Thursday 30 June 2011

Read in 2011 - 15: A Village Deception

Some of you may know Rebecca Shaw and her series of "Village" books, and some of you may meet my choice of reading with slight derision, for these books are nowhere near highbrow literature - nor do they claim to be.
"A Village Deception" by Rebecca Shaw is No. 15 and the (currently) latest in a series about the lives of the inhabitants of a fictious English village by the name of Turnham Malpas.
As with several other series I have come to enjoy, the first time I came across one of these books was through my mother-in-law, who regularly sends me parcels from England, containing the essentials without which I rarely want to be: books and chocolate :-)

There are no steamy sex scenes or blood-splattering descriptions of violence; there is nothing outworldly or paranormal, and no political message in Rebecca Shaw's writing.
Admittedly, she is not the most elegant or witty of authors, but her stories are well told, with no unneccessary lengths, and because the village and its characters provide such a cozy read, she is forgiven some of the slightly wooden-sounding bits.

Each book has a map of the village printed in the front, and a list of the characters, which I find quite useful, as not every character features equally often in all the stories, and can be looked up when you are not quite sure anymore of who is who.

The Turnham Malpas series strictly follows a chronological order without ever stating a year (at least I can't remember having come across one), but it is clearly set in our days and not in some remote past. People age with the ongoing stories, they grow up, get married, some move away, they change their jobs, have children, and some die. Village life is not portrayed in an overly idyllic, unrealistic manner; there are some gossips you'd rather not have watching your every move in such a small community, and of course there is no village without its very own scandals (some real, some imagined by aforementioned gossips), drama and sometimes even crime.

This story takes place almost 20 years after the first book of the series, so the rector's twins who were born in the first book are now ready to hit university, and the rector and his wife himself are not getting any younger, either. In each book, there are newcomers to the village, and this time it is a handsome, charming stranger who makes himself immediately liked by everyone he meets. He finds a job, a (rented) house and even the love of his life. Sounds too good to be true?
Well, it is - and that's why he loses said love under very tragic circumstances, and his past catches up with him in a way that the whole village soon knows how he made his living before arriving in Turnham Malpas.

There is an unlikely couple who find each other and get married, and an elderly lady finds a friend. Someone gets offered a job that would mean to move away from the village, and someone else is about to say good-bye to the village for good because of a disagreement that seems unsolvable.

In the end, there are enough loose ends tied up to leave the reader satisfied, but others are still pending, clearly with book No. 16 in mind - which I am certainly going to get once it is published.

Like I said, this is nothing for the highbrow reader. It is nothing for the reader who wants their toes curling up in excitement and thrill, nor is it for the one who seeks side-splitting laughter from a book.
But it is a very cozy, not overly "sweet", read, just right for me to unwind after an active day.

Wednesday 29 June 2011

Yet Another Recipe!

Somehow, as of late, my blog seems to be filling up nicely with food related posts and recipes - well, I do eat a bit different now that I work from home, and have my new boyfriend spending almost every weekend here with me, when we cook and eat together. These culinarily interesting weekends usually make for some leftovers or others in my fridge, and during the week, I enjoy opening my fridge, see what's there, and experiment with the random collection of ingredients I find.
So far, there have not been any non-edible results :-)

A while ago, again I found myself with these bits and bites:

Two handfuls of rucola leaves, half a cucumber, a mozzarella that would reach its "best before" date by tomorrow, two hard-boiled eggs and a can of kidney beans which had been sitting in my kitchen cupboard for ages but were still weeks away from their "best before" date.
Had the eggs not been hard boiled, maybe I would have turned the whole collection into some kind of surprise omelette, but now, all these things were shouting "salad!" at me, and so I gladly obliged.
The mozzarella and cucumber were cut into small pieces and the beans drained and rinsed, ready to join the rucola leaves in the salad bowl. I cut the eggs into quarters and then set to make the dressing, a very simple vinaigrette.
The base for my salad dressings is always a vinaigrette, and my mum taught me this one many moons ago when I was a teenager and still living at home:

Start with a bit of sugar (maybe half a teaspoon), add salt and pepper according to your taste. If you use dried herbs, add them now; fresh herbs go in at the very end.
Now add one tablespoon of vinegar; mine is a balsamico which explains the dark colour (not everybody likes this, some people find it is less appetizing, but let me assure you, it tastes a lot better than it looks, and of course the vinaigrette works just as well with your preferred type of vinegar). Stir well with a small spoon. Then add three tablespoons of oil; I mostly use olive oil, but once again, use whichever you prefer; grape seed, sunflower, etc., it doesn't matter - the important bit is the 1:3 ratio of vinegar to oil.
Again, stir well, and remember: if you use fresh herbs, now is the time to put them in.

As I said, this is the base. It can be changed to your taste by, for instance, adding a bit of mustard, stirring in some crème fraîche or cream or yoghurt, and so on. In case you go for a creamy dressing, you will need less oil - just one spoon should be enough, or if you want to offer a low-calory one, just a teaspoon to add some taste and facilitate your body's absorbtion of vitamins.

The dressing then was poured over the salad ingredients and I mixed everything thoroughly.
When I was satisfied with the more or less even distribution of all the ingredients, I put the egg bits on top.
And then it was all mine to eat - the whole bowl full! :-)

Friday 24 June 2011

On Common Ground

For no obvious reason, today I found myself remembering my ride on the Transpennine Express back to Manchester Airport when I was on my way home from seeing my relatives in Yorkshire just before Easter.
The train had been packed (it almost always is), and since I did not feel like squeezing myself and my luggage in with either a family with small children or with a grumpy (and not very clean) looking man, I chose to sit on my little red suitcase (the very same one you can see here, a trusted travel companion) next to one of the doors so that I could look at the landscape outside, changing from the industrial to the suburban to the very rural and back.

As is quite common on trains in the UK, someone with a trolley came round to offer snacks and drinks. This time, it was an elderly man, probably in his late 50s or early 60s, rather on the large side; obviously having finished his round on the train, he parked his trolley by the door opposite of where I was sitting, and sent a friendly smile in my direction.

Almost everyone instinctively smiles back when being smiled at, unless one is either extremely bad-tempered or extremely cautious, and I am no exception.

The man saw that as an invitation for a little chat, and a short but pleasant conversation ensued.
Obviously, I sat where I sat because of the train being so full, and Mr. Trolley commented on that. I assured him that I didn't mind and was actually quite comfy there on my suitcase.
Earlier, I had eaten a sandwich (which I had not bought from him but at the station in Leeds, where I had had about 15 minutes between the train from Ripon and that to Manchester), and he offered to take the empty carton from me and put it into the rubbish bag he had attached to his trolley, something which I found rather kind of him, and said so.
He then moved to the question of my travelling, nodding in the direction of my suitcase - was I going on holiday?
In fact, no, I was going home. Where is "home", he asked now, to which I told him that I lived in Germany.
Mr. Trolley informed me that his brother used to live in Germany for years, being stationed there with some military division or other (don't ask me about such things - I have no idea of regiments and weaponry and ranks), and that him and the wife had been over a few times to see the brother, and liked it.

Basically, that was the gist of our conversation; at the next stop, the trolley man got off, and I was carried further on to Manchester Airport.

While I was thinking today about this totally unspectacular little incident, it struck me how so often, if only we let them, others are trying to find common ground with us. Person A states to be from a certain country, and immediately Person B has some kind or at least polite comment to make regarding said country. Or Person A is walking a particularly handsome dog, and by admiring the dog, Person B establishes contact with Person A - however briefly.

This habit of trying to find something friendly to say is, I suppose, universal; I imagine that even in cultures where strangers hardly speak to each other (especially not when they are of opposite sex) similar exchanges take place.
Not being an anthropologist or versed in social science and psychology, I take this the only way I can: as an effort of being nice, of making one's own day just a tad brighter by talking to someone, and not necessarily with a vested interest, but simply out of goodness and kindness.

Maybe I am naive in believing that there is at least some good in a great many people; maybe it is just a lucky coincidence that, from the odd unpleasant incident aside, so far in my life I have not had that many bad experiences with people.
No matter what is true (and I certainly do not claim to know), I just think life is easier if we, every now and then, are on common ground with someone else for a little while.

Thursday 23 June 2011

A Very Versatile Vegetable Indeed!

(This is actually the 2nd part of this post; I just did not want to make it one seemingly endless one)

The next day, I still had half of the aubergine left, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it.
All I needed was flour, an egg, salt and pepper and some olive oil - plus, of course, the aubergine, which I cut into slices about as thick as my index finger. It made for six slices (not using the very end bit of the fruit).

On one plate each, I prepared flour and the egg. You can put salt and pepper either directly on the aubergine slices or mix it into the egg; it doesn't really matter which way round.
Then I turned the slices first in the egg and then in the flour, and put them in a flat pan with a little olive oil in it (make sure the oil is already hot when you put the slices in).
They don't take very long; turn them over a few times until they look the same nice golden brown on both sides:
Once they were ready, I piled them all on my plate, added some of my mum's home made rhubarb chutney and some toasted bread with butter, and had yet another one of my quick & simple meals (probably too simple for a lot of people's liking), plus I had gotten rid of the weekend's leftovers in my fridge.
Dessert was, again, fresh fruit.

A Very Versatile Vegetable the aubergine, or eggplant, as it is known in some areas.
A week or so ago, I had one left from the weekend during which we cooked and ate less than expected, and since I am one of those people who absolutely hate to throw food away (unless it has really gone off and is not fit for consumption any longer), I decided to skip my usual cheese sandwiches for lunch and dinner and made use of said aubergine instead.
On the first day, I added some other leftovers: two spuds and a chunk of goat cheese seemed like good company to the aubergine. I also had a six pack of eggs which I did not want to sit around for much longer:
I peeled and diced the spuds and put them in a deep wok-like pan with olive oil and a little water. While they were happily simmering away, I diced half of the aubergine and added it to the spuds.
These were taking care of themselves now while I diced the goat cheese and mixed two of the eggs with salt, pepper and some herbs.

Now it was time to add the cheese to the vegetables. This time, I made sure to keep stirring, so that the bits of cheese would not all just melt and stick to the bottom of the pan.
By now, the spuds had begun to form a nice golden-brown crust in places, and when the cheese was still recognizable as pieces but at the same time melting softly, I poured the egg mixture in the pan and kept stirring until, maybe two minutes later, it looked like this:
When I found that the egg mixture had set enough to be edible, I called it lunch time and sat down to enjoy my quick & simple (and at the same time very filling!) meal.
Dessert consisted of some fresh fruit (cherries I had picked from my kitchen window, two apricots and a banana).

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Does anyone else have a problem uploading pictures?

Dear fellow inhabitants of blogland,

does anyone else have problems today uploading pictures?

You know I know how to do it - there is hardly any post on my blog without at least one picture, so I somehow don't think that this is due to my own inability.

There is a recipe I want to post, with pictures of course, and no matter what I do, they won't show. I have signed out of blogger and signed back in, thinking maybe something has messed up during this particular session, but to no avail.
The odd thing is that I do not get an error message, either; the site "behaves" as if the pictures were uploading, but they don't.

What to do?

Thursday 16 June 2011

Looking Good

This one is supposed to be another update concerning the small and trivial things that make up my day-to-day home life - small and trivial they may be, but still they do matter to me in their own way, and my life would certainly be less rich without them.

My previous update (concerning pretty much the same things) can be found here, if you are interested.

Let's start with my cat:
She has certainly put on some badly needed weight, and her fur is growing back nicely; it is almost back to its former length, just without the knots.
When I pick her up, she feels a lot more compact and heavy than just a few weeks ago, so the new medication she has to take twice a day for her thyroid problem seems to work well.
Also, she is a lot less nervous and appears calmer.

How are the little forget-me-nots doing?
They are positively thriving out there on the window sill! Look at these two pictures - the first one was taken on June 2nd, the next one only four days later. The basil seems to like its neighbours, too:

And now, another ten days later, the forget-me-knots are "tall" enough to peep over the rim of their terracotta home. Although they will not blossom this year, my hopes are up for next spring, if I manage to make them survive winter.

There are more things looking good around here - the cherries, for instance.
In what felt like no time they went from green to red to deep red, and 1 1/2 weeks ago, I picked a handful off the tree straight from my kitchen window:

My neighbours have been contributing to the good things, too. If you go to the search bar in the top left corner of my blog and type in "neighbours", you will find one or two older posts where I have mentioned them before.
Among other things, they have grown a mulberry tree in our garden (I say "our", because it really is as much my garden as theirs, but as they live downstairs and have a child and do all the gardening, I leave it entirely to them). The mulberries are very tasty, sweet and juicy, and the other day, Murat gave me a bowl full:

His mother made some Börek a while ago (puff pastry filled with spinach and sometimes minced meat, spiced very nicely) and rang my doorbell with this plate in hand - it was still warm, and althouth I had already had my dinner, I finished that, too :-)

There's more, but I am going to stop now with the very first raspberries of this season, from my parents' garden - and I wish I could add their scent to this posting!

Looking Good, aren't they?

(Sorry about the huge gap between the last two pictures - I have tried everything but can't get rid of it in editing)

Friday 10 June 2011

Read in 2011 - 14: An Ice Cold Grave

Right after I had finished the second book in this series (you can find my review here), I started on the third one, "An Ice Cold Grave" by Charlaine Harris. And this time, an important thread that was started in the previous story was picked up on; or, actually, more than one thread, and I quite liked how this was done and the way things turned out (I am not going to tell you what I mean because I do not want to spoil it for anyone who wants to read the book).

For the first time, Harper and Tolliver have to deal with a serial killer.
Harper is asked to find one dead boy, and ends up finding eight.
Another boy loses his life in the course of events, and a tenth one only just about survives.
While everybody thinks the case is solved after the finding of boy no. 9 and the rescue of boy no. 10, Harper feels there is more to these terrible crimes, and sets out to confront the murderer.

As opposed to the first two books, where the showdown consists in a more classic confrontation scene, set in a wealthy house, this time we follow Harper being chased through the nightly woods in ice and snow by the murderer, and for one mad second I had the impression she was going to die and the series would end after three books (I have no idea how many there are, actually).
But Harper makes it, although she is injured, and when the case is truly solved, she and Tolliver can finally leave town and move on to their next assignment.

Like in the first book, the paranormal element does not feature very prominently, which I was quite glad about. Instead, the story focuses on the manifold relationships between the characters, and that is done well and in a plausible manner.
Harper gets to have a few surprisingly explicit sex scenes (I am not going to tell you who with), so if you're not into that, you will have to skip a few paragraphs here and there.

All in all, I guess I enjoyed this one most of the three books. I am not actively going to look for any more, but if my mother-in-law should send them, I will read them.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Gone Walking

My parents' allotment has featured quite a few times in my blog already, for instance here.
On the day described in that entry, I went out for a walk in between the coffee & elderflower fries and dinner & strawberry punch.

The area around the allotment is hilly and very green; there are woods and fields and a tiny village that looks as if it came straight out of a picture book.

Sometimes, I walk there for an hour or more without seeing any
body else, and I enjoy the solitude, peace and quiet for a while before I want the company of others again, their laughter and talk, their affection and attention.

Here are some pictures I took during that walk. I esp
ecially like this one with the "wave" pattern in various shades of green:

The picture book village:

Paths that lend themselves to peaceful and quiet walking & thinking but would be nice for a good run, too:

A close-up of one of many fields of rye - it looks beautiful when it gets moved about by the wind, like the ripples on the surface of a lake:

Friday 3 June 2011

Read in 2011 - 13: Grave Surprise

Not long ago, I read the first book in this series and wrote about it here, and I was expecting a rather similar experience the second time around.

And why this is definitely part of the same series, with the same main characters being very much in line with what we already know about them from the first part, there are some noteable differences to this one, "Grave Surprise" by Charlaine Harris.

First of all, though, some basic info; let me quote directly from the book a short passage that explains in Harper Connelly's own words what makes her different to other women in their twenties, who have not, like her, been struck by lightning and survived it when they were teenagers:

"I find the dead. I find corpses. People call me in, and I find the bodies of those who've passed on. If the relatives or the police can give me a bead on the location, I can find the body. When I find the body, I know the cause of death.
I feel them, like a buzz in my head. The closer I get, the more intense the buzz, the vibration, is. When I'm on top of them, I can reach down and tell how they died. I'm not a psychic. I'm not a precognate, or a telepath. I don't see who killed them. I only see the death when I'm near the bones."
Harper and her step-brother Tolliver travel around, reacting to requests by clients who come across Harper's special talent sometimes by accident, sometimes by recommendation. Tolliver manages the business side, keeping track of all their appointments and handling their income (because of course she gets paid for her services, just like anybody else expects to get paid for their work) and expenses, and he also assists Harper during and after her actual work, which tends to leave her drained, even shaken, depending on the situation.

The two of them are inseperable, and while in the first book they come across as (step)siblings who truly care about each other, this time we learn more about their past as well as their present, their relationship with each other, with their other (half)siblings and people outside the family. We learn how they choose a movie they want to see, what they like for lunch, the colour of Harper's nail varnish and when the two of them do research on the internet about ADS when they learn that one of their younger half-sisters is diagnosed with it - such are the very ordinary and normal bits in the book that I appreciate, especially as these are not presented without humour.

What I liked in the previous story was that the paranormal bit did not feature prominently. Unfortunately (for me), a new element is introduced in this book - one that, strictly speaking, is not necessary for the plot and does not really contribute to solving the whodunnit, which is about an 11-year-old who went missing 1 1/2 years ago and was never found by Harper (who was, back then, engaged by the parents) - until, totally unexpectedly, the body of the girl turns up in an old grave on a cemetery in a different town.

It takes Harper and Tolliver a while to work out the connection between the various events from the past and present and between this place and where the girl originally went missing, and two more people lose their lives before it comes to the big showdown (this time, there is no thunderstorm going on at the same time, but, once again, the stage for the showdown is set in a wealthy suburban home, one where neither Harper nor Tolliver could ever really feel at home themselves).

Mostly, I still like the way the very normal everyday things are described, the way people talk to each other (like real people do), and the way Harper handles her rather unusual life in a rather pragmatic and realistic manner. What I did not enjoy was the added boost to the paranormal bit in this story, but I guess a book that is classified as "Paranormal Mystery" has to have some of that as well, and a lot of readers are probably disappointed because there isn't more.

What I complained about last time - the bad editing - has definitely improved here. There are only very few mistakes which are more down to typesetting errors than to sloppy editing.

The third story is next on my shelf. It will actually be interesting to find out more about Harper and Tolliver - not her special talent, but the much larger part of their lives, firmly grounded in reality.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Another Month Gone

Last year, I already wrote here about how I feel when one month ends and another one begins, and it being the 1st of June today, with one month into my new job, I wanted to pick up on the topic once more.
My calendars are turned, and when I look back on May, it was a good month in all respects - weather-wise, sports-wise, work-wise and in my private life.

Working from home certainly agrees with me; I get a lot done in less hours than when I still went to the office, because there are no
colleagues to distract me and ask things of me that are, strictly speaking, not my job, but I did them anyway because I was at work and that was simply part of the package.
All day long, I speak to my customers on the phone, so there is no lack of human contact. In between phone calls, I receive and send emails, not all of them work-related, admi
ttedly; some of my friends live far away and email is our regular means of communication.

At lunch time, I usually leave the house for a while, sometimes to join my mum or a friend for a meal, sometimes to do a spot of shopping, and I always meet someone or other in the neighbourhood or at the shops, so, again, there is no lack of human interaction.

In the evenings, I either go out (like last night, when I went to the pub with a group of friends, and our team won 1st prize at the pub quiz!) or go for a run, or I have visitors, and occasionally I am on my own and enjoy a quiet night in with my books, computer games and my cat.

So, during this month, my life has taken on a very comfortable rhythm. While I was by no means stressed out before when I still went to the office every day, doing things at my own pace and not having to take the train every day is very pleasant. As far as I am concerned, things can stay as they are for quite a while :-)

On Friday, I am going to travel to the office to see my boss, so that we can give each other feedback on how my first month went. He has no reason to regret his decision of employing me, so our meeting will be amicable and constructive.

After a way too dry May, June is starting off with enough rain to make all the gardeners and farmers

The cherry tree in front of my kitchen window is thriving, and I am soon going to pick the first cherries. Tomorrow is a holiday here in Germany, and we're in for a day warmer and sunnier than today; I intend to spend as much of it outdoors as I can.

Happy June to all of you!