Friday, 30 December 2011
It's a new year, and that means that - in what's fast becoming a blogging tradition - it must be time to look back at the past twelve months.
In January we said farewell to an old car, which had been sitting on our drive for much too long, and waved it off to its new life as a racing car.
February was a busy month, in which we hiked up icy mountains and started volunteering for the National Trust, and we also got our bedroom back after four months of complete redecorating chaos. (It would take until August to get the downstairs finished.)
We had a weekend in Devon in March, where I learnt to shoot with surprising success, considering I can barely make out the target at that distance.
In April I baked a traditional Simnel cake for Easter - which turns out to be a great all-purpose fruit cake recipe, which I've used several times since.
May took me to the US East Coast for a conference, and we headed to Virginia's Great Falls for a day off.
Then in June, another conference sent me to Portland, Oregon, where I spent a lovely afternoon wandering (and sipping tea) in the Chinese garden.
We spent the first two weeks of July touring the Baltics, a trip that I still haven't finished writing up here (though it's on my to-do list, I promise...)
In August I tried adding ginger to my favourite chocolate brownie recipe, with delicious results.
September's baking adventures took a more savoury turn, with the invention of a cheese and onion cookie recipe, now a lunchbox staple in our house.
We had an unexpected visitor in October, when we hosted the winner of a local poetry competition.
In November we went to Turkey to visit my dad, and I was impressed by the way that pomegranates fall apart on the tree.
December is always a busy month in "real life", and consequently rather quiet on the blog front, but I did have the pleasure of interviewing Melissa F. Miller, one of my favourite new authors.
Happy new year, everyone. Are you looking forward to 2012 yet? If you've written a similar retrospective post, I'd love you to share it in the comments.
Saturday, 24 December 2011
Wherever you are this Christmas, and regardless of whether you're celebrating or hiding from the festive rush, I hope you'll have a lovely time surrounded by your family and friends.
I won't be blogging much for the rest of the year, but this is always a quiet time of year for the blogosphere. Normal service will be resumed on January 2nd with my now-traditional review of the past year's posts.
The photo is from a couple of years ago - no snow yet this year!
Tuesday, 20 December 2011
My mum is vegan and wheat-intolerant, so on a recent visit it seemed like a good time to experiment with one of the more challenging parts of baking. I wanted to have a go at some cookies, and my mum recommended the chocolate cupcakes from Erin McKenna's Babycakes book. She also had a recipe for choc-chip cookies, so we tried those too.
It's a bit of a novelty for me to follow a recipe, but we kept reasonably close to these ones. There was a lot of emphasis on apple puree and coconut oil, in both recipes.
I had a taste of the cake mixture as we were spooning the mix into paper cases, and my initial analysis was that it tasted of beansprouts. We could only guess this was down to the chickpea flour, which is after all raw and bean-like. I hoped that taste would go away after cooking, but although it was less noticable, I still thought the finished product tasted strange. Perhaps it would have been better if we'd iced them?
The cookies, on the other hand, were pretty tasty. You could really taste the coconut, but since coconut goes nicely with chocolate, I don't see this as a problem! I might even have been tempted to throw in some flaked coconut to make it seem more deliberate. The texture was a little unusual, a bit more bouncy than you'd usually expect from a cookie, but they were tasty and I'd be happy to eat more.
I'll have to experiment a bit more to find something I'm really happy with, but it was interesting to try someone else's recipes, and to know what I'm trying to improve on.
Sunday, 18 December 2011
"On Wednesday 14th December, 2011, George Whitman died peacefully at home in the apartment above his bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, in Paris. He died two days after his 98th birthday."On my first visit to Paris, my mum took me to see Shakespeare & Company. In a lovely spot overlooking the Seine, this is no ordinary bookshop. Tucked in amongst the rows of shelves, beds and blankets wait for any stranded writers who may need a place to lay their head. In exchange for this unorthodox accommodation, visitors simply have to give a few hours of their time, helping in the shop. I've always sort of wanted to stay there, just for the romance of the idea, even though I can perfectly well afford a more comfortable bed in a hostel or hotel.
— from shakespeareandcompany.com
So it was sad to hear of the passing of George Whitman, who founded this Parisian institution. However, his daughter is continuing to run the shop in the same manner, and for as long as the tradition continues, I'm sure George won't be forgotten by the literary community. And if you're in the city, why not pop in and enjoy the atmosphere for yourself?
Wednesday, 14 December 2011
This recipe is entirely thanks to my dad, who reconstructed it from some sigara borek he'd eaten, and taught us to make them, in his kitchen in Turkey. The hands in the photos (below) are also his. I really want to make these again now we're home.
We also tried making a few with jam, as we had some spare wrappers, but I don't really recommend that - the jam leaked out all over the pan, and was too sweet for anyone except Andy!
Sigara Borek Recipe
1 green pointed pepper
1 white onion
1tbsp olive oil
2in cube white cheese
a handful of fresh herbs (we used dill and flat-leaf parsley)
3 yufka sheets
More olive oil for frying.
- Chop the onion and pepper as finely as possible, adn sautee in a little olive oil until soft. Set aside to cool.
- Chop the herbs, grate the cheese, and add to the cooled onion/pepper mixture.
- Cut each yufka sheet into eighths, radially. Spoon a little of the filling mixture onto the wide end of each triangle.
- Fold in the corners and roll up to make a 'cigar' shape. Moisten the end of the triangle with a little water or oil to seal.
- Heat a little olive oil in a pan, and fry the borek in batches, turning occasionally until golden-brown. Eat immediately.
Notes on ingredients:
* The borek wrappers are properly known as yufka, a kind of very thin bread/pastry sheet made from flour and water. This may be hard to get outside of Turkey, but you could use filo pastry as a substitute (and the result will probably be a little more crispy). Yufka comes in large, circular sheets so you'll need to experiment with the size of your triangles if you're using something else.
* Turkish white cheese comes in a variety of forms with no obvious names (at least, at the market). The type we used tasted a bit like feta, but had a firmer constituency and grated more neatly than feta would.
Monday, 12 December 2011
In the small town of Kemer, in southern Turkey, is a shoe shop with a sideline in mushrooms. This is my dad's local shoe shop while he's in Turkey, so he's got to know the owner a bit, and asked why there was a sign outside the shop with pictures of mushrooms. Not just any mushrooms, mind you: matsutake are a Japanese favourite, selling for prices in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars per kilo. Which, quite frankly, sounds rather a lot for even the tastiest funghi. They grow up in the Turkish mountains, and Hasan exports them - via Fethiye and Istanbul - to Japan. Well, of course we had to try some to find out what all the fuss is about. Apparently it's the closed-cap ones that are the most valuable, so we got some of the opened-out-and-slightly-cheaper ones.
We cooked them up with loads of garlic and some fresh thyme that we'd picked in the nearby mountains. The flavour wasn't much to write home about, in my opinion, but they did have a very good, solid texture so I can see why they might be good as a base for other flavours and sauces. But the top Japanese prices still seem a bit excessive to me! I'd love to know more about what Japanese dishes they're used in, and whether they really are worth the price.
Saturday, 10 December 2011
I recently had the pleasure of reading Melissa F. Miller's first novel, Irreparable Harm (available in paperback and ebook formats). Heroine Sasha is a hot-shot young lawyer, but the novel has as much high-kicking martial arts action as it has complex legal arguments and courtroom battles. I really loved it, and was delighted to have chance to ask Melissa a few questions about her writing.
I see from your biography that, like Sasha, you're a lawyer. Are you also a secret Krav Maga ninja? And if not, where did you get the idea to give Sasha that particular skill set?
I wish! No, I can’t kill you with my bare hands. I knew I wanted to make Sasha a physically small person, because I find it really interesting how small women are often underestimated. Some of the most formidable female attorneys I know are diminutive--but, they don’t live the life of the legal thriller. I needed Sasha to be able to kick physical butt, despite her size. And I wanted it to be believable. As it happens, I have a good friend, who is not an attorney, but who is a small woman who practices Krav Maga. I’ve always been fascinated by it and she carries herself with a great deal of authority. So, the Krav Maga scenes are the result of picking her brain, watching YouTube videos, and reading about the self-defense system. That said, I wish there were a Krav Maga class near me, but the closest is over an hour away. I will jump at the chance to learn it, though, if the situation ever presents itself.
Did you find it hard to fit in writing a novel alongside your legal career? How did you juggle your time?
Oh my goodness, yes. Running a law firm with my husband takes a great deal of time, between practicing law and doing all of the administrative work that comes with owning a business. But, it also gives me a lot of flexibility as to when I work. So, my schedule is pretty fluid. The juggling really comes in with the kids. We have three children, who are currently 6, 4, and 15 months. So, a lot of my writing time is grabbed piecemeal—twenty minutes here, 250 words there. In addition, I have an extremely supportive husband, who holds me to a schedule of writing two mornings a week (unless some child-related activity interferes). He takes the kids to do something fun and I go into the office for a solid three hours. The rest of the time, I steal from sleeping. I stay up after the kids go to bed and/or get up before the sun rises to make a big push on word count when I don’t have to feel guilty about neglecting my family. I may not practice Krav Maga like Sasha, but I definitely rely on coffee to function just like she does!
How would you describe your approach to the process of writing? Do you use any specific techniques for plot or character development?
In a word, scattered! The way it has worked so far, is I have gotten the idea for a novel either in the shower or while driving. This is more frustrating than it sounds because the idea comes complete with entire scenes, lines of dialogue, etc. written in my head. By the time I can safely write it down, though, the specifics have evaporated and all that remains is the idea. But, using that idea, I start sketching out a really barebones plot. I’ve learned not to outline in any detail because I end up scraping almost all the original plot, with the exception of that initial nugget of an idea.
Character development is really an interesting process, for me, at least. Sasha was originally going to be a female commercial pilot named Grace. But, I couldn’t write her. I resisted having a protagonist who was so much like me—i.e., a female attorney, but Sasha was fairly insistent and forced me to scrap Grace. As an aside, I am aware that I sound like a crazy person when I talk about my characters. But, it is completely true that my characters don’t necessarily develop the way I want them to. I sketch them out in broad strokes, but then they take on their own personalities. I have learned that if I try to force them to act in ways that they don’t want to, I end up with a mess of a scene that I can’t use.
Approximately how many books will you need to sell to match the starting salary of one of Prescott & Talbott's junior associates?
If I sell 80,000 books at $2.99, I would match the $160,000 starting salary of a first year associate at Prescott & Talbott. That’s before bonus, of course!
Will there be more from Sasha in future books?
I am putting the finishing touches on Inadvertent Disclosure, which the second book in the series. Here’s the blurb for it:
When Sasha goes to rural Clear Brook County to argue a plain vanilla discovery motion, she's not planning to stay long. Aside from the wealth of natural gas trapped in the Marcellus Shale beneath the town, there's not much there. But when the county's only judge appoints her to represent a cranky old man at his incapacitation hearing, she's thrust into the middle of a bitter dispute over hydrofracking.
Then the judge is murdered. Sasha sticks around to bring the killer to justice. The only problem is, in a town hotly divided, she's not sure who to trust and who to take down.
Inadvertent Disclosure will be available before the holidays.
I have future plans for Sasha, too. I’m working on the first draft of her third book, Irretrievably Broken. Then, I guess, I’ll just keep at it, until I run out of legal doctrines that begin with the letter “I”!
That sounds great - personally, I can't wait for the chance to read Inadvertant Disclosure. Do you have any other projects up your sleeve?
Non-Sasha projects that I have kicking around are a YA suspense novel and a woman’s fiction novel in the style of Karen McQuestion or Jodi Picoult. I also have a crime fiction novella and a crime fiction short that are clamoring for attention. I could definitely use more hours in my day, but I guess that’s true for all of us!
Thank you so much for reading Irreparable Harm and for inviting me to connect with your readers, Rachel.
Sunday, 4 December 2011
I'm sure that if you live where pomegranates grow, you've seen this a thousand times. But until last week I'd only seen them in supermarkets, so it came as a surprise to see what happens when the pomegranates stay on the tree beyond ripeness, and start to burst open and peel apart, scattering seeds onto the ground like fragrant red raindrops. I'm not that keen on eating pomegranates, but it was great fun to see them "in the wild" like this.
Friday, 2 December 2011
The Quiche of Death by M.C. Beaton
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
I'd heard a little about this series, and almost the whole lot were suddenly on sale for Kindle, so I picked this up for 99p with the idea of working out (before the end of the sale) whether I want to read the rest. Turns out, I don't. I found it really hard to get interested in the plot, the characters were shallow stereotypes who I didn't much care for, and I ended up skimming to get to the end.
66 Degrees North by Michael Ridpath
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was a fairly good read, but the story skipped around a lot in time and place. I read (and enjoyed) Where the Shadows Lie earlier in the year, so I was familiar with a number of the characters, but I felt that the balance was really off between the 'main' murder mystery plot of this novel and the ongoing sub-plot of Magnus' father's death. Too much time was spent on episodes from Magnus' family history, considering that this sub-plot hasn't been resolved yet; I would have prefered to read more detail on the current case, instead.
Shereen Travels Cheap by Shereen Rayle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book is a mixture of general principles and useful websites. The principles will remain useful, but I worry about the longevity of the web information. I also found that several useful websites were listed under multiple chapters (for example, a booking site which handles flights and hotels); this wasn't inaccurate but started to feel a little repetitive. Another minor niggle, as I was reading in ebook form, was that I rather wished the sites had been hyperlinked.
That said, there's a lot of good stuff in here. I'm fairly obsessive about getting good travel deals, but I still hadn't heard of all these sites. I found the chapter on cruise savings particularly interesting, as we have been considering booking our first cruise - but only if we can get a good enough deal. And Shereen is good at focusing on 'value' and not just headline costs.
Of course, if you really wanted to save your pennies, you could find all these ideas online - but this is a handy compendium and would be a great starting point for a beginning traveller. This is probably a really great gift for someone who's always saying that they would like to travel but can't afford a holiday.
The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book was recommended to me, with the caveat that I should "ignore the homeopathy". That did sort of make me wonder what I was letting myself in for, but once I started reading, I realised that the homeopathy in this novel is just a type of fantasy magic - leading to some interesting discussion with the friend who suggested the book to me.
The novel focuses on Ariel, a PhD student studying thought experiments (in an English department). But her supervisor is missing, the university is falling down, and things only get weirder after that. Somehow everything is connected to an obscure book called The End of Mr Y, which Ariel finds in a second-hand bookshop. This is a really quick read with plenty of action, but along the way it manages to sneak in some interesting ideas about the nature of thought, language, and the universe. Definitely a bit different to standard fantasy fare, even while remaining basically a story of magical journeys to other worlds.
The Diva Runs Out of Thyme by Krista Davis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was a fun mystery which I struggled to put down. The cast of characters with the complex relationships of the narrator and her family made for a classic 'country house' scenario - even though the first murder seemed to have nothing to do with Sophie. The ending was rather chaotic, but most of the loose ends were eventually tied up.
Shadow by Karin Alvtegen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book takes a very dim view of human nature. The story is intriguing but ultimately just depressing, with its focus on anguished writers, and subtext that art can only come from the unhappy and tortured soul. There are very few smpathetic chatacters -and those who appear,do so only briefly. Also, the Kindle version is entirely in italics, making it very hard to read.
A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Anyone who has already invested hours of their life in the first two Song of Ice and Fire novels will almost certainly want to read this one, and anyone who hasn't would be lost within a few pages, so I'm not sure who I'm writing this review for. This is a good continuation of the series, although it loses focus for a while as everyone wanders around looking lost. But intricate schemes continue to evolve in all quarters, and we're left in an interesting position ready for the next one. (I still feel this is more like one very long book than a series with individual story arcs.)
The Secret Mandarin by Sara Sheridan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a gentle historical adventure written, so far as I can tell, for people who don't like adventures. The setting is beautifully drawn and I very much enjoyed the rich Chinese backdrop, but most of the potential dangers stayed very much potential (in the head of the narrator-heroine) and those which materialised were then averted with ease. A pleasant read, but it could have been much more dramatic.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is another classic, the plot of which I've always known, but which I'd somehow failed to actually read until now. Wilde's prose is easy to read, and it's packed full of oft-quoted phrases, but sadly this wasn't really a gripping read. The beginning and end are enjoyable, but in the middle it wanders off into extensive descriprion of Dorian's obsessions with gems and embroidery, which lost my interest completely. I'm glad I've read it now, but I doubt I'll need to read it again.
Plague & Poison by Steven J. Pemberton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the second novel in Steven Pemberton's "Barefoot Healer" series, and continues with the theme of magical mysteries. Our heroine Adramal has barely recovered from her adventures in the first book when things start to get "interesting" for her again, and a new sequence of adventures takes her to new places and new friends. This time her aptitude for trouble gets her to a plague-ridden village where her healing magic is seriously tested. I really enjoy this series, and can't wait for the next one to come out.
Chili Con Corpses by J.B. Stanley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I don't usually start a series in the middle, but this was a Kindle freebie, so I thought I'd give it a try. Apparently the 'Flab Five' have some experience of solving murders, but that didn't seem to help them much, and the whole thing rather stumbled towards its conclusion. The characters were quite engaging and the Mexican recipes made my mouth water, but I'd need to be convince the mystery would be better before I'd buy another.
Lye in Wait by Cricket McRae
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was a cute and enjoyable mystery that I picked up when it was free for Kindle. I liked the characters, and the precise unfolding of events kept me guessing to the end, though I was a little disappointed by the way it was resolved. I would read more in the series if they were less pricey (the sequel is currently £8!)