Showing posts with label teenagers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label teenagers. Show all posts

Friday, 18 January 2013

Friday book review - The Kissing Booth by Beth Reekles

Thousands of writers dream of hitting the big time with their first novel. And that’s exactly what Beth Reekles has done. The surprise is that Beth is a 17-year-old schoolgirl studying for her A levels and hoping to read physics at university.

She began writing at the age of 15, sitting upstairs in her bedroom at the family home in Newport, Wales and uploading a chapter of her work at a time. She quickly got the thumbs-up from her readers. Her very first chapter received a million hits and pretty soon she was being deluged with emails urging her to upload the next instalments faster.

Beth then began writing on Wattpad, the free online novel-sharing platform for amateur writers, and the compliments flooded in. Her first novel, The Kissing Booth, rapidly became the most-viewed, most-commented-on teen fiction title on Wattpad, with 19 million reads and 40,000 comments to date. It won the Wattpad Award for Teen Fiction and last October was snapped up by Random House.

Beth has now signed a three-book deal with Random House and the publisher has already released The Kissing Booth as an ebook (it will be published in book form this summer). The ebook reveals that Beth, whose real name is Reeks, is “an undeniable bookworm and an avid drinker of tea,” while her acknowledgements include “a big thank you” to her GCSE English teacher, Mr Maugham.

So after all that, what is the book actually like? Well, it’s aimed at the YA market, so I’m clearly not the target reader. But the answer is that it’s sweet, romantic and well-written. Not only that, it will appeal to older readers too.

Set in America, it’s the story of Rochelle (also known as Elle or Shelly), a pretty 16-year-old who’s never had a boy friend and has never been kissed. She and her male best friend Lee hit on the idea of organising a kissing booth at their school’s spring carnival, where she ends up kissing Lee’s bad boy older brother Noah, tries to keep her feelings for Noah secret from Lee and finds her whole world turned upside down.

Not surprisingly, Beth’s teenage characters sound real and authentic. They talk like teenagers and act like teenagers – which is more than you can say about some of the teen novels written by older novelists. The book’s gone down a storm with readers in America and the Far East, as well as the UK, and there’s no doubt about it, Beth Reekles is an author to watch.

The Kissing Booth by Beth Reekles (RHCP Digital, £2.84)

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

A little bit cool, a little bit nan

My last pressing book review is done and dusted - so now I can’t wait to get down to some pre-Christmas reading of my own. Top of my list are two treats I’ve been saving up. One is the just-completed manuscript of one of my best novelist friends, the other is Mutton by India Knight.

And it’s Knight who gave me the idea for this blog post. She wrote a laugh-out-loud funny piece in The Guardian at the weekend to promote her new book, explaining how, even at the advanced age of 46, she doesn’t feel like a grown-up. As the mother of an eight-year-old daughter and two grown-up sons, she explains: “… on the one hand you're the mother of adult men, and on the other you're the mother of a little child. You're both ‘the youngest mum of all my friends’ and among the oldest mothers in year 4. You're a bit cool, you're a bit nan.”

A little bit cool, a little bit nan – that just about sums it up. Apart from worsening eyesight and wrinkly skin, I don’t feel middle-aged in the slightest. I still shop at Topshop and River Island, still like Dizzee Rascal's music and still spend an inordinate amount of time pouring over the latest nail polish colours at Nails Inc. Actually, I’m half-hoping for their new leather and skulls varnish in black for Christmas, only the Oxford branch says they aren’t getting any till January.

On the other hand, I’m definitely a bit nan in lots of ways. The idea of staying out till 6am makes me feel ill, I can’t face loud music first thing in the morning and when I put sugar in someone’s coffee I still use a teaspoon. I still wear a watch, still send Christmas cards (no round robins!), still walk to the shops every morning to buy a newspaper and can’t go to bed before clearing up the chaos in the kitchen first.

My son definitely doesn’t think I’m cool though. I was telling him the other day that I quite like James Blake’s music. “James Blake?” he said crushingly. “Don’t you mean James Blunt?”

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

From Paris to South Wales - how I sent my son pizza across the channel

The hall’s full of bike bits, there’s a ton of washing (make that two tons) scattered across the floor and a well-thumbed copy of The Cyclist’s Training Bible is propped up on the kitchen table.

It can only mean one thing. Yes, my son’s back from his first term at university and I couldn’t be happier. I don’t know why, but I was worried he might be different. But he isn’t. He’s a bit skinnier (too much cycling by half), but he hasn’t changed a bit.   

And sweetly, he is pleased to be home for the Christmas holidays too. The novelty of doing all his own shopping, cooking and washing seems to have worn off pretty fast and now he’s thrilled to open the kitchen cupboard and discover stuff he always took for granted before. Like bread, biscuits and his favourite Krave cereal.

Actually, for the last week of term he existed on a diet of lentils and rice. His credit card got nicked at a club and the bank said it would take up to ten days for a new one to arrive. He managed fine, going into the bank on campus to take money out every day. Except everything went wrong last Sunday night, when he staggered in from a 60-mile bike ride and realised he’d completely run out of cash. Worse still, the cupboard was bare and none of his flatmates were around to borrow from.

So he rang me. The only problem was that I was in Paris for the weekend, staying with my daughter. I panicked, wondering what the hell to do. And then my daughter hit on a bright idea. “I know,” she said. “We’ll order him a pizza.” And so that was how the pair of us, sitting in her flat on Paris’s chic Left Bank, found ourselves busily (and incongruously) hunting for a Domino’s in South Wales.

But guess what? It worked. Within 20 minutes flat, my hungry son was tucking into a Pepperoni Passion. Result!

Monday, 26 November 2012

The kindness of strangers Part 2

My children are both at university now – but out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind. Far from it. The fact that I don’t see them every day makes me worry even more.

I was thrilled, though, when my 18 year old son phoned at 10pm last night. Except it wasn’t for a chat. It was to say that he was on a train from Manchester to South Wales after a weekend catching up with old pals and the train had been severely delayed because of the weather. He’d just clocked that his train was due to terminate at Newport - at midnight, 50 miles from where he needed to be and with no more trains till dawn. 

To make matters worse, his credit card had been nicked a few days earlier, he only had £10 on him and his phone was about to run out of battery.

“We’re stuck at Shrewsbury,” he said. “And I don’t want to waste my battery so I’m switching my phone off now.”

Before I could reply, he rang off.

At midnight, with no news, I rang Newport railway station. But the place had shut up shop for the night. Next, I called a taxi firm close by.

“Don’t worry,” said a cheery voice at Dragon Taxis when he heard the sorry tale. “I’ll go and find out. What does he look like? I’ll see if he’s there.”

How kind was that? The man came back ten minutes later and said my son wasn’t there. But he’d asked the rail staff and in fact the train had travelled on to Cardiff. After that, they’d said, Arriva Trains were laying on taxis (free of charge) to take stranded passengers home. And sure enough, when I finally spoke to my son at 3am, that’s exactly what had happened.   

So, all I can say is: A big thank you to the wonderful Dragon Taxis of Newport. Talk about going that extra mile...

PS. I've just realised it's exactly a month till Christmas. Help!

PPS. The kindness of strangers Part 1 is here.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

When was the last time you saw a kid out enjoying themselves on their bike?

I’ve interviewed Professor Tanya Byron several times over the years and she talks more sense about children and teenagers than anyone I‘ve met. And the fact that she told me not to worry when my children refused point-blank to have anything to do with star charts was a bonus.

Tanya has been a clinical psychologist for 23 years and earlier this month I spoke to her about a keynote speech she’s giving to the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference in December. Once again, her words struck a chord as she talked about her concern that today’s youngsters lack emotional intelligence and emotional resilience. A lot of them, she said, are afraid of failure, afraid to take risks and afraid to think for themselves.

“Children are being raised in captivity,” she told me. “When was the last time you saw a kid out enjoying themselves on their bike?

“Children are not really encouraged, supported or taught how to assess, take and manage risk and I think it is developmentally catastrophic for them.

“Risk taking is seen as a very dangerous thing and to be avoided at all costs.

“We live in a litigious, risk-averse culture where paranoia is rife and we have an education system that is so built around targets and testing that teachers and headteachers are constrained from being innovative.

“But risk taking is important because it helps children to accept, understand and embrace failure. The times when you fail are often the most powerful learning experiences one can ever have.

“When I talk to successful people and ask them about their most cherished memories in terms of how they got to be where they are, it’s usually built around times when they messed up. But boy did that really teach them something. It got them to expand their thinking and their learning and inspired them to push on in the most impressive way.”

Wise words in my opinion. What do you think?

You can read the whole interview in this week’s SecEd magazine.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Do 12-year-olds really need beauty treatments?

A glorious Lake District hotel is just about the last place I’d expect to start offering facials, massages and manicures to the over 12s.

I’ve been to Armathwaite Hall lots of times. A magnificent castellated manor house with lawns bordering the shores of Lake Bassenthwaite, it has views as far as the fells and the dramatic peak of Skiddaw beyond. My in-laws held their golden wedding anniversary party there and the hotel did them proud.

But I’d have thought Armathwaite Hall would have had more sense than to launch a teen spa. The hotel is offering everything from 30-minute make-up lessons for 12 to 14 year-olds (at £28 each) to a £150 “just be together” package for a parent and their teenager. The name is as cringeworthy as the idea.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned but there’s just one thing the over 12s should be doing in the Lake District – and that’s enjoying the great outdoors.

A hearty walk up Catbells (above) and along Maiden Moor is one of the best days out in the world – whatever your age. The fresh air is far better for your skin than a facial, while striding up the fells will do more for your well-being (not to mention your thighs) than a massage ever can…

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Empty nest syndrome

There’s an autumn chill in the air, the garden is covered in leaves and the traffic in Oxford has resumed its usual snail-like crawl.

But this September feels very different for me. Why? Because for the first time in 16 years I haven’t got a child going back to school. I haven’t had to rush round frantically buying new shoes, files and geometry sets or doing the annual (always unsuccessful) hunt for my son’s rugby gum shield.

At the moment my children are both still at home but by the end of the week they won’t be. My daughter’s off to university in Paris while my son’s heading west to Wales (with his beloved road bike, of course).

I’m so excited for them but every now and again I find myself asking plaintively “where on earth did the last 20 years go?” It seems no time at all since my daughter, clad in a yellow flower-sprigged pinafore and matching hairband, clung to me as I took her into nursery school for the first time. And since my son was a toddler with white-blond curls and a penchant for Thomas the Tank Engine.

Now my daughter’s moving to another country for a year and my son’s excitedly looking forward to Freshers’ Week. The house is full of packing boxes, my son’s busy practising his cooking skills and my daughter’s rushing round seeing all her friends before she starts her new Parisian life.

It’s going to be very quiet around here in a week’s time…

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

What should freshers take to university?

Like thousands of other teenagers, my son is counting the days till he starts university. He’s bought the Freshers' Week wristband (it gets him into every Freshers' event – alarming for me, thrilling for him), has worked out which student block he’ll be in and has “met” most of his new flatmates on Facebook.

But what should he take with him? I mean, apart from the obvious things like his beloved road bike, tea bags and industrial-sized packets of pasta. His list comprises essentials like a bike pump, puncture repair kit and iPod dock, while I’m more worried about how many saucepans he'll need and whether he should buy a mini fridge for his room.

A blog I’ve just read has got a host of other ideas. Key recommendations include a cake tin (because “everyone loves cake”), a laundry bag (he’s not convinced), a clothes horse (he’s definitely not convinced) and a sewing kit.

If anyone can offer any suggestions, I’d love to hear them…

PS. He’s off in three weeks’ time and even though I’ll be bereft I’m not going to cry. And I’m not going to be the sort of parent (apparently increasingly common) who muscles in on his university life. Apparently parents have been known to move into their children’s student halls, bedding down next to them while they settle in. I just hope they don’t snap up a Freshers' Week wristband while they’re at it.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Tour de France and other biking matters

School’s out for my teenage son, who’s finished his scary exams and plans to spend the next six weeks on his bike. His new obsession has coincided neatly with the Tour de France so when he’s not on the road, he’s glued to Bradley Wiggins on the TV.

Every morning he appears in the kitchen, clad in his Lycra cycling gear. He fills a couple of water bottles, stuffs some flapjacks in his pockets, grabs his helmet and cycling shoes and then he’s off. If I’m lucky he’ll give me a vague idea of where he’s going and how many miles he’s planning but that’s about it.

The truth is that I’m a bit torn about his new hobby. It’s fantastic that he’s out in the fresh air every day getting tons of exercise. But he got cut up by a car in Oxford the other day (he clocked the driver’s idiocy so managed to duck out of her way at the last minute) and being a natural born worrier, I can’t help fretting.

Mind you, another plus is that he’s getting to know the countryside like the back of his hand. He hasn’t got a swanky GPS or data roaming on his phone so he tries to memorise his routes before he sets off. But his memory occasionally lets him down. Cue a phone call on Sunday afternoon saying “can you look at the map for me? I think I’ve gone the wrong way. I’m just the other side of High Wycombe.”

PS. When you’re taking the scenic route rather than the motorway, High Wycombe is a good 35 miles from Oxford…

Monday, 9 July 2012

The day my daughter made me a CD

The windscreen wipers were going at top speed as we drove home from the stupendous Laura Marling concert on Saturday night.

But the singer’s performance had been so uplifting that nothing could dampen our spirits – not even the torrential rain, nor a disagreement (I mean discussion) about which radio station to listen to. My daughter rejected Radio 4 as “boring,” while I only had to hear the first few bars of a Sean Paul dance number on Capital FM to shudder in horror.

So my daughter rummaged around the back of the car to try and find a CD we’d both like – and amazingly found THIS. She shoved it in the CD player and it was like going back eight years in time.

In the summer of 2004 my mum was gravely ill and I spent as much time in Dorset with her as I could. My daughter, who was only 12, often came with me and as we headed south down the A34 she always took charge of the music. Neither of us had an iPod back then and in an attempt to cheer me up in troubled times she played DJ. With a stack of CD cases on her lap, she’d constantly switch from one to another, playing a track off a Joan Armatrading CD, then one from a Rolling Stones album, and then one from The Stereophonics, all the way to the Purbeck hills.

That Christmas, my daughter gave me one of the loveliest presents ever. It was a compilation of all the tracks she’d played me in the car during those dark months. I played it so much that I’m surprised it didn’t wear to bits. But then I bought my first iPod and CDs became a thing of the past. Until Saturday, when she played it all over again… 

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Why are boys falling behind in reading?

The National Literacy Trust has revealed that boys are falling behind in reading. Sixty thousand boys aren’t reaching the required levels of reading at 11 and three out of four schools in the UK are concerned about boys’ reading. Lots of boys reckon reading is boring, girly and "geeky" and prefer watching TV or playing computer games to settling down with a good book.

It’s a perennial problem and every teacher I know is desperate to get to grips with it. Earlier this week prolific novelist and former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo wrote an insightful piece in the Guardian suggesting strategies like introducing a “dedicated half hour” at the end of every primary school day devoted to “the simple enjoyment of reading and writing” and regular visits from storytellers, theatre groups, writers and librarians.

It’s excellent advice, but then again it’s not exactly rocket science and many schools are already doing all this. And what about older boys? At 17, my son would far rather be getting on his bike or playing on the Xbox, even though he was a voracious reader when he was younger.

Part of the reason for his early enthusiasm, I’m sure, was that we’re all mad on reading in our house and every room is piled high with books. So when he saw the rest of us reading, he simply joined in.

We had weekly trips to the library, spent loads of Saturday mornings in the bookshop and over the years reading became part of his DNA – not quite as important as biking, but nearly. He liked ripping yarns full of action, adventure and daring deeds so he worked his way through all Anthony Horowitz’s novels, as well as Robert Muchamore’s Cherub series, Charlie Higson’s Young Bond trilogy and Joe Craig’s Jimmy Coates adventure books.

So instead of handing over responsibility for boys’ reading to schools, I reckon parents should be doing their bit too. But as for keeping boys' enthusiasm for reading going in their mid-teens, I’m stuck for ideas. Any suggestions?

Monday, 2 July 2012

Boy on a bike

Selfridge’s, Cos, Space NK, The Hambledon in Winchester – just a few of my favourite shops. But I reckon the emporium I’m going to be frequenting more than any other this summer is Beeline Bicycles in Oxford’s Cowley Road.

After years of being obsessed with BMX bikes and mountain bikes, my teenage son has now taken up road biking. And as always, he never does anything by halves.

But before he got pedalling we had to track down his dad’s 20-year-old road bike – a mission that involved driving halfway across a massive disused airbase in the middle of rural Oxfordshire. Our aim? To hunt down the storage container where the bike's been languishing for years. With rows of derelict buildings, pot-holed runways and security guards, the base looked like something out of an Anthony Horowitz novel. We were pretty sure that if we took a wrong turn, we’d never be seen again.

It took us a few attempts to find it, but finally the removal boss wheeled a retro-looking pink and yellow road bike into his office. My son looked appalled at the girly colours but perked up no end when he realised the bike was rideable.

Next on the agenda was a trip to Beeline to get him kitted out with pedals, cleats, shoes, bike helmet (as opposed to the tin lid he uses for dirt jumping), water bottles and a ton of Lycra. As he inspected the new kit, the dynamic leader of the local cycling club arrived and nodded approvingly at the bike. “That’s the kind of bike I started out on,” he said. “We go out cycling every Saturday morning. Why don’t you join us?”

My son nodded with alacrity, making a mental note of the time and place. “And your mum can come along too,” he added. My son’s face was a picture. It was plain what he was thinking. Biking and mums do not go together.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Afternoon tea at the Old Parsonage in Oxford

It was my birthday yesterday and the last day of my son’s exams – so what better way to celebrate than afternoon tea in Oxford?

And what better place to choose than the Old Parsonage? One of the best-known hotels in Oxford, it’s housed in a pretty 17th century building and boasts a shady stone terrace that’s just perfect for afternoon tea. No wonder the place is so popular with newly-graduated students. There were loads of them there yesterday, resplendent in their mortar boards and gowns, taking tea with their proud parents.

The three of us went for broke and chose what the Old Parsonage calls its “very high tea.” Actually, it was a “very big tea” – a mix of smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches (with their crusts cut off of course), scones and cream and divine-looking cakes, all washed down by a special blend of tea named after the Old Parsonage. We tucked in with alacrity, although we couldn’t quite manage the cakes. “No problem,” said the charming waiter. He hurried inside and reappeared a few minutes later with the cakes packed into neat brown boxes.

At £16.95 a head, afternoon tea at the Old Parsonage wasn’t exactly cheap but it was a special occasion after all. Not only that, we were so full by the time we got home that none of us could possibly manage supper later on. And even better, we’ve got these luscious cakes (below) to look forward to for tea today…

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Crying at the cinema - and my low-brow tastes

As the credits rolled my daughter took a long sideways glance at me and groaned. “I can’t take you anywhere,” she joked. “Why do you always cry at films?”

I tried to deny it but my red eyes and tear-stained cheeks gave the game away. I’d nearly made it to the end of the Brideshead Revisited DVD without shedding a tear, then stumbled at the very last hurdle.

“I can’t help it,” I told her. “It was so sad. You know, when Lord Marchmain was on his death bed and Julia...” “But that didn’t mean you had to burst into tears,” she retorted. “You even cried at Definitely, Maybe. And Madeline.”

At this rate she’s going to put her foot down and refuse to watch anything with me. I rarely go to the movies with my husband because his taste in films and mine are as poles apart as our hobbies. Crazy mid-air loop-the-loop stunts and obscure French films without sub-titles – him. Bracing country walks and Hollywood blockbusters – me.

My low-brow tastes have been a big shock to him over the years. I don’t know why but when we first met he clearly thought I was far more intellectual than I actually am. One of his first presents to me was a set of Mervyn Peake’s three Gormenghast novels. A lovely thought, but I found the books, which are set in a weird, crumbling castle owned by the 77th Earl of Groan, utterly unreadable. He was similarly unimpressed when I gave him Ogden Nash’s collected poems. Far too light and trite, he reckoned. It’s the same with music. Whenever we drive anywhere together he wants to listen to Wagner at top volume while I surreptitiously try and substitute my Laura Marling CD without him noticing.

I can’t even rely on my son as a cinema companion because he only likes movies with car chases and scary stunt-work. I persuaded him to go to Pride and Prejudice with me a few years ago and instantly regretted it. He spent half the film muttering “this is the worst film I’ve ever seen” under his breath and the other half threatening to walk out.

It looks like I’ll be sitting in the stalls, tears streaming down my face, all by myself from now on.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Why shouldn't teenagers be able to re-sit their exams?

When I’m not reviewing books, writing novels or blogging, I have a day job as an education journalist. My children have never been keen on me being clued up about key stage 3, phonics and schemes of work, but they’ve had to put up with it. And it’s endlessly fascinating. One week I’m writing about apprenticeships, the next I’m interviewing the head master of Eton (one of the most impressive heads I’ve ever met).

But with A levels still in full swing, I opened The Times this morning to read that education secretary Michael Gove is planning to divide them into two courses, each lasting a year and ending with a set of exams in the summer term. He is convinced that dropping the system of modules would halve the number of exams pupils take in the sixth form and cut the culture of multiple re-sits.

Mr Gove clearly hates the fact that students are currently able to re-sit their A level modules several times in order to improve their grades. But I don’t understand why. I thought that education was supposed to be all about lifelong learning, about striving to improve and enhance our knowledge.

So why shouldn’t students learn from their exam mistakes and try again? Teenagers who don’t find exams easy but keep trying to better their grades should be encouraged. Not slapped down and told “tough luck, you’ve had your chance. You’re not having another go.”

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The night I left my son behind

I’m not David Cameron’s number one fan but I do feel a bit sorry for him and his wife Samantha right now.

The papers are full of the day the couple left their eight year old daughter Nancy behind at a Buckinghamshire pub. Speaking of which, take a look at the brilliant Matt Pritchett’s cartoon in today’s Daily Telegraph.

Actually loads of parents have made similar mistakes – me for one. In fact I did it just two years ago, after a party at my sister’s one snowy night in December.

My husband had driven to the bash straight from his office and, tired after a long week, left earlier than me, saying he’d give our two children a lift back with him. So at 11 pm, I said my farewells and drove the 45 minutes home through the ice and snow.

As I tiptoed into our sleeping house, a text lit up my phone. Puzzled, I glanced down and smiled. It was from my son, who was then 15. “You have forgotten me!” he’d typed. Very funny, I thought, and began making my way upstairs to bed. Then suddenly the awful truth dawned. What if he wasn’t joking?

Sure enough, when I woke my husband he muttered that he had brought our daughter home, but not our son. So yes, he was stranded at the party forty miles away. He’d apparently decided to go and watch YouTube videos with his cousin – but no one had thought to tell me. There was only one thing for it. I wearily swapped my high heels for a pair of comfy Converse, shoved my coat back on and grabbed a bottle of water in case I broke down in the middle of the snowy Oxfordshire countryside. Then I set off across the county to collect him.

The upshot was that our son got loads of mileage out of the night his parents went home without him. I couldn’t help laughing when I logged on to Facebook the next morning and saw his new status. “Can’t believe my mum left me behind. Top parenting job there...”

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Sweltering in the sunshine, revision and The Great Gatsby

Phew, what a scorcher… I’ve wanted to write those words ever since my newspaper days. 

But deep down I wish the azure blue skies and sweltering heat hadn't arrived quite yet. Why? Because every teenager I know is revising for exams right now. And while the papers are full of annoying articles declaring that A levels and GCSEs have been dumbed down (not true, they’re just different), a generation of 16 to 18 year olds are stuck indoors trying to memorise endless quotes from Of Mice and Men. They look pale and stressed and keep muttering anxiously about the scores of exams ahead.

Funnily, enough, the year I took my A levels was a scorcher too. But I didn’t treat them half so seriously as today’s teenagers. Actually, I spent the entire summer lying on a Dorset riverbank sunbathing with friends and reading old copies of Jackie magazine.

But on the up side, teenagers are definitely less sartorially challenged in the sun than grown-ups. I hate my scary white legs and avoid baring them for as long as possible. Even though the sun’s been shining for a few days it’s been a real wrench to discard my habitual black tights and hunt out the fake tan. A London friend told me that on the first day of the heat wave a fellow passenger eyed her thick tights with disdain. “I wanted to tap her on the shoulder and tell her it wasn’t my fault I left for work before the weather changed,” she said. I had much the same feeling today when my daughter arrived home and eyed my blotchy orange ankles. “It's amazing how easy it is to forget to fake tan your feet,” she said.

PS. My son’s just made me watch the trailer for the remake of The Great Gatsby. I adored the novel (did it for A level, in fact) and swooned at Robert Redford in the original movie, so wasn’t that interested. But just take a look. I reckon it’s going to be the movie of the year…

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Mascara, blueberry muffins and Jilly Cooper

Even though it was my number one ambition in life, I didn’t start writing my first novel till my thirties. But that’s late these days. I’m gripped by the story of 20 year old Samantha Shannon, whose sci-fi series has just been snapped up by Bloomsbury for a six-figure sum.

But now I come to think of it, my daughter and her pals self-published their own book at the tender age of 17. In between studying for exams they wrote a guide covering everything a 21st Century teenage girl needs to know about fashion, beauty, parties, schoolwork, health and saving money. I found my copy the other day and realised it contains quite a lot that a middle-aged mum needs to know – tips on applying mascara, the best vintage shops in Oxford and a divine recipe for blueberry muffins.

They also hit on the idea of asking a handful of celebrities for their top tips for teenagers. Lovely Jilly Cooper wrote straight back saying: “Don’t be too sad, because love is so excruciatingly painful at your age and I just want to say, if it really hurts you, you will get over it. When I was your age I found huge comfort in reading poetry. It seemed to mirror my sufferings and anguishes and longings and made me feel I wasn’t alone and that I would get over my unhappiness.”

Meanwhile TV chef and supermodel Sophie Dahl told them: “Always, always, always wash your face before you go to bed if you're wearing make-up. Otherwise you wake up like an old harridan. I use very basic stuff, cold cream and rose water without alcohol from the chemist.”

Their book is out of print now but it contains some pithy advice for teenagers embarking on exams. “It’s really easy to get stressed out by your friends during the exam period,” they wrote. “Everyone always exaggerates how little or how much revision they have done, so try not to take notice of other people when they talk about it.”

At their age I was gauche, unsophisticated and not half so smart (and no, I haven't changed much). I certainly didn’t know how to cope with exam stress, open a bank account or use a pair of hair straighteners. And with that in mind, I’m off to buy that rose water...

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The annual French exchange

As the exam season kicks in with a vengeance, my student daughter hit on a brilliant idea to revise for her impending French oral. She and her flatmate booked a budget flight to Lyon and spent two days immersed in speaking French. It was a far better (and more fun) idea than the usual method of improving teenagers’ language skills – the dreaded French exchange.

Apart from my schoolfriend Sarah, who became lifelong pals with the French girl she exchanged with, I’ve never come across a success story.

When I was 16, I swapped with a sweet French girl called Marie-Line who lived in a fishing village on the Normandy coast. I was desperately homesick, barely uttered a word of French and had nightmares for weeks after walking into the basement and discovering a massive tank of crabs, fish and other creatures from the ocean swimming around – the results of her father’s latest fishing trip.

My daughter did a French exchange at the age of 12, which was far too young. It came about after a French business contact of my husband’s suggested it – and we reckoned it would be churlish to refuse.

When Jean-Paul delivered his daughter Sabine to our house she was clearly appalled by the whole idea. She loathed the food I cooked, couldn’t understand a word I said in either French or English and spent the week buying up her body weight in sweets. It wasn’t her fault at all that she hated the whole experience but it certainly didn’t do anything for the entente cordiale. Worse still, when her father politely rang the following week to thank us for having Sabine to stay, he added: “Oh, and I hope you didn’t let her eat any sweets. I forgot to tell you that she isn’t allowed them at home.”

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Competitive tiredness - who is the most exhausted?

Did you know there’s a new syndrome called “competitive tiredness?” Apparently loads of us spend our lives bickering about who is the most tired. Well, in our house my husband reckons he’s in pole position because he works killer hours at the office. My children are revising for exams so they’re exhausted and I think I’ve got a claim because I’ve got a mass of deadlines piling up.

But perhaps the answer to the conundrum is to copy the example of two close friends. With four children – aged ten, seven, five and nine months – and a hi-tech business they run together, Charlie and Anna swapped roles for a week to see who had the most demanding life.

Anna took sole charge of the office for five days while Charlie ran around after the children. He got up in the night to see to the baby, organised the school run and did the shopping, cooking and cleaning. She worked 12-hour days at the office before coming home to four boisterous children at night.

It was a real eye-opener for both of them. Charlie couldn’t believe how shattering the constant broken nights were and Anna groaned with exhaustion when he handed over the baby the instant she walked through the door in the evening. But they both said they’d do it again like a shot and reckon we should all give it a go. The only trouble is that I wouldn’t be much cop at running my husband’s business and he'd be hopeless at reviewing books. Perhaps it’s best to stick to the day job. What do you think?

PS. Lunch at the pub is a brilliant way to recover from a bout of competitive tiredness. The picture above shows the village of Farnborough in north Oxfordshire, home to one of my favourite pubs. A glass of wine, delicious lunch and good company - my perfect spring Saturday.

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