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.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Book buying update #2

This week I'll admit has been hard. Last week, despite postal strikes, there were still a few books ordered from the internet trickling in to cheer up my return from work. I also had a lovely parcel of Muriel Spark books from Virago.

This week there have been no parcels. And this is as much a result of the non-essential spending/book buying ban as the postal strike. I have been sorely tempted three times to buy books:
- Familiar Passions (Nina Bawden) was something I came across when looking for wedding themed reading that would also fit into my Virago Venture. But no library copies. Plenty for 1p on Amazon, but by the time that you factor in postage, it is £2.76. And while it is only £2.76 I've learnt that these can add up very quickly.
- Legend of a suicide (David Vann) reviewed by Jackie on Farm Lane Books. I have never encountered a novel about suicide, which is an issue quite close to my heart, and would love to read this. But no copies in my library.
- Murder at the Flood (Mabel Esther Allen) is the latest Greyladies title. I didn't know that they had issued another title (I collect this imprint), but the bookseller who I buy them through emailed me to tell me about it. It was very hard to email back and say that I am not buying anymore books at the moment.

However, there is extra impetus to my non-essential spending lark. My partner has resigned from his job, and we're not quite sure what we're going to do next, so it is sensible to watch the pennies especially carefully for the next few weeks.

And the bright side I suppose is the existence of the library. I had three good trips last week and came away with a whole lot of library loot. I've let myself make some reservations too, and these have been trickling in this week which has been exciting.

The TBR bookcase doesn't really seem to be diminishing as I've had all of the library books to occupy me and taken the opportunity to reread some old favourites. But I did manage to have a clearout of my main bookshelves and sent 25 books off to Oxfam books in Thame with my partner on Monday.

5 more weeks of the challenge to go.

Oxfam books online

A friend has just pointed me to this link; Oxfam now have an online charity store which includes books! Definitely worth a look as this is the first online second hand bookshopping experience I have seen that gives the money to charity.

I will be bookmarking it for future use; I'm still sticking to my book-buying ban and will update you on my progress tonight.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Reluctant Fundamentalist (Hamid)

It's very rare that a student or member of staff will request a fiction book in the library, so I was intrigued when someone put in a request for The reluctant fundamentalist by Hamid. Having read the back of it whilst cataloguing it, I sneakily took it home overnight to have a read myself (I wasn't sure if the requester might be a slow reader or not!). I was gripped: the remainder of the evening saw me cooking dinner with the book in hand, reading it whilst eating, and leaving the washing up until it was finished (the last sounds acceptable but it isn't really to me!).

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007, this has been out a while, and probably read and reviewed by many. It tells the tale of Changez, a Pakistan-born Princeton graduate who is now working for a big business firm, Underwood Samson as a financial analyst in a position referred to as a "fundamentalist" - i.e. he tries to cut the businesses he deals with down to their "fundamentals" to make them more efficient and successful. However, this term is also used to later refer to his beliefs. The story jumps around somewhat, but we learn about Changez's childhood, his struggles to fit into life in America and an ill-fated love affair with an American girl named Erica who is still in love with her former partner. Of course 9/11 happens and this has a strong influence on his life in America; he realises that he will always feel alienated there however much he tries to fit it.

What makes the book so gripping is the way in which the story is told. You, the reader, are an active participant as the book takes the form of a monologue from Changez in a restaurant in Lahore, where you are dining together. You are an American, but it is not clear whether you are tourist, businessman or intelligence agent.

The only thing that let the book down in my opinion was the ending. Having read avidly through to find out what happens at the end, nothing actually did. The book quite literally came to a full stop. I guess that Hamid wanted you to make your own mind about how the story ended, but having been gripped all along, I felt that this was a bit of a cop-out. It doesn't stop me from recommending what was a very different read to some of the books that I normally encounter.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Trust me I'm a (junior) doctor (Pemberton)

One of my very good friends is in her first year post-medical school working as a junior doctor and I have always been fascinated by her study and hospital placements. When we met up last weekend I spent a lot of time trying to find out what her new job involves. I wish I had read Trust me I'm a (junior) doctor beforehand as it would have saved me asking a lot of silly questions.

Endorsed on the back of the book by Boris Johnson, it is not a terribly literary read, but it is laugh-out-loud funny, sad in places and hugely interesting. Pemberton wrote a column for the Daily Telegraph during his first year as a junior doctor and this book resulted. There is no plot as such and the characters are not particularly well developed, but the "what will happen next to Pemberton" makes it a real page-turner.

The most interesting element for me was the descriptions of his day to day work which enabled me to understand what my friend gets up to - fitting catheters, inserting canulas, finding mysteriously lost X-rays, signing patients in and out, and sadly signing death certificates. He describes the "Oh s***" feeling of being summoned to the patient's bed because he is the doctor, and the dreadful feeling of missing an important and obvious diagnosis that nearly leads to a patient's death. At the same time we see how hard the life of a Junior Doctor is (although I believe this was written before the cut-down in working hours); Pemberton barely gets any time to eat, let alone buy food or do his washing, and his time off essentially consists of sleeping. There is also a fair amount of debate; Pemberton is a staunch defender of the NHS and tries to argue against the downgrading of patient care that results from penny pinching (for example the problems caused by contracting out of the various services which make them difficult to access).

I shall definitely be borrowing the second volume of his diaries, Where does it hurt?, sooner rather than later.

If you're interested in this sort of thing, then I would also recommend Confessions of a Baby Barista which uses the same premise with regard to the work of a barrister in his first pupillage. Also hilarious it gave me a really good understanding of what my barrister friends get up to.

I wonder if there is room in the market for the memoir of a librarian?!

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Bake of the week: Spelt cinnamon and sultana cake

Having quite enjoyed the spelt cake that I made a few weeks ago, I decided to adapt the recipe to see if I could make it fit my tastes better. And what a result I had with my Spelt cinnamon and sultana cake - it was seriously yummy. The ticket to baking with spelt is to add more liquid than you might do with wheatflour. This is quite a plain cake but good if you want cake but not something laden with butter icing or chocolate. Healthy I reckon.

The recipe:
4 oz butter/marg
4 oz caster sugar
2 eggs
5 oz spelt flour (I used wholemeal)
2 oz sultanas
sploosh of milk
2 tsp cinnamon (I like things to be really cinnamonny).

Cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in 2 beaten eggs. Stir in the flour, cinnamon and sultanas and a sploosh of milk to loosen. Bake in a 23cm round tin (or you can bake it in a 18 cm tin as I did and make a few cupcakes at the same time) at 180C for 30mins or until a knife/skewer inserted comes out clean (hence the little holes in the top of my cake).

I've now got some white/refined spelt to try so look out for another spelt recipe soon.

Monday, 26 October 2009

The beacon (Hill)

I had an incredibly relaxing weekend as for once I was neither working nor rushing away somewhere. I did have an afternoon out with my partner, did some baking (see tomorrow for bake of the week), and went to a wedding, but there was Quite A Lot Of Time For Reading. This was good as I amassed piles of library loot (the picture here only tells a third of the story as I made two further library visits last week!)

Having read Howards End is on the landing the other week, I was curious to read some more of Susan Hill's work. I greatly enjoyed reading Mrs De Winter a couple of years ago which I picked up because it was a sequel to Rebecca, but I had not read anything else by her. I'm hoping to read The woman in black for Halloween this weekend, but the copy I have been promised seems to have got stuck in the post. Having read about The beacon on Simon's blog, I thought that I would give that a try and the copy I reserved at the library arrived with commendable speed.

Essentially it is the story of a family, told in two time frames, who inhabit an old farmhouse called The beacon. It tells the story of the children, Frank, May, Colin and Berenice growing up, and it tells the story of May clearing out the house after their mother's death. In this latter time, the family have been devastated by the publication of a book by Frank. Frank has written a so-called misery memoir, a book in the style of Pelzer's A child called it, outlining the miserable circumstances of his childhood. Like the family, the reader, has seen that nothing like this ever occurred in his upbringing. But, like the family, the reader is left wondering if they have missed something, did Frank really endure something bad? Were the rest of the family covering things up?

Having read The beacon, I felt that I could see where some of the style of Howard's End is on the Landing had come from. The book is short, almost a novella, and the chapters, like those in Howard's End were also short. I felt that this worked successfully in this book; the chapters followed on from each other to weave a story from the different threads and I kept turning the pages to complete the picture. I thought this was an excellent premise on which to write a novel; there have been one or two cases where misery memoirs have been questioned. But aside from that, I found the characters' lives interesting, their growing up and moving away from home.

Fingers crossed for the arrival of The woman in black by Halloween!

Friday, 23 October 2009

Book buying update

Or what has turned into a Non-Essential-Spending challenge.

I have managed to avoid buying any books this week (the advice of not going into charity shops is hard to follow but definitely the best course of acton). Since I tend to divert my spending, I decided to forbid ALL non essential spending and am pleased to announce that I have not bought any clothes or DVDs this week either. It has been hard to avoid Amazon when I use it at work but I have stayed strong.

I did have a misfortune and lost my mobile phone at the weekend; although I got it back the screen was damaged and it has had to be replaced, though I'm hopeful of claiming on house insurance for it. I have also booked two ballet trips, but one is our Christmas present to my partner's nieces and the other will be my Christmas present from my Gran. I shall be blogging about those in due course (12th Dec and 2nd Jan) as both ballets are based on books!

We're about to apply the same policy to our groceries for the next month, so I shall be compiling an inventory of all of my baking ingredients and working out what I can make with them rather than buying whatever I need to create the bake that takes my fancy each week.

It has been difficult, but I am feeling pleased with my progress!

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Library loot

It has been a while since I've done a post on the theme of library loot, not in fact since I took a picture of my library TBR shelf for Booking through Thursday in July. As you'll see from here, the library books shelf has been somewhat diminished owing to the need for space for books actually owned by the Cardigan Girl.

I had hoped that spending less money on books would give me an incentive to get on with the piles of books on my TBRBC (To-be-read-book-case); sadly no. I went to the library (this almost sounds like the start of one of those memory games that I used to play as a child...) on Monday to return a book and ended up having to utilise the plastic bag that I keep in my handbag for emergencies such as these and returned with a whole stack of books.

I got:
* Strangers (Anita Brookner). This is her latest novel which I have been wanting to read for sometime and have already read.
* Next big thing (Anita Brookner). Spotted this when looking for Strangers and thought it looked good - I enjoy Anita Brookner.
* Lost lady (Willa Cather). Have not read any Cather and this is a Virago Modern Classic for my VVV challenge.
* Love on the supertax (Laski). Reserved this after reading Desperate Reader's review.
* Beacon (Susan Hill). Reserved this after reading several bloggers writing about Susan Hill. I felt a little let down by Howards End is on the landing, but I did love Mrs De Winter (sequel to Rebecca) and I wanted to read another book by her before I read The woman in black for Halloween.
* At home in Mitford (Karon). This was recommended after I reviewed Miss Read; JoAnn mentioned that this author was similar.

I have already read Anita Brookner's Strangers, and it was very good.

The rest of the books on this shelf have been languishing there for a while.
* I picked up the Wilkie Collins omnibus after following Simon Savidge's Sensation Season and read the first novella (which I enjoyed) but have yet to read the rest.
* Waterland by Graham Swift needs to be read ASAP as I have run out of renewals on it; I'm not sure why it is taking me so long to get around to reading it. I love Swift's writing and like the look of the theme of this - it is partly that I don't really like the look of this edition (and have seen a much nicer 25th anniversary edition in Waterstones...)
* The same applies to The truth about love (Hart); it needs to be read, and it looks interesting and is published by Virago, but it has just not leapt out at me.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009


Reading is good for you!

I have just been reading this month's edition of the excitingly entitled Library and Information Update which I recieve as part of my membership to the professional association of librarians, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) when I stumbled across a fascinating article about the increasing recognition of the health benefits of reading written by Debbie Hicks.

Research shows that reading works better than other methods (it is not clear what other methods) to reduce stress and calm anxiety. In addition there is a strong link between literacy and good health. Morever, there is evidence showing how beneficial membership of a reading group can be by combating isolation and improving self-esteem.

The point of the article was to outline a new programme organised by The reading agency to raise the profile of libraries working in this area because "health and well-being is now at the heart of public library vision". Libraries have already contributed to improving health through the books on prescription service, but this new programme is going to promote "creative bibliotherapy" which will include reading activities, particularly for older people.

This made me feel happy. Firstly that what I spend so much time doing is good for me! And secondly that libraries are going to be able to contribute to the health of the nation.

PS: Regarding bibliotherapy, I'm not sure if you have come across Justine Picardie's blog, but she does a wonderful series of "what to read when..." covering all sorts of themes such as cheering up, in memorium, when you don't want to go for a walk...; I am sure the notion that there is a book for every occasion is an important part of bibliotherapy.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Bake of the week : lemon and sultana cookies

I spotted these in my 101 Bakes and Cakes book, and although they hadn't made it onto the list of things that I wanted to bake this Autumn, I had a real sultana craving, and decided to make them immediately.

The lemon flavour comes from lemon curd which gives them a real tang. If anything, it made them a bit too sweet, so I think I may need to come up with a refinement to the recipe, and use lemon juice and zest.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Howards End is on the landing

It was with much anticipation that I awaited my copy of Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. I'd read a number of pre-publication reviews, tried and failed to get hold of my own review copy, and then had to deal with the vagaries of the post in Oxford at the moment. The book finally arrived on Tuesday, and I "saved" it until the next evening to entertain me while my boyfriend was out. In fact. I didn't manage to save it that long, and started reading it on Wednesday lunchtime.

I'm sure most book bloggers are familiar with the premise of the book. Susan Hill realised one day that she had many unread books on her shelves, as well as many books on her shelves which she wanted to re-read. So she gave herself a year where she would not acquire any new books (with the exception of borrowing academic books from the library and books that she had to review for work) and read just from her shelves. Howards End is on the landing is the result of this book.

The book covers a wide range of themes to do with books, bibliophilia and reading. She talks about poetry, about the short story, about children's books, organisation of books, the "dregs" and authors both famous and more obscure. She writes about encounters with authors, so the book is as much a memoir as an exposition on books. I was pleased to see the weight given to a book that I recently love - The Rector's Daughter by F.M. Mayor. She also discusses current issues such as the growth of the e-book reader and whether this can ever overcome the joy of the book as an object (it won't).

I identified with much of the book. I felt less bad about my recent purchase of two copies of Diary of a Provincial Lady after learning that Hill has three different editons of the complete Thomas Hardy. And I did like the beautifully printed dust jacket which was fitting given the emphasis given to books as objects.

However, while I was delighted by the different topics and content and Hill's writing style, I was left feeling a little disappointed by it. The chapters were very short and didn't really run on from each other. Hill only introduced the thread of "what if I could only have 40 books to read for the rest of my life" towards the end of the book, which I felt might have been better introduced near the beginning. I felt that perhaps this would have worked well as a blog, or series of journalistic artices which were then brought together in a book. It just didn't really work as a book for me. Controversially, I wonder if this is why it has appealed so much to bloggers, because the content is in the bite-sized format that we are used to.

I was relieved that Paperback reader was not effusive about this title; I had wondered when reading it if I had missed something, and delayed my review to see if I changed my mind. I hadn't. Nice as a book of anecdotes but not the literary volume that I was anticipating.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

15 books

I got tagged in this note on facebook and thought it would be fun to put it on my blog and see what other bloggers came up with!

Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.

1. Rebecca (Daphne Du Maurier)
2. Lark Rise to Candleford (Flora Thompson)
3. Round About A Pound a Week (Maud Pember Reeves)
4. Swallows and Amazons (Arthur Ransome)
5. Diary of a nobody (George Grossmith)
6. Ballet Shoes (Noel Streatfeild)
7. Our hidden lives (Simon Garfield)
8. The school at the chalet (Elinor M Brent Dyer)
9. One pair of hands (Monica Dickens)
10. The music room (Will Fiennes)
11. Sunbathing in the rain (Gwyneth Lewis)
12. Jennings at school (Anthony Buckeridge)
13. Autumn Term (Antonia Forest)
14. The well and the mine (Gin Phillips)
15. Frost in May (Antonia White)

I did this in about 3 minutes, as fast as I could type the titles. I was intrigued by the mixture of children's books, fiction and social history/autobiography which came out.

Try doing the same!

Friday, 16 October 2009


A bonus bake of the week this week as I decided to make some Earl Grey Tea Biscuits to mark the 16th October. I have seen this recipe on a number of blogs, such as here, and knew that it was what I wanted to bake today. Unfortunately the biscuits turned out tough and inedible, and I don't know what went wrong. It gave me a good excuse to cry anyway.

The 16th October is a sad day for me, as three years ago one of my very closest friends took her life after a long battle with depression. Autumn has always been my favourite time of year, but it has been tinged with sadness over the last 3 years as I remember Emily. Emily was a great reader and a great baker, and gave me a wonderful book of muffins, as well as Clare Morrall's Astonishing Splashes of Colour, (almost the last time anyone risked giving me a novel) and a fantastic greetings card with the motto "There's no such thing as too many books" (see below). At school I remember surreptitiously swapping Chalet School books, wrapped up in carrier bags because we were embarassed to still be reading them aged 14! She then introduced me to the children's author Hilary McKay whose books such as Saffy's Angel and Indigo's Star were such comfort reads; I was devastated when I realised that she would never read the last books in the series. She used to regularly visit me when I worked in the public library and I would invariably have to renew the books she had borrowed when she forgot to return them. Her beverage of choice was Earl Grey tea, and it is something I always drink when I visit her Mum. So the Earl Grey tea biscuits seemed appropriate. I'm undecided as to whether or not she would have approved of them; I remember her eating flapjack and muffins with her tea and wonder whether she might have considered it a desecration of her tea-leaves. But I shall light a candle tonight, and I might get out Astonishing Splashes of Colour or one of the Hilary MacKay novels tonight to remember her.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Some restraint is in order

Books have been freely flowing into the B Files establishment at a rate far faster than they can be read. My eyes seem to be bigger than, well, my eyes. On Monday this week I used my bank statement to tot up exactly how much had been spent on books since last payday, and then I looked at librarything to see how many books I had added. It wasn't a pretty figure. I could have put quite a bit of money in my savings account and averted the shelving crisis if I had been a bit more careful.

So. I am taking drastic action. It is payday tomorrow and I am going to try not to buy ANY books until next payday (16/11). But ideally until the end of November.

If I do cave in, then I can only buy a book which I will read that day. So that immediately rules out all Amazon marketplace purchases. I'm not quite sure what to do about Virago Modern Classics spotted in a charity shop; perhaps I will be able to purchase them but only under the get-out clause. My other get-out is that I will continue to borrow books from the library and allow myself the odd reservation charge at the library.

Instead I will write myself a wish-list, and see if I still really want the books when I come to the end of the period. Christmas is coming, and it's not so exciting when you have already bought everything you want in the run-up - I don't really get Christmas presents, but I can still treat myself to some books for Christmas, and it will be a genuine treat rather than an everyday activity. I am also planning to donate some of the money which I will save to some of the charities that I support.

My boss has decided to join me in this challenge (only her vice is clothes, expensive designer clothes!) and so we have called it the non-essential spending challenge. This is good because I know that I can easily divert into other forms of shopping (cookery equipment, clothes) (when I gave up shopping for non essential items during Lent last year we ended up spending an awful lot more on groceries!).

I shall use the blog to help me stick to this and will share with you how I am getting on. Feel free to join in, read from your shelves* and the library, and share the pain!

*I shall be blogging next week about Susan Hill's book where she did this for a whole year.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Behind the Chalet School and The Chalet Companion

After I wrote about Girls Gone By Publishing last week, Geraldine reminded me about the wonderful Bettany Press who "specialise in books for fans of British girls fiction". They have a number of Chalet School related titles (unsurprisingly given the name, which comes from the maiden name of the two key characters responsible for setting up the school in the series), both fill-ins and non fiction. It was the non fiction which caught my eye, and I promptly went off to Amazon to seek out Behind the Chalet School and The Chalet companion, both by Helen McClelland, probably the great Chalet School expert. I have read both of these titles before, a long time ago, and am now glad to have my own copies.

The Chalet Companion is a collection of articles that includes information about the locations of the books, the history of the school and the development of the fan movement as well as biographical information about Brent-Dyer and a couple of short stories. As you can see from my picture, I decided that I would rather have the original Armada edition to complement my Armada Chalet School books rather than the Bettany Press edition.

Behind the Chalet School, is a fantastic biography of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, the writer of the Chalet School series. It goes beyond the biographical information in the Chalet Companion to give a fuller picture of her life; very little was known about the author until McClelland did this research. This is the second edition of the book and includes a chapter about the growth of the Chalet School legend.

Both of these were wonderful to dip into when they arrived, and I look forward to having time to re-read them properly, as well as re-reading more of my Chalet School books.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Bake of the week : Coconut cake

This week's bake came again from the BBC Good Food 101 Bakes and Cakes, and it was a seriously yummy Coconut cake. It was a coconut sponge; essentially a victoria sponge recipe with added dessicated coconut and some coconut cream, sandwiched with raspberry jam and topped with buttercream icing which contained more coconut cream. The recipe suggested putting buttercream in the middle as well, but here at the B Files, we have to watch our waistlines (or at least, my boyfriend does); it didn't seem to adversely affect the cake. I sprinkled the top with more dessicated coconut, but another time I think I'd actually put some in the buttercream.

Sorry for the slightly fuzzy photo, my blood sugar was very low when I tried to take the picture and my hands wouldn't stop shaking! I needed a piece of cake but had to try to photograph it first. The pink around the edge of the plate by the way is my new seriously funky pink scarf, bought for the cold fronts that have come in since last week.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Orchard on Fire

I stumbled across Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay in the Red Cross Shop earlier this week and decided to pick it up as it was only £1.35. The author's name seemed familiar, I had heard of Shena Mackay, and thought that I had read something by her, but it wasn't until I got it home that I remembered that I had read one of her very early novels, The music upstairs, which was published as a Virago Modern Classic. I'm glad I had forgotten that because I enjoyed this novel so very much more and might not have picked it up otherwise.

The Orchard on Fire is a wonderful novel describing a childhood growing up in the country in a small village in Kent in the 1950s. However, don't expect too many cosy reminiscences or feel-good factors in this book, far from it, it is a much more edgy existence that one might expect to encounter in a book about inner-city childhood.

April moves with her parents to the village of Stonebridge to open a teashop. She immediately makes friends with Ruby, the daughter of the village's publicans, and much of the story concerns Ruby and April's friendship. Brought up very differently they nonetheless become partners in crime and have a series of misadventures as they encounter the different village characters; Miss Fay, the grumpy schoolteacher, the eccentric artists Bob and Dittany, and the revolting "kindly" gentleman Mr Greenridge.

Shena Mackay I think is at her best with descriptions; and she evokes a wonderfully vivid picture of Ruby's world and life.

My only quibble with the book is that it is told from the perspective of the adult April; there is a short chapter at the beginning and the end which frames the main story as she makes a trip back to the village, but they didn't really add much to the novel, and if anything left one feeling confused as to why April wanted to revisit her childhood. While this left the end of the novel feeling a little flat, it doesn't stop me from warmly recommending it to you.

Friday, 9 October 2009

My name is Verity...

...and I am a bookaholic.

I have a confession to make.

I went to the Oxfam shop at lunchtime to purchase the hardback Virago 30th anniversary edition of Diary of a Provincial Lady (lovely cover designed by Cath Kidston) (which I wrote about over on Virago Ventures earlier this year...) which I had spotted yesterday (but didn't buy as I wanted to check that the pricing was keen - which it was).
However, I managed to leave the shop with not one but two copies of Diary of a Provincial Lady. Since yesterday, a copy of the original green Virago edition (which contains all three of the Provincial lady books) had been brought in - it was in immaculate condition and only £1.99.
Spontaneous book purchasing is one thing, spontaneous book purchasing of the same book in different editions is a little scary, particularly when one has read the book.

On the plus side, I wasn't really buying books, I was donating money to Oxfam.

Has anyone else got any confessions to share?!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Return to Cheltenham (Ashton)

As part of Persephone Reading Week, I read Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton, which I greatly enjoyed. Having read my post about it, Simon from Stuck-in-a-book kindly offered to lend me another title by Ashton, Return to Cheltenham; it was especially kind as he has not yet read it. I was desperate to read it, and started it as soon as I got home (which rather put paid to my plans to catch up with library books over the weekend!)

It starts with a description of her childhood; living alone with her doctor father and aunt, she is first tutored at home, and then is sent to day-school aged 15. Her father remarries, but she is not hugely happy about the match. Aged 19, she leaves school, and despite her father's misgivings (he is a staunchly chapel man) she attends her first ball. She is asked to a handsome Irish soldier, Rory...and falls in love. After the ball, she is desperate to see him again, but her father and stepmother forbid any contact. They meet surreptitiously, but it is frustrating. Eventually Rory sends her a letter, saying that he must return to Ireland, but will she come with him? His Aunt has died and he must take over her estate.

"He wasted no time in it ; urged her to run off, said that he would arrange day was to be the day, she must come out of the back gate by the stable, at six in the evening, and he would be waiting for her. She must come to the library in the morning and make him some sign ; if she did not come with him, he would go alone and she would never see him again...that was how Ally got her first love-letter"

She takes the plunge, and they journey to Ireland. At first life there is strange, but enjoyable; she gets to grips with living in a much larger house and having much greater resources to draw upon, and loves being with her new husband and has a daughter. But the surrounding social conditions are very difficult; potato blight has struck and the surrounding area is hit by famine. When she makes contact with one of her former Cheltenham friends she hears that her father does not want to see her again. He dies, and Ally is devastated as she has always expected to see him again. She loses her second child after she becomes ill with typhus, visiting the workhouse to try to help the poor people. Her husband cannot really understand her sympathy for the poor, and this affects their relationship.

The title I am afraid gives something of the plot away; Ally does eventually return to Cheltenham. But I'll hope that you can find a copy of this title to find out why yourself. The ending had me in tears, as it was unexpectedly happy.

I don't think this book was quite as brilliant as Bricks and Mortar, which stands out for being such a novel book, giving an insight into architecture and the history of buildings alongside the plot. But I did enjoy the descriptions of Cheltenham, which is a place that I know fairly well, and the depiction of Ireland, and found it a wonderful story for the weekend. Here's on the lookout for some more Helen Ashtons.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Molly Keane's book of nursery cooking and childhood reflections

I came across this wonderful title recently in a second hand bookshop. I knew Molly Keane as a novelist who has had a number of works published as Virago Modern Classics, and couldn't resist picking up this title which seemed very different from the novels that I have read.

Molly Keane wrote the book when she was faced with cooking for her children, with only the assistance of her au pair. Her husband had died suddenly, and owing to straightened circumstance, she could no longer afford Nanny, and had to cope on her own. Predominantly a recipe book for use in the nursery, it incorporates a lengthy introduction outlining Keane's views on feeding children, but also Keane's memories of eating during her childhood and the various characters who taught her about food. We meet Elspeth the au pair (whose recipes feature extensively - such as Elspeth's orange yoghurt, and Elspeth's Eggs en cocette), Mrs Finn, the cook from her childhood. Quotations from this introduction are peppered throughout the text, personalising it in the way that most recipe books are today, but was less usual then.

"I feel strongly that to be acceptable, children's food should be varied, even a little startling, and pretty enough to please the eye"

The book is divided into Soups and stews ; savouries ; puddings ; cakes and biscuits ; cooking for festive occasions and provides a plethora of recipes falling into each category. Flicking through the book I found a mixture of the familiar (coffee and walnut cake, bakewell tart, swiss roll) and the less familiar (cabinet pudding, gur cake); whilst it is probably dated as a cookery book or instruction manual in how to feed children I felt that it was of its time and could be read nostalgically. There was also to my surprise, a final chapter on feeding dogs!

Definitely enjoyed reading this as a piece of social history, more than a cookery book.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Bake of the week : alternative cooking

One of my friends has recently been put on a wheat-free/gluten-free/dairy-free/egg-free diet, and in the process of looking for recipes to help her out, I came across this spelt cinnamon cake recipe. It doesn't quite fit the bill for her, but as I have been advised to try replacing wheat with other grains, it was good for me!

The cake turned out surprisingly well, and the spelt gave it quite a different texture. I only had wholemeal spelt (leftover from a breadmaking experiment), so it was quite "healthy", but the topping of almonds, egg and sugar gave it an almost macaroon like icing.

One thing I have learnt since I have been baking more seriously, is the importance of the correct sized tin. Recently I have been fudging things, using my smaller round tins, and then putting leftover mixture into ramekins. However, it doesn't always get such good results, so I was especially glad that I had purchased this new round 20cm tin for this cake.

Monday, 5 October 2009

All in the mind (Campbell)

I've been a bit lax with regards to reading and writing about more recent literary fiction in the last couple of months; I've had several books on my library TBR pile, but apart from having read Notwithstanding, the majority of my reading has been concentrated on my Virago Venture.

However, I decided to rectify that this weekend, not least because a couple of the books could not be renewed any further. Unfortunately, things did not go quite to plan, (as Stuck in the book lent me a lovely old hardback, more of that later this week), but I did manage to read one book All in the mind by Alastair Campbell.

Campbell is better known for his work with Tony Blair and the Labour Party, acting as director of communications and strategy and then as a policy advisor, up until about 2005. Although it came out a while ago and I have been very keen to read it, it was only recently that I got my hands on a copy at the library.

All in the mind is a book about mental illness, a subject that interests me personally, as both I and a number of people close to me have suffered from an array of mental health issues. It is also a subject very close to Campbell and the novel draws on his experiences with depression and alcohol addiction.

It tells the story of several characters with mental illness who all visit the same psychiatrist, Professor Sturrock, over the period of a long weekend. We have Emily, the disfigured burns victim, ; Arta, a Kosovan refugee who has been raped; David, a man who has been depressed for so long that he can barely function ; Ralph, a politician who is struggling with alcohol addiction; Matthew whose wife believes he is a sex addict, but really just needs help sorting out his marriage. At the same time, Professor Sturrock is not without his own vulnerabilities. He recognises that he himself would score quite highly on his depression scale, and ultimately we see that he cares more about his patients' lives than his own life.

Despite its sometimes heavy themes, there were moments in the book where I laughed out loud, and I really enjoyed reading it. There were some interesting ideas too, such as the use of raisins to get Emily to come to terms with her disfigurement, and the use of an elastic band around David's wrist for him to flip every time he has a negative thought to try to encourage him to counter it with a positive one. I'll be interested to see whether Alistair Campbell decides to pursue his novel writing

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Happy half-birthday!

It was my half-birthday yesterday, an occasion that I always celebrate, mainly since my Grandad's birthday was on the same date. We used to have a joint celebration. Now I insist on half-birthday cake, and I also arrived home to balloons and a card.

Here is this year's take on half-birthday cake, made by me (boyfriend not quite that well trained yet!)

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Literary life

"Something fun and mildly absorbing for the book-lovers"

Using only books you have read this year (2009), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. It's a lot harder than you think!

Claire from Paperback reader tagged me in this note on facebook, and I thought it would be fun to try...I've read nearly 500 books this year so plenty to chose from!

Describe yourself:
How do you feel: Ease (Patrick Gale)

Describe where you currently live: Crowded Street (Winifred Holtby)

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Desirable Residence (Madeleine Wickham)

Your favorite form of transportation: Easter Parade (Richard Yates)

Your best friend is: There for you (Louise Candish)

You and your friends are: Friendly Young Ladies (Mary Renault)

What's the weather like: Quartet in Autumn (Pym)

You fear: House-bound (Winifred Peck)

What is the best advice you have to give: Keep smiling through (Charlotte Church)

Thought for the day: Remember me? (Sophie Kinsella)

How I would like to die: When I forget (Hirsonen)

My soul's present condition: Angel (Elizabeth Taylor)

Friday, 2 October 2009

Reading in bed

I used to do most of my reading in bed, but since I acquired a boyfriend, we started going to bed a lot later, and my reading suffered quite badly - either I was ready to put the light out straight away or I just couldn't concentrate. I now have a new routine, where I read whilst I am waiting for him to get home from work. I still read in bed to try to help me switch off, but I tend to read much lighter books, which can be read whilst holding a conversation or with only one eye open. This gives me the chance to keep up with and enjoy recent girlie books without feeling guilty that I am not reading one of the many more literary tomes that I want to read. Mainly these fall into either the chick-lit, mummy-lit or country middle-aged-lit categories.

Authors and titles that I have enjoyed this year who fall into this category include Jill Mansell, Carrie Adams (The Godmother, and The Stepmother), Polly Williams (The rise and fall of a yummy mummy), The Rebecca Shaw Village books, Chris Manby (Flatmates), Sophie Kinsella (Remember me?), Eve Houston (Secrets from Pryor's Ford), Madeleine Wickham (A desirable residence), Sam Holden (Diary of a Hapless househusband). I don't tend to buy these titles or even reserve them at the library, I just pick up whatever I find when I am browsing. And if I don't like the book, I don't struggle through it, it goes back to the library.

I have just finished reading French Kissing by Catherine Sanderson. Sanderson is a blogger, who came to fame with her Petite Anglaise blog which described her life as an ex-pat living in Paris. This was published as a book which I read earlier in the year, so I was pleased to find this one in the library. Although a novel, it is strongly based on Sanderson's own experiences as a single-Mum and felt incredibly believable. Definitely a good bedtime read.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Fell Farm books (Marjorie Lloyd)

On my recent trip to the Lake District, the first time I had visited the area, I was almost beside myself with excitement at seeing the scenery which I only knew from books, and which I had encountered as a child in Marjorie Lloyd's Fell farm series. Having grown up in Devon where the countryside is lined with hedges, it was fantastic to see dry stone walls dividing the fields, and the beautiful fells.

I asked the other day which children's books should be brought back into print, and I would love to see Marjorie Lloyd's books made available once more. I've only been able to read her Fell Farm books, which belonged to my Mum as a little girl, but they are lovely stories, beautifully illustrated, and combine adventure with family fun and descriptions of the scenery.

There are three titles in the series, Fell farm holiday, Fell farm Christmas, and Fell Farm Campers, and each are about the Browne family - twins Pat and Kay, twins Hyacinth and Jan and little Sally. Mum and Dad are abroad, and so they are sent to spend their holidays with Mr and Mrs Jenks in the Lake District. The story centres around their activities whilst there - treks over the fells in hob nailed books, consumption of vast teas... Some of the books are told in diary form, with each character taking turn to tell.