Friday, 17 April 2015

Germinal by Émile Zola

Mangoes and Cherry Blossoms is now hosting a new meme for readers of the classics called The Classics Salon. Each week she will pose a question for you to answer about the classic you are currently reading.

Thanks to my recent holiday, I'm running two weeks behind, so this is my catch up post.
The first question asked us about our first impressions.

I'm currently reading Germinal for Zoladdiction month.

I actually started Germinal two years ago. But I was reading it on my epad and it was a struggle. Not the story - the epad. It turns out that I seriously dislike reading a book on a screen. So I left Étienne languishing halfway down a mine for over a year.  

Firstly, Germinal is not a comfort read.

Zola's exploration of life in a mining village in France is bleak, cold, grim and definitely uncomfortable. My first impressions of Germinal have been very physical in nature.

Zola's descriptions of working in the mines made me squirm as the claustrophobic, cramped nature of their work bore down on me. I could almost feel the jagged edges edges pressing into my spine, the cold seeping into my bones, the muscle cramps and aches from repetitive work in unnatural poses.

The crowded, bleak existence of the miner's home lives also affected me strongly - instilling a sense of despair & helplessness. I felt how unfair it was to live like that and how difficult it was going to be to try and change anything.
To find love and human kindness amongst this grimness almost seemed like sacrilege. 

The acceptance of ones lot; to work in mean, squalid conditions as being better than to not work at all. That living and sleeping with 10 others in a two room hovel was the best you could expect from life; all hard truths for the reader to accept.

But despite all of this the young girls still dreamed of love. 


They believed that love & marriage would somehow be different for them because they loved more deeply, passionately & wisely than their mothers did!

Which leads me to Mangoes second Classics Salon question - which character do you relate to?

Young Catherine steals my heart so far. 

Her faith and trust that somehow everything will work out better for her...even as she gets drawn into a sexual relationship she doesn't really want because she has no power to avoid it.

Zola captures the innocence & unswerving self-belief of youth beautifully. Catherine's headlong rush into adult behaviours before having any real understanding of what she's getting herself into or the self-awareness to make good choices, is heartbreakingly familiar.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

CBCA 2015 Shortlist

How can it possibly be a year since last year's Children's Book Council Awards? 

But it is...and here it is in all it's glory!
 I have read all these books but only reviewed two.
I will add to the list below as I write up the rest.

Reviews
 Fire


Reviews

Reviews


 Reviews



I think the illustrations in One Minute's Silence are extraordinary for the power of emotion the convey & I love the humour in Pig the Pug.
The Tea & Sugar Christmas was a fascinating story about a little known bush Christmas tradition & I love Graham Byrne's illustrations in Emu.
Noni the Pony Goes to the Beach has pranced into my heart this year & I hope that Rossell writes a follow-up to Withering-by-Sea sooner rather than later.

Which one's have you read?
Any favourite's?

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

The Frangipani Hotel is a collection of contemporary short stories predominantly set in Vietnam - which made for the perfect holiday read whilst travelling through said Vietnam.

The stories featured Saigon, Hanoi, the Mekong, the USA and a convent. The cast of characters included refugees, nuns, siblings, ex-pats, soldiers and ghosts.
Plenty of ghosts in fact, as well as haunts, the walking dead and even a were-snake!

Some of the ghosts were friendly & protective whilst some lured people to their deaths. Others tried to steal your soul or mess with your head. Some were lost, wandering the heavens & earth looking for somewhere to belong.

The ghosts reflected our own inner demons and insecurities - they highlighted the pasts that haunt us all.

All the short stories were extremely diverse, very enjoyable & a pleasure to read. Kupersmith has a lovely light touch that hides a surprising depth and complexity. The creepy edges to her stories leave you with a little tingle of horror.

Family, connections and belonging are common themes throughout, as is the act of storytelling.
Kupersmith uses storytelling within the stories to reveal truths, histories & traditions. They also hide secrets & disguise what really happened.

Highly recommended not just for travelers to Vietnam, but for all lovers of beautifully told short stories.

Monday, 13 April 2015

A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman

I can't tell you how much I was looking forward to A Year of Marvellous Ways.

I read When God Was A Rabbit four years ago and adored it from start to finish. When an ARC of Winman's much anticipated second novel turned up at work two days before my holidays - I knew it was meant to be. AYOMW was going to be my holiday read par excellence.

Everything started off so hopefully. The quirkiness I remembered; the lovely writing. I was in the zone to savour every word and nuance.
But slowly something happened...or failed to happen.

I failed to engage with the characters. I failed to feel emotional involved, & by page 163 (when the main characters finally came together), I failed to see the point.

I don't often write reviews about the books I did not finish or did not enjoy, but occasionally I find it instructive to work out what went wrong.

Was it me? the book? the author? the timing?

In this particular case I started off with extremely high expectations.

The cover treatment for the ARC was superb - inviting and inticing. The little peephole onto the wooden stilt house put me in mind of Vietnam. Even though I knew it was set in the UK, it was just another detail that made this book feel like we were fated to love each other.

I also normally enjoy a story that deals with memory.
The opening quote from T.S. Eliot's, Little Gidding had me ready to dive headlong into its world of living and dying and the marvellous inbetween...

We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.

I tried very hard to rediscover the magic of WGWAR but instead I kept bumping into disjointed time jumps and convenient crises. And in the end my sad conclusion was that it simply tried too hard...and the effort showed.

Normally, on a Monday, I would post my It's Monday! What Am I Reading schedule with Sheila @Book Journey.

But a couple of weeks ago I promised myself not to start any new books until I had finished all the half started ones by my bed (or in my suitcase)! 

Tragically, during this time, Sheila has suffered some heartbreaking family news which means that she will not be continuing her meme for the moment. 
I have found it heartening to witness the love & concern from the book blogging community pouring onto Sheila's various social media sites and blog. 
I sincerely hope that Sheila finds herself able to blog again one day soon. As we all know, the writing process can be such a creative, healing act & the act of reading can be such a comfort & release from our daily affairs. 

However, in the meantime (when I have finished the unread masses), I will continue my weekly reading updates on Monday's as I find them a truly useful way to keep track of my reading life as well as the many book events in the blogging world.

For now, I will finish with my own Monday Shout-out! feature where I highlight interesting reviews that I have read during the week.

Due to my recent holiday in Vietnam, I haven't read many reviews this past week or so, but I did make a point of catching up with Mangoes and Cherry Blossoms new Classics Salon meme.

The idea is to discuss or blog about the classic you are currently reading using the weekly question as a starting point.

I hope to use the meme to kick start my discussion of Germinal for Zoladdiction month along with Fanda et al.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Whoops! by Suzi Moore & Russell Ayto

I love picture books with a sense of fun and silliness.

They made great read alouds when I was a preschool teacher.  
Whoops! is one of those books.

Fun rhyming & onomatopoeia make for lots of interactive, noisy moments as three animal friends keep getting the wrong sound after a witches spell.

The repetitive element gives great "oh no what will happen this time" suspense which makes the surprising twist at the end even more pleasurable.

Ayto's simple but captivating illustrations are lovely - I'm always partial to rich earthy colour palettes. The dead-pan expressions on the animals faces add to the humour of the text.

I loved this topsy-turvy, chaotic story - it was great fun from start to finish.

Friday, 10 April 2015

A few views from Halong Bay Vietnam....

"Getting in touch with the beauty of nature makes life much more beautiful, much more real."
You Are Here by Thich Nhat Hanh
Halong Bay is beautiful, magical and impossible to capture.
There is a majesty in the simplicity of these limestone karsts. It's difficult to accurately capture their scale & depth.
But there is another side to Halong Bay.
The side that is on the brink of bring overdeveloped, exploited and ultimately depleted. The abundance of tourists & boats is overwhelming.
It was hard not to feel guilty at times for being there and being a part of the environmental destruction.
But there were bays and coves where one could feel like you were the only person left on earth (except for the crew on the boat!) The silence was extraordinary - broken only by lapping waves and birdsong. The peace and serenity, though fleeting, were healing in their purity. And their unexpectedness.
Like Venice, one could focus on the rubbish floating around the busier sections of Halong Bay. 
Or like Venice, you could focus on the marvels of the (natural) world.
I chose to focus on the magical beauty of Halong Bay. But the detrimental impact of human beings was never very far from my consciousness or conscience.

I sincerely hope that the Vietnamese government can work out a reasonable and environmentally ethical solution soon to this dilemma. It must be possible to enjoy this world & it's simple beauty without destroying it at the same time.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Marilyn's Monster by Michelle Knudsen

I love Michelle Knudsen's previous picture book, The Library Lion, so I had high hopes for Marilyn's Monster.

I was initially disappointed because the front cover didn't appeal to me the same way as The Library Lion did, but inside was another lovely Knudsen story about friendship, belonging, patience, determination and difference.

With a touch of Philip Pullman and his 'daemons' we follow young Marilyn as she waits patiently for her special monster to find her.

We see the other kids at school being found in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways by their monsters. Marilyn goes from waiting patiently, to being philosophical. She then becomes anxious & cross, & eventually she moves to pro-actively searching for her monster herself, despite her brother's derision.

I like how Marilyn never gave up. She tries lots of different strategies and remains hopeful throughout.

"She thought there were a lot of different ways that things could work."

Until she discovers that friends "sometimes find you & sometimes you find them and sometimes you find each other."

By the end of the book I also felt more kindly towards Phelan's soft water colour illustrations.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Fearless Sons and Daughter by Colin Thompson & Sarah Davis

If you loved Fearless and Fearless in Love then you'll be delighted with this latest installment about the most adorable, scaredy-cat bulldog in the world!

Fearless Sons and Daughter follows the clueless Fearless as he comes to terms with his new role as dad to five of the silliest, cutest bulldog pups ever.

The usual puppy mishaps ensue and the usual Fearless fears arise as the ever patient, Primrose carries on.
My only beef with the book, & it may be the former teacher coming out in me, is the poor grammar as spoken by the dogs - it annoys me! I understand that Thompson has created his own dog language but if I read this aloud to a class, I would have to automatically correct it. I would emphasise the doggy language but using my 'barky' voice instead!

Sarah Davis' illustrations are as adorable as ever - the impulse to reach in and give those puppies are cuddle is very strong indeed.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Classics Club Spin #9

In the past I've carefully collated my Classic Club Spin to include connecting links to other bloggers reading the same book.

However, it is AusReading Month during November so this time around I wanted to highlight as many Aussie classics as possible.
I only have 5 left on my classics club list as I read quite a few during last year's AusReading Month.

I've also cheated a little by only picking small sized classics.
I definitely do not need another chunkster in my life right now!

My previous spins have been mostly successful and/or enjoyable:

#1 The Magnificent Ambersons with Cat.

#2 Tess of the D'Urbervilles with Lakeside Musings & Several Four Many.

#3 My Cousin Rachel.

#4 The Brothers Karamazov with Bree who also read a Dostoyevsky novel for this spin.
I'm still reading this chunkster...very slowly...and with lots of breaks. A good editor would have been helpful :-)

#5 The Odyssey with Plethora of Books.
This one was a bit of a cheat as I had started it for another readalong, but struggled to finish.
I added it to my list to motivate me to finish it.
When no. 20 spun up it seemed like the gods had decreed it so!

#6 No Name by Wilkie Collins with Melbourne on My Mind.

#7 Silent Spring by Rachel Carson with Booker Talk.

In fact #8 Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh has been my one and only dud Spin read so far.

So without any further ado...here is my list with a twist for CC Spin #9.


Australian

1. The Dig Tree by Sarah Murgatroyd (non-fiction).
2. The Great World by David Malouf (reread).
3. Swords of Crowns and Rings by Ruth Park.



American
4. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.
5. A Good School by Richard Yates.
6. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.
7. Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.
8. Stoner by John Williams.
9. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald.


UK

10. The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier (reread).
11. Dubliners by James Joyce.
12. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell.
13. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.
14. A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark.
15. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte.
 

European

16. Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
17. Corinne, or Italy by Staël
18. The Dream by Emile Zola   
19. Out of Africa by Karen Blixen
20. Death in Venive by Thomas Mann  

On Monday, the Classics Club will do their magic mumbo jumbo and the lucky spin number will be revealed!
What will you be reading?

Monday -  the lucky spin is #2 - it's a reread of a modern day Aussie classic for me. What about you?

Thursday, 2 April 2015

A River by Marc Martin

I love Marc Martin's illustrations.

His previous three picture books have become some of my favourites - A Forest and The Curious Explorer's Illustrated Guide to Exotic Animals A - Z and Max.

I also follow Martin's Instagram account so that I can get my regular fix of his colourful view of life!

His latest picture book, A River, is a story about imagination, the environment & change.

Gentle, poetic words send us floating down the river. We glide by a city, through farmland, a jungle and eventually out to a stormy sea.

Each page is full of details & patterns and beautiful colour palettes.
I could pour over the pages for hours.

The front cover has been embossed which adds a lovely tactile element & extends the flowing, gliding sensation. I can't keep my fingers from running over each plant & letter.

Martin has, yet again, created another picture book for me to love!

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Zoladdiction

Another month; another readalong.

I've been trying to read Zola's Germinal for nearly 2 years now. The problem is not the book. It's the format.

My only copy of Germinal (until this week) was on my epad. And it turns out I hate reading books on my epad! I love paper books too much.

I was delighted to see that Fanda is once again hosting Zoladdiction during April (Zola's birth month)...and better still...that there will be a Germinal readalong within that.

Win/win!

My paper edition is translated by Raymond MacKenzie.

I chose this edition after checking out the various translations options at this site - Compare Literary Translations.

I hope you can join us.

#germinalRA
#zoladdiction2015


Tuesday, 31 March 2015

11/22/63 by Stephen King

One of the things I enjoy about reading Stephen King is the connections.

King has created three fictional towns based in Maine that reappear regularly in his books - Derry, Jerusalem's Lot & Castle Rock.

Many of the characters from these towns also pop up in unexpected places.

Pennywise the Clown & Randall Flagg are two that cross our paths, one way or another in almost every story.

And it's not just the main characters - neighbours, pharmacists, librarians & even cars tease the Kingophile into trying to remember which books they came from first.

11/22/63 has oodles of these connections to tantalise and tease, beginning with the protagonists name Jake - a name that King uses a lot in his books.

Jake's second time-travelling experience takes him back to Derry 1958 - a few short months after the murderous summer of IT.
He briefly meets young Richie Tozier & Beverly dancing in the park. They allude to the events of the summer and tell Jake that they know he is one of the good guys.

The whole time Jake is in Derry he feels the negative effects of the bad undercurrent that infuses everyone & everything. A visit to the old Kitchener Ironworks leaves Jake with a sense that something evil is lurking in the fallen chimney...all IT readers know exactly what that lurking thing is!

When Jake finally moves on to Dallas, Texas, we leave many of the familiar King haunts only to arrive in a time and place that anyone born before 1970  is intimately familiar with.

King excels at the details. The language, the songs, the cars, the clothes, the books, the shops, the references are all of their time. A nostagla effect kicks in for the time-travelling sections of the story (which is most of it!)

The writing is not beautiful, but it is evocative and it is real. The darker, grittier side of real that is. Bodily functions, dark thoughts, gross behaviours, crude speech....

11/22/63 is a page turner, like the best Stephen King's of old. The battle between good and evil is far more subtle & complex than in some of his earlier books, which makes for a richer reading experience. I can now see why this has become one of Mr Books favourite King's.

There is the impossible, eerie coincidences, the despair of reality & the promise of hope. This one is not a gory horror story. 11/22/63 is more about the suspense.

Thank you to Wensend and Fourth Street Review for hosting King's March. It has been quite an intoxicating experience dropping back into the world of King. I won't stay away so long this time...promise!

Monday, 30 March 2015

It's Monday

It's Monday! or ngày thứ hai as they say in Vietnam.

This week I hope to read, or at least browse through my travel guides for Vietnam to prepare for our upcoming holiday. 

Yes, excitement levels are rapidly rising - the anticipation is as delicious as a green papaya salad!

If you have been to Vietnam and have any great tips on things to do or must see suggestions, I would love to hear them below. 

I also love to read literature from or by local authors. 
Any reading suggestions would also be welcome, especially contemporary stories or ones about the French Colonial period of Vietnamese history.

But in the meantime....my reading week will hopefully contain....

 A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman

Cornwall, 1947. 
Marvellous Ways is a ninety-year-old woman who's lived alone in a remote creek for nearly all her life. Recently she's taken to spending her days sitting on the steps of her caravan with a pair of binoculars. She's waiting for something - she's not sure what, but she'll know it when she sees it. 

Freddy Drake is a young soldier left reeling by the war. He's agreed to fulfil a dying friend's last wish and hand-deliver a letter to the boy's father in Cornwall. 
But Freddy's journey doesn't go to plan, and sees him literally wash up in Marvellous' creek, broken in body and spirit. 

When Marvellous comes to his aid, an unlikely friendship grows between the two. 

Can Freddy give Marvellous what she needs to say goodbye to the world, and can she give him what he needs to go on?

Something Special Something Rare: Outstanding Short Stories by Australian Women

Something Special, Something Rare presents outstanding short fiction by Australia’s finest female writers. These are tales of love, secrets, doubt and torment, the everyday and the extraordinary.

A sleepy town is gripped by delusory grief after the movie being filmed there wraps and leaves. A lingering heartbreak is replayed on Facebook. An ordinary family walks a shaky line between hopelessness and redemption.

Brilliant, shocking and profound, these tales will leave you reeling in ways that only a great short story can.

Kate Grenville * Mandy Sayer * Penni Russon * Favel Parrett * Tegan Bennett Daylight * Sonya Hartnett * Isabelle Li * Gillian Essex * Brenda Walker * Gillian Mears * Fiona MacFarlane * Joan London * Karen Hitchcock * Charlotte Wood * Tara June Winch * Cate Kennedy * Alice Pung * Anna Krien * Delia Falconer * Rebekah Clarkson

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

From the story about a beautiful young woman who shows up thirsty in the bathtub of the Frangipani Hotel in Saigon many years after her first sighting there, 
to a young woman in Houston who befriends an old Vietnamese man she discovers naked behind a dumpster, 
to a truck driver asked to drive a young man with an unnamed ailment home to die, 
to the story of two American sisters sent to Vietnam to visit their elderly grandmother who is not what she appears to be, 
these stories blend the old world with the new while providing a new angle of insight into the after-effects of the war on a generation of displaced Vietnamese immigrants as well as those who remained in Vietnam.

I also plan to spend the next couple of weeks finishing off all my half started (or is that half finished) books. 

I will not start any more new books until I have finished all the current books underway!!

*********************************************************************

I often read a great review but then forget who, where & when, so I've decided to add a shout-out feature to my It's Monday post.

My first shout-out is actually a half-hearted curse sent to Melissa @Avid Reader's Musings for tantalising me with the idea of rereading The Lord of the Rings trilogy!

Part of my bloggiesta plans for this past week were to get better at using the goggle+ reader.
Thanks to spending time with it last Tuesday, I found these fascinating reviews...

Sandra @Writing With A Texas Twang reminded me about Snow Child which I've been meaning to read for years.

Sim @Chapter 1 - Take 1 has got me duly excited about the upcoming Wolf Hall mini-series by her review of Bring Up the Bodies.

And Nadia @A Bookish Way of Life has got me rethinking about whether or not to give up on Maisie Dobbs with this very emotional response to the latest book.

Tania @Girlxoxo has created a master list of Book Blogging Memes for Bloggiesta. It's a fabulous resource for those bloggers interested in participating in the wider blogging community.

What are you reading this week?

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Bloggiesta Wrap Up

I only planned to dip into Bloggiesta this week as I had a very busy week without adding anything extra to it...but there you go....I went and did it anyway!

And what a gem of a week it turned out to be.

For anyone wanting to update/refresh their blog this is the place for you.

The wonderful folk at Bloggiesta have now created a separate blog page to keep all the posts - old and new. It's a fabulous resource. You can visit any time and check out the posts and suggestions left from previous Bloggietsa's.

It covers everything from design, style, readers, comments, twitter, facebook and how to organise your blogging life. Guest bloggers write posts that they are knowledgable about, providing tips and helpful hints. And bless their cotton socks, they answer your dumb questions and pleas for help with grace and good humour.

I was simply planning to tidy up my google+ reader by adding a few folders to make it easier to keep track of the blogs I want to read often, occasionally or for special events.....until!

I read Andi's inspiring post about feedly - here.

I had already quickly discovered the limitations of what I was doing with my google+ reader - that is very few bloggers actually have google+ accounts and/or link them to their blog.

So I set up feedly...and quickly saw the light!

It is very easy to add favourite blogs and keep track of what their up to.
Following Andi's advice I set up a Daily and Weekend folder. Because my mind tends to categorise bloggers by how I first met them or in what way I connect with them, I also set up a Classics Club folder, a Memes folder and an Australian Bloggers folder.

What I love about it, is that it is easy to interact with on my PC (which is where I prefer to do the admin/organising side of things) and very easy to use on my phone (which is where I will do most of the actual reading of other blogs).

The bonus has been the spring (or autumn in my case) clean up of my phone apps as feedly also allows me to have a News folder.

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself but then I stumbled across Brianna's article about IFTTT.

And my blogging world changed forever!

IFTTT stands for If This Then That.

It allows you to create 'recipes' or commands that automatically posts your latest blog article to fb, twitter etc. You can create recipes for email notifications, instagram pics & linkedin updates...you can even use it to find your phone! Each recipe can be fine tuned to your specific needs & requirements.

And it's easy.

Which isn't to say that I haven't experienced some teething problems...the main one being how to specify which image on my post is the one used when linking it to my fb page and to twitter. Brianna & I are still trying to fine tune this one.

The week has also had some mixed blessings.

I have been wanting a fresher, cleaner looking blog all year & have played around with a few options. But then on Thursday I read through the Weds chat recap post.

These two sections caught my eye in particular:

What makes a blog look nice and readable?
  • lots of white space
  • light backgrounds
  • no script fonts
  • no colored type (or very little)
  • breaks in text
Sidebars and Menus
  • maybe just have one sidebar with minimal content
  • three column layouts are out!
  • maybe you can get away with no sidebars? Maybe have stuff in a footer?
  • drop down menus are nice, but no more than 5 to 7 links
  • only have one row of tabs
As these points confirmed what I already experienced myself in all but the 3 column layout, I decided it was time to abandon the 3 columns to see what it looked like.

The disaster was saving the new look before I was really thinking about what I was doing. When I checked the new look all my special add on features had gone! Poof! No more social media icons, let alone the ones that rotate. My centred header - poof! Gone!

The real disaster occured when I couldn't find where my computer had saved the backup template.

Thursday, my day off work to rest & play & get lots of things done, became a Thursday tied to the computer trying to fix my big boo-boo!

It took all day to find the blogger help sites that showed me how to add the rotating SM icons in the top right of the page & to fix the new layout to accommodate the one & only sidebar.

I ended up tweeking everything - from date formatting, to font sizing, header spacing & column widths & I added a quote to my header for the first time.
I may still tweek the actual background design when I have more time to explore some of the free options out there, but for now one of the simple blogger template designs will suffice.

And this time I saved my updated blogger template in an area on my PC that I can find it easily.

How was your week of bloggiesta?
What were your successes, dramas and lessons learnt the hard way?

Thank you one and all for your support, positive messages and oodles of provocations.
It's been fun.
Really!

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Bloggiesta Feedback

Part of the Bloggiesta week long experience is the oppportunity to ask for feedback about the style & design of your blog.

Obviously the aesthetics of your blog should appeal to you. It should reflect who you are and make you feel a little flutter of pride everytime you log on.

But there are some elements of design that help or hinder visitors when they come to your blog.

I've been fiddling with lots of these features this week.

I've moved to a two column blog which has allowed me to make the central post column much wider (but is it too wide now?)

I would like to make the sidebar a little slimmer, but any smaller than it currently is affects the integrity of the goodreads widget. I have yet to check the goodreads widget code to see if I can easily change its dimensions.

What do you like to see in a sidebar? My current set-up reflects what I like to spot when I visit others - readalongs & other bookish events and what people are reading esp. 

I managed to change my label widget to a drop down menu which has freed up a lot of space. Does anyone know if you use the same code (but change the relevant names) to create a drop down for the archives widget too?

The recent change to my blog lost all my old add-ons (the social media icons in particular).
I have found how to get three of them back, but would also like to add an Instagram and Feedly button that matches what I currently have. Where did you source your SM icon's from?

The header looks too thick to my eyes too, but I don't know how to adjust that without changing the template completely.

I've toyed with the idea of my own personalised image and/or badge, but have never come across anything I really like and am prepared to commit to!

I've also considered changing to one of the dynamic templates that would allow me to run my posts as excerpts. But I'm in two minds about that. I often fail to click on the 'read more' option with most excerpts, although I spotted one last night that just had the title of the review with an image and that looked good and easy to navigate.

I've also started using IFTTT. What are your favourite/most useful recipes to date?

Please feel free to leave constructive feedback in the comments below.