Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Books: December Fifty Two in Fifty Two

"What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening whenever she turned and the days weren't long enough for the reading she wanted to do" 
Alan Bennett
16. Ken Follett, Edge of Eternity. 3/5
I started this book in September. No, really. It's a stonking 864 pages, so it was always going to be a long haul but I was expecting to race through it. I'm a fan of Follet, I find his books are very readable, so I was really disappointed that Edge of Eternity, the third in a trilogy, didn't follow suit
Set mainly in the 1960s and 70s, it focuses on the social and political changes in the USA - the civil rights movement and the Kennedy legacy, with short dips in and out of Russia and Germany. I think this is the main reason I didn't enjoy it so much. Unlike the previous two in the trilogy, this book was less about the social changes and more about the politics, which made it harder to relate to and a bit more of a slog. Saying that - it brought me to angry tears at several points, and the weaving of real characters into the plot as fictional likenesses (e.g Alexander Solzenitsyn) was clever.
Enjoyable because it was part of the trilogy and I learnt a lot about 20th century history in a relaxed way - but not on the same level as the phenomenal first two. 

17. Jane Harris, Gillespie and I. 3/5
Another long one - about 20 hours as an audiobook. I'd heard great things about it but it didn't capture my attention until I was half way through. 
Our narrator, Harriet, befriends the Gillespie family quite suddenly and becomes a firm fixture in their lives. I could't quite work out how she could worm her way in so quickly, and I found her a bit of an unusual character. Desperately lonely, and living in a new city with no friends, it's not surprising that she clings on to every friendship possible, even when it's not completely sure if she's welcome. There was something unnerving about her though... 
It's hard to review this without giving away a massive spoiler - but - if you're a fan of a false narrator (think Gone Girl, only less irritating and more Victorian) and a gothic undertones it's worth a read. I'd suggest the book though rather than audio, as I suspect I missed quite a few "clues" by not completely concentrating.

18. Antony Horowitz, Moriarty. 4/5.
Ooh, how I love a Sherlock Holmes spin off. Although I didn't actually "love" the last Antony Horowitz one, if I'm honest. It just felt a bit... forced and overdramatic. I much preferred Moriarty, probably because neither Holmes or Watson feature in it.
In the aftermath of the Reichenbach Falls, we are introduced to Frederick Chase, an American private investigator who befriends Scotland Yard man Althelney Jones. Together, they begin an investigation into the seedy London underworld - which has rapidly begun to be infiltrated by New York gangsters after the demise of Moriarty. It's a cracking adventure, fast paced and fun with an element of the unusual - and with a cracking couple of plot twists. I really enjoyed it. 

19. Jessie Burton, The Miniaturist. 5/5.
I started reading this a few days before it was crowned "book of the year" after waiting for it a the library for several months. Ohh it was worth the wait. 
When Nella marries and moves to Amsterdam she is excited about her new life. Her husband presents her with a wedding gift of a miniature house, much to the disapproval of her new sister-in-law - a beautiful replica of her new home. As Nella begins to populate the miniature, dark and unnerving things start to happen, and secrets emerge. 
I loved this book. I couldn't wait for my lunch break to devour a bit more. It was creepy and dark without being overbearing, and the slow steady characterisation helped to unravel the story. I was so disappointed when it was over - the praise wasn't for nothing. 

20. Helen Fielding, Mad About The Boy. 3/5.
The third in the Bridget Jones series, it picks up over ten years after the second book left off. Having missed the newspaper column in the 2000s, I was a bit worried I wouldn't have a clue what was going on, but the column seemed to go completely unreferenced and the book plunged in to life for Bridget in 2014.
There were things I didn't like about it. Bridget has aged at the same rate as the books (rather than the films which came ten years later) so we meet her at age 51, with two young children in tow. I don't know why, but this just didn't work for me. It didn't seem quite right having her attend 60th birthday parties. There was no Shazzer. There was no Bridget's dad. Or Mark. 
But - it was a really warm tale about life after bereavement. It was funny and relatable (even if you're 20 years younger with no kids), and an enjoyable bedtime read. One of the best "female" books I've read in a while. 

21. Agatha Christie, The Secret Adversary. 2/5.
I had such high hopes - an Agatha Christie I've not read! Turns out there's a reason for that. The first Tommy and Tuppence adventure was less of a murder mystery and more of an attempt at an interwar spy novel, but without the charm of more famous tales from the period. Set after the First World War, it starts with Tommy and Tuppence bumping into each other, having first made friends in a military hospital. Unemployed and bored, they decide to get involved in "adventures and mysteries" - and are rapidly embroiled in complicated mysteries involving a ship, some Americans and a judge who may or may not be a wrong 'un. 
I listened to this as an audiobook and was really quickly bored by it, finding myself drifting out of concentration as it got more far fetched. It passed a day cleaning the house in anticipation of the holidays, but I won't be rushing to find any more of the series. Poirots and Marples for me!

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Recipe: Speculoos (and Santa)

I had my first mulled wine of the season last week, catching up with a friend who has a four year old daughter. Talk turned to Christmas, and how her daughter had loudly announced on the way home from playgroup that Santa couldn't be real because there'd been so many books written about him. Yes, at such early age, she'd clearly started to twig that something wasn't quite right about the thought of a chap dropping down the chimney. ("But surely the dog would bark and wake us up Mummy?")

My friend had, as most parents would, looked aghast, tried not to panic, desperately changed the subject, and decided to bring it up at another point. But how do you broach the subject with a precocious four year old who runs the risk of upsetting every other child in her class?

St Nicholas. That's what we came up with.

I first heard of Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, when I came to Edinburgh and moved in with a Dutch friend. A 4th century Christian bishop, he was canonised for being an all round good egg and champion of the impoverished. He is remembered for leaving sweets in the shoes of poor children - and for his most famous exploit, when he threw three gold coin pouches down the chimney of a pauper, who could not afford the dowries for his daughters. One version of the tale tells that the girls had been washing their stockings, and left them to dry by the fire and that the money dropped inside...
A facial reconstruction of St Nicholas - source
His saint day - 6th December - is celebrated across many continental European countries. In the Netherlands, it's bigger than Christmas for a lot of young children, and is celebrated the night before. On the evening of the 5th December, families eat a traditional pea and bacon soup, play games and swap gifts with little rhymes for each recipient. Shoes are placed in front of fireplaces and windows in the hope that sweets will appear inside. On the morning the 6th, St Nicholas heads off back to Spain (where he, slightly randomly given his Greek heritage, apparently spends most of his time).

He's become a controversial character in the last few years - mostly because of his attendants, Swarte Piets. Black-faced children accompany Nicholas on his arrival into town. The Spanish connection and the curly black hair implies that his servants are Moors - which makes it slightly dodgy... but politics aside, it still strikes me as fascinating how a saint who died 1600 years ago became our modern day Santa. It's believed that he travelled over to America with the Dutch West India Company. Combined there with the English tradition of Father Christmas, a friendly Yule-tide visitor who celebrates with friends (St Nicholas never quite made it over the Channel), the modern day Santa Claus was established.

Anyway. Back to Sinterklaas.

Ever since I've known my Dutch friend, we've had a Sinterklaas celebration together. It's normally a couple of days late, as she travels home to see her family - but it's become the start of my festive season. I volunteered to do some baking for our gathering, and was handed her family recipe for Speculaas, or Speculoos, cookies. Similar to gingerbread, but with less of the ginger, and with more cloves and cardamom, they are a really delicious and slightly savoury soft biscuit. I used my friend's spice mix - but if you don't have all of those ingredients, I reckon they'd be just as delicious with mixed spice as it's really similar, only without the cardamom.
Makes around 20.

120g butter
100g dark brown sugar 
200g self raising flour
1 tsp salt
1 egg
2 tsp spice mix 

Cream together the sugar, butter, salt and spices.
Add the egg, slowly sift in the flour and mix into a sticky dough. 
Bring into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for 30 minutes. 
Preheat the oven to 170C. 
Roll out the dough on a clean, floured surface, handling as little as possible to keep it cold. Ideally you want it about 7mm thick (I know, I know). Cut into festive shapes, or triangles. 
Bake for approx 20 minutes on a non-stick or lined tray. When you take them out, they will seem very soft and possibly undercooked but they'll firm up a treat as they cool.

Best eaten warm while they're still soft in the middle. Perfect with mulled wine or hot chocolate.