Saturday, 22 November 2014

Counting down to Christmas:

Whether you like it or not, Christmas is now officially just over a month away.  Some very organised people will have already made a start on their seasonal shopping, and a select few seriously ill individuals will have completed the task (wrapping and all) back in August.  

For the majority of us, though - despite all the good intentions in the world - the 25th of December will creep up far too quickly.  Before you know it, you'll be the person tearing your hair out in the middle of M&S, or fiercely wrestling a fellow shopper for the last Downton Abbey box set.  Usually, that person is me.  But not this year, friends, not this year.

Thanks to the (admittedly quite early) John Lewis Christmas launch night last month, I've been brainstorming gift ideas for my family and friends for a while now.  Like last year, I met Gillian and Lianne (and also the lovely Laura for the first time) at the Edinburgh branch to see what John Lewis have got in store for Christmas 2014.  We were all greeted with a special cocoa infused gin and tonic and tasty canapés from the in store Hotel Chocolat Café - something which I'm sure would make the everyday Christmas shopping experience infinitely better.

As always, we were spoiled rotten by both John Lewis and the Stripe team, and I had a lovely time catching up with some of my favourite Edinburgh bloggers.  Hopefully the snaps I took at the event will help you get into the Christmas spirit if you aren't already - is anyone else getting excited about putting up their tree way too early?

Have a look below at my John Lewis Christmas gift guide which I've split up into a few different categories.  Maybe it will inspire you on your Christmas shopping quest, or maybe it will just make your own wish list longer...

Food & Drink:

1. Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label NV Champagne with Ice Jacket Carry Pack: If I'm ever taking a bottle of white or fizzy wine to a friend's house, I like it to arrive chilled and ready to drink. Now, this might be the most first world problem you've ever heard, but carting a bottle with a cooling jacket on it around is always a pain and obviously the John Lewis buyers think so too! Personally I think a carry handle on an ice jacket is a genius idea, and this one comes with a bottle of Champers too (worth over £35 on its own) - bonus!  (£48)

2. Hotel Chocolat Classic Christmas H-Box: If you're going to give a box of chocolates as a Christmas present, you'd better make sure they're something special. Pretty much anything from Hotel Chocolat is guaranteed to taste great, but doesn't this special Christmas box look amazing too? (£12)

3. Edinburgh Gin Cocktail Set: I'm a big fan of Edinburgh Gin (as any regular readers/friends and family members will already know!) and I also love a good cocktail. This cocktail making set comes with everything you'll need to come up with your own concoctions at home. I particularly like the little Edinburgh Gin bottle stopper. (£45)

4. Natalie Chocolates Fondant Sugar Mice Stick Pack: My Mum (err... I mean Santa) always used to put a sugar mouse in my stocking, so I still always associate them with Christmas. These ones are a soft fondant, so will save any cracked teeth dramas on Christmas morning! (£2.50)

5. Build Your Own Gingerbread Train: We're big train fans in my family, so I had to include this cute alternative to a traditional gingerbread house. (£15)

6. Edinburgh Gin Rhubarb & Ginger Liqueur: Edinburgh Gin usually come out with a new flavoured liqueur around Christmas time, and this year it's rhubarb and ginger. These taste great in cocktails, or with some prosecco and I'm curious to taste the new flavour for myself. (£18)

Comfort & Beauty:

1. Barts Maria Beanie Hat: I have a strange relationship with hats. I kind of have too much hair to really stand a chance at making them look good on me, but I still always find myself hankering after woolly bobble hats at this time of year - especially when they're as cute as this one. (£19.99)

2. Benefit Pretty Parfait Gift Set: As a total make up novice, I've always been intrigued by what Benefit has to offer, but could never justify shelling out money on expensive products that might not work for me.  This gift set comes with four famous Benefit items that I haven't tried, one of which - the Benetint lip and cheek stain - is worth £24.50 on its own!   (£29.50)

3. MAVALA Nail Polish Bauble in Rouge Rubis: Despite being an amateur when it comes to make up, I do have a soft spot for nail varnish.  (I've barely had my natural nail colour for more than 24 hours in the last five years, and that's not an exaggeration!)  I've never tried the MAVALA brand before, so buying a single polish like this seems like a good way to try it out, and the fact that it's encased in a Christmas tree bauble is just an added bonus. (£5)

4. OPI Nails - Gwen Mini Christmas Holiday Stars Gift Set: OPI have a great reputation, but up until recently their nail varnishes were pretty difficult to get your hands on in the UK.  This special Christmas set has four festive colours (with amazing names like 'What's Your Point-Settia?') and the mini sized bottles will last longer than you think.  Bargain! (£14.50)

5. John Lewis Christmas Tree Duvet Cover and Pillowcase Set: Some people might think decorating your bedroom for Christmas is over the top, but I am not one of those people. Last year I bought a snuggly, tartan flannel duvet cover for the winter months, but I'd be willing to take it one step further with this pretty Christmas tree number.  (£40-£50)

6. Fat Face Reindeer Jersey Pyjama Pants: If I'm going to be properly cosy under my Christmas themed duvet, I obviously need the appropriate reindeer pyjama bottoms to wear. I usually get a new pair as a present every Christmas and wear them to death throughout the year. As long as you get the size right, it's an ideal gift idea for anyone!  (£28)


1. Lumie Bodyclock Go 75 Wake-up Light: I've hankered after one of these alarm clocks that simulate a sunrise for a long time because I have real difficulty waking up in the morning. The idea is that the gradual light will wake you up naturally, rather than jolting you out of bed. I'm not sure if it would work, but I really like the idea! (£75)

2. Joby GripTight GorillaPod Tripod for Smartphones: My Dad has a GorillaPod, so I've seen firsthand how cool and useful they are. I've wanted a tripod for my iPhone for a while (more for filming than taking photos, but it could come in handy for that too!) and having the bendable legs means you can wrap it around anything to get your shot, rather than carting around a bulky, tall tripod. (£25)

3. Nespresso Inissia Coffee Machine by KRUPS in Red: I never thought I would be a coffee (or tea) drinker, but apparently adulthood requires a lot of caffeine. We had a Nespresso coffee maker in one of our USA hotel rooms, and it was really easy to use. Buying a machine like this might be a bit pricey, but at around 30p per Nespresso pod I would save a lot of money on coffee in the long run! (£62.99-£80)

4. Apple Wireless Remote: Having a remote for my laptop (and phone) is a bit of an extravagance really, but it could come in handy while watching movies in bed or listening to music around the house. I don't think the Apple remote is compatible with third party programs - like Netflix - but that's not the end of the world when it's not overly expensive. (£15)

What's on your Christmas list this year?

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Instagram #28:

1. Well these photos feel like part of a distant (beautiful) dream now, but Craig and I had these much needed cocktails at The Cheesecake Factory in Boston after a terrifying drive into the city during rush hour.  (You can watch Craig's traumatised reaction to that journey in our travel vlog here...)
2. I loved these coloured lanterns in Boston's Chinatown.
3. Autumn leaves (and my Doc Martens) on a rainy day in Harvard Yard.

4. Extremely strong cocktails in glasses made of ice at the amazing Frost Ice Bar in Boston.
5. Here I am eating a McDonald's in Times Square on our last day in NYC - the quintessential American experience, right?
6. Back in Blighty and having a lovely time at the John Lewis Christmas launch event.

7. Our flat was spookified for Halloween (just because I'm a saddo, not because we were having a party...).
8. £2.50 frozen margaritas at Paradise Palms on a school night.
9. There's nothing like a seasonal window display at Lovecrumbs to make a person feel festive.

10. I can finally buy knitwear again after we got a new washing machine, so to celebrate I treated myself to this amazing orange jumper with quilted pleather shoulders from H&M.
11. I snapped this moody sunset on my way home from work a couple of weeks ago.  Not bad, Edinburgh, not bad.
12. The lovely Nicola and I on our graduation day.

13. Last but not least, here's my (not so) wee Craig on his birthday on Friday.  Isn't he cute?

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Inferior Book Group #10:

I would never call reading a chore, but I'm a fairly slow reader compared to a lot of other people - especially people who also have English literature degrees.  That being said, I absolutely tore through Orange is the New Black during October.  I actually only started reading it on our flight home from America on the 13th, and I was finished by the end of the month, which - for me - is the equivalent of lightning speed.

Those of you who read my occasional 'What I'm watching' posts will already know that I'm a big fan of the Orange is the New Black TV adaptation, so I was intrigued to read Piper Kerman's original 2010 memoir about life in a women's prison.  Piper was incarcerated for just over a year in 2004, after pleading guilty to money laundering and drug trafficking ten years before, although that charge makes her crime sound a lot more cold and calculating than it actually was.

Orange is the New Black follows Kerman's prison journey from start to finish, and she doesn't spare any of the gory details either.  I was surprised to learn that there was truth behind the majority of the TV adaptation's story lines, although (funnily enough) the Hollywood version adds a lot of extra drama into the mix. 

Source: here 

For the most part, the real Piper has a fairly painless prison experience, but generally thanks to her fellow prisoners and not the state.  The book might not be as raunchy a thrill ride as the Netflix series, but Kerman is a witty and skilled narrator, and her writing style made me feel like I was listening to an old friend or 'bunkie' reminisce instead of reading a memoir.  Now and again the surreal 'normality' of it all lulled me into a false sense of security, which made occasional instances of cruelty at the hands of prison staff or other inmates all the more unsettling.

Without digressing from her story, Kerman uses Orange is the New Black as a platform to highlight the many injustices and flaws within the US prison system, and probably many others across the world.  I did find myself sympathising with Piper and her friends on the inside, despite the fact that they are criminals.  As the author points out, many of the women locked up with her in FCI Danbury had received long sentences for committing - or sometimes just being aware of - minor crimes, purely as a result of poor representation in court.  Piper, who could afford a first class lawyer, got off lightly for what is considered a fairly serious offence.

Rather than give the whole tale away (which I nearly have about forty times whilst writing this review) I'll just say this: I haven't enjoyed a book this much in a long, long time.  I would highly recommend giving Orange is the New Black a read, even if you've already watched the TV show to death.  No matter how tough those actresses might look, Kerman's account is the real, scary, warts-and-all deal.  I spent nearly every minute of reading this book feeling thankful for the most mundane luxuries in my life, including hot water, conditioner and vegetables.  If you know anyone considering a life of crime, buy them Orange is the New Black for Christmas.

You can follow the Piper Kerman on Twitter here, and check out her website here, for more information about her story.

Throughout November I'll be reading Paul Auster's 'meta detective fiction' work, The New York Trilogy.  I was actually meant to read this book three years ago for a module on my undergrad English lit. uni course, but more on that next time...

Read September's review here: On the Road