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Sunday, 15 September 2013

'Melmoth the Wanderer' by Charles Maturin


A lesser known classic that I was very pleased to see included in the Penguin English Library series (a wonderful series of classic books with pretty new covers that include a few underappreciated gems). Written by Charles Maturin, and published in 1820, this is a dark, violent novel. The eponymous Melmoth wanders the Earth, preying on people in their darkest moments, trying to convince them to exchange places with him after having made a pact with the devil to extend his life for 150 years. As you can imagine, it’s not the most cheerful of books. In fact, it’s pretty relentlessly depressing, and genuinely harrowing in parts.

It can be a little hard to follow the narrative as there are lots of stories within stories, and I often found myself slightly disoriented when a new set of characters were introduced. However, once you settle in to the story you find yourself drawn in to the world of Melmoth. The writing is incredible; poetic and evocative in equal measure.

There’s a fair amount of satire embedded in the narrative, and some allusion- heavy passages, which were quite amusing (well, the ones I understood anyway!).  I don’t think it’s a massive block to the enjoyment of the novel if you don’t get all the references though. Maturin doesn’t hide his views on social and religious issues of the time, and it makes for an interesting take on the early nineteenth century.

This is a beautifully written book, but, at just under seven hundred pages, and a reasonably confusing narrative style, this isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It is, I think, worth the time and effort, and I can honestly say that I felt I wanted to re-read it as soon as I’d reached the end of the final page. If you like Gothic fiction and haven’t read this yet, do.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

'Enduring Love' by Ian McEwan


This book has probably got one of the most famous opening chapters in modern fiction. Opening with a hot air balloon accident is certainly a powerful start to the novel. Instantly you are intrigued by the main characters, not knowing much about them but being shown that this one moment where this group of strangers have come together will not be the end of it for our protagonist, Joe.

Jed, another of the witnesses, becomes infatuated with Joe, phoning him, writing him letters, waiting outside his house, convinced that Joe loves him, despite being in a happy, long-term relationship. Or is this, in fact, all in Joe’s mind? The letters are, coincidentally, written in handwriting very similar to his own. Throughout the novel we are constantly led to doubt Joe’s narrative, as his partner, Clarissa, thinks he is losing his mind, the police won’t take him seriously, and he gets increasingly obsessed with the idea of being followed. You feel his frustration at not being taken seriously, and the isolation that ensues, but there’s always the doubt that Clarissa might be right, that his mind has created this situation as a way of coping with what happened. It’s not until the end of the novel that you find out definitively which characters are the ones to be believed.

It’s a clever novel, and it keeps you guessing right up to the dramatic conclusion. It’s an interesting portrayal of obsession, grief, and the dynamics of human relationships. I found some of the situations a little unbelievable, but overall it was a gripping, well-written novel. The appendices were also a nice touch to round off the story. 

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Strawberry and elderflower cupcakes



With Summer still holding on, I thought I’d better get in some nice summery baking before the last of the sunshine vanishes for another year. Nothing says Summer to me more than elderflowers and strawberries (and maybe Pimms…). Next year it might be time for some Pimms cupcakes, but for now I’ll have to settle with these tasty strawberry and elderflower ones.

Makes 10 cupcakes

Ingredients:

For the cakes:
165g unsalted butter, softened
100g caster sugar
2 large eggs
Finely grated zest of 1 small lemon
1 tbsp elderflower cordial
1 tsp orange blossom water
200g self-raising flour
100ml milk
100g strawberries, chopped in to chunks

For the icing:
250g icing sugar
80g unsalted butter, softened
40ml milk
1 – 1 ½ tbsp. elderflower cordial, to taste
10 small strawberries, to decorate (optional)

Method:
  • Preheat the oven to gas mark 4/180°C/350°F and line a muffin tray with paper cases.
  • Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.
  • Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
  • Add the lemon zest, elderflower cordial, and orange blossom water and mix well.
  • Fold in half the flour, then half the milk, and then the rest of the flour, followed by the rest of the milk. Make sure they are fully incorporated, but don’t over mix.
  • Add the strawberry chunks and gently stir, making sure they are distributed throughout the mix.
  • Spoon the mix in to the cupcake cases and bake for 20-25 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean.
  • Leave to cool on a wire rack. These are quite delicate cupcakes, so if you usually remove the cakes from the tin upside down, I’d recommend not to for these, or to leave them that little bit longer in the tin to firm up a little.
  • To make the icing, whisk the butter and icing sugar together in either a freestanding electric mixer or hand-held electric whisk on a low speed until combined and smooth. (If using a hand-held electric whisk, or if your butter isn’t really soft, I’d recommend adding some of the milk before you start or you’ll get covered in icing sugar.)
  • Gradually add the milk while mixing. Once fully incorporated, add the elderflower cordial gradually, to taste. Turn the speed up and continue to mix for a couple of minutes until light and fluffy.
  • Once the cupcakes are completely cooled use a palette knife to spread the icing on top of each cake (this icing will be too soft to pipe on. If you want to pipe, gradually add more icing sugar until it is the right consistency).
  • Decorate each cake with a strawberry (don’t add the strawberry until you’re ready to serve as they seem to go off quicker once they have icing on them).