Book Review: Saving Grace by Jane Green

Saving Grace

“A perfect stranger wants her perfect life.

Grace Chapman has the perfect life, living comfortably with her husband, bestselling author Ted, in a picture-perfect farmhouse on the Hudson River in New York State.

Then Ted advertises for a new assistant, and Beth walks into their lives. Organized, passionate and eager to learn, Beth quickly makes herself indispensable to Ted and his family. But Grace soon begins to feel side-lined in her home – and her marriage – by this ambitious younger woman.

Is Grace just paranoid, as her husband tells her, or is there more to Beth than first thought?”

I downloaded this because it was a bargain on Amazon for my Kindle – but for once, this was a good method of choosing a book!

I enjoyed it from the start.  I really liked Grace – and was rooting for her throughout.  There were some flashbacks to her youth – but these felt like they were needed for part of the story and weren’t contrived.  The story also flipped between the US and UK – but both felt really well written (and from looking afterwards, I can see that Jane Green has lived in both countries – and that is evident in the believability (is that a word?!) of both locations.

I felt it was very well written – and the recipes at the end of certain chapters were fabulous – I will definitely be cooking some of them in the future!!

Overall a fabulous escapist read.  Another triumph for Ms Green.

Walt Disney World stroppage – Wicked Wednesday 19 August 2015

As many of you know, my littlest girl is the queen of strops!!

We have been to Walt Disney World in Florida – the most ‘fun’ place on Earth – but that doesn’t stop the strops!

Full on melt down outside ‘It’s a Small World’ – and that was before hearing the annoying song:

Refusing to look at Anna and Elsa that we’d waited over an hour to meet:

Adopting the ‘I’m so bored pose’ in the Fairytale Castle:

But she did look very cute having poked Donald on the bum!!!!

This is my entry for this week’s #wickedwednesdays over on Brummy Mummy of 2’s blog


Just say no?

At the moment I seem to be even more frantically busy than usual – but having said that, I seem to have been in this state for quite some time.  I was bemoaning this to a friend over coffee the other day, and said ‘I really should learn to say no sometimes’. So – should I be like Zammo (1980’s Grange Hill reference there for those under 40) and ‘Just Say No?’

I then read an article in this month’s Red magazine (whilst having a soak in Epsom salts – it’s the thing to do, don’t you know?  Well according to one of my sisters, and more recently Victoria Beckham – so I’m in!) and the Creative Director of Top Shop, Kate Phelan, was interviewed.  When asked ‘best piece of career advice I’ve been given’ she replied ‘Seize every opportunity and make it count.  Never say no. No task is insurmountable.’

And maybe that applies to life not just your career??

But is it genetic??  When my Dad retired he was quite happy to potter around at home, a gentle stroll to the paper shop, a chat with a passing neighbour, watch any sport or TV programme, a snooze in the chair, a quick whizz through the list Mum had left him before she went to work – and he was quite happy!  When Mum retired it was another matter! She learnt to swim, to speak German (the aforementioned sister lives in Germany, so a useful thing to do), she invigilated GCSE exams at the local school, volunteered with a debt advice charity – as well as looking after her Mum who lives nearby, daily walks with a friend (when neither of them were on holiday) and helping out with grandchildren / friends etc. Maybe I’m just more my Mum than my Dad?  (Apart from the eczema, hayfever, allergies, weird scratching of the back of my throat and slightly odd way of walking in bare feet which are TOTES my Dad!)

If I had said ‘no’ then I wouldn’t have helped some awe inspiring friends raise loads of money for charity and break a world record.

If I had said ‘no’ then I wouldn’t be helping to organise an AMAZING ball to be held in September (I am sure I will be blogging about that soon!!).

If I had said ‘no’ then I wouldn’t have had a sneak preview behind the scenes at the new Grand Central Birmingham earlier in the week.

If I had said ‘no’ or been a bit lethargic, perhaps we wouldn’t have ticked off 78 of the owls in The Big Hoot 2015. (Although I suspect my children would maybe have preferred if I hadn’t been quite so obsessive about the owls…………)

But if I had said no to these things – what would I have done?  Watched soap operas or reality TV?  Gone to the pub?  Surely these life enhancing, weird and wonderful things add to life?  I read one of those spoof motivational posters on Facebook today that said ‘You will never remember the days you went to bed early.’ – and that is very true!  My Fitbit will attest that I should probably get more sleep than I do – but Margaret Thatcher survived on 4 hours sleep per night, so I am clearly channeling my inner iron lady.

As long as my family and friends don’t feel they are being neglected (and I don’t think they do?!), and my work is getting done (albeit at 11pm some nights – the joy of being the boss!) then I think saying ‘yes’ has to be the way forward.

So let’s see what saying ‘yes’ ** for the next few months will bring…………..

** Note:  Just to confirm, having quote Zammo above, I will not be saying yes to any illegal substances – just life experiences!!

Grand Central Birmingham

If I had to list things that I like – after the obvious family and friends – then the following things would feature high up the list:

So imagine my delight when all of the above could be combined into one evening!!

I was invited to take part in a focus group about the new advertising for Grand Central, and offered a behind the scenes nose around the site which is due to open next month.

Grand Central logo

I’d never been involved in market research before – so it was all a bit intriguing.  I arrived at the management suite at Grand Central (the shopping centre that is being built above New Street station in the centre of Birmingham to replace the old slightly grim Pallasades. There were 4 other members of my group, and we were all 30 / 40 something parents.

First we talked a bit about Birmingham and what we all love about it (variety of shops / bars / restuarants, the fact the centre is compact, the mixture of architecture, even The Owls got a mention!) and what we’re not so fond of (the traffic, difficulty parking, how busy it can be)  We then talked more about Grand Central and the advertising that was being proposed for it.

Now I have to confess to not knowing much about what Grand Central was going to be.  I knew there was going to be a huge John Lewis (obvs!) but not much else.  I wasn’t sure what other retail and dining options there were going to be.  I wasn’t sure whether it fitted into the same space that the Pallasades did, or how it was going to connect to other areas of Birmingham. And I have to say 90 minutes into the various discussions we had – and looking at the proposed adverts – I was none the wiser either!  Thankfully today I’ve discovered the Grand Central Birmingham website which gives loads of information – and has made me much more excited at the shops and eateries we’re going to have.

The whole process of a market research focus group was really interesting.  Being able to waffle on about your own thoughts on stuff (rather than just typing it down here into the ether) was fun.  Whilst our overall feelings, as a group, about the adverts was quite similar – we did discuss it all, and changed each other’s opinions at times.  It all felt very ‘safe’ and as if you could say exactly what you thought without fear of being ridiculed.  Whether that was just because we had a lovely group – or the particular facilitator we had – I’m not sure.  But I really enjoyed it!

And once the ‘work’ was over, we got to don our full health and safety personal protective equipment and go and have a look round the site…..

Grand Central

And site it is.  It is VERY much still a working site.  Whilst the main atrium is in, and the escalators down to the station – there is still a lot of work to be done. And I mean a lot.  Floors / walls / lighting and that’s before the shops can even think about shop fitting with their own branding, shelves, stock etc!  And it’s all going to be ready for Thursday 24th September 2015…..

I was ‘slightly’ incredulous at this – but maybe the 3,500 people they have on site at the moment are startlingly more efficient than my workforce??

The frontage to the new John Lewis is hidden from prying eyes by roller shutters – but the width of the frontage is HUGE, it’s got to be 4 times the size of the entrance to John Lewis in Touchwood, Solihull.

The huge open plan space is amazing – and the light that will flood the place is immense – even down to the platforms, for the first time ever!  The roof is made out of the same material as the Eden project domes – and is self cleaning (even from seagull and pigeon poo – of which there is a lot in Birmingham). And throughout the mall, the height of any counters or tables is limited to 1.4m to ensure that people have a clear view around at all times.

Currently Westfield in London has the biggest footfall of a shopping centre at 42 million (2 million more than our very own Bull Ring) but Grand Central is predicting 45 million in the first year of operation!  The key will be to get the dwell time of these visitors to increase so that it’s seen as a proper destination – not just the exit route from New Street.  Maybe people will go and visit our Grand Central like I did as a tourist to Grand Central in New York!

And in exciting news – it will still be accessed by ‘the ramp at McDonalds’ (anyone from Birmingham knows that location!) and you will be able to walk all the way through to the Bull Ring through nice free flowing walkways, not random 90 degree turns like the olden days.

I should point out at this point that all of the above facts were from me paying attention to the lovely ops director who showed us around, and I have not independently verified any of them!  But his passion for the project oozed out of him (as did his excitement at having a Nando’s arriving!!)  The bringing together of a transport, retail and dining hub is incredible – and the fact that one of the (if not the?) busiest station in the UK has kept running through the regeneration is amazing.

However – having been very excited that an off peak return to New Street was only £2.80 from Kings Norton, the train home had a platform change and was delayed by 35 minutes – so let’s hope the trains standards can match that of the shopping facilities above…………

But I can’t wait to go and see Grand Central in all its glory when it opens next month.

Extra virgin?

Right – so what exactly does ‘extra virgin’ mean (in the context of olive oil??)

The staff in Ask have it written on their T shirts – so the 10 year old thought it was a suitable question for the lunch table today.

My definition of ‘not messed about with’ caused much hilarity for the husband and older 2 kids……….

Review: Diet cupcakes?!?

A while ago I reviewed some products that Exante diet kindly sent me to try – and since then I’ve bought some of the shakes and bars to have, particularly when I’m in a rush, or need a breakfast before working out that I’m not going to vom back up again after 10 minutes of a cardio workout!!

Anyway – the lovely guys at Exante messaged me to see if I’d like to try some of their new range of cupcakes – well, how could I refuse!

The box arrived and I excitedly opened it looking forward to trying a cupcake – and found out it was packets that you had to make up!  Initially I thought ‘what a faff’ – but I guess it does stop you just stuffing them blindly in your face when you have to think about making them – so maybe that’s a winner?!?

Anyway – whilst I must be the only person in the country (or so it feels from my Facebook timeline on a Wednesday evening) who isn’t Great British Bakeoff obsessed – my daughters are – and what’s the point in having loads of kids if you can’t make use of child labour!  (The day the eldest could make me a G&T was a very proud moment.)

So children 1 and 3 were voted cupcake makers!

Each set of packets (one for the cupcakes, one for the icing) makes 2 cupcakes – so we decided to use 3 of each so all family members could try them.  The 2 cupcakes would be a meal replacement and contain 200 calories and 16.7 grams of protein – so very similar to the shakes and bars throughout the range.

And so – the cupcake baking began:

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Cupcake 1 Cupcake 2

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They didn’t exactly rise evenly – and I have to say that I’m not sure Paul Hollywood or Mary Berry would have been that impressed with the presentation!  But surely the taste is the main thing……

And so – the other members of the Price family verdict:

12 year old ‘They work really well as a diet food, because they are so disgusting you never want to eat cupcakes ever again.’

5 year old ‘I don’t want one, they look funny, can I have an apple instead?’

Husband ‘Oh my God these are disgusting, why would anyone eat these, don’t let the children eat them.’

So not exactly universal praise…….

They do taste very synthetic – particularly the icing (it is the brightest pink I have ever seen!) – but I guess I am more used to ‘protein’ based flavours than the rest of the family.  If you were being hardcore on Exante and were really missing cakes then I guess maybe they would be ok – but they are definitely my least favourite of all of the products I’ve tried.  And the faff of making it all also massively counts against them for me.  I’ll be sticking to the shakes and bars in future.

I was sent this product to review for free, but all opinions (as you can probably tell!) are my own. 

Book Review: The Small Fortune of Dorothea Q by Sharon Maas

The Small Fortune of Dorothea Q

“Thirty years of family secrets. Three generations of women. One family heirloom that could change everything. When she ran away from her childhood home in Guyana, Rika swore that she would never return. Cut off from her family, she has fought hard to make a life for herself and daughter, Inky, in London. Now, over thirty years later, Rika’s cantankerous, wheelchair-bound mother, Dorothea, arrives in London. But as old wounds re-open, Dorothea and Rika are further apart than ever. Inky soon learns that her grandmother is sitting on a small fortune. As she uncovers the secrets of the past one by one, she unravels the tragedy that tore her mother and grandmother apart. But nothing can prepare her, or Rika, for Dorothea’s final, unexpected revelation. An epic, mesmerizing tale of tragic loss, the strength of words left unspoken, and the redeeming power of love.”

This book was recommended to me by a friend and I knew nothing about it (apart from this friend and I usually enjoy the same books).  This is probably a good job, as I tend to shy away from historical novels as I think I’m not a fan!!

It is set between Guyana and London – and this immediately appealed as I have a couple of friends with Guyanese heritage, so I thought it might be interesting.  It follows the stories of Dorothea, Rika and Inky – three generations of the same family – and their growing up and coming of age, dealing with all of them at a similar time in their lives.  The chapters don’t have a strict pattern (I much prefer that then when it feels like the chapters are forced into some sort of repetitive cycle) and the stories flow in and out of the different time periods and locations.

I really enjoyed these intertwined tales of family life, and it really evoked the feeling of Guyana describing it vividly.  The love – and loss – is very moving, and kept me entertained and wanting to read more.

I will definitely look out for more books by this same author, as I thought it was beautifully written.

Think about nothing…….

So today was the day I got to be a geeky guinea pig!

I arrived bright and early at the University research area ready for my exciting day. Initially that was blood pressure readings, blood samples, height, weight and body fat analysis (yep – that wasn’t the best reading, but I hoped my stats would improve as the day went on!)

Then I had to complete a questionnaire about how I felt / feel about certain things – pretty bog standard questions that you might get in a survey in Cosmopolitan magazine – although there were less (although not none!) about sex, and some were a bit weirder.  The weirdest being ‘for each of your children (and there was enough space for 4 kids, which is quite rare!) do you get on with them worse than average, average or better than average?!  Totally unsure how you benchmark such a thing against other people?!?

Then started the memory and IQ tests.  This was like some weird Krypton Factor (or The Cube if you’re under 40) / Tap the Frog / 11+ exam hybrid.  Lots involved shapes and sequences and patterns which, in places, I found REALLY HARD – but I think I made up for it by bossing the numbers and words.  Although in places that was really tricky too.  There was a list of about 20 different word pairs – some related to each other, and some not.  The researcher read them all out to me – and then went back and asked me to name the second word for each first word.  I was RUBBISH.  I couldn’t believe I was so rubbish to be honest!  But we had to repeat the thing – with the same words – four times.  Third time I got one wrong, and fourth time I got a full house – BOOM!  Lots of the tests were talking to the researcher, some were written, some involved cubes (my eldest’s pet hate when doing her non verbal reasoning for the 11+) and then some was on an electronic tablet.

This was the particular bit that felt like Tap the Frog – just without any frogs!  It was incredibly intense and lots of the tests were clearly designed to scramble your brain (I described it as a headf*ck to the researcher – and she neither confirmed nor denied that that was the technical term!!!)

After that – and a quick sandwich lunch – we were over to the old hospital campus next door for an MRI.  Whilst I’d had one of these on my knee before, I’d never actually been totally inside the tube – and people told me it was VERY claustrophobic and noisy.  I had to remove anything metal (apart from my underwired bra – apparently those are fine!), lay down on the bench, put in ear plugs and on headphones and was slowly wheeled into the tube.  I’d been warned to bring my own music as the music the university have isn’t the best – so 80s love songs it was! There were then about 6 different MRIs.  These all had slightly different noises – there was one like the photocopier was persistently jammed, one that sounded as if you were in the spin cycle of a tumble drier, one that sounded like someone was using a pneumatic drill to get into the machine, and other banging noises.  However, I still managed to fall asleep!!  After each 5 or 10 minute MRI the lady doing the scans would talk to me / wake me up.  For most of them I was allowed to close my eyes – but for one of them I was told I had to keep my eyes open and think about nothing!!

Of course, when you’re told to think about nothing you brain, which is used to juggling kids / home / work / organising charity events / planning a Florida trip for 12, immediately starts thinking of stuff.

So I tried to imagine nothing…….

  • An empty room – what colour is it?  Why is it empty?  Are there any windows?
  • An open field – what’s over the horizon?  What crop is growing?  Are there any cows?
  • A blue sky – are those clouds? Ooh, it’s like the Philadelphia advert!

Right Libby – visualising ‘nothing’ isn’t helping you think of nothing, so just focus on the inside of the MRI scanner……

  • Hmm, what’s the scuff mark?
  • Did someone with a big head scrape it on the side?
  • And why does that look like there was tape on there before that’s been pulled off and left a residue?
  • Why would you hold an MRI scanner together with tape?

Right Libby – focusing on the inside of the scanner isn’t working.  Blur your vision and don’t think of anything.

  • Hmm – why don’t I do some pelvic floor excercises rather than waste time?
  • Wonder if that will show in brain movement?

So all in all – I’m not very good at thinking about nothing!!!

It’s been a great day – I’m exhausted but really enjoyed it (I am such a geek!)  I don’t know my results (which is tricky for a control freak) but hopefully should get some feedback in the Autumn.

And if anyone in the Birmingham area would like to take part – they’re still looking for volunteers!!