2015 book challenge – #7 – Suite Francaise

(not a challenge to read 2015 books – explanation here)

#7 in the challenge is Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky.

Yes, I copied and pasted to get the accents right.

This was recommended by a friend who has lived in France, and with the emphasis on “read it before the film comes out”. The film has been reviewed unfavourably everywhere I’ve seen it, and described as a prettied-up romance.

I felt that this book was more like a piece of music than a story. It was beautifully written and there were wonderfully expressed emotions and feelings and atmospheres. The tension of the exodus from Paris was palpable. The conflicted feelings about “the enemy” who were also young men far from home reminded me a bit of some of the “nature of personhood” issues that crop up in science fiction.

Sadly I didn’t feel engaged with the characters, and I can see why a film adaptation would want to focus on a characater-led story rather than an atmosphere-led piece.

It was also VERY FRENCH. I was reading in English and the translator had clearly done a brilliant job in keeping the Frenchness. Even the nighttime activities of a cat were expressed in a dramatic and indulgent way, as if the cat were an old luvvie (one who pronounces it ac-TOR) narrating his everyday life as if it were a grand tragedy.

Jamie Oliver “quick” chocolate brownies

I put the “quick” in quotes here because I’m not sure enitrely what makes them quick. Probably it’s just that you stick everything in the food processor and wazz it all up. The book says “whiz” with one z. have we been mis-hearing Jamie the whole time? Was he always saying “whiz”, not “wazz”? Shouldn’t “whizz” have twos zs? (none of these questions will be answered in this post).

I have made these brownies (approximately anyway, I never quite follow the instructions) a few times before and could not remember which book the recipe was in. I was almost convinced that I had written about them before, but a search of this blog didn’t bring up any brownies. FYI, it’s “30 minute meals”.

I don't want to make the rest of these things

I don’t want to make the rest of these things

Unlike many of the recipes in 30 minute meals, this one actually contains real timings. Not just “once you’ve done the blah blah to the duck, it’ll be time to do the thingy with the rice”. That’s good, because I don’t always MAKE every single item. In this case the savoury course is scallops. No thank you. Other than that I have no beef with 30 minute meals. Of course it doesn’t take you 30 minutes the first time you make it – what did you expect? But if you have a boiled kettle, a heated-up oven, you have practised your knife skills and you don’t have to check the book every single step, you could make this food in not a lot more than 30 minutes.

Not precisely what's requested I know, but these will do

Not precisely what’s requested I know, but these will do

Put the oven on to 180C. Get out your food processor. Has that taken 10 of your 30 minutes? Don’t worry about it. You’re not making a TV show and nobody is going to put Hollyoaks on before you’re done if you are not on time. Stick in 200g dark chocolate (broken up a bit), 250g (that’s a whole block) of butter, 200g of sugar. I used salted butter in everything, and I had white granulated sugar instead of golden caster sugar. You’ve got 200g of chocolate here, you’re not going to notice golden vs white sugar. Wazz it up.

Add 6 level tablespoons (or 6 heaped dessert spooons if you don’t have any tablespoons) of cocoa powder, 4 heaped tablespoons (or 6 heaped dessert spooons again) of self raising flour, a pinch of salt if you used unsalted butter (do you see how pointless that was?). Wazz some more. Add 4 eggs while the motor on the machine is running, or just turn it off, crack them in, and then wazz some more, because nothing bad will happen if you do it that way round.

Wazzzzzzzz until it’s all combined and smooth and looks a bit like dark brown cake mix. Jamie says you want to have crystallised ginger and pecans and sour dried cherries. I say use whatever you have around, or whatever took your fancy at the shop. I’ve got walnuts today. I have in the past used the booze-soaked cherries that result from making cherry vodka.

Get some greasproof paper – in this you must not deviate from Jamie’s instructions, although I daresay tinfoil would do – scrunch it under the tap to get it damp – and use it to line a tin. I’ve used a normal square cake tin before and ended up with tasty yet heavy bricks of brownies. Look at the tin below – it’s basically a roasting tin. Nice and big so the brownie is quite thin (another reason this is “quick”, I suppose). Put a bit of oil on. Ideally oil that doesn’t taste of anything – this is not the point for the extra virgin.

Smooth it out - it's not very tall but it will rise (even if there's only a few spoons of flour)

Smooth it out – it’s not very tall but it will rise (even if there’s only a few spoons of flour)

Put your brownie mix in your tin, grate over some orange zest if you like. Put in oven. Wait “12-14″ minutes. Test with a knife. It’s not even slightly cooked. Wait some more. Brownies are supposed to be gooey so you don’t need the proper “skewer comes out clean” cooked-ness that a sponge needs. You’ll know when it’s done. When it is done, take it out of the oven. Don’t look at the clock – it’s been wya over 30 minutes – but who cares, you have brownies.

Try to wait for them to cool before you eat them

Try to wait for them to cool before you eat them

2015 book challenge – #6 – The Goldfinch

(explanation of the challenge here)

#6 is The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

You’ve heard of the Goldfinch. It won a prize. Everyone was talking about it last year. Googling says it’s the Pulitzer Prize, which I always thought was for journalism, probably because fictional journalists all aspired to it.

You may have noticed that this is the biggest gap between books so far. That’s not just because The Goldfinch is long (it is – 881 pages) but also because I did not read it quickly. Why didn’t I read it quickly? Because I didn’t ever feel that I wanted to read my book rather than doing something else.

Unlike some other “books that everyone was talking about”, I didn’t find this gripping. I slogged through it, not really caring what happened to the protagonist or his bloody painting. I don’t mind a protagonist who drifts through the world letting things happen to them (I love the Robin Hobb Farseer books, even though all Fitz ever wants to do is settle down and live an ordinary life with his teenage sweetheart). But Fitz is surrounded by compelling characters and situations. I felt that Theo was not.

I have no fear in admitting this. I am the only one of my friends to have enjoyed Wolf Hall. I figured out what was going on when a chapter opened with unmarked dialogue and two men called Thomas were plotting together, because I wanted to read more. It wasn’t even because I “wanted to know what happened” – everyone knows what happens there (spoiler: heads are cut off). I don’t need to assert my literary book-reading credentials (and yes I know my last review was chick lit). This book was just not for me. And if it’s not for you, don’t let people judge you for it. Even if it did win a prize.

Tuesday Playlist – unhappy in an empty house

That sounds like a depressing title, sorry.

I happened to notice the other day that the music videos to a number of songs that I like follow a theme. Th theme of I am alone in an empty house and I’m not so happy about it.

So this is an excuse to show you some music videos.

#1 – Stay (I Missed You) – Lisa Loeb

If I said “Lisa Loeb” to you, you might think that you didn’t know who I meant. But you DO.

This is a classic empty house (flat?), hardly any furniture, cat in the background.

#2 – Torn – Natalie Imbruglia

This house doesn’t start out so empty, but by the end it’s being dismantled.

Some might say that it’s not even empty, there’s a man there, but I think he is in her mind.

#3 – I Want Love – Elton John (ft. the face but not voice of Robert Downey Jr)

Do you remember in Friends when Phoebe made a music video for Smelly Cat and they used someone else’s voice, because Phoebe looked good but couldn’t sing? Well Elton John can do that kind of thing to himself, because he can.

This empty house is more of a mansion, but what do you expect Elton John to live in?

Hello Fresh – Smokey Burritos

Persoally I'd spell smoky without the 'e', even though I do put one in nosey.

Personally I’d spell smoky without the ‘e’, even though I do put one in nosey.

This is recipe #2 from my Hello Fresh box – and yes it was fresh when I cooked it, I just didn’t get around to writing it up. Unlike recipe #3, which was supposed to be salmon but I didn’t check the dates and the salmon went off to days after the box was delivered. Normally I’d always say “just smell it, it’s probably fine”, but I can’t do that with fish. I don’t trust my fish judgement because my friends who LIKE fish (I used to hate it, now I am teaching myself to tolerate it) say “fish only smells fishy if it’s off”. No, fish smells fishy all the time. Fish-y. The clue is in the name. I suspect there is some other BAD fishy smell that they are referring to, but it bugs me that they can’t smell the inherent this-smells-of-fish-it-is-fishy-because-it-is-fish fishy smell. So I can’t judge off fish by the smell.

Anyway, smokey burritos. Stuff in a tortilla wrap. I have to admit I was underwhelmed with these, for two reasons:

  1. Making something nice in a tortilla wrap is EASY.
  2. It told me to put the oven on at the beginning of the instructions, and then the oven was never used.
Here's the stuff

Here’s the stuff

Don’t get me wrong, it made a tasty-enough meal, and the texture of the potato in the wrap was very nice, but I could make something decent to go in a wrap without having to use two pans (boiling the potato, you see).


They obviusl also

The recipe in full, if you want it, which you probably don't.

The recipe in full, if you want it, which you probably don’t.

They obviously also had a tie-in with a brand of chipotle stuff, which is fine I guess but you’d think that at £39 full price per box (3x meals for 2, or 2x if you foolishly let the fish go off) you’d think they didn’t need extra money from product placement.

And nobody can wrap the bloody things and keep them in shape

And nobody can wrap the bloody things and keep them in shape

Still, I ate them and enjoyed eating them, and the feeling of “I could do this better” will probably encourage me to make some more in future. So I have at least gained some inspiration, even if it’s of the slightly-exasperated “just let me do it” variety.

2015 book challenge – #5 – The Frog Prince

You’re going to think I’m cheating, sneaking some nice easy chick-lit into my book challenge when I’m only on #5, but I have a good reason. The author came to my workplace to do “research” before writing it!

(recap of the 2015 book challenge is here)

Frog Prince

The Frog Prince by Sophie Ranald is, as I’ve said and as you can tell from the cover, “chick lit”. Modern romance. It’s a perfectly decent example of the genre, and if you like that sort of thing you might like this. It’s not an amazing example, and it’s unlikely to convert anyone who doesn’t already know that this is their kind of book.

I enjoyed the book, but what took it from “fine” to “fun” for me was spotting the references that had clearly come from the author’s experiences with my company. In some cases she was clearly playing on the stereotypes of the industry, which to be fair are mainly based in fact. In other cases, most obviously the presence in the office of a 6 foot tall inflatable dinosaur with a girls’ name, this was entirely taken from my workplace.

Our dinosaur is called Lydia, by the way.

2015 book challenge – #4 – Freeze My Margarita

(for a recap of the point of the 2015 book challenge look here – it’s in the year 2015, not 2,015 books)

This book was recommended as part of a discussion of “who to read when you’ve read ALL of Christopher Brookmyre”. From a point of view of someone looking for crime books, in the real word, in approximately current time, with good characters (ideally some interesting female characters).

Note that I said interesting female characters, not “strong female characters”. Strong is far too one-dimensional. I want female characters to have as much opportunity as male characters (and also any characters who may not explicitly/entirely identify as male or female) to be strong or weak, good or bad, clever or stupid, flawed and biased and nepotisitic and any other attribute that may or may not be a real word.

In looking for a link to give you in case you don’t know who Christopher Brookmyre is, it turned out that I have NOT read everything he’s written. I nearly abandoned this blog post (and my book challenge) and just went straight off to read them. If you are new, either start with Quite Ugly One Morning (the very first, and the first with Parlabane, the Scottish journalist/crimefighter/sceptic), or with A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away (featuring the inimicable Angelique De Xavier, police officer and Mogwai/merlot fan).

Anyway, this book – Freeze My Margarita by Lauren Henderson (part of the Sam Jones series apparently)

Freeze my MargaritaIt opens in a kinky club of some kind, which is not surprising given the person who recommended it to me. This turns out not to be relevant to the plot in any way (knkiness does not equal likelihood of murdering – who would have guessed?), it’s just a bit of recreation and get-to-know-your-main-character, a sculptor who ends up involved in a theatre production where there’s some murdering going on.

The theatre production is rather Jilly Cooper in its scandals and machinations, and even the murder fits quite well if you think of Score! rather than Riders (yes the exclamation mark is a part of the title). The main character here could quite easily find herself amongst some horsey folk in her next book, and if she does I say “bring it on”.

Technically this book was “in the current time” when it was written, and the majority of the actual plot stands the test of time very well. Some aspects, however, such as the run-down-ness of Kings Cross or the outfits lovingly described, end up with the same problem as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo when the exact make and model of her laptop is specified. The laptop might convey “top of the range” at the time of writing, and the outfits might convey a specific subculture or level of “cool”, but from the perspective of 2015 you’ve got what TV Tropes call an Unintentional Period Piece.

When I’m done with the challenge and allowed (silly word, I am obviously allowed to read whatever I like) to read non-challenge books again, I would definitely like to get to know Sam Jones better. And not just because I like women with unisex names.