Monday, October 30, 2006

The Children of Green Knowe by L.M.Boston

The Children of Green Knowe

This magical children’s book was one of my childhood favourites. Over the last few weeks I have been revisiting it with my children, so I looked it up on Amazon, expecting it to be out of print, and was delighted to find that the whole series were republished in 2002.

Tolly is an eight year old boy starting his holidays from boarding school. His father is posted abroad with his step mother, his mother having died long ago. Having spent his previous holidays at the school he is intrigued but apprehensive to find himself on the way to visit his mother’s grandmother, who he’d never met, in her ancient family home, Green Knowe. A quiet, rather lonely child, he quickly makes friends with his young-at-heart great grandmother and in exploring the old house finds it peopled with the reminders of other children of the family who lived there long ago. Gradually the three children become real to him as he catches tantalising glimpses of them and his grandmother recounts their stories.

Vivid detail and lively characterisation create an enchanting story that fascinates old and young alike. This is the first chapter book that my six year old has been interested enough in to listen to for long periods of time. Snow, floods, Christmas, feeding wild birds, tea in front of the fire, spirit children and an old house with loads of stories are the essential ingredients, with the warm relationship of Tolly and Mrs Oldknow at the heart of it. Lucy Boston weaves them together with great artistry into a gentle story (though with some tense episodes of suspense) that is timeless, despite the 50's background of Tolly’s boarding school and absent father that are so far from the experience of most of today’s children. It is a dreamy and slow-paced narrative, creating a special atmosphere, rather than relying on action for its appeal. I recommend this for ages 7-11 but it can be thoroughly enjoyed by older and younger as well.

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

The Hundred Secret Senses

I really enjoyed Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter, so on my next visit to the library I made a beeline for the T’s and found The Hundred Secret Senses. Diving into it on my return home, initially I thought –‘nice but the same characters rehashed’. Delving further into the book revealed the differences. The same over all theme of old world China meets modern day America prevails: the disparity of a rural culture with hundreds of superstitions and beliefs and urban San Francisco that has dispensed with all that long ago creates the narrative tension around which the protagonists reluctantly dance.

Olivia is a photographer whose marriage has just fallen apart. She is half Chinese, half American and since she was five her Chinese half sister Kwan has both fascinated and irritated her with her stories of ghosts that she sees with her Yin eyes and her memories of her past life that she seems to remember in all its details. As an adult Olivia feels a guilty resentment towards Kwan, who has always loved her devotedly, but oppressively, however rude or offhand Olivia is to her. One of the main rocks that her marriage to Simon foundered on, was the ever-intrusive memory of his previous girlfriend who had died tragically, before Olivia met him. Kwan is determined to help repair Olivia’s marriage and a trip to China working on a travel article seems to be the ideal opportunity to bring them back together.

Amy Tan’s characters are brilliantly three dimensional. You start off sharing Olivia’s irritation with Kwan’s endless talk of spirits and past lives, but by the end, as Olivia’s understanding grows, you are brought to see that Kwan actually was the one who could see the truth beneath life’s facade after all. The emotional and spiritual depth of Amy Tan’s writing is always there but applied with a light hand and liberal doses of poignant humour.

These are books I want to buy, to keep on my shelf to dip into for refreshment. I don’t want to have to give them back to the library and lose this delightful well of quirky humour and idiosyncratic prose.

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Friday, October 20, 2006

My Family and other Animals by Gerald Durrell

My Family and other Animals

I’m re-reading this old favourite for the umpteenth time. I hesitate to call it a classic, as all too often it can be interpreted as weighty or inaccessible and Gerald Durrell’s writing is none of those things. Light and sparkling descriptions of his childhood in Corfu, hilarious anecdotes of his eccentric family and his absorbing interest in all things animal, conveyed with such enthusiam that it delighted me as a child reading it for the first time, just as much as it does when I revisit it now as an adult.

His family fled cloudy grey Bournemouth in the 1930’s for the scintillating shores of Greece long before tourism and package holidays changed the face of the Meditteranean. Unspoilt beaches, welcoming locals and a selection of dilapidated villas are the background for his story and it is peopled by his family: his older brothers - Lawrence, the writer whose prose is indeed weighty and impenetrable and Leslie mostly interested in sport of the double-barrelled variety, his sister Margo suffering the usual adolescent angst over her appearence and his mother, delightfully vague pottering around her kitchen preparing lavish meals. Gerald Durrell has a sure eye for the absurd and many lightning sketches of the eccentric guests who visit them and the tutors who occasionally try to educate him, as well as Spiro the Greek taxi driver who adopts them, enliven the pages.

I recommend this to anyone, who needs a dose of sparkling sunshine and refreshing, gentle humour and as a bonus you can learn about the tortoises’ courtship rituals, how scorpions raise their young and plenty more amusingly related snippets of natural history. Gerald Durrell was to me what Animal Planet is these days to my son, only in a more distilled form, an introduction to the endless variety of animal life and more importantly conveying such enthusiasm for it that you can’t help but be interested. Some of the stories may well have you giggling hysterically out loud, so read it in public at your peril!

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Plain Truth by Jodi Picault

Plain Truth

I had this on my list of recent new favourites to review before the recent tragedy in the Amish community, made it suddenly sadly topical. If anyone wants to gain understanding of the Amish culture and way of life this novel is an excellent introduction.

Hardened city attorney, Ellie Hathaway, who never loses a case even when her clients might well be guilty, is reaching breakdown point with her life and relationship. She retreats to her aunt in a small town on the fringes of the Amish community. Before she knows what has hit her, she has become drawn in to the unprecedented case of an Amish girl, Katie Fisher, accused of smothering her new born baby to conceal its existence. To keep her unwilling client from awaiting her trial in jail, Ellie agrees to act as her warden, which means she has to spend the next few months living the Amish life with her client’s family.

Jodi Picault uses the legal processes as a mere framework to the human drama . The gradual unfolding of the characters and the secrets of Katie’s past, intertwined with her dissociative state around the birth of her baby, accompanies Ellie’s quest for the truth, which constantly eludes her and keeps a tantalising element of uncertainty right till the end of the story. Through observing the simple Amish way of life and their philosophy of forgiveness, Ellie gradually comes to terms with the unresolved issues that caused her near breakdown and reshapes her life.

I was totally absorbed by this book. Knowing nothing of the Amish culture previously I was able to see it as a real, meaningful way of living rather than an anachronism. The simplicity of the Amish way of life contrasts dramatically with the complexities of the individuals living it. The feeling with which the characters were portrayed inexorably drew me in to become involved with the resolution of the case. I can’t wait to get my hands on another of Jodi Picault’s books, but the only other one we have here, My Sister's Keeper, my sister-in-law refuses to let me read, as it portrays quite a heart-wrenching dilemma, regarding a child with leukemia, which as a parent might be too traumatic for comfortable reading.

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Sunday, October 08, 2006


Welcome to any of my friends from Food and Family who have ventured over here! Thanks for coming and looking. I'll be adding reviews about twice a week from now on, and will promise not to duplicate the same posts on both blogs any more! I've got loads more work to do here to rearrange the furniture and move in properly, so please shift a pile of books off a chair, sit down with a cup of tea and relax.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Madhur Jaffrey and Spice in our life

Madhur Jaffrey

Recently I have been trying to reintroduce a little spice into our gastronomic lives. Once upon a time we were adventurous cooks and eaters, whizzing all around the globe in the space of one day’s meals. Years of feeding small children, though, has had the whole family on a nursery diet, ever since the first toddler started rejecting anything adventurous in flavour. My long-suffering husband occasionally would express a wistful hope of something spicy, but cooking two seperate meals was beyond my energy levels. Instead I am now trying a little ingenuity and low cunning. Nigel Slater’s Moroccan lemon chicken recipe, with a slightly reduced amount of spices, made it past the flavour censors. Another recipe I tried from Madhur Jaffrey’s book was rejected though.

Reading through her Eastern Vegetarian Cooking, which has languished unexplored on our shelves for years, I found a few vegetable recipes that were simple enough to do alongside a main meal. Inspiration struck. A spicy vegetable side dish for the parents. Now I can feed us all the vegetables that the kids won’t eat: aubergine, spinach, peppers, with a variety of authentic Indian spice combinations, liven up our tranquillised palates and embellish the plain meals the chidren desire. Maybe one day they’ll be sufficiently curious to try the grown-ups’ special dish and then we will take the first step towards the cosmopolitan family gastronomy that we once so optimistically hoped for.

Here is Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe that broke new culinary ground for me recently.

Neela’s Aubergine and Potato

4 tbs vegetable oil
½ tsp whole black mustard seeds
5oz/140g peeled diced potatoes ( ½ in/1 ½ cm cubes)
4oz/115g dice aubergine (½ in/1 ½ cm cubes)
1½ tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
¼ tsp ground turmeric
1/8 –1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp salt
1 tbs fresh green coriander (optional)

Heat the oil in an 8-10in/20-25cm pot with a lid, over a medium-high flame. When hot put in the mustard seeds. As soon as they start to pop (just a few seconds) put in the potato and aubergine. Stir once. Add the coriander, cumin, turmeric, cayenne and salt. Stir and fry for one minute. Add 3 tbs water, cover immediately with a tight fitting lid, turn heat to low and simmer gently for 10-15 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Stir every now and again. If the vegetable seem to catch at the bottom of the pan, add another tablespoon of water. Garnish with the chopped fresh coriander if you like.

I had all the spices except the mustard seeds and it was good even without them but I will try and add them to my new, revived spice rack, as they feature in a lot of her recipes.

Eastern Vegetarian Cooking was originally published in 1983, when cooking Indian meals at home was still a novelty in the average British or American home. The recipes are excellent and easy to follow. Madhur Jaffrey's latest book World Vegetarian is an updated, excellent resource for vegetarians or those wishing to cut down on meat, as so much of Indian and Eastern cooking is anyway vegetarian by tradition. Endless ways have evolved over a thousand years of making the same vegetable take on new taste sensations and interest. My mouth is watering now in anticipation of trying her bread recipes. I haven’t had Naan bread since we left London and came to a farm far away from the delights of takeaways and ethnic restaurants. Here whatever we want to eat we have to cook for ourselves. One step at a time, I’m reaching beyond our self-imposed nursery and rediscovering the world through recipe books. Adventure beckons!

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Bonesetter's Daughter

The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan

Two worlds meet: pre-Communist China and modern day San Francisco. As ghost-writer, Ruth struggles to find her way at a crisis point in her life, she gradually untangles the truth of her mother, Lu-ling’s story and learns about her grandmother, the three generations of women linked by courage and the instinct for survival.

The story carries you between Lu-ling’s childhood in Immortal Heart, a remote mountain village in China with all its ancient traditions and superstitions and Ruth’s very different growing up as an only child of a widowed mother in poor areas of San Francisco, carrying the burden of interpreting this strange western world to her mother.

From the back cover:”...The Bonesetter’s Daughter is an extraordinary and inspiring excavation of the human spirit. With great warmth and humour, Amy Tan gives us a mesmerising story of a mother and daughter discovering together that what they share in their bones through history and heredity is priceless beyond measure.”

Amy Tan writes with great understanding and flair, unfolding the characters a little at a time and turning them around so that by the end you see them from a new perspective with their life story told. They leap from the page into life, flawed but human and compelling.

This was my second time of reading and I found it just as absorbing as the first. I loved the contrast between the high pressured modern writer producing to deadlines on a computer and the traditional Chinese methods of mixing your own ink from a fine quality inkstick to produce the most exquisite calligraphy:
“when you push an inkstick along an inkstone, you take the first step to cleansing your mind and your heart. You push and you ask yourself, What are my intentions? What is in my heart that matches my mind”.
The complexities of mother/daughter relationships and the need for resolution and forgiveness were beautifully explored too.

Click here to order The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan from Amazon or find out more.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Great Books

My intention with this blog is to review and share all the great books, that colour my life with their stories. Books that engage, unwind, stimulate or challenge. Books that have earned a place on my shelves by passing the ultimate test - would I re-read this book. So far in my life I've been a reader, rather than a writer. Now as I start writing about books I've read, I hope I'll be able to live up to the expectations I have of the books I like to read: well chosen, flowing prose, a pinch of wit and a liberal dash of real life.

I had a rare opportunity to browse in a book shop without my children yesterday. I wandered around entranced, like a kid in a candy store, except that this kid could dip into the wares and sample a sentence here, a paragraph here. So many enticing covers, so many worlds to discover. How wonderful it would be, to grab a bagful of pristine, new books and settle on the sofa for a week without interruption...a mega chocolate binge of words.The fantasy bubble was pricked as my children reclaimed me. This blog is to be my fantasy bubble, where I can escape into the world of books, recline on a virtual sofa, share the books I've enjoyed and read other blogs to discover new ones.