Sunday, 29 September 2013

Book Review No. 20: All That I Am

This book was the first of our 2013-14 Book Club choices. It's not a book I would ever have chosen to read otherwise because it's (mostly) set during an era and in a country about which I don't tend to enjoy reading, namely the 1920s and 1930s in Germany. I have a tendency to avoid any books on the Second World War (or any war really) after spending a great many Fridays working on a project that involved visiting an archive in London and poring over photos of the destruction and desecration that occurred in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s, and reading eye witness accounts of displaced persons and concentration camp survivors. It's turned me into a wuss and I do my best to avoid being reminded of what I saw and read.

However, I was determined not to fall at the first Book Club hurdle of the year, so I got on with it. For the first 100 or so pages I struggled; I found the book turgid (although well-written), not to mention confusing, and the characters uninspiring. But then, bam, something happened in the story and from there on in it was a rollercoaster ride where I just wanted to keep on reading.

The book is a work of fiction based on real people and real events, which makes it all the more intense. There are four main characters: Ruth Becker (one of the narrators), her husband Hans Wesemann, her cousin Dora Fabian and the left-wing playwright Ernst Toller (the other narrator), all of whom play a determined part in attempting to keep Hitler from coming to power. When their resistance efforts fail they are forced to flee Germany, and all but Ernst travel to London where they continue their opposition, despite the danger of being sent back to Germany and certain death, if they are found out. I was very interested to read of the ways in which Hitler and his regime sought to prevent any opponents from speaking out, and also about the possibility that the supposed arson attack on the Reichstag building (the German Parliament) in Berlin might actually have been started by the Hitler regime and falsely blamed on the Communists as a way of ensuring the passing of an emergency decree which suspended the right to freedom of speech, freedom of the press and other constitutional protections. It was interesting, too, to read how Britain and its government reacted to political and other exiles forced to flee Germany and seek refuge in the UK.

The story is told from the points of view of Ruth and Ernst in alternating chapters. Ruth's chapters are written with the hindsight of 60 years and from her new home in Australia, while Ernst's are written in the inter-war years from the hotel in New York where he lived. I think the fact that the narrators are both 'looking back' does make the characters and events seem slightly more remote at times, and it also took some getting used to at first but, despite some flaws, I would still recommend this book if you are interested in the history of that period, but don't want to read a book that is solely about 'the war.' Even if, like me, you tend to avoid books on this era, you might still want to give it a go.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Front Garden Progress

The front garden is a work in progress, and will continue to be until such time as a large(ish) pot of money falls into our hands so that we can have it properly landscaped. The long-term plan is to have the front wall knocked down and rebuilt - there are some very large cracks and it is bowing out in some places where large tree stumps/roots have pushed against it. It's not at the stage where it's likely to fall over, but it's certainly unsightly. When it is rebuilt, we will have a larger driveway and some more hard-standing for cars. At the moment we can park three cars easily, four at a push; it's not that we need room for more (we have two cars and there's enough room for visitors) but a little reconfiguring wouldn't go amiss, and a wider entrance to the drive would be VERY handy. Neither of us has clipped the wall yet (or cars parked on the road opposite), but it would be very easy to do.

In the meantime we have been busy removing overgrown flower beds, large shrubs and hedges in order to get back to a very 'basic' garden so that when the time comes for us to properly re-landscape, there (hopefully) won't be too much that needs doing in terms of removal and prepping.

This is what the front garden looked like just when the building work was starting back in April 2012.
It then went through various stages of tidiness and overgrown-ness after we'd moved in in October 2012.

Until, finally, over the course of the past few months, everything has been removed.

And some grass seed put down. 
Apart from doing something with the dreadful hedge on the boundary (it's our boundary but the hedge seems to be made up of a variety of different shrubs/trees with some roots in our garden and some in our neighbours', which makes it rather difficult to deal with, hence why we haven't bothered grassing all the way up to it yet), we're pretty much in our 'neutral' state. I'm sure lots of people would prefer the 'before' garden with the shrubs and flowers, but one of the problems we had was that some of the shrubs were very well established and had extremely large trunks and roots; there were also several VERY large stumps left behind from large trees which must have been felled when the house was built. These large old stumps and the ever-growing shrubs were putting a strain on the front wall, which is cracked in several places; if we'd left the shrubs and stumps in and rebuilt the wall, chances are the same thing would happen in the future. Hence going back to the drawing board.
Here's a view of the beds under the windows when we first viewed the house back in the summer of 2011.
A little light hacking to this bed after we'd moved in.
Followed by some more severe hacking.

And now it looks like this:
Hopefully the new grass will blend in, one day... 
And maybe we'll even decide what to do with that lonesome shrub.

Whereas the bed on this side of the house has gone from this in 2011:
To this in 2012:

To this in 2013:
It looked much nicer in the height of summer.

And finally, the other part of the front garden has gone from this in late 2012:

To this:
To this:
And, now it looks like this (apologies for reflection on photo):
It's slow progress, but things are starting to look a lot tidier.
It's possible that further down the line, once the hard landscaping has been done (although there's no knowing when that might actually happen), we may re-introduce flowers and shrubs, but for now we're happy with our 'minimal' front garden. And it's certainly a lot easier to maintain.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Retirement Bucket List: Strike Two

I finally got round to making some fudge; something I had listed as the number one thing to do on my Retirement Bucket List (see here for the full [such as it is] list.)
I had a little Google on the old iPad and came up with what seemed to be one of the easiest recipes with the fewest ingredients - four to be precise, five if you count the oil for greasing the pan. The recipe is from the Good Food Channel website, here. Although once you've read this blog post you may not want to follow that particular link...
Ingredients and 'oiled' pan at the ready.
Basically, you weigh everything out, put it all in the saucepan and keep stirring.
And keep stirring.
And keep stirring.
Keep stirring to make sure all those burnt bits from the bottom of the saucepan are nicely distributed through the entire mixture.
And after 15-20 mins you can stop stirring.
By that time your mixture should have reached the 'soft ball' stage on the thermometer (115 degrees.)
Mine appeared to have reached 'centre of the sun, hard as a rock' stage by then.
And then I read the recipe again and noticed that only now should I be adding the vanilla extract, rather than at the beginning with all the other ingredients. Oops. Not sure how much of a difference that made to the outcome.
But I definitely did not make fudge.

I'm not sure if I can now strike this off the Bucket List. I didn't say that I had to 'successfully' make fudge, did I? But will the OCD part of my brain allow this failure to count? Oh dear.

I posted something on FaceBook about making fudge and a friend responded that fudge with chocolate in the ingredients can be easier to make. I may give that a go next time, although currently I am a little bit scarred by this first attempt. My arms are aching from all that stirring and my teeth are aching from the sugar (because, of course, I've still been eating the hot mess that is my hard-as-a-rock-toffee-crumble-stuff.)
Anyone else ever made fudge? Do you have a foolproof recipe you could share? 

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

An Apple (or Crate-load Thereof) a Day...

Sunday morning was deemed 'apple picking morning', so hubby had a root about in the garage and pulled out the apple crates and apple picker.

Along with our suitably dressed trusty helper we set about harvesting from the five trees that have produced LOTS of fruit this year. The other three apple trees haven't done much since they were only planted at the beginning of the year; lucky really.
Please don't report us to Social Services, he is wearing a hard hat after all...

Two crates full of cookers from Tree No. 1
Nearly a crate full of eaters from Tree No. 2 (plus  a half-eaten apple, and an egg from the chicken run.)
The final tally was three and a bit crates from Tree No. 1 (cookers)
Nearly a full crate from Tree No. 2 (eaters)
Nearly a full crate from Tree No. 3 (eaters)
A full crate from Tree No. 4 (undecided whether they are eaters or cookers)
A full crate from Tree No. 5 (cookers)
A large flower pot full of windfalls/other damaged cookers.
All in all, a lot of apples to deal with.
They are now stacked in the garage while we summon up the energy to peel, core, slice, freeze, and eat them.
And after all that excitement, we put our gladrags on and headed to a 1950s-style tea party. 

Hope you had a lovely Sunday too!

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Book Review No 19: The Beach Hut

The blurb from the back of the book reads thus:

FOR SALE: a rare opportunity to purchase a beach hut on the spectacular Everdene Sands. "The Shack" has been in the family for fifty years, and was the first to be built on this renowned stretch of golden sand...'
Jane Milton doesn't want to sell her beloved beach hut, which has been the heart of so many family holidays and holds so many happy memories. But when her husband dies, leaving her with an overwhelming string of debts, she has no choice but to sell.
THE BEACH HUT follows the stories of the people who own the beach huts, families who come to Everdene each year, people who fall in - or out of - love, remembering their pasts, or trying to forget them...

This is the sort of book that you might expect to either love or hate from the first few pages; but you may be surprised. I expected to be very underwhelmed as I started to read it, but actually I quickly came to enjoy it and I looked forward to my few moments before bedtime with the next installment. Yes, it's (very) cliched in parts, but it's also surprising in others. Each chapter follows the story of the owner(s) of a different beach hut along the row at Everdene beach. Mostly the stories involve matters of the heart - heartache, heartbreak, love, lust, etc - the quintessential ingredients of chick-lit. But that doesn't mean it's a bad book, just one that may not suit everyone. However, if you are looking for an easy but enjoyable read, most especially a holiday read, this would probably suit you well [especially if you are female...] I got this book from a charity shop for £1; I wouldn't have wanted to pay full price for it, but £1 was a very good deal when you consider how many hours of reading pleasure I got from it.

One to add to the 'Non-Taxing Holiday Read' list, if you happen to be compiling one (lucky you if you are!)

Please excuse the formatting of this post - I've no idea what was going on with the colours :(

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Crafting in Progress

Since being made redundant I've found a little time to turn my hand to some crafting. I have a couple of friends who are celebrating milestone birthdays soon, so rather than shelling out £3+ each for a card I thought I'd make them using cross-stitch materials and card blanks that I already had in the house. Earning virtually no money a month (I need to tell you about the two little jobs that I've been offered and taken on since being made redundant, so that's why I'm earning a little, rather than nothing) is certainly focusing my mind on saving the pennies where I can.

So, here you go. Please excuse the poor photos, I'm tired after a day at the Frome Agricultural and Cheese Show (that will have to be another post) and the lighting in my office is rubbish.

Happy 40th Ms X
Happy 30th Mrs X
I know they're not fantastic, but at least some thought has gone into them. Hopefully the recipients will forgive the handcrafted nature and appreciate instead the time and effort involved (fingers, toes and other body parts crossed)... I may add a little embellishment in the form of a sparkly bead or two if I feel they need it in the cold light of day.

And while the creative juices were flowing, I decided to make a start on this. An advent calendar sewing kit from Buttonbag
Hubby dearest bought it for me for Christmas 2011. I'll let that sink in.
I think there was hope in his heart that it would be in use for Christmas 2012.
BUT, at least it will be fully operational for Christmas 2013. 
She says, ever the fantasist optimist.

 I am quietly hopeful that this goal will be achieved, mainly because I, along with two neighbours, have set up a Stitch, Bitch & Bake group in the village and my plan is to work on the advent calendar at our meetings. Surely that will galvanise me? Alternatively, I could spend all the time eating cakes and gossiping. I'll let you know after the first meeting...

Monday, 9 September 2013


This morning I went foraging in the hedgerows; there's nothing more satisfying than the chance to nab some free food, even more so when the accompanying scenery is rather lovely and the peace is disturbed only by the tweeting of the birds and the occasional dog walker saying 'Good Morning.'

So, armed with a bag, three empty ice cream tubs, a bottle of water and a walking stick, I tucked my jeans into my boots and set off.
Through our little part of the village and down the path that we have nicknamed Gruffalo Alley
Down the steps
Through the kissing gate (all alone, so no one to kiss this time)
Stop to admire the view
Then set off down the hill with eyes peeled for the bounty in the hedgerow to the right
But, not just blackberries; also elderberries
and (what I believe to be) cobnuts; you might just be able to make out the cobnut on the tree in this photo - centre, about two thirds of the way down
I found this one on the ground underneath the tree
So, I'm now Googling elderberry, rosehip and cobnut recipes/uses and wondering whether to go back and collect some more hedgerow goodies.

But, back to the main event; over the stile
Slightly distracted by the cow parsley
And honeysuckle
And the ever-present stinging nettles
Watch out for the electric fence - definitely on as I could hear it tick-tick-ticking away
Admire the view again
And finally decide that enough's enough, when all three ice cream tubs are full to the brim and my hands are a lovely shade of pink
Back over the stile
Struggle up the hill
but at least there's a bench at the top where you can admire the views again
Through the church yard

Down the path, turn right, and make it home
Weigh the blackberries - 3lbs to add to the 4.5lbs already picked and made into 18 jars of jam and 6 crumbles (along with apples from the garden)
And if you put the blackberries together with some other items 'harvested' from the back garden this morning, it looks as if we can live like kings today!

I'll not claim to be an expert forager, but I do have a few tips for blackberrying that might come in handy:
  • take empty tubs or bags in a messenger-style bag or rucksack so you can sling it over your shoulder while picking; these types of bags are also much easier to carry when you are homeward bound and laden down
  • take a bottle of water and some snacks if you think you'll be out for a while - I was gone for nearly two hours this morning and was grateful of a drink
  • if you have a walking stick take it along - it can be very handy for pulling high branches towards you (the best blackberries always seem to be just out of reach) or moving brambles, stinging nettles, etc out of the way. You can also use it as it was intended when you are trudging up a hill or over uneven ground
  • don't go out dressed up as if you're modelling in a feature for Country Living. You will undoubtedly get that brand new Joules tunic top caught on a thorn and drop the juiciest blackberry ever down your sparkling white pedal pushers
  • wear long sleeves and long trousers; tuck your trousers in your boots; you might even want to wear gloves to avoid the 'purple finger'
  • crouch down slightly and look up and under the blackberry bush; it's amazing how many of the best ones are hidden from view under the leaves
  • if you work from right to left when picking, turn back and work from left to right when you've reached the end of the brambles - you'll spot plenty of blackberries you missed the first time round
  • but, do be kind and leave some blackberries for the foragers who didn't get there as early as you
  • keep looking down at the ground; lots of the best blackberrying seems to be in places where people walk their dogs...
  • and talking of which, don't pick blackberries that are too near the ground - dog wee is not an added flavour you really want
  • blackberries make fantastic jam and crumble filling, especially when combined with apple, but if you don't have the time or inclination to make or bake when you've picked the berries, freeze them as soon as you can as they have a tendency to go mouldy quite quickly. We just freeze ours in the pots we picked them in, without washing, but you may have higher hygiene standards. You may want to freeze them on baking sheets and then bag them up if you don't want them frozen in a great lump
  • enjoy!