Thursday, April 09, 2015

Falling in Love

I fell in love with Venice when I visited in 2007 and left part of my heart there.  A dear friend suggested Donna Leon's series of detective novels set in Venice, and on starting to read about Guido Brunetti, the principled Venetian Inspector, I fell in love with him and his wonderful family.  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read his most recent outing, and "Falling in Love" did not disappoint.  I was transported into Brunetti's Venice and the problems he faced in working out what was going on, and how to protect the vulnerable.  Venice is as strong a character as is Vianello, or Elletra. or indeed, Flavia.  La Fenice, the Opera House, is at the heart of the  story, but the roots spread far afield.  Donna Leon's wonderful writing is in evidence: "Irritation packed its bags, opened the door and, pulling  impatience along by its sleeve, began the long walk downstairs."
It's a thoroughly enjoyable, beautifully written, constructed and characterised book.  It is a rare treat and I am very happy to recommend it.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

A Place Called Winter

I found this book especially interesting as I had never given much thought to the colonisation of Canada, which, as in the USA, is a rather shameful period of history as land was seized from the original inhabitants and sold off to white settlers seeking a new way of life.

Harry Cane's attempts to conform lead him to marry and father a child when he meets a woman who seems as much an outsider as himself.  He is wealthy enough to lead a modest life of leisure as an Edwardian gentleman, until a series of most unfortunate events threaten public disgrace, financial ruin and criminal charges.

The only escape he can envision is to cross the Atlantic and, rather suprisingly, become a farmer settler in the New World.  Sadly, although he discovers satisfaction and solace in tending the soil, troubles old and new pursue him across the prairies and challenge his new way of life and new found contentment.

This is an epic story and a bit of a change for Patrick Gale, who says he has developed on the story of one of his ancestors to write this excellent book.  It was a pleasurable and compelling read.  

Monday, April 06, 2015

A Thrilling Adventure in Swansea

Hidden is the second novel by Emma Kavanagh and a brilliant whodunnit (so I can't say too much about it or I will spoil your fun). The story is told through a number of voices but mananges to unfold coherently with suspense and subtlety. as suspicion falls on different heads,     Seemingly unconnected happenings eventually combine to form a chilling, dangerous and dramatic climax.  It's a thrilling book, with believable and engaging and rounded characters in a well described setting.  I really enjoyed it and am now, having finished it, suffering a book hangover.  I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of  it: definitely a book to look out for.

The publishers describe the book thus:-  

A gunman is stalking the wards of a local hospital. He's unidentified and dangerous, and has to be located. Urgently.

Police Firearms Officer Aden McCarthy is tasked with tracking him down. Still troubled by the shooting of a schoolboy, Aden is determined to make amends by finding the gunman - before it's too late.


To psychologist Imogen, hospital should be a place of healing and safety - both for her, and her young niece who's been recently admitted. She's heard about the gunman, but he has little to do with her. Or has he?

As time ticks down, no one knows who the gunman's next target will be. But he's there. Hiding in plain sight. Far closer than anyone thinks...

The author, Emma, has this to say about her career (so far):-

I began my career a very long way from writing. I decided I wanted to be an author when I was five (I was that kind of kid!), and spent my entire childhood writing feverishly. But then, as I got older, something strange happened - I started listening to advice. You know one of the worst pieces of advice ever? Write what you know. What did I know? I was a kid. If I didnt know anything, surely that also meant I had nothing to write about?

You know one of the other worst pieces of advice ever? Few people get to be authors. You need a stable career.

So, I set about choosing a stable career and rapidly fell into psychology. It was, in spite of the crummy advice, a love match. Psychology fascinated me then and fascinates me now. There is nothing more interesting to me than what drives the behaviour of my fellow humans. The problem was that, whilst I was learning about this new world, I had lost confidence in my old one, and so set writing aside in order to concentrate on a serious career.

I did my degree (great fun!) and my Phd (not so much fun) in psychology. Which was awesome. But I had officially run my course as a student and the time had come for me to pick my path again.

You see, in spite of all the advice, I just have never been comfortable walking the well trodden path. Nothing appealed to me. There were no jobs that I wanted to just walk in to. I remember telling a career advisor that I wanted to work with people in traumatic professions and help them to understand how the psychology of what they did affected their roles and their lives. I still remember the look of sympathy tinged with exasperation.

Im pretty sure there is no such job. she replied.

She was right.

So I made one up.

I began my own consultancy business training police and military units on the psychology of critical incidents. I was twenty three, fresh from academia and green as grass. But I immersed myself in the world of policing and took every opportunity I could find to learn the job and learn what the challenges are. I discovered then that if you ask people to teach you about what they do every day, they can be extraordinarily generous. And because I was willing to learn, people were willing to listen. So my business took off.

I got to do pretty strange things. I have travelled across the UK, Europe and the US. I have taught group of three and groups of three hundred. I have designed live fire exercises for police firearms units. I have fired more than my fair share of weapons. I have been involved in crisis negotiations, have run about in muddy fields attempting to evade capture, have worked in some of the weirdest military bases in the world and generally had way more fun than anyone should have in work.

And then one day it occurred to me, I knew things now. Which meant that maybe, just maybe, I had something to write about. 

Emma Kavanagh has worked as a police psychologist and this gives her special insight into the world of criminal minds and crime solving, which she puts to excellent use here.

The book is due for publication by Century on 23rd April 2015 in hardback (£12.99) but if you fancy a free taster, here's a link to dip your toes in the water.  Enjoy!

This post should have appeared on 6th April as part of a blog tour hosted by CrimeThrillerGirl, but sadly a technical glitch caused me to be late to the party, for which many apologies. Thanks for the opportunity to take part - you might like to join me in tagging along the rest of the tour.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Second Sister by Marie Bostwick

An agreeable visit to Wisconsin, to me an unfamiliar part of the USA.  Marie Bostwick's descriptions of life there in Door County make it tempting to plan a visit in the real world.  Life on the Lakes sounds delightful and real.

If you've had a very unhappy upbringing and have left behind your home town as soon as you can, what will it take to make you go back?  How truly satisfying is a life and career which give you no opportunities to sleep more than a few hours a night, make friends, or develop hobbies?  What will it take to make you visit your sister, in whose shadow you grew up in and who now makes you feel guilty?  These are the issues facing our heroine, Lucy Toomey, who has to make some choices and chooses to learn some patchwork and quilting on the way.

This is an enjoyable book by an author I've not encountered previously. It is a story of family, community, values, creativity and love and well worth choosing for a satisfying read.

Thrills in Bed

Nothing to do with the over-hyped 50 Shades stuff, but I've been spending a lot of time in bed with a nasty flu bug and, when not sleeping, books have been a great solace and good companions.

My most recent read was by Lisa Gardner, a psychological thriller named Crash and Burn.

Crash & Burn

This story kept me guessing, right to the end.  Clearly all is not as it seems when this psychological crime thriller opens on the scene of a nasty car accident and an injured but lucky-to-be-alive victim who is anxious for the safety of her missing companion - daughter? - Vero.   A police sniffer dog fails to find a trail other than Nicky's at the scene of the car wreck  at the bottom of a woodland ravine on a remote road in New Hampshire, USA.  Poor, concussed Nicky awakens in hospital to be confronted by a man she does not recognise - who says he is her husband.  There are so many layers to the plot and, as one mystery is apparently resolved, another is revealed. What is the truth about identity, crimes and victimhood?  Nicky is well described, as are the investigators involved in the case, who at times have to question whether there is a case at all.   It really is a jolly good, satisfying read.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Familiar Landscape: Daughter

A marvellous book, "Daughter" is unbelievably good for a
first novel.  It was totally compelling and I've read it over three days and two nights, reluctant to put it down to do the other things I must.

Jane Shemilt's starting point has been what she knows: family life for two doctors (Dad a neurosurgeon, Mum a GP) living and working in Bristol.  However, she takes this normal family into a hellish situation that is every parents' nightmare, and charts its destructive effect.  Is anything ever what it seems?  How can we survive compound losses and tragedies?

The writing is poignant, insightful and engaging, the characters all too familiar and sympathetic, and the plot is finely wrought and well-paced.  Highly recommended, and I hope her next book is published soon!

Different Travels in my Magic Armchair - The Great British Knit Off

So, one way to travel in my magic armchair is by curling up with a good book.  I love to do so, and do so voraciously.

I the run-up to Christmas I read The Great Christmas Knit Off by Alexandra Brown and this is what I thought about it:-

A book full of comfort and joy: an absolute joy to read at Christmas, but this charming story of love, betrayal and starting again is an equal pleasure at any time of year.

A weekend in the countryside to escape London, where everything is going wrong for Sybil, leads to the chance to recover her spirits and find  new directions in life, both in work and in love.  Having myself experienced the therapeutic effect of knitting and the benefits of swapping capital living for a home in a country village, I enjoyed these aspects of the tale.  Sybil is fortunate to be taken into the hearts of the locals, and manages to make friends and save Hetty's House of Haberdashery from ruin and redevelopment by a neat bit of community work.  She also finds love again, and a whole new future.

I am looking forward to revisitng Tindledale in future stories - this is glorious and well-written escapism from a hard, cold world.

eBook cover of The Great Christmas Knit Off

Friday, May 02, 2014

It's been a long time, baby...

I wanted to do a brain storm on the word singular, and then make a word cloud with the results.  I used wordle and got this.  Frustratingly, I couldn't determine how to make "Singular" the most significant, central and largest word in the collection.  Anyone know how to do this?

What do you think?  Click on the image to see it bigger in Wordle.

          title="Wordle: sugular 2">Wordle: sugular 2
My good pal Jordi over at Above the GWB told me that repeating the most important word several times was the way to embiggen it, so now you can see Mark 2 for my Singular Wordle.  Now, how can I make that image larger - anyone know, please???

Friday, September 28, 2012

Another journey

One journey I have been taking over the past few years has been that of learning to eat a diet and prepare food that is gluten free, having discovered the hard way that I am sensitive to gluten.  I'm not sure when this realization took place: maybe ten years ago?  I've not been definitively diagnosed as coeliac because I never wanted to go back on the gluten in order to test its effect on my body, and when I had a blood test, I had already been gluten-free for quite some time.

Gluten-free food has improved no end since the early days of my need for it.  Back then, the bread resembled Madeira cake more than bread and was really hard to swallow as it seemed to swell in the mouth, while gluten free pasta was inclined to disintegrate into a starch paste in its cooking water.  More recently it has been possible to cook gluten free penne al dente and the breads are much more palatable, although still prone to disintegrating into crumbs or transpiring to contain such large air holes that the slice falls apart and the filling of a sandwich is not contained.  I have had spells of trying to make my own bread, with and without a breadmaking machine.  I had a long love affair with spelt pastas and flours until those too seemed to cause my symptoms of sensitivity and I had to stop using them.

Earlier this summer I discovered a gluten-free baking course at the Waitrose Cookery School where Adriana Rabinovich taught a heartening session on making gluten-free pastry and bread.  She uses Dove's Farm Gluten Free White Flour for most of her recipes, and this is increasingly widely available in most supermarkets (though sadly not in our local Co-op).  I have been making my own bread, quiches and sweet fruit tarts since then, not often as I don't want to put on all the weight I have lost over the past 15 months, but enough to stay in practice and to feed visitors!  Earlier this month I attended a second of her workshops on Pizza and Pasta making, this time in Abingdon.  Today I have made some Buckwheat Lasagne, which I intend to serve for dinner tomorrow, but it's looking good.  Adriana has given me a lot more confidence in preparing good, gluten-free food which does not feel like a compromise and which will be willingly eaten by the rest of the family (because cooking "normal" food for everyone and something different for me is too much faff).  I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to benefit from her excellent teaching and hope I'll have future opportunities to learn more from her.

I recently visited a friend who gave me a Herman (Friendship Cake Starter), which was not gluten free, but by feeding this sourdough starter with gluten free flours, the gluten content should soon become infinitesimal, or maybe homeopathic...  My thoughts were not of using my Herman to make cake (lovely article here) but as a sourdough bread starter: other friends have been raving about theirs.

Today seemed the right day to proceed in my endeavour.  My Herman had reached critical mass, I had found a recipe (here) and had eaten all of my last loaf of bread, and the ingredients were all present in sufficient quantity in my larder.  

Well, when I say the ingredients, I did my own twist on the recipe and used 8oz of Buckwheat Flour and 7oz of Doves Farm Gluten Free Plain White Flour in place of what the recipe specified.  I used most of my Herman mix, so my friends can rest easy, safe in the knowledge I will not be trying to pass on pots of the stuff (though it could probably be arranged, if anyone is desperate) - in fact, I may have to build up my Herman supply to keep up with my breadmaking requirements!

This recipe calls for baking the slowly risen bread in a Dutch Oven - which seems to be American for cast-iron casserole, and thus my trusty orange Le Creuset pot was called into service and preheated in the oven once the dough had risen.  Then the whole package was transferred from bowl to pot, still wrapped in a couple of tefal baking sheets (we'd run out of baking parchment) and put in the oven for an hour - it didn't seem quite there when I looked after the specified 45 minutes.

Look at that texture!  Isn't it beautiful?  And the flavour is really, really good.  My best beloved described it as having a slight tang of treacle, in a good way.

Now, the challenge is to eke it out rather than wolfing it down - I may well slice and freeze a good part of it, to be defrosted as required.  I am looking forward to sandwiches and toast from this loaf.  Herman certainly came up trumps for me on this occasion!

I'd love to know if anyone has a recipe for making their own starter/Herman/mother from scratch.
Oh, the satisfaction in making a loaf like this!