Monday, 29 June 2015

Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler / Eventide by Kent Haruf / Gotta Find A Home by Dennis Cardiff

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I picked up two Anne Tyler paperbacks at Age UK in Stokesley, Yorkshire, as part of a three for 99p promotion. My third book was Crazy As Chocolate which I've already read and reviewed. I've read a few Anne Tyler before and found her work ranged from pretty good to fabulous and I am pleased to say that I think Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant is one of her fabulous novels!

Set in Baltimore, Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant begins with elderly Pearl remembering her life and family. Initially I felt sorry for her. She was abandoned by her husband and left with three children to raise alone while holding down a job in order to finance her family. However, as we learn more about the past, I began to see that nothing is clear cut at all. I loved how Tyler portrays a non-maternal mother. Pearl loves her children more than anything, but she is not the cope-with-anything mother figure that many novels like to portray. This is a woman struggling to succeed and making mistakes along the way. As her children, Cody, Ezra and Jenny, grow up and move away, the family fragments still further and it was interesting to see how the next generation viewed their grandmother too.

I have given this novel five stars because I was engrossed from start to finish. I didn't particularly like most of the characters, but I loved how realistically they have been created and Tyler's deep understanding of the dynamics of family relationships. A great read!

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Anne Tyler / Contemporary fiction / Books from America

Eventide by Kent Haruf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I've been saving Eventide, the second book in Kent Haruf's trilogy, because the first, Plainsong, was just so brilliant that I didn't want the series to be over too soon! In Eventide, we return to the same town of Holt, Colorado, and a few of the same people - Victoria is still with the McPheron brothers - and we meet other residents including special needs couple Luther and Betty who, mentally, are barely more than children themselves yet have children of their own too. There are amazing moments in Eventide. The McPheron's loss nearly brought tears to my eyes and I was also moved by Luther and Betty, especially their reactions to Betty's uncle. I don't want to say more and give away plotlines!

Haruf's portrayal of small town America is very different from what we are usually shown on TV shows and in mainstream fiction. His sensitive depictions are especially hard-hitting because of his matter of fact prose style. There is no sensationalism or blatant plot devices, no artificial cliff hangers, simply very human people living through the trials of everyday life. Like Anne Tyler's Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant, which I read just before Eventide, the strength of this work is in its sharp observations and complete understanding of human nature. Haruf's society is kind, honest, generous, hopeful, violent, selfish and weary. This was easily a five star read and I was sorry to finish it as I could have spent much longer in this company. Fortunately I still have Benediction on our Kindle to look forward to.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Kent Haruf / Contemporary fiction / Books from America

Gotta Find a Home: Conversations with Street People by Dennis Cardiff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my WorldReads from Canada

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I discovered Gotta Find A Home on twitter where its author posts as @DennisCardiff. I will admit that I am one of those who generally averts their eyes when I notice beggars on the street so, other than the usual political platitudes, I know very little about the people themselves. Intrigued by Dennis' synopsis, I bought his book. All the profits from Gotta Find A Home are donated to homelessness alleviation projects in Toronto so I thought, even if I didn't like the read, I was doing a good thing with its purchase.

As it turned out, this is a pretty fascinating book. Written in diary form, Dennis recounts daily conversations he has had with members of a fluctuating group of homeless panhandlers (beggars) who live near to where he works in Toronto. Conversations aren't recorded, but related from memory, so I did find the speaking style a little odd to begin with. What surprised me most though was the lack of a stereotype within the group. These people are of all ages from their twenties to their sixties (although many will die much younger than they might if they weren't homeless) some are abuse victims but not all, some are alcoholics or drug addicts but not all, some have a university education while others can barely write, some are mentally disturbed while others are highly intelligent and articulate. There is apparently no such thing as A Typical Homeless Person.

Dennis makes no claims to have the answers to homelessness, neither does he defend or vilify the behaviour and actions of the people about whom he writes. Instead he simply presents their day-to-day lives and leaves us readers to make our own decisions. Formerly anonymous grey shapes, as appear in every town in Britain in the same circumstances as in Canada, now define themselves into 'normal people' (if you'll excuse that phrase). This is Joy. This is Ian. This is Hippo. This is Lucy. They talk about their friends and relationships, what they might have for dinner, how much they've earned today, and whether there is enough to pay the rent. Then they mention an acquaintance who had his teeth kicked out and another who was doused in gasoline and set alight.

I think Gotta Find A Home would make a very interesting Book Club choice as I found my assumptions being challenged, but without my being made to feel defensive or hectored. I would definitely like to hear opinions from other readers as I hope that this memoir will remain memorable for me.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Dennis Cardiff / Memoirs / Books from Canada

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Isn't Northumberland beautiful!

It's our second day in Northumberland today and we just had a short
We saw real curlews as well as mascot ones 
local walk from Low Hedgeley to Powburn to Branton and back around. Some of the walk was along the pretty River Breamish where there are bold yellow and purple flowers out in bloom. I braved crossing a seriously scary footbridge and we marvelled at the engineering involved in making a large salmon leap for what seems, at this time of year, to be a pretty small river. The footpaths are well signposted but have an odd habit of petering out mid-field and we found ourselves disagreeing with our Ordnance Survey map a few times! We have not yet set foot in the Powburn Emporium as we got back there just too late today. However, the Londis next door, which I expected to be just a petrol forecourt shop, actually has a good range of fresh food - meat, fruit and vegetables - as well as general groceries. Our local specialty of the week is the Border Tart - a mix of currants, sultanas, coconut and cherries in a pastry case and topped with white icing. The one we tried was baked by Trotters Family Bakers. In a change from many specialty dishes that aren't all that special, the Border Tart is really tasty and I think we might even splash out again!

Trotters' Border Tart

Yesterday was gorgeously sunny and we walked a good ten miles across
What a view! 
wonderfully varied landscapes in a big loop starting and ending in a nice free car park at the nearby village on Ingram. On the way there we saw a hare squeezing itself under a metal barred gate. Dave slowed the car right down as we passed and it stared back at us from only a few feet away! Huge eyes! Our later sightings of rabbits weren't nearly so exciting although they were remarkably chilled out about us getting close to them too. We also saw curlews, the emblem of the Northumberland National Park, skylarks and swallows, a couple of different species of bees and a few pretty butterflies. Most of the moorland here is bracken rather than the heather we saw in the North York Moors. Grouse are still raised here to be shot though and I startled one into making a loud and undignified escape!

Much of our route yesterday was over Open Access land, criss crossed
Dave's fort is a bit of a doer-upper 
with official footpaths and bridleways as well as random tracks in all directions. Fortunately Dave has got his phone GPS to work so our few wrong path choices were quickly rectified. Several settlements and a couple of forts were marked on the map and Dave is looking out for marauders from the ruined walls of one fort here. I am not exactly sure what all the stones are for in the picture below. The map indicated a settlement and perhaps the large stone in the centre was a doorstone or lintel. The ground looked to be hollow underneath it. Suggestions, if any, in the Comments please!

Not sure what this is or once was 
There are lots and lots of sheep here, mostly out on the open land
Another huge view -
my phone camera doesn't do this area justice 
together with herds of cows and their new calves. I found it much less nerve racking to pass the cows when they are not fenced in. Wide berths are easier! The Northumberland National Park is very green and lush which I wasn't expecting. I suppose I had imagined an even more rugged version of the Peak District and the North York Moors, however now we are here, I am reminded of our Scottish walks from Oban. The hills are rounded and there are boggy parts with coarse grasses. Dave kept his nice new boots dry, but I managed to sink almost over the tops of mine once. Fortunately the water wasn't muddy - just wet! We also passed small areas of managed woodland and a few incredibly isolated stone farmhouses. I love the building stone and the architecture used around here. The buildings look solid and eternal, but also elegant. There's a pretty cottage only a few minutes from this campsite which is only £115,000 ... !

We have two weeks here before we move on again and we are hoping to
see much more of the local countryside. Tomorrow I think we will have an easy day and just visit Wooler for a spot of shopping. Then off moorwards again on Tuesday with a picnic lunch. Weatherwise it is supposed to be a good week so I might even add to yesterday's sunburn! The guy on the next pitch lent us a book of short (5 mile) Northumbrian walks so Dave has noted down the ones nearest this campsite. Roseberry Topping was in there so we could already put a tick by that one in our minds. Happy Valley looks a pretty place to visit and we are also considering whether to to go to Lindisfarne and walk across the causeway. Having recently heard about the long-ago Viking attacks there, it would be interesting to actually see the site. There are so many places and so little time though. We are discovering the great paradox of travelling is that the more places we visit, the more we learn exist so, instead of slowly working through all the sites we want to visit and eventually finishing, we just keep adding more and more to the list!

The River Breamish 


Saturday, 27 June 2015

We cross the Tees and the Tyne

In our continuing journey northwards through England we crossed two
Pitched up at Low Hedgeley 
iconic rivers yesterday - the Tees and the Tyne. We also caught a glimpse of the Angel Of The North from the roadworks on the A1. I hope Dave managed to snap a clear enough photo from the passenger seat as we drove past, but the sculpture is quite obscured by trees so he only had a few seconds in which to do so. We drove for a couple of hours and are now on a Caravan Club CL at Low Hedgeley, just outside Powburn. The site is very neat with a water tap and electricity on each pitch, and the usual waste facilities and recycling bins. It is a pound more expensive than at Great Busby (£13 a night here), but we do have the additional extra of a toilet room, should we want to use it! The field is a bit slopy in all directions so getting ourselves level took a while. However, once the rain cleared, we got our new awning put up in a fraction of the time of our first attempt - only forty minutes from opening the car boot to hammering the final peg this time. Can you see Dave's celebratory mug wave in the photo above? We chose to put the awning further back on Bailey this time so the front window is clear and we also have full access to the under-bed locker. The awning seems squarer in itself too and the caravan door doesn't block the super-wide awning door so we still have easy access.

Love the big windows 

I love the visibility from this awning. The view a way ahead is of this little
View from our pitch 
hill which we may or may not get to climb. Today we drove to Alnwick for a look around and to get some shopping. There were two nice butchers shops in town, plus a good cake shop! Parking looked like it would be impossible until we managed to stop and study a map outside Sainsburys and learned where the car park was hidden (hard left directly after the very narrow stone gateway as you head out of town. It's free parking). The local accents have changed again and now local people sound like my Grandma putting a long 'oo' sound into 'cook' and 'book'.

There is a teashop and general grocery emporium in Powburn and we
View the other way across our campsite 
should be able to take a walk there. Plus a footpath starts right from the gate of the farm here so we have no excuse for not getting 'out there'. A disused railway runs very close by as well but we can't see that it has been turned into a walking/cycle route (yet!). Wooler is supposed to be a nice little town for shopping and possibly cycle-able. It's a sunny evening here after a rainy start and a mostly grey day, so we are sitting on our loungers in the awning enjoying the warmth and thinking about all we might do and see over the next couple of weeks before we move on again. Bliss!

A quick end note: I have won another book! (As if I don't already have enough to be going on with!) This is Into The Fire by Manda Scott which is a historical novel about Joan Of Arc, and a signed copy too. Thanks to @followthehens on Twitter for picking my name out of her hat!

Friday, 26 June 2015

Mixed Bean Chilli Crumble recipe

I have made Mixed Bean Chilli lots of times before and usually serve it
Mixed bean chilli crumble
with plain boiled or steamed rice. I fancied doing something a bit different this time though and had mooted the idea of it in a pie with a shortcrust pastry topping. As I reached for the flour I thought a crumble might work better and remembered that we had parmesan cheese flakes in the fridge. Cheese always goes well with chilli so I made a cheesy crumble topping that went perfectly with the spicy beans.

Splash of olive oil
1/2 onion, finely sliced
2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper or chilli powder
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tbsp tomato puree
400g tin chopped tomatoes
400g tin mixed beans
50ml red wine
Salt and pepper

100g plain flour
50g butter
50g porridge oats
25g strong cheese, flaked or grated

Heat a splash of olive oil in a saucepan and add the onion. Cook until softened but not browned.

Stir in the spices and the tomato puree. We're using up a jar of cayenne pepper at the moment but chilli powder will work just as well obviously! Dave doesn't like much spice heat so I only put in a tiny bit - feel free to add more depending on your personal taste. Be aware that double cooking condenses the strength though!

Stir in the chopped tomatoes and the mixed beans. I used a tin containing six different varieties which looked good in the crumble. Swirl the wine in the tomato tin to rinse tomato off the sides, then pour the wine into the saucepan too.

Stir to combine, cover and simmer gently for about half an hour. Simmer, uncovered, for another half hour. You want to mature the sauce flavours but without turning all the beans to mush. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. The crumble does absorb quite a lot of liquid from the chilli so I found it best to stop cooking when the bean mixture was still more liquid than I would normally like.

While the beans are cooking, make up the crumble topping.

Rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Either white or wholemeal will be fine - wholemeal would give a nuttier flavour and might need a little extra butter.

Stir in the oats and cheese until evenly combined. I had dried parmesan flakes in the fridge. Grating a mature cheddar would be tasty, but I'm not sure how a blue cheese would work. This is a great way to use up ends of cheese that might be drying out or past their best.

Spoon the chilli mixture into an ovenproof dish, then scatter the crumble over the top. I like to have about twice as much filling to crumble. Don't be tempted to press the topping down - it won't 'crumble' if you do!

Bake at 200c until the crumble turns golden and you can hear the filling bubbling underneath.

Serve hot.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Our final North York Moors walk - Square Corner to Kepwick

We hope not our final walk here ever as the North York Moors are
The poshest 'shut the gate' sign we've seen so far 
gorgeous and we have hardly scratched the surface of walking opportunities in the area, but today was our last walk of our current three week stay. We don't know when we might be coming this way again. Dave found us an eight mile loop without too much in the way of really strenuous ups and downs which started not far outside the wonderfully named village of Osmotherley. There is a car park at Square Corner and, had we continued along its road for another mile or so, we would have joined our 15-mile-epic-walk route. Instead, today, we began our walk by setting out towards the hill called Black Hambleton.

Dave was sporting his new Meindl walking boots and Berghaus
Happy hiker! 
waterproof jacket, both of which we realised needed to be replaced after our rainy outing the other day! I love this photo of him looking so happy! As it turned out, he was equally happy by the time we got back because, despite my insisting that he carry his trainers all the way (just in case) his boots were comfortable with no rubs or blisters at all. Our walk was almost entirely on tracks - stony, chalky or gravelly. I was surprised at one point to see chalk grassland that looked incredibly similar to the South Downs. This was above the Forestry Commission site of Silton Wood which we skirted to begin with and walked back through the centre at the end. There wasn't much in the way of far-reaching views early on, although the neat stone wall in the way was quite an impressive sight in its own right.

Our lunch stop was in the village of Kepwick, just in front of the ever-so
Rhododendrons on the moors above Kepwick 
grand gates of Kepwick Hall. We had begun to see extensive areas of flowering rhododendrons on the hills above so I had thought there must have been a country mansion somewhere, but it was tricky to see clearly as it was set so far back from the path. We also saw a large area of disturbed ground just as we began to descend towards Kepwick. It reminded us of the abandoned flint mines at Grime's Graves and we wondered if these lumps and bumps were evidence of similar activity here.

Abandoned mine workings? 
Heading towards Silton from Kepwick, our route shrank to a narrow footpath across farmers fields. We were suspiciously observed by a half dozen cows with two young calves who didn't appreciate us crossing their field. Then we also found ourselves having to cross a field with a single bull in it. I am always a little nervy of cows and, especially, bulls, but this one looked quite young and disinterested in us!

Back on stony track again and ascending through Silton Forest we saw
Marking National Cycle Network
Route 65 
an amazing machine which was felling, stripping and sectioning pine trees - all in one operation and only needing one person at the controls. It was fascinating to watch. I also spotted a sculpted waymarker which was the spitting image of one on the Cuckoo Trail in Sussex. I had only really noticed its outline before and not read it closely. I learned that 1000 of these were put up all across the country on the then new National Cycle Network. That would explain the similarity! The markers were funded by the RBS and, much like the bank itself, are now looking a bit the worse for wear. Now, you have all signed the RBS petition I posted, haven't you?! It was remarkably muggy in the forest as we didn't get any of the breeze that we have been used to up on the moors. It was lovely to see sunshine through the branches though.

Our whole walk was about four and a half hours, including a reasonably leisurely lunch stop. We saw a few bees, a couple of butterflies including a beautiful blue one, a stoat or a weasel, a curlew (probably) and several swooping swallows. There were also more other walkers about on this route than we have seen since Roseberry Topping. Wednesday must be Walking Day around here! I will be sorry to leave the North York Moors. Brian at South View Farm campsite has been a good host and we wish him and his son all the best. Tomorrow (or today by the time I stop waffling and publish this) we are moving further north again. My next post will be from near to Alnwick! Perhaps Dave will stop serenading every walk with this song by then? Perhaps not. There are more moors in Northumberland!

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst / A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride / Fade To Black by Tim McBain and L T Vargus

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Polish Officer by Alan Furst was recommended and a copy given to us by our friend Dave Dyke. Set across Second World War Europe, the novel follows the activities of a Polish former-cartographer, Alexander de Milja, who has been recruited into their intelligence services.

I appreciated Furst's detailed descriptions of the towns and cities to which de Milja is sent. The atmosphere often almost crackled with tension and I was interested to read of the beginnings of the war from a non-British viewpoint. I have always been encouraged to believe that Britain leapt into the fray as soon as Poland fell, and it was only the Americans who dithered. It would seem that we weren't exactly quick off the mark ourselves. Furst cleverly includes fascinating minutiae without slowing the pace of his tale - how to locate a wireless operator, why peasant women might be paid to collect rags - which adds to the convincing authenticity and from a historical point of view, I very much enjoyed this book.

My problem with it was our protagonist, de Milja. Most of the other characters are static, while de Milja travels constantly, so we only meet them briefly and I found it difficult to gain much sense of them as real people. De Milja often doesn't know much of their backstory so neither do we. Unfortunately, de Milja doesn't give away much about himself either. In order to succeed in his new career and identities, he needs to be aloof which makes him difficult to empathise with. And the deeper he gets, the more detached he becomes. By the time we get to Russia, I wasn't actually bothered about him at all and had no emotional involvement remaining in the story. As it turned out, this was a good thing because the story just stops, presumably to be continued in a sequel, which is one of my real pet hates! Authors: please write proper endings!

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction 2015 has recently been announced which seemed like the perfect time for me to get around to the 2014 winner, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride. I have read that it took ages and plenty of refused submissions before McBride found herself a publisher and I can understand that in a way. This is not an easy novel, not in its language or in its subject matter. I think that it is brilliant though!

I downloaded A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing from Audible as an audiobook and believe that this is the perfect way to experience this book. As I already mentioned, the language is not easy. It is written from the point of view of an unnamed young woman who speaks directly to the reader as though she was actually speaking - confessing or recounting - so there are stops and starts, part sentences, abrupt exclamations - at times it could even be poetry. This all makes perfect sense when actually narrated, especially as my audiobook was narrated by McBride herself, but I think it could be extremely hard work to follow as prose. If my review tempts you to try this book yourself, get spoken word!

McBride sweeps many themes into her work. This is an angry scream of a novel encompassing child abuse, rape, the insanity and hypocrisy of religious fanaticism and the intense pain of losing the person we love most. The central family is fractured and violently dysfunctional, yet keep returning to each other despite the pain and guilt this incurs. McBride has written perhaps the most realistic literary portrayal of a rape I have ever encountered and completely understands the self-destruction of her protagonist. Practically every character is shocking, believably real, and I am sure that A Girl will be a novel I will think back to repeatedly over the coming weeks. It requires effort and emotional strength from its readers (and listeners), but is well worth the time put in. An outrageously powerful book.

Fade to Black (Awake in the Dark Book 1)Fade to Black by Tim McBain and L T Vargus
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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I have already read one McBain and Vargus novel, Casting Shadows Everywhere, and thought it good enough that, when I saw a box set of their new Awake In The Dark trilogy on sale at 99p as a newsletter promotion, I would give it a try. The first in the trilogy is Fade To Black.

I enjoyed the beginning with its graphic and detailed description of what might be real or might be a bizarre dream as our hero, the implausibly named Jeff Grobnagger, finds himself hanging by his ankle and needing to escape from a hooded murderer. Again. Unfortunately, this is as good as it gets and I struggled to get more from the book. Jeff's backstory is tragic, but only stated and not really explored in his character. He repeatedly tells us he is a loner, yet clings to a new-found friend, Glenn, who doesn't really have a character but seems to exist to explain philosophical ideas to the reader. He makes lots of long speeches!

For a short novella length book, a fair bit of the prose is repetitive, but it's nicely written for an easy read with no indie-curse typos (although chapter 17 is repeated). However, I didn't like the frequent plot holes and several scenes stop rather than end - at one point gunshots are fired through Jeff's windows. Then he arrives at Glenn's house. How did Jeff escape? Weren't the villains waiting for him to exit? Was it just a random drive-by? More attention I think needs to be paid to flow as the pace varies from chapter to chapter and the story often jumps forward with minimal, if any, explanation. Then the whole thing stops, abruptly, and that's the end of Fade To Black.

I am sure that pertinent details are set to be revealed in the rest of the trilogy and beyond into at least a fourth book so far. This is probably why Fade To Black is effectively just a prologue and not a story in its own right. However, I am irritated enough by the assumption that, having started a series, readers will obediently shell out for several books in order to get one complete story, that I probably won't bother reading even the rest of what I already have. Disappointing.

View all my reviews on Stephanie Jane or on Goodreads

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Please help stop Cuadrilla and this government destroying our beautiful country

Our UK tour this summer, while not yet being particularly summery, is still allowing us to see so many interesting places and to walk in beautiful scenery. Some of our hikes have been in National Parks which are supposed to be protected areas, but other days have been spent simply in rural places which do not enjoy such defined protection and are increasingly threatened by big business greed. I love being able to pitch up on tiny Caravan Club CL and Camping And Caravanning Club CS sites, supporting rural businesses and enjoying the amazing variety of environments our country has to offer. It is frightening to think how swiftly all this could be curtailed if Cuadrilla and this government have their way and the planned fracking destruction goes ahead.

I have been liking and sharing this 38 degrees YouTube video about
fracking across all my social media channels so apologies for repetition if you've already watched it. If not, please do. We hear from people in Australia and America who already have first-hand experience of fracking under their communities. They talk of health problems that did not exist before drilling began, of livelihoods destroyed by poisoned land, and there is now so much shale gas in their tap water that They Can Set It On Fire! WTF!

Right now Cuadrilla are trying to buy local government permission to drill in rural Lancashire and, if this succeeds, will no doubt soon after be similarly trashing communities all across Britain - all for the purpose of grabbing short-term profits from unsustainable technologies. You probably don't need to worry if you live in a neighbourhood near any high-flying Tories(!), but if not please watch this video and think it over. And then share it and share it and share it. Thank you.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Bacon, Spinach and Tomato Gnocchi Bake recipe

Both Dave and I are big fans of Fage Total greek yoghurt. We first
Gnocchi bake 
discovered it in a Spanish supermarket and are delighted that it is sold in the UK too. Other brands just don't seem to have the same richness and creaminess. We usually buy the big 500g tubs, which make four dessert portions, and liberally douse it in locally produced honey. Delicious! However, the tubs are printed with recipes and the idea of a Gnocchi Bake was one I thought I would like to try. I have eaten gnocchi before - most memorably at the Croatian restaurant where Dave lost his crown (tooth, not headwear) - but I haven't cooked it myself before. I wasn't enthusiastic enough to make my own from scratch this time around so we bought a 300g pack of premade dumplings. It turns out that they are even easier and quicker to cook than pasta! I've adapted the original Total recipe down to two servings.

Splash of rapeseed oil (or olive oil)
100ml Fage Total greek yoghurt
1/2 red onion, diced
3 rashers smoked back bacon, cut into smallish pieces
125g baby plum tomatoes, halved
2 tbsp water
120g spinach leaves
300g gnocchi

Heat the oil in a pan. Add the onion and bacon and cook gently for about five minutes or until the onion has softened.

Add the halved tomatoes to the pan with the water and cook for five minutes until softened.

Add the spinach, cook until wilted, then remove the pan from the heat.

Preheat the oven to 190c. Our caravan oven actually needed 200c to get the bake bubbling within the time stated.

In another pan, bring salted water to the boil and add the gnocchi. Simmer for a couple of minutes until the gnocchi float, then drain them and add them to first pan.

Spoon the yoghurt in with everything else and stir to mix thoroughly. Don't be too energetic because you don't want to break up the gnocchi or the bacon bits. I thought the mixture looked far too runny at this point, but it dries out enough in the oven.

Pour the gnocchi mixture into an ovenproof dish and bake for 15 minutes or until the yoghurt is bubbling. Serve immediately. 

I used my large Le Creuset dish because it is attractive as tableware and we wanted to eat outside in our new awning where food cools more quickly. I thought keeping part portions in the oven dish would help retain its heat longer - and it did. Ironically, the sun had come out in the evening, after rain for most of the day, and it was soporifically warm in our 'conservatory'.

We both enjoyed this recipe, my only criticism being the toughness of some of the tomato skins. It would be a faff to pick them all out during cooking, but maybe cherry tomatoes would be better? Or a tbsp of tomato puree? I think this bake is a great base recipe for swapping ingredients and using up whatever we have to hand. I am already planning to use chorizo bits in place of the bacon, and maybe broad beans instead of spinach? The possibilities are endless!


Saturday, 20 June 2015

We go walking In The Rain! Clay Bank to Bloworth Crossing

Those of you who know us well will already know that we simply don't
Do weather, but after three days stuck indoors avoiding showers and chilly winds even Dave was ready to brave the elements. Dressed in all the waterproof gear we own, we drove to the Forestry Commission car park at Clay Bank, overshot it, and parked in the next large layby just before the spot where the Cleveland Way crosses the B1257. We swapped cheery hellos with a family picnicking in the layby - in the rain - and took the Cleveland Way uphill towards Bloworth Crossing. Our plan was a ten mile loop although, at this point, I wouldn't have been surprised if Dave had already starting suggesting going home. It's no fun when your glasses are permanently blurred with water.

Instead we followed the practically-cobbled Cleveland Way up into the
Not a great day for views 
clouds. Actually into clouds! The wind did get stronger as we ascended but it was still warm and we were both wishing we weren't quite so well dressed by the time we got to the top. Dave had also begun to suspect that his waterproof coat was no longer as waterproof as it had once been. The track was very clear which was fortunate as visibility was down to probably about 100m along the top and I was fascinated by the swirling cloud that I could feel on my face as we walked through it. Wildlife wasn't as obvious as usual. We did see skylarks, what we are calling a curlew, a couple of rabbits, and several grim-looking sheep. This was my first time out with my new walking poles and I am very pleased with them. Not having had shock absorbers on my last pair, that give took a bit of getting used to, but once I got the hang of it they were great.

Our route called us to take a right turn but we couldn't find it anywhere,
I'm sure that cloud is chasing us! 
so we continued on the Cleveland Way to Bloworth Crossing. This used to be where a railway - from ironstone mines on the moors to Battersby - crossed an ancient drove road. Vintage photographs online show a dozen or so railway workers cottages in a small settlement. However now there is only a small information placard there. Another way to our missing path should have materialised just after Bloworth Crossing, but we chose not to go that way because it was just a faint sheep trail setting out across the moors. We were concerned that if we lost sight of Bloworth Crossing and the Cleveland Way, and then the tiny path petered out, we could get ourselves very lost indeed. We do walk with phone GPS and an Ordnance Survey map, plus we had our lunch and a flask of coffee, so it was tempting to stride out regardless. Commonsense won the day though so we paused to eat our sandwiches before turning back the way we had come. We would still have a respectable seven mile walk and were pretty proud of ourselves for being there at all!

We saw our first Other Walkers on the return leg - a group of nine who
Not so happy here 
loomed up out of the mist like something out of a zombie movie. Their expressions ranged from cheerful to wry to miserable. I loved this stone marker, engraved at some point in the past with the North York Moors equivalent of a smiley face, and the centre of a bridleway sign informed us that we were temporarily on the Wainwright Coast To Coast walk. Did Julia Bradbury ever do that one for TV?

The rain had let up by this time leaving us just with the swirling clouds to contend with. Our path did suddenly become more popular though and we were overtaken by two more walkers, a fell runner and a mountain biker on the steep downhill back to our car. Going downhill also allowed us a sudden improvement in visibility as we came out below the cloud level again. Dave says the mist's effect was more intense but similar to his experience of a cataract. Scary stuff.

Wainwright's Coast to Coast Walk 
Our walk was just under four hours all told and we were pleased with that. I liked having seen the moors 'under their duvet' this one time, but the lack of distant views did make for a very different walk and we both agreed we prefer being able to see for miles. We didn't get too cold and I stayed nice and dry. Poor Dave ended up soggy through both his coat and his boots though so we are now considering whether to make a return visit to Go Outdoors for replacements (there's a sale on!) or whether just to never walk in the rain again!

I'll finish up by saying Congratulations to everyone who has been doing the Refugee Tales Walk this past week - 'a Walk in solidarity with Refugees and Detainees'. Our friend Andy had signed up to walk the 80 miles from Dover to Crawley and I think the group should be arriving at their destination tomorrow.

Still smiling at Bloworth Crossing 

Friday, 19 June 2015

Bonbons (astral) by Francis P Savinien / We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler / The Plantagenets by Derek Wilson

Bonbons (astral)Bonbons by Francis P. Savinien
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My first ForgottenBooks download for a while is this undated poetry collection by Francis P Savinien who, I think from his spelling, is an American poet. The book itself is undated and contains a few dozen short poems mostly quite overwrought affairs about life, death and love. Several are named for mythical people such as Bacchus, Eros, Medusa and the like. The writing style put me in mind of the art nouveau period but I'm not sure why!

I did enjoy reading these poems. Savinien employs different rhyming and rhythm devices to maintain interest, some more successfully than others. This isn't a volume that I think I would keep to return to, but reading it was a pleasant way to pass an evening.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dave bought the paperback of We Are Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler during his last Waterstones shopping spree when we returned to the UK in April. I hadn't read anything about it prior to picking up the book so didn't know anything about the 'otherness' of Fern until Fowler reveals her in the text. In her afterword, Fowler says that many people do already know and this doesn't detract from the novel. I don't want to give the secret away though - just in case there is still someone else out there in blissful ignorance. This stance does make reviewing the book a tad tricky!

I can say that We Are Completely Beside Ourselves is a very readable book, well plotted and with strong characters throughout. I liked our protagonist, Rosemary, a lot especially her discussions of memory and how events we think we remember aren't always as they actually were. We unwittingly alter our memories simply by repeatedly remembering them. The path that Rosemary's family chose to take - yes, I'm being deliberately vague for plot reasons - shocked me and I did google in disbelief. Scientists really did think this was a 'good' thing to do. There are several real life occurrences and relatively recently too!

This is certainly a thought-provoking book. Issues such as the consequences of lying to children, animal rights, scientific responsibility, our understanding of intelligence, and the blurred distinction between fighting for freedom / terrorism, are all thrust into the spotlight for the reader to consider. Fowler does include lots of long words so there were times when I wished I had it on Kindle with the inbuilt dictionary, but all in all, an engrossing and interesting novel.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

The Plantagenet Chronicles 1154-1485: Richard the Lionheart, Richard II, Henry V, Richard IIIThe Plantagenet Chronicles 1154-1485: Richard the Lionheart, Richard II, Henry V, Richard III by Derek Wilson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having recently listened to an audiobook about The Vikings, I skipped the Norman invasion of Britain and rejoined our history with William The Conqueror's descendants still ruling at the beginning of the Plantagenet era. Derek Wilson's book is another overview and covers three hundred(ish) years from Henry II until the ascension of Henry Tudor in 1485. There are interesting snippets throughout the book including the Plantagenet name being the result of a sprig of broom, 'planta genet' in latin, worn in Geoffrey d'Anjou's hat. I learned that the Robin Hood era kings, brothers Richard (the Lionheart) and (bad king) John were actually remarkably similar characters, their historical remembrance as polar opposites the result of biased medieval Christian scribes - Richard only murdered and robbed Muslims overseas, John robbed Christian clergy within England. Plus ca change, plus la meme chose!

Huge social changes took place during the Plantagenet era such as the writing of Magna Carta (one surviving example of which we saw in Lincoln), the beginnings of Lollardy and individual religious freedom, the Peasant's Revolt, and the horrific plague years which saw the peasant class finding themselves with glimmerings of real power for the first. Unfortunately, Wilson gives these only brief mentions as most of the book, regardless of which King is on the throne, is a ceaseless round of war after war after war. The Plantagenets were essentially Normans who spoke French and saw their Kingdom as stretching from the Scottish borders straight down to southern France. The French disagreed, as did the Scots, Welsh and, on occasion, the Castilian Spanish, resulting in a merry-go-round of battles over the same bits of land that does make for dry reading, especially when sons are named for fathers. I frequently found myself with deja-vu!

Much of the military information in The Plantagenets I know has failed to sink in and I had to force myself to keep reading at times. For this reason I wavered between two and three stars, eventually setting on three as the history is well-written in itself. I just would have preferred more about the Kings' and the peoples' day-to-day lives.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Thursday, 18 June 2015

North York Moors walk to Commondale

I'm backtracking a couple of days now in order to tell you about a walk
Our moor path 
we did on Monday. It was about eight miles in all and, at its farthest point, took in the very pretty village of Commondale. We started by parking in a big layby off the A171. (Just past Charltons heading towards Whitby the road splits to climb a hill. At the top, as the road merges again is the layby. Parking is free plus there's lots of room and a tea van!) We crossed over the A171 and started along the clearly signposted footpath. Grass and earth at first, once the ground becomes boggy someone has kindly laid lots and lots of slabs to walk upon so we had both a dry path and a clear view of it heading away over the horizon. I do love a path that looks to continue forever! The volume of water was a surprise to us as our previous walks around this area have been on noticeably dry terrain. This moor had little becks and pools, one of which had a miniature waterfall trickling into it and this stunning orange plant growing under the water. We commented that most of the water had a brownish tinge to it and this reminded us of our first holiday in Scotland. We stayed in a rural log cabin near Oban.

Anyone know what this stunning
orange plant is? 
Our lunch stop was a little early, but in the shelter of the valley. We
Stained glass windows at Commondale church 
descended a road through Sandhill Bank which looks like an abandoned quarry, and sat on a bench in the middle of Commondale. Commondale used to be a brickmaking village which is why their church is so different from any others around here. The red bricks glow in the sun and I love their trio of stained glass windows. Sheep and chickens wander at will through the village and I saw one plaintive 'please shut the gate' sign because 'sheep eat my garden'. A couple of little cottages there are for sale and we were particularly taken with one that has access to the beck!

Back uphill after lunch and 'Meml' on our Ordnance Survey map turned
War memorial near Commongate 
out to be this elegant memorial for two First World War soldiers, presumably local men. The stone is well away from the village and completely surrounded by moorland, but had a relatively recent wreath at its base so is obviously still a place of remembrance. We disturbed several grouse which flapped off squawking indignantly and got us pondering a question: do people 'grouse' because it sounds like the bird, or are the birds so named because of their disgruntled cries? The Online Etymological Dictionary notes a possible Old French root for the human action, but not for the bird name. On a roll, we also considered whether 'pharmacy' and 'farm' have the same origins. 'Pharma' is definitely from Greek and 'farm' must come from the French 'ferme', but does 'ferme' come from an original Greek meaning for the domestic growing of plants for medicinal purposes? Or do they just sound the same in modern English? It turns out that I need a different dictionary to answer that one, but 'farm' in an agricultural sense is pretty recent so it's probably just coincidental! I love language!

Although this walk was only just over half of our previous fifteen mile epic, we both found it more tiring which baffled us. Perhaps a greater proportion being uphill was the reason, perhaps the stronger wind at times, or perhaps just one of those random walking occurrences! Not including our lunch stop, we were on the move for just under four hours. Our car was patiently waiting in the layby, but the tea van had already shut up shop. I really need to remember our thermos before we set out, not at the point where I want a hot drink.

Beautiful moors and a tiny Dave 

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Lamb and leek soup recipe

It's the 17th of the month so Kiva repayments day today! Before I get on
Leek and lamb soup 
to the promised soup recipe, I'd like to tell you about my Kiva loans this month. I have received the first repayment from one of my 40th Birthday loans - Lurdes who is a shopkeeper in Timor-Leste - and I have made new loans to Hannatu who is a maize farmer in Nigeria, and Sandra - a Bolivian shopkeeper who wants to start selling ice creams. If you would like to join me on Kiva by clicking one of these links, you can get a free bonus loan to try it out!

Much like my recent Leftover-Lamb Pie recipe, today's concoction came about through a need to use up meat we had left after a roast lamb dinner. We had eaten leeks with this lamb so I also had three leek ends and one whole leek too, but no onion which is generally the ingredient with which I start a soup. I hoped the leeks would be a good onion substitute and they were. The prep does take a while, but I think the soup's appearance makes it worthwhile.

Splash of olive oil
2 leeks (or leek ends to make up that volume)
60g (ish) cooked lamb
500ml stock
1 tsp dried mint
1 tsp dried mixed herbs
Salt and pepper to taste

Wash the leeks and slice them into thin rounds, about 2-3mm. This is a good recipe to use up the less appetising green ends of leeks as it doesn't matter if they are a bit tougher. Cut each thin round into quarters.

Slice the lamb into similar thickness and sized shreds.

Splash a little olive oil into a saucepan over a medium heat. Add the leek and cook, stirring frequently to prevent browning, until the vegetable softens.

Add the lamb, mint, herbs and stock. I used chicken stock because that's what I had to hand, but a lamb stock would probably be best. Stir to combine and cover pan. Simmer for 15-20 minutes until stock is cloudy with the leek and lamb juices.

Season to taste and serve immediately.

I was inspired in the style and consistency of this soup by one we had as part of our Dutch Christmas dinner at Serro da Bica in Portugal. I don't like pureed meat in a stock - and our hand blender has given up the ghost anyway - so thought copying Hermann's fine slicing of ingredients would suit here.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

We buy an inflatable awning! Outdoor-Revolution Compact AirLite 340

We've spent rather a lot of money today - mostly at Teesside Caravans
Our new awning looking rather smart 
with a little at Go Outdoors too! No doubt you've all been on tenterhooks since the demise of our Towsure porch awning, eager to know with what we might replace it. No? Oh well, I'm going to write about it anyway!

Dave did all the research this time around. We considered another basic porch awning, a full-size awning, and a new-fangled inflatable awning. Our choice is limited by the odd door placement on the Bailey Orion which means that the back poles generally need to go right across the windows - which bow outwards - so the awning doesn't sit flush to the caravan side. A full awning would solve this, but they are generally heavy and look a faff to put up so Dave decided to focus on the new style inflatables. They don't have back poles - although we learned today that poles are an optional extra - and are supposed to be so quick to erect and dismantle that it would be easy for us to do this when strong winds are again forecast. Several companies now do versions but it is difficult to decide between them based on small photographs. Luckily, we are near a huge caravan shop and showroom, Teesside Caravans, which has awnings actually put up for customers to see. Dave measured outside Bailey and calculated that we could fit the mid-size 340cm Outdoor-Revolution models, gaining ourselves nearly a metre more space.

Standing inside our chosen Outdoor-Revolution Compact AirLite 340
And from the other side! 
allowed us to appreciate just how big it is! The fabric is much sturdier and I love the huge window panels. The doors are very wide with the option to have them all open or just half way.There are triangular 'sunroof' panels too so it feels light, and adaptable ventilation at the corners helps with airiness. The Awning Guy at Teesside was very helpful and happy to spend time explaining the features and also demonstrating how the air-filled pillars work. We got lucky as well because the shop has some factory seconds at £649 instead of the rrp of £749. The only fault is a little discolouration in places on the pale panels and all guarantees etc still stand. We talked about whether the marks would be irritating long term and decided, for the sake of £100, we could ignore them!

Having got our new awning home we discovered that the speedy putting
It came out, but will it ever go back in? 
up only actually applies to the main shell - which did go up within just a couple of minutes. What took absolutely ages, although should be a breeze once we get the hang of it, is pegging down the back pads so that they don't gape away from the caravan sides. It took us several attempts to work out exactly which strap is the best in which direction. Also, we hadn't fully considered that putting the awning over far enough to allow Bailey's door to rest in its catch means the awning end is just into the awning rail's downward curve. So one of our inflatable poles is at a screwy angle, making the gaping side even trickier to overcome. I think next time we put it up, we will move a foot or so further towards the back. The door won't then open all the way, but that's not really a problem and the awning pole should then be straight. The two inflatable bracing poles are far easier to use than their metal counterparts and only need one person to install them. Unfortunately one of ours keeps going flat so we think it must have a puncture or a dodgy seam. Dave is going to try and find the fault later, but we might need to take it back to swap for a good one. On the whole though, we are happy with our new awning and know from experience that we will learn its tricks and short cuts! And I am sure we entertained the other campers here for a while!

Teesside Caravans is only about five miles from a branch of my new
Super comfy trews 
favourite shop, Go Outdoors. It was such hassle to find a pair of convertable trousers that I liked that, now adoring my super-comfortable HiGear Nebraska ones, I thought I should buy and stash a second pair for when the first ones wear out. I also wanted new walking poles as the joints are shot in mine and they keep telescoping at inopportune moments! A timely email from the Camping and Caravanning Club had announced a new discount of 10% for members at Go Outdoors too. It only applies to the Discount Card price so you have to already have a Go Outdoors Discount Card, and isn't added on sale items. I got an extra £1.59 off my trousers bringing them down to £14.40, but the HiGear Walker poles I chose were already on special at a pair for a tenner. They are a little heavier than my knackered pair - which should mean extra anti-bingo-wing exercise! - and have antishock which the TrekRites didn't. I'm looking forward to trying them out on our next walk sometime soon.

Monday, 15 June 2015

The Waves by Virginia Woolf / Crazy As Chocolate by Elisabeth Hyde / Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

The WavesThe Waves by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first started listening to my Audible UK download of The Waves by Virginia Woolf in April and, although it is only a fraction over nine hours, it took me two months to get around to finishing. The Waves is a very different book to any I think I have read or heard before. Essentially prose poetry, it is told in the first person in turn by each of six protagonists, three male and three female. All are pretty much the same age and from the same privileged background. They met as children and we follow them through their lives.

I had great difficulty initially getting into the flow of The Waves (Woolf makes many watery puns, so shall I!) and it wasn't until about 1/3 down that I could really concentrate on what was being said. The early chapters, as children, consist of brief overlapping sentences which I found incredibly soporific. I just couldn't stay awake! Once the characters get older and indulge in longer, detailed monologues, this problem faded. Woolf has created strong individuals which are generally easy to identify whether the narrator has introduced them each time or not. I liked learning how they all saw each other as well as how they saw themselves. Plus the observations of time passing in the natural world and of social etiquette and customs are fascinating - Louis trying to hide his Australian-ness in the tea shop being a prime example

Woolf's snobbery is frequently apparent with maids in particular being only dismissively mentioned. I was also irritated by the patronising descriptions of 'little shopkeepers' and how idyllic it must be to only just make ends meet each week. One character, Bernard I think, even declares he would love to give up all his money for such a life. Tellingly, he doesn't!

I did enjoy the sheer joy in language of The Waves. Beautifully poetic writing is wonderful to hear and Julia Franklin is the perfect narrator. For me though, the lack of early accessibility and later overwhelming intensity meant I had to keep putting the book aside and my three star rating reflects this.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

Crazy as ChocolateCrazy as Chocolate by Elisabeth Hyde
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was lucky to spot a '3 for 99p' book box outside AgeUK in Stokesley last week. I picked up two Anne Tyler paperbacks and this novel, Crazy As Chocolate by Elisabeth Hyde. Her previous bestseller, The Abortionist's Daughter, is one I'm sure I have read and enjoyed, but can't remember anything about it. Oops! Better check if I reviewed it on Goodreads!

In Crazy As Chocolate we meet Izzy who is about to celebrate her 41st birthday. She's only a year older than I am so I could identify with her. What we do not have in common though is a bipolar mother who committed suicide on her 41st birthday. Izzy is dreading the day, even more so when her plans for a quiet break with husband Gabe are disrupted by the last-minute arrival of her father, sister and niece. With this hothouse situation set up, Hyde explores both the adult recriminations over what happened 28 years ago and takes her readers back to when the sisters were children, viewing events through their eyes.

For such a potentially heavy subject, I felt this was a surprisingly light read. Izzy's sister, Ellie, is probably the most defined character and the absent mother, Mimi, is an ethereal presence. Father, Hugh, is a good creation as an elderly man but, again, came across hazily in the historical sections. Issues such as whether bipolar disorders are hereditary are touched upon and much is made of Izzy's childlessness although I didn't actually get a sense of longing from her which seemed to contradict the text. I did like Crazy As Chocolate as a diversion on a rainy day. It doesn't make heavy demands on its reader and is fairly short at 243 pages. I would be interested in deeper fiction on the same topic, but for 33p this book was fine.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

Elizabeth Is MissingElizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had high hopes for Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey. So many friends on Goodreads and elsewhere have raved about it - even Dave thought it was great - so I am glad to report that I absolutely loved it too. Healey's portrayal of Maud is just perfect. I loved how we see her both from her own perspective and from the point of view of those around her, and the portrayal accepts that her predicament has its amusing moments, but is never malicious. I have two friends currently coping with their own mothers' dementia and Elizabeth Is Missing has given me a powerful insight into how tough caring for someone must be.

Maud's timeslips are nicely written and I liked that sometimes it wasn't immediately apparent whether she was in the present or the past. Also clever was the familiarity with which people such as the policeman at his station greet Maud so, as a reader, I knew that such visits were frequently repeated even though Maud herself has no memory of them. This novel has really opened my eyes to dementia and I found it a frightening prospect to think about. I also found reading the book to be an unexpectedly emotional experience, welling up at several moments.

In my opinion Elizabeth Is Missing is easily a five star read and also an important book that I think should be widely read. As I posted my rating on Goodreads I noticed another author, Anne Goodwin, has an interesting blog post about dementia in literature which also suggests other on-topic novels.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

View all my reviews on Goodreads