Thursday, 22 October 2015

Recommended Reads (and Drinks) for Autumn

As the evenings draw in and the clocks go back, I always find myself reaching for the same kind of books. These are usually the kind that are perfect for snuggling up with - crime novels, romances, thrillers - the kind of books that make you glad it's blowing a gale and raining sideways outside, so you can stay in and keep reading. Here I've recommended some of my favourites for the season, and a drink to accompany them as you read away the dark autumn days (well, you've got to keep yourself hydrated, right?):

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
I love reading this book especially in autumn because I always imagine Manderley, the house where most of the story occurs, is shrouded in the kind of mists you only get at this time of year. It is, essentially, a ghost story, which is perfect for the season – the narrator is haunted by the memory of Rebecca, her predecessor as the wife of Maxim de Winter. Everything about this book is full of tension and foreboding, from the narrator’s first view of the great house to the descriptions of the stormy night that Rebecca died. Throw in the menacing Mrs Danvers and you’ve got a Gothic romance that, sometimes, is as creepy as a true-blue ghost story like The Turn of the Screw.
Recommended Drink: A large glass of red wine, to help calm your nerves whenever Mrs Danvers appears on page.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Another novel in a setting I always imagine as foggy, The Miniaturist is the tale of another young bride, Nella, arriving at her new husband’s house, apprehensive but hopeful. What she finds, however, is a household run by her intimidating sister-in-law, where all the inhabitants appear to be keeping something from her. A distraction arrives in the form of a doll’s house replica of her new home, which she sets to furnishing with the help of an unseen Miniaturist, who quickly becomes a menace when un-ordered items arrive that seem to foretell the future. Before long, Nella is unravelling her new family and home’s secrets, all the while unsure of whether the Miniaturist is an ally or an enemy. It’s not quite a thriller, nor a mystery, nor a historical novel, but a good mix of the three and perfect for curling up with.
Recommended Drink: The story is set in Amsterdam, so I’m going to suggest a beer – a proper one, mind, none of this Fosters business.

I get the train every day, usually at the same time, along the same route, and rarely does the countryside look as beautiful as it does in early morning autumn sunshine. The Girl on the Train takes place in the summer, so really it’s just the connection of trains that gets this book a place in this list – that, and Rachel’s (one of our narrators) familiarity with her own commute route. She’s a little too familiar with it, actually, concocting a backstory for a couple she espies from her train every day, and becoming so involved in her fantasy that, when she sees something that threatens it, she begins to insinuate herself into the couple's lives. It’s got a great pace and hooks you into the story pretty quickly, so it’s perfect to start on a grey Sunday afternoon as day seeps into night.
Recommended Drink: Given the alcoholism of one character, it might be in poor taste to recommend alcohol, so I’m going to go with a virgin mojito (it’s a thing…)

The Secret Place by Tana French
Bit of a hollow connection here, but this is set in a school, autumn is the season of going back to school, etc. After a boy is found murdered in the grounds of a prestigious all-girls school, the police throw all their resources into solving it – but the cliques of teenage girls are a hard nut to crack and the murder goes unsolved. Until, that is, a pupil finds a note tacked in The Secret Place – a noticeboard that allows pupils to spill secrets anonymously – stating only, ‘I know who killed him.’ The story is told in the popular dual format – part of the story comes from the perspective of a young officer helping re-investigate the murder, and the other is a third-person narrative detailing the lives of a core group of girls in the years and events leading up to the murder. It’s a bit slow-going at times – at over 500 pages it might be a bit overlong – but French keeps you guessing all the while, and the climax is worth slogging through the duller patches.
Recommended Drink: Cider, to help get you back into the mindset of being a teenager.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
What better companion to a wild and windy night, than a murder mystery? And what better murder mystery than the Queen of Crime’s best work? Ten strangers, with no apparent connection to each other, are lured to a house on a remote Devonshire island under false pretences – it’s not until one of their number drops dead and a record plays that they realise the true reason for their presence. With no escape, numbers dropping fast and suspicion breeding distrust and paranoia, the inmates of the house find themselves driven close to insanity as they struggle to identify their assailant in time to save their own skins. It’s as creepy as any traditional ghost story and incredibly tense, so carve out an afternoon for this one – you won’t want to put it down.
Recommended Drink: It’s got to be a classic cocktail, to match the time period – a gimlet, perhaps?

The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
A warming romance now, featuring Henry de Tamble who, due to a rare genetic condition, frequently finds himself displaced in time, physically returning to events that have already occurred. This is how he meets his future wife, Claire, an artist whose early years and teens are haunted by a man who claims to know her in the future. It’s a bit dodgy on the science front – obviously – and I did sometimes get the heebie-jeebies thinking about how Henry spends a lot of time hanging around with a child he later marries. But ultimately it’s sweet, poignant and clever, dividing time equally between the man who can never stay in one place, and the woman who gets left behind.
Recommended Drink: A big steaming mug of tea, to compliment the warmth of the story.

This is a great book to read on a cold day when you’re all toasty-warm inside. Set in Alaska in the early years of the 20th century, Jack and Mabel are hoping to get a second chance at life after a personal tragedy. But the bleak Alaskan landscape, the hardness of the farming life and the weight of the past threatens to destroy everything they hoped to build. It’s not until they’re befriended by their nearest neighbours, the hardy Esther and George, and the mysterious girl Faina appears from the woods, that their new life seems possible. It’s a fairy tale that’s not afraid to address loss and depression, and the origins of Faina is a tantalising mystery that keeps you guessing throughout the novel.
Recommended Drink: Hot chocolate, made with milk (NOT hot water), with marshmallows in.

Any particular books you always find yourself reading at this time of year?

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Food, Glorious Food

Well, I’m back from my (completely intentional and not at all accidental) summer hiatus and quite frankly, I am more than ready for autumn. Don’t get me wrong, I love summer – pub gardens, leaving the house without a jacket, long sunny evenings – but at heart, I like jumpers and chunky scarves and boots, and these items of clothing are just not compatible with warm weather. I have a very romantic idea of what autumn is like – crisp sunny mornings, brightly-coloured leaves, sitting by a roaring fire in the pub... Never mind that the reality is usually grey drizzly days that cause leaves on the ground to turn to a mushy, slippery pulp, or that it’s nigh impossible to get near the fire in any pub, if they have one – I love autumn. And one of my favourite things about autumn is FOOD, because regardless of how little my autumnal expectations match up to reality, food is never an issue. Be gone, light summer dishes and salads! Hello, roast dinners, bangers and mash, lasagnes, casseroles, baked potatoes…  

No, this hasn’t morphed into a food blog over the summer - I am going somewhere with this, trust me. A little while ago, I wrote about some of my favourite passages about food, and since then, I’ve come across a few more. In the spirit of what I like to think of as the Training-For-Christmas period, I’m going to share them with you:

Danny’s Pie – Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Dahl is surprisingly good at describing food – it's easy to miss between all the other crazy, hair-brained stuff he came up with but some great food is in there too - the sweets of the Chocolate Factory, and Mr Fox’s fantastic feast, are two such examples that spring to mind. However, one that particularly gets me salivating is a short passage in my favourite Roald Dahl book, Danny, the Champion of the World. It’s just after Danny’s dad has broken his foot, and the doctor’s wife is worried about Danny eating, so sends a package with her husband when he pops by for a check-up:
'Very carefully, I now began to unwrap the grease-proof paper from around the doctor's present, and when I had finished, I saw before me the most enormous and beautiful pie in the world. It was covered all over, top, sides and bottom, with a rich golden pastry. I took a knife from beside the sink and cut out a wedge... It was a cold meat pie. The meat was pink and tender with no fat or gristle in it, and there were hard-boiled eggs buried like treasures in several different places.'

Minnie Frying Chicken – The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Minnie is a maid in 1960’s Jacksonville, a gourmand, and a brilliant cook. She’d be in high demand, if it weren’t for the fact that her cooking is 'nearly as sassy as her tongue’ (that’s a quote from the blurb, not me – makes you cringe, right?). Naturally, if you’re a writer, you’re not going to give a character a particular skill or trait unless you can back it up in the story, and there are several passages in The Help that lend credence to this claim on Minnie’s culinary wizardry. One that always sticks in my mind though – probably because it’s something I love to eat, when it’s done properly – is when Minnie is teaching her inept new employer how to make fried chicken:
'I turn on the flame and we watch [the Crisco] melt down in the pan.... "Chicken's been soaking in buttermilk," I say. "Now mix up the dry." I pour flour, salt, more salt, pepper, paprika, and a pinch of cayenne into a doubled paper sack. 
"Now. Put the chicken parts in the bag and shake it." Miss Celia puts a raw chicken thigh in, bumps the bag around...  Real careful, I lay the dark meat in the pan. It bubbles up like a song and we watch the thighs and legs turn brown.'

Elsa’s Big Breakfast - The Bed and Breakfast Star by Jacqueline Wilson
Weekend/occasion breakfasts are one of my favourite things. Whether out in town or at home, there are few things that feel as weekend-y to me as a proper breakfast. No cereal, toast or porridge here (unless as accompaniments) – I’m talking bacon sandwiches, a Full English, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, Heuvos Rancheros – proper breakfasts, that are meals in their own right rather than just something to get your day started. Elsa’s breakfast at the Star Hotel, towards the end of the book, is probably an early influence for this appreciation:
'I had milky tea and cranberry juice and cornflakes sprinkled with rainbow sugar and then muesli with extra sultanas and apple rings and then scrambled egg on toast with tomato sauce and then sausages stuck in a long roll to make a hot dog and then a big jammy Danish pastry and I ate it all up, every little bit.'

To be honest, everything about this book is delicious, but there are multiple, all-too-brief descriptions of food in it that just get me every time – and, as I can read this book in one sitting, by the time I’ve finished it I’m nearly always craving some cold chicken, some ham and coffee (I don’t even like coffee), or a huge sundae:
Breakfast: 'Soon the blissful aroma of fried ham and eggs and coffee filled the air. She discovered an electric toaster. Toast took it's correct place. She went back into the room. "Everything is ready, Miss LaFosse."'
Lunch: 'They lunched at home, and Miss Pettigrew prepared it. She discovered the remains of a cold chicken in the pantry. Cold chicken, to her, was the height of luxury. Miss LaFosse opened a bottle of Liebfraumlich and made her drink some.'
The Ice: '... The ice was a marvellous concoction... There was cream and fruit and nuts and ice cream and a wonderful syrup, all skilfully blended. She slowly turned each ambrosial spoonful round her tongue.'

Molly Weasley Makes Dinner – Harry Potter by J. K Rowling
I think some of the death scenes in the earlier Harry Potterbooks leave something to be desired, but one thing JK does well, in my opinion, is food. In my last post on the subject I mentioned Harry’s first feast at Hogwarts, but let’s not forget Ultimate Mum, Mrs Weasley, and her literal culinary wizardry. Molly’s meals never fail to make my mouth water, and here are just  two examples:
The Chamber of Secrets: 'Mrs Weasley was clattering around, cooking breakfast a little haphazardly, throwing dirty looks at her sons as she threw sausages into the frying pan... "I don't blame you, dear", she assured Harry, tipping eight or nine sausages onto his plate, "Arthur and I have been worried about you, too. Just last night we were saying we'd come and get you ourselves if you hadn't written back to Ron by Friday. But really," (she was now adding three fried eggs to his plate), "flying an illegal car halfway across the country - anyone could have seen you"... 
"They were starving him, mum!" said George. 
"And you!" said Mrs Weasley, but it was with a slightly softened expression that she started cutting Harry bread and buttering it for him.'
The Half-Blood Prince: 'She tapped the pot again; it rose into the air, flew towards Harry and tipped over; Mrs Weasley slid a bowl neatly beneath it just in time to catch the stream of thick, steaming onion soup. 
"Bread, dear?" 
"Thanks, Mrs Weasley." 
She waved her wand over her shoulder; a loaf of bread and a knife soared gracefully on to the table. As the loaf sliced itself and the soup pot dropped back on to the stove, Mrs Weasley sat down opposite him.'

The Bakery – The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
There are many beautiful descriptions in this book, but some of my favourites are from scenes within the bakery owned by Emilienne, the titular Ava's grandmother. I love baked goods – crunchy bread, cream cakes, iced buns – and the description of such delights in this book do nothing for any of my half-hearted attempts to stay away from such treats. This particular passage about a woman finally giving in to temptation is one of the most delicious in the book:
'Before her neighbour had a chance to object, Emilienne marched out to the front of the store and stuck the frosting-covered spoon in Marigold's mouth. 
Few people know this feeling: what it is to give in to a long-denied desire, to finally have a taste of the forbidden. After swallowing that mouthful of frosting, Marigold stumbled backward out of the store... In a daze, Marigold walked straight to her kitchen, tracking muddy footprints across her spotless linoleum floor. She pulled out her dusty cookbooks and began marking pages of the sweets she never allowed herself to eat. Then she tied an apron around her waist and set to making a coconut cake. 
Later, still wearing the apron - now covered in gratings of coconut and splashes of vanilla extract - Marigold ate the cake: the whole cake, including every lick of frosting left in the mixing bowl and on her fingertips.'