Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox

When you find the perfect book to suit your mood it's amazing how much time you can find to steal a page here and there.  On several occasions I found myself leaning on the kitchen counter to read just one more page before grabbing my keys to drive off to work. 

'After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an oyster supper.'

So begins this Victorian pastiche deliciously filled with foggy nights so wet you can feel the mist and hear the cobbles play a tune under horse hooves and carriage wheels.  The story is a confession of revenge and murder by Edward to his friend, Le Grice over drinks and we're all in for quite the tale of intrigue.

Edward Glapthorn is raised by his mother who writes novels long into the night to provide as best she can for her son.  There also exists a rosewood box containing 200 guineas left to him by a mysterious benefactor which makes his attending Eton a possibility.  Once there he has the misfortune of befriending Phoebus Daunt, whose petty jealousy of Edward's attention to others drives him to an act with serious consequences.

Eventually, through his work in the office of Tredgold, Tredgold & Orr, Edward begins to unravel the shocking and previously unknown details of his birth.  Some may find this chain of information and events somewhat coincidental but in no way did it lessen the thrill of the ride for me.  We also learn that Lord Tansor, an incredibly wealthy aristocrat and married to his second wife has yet to father an heir.  Desperate that he should have someone to leave his vast estate to, he visits Gray's Inn to have documents drawn up making the precocious son of the village rector his heir.  One Phoebus Daunt.

That the man who was the cause of Edward being removed from Eton, thereby ruining any chance of a successful career, should inherit such wealth so easily twists the knife.  Whilst mulling certain events and tidbits of information over in his mind, Edward consoles himself in the arms of an exotic lady of the night, Isabella Gallini.  Though she gives her body to others her heart belongs only to Edward.  On occasion, the irresistable pull of an opium den provides further distraction for our tortured man.

The vivid description of chop-houses, alleyways, shops and tolling bells had me desperately wanting to book a trip back to visit historic parts of London.  An outing by Edward and the breathtaking Emily Carteret to St Paul's, to climb the numerous steps to the Whispering Gallery and beyond had me picturing how one would manage it in yards of fabric, full petticoats and bustle!

For the duration in which Edward seeks ever more clarification regarding his birth, he is aware that someone constantly follows him.  In crowded streets there's a tap on the shoulder here or footsteps behind him in the dark there making for many an anxious outing.  I wondered how I would sleep at night knowing a villain was just waiting for me to leave the latch unlocked. 

Showing no economy with description, Cox takes his time arriving at the climax but it was well worth the wait.  The last few pages had me riveted, hand on my chest, holding my breath and at one point shouting 'oh no!' out loud. 

This story very much reminded me of Wilkie Collins, No Name, in which a character goes to any length to recover what is rightfully theirs.  I loved that book and I loved this one every bit as much.  Thankfully, in a state of sadness that I wasn't jetting off to anywhere exciting during a holiday last summer, I purchased both The Meaning of Night and The Glass of Time, its sequel.  Despite the first instalment being 600 pages I'm not the slightest bit hesitant to continue this story in the next fact, I can't wait!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Eating for England by Nigel Slater

Since last night I've been mulling over just what it is exactly about a British sweet shop or food in general that is so appealing.  The thought of a Cadbury Fruit and Nut bar has any thought of eating healthy fly straight out of my head.  A package of Reds and Blacks from M&S removes any caution about cavities.

Eating for England by Nigel Slater has provided all the thrill of iconic British foodstuffs without any of the guilt.  He fills 280 pages with his memories and thoughts on everything from barley water to Sarson's Vinegar, the Jammie Dodger to Victorian sandwiches.  Being the perfect 'dip in and out of' book, it has been on my nightstand for the past couple of weeks.  I've had to stifle some belly laughs when reading it at 6 am so as not to rouse Deacon or R from their slumber.  Slater's description of Werther's Orginals as 'silly old bugger's sweets' and the 'Victor Meldrew of confectionery' was one such moment.

Before my last trip across the pond I asked a couple of delightful ex-pats who visit the library if there was anything I could bring back for them.  They swooned over the thought of enjoying a M&S Rich Tea biscuit with their cuppa once again.  When I got back and handed them their bag of biscuits with some chocolate thrown in I beamed with the thought of them racing home, plugging in the kettle and enjoying a delicate dunk.  A couple of weeks later I discovered a British sweet shop in town selling the very article!  Alice and Bettina were thrilled not to have to wait until someone else ventured overseas for their biscuit fantasy to come true.  According to a recent article in The Daily Telegraph, the sale of Rich Tea biscuits is on the decline as 'posh' treats become more popular.  Slater writes that his favourite, the Abbey Crunch, has long been extinct, being replaced by the less than impressive Hob Nob so the worst can happen.

There were things revealed in this book which were better left unread.  I was made ill by reading what it was that flavoured the meat at a St David's Day celebration with some Welsh friends.  Faggots and peas were on the menu and now I know why nobody was forthcoming in the details about just what that was.  To gag over something one has eaten over ten years ago takes some doing.

R and I are starting to sound like a couple of old codger's when we bemoan the pathetic comic strips that pass for a prize in boxes of caramel popcorn and that chocolate bars are shrinking.  Our PC world has banned the marketing of candy cigarettes but pretending to blow smoke on a cold day after taking a drag on my candy hasn't turned me into a smoker.  I digress.

The heartwarming, crave-inducing writing style of Slater had me flinging back the covers last weekend to pop down some toast and grab the jar of Robertson's Golden Shred from the fridge.  I didn't even wait for the tea to steep before I started munching away.  Perhaps it's a good thing that many of the sweet subjects in this book are not within easy reach for me.  I have no idea what a Tunnock's Teacake, Jaffa Cake, Floral Gums or Midget Gems are but Slater makes me want to find out.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Inn on the Twenty

  Lime Blossom Cheesecake with Charlie Bee Honey pavlova and Jordan Valley stone fruit compote.  Doesn't that sound delicious!?  I was so enamoured with my lunch that it wasn't until the dessert that I remembered my camera.

Inn on the Twenty in Jordan is in the middle of wine country and historic Twenty Valley.  This was our first time visiting the restaurant and we were so impressed.  For our starter we shared a Caesar Salad made with baby romaine, crisp Pingue prosciutto and charred tomato.  R and I chose the same entree which was Handmade Linguini with pancetta, Parmesan, fava beans and cream sauce.  We sprang for the Tiger shrimp too...why not, we were on holiday.

There was no question who was going to be in the seat with a view.  Better luck next time, R!
(and there will be a next time)

And how perfect!  A wool/quilting shop called Stitch was nearby.  The shop owner was kind enough to allow some snaps for my blog.  Since I've promised myself I will not hoard wool I didn't buy anything but I really, really wanted to!

Sipping wine and enjoying some fine dining was a perfect way to cap off our holiday together.  We weren't hungry again until almost nine o'clock in the evening so I whipped out a frying pan and made us some eggs and peameal bacon.  Our feet were firmly planted back on earth but it was nice while it lasted.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Drive in the Country

Switching gears, Wednesday was a lovely day for a drive in the country.  R and I drove to St Jacobs for a stroll through the village.  This area is best known for the Mennonites who farm here and every time a family goes past in their horse and buggy I'm filled with wonder about their home life.  Old Order Mennonites reject technology and motorized vehicles but others accept varying degrees of modern appliances.  The Heiress attends university nearby and while working at her part-time job in a hardware store she sometimes has Mennonite families stop by in a horse and buggy but ask for items such as USB cords or cellphones. 

(Google Images)
I will never forget the image of two Mennonite women walking towards me one cool autumnal afternoon with their black capes billowing in the wind.  R enjoys an irreverent sense of humour and loves nothing more than to tease me while I'm admiring this way of life that he can see an iPod sticking out from the pocket of a calico dress.  How rude!

In one of the market stalls we came upon a mini museum about the collection of maple syrup.  Here are some molds which would be used for storing maple syrup mixed with sugar.

And some maple syrup decanters.

I may be Canadian but I am also a bit of a klutz and cannot fathom these snowshoes making my trek across snowy fields any easier.

We took back roads most of the way home and fantasized about life in the country as we munched on a bag of licorice all-sorts bought at a candy shop.  The next time we'll be out this way will be to take The Heiress back to school...too soon for a change in the leaves but a whiff of woodsmoke would be nice!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar

What a captivating and yet unsettling read this is!  Reading this book had me remembering what it felt like to be on a ride at the fair, smiling on the outside but a little scared on the inside.

Rachel Waring is working in London and living with a flatmate, Sylvia.  Inheriting a rather run-down mansion in Bristol from an eccentric Aunt she hasn't seen since childhood, Rachel packs up and strikes out on her own.  To say that this woman has a certain 'joie de vivre' would be an understatement but I like people who march to their own tune and breaking out into song was something Rachel did fairly often.

Horatio Gavin was the original owner of the mansion centuries ago and Rachel becomes obsessed with him.  Not having much experience with men she fantasizes quite a bit about what other men, movie stars or Horatio, hanging above the fireplace (weird, I know), would do to her given the chance.  Personally, my alter ego is a Victorian prude and I wanted to reach for the smelling salts on a few occasions!

Roger, the gardener she hires, and his wife, Celia, become friendly with Rachel but just what are their motives for friendship?  At times I felt worried for Rachel and at others scared for the gardener and his wife!  This book is written in the first-person and with Rachel's spiralling madness we can never be sure if events are being relayed accurately or the delusions of a madwoman?  At different stages of the book I found myself going back and forth between berating Rachel and feeling so sorry for her. 

In the first few pages we find out that Rachel's father thought 'a strain of insanity' ran in his family and her benefactor, Aunt Alicia was a recluse who ended up in hospital.

Each time my mother and I came away from Neville Court my mother would say something like, "Poor Alicia.  One can only humour her."
"Is she mad?" I once asked.
"Good heavens, no.  Or at least..."
I waited.
"Well, if she is," she went on, "she's perfectly happy.  There are many who'd even envy her that type of madness."

Twenty-five years ago, I passed a middle-aged woman sitting on a bench while she waited for the bus.  She was applying lipstick to her cheeks as a rouge.  She was being ever so careful to get it in just the right place as she gazed at herself in her compact mirror.  The trouble was she was pressing so hard that the lipstick was in chunks on her flaming pink cheeks.  The image staring back at her was obviously a beautiful one and who was I to judge, she was happy.  Rachel Waring reminded me of that woman.

Monday, August 2, 2010

My Teapot Mitten

This didn't quite turn out to be such a mindless knitting pattern after all!  I really had to pay attention as the pattern calls for you to increase stitches for the spout gusset whilst creating an opening for the handle AND tab for the buttons.  Therefore, I only worked on it in the quietest of moments here and there.  The buttons were recently cut off of a shirt I discovered in the ironing hamper.  A little white blouse which belonged to The Heiress...when she was around eight years old!  The pewter flowers truly make this teapot perfectly turned out for a garden party.