Winter Reading

This hasn’t been a year for reading for me; partly a matter of time, but also because I have been struggling for months(!) with a novel I was determined to finish before starting something else. I failed! I’m still reading the novel: “The Cider House Rules” by John Irving, but have also started some short stories by Lydia Davis, along with some other short fiction.

The best book I’ve been reading recently was this:

Casting Shadows

CastingShadows

This is a collection of short stories, published by Word Machine Press, from new writers who developed them as part of their MA course in Professional Writing. These stories were immediately singled out for publishing.

Fancy a good chilling read by the warm fireplace this winter? You will feel your spine tingling, shivers on your goosebumps, your hair standing on end! Each of the eight ghost stories will draw you in making you feel as if you are really there. You can’t put this book down in the middle of a story. However, each is just a few pages long, and if time is short you could fit one in over lunch. You’ll be hooked though, and impatient to read the next! I found these writers all succeeded in making their stories very vivid, and very real… I am reminded of Roald Dahl’s “Tales of the Unexpected”, with a twist at the end – at times almost expected but not always.

An extra point – the illustrations are also remarkable.

The reason I chose this book was one of the writers, Danielle Charles. Danielle has a blog called

The Teacup Chronicles

which was the first blog I ever followed, two years ago. Since then I have taken much pleasure in her moving tales and prose, and her delicious natural recipes. There is something magical about the way she writes, and her photographs are also always a delight.

I hope you will drop by her blog, or even better – buy the book!

~~~

Another book I’m dipping into at the moment is also a collection of (relatively) short stories and writings, this time by an old favourite: Charles Dickens, and his Christmas stories in

Dickens at Christmas

Dickens

Of course, “A Christmas Carol” is in there, which I re-read at least partly every December. But you will also find all the Christmas Books as well as many other Christmas themed tales.

I particularly enjoyed the first story “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” from “The Pickwick Papers”. A miserable grave-digger is kidnapped on Christmas Eve and shown the error of his ways, in a similar way to Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”. This time it isn’t ghosts that “spirit” the character away, but a group of rather violent goblins…

There are several very short stories, and a few slightly longer. Perfect for selecting some reading for half an hour or a whole afternoon. Another attraction of this book is its binding and cover. If you are going to look at a book again and again, it has to be a hardback, and my Christmas Carol paperback was beginning to look a bit scruffy. This version is well bound and the cover is very seasonal. A classic.

So, what have you been reading recently? Any tips?

😀

Red Velvet Cake

My favourite niece (okay I’ve only got one, but she’s still my favourite!) gave me a sweet book for my birthday… with a sweet title too: “Sweet Tooth” by Lily Vanilli. I had never heard of Lily before, but apparently her bakery in London is rather famous…

LilyVanilli

I chose this recipe simply because it looked pretty, and I’d been wondering what is so special about this cake – I have seen so many recipes for red velvet cake, but had never eaten a piece. Until now.

Yummy! It’s really smooth, and most definitely velvety. It’s also only slightly chocolatey, not too sweet, and the colour is very attractive too. But you can easily leave out the food colouring as the texture is, I think, the best thing about it!

Red Velvet Cake

RedVelvet1

This is Lily Vanilli’s recipe, not at all adapted! (Buy her book!)

  • 115g butter
  • 280g (caster) sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 tbsps red food colouring
  • 325g plain flour
  • 30 cocoa powder
  • 250ml buttermilk
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp cider vinegar
  • 2 round cake tins or muffin pans and/or mini cake tins (I had six mini cakes and four muffins from this quantity)

Preheat oven to 180°C and grease/line baking tins.

Cream butter and sugar together for about 4 minutes with an electric mixer. It should be really smooth. Then add in the eggs and continue mixing. Add the food colouring and mix to combine. Sift the flour and cocoa together and add half to the mixture. Beat agin until just incorporated. Now beat in the buttermilk. Then add the rest of the flour/cocoa. Beat in, but don’t overmix.

Now the funny part – mix the bicarbonate of soda with the vinegar in a separate dish and watch it fizz! Pour over the batter and carefully fold it in – don’t beat it!

Divide between your pans and bake for 20-25 minutes, depending on the tins you are using. (Use a toothpick to check if the middle’s done). Cool on a rack before decorating. If you’re making a cake the filling is up to you. Lily recommends cream cheese frosting. I just plopped a little whipped cream or creme fraiche with a raspberry on top!

RedVelvet2

Have you ever had red velvet cake before?

Book Review: Bring Up The Bodies

Bring Up The Bodies

by Hilary Mantel

BringUpTheBodies3

This is a review I’ve been meaning to post for some time now. Even if you haven’t read Wolf Hall, the first in this (what promises to be a) trilogy, Bring up the Bodies is an excellent read. Perfect for your summer holidays! I thought Wolf Hall was fantastic, but the sequel was much easier to get into at the beginning, and focussed immediately on the court of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. I enjoyed it immensely.

Hilary Mantel takes you back to the early sixteenth century, when Henry VIII still hasn’t had a legitimate son to succeed him on the throne of England. The death of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and the “imprisonment” of his daughter Mary, later to become Queen Mary, coincide with the increasing discomfort within the royal court at Anne Boleyn’s behaviour. At the head of this, advising the king and controlling all the strings it seems, is Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell’s political deeds and manipulations are revealed with exquisite detail. In fact, despite clearly using a lot of imagination and fantasy, Mantel sticks to details such as dates and places with fastidious precision.

As the book progresses England’s isolation from the Catholic Church becomes clearer and the fate of the monasteries is hinted at. With this backdrop, the future of Henry’s monarchy is considered to be at risk and an heir is the absolute priority. Henry is by this time besotted with Jane Seymour. Cromwell’s role here is to ensure that Anne is removed from the throne legally, so that Jane may be accepted as the new Queen, while at the same time various families and connections useful to his and the king’s own future are secured. He is a genius. And yet somehow we suspect that as his net is spun, he may also fall victim to his own cunning plans… in fact we may even begin to wish he does…

Extremely well written and powerfully compelling to the last page. Different to other historical novels, I feel – as you are drawn into the dialogues and characters so genuinely and transported immediately into the court of Henry and into Cromwell’s head. I am now hoping the third novel will be out soon. And will it remain at a trilogy? I thoroughly recommend this book, and if you have the time to read Wolf Hall first, all the better, but not a necessity.

BringUpTheBodies2

By the way, Hilary Mantel won The Man Booker Prize for both these novels, making her the first woman to win the prize twice.

Book Review: Outside in My Dressing Gown

Every morning I take my old doggie out into the garden first thing, still in my dressing gown, sometimes stopping to admire a rose or a geum, checking my herbs or opening the cold frame.

Geum

When I saw the title of this collection of humorous poems I had to take a closer look. And when I took a closer look I had to buy the book!

“Outside in My Dressing Gown”

by Liz Cowley

OutsideInMyDressingGown

Liz Cowley has succeeded in touching on so many funny sides of gardening life – what the neighbours think, the frustration of the crowds at the Chelsea Flower Show, snails and slugs, the weather, being tempted at the garden centre, weeds…. There is at least one poem in here for everyone to associate a personal experience with. One that stands out for me is her poem “Ground elder”, a weed I posted about recently. Here’s an excerpt:

Spaghetti roots are everywhere.

You dig them up and bitterly.

You know you’ve got enough out there

to cover half of Italy.

Spaghetti roots – impossible –

and most of them you can’t remove.

So if ground elder’s in your place,

There’s only one solution. Move!

Grelder3

This collection is such fun! With simple verse the writer can sum up precisely how a gardener thinks. I open a few pages every day and find myself smiling and nodding. She understands gardeners so well! In “Here at last” she expresses how the buds of spring can suddenly uplift your spirits. In “Are you named after a flower?” she lists some beautiful names/plants but suggests vegetable names should also be used… fancy being called Maris Piper?! In “Antirrhinums” she has a conversation with a flower. And in “I know I’m not a rarity” she writes:

I know that there are many thousands

of dressing gowners just like me,

outside, and dibbing, snipping, brushing –

I know I’m not a rarity.

The poems are divided into seasons, which is a nice touch. There are a few poignant lines in some of her poems too. This one caught my eye:

Plants can plant a love within you

that sometimes lasts you all life long….

Very true, don’t you think.

June

To sum up: ideal for gardeners who want a little giggle, some thoughtful moments and a few smiles.

😀

(By the way, I got the hardback here, but it is also available as a Kindle book!)

Book Review: The Secrets of Wildflowers

“The Secrets of Wildflowers: A delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History”

by Jack Sanders

TheSecretsOfWildFlowers1

This was a Christmas gift and I’ve been losing myself in it on and off through the spring. The word “Feast” in the title is very appropriate – and “delightful” it is too!

Although the focus is on North American flowers, many are also prevalent in Germany and Europe, some even native. In the introduction the author states that his book covers both “natives and immigrants, friends or foes, because both kinds are here and both are interesting”. I like this attitude, as I find so many non-native plants growing wild, and think they are just as valuable as the native ones.

TheSecretsOfWildFlowers2

Divided into Spring, Summer, Late Summer and Fall, it is easy to find what is flowering now. Each flower has its own chapter, which gives some botanical information and tells you a little about the plant’s history, the common names given, uses (medicinal, culinary etc) and myths or traditions surrounding it. The chapters are broken up nicely into little chunks – very readable. The botanical details are also fed to the reader in a clear way, without getting too complicated and without being patronizing. I am learning so much and in such an enjoyable tone.

I was immediately impressed because it is the first source I have found that upholds my belief that Hepatica nobilis sometimes gives off a wonderful scent… I was beginning to think it was my imagination, but Sanders quotes the naturalist John Burroughs: “Group after group may be inspected, ranging through all shades of purple and blue, with some perfectly white, and no odor to be detected, when presently you will happen upon a little brood of them that have a most delicate and delicious fragrance.”

OurHepaticas1

Occasionally a poem or quotes are included, even a recipe or two, and the little lesser known details and legends are so fascinating! Did you know, for example, that gypsies used to smoke Coltsfoot leaves (Tussilago) for pleasure? Or that spring violet leaves are extremely high in vitamin C? Or that a German scientist counted 93 species of insect that visited the dandelion flower?…

I shall be reading each chapter as the flower appears here, learning new and interesting facts and enjoying the feast daily. This book gets top marks for writing style AND content. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who loves wild flowers!

Book Review: RHS Latin for Gardeners

RHS Latin for Gardeners2

If you love language and you love plants, then you’ll love this book. RHS Latin for Gardeners by Lorraine Harrison  explains all those tricky-to-pronounce botanical words attached to our dear plants, herbs and flowers.

The book itself – a hardback – has a lovely cover and is nicely bound… it looks pretty on your bookshelf! It is perfect as a reference book and for the odd dip into while drinking a cup of coffee. The main body of the book is an alphabetical list of botanical terms, each explained, with a pronunciation guide too. Here’s an example:

helix HEE-licks:

Spiral-shaped; applied to twining plants, as in Hedera helix

Now, I never knew “helix” meant that, but it makes sense….

I also never knew that the “novi-belgii” in Aster novi-belgii means “connected with New York”.

Or that the “bonariensis” in Verbena bonariensis means “from Buenos Aries”!

Or that “saccharata” in Pulmonaria saccharata means “sweet or sugared/as if dusted with sugar”.

And the list of discovery goes on!

I was pleasantly surprised how many I had guessed correctly, such as Cymbalaria muralis (“growing on walls”), and the information hidden within these words delivers excellent guidelines for planting… if a plant is from Buenos Aries it will like heat and sunshine, right?

A bonus is the pages in between the list… a few plants are profiled, with notes on how they got their name or certain associations and uses. And some famous plant hunters are also given a page or two, with examples of the plants they discovered on various continents.

This is the ideal gift for a keen gardener, and absolutely perfect for anyone fascinated by botanical plant names. It is already a favourite of mine, and the gardening season hasn’t even begun!

RHS Latin for Gardeners1

Book Review: Weeds

Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants: A Cultural History

Richard Mabey

Weeds

I should love to go on a walk in the countryside, or indeed anywhere with a hint of greenery, with the author of this book, Richard Mabey. He explains so well – and with such knowledge, humour and charm – where each weed we may come across has originated and how weeds have been the bane of humanity for hundreds of years. Our comprehension of their uses, purpose, growth habits and so on is so limited, yet Mr Mabey seems to know it all! This book is so fascinating I found myself taking notes!

First of all, he looks at how to define weeds, which only exist where humans are. Ploughing, for example, provides the optimal conditions for plants which sow themselves out regularly and grow rapidly.

He also examines the history of weeds; as medicine or food, in literature and common folklore, in superstition and religion. The allocation of characters and meanings to certain plants are discussed, as well as the weeding process in past ages. Poets and writers have referred to weeds and wild flowers since time began with nostalgia and familiarity, and Mabey frequently quotes one of my favourite poets – John Clare – whose pet subject was country life; our alienation from nature’s ways, and the changes in agriculture and horticulture are very clear when looking at old poetry. Mabey quotes from Clare’s The Shepherd’s Calendar:

“… Each morning, now, the weeders meet

To cut the thistle from the wheat,

And ruin, in the sunny hours,

Full many a wild weed with its flowers;—

Corn-poppies, that in crimson dwell,

Call’d “Head-achs,” from their sickly smell;

And charlocks, yellow as the sun,

That o’er the May-fields quickly run…”

The origins of many weeds found in the UK – some of which are extremely invasive – are explained too; how they were transported on ship hulls, in bales of cloth, in wood exported as building material, and nowadays in pot plants and birdseed, and even in coffins!

But my favourite part of the book was Mr Mabey’s reference to my most hated weed – Ground-elder. He says  “ there is one weed species that is beyond the pale even under our laissez-faire regime … in the herbaceous borders it permeates every inch of soil….. insinuating their white subterranean tendrils, as supple as earthworms, around and through any root system in their way.” His wife has contracted the name into Grelda, describing its witch-like qualities at the same time!

“Weeds” is very readable and entertaining, and yet at the same time extremely informative.

I highly recommend it!