Friday 29 November 2019

Read in 2019 - 28, 29

# 28: The Wedding Wager
by Regina Duke 

Another light read that I enjoyed, mainly because after a while, I cared for the heroine:

Megan's parents are missionaries, working and living somewhere in South America. She has been fending for herself for many years, and is used to a frugal lifestyle. When she is on her way to Chicago where she is supposed not only to start a new job but also a new life, a car crash makes her not only end up in hospital for half a year but also means an end to her dreams of a new life; the job goes to someone else, Megan has no place to live, and to top it all, is saddled with huge medical bills she fears will make her be in debt for many years.

Kevin comes from a very rich but dysfunctional family. His parents live separate lives, and his father threatens to take away his mother's part of the fortune; there is only one condition that can make Kevin inherit the estate and secure the financial future of his mother and his two younger siblings: He has to be legally married before his 25th birthday.
With only a few weeks left until that day, and no prospective bride in sight, Kevin takes desperate measures to find a suitable woman by placing a job advert in the paper.

Megan responds to the advert without really knowing what she is getting herself into, and the stage is set...

The outcome is not difficult to guess, but of course there are obstacles to be overcome, last but not least by the feelings Megan and Kevin quickly develop for each other. As I said, a light, easy read, just right for those train trips to and from work. 

# 29: Skinny Dipping
by Alicia M. Kaye

We're staying with nice and easy, only that this time the setting is not Chicago and rural Colorado, but London and the world of advertising: glitzy and glamorous on the surface, but a pool of sharks underneath.

Combine a hard-working expert in advertising who has a water phobia with a client who wants his swimming centres made more popular; a woman who has just been left by her long-term boyfriend because she works too much and a man who has lost the love of his life almost two years ago, and add to that a cast of secondary (but interesting) figures such as the parents, friends and colleagues of the heroine.

You get a mix that makes for an undemanding, relaxing read, which was just what I wanted. It was no surprise who got together with whom in the end - actually, it was clear from the very first moment both characters were introduced. But I suppose that is part of the charm of such "chick lit" novels; no nasty surprises lurking for the reader (only every now and then for the characters, to spice things up a bit).

The writing was not brilliant, but alright; proof-reading could have been better but was not so bad as to distract from the story.

Both these books were of course free on Amazon's kindle shop.

Wednesday 27 November 2019

A True First

After writing in my previous post about how I was going through a series of "first of last" things happening this year, today I can happily report a true first for this year: The first stroll across our beautiful Christmas Market!

You have been seeing pictures of the market on my blog year after year; sometimes they were better than this year (I apologise for the blurry ones which I took with my mobile without really pausing for them, or while being in the middle of a crowd). Some were taken by my sister who patiently waited along with me for our first Holzofen-Dinnede (our favourite Christmas Market food) of the year.

The market opened last night with the usual ceremony: A musical introduction - this time like last year a set of Advent and Christmas songs/hymns/carols, very beautifully sung by an all-male choir from Stuttgart, followed by a short speech from Ludwigsburg's principal Mayor (we have several "minor" mayors, but this one is the most important head of town) and then a quick performance by a group of people dressed up as King Friedrich, his wife Charlotte-Mathilde, a handful of courtiers and some soldiers or guards. The King was played by a different man this year, an actor with a very good speaking voice. In former years, the King never said anything, simply waved gracefully to his subjects, but this year he addressed the people of Ludwigsburg, the merchants coming from far and wide to sell their goods at the market and all the visitors.
Also, the Mayor is new - we only elected him this summer, and he took up his position in September. He is much younger than his predecessor and - unlike him - comes from our town. The speech was unremarkable in that it went along without a hitch (in contrast, the former Mayor involuntarily performed a small stand-up comedy on stage last year).

We enjoyed it all - the lights, the food (and drink), the choir and having a quick look at some of the stalls. I only bought two packs of Christmas cards and will certainly return for a more thorough browse.

Thursday 21 November 2019

The First of The Last

The time has begun when certain things are being done, places visited and people met for the last time this year. This was particularly poignant this past Tuesday, when my team met for the last pub quiz of 2019. 
Our local Irish Pub is situated on a corner of the market square, and the host breaks up the weekly quiz nights twice a year, for July/August and from the opening of the Christmas Market until a week into the New Year.

When we said our good-byes on Tuesday, we knew most of us were not going to see each other again this year, unless we'd happen to run into each other by coincidence in town. Most of my team, I do not see outside our quiz nights, and in all the 11 or so years we've been playing, I have not once met them by chance in a shop or restaurant in town. So, yes, we wished each other Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year already. After all, there aren't that many weeks left to 2019, are there!

When I was thinking about this post, it occurred to me that this was actually not the true "first of the last". On the 10th of October, I walked home from work (that is, I got off the train one stop before my actual stop and walked the 5 km or so from there) for the last time this year. After that, it was either already dark by the time I left the office, or I was carrying my heavy notebook or was pressed for time. It will be several months before I'll feel like walking home again; it is not much fun in the dark.

Next Tuesday, our Christmas Market will open. In September, we elected a new Mayor, and it will his the first time giving the opening speech. I shall of course attend, and am looking forward to my first stroll across the market, re-visiting favourite stalls and seeing what (if anything) is new this year, and I'll certainly have something to eat and a hot drink from my favourite food and drink stalls.

This Tuesday, the huts and stalls were already set up and the large tree in front of the church erected, but nothing was yet decorated, and everything was dark and silent - a very strange atmosphere, in stark contrast to what it is usually like when I go there after work.

There will be another four and a half very intense working weeks before I can say that it is my last day at the office in 2019. Plenty to do until then, so I better get started!

Monday 18 November 2019

A Weekend in the Kitchen

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know that I live on my own during the week but spend the weekends with the man I love, either at his place or at mine. You also know that I hardly ever cook for myself, having a cooked lunch on workdays at my clients' canteens or being happy with a sandwich or a salad when working from home.

All the more do I enjoy thinking about what I could make for the two of us on the weekend and then making whatever I have come up with.

Last weekend was mostly grey and cold, with some drizzle to make it even more November-ish - just perfect for spending more time than usual in my warm kitchen, and that's exactly what I did.

On Friday night, I made tomato soup from scratch. It looked nice with a dollop of cream on top and a sprig of Italian parsley (the variety that is not "curly") from the pot on my windowsill. What with O.K.'s arrival, making G&Ts for starters and then wanting to serve the hot soup quickly, I didn't take a picture. But it was as nice as I had hoped it would be, and I think I will make it again.

Saturday, we slept in (my biggest luxury on weekends and one I hate to give up when we have to be somewhere early) and then went for a leisurely run. It was cold, but with the right clothing, we weren't really feeling cold; breathing was not so good with the chilly air, though.

Back home, it was still breakfast time for us even though it was around 1:00 pm. We had fresh fruit (bananas and apples chopped up and topped with blueberries) with yoghurt and cream. By the time we were ready to leave again for a walk, it was close to sunset, which we caught the last beautiful bits of before reaching the fields where we walked for an hour or so in the dusk and then dark. I was amazed at how many other people we encountered there on the unlit fields; a few dog walkers (one dog was wearing a collar with lights), some people on bikes and others on foot.

We had reserved a table at a nearby Italian restaurant that has changed hands about a month ago, so there was no cooking that night. The food was good, service friendly, but there were hardly any other guests at the restaurant. I do hope business will pick up for them.

On Sunday morning, I finally did what I had wanted to do for weeks: Make Swedish cinammon buns! Monica (you may know her from her own blog) kindly gave me her recipe when I asked her for it. For the dough, I only made about half her original recipe (I knew that would be more than enough for us) but when I made only half the amount of filling, I found out I actually needed the entire recipe for the filling, not just half.

Without O.K.'s help, I don't know how my "snails" would have turned out - he made the second batch while I was in the bath. Actually, all I did was heat the oven, make the dough and the filling.

For the dough, I did not stick entirely to Monica's recipe, but used the tested and trusted one I showed you here, without the raisins.

For the filling, I mixed 100 g of soft butter with four tablespoons of sugar and three teaspoons of cinnamon. 

One half of the dough that I rolled out - not the perfect shape to make into a roll...
...but O.K. still managed to create the desired shapes.
Eight minutes in the oven at 225 C (fan on) was all it took.
The second batch - O.K. is a lot better at this than I am!

That's what I wanted them to look like!

Once the buns were baked and cooled off a little, I put them in a box and we took them to my parents', where we had invited ourselves for coffee. My Mum had made a delicious soft cake with apples and bananas, the cinnamon buns were our contribution.

Afterwards, O.K. and I walked for another hour or so (in the dark) to get some exercise and fresh air. For our evening meal, I made mixed vegetables in the oven. We were both still full from yesterday's evening at the Italian restaurant and from coffee and cake that it was all we needed - plus some Ben & Jerry's cookie dough ice cream for dessert.
Missing on the photo is the large yellow pepper that I added to the mix.
Salt, pepper, ground ginger and thyme, plus olive oil.
Now we won't be seeing each other for two weeks, as O.K. will be busy with band practise all weekend, preparing for the annual concert.

By the way, my kitchen still smells of cinnamon - in spite of having had the window open for hours! But I don't mind that; it just reminds me of a cosy weekend with plenty of comfort food.

Friday 15 November 2019

On the First of November

Phew! I finally seem to be catching up with posts. Today is exactly the middle of this month, and I have at last arrived at posting about the first of November.

Here in Germany, that is a holiday - everything is closed. It is "Allerheiligen", All Saints, and many Catholics visit the graves of their loved ones and light candles.

Admittedly, for O.K. and myself such a holiday on a Friday means we have more time together than on a regular weekend, and I took the train to Offenburg in the early afternoon.

The day wasn't as bright and sunny as much of October had been, but with the bright yellow leaves of the mulberry tree in front of my bedroom window, it appeared as if the sun was looking in.

It was still dry by the time I walked to the station, but overcast. On the platform where my train was due (the first of three different ones I had to take), a historic steam railway was waiting. I've seen this train a few times before; it sometimes runs on Sundays and holidays, and is rather popular. More often than I've seen it, I have heard it - the train station is near enough my house for me to hear the steamwhistle!
The locomotive is called "Feuriger Elias", fiery Elias. The carriages are not quite as old, but I am old enough to remember the look and feel of them from my earliest childhood - long before the newer and faster trains with many new stops in the Stuttgart area were created in 1977, when I was 9 years old.

The conductor and other staff were in uniforms from those times, too; I thought they looked much better and more elegant than today's polyester suits. I didn't want to take photos of the people but couldn't avoid them altogether; after all, they were in a public place.

The last picture is of sunrise seen from my kitchen window on the 4th of November. We've had many more as beautiful as that - I could almost show you one every day.

And now, as I said, we're already in the middle of the month! In less than a fortnight, our Christmas Market will start. Guess who will be going to the opening :-)

Monday 11 November 2019

October Sun

At the end of my next-to-last post, I mentioned that we went for another walk later the same day. It was an hour or so before sunset, and we wanted to make the most of the beautiful light that time of day and year, and since we had an errand to do nearby anyway, we drove into Gengenbach after we had finished our errand, parked the car at the bottom of the hill and walked up into the vineyards.

I first showed you Gengenbach here; since then, I have been back several times. It is always worth a visit, but that Sunday in October, we weren't there for the picturesque historic old town.

Let's start right at the parking lot where we got off the car. See those berries? I don't know their German name, but from Kay's blog, I know they are called Beautyberry. See here - it's the same plant (the third picture from the top on her post), and if the colour on my picture looks different from Kay's photo, it is simply the light; the berries really were just like that.

On the hills around Gengenbach, several paths meander between orchards, vineyards and woods. The views across the Kinzig valley were beautiful; I am not a fan of artificially straightened rivers such as the Kinzig is at this point, but the area is nonetheless beautiful.

You can tell the light was dwindling fast; by the time we walked back down the hill and reached the car, the sun had completely disappeared behind the horizon. And now that it is almost mid-November, it is dark when I leave the office around 5:00 pm. But it's only another 5 1/2 weeks or so until winter solstice!

Friday 8 November 2019

Read in 2019 - 25, 26, 27

# 25: Frosted Shadow
Nancy Warren

Toni Diamond is a successful sales representative for cosmetics. During a national conference, she finds a dead woman at the conference hotel. Although it is clear pretty soon that she was not there for the conference, she had a make-over with cosmetics by the same brand Toni and the other sales representatives offer.

Somehow Toni feels responsible, and gets involved with the investigation - and the Detective assigned to the case.
Soon, suspects and clues appear, and as the amateur and the proper detective work together, not only do they find the killer, but also each other.Before the happy ending, one more person loses their life, and of course this would not be a mystery if the heroine herself was not in danger at some point.

I liked this book, after my initial negative reaction to the heroine: Toni is everything I am not: single mother, hard-working sales woman and firm believer in cosmetic products to make the world a better place. 
But there is more to her than meets the eye, and as I read on and noticed that she did indeed have a rather bright head on her shoulders and a good heart, I found myself warming to her and her crazy mother (think an elderly Dolly Parton living in a neat trailer so full of bling you need sun glasses). 
The business organisation, the conference and its participants and other characters were well described, and the pace of the story was neither too rushed nor too slow.There was some humour in the book, but also (every now and then) food for thought.

I would not mind reading Toni's next adventures; this was #1 in a series, and I found it as a free ebook on Amazon's kindle shop.
The author's website is here.

# 26: Agatha Raisin and the Dead Ringer

M.C. Beaton
My Mum and I love the Agatha Raisin series, and so I was very much looking forward to the next-to-latest instalment.
However, I must admit I was somewhat disappointed with this one. 

Up until the first third or so, everything is pretty much as you'd expect: A typical aspect of village life is taken as the background (this time it is bell ringing). A cast of more or less quirky characters are introduced (the bell ringers, the vicar and his wife, plus an extremely handsome bishop and his dean). Agatha is her usual self: smoking, drinking G&Ts, worrying about her waistline and pining for the one true love that will turn her life around. 

The first murder occurs among the bell ringers, and Agatha is drawn in to help investigating. 

Then the book changes - and not for the better, I'm afraid. 
While there is still much of what we like about the series (the relationships between Agatha, Charles, her ex-husband James plus some other well-loved regulars), Agatha has an uncharacteristical hard time at solving the mystery. In fact, for a long time, she does not feel like doing any detecting and seriously considers giving it up altogether, without finding out who the murderer is, and how (or if) it is all connected with the disappearance of the bishop's fiancée years ago. 

This and several other things happening in the book make it a bit of a jerky read.
I missed the flow and the dramatic build-up. This was just not entirely "our" Agatha.
Still, it is part of the series, and if you follow any kind of series, be it on TV or books, you know what I mean - you can't dismiss one part, you want the whole thing.

 There is the latest book waiting for me on the shelf. Something tells me (the voice of hope, maybe) that one will be better.

# 27: Dead Angler
Victoria Houston
Another freebie from Amazon's kindle shop, another first of a series, and another mystery - but set in an entirely different enviroment, one I know next to nothing about: fly fishing! 

A retired dentist, widower and recovered alcoholic, has no greater joy in life than fishing. He also sees his old friends almost daily for breakfast and has a quirky neighbour who is very knowlegdeable about wildlife and the outdoors. Then there are his two grown-up daughters, very different from each other both in what they have been making of their lives and the relationship with their Dad. Oh, and don't forget the Police Chief of the small town - a no-nonsense woman, younger than the doctor, but not too young; the reader soon learns of the doctor's interest in her. 

One night, she takes him along the river for some fly fishing, when he stumbles in the water and finds the dead body of a woman who turns out to have been an old friend of one of his daughters, just recently returned to her hometown.

The police chief quickly enlists the doctor's help, and with his access to family and friends of the murdered woman, they eventually manage to find out who killed her, and why.

 The outcome was not as easy to guess as it may sound; several suspects had reasons for wanting to see the woman dead.It was a good read, also because of the (for me) exotic setting of a small backwater town (the whole area really exists; you can find out more ont he author's website, see below.). 
Fishing techniques and descriptions were a bit overdone to my taste, since only part of it was relevant for the story, but I suppose it added credibility.

I cared for the main characters and liked them and would like to read more of Dr. Osborne and Police Chief Lew.

The author's website is here.

Wednesday 6 November 2019

October Weekends

Out of last month's four weekends, I spent three at O.K.'s, also because of the band's engagements (see previous post). October was mostly beautiful; there were a few rainy days, but it was certainly a "golden" October the way it should be. Some mornings were almost frosty at 3-4 Celsius - cold enough for me to wear a padded coat and even gloves for the first time this season on my way to work. But day temperatures were often as warm as a late summer day, and whenever we could, we went for walks.

Here are pictures from our October weekends.

Let's start with some food!

Plum cake at a café in Ludwigsburg:

Trying something new for Sunday: Burger patties without meat. 
Now, I have often wondered why anyone would want something that looks and (more or less) tastes like meat when they are vegetarian or vegan? I am neither; I really like meat and bacon, but I can only eat it when I use a technique called cognitive dissociation - I black out all rational thought about where it comes from, how it was produced, what impact it has on the environment and how the poor animal probably had to suffer both during its short life and in death. 
Therefore, any alternative that gives me the pleasure of a nice meal with meat but without all the negative implications is welcome.
I spotted "The Wonder Burger" at my local supermarket, and we gave it a try. It passed the test and I am quite sure I will buy it again. 

Just outside O.K.'s village on a walk one Saturday afternoon last month:

We went out again later that day, but that will have to wait for another post.