The Miniaturist

miniaturist

When eighteen year old Nella joins the household of her new husband, Johannes, in Amsterdam, she finds that marriage is not at all what she expected. She barely sees Johannes and finds it impossible to please his frosty sister, Marin. To provide her with distraction, Johannes buys Nella a dolls house – a perfect replica of their house but in miniature. Although initially dismissive of the gift, as Nella struggles to fulfil her new role as wife to a man that is never there, nor interested and fails in a power struggle with Marin to run the household, she sets about decorating her house. And so she engages the Miniaturist, a mysterious artisan who makes exquisite miniatures to furnish the house. However, there is something eerie about the miniatures in their uncanny resemblance to things the miniaturist has never seen and can’t possibly know. Soon Nella realises that the miniatures that keep arriving unbidden forewarn of danger to her family, like a prophecy. Just who is the mysterious miniaturist? And can Nella and Johannes survive the danger that her gifts predict?

The Miniaturist was an intriguing read that had me hooked from the start. The setting of 17th century Amsterdam is quite beguiling and Jessie Burton weaves a dark and dangerous web that is hard not to get caught up in. Despite the promising start however, there are a number of plot holes that prevented this being a truly amazing book and I found it quite hard to believe the relationships between the characters. As I mentioned, there is a lot of darkness and mystery in the plot, but I don’t feel that enough was ever really resolved, leaving the ending quite unsatisfying. And although the plot was deeply absorbing, it kind of felt like it went round in circles at times towards the end, with no real resolution. I guess I was expecting some kind of magic, which never quite materialised. Still, an enjoyable, easy read for my first review of 2015!

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Book Thirty-Nine: Such a Long Journey

suchalong

So as mentioned in my previous post, I have just been away in India… well it may not surprise you, given that many of the books I have read and love this year have been India – but I am somewhat obsessed with India. It just fascinates me. So, I thought it would be apt to read another book by Rohinton Mistry, author of A Fine Balancewhich has been possibly my favourite book of the year!

Such a Long Journey, is set in 1970’s Bombay and revolves around a Parsi family, headed by Gustad Noble, an honourable and devoted family man, who works hard to keep his family safe and out of poverty. The main action of the novel revolves around the struggles of his family – his son Sohrab defies his father by refusing to go to engineering college, whilst his little daughter falls sick. Alongside these family dramas, Gustad becomes embroiled in the politics of the day – the controversial rule of Indira Gandhi – and becomes unwittingly involved in a secret plot against the government.

Such a Long Journey is beautifully written, but it what I would call a quiet novel. The plot is slow moving and largely centred around the family and domesticities, meaning that it is light on action and excitement. Instead it is atmospheric and subtle. Enjoyable but not thrilling or gripping and despite being in India while reading this book, I did not connect with it in the same way that I did with A Fine Balance. Of course that is the book that I wished I could have read in India – I think it is always going to be one of those books that I could read all again for the first time. I did try to encourage my fellow yogi travellers to read it (someone had brought along a copy) but we were all too preoccupied by the sun and the pool and the food and taken in by the chilled out way of life in Goa. I guess when you love a book so dearly, anything else will never live up to it, and despite it’s subtleties, Such a Long Journey is still beautifully and intricately written. And of course I learnt something about a period of turmoil in India that I had no appreciation for at all. Well worth a read, but read A Fine Balance too!!

Book Thirty-Eight: The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

love song

Please excuse the hiatus on blog posts – I’ve just returned from sunny Goa, so am rather behind with my reviews!

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is a sister tale to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which I read and loved earlier this year. It fills in the gaps left by TUPOHF – namely Queenie’s story that she narrates from the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, whilst waiting for the arrival of Harold Fry as he makes his way across the country. Like TUPOHF, this book is full of charm and incredibly moving. Queenie’s tale is both bewitching and poignant – she is not just a woman who wears a brown suit and has no life, but a woman who has loved and lost and stayed true to her love for many years.

Rachel Joyce writes with a love and care that will wrap around you like a nice hug. It’s not all sparkles and happiness, but a story with real light and shade. If you loved TUPOHF, then this is well worth reading. Personally I preferred it to Queenie’s story, but really felt that this book bought both characters full circle and gave some closure. A very clever idea, but also a brilliant and moving novel in it’s own right. I also feel that you could read the books in either order – they are like brother and sister, not parts one and two.

Book Thirty-Seven: The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

I’m ridiculously off-track with my challenge now, so better late than never with this review – a real dream of a book – The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared.

100 yr old man

It’s Allan Karlsson’s one hundredth birthday and he can’t face the party that the nursing home is putting on for him, so he takes a quiet opportunity to climb out of the window and run away. From that moment he begins an unlikely adventure across Sweden that involves stealing several million Krona and leaving a trail of corpses in his wake. He also meets a motley crew of characters: Julius, the petty thief, Benny, the almost-vet/doctor/carpenter/jack of all trades, The Beauty and her elephant Sonya and mobster Pike (aka the Boss). Baffled yet? Well so are the police on his trail – has Allan been kidnapped or is he a murderer?! And how does it all fit together? In parallel to Allan’s present day adventures, we learn more about this centenarian’s remarkable life and his involvement with some of history’s key events and figures – from saving General Franco’s life in the Spanish civil war, having dinner with Stalin, receiving money from Chairman Mao and playing a pivotal role in the development of the atomic bomb!

This book is so wonderfully absurd, that it won’t fail to make you smile! I loved the twists and turns the story took – it is pure farce at times, but it’s hilarious. Allan is anything but a doddery old man – he is a genius! I would definitely recommend this book, it is deliciously quirky and a great work of fiction!

I realise I’ve not done much cooking of the books lately, but fear not – I am back this week! I went with a Swedish theme and decided to bake…

Cinnamon Buns!

You need:

For the buns:

300ml whole milk
1 tsp ground cardamom seeds (about 25 pods)
50g butter
425g plain flour
7g fast action yeast
60g caster sugar
¼ tsp fine salt
1 egg, beaten lightly
Oil, to grease

For the filling
75g butter, softened
50g dark brown sugar
2tsp cinnamon
½ tsp salt

To finish
1 egg, beaten lightly
Demerara sugar, to sprinkle

Method:

1. Start by grinding cardamom seeds in a pestle and mortar. Place the milk in a saucepan, add the cardamom and then gently heat until it is just below the boil. Add the butter (which will melt), stir and leave to cool slightly.

2. In a large mixing bowl, combine all the dry ingredients. Make a well in the centre and add the egg. Mix well and then strain the milk into the mixture. Bring together in a dough. Warning: the dough will be very wet/sticky!

3. Grease a clean surface with oil so it doesn’t stick and then tip the dough out onto the surface and knead for about 5 minutes. It will stick to your hands/the worktop/anything else, so use more oil if necessary and be prepared for a mess!! Eventually it will become less sticky and dough like or you will just get so fed up that you give up then anyway! Wipe out your mixing bowl and grease this with oil and then place the dough back in the bowl. Cover with clingfilm. Here is a pic of my dough at this stage for reference:

IMG_17954. Place your bowl in a warm, draught-free place – if you have one of those fancy bake off proving drawers (as if) then that would be ideal, but I used the cupboard which has the boiler in! You could use a warm windowsill too but good idea to keep it covered with a tea towel too if you do that. Leave to prove for 30 mins. While it’s proving, scrap all the sticky dough off the work surface/floor/ceiling/your face!

5. Make the filling by beating everything together in a bowl. Make sure it’s well combined so you don’t end up with lumps of plain butter, but remember that it will melt down in the oven so don’t worry too much if it’s a bit lumpy/uneven. Heat the oven to 200 deg C or gas mark 6.

6. After 30 mins take your dough out. Mine looked like this:

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Nice a pillowy! Tip out onto a lightly floured surface and roll into a rectangular shape. Smear the filling onto the dough (best to use hands to get it even) and then roll the dough up into a sausage shape. Cut this into 7 pieces (the end ones will be a bit smaller) and then place in a baking tray (grease this first or line with baking paper). Each piece should look like a swirl.

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7. Cover again with cling film and return to your proving spot for a further 30 minutes. When the 30 mins is up, the dough should spring back to touch. Glaze with your remaining egg and sprinkle with sugar. Bake in the oven for 25mins or until golden brown.

Mine are more dark brown, but they taste pretty good!! Eat whilst reading a good book with a nice cuppa.

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Book Thirty-Six: Shopaholic to the Stars

Shopaholic to the Stars (UK)

Becky Brandon (nee Bloomfield) is back in another Shopaholic adventure – this time the Brandon family have moved to LA, where Luke, Becky’s husband has taken on film star Sage Seymour as a client. Becky arrives in Tinstletown determined to make it – she’ll be best mates with countless celebrities and will become an A-list stylist. With her best friend Suze in tow, she sets out to conquer Hollywood – but things don’t seem to go to plan. Then she gets the opportunity of a lifetime, to really make her mark on showbusiness – but what will it cost her?

Right – confession time: I have read every single one of Sophie Kinsella’s books. Ever since I was 17 years old, working in North Finchley library, when I came across her first novel, The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic, I’ve been a devoted fan. I hate to say it, but I think the magic has ended – I just didn’t really get this latest book. Yes, the whole series is quite trivial – it’s about a woman addicted to shopping – but the previous books in the series have been hilarious. Becky always manages to get herself into all kinds of scrapes, she is ditzy but smart and somehow always lands on her feet, she is silly but lovable – but all of that just doesn’t really come through in this latest installment. Instead we get a convoluted plot, characters that aren’t really very likable, very few laughs and a disappointing cliff hanger ending. I think it’s partly that I have outgrown this type of book – but then I knew that before I even picked it up. I think Sophie Kinsella has lost a bit of her magic, the book isn’t terrible, but it’s lost the sparkle that I have come to associate with her writing. A shame really – it feels like the end of an era, but then I have been reading her books for over 10 years now so it probably is time to move on!

Book Thirty-Five: The Rosie Project

rosie project

Professor Don Tillman is used to not fitting in. He’s a genius, but there’s one thing he just can’t get the hang of – social skills. His entire life is a perfectly orchestrated routine – everything from what time he goes to bed, to what he eats for dinner each night of the week. Approaching 40, Don decides that it’s time to settle down – married men live longer afterall. He decides he must approach the problem as he approaches everything else – in a logical and ordered way. So he starts The Wife Project and devises a questionnaire that he will use to screen potential mates to ensure their compatibility. But then he meets Rosie – the most beautiful woman in the world, but deeply unsuitable for Don… she’s a smoker for a start. Despite all the logical reasons telling Don that Rosie isn’t right for The Wife Project, Don finds himself drawn to her and slowly realises that the ordered world he has created for himself isn’t the only way to live life.

The Rosie Project is a laugh-out-loud tale of love and being different. I loved it – it has all the elements that you want from a book – you’ll laugh, you’ll feel, you’ll be surprised and you will certainly love Don and Rosie. Don is such a brilliant character – despite being what most people would consider ‘odd’, he is kind, charming and truly one of a kind.

It is implied that Don suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, although this is not explicitly referred to in the book and he has also suffered from depression as a younger man. The story really made me think about the labels we assign to people in an attempt to understand behaviour that is considered ‘different’ – I don’t say this to downplay or trivialise Asperger’s at all – but I felt that Don’s narration of the story was a really effective and sensitive way to portray life as someone who is, in Don’s own words, ‘wired differently’.

I think this is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year. It’s different, it’s funny and it’s touching without being too much of an ‘issues’ book. I’m so pleased that the sequel, The Rosie Effect has just been published so I can get another dose of Don soon!

Book Thirty-Four: Elephant Moon

elephant moon

It’s the 1940’s and the war has yet to hit Burma, the place that school teacher Grace has been sent by her father to keep her safe and away from the war. Little does he know that a couple of years later, Japan will invade and the British will flee Burma. Grace works in a school for orphans of mixed Burmese-British heritage, who are neither accepted by the British or the Burmese. On the advice of the headteacher, they delay evacuation of Rangoon until it is too late – Grace desperately tries to find a safe passage out to India but no-one will take a group of 64 mixed race children. Desperate, they begin the journey to India on the old clapped out school bus, in the hope that they will eventually find help. But as the days go by and the journey through Burma gets more bloody, their chances of making it out Burma alive seem slimmer by the day. When their driver is killed by Japanese gun fire, it seems that they have no hope – but then they chance upon a herd of elephants, being transported to India and it seems they have a second chance. Joining the herd, they begin a journey through jungles, mountains and river, with the Japanese on their tail. Will they the group survive against the odds and complete a journey that seems impossible?

I will admit that at first, I was ready to dismiss this novel – the writing isn’t brilliant and to be honest I was surprised to discover that the author John Sweeney is in fact a journalist. The writing isn’t particularly evocative or poetic and frequently uses language and phrases that aren’t at all PC – like ‘half-caste’, which being of a generation that doesn’t use that type of language, made me shudder a bit. It’s also a bit slow to get going – I think the first third of the book could be cut and it wouldn’t lose anything. But I still persevered and I am glad I did because I have to say, despite the slightly sloppy writing, the story is a cracker! I admit I am biased because I love elephants, so once they entered the story, I was gripped. But I also feel I learnt about a side of WW2 that I didn’t ever learn in school – everything I learnt was about London and the Blitz, or Europe and so it was quite fascinating. While reading it, there was a big part of me that was wishing it had been written by a better writer – but not every book you read can be a masterpiece!