Notes from my bookshelf #5: The Girl in the Red Coat

Yes, followers, the book review returns. This one is slightly different, however. As an ex-Curtis Brown writing course student myself, I always feel obliged to read all of the offerings from my fellow students who have been lucky enough to secure publishing contracts. I admit that this is a bittersweet pursuit, swinging between feelings of hope that if they can, maybe I can too, through to pangs of envy that they got there first, dammit. So I came at The Girl in the Red Coat determined to read it as a show of solidarity more than because I wanted to read a good yarn, as is usually my motivation.

I expected a story loosely based on Red Riding Hood about a lost girl. What I wasn’t expecting was to be completely captivated and haunted by the story in equal measures, and totally caught up in the mother’s suffering and the daughter’s determined spirit.

Similar to other offerings from ex-CB students (such as The Miniaturist, for instance), it is a beautifully written book, which is testament to the team at Curtis Brown and the course tutors who helped us to fine-tune our ideas into workable manuscripts. But this novel goes beyond beautifully crafted syntax and imagery. It is rich with layers of mystery and cleverly dotted with all things red. Carmel is a constructed as the kind of daughter we would all want to have, independent and strong despite the situation in which she finds herself. The mother had me crying on more than one occasion and I empathised with her sense of loss and helplessness.

Parallel to this is Carmel’s “special gift” and why she was chosen by her captor, with the different strands of plot knitting together to form a narrative constructed like a dialogue between the daughter and the mother, as though they are talking just to each other, the bond never broken.

I read it in two days, couldn’t put it down until I had found out what had happened and there are very few books of late that I have connected with so strongly. Do yourself a favour and read it.

Ah, the memories… or not

Yesterday, while scrabbling around in the attic for my old school copy of “Macbeth” for my daughter, I came across a dusty box containing my old diaries. For most of my high school years, I wrote every thought, feeling and angst-ridden memory down on those pages, so you can imagine how heavy the box was when I wrestled it down the rickety stepladder.

What quickly became apparent, apart from the melodrama that goes hand in hand with being a teenager, was that a fair-size portion of it I just do not remember. Some Big Events – the school disco; the first broken heart; exam time – are still riding high in my consciousness, but the day-to-day stuff that I spent so much time agonising (and crying) over seems to have been wiped from memory. Probably for my sanity.

Paging through, I started thinking about what I have chosen to remember – and, more importantly, what I have chosen to forget. For instance, if you ask me to sing the lyrics to any number of the songs I listened to back then in the good old eighties, I can word for word (but not necessarily in tune). I can still remember my old home phone number and the phone numbers of some of my friends (in the days before mobile phone contact lists); the names of my best and worst teachers, and various acquaintances from primary school and their siblings; the bubble skirts, long jumpers and lime eyeshadow I wore to a number of discos; the taste of the chips with a curry sauce splash from Liu’s, the Chinese takeaway at the end of our road; how much a quarter of rhubarb and custard sweets cost out of my dinner money on the way home from school; even the number of the bus I used to take.

However, when it comes to my present life, I struggle to remember the names of my children on a daily basis. I often find myself telling them off for something or other and calling them by the wrong name, which always takes the sting out of my wrath when they hear their mother stumbling over who it is she is supposed to be chastising.

The other day I walked into the kitchen, went clockwise around the island, only to find myself back where I started and none the wiser as to why I was there in the first place. I then went anti-clockwise in case that would help, was still none the wiser and went back upstairs. Only then did I remember what it was I had wanted (a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive).

There are other things that I can’t remember that would be quite useful to know, like how we did long division or algebra at school. Nor can I remember the date of the Battle of Hastings, which order the kings and queens reigned in or how many terms of office Margaret Thatcher had in the end. And there is always one of the seven dwarves I can’t name.

I’m not going to dwell unduly on this though. I will embrace it for what it is: a sign that I shouldn’t have any more children if I have a hope in hell of remembering who they are and that I’m rubbish at pub quizzes unless the questions feature 80s pop lyrics or the bus timetable for the No34 through Bedlington.

Ten things it has taken me 40 years to learn

For  an intelligent woman, sometimes I can be surprisingly slow to catch on. Some of this I put down to age and some to a certain degree of denial. I’m sure that there will be many more lightbulb moments as I head further into my forties, but here are ten things that I now embrace, along with my mid-life crisis.

1. Force yourself to enjoy the first minute of the day. I used to hate mornings. Getting up for school was torture; getting up for work was a fate worse than death. The only mornings I enjoyed before I had children were the ones I missed entirely by staying in bed until noon as a student. Now I realise that the first minute of the day, when you are just opening your eyes and your mind is frantically scrabbling to hold onto a dream as it evaporates, is the quietest and most settled minute you are likely to experience for the rest of the day. For a few blissful seconds, you are unaware of what lies ahead. Once you step out of bed, the day can go one of two ways: it can take off and be the Best Day Ever; or it can plummet into the depths of hell. Best to stay where you are for a little while longer and enjoy your cuppa.

2. I will never be tall. At 5ft, you would think I would’ve realised this sooner, but in my head I am definitely taller than what the height chart says. Mentally, I look people in the eye, not in the boob region. However, as my daughters and their friends get older, I am reminded constantly of how short I actually am. I have to look up to talk to them now and I often get lost in a crowd of kids at school, only to emerge from the other side mentally traumatised. However, dynamite comes in small packages and I find that my diminutive stature means I am often underestimated, which comes with the pleasure of knowing that I have plenty of opportunities to surprise people if I feel like it. And maybe one day I will.

3. Heated rollers are never a good idea. I have had my heated rollers since the early 90s and once or twice a year I get them out, thinking that it would be a good idea to try them in preparation for a night out. However, I have yet to use them successfully without looking like a French poodle afterwards. It is time I realised that rollers will never create relaxed gentle curls in my mop of untameable hair. Best to stick to the straighteners.

4. I don’t know everything and it’s best not to pretend I do. When they were younger, my children’s questions were random, but fairly easy to answer, which led them to believe I was the fountain of all knowledge. With this came my short-lived belief that I did in fact have an answer for everything. Then they started school and the questions became more complicated. These days just going through their maths homework is a challenge. For a while, I admit I blagged it and gave what I thought sounded like a credible answer to questions like, “If people say it can be too cold to snow, why is it always snowing in the Arctic?” Thank goodness for the internet as I can now confidently admit that I do not know everything, but can satisfy them by saying, “Google it!” What did our parents do before the internet? Oh yes, they lied too…

5. Some song lyrics will always be an enigma. There are certain songs that I will never understand. “The Riddle”, for instance, “China in your Hand” and possibly the entire Depeche Mode back catalogue. In my youth, I’d sing them unashamedly and contemplate their deeper meaning while trying to draw parallels with my own teenage angst. These days, I still sing them out loud, but now realise that Nik Kershaw didn’t have a clue what he was writing, but it rhymed and suited the tune in his head, so he went with it. Good lad.

6. A beautiful pair of shoes is the best medicine. After emerging out the other side of the teens, university heartbreaks, career frustrations, marriage adjustments and childbirth, I can safely say that the only thing that makes me feel better when my day/week/month has gone to hell in a hand basket is a beautiful new pair of shoes. Forget chocolate and wine; all they do is trick you into thinking you feel better, then make you feel crappy again when you’ve had too much (as you inevitably end up doing, evidenced by the multitude of hangovers I have endured over the years). However, a pair of shoes doesn’t care how fat you are, how many spots you have or if you’ve said something stupid. Every time you look down at your beautifully clad feet, you feel your spirits rise and that’s enough for me. Until you walk in your new heels and sprain your ankle of course…

7. I will never like olives or stinky cheese. They say that your tastebuds develop over time and you will enjoy different foods when you’re older. And in fact I can now eat guacamole, even though I used to think the avocado was devil spawn, and cooked fruit is ok when covered in crumble and smothered in custard. However, I can safely say that I will never embrace the trendy but foul-tasting olive or understand the attraction of eating a cheese that smells worse than Andy Murray’s trainers.

8. I really like sleep. As previously mentioned, I am not a morning person, so why it should take me so long to realise how much I love sleep is ridiculous. It was only once I had children that I realised just how important eight hours of sleep a night are to my mental wellbeing (and those around me). Even now on the rare occasions when one of my daughters wakes me complaining of having a nightmare, I am likely to be short-tempered and brusque, and certainly not the loving, comforting parent they deserve. They learnt that quicker than me and wake my other half instead now.

9. I am morphing into my mother. Much as I always said I would follow my own parenting path, I sound more like my mother every day. Yesterday I heard myself tell my youngest that she would “put her eye out if she isn’t careful” and that “there are starving kids in Africa who wish they could eat that cauliflower”. However, I hasten to add that with this comes a certain sense of relief in knowing that I turned out ok, so my mum must’ve been on the right track and if I can emulate some of that, then my girls will be ok too.

10. Always hold on when riding the bus. How many times have I told my girls to hold onto the rail when we are on the bus? Loads. But do I follow my own advice? No. There I was sitting on the aisle seat on the top deck with my mum over Christmas when the bus took a corner a little too hastily and I fell off the seat onto my back in the aisle like an inverted turtle. In my embarrassment as all eyes turned to stare, I started to laugh hysterically and couldn’t get up. My mortification reached a new level when I heard my mother loudly say in between guffaws, “I told you not to drink that gin with your breakfast.” Always hold the rail, people…

Time flies….

A lot has changed in a year. The last time I blogged, I was still on the younger side of 40, stretching my brain with a creative writing course and trying to squeeze in as many random but satisfying pursuits before That Birthday came around.

The Big 40 has come and gone (and I’m closer to the Big 41 now) and I’m taking stock of what I achieved in my last year of my thirties: in a nutshell, I’m greyer, a little heavier and unemployed. Wow, it really wasn’t a productive year after all!

Actually, it was a pretty good year in a lot of respects – and the Big 40 wasn’t as daunting and traumatic as I was led to believe it would be. Ok, I did plan a month’s worth of celebrations to help me cope, ranging from a 1950s rock-‘n-roll party to a legendary evening with girlfriends in a Soho tequila bar called the Pink Chihuahua that would have a blog post all of its own if I hadn’t been sworn to secrecy about what actually took place. What happens in the Pink Chihuahua stays in the Pink Chihuahua…

Now that I am 40 and supposedly a grown-up, I appear to be in the midst of a mini mid-life crisis. After 14 years working for a company that wasn’t all that bad in the grand scheme of things (don’t tell my ex-boss that though), I spontaneously decided in December to resign and try to make a go of it on my own. Call it a last-ditch attempt to seize the dream before I forget what the dream is, but at the time of resigning I thought it was a brilliant idea. I have to say, a weight has lifted from my shoulders knowing that I don’t have to log my brain into a job that had become tedious, routine and repetitive after all this time. However, one look at the wares on offer in the Christmas sales and I realised very early into my new-found freedom that a salary is a surprisingly useful thing to have and that mid-life crises aren’t as much fun as you’d expect. It’s apparently not all sports cars and toy boys – I can’t afford a sports car and a cougar I am not, since my idea of bliss is spending the evening in a onesie with a cuppa and some Bombay Mix, cuddled into a farting bulldog with a bit of David Tennant on the telly.

I also appear to have lost a sense of my own identity. Before, when asked, I could say with authority and confidence that I was an “editor”. But what am I now? I can’t say housewife (anyone who has been to my home can attest to that) or stay-at-home mum (my oldest is about to start high school). That’s like saying I’m a pianist because I’m learning to play the piano (which I am because I didn’t scratch it off the 40 list). I’m now label-less, a bit like the basics range in Sainsbury’s.

Yes, it was all self-inflicted, so I can’t complain. And I had a Plan: to relaunch my freelance editing business, maybe do some writing, get myself published – you know, all that easy stuff. However, the freelance business is slow to take off, the publishing deal has yet to find a champion agent to drive it and I am running out of funds, so I have found myself trying to come up with a new idea for a job: something that pays well, motivates me to get out of bed every day and makes me feel like I’m achieving something or making a difference. Yeah, not much to ask for….

I’ve thought of a number of options: a postman (they get loads of exercise and finish work early, but the winters must be a bitch); dog-walker (lots of fresh air and exercise, matched by enormous piles of poop); opening a tea shop (I don’t know if I’m nice enough to be polite to the public every day); bake cakes (too tempting to do a taste test all the time); librarian (surrounded by books, but not allowed to read them during working hours). None have fit the bill just yet.

So if anyone has any ideas for me, I’m all ears. In the meantime, I’ll keep walking the dog and drinking copious amounts of tea, all in the name of brainstorming.

In Memory of Mick: A Dog is for Life, Not Just for Christmas

We said goodbye to our beloved bulldog Mick this week, so here’s a repost of an old blog (from a year ago) in his memory. He managed nearly 14 years in the end and every day was special – and I was wrong: it was old age that got the better of him in the end. As I say below, our family is incomplete without him. I hope there is plenty of chocolate in doggy heaven… 

One of the most important members of our small family is Mick, our 12-year-old British bulldog. Mr G and I chose him at eight weeks old as a companion for our female bulldog, Bianca (who is no longer with us unfortunately) and from the outset he was a character. Named after Mick Jagger, I chose him out of what seemed like hundreds of puppies because he was tiny, noisy and incredibly grumpy. Nowadays, he is still noisy and occasionally grumpy, but he is not tiny.

Shortly after we adopted him, Mr G was transferred to London from South Africa and the dogs ended up enduring six months of quarantine as we relocated. He went into the kennels a puppy, but came out a hulking beast of a dog, with boundless energy (going completely against the grain for a bulldog) and no idea of his own strength. A couple of sessions with a dog behaviourist and with wallets a few pounds lighter, Mick was a reformed character with a laid-back, chilled approach to everything.

And it has been something of an adventure ever since. He is the kind of dog that scares the hell out of you at first sight, but once he has snorted at you and sniffed your legs (he can’t reach most crotches), he is a softy. Unless you are a squirrel, in which case watch your back as one day he will get up enough speed to catch you (in his dreams anyway).

Mick has a number of weaknesses, chocolate being one of them. He relishes the approach of Christmas, because that means presents under the tree, which may or may not contain chocolate. Many times we have returned home from a bout of shopping to find the presents unwrapped – none too gently – as he hunts for whatever has caught his nose. He once ate an entire box of Jaffa Cakes (including the cardboard and plastic inner), then ran around the house like a demon for an hour. On another occasion, I had placed a bag full of goodies, such as Walnut Whips and Minstrels, on the study desk, supposedly out of his reach, only to find him perched on my keyboard, having eaten the lot and with a stomach too full to climb down afterwards. It took him days to get over that tummy ache; he would sit and groan for effect, but since he was in disgrace, he got no sympathy from us. And the “k” on my keyboard has never worked properly since. Yes, I know that chocolate is poisonous for dogs, but try telling him that.

His appetite will be his downfall one day. If he thinks he has not had enough dinner, he will either bark incessantly at us until we give him some more or, if we have not closed the cupboard door properly, he will go and help himself. He also enjoys a good hand cream and has figured out how to unzip a handbag if he thinks there is one hiding inside. We have had many disgruntled babysitters, who have come downstairs after putting the girls to bed to find their handbag open, the contents strewn all over the couch and Mick nibbling on their tube of Nivea. He has lovely, soft paws though.

At the ripe old age of 12, he is still as fit as a fiddle, albeit half blind, deaf (although this could be selective) and not as agile as he once was. No matter what he gets up to – once he ate through the cat flap on our back door and got his head stuck in the hole – our family would be incomplete without him.

Of course, he does have some enemies. Stereotypically, he hates the postman, who returns his sentiments tenfold. And there are some members of our extended family that are not his biggest fans. A few Christmases ago, we had family to stay. One morning, one of our elderly male guests came downstairs in a pair of very loose boxer shorts and a gown, then sat on the couch in front of Mick and I with legs astride and everything on show. I averted my eyes and before I could think of a tactful way of suggesting he rearrange himself, Mick caught a glimpse and shot across the room at full throttle, teeth bared, head-first into his crotch, apparently thinking of meat and two veg. After dragging Mick away with some difficulty, I snorted out my apologies, but then had to remove myself completely before hysterics took over. The boxers never appeared again, thankfully, and Mick got an extra Bonio that day.

Socially unacceptable, often embarrassing and frequently amusing, he is my constant companion. Now if only I could do something about his snoring and farting.


Mick sitting really still in the hope that I won’t notice he is sitting on the chair.

Working 9 to 5: What a Way to Make a Living

This week, after working incredibly hard on a project, the general feedback from those in the know was that I had triumphed and it was a success. Music to my ears after the effort I had put in, I have to say. However, since I work from home and have only Mick the geriatric bulldog for company between the hours of 9am and 3pm, I found myself fist-punching the air, whooping in delight and then having no one to share my news with. A balloon-popping moment.

If I were in an office, we could high-five each other then drift off to the pub for a celebratory pint. Of course, where I work, I wouldn’t have received the kudos in the first place as they tend to be a bit stingy with their praise and appreciation.

I have been based at home for nine of the thirteen years I have worked for my company and it has come with distinct pluses and minuses in that time.

The Pros:

  • I never have to worry about appropriate “office wear” and can throw on any old thing as the only people who see me are the mums on the school run.
  • I can wear flip-flops in summer contrary to office policy.
  • Last week, because it was raining, I literally had a duvet day and worked from the comfort of my bed.
  • The commute takes as long as climbing a flight of stairs.
  • The fridge is readily accessible.
  • No idle chit-chat to distract me and no need to be nice to people I find genuinely annoying.
  • I can mute the phone during dull conference calls and catch up on Twitter while they ramble on.
  • I can multi-task the laundry, make dinner, receive deliveries and pop over to school to administer medicine, deliver forgotten lunch boxes and pick up sick children while still completing a day’s work, with the possibility of finishing it off in the evening if need be.
  • No one can hear me scream in frustration or swear at my boss in the face of frustrating office politics. 

The Cons:

  • I spent most of my day conversing with a geriatric bulldog.
  • The call of the Twitter account and Facebook feed is ever present.
  • I essentially never leave the office – and my employees know this and have been known to take advantage.
  • The fridge is readily accessible.
  • It is easy for colleagues to blame a bad day on my home office status.
  • No one is there to share in the successes and triumphs.
  • I miss the days of commuting into London and having an hour on the train just to read my book in relative peace.
  • The longer I am out of an office environment, the harder I find it to return.

As you can see, the pros still outweigh the cons. So I will continue to high-five my successes with the dog, shout obscenities at my computer screen and mute my conference call meetings. Let’s just hope they don’t start insisting on Skype meetings or I will have to start changing out of my pyjamas every day.

The Life and Times of a Mature Student

Last week I went back to school. Not as a harrassed mum dragging tired children into the infant school gates with cornflakes in my hair, but as an actual, bonafide student again. Bearing in mind that I graduated from university in 1995 – *shudder* – this is a big deal for me.

Of course, things have changed somewhat in the last two decades since I was a student, fresh out of high school at the age of 17, eager to take on the world, and with hair that was still blonde without the help of a hairdresser.

One of the biggest changes is that the creative writing course I am currently studying is conducted entirely online. So no more napping at the back of the lecture hall or bleary-eyed tutorials with bespectacled mentors in tiny offices in the bowels of the university campus. These days it is all done via online discussion threads and tutorials on Skype (where I may look respectable from the waist up, but the chances are I am still wearing my pyjama bottoms under the desk). Rather than endlessly searching the library’s shelves, my reading list is downloaded on my Kindle. And while my fellow course attendees are physically strangers to me, I feel that we have done more chatting and sharing in a week through emails than I ever did with the students on my uni courses.

Added to all this is the juggling of running and maintaining a household, holding down a job, parenting (often single-handedly) two small children and cleaning up after a geriatric bulldog, and this is where I really notice the difference. In 1995, I only had myself to worry about – and even then, health and safety were not at the top of the list. It was an endless round of parties; impassioned theological discussions in dingy bars; cramming through the night before a final exam; forgetting to eat, then eating Rice Crispies for a week to save up beer money; thinking I knew the answer to everything and that the world was waiting for me to make an impact; and experimenting with every fashion trend from Goth to Grunge. Don’t tell my old tutors, but some of my best papers were written while drunk or sitting on the steps of the building ten minutes before the submission deadline passed.

Nowadays, I find myself getting up an hour earlier than usual just to get in some study time in the peace and quiet of a sleeping house before the terror of the school run begins. Or elbowing the kids away from gaming time on the computer after I finish work, and having to wipe jam and sticky fingerprints off the mousepad before I can start.

But the biggest change for me has been trying to remind my brain how to think again after years of housework, monotony and motherhood have beaten it into submission. When I stared at the blank screen contemplating my first assignment last week, I had a moment of sheer panic that I wouldn’t have anything valuable to say, and that I was a fool to think I could do this again after nearly 20 years, but a stern talking to myself (and an entire bar of Galaxy) and I ended up surprising myself. Once the gates had very slowly creaked open, I found that I had too much to say and actually got a bit carried away. And I loved it!

To celebrate, I spent the rest of the afternoon nostalgically lounging in tracksuit bottoms, eating Rice Crispies and rereading Thomas Hardy novels (until the school run rolled around again, of course).

(And if my daughters ever read this, university is not all fun and parties; studying is a serious business… cough… cough…)

A Fine Line Between Laughing and Crying

Last week, my 89-year-old nana passed away and her funeral was held in her hometown of Cramlington in Newcastle, which presented me with a number of challenges (what do I wear? Smart or casual? High heels or mid?), not least having to meet up with my extended family.

On Monday, the family gathered at my aunt’s house, drinking copious amounts of tea and eating chocolate digestives while we watched the clock tick slowly towards the hour of my nana’s small funeral service. To pass the time, we chatted about our memories of her and laughed at old anecdotes of some of the things she would get up to, such as refusing to eat pasta as she considered it to be “foreign food” and her penchant for a gin with just a splash of tonic at the end of the day.

We also reminisced about my grandfather’s funeral six years ago after he died suddenly. My parents’ best friends came to show their support that day and all I can remember about what was a very sad day was looking up to see them standing outside the chapel, wearing brightly coloured Bermuda shorts and neon Crocs on their feet as they were on holiday and had no other clothes to wear. It was so inappropriate that I couldn’t help but laugh until tears (whether from mirth or sorrow) were rolling down my cheeks.

My mum went on to tell us about choosing a simple nightdress for my nana to be cremated in rather than an outfit as such, and without thinking, I replied, “Probably for the best as anything polyester is going to burn really quickly.”

Once it was out there, there was no taking it back. An awkward silence ensued, following by a snort from my mother as she collapsed in a heap of giggles.

It then became something of a free for all, almost like a release valve on a pressure cooker. At one stage, my mother was complaining that she only had a pair of wool trousers to wear and that the day was very warm and she would be too hot in her outfit, to which my aunt replied that she should change as “crematoriums are always hot”. Cue more guffaws and snorts.

It’s not that we are callous and unfeeling; rather, humour is my family’s way of dealing with any stressful situation, with the most overused phrase being, “Well, you’ve got to laugh!” However, once we arrived at the chapel and got down to business, the mirth evaporated, and we respectfully remembered and said goodbye to a formidable, stubborn, fun-loving woman who has left an indelible imprint on our family.

But I would like to think that my nana was looking down on me and laughing just as much as I was at my numerous faux-pas because, whatever else she may have been, she certainly loved a laugh.

Working Girl

I admit I have neglected my blog of late, and I would love to say it is because I have been on a whirlwind of excitement, immersed in a new project that makes me bound out of bed every day… Alas, no.

My three-day job as an editor recently became a five-day post and I suddenly find myself a full-time working mum for the first time since I had my youngest daughter in 2003 (yes, my oldest spent most of her infancy in childcare while I was still under the illusion that I could have a career and be a contented mother – but that’s a story for another blog post).

And I have to admit it, the transition has been very difficult. I was under the impression (supported by other people) that I used to do very little on my two days off a week – maybe a little laundry, some shopping, meeting friends for coffee… But now that I no longer have those days, I realise just how much I actually used to achieve.

At the moment I have five days of juggling the morning school run, starting work, household admin and grocery shopping in my very short lunch hour, more work, interspersed with various trips to school to pick up various children and deliver them to extracurricular activities, as well as a fair number of muted conference call meetings on my mobile in the school playground, cooking a number of meals depending on whether OH is home or not, cleaning bath crayon graffiti off the bathroom tiles, fitting in a run or a trip to the gym in order to maintain some semblance of sanity, logging onto the network in the dead of night to catch up on something I missed while on the school run, and holding sensible conversations with colleagues, friends, my husband….. It goes on.

I look at my friends and we are all in a similar boat in that on top of trying to remain active and viable in the workplace, we have the added pressures of having to remember that it is Victorian Dress-Up Day and child #1 needs a themed lunchbox; child #2 has a friend coming for tea who doesn’t eat cheese, meat or fish; homework needs to be supervised; child #2 spilt ice lolly down her ballet leotard and will have to have it washed before her next lesson; both have a number of birthday parties that require suitably educational yet fun presents – all of this is what my two days off were for!

Having said all that, would I have it any other way? Probably not. I took time off for maternity leave with each of my children and was a vacant, blubbering mess by the end of it, with OH begging me to return to work for his and my sanity. The good news is my current work-life balance will resume in August when the project I am working on concludes and I can return to my happy, balanced, three working days a week. As they say, everything in moderation – even work if you are lucky enough.

In the meantime, I have learnt some valuable life lessons during this hectic period: eating Haribo for breakfast because you don’t have time for anything else will lead to a stomach ache; always check you are not wearing your slippers before you leave the house; sprinkling magic calming dust over yourself, closing your eyes and counting to 10 really does help to calm you down when in a full-blown rant (courtesy of my 9 year old); and never trust the mute button on a mobile phone.


Notes from my Bookshelf #4: “Just What Kind of Mother Are you”

I often wonder what people think when they see me on the school run. Some friends say I look calm, unfazed and in control (give me a minute while I laugh hysterically that idea); others have commented that I don’t smile enough (whatever that means). Only I know the truth: that sometimes it feels like I am juggling so many balls in the air that it is inevitable that one will fall, bringing the rest down with it.

When faced with remembering all of the kit that extracurricular activities require, lunch bags, play dates, meetings at work, feeding the dog, cleaning the house, paying bills – the list seems endless – I sometimes think back to my carefree, independent twenty-something years with a pang of envy. All I had to worry about then was which pub I would meet my friends in that night.

I know I am not alone in feeling overwhelmed and out of my depth sometimes. I have discussed this with my friends and we all feel relief when we hear that we are on common ground and floundering, but trying to do our best. When I am at my lowest – usually experiencing a bout of guilt over something I have not done effectively or a situation I have not handled well – I remind myself that my children are happy, always laughing and full of fun, so I can’t be doing too much wrong.

This is why Paula Daly’s debut novel, “Just What Kind of Mother Are You”, struck such a chord with me. Lisa Kallisto is just like me: a working mum juggling a job, the house and a husband, and trying to raise well-rounded and balanced children. One day the unthinkable happens and one of her juggling balls falls. When her daughter stays home from school ill, Lisa forgets to collect her daughter’s friend, Lucinda, from school and Lucinda goes missing.

Lisa’s feelings of guilt, fear and self-loathing are brilliantly conveyed through the narrative as family secrets are revealed and a friendship is put to the ultimate test. The story grips you from the start to the twist at the end, and is unputdownable.

So if you can find some time in the chaos to put your feet up and grab a cuppa, give this one a read. It will be time much better spent than on ironing, promise.