Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Passed from foster home to foster home her entire life, eighteen year old Victoria finds it difficult to connect with people. As a coping mechanism, she uses the Victorian language of flowers to tell people how she really feels about them while keeping them at a distance. But one day she meets a young man who speaks her secret language, forcing her to confront a past she is keen to forget.

As Victoria makes bouquets that fix her clients lives and gain her a cult following, she struggles with feelings of inadequacy, a legacy of the repeated rejection she experienced as a small child. In Victoria, Diffenbaugh has created a heroine who is vulnerable without being Dickensian, so though the novel highlights the plight of children growing up in care and young adults leaving the system, it never feels excessively like a sermon. Many of the minor characters are similarly engaging and well outlined, though at times, customers in the shop and other cast members felt a little like devices for advancing the plot.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh reads like a hybrid of White Oleander and Like Water for Chocolate- A young woman shaped by her life in the system, and a young woman who has grown up without expresses her feelings by making things which physically or mentally affect others. This isn’t to say that this is derivative, I don’t think it is, but if you liked either of these, you may well enjoy reading this title.

This is a nice gentle read, and the story is pretty engaging. It also comes with a handy dictionary of flower meanings at the back of the book, so if you want to fill your house or garden with secret messages, it’s a handy starting point.

You might be interested to know that Vanessa Diffenbaugh has founded The Camellia Network to support young people aging out of foster care. The meaning of camellia in the language of flowers? My destiny is in your hands.

Penguin Random House… Wow.

Wow, so Penguin and Random House are, officially, to combine. And didn’t that get formally announced very quickly after the rumours started flying? What does this mean for The Big Six? Will they now be The Big Four and The Behemoth?

And with Penguin Random House promising to take risks, how will this shape publishing in the future? What are your thoughts on the merger?

The Yellow Birds- Kevin Powers

“The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onwards through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.”

The Yellow Birds Kevin Powers

While serving in the army in Iraq, Bartle and Murph told each other that the important thing is to avoid being the thousandth American military death of the conflict. If they died before or after, fine, they’d accept it, but neither of them wanted to claim the milestone for themselves. But war is about more than numbers, and when Bartle returns home without Murph, he is haunted by the promise he made Murph’s mother, and the actions he took in the wake of her son’s death.

Written by an Iraq veteran, The Yellow Birds is a different kind of war novel. Though the language used is often figurative to the point of flowery, the plot is pared back so that small moments expand beyond the moment they occupied in time, much like memories to create a realistic representation of lingering post-traumatic stress. The narrative is erratic, slightly disjointed so that through words of the introspective Bartle with his meandering descriptions of the bloodless, ghostlike Murph and seemingly sociopathic Sergeant Sterling, Kevin Powers creates a convincing portrait of three men bound and broken by a war beyond their control.

I can’t say I enjoyed this novel, because enjoyed is too light a word. It was both too realistic and too consciously stylised for that. Reading felt like an act of voyeurism, as though the book was an effort by the author to define and accept his experiences of war and I was spying on someone’s private nightmare. But it is a novel that lingers in its honesty, and, being about as far removed as it’s possible to be from the offerings of Chris Ryan and the like, is a powerful contrast to the vast swathes of Call of Duty and Medal of Honour narratives of modern warfare.

Author Peter Salmon talks about his Favourite Book

Peter Salmon, author of The Coffee Story

I always wonder what books authors like to read, so I recently contacted some of the great authors who have featured on my blog in recent years to ask what their favourite book is and why they enjoyed it. I’m pleased to introduce the first guest post from Peter Salmon, author of The Coffee Story.  I’m adding it straight to my reading list.

The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow
‘On Memorial Day in 1967 Daniel Lewin thumbed his way from New York to Worcester, Mass … With him was his young wife, Phyllis, and their eight-month-old son, Paul … The day was hot and overcast … and the traffic was wondering – I mean the early morning traffic was light, but not many drivers could pass them without wondering who they were and where they were going … This is a Tinline felt-tip marker, black. This is Composition Notebook 79c made in USA by Long Island Paper Products, Inc. This is Daniel trying one of the dark coves of the Browsing room … Daniel, a tall young man of twenty-five …’

From the moment I started The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow, I knew nothing would be the same. This is the most vicious, passionate, desperate, glorious and brilliant book I have ever read – The Coffee Story is basically a rip-off, and I’d owe Doctorow royalties if I earned any.

I won’t go into the plot – it’s loosely based on the execution of the Rosenbergs for spying in 50s USA –  but I do want to talk about it as a piece of writing. This was the book that first taught me that ANYTHING is possible in the novel – being a paid up member of the artsy wanky pomo clan before I read this, I was well versed in narrative techniques and saw them as some sort of intellectual game. Then this book came along and made me realise that when you embark on a novel the thing is to use every possible method to speak the narrative truth required. The Book of Daniel uses discontinuous narrative, time-shifts, POV shifts, not as a game, but because it’s a story that – literally cannot be told any other way.

And Doctorow tried. The first version of the book was written third person, calm, collected etc etc. Doctorow finished and realised he’d failed. So (and I’m exaggerating for effect, but not much) he threw the whole thing in the bin, and in sheer bloody frustration, wrote the opening paragraph above. And produced a howl of rage and pain that, in the end, can only be described by his own – Daniel’s own, summation of the work of Edgar Allen Poe, halfway through the book…

‘But historians of America fail to mention the archetype traitor, the master subversive, Poe, who wore a hole through the parchment, and let the darkness pour though… It’s Poe, not those other guys. He and he alone. It’s Poe who ruined us, that scream from the smiling face of America.’

Astonishing.

 

Follow Peter on Twitter

Swirly Cinnamon Rolls

This weekend I have mostly been making cinnamon swirly buns. I’ve had some disasters with making my own bread in the past, but these turned out pretty well.

The key to making these cinnamon buns well is patience. You have to let the yeast become active in gently warmed milk before trying to make the dough. You need to give the dough plenty of time to double in size before rolling out, filling with the sticky, buttery cinnamon and sugar filling, and then once that’s done, you need to let the buns begin to rise again before you attempt baking. This is lazy Sunday baking and takes a few hours, if you want to eat them for breakfast then you need to make them the night before and let the rolled up swirls have their second rise in the fridge.

 

Ingredients for cinnamon swirl buns

For the bun bread you will need

  • 600g strong, white bread flour
  • 250ml gently warmed whole milk
  • 1 tbsp of caster sugar to feed the yeast
  • 1 sachet (7g) of easy dried yeast
  • 2 large/3 medium eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 100g golden caster sugar
  • 80g melted unsalted butter

For the cinnamon swirls filling you will need:

  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 50 g soft brown sugar
  • 30g unsalted butter
  • half a teaspoon of flavourless vegetable oil (I used sunflower)
  • 2 tbsp golden caster sugar

How to make your cinnamon swirl buns

  1. Gently warm the milk to just above body temperature and dissolve one table spoon of golden caster sugar in this. It’s critical that this milk isn’t too hot as it will kill the yeast. When you’re happy with the temperature, stir in the sachet of yeast and leave until it’s beginning to bubble slightly (it might look a little lumpy).
  2. Melt the butter over a low heat, you want it to be liquid enough to stir in easily, but not hot enough to kill the yeast when it’s combined with the warm milk.
  3. Combine the dry ingredients (holding back about a cup of the flour) in a bowl and stir thoroughly. When the wet ingredients are prepared, fold into the mixture until your dough forms.
  4. The mixture should be soft but not too sticky. Gradually add the extra cup of flour that you’ve held back from the 600g if your mixture is too wet. When you’re happy with the texture, knead the dough until it’s firm but springy. Put this in a warm place covered with a damp cloth to help it rise, this takes about an hour but will take longer if it’s a cold day or your room is chilly.
  5. Use this time to prepare the filling by mashing all of the filling ingredients together to make a smooth spread. The half teaspoon of oil will make this easier to do and will make it easier to spread on the bread when it is ready.
  6. When the dough has doubled in size, knead it again to knock a lot of the air out before forming it into a sausage shape. Roll it out into a rectangle which is about a third as long as it is wide, about 1.5cm thick.
  7. Spread your filling all over the dough, leaving about an inch border around the edges so that the dough sticks together.
  8. Roll the dough up along the long edge so you have a long thin sausage, and pinch the ends to seal. Using a very sharp knife, cut out rolls which are an inch thick.
  9. Lie these rolls on a greaseproof lined paper baking tray so that the swirl is facing up. I use a tray bake tin for this and they join together like a tear and share.
  10. Allow the bread to rise again for about half an hour, using some of this time to preheat your oven to gas mark 4. Bake at this temperature for 15-20 minutes depending on your oven.
  11. When they’ve cooled slightly, you could glaze with jam or icing. I’ll be honest, I just used a white icing pen for speed after all the waiting for things to rise.

With your arms aching from all the kneading, you’ll have plenty of time to read while everything rises. I finished reading The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers while I was waiting.

Tips

  • Use golden caster sugar for a better colour in the bread but you can use white if that’s all you have.
  • Putting the buns close together in a baking tray helps them keep their swirl and stay moist while they bake.
  • Glazing all over the bun would probably help them keep moist longer, storing in an airtight container also helps.
  • Eat as many as possible on the day of making. They’re still great the next day with a cup of tea but they are a little stodgier then.

Anna Karenina The Movie

Film poster from imdb.com

I went to see Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina at The Ultimate Picture Palace in Oxford last night. I really enjoyed it.

The whole film was really stylised; lots of balletic movements, physical stage scenery blending into very stagey settings, characters observing the action from wings and galleries. It was beautiful but oppressive which matches the feel of the novel quite well.

The pace of the film was frantic, which I guess it had to be to fit in as much of the novel’s content as it did. I was really impressed by how much the film tried to cover, though I think that without reading the book you wouldn’t fully appreciate the relationships between characters like Kitty and Levin.

Matthew Mcfayden played Oblonsky brilliantly, for me he brought a warmth and humour to the character that Tolstoy tried to suggest but didn’t quite manage to convey. Jude Law was great as Karenin, evoking both disgust and sympathy. I wouldn’t have known it was Law if I hadn’t seen the billing beforehand. Keira Knightley was much better than I expected her to be, but her inability to alter her voice at all when she acts always means that for me, she’s playing Keira Knightley, her wild-eyed acting made her look a lot like Winona Ryder, which made me think how much better Ryder would have been at playing this part. I’m not sure who decided that Vronsky should be blonde (he’s clearly described as being dark) but it suited Aaron Taylor-Johnson well enough, and let it be a testimony to his good looks and acting skills that he managed to carry off the porn star moustache without looking completely sleazy.

Impressive, with fantastic costumes and scenery, but I can’t help hoping that one day someone will do a less stylised, more comprehensive TV adaptation.

100 Artists for Literacy

 

100 Artists for Literacy

100 Artists for Literacy.

I loved the above post on Anni Cardi’s blog, which links you to a charity Doedemee selling posters of redesigned book covers to help raise money to fight illiteracy.

Guess where I’m shopping this month! I think I’ll probably get the Wuthering Heights design for myself,  because it’s completely gorgeous AND one of my favourite books.

The posters for Alice’ Adventures in Wonderland, Anna Karenina, Wind in the Willows, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atonement and Northern Lights are also amazing. I might ask for some for my birthday/Christmas.

The Casual Vacancy- J.K.Rowling

I’ve just finished reading The Casual Vacancy. I wasn’t in any hurry to read it because the marketing hype has really irritated me, but when my boyfriend bought me it I thought, might as well give it a go, and if it isn’t any good, well, at least everyone likes a sneery review and I can add mine to the masses who’ve churned them out.

But, BOOM! She’s done it again, and there will be no sneering here.

Following the death of local Councillor Barry Fairbrother, the parish of Pagford is thrown into turmoil. Opposing factions scurry to have their candidate brought forward to fill the gap the saintly Barry left behind and put an end to the secret war that has been waged behind the lace curtains of Pagford for nearly sixty years. And as tensions reach a boiling point in the crucible of Pagford, pitting wife against husband, son against father, and almost everyone against poor Krystal Weedon; the residents are haunted both literally and figuratively by the ghost of Barry Fairbrother.

In case it hasn’t been made abundantly clear yet, this is not Harry Potter. Or, as JK Rowling might now put it, this is not Harry f—ing Potter. And yet, people will wonder how they compare, so it seems silly to ignore the subject.

Obviously, the Harry Potter books are very plot driven, usually involving some manner of quest, trials, good and evil. The Casual Vacancy is far more character driven, the impetus of the story coming from the raggle-taggle cast of at-best-flawed-at-worst-despicable characters that Rowling has so acerbically set down.

Rowling’s characterisation is brutal and brilliant. Instead of the stock characters that we came to know and love, or hate, in Harry Potter, we have a far more complex array of characters, many of which we’d recognise from our own lives; the yummy mummy yearning to be a teenager again, the weak man looking for a weaker woman to make him feel strong, the teenage cynic railing at the wold. I’m sure there are those who would argue that these are still, to an extent, stock characters. Perhaps, but the execution and Rowling’s mastery makes them feel real.

The pace of the novel may, in parts, be a little slower than some readers will appreciate. I did feel that it took a little while for me to get sucked into the quagmire of village life, but once I did I forgot that I was trying to critically read Rowling’s latest offering and got lost in the genuinely absorbing book that I was reading.

There is the odd wobble, some weird imagery and description, especially for me on p 133 when Rowling describes the sight of a tampon wrapper as being “like a rare comet”, and a teenage boy being overwhelmed by the idea that a teenage girl menstruating “this actual, physical evidence that a girl in his vicinity was having a period there and then”. This reminded me really strongly of a passage in The Virgin Suicides:

 “In the trash can was one Tampax, spotted, still fresh from the insides of one of the Lisbon girls. Sissen said that he wanted to bring it to us, that it wasn’t gross but a beautiful thing, you had to see it, like a modern painting or something, and then he told us he had counted twelve boxes of Tampax in the cupboard… Peter Sissen sped down the stairs, blushing, and after thanking Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, hurried off to tell us that Lux Lisbon was bleeding between the legs that very instant, while the fish flies made the sky filthy and the streetlamps came on.” The Virgin Suicides Jeffrey Eugenides

I don’t know whether this is now a common symbol of burgeoning male sexuality and I’ve missed the memo, or whether they were intended to show that, bless, teenage boys can be a bit gruesome, but the similarity struck me.

Unlike Harry Potter, The Casual Vacancy is overtly political. Jan Moir writing for The Daily Mail complained that it is “more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature.”  You can see why The Daily Mail might be antsy, lots of people in the UK use the expression “they read the Daily Mail” as short hand for “they are right-wing and bigoted” and Rowling uses the same oblique reference by placing The Daily Mail in the vicinity of some of her more unpleasant characters while attacking everything the Mail stands for. Personally, I didn’t find the political aspect distressing, but that might be because it was fairly sympathetic of my general politics. Besides, since when was it a bad thing for literature to double as a social commentary?

In short, I liked it. It’s certainly a blunt instrument in a political sense, but it is a strong effort which I think has attracted undue criticism as a result of Rowling’s prior success. Adult reviewers seem to be genuinely rattled by a book which reflects a real world in which there is no Dumbledore with a wand to make things better for the deserving, by a book which dares raise the question of who can be considered deserving.

Maybe the book could have been improved. Who am I to judge? But for me, the only thing that would have made it better would have been for Rowling to dedicate the novel to David Cameron and his Big Society instead of to her husband.

NaNoWriMo

I’ve heard about NaNoWriMo and always been tempted to have a go at it, but decided that I didn’t have time. However after reading about it on mattdantodd.com I decided that I would have a go. I have signed up on the National Novel Writing Month website, even though I’m in the UK there is a group for my local area.

Now that I am signed up, I am recruiting writing buddies. So, how about it? Join me at NaNoWriMo and add bookandbiscuit as your writing buddy.

Pleeeeease?!