Have you read…? Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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Oh my! What a gem this book is! Beautifully realised characters each with their own distinct voice, astute observations on society and the human condition all wrapped up in an original narrative that avoids resorting to well-worn tropes. I had no idea how this novel was going to end – in a good way! I am hesitant to be too specific about what takes place because if you haven’t read it, I want you to be able to sit back and allow Eleanor’s life to unfold as you turn each page. If you have read it, then we can nod knowingly at each other, observing ‘wasn’t it lovely when […]?’, ‘wasn’t it moving when […]?, ‘how funny was it when […]?’ So here comes a very broad, non-specific review!

Eleanor Oliphant is in her early thirties, lives alone in Glasgow, and is completely fine. She has a flat, an office job, she is clean, she has food. She fills her leisure time reading, listening to the radio, buying provisions at Tesco and drinking vodka. She has a very distinct turn of phrase and manner of conversation! We are made aware that Eleanor has suffered significant traumatic events in her life which have inevitably shaped her, and these are revealed in a very organic and natural way. Eleanor’s solitary existence is disturbed when Raymond, the IT guy at work, becomes present in her life. And I want to leave it at that! What I will say is that this novel explores the power both kindness and cruelty have to shape our lives, what it is to be alone and lonely, that our lives can be enriched in ways we may not have been aware they could be, and how we can transform our lives when the right circumstances arise.

As I approached the final pages, I was in a quandary – I wanted to keep reading to know how it would end but did not want the joy of reading this book to be over. Now that it is, I am keen to re-read it, pencil in hand, and to underline the observations Honeyman has made about our society, and to highlight the expertly crafted sentences. A fabulous read. Cannot recommend it highly enough.

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Taking Stock: July ‘18 Port Fairy edition

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Hey gang! How are things? My man and I have headed to the coast for a short winter break. I love the beach at winter. The grey skies, the rolling waves, the bracing air. Blows the cobwebs away! We haven’t been to Port Fairy for years – it is a bit of a hike from Melbourne! It’s been nice to reacquaint ourselves with this quiet little town. And it’s been nice to have some time together! An interruption to the normal daily routine is the perfect time to take stock.

Making: nothing at the moment! There’s weavings at home but this week has been a ‘make free’ time for me.

Cooking: very little. Whatever is easy in our little kitchen.

Drinking: tea, coffee, cocktails!

Eating: a delicious dinner at the Merrijig Inn and yummy pizza at Coffin Sally

Reading: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine which I am LOVING! Have you read it?

Watching: Shetland season 4. We could almost see ourselves there as we gazed out at our own stormy seas and overcast sky!

Buying: coffees, magazines (an essential part of any holiday, I feel) and A Forger’s Tale

Opening: magazines for weaving inspiration.

Taking: lots of photos.

Hearing: waves, wind

Looking: at clouds, swaying grasses, sea foam

Noticing: birds are so much more interesting when you head out of the city. We’ve acquainted ourselves with the hooded plover and the pie eyed oystercatcher which my man remembered from his childhood stamp collection! Maybe we’ll become twitchers!

Pondering: the meaning of life! Breaks away always provide the space for some introspection! What brings us fulfilment? How to achieve work-life balance? What new routines could bring greater joy to life? How do we venture into a new stage of life? Not sure if we came up with answers but useful to contemplate!

Enjoying: sleep ins in a comfy bed! I find it difficult to come across a comfy bed in holiday accommodation. I often find them too soft and end up with a sore back. This one is a goody!

Wondering: why bathrooms in holiday accommodation are always so poorly lit and exhaust fans do such an ineffective job at steam extraction.

Thinking: it might be time for another cup of tea

Liking: regional holidays. There’s something very comforting about holidaying locally. It’s like pulling on a pair of comfy slippers. Not a lot of research is needed to plan the holiday nor is there the compulsion to see certain sights. There’s no anxiety about how to get from A to B, eating out customs don’t need to be understood. It’s just chill. And a reminder that there are some lovely places to see not far from home.

I hope your July has been a happy one. Maybe you are back from a break away? Or heading to one soon? Perhaps you’d like to head over to Pip’s blog and see what’s been happening to her in July!

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Have you read…? The Nowhere Child by Christian White

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I have been in a reading slump this year. Yep, I have! Not sure if it’s been me or the books. I’ve kept turning pages, but I feel like I have been DRAGGING myself through them, and by the time I’ve reached the end, the idea of writing a review has been ‘meh’! I have just finished Christian White’s debut novel, The Nowhere Child, and I think I can manage to put together some thoughts on this one!

The Nowhere Child won last year’s Victorian Premier’s Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript under the title Decay Theory. I’ve enjoyed reading previous winners’ works, such as The DryForeign Soil and Australia Day, so I was keen to give White’s novel a go.

In 1990, two year old Sammy Went disappears from her home in Manson, Kentucky. Twenty five years later, Kim Leamy, a photography teacher in Melbourne, Australia, is approached by a stranger who tells her that he believes she is Sammy Went. That Sammy and Kim are the same person is settled within the first few chapters – a little too readily perhaps? – and the remainder of the novel is concerned with how Sammy’s disappearance from Manson, and reappearance in Melbourne, came about. Was this a random child abduction? Did it have something to do with the religious cult Sammy’s birth mother was part of? How could Kim reconcile her Australian mother, now deceased, with being an international child abductor?  The need to find out these answers made this book an engaging read. But whilst these questions did keep me turning the pages, the writing, for me, was a bit of a let down.

White follows a non-linear structure with chapters alternating between ‘then’ and ‘now’. Sometimes I find this can be frustrating if a chapter is beginning to build momentum and the time frame then shifts, but for the most part, White manages to avoid this by bringing each chapter to a satisfying conclusion. Nevertheless, towards the end of the novel, three chapters in a row concluded with a ‘and then everything turned to black’ scenario which was perhaps a little too convenient. In addition, some of White’s writing fell short with his tendency to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’. Kim’s first in depth conversation with her birth sister, Emma, for example:

It turned out Emma and I had a lot in common: we both hated it when people cracked their knuckles, had a strong aversion to feet and enjoyed Gillian Flynn novels. And we both got tattoos when we were younger that we regretted.

Some dialogue could have been used to make this point. As it is written, it lacks a deft touch. Similarly, in the final pages, when Kim is returning to Melbourne:

As the 787 descended over Melbourne, I looked out over the city. It was flat and grey, familiar yet somehow different.

This place hasn’t changed, I decided. But the woman coming back here has.

A bit clichéd?

Chopping sentences here or there, trusting that the reader would fill in the blanks, would, for me, have resulted in a more polished novel. White didn’t need to tell me, for example, that Emma was stepping inside a house when I’d already been shown that the door was opened to her and her friend, Shelley. A tendency to repeat phrases or descriptions, for me, came across as either loose writing or editing – the ‘creaking’ of the Eckles’s gate and the use of  rope for a makeshift latch didn’t need to be mentioned multiple times, for example, or ‘back in Australia’ twice in a paragraph. And horror of horrors, a minor character’s name changed between paragraphs! Eek!

There was a twist at the end which I was not expecting but aspects to the way the novel wrapped up came across as a little cute. Some dialogue in the final pages rather than the expository style used would have lifted the writing.

Maybe I am being too critical? I suppose it’s because the writing fell a short of previous winners’ books. My expectations were high. White says in his author’s note, he’s ‘only just getting started’ so perhaps I should be a bit more forgiving. As an easy to read, entertaining story, I’d give it a tick. I hope he can come up with another cracking idea and polish the writing a little more so that his next novel is truly satisfying.

Have you read this book? What did you think?

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Have you read…? This new Australian fiction

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Gosh, it’s been a while since a book post made it to the blog! The last one was focussed on some US titles so this time around – and thanks to my Melbourne Writers Festival book discount – I thought I’d go for some of our home grown authors!

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose Set in New York, Heather Rose was awarded this year’s Stella Prize for her novel about art and love. Centred by the work of performance artist, Marina Ambromović and her work,  The Artist is Present which was staged in 2010 at MoMA, it tells the story of a number of visitors who come to the gallery to view her work, in addition to giving voice to Marina’s own thoughts about her work and her history. The gallery visitor whose storyline we are most concerned with is Arky Levin. Arky is a film composer and lives alone as his wife, who is ill, has requested he no longer see her. During one of his visits he strikes up a conversation with Jane Miller, an art teacher who is recently widowed, and is visiting from Georgia. Other gallery visitors with whom Arky and Jane cross paths are a doctoral student, a sometime-lover of Arky’s, and an art critic. We also hear the voice from the grave of Marina’s mother. Whilst the novel could be read through the lens of ‘what is art?’ given the quite confronting pieces of performance art Ambromović has created, for me, the novel was much more about love, grief and endurance. How could Arky endure the loss of his relationship with his wife whilst she was still living, still his wife? How could Jane come to terms with the loss of her husband and move on into a world with her own identity? How did Ambromović’s parents survive war and each other? How did Ambromović endure the demands her work placed upon her, physically, and the loss of her own relationship? I wanted to love this novel, and whilst it was beautifully written and the premise was interesting, it fell a little bit short of ‘five stars’ for me. Perhaps there were a few too many characters. I enjoyed Arky’s story, and Jane’s, but I didn’t feel a great deal of affection, or interest, in the storyline of the other characters. And if I can be a bit nit-picky, I had to remind myself on a few occasions that this book was set in New York, and the characters were American. If I think back to the session at the Melbourne Writers Festival where Hannah Kent and Tracy Chevalier spoke about how they set about writing in the voice of a place and time, for me, Rose fell short. There were references to streets in Harlem that don’t exist, Americans wouldn’t offer to give their ‘mobile’ phone number, talk about ‘shareholders’, or ‘primary’ school,  and Jane’s voice failed to sing with a southern twang. The book may have been set in New York, but I didn’t entirely feel like I was there. So, verdict? It was interesting, and well-written but I enjoyed previous Stella winners, The Natural Way of Things and The Strays more.

The Choke by Sofie Laguna This one I loved wholeheartedly! Nine-year-old Justine lives with her grandfather, a survivor of the Thai-Burma railway, on three acres near the banks of the Murray River. Her mother is no longer on the scene and her father comes and goes. Her two half-brothers live with their mother nearby. Justine has few allies in her life, and those she does have – her Aunty Rita, her friend, Michael, and a teacher, Miss Frost – lack permanence. As in her previous novel, The Eye of the Sheep, Laguna explores themes of violence, misogyny, and the innocence and incomprehension of the child. There is a lot happening in this novel, and Laguna captures beautifully how Justine, who is dyslexic, senses that there is more to her family’s life than she can understand. Justine says ,”I knew shadows of things; I could see the letters but I didn’t know the order. I stole a look at Dad’s face as he drove; it was a door that wouldn’t open.” Swirling in Justine’s shadows are the circumstances of her grandmother’s death and how it changed her father; the darkness of his behaviour and activities; the scars her pop carries with him from his time in the war; why her pop shuns her Aunty Rita for being “unnatural”; and the consequences of her association with a local family, the Worlleys, with whom her own family has fallen out. She desperately needs someone to care for her, and that someone is just not there. As her ignorance determined her fate, my heart ached for her, and as she learned to stand up for herself, I cheered for her. A highly recommended read.

Ache by Eliza Henry Jones I first came across Henry Jones’ s work in an article she wrote for The Sunday Age. I can’t recall what it was about but I remember I enjoyed her writing and so was keen to read this, her new novel. Bushfires have raged through the mountains where Annie grew up. At the time of the fires, Annie was visiting home with her daughter, Pip, and became ‘the face’ of the fires as a photograph of her and Pip felling the fires on horseback was plastered across the media. In addition, her beloved nana, Gladys, died in the fires, although not as a result of the fires but because she was crushed by a falling tree. Annie and Pip are both scarred by the fires, as are all members of the Quilly community, and in an effort to heal, Annie decides that she and Pip must return to the mountain from their suburban home. In doing so, Annie is faced with issues of belonging. Does she belong “to a place, or a person”, as her friend, Rose, articulates. Does she belong on the mountain, or with her husband, Tom, in their city home? Mother-daughter relationships are also explored as she returns to stay with her mother, Susan, who is almost Annie’s contemporary, having given birth to her at the age of fifteen, and as she reflects on the relationship she and her mother both had with Gladys, and Susan’s relationship with Pip. Henry Jones is a grief counsellor and so I trust her portrayals of the grief and trauma displayed by her characters. Aside from that, I wasn’t completely sold on this book. For me, I found the writing to be a little forced: the many references to “up the mountain’, “back on the mountain”, “down the mountain”; the “small circles” of city life compared with the “big circles’ of mountain life; broken people living in a “broken house”. I felt a little “yep, I get it!” I was also perplexed as to why Annie had left “the mountain” when it was clear that this was the environment she loved to live in, and, as a vet, work in? Yes, Tom was from “the flatlands” but how and why had they made the decision to settle there? Perhaps a little exploration of this would have added depth to the “belonging” theme. And, although it was eventually explained, I wasn’t convinced as to why the town displayed such animosity towards Annie? She was a local girl, after all, not a tree changer. I would like to read Henry Jones’s first novel, In the Quiet to see how it compares. If you’d like to read an interview with Henry Jones, pop over to Karen’s blog.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

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Melbourne Writers Festival

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Hey gang! How are you? I’ve just had an excellent week helping out at the Melbourne Writers Festival. How cool is my t-shirt and lanyard? Any fellow Melburnians, did you manage to get along? Are festivals your thing? I’ve been to the MWF the last few years and have heard some wonderfully entertaining and informative chats. When I saw the call for volunteers this year, I thought “why not?”

I had four shifts over the week. Two were full days with kids workshops in the morning and afternoon, one school group workshop, and the other was a session at my local library where Hannah Kent discussed her new book, The Good People. Gosh, she has a lovely speaking voice! It was interesting hearing her speak about her writing process – she writes from 7.30am to 2pm everyday, with defined breaks. She said she started this practice after she read that this was Sarah Waters’s writing routine. She figured that since Sarah was a writer of historical fiction maybe it would work for her too!

The workshops with the kids were great too. One of the nice things about these was that because they were small and pretty informal, we (me and my volunteer buddy for the day) had the chance to have a chat to the authors whilst we were wandering around and helping the kids with the activity.

My first session was with Asphyxia, author and illustrator of The Grimstones, a junior fiction series. She ran a creative art journalling workshop. She brought along some of her journals and, oh my, they were DIVINE! So inspiring! You can get a little taste of them here. The kids were totally focussed on creating their own journals. It was lovely seeing them working away so freely, without anyone judging their work and just embracing their creativity.

Ben McKenzie ran a games workshop based on Dungeons and Dragons. One session was for younger kids where they worked at creating their own story by themselves, or with their parents, and the second session was with older kids who worked in a group creating their game of rescuing their best friend from the monster they had created. Some of their ideas were very inventive.  They had to create an obstacle that needed to be overcome before they could save their friend. One boy’s obstacle was a ‘meme wall’ because encountering the memes would be so distracting it would be impassable!  I heard the same boy, with a big grin on his face, saying to his pal, “Do you think everyone here is a super geek?”!

One of my favourite authors is Maxine Beneba Clarke and I was lucky enough to score a place helping out at her workshop focussed around her new children’s book, The Patchwork Bike. She talked to the kids about how she came up with the idea for the book, how she thought about choosing her words, and how she chose the illustrator of the book, Van T Rudd. Van then helped the kids collage their own patchwork bike using cardboard, scraps of paper and textas. He chatted to the kids about how mistakes can be used to create different ideas and not to be scared of them.

Helping out with with these warmed the cockles of my heart! It was lovely to see the kids exploring their creativity with pens, paper, paints, pencils and words.  And they were all super engaged without a piece of technology in sight!

Alice Pung’s school workshop was at the Immigration Museum and centred around identity. Are you shaped by where you come from? It skewed a little more to the assumptions others make about you because of the way you look, or your ethnicity or religion. She shared stories with the kids about how she has received comments that indicate she is assumed to be a mail order bride when she’s been out with her Caucasian hubby (“How much did she cost?”), and how as a kid she didn’t understand what some boys meant when she was told to ‘go home’ because ‘home’ was the Melbourne suburb of Braybrook, and her house was only thirty metres away! The kids who were attending were from a variety of schools – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Catholic – and they shared some of their stories too. Lots of gasps and laughs as they told their stories.

I think one of my favourite moments was at the free Hannah Kent library session. A lady barrelled in, breathless, “I’ve just flown in from Sydney and my friend told me this session was on. I don’t have a booking but she said I should try and see if there was a space free.” We assured her there was and that she didn’t need to pay any money and her voice raised excitedly in pitch, “It’s free! Oh my goodness! And there’s tea inside!”. She was a joy!

Everyone was so lovely at the festival – the staff, the volunteers and the  patrons (well, there was one grumpy one but think we managed to assuage her!). And the 10% off at the Readings pop up book shop was an added bonus – added The Choke and Ache to my reading pile! I’ll definitely be putting my hand up again next year!

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Have you read…? The year to date in books

It’s been a while since I’ve done a book post so I think it’s time to do a quick round up of what has been sitting next to my bed, my couch, and shoved in my bag and carried around!

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The Book of Hygge by Louisa Thomsen Brits ‘Hygge’, that lovely concept of Danish cosiness, is hot right now, yes? And there are quite A LOT of books in the bookshops explaining to harried souls how they can incorporate hygge into their daily lives. This was the ‘how to hygge’ book that I received in my Christmas pile. It is a lovely looking book. The pics are muted and tranquil and they made me want to spend my days wandering through forests or sitting by candlelight with a mug of hot chocolate. And, to be honest, this is pretty much what the text said – over and over again! There was a lot of ‘hygge is stopping by at your neighbours and sharing a glass of wine on the verandah’,  ‘hygge is a basket of knitted slippers at your front door’, or ‘hygge is lighting a candle and eating breakfast together’. Now I am not averse to any of these suggestions, but I probably only need to hear the suggestion once, not once each chapter.  Reading the book made a long haul plane flight feel a bit more hygge-like, but I’m not sure if I’d been sitting on my couch at home that I would have continued reading it from cover to cover.

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The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North Fairly self-explanatory from the title what this one is about! The story of the wunderkind filmmaker Sophie’s life and death is told by those closest to her – her brother, ex-husband and lover, and those who were part of her working life – film subject, film reviewer and producer. As I read the novel, I was a little unsure how I felt about it. I wondered if I was learning more about the characters who had had relationships with Sophie, than I was about Sophie herself. The focus of their recollections seemed to be how THEY responded to Sophie, how she made THEM feel. But as I read on, I started thinking that in showing how they were affected by Sophie, they were painting a picture of her – a self-contained, distant young woman who was an observer of life (appropriate for a filmmaker!), who,  when she did become a participant, seemed driven by her own desires rather than the desire to share herself with others. For the most part, I found it difficult to warm to her, but Anna North has managed to infuse her with enough victimhood and trauma in her life for her to be seen as a psychologically isolated, tragic young woman. Not sure that I super enjoyed it, but the fact that I am still mulling it over weeks down the track shows it was an affecting read.

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The Dry by Jane Harper This was a goody! Set in the fictitious sunburnt Victorian town of Kiewarra, this thriller seeks to discover who was responsible for the murder of the Hadler family. Is it a murder-suicide, or is there a killer in the small town? Aaron Falk, a former local, now a member of the Federal Police, returns for the funeral of his old friend, Luke Hadler, and is persuaded by Luke’s father to assist in the investigation. Aaron’s return stirs up the town’s emotions surrounding the crircumstances of the death, years earlier, of Ellie Deacon, a friend of Aaron’s and Luke’s. Were they involved in her death? Had Luke killed her? Had Aaron? This novel had sufficient twists and turns to keep me wondering throughout as to what had taken place, and satisfyingly, kept me guessing until the end on both counts. Recommended!

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Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance And now for some non fiction! Hillbilly Elegy is part autobiography, part social commentary. JD Vance grew up in Kentucky, then Ohio before becoming a Marine and then graduating from Yale Law School. He spent much of his life living with his grandparents whilst his mother battled drug addiction and cycled through one failing relationship after another. Vance shines a light on what constitutes hillbilly culture – its genesis and how it has spread from the south to the Midwest as hillbillies have migrated in the search for work. Alongside his own story of what it was like to grow up in this culture, his time spent in the Marines, and at Yale, he describes the culture of a people who feel hardly done by through the decline blue collar jobs; who feel minorities have gained an advantage over them through Democrat presidencies. Being Australian, I have read this book as an outsider – I cannot judge how accurate his evaluation is. I have read some criticisms of the book; that Vance seems to be saying that because he has become successful, others could too if they’d only put in the work. I didn’t get that impression from the book. I saw it more as explaining why there was a disaffected group in US society ripe for the politics of Donald Trump. And throughout, for me, he was conscious of his good fortune in having a family who despite their violent tendencies, aggressive behaviour and addictions, valued education and knew that he could achieve. They knew he had the ability to choose a path in life, that he didn’t have to accept what was, and it is this that he feels needs to be role modelled for those growing up within the hillbilly culture. An interesting read to learn more about US society.

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Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty I’ve never read any Liane Moriarty before and with Big Little Lies hitting the small screen, I thought it was time to give her a go. I’m not sure if this novel is reflective of her others, but I have to say I was a little underwhelmed by this one. The story revolves around three couples, Erika and Oliver, Erika’s ‘best friend’ Clementine and her husband, Sam, and Erika’s neighbours, Vid and Tiffany. The three couples, plus the daughters of Clementine and Sam, and Vid and Tiffany, gather for a barbecue one afternoon at Vid and Tiffany’s. Early on we learn that something has taken place at the barbecue that shakes the relationship between the couples. The chapters flick between the day of the barbecue and the present where we are made aware of the strains in Erika and Clementine’s friendship, Erika’s mother’s hoarding, Clementine’s cello audition, and Vid and Tiffany’s attempts to maintain a relationship with Clementine and Sam in the wake of the barbecue. For me this was a page turner but only because there was such a heavy-handedness in writing about what had happened at the barbecue – along the lines of ‘if only we’d stayed home’, ‘if only we hadn’t agreed’ – that I was saying through gritted teeth ‘just get on with it!’. I’m not sure that I felt the fallout from the incident to be entirely warranted, and I didn’t warm to the characters sufficiently to be concerned with their stories once the incident had been revealed. As a holiday read, maybe it’s okay. I guess I’d say ‘proceed with caution’!

Have you been reading anything interesting this year? Have you read any of these? Should I try another Liane Moriarty?

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Taking Stock: September ’16

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Happy spring or happy fall, depending upon where you are! Have you felt a change in the weather? We haven’t experienced a lot of spring warmth here in Melbourne but the days are certainly getting that bit longer. I’ve been watching the shelves at my greengrocer’s for the appearance of summer fruit. Whilst I don’t hate the apple, banana or mandarin, they are a little pedestrian. Berries, stone fruit, mangoes…well, they are just a bit more enticing, don’t you think? But whilst the days have still been a little chill and rainy, this is how I’ve been passing the time.

Making: a skirt for a futuristic themed 18th my girl was invited to. Honestly, there have been so many costumes this year between 18ths and school dress up days!

Reading: The Turner House. I’ve been a bit unfocussed with my reading of late but I am enjoying it.

Watching: The Bachelorette. Love Georgia and LOVE the guys this year. How could you get rid of any of them? Oh well, maybe Rhys!

Smelling: peanut butter and choc chip cookies fresh out of the oven

Hearing: my girl humming as she studies for maths. It creates the illusion that she is enjoying it but I know the reality is different!

Cooking: pasta for boy before he heads out to work.

Drinking: instant coffee. Nothing fancy today.

Eating: maybe eggs for lunch?

Enjoying: sleeping a bit better the last few nights. No night sweats! Do you feel me menopausal pals? Far out! The continual search for the cool spot in bed!

Liking: that our kids are now bigger so that I can have the odd weekend away with my man without needing to organise babysitters. So much freedom!

Wanting: to get onto a new craft project just not sure what.

Pondering: Disgraced, the play my girl and I went to see last night. Lots of stuff in there about identity and prejudice and changing societies. A play for our times.

Hoping: the coming months will not be too stressful.

Wearing: sloppy clothes. Yoga pants, t-shirt and hoodie. Need to change out of that soon otherwise I’ll feel slothful all day.

Finding: myself stressing out too much.

Wondering: why I let myself get stressed out too much! Just let it go!

Opening: my laptop to write this!

Giggling: at Michelle shopping with Ellen

So that’s September! Have you been baking or making? Watching or reading? Taking Stock posts spring from the creative brain of Pip Licolne. Maybe you want to have a go too?

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