Thursday, 16 June 2016

Island of Dreams by Dan Boothby

Isn't this a lovely cover...

I bought Island of Dreams almost the moment I spotted it - the cover caught my eye and I'd clicked "Buy" without even looking further. And before long people are going to be sick of me recommending it (grin). I stayed up much, much too late the night I read it.

At one point Dan tells someone he's just met, "You've got my job." Well, what I'd like to say to him is is "You wrote my book." Because, like him, I grew up reading Gavin Maxwell's books, not just Ring of Bright Water but the others as well, and my favourite is The Rocks Remain. And I read obsessively about his life for a long time and felt connected to him in ways I hadn't to other authors. I even have a slight edge on Boothby, being old enough to have actually met Gavin Maxwell (albeit fleetingly, and anyway he didn't notice girls) and, while I haven't been to Skye, or to Sandaig, I did spend time on the west coast of Scotland as a child, and loved it there. One day I'll go back...

I hope Dan will forgive me calling him by his first name, but his writing style is so immediate, so friendly, that I find it hard to think of him otherwise. He had a somewhat rackety childhood, and a convoluted extended family (I identify there, too), and describes himself on his website as having been "chronically peripatetic" before he moved to Scotland to live in Maxwell's last home, the lighthouse keeper's cottage on Eilean Ban (the "White Island" of John Lister-Kaye's biography of Maxwell). There he cared for the tiny island, conducted tours, and learned to know all its moods and foibles.

San's own story is interspersed with Maxwell's, as he tries to understand the author, and his enduring interest to readers and tourists. There's no hero worship, Dan may be an admirer, but he's awake to Maxwell's many faults, especially over finances, and to the damage he wrought on some of the people closest to him. Despite this, Maxwell's remarkable charisma comes through on every page. Some of his attitude to life appears to have infected Dan during his solitary sojourn too - while not on the scale of Maxwell's sometimes hair-raising exploits - even in my teens I was horrified by the sheer fecklessness of Harpoon at a Venture - I did feel that a little more heed could have been paid to the treachery of the waters around the island.

Eilean Ban's status has changed since Maxwell's day - no longer an island since a road bridge was built across to Skye, it's easily reached by all and sundry. You can even stay in the lighthouse keeper's cottages in the shadow of the bridge, with most mod cons, or visit it on a guided tour through the Brightwater Centre.

This is an engaging book if you're interested in Scotland, or the solitary life, or otters, or Gavin Maxwell. Dan Boothby has a delightfully easy style, and the book is very nicely presented, perfect present material. It was one of my clear favourites last year.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

A Taste of Beirut by Joumana Accad

As an introduction to Lebanese food Joumana Accad's book provides both basic recipes and a wide selection of everyday and more special dishes, accompanied by some mouth-watering illustrations. I found it a leant a little heavily on the American experience of what was available and cooking terms, but it's easy enough to get ingredients over the internet these days if you don't live anywhere that sells Middle Eastern foods – for instance I was able to find the spice mix zaatar quite readily.

There are some American adaptations: for instance a po'boy sandwich, and I found the use of a pineapple a bit surprising in one dish. But there's plenty that's authentic even while allowing the use of canned chickpeas rather than the dried version, in recognition that not many households can spare someone to cook all day! 

The book starts with a list of staples: breads, rice varieties, couscous etc with a guide to how they are used, before tackling the basic recipes that turn up as elements in many dishes: mint or coriander pestos, walnut sauce, garlic paste and so on (though I must admit to using garlic paste out of a tube rather than making it), with directions for how to keep an excess quantity so that you can make a batch rather than a single recipe's worth. Dough and basic meat pastes are included in this section, so by the end of it you’ve had a pretty good grounding in both ingredients and methods. I was pleased, too, to see my favourite pilaf here, ruz bel-sh’ariyeh, made with rice and vermicelli – it sounds plain, but it’s a superb accompaniment to a stew.

Breakfasts and snack foods (lunches, sandwiches, soups) come in the next chapters, before a fairly lengthy section on mezze, which seems an appropriate reflection of its importance in Lebanese cuisine. I found this a particularly attractive section and instantly wanted to start planning a party to share all these delicious recipes – I do like finger food!

Main courses next, and I have resolved to try making kibbeh again – Joumana’s instructions look much better than those in the recipe I followed last time, and she has a whole page of illustrations showing how to score it beautifully. Here I noticed a couple of concessions to western preferences for lower calorie foods which I approved of. I’m inspired by the roast turkey recipe (habash w-hashwet al-ruz) to try in this Christmas, served with spiced rice, nuts and chestnuts, and I needed no persuading that yakhnet-al-arnabeet (cauliflower stew) would be enjoyed by the family. Roasting a cauliflower does something quite wonderful to it.

I must admit to being less interested in puddings, as we don’t eat them much, and I found that many looked too sweet for my taste. It doesn’t matter though, there’s so much else in this book to try, and to enjoy. The author has a website, too, with more recipes.

My copy came courtesy of NetGalley.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

And... I'm back! And this is not a dog-free zone

I'm back, and after such a very long hiatus! I can't believe it's almost a year since I last posted here - the time has absolutely flown by and, although I've missed the contact that blogging encourages, I have mostly stayed in touch with people, intermittently at least, on Facebook.

What's new? Well, not much of significance, life continues along its usual, slightly bumpy path. The biggest change, I guess, is that we lost one dog - darling Molly, to old age - and gained another.

Here's Moll, aged fourteen, four months before she died (with her faithful Pip in the background):

When I took that picture we knew she wouldn't be with us for much longer, and that we would almost certainly have to make difficult decisions. She was a dear girl, with an almost infallible gift for being in the way.

Pip was quite prepared, we discovered, to nobly move up to the position of only child and my Dearly Beloved, wielding the bit of paper that says he's a qualified psychologist, insisted that it would be bad for her to be alone for long. Not only that, he said, but we should get a puppy. It would be harder for Pip, he opined, to adapt to a dog closer in age to herself. All this rather ignored the fact that Pip (aka Princess Sniffy) really didn't wish to adapt to anyone, thank you very much. There was a large element of selfishness on our part in wanting another dog immediately, as Pip has had a longstanding diagnosis of mast-cell cancer - in fact, we've been unbelievably lucky with her, in that what looked like an invasive cancer has proved to be relatively quiescent, and at nine she is a bit arthritic but otherwise quite capable of tearing off after a pheasant.

So although I wanted a rescue greyhound, we found ourselves lurcher-puppy hunting. We just missed one at the local rescue while I dithered, and it started to look as if we'd be in to 2015 and still puppyless. Then in late November - just after I stopped posting here, I wonder why that could be? - I spotted a local ad for lurcher puppies. By the time we contacted the owners there was only one left, despite them only being born on 30 October, a small black bundle with derpy ears:

You know, I don't think my Dearly Beloved would have brought him home if he'd gone to look on his own, I think he forgets that all pups are just little damp, slightly smelly balls, but "It's a puppy..." I said, and suddenly we had to think of names, and wonder how he was going to get on with the cat.

Cuddy, named for our local Saint Cuthbert, immediately adored both cat and Pip, and puppy and kitten embarked on wild games all over the house, while Pip escaped upstairs, behind the dog gate, for a quiet life. By Christmas, puppy was growing like Topsy, and had turned out, despite his initial, diminutive size, to have a Very Large personality. Tigger would have been a better name, he undoubtedly "always seems bigger because of his bounces" and has even managed to make me warm to the Disney version of Tigger, whose "top is made out of rubber, and his bottom is made out of springs". Here is the bouncing boy at ten months:

We knew that his mother was a saluki lurcher, but we had no idea he would turn out like this, nor that the little rat-tail which began to develop a little tuft at the tip would turn into a graceful and silky plume. Nor that he would be the most loving and cuddly creature imaginable.

I had intended, on this first post, to mention the dogs in passing, but they took over. Where Cuddy is involved, that's inevitable. As you may surmise, we are all besotted. Anyway, I think I'd better save other developments of note for another post. And I shall get back to the main subject of this blog, books, very soon, I promise!

By the way, past readers may notice a minor make-over has taken place, but the underpinnings are all essentially as they were.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

A picture for Sunday

Another teapot, as promised - this time, my own. It's a Booths Blue Dragon teapot, not very old, perhaps 1930s. I haven't used it, which is perhaps a bit sad, but I'm very clumsy these days and it would be so easy to chip it. I'm very fond of blue-and-white transferware and have added to the nice old willow patten that I inherited from my grandmother so that I have a special occasions dinner service; I've also got lots of "everyday" blue-and-white ironstone that survives my clunking it while washing up! I like the mix-and-match ability it offers, and I do think ironstone china is admirable stuff. It was the first mass-produced china, and it made it possible for the middle-classes to have attractive and affordable tableware. The pattern could be applied by transfer instead of hand-painting, and copies of Chinese designs were extremely popular, hence willow pattern in particular. Although blue-and-white is perhaps the most famous, green (that's a green-and-white meat dish in the background), pink, brown and yellow can also be found, as well as several-coloured. Booths is not one of the oldest potteries - nothing like the pedigree of Spode, say, but they produced a variety of handsome designs. I'll post some more next week.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

A picture for Sunday

While I'm unable to type much we'll have some pictures. I have a new photo journal at Blipfoto - link on right. Although it will post new pictures as I upload (the idea is that I post a photo daily, though we'll see how long that will last!), I can also upload backdated photos, and I thought I might share them here.

This is lovely blue-and-white ware at Bamburgh Castle. I have some similar, but not nearly as elaborate. The dragons are appropriate because Bamburgh is the home of the story of the Laidly Worm. I should have posted this on Friday, for Hallowe'en!

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

What I did on my holidays

Actually, this is a post that I wrote some time ago, but I thought I would upload it now, as there's likely to be more on Edwardian clothes and the Great War here in the coming weeks, as they are both featuring quite heavily in my reading.

Early summer got very intense as I became more and more involved in the production my son was in at the local theatre, a new musical about World War I called Sam & Isla Forever. My involvement began when I lent some Edwardian clothes for use in the production -- as advance publicity, and to start to make a record of my mini collection of antique clothing, we arranged a photo shoot with some of the girls from the play:

"Isla" (Photo ⓒ Opuscule Photographic)

One of the scenes from the "home front" takes place on the beach and we felt that all those dark skirts were just a little too sombre for four rather flighty young women, but most of the budget for the production was, we knew, reserved for providing the soldiers with authentic uniforms and guns (and very effective they proved!) So one person volunteered some material and I volunteered to make skirts. Which was all very well until I dug my sewing machine out and discovered some crucial bits seemed to be missing! Happily the provider of the material also offered use of her machine if necessary. Two of the skirts travelled all the way to Devon with me so that I could bast them together completely to save time machining -- on my return I spent one long sunny afternoon completing all but the hemming stage and another in the depths of the theatre doing some final fittings. Two skirts and three belts down, and only one left to make for the heroine, Isla, and, by this time, about 10 days to opening night! Our costume director had rejected the first length of material for Isla's skirt because she wanted her to have a mauve theme throughout, but I sourced some lovely plum-coloured cotton on eBay which very obligingly turned up within two days. I'd designed a skirt based on the suit I'd loaned for Isla to wear as a widow:

By this time I'd got my own machine working -- to my delight because I'd forgotten how much I enjoy sewing! Isla's skirt was finished over the weekend before the first dress rehearsal,  by which time I'd also remembered how much I enjoy being in theatres, so I'd volunteered to dress at least one performance as well - in the event I did all but the last night, when I watched from out front, which was great because I finally got to see how it all looked.

The Sam & Isla girls in rehearsal. (Photo ⓒ Opuscule Photographic)

The play itself, by the way, described by its author Robert Wilkinson as a "kind of fable" was wonderful -- at times funny, at others intensely moving. Audience members were heard sobbing, and my son, who played the incompetent, doing-it-by-the-rules captain, reckoned that the sooner he grew his beard back the better (all the soldiers had WWI haircuts). The action was framed by a campaign in the 70s to have the 306 soldiers who were shot for "cowardice" posthumously pardoned, something that actually only happened in 2007. Seeing the young cast in their uniforms really brought home the horror of that time, and the tragedy of those executions of young men, most of them probably suffering from shell-shock, and some of them only 17.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

My continued absence!

Anyone trying to read my blog may have noticed my rather lengthy absence. There are two reasons for this - most recent is the failure of our broadband connection, which has now lasted nearly a month!! I do hope that normal service will resume soon, but I can tell you, it is extremely inconvenient. Though possibly of benefit to local coffee shops.

The other reason is that not only the broadband is broken - I am too :-(

I'm having problems with my hands, which aren't working very well, and lots of things have got rather difficult. Typing not the least of them. Posts for the time being, always supposing we get out connection back, may be rather brief. Not at all sure about getting the hands back, but my robo-glove is quite entertaining.

I did manage a review on the last issue of Shiny New Books, though, and you can find it here, along with lots of terrific reviews by other people.

Looking on the bright side, we had an addition to the family. This is Loki, a 6-month old rescue - wicked, exuberant, affectionate and the plague of both dogs. You'll be seeing plenty more of him,* I'm sure.

* Update: The Animal Rescue got it wrong! Loki is a girl...