Season's Readings: January 2016

One of my smaller goals for this year was to read 40 books, and I like to think I've got off to a reasonable start. I find January to actually be a really good month for reading because I want to hunker down at home with a hot chocolate and bury myself in a book, but I feel I've done particularly well this year if I say so myself! So here's what I've been reading over the last few weeks...

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
My Charles Dickens Challenge has come to an end with this book, and I have to say it was a bit of an odd way to finish. As the title suggests, it focuses on Edwin Drood, a young man living in the cathedral city of Cloisterham and about to marry his fiancee and go abroad to train as an engineer, who disappears in mysterious circumstances. In an odd way it almost felt like somebody trying to write a parody of a Dickens novel; something about the language never felt quite right to me and doesn't hit its stride until the end (which is really the middle as it's unfinished). However, the claustrophic atmosphere of Cloisterham is brilliantly done and there are some particularly good characters, such as the villainous Jasper - I always prefer my antagonists a bit shadowy compared to the out-and-out bad guys. Plus I really liked the development of Rosa, Edwin's fiancee, from a relatively meek girl at the beginning into a young woman taking control of her own life.

Close Encounters of the Furred Kind by Tom Cox
I'm a huge fan of the MYSADCAT Twitter feed, which follows the exploits of The Bear, a 19-year-old cat with the saddest eyes you've ever seen who belongs to writer Tom Cox. This is the fourth book about Tom and his four cats (he also owns Ralph, Shipley and Roscoe) and follows their move from Norfolk to Devon, as well as the acquisition of a hippy ginger cat called George. If you want something light from your reading I'd definitely recommend this; it's very easy and quick to read and, although it is very funny, is more likely to raise a chuckle and a smile than an out-and-out guffaw. Tom's descriptions of the wild Devon countryside are wonderful too. Also, reading it now as a cat owner as well as a cat lover, there are a lot more moments I identify with like drinking from puddles and being irrationally terrified of household objects. My favourite read this month.

The Ice Twins by SK Tremayne
I have to admit that this is not my usual sort of book, but it was a freebie with a newspaper subscription I have for work and in the interest of saving money I decided to give it a go. It's the story of Sarah and Angus Moorcroft who, in a bid to save their troubled marriage after their daughter Lydia dies, move to a remote Scottish island with their surviving daughter Kirstie, Lydia's twin. But when Kirstie tells Sarah she's Lydia, it sets off a chain of events that send their lives spiralling out of control. The book is really well-paced, utterly gripping and packed with twists and turns - which twin died? Who is lying to who? And when the final twists are revealed, it is utterly gobsmacking (I won't say what for fear of spoilers). If you're into your crime and mystery thrillers then I'd definitely suggest trying this.

Total books read in January: Three
Total books read in 2016: Three (8% of goal of 40 books in

So all in all, not bad going! Goodreads says I'm on track to reach my goal (you can follow me here if you're so inclined) but we'll see what February brings. I already have the next few books I'd like to read planned out and a couple of mini reading goals for the year - specifically finishing all the series I've started and having a proper paperback book to read at bedtime - so hopefully that will help me to crack on.

What have you been reading in January?

Birchbox January 2016: Best. Year. Ever.

A new month, a new year and a new Birchbox! After being (mostly) pleasantly surprised with last month's box I was hoping for more of the same this time. So let's find out if that's what I got...

This month's box is in partnership with Pinterest and is all about how creating boards can help you to visualise your goals for the coming year. I actually really like the design of this month's box - it's bright and colourful and the different images are very eye-catching.

Inside, as well as the usual monthly booklet with product details and tips, are these five postcards littered with motivational quotes and quirky illustrations. These are definitely going up on the wall in my shed to give me a boost!

Birchbox #NoFilter mirror

OK, so it's not the most wildly exciting extra but I actually quite like this little mirror - they're always useful to have in your bag for whenever you need an impromptu make-up touch-up. My only criticism of this would be that because it's a flat mirror rather than a fold-out one it could be prone to scratches, so maybe it's best to keep it in a soft pouch or bag pocket rather than rattling around in your make-up bag.

Caudalie Fleur De Vigne Shower Gel

This is a really nice shower gel. It's got the fresh, slightly sharp grape scent that's typical of Caudalie products but that doesn't clash with other fragrances, lathers up nicely and doesn't leave my skin feeling too dried out. I'd still need a body lotion afterwards but if you don't suffer from dry skin you could possibly get away with just this. The packaging's nice too in a natural, almost clinical way.

Jelly Pong Pong Lighten Up

I'm not someone who uses highlighter a lot but I quite like the idea of having one in a pencil - it's far easier to just draw it on and blend it in. However, other than an ingenious application method and some cheery packaging, I'm not that wowed by this product, for the simple reason it doesn't give me quite the levels of brightness I was hoping for. Whilst I don't want my face to glow like a Belisha beacon, I just feel this is a bit too subtle and doesn't build up very well.

Benefit They're Real! Tinted Lash Primer

Mascara primers are becoming quite a big thing in the beauty industry so I was intrigued to see what Benefit's version brought to the party. Firstly, the packaging is really nice; I love the brushed silver and it fits really well with the rest of the They're Real! range. However, I was a little bit underwhelmed by the product - it didn't add a massive amount of colour to my lashes and I didn't feel it did what I'd expect from a lash primer, ie helping mascara to stay on (though that could just be because I used it with a tubing mascara). That said, it is good for weekends or when I don't want to look too 'done' as it just makes me look a little bit more groomed.

PARLOR By Jeff Chastain Moisturising & Repairing Shampoo

Two of the main things I love about salon brands are the sleek packaging and that slightly floral, fresh 'hairdressers' smell, and this delivers both of those in spades. It also left my hair in a really nice condition - soft and moisturised but not too heavy or weighed-down - and with the cold snap we've been having that's definitely something I'm in need of. I've had a few Parlor products through Birchbox before but I think this one is definitely my favourite so far (to the extent I've moved it into my regular routine as a fringe shampoo). It is a bit on the pricey side for me though so not sure I'll be buying it once this runs out.

Absolution L'Eau Soir Et Matin

Micellar waters are always good to have for quick changes of make-up or fixing any mistakes, so I was pleased to receive this sample. It doesn't have the nicest smell - the lemon balm in it makes it quite sharp in a slightly toilet-cleaner way - but it's not overly offensive and it does do the job of removing even heavy make-up quickly and efficiently (I had to go over my face twice to get all of it but only needed one cotton pad). I like the packaging as well - it's got a cool, edgy vibe to it but the monochrome look makes it seem quite clean at the same time as well. Definitely one to throw in the travel beauty bag for impromptu weekends away.

So overall I'm quite happy with this month's Birchbox. I'll probably use everything in there (apart from the highlighter) but think my favourites are the shampoo and the shower gel. Looking forward to the February box now!

Shoes: Pleasure & Pain at the V&A

Although I don't have a huge shoe collection (more on that here), I do love looking at beautiful footwear. So last week, when I had a bit of time spare on a Thursday afternoon, I decided to take myself off to the V&A's Shoes: Pleasure & Pain exhibition.

Unfortunately you weren't allowed to take pictures in the exhibition (and they were being very strict about reinforcing it) so you'll have to make do with this shot of the - albeit very cool - neon exhibition sign.

Inside when you first go in it's all opulent purple velvet drapes and films of famous shoe moments from cinema projected onto the walls, opposite modern shoe designers' retellings of Cinderella. The sound of high heels clicking on the floor echoes throughout the room, creating an oddly unsettling feeling. You truly feel like you're being immersed in a fantasy world with an ever-so-slight edge of danger.

That said, despite the amazing atmosphere, I have to admit I found it quite a confusing exhibition. Apart from the first fairytale-themed case (which featured David Beckham's football boots alongside Cinderella's glass slipper, a pair of stunning scarlet ballet shoes and 'urban shoe myth' Manolo Blahnik Mary Janes), a lot of the displays didn't really seem to go together and I felt it might have been better to organise it slightly different - TV and film shoes, say, or pairing the men's shoes together. Some of the labelling was confusing too; I'd often find myself reading the description of a shoe and then realising it was meant to go with a similar-looking one nearby.

However, if you're a 'shoes person' you'll absolutely love looking at all the beautiful pairs on display wherever they are in the exhibition. Amongst my favourites were a gorgeous pair of feather and bow-trimmed Louboutins, super-cute Salvatore Ferragamo patent pumps I'd wear in a heartbeat and sexy strappy black sandals by Yves Saint Laurent. I loved Roger Didier's shoes for Dior from the 1950s too, and there was also a red pair with bead details I'd have taken home there and then. And even the shoes you wouldn't (or couldn't) wear are seriously stunning, like the array of tiny, delicately embroidered, brightly coloured pointed shoes designed for Chinese women whose feet had been bound as children.

I also really liked seeing the links back between historical footwear and modern shoes, such as the red-soled shoes worn by members of Louis XIV's court compared to Louboutins today and the Chinese shoes on plinths alongside similar pairs from Marni's spring/summer 2014 collection. It was interesting to see the way that similarly shaped shoes took on different meanings too; there were shoes for walking that looked like ballet shoes which laced up the leg, yet a few cases away were extremely high-heeled ballet shoes that forced the wearer to crawl.

Upstairs, meanwhile, was devoted to the creation of shoes, walking you through how shoes were - and continue to be - made, as well as the leaps forward in technology (including an amazing pair of caged booties. I loved the 'feet book' as well, where shoe designers would record the precise foot measurements of their well-heeled clients so when they came to order a new pair they would fit perfectly. To round this off, there was a wall designed to look like stacks of shoe boxes featuring a film where famous shoe designers, including Manolo Blahnik, talked about how they create a piece of footwear from beginning to end.

The final section of the exhibition featured displays where famous shoe collectors were asked to pick out ten of their favourite pairs. It gave a real insight into their personalities and got me wondering about which shoes I'd display in my own personal set of ten

Shoes: Pleasure & Pain is on at the V&A until 31st January, and tickets cost £12 apiece.

Hummingbird Bakery

I don't know about you, but sometimes when I've got a busy or stressful week ahead, I like to plan in a fun thing to do when it's all over so I have something to look forward to. And so it was that yesterday I found myself with a couple of hours to fill that afternoon after taking a half day for an appointment and decided to head over to South Kensington for a visit to the V&A's Shoes: Pleasure & Pain exhibition (more on that on Monday) and to treat myself to tea and cake at the Hummingbird Bakery nearby.

The Hummingbird is something of a London legend and has been on my to-visit list for a while now, but it was only recently that I'd actually got around to visiting. From the outside, it's your typical cheery South Kensington café, with canopied seating that evokes a Parisian street corner. I can imagine it would be lovely to sit outside on a summer's day, but as it was just too darn cold I decided to sit in.

Inside it couldn't be more different - all dark rich aubergine colours and velvet seating. The sumptuous, decadent interior perfectly sets off the beautiful cakes and contrasts the cheerful outside brilliantly.

Check out the size of those whoopie pies! (No, that's not an euphemism.)

Now, what to have? I was seriously tempted to order the raspberry cheesecake brownie, red velvet cupcake and the carrot cake too as they all looked amazing! But eventually my inner six-year-old won out and I went for the rainbow cake.

How pretty is that? It is every birthday party cake I wanted as a child come to life. Although from what the girl behind the counter told me, there's an awful lot of work involved in making it - essentially six vanilla sponges, all tinted different colours then stacked together, sandwiched with buttercream and topped with buttercream icing and hundreds and thousands.

Unfortunately I have to admit that, once I could bring myself to dig in, it became quite tough going. Even though the layers are quite thin, a six-layer cake is a fairly heavy undertaking, and when thick icing is added into the mix it ended up feeling nigh-on impossible at some point. I did manage to eat it all but it was definitely a struggle towards the end. To me that feels like defeating the point of cake - it's something to be enjoyed, surely?

It isn't the cheapest either - my slice of cake was £5.95 to eat in (though to be fair it was enormous) - so it might be worth opting for something smaller or splitting it with a friend. That said, it is the most expensive cake on the menu so don't let that put you off; the cupcakes and brownies are quite a bit cheaper.

So will I be back? I think so, because the cake tasted lovely - the sponge was light and moist but without being weighed down by the buttercream, which was rich but without being tooth-rottingly sweet. Plus the hot chocolate the woman next to me was drinking smelt amazing, so I could well return for that on its own. Overall, a really fun treat but due to cost definitely one to be saved for special occasions.


When Nick and I went backpacking, one of our favourite places was South America. A big reason for that was the food; both of us love eating and make a point of trying local dishes wherever we go, so with all the various specialities there we were spoilt for choice. However, I must admit that one cuisine we didn't sample as much as we'd have liked to was Brazilian, despite having some amazing things over there (fish with mango sauce and rice, feijoda stew and pastel pastries spring to mind, as do the piranhas we caught ourselves in the Amazon). So when I recently won some vouchers for Cabana, which specialises in Brazilian food, I jumped at the chance to visit the Westfield branch as a treat after Christmas shopping last month.

When I went inside, one of the first things that struck me was how colourful the restaurant was; it reminded me of passing by favelas in Rio with their brightly coloured houses climbing up the hillsides. The happy and cheery vibe of all the different colours gave me a really relaxed, almost beachy feel.

To drink, I got a fresh limonada suissa - lemon and lime, caster sugar and soda water. It was really refreshing and a nice balance of sweet and sour, which was just what I wanted after spending my morning dashing round a shopping centre.

I was a bit addicted to pao de queijo when we were backpacking (think giant dough balls filled with cheese), so when I spotted them on the Cabana menu I had to get them. And they were lovely - fluffy, light, good hit of cheese and filling but without being too heavy. They do come with garlic butter but frankly they're so good you could eat them on their own.

For my main, I had to go with the house special of chicken in malagueta sauce. My word, that was nice. I didn't manage to get a photo but it came on a skewer in the manner of Brazilian barbecue restaurants and slid seamlessly onto my plate. That said, all the flashy presentation in the world means nothing if it doesn't taste good, but thankfully this delivered. The chicken was moist and juicy, the peppers still had plenty of crunch, and the sauce was amazing - sticky, sweet and with just enough spice to give a nice kick but without losing feeling in your lips. It was quite a lot with sweet potato fries and coleslaw though so if there are two of you I'd suggest sharing a portion each of fries and pao de queijo (which was amazing when used to mop up the sauce by the way). The malagueta mayonnaise makes a lovely accompaniment to the fries too.

I was feeling slightly full after all that but couldn't resist a dessert, so opted for a peanut butter frozen yoghurt with crushed Oreos and dolce de leite (Brazilian caramel sauce). It was the perfect way to finish - lovely creamy yoghurt, great balance of sweet caramel against slightly salty peanut butter and a nice bit of crunch from the Oreos.

Overall I loved my visit to Cabana - it had a really chilled-out atmosphere and the food tasted amazing, which are two of the main things I look for in a restaurant when I want a casual but nice meal. I'll definitely be back soon!

Empties December 2015

December has actually been a bit of a slow month on the empties front - I actually ended up only finishing three things! But at least it means I'm slowly making a dent in my massive pile of products, so every cloud and all that. Here's what I used up this month...

Wild About Beauty Rose Water Illuminating Serum
This was in a Birchbox a few months ago and I'm still not sure whether I'm that keen on it. On the one hand, it had a nice texture, a lovely smell from the rose water and sank in easily. However, although it wasn't overly sparkly and didn't settle in my pores, I didn't feel it actually did very much in the way of making my skin look brighter. I also didn't really understand why it was described as a serum as putting it under moisturiser seemed to dull the effect even more, so I ended up swapping it round in my routine but not having much more success. Ultimately I don't think I'm going to repurchase though and, to be brutally honest, beyond the smell and texture I'm struggling to recommend it.

Marks & Spencer Lemon Verbena Hand Cream
I was very kindly given this by a colleague as a thank-you for working on the comms for one of our campaign awards last year and it's been a staple in my work bag since. It's got a lovely slightly citrusy scent and sinks in easily without being overly greasy. The only criticism I have is it's a little thick in terms of consistency and it's quite difficult to control how much comes out of the tube, so you do end up using more than you want. For that reason it might work better as a night-time hand cream rather than a work or sink one (just me who has tubes of hand cream all over my house?), but definitely worth trying if your hands are feeling a bit dry and you want something to help them out.

Soap & Glory Hand Maid Antibacterial Hand Cleansing Gel
With cold season in full swing, my main tactics to counteract it have been Vicks First Defence Spray and this antibacterial gel. It's got a nice fruity fragrance to it (though the alcohol in the gel is a bit sharp), sinks in quickly and doesn't dry out my skin too much. Plus the small tube means it's easy to throw into a bag of any size. You do need to use it quickly as it does have a tendency to go watery if it's open for a while, but if you're in need of a good hand gel I'd consider having a look at this one.

So that's it for December's empties! As I'm on a 'no non-essential spending' kick in January I'm hoping I'll have lots more in the next post though...

December 2015 Favourites

It's a new month (and a new year!), so that means a new favourites post. As expected the month has been dominated by Christmas, but most of this month's favourites are things that I still love even outside the festive season. So here's what I've been loving in December...

Favourite item of clothing: Cath Kidston star print dress
I bought this last year to wear on Christmas Day with Nick's family, but this month I've rediscovered it and worn it to work, as well as for a girls' lunch for my nanna's birthday (more on that in tomorrow's festive fashion post). I love Cath Kidston dresses for their gorgeous quirky prints but they're also really comfortable and flattering to wear, particularly in this skater style, and work for loads of different occasions. I tend to wear this one with my beloved brown riding boots and tights (though it would also work with black ballet pumps). Its one downside is it's a little thin, but you could always layer it under a navy or red cardigan or a cosy jumper.

Favourite beauty product: NARS Velvet Matte Lip Pencil in Mysterious Red
I was given this in a secret Santa as part of a beauty forum I'm on (yes I know, I'm spoilt) and it feels like I haven't taken it off since. It's a bit of a darker red than I would normally wear, but for me that works quite well at this time of year. Plus it wears really well; even through several lunches and drinks sessions it stayed on for around six hours. And when you need to do your make-up on the go or add something in to go from daytime to evening, the pencil formula makes it so easy to whip out and whack on. My only complaint is it's a little drying so make sure your lips are in good condition before you use it.

Favourite music: Maddie & Tae - Start Here
Regular readers will know I am a big country music fan and, as Country 2 Country gets closer I'm gearing up by listening to the albums from the various acts appearing. This month's pick is duo Maddie & Tae, whose debut album Start Here runs the gamut from introspective ballads like 'Fly' and 'After The Storm Blows Through' to the wistful yet optimistic 'Waitin' On A Plane' and the emotional 'Smoke'. But they're at their best on cheeky come-uppance tracks like 'Girl in a Country Song' (with its brilliant video that turns the 'bro-country' trend on its head), 'Sierra' and the ridiculously catchy 'Shut Up and Fish'. I can't wait to see them in March and sing along to every word.

Favourite TV programme: My Kitchen Rules
Specifically series four of the Aussie version. For those who don't know, MKR is a cooking competition where teams of two compete to be declared the best amateur cooks in the country. I got slightly addicted to the show when we were backpacking but we left the country halfway through the series, so when I was bored and browsing for a new TV show to watch I decided to find out how it all ended. Cue binge-watching half the series in a week. What I really like is that in an odd way you develop relationships with the teams (Tassie boys Mick & Matt are my favourites but I also like Queenslanders Dan & Steph). Plus if you're into your food there are some amazing recipes on there that I'm already wondering how I can recreate...

Favourite book: Mystery in White by J Jefferson Farjeon
I'm really getting into my mysteries at the moment and always like to read books set at Christmas over the festive period, so when my sister recommended this I decided to give it a go. The plot follows a motley crew of travellers who, when their train gets stuck in the snow on Christmas Eve, decide to find an alternative route and end up stumbling upon a mysterious house. It moves along at a cracking pace and there are plenty of twists and turns to keep you hooked throughout, even though it's quite a quick read. Some of the characters are a bit thinly drawn but they're engaging enough and help you stay with the plot even as it gets to the slightly obvious ending. Worth a read if you like something different on a cold winter's night.

Favourite thing to do: New Year's Eve
Usually I love Christmas but this year I didn't feel as excited as I normally do, so have gone for New Year's Eve. It's an excuse to get together with old university friends as now we're all scattered in different parts of the country we don't see each other much any more, and as we're all at the stages where several of us are settling down there might not be many more of them. This year we were the hosts and celebrated with cocktails (Nick has invented the 'Rosanna' as the house drink), eating our own body weight in Tesco party food, playing board games, watching the fireworks on the telly with a glass of fizz and then playing video games until we all fell asleep. It was brilliant and so good to catch up with old friends. I'm already looking forward to next year!

What were your favourite things in December?

New Year's Resolutions 2016

Happy New Year lovely readers! Hope you all had a good New Year's Eve and are now sufficiently recovered (or, if not, then I'm sending internet bacon sandwiches, full-fat Coke - although does Coke actually contain fat to start with? - and gallons of tea your way).

As is often the way as the year changes, I'm starting to think about what I'd like to achieve in 2016. There are loads of things I'd like to do - you can read the 30 Before 30 post I wrote last year for that - but the ones below are what I'm planning to focus on this year as they're all reasonably achievable targets.

Run a 10k (ideally in less than an hour).
I fell off the running wagon after we moved house - suddenly every weekend was swallowed up with doing things at home and I lost my exercise mojo. However, over the last few weeks I've really missed it and so am determined to get back to it. It's been my goal to run a 10k for a while and there are a few this year I'd like to try - such as the Nike Women's 10K, Run to the Beat and the London Zoo Stampede - with the goal of doing it in under an hour. But first, I need to start actually running again, so tomorrow I'm off to parkrun to see how well (or badly rather) I'm doing at the moment.

Learn to sew.
Nick very kindly bought me a sewing machine as my birthday present in October and I'm sad to say it has sat in its box in the shed ever since (yes I know, I am the worst wife ever). So this year my aim is to learn to sew - by which I mean make one thing I would happily wear out of the house. I've bought a sewing book and am planning to book myself in for a beginners' class at Sew Over It (so keep an eye out for that on the blog!). Fingers crossed I'll be able to show you my very own hand-crafted garment by the end of the year.

Save some 'fun money' every month.
This probably seems like a contradiction in terms, but last year there were a few things I really wanted to buy but couldn't justify due to lack of cash. So I've decided that I'm going to start putting aside £50 a month (at least) for those proper treaty splurges on things like a new camera and a nice handbag. That way it gives me a goal to save for and will hopefully make me feel less guilty about making those big purchases.

Get into a good night-time routine.
Over the last few weeks I've developed a very bad habit of coming home from work, flopping on the couch, falling asleep after dinner and only waking up to stagger to bed. That's not good for my sleep, my skin or my general wellbeing. So I'm aiming to do the following things: take off my make-up when I come home from work; do something after dinner to stop me falling asleep, even if it's just tidying up; and having a proper winding-down routine when I go to bed (spray pillows and sheets with sleep spray, foot cream and bedsocks on, lip balm on, read chapter of book. hand cream on, sleep).

Re-organise my blog.
I've recently got back into blogging and am determined to carry this on into 2016. This is going to include a new design (I've got my eye on this one from Pipdig) and buying my domain name. I'm also planning to post more regularly - initially just Wednesdays and Sundays but would eventually like to work up to four posts a week - and promote my posts more on social media, as well as joining at least one blogger chat a week.

I also have a few smaller goals, such as reading 50 books, using up all my samples and writing my novel, but those are my main aims for 2016. Wish me luck!