Thursday, 31 January 2008

Booking through Thursday - quirky

This week’s question is suggested by (blogless) JMutford:

Sometimes I find eccentric characters quirky and fun, other times I find them too unbelievable and annoying. What are some of the more outrageous characters you’ve read, and how do you feel about them?

I think my previous responses to BTT might, in passing, have indicated a liking for books full of quirky characters, particularly the kind who might be described as "English eccentrics". Favourites would range from E.F. Benson's wonderful Lucia to Dirk Gently, owner of a "holistic" detective agency.

Conscious that I have never entirely "fitted in", my predilections tend towards misfits and outsiders, though I much prefer harmless eccentrics to psychopaths. A new favourite is Usagi Yojimbo, a Samurai rabbit and ronin (lordless warrior) striving to make his way in the early days of the Shogunate. Not exactly Watership Down!

Finding a character unbelievable or annoying is enough to make me abandon a book and, I have to admit, when I give up on a book, I pretty much erase it from memory. But I'm sure other people's answers will remind me of characters I've loathed.

Friday, 25 January 2008

O Western wind, when wilt thou blow?

This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet

Till day rose... (Ted Hughes)

Have I mentioned before that I hate wind? Even ordinary blustery days turn me into a cat with my fur ruffled the wrong way, skittery and tetchy and generally on edge. I hate my hair being mussed up the minute I go outside, and the way every object develops a will of its own and refuses to cooperate: flowerpots snatch out of your hand and whip away into the distance, smoke from the chimney blows in your face, dust gets in your eyes. In this not-very-windtight house doors left ajar for a moment bang incessantly, then slam when the back door is opened. Last year a gale almost blew the side wall off the garden shed.

Today is just such a day, and it has followed a night of relentless clattering and howling. I crave silence and respite from the ceaseless movement. I'm reminded that I still haven't phoned the tree man to come and deal with our ageing ash trees, which are constantly shedding small branches, and occasionally a larger one. But rather than spurring me into action, the knowledge is a further irritant. I can't do it now, it will have to wait until my fur will all lie in the right direction.

We're getting all fluffed up, here...

The chickens, too, are all ruffled up, and look at me very reproachfully when I go outside. I have tried to create some shelter for them at one end of their run, but like me, they'll have to manage until it blows itself out. The forecast for tomorrow is slightly better, but much the same as today on Sunday. Humph!

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Booking through Thursday – Huh?

What’s your favourite book that nobody else has heard of? You know, not Little Women or Huckleberry Finn, not the latest best-seller . . . whether they’ve read them or not, everybody “knows” those books. I’m talking about the best book that, when you tell people that you love it, they go, “Huh? Never heard of it?”

I had to think a little here, but then realised that there might be a couple of candidates; like Margaret at BooksPlease, I checked my LibraryThing catalogue to see if my instinct was correct, and yes! So here are books by three authors which I may have mentioned before, but which I share with very few other people – 12 or fewer. But I regard them all as real comfort reading, and return to them whenever I need to curl up with something soothing.

Dance With Me by Victoria Clayton. I have read all of her books, but this is my favourite. It's set in the '70s (she and I are obviously contemporaries, and this was when we were growing up) and tells the story of Viola, who has had a rather rackety upbringing and has never really been trained to earn her living. Nonetheless she muddles along at the Society for the Conservation of Ancient Buildings (SCAB) where she is employed by a rather obnoxious boyfriend. The story of how she finds love, "saves" the fortunes of dilapidated country house and teaches herself to cook along the way, is the best kind of escapism – witty, gentle and enchanting. All of Clayton's books tend to move along similar lines, and I love them all.

Mislaid Magic by Joyce Windsor. We've gone back in time to the '30s here, and another country house, this time in the throes of a small drama festival. The story is told by young Amy Savernake, daughter of an earl and younger sister to the manipulative Claudia and stately Portia. There are two sequels to this book, telling the story of the family during the War, and the early days of Amy's marriage. Again, they are characterised by their gentle humour.

Children of Chance by Elizabeth Pewsey. The first of a sequence of six novels set in Northern England, in and around the cathedral town of Eyot (a fictionalised Durham), these stories of the Mountjoy family have a sharper bite than the others I've mentioned. More country houses (and a castle; you notice a theme developing here?) populated by intelligent woman, predatory men and the odd ghost and a preoccupation with art and music, these books are tremendous fun.

To this list I'd add a collection of three interesting and unusual children's books by Mary Wesley called Magic Landscapes and, also written for children, the series set around Canterbury Cathedral Choir School by William Mayne: Chorister's Cake, Cathedral Wednesday and A Swarm in May. I've mentioned Mayne before – I think he would seem very dated to modern children, but his books are full of wit and a sharp eye for the way children think.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons by Diana Henry

Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons is essentially a companion volume to Roast Figs, Sugar Snow, which I reviewed recently here, and considers summer, as opposed to winter, food. It's subtitled "Enchanting Dishes from the Middle East, Mediterranean and North Africa" and certainly fulfils its brief. I'm enchanted. It follows the same format as the other book, with sumptuous illustrations, apposite literary quotations and introductions to both sections and individual recipes which convey practical information and sheer delight in the food described:

[T]here were dishes whose poetry came from their evocative names or stories, as well as from their taste. Think of Ice in Heaven, a Middle Eastern milk pudding of rose-perfumed ground rice; Pearl Divers' Rice, honey-sweetened rice from Bahrain to be eaten with lamb, so-called because its high sugar content was thought to help pearl divers stay under longer; or the Crazy Water of the title, an Italian dish of seabass poached in a salty, garlicky broth, cooked by the fishermen of the Amalfi coast.

Makes you want to head straight for the jar of olives in the fridge, doesn't it? I was delighted to find a recipe for socca, the delicious chickpea pancake sold in varied forms in street markets around the Riviera. There are three wonderful orange salads – we tend to use oranges mainly in desserts, but the two savoury ones here are superb with grilled meat, and much my favourite way to eat oranges. The recipes are all straightforward, and well within the compass of the average cook; I don't think an absolute novice would have any real difficulties although someone who has never made bread before might need a little practice.

The introductions to each section don't just comment on the recipes, but offer additional ideas and sensible advice; in some cookery books these are the bits that you skip but here they are both informative and seductive, and encourage you to experiment. Her comments on lavender, for instance, acknowledge that it can be hard to get fresh if you don't garden yourself so, after intriguing suggestions for ways in which the herb might be used, there is advice about substituting dried lavender if necessary.

This is real summer food, nothing is included that looks too heavy to eat on the hottest of days, and everywhere the use of the freshest ingredients is encouraged, not in a "preachy" way, but by the author's evident pleasure in her subject:

We tend to think much more about basic ingredients – a good chicken, a fresh fish – than the additions. But just as you might deliberate over a plain string of pearls, a pair of gaudy glass earrings or a fine silver chain to go with that little black dress, think about how herbs can create a totally different mood and tone. They are the invaluable accessories of the culinary world – both for everyday wear or for dressing up.

Need I say more?

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Food and drink meme - comfort food

This came from Ted at bookeywookey, and seemed appropriate as the next review here will be another cookery book. I'm a great believer in comfort food as will probably be obvious from my answers below, so I'd just like to mention that I love vegetables and really have quite a healthy diet!

What did you eat/drink today?

Leftover chicken with green pepper and noodles, with a Chinese omelette on top made with a home-laid egg. The omelette was a rich gold and tasted unbelievably good. Thanks, girls!

What do you never eat/drink?

Most seafood, to my eternal frustration, because it makes me ill. There are so many delicious-looking recipes which use mussels, scallops, oysters and so on, all of which I would love to eat, and can't. And I prefer not to eat rocket, which I hate, but it's always turning up in salads and catching me out, even at home.

Favourite failsafe thing to cook (if you cook) or defrost if you don't

Spaghetti with chillies and chorizo for an almost instant everyday meal, or macaroni (or cauliflower) cheese; if there's more time Indian butter chicken with naan. My younger son always used to request that for his birthday.

Complete this sentence: In my refrigerator, you can always find

Cheese – we never run out of cheese – bacon, milk and yoghurt. Salad ingredients going limp. Something left over from dinner the previous evening, which will form the basis of lunch.

What is your favourite kitchen item?

I like my hand-held blender, great for whizzing soups (I like making soup, it's very satisfying, instant warmth and comfort). I also like the breadmaker, which turns out delicious naan bread with almost no effort. We always have home-made now. My son uses it to make wonderful pizza dough too.

Where would you recommend eating out - either on home turf or elsewhere?

Roti, on Rose Street in Edinburgh – Indian food made with Scottish produce. I would like to eat at St John's in London, because I love their cookery book, The Whole Beast. One of the books I plan to review here. It has to be in the right company though.

World ends tomorrow. What would you like for your last meal?

That's difficult, there's so many things I like. It would be quite unpretentious though. Braised lamb shank with mashed potato would come high on the list, maybe followed by a really perfect creme brulée. But Piperfield pork sausages could be a strong contender too, or roast beef from the herd raised in the fields around my parents' home in Devon.

I think I'll go and read a cookery book now...

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Booking through Thursday - May I introduce...

How did you come across your favourite author(s)? Recommended by a friend? Stumbled across at a bookstore? A book given to you as a gift?

Was it love at first sight? Or did the love affair evolve over a long acquaintance?

Not much posting here of late! Not so much an extended Christmas break as a frantic panic when I re-started work to prepare for meetings, and since Monday I've been in London working hard! Not even a trip to a bookshop to show for it.

Favourite authors? Rather than compile a new list, I think I'd better use my Library Thing list of favourites, otherwise we'll be here all week. I don't really remember discovering Jane Austen, but I do remember joining the Folio Society years ago so that I could have a really beautiful boxed set of her books. I treasure them and read at least one every year. I first came across Georgette Heyer in the local library in my teens, I have loved her books ever since. Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse was lent to me by a friend when I was about 11, because it was vaguely "horsy". I fell in love, and Goudge's writing, both for adults and children, has sustained me all my life.

Alan Garner and William Mayne were similarly childhood discoveries; I love Mayne's books based on his time as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral. I'm not sure his characters talk like real people, exactly, but I find their conversations irresistible.

Dorothy Sayers came a bit later – after I dropped out of drama school I was at a loose end and spent a lot of time in the library. Crime novels were a great favourite and for years my husband and I both read pretty much everything that came our way. If I weren't keeping to the Library Thing list I would have to add several other writers here (notably Marjory Allingham and Michael Innes).

Then there's a triumvirate of much more recent writers: William Gibson, Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Garth Nix. Grimwood is far too violent for me, really, but I love what he does. Both he and Gibson were recommendations by my sons, who often come up with interesting things to keep me amused. Nix goes the other way – a beautifully designed cover caught my eye, and I try to persuade everyone I possibly can to read his Old Kingdom trilogy.

Finally, I can't list favourites without including Mervyn Peake. I don't re-read him frequently in the way I do all the others, but he's part of my soul. If there was a fire and I had time to rescue anything (once the dogs were out, of course) it would be my first editions of The Gormenghast trilogy.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Booking through Thursday - Anticipation

Last week we talked about the books you liked best from 2007. So this week, what with it being a new year, and all, we’re looking forward….

What new books are you looking forward to most in 2008? Something new being published this year? Something you got as a gift for the holidays? Anything in particular that you’re planning to read in 2008 that you’re looking forward to? A classic, or maybe a best-seller from 2007 that you’re waiting to appear in paperback?

I can't remember ever starting a new year with such a sense of anticipation: with new reading challenges just starting, much my reading is already planned, although it will be interspersed with plenty of randomly chosen books too, the results of browsing through the library shelves or the spoils of raids on secondhand bookshops. And, of course, recommendations from fellow bloggers, who have begun to influence so much of my reading. I am looking forward to tracking down more books that I would never have heard of before. Last year brought several books which will become perennial favourites; if the coming year does anything like as well, then it will be a very good year indeed.

Specifically, I am looking forward to William Gibson's latest book Spook Country coming out in paperback. I love Gibson and savour every page of his books. I was also pleased to see that there is a new series from Garth Nix in the offing, called The Seventh Tower. It looks promising - hope it's as good as the Old Kingdom trilogy. Anything new by Neil Gaiman will be pounced on immediately.