Monday, 31 December 2012

My favourite novels of 2012


It’s New Year’s Eve, so what better time to look back over a year of brilliant reads? I love reading about other people’s favourite books of the year, so as 2012 draws to a wet and windy close, here is my list.

Australian ML Stedman’s first book is the moving account of a young lighthouse keeper and his wife in the 1920s. The couple live on a remote island off the coast of Western Australia, barely seeing anyone from one month to the next. Then one morning a boat washes up on the shore, with a dead man and a crying baby inside. As I wrote in the Daily Express earlier this year: “Keep a box of tissues at the ready – Stedman’s book is a real tearjerker.”

I was lucky enough to hear Rachel Joyce speak about her work and cherish her description of writing as “like having knitting in my head.” Her debut novel is the touching, uplifting story of a man in his sixties who leaves home one morning to post a letter to Queenie Hennessy, a friend he hasn't seen for 20 years. She's dying, and on the spur of the moment he resolves to walk from one end of the country to the other to see her. He has no walking boots, no map, no compass and no mobile phone, but he’s adamant that he’s going to keep on walking till he gets there.

Tuesday’s Gone by Nicci French
As the years go by, I like crime novels and thrillers more and more. I’m a big fan of Ian Rankin but my favourite crime novel of the year was Tuesday’s Gone. The second of the husband and wife writing duo’s series about psychotherapist Frieda Klein was even better than the first. As I wrote on House With No Name: “I’m very squeamish and the opening scene, where a social worker discovers a rotting, naked corpse in a delapidated Deptford flat, stopped me in my tracks. But I was so desperate to discover who he was and why on earth the confused woman living there kept trying to serve him afternoon tea that even if I’d wanted to, I simply couldn’t stop reading.”

Alys, Always by Harriet Lane
Harriet Lane writes beautifully and her story of a lonely, 30-something newspaper sub who witnesses a woman’s death in a car crash was one of my favourite reads. When I chose it for one of my Friday book reviews I called it a subtle, beautifully observed and exquisitely written novel – the sort of book you read in one beguiling go.” And I can’t say better than that.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
It’s very special when you love a book and then get the chance to interview its author. And thanks to Headline’s Sam Eades, I interviewed Eowyn Ivey for House With No Name this year. Her first novel, the tale of a middle-aged couple who move to the wilds of Alaska to start a new life, is, as I said at the time, “a touching and truly exceptional portrayal of heartbreak and hope.”

Pure by Andrew Miller
One of my most memorable evenings of 2012 came way back in January when I was invited to the 2011 Costa Book Awards party. I’d been lucky enough to be on the judging panel for the first novel of the year category (a prize awarded to Christie Watson for the compelling Tiny Sunbirds Far Away) and as a result got an invitation to the glittering awards ceremony at Quaglino’s. The overall prize went to Andrew Miller for Pure, his novel set in a Paris cemetery four years before the start of the French Revolution. I later reviewed it for the Daily Express and wrote: “You can almost smell the cemetery’s stifling odour, see the noisy, turbulent streets and sense Baratte’s joy when he unexpectedly finds love in the midst of all the horror.”

2013 promises a host of eagerly anticipated novels, including Instructions for a Heatwave (February) by Maggie O’Farrell, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (March), the latest in Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones saga and William Boyd’s new James Bond novel.

So on that happy note, thank you so much for reading House With No Name over the past year. I hope you have a cracking New Year’s Eve and a brilliant 2013.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Two days in James Herriot country


The advantage of moving around a lot is that you feel at home in most places.

And that was certainly the case when we made a two-day trip to North Yorkshire this week. We lived in James Herriot country for three years and I’ve got very happy memories of our time there.

We renovated a three-bedroom farmhouse with glorious views across the fields and moved in when my daughter was four and my son was two. Even now they are virtually grown up they still talk fondly about our Rye House days. I’m not surprised, because they had the best social life ever. My daughter’s primary school was a short walk down the hill and most of her friends lived a stone’s throw away. She had tea at a different friend's house every day of the week and she still keeps up with loads of them on Facebook.

When we drove into the village at dusk we peered across the school playground, marvelling at the new classrooms and trying to spot whether the wooden bird my daughter made was still on display. Her year 1 teacher (one of her favourite teachers ever) was called Miss Wright and drove a retro white VW Camper van. She worked incredibly hard and 14 years later we half expected to see it still parked outside.

As well as seeing friends and family, we also made our regular trip to Bettys in Northallerton for coffee. When my son was little I often took him there for homemade lemonade and a toasted teacake after school and he once melted the heart of an elderly waitress by saying “Bettys make the best teacakes in the whole, wide world.”

He was absolutely right, of course.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Happy Christmas from House With No Name


What is it about Christmas trees? No matter how hard I try they just won’t stay straight. I bought a special (and rather ugly) tree stand this year but the tree is still leaning at a Tower of Pisa-style angle. Apart from that, we’re all set for Christmas. I’ve collected the turkey, wrapped everyone’s present and am happily listening to A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast live from King’s College, Cambridge.

There’s sure to be something I’ve forgotten (bin bags for one) but by Christmas Eve it’s too late to worry about anything. All that’s left to do right now is to say a big thank you for reading House With No Name in 2012 and wish everyone a very happy Christmas.

Love from Emma xx

Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Saturday before Christmas - cycling in the rain


With a multitude of presents to wrap, a turkey to buy and red cabbage recipes to puzzle over, there was still only one place I could be on Saturday.

Not home. Not Sainsbury’s. And no, not even the off licence. No, with three days to go till Christmas, my family hot-footed it to the picturesque environs of Hillingdon Cycle Circuit, on the outskirts of West London.

Undeterred by the torrential rain, my bike-mad son had decided to enter his second-ever road race. He loaded his bike on to the car and we tore down the M40. The rest of the traffic seemed to be heading in the opposite direction, laden to the gunnels with Christmas presents. 

By the time we got there, I half expected to find that the event had been called off. But cyclists are the hardiest people I know and a crowd of them, clad in fluorescent wet-weather gear, were busy warming up on their turbo trainers. My son, pale with nerves, grabbed his helmet and over-shoes and plunged into their midst. A middle-aged chap, clearly an old hand at road cycling, kindly gave him a load of advice about tactics. “If you fall off, protect yourself by getting into the foetal position,” he said. “The beetle position?” queried my husband. “What’s that?”

It seemed like an age before the event got underway – and a century before we saw him flash past in a sea of grit and Lycra. By the time he’d done forty minutes his face was splattered with mud and white with exhaustion.

But with another five laps to go before the finish, on they rode through the wind and the rain. Planes took off from nearby Heathrow and a wedding party drove by, but the cyclists kept their eyes on the track. Bradley Wiggins eat your heart out.

Friday, 21 December 2012

007 - the new fragrance for men


Skyfall, the latest James Bond movie, was one of the best movies I’ve seen all year. Actually, it was the only film that my whole family loved. The four of us disagree totally about films, so much so that we are in danger of having to make separate trips to the cinema. But Skyfall was different – Daniel Craig was divine, Judi Dench acted her socks off (as per usual) and Ben Whishaw was hilarious as the new and ultra-geeky Q.

With the James Bond film franchise celebrating its 50th anniversary this year it was a smart idea to create the official James Bond fragrance for men. It’s called 007 and seeks to capture all Bond’s spirit, charm and style in one elegant bottle. GQ magazine said that the cologne “eschews hints of Aston Martin leather and martini top notes for a modern take on classic 60s fragrances, with hints of fresh apple, cardamom, sandalwood and vetiver.” Mmmm – sounds heavenly.

The original edition sold out in days when it was released this autumn and now a limited edition golden bottle has gone on sale.  The 007 Gold Limited Edition fragrance for men is available nationwide and costs £25 for 50ml. I reckon it’s the perfect Christmas present for 007 fans everywhere…

Friday book review - The Wolf Princess by Cathryn Constable


If you’re racing to get your Christmas shopping done and need an enchanting story for girls aged ten and up, then The Wolf Princess could be just the ticket.

The first novel from journalist turned author Cathryn Constable, it’s the captivating account of penniless orphan Sophie Smith. Stuck in her drab London boarding school with her two best friends – brainy Marianne and immaculately groomed Delphine - she longs for something exciting to happen.

Then, thanks to a mysterious Russian visitor, the trio suddenly find themselves on a school trip to St Petersburg.  But when they arrive they are swept off by train to a winter palace – where a charismatic princess lavishes them with gifts, takes them skating on a frozen lake and weaves stories about her family’s tragic past. 

With its magical descriptions of ice, snow, diamonds and white wolves who prowl the palace grounds at night, The Wolf Princess is the perfect read for a chilly Christmas afternoon. The cover, as you can see, is glorious too.

The Wolf Princess by Cathryn Constable (Chicken House, £6.99)

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?”

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Don't panic! Ideas for Christmas presents


Help! I thought I was completely organised, but as usual I’ve rifled through all the secret carrier bags stashed under the bed and realised I haven’t cracked Christmas at all.

But in a bid to make everything easy I hit on the idea of buying my extra presents from one shop. And where better than Blacks? The stores sell everything to do with the great outdoors – tents, camping equipment and waterproof clothes.

I’ve been a fan of Blacks since I bought my first pair of walking boots in their Keswick branch – more years ago than I care to remember. I’d just met my one-day-to-be husband and he’d invited me for a weekend in the Lake District. He met me at Penrith station and asked whether I’d brought walking gear with me. “Of course,” I replied jauntily. “I’ve got a pair of plimsolls in my bag.”  He was horrified, of course, and insisted that we stopped off en route to buy a sturdy pair of walking boots. They were navy blue, blissfully comfortable and perfect for striding up Catbells. I still wear them to this day.

But back to my Christmas ideas. This is what I came up with. For my coffee-addict husband, a stainless steel mug he can fill with his favourite espresso. He can stick it in the car on long journeys and it will stay piping hot.

For my 21-year-old daughter, who’s studying in Paris this year, this brilliant red sleeping bag. As well as taking it to festivals next summer, it’s just the thing for friends arriving to stay for the weekend (me for one!)

For my 18-year-old son, this brilliant cash capsule. It’s a keyring with a capsule large enough to hold a £10 note – so perfect for emergencies.

And I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t resist this stylish Dad’s Army enamel mug for myself. During the frantic lead-up to Christmas, the message emblazoned across it is very apt. DON’T PANIC!
This is a sponsored post.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Giveaway - win a copy of Lauren Child's latest Ruby Redfort story


I’ve been a fan of Lauren Child’s work for years. Her children's books, with their zany patchwork collages, wonky text going in all directions and off-the-wall stories, are utterly entrancing. In fact I reckon I’ve given copies of her fabulous Charlie and Lola books and Clarice Bean stories to just about every child I know - goddaughters, nieces and friends’ children. I even bought a copy of an edition of Pippi Longstocking she illustrated for, er… myself.

Child is incredibly prolific and last year she launched the Ruby Redfort stories for readers aged nine and up. Undercover agent Ruby first appeared in the Clarice Bean books but so many readers asked about Ruby that Child decided to give her her own six-book series. First came Look Into My Eyes and now the second – Take Your Last Breath – is out.

Super-cool detective Ruby is only 13 but she’s a genius at cracking codes and puzzles. This time round she’s on a mission to crack the case of the Twinford pirates, while evading the clutches of a vile sea monster and an evil count. And one thing’s for sure, if anyone can convince children that puzzle-solving and code-cracking are fun, it’s Child.

Now, thanks to HarperCollins, I have got a copy of Take Your Last Breath to give away to a lucky House With No Name reader. All you have to do is leave a comment about who you’d give it to at the end of this post and I’ll announce the winner next week.

This giveaway is open to readers with UK postal addresses only. The closing date is 12 noon on December 18, so get your entries in soon!

Take Your Last Breath (HarperCollins, £12.99).

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!

Friday, 7 December 2012

Giveaway - win a copy of Michael Morpurgo's brilliant new novel


Michael Morpurgo is one of the most prolific writers around. He began writing stories as a primary schoolteacher 40 years ago and has since written more than 120 books. I remember my two children excitedly discovering The Butterfly Lion, a tale that so enthralled them that they proceeded to whizz through every other Morpurgo book they could lay their hands on.

Morpurgo, who was children’s laureate from 2003 to 2005, has the knack of writing books that catapult you into a different world. And none more so than his latest novel, A Medal for Leroy.

Partly inspired by Morpurgo’s own life and partly by the life of Walter Tull, the only black soldier to serve in the British Army during the First World War, A Medal for Leroy is a poignant story, movingly told.

As Morpurgo explains: “Walter Tull was the inspiration for Leroy in my story. This extraordinary young man had grown up in an orphanage in London, had played football for Spurs, then joined up with his pals when war began in 1914.

“He was incredibly brave in the field of battle and deserved a medal for gallantry. He never received one. He died leading his men into attack in 1918. He has no known grave. Many of the issues raised in this book spring from the life and death of this brave young man. This is why the book is dedicated to his memory.”

A Medal for Leroy, charmingly illustrated by Michael Foreman, is the story of Michael, a little boy living in London with his French mother after the Second World War.

Michael’s father died a hero before he was born, shot down in a dogfight over the Channel in 1940. But Michael has one of his medals and occasionally visits his two aged aunts, Auntie Pish and Auntie Snowdrop, to scatter snowdrops on the sea in his memory.

After Auntie Snowdrop's death, Michael discovers a writing pad tucked behind a photograph of his father. It's filled with his aunt's writing and contains family secrets that have remained hidden for years. “I knew even as I began to read – and I have no idea how I knew – that my life would be changed forever," says Michael, "that after I’d read this I would never be the same person again.”

Morpurgo has had a stupendous year. First the movies of War Horse and Private Peaceful (weepies, both of them) hit the big screen, and now he has written this fine new novel. Suitable for children aged nine and over, it is compelling and thought-provoking. Vintage Morpurgo.

Thanks to HarperCollins, I have two copies of A Medal for Leroy to give away. All you have to do is leave a comment about your favourite children's book at the end of this post.

This giveaway is open to readers with UK postal addresses only.

Plus, as a special Christmas promotion, you can buy A Medal for Leroy and get Little Manfred free.  Find out more here.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A December weekend in Paris


As regular readers will know, my student daughter is at university in Paris this year. She’s settled into a flat on the Left Bank and, three months on, her French is pretty fluent. She says she still sounds English but that’s hardly surprising. Unless you’ve spoken French from the age of two or three it’s impossible to sound completely français.

I’m trying not to be a clingy parent, I really am, but I’d been counting the days till I could whizz across the Channel to stay with her. I booked a Eurostar ticket weeks ago (£99 return) and, finally, the big day arrived.

Paris has always been one of my favourite cities and December is the perfect time to visit. The Boulevard St Germain twinkled with chic white lights, a team of carpenters was busy building white wooden huts for the annual Christmas market and the shop windows were a vision of festive loveliness.

With temperatures dipping towards zero (I’m SO glad I delivered my daughter’s duffle coat – she really needed it), we spent loads of time catching up in Paris’s brilliant cafés.

My favourite place for breakfast was a tiny bakery (below) in the rue de Buci (6e). It’s called, quite bizarrely, The Smiths. When we asked the waitress why, she explained that the architect was a huge fan of the band and named it after them. But Morrissey apart, The Smiths sells a café crème, croissant and orange juice for 5.5 euros, which seems pretty good value. The French are clearly a hardy lot because even though it was freezing lots of people were sitting at tables outside. Luckily, The Smiths, like most other cafes, supplies blankets on the backs of chairs so you can wrap up warm as you sip your coffee.

Meanwhile the Rose Bakery is brilliant for lunch. Rose Carrarini (author of the fabulous cookery book, Breakfast Lunch Tea) co-founded Villandry in London in 1988 and later went on to open the Rose Bakery, an Anglo-French bakery and restaurant in Paris. Some people were sceptical about how the French would take to a menu featuring cakes, scones and brownies, but it was a roaring success. Ten years on, there are three branches in Paris, as well as others in London, Seoul and Tokyo.

When we arrived at the branch in the Marais (30, rue Debelleyme, 3e) the queue stretched the length of the narrow restaurant and spilled out on to the pavement. Within 20 minutes though, we got a table and happily sat down to lunch. Everything is kept simple – with brown paper laid on the table, hunks of warm wholemeal bread and huge carafes of water. The only tricky moment comes when you have to choose what to eat – it all looks (and tastes) delicious.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Getting organised for Christmas


My mind’s been on Christmas since the summer. That's when I sat down to write my latest novella, White Christmas. As the rest of my family whizzed around enjoying the sunshine I was in a world of my own, dreaming about Christmas trees, advent calendars, carols, presents and snow.

But now my ebook is done and dusted, I’m busy getting sorted for Christmas. With friends and family scattered all over the place, it means being hyper-organised for once and making sure that the right presents get sent to the right place at the right time. I’ll never forget the awful year when I finished work in London on Christmas Eve, drove down to my parents in Dorset, laden (or so I thought) with presents, and then discovered I’d left the most important ones behind.

My problem is that I always get lulled into a false sense of security. I usually start my Christmas shopping in October, get loads done and then grind to a halt. Around the middle of December I have a major panic when I realise I haven’t done nearly as much as I thought I had.

But this year is different. Why? Because instead of keeping everything in my head (not a good idea when it’s clogged up with other stuff), I’ve actually written a list.  I’ve also downloaded the brilliant Red magazine's Christmas Kitchen Lifesaver app, which is keeping me on the straight and narrow about all the food I’ve got to buy.

But back to presents, my list is a work of art. I’ve scrawled the names of everyone I’m buying presents for in one column and when I need to post everything in the next. I’ve written my Christmas cards (well, most of them), sent my goddaughters’ parcels off by Parcelforce already (they are a dream to buy for) and if I say so myself, I’m not doing too badly at all.

Getting ahead for a change and sending my presents off early has been a revelation. Instead of panicking I’m enjoying these pre-Christmas weeks. I just hope I haven’t forgotten someone...
                       
                  
PS. I've even bought a Christmas pudding - from Meg Rivers Cakes (see below). Thanks to my friend Jackie, I've just discovered their cafe near Broadway, in Worcestershire, and it's a great place for lunch.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Wild About Britain - an RSPCA short story competition for children


Hurry, hurry, hurry – there’s no time to waste. If your children are interested in wildlife and love writing stories, then there are just a few days left for them to enter a great new short story competition run by the RSPCA. 

The Wild About Britain challenge is inspired by wonderful children’s classics like Wind in the Willows and The Tale of Peter Rabbit. In fact Peter Rabbit was voted the nation’s favourite wildlife character in a recent RSPCA survey, while Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox was named our favourite wildlife book.

There are two age categories in the competition – 11 years and under and 12 to 16-year-olds – and the closing date for entries is midnight on Monday December 10. The winner will receive a selection of books from publisher Random House and their story will be published on the website.

As Chris Packham, RSPCA vice president, says: “What could be a more perfect way to get inspiration for your story than to go out into our woods and search out signs of animals like hedgehogs, foxes and badgers? With the Olympics, Paralympics and Jubilee it has been an incredible year for Great Britain. Now it is time to remember that our wildlife is great too.”

I feel very honoured because I’ve been asked to be one of the competition’s guest judges. As a lifelong fan of stories like The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and Watership Down, I CAN’T WAIT to read the entries.

For more details of the competition (and to read some of the entries so far) go to the Wild About Britain website.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Friday book review - The Empty Stocking by Richard Curtis


With Christmas less than a month away (eek!), I’m busy writing a newspaper piece about great festive reads for children.

One of my favourites so far is Richard Curtis’s The Empty Stocking. The prodigiously talented Curtis – director and screenwriter extraordinaire – has written an enchanting tale for children, with sweet illustrations by Rebecca Cobb.

It’s the story of seven-year-old twin sisters Sam and Charlie, who look the same but couldn’t be more different.

Sam is angelic, while Charlie is quite naughty. Or as Curtis puts it: “Not interested in being obedient. Quite often very grumpy. Not very fond of telling the complete truth. But very fond of eating sweets, making a filthy racket and having too much fun.” (Actually, come to think of it, Charlie sounds the life and soul of the party).

The little girls can’t wait for Christmas and excitedly hang their stockings at the end of their beds on Christmas Eve. But the big question is - will Santa fill both their stockings with presents this year? Or is it time he got tough?

This is a lovely picture book for small children – and as well as being an exuberant and heart-warming tale, it’s got an important message too.

The Empty Stocking by Richard Curtis (Puffin, £6.99)
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