Did you celebrate Valentine’s Day? We did but for a different reason – it was Zsa Zsa’s birthday. She turned seven years old and is such a happy, happy dog. Every day, she brings joy into our life. She spends her days chasing butterflies, moths and dragonflies. So for little ZZ’s birthday, El Hubs bought us all a box of Valentine’s chocolates.

Chocolate is poisonous to dogs so no, we did not feed Zeph or Zsa Zsa chocolates. But we had one each in celebration of her birthday. There’s a chocolate cafe about six minutes away from where we live. I avoid it as much as possible. It has the most wonderful cakes, gelato and handmade chocolates. But best to stay away.

I’m not sure if I have ever mentioned this but, down in the South island, I used to work in a book shop on Saturdays. I wanted to get retail experience. I often worked other days as well, filling in for someone else or when an extra hand was required around Christmas time.

After centuries working in organisations, I wondered if retail held any mysteries. It doesn’t and I turned out to be surprisingly good at the whole selling thing. I worked in the shop for over three years and loved it. One of the best aspects was working with a young girl. When we started working together, she was 18 years old and I remember thinking oh God, she will be useless. I thought this because, as you get older, you think that the generations behind you aren’t as well-educated or aren’t hard-working enough. You get stuck in the comfort zone of your own generation.

Wrong! She turned out to be extremely proficient and we became great friends. She would often come over to our place for coffee; when there were no customers we would talk about everything from history to the latest YA books she had read, philosophy and religion. And when she came over to visit, she always arrived with a plate of freshly-made scones.

Since moving to the North island, we have stayed in contact and she announced, about a month ago, that she is coming to visit me. She is travelling with an older sister (who became my hairdresser) and will be here next week. I’m super-excited to see her and very pleased to say that despite our significant age gap (since I’m incredibly ancient), a millennial finds me interesting enough to visit.

It’s like Cathy, the 20-something French girl who was in New Zealand for three years. We became great friends and she would come out from Christchurch to visit and we’d spend hours sitting together and talking in the hay barn. She returned to France in 2014 but we still remain in contact and chat on Skype.

When she was in NZ, she would talk to me about her future. She didn’t know what she wanted to do in life and we’d talk for ages about possibilities. I’m very proud of her actually because she has gone on to study nanotechnology.

I’ll probably take my young friend to the chocolate cafe, despite saying I try to avoid it. But her visit is a good excuse, don’t you think?

Zsa Zsa doing what she loves best – chasing butterflies.

We limited ourselves to a smallish box of chocs.

 

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I haven’t inflicted a What’s In My Bag? or a FOTD (face of the day) on you in quite some time. That’s not because I don’t use handbags or makeup anymore. I certainly do. But I’ve been so busy with the move from the South to the North Island. Getting established up here – planting, designing the new home (well, El Hubs is doing that), finding new kennels for the Z Team, finding my way around our new area – and this has taken up most of 2017.

So it’s time to inflict on you a post showing you what’s in the latest bag I’m hauling around. In line with my ongoing approach to minimalism, I have a very small bag. I’m not really hauling anything. Most days, I’m on the property walking the dogs and enjoying the beautiful scenery. Not much need to take a handbag with me LOL When I go out, I take this bag with me. I have also continued my commitment to buying NZ made products as much as possible. If I can’t find an NZ product, I then find one made in Australia.

My bag is from The Cowhide Company, a NZ company based in Auckland. It’s called the X-Body Clutch. You can detach the silver chain strap and it becomes a clutch or keep the chain on and wear it as a shoulder bag. Very versatile. From the same company, I also have a huge carry-bag that I use when I want to carry around the whole house. I’m waiting for them to release a new bag I’ve seen on their Facebook page and I’ll most likely pounce on it.

In this bag, I have my very small wallet. I’ve downsized from big wallets to a small one that I can just take with me if I don’t want to carry a handbag. It’s from The Design Edge, an Australian family-owned company. Because it’s so small I only have room for credit cards, driver’s licence and some cash. Any credit card receipts I remove from the wallet once a week.

I have also downsized my lipstick collection. I stick to lippies from three companies basically – Revlon (a long term favourite), Inika and xobeauty. Inika is an Australian certified organic, cruelty-free, 100% vegan beauty range that I have used for years. I remember when they first launched and I was still living in Australia – maybe around 2007 – I bought one of their mineral foundation powders in a chemist in Sydney. They have come a long way since then and I use a lot of their products – mineral bronzer, illuminator, eye shadows.

XO Beauty is a New Zealand company started by a 20-something Kiwi YouTuber. It’s amazing how many YouTubers have brought out product ranges. Makeup Geek is another makeup brand started by an American YouTuber that has been very successful. I very much like the lipstick range from XO Beauty. In one of the photos below, you will see my two fav lipsticks from this brand – Philocaly, which is a matte pinky nude and Kaiross, which is a matte orangey-pink. When I want a bit of gloss, I use my favourite – Inika certified organic lip glaze in Cinnamon. I also have their lip glazes in Watermelon and Berry. I carry an old concealer around; just in case. I’m pretty sure it’s from CoverGirl but the writing has long since worn off.

So I can see what I’m doing when applying lippy, I have a very old compact from Estee Lauder. It was part of a zodiac range. I think they still have this range but not in this exact shape and design. My mum bought this for me many years ago. I wouldn’t part with it for anything in the world.

And that’s it. The extent of what I carry around these days.

You can fold over the bag, remove the silver chain and use it as a clutch. Or fold it over and keep the chain on. Or have it extended as in this photo, so it becomes a larger bag. Very versatile!

The Design Edge small wallet with gold zip.

There are two compartments.

XO Beauty lipsticks in Philocaly (far left) and Kaiross (middle); Inika Certified Organic Lip Glaze in Cinnamon.

Estee Lauder compact in Taurus zodiac design and studded with crystals.

 

The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski. Published 1953 and I have A Guild Original edition from that year. As part of my New Year’s resolution to read books and authors from the early to mid-20th C, I picked up this book at a second-hand book shop. This is a novella by an English novelist widely known in the early 1950s for her book, Little Boy Lost.

Given the premise, I was expecting more suspense and horror but I think you need to approach this book as a study in fear. The MC is Melanie Langdon, who is recovering from tuberculosis. She is married to Guy and has a baby who is looked after by a nanny. One afternoon, she relaxes on a chaise-longue she bought at an antique shop in 1950’s London. She drifts off to sleep and…..awakens in the year 1864 and in the body of Milly Baines. She is lying on the very same chaise-longue and we learn that Milly also suffers from TB but her condition is far more advanced. She is kept in a dark, smelly room by her sister, Adelaide, and we quickly learn that the sister disapproves of something Milly has done.

What I liked about this novella is how we are inside Melanie’s mind as she looks at the unfamiliar surroundings: the furniture in the room, the dress worn by Adelaide. Along with Melanie, we wonder: is this a nightmare? But it can’t be since Melanie starts to recognise people, particularly Mr Charters, who she is instantly and emotionally drawn to.

Melanie’s thoughts become those of Milly and we start to question whether they are one and the same person; or whether Melanie has time-travelled; or is remembering a previous life. Melanie is trapped and desperate to have Dr. Endworthy (who is attending her) believe that she is from the future and is not Milly Baines.

I don’t know if I’m placing a modern interpretation on this book, because after all, it might just be a study of fear. But I wonder if Laski was commenting on the changing role of women: Victorian-era Milly was cloistered away, not only due to her illness, but because her secret brought great shame on women of that time period. On the other hand, Melanie lived in the post-WWII era, which had more economic opportunities since women had been a part of the war effort. However, the 1950s was still a repressed decade for women and so Melanie finds herself a victim of the very same claustrophobic and powerless milieu Victorian women found themselves in. I think it’s a great book for the contemporary woman to read: you will be in the grip of panic just thinking about the lack of power and independence women had in both time periods.

The writing style I found a bit turgid and, towards the end of the novella, it gets philosophical (which I didn’t mind). I’d thoroughly recommend this book.

The Boat Runner by Devin Murphy. Debut novel published in 2017. This is a very original look at WWII through the eyes of a 14-year-old Dutch boy, Jacob Koopman, who lives in Delfzijl, Netherlands, where his father has a light bulb factory. I liked the way this story started off on the cusp of war in 1939 – a fairly affluent Dutch family, complete with family dog. Jacob and his brother Edwin are sent to a boy’s camp in Germany and this is basically a Hitler Youth Camp.

The Germans declare war and eventually the Dutch surrender. Delfzijl is occupied and Jacob’s father must flee because he has been sabotaging the German war efforts. Jacob’s uncle has his fishing boat confiscated by the occupiers and goes to work for the Germans, although we discover that he works tirelessly against the Germans.

Jacob’s mother is killed when the Allies bomb Delfzijl and he decides to fight for the Germans and enlists in the naval programme. He is trained to run solo missions in midget submarines and sinks an Allied ship. Uncle Martin reappears in his life and urges him to flee Europe.

Essentially, this novel is about guilt. Jacob considered his uncle guilty of murder by shooting the German soldiers he was supposed to be ferrying to Delfzijl. When he sinks the Allied ship with a torpedo, Jacob sees a man leaping to a fiery death and he becomes consumed with guilt. He then escapes the naval programme and begins an arduous journey across Europe, suffers frost bite and is nearly captured. Ultimately, Jacob makes it to England and I won’t spoilt it for you – what he becomes in life is quite fitting.

I liked this novel but it was not a page turner. I think due to the prose. Murphy certainly has a way with words but, at times, the purple prose descriptions were a bit too much. I kept expecting some Biblical theme music or trumpets sounding from the heavens.

I think characterisation was extremely good but this novel is no light read. It’s full of sadness and loss. But that is the story of WWII. Sometimes I found the dialogue a bit too contemporary. For example on p.231 a character says: “Wait, what?”. I’m not sure that would have been said in the 1940s.

I like ambiguous or untidy endings but one part of this irritated me – we never found out what happened to Jacob’s father.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. This is the first book in a trilogy by a Chinese author, originally published in 2006 and now translated for an English-speaking audience. I know this is a highly-regarded sci-fi novel in China and although it’s interesting, I found it incredibly boring in parts. I don’t normally read sci-fi or fantasy but decided to branch out in 2018. This novel won the Hugo Award for best novel in 2015, so I thought let’s give it a go.

Basically, it’s the story of humanity’s first contact with aliens, set against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution. A signal was sent out from Earth and discovered by the Trisolaran civilisation, who inhabit a world with three unpredictable suns. On Earth, factions form from those who want to welcome the aliens to those who will fight the invasion. Any number of important questions are raised along the way – do we really want aliens to know of our existence? Given our destruction of the environment and natural resources, is humanity worth saving? What is the role and importance of randomness in our universe?

What I found particularly fascinating was the link between the Cultural Revolution (which occurred between 1966-1976) and one of the main characters, Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist who witnesses the beating to death of her father during the revolution. Many years later, she becomes the first person to contact an alien race. Her dark experience during the Cultural Revolution led her to be so disappointed in humanity that she could entertain inviting an alien race to come to Earth, despite a warning from someone on Trisolaris that she should not respond to any message (clearly indicating that the Trisolarans are a nasty bunch of aliens).

However, the problem I have with this novel (over 400+ pages) is the writing style – lengthy passages of technical exposition about everything from quantum mechanics to artificial intelligence. Interesting yes, but also could send you off to sleep. I sometimes thought I was reading a textbook, such was the stilted academic-type prose. I could not engage with any (of the many!) wooden characters.

This is a book of ideas, not Independence Day with spaceships buzzing around. Why it took over 400 pages to say what the author wanted, I don’t know.

The fascinating parts of the book for me were learning more about China under the Cultural Revolution; the postscript in which Cixin Liu talks about his fascination with the first Chinese satellite, launched in 1970, and his early life in a small village; and the translator’s explanation regarding choice of words, as well as the footnotes in the novel explaining Chinese historical or cultural references.

Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu – Irish writer of Gothic horror. This novella was recommended to me by a writing friend and it’s a cracker. I have an e-book version. Some niggly points – I had to ignore the fact that the word “languid” was used many, many times – to describe eyes and general disposition of a character. And I had to accept the dense language of the time period, because this novella was published in 1872.

It’s a simple story of a young girl, Laura, who is preyed on by a female vampire called Carmilla. Apparently, Carmilla was a major influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was written some twenty years later. I say this novella was a cracker for a number of reasons. The slow, steady pace got me hooked. No nutty, sharp teeth-baring vampires. This story was a study in restraint.

Laura lives with her father in a castle in a remote area of Styria (Austria) and they give shelter to a young woman, Carmilla. The girls become very close; to the extent that Laura is a bit creeped out.

Laura starts to suffer horrible nightmares after Carmilla’s arrival. She dreams of being bitten on the chest by a creature that looks like a large black cat. Her troubled nights lead to exhaustion and lethargy during the day. The author builds up the tension through Carmilla being possessive of Laura, who is both attracted and repulsed by her but does not have the energy to resist the vampire. Here’s an example of the writing style that suggests an erotic undertone (narrated by Laura):

“I have been in love with no one, and never shall,” she whispered, “unless it should be with you.”

How beautiful she looked in the moonlight!

Shy and strange was the look with which she quickly hid her face in my neck and hair, with tumultuous sighs, that seemed almost to sob, and pressed in mine a hand that trembled.

Her soft cheek was glowing against mine. “Darling, darling,” she murmured, “I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so.”

This is a novella that pits good against evil and all the elements of a good Gothic horror setting are thrown in: old castle, dark forests, nights illuminated by silver moonlight, mist, old chapels, and graveyards.

I wondered at times if I was reading some cross between a vampire and a ghost story. Because Carmilla could disappear through walls or appear at the foot of Laura’s bed as a shadowy figure. I have not read a lot of vampire stories so am not entirely clued up on vampire lore.

I love the mystery built up around Carmilla’s identity. We never really know her back story. We never learn who the mysterious older woman was that accompanied Carmilla at the time of the carriage accident (this accident was witnessed by Laura and her father, who agreed to take the injured Carmilla into the castle while the older woman dashed off on some emergency).

Modern vampires sparkle in the sunlight a’la Twilight, but Carmilla is a character with intriguing depth. Innocent and beautiful to look at; but lies in her coffin while bathed in seven inches of blood. Terrifying!!

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier. Published in 1951. I’m a great fan of this author and have recently reread Rebecca. This is my third time (I think) reading My Cousin Rachel and I consider it better than Rebecca. Absolutely flawless plotting and writing pace.

Phillip Ashley is the narrator. He is the 24-year old cousin of Ambrose, who sets out from his Cornwall estate for the warmer climate of Italy for health reasons, only to meet and marry Rachel (who is apparently a daughter in some obscure Cornish branch of the Ashley family). Ambrose sends increasingly disturbing letters back to Phillip in Cornwall, suggesting that he is being poisoned by Rachel and her Italian friend, Rainaldi. Phillips rushes to Italy (as best you can rush in the early 1800s when the novel is set) only to find Ambrose died weeks earlier in Rachel’s Florentine villa.

Phillip nurtures a simmering hatred for Rachel but then she shows up in England. Due to propriety, Phillip is forced to invite her to the Cornwall estate he shared with Ambrose (who raised Phillip after his parents died when he was very young). Rachel brings with her Ambrose’s books and clothes. Phillip quickly finds that she is not the woman he had constructed in his mind and falls for her.

From this point onward, it’s a guessing game: is Rachel innocent or a cold-hearted poisoner out to get the Cornwall estate and the family jewels? The novel is chock full of unreliable narrators – all the characters see Rachel and her relationship with Phillip from their own preconceptions. We only ever know Rachel through Phillip’s eyes, so we never learn whether she is telling the truth. Phillip makes some eye-popping choices but the time period meant that he led a rather sheltered life and was naive. This just contributes to his unreliability as a narrator.

There’s a great Gothic atmosphere to this book – pastoral scenes, sweeping Cornish landscape, large estate house, brooding storms. It’s a psychological study of obsession and du Maurier leaves us hanging with the ambiguous ending. Loved every minute of this classic novel.

 

 

 

Argo is two months old today. He has the Shire look about him in the face – his Dad is a magnificent Shire stallion. Argo is starting to come out of his shell and is not so shy these days. Miss Rosie has turned out to be the perfect mum – calm and allowing her foal to explore and make mistakes (like sniffing the electric tape and getting a nose zap, oops).

Karma was also the perfect mum to Saffy, so I wonder if Rosie picked up mothering tips along the way, as the three girls were always together.

Miss Rosie is more intent on eating. Argo knows how to pose for the camera!

Ooh, a camera. Let me pose!

You see I have a Shire face?!

Can you believe we’ve been living in the Far North for over nine months now? Time has zoomed by. It’s currently summer and I can’t say I’m enjoying it. The humidity is such that some days I think we should just move back to Sydney. I’m not a fan of muggy, sticky hot days. The mornings and evenings are lovely and cool though. I did know it would be muggier than down south, so was somewhat mentally prepared.

We had a ton of rain during January and it meant I couldn’t take the dogs for a walk (they hate rain). But it did fill up our water tanks and the plants were thankful.

Speaking of plants – well, vegetables really. Our vege garden next to The Shed is thriving. We’ve already enjoyed salads with our own cos lettuce, chives, spinach and chillies. You can see from the photos below that the tomatoes and capsicums are growing well. I have four pots of lavender now. I’m letting the lavender establish a bit more before harvesting it to make skin and hand creams.

The plants in our greywater system are thriving. You can read more about greywater here, but essentially it is waste water from kitchen sinks, showers, baths, and washing machines. Not toilets.

El Hubs loves gardening so he’s been busy planting all sorts of fruit trees, and native trees and shrubs (then pruning them into shape. I half-expect him to do an Edward Scissorhands on me LOL).

The Far North is a hive of activity during these heat-filled days. The population swells with tourists and backpackers visiting the Bay of Islands. New shops have opened up and a favourite of mine is a fashion boutique. There’s a really good energy in this part of New Zealand I must say.

Tomatoes

Capsicums

Plants in the greywater system.

You can see my pots of lavender in the forefront.

One of El Hubs’ beloved landscaping creations.

 

I mentioned recently that Miss Rosie had her foal and his name is Argo. He’s now six weeks old and I think will be a very big boy. He’s quite shy but is starting to come out of his shell.

A week or so ago, the farrier visited and Argo was introduced to the foal halter. A bit of rearing went on but he soon settled. He loves being in the paddock with the Big Horses.

Miss Rosie is a Shire x TB (or Shire and Thoroughbred mix) and Argo’s dad is a magnificent full Shire. You can see a video of him here. I often watch this video as the movement of this stallion is just so fluid, so majestic. And it’s such a magical landscape with all that snow. Can’t wait to see how Argo reacts when he experiences his first snow fall. He was a bit stressed out with recent rain, wondering what on earth all that wet stuff was on his coat LOL

 

I haven’t posted recently about healthy eating. Back in 2013, I gave up eating meat. I was never a red meat eater but did like chicken and turkey. I have largely kept to the no meat eating regime but occasionally have some chicken or ham. About a year ago, I also gave up eating anything that had added sugar.

There’s a great food market near where we live that has a whole section devoted to products with no added sugar. So I buy things that have less than 5mg of sugar. The other day, I had a Big Day Out. Went off to our local shops. There’s a lot to look at – clothes shops, boutiques, book shops, jewellery stores, shoe shops, endless cafes and even a chocolate boutique. I skipped the latter but thought I would have a small carrot cake with a coffee from my fav place.

I could not get through the carrot cake. SO sickly sweet. A year of having no added sugar has really changed my palate. I’m thankful for that because as you head into old age, you really have to focus on good health.

Speaking of which…..we bought a Thermomix. Heard of the Thermomix? If not, go here. We call it the Thermi and it’s basically a wizard – it can chop, shred, whip, weigh, blend, knead, grate, cook. It can do everything but tap dance. The Thermi has online recipes and the little screen takes you through the recipe step by step. We have produced perfect, wobbly panna cotta desserts with this machine. We use it every day and can’t imagine a world without our Thermi. It actually makes cooking so much easier and faster.

You can consult the website of recipes and Favourite what you like. Then you synch these recipes so they are available on the Thermi. We’re rather partial to ham and cheese quinoa muffins for breakfast and whipped up a batch the other morning. We made an extra one for Zeph and Zsa Zsa. Zeph is a cheese connoisseur 🙂

Ham and cheese quinoa muffins.

Zeph knows that he has a special (smaller) muffin coming to him soon.

Still waiting….

The spectacular (and latest version) Thermomix.