Book review – Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I realised this week when reading the amazing Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, that the thing that makes a book work is identifying with the characters. You need to finish the book bereft at the ending, no matter how perfect it might be (and the ending, incidentally, is catch-in-the-throat perfect). Fangirl is a breathtaking, brittle, funny, touching, clever book. Rainbow Rowell has created a protagonist in the spiky, private, anxiety ridden Cath who is almost too painful to read to begin with. I found, reading the first few chapters, that she reminded me so much of my late teenage self that it was quite uncomfortable reading – I wanted to swoop in and mother her, tell her it’ll all be okay in the end.

fangirl by rainbow rowell

I keep starting sentences then realising if I do, I’ll spoil the story. But the plots, the subplots – they’re so beautifully woven together that I lost track of time reading this book on the train and almost missed my station. Rainbow Rowell’s descriptions of the physical sensations of falling in love, the minute details of skin and breath on hair are just so real that you half expect to turn around and feel the characters have come to life, that you’re Cath and you’ve been consumed with passion and fear of the unknown.

There’s humour, too – in the beautifully drawn relationship between the twin sisters, in Cath’s roommate Reagan – who is sharp and funny, but so much more than the cardboard cutout you might imagine she could be. Rowell’s characterisation is so beautifully drawn that there isn’t one character who doesn’t feel ready to walk straight off the page. This is a read-again book. I can’t stop recommending it to everyone.

the a to z of me

A – The Archers. I once tweeted something during a particularly exciting episode and it ended up in The Guardian, alongside Stephen Fry (it was Nigel’s death, for those of you who like that sort of thing).

B – Bo’ness. I went to school in a little mining town on the Firth of Forth, not far from Edinburgh. When I was eleven, inspired by my utterly wonderful teacher Miss O’Donnell (“Hello class, I’m Catriona O’Donnell, and I come from Tennessee” – it was miraculous, to a class of small town children from Scotland) I wrote a story called Why Bo’ness Was Built on a Hill and it made the front page of the local paper. She was the first teacher to believe in my writing, and I would love to find her and say thank you.

C – Cats. We have two and a half. Bella is typically Bengal in nature and will help herself to food, even if it means tearing open the bag with her teeth. She never shuts up, and she likes to perch on the side of the bath whilst I’m in there. Ciara Nightly came to us as an adult. She likes to sleep all day and patrol the children’s bedrooms by night. Her brother Paddy moved in with us last year, stayed a few weeks, then decided he liked the house three doors down far better. When we meet in the street now we have a very British exchange, whereby he greets us with affection and a slight look of embarrassment.

D – Doctor Who. Huge, ridiculous, complete obsession. It started in childhood when I was utterly in love with Peter Davidson’s Doctor, a love which had begun with my raging crush on Tristan Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small. It carried on, nerdy, and then when the new series began with Christopher Eccleston as nine, I was in heaven.

E – Edith Wharton, one of my favourite authors. Her characterisation is so quietly beautiful, especially in Ethan Frome and Summer.

F – I swear. A lot. It’s being Scottish.

G – Ghosts. I’ve seen more than one.

H – Horses. I was born mad about horses – my mum has no idea where the obsession came from. Favourite pony stories are the Jinny of Finmory books by Patricia Leitch.

I – I can’t think of an I thing. Except igloos and iguanas. I don’t like ice cream.

J – I went through a huge Joni Mitchell phase as a late teenager. Just writing that has made me want to disappear off and find some on Spotify and have a listen.

K – I resisted buying a Kindle until very recently. Whilst I discovered they are amazing for holidays (I read almost 20 books on our child free trip to Turkey) I have found that I don’t recall the stories afterwards. There’s something about a proper book that can’t be replaced.

L – Libraries. They are so, so important. We have the fabulous Atkinson only five minutes from our house and it makes me so happy to see my children disappearing off with their library cards and coming home with their arms full of books.

M – Meditation. I’m almost finished my meditation teacher training and I love it. Even in the midst of all the chaos, I’m finding that there’s still a reserve of peace within me which is hugely comforting. I think I’m addicted.

N – Notes. Constantly scribbled on my hand, in biro. Not very sophisticated but it’s the only way I remember to do everything.

O – Online. It’s a bit addictive, the internet, for a nosey person like me. I spend an awful lot of time looking at stuff and not doing what I’m meant to do, which has led me to

P – Procrastination. Or rather anti-procrastination techniques. I find almost anything becomes enthralling when the alternative is writing. I love writing, but the actual getting-started process is really difficult for me. I end up cleaning the whole house, decluttering cupboards, and finding urgent shopping missions. Then I get started and find it really hard to stop. There’s a balance, somewhere. I hope I’ll find it eventually.

Q – Quite tricky to think of a thing that starts with Q, isn’t it? I can’t stand Queen. There you are.

R – Roller derby. I hadn’t skated for 25 years when I joined the Liverpool Roller Birds at the beginning of this year. It came back to me almost straight away and I loved it with a mad passion. Then I fell over (I wasn’t even skating, I just turned around and lost my footing) and badly broke my ankle. Now I am a massive supporter of my team, but I’m staying off skates for now…

S – Scotland. Home. My family come from Orkney, and from the Highlands. I went to school in quite a few places, but as soon as I arrive back in Inverness, I’m home.

T – Twitter. I love it for answers, advice, inspiration, gossip, news – everything, really. You can find me here, probably either grumbling about the children getting up too early, or ranting about politics whilst listening to Radio 4, or chatting whilst I lie in the bath.

U – Underwater. I am part-dolphin, I swear. I spend far too long in the bath, love swimming, and when I go on holiday I spend most of my time in the sea, floating on my back and watching the sky.

V – We live in a gorgeous, rambling, semi-detached Victorian house in a seaside town. I always dreamed of living in a Victorian house, and this one (complete with friendly little girl ghost) is perfect for our family.

W – Winter is my favourite season (in winter). Actually, I love them all. I love living in a country where we have defined seasons. Much as the sunshine of California would be nice, I’d miss the rain and the snow and the wind.

X – I am NOT a game player. We have an Xbox (see what I did there?) but I genuinely don’t have a gaming bone in me. Lucky, really, because the rest of the house seems to be obsessed with Minecraft and Skyrim.

Y – Yoga. I’m hypermobile. This means I can do lots of bendy yoga stuff without having worked hard at it, which is a bit cheaty. And I can touch my nose with my tongue (but they never asked us to do that in yoga class, mind you).

Z – Zoe. My sister, my best friend.

Immune Boosting Chicken Soup Recipe

 

I’m writing this chicken soup recipe from bed. Earlier this week I was clobbered on the head with what-I-thought-was-a-cold but which I’m realising, as I reach the third day of feeling like death, is possibly The F Word.

Apparently the secret to boosting your immune system is chicken soup (it’s not just a myth). So, I made up a recipe full of things that are supposed to make your immune system better. It’s super-easy (because I made it whilst feeling utterly dreadful) and the ingredients need hardly any preparation (see above).

The amazing immune boosting chicken soup recipe…

You’ll need the following:

(and a big soup pot)

One free range chicken
Two onions (roughly chopped)
A bulb of garlic (the whole thing, peeled)
Five stalks of celery (chopped)
Four large leeks (sliced)
Six big carrots (peeled and sliced)
Four parsnips (peeled and sliced)
A couple of big handfuls of Charlotte potatoes (chop these in half, leave skin on)
A lemon*
A red chilli (careful with your eyes, no rubbing)
A handful of fresh parsley
Marigold vegetable bouillon (other stock is available, but it’s what I always use)

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Plonk the whole chicken in the stock pot with a good sprinkling of salt and black pepper, 3 tsp of the Marigold stock, and then cover with water. Being it to the boil and fast boil it for ten minutes. Meanwhile, squeeze the *lemon and drink it with some honey and hot water. Listen to Radio 4 and mope a bit. Bring the chicken down to a simmer and skim off any foam that has formed and bin it.

Add the garlic (all of it) and the lemon skins, a couple of the celery sticks (just broken in half will do and you can add the frondy bits, too, to add more flavour) and a decent sized chunk or two of the chilli (all the above are immune boosters and help fight off horrible colds and things) and a big handful of parsley, stalks and all. Simmer the chicken for an hour and a half or so until it’s cooked. Meanwhile, prepare the other veg.

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With everything chopped and ready, you’ve done the hard bit.

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Hoick out the chicken, giving it a second to drip or there’ll be mess everywhere and when you’re feeling grim, that’s the last thing you need.

Skin off (the chicken, not you) and remove all the meat. Put the bones back into the stock and simmer for another two hours, or more. Once the chicken meat is cool, stick it in the fridge for later. Try not to eat it all (it’s gorgeously plump and yum, mind you).

Once you’ve let it simmer, strain the stock through a colander and into another big pot with the veg. Purists would say you need to sweat them off in butter first, but I didn’t and it still tastes lovely. Cook on a medium heat for as long as it takes for the veg to be tender – 20/25 minutes should do it. Add the cooked chicken pieces after ten minutes. Sprinkle with some more chopped fresh parsley (it’s really good for the immune system) and serve with a warm blanket and something comforting on the radio.

If you’ve got fussy children who don’t like lumps of stuff in their soup, you can whizz this and even my fussiest child loves it with crusty bread and butter.

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And there you are. Immune boosting chicken soup which should work like magic, and if it doesn’t, at least it tastes lovely.

(Photos taken with phone whilst feeling tragic, so apologies if they’re a bit rubbish. You get the idea.)

Link up your recipe of the week

The one where I sign a book deal

When I was eleven I wrote a pony book.

I wrote it in lined jotters, then typed it up, double spaced and splodged with Tippex, and sent it to Pan books, who published all my favourite pony stories. I got a very kind rejection back, asking me to keep on writing.

Life got in the way for a while, but in 2010 I started writing a story about a girl who moved to a Scottish island, and I filled it with dogs and horses and hot chocolate and wine in the bath and all the things I liked.

And this time, Caroline Hogg at Pan Macmillan liked it, so yesterday I went with my lovely agent Amanda Preston and signed a deal to write three more books. Sealed with a Kiss will be in the shops in May 2014, with a Christmas e-novella sequel to follow, and then another two full length books to come.

(yippee!)

Tintagel Old Post Office

We visited Tintagel a couple of times whilst we were in Cornwall. The first time has passed into family legend as ‘the day Mummy made us eat outside to admire Tintagel Castle and it was so windy that Archie’s chips blew off his plate’.

Cliffs, wild wind and small children aren’t a great combination if you’re hopeless with heights (which I am). Anyway, it’s been added to the collection of family tales, alongside other gems like ‘the time we went on the London Eye and Mummy was so terrified she had to cling, weeping, to the chair in the middle of the viewing pod whilst the children patted her in a soothing manner’.

We visited Tintagel Old Post Office because I like taking my grumpy teenager and three rampageous boys into small, delicate spaces full of incredibly precious antiques and hissing “DON’T TOUCH” and “Get OFF” in an increasingly frantic manner.

If you can look at these photographs and admire their beauty, that would be nice. Try not to imagine the stress I was under at the time, and we can all pretend that it was a relaxing visit to a house which was quite utterly beautiful.

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tintagel old post office

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a chat with bestselling author Jane Green

To kick off my brand new blog I’ve got something rather lovely for you all…

An interview with none other than the astoundingly successful and very lovely Jane Green. She has a blended family of six children, just like me – but she’s a New York Times bestselling author with an astounding back catalogue of fantastically funny, clever, touching novels and I’m not (yet!). As the summer holidays begin and I try and work out how to finish book 2, which is currently sitting crossly on my MacBook waiting for some attention, I grabbed some time to comparing notes with Jane on writing through the chaos of family life. Her new deal with Pan Mac is fab news for Jane Green fans – two books a year! – but it’s a pretty big commitment, time wise. Jane lets us in on how she does it below…

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Me: You’ve just signed with Pan Mac in a deal which will see two books a year from you – great news for us as readers, but an awe-inspiring workload for you. Will you have to change your regular work-in-the-morning routine, or are you able to carry on being around in mom-mode at the end of the school day?

Jane: I’m definitely able to carry on being mom from around 2pm onwards, but I do write differently now. I used to write in two-week spurts, then have a couple of weeks off which often…stretched. Now I write every day, rain or shine, and I also go off to a self-imposed writing retreat a couple of times a year. I stay at little inns, or at a friends house in New Hampshire, and spend five days immersing myself completely in my writing. I am thinking of buying a little cabin somewhere next year that I can rent out in the summer, and use the rest of the year as my own retreat.

Me: As a fellow mother of four, stepmother of two in a blended family, I find it really hard sometimes to get myself back into the real world if I’m writing. Do you find it hard to make the switch out of your writing head, particularly if you’re wrestling with a difficult chapter, or have you learned to switch focus?

Jane: I have become the queen of compartmentalizing. Once I shut the computer, it’s done, although the characters and storylines creep back when I’m driving, or lying in bed at night.

Me: You’re friends with Martha Stewart, who is a real favourite of lots of my blog readers – I love her drive and her sense of humour. She has a very specific approach to Twitter – a few minutes a day, no getting caught up in replies – which I would dearly love to emulate but I am a raging procrastinator. How do you balance your online time, as a fellow blogger? When you’re out of writing mode, do you stay offline?

Jane: Sadly my addiction to the web is the worst kind of addiction for a writer. I was hugely caught up in twitter and facebook, but do less and less these days. I try and update a few times a week, but there are limits to what I am physically able to do: write two books a year, go on book tour, be a wife, mother, run a household, and live enough of a life in order to have something to write about!

Me: You don’t get much time to switch off in a family of eight. What’s your sanity-saving relaxation? I tend to hide in the bath with a large glass of wine.

Jane: I hide in bed with a book, or take the dog to the beach, or run to a friends house for a big cup of tea!

Me: And finally… have you ever considered doing a JK Rowling and writing something entirely different under a pseudonym?

Jane: Yes, but I’d be terrified no-one would buy it – publishing is becoming harder and harder, and the market, particularly with self-publishing, is flooded. How a new writer gets attention these days is beyond me – I would be absolutely terrified!

Thanks to Jane for taking the time – in the summer holidays, with children rampaging – to have a quick chat. There’ll be more five minute author chats coming up soon – if you have any you’d like me to interview, or if you’d like to be features, give me a shout!


“Emma Lee Potter: “Reminded me a bit of Jilly Cooper’s brilliant first novel, Emily… and in my book you can’t get higher praise than that.”
Sealed with a Kiss is “the perfect summer read” for your Kindle – available now! Buy here from Amazon UK or buy here from Amazon.com. Join over 130,000 readers!

30 Things I Do Instead of Writing

1. Wash the breakfast dishes and realise the kitchen windows are dirty
2. Clean kitchen windows
3. Check Twitter. Tweet about plans to spend all day writing furiously
4. Take photograph of desk which looks lovely and writerly
5. Write blog post about said desk for author blog because author blog is very important
6. Check Facebook
7. Read other writers’ blogs about not writing
8. Open Scrivener and reward self with check of Twitter
9. Notice plants are dying. Water plants
10. Realise it’s lunchtime. Make lunch and declare it’s lunchtime and feel justified in doing nothing
11. Just quickly listen to the Archers, because it’s only fifteen minutes long
12. Pick up long-abandoned crochet blanket project and realise NOW is the time
13. Start clearing out email inbox of doom which has been ignored for months
14. Just make another cup of coffee first
15. Check Twitter. Discuss not writing with other writers
16. Read newspaper online (that’s research, you know)
17. Check Amazon chart placing of current book
18. Check Amazon stats to see how many copies have been sold
19. Download The Best Ever Secret Guide To Being a Really Productive Writer
20. Realise you don’t have the software to read it
21. Sign up and install new software
22. Make more coffee
23. Quickly check Facebook, just because it’s important to have your author platform vibrant and active
24. And er Twitter, just in case something has happened. It’s RESEARCH
25. Turn off notifications on laptop to avoid being distracted by Facebook and Twitter
26. Go onto Facebook to announce I’ve discovered how to do the above
27. Talk several other procrastinating writer friends through same
28. Realise it’s 45 minutes until school run time
29. Start writing, get hit with GIANT FLASH OF INSPIRATION
30. Leave, muttering darkly about not having time to write, for school run

how to make sloe gin

It’s autumn, and I’m thinking about sloe gin and sparkly lights and candles and crochet blankets. For those of you wanting to know how to make sloe gin, here’s a recipe.

Having left it until later this year, the sloes are softer, darker, and they’ve lost their bloom. I’ve always picked them in September, and plonked them in the freezer overnight, because the traditional sloe gin recipe states that you shouldn’t pick them until after the first frost. However, I think the first frost must’ve been earlier than it is nowadays, because the sloes have undergone a transformation and their bitter, dusty taste has been replaced with that of a very tart plum. It’ll be interesting to see how that affects the sloe gin.

The first thing you need to make sloe gin is – you guessed it – sloes. They grow on the blackthorn bush, and look like tiny little plums, blue-black with a slight whitish bloom. The blackthorn has quite sharp thorns, so be prepared when you’re picking to come home a bit sore. You might also come across a bush with bigger, slightly less tart fruit – these are bullaces. These won’t give quite the same almondy taste to the gin, but they’ll work as a substitute.

Back in August I was featured in Woman & Home magazine talking about picking sloes, and how the annual ritual of making sloe gin marked the beginning of autumn, my favourite season. Yesterday afternoon we got soaking wet, had a lovely time, came home and curled
up in the sitting room with hot chocolate and watched a film.

Sloe Gin Recipe:

Go and have a look in the hedgerows and you’re sure to find some sloes. Don’t forget a bag. If you’re like me, you’ll forget, and have to take them home in a dog poo bag.
This will earn you strange looks from passing walkers.

how to make sloe gin

All you need for home made sloe gin is a jar, a bottle of gin, a pound (450g) of sloes and 100g of sugar.
Sterilise the jar by washing it in hot soapy water and then rinsing with lots of boiling water.
Plonk the washed sloes in the jar, and add the sugar and gin.
Put it in a dark place, and give it a swirl once a week from now ’til Christmas
Strain it into a bottle, and drink.
It’s that simple.
This year I’ve experimented by using vanilla sugar (caster sugar I keep in a jar with vanilla pods) and I’ve added a vanilla pod to the sloe gin mixture, too.
This may be delicious.
It may be disgusting.
Reports to follow in December.

how to make sloe gin

This is my entry to lovely English Mum’s Great Big Autumn Bakeoff.
It’s not baking, but I’m hoping that a recipe for sloe gin means she’ll let me off!

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The final result: this is the 2010 vintage, sloe gin made with vanilla. Two years on its absolutely delicious: warm and mellow and just what you need on a winter evening. Happy sloe-picking!