sylvia ashby

“It Started with a Snub” by Bernadette Maycock 

41MPIOb550L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_There are a couple of things that drew me to this book that are not your typical reasons to want to read a novel. First of all, I stumbled upon Bernadette’s blog and realised that she is Irish. Second, I read on Amazon that she is the mother of four boys. Now, anyone who can manage four kids and not want to drown in a bucket of gin on daily basis is my hero. But a woman who has four boys and still manages to write a book is, basically, the brightest star in the sky.

Let me elaborate on the first point a bit.

Every Irish author I’ve read—and I’ve read a few—writes with nothing but empathy and (dare I say it?) love towards their protagonists. Maeve Binchy, Marian Keys, Colm Tóibín, Cecilia Ahern, even the eponymous James Joyce and Oscar Wilde are never judgemental towards their cheating, gambling, suicidal, alcohol abusing, eccentric main characters. They don’t find excuses on their behalf either. They simply accept that people are flawed. And we have to deal with that in life, as well as in novels. I’ve been drawn towards the compassion and warmth of Irish literature for as long as I can remember.

In It Started with a Snub, Bernadette has created a cast of characters that is as full of contradictions as any human beings I’ve ever met. Take Heather’s boyfriend, Graham, for example. He could be unbelievably selfish one minute, then he’d pick her up and carry her halfway from the pub to her house because her feet hurt. We’ve all met people like that, haven’t we? Some of us dated people like that for a long time. I’m not naming names and pointing fingers. It’s the sort of thing that could happen to anyone.

The story in Bernadette’s book, just as suggested in the blurb, revolves around Heather “…as she navigates the simple things in life, her inability to remember the code for the house alarm, odd driving habits, general musings on chick flicks, casualties in cooking, as well as her attempts to talk down the “mad farmer with the gun.”” There are dark times in Heather’s life too and they were treated with the sensitivity that, as mentioned above, I’ve come to expect from an Irish author.

There are a lot of characters in It Started with a Snub.

There are Heather’s family and her housemates, but also her workmates and the friends and girlfriends of her friends, still they come forward with their own voices and character traits. Here is a little sample of a dialog that springs out from the page:

“‘The other night I asked him to come up with three words to describe me and he came up with sexy, beautiful, funny – could he not have done better than that? Oh and don’t take offence at this but if I hear anything else about how amazing Heather is, I’ll lose it! She’s so strong, she’s so funny, she’s so amazing. I mean we even started talking about you in the lead up to getting down and dirty. He said you were like a ray of light. Ray-of-light… now there’s three words I would have been happy with…’

‘Sweet Jesus.’ Heather’s face felt like it was about to explode. ‘Please don’t talk about me before sex again.’”

Bernadette manages to carry us through the ups and downs of the narrative with a smooth and melodic voice that’s delightful to read.

One thing I’d like to point out, though, and that’s the only point of possible improvement for the books Bernadette would write in the future, is that the book was overly long for me. As much as I liked the bubbly way the characters talked, I found myself distracted at times from the plot with all the details they shared.

All in all, It Started with a Snub is a fantastic debut that finished very satisfactory (I’m not saying more!) and left me with the lingering pleasant sensation usually associated with having a drink with a friend.

It Started with a Snub was gifted to me by the author for an honest review.

Buy It Started with a Snub on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

 

 

What Makes Banana Bread Tastes Bananer?

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The answer is an apple. One grated apple in any banana cake is a miracle worker towards boosting the banana taste.

Here is a recipe you could try out if you are feeling skeptical.

Banana Bread

285g/1,5 cups* flour
225g/1,25 cups sugar
110g/0,75 cups butter
5g bicarbonate of soda
2 eggs
85ml/0,5 buttermilk, diluted yogurt or milk with squirt of lemon in it
3 bananas
1 apple
vanilla

Preheat oven to 180C/350F. Line a loaf tin approx. 23 x 13cm /9 x 5 1/2inches with baking paper.

In a large bowl measure flour, sugar, and soda. Set aside.

Melt butter until almost liquid but not hot. Pour in the milk with squirt of lemon (or the yogurt; or the buttermilk). Beat in the eggs and add them in as well.

Mix dry ingredients with the butter, milk and eggs until well combined in a liquid dough.

Mash bananas with a fork. Grate the apple. Mix in with the dough and pour in the pre-lined tin. Bake in the oven for 45min or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the loaf comes out clean.

*Cup approx. = 150g

“The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert

51n+ltX8X2L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Before I start, there is one thing to get out of the way: I’m not a book snob. I’ve read Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love with the same perpetuating curiosity that makes me read all books. To me, a story is a story. Discriminating against books based on marketing genres and covers would be equal to submitting to borders drawn in the sand by other people, which is the opposite of what books are supposed to do with our minds.

That said, The Signature of All Things is a well-written and, to my non-botanical mind, a well-researched novel. One that’s full of tiny, down-to-earth enlightenment moments that made me put it on my chest after I’ve finished reading it and think for a while before I got on with my life. And even more tellingly, I woke up with Alma Whittaker and her wondrous mosses the next morning.

And they made me smile.

The novel follows Alma Whittaker’s life—from birth to death—in a simple, linear way.  But, as Gilbert often remind us throughout the book, Alma is her father’s daughter. So the book is as much about Henry Whittaker as it is about Alma.

Henry Whittaker was a “…poor-born and nearly illiterate man to become the richest inhabitant of his city…”. Born in London, Richmond he grew up “…sleeping one wall away from the pigs…”. He was the youngest son of a worker in Kew gardens, who had once managed to save the king’s favourite apple tree and thus had been nicknamed “the Apple Magus”. Henry starts working in Kew gardens at the age of ten. This shapes his destiny, as well as the destiny of his only daughter. From there on botany becomes the family trade.

At the age of thirty-two, already very wealthy and well-travelled, Henry Whittaker washes up on American shores and settles down in Philadelphia with his Dutch wife Beatrix. That’s where Alma was born and where the majority of her life happens.

Alma’s childhood is exemplary of what her life would be: self-sustained, lonely but full of thirst for knowledge and, ultimately, very satisfying. We are taken on long walks in her father’s woods with her trusted pony when she is only a small child. Later, we discover in those same woods Alma’s passion in life: mosses. Much the same way we go to Tahiti with her in search for The Boy.

The book is written sparingly from details and research point of view. It’s easy to burden the prose of any historical novel with useless material. Elizabeth Gilbert has escaped this trap with elegance and, seemingly, with ease. Yet, places and characters are drawn out with depth and with compassion that makes them believable and beloved. This is Gilbert’s strongest point in writing, I believe: detailing the thoughts and changes in her protagonists’ minds to a point of their inevitable growth; and ours alongside theirs.

One thing I wished for, as I progressed the five hundred pages of the novel, was that

Gilbert would trust her readers more.

The reminders and repetitions throughout the book spoiled the journey a bit. If we didn’t want to know Alma, we’d have stopped reading by page 305. Since we’ve passed the mid-point of the book and we are still reading, there is no point telling us that “Alma Whittaker was a woman of quick calculation, and far from sensual innocent.” We’ve watched her study Latin, French, Greek and Dutch by the age of ten and we’ve been to the Binding Closet with her countless times. We know what Alma is like and how her mind works. We are not “onnozelaaren”; or if we are we don’t like it pointed out.

This takes me to the point of discord in this novel: the going-ons in the Binding Closet. Other reviewers have accused Gilbert of inserting these elements for sensationalist sake. They’ve found them disturbing and off-putting. I did not find them disturbing and I didn’t think any less of Alma because of her, somewhat dubious, choice of past time. On the contrary, they made Alma all the more human despite her being anchored in time three centuries away from mine.

Elizabeth Gilbert has been ambitious in undertaking the writing of The Signature of All Things. She has attempted an almost Marquez-like outlook on the wholeness of life, minus the magical reality; a Hilary Mantel’s on-look on a historical subject with a twist. Only time would tell if she’d been successful in her attempt, but I can gladly confirm that The Signature of All Things is well-worth reading and thinking about it afterward. Gilbert has managed to make Alma’s personal journey somehow universal. That in itself is wondrous.

Why Rolled Oats?

20160320_001If you are like me and words bother you, you’d have asked yourself by now: why are oats “rolled”? And what happened to them to be that way?

I’ve recently made these Rolled Oats Breakfast Cookies and while I was having one with my afternoon tea I decided to look into the rolled stated of the oats. Google had this to say:

Rolled oats (sometimes called old fashioned oats) are created when oat groats are steamed and then rolled into flakes. This process stabilizes the healthy oils in the oats, so they stay fresh longer, and helps the oats cook faster, by creating a greater surface area.” Some mystery. Needless to say, I was disappointed how simple this explanation turned out to be. But the cookies are good.

Here is the recipe.

Rolled Oats Breakfast Cookies

Makes 12 large cookies; Time to prepare: 15min

300g/1,5 cups* rolled oats
6 tablespoons linseeds
100g/0,5 cup desiccated coconut
100g/0,5 cup coconut butter
100g/0,5 cup honey
100g/0,5 cup cranberries
Approx. 6 tablespoons of water

Preheat oven to a 180C/350F.

In a large bowl, mix dry ingredients: rolled oats, linseed, desiccated coconut, cranberries.

In a pan, warm up coconut butter and honey until pourable.

Pour butter and honey over dry ingredients and mix well. The mixture will be dry, so start adding a spoon of water at a time until it resembled very dry porridge.Use a muffin tray to shape and bake the cookies. Simply fill the muffin holes with the mixture, pressing them tight. Alternatively, make

Use a muffin tray to shape and bake the cookies. Simply fill the muffin holes with the mixture to the rim, pressing tight and leveling them.

Alternatively, make twelve cookies with your hands squeezing them hard, so they don’t fall apart.

Bake the cookies in the oven for 15 min, or until slightly brown. Let them cool before lifting them out of the tray, because they are very fragile when warm.

Perfect, unmysterious, rolled oats cookies for tea and breakfast.

*Cup approx. = 150g