Thursday, 30 December 2010

Crazy Pricing

I was passing by my novel's Amazon UK page (like you do, when you're a self-obsessed writerly type wondering whether you have any new reviews...) and I spotted this:

Seriously? £738 for a $14.99 novel?! They might be shipping it from the US, but that's still crazy. I'm pretty sure they don't expect a sale, but I'm not sure what they are expecting. And there's another company offering it for £27.79!

Incidentally, I've listed a copy myself for the somewhat-more-reasonable price of £11.99 plus the obligatory £2.75 postage (which is what it actually costs to post a novel of this size), but the Amazon fees are insane, so if you're in the UK and would like a copy then please come directly to me and I can get it to you for £11.99 including UK postage.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Resolutions Reviewed

I don't usually "do" new year's resolutions. I tend to feel that self-improvement is a gradual process, better approached as an ongoing goal rather than by setting artificial targets at the beginning of the year. Besides, I've watched too many people set ambitious and well-meaning resolutions, and spectacularly fail to keep them within the first few days.

But this year, for some reason, I really wanted to do something. Maybe I was in a goal-setting mood, since I was also busy making my Before 30 list (look out for an update on that in January). I decided there were a number of things that I wanted to aim to do every month: to cook something I hadn't made before, to do something crafty, and to have a weekend away.

One advantage of doing it this way was that, even if I failed at one of my goals during one month, the slate would automatically be wiped clean again the next month.

JanLondonEmbroidery: first few stitchesChocolate & marmalade cake (not blogged)
FebWarwickshire; LondonEmbroidery kitsVeggie omlette
MarDevonKnitted cardiganQuesadillas
AprFaroe IslandsMore embroideryBeanburgers
MayLancasterMore embroideryApple & raisin flapjacks
JulPrestonFlags embroideryDanish rum truffles
AugLancasterEmbroidering more flagsWinberry pie
SepCornwall; AmsterdamMore embroideryLemon drizzle cake
OctLeeds; OxfordBaby giftMincemeat
NovFranceN/A N/A
DecBathFelt decorationsMini florentines

Obviously, there are a couple of months where I didn't achieve many of these goals: June, due to being in Greenland for almost the entire month, and November, mostly due to NaNoWriMo (and a conference paper that happened to have the same deadline). Both of these seem like pretty solid "excuses" so I don't feel at all bad that other things fell by the wayside.

I really liked this way of doing resolutions, and they were good things to resolve, so I think I'll stick with more or less the same idea for 2011.

How about you...?

Sunday, 26 December 2010

2010 Retrospective

Compiling my 2009 Retrospective was a great opportunity to look back over the year - so enjoyable that I thought I'd take this opportunity to do it all over again! Same rules: one post from each month, trying to cover at least some of the variety of an incredible year. If you're doing something similar, please feel free to link up at the end of the post.

In January 2010 we lived in a world of beautiful white for most of the month, and one day, I came home to find foxes playing in the snow - they were having so much fun.

I started to learn embroidery in February (one of my goals to achieve before I turn 30), moving on from freehand experiments to a couple of cute kits.

In March I got all geeky, and decided to tell you about my latest language observation - the proliferation of touch-screen typos.

At the beginning of April, we enjoyed an amazing weekend break in the Faroe Islands - and I put myself through paralysing terror for spectacular views.

I did a lot of baking in May, as picnic weather encouraged me to share my creations with friends - the highlight was definitely peanut butter & chocolate cookies.

I spent most of June in Greenland, soaking up the landscape and the culture, and playing with adorable husky puppies.

In July I was back home, and back in the kitchen - reconstructing some chocolate truffles we'd enjoyed in Denmark and Greenland, which had a rather surprising secret ingredient.

The most exciting moment in August's blogging history had to be when my post about why it's okay to use "said" a lot in your writing was highlighted by a couple of big names in literary blogging, and suddenly brought a load of new visitors.

On a trip to Cornwall in September, I found one of my all-time favourite places, a little strip of land sandwiched between salt and freshwater.

In October I went to Leeds to see my friend Kirsty's first art exhibition. The pictures speak for themselves, I think.

November saw a busy month for me, as I struggled to complete NaNoWriMo and a conference paper - but I managed to squeeze in a trip to France, and shared a snippet of my next novel with you.

As for December... well, it's hard to know where to start with so many Christmassy highlights! But I think, of all my Christmas crafts, I had most fun making felt decorations.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Season's Greetings

Snowy view

Merry Christmas!

I can't remember the last time we had an actual white Christmas - I don't really count the few grains that were left in the shady areas of our garden last year. But we'd have to have an unseasonally hot day to get a thaw between now and tomorrow! The picture is from last year, but it's pretty much the same scene right now.

Wherever you are and whatever the weather's doing there, I hope you have a lovely Christmas surrounded by friends and family.

I'll leave you with my favourite carol, with apologies to those who heard it last year - it's still my favourite.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Mini Florentines - A Cheat's Recipe

Last year I made some gorgeous florentines for Christmas, but I've been ill over the last week and haven't wanted to be in the kitchen (or, frankly, awake) very much. Still, it wouldn't be Christmas without florentines, so I made a super-speedy imitation.

Of course, you could play around with different fruits and nuts - pistachios would give a bit of added colour, and raisins or cranberries would be traditionally Christmassy. The recipe below reflects what I used, and they passed the husband taste test. They're really tiny, so each one melts in the mouth, and you can treat yourself to a few without feeling guilty. You might want to make more than one batch... I wish I had!

mini florentine bites

Mini Florentine Bites
Makes 30

100g dark chocolate (I spiced mine up a bit)
15 hazelnuts
8 pecan nuts
8 cherries
flaked almonds, toasted
candied peel

  1. Start melting the chocolate.
  2. Meanwhile, chop the hazelnuts in half, and cut the pecans and cherries into quarters.
  3. Divide the melted chocolate between 30 silicone cake cases, or (if you don't have these) make drops onto a large sheet of greaseproof paper.
  4. Before the chocolate hardens, arrange on each chocolate disc: ½ hazelnut, ¼ pecan nut, ¼ cherry, a couple of pieces of candied peel, and an almond flake.
  5. Allow to cool and chill in the fridge before serving.

You can join in with the Creative Christmas Countdown 2010 right up until Christmas Eve. Read the rules then link up here:

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Christmas Spiced Chocolate

There are some questions where you basically have to know the answer in order to frame the question. So when I caught myself wondering "hmmm, do you think spiced chocolate would improve my Christmas treats?" I could almost hear the world laughing at me for being so slow. I make no claim that this is a new idea, but it definitely adds a layer of Christmassy depth to chocolate-dipped fruits and marzipan treats.

I made mine by melting 100g dark chocolate (a really nice, organic, single-source bar with 70% cacao) with ¼tsp cinnamon, ¼tsp nutmeg, and ¼tsp brandy. You could equally well use a pre-spiced chocolate and just melt it down for dipping, but I didn't have any in the cupboard, and this worked perfectly well (while probably being a bit cheaper).

I might try it with a little added ginger next time... do any of you do this? And do you have a favourite mix of spices to share?

You still have time to join in with the Creative Christmas Countdown 2010. Read the rules then link up here:

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Defining Engineering

Last week I went down to London for a very special event: the Institute of Engineering and Technology's award ceremony for the Young Woman Engineer of the Year. (Before you ask, no, I didn't win anything. Everyone seems to ask that!)

It's funny because I've never really thought of myself as an 'engineer' but, since I moved into a computer science department, I've been hearing the term more and more. Software engineering, of course... and there's even a journal called Natural Language Engineering which is very much my field. But as I got ready to go out and celebrate the stories of other young women in a variety of engineering disciplines, I wondered if I was going to feel out of place.

It turned out the opposite was true. When I found myself nattering with other girls I'd just met, getting excited together about the prospect of purple steel-toecapped boots (made in women's sizes, for once!), I knew I'd found kindred spirits. It was great to be in a room full of people who - whatever their branch of engineering - seemed to think like me. And it was nice to have girls in the majority for a change! (though, strangely, several of the companies sponsoring the event hadn't even managed to find any young female engineers to represent them)

Thinking more about the definition of engineering, it seems to be mostly about making stuff, and/or working out how to make it. Well, that's very me! But I think it also includes a lot of other women who wouldn't necessarily think of themselves as engineers - anyone who's done knitting or dressmaking, for starters. Fabric engineering, anyone...?

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Marzipan Dates

I've made these almost every Christmas for as long as I can remember. They're ridiculously simple, but very tasty, and you don't even need a recipe - just some dates, some marzipan, and some chocolate.

If your dates have stones, take them out, and then open the dates along ther length. Cut small pieces of marzipan, roll into date-sized sausages, and insert one into each date.

When you've done as many dates as you fancy, melt some chocolate and half-dip each date in chocolate. Leave them to cool on greaseproof paper and voila, you have chocolate-dipped, marzipan-stuffed dates to feed to your friends (if you're feeling generous - I usually eat about half by the time I've finished making them...).

This post is part of the Creative Christmas Countdown 2010. Read the rules then link up here:

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Mulled White Wine

We seem to be well into the season of Christmas parties already, and that means lovely evenings of friends and mince pies and mulled wine. I was chatting to my husband and reflecting that we usually drink more white wine than red, at other times of the year, and my thoughts turned to the possibility of mulling white wine. I'm sure I've heard of mulled white wine, but not sure I'd ever tasted it, so today I thought I'd give this a go. You probably already know how to make perfect mulled wine, but I tweaked the usual ingredients a little: I figured white wine wouldn't want the huge dose of orange juice that I'd put in a red mulled wine, and I added some extra vanilla and lemon zest along with my usual spices.

mulled white wine

White Mulled Wine

1 bottle dry white wine
½ cinnamon stick, broken
10 cloves
2 stars of star anise
2 inch-long pieces of vanilla pod
rind of ½ lemon
5tbsp sugar
1tbsp brandy

Put all the ingredients into a saucepan and heat gently (don't boil) while allowing the spices to infuse. You can tie the spices & lemon rind in a small piece of muslin if you're feeling fancy, but I find it easier just to throw everything in and worry about straining it later. You could probably use a sweeter wine and put in less sugar, but I had a dry Chardonnay to hand.

This post is part of the Creative Christmas Countdown 2010. Read the rules then link up here:

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Hama Bead Star

I remember Hama Beads from when I was very young - you have a peg board, lay out beads to make some kind of pattern or picture, and iron them through a piece of greaseproof paper to make them melt and stick together.

Looking at their website, they now make huge beads (for younger children) and tiny ones (for adults who want to make higher-resolution images). With the Brownies, we always use the regular 'midi' size, which are also the ones I remember from my childhood.

While the girls were making their pictures, I decided to play with the idea of Hama Beads as Christmas decoration. I grabbed some festive red and green, and a star-shaped board, with fairly predictable results. I think it just needs a gold ribbon and it can go on the tree. If you were to do this with your children and restrict them to festive colours (I think sparkly colours like gold and silver are also available, for added excitement) then you'd struggle not to end up with something cute and seasonal.

This post is part of the Creative Christmas Countdown 2010. Read the rules then link up here:

Monday, 6 December 2010

Christmas Cards

With apologies to anyone who sees their card on here before it reaches them!

One of my "Before 30" goals was to get to the stage of making all my own Christmas cards. I enjoy making them, and I think that if someone's important enough in my life to be on my Christmas list, I should be able to spare a few minutes to craft a card for them. Unfortunately this does require a higher level of organisation than I usually manage! Last year I made about half... it remains to be seen how far I get this year.

I've never really used pre-printed papers in my card making before, but this year I got some free Christmassy background papers, so I've been trying them out. These are some of the first designs I tried - I particularly like the one on the white background, but then, I like simple designs with a lot of space.

This post is part of the Creative Christmas Countdown 2010. Read the rules then link up here:

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Felt Decorations

Normally, I would have decorated for Christmas by now - but since our house is being plastered at the moment, there really isn't scope for putting up a tree yet. It's not even clear we'll have finished in time to do it before Christmas. Meanwhile, since I can't decorate, I'm occupying myself with making decorations.

I think of these felt stars as being in the Scandinavian style, even though I've never actually spent a Christmas in Scandinavia - I'm sure one of my readers can correct me if I'm wrong! This is the first one I made, and I used a really simple design, but I might try something a bit more fancy next time.

Scandinavian-style star in red felt

You will need:
red felt, white embroidery cotton, a small loop of white ribbon, some wadding (or cotton wool, or fabric scraps), scissors, a needle, dressmaking chalk.

  1. Cut two identical squares of felt.
  2. Draw a star in chalk on the back of one square, and round the corners. I drew mine freehand (no measuring) and deliberately asymmetrical.
  3. Cut around the star, so as to have two identical stars.
  4. Draw a pattern in chalk on the back of one of the stars, and stitch over it (If you're less lazy than me, you can embroider both sides.)
  5. Stitch around about ¾ of the outside of the star.
  6. Fill with wadding (I didn't have any wadding, so I used felt offcuts).
  7. Finish sewing around the edge. Sew the white ribbon into one point to make a hanging loop.

This post is part of the Creative Christmas Countdown 2010. Read the rules then link up here:

504 MainI'm also linking up to Holly's Tickled Pink event this week.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Mince Pies

I'd find it very difficult if you asked me to pick my favourite Christmas food. Anything with loads of dried fruit and warming spices is perfect for this time of the year: christmas pudding, christmas cake, mincemeat... it's all good! But if you really pushed me, I'd probably have to go for the mince pie, especially if they're lovingly hand-made.

Homemade Mince Pies
Makes approx. 42 pies

1 batch homemade mincemeat
700g plain flour
150g soft brown sugar
350g butter or margarine

Equipment: 4x 12-hole cake trays; a large circular pastry cutter; a small star pastry cutter.

  1. Combine the flour and sugar in a large bowl.
  2. Cut the butter into small cubes and rub into the flour.
  3. Add a little cold water to make a stiff pastry dough.
  4. Roll out the pastry to ½cm thick.
  5. Use a round pastry cutter with a diameter a little larger than the tins, and cut about 40 circles.
  6. Divide the mincemeat between the pastry cases.
  7. Roll out the remaining pastry and cut a star for the top of each pie.
  8. Brush the tops with a little milk or water, and bake for approx. 20 minutes at 200°C (fan oven), or until the stars start to brown at the corners.

This post is part of the Creative Christmas Countdown 2010. Read the rules then link up here:

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