Wednesday, 30 June 2010

June reading

Well, June hasn't been the greatest month for reading. I've mentioned a few times that I've spent quite a lot of the month drugged up and unable to read proper books. So how did you read 75 books then? Partly, because a lot of what I was reading were re-reads of children's books and reading Babysitters Club books, the latter especially are not particularly taxing and can even be read fairly fast by someone with little concentration. And the other reason is that you can see that much of the rest of what I read were non fiction titles, mainly recipe books, which are the sort of reading that one dips in and out of, mainly looking at the pictures. But the non fiction reflects some of my preoccupations this month, particularly with wedding cakes!

I did get a few VMCs read, and the VVV blog has been ticking over as I had a huge backlog of reviews. And at the end of the month, the lovely new Bloomsbury group books provided me with enjoyable reading that felt like I was reading "proper" books again and managed to get me back into the groove this month.

I did far better with book acqusitions this month, only acquiring 19 new books, of which five were sent by publishers! *edit* I wrote this a week ago, and unfortunately, this is now not quite true....still, I suppose 47 books isn't *too* bad?!

In terms of blogging, I felt that I centred very much more on things that I wanted to write about, particularly with my various domestic arts projects - jam, cross stitch, knitting, cake decorating, baking, and I will probably continue this focus, especially as I start to plan my wedding cake. In terms of reading, I shall be reading things from my library pile, my TBR, and a vast box of books that Simon from stuck-in-a-book has lent me - no specific plans, and I'm putting my Orange Wednesday posts on hold for a little bit. I've enjoyed the ones that I've read so far and will certainly be reading more from the Orange backlist in due course but it's not a priority at the moment.

So here's the list for June!

Daylight and the dust Frame, Janet VMC SS
Trooper to the southern cross Thirkell, Angela VMC
Kristy and the snobs Martin, Ann C
The camomile Carswell, Catherine VMC
Three houses Thirkell, Angela NF
Mary Plain goes bob-a-jobbing Rae, Gwynedd C
Ship of adventure Blyton, Enid C RR
Jessi's secret language Martin, Ann C
The class Begaudeau, Francois NF
The birds fall down West, Rebecca VMC
Kristy's big day Martin, Ann C
Little gods Richards, Anna
Mostly Mary Rae, Gwynedd C
All about Mary Rae, Gwynedd C
Mary Anne's mystery Martin, Ann C
The old man's birthday Crompton, Richmal
Sea city here we come Martin, Ann C
Murder at the flood Allen, Mabel Esther
Goodbye Stacey, Goodbye Martin, Ann C
A stable for Jill Ferguson, Ruby C RR
Brown girl, brownstones Marshall, Paule VMC
At home Bryson, Bill NF
The Aloe Mansfield, Katherine VMC
Mary Plain in town Rae, Gwynedd C
Mary Plain on holiday Rae, Gwynedd C
Foursome Fallon, Jane
50 things you can do to manage insomnia Green, Wendy NF
Stacey's big mistake Martin, Ann C
Living with a black dog
The street Petry, Ann VMC
So much to tell Grove, Valerie B
The camping cookbook Bell, Annie NF
50 things you can do to manage IBS Green, Wendy NF
Another country: children's books of the lake district Mackensie, James NF
Old school ties Harrison, Kate
Claudia and the bad joke Martin, Ann C
Everyday suppers Delicious magazine NF
Children at the shop Ferguson, Ruby AB
Kristy and the walking disaster Martin, Ann C
Stone in a landslide Tartara, Pedro de
Dying to be thin Grahame, Niki AB
IBS cookbook for dummies Deane, Carolyn NF
Summer before Martin, Ann C
The wild geese Boland, Bridget VMC
A likely lad Avery, Gillian C RR
Mallory and the trouble with twins Martin, Ann C
Bloke's guide to getting hitched Smith, Jonathon NF
After the party Jewell, Lisa
Fell trek Lloyd, Marjorie C
I like this story Webb, Kaye C anthol
Dawn on the coast Martin, Ann C
Landed Pears, Tim
Wedding cakes you can make Wilson, Dede NF
Cake decorator's bible Dunn, Alan
Days of grace Hall, Catherine
Marcella Ward, Mrs Humphrey VMC
Hester Lilly Taylor, Elizabeth VMC
My experimental life Jacobs, A.J. NF
Claudia and the sad goodbye Martin, Ann C
Animal, vegetable, miracle Kingsolver, Barbara NF
Everything changes Martin, Ann C
Let's kill Uncle O'Grady, Rohan
Keep out Claudia Martin, Ann C
Mrs Harris goes to Paris Gallico, Paul
Mrs Harris goes to New York Gallico, Paul
Mrs Ames E.F. Benson
Dawn saves the planet Martin, Ann C
Henrietta sees it through Dennys, Joyce
Twice dead Channon, E.M.
Mr Almost Right Moran, Eleanor
Cakes for fun Asher, Jane NF
Flavour thesaurus Segnit, Niki NF
The lessons Alderman, Naomi
Holiday summer Merwin, Decie C
Essential guide to cake decorating Barker, Alex NF
BSC in the USA Martin, Ann C
Starring the BSC Martin, Ann C
Mother and son Compton-Burnett, Ivy VMC
Picnic for Bunnikins Warrener C
Kristy's big news Martin, Ann C
Cullum Robertson, E Arnot VMC

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The cakes that must not be eaten

I've made three cakes this week which Must Not Be Eaten. So I didn't photograph them as I couldn't cut them and need to avoid all temptation.

The first is a ginger cake, incredibly dark and treacly, and apparently is best served several days after baking. Since I've always been of the opinion that cakes are best on the day that they are made, and am always keen to get immediate feedback on my baking, it was very hard not to serve up a piece for my fiance. Especially since we had strawberries and in my opinion, strawberries and ginger are a wonderful combination of flavours.

The second and third cakes are a pair of cakes which I have made to test wedding cake recipes. As both myself, and a number of key wedding guests currently avoid dairy and/or gluten or wheat, I am very keen to come up with a cake which can be eaten by everybody. I found a recipe for a vegan fruit cake in Fiona Cairn's Bake and Decorate, and have tried to modify it. I used ground almonds in half of the mixture and gluten free flour in the other half, and made two cakes. The gluten free one came out quite dry and crispy, but the almond one looks very moist. Anyway, fruit cakes have to be fed and left to mature for a while (although this one will not keep as long as a traditional fruitcake), so I will provide you with a verdict and whether or not I have solved my vegan/gluten free wedding cake issue or not in due course...

Monday, 28 June 2010

Mrs 'Arris (Bloomsbury Group book)

Originally titled Flowers for Mrs Harris, Mrs Harris goes to Paris by Paul Gallico, is another one of the Bloomsbury Group books published this summer. I think this was the title that most intrigued me from this summer's titles, partly because I knew that my friend Claire was one of the people who had suggested it to Bloomsbury for republication, but mainly because I had only encountered Paul Gallico once before in his novella The snow goose. This beautiful tale had me in such floods of tears aged eleven that I have been unable to read the book since. I knew that Mrs Harris was supposed to be an entertaining and enjoyable read and thus completely different to The Snow Goose.

From the start I was absolutely captivated. Mrs Harris, or rather Mrs 'Arris as she tends to think of herself, is a cockney charlady with a number of clients who she "does" for. One day she espies a beautiful Dior dress in the wardrobe of one of these people; a vivid contrast to her drab existence:
"Mrs Harris had always felt a craving for beauty and colour .......she stood before the stunning creation hanging in the wardrobe and found herself face to face with a new kind of beauty - an artificial one created by the hand of man the artist, but aimed directly and cunningly at the heart of woman. In that very instant she fell victim to the artist; at that very moment there was born within her the craving to possess such a garment"

Whilst doing the football pools one day sometime later, she has a premonition that she is going to win, and the yearning for the Dior dress comes back to her. She knows that when she wins she will be able to go to Paris and buy her own dress. Amazingly, she does win on the pools, but only £100, not even a quarter of the money she needs. But she sees this as a sign that she is meant to have the dress, and starts scrimping and saving. Finally she has enough money to go to Paris, where she does indeed get her dress but at the same time becoming involved with a cast of Parisian characters. The book began to remind me of Winifred Watson's Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day; the ordinary person who has a wonderful adventure, developing in the process, but also touching other people's lives and changing them. She returns to London certainly changed by the experience, which turns out to have been so much more valuable than the dress itself. There is then a fantastic little twist in the plot towards the end which had me gasp out loud in shock; I want to say more about this episode but I don't want to spoil it!

After enjoying Mrs Harris goes to Paris so much I wondered what I would make of Mrs Harris goes to New York, the second Mrs Harris book which Bloomsbury have also released in this volume. I wondered whether or not any sequel could match it; a different story about the same woman might just be dull, and if it was too similar to the first book then it might not be so refreshing. Fortunately, I also enjoyed Mrs Harris goes to New York, a completely different but equally captivating read. This sees the indomitable Mrs Harris accompany one of her cleaning clients who is relocating to New York to settle in, but also using the opportunity to right a situation which has been on her mind for some time. The wonderful Dior dress makes an appearance too, being worn to dinner on the voyage over! Like the earlier book, I was gripped by Gallico's writing, finding it impossible to put the story down.

These hugely entertaining novels were so different from The Snow Goose that I'm wondering about the rest of Gallico's work - is it more akin to Mrs Harris or The Snow Goose or is it different again? But definitely one of my favourite reads of this year, and one that I'd recommend as something a bit different for a summer read.

And finally, I'm now extremely keen to read the rest of Mrs Harris' adventures - Bloomsbury please can you bring out Mrs Harris goes to Russia and Mrs Harris MP next summer please? As I commented on Elaine's blog about the same book - I'll camp out on their doorstep until they do!

Sunday, 27 June 2010

My book collection

A friend recently said to me:

"I can't believe you own quite that many books living in a flat that doesn't sound particularly vast!"

So I said I'd take some pictures to show her how they fitted in...
The bulk of my fiction is on these shelves, alphabetically by author surname (except where size means they don't fit on the right shelf (the big tower on the right hand small book case is ones that I have yet to read)...but the fiction now extends round the corner, as we've put some cases in the kitchen area now:

There were just two cases here, but we're getting a Kenwood mixer, and it needed something to sit on so I have to relinquish the second small one for the cube shaped one (currently inhabited by cookbooks), but as we don't have the heating on at the moment, I've put it in front of the storage heater so it's got another 4-5 months grace.

Then by the tv...
I keep my DVDs, a selection of non fiction and my collection of cookery magazines.

Behind the sofa...
is the smart bookcase with biographies and my posh hardbacks, and there is overflow non-fiction on the little case next to it and some cake decorating magazines and my library books.

And finally, in our bedroom...
is my collection of Chalet School books since they are the only thing that will fit on this little case! Would you believe it that when I moved into this flat, this was the only bookcase I had? I had one tall case of books in my parents flat, but that was it.

So where are my fiances books? Mostly in storage...occasionally I have offered him shelf space when I have got new shelves but they have always ended up being filled before he took up the offer. I really hope we can buy a house soon!

Friday, 25 June 2010

A box of Bloomsbury Group

Actually, they came in a very large padded envelope, but I was extremely excited to recieve all four of the new Bloomsbury Group titles. Last year's publication of 6 "lost classics from the early twentieth century" was one of the most enthused about events of the year on book blogs and I saw many reviews of the books. I'm lucky enough to see this year's titles before their publication and can participate even more fully in the excitement - I should say that above all, regardless of whether or not I liked the books, it is the principle behind the books that excites me - the desire to bring back books which would otherwise languish forgotten. This seems to be a trend for the 21st century in publishing and many of the best books that I have read in recent years. I was going to write about all of them in one go, but that would make for a very long post, so I will wet your appetite with one today and write about the rest very soon - my reading ability has just recovered enough to cope with them and fortunately they are reasonably light.

I started with Let's tell uncle by Rohan O'Grady*. I chose this one because out of the four, its author was the only one that I had not encountered before, and it was the only title that I have yet to see mentioned and I wanted to have a chance to read it before I read any reviews or hype about it. According to a note at the beginning of the volume, Rohan O'Grady is the pseudonym for June Margaret O'Grady; she was born in Vancouver and produced five novels, of which Let's kill Uncle, written in 1963, was her third.

Set on a remote island in Canada, the book revolves around two children, Barnaby and Christie who are visiting for the summer. Barnaby is somewhat of a tearaway; Christie is thin, quiet and reluctant to interact socially. But encouraged by those looking after them, they become friends, playing pranks on the villagers and enjoying what seems to be an idyllic existence. But it isn't. Barnaby is heir to a large fortune, and believes that his uncle is after his inheritance and trying to kill him. What is he to do when no-one believes him? Christie is the one who comes up with the answer - Barnaby will have to kill his uncle before his uncle kills him...

I'm not sure whether this book, entertaining and dark by turns, was originally written for children or adults. Like last year's Bloomsbury Group children's book (A kid for two farthings) it is captivating and written in a way that makes me think that it would probably appeal to both groups alike, although it is a more substantial read and at terms disturbing. Also apart from a beautiful preliminary page, there aren't any pictures in the book (which is a shame, I think that there is a lot of potential for illustrating this tale). I think this would make an excellent book to read aloud to an older child/pre-teenager; I would have enjoyed listening to my Dad read me this and would probably have needed the reassurance of having it read to me.

There is also a movie, quite old, made in 1966, which I would be curious to see. Wonder if this republication will prompt a remake?

*As an aside, I think the title alone is extremely entertaining and am contemplating giving it to one of my fiance's nephews as a joke present sometime!

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Cake decorating class (Domestic Arts 5)

I went on a Cake Decorating Course last Friday as I wanted to add another string to my bow of Domestic Arts. I had an ulterior motive; I wanted to find out whether I might be capable of decorating my wedding cake next year. I know I can cook a wedding cake, but could I decorate it? So, I booked myself onto Introduction to Celebration Cakes run by Lindy Smith of Lindy's Cakes. It was a fantastic day, and I learnt a lot. The day was divided between demonstration by Lindy, and hands on practice ourselves, and I took some photos to show what I did.

We started off by learning how to knead and colour sugarpaste and then to roll it out evenly. We then used it to cover the base board:

Next came preparing the cake. We had all been instructed to bake a 6 egg madeira in an 8" tin. As I did not have a big enough tin I had borrowed one from a colleague who has a side line in cake decorating. Unfortunately she lent me the wrong size! And my 8" mixture was baked in a 10" tin! Disaster! I was not able to level my cake like the other students as it wouldn't have left me with a deep enough cake to cover. But Lindy had a wonderful solution - I inverted the cake...
and then filled in the gaps with sugar paste...
This was then smoothed off, and you couldn't tell in the finished covered cake, only when it was sliced (and then not as badly as anticipated). The cake was then covered with buttercream, to give it a smooth finish (I forgot to take a picture of this stage), and then covered with white sugarpaste. We used smoothers to give it a smooth finish.
The afternoon was devoted to the decoration of the cake. Lindy demonstrated a number of techniques and tools and then we got to go and have a play! I decided to use cutters, although I also used a roller to make a ribbon out of coloured sugarpaste to go around my cake.
I was really pleased with the result, and my fiance said that he'd be proud to have this as our wedding cake.

I am DEFINITELY going to attempt to do my own wedding cake. I have lots of ideas floating around my head and I am sure I will be blogging more about my plans. We've just ordered a Kenwood Mixer to help me, and first up will be some cake recipe testing and sampling. I'd quite like to post about this so hope that it won't bore too many people - at the moment I can barely stop talking about wedding cakes so it would be a bit weird if my blog didn't reflect that!

(PS: Do you want to see what the disaster looked like inside?

not so bad at all - the extra sugarpaste padding isn't as noticeable as I thought it would be!)

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Orange Wednesday: It so happens (Ferguson)

When I started out on my Orange Wednesday project, to read titles from previous Orange longlists as a way of extending my modern literary reading, I spent a while typing titles into Amazon and library to read their synopses and reviews and decide whether or not they were titles which interested me. It so happens was a title which I found in that way; its premise of an original novel set in a retirement home interested me, having greatly enjoyed both Jerusalem and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremount which have similar settings.

This is a quirky book about eccentric characters. Rosemary, the deputy warden who loves to cook, and who falls in love with a conman (although one would like to think that her incredibly light sticky toffee pudding initially charmed him). Annie, who has been profoundly deaf since child hood. Althea, who develops cataracts, the overbearing and formiddable warden Betty Potts are both hugely entertaining and engaging, compelling the reader to read on as much to find out about them as about the plot.

The plot itself is a somewhat gothic tale of what happens when Betty tries to restore the home towards its former grandeur ; a mysterious past is uncovered. I won't give anymore away about it, but following the prologue to the book it would be impossible not to read on to find out what happens.

One thing that puzzled me though was the publication, by Solidus press. The book itself was somewhat flimsy, almost as if it had been selfpublished. I felt intrigued that something so obviously out of the mainstream could make it onto the Orange longlist.

The book was longlisted in 2005 and Patricia Ferguson wrote another longlisted title in 2007 called Peripheral Vision which I am equally intrigued to read and have added to my library wishlist.


Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Two sorts of biscuits

It didn't take long for the cyclist to get through the stack of biscuits that I baked last week; the uphill bike rides had evidently made a very large biscuit shaped hole inside him. Unfortunately, he came back with a horrible cold and spent 3 days last week feeling quite sorry for himself. So I decided to do a bit more baking to cheer him up.

Firstly, I made some ginger topped shortbread from the M and S Easy Baking book which I have wanted to try for some time. Ginger is meant to be good for warding off colds and this recipe is for a ginger-flavoured shortbread with a topping made from butter, golden syrup and more ginger. It was deemed very tasty, although he felt that the topping wasn't necessarily needed.
I then got Baking Magic out again and started suggesting recipes from it to try. Following the success of the Party Rings and the Chocolate Bourbons, he was keen to try another homemade version of a supermarket favourite and said "chocolate hobnobs". There wasn't actually a recipe for chocolate hobnobs, but there was for chocolate digestives, which amazing turned out more hobnobby in character than digestivey. These were a HUGE hit.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Comfort reading follow up

I had an absolutely overwhelming response to the post I wrote about comfort reading this time last week, and there were so many comments that mentioned books which people turned to that I thought I would write a follow up and share them. Perhaps if you're feeling in need of comfort reading, then you might like to try one of someone else's ideas (although that may by implication take you out of the comfort zone...). I've had another week of feeling doped up and confused by some new medication that I've been taking, which has rendered me almost completely incapable of reading anything particularly literary, although I did manage Valerie Grove's Kaye Webb biography, because it was so very good. So much of my "reading" this week has comprised the perusal of recipe books, particularly cake decorating ones, and more Babysitters Club and Enid Blyton.

Children's literature was unsurprisingly mentioned frequently. Specific titles included The white horse by Elizabeth Gouge, The swish of the curtain by Pamela Brown, and specific authors such as Judy Blume and Roald Dahl and Louisa May Alcott. But more often series were mentioned - Anne of Green Gables, the Flambards books (KM Peyton), the Green Knowe books, Famous Five (and other Enid Blyton series), Sadlers Wells, Nancy Drew, the Little House on the Prairie books, and the Chalet School. Ann P made the important point in that series tend to be so comforting because one meets the characters again and again and so they seem like "old friends" even if the plot itself is new.

But some adult books were revealed; David, who inspired the original post, said that he didn't read much children's literature as a child and didn't become a literary addict until he was an adult, aimplying that he didn't have the same sense of nostalgia that those who read as much as children. He thus turns to the Alexander McCall Smith books. Crime is also the comfort of choice for Hannah, who says that she hasn't actually read any children's books since childhood, and likes Agatha Christie and murder mysteries when she needs to relax. Simon from Stuck in a book highlighted perhaps the most literary of all of the books mentioned - the Diaries of a Provincial Lady.

I suppose the most important thing for many of us with comfort reading is familiarity, and turning to a book that one has read several times before. As an adult I tend to reread books less than I did as a child, mainly because now I have a huge awareness of the numbers of books out there that I want to read, but also because the supply is greater - I can go to the library every day if I want and I can order books at whim from Amazon, rather than relying on the once-weekly excursion into town or birthday booktokens. So the books with which I am most familiar are those read as a child.

The picture by the way is of some perfect food to accompany comfort reading; chocolate, cake, toast, scones - anything carbohydratey would be perfect I'm sure.

I'm still indulging in lots of comfort reading as I'm currently taking some medication which is making me extremely dopey and unable to focus. So there may be some hiatus in replying to comments/visiting blogs. It's starting to wear off and I managed a Virago Modern Classic at the weekend but unfortunately I have to put the dose up again...

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Jam making (domestic arts 4)

This week's domestic art is jam making - I've done it before, and was surprised how easy it was. But it seemed even easier this time around, as you'll see from my pictures.

All you need is a large saucepan, or a couple of smaller ones, some jam sugar (which even comes with the recipe on the back) and lots of strawberries. It was a good job we bought several punnets from the Pick Your Own shop as they were so yummy compared to some rather dismal supermarket strawberries that there might not have been any left for jam making!

You also need a collection of jars.

First, weigh out 800g of strawberries (I had to split mine between two saucepans), and mash them up.
Add a kilo of jam sugar (jam sugar has some added pectin in to help it set)
Gently warm (left saucepan) until it comes to a boil (right saucepan) and then boil vigorously for 4 minutes. This is the only potentially dodgy part as molten strawberry sugar mixture can be quite lethal, but this year I even managed not to cover the kitchen in pink goo (the key was not to overfill the saucepans!) or myself.

Pour into jars...and then enjoy. So far we've enjoyed it on toast, in a Victoria jam sponge, and straight out of the pot...

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Orange Wednesday: Fall on your knees (Macdonald)

After Claire from Paperback Reader telling me how much she "enthusiastically" recommended Fall on your knees by Ann Macdonald, along with other wholehearted endorsements when it arrived in my household, I had very high hopes for this novel. I was fortunately not disappointed.

At over 400 pages, with very small writing, this is a somewhat epic tale that spans most of the 20th century and many places from Cape Breton Island in Novia Scotia to New York City as it tells the tale of four sisters. It starts with the elopement of an 18-year old piano tuner named James with 13-year old Materia; the initial love quickly turns to dislike as James struggles to cope with her Lebanese heritage. He is consoled when their first child Katherine is born - an absolute beauty who also proves to be a wonderful singer, but eventually tries to escape, enlisting and fighting in WW1. Two more children follow, Mercedes and Frances, and then as Katherine dies, there is a fourth, Lily. But James and Materia's relationship remains hugely dysfunctional and abusive and it is the relationships between the sisters which hold the family together.

The only thing that I struggled with in the novel was the movement backwards and forwards in time; whilst it enabled Macdonald to build up the tale in a more subtle fashion, I felt that it wasn't quite the right way to develop the story of the sisters and would have preferred a more linear approach. Sometimes the motives of the characters are not obvious and I felt a little confused trying to work out what had happened.

The prose is descriptive, with quite a dreamlike quality, and I am sure that it is this, along with the compelling storyline which gained it its longlisting for the Orange Prize in 1997.

Has anyone read any other books by Ann-Marie Macdonald? This was her first, but I see from Amazon that she has also written The way the crow flies (with 10 5* reviews).

Many thanks to Fiona from Vintage for sending me this book.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Baking Magic (and a bevy of biscuits)

One of my latest baking book acquisitions is the recently published Baking Magic which I got from The Book People at an incredibly reasonable price. I hadn't seen it in any shops, but was sold on the title and the rather pretty cover (the book itself is covered in a lovely textured fabric hardcover). It is apparently a combination of three books - Cake Magic, Cookie Magic and Cupcake Magic, and the book falls into three sections dealing with Cakes, Cupcakes and Cookies; there are lovely photographs throughout (although sadly not for every recipe - I never understand why people wouldn't want to tempt you with how good each recipe looks).

The best part of the book is definitely the section on cookies. Cupcakes are something I'm not actually hugely interested in for some reason, despite owning several books about them, and cakes are something that I already have a lot of good recipes for. But I wanted to make almost every other recipe from this section. One of the best bits are the recipes for shop-biscuits - the digestive biscuit, the fig roll, the custard cream. And so it was to these that I turned first; here are my very own chocolate bourbons:
(with some Viennese style biscuits to use up the buttercream)

And my own party rings! So much fun.

if I'm honest, both types were quite a bit of a faff. The author claimed that the dough of the bourbons is a "dream to work with" but I thought it was one of the worst doughs I have ever used as it was incredibly brittle and virtually impossible to get to stick together long enough to roll out. And the party rings were quite fiddly using two colours of icing...

And while I'm on the topic of biscuits, I also baked these Jewelled Cookies at the weekend - they were from the Marks and Spencer's Cookie book which a friend gave me for Christmas. I was rather impressed with how they came out - they use strawberry and apricot jam.

Let's just hope that the French Air Traffic control strike ends soon and my OH can get home to eat them before they're all spoilt (but that is another story...)

Monday, 14 June 2010

There's nuffink like a puffin...

"There is nuffin', nuffin', nuffin, like a Puffin, Nuffin' like a Puffin book to read, yes indeed. A Puffin's so exciting, the finest kind of writing, Yes there's nuffin' like Puffin book to read".

As most of my regular readers know, as a child, I read voraciously. And quite a lot of the books I read were published by Puffin. I remember once sitting looking at my shelves and comparing the numbers of books by each publisher (yes, I was that weird!); I had a lot by Red Fox (mainly because they published my favourite Monica Dickens World's End and Follyfoot books and William Corlett's Magician books), but the imprint which I had most of, was Puffin. I have a huge number of Puffin books among my collection (well, 59 out of 1400+ according to - very early Puffins which were passed on from my mother (The Fell Farm Books), some of them are absolutely classic Puffins (The Family from One End Street which my father read to me), and some of my favourite books of all time (Ballet Shoes, the Carbonel books, Milly Molly Mandy, and Laura Ingalls Wilder).

The Puffin imprint was initially established to mirror the work of Penguin, in making books accessible and cheaply. The first editor of the Puffin list was Eleanor Graham, a lady who may be familiar to Persephone fans for her Children who lived in the barn. Over two decades from 1941, she built up the list to 150 titles, initially focussing on publishing books which had already been published in hardback. This was not without difficulty; librarians, teachers and authors were all sniffy about paperbacks and didn't want to release their titles to be published in paperback. The very first title was Worzel Gummidge, and other early titles included The family from One End Street, Ballet Shoes and the Adventures of Professor Branestawm.

This year is the 70th Anniversary of Puffin and there are two absolutely wonderful books which anyone who read Puffin books as a child should own. The first is the new biography of Kaye Webb, by Valerie Grove, called So much to tell.
A hugely fascinating woman, Kaye Webb was the second editor of the Puffin List, and was responsible for much of its success. Whilst she was fortunate in entering the industry at a time when children's books were entering somewhat of a golden age, she built up the list and effectively changed the face of children's publishing. Webb had read that during childhood the average child could read around 600 books, and she was determined to make as many of those books "count" and be worth reading, and this was the stimulus for her work. Webb was also responsible for the creation of "Puffin originals", books which were published first in paperback. Stig of the Dump was one of the first of these. But one of the things which Webb was most famous for was the establishment of the Puffin Club, and reading about the fantastic competition prizes (trips to Lundy Island to see Puffins for example, or a trip to Alderley Edge with Alan Garner to see the locations of his books) and the huge involvement of the Puffins authors made me feel very unfortunate to have been born too late to be involved.
There's so much more that I could write about the history of puffin, but you will have to get hold of the book and read it for yourself!

The biography also tells the story of Webb's personal life, which Webb herself admitted was somewhat of a failure in comparison to her career in publishing. Two short-lived marriages preceded her ultimately unsuccessful marriage to Ronald Searle (of St Trinians fame) and it seems that she wasn't the best of mothers either. Her life certainly revolved around her work, and she found it a big wrench to retire.

The other book is Puffin by Design, by Phil Baines, who wrote the wonderful Penguin by design. Like the earlier book, this is a history of the covers used by the imprint and is illustrated with lots of lovely images of the books throughout the ages. There are many books which I haven't heard of which look absolutely fascinating!

Anyone care to share a favourite Puffin book? And which one is your favourite out of the 7 Puffin modern classics (one chosen from each decade?) - mine has to be The family from one end street.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Comfort reading?

I had an interesting response to my "My reading taste in a picture" post last week.

David Nolan quoted from my post and commented:

" "I like to be reassured and comforted and find the familiar in my reading."
- Some overly intellectual types might sneer at that - I think it's brilliant. "

This made me think quite hard about my reading and my blogging. I have never had any shame in the fact that I read chick lit and children's books, and reread children's books as much as I read the latest literary fiction and the occasional classic fiction. However, it wasn't something that I necessarily spelt out on my blog. Maybe from shyness, maybe also because I felt that these things didn't merit writing about so much or wouldn't interest people (although, I read a number of blogs which do fantastic reviews of the latest chick lit) - I think I have mentioned chick lit just the once here. Then my blog got a little bit overtaken by writing reviews of the books that I had recieved for review, and recently I've been trying to redress the balance somewhat by focussing it more on *me*. Narcissistic possibly, but I'd rather that the blog was a reflection of the things that are most important to me. Also once I started posting lists of the books read each month there is no escaping from the fact that part of the reason I manage to read so much is that quite a large proportion of my reading is re-reading of children's books.

Anyway, as I've mentioned previously, the last few weeks have been fairly stressful and I have been taking comfort in quite a bit of rereading of children's books. Over the last year I have also been collecting more of the children's books which I enjoyed as a child; it's nice to have them available on my shelves should I feel for the need for something reassuring and easy and which I know I will definitely enjoy. I think the key is that they provide escapism into a safe environment.

So to redress the balance and substantiate the statement that David highlighted I thought I'd share pictures of a few of the series that I have recently been building up, from different genres of children's books (important I feel to have a variety), and have on my shelves for such moments.

One of the worst decisions I made as a teenager was to SELL my Enid Blytons. I didn't get very much money for them and I didn't even have a particularly good collection, mainly second hand ones acquired at jumble sales etc. But I have started to buy the odd favourite when I see them, and am particularly looking out for the Famous Five books.
I've already mentioned The babysitters club on the blog - it's a current pleasure to read my way through such undemanding books.

A colleague recently mentioned that she liked horsey books which reminded me of Ruby Ferguson's Jill books. I had several, but have gone on to acquire most of the series (all bar the first one!).

Earlier in the year I started collecting Lorna Hill's ballet books and these are also wonderful comfort reads.

There are many other books that I like to revisit for comfort reading - this list is by no means exclusive. I wonder if other readers have favourite series that they like to turn to for reassurance.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

A foray into the domestic arts (part 3)

I spotted a rather wonderful elephant making set in the craft shop whilst buying cross stitch and couldn't resist getting one, even though it is aimed at 10 year olds (and I have to say that I think my nine-year-old-niece-in-law could probably have made a better job of it than me!). I spent a happy Sunday afternoon making them.

The elephants remind me of the ones in the London elephant parade! And, as the pattern was very simple, I'm quite tempted to get some fabric in different colours, make some more and have my very own elephant parade!

(The kit by the way is made by Buttonbag crafts - they have some lovely things - I bought the peg dolls for my small cousin's birthday).

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Orange Wednesday: Paradise (Morrison)

My first Orange Wednesday choice back in April was Love by Toni Morrison, and having enjoyed it so much I was keen to seek out her other title from the list - Paradise. Fiona from Vintage Books very kindly sent me a copy to read.

Paradise is a commanding piece of literature in terms of structure, story, themes and the writing. It tells the story of a black town called Ruby, Oklahoma, the only black town in the state which was founded in the 1940s. But the attempt to make a life following the emergence from slavery was not as easy as it seemed on the surface. When the town begins to suffer internal divisions, a cause is sought, and found in "The convent", a group of four women who live nearby to the town. The story is cleverly told through eight chapters, each with a woman's name (although not necessarily about that woman), and each chapter builds up another layer of the story.

It required a lot of attention to read this book as there was so much going on and to take in - it was really necessary to engage with it, but it did repay the effort. For that reason I didn't enjoy it quite so much as Love but I would certainly recommend it to all those interested in reading great women's writers.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Triathlete's treats

I think I've mentioned before that one of the reasons I get to bake so much cake and not put my fiance into a clinically obese state is because he is much more energetic than me and does triathlons. Whilst I am content with the odd swim, he likes to include a bike and a run as well. Last weekend saw the Blenheim triathlon, and as usual I went along and made myself hoarse in cheering him on, but it also involved some extra baking. We had been discussing his nutritional requirements for the day (pasta the night before, porridge for breakfast, and something carby before setting off), when the latest issue of 220 Triathlon Magazine arrived with a 23 page nutrition special. As I had suggested making flapjack, when I saw a recipe for cranberry, apple and oat bars, I thought I had better make those instead. After all I would feel dreadful if my regular flapjack didn't produce as good results!

They were a bit more fiddly than flapjack to make, as I had to heat the butter with apple juice, honey and sugar in a saucepan before adding the dried apple, cranberries, oats, sesame and sunflower seeds, whereas usually I melt things in the microwave! And they didn't stick together quite as well. (In fact, I thought the recipe was pretty rubbish, they didn't specify what size baking tray to use, nor what it should look like colourwise when taking it out - but then, it is a sports magazine. I did wonder if anyone had actually tested the recipe as the way I made it they would have been impossible to eat on the run). Obviously it's impossible to compare whether they were better than flapjack, but he got round the course, with an absolutely fantastic time on the swim, and I was as usual ridiculously proud at the finish line (although soaking wet owing to a thunderstorm commencing an hour in...)

It is also becoming traditional for me to make a celebratory millionaire's shortbread when he finishes a triathlon - partly because they are a bit of a fiddle to make having to let each layer cool before adding the next, but mainly because they are really just sugar and fat. But after a hard sporting event I think that they are well earned. This one suffered slightly from the humid weather - the chocolate and base set hard but the centre did not set so well and squidged out when cut. Luckily this didn't make any difference to the taste.

Monday, 7 June 2010


It's been a while since I've shared a picture of my TBR, and as it had to move home recently, owing to the chronic shortage of shelfspace at the cardigan residence, I thought it was time to share it with you. It's now a stack of 24 books*, a far cry from the days of last summer when it took up not just a shelf but a whole bookcase. Judicious weeding and focussed reading during my book buying ban at the end of last year got it down to more manageable proportions, but nevertheless there are some books on the pile which have been languishing for quite some time and which I hope you might convince me to read. However, I do save books for holidays, and as I have a weekend away in Cornwall in July and a week in the Lakes in September I shall probably save some of the most attractive ones for then.

Starting at the bottom...
* I picked up The camel bookmobile (Masha Hamilton)in a remainders shop last year - the title was appealing, but I've not got around to reading it.
* Sandy: the true story of a boy growing up in Cornwall in the late 1800s was a title that appealed to me for its Cornish connections - I think I read about it on Fleur Fisher's blog. Will probably save this to read around the time I go to Cornwall.
* I got this copy of Burning Bright for 2.99 with The times over 2 years ago; although I've enjoyed some of Tracey Chevalier's novels, this one hasn't appealed to me so much, I think because I don't know much about the period in which it is set.
* Fugitive pieces (Anne Michaels) is one of those books that I feel I ought to have read, and picked up in a charity shop for that reason. As it won the Orange prize, I really should get on with it for my Orange Wednesdays theme. Another one that has been languishing for some time.
* The white tiger was another Times book offer, and is another book I feel I ought to have read, but somehow never seems to appeal enough to make its way off the TBR - and has thus been waiting for over a year.
* I bought Nick Hornby's Juliet Naked a while ago and am sure I will enjoy it - it is the perfect holiday reading material, and I took it on my last holiday, and it was just bad luck that I didn't get to it then. Definitely this year!
* The next two books are Capachin Classics, The green hat (Michael Arlen) and The green child (Herbert Read). The first I won in a giveaway from Hannah Stoneman and the second was kindly sent to me from Capachin to review.
* Six ponies (Josephine Pullein-Thompson) is a recent republication by Fidra books, which I discovered was the prequel to a favourite trilogy of horsey books (Pony club challenge/Pony club team/Pony club cup) and I am looking forward to meeting some favourite characters again.
* The next three books are the latest Greyladies titles; these make exceptionally good holiday reads.
* I like to keep up with current children's fiction, and Skate school was a title I happened on in Oxfam - it seemed to be a modern variation on the boarding school story.
* The summer before is a newly released prequel to the Babysitters Club books which I am currently rereading, and so this will be a fun complement to that. Am not sure whether to read it now, or when I am done rereading the older books that I bought recently.
* South of the lights (Angela Huth) was something I picked up in Oxfam as a treat for having to work on the Bank Holiday. I've enjoyed most of her novels but hadn't come across this one, and find her relaxing and fairly undemanding.
* I was bowled over by Angela Du Maurier's Treveryan at Easter, and when I discovered that another of her novels was still in print, I had to order it. The road to Leenane isn't set in Cornwall but Du Maurier has plenty of Cornish connections and I am hoping for another intensely gripping read.
* First term at Cottisford is a school story from Bettany press who specialise in republishing books for fans of British girls fiction. I am sure I will have a treat in store here.
* The next two books were sent to me earlier in the year by Honno Press for review, and seeing them there reminds me that I must have a look at them so that I can write about them here. They are A burglary and Queen of the rushes. Both look fascinating and I have no excuse for letting them linger in this pile.
* I thought I had read all of Monica Dickens books, but it turns out that I haven't; I've still got The fancy, which I bought from ebay recently. As this really will be my "last" Monica Dickens, to save or not to save is the question.
* Simon from Stuck in a book recently lent me Miss Matty which he had written about on his blog; having enjoyed that, he kindly lent me 2 more Richmal Crompton books. I do love her adult novels, although they are very hard to find, for their discussion of family life and emphasis on domesticity. There are definitely similarities with Monica Dickens.
* Finally two childrens books which I picked up in a charity shop, just because they were by authors I hadn't come across and which I thought would get to have a look at when I fancied something gentle - Ponies plot (C Northcote) and Private keep out (Gwen Grant)

Phew! Along with my library books and VMCs I am quite well provided for...

* I do also have a separate pile of Virago Modern Classics TBR, which numbers around 10 books at present, but I keep them separate to make things less overwhelming.

Friday, 4 June 2010

My reading taste in a picture

There have been some fascinating posts over this last week as bloggers have responded to Simon at Stuck in a book's challenge to sum up personal reading taste in a picture that doesn't include a book! I have been wracking my brains all week over this; really I wanted to post the above picture of my own library (actually quite out of date as I have many more Persephones now, and three tall bookcases as opposed to only two) - the shelves holding a huge assortment of books of all shapes and sizes really seems to sum up my liking for diverse books, and the familiarity of my own book collection would reflect my desire to read reassuring literature and frequent revisiting of the books that I love.

But this was not permitted, so I had to find another picture. I've come up with a picture taken on holiday last year in Polzeath. Whilst it is obviously a "room with a view", I'm not implying that my reading taste is EM Forster! I chose this picture because being on holiday is an escape, and that is something that I try to find in my reading, something sunny that cheers me up when I am feeling down. It's also a very familiar view to me - I spent 20 years holidaying and looking at that view for 2 weeks at a time, so it is reassuring, and I like to be reassured and comforted and find the familiar in my reading. And finally it is in Cornwall; regular readers of my blog will know that I love to read books set in the county.

(And as a bit of a cheat, I'll share the picture I nearly chose - me, baking in my Persephone endpapers apron - this sums up a different aspect of my reading taste - it shows the domestic streak in me, and portrayals of domesticity are something I seek out in books. Obviously it reflects the fact that I adore Persephone books which themselves often centre around the domestic. And I thought that the presence of the biscuits reflects the importance of children's books to me - how many children's books involve picnics, cake and eating!)

Thursday, 3 June 2010

A foray into the domestic arts (part 2)

While I was finishing the knitting I realised that it was the perfect occupation to accompany watching television. I watch television most nights when I am too tired to do anything else, but it feels like a bit of a waste of time sometimes and I don't really like staring at a television screen after staring at a computer screen all day. This realisation coincided with the demands of a friend in hospital for some cross-stitch, and shopping for something to satisfy her, I ended up with my OWN cross stitch project, a picture of The snowman. Unseasonal I know, but I have a great fondness for The snowman, and it was reduced (because not many people want to do a cross stitch of The snowman in May)

Those who know me well will know that patience is not an attribute that I possess. Unfortunately patience is something that seems to be needed in bucketloads for cross stitch. I was anticipating needing patience for doing the actual stitching but I should have applied my patience a bit earlier. Suffice to say, that failing to understand that I should have started in the middle, failing to identify the colours in the kit correctly, and failing to split the threads into the correct number of strands, along with an inability to count the squares, led to a huge amount of undoing, a very big mess, and eventually (following 3 whole evenings of cross stitching) a trip to the art shop to buy the same set again to start over.

Anyway, two weeks after my foray into cross stitch I can share with you the completion of my first ever cross stitch.

I've been given some other pieces of advice too - to stitch so that the top crosses all point in the same direction (and in fact, the back of the packet advised stitching a whole line of half stitches and going back and making the crossover), and also to get a hoop to keep the fabric at the right tension. This has made a huge difference to cross stitch number two (happy stitch even!)

And, I've concluded that it's something I find really relaxing and really enjoy. I went back and bought three more Snowman designs from the art shop, and then went on ebay and ordered some more Forever Friends kits for something a bit less unseasonal! And I hope to have more cross stitch to share with you all in due course. So watch this space!!

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Orange Wednesday: The white family (Gee)

The title of this book is extremely clever; when I read it, I thought that it described a group of people based on their skin colour. In fact, "White" is their surname, but this misreading is I am sure intentional as the book centres around the themes of multiculturalism and racism.

Using a multi-voiced narrative which cleverly reveals the perspectives of different members of the family and builds up the story, The white family tells the story of an "ordinary British family". Dad, Alfred, is a park-keeper, who has been with his wife May for forty years. They have three children, Darren, a successful journalist based in the US, Shirley, a social worker, and Dirk who still lives at home, working in a nearby corner shop. Sounds fairly straightforward, but Alfred has managed to alienate the first two children - particularly Shirley, who upset him years ago by marrying a black man, and when being widowed, finding herself another black partner. And he doesn't understand his youngest son who has failed to make very much of himself and who has absorbed all of his father's worst beliefs to become extremely fascist.

This unsteady state of affairs comes to a head when Alfred suffers a stroke. This opens up a can of worms as many of the hurts of the past come to light at a time when the family should really be drawing together. We come to realise that Alfred was not a good head of the family but rather an abusive patriarch.

I thought this was a hugely good read, and was not surprised that it made the shortlist in 2002. The characters are realistic, and, although not always likeable, extremely believable - I think this was the result of incorporating different narrative voices.

I've read a number of Maggie Gee's books, most recently My driver and My cleaner, a wonderful pair of books. Another of her books, The flood, was longlisted for the Orange prize in 2004, which was the first year that I started reading books from the Orange list. I can't remember very much about it now, but I read on Amazon that it is a follow on from The white family, so I think it may be time for a re-read of this. Maggie Gee has also recently published a memoir, My animal life, which I am patiently waiting for at the library.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Fiona Cairns bake and decorate

I wrote recently about my acquisition of Bake and decorate by Fiona Cairns. Without a question this has to be the best cake book that I own. Fiona Cairns has years of experience as a cake decorator and supplier (you can find her website here), and the whole book is scattered with helpful advice for the cake baker. The first half of the book is a collection of fantastic cake recipes, such as this carrot, orange and pecan cake with maple sugar and orange buttercream icing, and other wonderful recipes which I am keen to try such as orange drizzle cake and Very lemony crunch cake, in addition to old standards such as a variety of different sorts of sponges and fruit cakes. The second half of the book builds on these recipes and shows you how they can be utilised for a variety of occasions to make truly spectacular occasion cakes. I don't really have many "occasions" to bake for, but I would love to have a go at the gold leaf gilded fridge cake or the chocolate Christmas cake decorated with model sugarpaste Penguins. There is a fantastic recipe for mini tiered cakes made out of cupcakes which is definitely on my "must-bake" list.

I did make these rather gorgeous mini fairy cakes, which enabled me to utilise my new sugarcraft cutters - they use the crunchy lemon cake sponge that I mentioned and are baked in mini petit four cases, so are just little mouthfuls of loveliness! (Although mine aren't quite as beautiful as the ones pictured in the book).