moral compass will always be preferable to those steered by corruption.

Rating ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

Insomnia: a one act play to be performed at least 5 nights a week

In bed, window open, no lights. Approximately 1 a.m.

Brain: This is nice. Let’s nod off, Jo, and dream of happy times to come.

Jo: Sounds great (takes a relaxing, deep breath and slowly exhales).

Bladder: Um. Sorry to be that guy but I need a trip to the bathroom.

Brain: Oh, come off it. You went an hour ago.

Bladder: Yeah but now you’re thinking about it, Brain, aren’t you?

Brain: (Mutters something inaudible).

Back: Yeah, I’m with Bladder. If we fall asleep in this position, it’s going to mess up Neck.

Neck: Huh? No fair. Come on, Brain… it’s one trip to the loo. If Back screws with me again, I’m sending a migraine your way in the morning, Brain.

Brain: (Exasperatedly) It is the bloody morning. (Resigned) Up you get, Jo, we’re off for a quick wee.

Intestines: Possibly.

Brain: Oh for pity’s sake.

Jo heads to the bathroom in the dark and performs a wee. She hangs around for a minute or two to establish that Intestine is, in fact, being an attention seeker. Jo heads back out of the bathroom and enters the kitchen because Victorian houses have strange layouts.

Cat: (Screams).

Jo: (Turns on light).

Brain: Great, now you’ve done it. (Bitterly) I’m awake again.

Cat: (Screams continuously).

Jo: (Fetches cat bowl and empties cat food into it, getting some on the side and on her hands).

Brain: That’ll do, Jo – straight back to bed.

Conscience: (Outraged) No, no, no. Clean up the kitchen sides and wash your hands. Really!

Jo: (Cleans sides and washes hands. She notices the sink isn’t looking sparkly, so cleans that and puts on a load of washing).

Conscience: (Impressed) Nice one, Jo.

Brain: (Stroppily) Can we get back to bed now?

Jo: Sure. (Turns off lights and sets off for the bedroom).

Foot: (Yelling) WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!

Brain: (Sighing) One of Jo’s shoes. She left it there earlier, remember?

Foot: No. (Sulkily) That’s your job.

Conscience: Perhaps Jo should put it away –

Brain: (Interrupting) NO! Not now. Bed!

Jo heads back to bed and spends at least 30 minutes trying to make sure Back and Neck are happy.

Jo: Are we all set?

Bladder: Yeah, cheers for that.

Back: Sure.

Neck: Yup.

Brain: Well, actually, now you mention it, I’d like to run through the plans for tomorrow. And what do you want to eat? What time is the puppy going to daycare and have you figured out when we need to leave and when you should wake up? Remind me, why are you doing a PhD? Did you text your friend to see how she’s doing? Whose birthdays are coming up? Are you smart enough to do a PhD? When is the dog’s next vet appointment? Oh, did you put the ointment on the dog’s tail earlier? Actually, doesn’t the puppy need a worming tablet this week? What’s your PhD even about? I don’t think you’ve charged your phone but you shouldn’t check because the light will wake me up even more. Did you see that article about blue light and the impact on brains? I wonder if we should get Eyes some of those light filtering glasses. Or maybe they’re just a scam? Talking of purchases, have you got a Hermes tracking number for the Hoover yet? Well, we should say vacuum cleaner because Hoover is the brand. Like Sellotape. And Post-Its. Ah, stationery – you need to order new fountain pen cartridges, you’re running out. And the printer said its black cartridge is low. Was it the black? I’m sure it was. We can check. There’s a button on the printer or you can use the software on the laptop. Might need to run laptop updates this week before it gives up completely. What will you do for work if you complete the PhD? Ah, have you backed up all your recent analysis? And password protected the folders? Because, if you –

Netflix: (Interrupting) I’ve got at least two new releases that would shut Brain up for a while.

Brain: How rude.

Jo: (Relieved, grabs phone) Yes, please! (Checks phone) Oh, only 8% battery.

Brain: (Smugly) Told you.

Jo: (Scrabbling around in the dark) There’s no charger, I’ll grab one from downstairs.

Brain, Bladder, Back and Neck: (In unison) Do we have to?

Jo: It won’t take long.

Downstairs, in the dark, Jo goes to the dining room and locates a charger. She turns to head back up the stairs.

Cat: (Screams, continuously and louder than before.)

Jo: You’ve just eaten.

Brain: You know she won’t stop until you feed her again.

Jo: She might.

Cat: (Screams and jumps on kitchen side).

Brain: Told you. Again.

Jo: (Prepares more cat food and this time, doesn’t spill any. Turns to head back up the stairs).

Conscience: Excuse me? You need to clean the kitchen sides.

Jo: But I didn’t spill anything!

Conscience: Sure… but Miss-Kitty-Shout-A-Lot just tap danced all over it.

Brain: Oh, come on!

Jo: (Dutifully cleans the sides. Again).

Back in bed, Jo charges the phone and spends a few minutes settling Back and Neck into comfy positions. She watches one episode of a new series and decides, responsibly, to leave it there for now).

Netflix: Good, right?

Jo: Yeah, seems promising.

Netflix: Another? Ah go on, they’re only 45 minutes long.

Jo: No, let’s sleep.

Netflix: You sure?

Brain: You heard her!

Netflix: (Placatingly) Alright, alright.

Relaxed and calm, Jo starts to fall asleep.

Ears: What was that?

Brain: Shhhh.

Ears: No, listen.

Dog: (Politely) Whimper, huff, huff, snort.

Ears: Huh?

Brain: (Runs canine translation system) She needs the loo.

Jo: (Gets up, causing Back and Neck to grumble, and opens door). There you go.

Dog: Whimpers.

Jo: You know how to use the dog flap.

Dog: Huffity huff.

Brain: She doesn’t want to go on her own or in the dark.

Jo upsets Back and Neck by staggering downstairs and into the garden with the dog. The dog takes 15 minutes to find the perfect place to pee and then poops in 3 different locations.

Conscience: You should –

Jo: I know!

Jo bags up the poop and cleans the dirty patio areas with the hose. She heads back indoors.

Conscience: You need to –

Jo: I bloody know!

Jo washes her hands and heads to the stairs, surprised the cat isn’t screaming again. She starts up the first step.

Brain: If we get to sleep in the next 5 minutes, we’ll have 3 and a half hours of rest.

Bladder: Um, actually, whilst you’re up…

***

Pinch: the shouting cat

January’s reviews

I’m going to review books a bit differently this year… I want to keep up with more reading so if I commit to a monthly round up, and put it in writing, I’ll do it. Right? That’s how resolutions work? Right? Right?!

***

Shatter Me (1) / Destroy Me (1.5) / Unravel Me (2) / Ignite Me (3) by Tahereh Mafi

I bought these in 2017 (ish) with a birthday cheque from my wonderful in-laws. I’m pretty sure I read half of the book straight away and then got distracted by MA assignments. So I returned to them as my first fiction fest in 2021.

They’re dystopian, sci-fi, YA books. If you like the “Gone” series by Michael Grant or “The Darkest Minds” series by Alexandra Bracken, then Tahereh Mafi’s work will be right up your street.

I enjoyed the complexity of the characters; Mafi creates plausible conflict and politics. I am less enamoured of the fact the plot is often driven by romance. Suzanne Collins did this more effectively in “The Hunger Games” and even Veronica Roth came good at the end of the “Divergent” series. I feel that if this series was adapted for the big screen, it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test.

It wasn’t a difficult read and I enjoyed it. But my concluding comment is that I’ve just discovered that there are three more books and three related novellas and I haven’t rushed to buy them…

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️🤍🤍

***

The Boy I Am by K.L. Kettle

Longer review as I received an ARC (advanced review copy) from Netgalley.

I have three indicators of a really good book: I stay up far too late reading, I tell other people to read it so I can discuss it with someone and I have to take a break before I pick up a new book (AKA the book hangover). This hit all three.

I notice other reviewers commenting that “The Boy I Am” has much in common with Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Sure, I can see the obvious parallels often found in dystopian fiction but I feel it shares more with Alderman’s “The Power” or Blackman’s “Noughts and Crosses” series. Subverting the stereotypical roles of race or gender provides a new lens to view systemic problems.

In “The Boy I am,” flipping the power dichotomy of men and women shines a powerful light on the absurdity of the treatment and oppression of women. There are big teachable moments, like consent, body autonomy and democracy. But I really respect the way Kettle handled the more nuanced examples, that would filed under the everyday sexism category. The smiles. At home, teaching Connor about overt sexism was straightforward; we found it far more challenging to explain why give-us-a-smile-love behaviours and attitudes are toxic. Hearing Jude’s inner monologue as he navigates life with a catalogue of smiles is absolutely genius! It provides a recognisable lived experience for many readers and a new way in for those who have never experienced it.

They’re not really criticisms but I have two thoughts. The pace of the action rattles along full tilt even as you’re acclimatising to the world Kettle is building. I sometimes find that disorientating but I know other readers won’t. Also, the book predominately deals with a dichotomous presentation of gender; when you’re building an entire world in a single novel, I can see why. I would have enjoyed some more playing around at the margins but that’s just me. Not every book has to deliver everything to every reader.

Like Atwood, Alderman and Blackman, Kettle’s characters are not two dimensional. The protagonists are flawed, you can’t always trust the narrative voice and things aren’t neatly tied in a bow at the end. This is refreshing. And just as I’ve done with the powerhouse trio, I will be finding more of Kettle’s work to gobble and I’ll be returning to “The Boy I Am” for a second reading.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

***

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

I have a great Aunty who I can utterly picture as a member of the Thursday Murder Club. Any family members reading this blog will figure out who, if they give the book a try…

This novel is a kitsch gift of British idiosyncrasy, wrapped up in Christie-esque gift paper with a sufficiently intricate bow of twists and turns to keep you surprised.

It’s witty, clever, refreshing and, at the same time, familiar. Helen and I listened to it together via Audible and I was frequently frustrated when I had to wait for her to be available so we could continue.

As a whodunnit, I can’t really comment on the plot for fear of spoilers. The premise seems quaint but it works: a small group of mature folks living in a swanky retirement village form a club that solve cold cases. For fun.

The second book is expected in September and we both can’t wait.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

***

The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

This was another ARC from Netgalley. I’ve been really fortunate with my book options this month, so far… lots of top quality stories.

Ah. It’s one of those reviews where I can’t actually comment on the details for fear of ruining it for someone else.

What can I tell you? It’s a very clever YA thriller with an unusual protagonist. Very clever. Very, very clever.

Cleverness example 1. There are two timelines: the present moves nearly minute by minute and it’s tense; the past doesn’t always progress chronologically – sometimes it’s in reverse. It sounds complicated but it works effectively and Sharpe signposts the timeline so you don’t get lost.

Cleverness example 2. It feels pacy and action based but, when you reach the end, you realise it’s not actually plot-driven. Really, it’s a deftly handled character exploration that tricks you into thinking a lot is happening. Sneaky.

Cleverness example 3. It doesn’t end when or where you’d expect it to.

Cleverness example 4. Sharpe uses a lot of devices without it seeming forced: audio transcripts, therapy sessions, memories, lists, patterns.

Retailers are advertising it at readers 12yrs+ Whilst it’s chalked up as YA, I think any adult who likes this genre would appreciate the novel. Despite the age of the protagonist, I frequently forgot it was targeted at a YA audience. Moreover, I’d argue that a level of maturity is needed as the novel deals with physical, emotional and sexual abuse. So I’d apply caution when recommending it to younger readers.

Overall, it’s a brilliantly clever story. I know I said that already but I finished it four hours ago and I’m still sitting here thinking about its cleverness. Or, I should say, Sharpe’s cleverness: she’s aptly named.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

Bye, 2020. Shut the door on your way out…

Can you imagine reading a story in 2019 with the plotline of 2020? Implausible premise. Farfetched narrative. Unbelievable characters. Do not recommend.

Back in January, as has been tradition for a couple of years, we started our Happiness Jar. Despite my bout of protracted illness in early spring (not Covid, I’ve since had an antibody test to confirm) and the ensuing shitshow that was 2020, we maintained the Jar. Even though we joked that there would be nothing to fill it, the Jar was stuffed.

The nature of the entries definitely changed after March!

For posterity’s sake, I’m noting down some examples from the Jar, organised by month.

January

When we didn’t know.

  • Andrey (excellent lad I tutored) got a Grade 4 in his GCSE English resit.
  • Helen (wife) started a new job – and was all excited for the year ahead. HA HA HA.
  • I suppose I should mention my MA graduation and prize (flicks hair).
  • My chums, Soo and Luke2 (yes, there are two of them and, yes, they are married), saved graduation. They stepped up when Edith got sick and couldn’t go to kennels. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the pomp and ceremony. (Cut to camera, dramatic voiceover: it wouldn’t be their last favour of 2020…)
  • Connor started his Japanese lessons, whilst looking forward to using what he learned when travelling in April. Ha. Ha. Ha.
  • I went to a Qualitative Research Symposium at Bath University and heard Virginia Braun speak (and fan-girled her on Twitter).
The Badass Bibliophiles

February

When I made life decisions which I wouldn’t have made in hindsight!

  • My last day working at Brinsbury College so that I could focus on my PhD. Lots of lovely farewells and gifts.
  • Mum-in-law and Pa-in-law visited and we made them sit outside at a café in arctic conditions so that we could also take the puppy. (Cut to camera, dramatic voiceover: little did they know this would be excellent training for 2020 living and the last time they would see one another face-to-face that year).
  • Helen dazzled at a formal event in a red dress. An actual dress!
  • “A Monster Calls” at the Chichester Festival Theatre with Connor and other young people.
Please note: I prepared a hot water bottle for them.

March

The boundary month which straddled normal life and the start of lockdown.

  • Several cinema visits (remember the cinema?): “The Hunt,” “Emma,” “Military Wives” and “Onward.”
  • Helen hosted a private box, for work, at “The Mountbatten Festival of Music.”
  • Luke2 came into the house for food, laughter and games.
  • I hosted the March book club meeting at my Aunty’s house with lots of baking; obviously, these have moved onto Zoom now and also involve very little book talk!
  • Edith and I went to the wrong puppy class and ended up in a session with astrophysics level dogs… whilst we bumbled our way through basic obedience in the corner, feeling inadequate.
  • Lockdown happened and Connor discovered how to use the jet-wash, promptly using it on everything in the garden.
  • Food became quite* important as Helen was shielding, we couldn’t get out and supermarket looting panic buying had started: we celebrated when Tesco delivered everything in our basket; friends dropped bits at our front door; we planted a herb garden; Connor started baking bread, cookies and breakfast treats; Helen was smug that she had started a Brexit box of basics in the garage, like pasta and flour, that saw us through the darkest days! We’re very grateful to Soo, Will C, Will L, Luke2 and Jo Jarrett who have continuously ensured we can eat and wipe our arses (Health and safety voiceover: not at the same time).

* very, very, very

Our last outing, before lockdown, was to the garden centre…

April

The month when we tried our hardest to keep ourselves entertained… as the year progressed, the novelty wore thin.

  • We turned our kitchen into a Mission Impossible style laser system to annoy Connor when he first stumbled to the bathroom in the morning.
  • The Easter Egg Hunt we created for Connor took him over an hour.
  • Edith undertook an online tricks course (with human help)… which was basically about keeping Connor occupied.
  • Zoom quizzes. Remember them? (Dramatic voiceover: whatever 2021 brings, let us not resort to Zoom quizzes. Ever. Again).
  • We had the first BBQ of the year. It was a little cold and for reasons we still don’t understand, Connor served it in a bowl.
  • Connor and I relearned the cup song and also did it with random items from around the house. Not sure Helen enjoyed this.
  • You know those American Chefclub videos? They usually feature odd tins of liquid “cheese.” Anyway, we recreated their spaghetti carbonara bake thingy which features an entire Camembert in the middle. Helen and Connor ended up eating it for several days as it was huge.
  • We painted stones: you can tell things were getting dull.
  • I baked for the dogs. This may have been the point at which I started to mentally disintegrate. It was around this time we started making what-have-we-got-in-the-house cocktails, as well.

May

Yup, the novelty had worn off as you can tell from the few Jar entries. Connor and I were working to deadlines. Well, I was…

  • Helen let me give her an undercut – totally down with the kids.
  • I set up my second work from home space with a new desk. And a sign that was designed (but failed) to keep Helen and Connor away from me whilst I was working.
  • I joined in with the Harry-Potter-Downton-Abbey crossover quiz with Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter – organised to raise funds for Marie Curie.
This lighting masks the grey.

June

Because Helen has been shielding this whole time, we stayed in our own lockdown even as the country was “let out” again.

  • We started doing dog paddock walks again with Helen joining us as her daily exercise.
  • We discovered the Costa drivethru had opened in Chichester and promptly became known as the-ladies-who-brought-their-own-straws-and-wore-masks-when-ordering-and-who-slathered-everything-in-antibac-gel.
  • My birthday went on for a few days: Connor and Helen created me a Harry Potter Den, I started my obsession with Lego and we did a virtual escape room with Emma and Rob. Discovering Lego as an adult is expensive and perhaps not the best way to spend my student loan.
  • Dylan, my epic 10 year old student, made such great progress over the year. The height of which came when he wrote a book review (read it here) which was then celebrated by Bella Swift (the author) and Cressida Cowell (absolute legend) in Twitterverse! He even ended up with some free books gifted to him by fans online.
  • Helen and I started doing date nights – we didn’t leave the house but we did make full use of the Harry Potter den whilst it was up in the garage. (Romantic voiceover: activities included eating food, playing board games, watching TV and generally hiding from the teenager.)
The Castle was my second ever Lego build… 6020 pieces.

July

This was the month when we made Connor take over the running of the household. We were working; he was furloughed and had completed his college course. Many, many things went wrong but this post is only about the Jar of Happiness… so we shouldn’t mention the DIY errors, erratic Tesco orders or cooking disasters.

  • I was bemoaning that we couldn’t get a good afternoon tea because I am gluten free… which was clearly considered a rallying cry by my friends. We enjoyed an afternoon tea delivered by the Millstream Hotel, courtesy of the Clays (for my birthday in June); a stealthy front door drop with a scones mix, jam, tea and clotted cream by Stella and Naomi; and a full blown afternoon tea by post from Emma Sweeney (surname needed as I have three lovely Emmas). I remember July as the month where I practically ate cake once a day.
  • Helen’s workplace (The National Museum of the Royal Navy) received their emergency Grant In Aid from the Government. After four months of wondering whether or not she would lose the job she only started in January (whilst supporting my full time PhD and Connor), this came as a massive relief. Aunty Emma-Jayne (see, another Emma!) and Uncle Kevin-the-pourer surprised her by sending a delivery of cider.
  • In July, I had to start my confirmation process for the first year of the PhD. This was a presentation. I’m really grateful to Dr Emma Fields (see, yet another Emma!) and Natty for listening to me practise the presentation via Zoom and asking me preparatory questions.

August

The month when we’d all had enough but didn’t realise how good we had it… because at least we could sit in the garden. The winter lockdowns, just around the corner, were not as forgiving.

  • Part of the confirmation review process is submitting a 20,000 word mini-thesis covering everything you’ve done so far: intro, background, aims, literature review, methodology and so on. I made my deadline and managed to stay under the wordcount. By five words.
  • We celebrated both of Luke2 birthdays (about two weeks apart) in the garden. Many metres apart.
  • Connor discovered he’d achieved triple Distinction Star – and also had confirmation of his university place and complicated finance.
  • Helen earned her own salary. It’s a fundraiser thing – it’s expected that each year you should fundraise at least as much as you earn and then some. The fact she’d achieved this in 8 months and during a pandemic is impressive.
  • As the result of a webinar, I discovered the Writer’s HQ and Virtual Writing Retreat which completely changed the way I work. I’ve blogged about them here.
  • With everything confirmed, Connor started online university shopping and packing (Irritated voiceover: it wasn’t until Connor had moved out that Helen and Jo discovered the chaos in the loft or the 87651 discarded cardboard boxes).

September

A month of changes.

  • Connor moved out. Hahaha. That’s not the Happy Thing, honest. He got to Uni… something we weren’t all convinced was going to happen, not least because of the pandemic.
  • With his permission, we turned his bedroom into a proper office space. It can also function as a bedroom when/if he wants to come back.
  • We built a daybed as part of the office renovation and Edith has decided it’s hers.
  • On the 23rd September, I discovered and joined the PhD Forum. Basically, I live there now. (Check it out on Twitter @PhDForum or here). Helen has pointed out that since joining PhD Forum I have got more work done and drunk more alcohol. Honestly, who would have thought you could make actual friends during a pandemic and without seeing any of them in person? I’m so grateful to them all for supporting / entertaining / motivating me. Sometimes simultaneously.
  • The final part of my confirmation review was the dreaded defence, which turned out not to be dreadful at all. I’m very grateful to Dr Emma Fields (friend), Dr Iain Hall (brother-in-law), Dr Paul Hanna (the brother of one of the Lukes!), Dr Briony Birdi (supervisor) and Dr Kate Dommett (supervisor) for helping me to prepare so thoroughly.
  • After 6 months apart, we visited The Flying Foot* to see Aunty Emma-Jayne, Uncle Kevin-the-pourer, Holly and Dave. I had my first, masked cuddle with baby Rose.

* The outdoor pub that Kevin has built – open sides and big enough to spread out by several metres in all directions. Man is a genius.

October

The first month of the pandemic on our own.

  • We celebrated 20 years together and 14 years married. (Weary voiceover: yes, Helen yet again cracked the “joke” about getting less for murder).
  • We got tickets to see Billie Eilish in concert, obviously virtually. Then realised how old that made us because we preferred watching it in PJs, on our sofa with tea and popcorn. Rock on.
  • I completed the ethics application for the first stage of my data collection and got the go ahead really quickly because it was “exemplary.” (Smug).
  • More food related adventures: I figured out how to make poutine and it was gooooood (although very bad for you).
  • I got to see my Nana, briefly. The absolute highlight of my year. She is the best person I know.
  • The brilliant Jo Jarrett moved back to Bosham so we got to have coffee and cake in the garden. Jo also popped to Ikea and surprised me with a mattress (needed for the daybed). I honestly have the best friends.
  • We managed to squeeze in a few garden socialisings before the weather and pandemic turned. Lots of layers needed, with the chimnea and jacket potatoes. Edith met Nelly – the newest puppy in the family.

November

Still a pandemic. Another lockdown and something to do with tiers. By this point, we realised we weren’t wholly paying attention to the rules because we just don’t go out, nor do we go into anyone’s houses or in any shops.

  • Off you f*ck, Trump.
  • Thank you to Lewis and Ross for doing our electrics and providing light!
  • I treated Helen to a virtual evening with Tom Kerridge and a copy of his book – basically, it’s a stealthy gift for myself as I benefit from her cooking his recipes.
  • Poor Helen. All she wanted was a pint in the pub. But, pandemic… so I recreated it for her in the garage. It wasn’t perfect but she was happy.
  • We hung out online with Natty and Chris, doing another escape room.
  • I managed to get my data collection off the ground and I’m so grateful to my friends, family and PhD Forum fiends for being my pilot testers and giving me brilliantly critical feedback.
  • We redecorated the dining room. For all the people who aren’t coming over?! And it is accidentally grey (not calico) because we used a tin of paint without noticing my Pa-in-law’s label on the side.
  • We celebrated Jamie’s birthday in style: timing a Deliveroo, doing an online escape room and surprising her with friends and family (virtually) so we could all play the most twisted drawing game. Lots of rib-aching laughter.

December

The month when we have been punished daily with Facebook reminders of seeing (and touching) family and friends.

  • Data collection stage 1 is completed, so I have all that lovely analysis waiting for me in the New Year. I’m grateful to the 70+ people who took part all across West Sussex.
  • We saw three shows, all from the daybed or sofa. “A Christmas Carol” at the Old Vic was glorious. Then, through The Show Must Go On (see here), we enjoyed “Kinky Boots” and “Dick Whittington.”
  • Helen convinced me to watch “The Mandalorian” and I have to agree it was very good.
  • In contrast, I convinced Helen to watch her first ever Hallmark Christmas film or, as she calls them, shit Christmas movie. (“Operation Christmas Drop” on Netflix.)
  • We did another escape room online as a date night and a boxed one on Christmas Day. (Black Mirror style voiceover: they enjoy the satisfaction of getting out because they live in fear that they will never get out again… Escape rooms have become the new escapism. It’s all very meta.)
  • We had a second visit to The Flying Foot which has enjoyed a massive extension. Edith met the giant dogs and no one got eaten.
  • I cut myself a fringe. Why not?
  • Our epic brother-in-law defended his thesis and became Dr Iain Hall.
  • Jo Jarrett baked and secretly delivered gluten free mince pies.
  • Helen enjoyed a big work success in the days leading up to Christmas. I am not allowed to mention it but all will be revealed in 2021.
  • Cheese.
  • We had ordered M&S Christmas food imagining there would be four of us here for a few days. So we had enough Christmas food for approximately 8 people. Thank you Luke2 for the delivery service.

There you have it. Not like our 2019 mix of movies at the cinema, live events, a disproportionate number of things with the lovely Dr Emma Fields, outings, human contact and eating out; nevertheless, some moments to cherish.

I refuse to say Happy New Year aloud as it seems inauspicious. But I’m sure most people will join me in telling 2020 to go fuckity-bye-bye.

And more books, glorious books…


My book reading has definitely slowed down with all the academic reading and writing. I have four books simultaneously on the go: two audiobooks, one book and one ebook. Plus two more on my immediate TBR (to-be-read) pile. As I don’t settle down that well to work until the right side of noon, maybe I should start using my mornings for fiction?

Book: “Skulduggery Pleasant”
Author: Derek Landy
Source: Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤
Plot: it’s essentially a fantastical whodunnit with a teenage protagonist. They save the world, naturally.
Positives: it’s really funny, dry and sarcastic, plus the main protagonist is sassy and clever. Rupert Degas, the narrator / performer, is also excellent. It’s set in Dublin and it’s refreshing to have a YA novel based somewhere closer to home with familiar culture, clothes and language – lots of the books I recommend to younger readers are American. Moreover, Landy has written brilliantly believable, strong, female characters.
Negatives: obviously some of it is far fetched but not irritatingly so. I’m reading the second one the Kindle; I’m keen to see if they end up disappointingly formulaic.

Book: “Midnight Sun”
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Source: Kindle
Rating: 💖💖💖🖤🖤
Plot: it’s “Twilight”… surely you’ve read it or watched the film? Clumsy human falls in love with controlling and self-controlled vampire. He sparkles in the sun. Don’t come at me for reading it – we’re all allowed to read something trashy light and easy sometimes!
Positives: the “Twilight” series are my go-to books if I’m under the weather. Sofa, duvet, listen to them, on repeat, as audiobooks. Yes, I know they’re flawed. Yes, I’m aware that “Twilight” fan-fiction led to “50 Shades of Grey”. But I don’t care. Back to “Midnight Sun”… it’s a retelling of “Twilight” from Edward’s point of view. It was enjoyable because you get to essentially re-read a guilty pleasure familiar book but with new angles and details.
Negatives: it’s a little over-seasoned in the angst and self-loathing department.

Book: “Finding my voice”
Author: Nadiya Hussain
Source: Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: well, it’s an autobiography so it tells us all about Hussain’s life to date.
Positives: Hussain has organised her autobiography by her many roles: daughter, sister, granddaughter, wife, daughter-in-law, Ma, earner, cook, username and woman. It’s a brilliant and refreshing structure. It’s honest, philosophical, sometimes profound and utterly illuminating.
Negatives: I find Hussain’s voice really relaxing, which is to say, I had to give up trying to listen to this at bed time because I nodded off really quickly and had to re-listen to whole chapters!

Book: “A Court of Frost and Starlight”
Author: Sarah J Maas
Source: Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖🖤🖤
Plot: it’s advertised as book 3.1 so sort of a novella inserted into the series as book 4 is due soon. It details the lives of the series’ protagonists in the year-ish following the victory of book 3. I’m trying to be a little sketchy in case others don’t want the plot ruined!
Positives: it’s really unusual in that it details with the actual rebuild, challenges and leadership issues after a crisis and perceived victory. It’s not often I’ve seen PTSD and grief like this in fantasy books and films, which generally finish at the point of good overcoming evil. It’s a little like Tony Stark’s existential crisis in the Marvel series when he realises the collateral damage caused by the Avengers trying to do good. Maas doesn’t tie it all up in a neat bow either.
Negatives: I’ve recently read some criticism of Maas’ work and how it subscribes to typical gender and classist (for want of a better term) stereotypes, within a fantasy setting. To be fair, I think they’re reasonably accurate concerns.

Book: “Wranglestone”
Author: Darren Charlton
Source: Kindle
Rating: 💖💖💖🖤🖤
Plot: a coming of age tale in a post-apocalyptic, zombified world. Yup, that old chestnut.
Positives: I like that it throws you straight in and it takes a little while to get your bearings and adjust to this version of the world. There are a couple of pleasing twists, good LGBT content and the setting is brilliant and alarming.
Negatives: it was too short or maybe it should have been two books. At some points, the character and plot development feels very and then, and then, and then rushed. I always feel that scramble affects plausibility, which in turn can be problematic for futuristic-dystopian stories.

Writing retreats…

…it turns out they’re my jam. Over lockdown (which this family unit is still doing due to my wife’s health vulnerabilities), I have been missing my normal work processes. I am a weird hybrid because I love planning and I love spontaneity so I was surprised to find that I’ve been missing my routine. Or that it was even a routine in the first place.

Essentially, I would drop the younger dog at a daycare facility twice a week and I would use the man-child’s time off from college / work as a third puppy-free day. Then, I would leave the house. That’s the sum total of the habitual part of the routine. The spontaneity came from choosing where I would work and how long I would stick at it, which varied day to day, thus it didn’t feel very regimented.

Favourite locations:
* University of Chichester library – Bognor Campus
* Chichester College – Brinsbury, also where I worked
* Tesco in Chichester or Havant – for the free parking!
* Costa, Harris and Hoole, Boston Tea Party – for the coffee-on-tap
* Public libraries
* The pub

I had favourite places to sit within each location (and would have a private, internalised strop if they weren’t available when I got there), knew the shortest route from the nearest carpark so I could lug books, had auto-connections to the WiFi in each place and could source an available wall socket in under 6 seconds. In the academic and public library settings, I’d even take in my laptop riser, proper keyboard and mouse, and be amused at the looks I’d get. I like a long stretch of work to really immerse myself and get things done. Sometimes, I’d go early (to get my favourite seat) and just do a traditional working day. Other times, I’d work until bedtime in the venues where that was possible. The routine was very flexible.

Then Covid-19 came along*.

Pop. The routine and all its flexibility was gone. After our initial panic about the pandemic, my wife’s health, money concerns and so on, we began to look at ways to create sustainable work conditions – discussed in previous posts here and here – to improve my productivity. I basically tackled the things I thought I was missing by not being able to access my normal routine.

Somewhere comfy to work: I am on the third iteration of a work-from-home space. I now have a decent desk, very impressive chair, foot rest, good lighting, reasonable internet connection. It is all lovely and I’m grateful to the man-child for the use of his room by day (it’s the biggest, nicest looking space and he’s leaving for university in a few days). But this hasn’t increased my productivity.

Space and time alone: I know that the places I used to work in weren’t solitary but they weren’t full of my people. People who talk at you, ask you questions all day, interrupt you and so on… For a while, I commandeered the lounge: my wife and man-child were forbidden from entering unless I initiated contact. Or there was a fire. Or chocolate. Also, it meant I could avoid the general chaos of the house (mess, washing, dishes) which I thought was also a benefit of escaping to study in other places. It was all calm and quiet but it still didn’t improve my productivity.

Coffee on tap: we’ve long had a good coffee machine at home but the cafetière had broken and sometimes all I want is decent, strong, black coffee. I replaced this, topped up my flavoured syrups for fun lattes and even purchased some frappe making powders to enjoy iced coffee. Again, all good but it didn’t improve my productivity.

It transpired that emulating these features of my previous flexible routine did nothing to help with my motivation and efficacy. Honestly, it was confusing and frustrating. Then, in August, as I was limping towards my first year PhD deadline, I attended an online session called Thesis Writing Workshop led by Dr Esther Allen – Research Development Manager for the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield. I was hoping to pick up some tips and tricks for academic writing at this level. Esther’s content was excellent; she provided a lot of help and guidance for those of us who procrastinate, including exploring the reasons behind it. She also talked about writing retreats… I’d previously seen them advertised at the University earlier in the year but as a distance learner with nothing to write (back then), I’d assumed they weren’t relevant to me. Esther described virtual equivalents which were popping up in lieu of in-person retreats and provided some links. With a nothing-ventured-nothing-gained level of desperation, I signed up for a retreat with Virtual Writing Retreat.

The premise is simple. You sign up and pay a £3 charge which helps them to run the events. They send you a link using Slack and you turn up in a secure, moderated chat room. Here you join a mini group for the session of 4 – 6 other writers. Everyone using this service is writing academically. In your mini groups, you announce your goals for the day: a word count, a chapter, a sub-section, specific edits, a rewrite, responding to notes. Then, at particular times, you check in to report back on progress made towards your targets. If you want, you can use a pomodoro timer so you’re working in sprints and they definitely recommend regular breaks – I tend to use the check-ins for this purpose. Sometimes others offer advice but they always offer encouragement.

My first retreat was the 5th August, from 8.45 a.m. – 3.15 p.m. and I wrote 1300 words. It worked. I immediately booked all the sessions they were running up until my 22nd August deadline: Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and the occasional Sunday. It had been so effective, I hunted around for another option for the other days of the week and stumbled upon The Writers’ HQ.

Naturally, I really enjoyed their slogan. For the most part, they are a community of creative writers but there have been academic writers in all the sessions I’ve attended. Added bonus: free! They use Crowdcast to start and end the day; you set your goals in the comments box. Then, you check in at various points of the day on their forums or via Twitter if you prefer. The moderators respond to your comments and make sure everyone has been supported. Peers also comment and offer help.

Each of the two organisations offer something different. Virtual Writing Retreat is academic so the others attending understand what I am doing and why. Writers’ HQ is gloriously funny and sweary. The personality types of the organisers and the writers really suits me.

Why did it work? Which part of my pre-Covid-19 routine was it imitating? I think it’s the small-c-catholicism I carry. My pre-pandemic way of working and the new virtual writing retreats tap into my innate sense of I-need-to-do-this-and-do-it-well-and-efficiently-or-I’ll-let-someone-down. Dropping the puppy off at daycare meant arriving by a certain time; I hate being late (something my wife doesn’t care about, much to my frustration) and I’ll do everything I can to be prompt. The virtual retreat taps into this. No one would scold me for being late but I don’t want to miss the beginning and the goal setting… so I’m up, caffeinated (grumpy) and ready to start on time. Without the retreat or the puppy daycare schedule, I’d start sometime just before lunch as I am a nocturnal creature. Equally, the public but private setting meant I felt compelled to get on for fear others would see I wasn’t working or was mucking about on my phone. I know this is ridiculous as no one else in a library, coffee shop or pub gives two cookies about what I am doing… nor is anyone in a writing retreat going to pass judgement. It’s a self-inflicted compunction. I also feel compelled to get things done in the writing retreats so I have something honest to report back during the check-ins.

Virtual writing retreats are my jam because they enable me to healthily take advantage of my completer-finisher-guilt-ridden personality traits. I will continue to use them as I progress with my research and would pay more for the service (don’t mention that to either organisation!). My only regret is that it took me until August to discover them.

*I am more than well aware that this is a less-than-minor impact of the pandemic and I am just contextualising my experience.

Still more books, glorious books…

Fair warning – these are all really highly rated. Not because I’ve become soft(!), I’ve just been really lucky with book choices, of late.

Book: “Where the Crawdads sing”
Author: Delia Owens
Source: Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖
Plot: Kya (the Marsh Girl) is abandoned by her family as a child and lives a solitary and wild life. She stands accused of murder.
Positives: the place and the people were so vivid – certainly helped along by an excellent audio performance. It felt fantastical and credible in equal measures.
Negatives: it took me three attempts to get into it but I can put my finger on why. I’m very glad I persevered.

Book: “The ballad of songbirds and snakes”
Author: Suzanne Collins
Source: Harback and Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: it’s the 10th Hunger Games, the introduction of mentors, gambling and gifts. We are presented with Snow’s origin story.
Positives: it’s clever. Just like Atwood’s “The Testaments,” it doesn’t cause any seismic plot holes or negatively affect the original trilogy. Somehow, I preferred it as a prequel (compared to “The Testaments”). The characterisation is great… as a fan, I know where Snow ends up so I was surprised to find him a sympathetic protagonist. Also, unlike HBO’s awful handling of Daenerys Targaryen, his decline is authentic and believable.
Negatives: none. I was very satisfied.

Book: “Once upon a river”
Author: Diane Setterfield
Source: Amazon Kindle
Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤
Plot: Hmm. It’s a bit tricky to summarise but, essentially, it’s set in the past on the Thames. In the middle of the night, a stranger staggers into a riverside pub, holding the corpse of a young girl. A few hours later, the girl breathes and wakes up. From here, the story focusses on figuring out who she is.
Positives: I really like the interwoven, snaking plot… like a main river and it’s subsidiaries. I worried there’d be no satisfactory conclusion but, pleasingly, this wasn’t the case.
Negatives: it certainly taps into some clichéd tropes about race but they’re most likely accurate for the era it’s conveying. I was left a little unsure by its approach, particularly as it’s a pretty foregrounded feature.

Book: “The seven deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle”
Author: Stuart Turton
Source: Audible (last year)
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: yup… can’t tell you! But imagine a Poirot / Inception hybrid and you’ll be close.
Positives: once you start figuring out what’s going on, you feel really smart! It’s very cinematic in its scope, depiction of place and character. I loved the plot twists (there are many); I would stay in the car to listen to the end of the chapter because I was hooked.
Negatives: some readers might not enjoy the repetition, which is a plot device, but I was a fan.

Book: “Parachutes”
Author: Kelly Yang
Source: Hardback
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: it’s the exploration of young people in the American school system but primarily from the point of view of parachutes (minors sent to live in the USA to study).
Positives: it’s honest and enlightening. It taught me a great deal about what life and education can be like for parachutes (whose experiences I’d never considered), 2nd generation immigrants and those from low income families. I knew the system was rigged but I didn’t know to what extent – this book teaches without forcibly teaching. It’s also brilliantly written and I really like the dual narrative.
Negatives: I guess some people will argue it has too positive and uplifting an ending but I’d counter-argue that, as a YA book, I’m pleased it has the kind of ending that might encourage others who have been abused to speak up. There’s value in that.

Living with a PhD student…

Here is a handy guide on how to approach your spouse or partner as they undertake a PhD. In fact, this would apply to anyone living with somebody undertaking intense studying. Bear in mind, the context of this blog post = a family unit who hasn’t left the house since the middle of March, with the exception of dog walks in a secure paddock and medical appointments. We’re all a little tightly wound at the moment.

***

>> How long will that take you?

Try instead: never asking this question or any other that relates to timescales or speed of work.

Nothing will take me from feeling focussed and on task to exuding misty-red-rage quicker than this question. I have no idea how long it will take me. But I do know it will now take me a lot longer because I have to remember which figurative thread I was pulling on and which of the fifty-billion-million-tabs-I-have-open I was working on. Why do you need to know how long it will take me? You are a bonafide adult and you can occupy yourself or solve your own problem without any input from me.

>> Oh, I thought it was ok to talk [at you about my work / a meme I saw / the man-child] because you looked up from your screen…

Try instead: smiling, if there’s a brief moment of eye contact. That’s it. Nothing else.

Looking up from my screen doesn’t mean I am not processing something. PhDs are weird… you are holding so many ideas in your head at the same time and sometimes trying to push incongruent ones together. Looking up from my screen is usually an indication I am stretching my back, resting my eyes (which have always preferred to read on paper) or I’m sorting and moving things around in my mind palace. Ok, I’m no Sherlock Holmes but I do often visualise things. I will also say that this equally applies to reading for pleasure. Don’t interrupt me and pull me out of the world I was enjoying!

>> Bringing cups of tea or coffee and then moaning or being cross because they go cold.

Try instead: using one of the many lidded thingymabobs that we have (affectionately called stay-hots, in this house).

I realise this example paints me as a bit of a cow. I’m not ungrateful and I will frequently go without nourishment and hydration for many hours because I am in the zone (reading and thinking for several hours in a row so that I can write, literally, a single sentence). So, bringing me beverages is great and much appreciated. But, if I didn’t ask for one, I’m unlikely to even notice it arrive. Whacking it in a device that keeps it hot for longer increases my chance of drinking it. Also, the “telling off” for letting it go cold is another interruption which makes the answer to “how long will that take you?” even more volatile.

>> Offering to tidy up piles of work or books.

Try instead: doing nothing and leaving things exactly as they are.

For a start, in this marriage, I am not the messy one. In the past, I have had to tidy and clean her many offices because she likes to work in chaotic squalor. We are talking a penicillin level of neglect. The idea of her implying I’m working in a mess evokes words such as audacity, arrogance, cheek and delusion. I am methodical – it might not be obvious but there is always a method. So the piles are thus organised because they denote something: the order in which I plan to read, connections between authors and papers, topics or themes. If you touch them, you affect that organisation.

Also, this is an example where a partner or spouse looks like they’re being kind and helpful but the implication is that you’re somehow affecting the household because of the space you’re occupying. I have enough self-imposed guilt about being a 39 year old student without others piling onto it.

>> I thought you were going to work on [x, y, z], today?

Try instead: not commenting on when and how I choose to take time off.

See aforementioned references to self-imposed guilt. Sometimes, I am just not motivated to start or to climb back into the-monstrosity-of-an-office-chair-I-was-forced-to-buy-to-placate-my-fickle-spine. I just want to scroll through social media, watch Hamilton on Disney+, read a book for pleasure, play a game or message my friends. I know I have a deadline. I know it’s immovable. It is better that I take breaks, even unplanned, during my low motivation moments rather than arbitrarily having a planned night off that risks breaking a flow. Essentially, I don’t need a project manager; in this situation, you are my spouse and you are not responsible for my timesheet. Cheers.

***

I can guess that anyone reading this who knows me will automatically take my wife’s side… and fairly so. She is lovely and (usually) just trying to be sweet. This blog was more about explaining what goes on in my head when met with these comments, questions and actions. Also, we’ve hit 20 years of “how long will that take you?” It has been applied to my undergraduate degree, my PGCE, classroom planning and marking, coursework and controlled assessment marking, exam board marking (there’s been a lot of marking), DIY and decorating, MA assignments, and my MA dissertation. The answer is always the same and I’m surprised she hasn’t learned it yet.

It. Will. Take. However. Long. It. Takes.

Exciting guest post…

Today, my blog has been taken over by Dylan… he’s the 10 year old superstar I’m currently tutoring. We’ve been reading, sharing and writing about a book which has culminated in a cracking review written by Dylan.

Purpose: to review
Audience: parents (Dylan’s choice)
Form: online review / blog
Skills: paragraphing, expanded noun phrases, simile, metaphor, semi-colon, conjunctions, relative clauses, brackets and interesting sentence openers

Enjoy!

Peggy is a puppy pug by Dylan Griffiths Robinson

Self portrait drawn via our online classroom (although he’s taken a creative licence with the stubble).

Book: “The Pug who wanted to be a Unicorn”
Author / illustrator: Bella Swift
Publisher: Orchard Books
Age range: 9 – 99
Pages: 154
Chapters: 8

Pug rating: 5/5

Summarrrrrrrrry

Suzanne (a shopping addict) buys Peggy because she’s a shopping addict and she thinks Peggy will make her stylish. Trying to play on her own (because Suzanne usually leaves Peggy behind), Peggy stupendously messes up the house. Very, very, very, badly. Like a squished-up, giant-eyed, wrinkly bulldozer smashing through a couch. And a ceiling. And a wall. And an armchair. And a litter tray.

Provoked, Suzanne dumps Peggy at a shelter and walks away. It’s nearly Christmas! Peggy feels indescribably heartbroken. Fortunately, she is fostered by a down-to-earth family with three children: Finn (oldest child), Chloe (middle child) and Ruby (toddler). They plan to keep her over Christmas.

Peggy being comforted by the other shelter dogs (artwork by Dylan)

Peggy is convinced that if she becomes like Sparkalina (a unicorn), they’ll keep her. She fails dramatically… that’s all I’m telling you.

The paw bits

Are you ready for a joke? Well, it’s not really a joke but it’s more a sentence that’s funny. I wish I could complain more (most people know I am a moaner) but it’s just the best book in the world so I’ve only got two complaints. First of all, there are not many pages; there’s only one hundred and (hold up, I’m counting) fifty four pages. I wish it was longer because there’s not enough Peggy-ness. Second of all, the front cover is too glitzy. Parents or guardians might only pick it up for their daughters because it’s overly feminine. The front cover is too cheesy as well but the story isn’t cheesy… it’s a balance between everything-is-perfect-wooooo and serious.

The tail wags

Peggy is as cute as a sleeping kitten, that’s as small as the palm of your hand, in a tiny green dinosaur costume, purring adorably (sorry… I’ve been stuck inside for three months and have a loooooooooooot to say). An example of her cuteness is when Chloe teases Finn about a girl and then Finn throws spaghetti at Chloe but misses; it ends up endearingly on Peggy’s head. She slurps it up like a delightful, little vacuum cleaner.

Awww (artwork by Dylan)

Oh, oh, oh. I was told by my tutor that I have to write about the boring stuff, so here it is… Because there are different age ranges, a lot of people can relate to the characters. There are teenagers, children, toddlers and adulty-adults. Furthermore, the chapter lengths were adequate because they didn’t take too much time at bedtime and are easy for your little turds to read! The illustrations (which are monochrome) do not distract because they blend into the writing; however, they are very detailed and charming. Moreover, you might want to head to the library because there are more adventures with llama bridesmaids and puppy princesses – Bella Swift has written seven more books and four of them include Peggy the pug. Apologies to the wallets of the parents reading this but all are £5.99 each on Amazon or, of course, free from your library.

Kids can learn non-fiction facts from inside fiction. For example, this book deals with dog adoption and dog fostering. Also dogs can be extraordinarily hard work and some people treat them like fashion accessories.  

No spoilers. It’s fine for all year even though it’s Christmas in the book because it doesn’t make a big ado about it being festive. The ending is incredible; I won’t spoil it but it’s heart-warming and that’s all I’m going to say.

Shhh… don’t wake the puppy (artwork by Dylan)

Conclusion

Overall, I thought it was the best book in the world and really compelling. It was so exceptional, I did most of the reading myself! Even Mum was impressed (and that’s normally impossible). Peggy deserves a rating of 5 puggies out of 5.

If you drive satisfaction from books such as “Middle School” by James Patterson or “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” by Jeff Kinney, you will get a buzz from Peggy’s story. Aaaaand, before you go, try the tongue twister – my heading for the blog. After extensive research, Dad was the worst tongue twister in this house.

This is life now…

We’ve accepted that we have to reach a new normal in this household. Our version of normal has always been pretty left field anyway.

Essentially, I’m not going to be able to return to my regular routine and way of working… this year. And I mean year-year, not academic year. It poses too many risks to my wife if I start hanging out in university libraries and travelling up to Sheffield to be part of student life. Certainly, not until we have a plausible vaccination. I prefer working out of the house in fit-for-purpose spaces, with nice ergonomic chairs and a sense of routine (thanks Chichester University Bognor Campus for your lovely library). I am far more productive and focused if I’m not in the house. Even a café will do. I am also petty enough that the aesthetic has to be right: I like things to match and look pretty; I can’t work in mess; the space has to be clean. It means, when working from home, I’ll get distracted by tidying up and cleaning when I should be reading fiftymillionbillion articles instead.

In a previous post, I explained that we’d made me a PhD pod within our bookshelves. It gave me the space away from the wife and man-child but it was not ok for my back. At all. It hurt to work from home! Then my student loan arrived – what little is left after I’ve paid my fees – and I realised that as I wasn’t spending money on a postal book service or on petrol and digs to stay in Sheffield, I could splurge a bit on a decent workspace. So I did. With only a small amount of guilt.

Behold… my office.

I am not delighted that it is the corner of the lounge because it means the room is now used for working as well as lounging but we live in a Victorian terrace, 2 up 2 down, so it’s tough.

The features…

A: my new, fancy, fast laptop. To be fair, I purchased this with the “spare” bit of my January student loan payment. My old, faithful laptop served me well for the MA and dissertation but it was gradually grinding to a halt. As most of my studying was via video conferencing, even pre-apocalypse, and we’d ascertained it wasn’t our internet slowing me down, I bought this slim beast with some tech guidance from clever friends.

B: two cute figurines. The Japanese doll from my brother and brother-in-law and the student-girl from my friend and ex-boss. I don’t generally do objet d’art but I love these and it’s lovely having a reminder of some of my favourite (and wise) people.

C: cable box. Yup, I hate wires and disorganisation. We’ve hidden most of them and used cable ties and blue tac to help minimise trailing mess.

D: lighting options. It’s quite a gloomy room as it only gets the sun until about 11a.m.

E: study books. Some of them are hostages from Sheffield and Chichester university libraries 😂.

F: stationery pot to stop my wife and man-child stealing my sharp pencils and good pens. My iPhone charger is hidden in here, too, for the same reason.

G: obligatory Harry Potter reference. Proclamation no.30: no music to be played during study hours. I’m 85% successful with this.

H: spiky ball thing. It’s up here to protect it from the incessant puppy. I put it between me and the wall then roll it around the top of my spine. It really helps if I’m aching. Plus, that’s where my January – March back injury stemmed from so I need to be careful.

I: laptop stand and keyboard. These help with comfort as the laptop is elevated and I can type 100mph faster on a real keyboard than on a laptop. I did already have both but they were the wrong colour for this room 😬. I did say I was fussy. It means I’ve dedicated the old stand and keyboard to my wife who’s working in the dining room. It’s really helped her back out and they coordinate with the decor in there.

J: office chair liberated from man-child’s room. It goes low enough to be useful in terms of getting my sizeable (wide not long) legs under the desk but, dang, it is uncomfy for my coccyx. Matches the aesthetic though 😂.

K: and, lo, the coccyx cushion. One of the many old-lady features of my work space. This is firm memory foam, contoured for a butt with clever designs for coccyx support. Again, I did have one in another colour but justified the spend to myself because I donated it to my wife. Her bum is chuffed. We’ve both found working from home to be more painful (spine, lower back, neck) than working from an office. We think it might be because you move less and vary your position infrequently?

L: another old lady feature… the foot rest. Only, it isn’t a foot rest as I’ve repurposed it. It was born to be a dish/plate stand; if you have small cupboards, it helps to stack dishes without the palaver of having to remove all of the items in your cupboard just to access the one plate at the bottom of the pile. I bought it as a shoe rack for our teeny understairs cupboard. It means we have a double decker approach to storing the shoes. Now, the shoes are in a tangled heap so I can lift my feet up whilst studying.

M: unfortunately, the desk is nudged up against the sofa. The dogs are delighted as they can now be right there with me as I’m working. Right there. Riiiiiight there. The added benefit is that the 8 month old puppy has stopped lying on/by/near my feet which usually results in squeals when I get up and haven’t realised she’s there.

Hi, human.

N: two coasters. One for water and one for the continuous supply of caffeine.

O: book stand. Another old-lady feature so I can read books easily.

P: pep talk from my wife.

Q: my gorgeous desk. It was actually quite cheap at £90, from Argos. Once the logical part of my brain had woken up, I realised I didn’t need a tiny desk to fit where the bookcase had been because I could turn it around 🙄. It was also a great teaching moment as I introduced the man-child to the correct way to assemble flat packed furniture: calm, organised, methodical and with copious mugs of tea.