Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I thought long and hard about how I wanted to finish 2015 on the blog. Round up the year in books? Did that last year. Bookish resolutions? I’ve got plenty. I had a whole bunch of ideas but in the end I decided to go for one final review of a book that has enchanted me for months. 

I decided I had to read this novel after enjoying the fantastic BBC adaptation earlier this year. It starred Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange (swoon) and Eddie Marsan who played Mr Norrell brilliantly. 

Loving the adaptation doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be the same for the book, but actually I think I ended up enjoying the book more. It helped having an idea of the characters in my head already but in its own right the book is a stunning magical tale of epic proportions. 

Set in the early 1800s, England is at war with Napoleon and the work of magic is something studied in books and not practiced. When a practising magician is found in Yorkshire, he is summoned to London to help the government in the war effort. Mr Norrell is fussy, reclusive and very set in his ways and is put out of place with the emergence of a second magician in England, the charming novice Jonathan Strange. 

They end up working together although they are the very opposites of each other and often disagree about most subjects. The reawakening of English magic has effects across the country and they touch the lives in strange and mysterious ways of everyone around them. There are lots of main characters aside from the two magicians who have their own stories thoroughly explored, and many more offshoots all interweaving together in this wide reaching tale. 

This book is very long. It’s about 1000 pages (give or take due to the illustrations in my copy) and alongside the story there are footnotes of little historical / magical details or side stories. This adds plenty more onto the reading time but I devoured every sentence, every page and every footnote, enjoying every word. 

I loved how this parallel version of history was played out with a great sense of the time but also with all the magical realism that makes the book so interesting. Magic here is an art, a scholarly subject or a weapon, depending on who is wielding it, and I loved the idea of the world of fairies being so closely linked to that of human England. 

The language suits the time period; it’s so elegant and charming, with dashes of humour, darkness or drama in all the right places. As this book was so big, I read a chapter or two every now and again in between my other reads and each time it was like being transported back to another new yet familiar world full of memorable characters. 

I think if you enjoy books that break genre boundaries then this is a novel well worth the time to invest in. Lyrical, imaginative, detailed and so enchanting, this is a book is every bit as magic as the people and events it portrays.


Sunday, 20 December 2015

Christmas Cruffins

I recently read and enjoyed festive novel Boyfriend by Christmas by Jenny Stallard which tells of journalist Genie who dates her way across London in the ultimate work related challenge. She writes for website Coolhub as their dating and features writer and has a close working relationship with her colleagues, travel expert Rio and foodie Willow. In addition to Genie, Willow was a character I was also very fond of, and in her role as food writer for the site, she gets to review new restaurants, pop-ups and food products. Quite early on, Willow mentions a new food craze she is investigating: cruffins. I don’t know about you, but sometimes a word just sticks in your head and I love the idea of cruffins! In the book, they are a crumpet / muffin hybrid taking the breakfast world by storm which sounded delicious. However after a misspent evening on Google, cruffins are more popularly croissants crossed with muffins. Inspired by the book I have made my own version of this delectable treat: cruffins filled with cranberry buttercream (which tenuously makes them Christmassy!)

Now before I go ahead with this recipe I’d like to point out that this was very experimental and although my cruffins turned out not only edible but quite tasty (if I do say so myself), this recipe is far from perfect so if you’re brave enough to try them out, I’d love to know how you get on!

You will need a muffin tin and a piping bag for this recipe. It should make 8 cruffins (or six huge ones in my case!)

Ingredients:

For the cruffins:

·         100g plain flour
·         150 strong white flour
·         30g caster sugar (plus extra for sprinkling)
·         200g unsalted butter, diced
·         75ml whole milk
·         1tbsp yeast
·         ½ tsp salt

For the cranberry buttercream:

·         150g unsalted butter, softened
·         300g icing sugar
·         3tbsp smooth cranberry sauce
·         1 tbsp milk

Method:

1.       In a large bowl, mix together the flours, sugar, salt, yeast and 100g of the butter. Mix it so that everything is combined but there are still large lumps of butter (this is to help the dough puff up when it bakes). Wrap the remaining butter in clingfilm and put it in the freezer (you’ll need it chilled later on).

2.       Pour 75ml of water and milk a little at a time into the flour and butter mixture. Gently mix the liquid until a loose dough forms. Add extra water if need to get stray bits of flour. Shape the dough into a rectangle and place into the fridge for 45 minutes.

3.       Lightly flour your clean work surface and roll out the dough into a rectangle three times long as it is wide. Grate the frozen butter over the top two thirds of the dough. Fold the bottom third over the middle third, and then the top third over top of that. Then wrap your folded dough in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for twenty minutes.

4.       Remove from the fridge and roll the dough back into its original rectangle. Repeat the folding process as before including the 20 minutes chill time. Do this twice more after so the dough has been refolded and chilled a total of 4 times (long winded but it works in the end).

5.       Roll the dough out into a rectangle that is about 40cm in length by 15cm wide. Trim the edges with a knife the lines are sharp and divide the dough into 8 equal pieces. Roll your slice of pastry at a slight angle so you get a kind of cone shape and place into a greased muffin tin. Repeat with all the dough and loosely cover so that it can prove for 20 minutes.

6.       Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas Mark 4. Sprinkle the cruffins with some caster sugar and bake in the centre of the oven for 20-30 minutes or until they a lovely and golden brown. Once cooked, leave to cool.

7.       For the cranberry buttercream filling, in a new bowl, beat the butter until it is soft. Add half the icing sugar until smooth. Gradually add the rest of the icing sugar along with the milk until creamy and smooth. Add in the cranberry sauce and mix thoroughly together until you end up with a lovely thick pink frosting with a fruity tang to it.

8.       Add your buttercream mix to a piping bag and push the nozzle into the cruffin. Pipe away until it is filled and swirl some buttercream around the top. Further decoration is optional!

I’ve never made croissants before, let alone cruffins and I was actually really pleased with how they turned out. I also ended up with a lot of leftover buttercream which was good for dipping chunky bits of pastry into, but would also make a lovely topping for cupcakes if you are so inclined. I apologise for the bad photos, my cruffins are not the most photogenic of food but they are delicious and I had a great time making them.



If you don’t feel like giving cruffins a go, that’s fine but I definitely recommend the book they were inspired by, Boyfriend by Christmas. Unlike lead character Genie, rather than dating my way across London this Christmas I’ll be at home, channelling Willow and eating cruffins. 

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Boyfriend By Christmas by Jenny Stallard

Around this time of year, my bookish news feed goes Christmas crazy with tales of romantic snow-laden romps, gingerbread hearts and kissing under the mistletoe. Call me a Grinch but I don’t really go in for the whole festive reads thing normally. Maybe some seasonal books where it gets a bit wintery or that happen to include Christmas but mostly I try to steer clear. 

However, when I read the premise of Boyfriend By Christmas I liked the sound of its How To Lose a Guy In Ten Days vibe and threw aside my anti-Christmas read mentality. 

In this tale, journalist Genie Havisham writes for a lifestyle website and is set the ultimate challenge by her Devil Wears Prada style boss: find a boyfriend by Christmas or find a new job. With not only her love life but now her beloved career on the line too, Genie throws herself into the perilous world of dating to snag herself a man and save her job. 

She goes on a wide variety of different dates, trials all the latest dating apps that are a crucial part of dating in the modern world, and has the help of her sister and trusty colleagues to help her along. She sets up a blog to document her experiences which being so public, doesn’t always help the situation. 

As a fellow single girl in London, I found many of Genie’s experiences to be very relatable which made me enjoy the story more and I'm sure many other daters (past or present) can too. The perils of reigniting things with an ex, awkward first dates, the trials and tribulations of Tinder... a little something for everyone on the dating spectrum!

Genie's character on the whole is very relatable; she’s pretty down to earth although she does drink an awful lot! I loved the relationship she has with her two work colleagues and their friendship really complemented the story. 

I think the challenge as a premise is really clever. It hooks you in and you once Genie has the dating ball rolling, you can’t help but want to see it through to the end to see if she gets her BBC. The best thing for me about the book is how funny it is. Genie has some great one liners and her exploits are thoroughly entertaining to read. 

There is a great sense humour running throughout the whole book which adds to the festive fun and keeps things upbeat. As well as romance, there is plenty of wisdom about friendship and lifestyle choices wrapped up in a fun and engaging tale. 

Boyfriend By Christmas is the kind of easy going, feel-good read I’ll be recommending to my friends over the holidays and would be a great addition to anyone’s Christmas read list. 

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The Angel of Highgate by Vaughn Entwistle

It is the October of 1859 and Lord Geoffrey Thraxton is living up to his title as the “wickedest man in London.” A notorious womanizer with a penchant for death and a flair for theatrics, he cares for nothing but his own amusement and has the means to keep himself entertained. 

Also a poet and with his taste for the spirit world, Geoffrey spends a lot of time at Highgate Cemetery to connect with his muses, and develops an obsession with a mysterious woman who appears to him there at night. 

The woman has a profound effect on the wayward Lord, and Geoffrey begins to rethink his lifestyle choices as he pursues his new heart’s desire. But after making an enemy of a snobby literary critic and a nefarious doctor, he is not the only one with an end game. 

The story was a lot darker than I was expecting it. The doctor in the tale is quite scary at times and so well illustrated with his unusual white top hat and rose-tinted pince-nez. He’s sneaky, almost ghost-like and cruel and adds lots of uncertainty and suspense to the story. 

As much as he is a rogue, I really liked Lord Geoffrey’s character. I liked the mix of his being such a cad, but with the interest in the supernatural and such hard-headed determination in the face of opposition. The cemetery was a cool setting as well. Atmospheric and spooky at times, I really liked how it was worked into the story, along with loads of other Victorian London hotspots. 

As you flit around London following the characters on whatever trouble they are getting in to, you also visit both ends of the societal spectrum, from the rich elite and their amusements, to the poor underclass and criminal underworld. The Seven Dials Rookery, with its vision of decrepit buildings and river of filth added murky shades to the multi-layered storyline. 

I really did enjoy this book. I think maybe because it did exceed my expectations and went in directions that for me were unexpected. There is great historical detail, an interesting mystery with a dash of romance and plenty of drama. Utterly original and captivating, The Angel of Highgate is a brilliant piece of historical mystery fiction with a supernatural twist. 

Friday, 11 December 2015

Cracked by Barbra Leslie

I wasn’t too sure what to expect from this novel after reading that the narrator is a wayward crack addict (‘Stephanie Plum meets Breaking Bad’ says the press release) but with sex, murder and crime thrills in store and lots of praise from other reviewers, I just couldn’t let this novel pass me by. 

After her marriage to the love of her life breaks down, nice girl Danny Cleary gets caught up in the world of drugs, developing a habit for crack cocaine which pushes her away from her family, loses her friends and empties her bank balance. 

Danny’s twin sister Ginger is her polar opposite; happy and healthy she lives the American dream in California with her successful husband and their two sons. 

When Danny hears the inconceivable news that Ginger has taken her own life – in a seedy motel with drugs involved no less – her world crumbles more than she thought possible. But when the investigation changes from suicide to murder, Danny becomes determined to track down the people involved in her beloved sister’s death, if only she can stay off the drugs for long enough. 

Danny as a narrator and lead character has an interesting past, present and no doubt future which makes you want to keep reading. She has a wicked sense of humour, a good relationship with her siblings and despite all her problems and bad decision making, you can’t help but like her. Her situation is certainly unique, even more so once all the mysteries behind the crimes begin to unravel. 

For starters, losing not just a sibling but a twin at that is unthinkable. I’m a twin myself and as different as we are, the thought of losing her, especially to something as heinous as murder is something I could never even begin to comprehend, and I seriously doubt I would show as much strength and determination as Danny does in this story (although maybe some of that is the drugs). 

Plenty of crime for all the crime fiction readers here; on top of murder there is violence, drug use, fraud, kidnapping and countless other illegal misdemeanours that are crammed into the story. But alongside the criminal theme, there is also a great sense of family and the lengths people can go to for the ones they love. 

Thrilling and seriously good fun, Cracked is every bit as addictive as I heard it would be and I will happily add the Danny Cleary novels to my continuing book habit. 

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Nadine Dorries Guest Post - Ruby Flynn Blog Tour

Today I am very excited to be on the Ruby Flynn Blog Tour. Ruby Flynn is the stunning new family saga from bestselling author Nadine Dorries herself and in her guest post below, she tells about her writing process and her muse!

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When I was asked to write a blog about how I plot and plan a book, I almost fell of my chair laughing. I have no idea what is going to appear on the next page, never mind in the next book. ‘You have a muse,’ someone said. I had absolutely no idea what a muse was. I read recently that another author, one of some repute and standing whose name escapes me, had written some advice for would be authors and it was this; sit at your desk every day, just in case the muse pops by. Those words have stuck in my head and comfort me. So, it isn’t just me then who panics about what is happening next.

I think I must infuriate my muse. She has never let me down, always pops by, usually between six and eight am every morning when I am still in bed. Not for her the conventional desk or office. If I leave the bedroom without having written a thousand words, I am like a smoker who has run out of fags. I twitch, I shout and I feel dreadful all day. It’s not helped by the fact that those morning hours are all I have to spend writing, due to the fact that I have a demanding day job. It is knowing that I cannot return to my characters until the following early morning which is the most frustrating, and so I carry a notebook in my bag for those flashes that come from nowhere. An idea, a line, an ending to a chapter or an interesting name to use at sometime in the future.

There are times when I envy those authors who write for a living. Who have the opportunity to immerse themselves totally in their work. To live with their characters for as long as they want them to stick around. But the fact is, I love my day job and could never give it up and I am so lucky to serve and to meet the most interesting people. From Prime Ministers and Presidents, to young mums and pensioners. It has to be the day job that feeds my soul and provides my inspiration and the reason why the muse drops by. 

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The gorgeous novel Ruby Flynn is out now. Early next year Nadine Dorries is launching her new website with a 6-weekly magazine - you can already sign up for free at nadinedorries.co.uk


Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Ruby Flynn by Nadine Dorries

Meet Ruby Flynn, an orphan raised and educated by nuns who becomes a determined and headstrong young woman despite her sad beginnings. When she turns eighteen she is sent to work at Ballyford Castle, a place she has never been and yet is startlingly familiar to her. 

Ballyford is the residence of the wealthy FitzDeanes who have their own problems. Lady FitzDeane is unable to provide an heir having lost her previous five boys in their infancy and wallows in the nursery in her all-consuming grief. Her husband Charles runs off to Liverpool at every opportunity to grow his shipping business and has his own way of coping with the family tragedy. 

There are rumours that the FitzDeane family are cursed, the result of a mistake from long ago, and with the arrival of the beautiful Ruby, with her red hair and green eyes, it seems like the whispered prophecy may just be coming true. 

From the moment I started the story I adored Ruby’s character. She’s clever and feisty but very likeable which straight away makes her interesting and enjoyable to read about. She seems to forge meaningful relationships easily, especially amongst the household staff at Ballyford and so it’s not hard to become emotionally invested in not only hers but lots of the main characters’ lives. 

With so many characters and family legacies involved of course there are plenty of secrets and betrayals that are slowly revealed in layers which really keep you hooked on turning pages. Poor Ruby is innocent about her heritage so you discover her past just as she uncovers the truth about herself too which attaches the reader to her even more. 

There is something about the Irish setting that adds so much more depth to the story. With harsh winters and the famine, there is drama and tragedy but with the descriptive nature of the setting and the warmth of the people that live there, it was truly engaging to read. 

With the backdrop of the bustling castle, I kind of likened the vibe to Downton Abbey with an Irish twist which is surely bound to be a big hit with readers. Ruby Flynn is a stunning family saga from the bestselling author of The Four Streets Trilogy (which I’ve not read but curious of now). This is the kind of story that you get completely wrapped up in and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of this stunning book. 

Friday, 4 December 2015

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Life got in the way of reading this book but at last I’ve finished the fourth and final book in the Young Writer Award 2015 shortlist. Once again, I’m blown away by the level of talent displayed in one book. 

The story tells of three very different young men, who travel from India to England in the hope of earning money and making a better life for themselves. There is surly Tochi, a former rickshaw driver who is secretive about his sad past. Avtar owes money all over the place and desperately tries to hold down work to support his family back home in India. 

A secret of his own binds him to the innocent Randeep, who has a visa-wife in a flat on the other side of town and the pressure of helping his family on his young shoulders. We also get to know the story of Narinder (Randeep’s wife) whose tale is the most surprising of all. 

Each character has such an intricate and important backstory that defines them as individuals and their interlinking stories in the present make the novel as a whole so engaging. The leading characters go through such hardships and struggles; physically, mentally and spiritually and yet the novel retains a hopeful quality that makes you want to keep reading rather than give up in despair. 

They all have histories that affect them greatly, and in their bid for better lives they really strive through harsh realities and negotiate their dreams and desires in a rollercoaster year of trials and tribulations that make for compelling reading. I was rooting for all four of the runaways throughout the whole book and you get to know the characters inside and out. By the end I was so engrossed in all of their lives and genuinely wanted to know how it all turned out for them, but I also didn’t want the book to end. 

I really enjoy reading out of my comfort zone, especially when that means getting to experience new cultures. I’ve read books set in India before and I love the vibrancy, colour and spirituality of the place as described in words. Here, of course there is also the poverty, caste system and hardships faced by the characters, but it all adds to the sense of place and I liked the movement between India and England. 

Also shortlisted The Man Booker Prize 2015, The Year of the Runaways fully deserves its place on the Young Writer Award shortlist too and I definitely do not envy the judges their choice this year. Beautifully told, though provoking and broad in scope, this is an utterly absorbing tale of love, life, faith and humanity.