Wednesday 28 December 2011

'Shades of Grey' by Jasper Fforde

I’ve been interested in trying a Jasper Fforde book for quite some time, they appealed to me greatly, I do know some people who don’t get on with them, but thought I’d give Shades of Grey a go. The first couple of pages were somewhat bamboozling, the kind of feeling you get at the beginning of a novel such as Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, or Oryx and Crake. It takes a little while to settle into the new world being portrayed in the novel, and get used to its various quirks.

Once I’d got past the initial disorientation, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It introduces you to a world where the hierarchy is based on colour perception, and everything is quite strictly regulated. Some of the moral code may seem a bit historic, and the strict hierarchical concerns which decide who can marry who certainly seems to hark back to a previous era.

There have been a series of ‘Leapbacks’ whereby things have been lost, and the number of facts deliberately reduced. The library no longer holds many books, but the librarian proudly knows where they would all have been placed. This leads to some amusing confusion, Catch-22 being part of a series of fishing books, and such, which I’m sure many book fans will enjoy.

The utter dependence on the Word of Munsell raised some interesting ideas to me. In one of the Leapbacks the production of spoons was banned. Eddie, the main character, questions this, and is told that sometimes you just have to accept that Munsell knows best. As a Christian, I have often been faced with the idea that we don’t understand everything, and that a lot of it just comes down to faith. Reading this it seemed somewhat ridiculous, but it made it more apparent why so many people find it absurd when explanations of belief rest merely on the notion of trusting that you don’t know, but that there is a bigger purpose.

This book does suck you in, though it takes a while for the core of the plot to become apparent, it’s an enjoyable journey. There are moments that will make you laugh, but also parts which will cause strong feelings about the injustices being laid on some of the characters. The world in which it is set proves to be a lot more corrupt than initially seems to be the case, and it’s not until the very end that you discover the truth about which characters are to be trusted.

All in all a fantastic book which I would definitely recommend. Apparently the next one in the series is not out until 2013, which just seems too far away. In the meantime I will have to keep myself amused with some of his other novels, but I eagerly await his next offering in this series.

Monday 19 December 2011

Gingerbread house under construction

Earlier this year I decided I would like to attempt to make my first ever gingerbread house over this festive period. I've been so busy with work that it seemed the possibility of this actually happening was fading fast, and then my rather lovely boyfriend bought me a copy of Baked & Delicious which came with a mould for a gingerbread house. I just couldn't resist, here's how it turned out:

It may not be the neatest, most perfectly decorated gingerbread house the world has ever seen, but it stands up on its own, and I'm pretty pleased with it. The gingerbread isn't bad either...

I took some photos along the way of making it that I thought I'd share on here.

It was one of the most time-consuming things I've ever baked, I think I would have cried if it had all fallen apart at the last stage, and I now don't want to destroy it by eating it, but if you have time then I'd definitely give it a go. I thought I didn't have much to decorate it with, turns out I had quite a lot of potential gingerbread decorations tucked away in a box (I don't know about you, but I shouldn't be left alone in baking sections of supermarkets, or shops like Lakeland, my bank balance does not appreciate it!).
I plan to make another one in the future (though perhaps not turn it into the yearly practice that I thought it might turn into), but here are a few tips from my experience this year.
- Do as much of the decorating as you can before constructing the house, it's a lot easier, and prevents too much icing running down the side.
- Allow a whole afternoon, or more, to make it, so you have enough time for things to set properly.
- Use cans of food to hold it all together until the icing has dried enough for it to stand on its own (a second pair of hands comes in handy at this stage!).
- If you are making your own icing, make sure it's nice and thick so it doesn't do what some of my white icing did and run down the house, covering some of the other decorations.

All in all, have fun doing it. I'd love to see photos of other people's attempts.

If I don't post again before Christmas, merry Christmas to you all.

Friday 25 November 2011

Wholemeal raisin muffins

For those of you who were most distressed by my last post that my friend didn't get her birthday cupcakes, fear not, I made her a slight variation (and possibly a slight improvement) of the chocolate chip cupcakes that I shared a few months ago on here.

For my latest baking endeavour, however, I decided for a slightly less indulgent and possibly a little healthier (or perhaps just a bit less unhealthy...) option. My Gran recently gave me her recipe for wholemeal scones, and it got me thinking that I had never tried making cakes with wholemeal flour. Here's how it turned out....

Here's how to make them:
  • Preheat the oven to gas mark 4 and fill a 12 hole muffin tin with muffin cases.
  • Take 8 oz. caster sugar and 8 oz. Stork margarine and cream together well.
  • In a separate bowl whisk 4 large eggs, add them to the butter mix, and beat in.
  • Gradually sieve in 4 oz. self raising flour and 4 oz. wholemeal self raising flour and fold in.
  • Pour in some raisins (here again I'm going to be quite unspecific I'm afraid. I like lots in my cakes so added quite a lot, but it's entirely up to taste. Ideally make sure there is quite an even spread of raisins throughout the whole mix, but not so that they out-number the cake mix!).
  • Spoon into the muffin cases (I had enough mix for four little cakes as well) and pop into the oven for 20-30 mins.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Baking books, and yummy results

Whilst browsing my local Waterstone's at the weekend I came across this book

for just £2! now, I'm a sucker for a cheap book, and couldn't resist this one. I was planning to make some cakes for a friend as a little birthday treat, and this seemed a great place for inspiration.

I went for the chocolate and raspberry cakes:

Unfortunately plans changed and I didn't see my friend to give them the cakes, so, alas, had to eat them myself...

I can't share the recipe here because I'm sure it would be infringing all kinds of copyright laws, but I will say, the pink icing on top is divine, and so easy to make (icing sugar and juice from raspberries). Tasty.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Neapolitan style muffins

Having been inspired by Holly's Neapolitan mini cakes in the final of the Great British Bake-Off, I thought I'd give some neapolitan style cakes a go myself. I was going to make a large, celebration type cake, but thought perhaps I'd better wait for a special occasion, so decided on muffins instead. I used to make multi-coloured cakes with my Gran when I was young so knew putting blobs of different coloured cake in one container worked just fine.

Here's how they turned out (excuse the bad icing skills!)

Here's how to make them:

  • Preheat your oven to gas mark 4.
  • Take 10 oz. Stork, and 10 oz. caster sugar and cream together until pale.
  • In a separate bowl beat 5 eggs and add gradually to the mix, beating as you go.
  • Sieve in 10 oz. self raising flour gradually, and fold in until combined.
  • Separate the mixture into thirds. In one bowl, add just over half a tsp of vanilla essence and baking powder, and fold in.
  • In another bowl, add just over half a tsp of strawberry flavouring, baking powder, and a few drops of red food colouring. Fold in.
  • In the final bowl fold in just under 1 tbsp of cocoa powder.
  • Take your muffin tin, fill it with muffin cases, and spoon in some of each flavour cake mix into each case. I went a bit over the top with how much cake mix I put in each, but it's up to you how much you use of each colour, etc.
  • Pop in the oven for 20-25 mins.

    They should look something like this:

For the decoration:
  • Cream together 1 tbsp milk and 8 oz. Stork.
  • Gradually sieve in and cream 12 oz. icing sugar.  Do this gradually or you may find yourself covered in icing sugar (or at least I do anyway...).
  • Separate about a third of this, add about a quarter of a tsp of strawberry flavouring and a couple of drops of red colouring, and mix well. Swirl this pink icing into the rest of the icing (but not so much that it's all just pale pink). 
  • Put in a piping bag, and swirl onto the top of the cakes, crumbling a flake on the top.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

The joys of gardening

This year was the first time I've done any substantial amount of growing my own fruit and vegetables. I'd cautiously dipped my toes into the world of home growing previously, growing simple herbs, and such, on windowsills. However, this year, I thought, I will finally get round to growing things that can form the basis of actual meals. Now, I don't have a large garden, so most of this was done in pots, and grow bags, but I was amazed how great the results could be with not that much effort involved. The only vegetables that I failed to grow successfully were cucumbers and mushrooms.

As a first time grower I found it fascinating, and hugely rewarding, to watch seeds turn into plants, and grow fruit. It was interesting to see how the different foods grew, and I was impressed by how pretty the plants could look in the process.

The peppers are finally turning red:

I was much excited by this, and thought I would share some photos of some of the plants and tasty food that resulted.

I thought the strawberry plants were some of the prettiest whilst in flower, and with fruit growing at the same time:

Our tomato plants were the most bountiful, and I was amazed by just how large the plants grew (they were as tall as me by the end!). I'm having trouble uploading the pictures of our giant tomato plants, so sadly won't be able to share them with you.

One of the other fun things about growing fruit and veg, is that you then have to think of something to do with your produce. Here's a few of the things I made with ours:

Friday 14 October 2011

Rainbow Celebration Cake

A rainbow cake makes a great treat for a loved one, not many people would expect to find a rainbow cake inside the icing, and I found it made a lovely surprise. I am interested in trying various different flavourings, and also possibly making patterns within the cake, and will keep you all posted if I do. Here's how to make the basic one, it does take quite some time, so be prepared.

  • Preheat your oven to gas mark 4, and grease two 7 inch cake tins.
  • Take 14 oz Stork, or any softened butter, and 14 oz caster sugar. Cream together until smooth and pale.
  • In a separate bowl crack 7 large eggs, make sure there are no bits of shell, whisk, and add gradually to the sugar and butter mix, beating in well. 
  • Gradually fold in 14 oz. self raising flour. 
  • Take a separate bowl and take some of your mix. I don't have a scientifically accurate way of making sure all your individual cakes are the same size, I just took a table spoon, and my wooden spoon and picked up a large dollop of mix, and did this three times for each cake. Of course you can just weigh out the mixture if you want to be more accurate. Add some food colouring and fold in until the whole mix is evenly coloured. Spread this coloured mix into one of the cake tins. Repeat in a separate bowl for your second colour. Put both coloured cakes in the oven for about 15-20 mins.
  • I was always taught to get the cake in the oven as soon as possible after adding the eggs so I found it quite unsettling having to leave so much mix waiting while the first few baked, but as I'm sure not many people have six cake tins of the same size, and an oven big enough to bake them all in one go, I didn't have much choice. Cover your mixing bowl of mixture with cling film while you wait for them to cook. 
  • Once the first of the cakes are done, leave them to cool, remove them from the tins, and repeat until all the cakes have been baked.
  • Once they are all cool, make some buttercream icing by creaming softened butter and icing sugar together.
  • To construct the cake, first decide what order you want the colours in. Take the base cake, cover the top with a thin layer of buttercream (I tried to keep the filling quite thin as there are so many layers, I didn't want the overriding taste to be buttercream rather than cake!). On the next cake cover the bottom with raspberry jam and place on top of the bottom layer. Continue until all layers have been added.
  • I had to then wrap cling film around the outside of the cake as it was quite a tower so it didn't all slide off before the buttercream set a bit. Even if you have a large enough fridge to put the cake in it's probably worth wrapping it up to ensure it keeps its shape.
  • In the meantime, sprinkle some icing sugar on your work surface and roll out your icing. When ready, unwrap the cake, cover the outside with a thin layer of buttercream so the icing sticks. and cover.
    It's up to you how you decorate it. I went for icing flowers (roll out the various colours, cut out the shapes of petals, and construct on the cake), but the options are endless.

    Here's a photo of the other side of mine, in case you wanted to do flowers as well and wanted some ideas.

Monday 3 October 2011

Shining for Cancer Research UK

On Saturday night I took part in a night-time walking marathon organised by Cancer Research UK, and it was quite an experience, so I thought I would share it with you all. It started at the o2 and already there was a huge queue to get in when we arrived. Everyone had decorated themselves with luminous tutus, glow sticks, glow in the dark paint, light-up bunny ears, and many other variations. There was a great atmosphere; everyone seemed really excited and pumped to get going. After we had done our warm-up we headed to the start line. It took quite a while to get going as there were about 10,000 of us taking part!

I found it very moving to be a part of. Many members of my family have battled cancer, some survived, others, sadly, didn’t. As with all Cancer Research events I have taken part in, they give you a back sign on which to write why you are taking part, and it’s very emotional, and motivating to read others’ reasons. Many take part in memory of a loved one, in support of those battling it, or as a survivor. It really hit home just how many people are affected by this one disease, and how many people care enough to go the extra mile to try and beat it.

I was immensely grateful to all the members of public we passed that cheered us on, it gave us the boost we needed to keep going, especially near the end where a lot of people (and I include myself in this) looked about ready to burst into tears from the effort. I know some of those cheering us on felt somewhat disgruntled that we didn’t all wave and cheer back, as we had been at the beginning, but by about mile twenty we were all so exhausted, I managed to muster a smile for them but that was about it. I know a lot of people think it’s ‘only walking’ but it was one of the toughest things I have ever done, and I know a lot of other participants felt the same.

By the time we crossed the finish line we were too exhausted to really enjoy it, and just wanted to sit down. As we sat/lay there waiting for the tube to start running it was lovely seeing many more people crossing the finish line, such a great achievement. I feel quite a bond to all the others who shared the experience, even though I will never see most of them again. It was quite surreal seeing all these people who we’d just marched around London with hobbling around the o2 in pain, or lying wrapping in foil blankets on the floor. A peculiar sight had anyone stumbled upon us I’m sure.

Finally, I just want to say a huge thank you to all the volunteers who were there handing out drinks at the pit stops, cheering us on, and pointing us in the right direction. They must have been tired and bored, but continued in high spirits to help keep us going. You are all wonderful people. Also, to Cancer Research for organising such an event, and for providing for us so well.

It was an amazing experience in so many ways, highly emotional, and unbelievably tough, both physically, and mentally. I’m glad I did it, but, as the stiffness and soreness in all my limbs continues I’m not sure I shall be in such a hurry to repeat the exercise!

Tuesday 27 September 2011

'Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites' by Franny Moyle

I became interested in reading this book after the BBC TV series of the same name several years ago (no, I don’t only chose my books by TV and films, however much it may have seemed that way recently). I admit I know very little about art, and was more interested in it for the history perspective. Moyle set herself quite some challenge when she decided to try and write a book that would encompass the lives of so many different people, and sometimes it became quite confused and disjointed because of this. However, I see the value of looking at their lives together because of the impact they had on the course of each other’s lives, and can’t really think of a way to make this work without some flaws in the design. This made for an interesting read, but if you want a more in-depth knowledge of any of the characters I would recommend reading a book specifically about them, and perhaps using this one for some context, or indeed as a starting point to get you interested.

The story itself is complex and passionate, one of those times when reality is more sensational than fiction. The artists and their models led lives of scandal, betrayal, and often, it seems, madness. Reading this sometimes read like reading what’s going to happen in the next few episodes of EastEnders, or similar (though I don’t mean this as any kind of criticism of Moyle’s writing, which was in fact descriptive, informative, and entertaining). Most of the main players in this book had tumultuous lives, often ending in tragedy. The women often seemed to get a rough deal, but that’s not to say they were entirely innocent. Some seemed victims of the bohemian lifestyle, combined with having to live in the more constrained world of Victorian England in general, others come across as almost sly, and cunning; they knew what they wanted, and how to use their situation to the best result. It also became clear that many of the women who feature in the lives of the pre-Raphaelites suffered being ostracised, and became victims of many harmful beliefs in high society. It was not just the women that suffered this, of course, the artists themselves had many ups and downs in their careers due to lifestyle choices, as well as controversial styles of painting.

I learnt not just about their lives, but also about what society was like, what expectations were like. It never ceases to amuse me how different certain career choices were seen, then compared to now. To be a model, or an actress, was seen as almost on the same level as being a prostitute, or at least, the association was there, whereas nowadays these careers are held in such high esteem. A fact which interested me, which I didn’t know before reading this is that in the nineteenth century brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law were not allowed to marry, even if the original spouse had passed away, as this was considered incestuous, despite there being no actual blood relation. Is this still the case I wonder, I assume not but I wouldn’t know. I also felt I learnt a fair amount about art, and symbolism throughout. If you actually know about such things I’m sure it would seem negligible, but to someone with very little knowledge of it I appreciated the highly unpretentious approach to it, and also the references to how pre-Raphaelite work influenced literature of the time.

Saturday 24 September 2011

Chocolate chip muffins, two varieties

I made these simple, yet tasty, cupcakes for a friend's birthday, and they went down very well with everyone so thought I would share them with any readers of this blog. I made them all in one go, and so the instructions will assume you are doing the same, though if you want to make just one type then just don't split the cake mixture.

  • Preheat the oven to gas mark 4.
  • Take 8 oz. Stork, (or any type of softened butter, but if you can get hold of some Stork I would highly recommend it, I always use it if I can for baking), and cream together with 8 oz. caster sugar. Keep going until the mixture becomes quite pale. The more you do now, the tastier the cakes will be.
  • In a separate bowl or jug beat 4 eggs. Add to the mixture, and beat well.
  • Add 8 oz. self raising flour and fold in gradually. 
  • Add chocolate chips and mix in well. It's up to you how many chocolate chips you add but use enough to make sure you won't get some muffins without any in. 
  • Use half of this mixture to fill six muffin cases in a muffin tin.
  • Melt some of your chocolate of choice (to do this heat some water in a pan, and place a bowl/jug/mug over the water and stir until melted. Do not put the chocolate straight into the pan, it will burn). Add the chocolate (I used three rows in a large bar of Cadbury's) to the cake mix and stir in until it's no longer streaky. You can also use cocoa powder at this stage if you would rather not melt chocolate.
  • Add the remaining mixture to the six empty muffin cases and bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes, turning the muffin tray half way through in order to get a more even bake.
You should now have something that looks mildly like this:

To make the icing:
  • Cream softened butter, and then add at least twice as much icing sugar (you will want the consistency to be rather stiff to start with as you will be adding liquid). Cream together until combined.
  • Split the mixture in half. To one add peppermint flavouring (how much you use is dependent on personal taste, but a small cap full should be plenty). Add a small amount of green food colouring.
  • Once the cakes are cooled, spread onto the chocolate cakes (or use an icing bag to pipe it on if you want them to look extra fancy) and sprinkle with chocolate sprinkles.
  • With the other half of the buttercream icing, mix in some more melted chocolate. Spread onto the white cakes and finish off with some white chocolate drops.

Sunday 18 September 2011

'One Day' - The film

I finally got round to seeing the film last week, and actually I rather enjoyed it. I thought from the trailers that it looked good, but you never can tell. I had no problem with the casting as I already knew who was playing the two main characters before reading and so only ever really imagined them. I know that Anne Hathaway got a lot of stick for her attempts at a Yorkshire accents, which to be honest, I find somewhat unfair. Yes it was not there the whole time but it was a perfectly acceptable attempt. It may have been better had it been more consistent, but then again the character did not live in Yorkshire for pretty much any of the twenty year period covered so most likely the accent would not have stuck anyway.

The script was good (am I right in thinking that David Nicholls also wrote this, which would explain a lot!), some sections being almost identical to the book. It’s quite a feat to fit a book that covers twenty years, one day a year, into a film that is comprehensible and not ridiculously long, but I felt it was well done. They skipped over some years, and some events were omitted entirely but overall the important scenes were there, and done in a fashion faithful to the novel.

The complex relationship between the two characters was portrayed well, although some of the details which made Dexter seem less pleasant; his nonchalant treatment of Emma throughout most of the story, his endless string of girlfriends, his problems with drugs and alcohol, were less apparent within the film, but nonetheless present. As is often the case I found parts almost more moving than when reading the book purely because you know what’s coming and want to change it in some way. As with the novel, there were some genuinely humorous scenes, as well as others deeply moving. Overall a faithful adaptation, and one that I think fans of the book are quite safe watching.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Strawberry and raspberry pavlova roulade

One of the many things that I love about summer is the fruit that grows during it. Although the weather has hardly been very summer like the past few weeks (not only have the leaves on the trees started turning shades of red and orange, but I was walking through a park last week which was strewn with leaves, all very autumnal) but my strawberry plants are still producing tasty fruit, and so I was inspired to make this.

Having never made meringue, or a roulade before it was something of an experiment, and took three goes to get right, purely because I had no idea how long, or what temperature at which to bake the meringue. Turns out you bake it on a higher temperature for not so long when making a roulade but on a lower temperature for a long time when making it for other uses.

Anyway, here’s how I made my successful one:

  • Take 5 egg whites and whisk until stiff. Do not attempt to do this with a fork as I did last week when making something else, it takes a very long time! A balloon whisk shouldn’t take too long, or an electric whisk if you rather. If you’ve never separated an egg before, it’s not as tricky as people think. Simply crack the egg in half, let the white fall into a bowl, and then move the yolk between the halves of the egg shells so that the rest of the white comes out but the yolk remains in the shell. If this all sounds a bit delicate I did read somewhere you can crack the egg onto a plate, cover the yolk with a cup and then tip it so the white drips out. I’ve never tried this but it’s an alternative.
  • Add 250g caster sugar gradually, continuing to whisk until all the sugar is combined and the mixture is stiff. It should look very pure white, and have a lovely sheen to it.
  • Line your baking tray with baking paper (no need to grease!) and pour in the mixture, spreading it as evenly as possible. Pop it in a pre-heated oven at gas mark 4 for about 18 minutes, until the top is slightly crisp to the touch.
  • Leave to cool completely.
  • In the meantime, and if your arm isn’t aching too much from the egg whisking, whip some double cream. It’s up to you how much you use, but I used a 300ml tub and there was just about enough for the filling and top.
  • Wash your fruit, and chop the strawberries into reasonably small chunks for the middle, and in halves for the top.
  • Once the meringue is completely cool place it top down on another piece of baking paper, and gently peel off the baking paper. Spread some of the whipped cream and scatter the fruit. Use the baking paper to help as you roll it into a roulade.
  • It will be tasty and can be left as it is, but if you want to be particularly indulgent then spread the remaining cream on top and cover with more fruit.

Not as complicated as you would imagine, happy eating!


Monday 29 August 2011

'One Day' by David Nicholls

Having bought One Day last year I finally got round to reading it, and finished it last week. Unsurprisingly, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The way it is written so that you only get to see one day of each year is interesting, and certainly helped keep me wanting more. Often there would be mention of something important happening the next day, a conversation that as a reader you desperately want to listen in on, and yet you know the outcome of the events will only become apparent in some future chapter.

I enjoyed the younger years more so than the later ones but this may have been more to do with the fact that I could relate more to the situations the characters found themselves in in their twenties. The book is witty and hits the nail on the head in the descriptions of feelings and situations. I found myself somewhat addicted to the book, and yet somewhat depressed by its depiction of growing up.

I certainly felt I could relate to the characters, and was constantly willing Dexter to stop treating Emma as disposable, even though you know that really he cares just as much about her as she does about him.  There were deeply moving passages, especially in the scenes where Dexter was emotionally vulnerable and it was clear he had no idea how to deal with it. I felt more affection toward Emma, although her behaviour was not always ideal. Although it seems you could dislike Dexter the dislike never really materialised.

I found my enjoyment of the novel dwindle nearer the end. The climax of the novel which was clearly meant to be remarkably moving did not move me as much as I was expecting, perhaps because I could see it coming. Saying that I still found my heart beat speed up and had to force myself not to skim over the page to find out if I was right. Perhaps I would have been moved more by it had the characters’ positions been reversed.

All in all a fantastic novel, a real page-turner; in places humourous, in places deeply moving. A realistic and poignant look at the past few decades and what it was like growing up in them. My only problem with it was the incessant will they won’t they got a little frustrating after a while, and yes I’m aware that this is the main premise of the novel. It just felt as though after a while there really was not any need for them not to be together, and that I almost did not think they should be. This did not stop me feeling the hurt of the characters every time something got in their way, especially in the earlier sections of the novel. I thoroughly look forward to seeing the film, and have high hopes for it.

Friday 19 August 2011

'Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England, 450-1500' by Henrietta Leyser

The first thing that struck me about this book was that it covered a large period of history for such a short book. I have always tended to lean towards broad areas of interest myself, although sometimes this proved to be a shortcoming. I was intrigued to see how Leyser dealt with it. The book is split into four sections; the first three chronological, the final section on literature and spirituality. I found the book very easy, and enjoyable, to read, which is always pleasant, as so many history books I have come across deal with a fascinating topic but just are not written with much flair. The way this book is laid out helps digest the information, separating the various sources we have to help enlighten us to the lives of women in the earlier periods dealt with, and for the later period, split into the various areas of women’s lives.

It was quite refreshing to read a history book about women, by a woman, without it having many feminist rants and constant jibes against men in. I agree that throughout most of history women have been treated hugely unfairly, but it is nice to read a book that does not feel too biased because of the gender of the author. Indeed, in the literary section especially, she seemed to try and dispel ideas of misogyny surrounding many texts.

The idea of some of the medical procedures made me squirm, but I was interested in the writings that claimed if a pregnant woman lost her beauty then the baby was a girl. I had never heard of this idea before, but I then saw a programme on TV where this same idea was put forward in a modern setting. Leyser claims that this was a sign that male offspring were much preferred in the Middle Ages, which makes it seem all the more strange that people still believe it to be true today.

I appreciated the fact that medieval women were not portrayed in such a helpless and vulnerable fashion as often thought. They worked hard, and, in some cases, had a lot of power and influence over their husbands. I was interested in the sections on marriage and sex, and what was essential for a marriage to be legal. The story of the parents who beat their daughter and encouraged a prospective husband to rape her because she wished to become a nun was truly disturbing. It seems to me that the idea of rape as being accepted as somewhat normal in this period is a common belief. It was therefore fascinating to discover that a common punishment for rape was castration. Men could not get away with such behaviour after all!

All in all a highly informative read which is written well and very easy to read. The extracts from primary sources at the end were useful, and particularly appreciated as they are not readily available to the common reader. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone with an interest in medieval, or women’s, history.

Monday 15 August 2011

Book versus adaptation?

Last week I went to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden to see the Mariinsky Ballet dance Anna Karenina. I had intended to read the novel before going but was so busy reading about five books at the same time (which is very unlike me, I’m usually a one book kind of girl) that I never quite got round to embarking on the mammoth book that is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. To start with I was rather disappointed with myself for this, but then I thought that perhaps it was a good thing as I tend to judge adaptations of novels I enjoy harshly, and am able to enjoy both book and adaptation much more freely if I read the book second.

As it was, I arrived at the theatre not really knowing what to expect. A friend from work had told me that she thoroughly enjoyed the novel, and I liked the sound of it from what she had told me. I got a little confused as to who was who to start with, but once I’d worked it out I thought it rather enjoyable. I was somewhat surprised that it wasn’t a particularly long ballet considering the length of the novel, but then it would hardly have been possible to fit all that into a normal length ballet.   

Other than the actual dancing, one of the aspects of going to the theatre that I particularly enjoy is the set itself, and the dramatic techniques used. Rather than lots of massive set changes they used projection to allow the story to move around within each act. This was really quite effective, not particularly being concerned by the fact the physical objects on stage hadn’t much changed. One particularly impressive piece of scenery was a train carriage that appeared several times throughout the evening. I was particularly impressed by how they did the end (but won’t say what happened in case people reading this have yet to read the book, and plan to at some point).

All in all, it was a good evening. It was nice to see a company dance that I don’t often get to experience, and to see a ballet that I had never seen before. I do wonder, however, what my feelings would have been toward it had I read the book beforehand. I saw a ballet of Wuthering Heights a few years ago and didn’t particularly enjoy what they had done to a book that I am particularly fond of. I love the musical of Les Miserables but have yet to read the book, hopefully when I do it will not ruin my enjoyment of the musical. I saw the musical of Oliver at the end of last year, and although I thought it was good, I still found myself judging it somewhat for things they changed from the book. The most obvious departure from the novel being the character of Fagin. In the musical he comes across almost as a lovable rogue, you don’t feel a lot of distaste toward him. In the book I found him highly unpleasant, conniving, and to blame for rather tragic events near the end. The novel is far darker than the musical portrays.

For some reason I find it less annoying when musicals and ballets don’t stick to novels as closely as I would hope than when films do it. There are some films of books that I can barely sit through because they not only don’t stick well to the story, but fundamentally change the essence of the novel. I’m always excited by the prospect of films of novels that I like, but also cautious of being disappointed. I am yet to have seen an adaptation of Wuthering Heights that I enjoyed, and yet will eagerly await the release of the latest film. I have recently come to the conclusion, however, that I am perhaps a bit harsh on adaptations, they are, after all, only based on the books. So long as they capture the essence of the novel, and stay true to that then they aren’t half bad, or so I try to convince myself as I sit through another film ruining a brilliant novel for me. Please do comment about film adaptations you like, or dislike. I would be more than happy to discuss further.

Monday 8 August 2011

Books do furnish a room, and shape a life.

I was musing over an idea for a post for this blog that I might write in a few days and it got me thinking about ‘Matilda’ by Roald Dahl, and how much that book gives me a happy, warm feeling inside. This made me think about other books that stirred up strong emotions when reading them, or bring back particularly happy memories. The fact that books hold this power to me means I like to keep hold of the books I have read, as they entwine my memories, and have contributed to the person I am today (and maybe just a little bit because I’m an obsessive hoarder…).

Here are some of the books that mean a lot to me (mostly children’s books to be honest, but I had to try not to get too carried away).

  • ‘Matilda’ by Roald Dahl. I adore all the stories of his that I ever read, and I got through pretty much all of them that are published. It’s hard to choose a favourite but there is something special about ‘Matilda’ that has stayed with me.
  • ‘Vlad the Drac’ by Ann Jungman. Perhaps not one that so many people have read but I absolutely loved it. A vegetarian vampire with a penchant for washing up liquid, wonderful stories. “Poor old Vlad, poor little Drac”.
  • The Usborne Puzzle World books. Fantastically entertaining. I remember being very excited to be old enough to move on to the more complex series.
  • ‘The Jolly Christmas Postman’/‘The Jolly Postman, Or Other people’s Letters’ by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Absolutely wonderful book. I genuinely believe all children should read these at some point. Quaint little stories, and great fun seeing what’s in all the letters.
  • The Famous Five series by Enid Blyton. To this day, thanks to these books, I have idealistic ideas about getting a group of friends together, packing up a picnic, and cycling off somewhere for an adventure.
  • ‘A Note of Madness’/ ‘A Voice in the Distance’ by Tabitha Suzuma (not for children). I adore all books written by Tabitha Suzuma but these are the first two I read, and indeed, ‘A Voice in the Distance’ was the first book to ever make me cry. So emotional, I didn’t want it to end. I want to read them again now my emotions have recovered from the last time. Brilliant stuff. Not enough people have read her books, and they are really missing out. Her latest novel, ‘Forbidden’ was absolutely fantastic and really makes you think about it a long time afterward. I think I must have seemed very anti-social whilst reading it, and a few days after, as I was so wrapped up in what was happening in the story.
  • ‘Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man’ by Claire Tomalin. I really felt that this biography brought the world of Thomas Hardy to life, and for some reason inspired me to be creative. Loved it.

I didn’t include ‘Harry Potter’ on this list as the series got a whole post of its own last week. I would absolutely love to hear which books have been important to you throughout your life, so please do comment and share your favourite books.

Friday 5 August 2011

Fiction of a historic nature

Historic fiction has never been something I have been particularly eager to read. This comes as a surprise to many who know how much history interests me. My main problem is not that huge numbers of historic novels are marketed as historic romance, and romance is not particularly my favourite genre, but instead the concern that when reading fiction about real historic figures my brain will get confused, and after some time I will no longer be able to remember where I read the information, and thus become confused as to what is actual history and what is fiction. Of course, there are many novels set in a period of history but with the characters being entirely fictional, these I am less wary of. I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Atonement’ without even thinking of it as a historic novel, however, it later became apparent that this was foolish of me as the historic events taking place are incredibly important to the story’s development.

A few years ago Antony Beevor came to the University I was then studying at and gave a fascinating lecture that included something of a debate about just this topic. Many there argued that it was because of historic novels and films that they had first become interested in the topic, and that they thus have a great value to inspiring people to look further into the subject covered. I am very much of the same disposition, having read a novel set in a period I’m not too familiar with, and then reading history books to find out more about it. Of course, a room full of History and War Studies students would be somewhat biased in this approach. For many, watching the film or reading the novel is as far as it goes. Is this necessarily a bad thing? I’m not entirely sure, it at least gives an opening into the world of history, and one in which it seems interesting, and even fun (I have been told by so many people that history is boring, surely ways which make it seem accessible are no bad thing?). If you are reading this and have an opinion, please do comment, I would be very interested to hear more points of view on such matters.

Having avoided historic fiction for quite some years, I finally decided to try C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. I wasn’t too hopeful, my experience of crime fiction never getting far beyond the odd Agatha Christie novel, and a book in the ‘Knitting Mysteries’ series. (Not that I wish to detract from the entertainment such novels can bring, I merely wish to point out that I am not overly familiar with the genre). It came as something of a shock to find myself so enthralled by ‘Dissolution’. I claim very little knowledge of the period and so could not be sure how much of what I was reading was historically accurate, but the characters and locations certainly came alive on the page, I would definitely recommend these novels to anyone who loves reading fiction, no matter what novels usually take your fancy. I have recently finished reading ‘Dark Fire’ and, again, found it gripping. I knew somewhat more of the history surrounding this novel, having done a certain level of study on crime and punishment, and more specifically Newgate gaol, and was impressed by the level of historic knowledge that had clearly been put into it. I plan to read the rest of C.J. Sansom’s novels at some point, and, indeed, to do some more reading around the period the stories are set in. These novels have certainly proved to me that it is important not to disregard books just because they don’t fit the type of books you usually read, and for all of those bookworms reading this I urge you to spread your reading horizons and try something new, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Must I diet, just because I’m a woman?

I was not planning to post again today, and indeed hadn’t intended my next post to be about this, but I was thinking about this yesterday, and a friend pointed something out to me today that has inspired me to write this.

I have always been rather against all the pressure put on people in general to look a certain way, being truly disgusted a few years ago when I saw an advert for cosmetic surgery claiming to be the answer to making you happy ready for Summer, or something along similar lines. Now, I understand that for some people having surgery to correct something they believe to be a defect genuinely can make them a lot happier, but to project this idea to try and sway people into having such surgery is just wrong, in my opinion. Why must we all look the same in order to feel beautiful? I am of the strong belief that everyone is beautiful.

Now, I was reading a newspaper yesterday that had an article about how unhealthy snacks that you can buy at the cinema are (no kidding!). It was clearly targeted at women, and when giving the values for how many calories and fat content was found in the different snacks they related this to the percentage of a woman’s daily allowance. Now, I’m well aware that this could well have been done purely to make the findings sound worse as women are meant to consume less calories and fat in a day, but it just seemed to be re-enforcing a gender stereotype which is particularly unhealthy. I’m not suggesting that we should be gorging ourselves on unhealthy food, not at all, but why must it always purely be directed at women. We are not all on diets, and we should not be made to feel as though we should be. My feelings on this were further incensed when my friend informed me of an advert she had seen earlier about a new health drink, one for men, one for women. The male one was advertised for its beneficial qualities, the women’s one as low in calories.

It saddens me how many of my friends feel they need to lose weight when, in fact, if they lost much weight they would be underweight. Why are women made to feel like being a size 12 is fat? And why is dieting always pushed as the way forward. I have never been on a diet in my life but exercise regularly and don’t live off junk food, and I’m a size 8/10. Diets are often not very healthy, and I strongly believe that it is much better just to try and live healthily, exercise in whichever way you find most fun, and try not to only eat junk food.

The idea that it is only women who worry about these things is also somewhat antiquated and entirely untrue. I have many male friends far more concerned with dieting, etc than I am. Must they be made to feel overly effeminate because they want to be healthy and look good (in the way in which society tells us to)? This gender stereotyping seems unhealthy and unfair on both women and men.

Farewell old friend

I thought it would be a good way to kick-start my blog with a reminiscent rambling about Harry Potter. It may not seem the most intellectual way to begin, but will at least go some way to proving to some that I am in fact not a book snob.

I started reading Harry Potter at the age of nine, and now, at the grand old age of twenty-one, am still as attached to it as ever. I feel absolutely privileged to have been alive as the books and films were being released (and indeed, working in a bookshop for the release of the final book), and although generations of new fans will no doubt enjoy the books greatly I think there was certainly something special about the anticipation of awaiting the next great instalment. This also meant that I was approximately the same age as Harry, Ron, and Hermione as I read through the books, and quite literally grew up with them. For this reason they will always feel like old friends.

Although I was not the biggest fan of the films to start with I have begun to appreciate the value of them. Having re-watched the first three recently I see how they really do re-create the magic from the page, and quite frankly, I’m quite jealous I never got to visit some of the sets, because they were no doubt absolutely breathtaking. Yes, they didn’t fit in everything that was in the books (though that is hardly surprising considering the length of the later ones), but they certainly capture the essence of them. I was somewhat distressed by some of the omissions from the third film but, having devoured the books, I simply fill in the gaps in my head, adding dialogue to scenes that I wish had made it into the films.

I found it incredibly emotional watching the premiere of Deathly Hallows Part Two, and genuinely feel for the actors. Millions of fans are experiencing a sense of loss at the end of this magical journey, so the actors that have played these characters half their lives, well, I know I would be a mess. They have done a fantastic job, and I doubt I will ever be able to read the books without picturing them from now on.

Anyone reading this who has not read the books, but enjoyed the films, I do urge you to delve into the books. I know it may seem a daunting task, but they are wonderful books, and full of so much detail that never could have made it into the films. So I say, farewell, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and thank you J. K Rowling for creating such wonderful characters.