29/06/13 - Summertime Catch-Up

It's been a while since I did a chatty lifestyle-y post on here, so I thought it was time we had a little catch-up.  I've officially been home from university for three weeks now and much to my surprise, I've found myself pretty busy.  While I wait for my six-week stint at my old job to start in the middle of July, I've been doing some work experience at a  local theatre which is a great opportunity for me to see if it's something I think I'd like to pursue in the future, as well as giving me something to do.  Unfortunately, voluntary work takes up time but does not provide me with any form of income so I am currently a hermit with no social life unless it's free.  Graduate life can be a little depressing in that sense.

This Tuesday, I had a day off on the most beautifully hot and sunny day we've had for a very long time.  Despite my lack of funds, I treated myself to a catch-up with two of my lovely chummies, Chloe and Rachel, as a last hurrah before I go into hibernation for a week in order to save some money.  We headed to La Tasca where we sat outside and got a little bit pink in the hot midday soon, ate some delicious food (which I didn't photograph) and had a long overdue catch-up.  I love seeing friends that I haven't for a while; there's always so much gossip to discuss!  In order to work off our meal, we hired an odd bike-contraption (I think the official name is 'quadracycle') and took it for a spin up and down the promenade.  By the end our legs ached, our knees were bruised from repeatedly banging against the metal of the frame, and our stomachs ached from laughing so much.  Quadracycle is the only way to travel on a sunny day!

Wednesday was results day and therefore, despite the physical exertions of Tuesday - cycling doesn't usually feature largely in my daily activity - I didn't sleep too well and woke up really early to find that....drum roll...I will be graduating on 9th July with 2:1 degree in English!  I'm so relieved and really happy for all my friends who are as pleased as I am.  Now that that worry is out of the way, I'm getting quite excited for graduation and seeing some of my favourite people again.  I can imagine it'll be quite emotional, especially being back at uni and not being able to go to my old house.

As I've been in work all week, I didn't get to celebrate properly until Friday night.  While my brother was living the high life at someone's party - ahh, teenage house parties, the glamour - my parents and I went out for a meal at this really lovely little restaurant called Scog's.  I'd never been before as it's a little further from home than I usually venture, but if you're ever around the West Kirby area, I would definitely recommend it.

We had fresh bread and dipping oil to start.  The rolls were warm and I like being given a bottle of oil rather than a little dish which I will inevitably wipe clean while there is still bread left.

The menu has a nice range of dishes, including the Holy Grail of eating out with vegetarians; veggie options that aren't entirely dependent on goat's cheese.  While I am a big fan of it (and cheese of any kind, really), my family are not and it's incredibly common for meat to be replaced by goat's cheese.  Having said that, I actually got a goat's cheese option but that isn't the point.

Goat's cheese Wellington, roasted cherry tomatoes, sweet red pepper
coulis with saute potatoes and French beans.
Seared tuna steak on wilted baby spinach with cherry tomatoes, French
beans and olives topped with flakes of parmesan and aged balsamic vinegar
Tagliatelle arabiata, chili, garlic, roasted tomato sauce, peas and courgette
As is the way in our family, we all ordered different things and there was a fair amount of tasting going on.  The potatoes with my meal were beautiful - lovely and crispy, and particularly good dipped in the sweet pepper sauce which I was very taken with - and the tuna, which is hidden away under all the trappings, was perfectly cooked and seasoned.  The pasta was delicious; a really fresh sauce rather than tasting overly of tomato and not too spicy.  Overall, very impressed with the quality of the food and I think the portions were just the right size to leave a little space for dessert!

Lemon and lime tart with lemon meringue ice cream
Warm chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream
Caramel sticky toffee pudding with toffee fudge ice cream
I was really impressed with the lemon and lime filling as it had a lovely tartness you don't always get from creamy citrussy desserts, but it wasn't overly sweetened which I appreciated.  The pastry was a little tough but I still really enjoyed it.  The sticky toffee pudding was delicious as well, with a sort of 'burned toffee' flavour which I am a big fan of over a more artificially sweetened sauce...you may see a trend developing here.  Largely I am a savoury or sour girl and I have to be really in the mood for something really sugary.  

And today is Saturday, and all I've done is read in the garden and tidy my room up as it was getting a little out-of-hand messy.  I doubt I'll be doing much of interest tomorrow as we're in the process of preparing our hall, stairs and landing area for the plasterer coming at the start of next week before the decorator comes the week after.  It's all change here!

Sorry that this post is so rambly and probably not fascinating, but I feel like I've been doing a lot of reviews on here recently and less stuff about my actual life.  I hope all of you are doing well and I'm hoping to have lots of exciting things to blog about this summer.

Let me know your summer plans in the comments!

24/06/13 - 'Why We Broke Up' by Daniel Handler

Before this book was published, I'd been waiting with baited breath for its release.  Having read Adverbs (my review of which you can read here) and of course The Series of Unfortunate Events - written by Handler under the assumed name of Lemony Snicket - I was really looking forward to experiencing yet another facet of his writing.  This young-adult novel details the failed relationship between Min Green and her basketball vice-captain boyfriend, Ed.  The reader experiences the story through a long letter written by Min as she returns the tokens and trinkets collected throughout their time together, each one a little part of the reason they broke up.  Every chapter starts with a beautiful painting by Maira Kalman of each item as they come out of the box followed by the next section of the story.  The illustrations really add something to the novel in my opinion, giving everyday objects the added weight and meaning which Min has given them by keeping them.

Having said how much I'd been looking forward to reading it, this book spent nearly a year gathering dust on a shelf before I finally got around to it...but it was certainly worth the wait. Handler's trademark writing style - often described as, horror of horrors, 'quirky' - is a fantastic insight into the mind of our protagonist.  Min, who is continually referred to as "different" at her insistence "don't say arty", is a high school junior (which means nothing to me as a Brit but Google tells me is basically around ages 16 and 17) who embarks on an unexpected relationship with 'jock' Ed.  Handler does a great job of making Ed more than your typical shallow athlete as portrayed in every American teen movie and sitcom going...or at least, a great job of making the reader believe that he can be more than that, as Min does.  However, it's the moments at which he lives up to his stereotype which seem to contribute to the ultimate downfall of their romance.  While the relationship lasts only a matter of weeks, the emotions of the novel are totally believable as the young couple fall madly in love and it's very easy to be swept along with them.  The love story can be bittersweet in places due to our prior knowledge, but this doesn't make the climax any less heart-breaking.  I often found myself forgetting that the whole thing was doomed from the outset and when I remembered, hoping against hope for a happy ending.  In this way, it could be considered as a modern-day Romeo and Juliet - it's true that Min and Ed initially seem incompatible due to their very contrasting social groups and spend much of their time trying to justify their relationship to friends and family who just don't understand.  However, I'm glad to say that Handler's ultimate body count is far less than Shakespeare's.

This story is one that nearly everyone is familiar with; that first rush of excitement which develops into feelings of love (true or otherwise) and ultimately ends with you looking back on the time that's passed and trying to pick out the clues for where it went wrong and, as the title says, why you broke up.  Towards the end, there are over three pages of what can be described as 'high school angst'; Min rants that, contrary to popular belief, she isn't at all different - "I talk like a moron, I can't say one thing to talk to people that makes them like me...only stupid people would think I was smart...I'm a blemished blemish, a ruined ruin, a stained wreck".  While at times Min can come across as a little pretentious, largely she seems wise and articulate beyond her years.  Somehow, Handler's poetic and flowing prose stops it seeming self-indulgent and pathetic, and instead speaks to me of exactly how being a teenager is.  Everyone's had those feelings, whether it was after a break-up or just after a hard day, that nothing they do is right and that they're essentially worthless, and this is captured perfectly within the pages of this book.

If you're looking for an easy romantic tale to flick through on the beach this summer, maybe give this book a miss.  But if you want a story which will tug on your heartstrings with equal parts romance, humour and almost uncomfortably familiar home-truths, then this is the one for you.  And if this gets you in the mood for a few more break-up stories, head over to 'The Why We Broke Up Project' - some are painful ("I loved you unconditionally, you only loved me when I was 'perfect'"), some are poignant ("every photograph he ever took of me was out-of-focus"), some seem petty ("you didn't cry at the final Harry Potter film"), and all are worth a read.  Trust me, you can waste hours getting little snippets of other people's relationships on here.  You can even watch Daniel Handler himself accosting strangers in Grand Central Station to ask about their own personal heartbreak (watch here if the embedded video doesn't work).

If you have any book recommendations, leave them in the comments!

19/06/13 - Theatre review: The Last Five Years

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There is a lot of theatre - musical and otherwise - which I don't get to see for various reasons.  The primary ones are not living in either London or New York, along with not having endless reserves of cash and time to play with.  While seeing West End productions is more possible, unfortunately it's not always as feasible as I would want and subsequently I don't catch a lot of shows which I would like to.  However, being on the wrong continent for Broadway is a more difficult stumbling block to overcome.  Even without a whole ocean between me and the shows I want to see, a lot of productions pass me by and I come to regret that.  Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years is one I always thought would remain on my ever-growing 'to-see' list.  Despite being an utterly stunning piece of work, its staging has been scarce.  After a two month off-Broadway run in 2002 and an even shorter revival earlier this year, its following can certainly be described as 'cult'.  Since then, there have been a handful of tiny regional productions both in the States and the UK, and it continues to tug at the heartstrings and inspire its dedicated fans.  And I finally got to see it at Liverpool's Epstein Theatre, after years of listening to the original cast recording.

Normally, I try not to include spoilers in my reviews but I fear that is nigh on impossible for this show.  The Last Five Years is a musical two-hander told almost entirely through song which details the highs and lows of the five year relationship between up-and-coming novelist Jamie and aspiring actress Cathy - the two roles played brilliantly by Stephen Fletcher and Helen Carter.  The plot is unusual in that the audience experiences the story from two perspectives: Jamie's story is chronological while Cathy's begins at the end of their failed marriage...the whole thing starts with the ultimate spoiler.  The happiness we see in the middle of the story is bittersweet due to the prior knowledge that is all due to go sour very soon, and we see hints of the relationship's demise along the way.  The timelines meet briefly for one song, before taking off in their opposite directions once again.  While this structure can be a little confusing (the programme contained a handy timeline for anyone who was struggling to get their head around it), it works by reinforcing the reason for the ultimate failure of this relationship: a lack of communication which Jamie and Cathy are unable to overcome.  Despite the very little interaction between the two performers, their relationship is entirely believable as both bring a balance of heart and vitality to their characters which the show would be lost without.  While this may sound like a rather miserable way to spend an evening, there are moments of wonderful comedy in amongst the ballads - 'Summer in Ohio' and 'A Miracle Would Happen' in particular spring to mind.

The two actors absolutely shine in this production and compliment each other beautifully.  Carter's Cathy is heartfelt and funny with a hint of fragility which is emphasised as she struggles with her floundering acting career, while Jamie's writing takes off with roaring success.  Fletcher does a fantastic job as the arguably less-likable half of the duo, and the audience were swept away by his charismatic and nuanced performance.  The question of 'picking sides' is one which is particularly prevalent to a story of this nature, but I won't be doing that here.  Both characters are realistic and relatable in their flaws, and I leave it to you to see the show and decide who you sympathise with.  The two performances, combined with the onstage three-piece band, perfectly portray Brown's wonderful score and eloquent lyrics, bringing to life songs I know back-to-front and making them feel entirely new.

I actually went to see this with my seventeen-year-old brother who has spent most of his life being dragged to various theatrical performances, with mixed reactions (Avenue Q was a particular favourite, unsurprisingly).  He concluded that, he would "be happy to see it again and it was good".  Glowing praise from a teenage boy.  Sometimes, a production comes along which reminds me of exactly why I want to work in theatres, and The Last Five Years is one of them; like Cathy, I want to be 'A Part of That'.  Cheesy but true.

The Epstein Theatre is a lovely little venue on Hanover Street and I thoroughly recommend this production to anyone looking for a great night out in Liverpool.  There are performances every night this week with a matinee on Saturday and a final early evening show on Sunday 23rd June - you can find more information here.  The tickets are an absolute bargain and despite the immense talent being showcased, the theatre was barely half full.  This production deserves to be playing to a packed house so please go along if you get the chance.  I will definitely be going again before it closes, and I look forward to seeing what else Life in Theatre - a new company to me - has to offer in the future!


Did you catch this production, or will I see you there before it closes?  Are there any shows you particularly regret missing?

16/06/13 - Espresso Granita for Father's Day

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This blog post is an amalgamation of things.  Not only is it briefly about Father's Day and an opportunity to share a delicious new recipe with you all, it's a chance for me to show off my parents' fancy new camera.  All the images in this post were taken on that, so feel free to tell me how much better they look than my usual ones!

Today's recipe is courtesy of Le Creuset.  My dad is a big fan and for Father's Day, he was treated not only to some chocolate and some novelty wine bottle covers (I buy the best gifts), but also to a snazzy red oven glove to replace the one he has which is falling apart.  And along with this thrilling present came a handful of recipe cards used to advertise their new ranges of cookware.  This one caught our collective eye and it was decided that it had to be tried as a Father's Day treat.  I give you Espresso Granita - a refreshing frozen coffee dish perfect as a light dessert or a cheeky afternoon snack.

For this recipe, you will need:
400ml filter coffee
50g brown sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1 tablespoon of good quality chocolate powder

We toyed around with the recipe and substituted chocolate-flavoured coffee for normal, subsequently forgoing the chocolate powder.  This is something you could play with until you found what works for you and your tastes, experimenting with the coffee you have to hand.  

We made the coffee in a cafetiere and decanted it into a measuring jug, before adding the sugar and vanilla extract to the hot liquid in order to dissolve them quickly.  Alternatively, you can do this in a saucepan.  When everything is combined, pour the mixture into a shallow roasting dish or plastic container and leave to cool before placing in the freezer.

After an hour and a half-ish, check on your mixture and give it a stir to break up the formation of ice crystals before popping it back in the freezer.  Repeat this process twice more, or until you're happy with the consistency.  Depending on how much you stir it, the texture can range from very granular to a soft sorbet.

To serve, give the mixture one last stir and spoon into chilled bowls or espresso mugs (place these in the fridge when you start the process so they'll be good and cold).  We added a splash of Kahlua (coffee liqueur), a dollop of mascarpone and little grated chocolate.

The flavour of the coffee isn't overwhelming when frozen so we enhanced it with the Kahlua, but you could always use stronger coffee depending on your tastes.  It went down a storm and fortunately, this recipe made too much for four so there's still some in the freezer for another day!

Alongside this, my brother and I treated my dad to a very rich chocolate cake made by our own fair hands.  Filled with mascarpone and cherry jam and topped with chocolate Philadelphia with red sprinkles (Dad's favourite colour, hence the oven glove), it was very moist and sticky but received effusive praise from even our household's resident baker; the man it was made for.

After a day filled with lots of yummy treats and many an intense card game, it was time to settle down in front of Argo (amazing film) with a glass or three of prosecco.  I hope everyone had a lovely Sunday, whatever you were doing and whoever you were doing it with!  I'd like to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to my dad, Colin, for being the most wonderfully supportive father I could ask for.  I may not always act like it, but I am eternally grateful for everything he does for me.  

If you have any naughty recipes, feel free to leave them in the comments below!

09/06/13 - The Perfect Summer Picnic

England has been having some shockingly nice weather recently - long hot days and warm lazy evenings, perfect for lounging in a deck chair or enjoying a Pimms in a beer garden.  But nothing says British summer-time quite like a picnic.  To me at least, it feels like one of the quaintest and most quintessentially English of summer pursuits...rivaled only by watching cricket and wearing tennis whites.  In my opinion, there is very little that can beat a good picnic.  And I'm not talking soggy sandwiches and crushed crisps with a carton of Ribena pulled out of a cool-bag in the middle of a crowded park with screaming children and wasps all around.  When I picnic, I picnic properly.

A picnic hamper is essential.  Not only is it the most efficient way to carry all your goodies without them getting squashed, it comes with everything you need to make the event a success - matching plates and cutlery, sometimes even a wine cooler.  And they look really cute and vintage.  Unfortunately, department stores make an absolute killing charging extortionate prices for picnic hampers, so maybe scout around some charity shops or boot sales for one in equally as good condition but at a fraction of the price.  I believe the one in these photos cost a grand total of £20.

Choose your food wisely, and pack it well.  After going all out and raiding the Tesco deli counter, we put everything in Tupperware which could realistically go in Tupperware.  This makes packing the hamper easier - more like playing Tetris than just squishing everything in - and the clearing up process much more manageable.  Also, we wanted this picnic to be a little more upmarket, so we ditched the cold sausage rolls and rapidly-warming shop-bought potato salad in favour of a Mediterranean loaf and various crackers with four different kinds of cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, smoked salmon and two types of chutney followed by mini Mississippi mud pies and physalis berries - I didn't really know what they were, but they were delicious!

Pick your spot carefully.  Whilst deciding where to have your picnic, it's important to consider things like human traffic, how many excitable dogs frequent the area, and the quality of the terrain.  There's nothing worse than settling down for your picnic and finding that the ground is uneven and uncomfortable.  In order to counter even the bumpiest of grass, don't forget a blanket or possibly even camping chairs, which we opted for due to the blanket we were using being covered in dog hair.  Our picnic spot was a gorgeous deserted field surrounded by trees with freshly-mown grass and a killer view of the river...but you can't be so lucky every time.

Clear up properly afterwards.  If you've packed your hamper efficiently, this shouldn't be difficult and it's such a simple thing to do out of common courtesy for the area in which you are eating and the other people around.  Also make sure you have the boring essentials such as suncream - an absolute must for me, considering I burn to a crisp at the first sign of sunshine - and a jumper for if the afternoon gets chilly.  Even the best picnic can be spoiled by forgetting something little which will end up with people getting grumpy.  

If you do end up a bit red (which we all did), slap on the after-sun and spend the rest of the day lazing around and bemoaning how deliciously full you are.  Or do what we did, and head home for an afternoon espresso and an intense Scrabble game.

All in all, a wonderful time was had by all and we ended the day a little pinker and feeling about a stone heavier than before, but very happy.  I personally think that eating al fresco makes everything taste better and it's one of the best ways to make the most of the gorgeous  weather before we descend back into the never-ending depths of autumn and winter.

Have you had your first picnic of the summer yet?  What's your favourite picnic treat?

03/06/13 - End of Year Ball

This weekend provided yet another opportunity to get a bit more dressed up - I seem to have been finding quite a lot of those recently.  This was our university's End of Year Ball; the Student Union was transformed to reflect the Alice in Wonderland theme, the car park was turned into a fairground and a stage was erected to hold a host of acts including Rudimental and JLS.  As well as all that, there was a chocolate fountain, a silent disco and a hog roast amongst other things.  I didn't go to the event last year and the ball in first year was...dramatic to say the least.  So I was excited to see my university experience out with a bang and no arguments!  I'm happy to say that that is exactly what I did.

We invited a big group of people over to our house for pre-drinks before going to the ball.  After Pimms, sparkling wine and even Moet (who says students can't be classy?), we headed outside into the surprisingly pleasant evening weather to take some photos of everyone in their finest.

I'm really going to miss my gorgeous housemates

My dress is from Jones & Jones for Topshop, and
my shoes are Zara - both a very early birthday present
from my lovely friend Alistair.
The atmosphere when we arrived was amazing - everyone was having a great time, and it was a fantastic evening which involved a lot of bumping into people you didn't even realise were there and losing the people you came with.  I danced to everything from Rudimental on the main stage to the live band in the jazz tent and the eclectic mix of tunes on the silent disco headphones.  I ate chips from the food vans and doughnuts smothered in melted chocolate while trying not to drip on my hand-wash-only dress.  I chatted to people I haven't seen for months, and subsequently missed a chance to go on the dodgems (the only bit of the fairground I can stomach, wimp that I am) as it closed at midnight.  I kept my shoes on for the vast majority of the night, which makes me very proud.  Unlike some of my friends, I only had a few drinks all night which worked out for the best - a clear head the next day, a total recall of the fun I had the night before, and a surprising amount of cash left in my purse!

Overall, I couldn't think of a better way to round off a fantastic year.  I spent the night with some of my favourite people in the world, having a brilliant time and making memories which will stay with me through the months of uncertainty which will follow my move home on Saturday - eek!

Cheers to the end of an amazing year!

You can read the lovely Charlie's post about the same night here and I highly recommend you do, her blog is great!