Friday, 29 April 2011

Wedding reading suggestions

Dear everyone - I have been meaning to ask you all for a while for some advice on Wedding Themed Reading, and what better day to do it on that Royal Wedding Day? After all, it is the second most important wedding of the year, giving everyone a bit of a dress rehearsal in getting excited for August 2nd. I'll be at work but I'm hoping to catch most of it online...

As our wedding is also our honeymoon, and also our next (already much needed) holiday, I'm starting to think about what books to take with me, and saving books which I am looking forward to reading for then. As you can see (under the wonderful postcard from Paperback Reader Claire), I have made a subsidiary TBR pile, adjacent to the VVV TBR and the general TBR.

So far it features a book about Salzburg, two books related to the Sound of Music (we will be going on the Sound of Music tour as part of the trip - I have already booked the tickets!), The Wedding Wallah, the latest by Zama which had to be included when it arrived purely because of the title, quite aside from the fact that his last books made great holiday reading, Greenery Street, a Persephone to reread that is very much about early marriage, and a little pile of books that I have been "saving"...

I'll ask for Austrian themed reading in a few weeks time, but I'd love you to suggest books which feature weddings, marriage, honeymoons that would make wonderful honeymoon reading for me!

Thursday, 28 April 2011


Apologies for the unplanned absence, and apologies in advance for several more probably unplanned absences over the next couple of months. Particularly as I go from this:

to this:
which is just sad and makes me unhappy :(

I have a lot on my plate at the moment, and although I'm still baking, things seem to disappear just before photos get taken or uploaded, I've barely had time to sit down and read, and I succumbed to a migraine and had a day off work this week which is SO unlike me. Comfort rereading is the order of the day, but as more and more shelves of books disappear, I panic to a greater and greater degree that a book I want will be at the house, rather than in the flat, and dare I reveal, that I probably wouldn't be able to find it there as owing to a lack of boxes, the books are just being dumped in a jumble in the third bedroom.

Please come back tomorrow as I need to discuss wedding reading with you all, and what better day to do it than on the Royal Wedding day?!

Monday, 25 April 2011

4 things...and a 10km swim

I'm somewhat lacking in inspiration for a post today - I didn't get a chance to pick up a book over the weekend (honestly! the last time I went this long without reading was when I had norovirus a year ago...). I spent most of the Easter weekend on the house improvement project, with the exception of Sunday morning when I swam NINE KILOMETRES. This is the furthest I've ever swam and part of the training for a 10km open water swim that I will be doing on 28th May to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support and Mind, the Mental health charity. Blog readers have been extremely supportive of my past two swims, and if you have any spare pennies or would like to know more, then please do visit my Virgin Money Giving site for more information. I'm sure I'll be mentioning it again before the event!

(And yes, we are the poster people for Mind at the Great North Swim this year!)

Anyway, I saw this meme over with Karen at Books and Chocolate (and Fleur Fisher did her own version) and I love these sorts of questionairres (and also love reading other people's answers) so I thought I'd join in. I have to say that my answers are a little repetitive, but never mind!

Four Jobs I Have Had in My Life:

1. Library Assistant
2. Library Graduate Trainee
3. Assistant Librarian
4. Reading Room Supervisor.

All jobs basically to say that with the exception of a summer working for a language school and 3 hours in a call centre (I very quickly decided that I would rather continue with low pay at the library for the summer), I have spent the entirety of my working life in libraries. 11 years this September since I started my Saturday job aged 16.

Four Books I Would Read Over and Over Again:

1. Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith
2. One pair of hands by Monica Dickens
3. Ballet shoes by Noel Streatfeild
4. Brideshead revisited by Evelyn Waugh

[not terribly original choices are they?]

Four Places I Have Lived:

1. Brampford Speke, Devon.
2. Oxford.

Only lived in 2 places, unless one gets more precise and includes the three rooms I had in college. We're about to move to a third place though!

Four Books I Would Recommend:

1. Diary of a nobody, as above.
2. One pair of hands, as above
3. Lost and found by Oliver Jeffers (for younger readers)
4. Nella Last's diaries

[maybe I should add two more so that I don't repeat the above? If so, I'll add two authors - Rosamund Lehmann or Elizabeth Von Arnim...]

Four Places I Have Been:

1. Zell am See, Austria
2. Coniston, The Lake District
3. Trebarwith Strand, Cornwall
4. Polzeath, Cornwall

[decided to go for in the last 18 months!]

Four of My Favorite Foods

1. Cheesy wotsits
2. Coffee
3. Bananas
4. M and S gluten free chocolate cake

[that's the main food groups covered :)]

Four of My Favorite Drinks:

1. Decaff coffee (from ground beans, not instant!)
2. Diluted Marks and Spencer Strawberry, apple and rhubarb juice
3. Diluted Marks and Spencer Apple, beetroot and blackcurrant juice
4. Soya milk

Four Places I Would Rather Be Right Now:

1. Our new house
2. Polzeath, Cornwall
3. Trebarwith Strand, Cornwall
4. Zell am See, Austria

[well, it would be almost anywhere since it is the Bank Holiday and I have been at work, but I'm happy thinking of places we've been on holiday recently]

Four Things That Are Very Special in My Life:

1. My husband-to-be
2. The friendships and kindnesses of the people that I know, both virtually and in the real world
3. My enormous collection of books
4. My health

Four Bloggers I Hope Will Do This Meme:

I'll echo Karen again here :"Oh, anyone who's interested -- I'd love to see everyone's top fours! "

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Orange 2011: Tiger's wife (Obreht)

Thanks to my lovely colleague, who kindly gave me a copy of The tiger's wife as a belated birthday present, I am happy to announce that I have read my way through the entire Orange 2011 longlist. I've made big inroads in previous years, but this is a first for me.

The book centres around Nathalia, a young doctor, who has travelled to the Balkans to vaccinate war orphans. Her travels are interrupted when her grandfather dies, under what seem to be mysterious circumstances and the book follows her journey exploring her grandfather's life and death. This sounds straightforward, but the book is anything but. Superstitution and folklore abound in this tale, such as The Forty Days of the Soul, which is the encouraging of the soul to return on the morning after death with a sign to show forgiveness to those left behind. Nathalia recalls her grandfather's stories which feature colourful characters: The Tiger's wife (an old deaf-mute lady) and The deathless man (a man who amazingly cheats death, appearing first at his funeral where he asks to be let out of his coffin) - in a hope that these will shed light on his life.

Even though this wasn't one of my favourites from the list, I can easily see why it has made the shortlist. The multi-layered story, the original ideas, and the beautiful writing work together to form an excellent book. It's the sort of book that makes you think, and thus plays on your mind both whilst reading it (I mean in between when you are actually reading it) and after it, as you try to piece it all together. I can't even get my head around how you write a book that is so complex.

So that's very much it for Orange 2011. I make no predictions as to the eventual winner, although will be fascinated to see the outcome. I've really enjoyed acquainting myself with some fantastic new female writing, and may even resurrect my Orange Wednesdays series, where I read titles from the Orange longlist backlists which proved hugely enjoyable for me and popular with my blog readers last year.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

A girl's book of decorating

As I mentioned on Tuesday, K and I have acquired a house that was somewhat optimistically described as being in need of "some updating". Whilst K takes care of most of the project, I have appointed myself as being In Charge of Decorating. Mainly because I couldn't stand the thought of living somewhere in such a poor decorative state, and because decoration is low down K's list of things to do, and yet would be easier to do before we moved in, so I decided to give it a go. I have never done any DIY before with the exception of once, rashly painting my bathroom pink...*

Anyway. I digress. When I am faced with a new situation or want to know something, I usually turn to a book. So when I was looking up information about how to sand floors, and found that there was a book called A girl's book of decorating I couldn't resist ordering it at the library. As K will tell you, I am a sucker for anything that is pink or has some sort of female branding, particularly when it covers some task that I associate with being a male task. (And yes, I suppose this is the moment to confess the purchase of some pink garden tools with the remainder of my birthday money...). So I had high hopes that this book would tell me how to do what I need to do (get rid of ghastly wallpaper and carpets and cover in magnolia coloured paint).

Sadly, my hopes were misplaced. There are a very useful four pages at the back which give some practical advice on the most essential tasks, but just not enough detail. The rest of the book was devoted to ideas for interior design, most of which are completely inappropriate to a 1948 semi. I struggled to take the book seriously after a suggestion early on to use piles of books, artfully piled up, as a plinth for one's treasured artefacts. All I found myself thinking was what would happen if you wanted a book from halfway down the pile? And surely, one's books are one's treasured artefacts!

Instead, I seem to be relying on tips and advice from my colleagues, and another recommendation is do-it-yourself magazines. The B and Q website is quite helpful too. Any other good suggestions?

*Sadly, as the flat we inhabit belongs to my father who hopes to sell it swiftly when we move out, I no longer have a pink bathroom as he made us paint it back to green last year *sad face*

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Baking from the cupboards finale!

When I started Baking from the cupboards, I didn't know how long I'd be able to continue to magic up cakes and biscuits from my cupboards. 13 weeks is the answer. Yes - I did continue to buy eggs and flour (but only one bag of sugar), but (with the exception of a pot of cream and 200g of chocolate for my Valentine sachertorte) everything else has come from my cupboards. Which still aren't quite bare. I am still quite shocked by how much "stuff" I had to start with.

When I started, I just wanted to save some pennies. However, a wild card threw itself into the equation in the middle of February, when we started the process of buying a house. As those of you with whom I am friends on twitter or facebook will already know, we finally completed on Friday and now have our own house!* As this became more of a probability, the need to save every penny really started to hit home, plus I will need to minimise the amount of cooking ingredients that I transport when we eventually move in, so I am trying to wind down the cupboards and the freezer (with little success thus far it has to be confessed).

Anyway, I have a special bake to share to close the series. My cupboards were augmented last month, not by myself, but by a fellow blogger, JoAnn. JoAnn was over in the UK, and whilst we didn't get to meet up, she kindly brought me some maple syrup (and look, she even decorated it with pink and purple ribbons!). Obviously maple and pecan is a winning combination, and I still had a packet of pecans in my cupboards. I wondered about granola, and I contemplated cookies, but I ended up cooking cupcakes from Susannah Blake's book "Cupcakes". Mmmmmmm.

*I'm not going to talk about the house on this blog, but for those of you who are regular readers and are interested, then drop me an email as I have set up a private blog to record our progress giving some love to a house which was somewhat optimistically described as "in need of some updating".

Monday, 18 April 2011

Sweet Valley Confidential

Hands up then? How many of you read Sweet Valley books in your earlier years? And how many of you had to do it surreptitiously?! I used to borrow them all of the time from the library, but only when my Mum wasn't looking. My favourite series was the Sweet Valley Twins, closely followed by the original Sweet Valley High series, although I was first introduced to them through Sweet Valley Kids (which I borrowed from a friend aged about 5). I never really enjoyed Sweet Valley University so much although I did read them all. But there's an interesting wikipedia article about it all here, including the team of ghost writers behind it which I found fascinating to read and remind me of the summer days, lying in the garden and reading about twins growing up in California. Oh how I wanted to be blonde, and a twin, rather than mousy brunette, and an only child.

I digress. A sequel has just been published- Sweet Valley Confidential, exploring what happened to the girls 10 years after they left Sweet Valley High. *spoilers follow so please skip if you want to read the book from scratch*

I'm afraid it disappointed me. The story is based around the twins having fallen out in a major way: Jessica is now planning her wedding to Todd in Sweet Valley, whilst Elizabeth is in New York, having estranged herself from her sister. Anything else aside, that just felt wrong - the books are centred around the twins relationship, which has its moments, but is never as bad as this. And Todd Wilkins as the man who has sent them apart?!

The story is told in non-linear fashion, which meant that it wasn't as straightforward a read as the originals - I actually found myself having to concentrate to follow what was going on, which I wasn't anticipating from something I assumed to be a guilty pleasure. The narrative darts around between the present and filling in what has happened over the intervening years, and uses first person storytelling from various characters alongside the third person.

Aside from the storyline, it was clunky and full of cultural references to Facebook, Twitter, iphones and Blackberries which will date the book faster than it can be read (you have to admit that there was a certain timelessness about the original series). And, judging by reviews that I've read, there are plenty of continuity errors with the series (I'm afraid I'm not enough of a Sweet Valley geek to have spotted any of those). There's also swearing, which grates, particularly when it comes out of the mouth of Alice Wakefield, and far more sex and alcohol than the original. Yes, the characters are now adults, but part of the charm of the original series was their innocence really.

Other reviewers on Amazon suggest that the story is a bit contrived, questioning how often people stay around the area where they grew up and marry the people that they went to school with. Well, it does happen, but maybe not on the scale that it does in this book. But then the original series were all rather contrived too, so that didn't bother me too much.

I think I will conclude by echoing the thought of someone else that I read here on "From now on, I will just remember the original SVH books as being so much better than this and in my head I think I will leave Jess and Liz back in the good old days, where they belong. "

Anyway, discussions about this book on facebook revealed quite a few closet fans, and I have agreed to pass this book onto a couple of well known bloggers, on condition that they write about it on their blogs by the end of August. And the final excitement is that I hear that there is a MOVIE coming out next year!

Friday, 15 April 2011

Birthday books (part 1)

It's more recent Acquisitions than birthday books, but as, with the exception of the book crowning this pile, I didn't actually recieve any books for my birthday, and a number of publishers have been more than generous over the last couple of months, it feels like I have certainly recieved a lot of books for my birthday.

The tiger's wife (Obreht) was a very kind present indeed from one of my colleagues who has been following the Orange longlist with me, and borrowing many of the titles. Tiger's wife was one of the two that I hadn't been able to get hold of, and when it made the shortlist, she gave me a copy, which I started reading yesterday. (On condition that I lent it to her when I'm done!). My first impressions are of an incredibly well written book, particularly given that the author did not grow up speaking English.

The rest of the books are a mixture of books which I asked publishers for and books which publishers asked me if I was interested in reading and writing about. And of course I'll be writing about these in due course. I'll work down from the top of the pile.

Cakes by Pam Corbin is the latest River Cottage Handbook - I can't resist a book about cakes so am very glad to have recieved this one from Alice at Bloomsbury. It's my first encounter with the RC Handbook series and I think I will seek out more of them in due course (maybe not the meaty ones though!).

Periodic Tales (Aldersey Williams) came via Lija at Penguin. I had this title from the library but it had had to go back before I had finished it - it's one of those books which are great to dip in and out of, and fascinates me hugely. In another life I would have studied chemistry rather than history.

Ruth (Gaskell) was sent by OUP after I read Gaskell's VMC short stories and wondered if anyone could recommend any of her novels. I since realised that I have read Cranford, so look forward to reading this.

The wedding wallah (Zama) is the latest Marriage Bureau book which Jenny from Little Brown asked if I was interested in reading. They had kindly sent me volume 2 last year and I am looking forward to reading this over the summer.

Girl reading (Ward) was an unsolicited book from Virago, but looks intriguing (the title alone sold it to me really!). It's out in May and you can read more about it here.

Just my type (Garfield) was also recieved from Penguin. I have been desperate to read this since it came out as the subject matter fascinates the librarian who used to work in Rare Books in me. Am saving it for when I have time to enjoy it properly.

The bottom two books relate to Sybille Bedford. I made a new contact as a result of reading the Orange longlist, and in turn got contacted by Angela, a freelance publicist who had seen the blurb on my blog which says that I love rediscovered books and asked if I was interested in Sybille Bedford. In fact, Bedford wasn't new to me as I read her two Virago novels for my Virago Venture. Daunt books are rereleasing some of her books to mark the centenary of her birth, and here I have one of her novels and her memoir to read in due course. I look forward to sharing these with you all.

From my family and friends, I mostly recieved money for my birthday (with the exception of some yummy Reese's cups, and a beautiful felt butterfly craft kit), and after money had been allocated towards a trip to the ballet, a new cagoule and some new prescription sunglasses, I had £40 left to spend on books. It took me a while to make up my mind, but I think I've now decided and I'll make a second birthday books post when they've all arrived.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Orange 2011: Whatever you love (Doughty)

I've just realised that I wrote this Orange longlister post last week and never posted it - so somewhat belatedly, here it is.

I felt a bit shocked by my ability to almost enjoy Whatever you love, since it opens with the death of a nine-year-old . Perhaps enjoy is not quite the right word, I was intrigued by the story, but particularly by a parallel story running through the novel. For when single Mum Laura, loses her daughter Betty in a hit-and-run, it provides her with the impetus to think back over her relationship with Betty's father, her former husband David. And I did enjoy these passages, the story of how they got together and their evident passion for each other. I just felt guilty for liking what seemed to be an old fashioned love story, in the middle of the description of a sad event. Of course, this happier, and subsequently less happy story (because of course we know that it hasn't worked out as Laura is now a single mother) is interspersed with the grief and dreadfulness of having had a child killed and the slow coming to terms of it.

It was certainly another Orange dealing with difficult subject material. But still immensely readable. And so well handled. I have not come across Louise Doughty's work before; this is her sixth novel, and I am certainly going to seek her out at the library. I was also intrigued to discover that she has written a reference book for aspiring novelists called Novel in a year. I'd be interested to read about the techniques for novel writing that she imparts in it, because it did strike me that Whatever you love was incredibly tightly constructed, which may have been a large factor in making it so readable.

Many thanks to David from Faber and Faber who sent me a copy of this book to read.

The second baking from the cupboards special edition

You may remember my Spongebob post where I created a cake (mostly from the cupboards) for the organisation Free Cakes for Kids Oxford . On Tuesday afternoon the group recieved an email after the coordinator had been contacted asking if there was any chance that a cake could be made for a little girl turning one on Friday. I knew that I had cake-making-things in the cupboards at home and offered to make one. Here is the result!

It's a 3 egg madeira, which I split and filled with raspberry jam, and then crumb coated with buttercream before covering it in rolled fondant. I then coloured some of the remaining fondant pink and made the balloons and stars.

I met the little girl and her Mum (and one of her five brothers) on Wednesday lunchtime and her Mum was so pleased that she gave me a hug - it's a tough time for the family at the moment and I was nearly in tears that something which I had enjoyed doing so much could make a little bit of difference in their lives.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Orange 2011: Lyrics Alley

I wrote on Monday about my feelings about reading almost all of the longlist, and a little bit of me was sad that I hadn't managed to read all of it before the shortlist announcement. Of course, one of the two books that I hadn't managed to get hold of - The tiger's wife - had been shortlisted, but thanks to a very kind belated birthday present today I now have it in my possession. I felt quite proud of reading so many Oranges in a short time, so when I spotted Lyrics Alley at the library on Tuesday lunchtime, I picked it up with great excitement. It may not have made it to the longlist, but Leila Aboulela is an author who I have come across simply because her two earlier titles were longlisted in previous years. What I have loved about her earlier work is the way that she writes about cultures so unfamiliar to me, yet in a way that does not alienate me. Lyrics Alley is the same.

Set in 1950s Sudan, Lyrics Alley tells the story of the Abuzied family, an extended grouping who whilst obviously very close are often at odds with each other. It's a complicated family, and the cast of characters have names which are generally unrecognisable to my Western eye, which could make for difficult reading (I'm not sure why I struggle so much with non-Western names), but Aboulela draws them so colourfully that each individual really stood out for me rather than just merging into a blur. I particularly found myself warming to the women in the story, Fatma who has moved away with her husband and who feels slightly disconnected from family events; Soraya who becomes betrothed to Nur (her cousin), and particularly the two wives of one of the men Waheeba and Nabilah who represent very different attitudes. For this is what the book is partly about - the disparity between 1950s Sudan and the neighbouring Egypt where some of them spend their time, and Nabilah moves until she is brought back to Sudan where she suffers somewhat of a culture clash. She frowns on her fellow wife's desire to have her children circumcised for example...

I was very glad to pick this up to read as I really enjoyed it; it is the essence of Orange reading for me to read books which are about cultures/things which I would not normally read about or books which I would not normally choose.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Baking from the cupboards 12

Since baking from the cupboards also encompasses using up my decorative supplies, I whipped up these fairy cakes in only five minutes to welcome Ken home the other night - it's been a stressful week one way and another, and he's only been getting home after I've gone to sleep so I thought it would be nice to leave something by the kettle.

And as it also involves making use of items in the fridge, which although they did not feature in the original cupboard audit, must be used before they go off. Here are some lemon and sultana cookies using this recipe, which have filled Ken's lunch and tea boxes this week.

And in the true spirit of Baking from the cupboards, here are my Gingerbreadman cupcakes. Loosely based on this recipe from The Pink Whisk, but I realised when I started mixing/weighing that I had no greek yoghurt. So I adapted a regular fairy cake recipe to include some treacle, and plenty of ginger and cinnamon. And since I was putting chocolate gingerbread men on the top (bought in the post-Christmas sales), I wasn't sure that the lemon flavoured royal icing of the original would be appropriate, so I made up my own icing, adding ground ginger and golden syrup to icing sugar, and a little water. Yum!

(And next week I'll be revealing quite why baking from the cupboards has become so critical, something which was at the back of my mind when I started it, but turned into a reality far more quickly than we had anticipated!)

Monday, 11 April 2011

Orange 2011: Thoughts and Wrap Up

Having read a substantial number of titles from this year's Orange longlist (and my posts can be found here), I thought I'd write a summing up post before the announcement of the shortlist tomorrow. No predictions, just thoughts, both on the books, and also on the experience as I have read far more titles from the longlist in a short time than ever before, mainly thanks to the generosity of publicists at a number of publishing houses: Faber and Faber, Corsair, Constable, Random House (incorporating Chatto and Windus, Jonathan Cape and Vintage), Canongate and Penguin. With the four titles that I had read before the announcement of the Orange list (which sadly I have not had time to write about as I had hoped), I am only two titles short of reading the whole longlist (these are Lyrics Alley and Tiger's Wife, which both had very long waiting lists at the library - and what's the likelihood that both of those turn up onto the shortlist?). I shall look out for them in due course so that I can complete the 20 books.

At first, when I read the list and some of the synopses I was concerned that it seemed to be dominated by rather heavy subject matter. Yes, difficult topics were covered - polygamy (The secret lives of Baba Segi's Lives...), incest (Repeat it today with tears), abduction (Room), hermaphroditism (Annabel), prostitution (The road to wanting), affairs (The London train), but sometimes these topics were treated more lightly than in other cases.

And what I enjoyed so much about the experience was the immense variety among the novels - different countries (Orange 2011 has certainly involved a lot of globetrotting), different time periods (although less historical novels this year than previously I think), debut novelists (Peile, Doshi, Henderson, Hunt, Obreht, Orringer, Russell and Winter) to accomplished writers with several novels under their belt (Doughty, Egan, Hadley, Birch). Some books were straight novels, others used interesting styles of writing (I'm thinking particularly of The Visit from the Goon Squad, but also The seas), and others drew together seemingly disparate stories (The birth of love, The London train).

Which ones did I enjoy most? Possibly the first three that I read (and I do wonder if my palate became slightly jaded), The secret lives of Baba Segi's wives, Annabel, and especially The pleasure-seekers. And also, The road to wanting, which despite its depressing subject material was somehow quite wonderful.

Would love to hear anyone else's thoughts on their Orange reading - I really hope that you've enjoyed journeying through a large portion of the list with me (and that there have been enough Baking and Bernard posts for those who haven't!). May I also point you towards three blogs which I read regularly which have also involved considerable longlistreading: Simon Savidge, Buried in Print and Farm Lane Books.

Orange 2011: The invisible bridge (Orringer)

Owing to a big wildcard over the weekend, I didn't get a chance to read The invisible bridge from cover-to-cover as I planned, although I have started it. So, because I'm posting some thoughts tonight on my Orange longlist reading, I thought I'd at least put down a few thoughts now on this title. I have to say that I left it until last because it daunted me. It is quite a chunky book (nearly 600 pages) and has very small type, and from what I gathered from the synopsis, it involved quite heavy historical subject material (life as a Jew in late 1930s Europe). I wish I had not let these thoughts influence me and that I had had time to start it in time to finish it before the shortlist announcement as I have to say that I am absolutely gripped by the story so far. Yes, it is dense and there is a lot of detail, and the small type is irking me somewhat (but conversely, I really like the feel of the paper that my paperback edition is printed on!), but I don't know where it is going and I am interested very much in the characters.

In brief, then, the book tells the story of Andras, a Hungarian who has come to Paris in 1937 to study architecture, leaving behind his brother Tobias, who hopes to join him and study medicine. He brings with him a letter, which he has promised to deliver to a lady named Clara, a Parisian widow. He does this, and falls for Clara, and becomes drawn into her life. That is about as far as I have got for now but the synopsis say:

"From a remote Hungarian village to the grand opera houses of Budapest and Paris, from the despair of Carpathian winter to an unimaginable life in forced labour camps and beyond, The Invisible Bridge tells the story of a marriage tested by disaster and of a family, threatened with annihilation, bound by love and history."

I am looking forward to continuing with this one, and am grateful for Lija at Penguin who kindly sent me a copy to read.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Orange 2011: The birth of love (Joanna Kavenna)

I hadn't read anything about The birth of love before I opened it, merely coming to it because it was on the Orange longlist, although the cover alerted me to the fact that its author, Joanna Kavenna, had won the now sadly obsolete Orange prize for New Writers.

The novel turned out to be four tales, which started off as very distinct and separate stories.
The first, written in letters, told the story of Herr S, a man incarcerated in an asylum in Vienna in the nineteenth century due to his belief that he has discovered why so many women were dying in childbirth, and consequently wracked with images of blood.
In the second, we are in 2009 and we meet Brigid, whose second child is overdue. Her mother is determined that she should be induced, but as she arrives to try to persuade Brigid, her labour pains commence.
Michael, in the third story, is an author, who has just had his book published; he wants to share it with his mother and brother, but is reluctant, and discovers that same day that his mother has been moved into a care home suffering with dementia.
The final strand is set in 2135, and features a woman imprisoned and denied the right to be a mother.

I wasn't sure how Kavenna would manage to bring these together; at first it just felt like I was reading short stories. It was very cleverly achieved, but I don't think it is my favourite novelistic technique as I prefer a story where I can get rather more drawn in - I was curious to see how it worked out but perhaps cared a little less about the characters than if I'd had more time devoted to their stories. It is an interesting approach to the issue of motherhood and birth, and I am now keen to seek out Inglorious with which Kavenna won the Orange new writers prize.

Many thanks to David at Faber for sending me this to read

Friday, 8 April 2011

Orange 2011: Swamplandia! (Karen Russell)

I was immediately attracted to this candidate on the Orange longlist by the exclamation mark at the end of the title. I definitely overuse exclamation marks, but I love to see them in slightly unexpected situations. Book titles are one, the other is obviously town names - isn't Westward Ho! just brilliant?! I'm particularly pleased with how many of the Orange titles that I have read this year have been so very un-mainstream - this riveting coming of age almost fairy tale with crocodiles among the cast is certainly that (I did have to get over my childhood fear of crocodiles but it was worth it).

We meet the Bigtree family who live on, and own, the remote theme park, Swamplandia in South Florida. One of the main attractions is the park's alligators, and their mother is a famed alligator wrestler. Ava, the youngest daughter aspires to be like her mother. But when we meet them, things are starting to unravel. Hilola, the mother, has just died of cancer, losing one of the park's big draws, and leaving the family somewhat devastated. Visitor numbers are dropping. And their father, The chief, decides to leave in order to drum up business and acquire a new alligator. The three children are left behind. Kiwi, the son, also leaves the island, and believes that he can earn enough money to save the park by working at a rival attraction, The world of darkness, a park themed on hell. Ossie, the elder girl, falls in love with a ghost, and elopes, leaving Ava to try and retrieve her from the underworld.

It was colourful and fascinating, and just "different" and I will be especially interested to see whether or not it makes it to the shortlist - I would think that it deserves to for being so very different.

Many thanks to Fiona who sent me this title on behalf of Chatto and Windus.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Orange 2011: The seas (Samantha Hunt)

Loving as I do the seaside, and having just returned from Cornwall, I was excited by the arrival of another Orange longlisted title, The seas, by Samantha Hunt. And it didn't disappoint.

The 19 year old narrator is convinced that she is a mermaid, and believes that her father who drowned 11 years earlier is still alive somewhere in the sea. Throughout the novel she is repeatedly drawn to water, and fish, constantly called by the ocean in a small, depressed town that has very little else to offer apart from chambermaiding work and shifts in a sardine canning factory. She is in love with a sailor, Jude, a man nearly twice her age who has returned from Iraq and is embittered by his experiences.

There are other intriguing characters in this tale too - the narrator's grandfather is a typesetter, working on an enormous dictionary that will be greater than the Oxford English Dictionary should it ever be completed. Her mother is still waiting for her husband to return.

I liked that fact that this was somehow lighter in tone and pace and prose than some of the longlisted titles which made it eminently readable. Like A visit from the Goon Squad, there were some gimicks with the construction of the text - nearly blank pages, weird and wonderful typesetting, but this all fitted in entirely with a slightly off-centre and quirky tale tale. But at the same time it was a little akin to a stream of consciousness and difficult to tell quite where it was all going, so although I liked it, it somehow didn't quite hang together in the end for me. I'd still recommend it warmly though as something very different to read.

This is actually Hunt's debut novel, although her second was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2009 - it fits the criteria because it was first published in the UK in July last year.

Many thanks to Sam, on behalf of Corsair, who sent me this title to read.

Bernard's break

Bernard accompanied us to Cornwall, and here are a few of his holiday snaps.

He helped us navigate...
...but sulked when we wouldn't let him play on the beach...
...or go surfing...(I didn't think it would be good for his fur)
...but he did cheer up when we got to the cottage and we let him watch the enormous TV.

He's enjoying the sunny weather this week since we returned, and I found him this morning with his sunglasses on...

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Orange 2011: The great house (Krauss)

I was intrigued by, yet unsure whether or not I would enjoy reading The great house by Nicole Krauss. Intrigued, because I read this postby Dovegreyreader which really piqued my interest with its thoughts about desks, but unsure because I seemed to be one of a very small minority who had not been grabbed by her earlier book The history of love. And also unsure, because comments on my post about another Orange longlisted title, The memory of love, wich I had struggled through due to its literary, extremely descriptive style had suggested that this might be similar.

In the end, I liked this book. I liked the way that a single piece of furniture, a desk, connects seemingly four disparate people and their stories. And the way that this focus provides a vehicle for looking at people's personal lives. Nadia, a novelist living in New York, who comes to acquire the desk from a poet named Daniel. Aaron and his Dov in Israel suffering from communication problems. Arnold, in England, examining the life of his wife Lotte, who is also a novelist. Izzy and her brother Yoav and their father George who collects furniture.

The prose is lyrical at times and it drew me in rather than turning me off as the Memory of love did, but I didn't love it or enjoy it as much as some of the other Oranges that I've read this year. My favourite parts were the bits set in Oxford, because I knew the places being described.

Many thanks to Penguin for sending me this copy to read, in the best tradition of sharing, I'm passing it onto a colleague and then to my Mum, both of whom are excited to have a chance to read it.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Baking from the cupboards 11

I still seem to be going strong with baking from the cupboards, although this has also been slightly modified to "using up things from the fridge/fruit bowl so that they don't get wasted". My baking ingredients really are starting to run themselves down, which is good (for reasons that I will reveal next week or the week after...), although I still have plans for a few things left. if anyone has any good bakes that involve sunflower seeds, then I would love to hear from you, as I have a large packet, and apart from bread I can't think of anything.

Here are some banana and chocolate muffins, made using a recipe from Nigella's website. It was fun to use my mixer to beat the batter as I have mainly been making cakes by hand recently. I didn't have any cocoa, but I did have the remains of a tub of drinking chocolate so I cut down the sugar slightly, and upped the amount of drinking chocolate. The recipe made 16, only the rest disappeared to K's work...

To utilise some dates and walnuts from the cupboard, I made date and walnut buns/loaf as this is a favourite recipe of my father's (it was something that my mother used to make frequently, and bring me pieces of when I was at university before I had a kitchen) and I thought that he would like some cake. K and I took the rest of them with us to Cornwall for puddings.

And finally, I mentioned last week that I'd provided a baking surgery for a couple of readers who had odd ingredients that needed using up. I suggested to Geraldine that she made some biscuits from the Nesquik website to use up her Nesquik banana powder, and she has kindly shared the results:
Geraldine says:

"When I looked at the recipe on the Nesquik site all there was, was a
list of ingredients. So here's what I did: put flour, sugar and Banana
Nesquik powder in the food processor and gave it a quick whizz, then
added the butter. Lastly I put in two whole eggs as the eggs I had were
medium. Recipe had specified 2 large egg yolks. In the spirit of
baking from the cupboards this was all done with items I had in the kitchen.

Then turned the mixture out onto a well floured, pastry board and rolled
the dough out, tried a few different shaped cutters, animal ones and
blossom didn't give great results, the square ones came out best when it
came to keeping some resemblance to the cookie cutter shape.

I set the oven temperature at180C, and baked them for 15 minutes.

Would advise anyone making this recipe to space the biscuits well apart
on baking sheets as they spread out more than I'd anticipated. I used
two baking sheets, should have gone with four baking sheets.

Mrs Hudson - dolls house cook, could have warned me about that, but she
let me make my own mistakes."

Back from Cornwall

A wonderful trip was had - beautiful sunshine as you can see from these pictures, and I even went into the 9C sea without my wetsuit...twice! More Orange posts later this week, and pictures of Bernard the bear on holiday, and baking from the cupboards later tonight (with a guest baking!)

PS: And thank you to those of you who left kind birthday wishes :)

Friday, 1 April 2011

Brief hiatus

I'm taking a blogging break for the next week or so (maybe less than a week), as I am on a few days off from work, and will be heading to Cornwall for a long weekend (bliss!).