Sunday 25 April 2021

How Was It For You? Women, Sex, Love and Power in the 1960s, Virginia Nicholson

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Nicholson’s latest book looks at the 1960s, a time of huge social change and liberation, and considers how progressive it really was for the women who lived through it. She takes a chronological approach, examining each year in turn, allowing the reader to see values and lifestyles shift across the course of the book. It is littered with testimony from those who lived through it, offering a personal insight. Interviewees include women who mixed in celebrity circles and had a public profile as well as those living normal lives but struggling with the same discrimination and enjoying the same freedoms. It is a book that evokes strong emotions and analyses famous events through the lens of gender history.

The 1960s began in an age of prosperity, and consumerism grew as new technologies and fashions became status symbols. Employment opportunities were limited for women but they could nonetheless expect to leave any secretarial college and walk into a job in the area of their choice. On the flip side, there was huge deprivation and housing problems. Many were living in slums, and aid was provided via a system of judgment which was marred with racism and separation from the struggles of those in need. Nicholson tells us about Pauline O’Mahony, aged just 16 in 1964, who was tasked with assessing the homes of those in need and who tried to side-step the discrimination in the system. She was on the side of the families and took on an unenviable task while also being on the receiving end of sexism in the office.

Sexism is present throughout with the constant disheartening reminder that men at the forefront of change were not interested in liberating women. The law did not protect them (the Sex Discrimination Act didn’t come into being until 1975) and there wasn’t the language to describe the misogyny inherent in society, leaving many feeling it was somehow their fault and not a universal problem. By the end of the decade the vocabulary of women’s liberation was beginning to spread and the belief in and power of protest was on the rise. 

This is a fascinating book that considers the broad sweep of a remarkable decade that saw the Profumo Affair fill headlines, the advent of the contraceptive pill and the freedom it afforded women, an overhaul of fashion with miniskirts becoming the look of choice, the Abortion Act, and by its end, the National Women’s Liberation conference. It was a thrilling time to be alive with a widespread belief that anything was possible, yet it was still mired in sexual discrimination and exploitation that is truly shocking. It reveals a side of the 1960s that is often obscured in discussion of the sexual revolution. Nicholson writes in an accessible style, offering us a considered journey through an iconic decade that is hard to put down.

Sunday 18 April 2021

Together, Luke Adam Hawker and Marianne Laidlaw

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Kyle Books for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

During the first national lockdown Hawker’s art was forced indoors. No longer could he travel around his city drawing from life. Instead, he had to draw from imagination. When he posted a drawing on his Instagram account inspired by the weekly clap for carers, he found a collaborator in Marianne Laidlaw, who provides the words in this book. They worked together via Zoom and the resulting book was published on the anniversary of the UK entering its first national lockdown of the pandemic. During this time news stories were full of depressing statistics and a sense of despair that we were in the same position (albeit with the promise of an end thanks to the vaccine). Together offers a gentler look back on the extraordinary circumstances we’ve found ourselves in, and feels more of a salve for those whose nerves are fraught after a year of constant anxiety and isolation.

The book does not directly reference the pandemic, the cause of disruption being a storm, but the specific circumstances depicted are unmistakably the life the pandemic has produced. The overarching message of the book is that we’re stronger and more able to weather the storm together, and that sense of community can exist powerfully even when we’re forced to be physically apart. There’s also an acknowledgment and acceptance that although we’re all experiencing the same seismic shift, everyone will deal with it differently, and that whatever you find consolation in is valid. There’s mention of the bizarre switch of normal things feeling strange and strange things feeling normal which will resonate with anyone struggling with the gradual return to ‘normal’. Hawker and Laidlaw do not shy away from the challenges that the situation has created but focus more attention on the positives - the increased awareness of nature and the changing of the seasons, the creative ways people have managed to keep in touch, and the little kindnesses that make all the difference. One of the drawings that touched me most was of a flower growing in the main character’s home. For me, it was a reminder that the natural world has flourished, that new life and renewal is inevitable, the mental benefits of caring for a plant and seeing it grow, and the move towards making homes happier, more comforting places to be.

The overall feel of the book is positive, but they do also poke fun at those whose panic buying caused shortages - a drawing depicts a shopper with a towering pile of shopping reaching for the only item on otherwise bare shelves. The pictures are variously individual snapshots or busy scenes depicting the many activities of the population, and, emotionally, reunion. The book itself can be read in about ten minutes but it is worth taking the time to really look at the pictures and appreciate all the little details and thought that went into them.

Wednesday 14 April 2021

British Cheese on Toast: Over 100 Recipes with Farmhouse Cheeses, Steven Parker

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Cheese on toast - a cheap and cheerful meal and the perfect comfort food for a cold winter’s day. In this book Parker elevates this humble favourite into whole new realms. The recipes are varied and offer alternative cheeses to use that can be picked up in most supermarkets (it can get pricey buying all the cheeses featured!). Split into cheese types you can head straight for your favourite or flick through until a combination catches your eye. The descriptions contain information on whether or not the cheese is vegetarian, and the index also helpfully labels them such so you can easily identify them. 

Parker’s recipes range from simple store cupboard ingredients to the more elaborate (one recipe calls for a bottle of sparkling wine!) but there’s such great variety there’ll be a recipe for every cheese lover. I’ve gone for a mix of the recommended farmhouse cheeses and supermarket bought but all recipes have been delicious. My favourite so far has to be truffle cheddar with chopped roasted hazelnuts and a little honey. 

If you can drag your eyes away from all the tempting recipes for long enough there’s also some additional information about the types of cheese and the history of cheesemaking. A recipe book exclusively consisting of cheese on toast recipes might not sound like the most inspired option, but the recipes in this book are so creative and tempting you’ll soon realise the versatility of this simple, much loved meal.

Wednesday 7 April 2021

Learning French on a Budget

This past year has shifted our lives beyond recognition, and certainly during the first lockdown there was large appetite for ‘self improvement’, many turning to language learning to fill their suddenly empty weekends and evenings. Learning a language takes a lot of dedication, and can be costly. I’m sure attending a formal course is a brilliant way to develop well rounded knowledge, but for many this is out of budget or time constraints. There’s a lot you can do on your own for little to no money however, and although it can be hard to practice your conversational skills alone, there’s a lot of brilliant resources out there. This is by no means a comprehensive list, merely the things I have stumbled upon and found useful. If you have any favourites please do comment below.


Possibly the most popular language learning app, Duolingo is a brilliant place to start. Their French course is broad and they’re constantly adding new content. They’ve recently added audio lessons which are perfect for picking up the essentials when preparing for a trip abroad, something that was lacking for a long time. There are also stories which help you see the language in use in short, amusing stories, checking your comprehension as you go. The main set of modules will help build up your vocabulary and understanding of grammar, with tips to help you understand why sentences are formed the way they are. According to the app I’ve now been using it for seven years, and although do not in any way count myself as fluent, I actually understand the conventions of the French language so much better than I ever did at school. Spending just fifteen minutes a day can really broaden your vocabulary. The app is completely free to use although there is a payment option to get rid of ads, and is also available through a web browser if you don’t have a smart phone.


There are some brilliant YouTube channels that can help with improving your listening and comprehension skills. A recent happy discovery is Comme Une Française. Géraldine posts weekly videos explaining quirks of the language, offering tips on understanding fast spoken French, and recommending other great resources. Her channel will not only improve your French but will give you a better sense of the culture of France. Her videos tend to be less than ten minutes long so easy to fit one in on a lunch break.

Vogue Paris also posts short videos that have English subtitles. I mostly watch their Une Fille, Un Style series but there’s a whole range of videos from make-up tutorials to cooking tutorials. Some videos are in English with French subtitles so you can practice either way.


Podcasts are a great way to include some French listening into your day while out for a walk or

on your commute. I love InnerFrench, the host, Hugo Cotton talks for around thirty minutes to an hour on interesting topics so you don’t get bored with repeating the same simple phrases over and over. He speaks slower than the speed you’d expect from a native speaker to aid comprehension and talks about topics as varied as film, psychology, politics and current affairs. There are transcripts available on his website that can help aid understanding and the learning of new vocabulary. You’d need some knowledge of French to really gain from listening to this but it is brilliant for intermediate learners.

Coffee Break French offers shorter episodes in which they ask people on the streets of France questions such as ‘what’s your daily routine’, or ‘what kind of holidays do you like?’. This allows the listener to hear more colloquial French as well as different accents and ways of saying things. They play the interviews and then break down what was said before playing at full speed again so you get a chance to see how much more you understand.


A great way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it as much as possible. Although opportunities to do this will always be somewhat limited if not living in a country that uses it as their main language, watching TV and films in French is a great way to include some more French in your day to day, will open you up to some brilliant shows, and again helps with learning how French is used in real life. Call My Agent (Dix Pour Cent), available to watch on Netflix, is a hugely entertaining show about a talent agency in Paris. Each episode includes a cameo from a famous actor playing a parody of themselves, endlessly causing problems for their agents. It’s a wonderful show that will make you laugh and cry and I wish there was more to come.

Another Netflix show worth checking out is Le Bazar de la Charité. The series starts with a devastating fire in Paris in 1897 and follows the lives of three women whose worlds will never be the same again. This show should come with a warning - it’s incredibly intense and can be quite upsetting. The first episode which shows the fire was incredibly shot but also difficult to watch, so realistic was the experience. I admit I haven’t yet watched the whole series but from what I’ve seen it continues to be hard hitting. You might want something light lined up for afterward.

For those without subscription TV, Channel 4 is now streaming Torn, a drama set in Provence about an affair and its dire consequences. I’m only a few episodes in and although it doesn’t have the depth of some of the other programmes is nonetheless entertaining TV that will keep you wondering what will happen next.


In the early days of learning French I opted for children’s dual text books. The Let’s Read in French and English series offers a selection of books that go beyond very simple vocabulary and are a good way to build up your confidence. Le Petit Prince is also available in parallel text. When you’re feeling a little more confident it’s worth picking up a book solely in French that you’re already quite familiar with. For me, this is Harry Potter a l’École des Sorciers. I know the story well enough to not have to keep stopping to look up words to understand what’s happening and also downloaded the audiobook to help with pronunciation and aural comprehension. It’s been great fun seeing the translations of words invented for the novels and although it’s slow going is worth persevering.


Listening to music in French is a great way to introduce more French into your daily routine without feeling like you’re learning. A few years ago I happened upon the musical Notre Dame de Paris and was lucky enough to catch it live when it came to London shortly afterward. There’s a version of it available on YouTube for free.

In terms of more popular music, Lucien Doré is a good place to start (and he also makes an appearance in Call My Agent!), L’Impératrice is great for more dance pop vibes, and Granville are also worth checking out if you like 1960s vibes.

Conversation practice

As mentioned earlier, the hardest thing to practice solo is conversation, and indeed often the aspect of language learning that people find most embarrassing and difficult. In many cities there are meet up groups that offer the chance to meet other French learners, sometimes with a teacher there for a small fee, sometimes as a free group for everyone to practice. These can be incredibly daunting but can really help show where your gaps in knowledge are and ultimately build your confidence for conversation.

Sunday 4 April 2021

A Book of Secrets, Kate Morrison

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Jacaranda Books for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Susan Charlewood, born in Guinea (modern day Ghana) as Nsowah, was ripped from her homeland as a small child along with her brother and mother. During the ensuing voyage her brother was tricked and kidnapped in Seville, and so they arrive in England without him, his absence a constant source of distress. They are taken to Sussex to serve a wealthy family, and when her mother dies Susan is raised and cared for at Framfield. When the family begin to disintegrate she is sent to London to marry a printer many years her senior. She soon finds herself embroiled in Catholic plots of rebellion, faced with some difficult decisions.

Susan is a strong, intelligent character. As the book progresses we see her confidence and resolve grow, finding a place for herself in the busy and dangerous city. She feels isolated at first, feeling a distance between herself and those who have been brought to England under similar circumstances, many of whom passed through Spain and Portugal and have an understanding of these languages. She feels herself an outsider, that her skin makes people suspicious of her. At Framfield they had known her from infancy and so loved her for the person they knew. In a city full of strangers she has to overcome initial prejudice to really be seen.

The issue of race is present throughout but is woven subtly into the narrative. Her stoicism cracks at one point and she reveals a glimpse of the frustration she has felt.  ‘And how should you like it, to always be known for the colour of your skin, which is tainted by the things people choose to see in it - the devil, night, carrion birds? Your whiteness is invisible, no-one looks at you and thinks of leprosy, shrouds, ghosts and white-furred mould. I would like, just for a day, to walk around as you do without looks and stares. I would like to be so unremarkable.’ She regrets the outburst but it is a powerful passage to read. When she falls pregnant she is forced to cope with people frequently wondering how dark her baby will be ‘as if we were trying out some new recipe for syllabub rather than making a living person.’, and in a particularly cruel scene her nationality is blamed for the death of a precious child. 

Her sense of identity is also explored. She remembers little to nothing of her homeland, having been removed from it at such a young age. Other characters casually dismiss her sense of kinship but she resists - she may know little of it but her culture remains important to her and her sense of self. It is painful to watch her berate herself because she doesn’t know the language or the meaning of the keepsakes she treasures from her mother. She eagerly seeks more knowledge, a deeper connection with her lost family and the heritage that she’s been denied.

Within the confines of England dangerous tension simmers between Catholics and Protestants. With Elizabeth on the throne, Catholics are forced to practice in secret, risking an agonising death if discovered. Susan and her husband John are heavily involved  in printing Catholic works yet the weight of hypocrisy essential for survival weighs heavily on John. Friends and contributors are caught and punished and he must suffer printing the gory details of their demise. Susan supports his subversive work but there are times when she must question his motives and honesty. In a world of scheming it’s hard to know who to trust and she must bear the burden of impossible decisions.

Her position is diminished by the fact she is a woman, and although at times advantageous as a cover of innocence, is frequently frustrating. She is kept in the dark and dismissed yet sees more than others realise, willing to go to extremes to protect those she loves. ‘I seemed to do nothing but wait and watch. A woman’s place, yes, but should a woman wait and watch as the sea came in until it washed her all away, or should she pick up her feet and run? I felt the tide coming for me.’ Certainly Susan is not content to wait for life to happen to her, setting out on dangerous missions in search of the truth. When a disgraced former confidante re-emerges later in life she displays a worldliness and determination that surprises her adversaries.

This is a stunning debut - evocative and richly descriptive, it will transport you to the chaos of Tudor London. Morrison deals sensitively with themes of loss and grief and reveals a side of history that is often obscured. With a strong female protagonist and villains that will make your blood boil, this is a hard book to put down.

For more information on the research and history that went into the book head over to The Brown Brontë blog for a fascinating interview with the author.