Thursday, 31 December 2009

Christmas bake #4 : Mincemeat shortcake


Mincemeat shortcake (a shortbread base, with mincemeat mixed with almonds on top, and decorated with Christmas shortbread shapes) is a speciality in our family and one of my favourites. This year I made some individual ones in my mini flan tins.

End of 2009

I had so many ideas of things that I wanted to write about at the end of the year, and to take a really good look at what I've been reading this year, but somehow it has snuck up on me, and I didn't get time to count books. Partly because I realised a week ago that I was within a whisker of having read 700 books this year, so I have been spending a lot of time reading this week. So here instead is an end of year meme, borrowed from Simon at Stuck-in-a-book, and hopefully next week I'll get round to starting on some of the reviews that I want to write!

- How many books read in 2009?
701. Normally I read somewhere between 300-350, so this was a bit of a record. Mostly it is due to having been chronically ill for much for the year and unable to do anything apart from go to work or lie on the sofa and read.

- Fiction/Non-Fiction ratio?
Probably about 100 were non fiction - recipe books, memoirs, biographies...

- Male/Female authors?

Mainly female, due to having started my Virago Venture, attemtping to read my way through the Virago Modern Classics.


- Favourite book read?

This is a difficult one as there have been very many good ones, but The music room by Will Fiennes was really very very good. I have read a number of wonderful books published by Persephone and Virago too.

- Least favourite?

I struggled with No place on earth by Christa Wolf.

- Oldest book read?
Absolutely no idea - I haven't read anything very old this year.

- Newest book read?
Read Margaret Forster's latest book, Isa and May, which I can strongly recommend and which is out in February.

- Longest book title?
Probably The voluptuous delights of peanut butter and jam

- Shortest book title?

Home by Penelope Mortimer

- How many re-reads?

Probably about 50.

- Most books read by one author this year?
I think Rosamund Lehmann, as I read all of her books at the start of the year.

- Any in translation?
Yes. Most recently The Post-Office girl


- How many books were borrowed from the library?

A large number of them, but not all as I seem to have acquired about 400 books this year.

- Name a book you've read this year which was recommended by a blogger?
ooh, that's difficult as so many of the books I've read have been as a result of blogging. Most recently, probably A very great profession by Nicola Beaumann.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Christmas bake #3 : Jewelled cranberry cake


This was the centrepiece when my Mum and Dad came around for a post-Christmas meal. The recipe comes from BBC Good Food.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Christmas bake #2 : Maple and pecan cupcakes


I made these seriously yummy cupcakes to finish up eggs before we went away, and to feed some people dropping in to wish us a Happy Christmas. The recipe came from my Usborne Children's Book of Christmas baking, and replaces half of the sugar with maple syrup. Pecans are also added to the batter.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Christmas bake #1: Swedish gingerbread

Shortly before Christmas, I went to a gingerbread making party with a Swedish friend, and here are two pieces I brought home.

A bookish Christmas


I'm back from the ski slops with no broken bones, and feeling very relieved that I managed to shoehorn so many books into my suitcase as I ran out of books on the plane home. The skiing was absolutely beautiful and it was fun to spend Christmas in Austria again.

I'll resume blogging about books next week I think, but in the meantime this week, I shall be bringing you Five Bakes of Christmas - a different Christmassy bake each weekday. But first a brief word on the books that I read whilst away.

The two Honno classics, Dew on the grass (Lewis) and Travels with a duchess (Gallie) were absolutely delightful and will be reviewed in due course here. Housewife on top (Fenton Harper) and Relative love (Brookfield) were Christmassy reads. I enjoyed Odd girl out (Howard)and The vinegar jar (Doherty) which had been languishing for some time. I didn't think much of The snow cow short stories, but again, will be writing about this. Nightingale Wood (Gibbons) was a wonderful Virago which I enjoyed much more than Cold COmfort Farm. It was good to read another Jane Gardam, The queen of the tambourine. I read two Greyladies titles, Pink Sugar (Douglas) and Pirouette (Scarlett) - the first was disappointing, especially given such an appealing title, but the latter was a lovely Noel Streatfield-esque book. Adrian Mole: the prostrate years continued the Mole saga. My boyfriend had taken A taste of my life, the autobiography of Raymond Blanc, and I read this too - a fascinating insight into the man and lots of interesting advice on cooking. Evelyn Finds herself was a typical school girl story and most enjoyable. Christmas at Fairacre was good and Christmassy, but Christmas at Thrush Green, the ghostwritten Miss Read was a disappointment - the characters were there, the plot was about right, but the writing and details were just wrong.

Not bad for a week away!

Friday, 18 December 2009

Happy Christmas (and a Christmas bake)

The piece de resistance of the B Files Christmas is our shortbread nativity and gingerbread stable; the stable was constructed by my boyfriend. Isn't it amazing?!



We're off skiing for Christmas, and I won't be blogging for a bit. I'll be back with some more Christmas bakes after Christmas, and in the New Year with more book-chat, and the start of another book-buying moratorium.

And in the meantime - Seasons Greetings to everyone who is reading this! Hope you have a wonderful holiday period.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

A packing dilemma.

We're off skiing at the end of the week and I'm trying to complete my packing. I've been worrying a little bit about having enough books and the right books (whatever they are) but this has been increased by the news of the BA strikes. Of course we are flying with BA, and although we are flying out before they start, it will affect our journey home. Luckily we're on a package holiday, so it is Ingham's responsibility to get us home, but I have been forced to pack some spare clothes. This means that the suitcase is already overflowing and I have yet to pack a single book.

These are the books I'm thinking about taking. The left hand pile contains lighter and Christmassy reading, the right hand pile some more serious things (the two Penguins at the top chosen soley because they are small and have very small writing). I really need to take at least 10 books to get through the week, ideally more.

I hope you can see the photo, but if not...
On the left...
* Evelyn finds herself (a Girls Gone By publication) - a school story is essential I think
* Christmas at fairacre (Christmas themed Miss Read)
* Pirouette and Pink Sugar (both Greyladies titles that I have been anticipating for some time)
* Housewife on top (Christmas themed chicklit that I picked up in charity shop earlier in year)
* Relative love (Slightly heavier book, also Christmas themed - I enjoy Amanda Brookfield very much)
* Christmas at Thrush Green (new ghostwritten Miss Read book)
* Adrian Mole : The prostate years (I often have a Sue Townsend to read over Christmas - she does make me laugh)

On the right...
* The realms of gold (Drabble)
* Odd girl out (Elizabeth Jane Howard)
* The stone angel (Margaret Laurence - can't go away without a Virago!)
* The snow cow (won this review copy of ghost stories about skiing!)
* Fugitive pieces (have been meaning to read this for ages)
* Queen of the Tambourine (Gardam)
* Nightingale Wood (another Virago Modern Classic which I have been looking forward to for a while)

Any opinions?

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

More acquisitions, or a bookish leaving present

It is traditional to give leaving workers a print of the college that we work in, but lacking wallspace for pictures (all taken up with bookshelves) I asked if I could have a couple of books from my Wishlist instead. My colleagues kindly gave me the four lovely volumes below - they are what I would describe as keeping-books - not books which I shall read avidly and shelve, but ones which are to be pulled off the shelf for browsing at intervals, and which have lovely pictures.


London transport posters - I have had this title on loan from the college since we purchased it shortly after I saw the exhibition on which it was based.
Nigella Christmas - I often bake things for work, and was keen to have this Christmas book to accompany my copy of How to be a domestic goddess.
700 Penguins - this is a book of 700 different Penguin covers - wonderful for flicking through and seeing the history of Penguin
Penguin by design - this puts 700 Penguins in context and is another book that I have been coveting for years.

Aren't I lucky?!

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Bake of the week: Stollen and an Advent Tea Party

Stollen was this week's Christmas baking experiment, and I was extremely pleased with the result. I got the recipe from the Usborne Book of Christmas Baking (a wonderful book, not just for children with lots of accessible recipes, many of which I want to try!). I cheated a little bit and used my bread machine to mix and knead the dough, but I did make my own almond paste (surprisingly easy, just egg, ground almonds and sugar). It smelt absolutely wonderful and tasted pretty good too.

I also had an Advent Tea for some of my friends last week, and here are the biscuits and cakes that I baked. At the back, Swedish gingerbread (recipe to follow after Christmas), on the right, Christmas rock cakes and vegan cranberry oat biscuits, and Christmas shaped shortbread; I might post recipes for some of these if anyone is interested! We also had chocolate coins in belated celebration of St. Nicholas day, since my father is called Nicholas!

Monday, 14 December 2009

Bookaholics' guide to book blogs (Gillieron and Kilgarriff)

The bookaholics' guide to book blogs was a kind Christmas present from a colleague at another library who also reads my blog and thought that it might be an interesting read. I wasted no time in sitting down with it because the world of blogging is something that I have become acquainted with in the last year, by reading other people's blogs, and then by setting up my own. I was interested to hear what a pair of publishers had to say about the phenomenon.

Apparently bookish blogs were one of the first big areas of blogging, ahead of blogs centring on other subjects such as cooking. The authors can't explain this phenomenon but write that the aim of this book is to: "capture this moment. It's a book blog keepsake, when book blogs are exploding across the web and in it we talk abot the ones who are good, who should be sought out, communicated with and encouraged"

The chapter I found most interesting compares the role and value of book review pages in newspapers and magazines with blogging, and asks whether or not print journalists should be concerned about the rise of blogging. The principle criticism is the lack of quality control among book bloggers. But arguably book bloggers have many advantages that the journalists lack - they have the freedom to review the books of their choice, they can instigate debate, and they are not restricted in giving their opinion. Whilst I like to read the book pages in the newspaper to alert me to new books which I may or may not be interested in reading, it is usually from book blogs that I form an opinion of whether I am interested enough to order it at the library rather than wait to see if a copy comes available for my persual. Moreover, book blogs may alert me to older books or less mainstream books, and cover a far greater range of books.

The book is "illustrated" throughout with extensive quotes from blogs (I often found these more interesting than what the authors had to say about them). I hadn't heard of many of them, but Dovegreyreader gets a mention early on in the first chapter.

Other chapters talk about the different motivations for blogging, the blogs of bookshops and booksellers (I loved some of the stories quoted in these chapters about the various customers in bookshops and their weird and wonderful demands) and publishers' blogs. The blogs of writers are also given a chapter, and there is a chapter about online bookselling questioning whether there is going to be increasing overlap between review sites and online shops.

There is an interesting chapter on fanblogs; examples are mentioned which include The Bronte Blog, devoted to the Bronte's (the writers are a little scathing about the obsession of someone with such a narrow sphere of interest) and The Baker Street blog centering on Sherlock Holmes. This chapter also deals with blogs devoted to genre literature - horror, crime, romance.

I was left wondering whether really this book might have worked better as a blog...it could have included links (I read this sitting by the computer so that I could have a look at some of the sites mentioned), and I just felt that the content might have been better suited to that form. Blogging is such an interactive activitity that is quite different from the traditional medium of the book, and having the book as a book seemed at odds with some of what the authors were saying.

Has anyone else read this? I'm not sure it is a book that is necessarily interesting to a non-blogger, but I think that anyone who blogs might find it gives extra insight into a world which they encounter on a daily basis.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Latest acquisitions, or Christmas has come early for Cardigan Girl.

It's rather nice to be writing an acquisitions post for once, it's been a while. But since I lifted my book-ban, I have acquired rather a lot of books, although only two of the little pile below have in fact been purchases. I am still waiting for my copy of the latest Greyladies title to arrive!

The two books that I bought are:
The world that was ours (Bernstein) which I bought when I went to hear Nicola Beauman tak about Persephone on Monday night. The ticket cost £4 which was redeemable in the shop, and I'd also bought my friend's ticket, so it would have been rude not to get a Persephone for £4.
The Usborne Book of Christmas Cooking was an impulse buy to give me the recipe for stollen, which I have already baked (and eaten!) and will be featuring on Bake of the week this month.

One book was a pre-order which I have been waiting for for ages:
To bed with grand music (Laski) is one of the latest Persephones and I pre-ordered (AND paid for it) it ages ago from The book depository. Supply problems meant I had to wait ages but it finally arrived, and I fortuitously recieved its bookmark with the Persephone BiAnnually. I'm saving this for Christmas now, and really can't wait!

Two books were extremely kind presents:
Book Snob Rachel sent me Dust tracks on the road which is Zora Neale Thurston's autobiography. I recently raved about Their eyes were watching God on my Virago blog, and am really looking forward to finding out more about the author.
My colleague Owen, who reads this blog, sent me the intriguing and very relevant The bookaholic's guide to book blogs which looks fascinating.
Thanks Owen and Rachel!

One book was a competition win:
Demobbed by Allan Alport came from a draw on DoveGreyReader's website - thank you very much! I don't usually get lucky in competitions, but I did this time. This looks like a fascinating read about what happened when soldiers returned from the war.

Four books were sent to me by publisher:
Snow Cow came via Librarything Early Reviewers and is a book of skiing Ghost stories - one for my holidays too then I think, as we are off skiing in a week's time...
The bird room was sent to me by Canongate - they occasionally send me books to look at, and I will be looking at this in due course...
Ruby's spoon came via Random House on Twitter - I was one of the first to reply to their tweet offering review copies of this book.
Dear Mr Bigelow was very kindly sent to me by Fiona at Vintage/Random House. I spotted this the other day on Amazon, and thought that it would make the perfect Christmas read. I love reading diaries and letters from the war, and somehow Christmas seems just the right time of year to read them. This is definitely on my post-holiday pile with To bed...

Christmas has definitely come early!

Thursday, 10 December 2009

The world that was ours (Bernstein)


I'm not sure why it took so long for The world that was ours this Persephone book to make it into my consciousness, especially as it has also been republished as a Persephone Classic, but it was not until I realised that it was the only Persephone Classic that I didn't own that I thought I should look out for it. So, it was top of my list to pick up at the evening with Nicola Beauman that I went to on Monday - and fortunately the Woodstock Bookshop had a copy (although it was in the traditional grey rather than the newer edition). I spent most of Tuesday evening, pinned to the sofa, absolutely gripped by this wonderful book.

Word of warning - this is not a comfort read as many Persephone books are. Rather it is a worrying and thrilling real-life account of Bernstein's life in South Africa in the early 1960s, telling the story of the 1964 Rivonia Trial. Bernstein's husband Rusty was acquitted in this trial, but Nelson Mandela and others received life sentences. The book starts out by describing the lives of Hilda and Rusty and their children at this time, and how their membership of the Communist Party in South Africa, and their consequent attempt to fight apartheid, led to increasing numbers of restrictions being placed on their lives. Then Rusty is imprisoned for ninety days, and we learn about his time in prison, and eventually the trial. Then Bernstein's own life is threatened with arrest, and she is forced to make an escape...

I found the book both hugely thrilling and absolutely fascinating, I learnt a huge amount about a situation of which I knew very little, and at the same time saw how it affected everyday life. I was hugely impressed by the resilience of the couple and their determination to stay on and fight for a cause when they could very easily have left the country. The tension caused by the constant worries and frustrations were really well captured by Bernstein and made the book a real page-turner.

And what of domesticity? After hearing Beauman emphasise the domestic element of many Persephone books, I found myself thinking about how this book would fit into this paradigm. At first glance it isn't might seem that it doesn't - it's concerned with politics and apartheid. But actually, it is - the political elements only provide a backdrop to the story, and are secondary to the thoughts and feelings of a woman dealing with living in such a situation. When she escapes from her home, her thoughts are on the washing machine, still in a spin cycle, and on the domestic chores that she was in the middle of doing. Home also provides Rusty with a haven.

What a wonderful time I had reading this book. I've really remembered how much I love Persephone books this week, and am planning to read (and hopefully review) another one each week this year - The Victorian Chaise Longue, The Carlyles at Home, and To bed with Grand Music are all lined up for December.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Bake of the week: Nigella's Christmas morning muffins


As I will be away for Christmas morning, it seemed like a good idea to make Nigella's Christmas Morning Muffins now. Filled with cranberries and flavoured with orange juice and nutmeg Nigella recommends these as the perfect way to start Christmas day. I substituted frozen cranberries for the dried ones as I find fresh fruit more digestible.

The boyfriend was a little disappointed - they looked like the sweet American muffins that you see in Starbucks, but they had hardly any sugar in. He claimed not to be able to taste the seasoning either. But I loved the subtle flavours, and as I'd made them with spelt was able to indulge myself. In the end, they were relegated to the boyfriend's breakfast fodder, warmed up and spread with honey, rather than as a sweet elevenses treat.

I'm not sure I'd make them again, but I think it's given me inspiration for rock cakes made with orange juice and cranberries and flavoured with nutmeg...

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Persephone evening


As you may have read yesterday, I was very excited to be going to see Nicola Beauman speak at the Woodstock Bookshop about Persephone books last night! I had a wonderful evening and had to blog about it today while it is still fresh (bake of the week will follow tomorrow...).

We were very lucky to have the opportunity to see Nicola because apparently she doesn't do very many events, which is a shame as she was a good speaker and extremely interesting. There were only about 20 people there, but you could not have shoehorned another booklover into the shop! Nicola spoke about how she established Persephone books, and how she was motivated to reprint titles which she had written about in A very great profession. She said that the difference between Persephone and Virago, although they could both be considered feminist, was that Persephone was more interested in domesticity. The title which had made their business viable was Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day; an absolute bestseller, it meant that they could keep republishing books. It, like a handful of their other titles, has been republished as a "classic" with a coloured cover; apparently this is also to make them more appealing to the American market. The uniform grey covers were inspired by Nicola's love of uniformly designed french books, but apparently these don't sell so well overseas! We heard about plans for future books, including the Nemirovsky short stories due out next, and a wonderful book about madness planned for next Autumn. Nicola wouldn't say what her favourite title is, but it was obvious that Dorothy Whipple is probably her favourite author and we were all encouraged to read her if we hadn't already.

The event cost £4, which could be redeemended against a book from the shop, so it was not surprising that I treated myself to a Persephone book. I bought The world that was ours in the original grey edition (I kind of wanted the classic edition, but this does have a lovely bookmark); it's in my bag today and I hope I will write about it later this week if it interests people. I took along a friend who loves Virago Modern Classics, but who had yet to read a Persephone book. She came away with To bed with grand music, and we plan to discuss it soon as I already have my copy!

I'd not been to the Woodstock bookshop before; it was small with an impressive mix of books - pile them high, but not multiple copies. I could have come away with armfuls of books, but I merely made a note that I definitely want to read Toibin's Brooklyn before too long

Monday, 7 December 2009

A very great profession (Beauman)


I am very excited as tonight I am off to the Woodstock Bookshop with a friend (soon to be colleague again) to hear Nicola Beauman speak about Persephone books. My friend has an extensive collection of Virago Modern Classics, but doesn't own a Persephone book, so I am hoping to be able to convert her.

In preparation for hearing Nicola speak, I decided to read her book A very great profession : the woman's novel: 1914-1939. (It was one of the things that kept me occupied on my sick bed last week). And what a wonderful book it was. I felt that the book encapsulated and contextualised all of the reading that I have done in the past year, which has been heavily weighted towards women's fiction of the first half of the twentieth century.

The book starts from Beauman's curiosity after seeing a Kate O'Brien library book in the basket of Laura, the heroine of the film Brief Encounter. Laura went weekly to change her library book at Boots, and this led Beauman to wonder what other books she might have read. And this led her to a quest to find out about what middle class women would have read during the inter-war period.

Packed with quotes from novels, at some points I felt the book read like the Persephone catalogue, and indeed many of the books she mentions have now been republished by Persephone. I kept a notebook to hand and jotted down titles that I have not come across yet for future inspiration - who knows, they might turn up as the next Persephones. One question I will be asking Nicola if I get the chance is what she plans to publish next! The book also has a list of the novelists mentioned in the text, with brief bio and mentions of some of their books which I found fascinating.

My copy was of course the Persephone edition, although the book was originally published by Virago, and so I am considering it "read" for my Virago Venture (and will post a link to this post on my VVV blog!). In a departure from the traditional endpapers that utilise fabric or designs of the period, the endpapers are the covers from the two Virago editions of the book, one of which I share with you here... (I have to say I would quite like a Virago copy of this too).

Friday, 4 December 2009

Book buying update #7

Well, this will be my last book buying update - I have made seven weeks without buying a single book, and am about to break it by buying myself a Christmas present of the latest Greyladies title, Pirouette by Susan Scarlett (Noel Streatfield). I absolutely adored Noel Streatfield books as a child, and I love her Susan Scarlett romances, so I think that this will be the perfect treat for myself. Ballet shoes for grown ups.

Otherwise this week has been fairly easy. Confinement to the sofa certainly kept me out of the shops, and I was lucky enough to recieve a couple of review books from publishers which I'll be writing about in due course. My final bookish Christmas present for my boyfriend arrived - I'll write about it in the New Year (just in case he happens to read this!) as it took quite a bit of research to choose and I'm very excited about it.

Thanks for your support guys! I have been pleased with my progress, and it has enabled me to read quite a lot of books from my TBR bookcase. I am definitely going to think about how many books I buy in the New Year, and will almost certainly be giving up book-buying/non essential purchase making for Lent if not before...

Thursday, 3 December 2009

A mishmash from the sofa

I seem to have succombed to some sort of seasonal bug and have been confined to the sofa since being sent home from work yesterday. I feel achy and exhausted but otherwise well enough to be quite bored, and have at least had the chance to do quite a lot of reading. I'm expecting a number of books in the post (no, I haven't been breaking my bookban - they are a pre-order aid for before the ban, and a couple from publishers as well as a few remaining Christmas presents), so I hope they arrive later to cheer me up.

Here's some of the things I've been reading:

Waiting (Ha Jin). This has been on my TBR for ages since I picked it up for £1 in a charity shop, and was absolutely fascinating. Set in post-revolutionary China it tells the story of a love affair between a doctor and nurse at the hospital, complicated by the fact that the doctor is already married and his wife refuses to give him a divorce.

Winter Term at Malory Towers (Pamela Cox). Pamela Cox has written a whole 6-book-series sequel to Enid Blyton's Malory Tower's series, following the fortunes of Felicity, Enid's Blyton's heroine Darrell's younger sister when she arrives at the school, and I was intrigued to see what they were like. They're not quite Blyton, lacking something that I can't quite put my finger on, and are a bit more dense, but still a very enjoyable easy read.

Solace of the road (Siobhan Dowd). This book was published posthumously to great acclaim and has just been shortlisted for the Costa book awards. It is a teen novel and absolutely gripping. It follows the story of Holly, who is brought up in a care home and eventually fostered, who runs away to try to find her mother, and herself. Using the name of Solace the book describes her journey. This was a wonderful book.

Today I want to read some of A very great profession by Nicola Beaumann as I am hoping to go to hear her speak next Monday evening. I also have an interesting autobiography called The locust and the bird and another Cox Malory Towers book..

Apologies for the lack of a picture, that requires a little bit more effort and energy than I have to spare at the moment.

The exciting news which I wanted to highlight today is Virago's publication of The group today, which I have written about over on my other blog. I do really recommend this book, hence flagging it up here too!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The bloomsbury group


No, not the set surrounding Virginia Woolf, but the clutch of lost early twentieth century titles recently brought out by Bloomsbury. There's been a lot of hype around the titles, not least because the choice of titles was partly driven by recommendations of bloggers. It is always exciting when older books are republished because it gives a whole new generation of readers access to

Bloomsbury kindly sent me a set of the bookmarks which I had seen featured on various book blogs, and armed with these I started reading the books. There are plenty of reviews around on the blogosphere so I shall content myself with writing down a few impressions just now. I am particularly interested to hear which ones other bloggers have read and which ones they enjoyed most (aside from the ones which they have championed!)

I started by reading Miss Hargreaves, due to the extensive endorsement by Simon from Stuckinabook. It was certainly an unusual story (a character who is a figment of two other character's imagination comes to life), but I found it both unsettling and annoying.

The pink covered Love's shadow by Ada Leverson came next; I've got her Virago Modern Classic, The little Ottley's, and found after I'd bought Love's shadow that this is the first of three books contained in that volume. It tells the story of a married couple and their friends romantic entanglements in a comedy of manners.

Next up, Henrietta's War by Joyce Dennys. Again, I had read many reviews of this. Essentially a story of life in wartime, told through letters (originally written as a weekly piece for Sketch), this was slightly reminiscent of Diary of a provincial lady. There were some amusing incidents, but I felt that the way in which the book had been written meant that it was extremely episodic and not much plot development, which I would have liked more of.

I was particularly keen to read Mrs Tim of the Regiment because I had made the discovery of DE Stevenson earlier in the year through Persephone books' publication of Miss Buncle's book (and had then obtained copies of the sequels from the library). Whilst it didn't quite live up to Miss Buncle, I enjoyed the story of Mrs Tim, an army wife, and her life immensely. Written in diary format, this was also reminiscent of Diary of a provincial lady.

The only book that I do not own a copy of is The brontes went to Woolworths - I read this earlier in the year in a Virago edition, and intend to get a copy in that imprint if possible for my Virago collection.

Overall, I liked A kid for two farthings best; partly this was because it was the book that I had heard least about beforehand, so I found the story completely charming and new to me. It tells the story of 6 year old Jo, and the unicorn that he buys in the market, which he hopes will have the power to make wishes come true.

So - which are your favourites so far?

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Bake of the week : Chocolate and Raspberry Brownies


You may remember that a little while ago I reviewed The Ultimate Student Cookbook, and mentioned that one of the recipes which I was keen to try were the Chocolate and raspberry brownies...well, I finally got around to making them. Actually, I have made them twice now, but the first batch got polished off before I could take a photograph. I love the addition of raspberries to the mix (it makes them healthy of course!) and I like the fact that using cocoa powder instead of chocolate makes them a lot cheaper!



PS: I promise some Christmas themed bake of the weeks from next week onwards...I'm thinking Nigella's Christmas Morning Muffins, Christmas rock cakes, mincemeat shortcake, my shortbread nativity, and possibly some stollen and a gingerbread house. Any other favourite Christmas bakes I could try?

Monday, 30 November 2009

Noah's Compass (Tyler)

I am a big fan of Anne Tyler's books so I was very excited when I eventually managed to get a copy of her latest book, Noah's compass, from the library this week. This is her 18th novel and it didn't disappoint me.

In the first chapter we meet Liam, who is in the process of downsizing into a new apartment after being made redundant from his job as a teacher. He unpacks, has some dinner, and goes to bed. At the start of the next chapter, he wakes up in hospital, and has no memory of how he got there. It turns out that he failed to lock one of the doors to his new apartment and was attacked by an intruder. Liam is hugely traumatised by the fact that he can't remember the incident and sets out to try to come to terms with it whilst struggling to make sense of his life until the incident and his relationships with his children and ex wife. One of my favourite parts of the book was that when Liam spends time with his grandson who has been given a heavily Christian upbringing by his daughter; Liam helps with biblical colouring books and struggles to answer questions such as how Noah steered the ark (hence the title of the book).

What I love about Anne Tyler's books is the gentle story telling which actually cleverly deals with lots of serious issues. There is always a strong cast of characters and the books give insight into small town American life in a way that is easily accessible for a British reader.

Overall, it wasn't quite my favourite Tyler novel, as it felt a bit "slighter" than some of her other novels; if you haven't read any Tyler before then I'd start with Digging to America or Back when we were grownups. I'd be interested to hear which other Tyler novels people have read and which are you favourites.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Book buying update #6

Who can believe that it has been SIX weeks since I bought a book for myself? When you start doing this, it is hard, but it gets easier, particularly once you have got out of the habit of looking for 1p copies of books on Amazon, and once you try to avoid the charity shops (I did make the mistake of going into Oxfam books this week and found it very hard to leave the lovely green Virago modern classics copies of four of Rosamund Lehmann's novels behind).

On the plus side, I have made good inroads into my TBR bookcase, which now stands at 48 books, plus 25 Virago modern classics. Despite continuing to get library books at a rate of knots, I hope to get that down to 40+20 before I go on my holidays (and packing holiday reading should deplete it a little futher); the only thing that stops me from reading more things from it is that there are books on it which I will eventually want to read but now is not quite the right time. Frustrating for someone who likes to keep things tidy!

I am hoping that there will be a new Susan Scarlett title from Greyladies for Christmas; if so, this will be the book that breaks the book-ban. But back to the ban in 2010 I think, certainly for Lent if not before.

Non essential spending has gone less well this week as I succombed to some Nativity shaped cookie cutters so that I can make a nativity out of shortbread. Watch this space...

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Jane Gardam

One of the things about blogging and having spent far more time reading in 2009 than ever before, is that I have been able to pursue authors. I have found new authors who I like, such as Hilary Mantel , Anita Brookner, and Margaret Drabble and have gained a lot of pleasure from reading as many of their works as possible. Another author who I have encountered and liked enough to do this for is Jane Gardam.

I thought it was time to flag her up after enjoying A long way from Verona last week. Many of her books are written for a crossover/teenage audience, and this fitted into that category. Two other teenage novels are Bilgewater (a story about a girl growing up in a school where her father is housemaster) and The summer after the funeral (about a girl sent off to relations the summer after her father has died). A long way from Verona is a wonderful story about Jessica, an 11 year old girl who aspires to be a writer. It's set during the Second World War, but the war is very much in the background - deprivations are mentioned (both food and clothes)

I have not yet read many of her adult novels, with the exception of The flight of the maidens which is the story of 3 schoolgirls, set in Yorkshire, as they hit adulthood (I guess that one of the reasons I like her work so much is that she does write a very good coming of age story). Jane Gardam is probably most famous for her novel Old filth which was shortlisted for the Orange prize a few years ago. I wasn't sure that I would enjoy this, but picked it up last weekend after drafting this post and LOVED it - I am now desperate to read her latest, The man with the wooden hat which tells the same story from the protagonist's wife's point of view. I also own copies of her novels Faith Fox, God on the rocks (which was her first adult novel), and The Queen of the tambourine. I am definitely looking forward to working my way through these.

She's also written a number of short story collections, including The people of Privilege Hill.

There is an interesting feature written by the Guardian in 2005 about her here.

Have you read anything by Gardam, and if so which are your favourites?

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Heirlooms

Although mostly it is the content of books that I value and that interests me, my work in the field of rare books has also given me an interest in books as objects. I have become aware of the aesthetic appeal of the binding of a book and the value that this can add to the object. Another element in the concept of book as object is its provenance or ownership.

Whilst I have a number of second hand books, many inscribed with the names of the previous owners, the provenance of my books is not an especially interesting facet of my book collection. I have inherited a few of the books which my mother had as a child (it seems to be children's books that are most often passed on between generations); my father has hung onto his as he still likes to reread his Jennings books.

However, this summer I was given a wonderful heirloom by my godmother - a bible which has been passed down the female line of her family. As she has not had any children, she decided to pass it on to me.

As you can see, it has been inscribed by those giving the book, and now includes an dedication to myself.

I think this is a wonderful thing to own, and it took me to a whole new level of receiving books as gifts.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Bake of the week: cherry and almond marble cake


An absolute favourite which I discovered earlier this year on the Waitrose website - this is an almondy cake, filled with cherry jam before baking and swirled with a fork to distribute cherry jam throughout the mixture. Mine doesn't look quite like Waitrose' picture, but it was extremely tasty and earned full marks from my boyfriend.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Something beginning with (Salway)


As part of my rather successful attempt to buy less books, I have been making a heroic onslaught on my TBR bookcase - I have removed a couple of titles which I really don't think I will read, and I am trying to get through some of the backlog. My goal is to go into 2010 with only two shelves of TBR books - one for Virago Modern Classics, and one for everything else. I think this will be possible, certainly once I have packed some books for my skiing holiday! The trouble with the TBR is often I can't remember quite why I bought a certain book.



It wasn't until I looked properly at Something beginning with by Sarah Salway that I realised the only reason I had picked it up in the charity shop was because the principal character had the same name as me, Verity. Verity is an unusual name, and I've not met very many others in my life. I've not seen many in fiction either, with the exception of Verity-Ann in the Chalet School series.

However, although that might seem to have been a somewhat strange reason for buying the book, it turned out to be a little gem. The story itself could easily be dismissed as "chick-lit" - it is predominantly about the lovelife and affairs of Verity and her best friend, but the way it was told built up a beautiful picture of a slightly naieve girl, struggling to work out her place in the world. Something beginning with has a very unusual fragmentary structure where the story is told through an A-Z glossary; so as Verity shares her thoughts on "ambition", "baked beans", "friends", we learn more about her and her friends. This could have been a very annoying device, but Salway used it to good effect and I found myself intrigued by the words that she was choosing and interested to see how the story would develop in this way.

I am going to seek out some more of Salway's work (from the library!), and remain on the hunt for books with Verity's in them.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Reaktion Books Animal Series



I'm not quite sure how I encountered the Animal series published by Reaktion books, but it is one that I have been meaning to write about for sometime.

According to Reaktion books the series is "the first of its kind to explore the historical significance and impact on humans of a wide range of animals...each book in the series takes a different animal and examines its role in history around the world. The importance of mythology, religion and science are described as is the history of food, the trade in animals and their products, pets, exhibition, film and photography and their roles in the artistic and literary imaginations"

I own the two titles relating to my two favourite animals, The duck, and as I'm sure regular readers can guess, The penguin, which only arrived a few weeks ago despite having been on order for 6 months.

What I love about these books is their wonderfully eclectic take on a single subject. The Penguin, by Steven Martin, describes the natural history of the Penguin, including information about the different species (the smallest is the wonderfully named Little Bee Penguin), and how they live. But what I found most fascinating is the cultural history of the penguin and Martin draws on an impressive range of examples - the film Happy Feet, Pingu (sadly, my favourite children's book, Lost and Found did not get a mention), and of course the Penguins in Mary Poppins. The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs of real penguins and images of penguins from the media - not just English examples but Russian too.

The Duck by Victoria De Rijke is similarly fascinating. I wasn't too sure about the section on duck as food (even before I became vegetarian I could never eat duck) but I loved reading about all of the references to ducks in popular culture, toilet duck for example, which I used to insist that my mum bought when I was little.

I'm not sure I would be interested in reading the other titles about animals which I am not so interested in, but I am sure there would be at least one title that would appeal to anyone, and they could make interesting Christmas presents.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The woman in black (Hill)


I wanted to read The woman in black for a Halloween read, but unfortunately the copy sent by Vintage got lost in the post. In the end, I ended up reading another Susan Hill, The mist in the mirror, which was quite chilling and wet my appetite to read the replacement copy sent by Vintage.

The woman in black was worth waiting for.

The book tells the story of Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor, who is sent to a small town on the east coast called Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral, and to deal with the estate, of a lady called Mrs Alice Drablow, who lived in a house just off the coast that is cut off each day by the tide.

At the funeral, Kipps spots a strange woman, dressed in black, with a pale, wasting face:

"She was dressed in deepest black, in the style of mournoing that had rather gone out of fashion...it had clearly been dug out of some old wardrobe, for its blackness was a little rusty-looking. A bonnet-type hat covered her head and shaded her face, but although I did not stare, even the swift glance I took of the woman showed me enough to recognise that she was suffering from some terrible wasting disease, for not only was she extremely pale, even more than a contrast with the blackness of her garments could account for, but the skin, and, it seemed, only the thinnest layer of flesh was tautly stretched and strained across her bones, so that it gleamed with a curious blue-white sheen"

In the days that follow, he travels over to the house to sort things out and finds himself the victim of a series of hauntings, strange noises and mysterious disturbances. He again sights the woman in black. Kipps attemps to find out what is going on, but the inhabitants of the town are reluctant to reveal any information and try to dissuade him from being involved.

I won't give any more of the plot away, suffice to say that Kipps discovers the story behind the woman. And in a chilling conclusion himself becomes victimised.

This is the only book that I have read in adulthood which has given me nightmares - I woke up two nights later and had to wake up my boyfriend to reassure me that the wardrobe hadn't become a woman wearing a black veil. He wasn't too impressed and had gone back to sleep by the time I returned from getting a drink of water which led to me scurrying back into bed and hiding under the pillows.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Bake of the week: Nigella's Lemon Gems


Nigella's lemon gems have been on my to-bake list for quite sometime - they are very attractively pictured in her book How to be a domestic goddess and they sounded like quite a different sort of biscuit to the ones that I normally make. They are little ball-shaped biscuits, which are flattened slightly so that they can be filled with lemon curd (Nigella says that her children call them fried egg biscuits). I was a little disappointed by the results - they needed far more lemon curd, so I should have made much bigger indents for filling them with, and the base turned out a bit dry and wasn't really sweet enough (in fact I had wondered about the amount of sugar in the recipe when I baked it).

Monday, 16 November 2009

Ex Libris (Anne Fadiman)

It was a busy weekend reading-wise - I think I read a total of 10 books. So it seems to appropriate that I write about the book which I read which was about books and reading.


I came across Ex Libris on Stuck-in-a-book 6 months ago, when I first found Simon's blog, and added it to my wishlist. It was also recommended to me by a colleague when he discovered my blog. After the disappointment of Howards End is on the landing, I was keen to read a bookish book to comfort me in my addiction to books and to make me feel that I could justify my reading. So it was time to reserve it at the library and indulge in the thoughts of another book-lover.

It is a little book of essays (I won't pretend that the 10 books I read this weekend were all chunksters!), subtitled "The confessions of a common reader". And I identified with so many of the confessions!

In the essay, My ancestral castles, Fadiman describes how "other people's walls looked naked to me". She grew up with parents who owned over 7000 books and required 1/4 mile of shelving to be put into every house they moved to. As a child I often wondered why the houses I visited didn't have many books and was always glad to return home to my bungalow where there was not space to fit in another bookshelf.

I particularly loved Fadiman's discussions of childhood reading and reading with her children. Reading was incredibly important to me as a child and I think it is crucial that parents spend time reading with their children. In the essay, Sharing the mayhem, she describes coming down for breakfast to find her daughter eating rice crispies while her father reads to her from Dahl's Boy:
"Had I been a better mother I would have said "After breakfast". Instead I joined the audience."

Full of little gems, I really would recommend this book to all book-lovers - another wonderful Christmas present I think.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Operation heartbreak (Duff Cooper)

Having pulled this off the shelf for a last-minute Remembrance Day read I was absolutely hooked by Operation Heartbreak by Duff Cooper.. It is a wonderful bitter-sweet story of a man who is defeated by luck in his attempt to pursue his dreams and who is equally unlucky ill-fated in love with an unexpected twist at the end which rounded off the story beautifully.


I had come across Duff Cooper before in a different context, whilst doing my history degree. Operation Heartbreak was the only novel that he wrote, although he wrote five other books and was more famous for his involvement in government. He had a prominent role in Churchill's Coalition government during the Second World War, and held a variety of posts including Minister of Information. I was required to read his diaries which were particularly entertaining as he started out as a bit of a playboy and then grew into his role in supporting the war effort. His experience I am sure helped to contribute to this book which begins at the end of the First World War and ends in the Second.



The book is about the life of William Maryngton who is absolutely desperate to become a soldier. Coming of age during the First World War he enlists for battle and is excited at the thought of going to the front and proving himself. Unfortunately, his dreams are dashed when the Armistice occurs just before he gets this opportunity. He decides to pursue a career in the army, but finds it difficult being surrounded by men who saw action and have stories to share in the mess. His embitterment continues into the 1930s when the changing nature of warfare destroys his role as a cavalryman - something which he is very good at - and he finds it difficult to adapt. By the time the Second World War comes around, he is old, and he is left behind training officers rather than seeing action on the continent. He is devastated. At the same time, Maryngton is extremely unlucky in love. He proposes marriage to Daisy; it is not exactly a love-match but the pair seem to suit each other and offer Maryngton hope for the future - until she elopes with a married man. He hopes to marry Felicity, the daughter of the woman who brought him up (he was an orphan) but she is reluctant to commit.

However, in a surprising twist at the end (I will not say anymore because that will completely spoil the story) Maryngton DOES get to play his part in the Second World War although not in the way that he anticipated it.

I wasn't expecting the ending at all and it rounded off a book that I had very much enjoyed reading. So, many thanks to Dovegreyreader for mentioning this on her blog and reminding me that I had it. And thanks to Persephone books for republishing this book which I'm sure wouldn't have made it into my consciousness otherwise.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Some thoughts for Remembrance day

I wanted to write a post related to Remembrance Day, because it is such a very important occasion and I think it is right that we honour the people who fought in two world wars and later conflicts to ensure our freedom and peace today. I've just been standing outside the library with one of my colleagues, listening to the Magdalen bells chime 11, and hearing the canon fired from Christchurch. I was a little sad that not more people joined in.

Unfortunately I hadn't got round to reading anything suitable in time, but was inspired earlier to read Operation Heartbreak, one of my unread Persephones after reading about it on DoveGreyReader's blog - set in the Second World War it sounds like a wonderful read for tonight and maybe I'll have a review of it tomorrow if you like.

I have read a number of excellent books set in the second world war this year, predominantly published by Persephone and Virago*, and the bonus of reading titles from these publishers is that they often offer a woman's perspective into life in wartime. Until the 1990s it was very unfashionable to look at war from the female point of view, but since then there has been a proliferation of literature looking at women's experiences - at home, in the factories, and on the land. This was one of the most interesting things that I studied at university, and two anthologies of women's writings which I would recommend are Wartime Women, edited by Dorothy Sheridan which utilises Mass Observation's research during the second world war, and Hearts Undefeated, a collection published by Virago.

At this time of year, I always like to get out my little book of Poems of the Great War - I think the war poets give a great insight into the futility of the First World War. I was hugely privileged to visit the First World War battlefields in 2002 and this little book was the perfect accompanient to the travels as it helped to contextualise the endless cemetries and what is now just countryside. One of my favourite poems is one of the most famous ones, but I like it because
it reminds me why we wear poppies to remember, and also because I saw the ambulance station at Essex Farm in Belgium where the author, John Macrae, reputedly wrote the poem for the funeral of a friend.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.



* Four wartime related Virago Modern Classics that I've written about on my other blog are:
Mrs Miniver
On the side of angels
Love lessons
One fine day

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Bake of the week: clotted cream shortbread

Clotted cream shortbread is a delicacy that I always buy myself when in Cornwall and I thought I'd give it a go at home, since we will not be going to Cornwall until next year. I couldn't find a recipe anywhere, but using the proportions of butter/clotted cream specified on the outside of the last packet that I ate, I managed to adapt my own shortbread recipe. The clotted cream flavour was quite subtle, even when I remade it with a greater quantity of clotted cream, but the biscuits themselves were much lighter than usual.

Recipe:
2oz butter (softened)
2oz clotted cream
2 oz caster sugar
6oz plain flour

Preheat oven to 180C. Mix together butter and clotted cream and mix in the sugar. Then rub in the flour and bring it together to form a dough. It's up to you what you do at this stage - you could press it into a tin or make shapes as I did. If making shapes, it's best to chill them in the fridge for 30 minutes before baking otherwise they tend to overswell. Bake for 20 minutes or so until starting to turn golden.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Two reads inspired by my VMC love

My love of Virago Modern Classics, which is being documented as I make my way through the complete collection over on my other blog, got me reading two books this weekend that I might not have picked up otherwise.

I spotted the green spine of Helen Garner's Cosmo Cosmolino in Oxfam at the beginning of the year. This was just after I had begun reading Virago books in earnest, but before I had learned much about the imprint or embarked upon my crazy challenge. I thought that the green spine meant that it was a VMC, I later discovered that Virago published a fair amount of fiction in the 1990s with green spines. However, I am glad that I picked it up as I am sure I wouldn't have bothered otherwise.

Cosmo Cosmolino tells the story of Janet, who lives alone in a crumbling house. She married late in life at 40, but her husband left after 5 years and now she has it to herself again. She takes in two homeless lost people - Maxine, an artist, and Ray, a born again Christian who convinces Maxine that he is a reborn angel. They live a somewhat uncivilised existence - food is rarely in the house and they keep to odd hours. The book also contained two wonderful short stories by Garner; much of her work seems to be in short story format and I, the short story disliker, found myself gripped by the first, entitled Recording Angel, where a woman visiting an old friend in hospital wishes he was dead, and reveals this to his wife.

The other VMC inspired reading this week was The juniper tree by Barbara Comyns. I've read a couple of her books for my challenge - The Vet's Daughter, Who was changed and who was dead, and Sisters by a river. and have loved her extremely individual style. She has two further titles in the Virago Modern Classics series which I am hoping to read soon, but also this title which is not a VMC.

The Juniper tree was quite different to her other books, being written 18 years after her previous novel - the writing itself was less quirky and better punctuated and thus an easier read, but one which was no less gripping - all of Comyn's storytelling abilities were certainly present and there are some elements of "magic realism". It tells the story of Bella Winter, a beautiful but scarred woman, and her illegitimate daughter, who marries a wealthy but distant widower. The book is based on one of Grimm's fairy tales, but I shan't mention which as I didn't know that before reading the book and it might have spoilt it if I had known what was going to happen at the end. Do read this book - it is excellent.

Don't you just love the way that one can pursue a trail of books?

The well and the mine: a quick reminder


I just wanted to highlight the post that I wrote back in September about a book which Virago very kindly sent me to review - The well and the mine - which I absolutely adored. The author Gin Phillips is currently featured on the Virago home page, here, and I would very much encourage you all to look out for this book.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Book buying update #3

I have survived week three. It hasn't been too bad, particularly as a very kind colleague from another library sent me a parcel of two books about libraries, one to borrow and one to keep. Thank you very much Owen for brightening up Wednesday morning and helping me along the way.

But...


I have a few small confessions to make this week. I have started buying Christmas presents and they are mainly books - so I have still been able to get a kick out of internet parcels arriving. I have bought a range of lovely children's books for my two small cousins (6 year old girl, 3 year old boy), The cloudspotter's guide for my Mum (requested by her) and The third Rumpole Omnibus for my Dad (we borrowed vols. 1 and 2, and he lamented the fact that there wasn't a third - the Book Depository came up trumps). Book depository had the best price for both of those, and I was able to benefit Paperback reader by using the link in the top lefthand corner of her page. I also picked up 2 books in the library sale for an early Christmas present for a friend; the fact that I also wanted to read them is obviously beside the point as it only cost me 40p. On the plus side, I have only a few more Christmas presents to purchase - notelets for my Gran, and something for my boyfriend.

I have also made two more non essential purchases this week:
I bought an advent calendar for my boyfriend filled with lovely fair trade 70% dark chocolate; presents were off the agenda, but he's in need of chocolate and cheering up.
I had my nose pierced! This is something I have been longing to do for years, but never quite had the courage to do. I had a wonderful outing with one of my oldest friends on Thursday to Selfridges in London, where there is a piercing studio and I took the plunge. I'm keeping it fairly secret as I am desperate to surprise as many people as possible. I have absolutely no idea how my Mum will react when I see her tonight (although I have already told her partner!).

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Margaret Powell

While I hoped that I would be making vast inroads into my TBR bookcase during this season of not buying books, it hasn't quite worked out that way. Besides borrowing numerous books from the library, I have been revisiting some of the books on my shelves. One author that I fished out last week was Margaret Powell and her second volume of autobiography Climbing the stairs (I have yet to spot the first volume Below stairs in a shop).

One of the things I love about reading books is the ability to encounter worlds that one is unfamiliar with, whether they are of a different occupation, different culture or different time. Margaret Powell was a domestic servant, and although I know quite a bit about this occupation from visiting National Trust properties with "below stairs" rooms open, it is hugely fascinating. Below stairs is a memoir of her years spent in service; sent into service at the age of 15 she started as a kitchen maid and worked her way up as cook. It was an immensely popular book, selling 14,000 copies in its first year (yet there are only 12 copies on librarything.com) and this success lay partly behind the commissioning of the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs.

Climbing the stairs tells the story of Powell's life outside of work. It begins with her exploits on her afternoons out (tea at Lyon's Corner house, dances, dates with unsuitable young men) and then tells us what happened next; she fell in love with the milkman and she left service to get married. They set up home and had children; it was not an easy life as they did not have much money but they managed some holidays/

If this is a topic you are interested in, I would also recommend Pamela Horn's Life below stairs in the twentieth century which is a study of domestic service in Britain last century. It draws on lots of accounts, including Powell, and is a thoroughly absorbing read. Another perspective on this world can be found in Monica Dickens' account of her work as a cook-general in a similar period in One pair of hands.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

An education (film)


I don't often write about films (although I have been going to the cinema quite regularly this Autumn) but I found myself so fascinated by An education which I saw on Monday, that I wanted to write about it here.

Set in 1960s London, An education is based on a memoir written by Lynne Barber. In the film, Lynne is called Jenny, and aged 16, Jenny was destined for Oxford, driven as much by her father's ambition as her own. One day, she was picked up at a bus-stop by an older man, David. And suddenly her "education" became much broader; he introduced her to a realm of new experiences - real concerts, auctions, seemingly well-to-do friends, outings to nightclubs and eventually sex. Jenny, already astute and cultured, is captivated by the opportunity to do things and see things that did not form part of her stifling upbringing. It is easy to see why Jenny is charmed by David and his way of life, but at the same time, I found David extremely creepy. Eventually she is persuaded to give up her education and Oxford entrance exam to get engaged to David; even her father is happy as ultimately one of the reasons that he wanted her to go to Oxford was to find a good husband, and he has also been seduced by David and thinks that this will save him money in the long run. My instincts about David were correct as it turns out that he is not all what he seems and Jenny is forced to make some difficult decisions.

Film-wise, I thought that Carey Mulligan made an excellent Jenny. I loved the 1960s detailing and the picture of suburban English life which it painted. As usual, I quibbled with the Oxford scenes - cyclists in the courtyard between the Old Bodleian and The Clarendon building, I don't think so!

For once, I had not read the book before seeing the film, (although the book has been on my Amazon wishlist for quite a while) which was actually quite refreshing as I had no preconceptions about the plot. It has made me very keen to read the book; I spent all of last night wondering whether the ending was added by the film makers to give a happy finish to the book, but fortunately one of my colleagues was able to tell me that it was true. One of the reviews of the film that I read suggested that the film didn't really reveal enough about Lynne's thoughts and feelings at the time, so I think reading the book will give the story an extra dimension.

Have you seen the film or read the book? And what is your feeling on reading/watching first?

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Bake of the week: bakewell tart

I made mini bakewell tarts earlier this year, and thought that I would have a go at a slightly bigger one as I now have a proper flan tin. I'm afraid I cheated and used ready made (and, eeek, ready rolled) shortcrust pastry, but the filling was all my own, and my partner thought it was one of the best puddings I've made. (He enthuses about almost all of my baking, but occasionally there is something that he REALLY enthuses about, and this was one of them).

I made up my own recipe for the filling (to fill 20 cm flan tin)
* 2oz margarine (didn't even need butter to get a good taste)
* 2oz caster sugar
* 1 beaten egg
* 2 oz ground almonds
* 1 tsp baking powder
* jam (I used raspberry, but there wasn't quite enough, so one corner had a bit of strawberry in!)
* flaked almonds (should have gone on top but I didn't have any, and am being frugal so didn't buy some specially!).

* Beat together marg. and sugar.
* Beat in egg.
* Beat in almonds and baking powder
* Line the tin with a piece of pastry (DON'T stretch it, or it will shrink - I learnt this the hard way)
* Spread jam over the bottom of the pastry
* Cover with almond/marg/sugar/egg mixture
* Bake in pre-heated oven at 180C for about 30 minutes or until done.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Mist in the mirror (Hill)


I wanted to read The woman in black for a Halloween read over the weekend; and Fiona from Vintage kindly offered to send me a copy. Unfortunately despite being sent over three weeks ago, it somehow seems to have been mislaid in the post, and the replacement copy won't be here until next week.

I was still keen to read some sort of ghost story, preferably something reasonably modern but I don't know very much about modern ghost story writers, so when I went to the library to get something else, I looked for another Susan Hill. I ended up taking out The mist in the mirror which sounded from the blurb as if it would be a classic ghost story.

I was not disappointed: the settings, Edwardian London and the Yorkshire moors were wonderfully gothic and Hill managed to slowly unravel a mystery which was both gripping and chilling. The book is about the story of Sir James Monmouth, who returns home to England after many years spent travelling abroad. He is on the trail (despite warnings not to) of an explorer named Conrad Vale who he wants to know more about. But Sir James is plagued by ghostly and strange events and happenings; he appears to be followed by a little boy, perpetually sobbing; he keeps seeing an old woman behind the curtain. Yet no-one else can witness these things.

I should really have read this book at night for the full effect, rather than sitting in the flourescent light of the staff room at work on Saturday, as I think that would have made the experience more chilling. My own caveat with the book was that I found that there were quite a lot of loose ends which didn't get tied up which I found ultimately spoiled the book for me; there were a number of ghostly occurrences to which there was no resolution which I thought was a shame; the book is a compact 184p. and it would certainly not have been excessive to write another 50p. or so to wrap it all up properly.

I am still looking forward to reading The woman in black which is supposed to be one of her best works, but I am also wondering about reading some other modern ghost story writers as it's that time of year. Can anyone recommend any?

Saturday, 31 October 2009

A Meme for Saturday

I quite like to do Memes at the weekend, and I liked this one which I spotted on another cookie crumbles's blog which originally came from The Boston Bibliophile’s blog. Do join in if you feel like it!

1. What author do you own the most books by?

Easy - I have a complete collection of Chalet School books so it must be Elinor M. Brent Dyer. Closely followed by Daphne Du Maurier as I have nearly all of her titles in the new Virago Modern Classics edition.

2. What book do you own the most copies of?

The school at the Chalet by Elinor M. Brent Dyer; I have it in hardback, Armada paperback and Girls Gone By anniversary edition.

3. Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?

I never got taught grammar at school so I'm hazy on things like that.

4. What fictional character are you seriously in love with?

Probably Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre; he was the first literary hero that I ever encountered so he has a special place in my heart.

5. What book have you read the most times in your life?

Probably The school at the chalet, that has been read a lot. Another book that I turn to for comfort reading is Village School by Miss Read or any of the Miss Read books. I capture the castle is another book I have read many times, although I don't own a copy.

6. Favorite book as a ten year old?

Difficult to remember what I was reading when I was ten, I suspect it was that year that I read Jane Eyre, so I shall say that.

7. What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?

I honestly can't remember as the good books stay with me, but the bad books just disappear. The book I least enjoyed recently was The lifted veil by George Eliot but I'm a great believer in that there aren't bad books, just books which aren't right for you on that occasion.

8. What is the best book you’ve read in the past year?

I've read a LOT of good books this year, but highlights would include: The music room (Fiennes), Small wars (Sadie Jones), We bought an island (Atkins), The reluctant fundamentalist (Hamid), Fortnight in September (Sherrif), Bricks and Mortar (Ashton), The magic toyshop (Carter)...the list could continue indefinitely. I am very lucky to have had some really enjoyable reads this year. Authors I have discovered include Barbara Pym and Rosamund Lehmann, both excellent.

9. If you could force everyone you know to read one book, what would it be?

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. Bit predictable so perhaps I should opt for her Vanishing Cornwall which is a lyrical exploration of the county which inspired so much of her writing, illustrated with wonderful photos taken by her son.

10. What book would you like to see made into a movie?

Invitation to the waltz by Rosamund Lehmann. Not sure if this has been adapted - I think it would be wonderful.

11. What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?

Gibbon's History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire for my history degree. I couldn't get into it and just hated every minute I was stuck with it.

12. What is your favorite book?

Again, a tough question. Loved Rebecca, by DDM and her Vanishing Cornwall; I capture the castle (Smith), The music room (Fiennes), Liquid Assets (lovely book about Lidos), Brideshead Revisited... I also have the chance to work with some amazing rare books in Oxford; the Douce Pliny (see below) is truly amazing, as is Wolsey's Lectionary held in Magdalen College.

13. What is your favorite play?

Shakepeare’s Macbeth. I have to confess that I'm not hugely into plays (I'd rather see something with a bit of music!), and definitely not Shakespeare which I find very difficult to understand. However, I studied this at school and so it is accessible and I have seen 2 productions of it and would happily go to many more.

14. Poem?

This is easy - it's Back home by John Betjeman which describes the discomfort of air travel and the contrasting loveliness of being outside in Cornwall and mentions one of my favourite landmarks in Cornwall, Stepper Point.

15. Essay?

Haven't read many essays, not since college I'm afraid.

16. Who is the most overrated writer alive today?

Dan Brown. I'm not really a book snob, but I am snobby about Dan Brown.

17. What is your favorite desert island book?

I dread the thought of being stuck on a desert island with only one book. I can't think of one book I'd be prepared to read over and over and over.

18. And… what are you reading right now?

A Kid for two farthings, by Wolf Mankowitz, which is one of the new Bloomsbury group titles.