Monday, 31 March 2014

Book Review No. 4: French Pressed by Cleo Coyle (cozy crime)

This is the sixth in the Coffeehouse Mystery series; I've read each of them from number one (in chronological order, of course, but each book could be read as a standalone.) For me this is the ultimate in cozy: a combination of crime and coffee, set in New York - what's not to love?! Coffee info and tips are dotted throughout the book and there are recipes at the end, so if you love your coffee as much as I do you may find these books interesting just for that.

A short summary: Clare Cosi and her estranged husband Matteo (because an uncomplicated relationship would be too easy, right?) run a coffee shop in New York's West Village. Their daughter Joy starts an internship at a top NY restaurant and also starts dating the much older, married head chef. In an attempt to keep a closer eye on her daughter, Clare makes a deal to supply the restaurant with coffee, but before she even has time to start replacing the current terrible offerings with something much better, murder is afoot. First it's one of Joy's intern friends and then it's Joy's beau, the head chef. Joy is, of course, the main suspect and it's down to Clare to prove her daughter's innocence and find who really 'dunnit'. 

I enjoy this series (for the most part); as I said before, it's set in a coffee shop in New York and its a cozy, so for me it's the trifecta of brilliantness. The characters are being developed nicely as the series continues and I'm interested to see what will happen to them (particularly Clare and her policeman beau Mike) in the next book. Obviously it won't be to everyone's taste but if you're interested in reading a cozy crime series that isn't too cozy, perhaps this one's for you.

Monday, 24 March 2014

A Little Trip to Old London Town

A couple of weeks ago I spent a very pleasant couple of days in London in the company of two of my cousins, and a friend. We stayed in a lovely apartment in the former Midland Grand Hotel which is in front of St Pancras railway station. The lower levels of the building are now the Renaissance St Pancras Hotel, while the uppers levels contain 67 apartments.
Isn't it just the most beautiful building? Especially when the sun shines!
 This is the corridor outside the apartment we stayed in; it reminded me of The Shining...
And, because I'm a fantastic blogger, I completely failed to take any photos of the inside of the apartment. Suffice to say, it was VERY nice, over three levels and with all mod cons. This is the link, in case you're interested in seeing more (with much more professional photos than I could ever manage!)

We spent our two days in London doing touristy things such as visiting Liberty
where I was forced to sample the carrot cake (for research purposes, you see...); lovely plate, don't you think?
We had dinner at J Sheekey, the well-known fish and seafood restaurant near Covent Garden. I had scallops for my main course and forgot to take a photo, but I did take a snap of THE MOST delicious Spotted Dick and vanilla custard that I had for my pudding.
Clearly this trip was based solely around food and drink as the next morning we found ourselves in the Food Hall at Fortnum and Mason.
Again for research purposes, I tested out one of their many eateries, although I did only have a coffee this time.
 Because, just minutes later we were sitting down to Afternoon Tea in the Palm Court at The Ritz.
What, no scones? That's because they like to serve them warm, so they wait until you've eaten your fill of sandwiches (and they keep refilling the plates as many time as you like.)
Champagne selfie. I know, I know.
Ooo look, the scones have arrived. And a piece of lemon drizzle cake from the sweet trolley.

 Here we are; and my cousin Jo appears to be asleep.
When we finally managed to drag ourselves away from the loveliness of The Ritz (not long after spotting Sir Jeffrey Archer), we took a stroll along to the Burlington Arcade and onwards to Regent Street. After that we had to head back to the apartment for a little lie down.
When we had fully recovered we ventured out once again, through King's Cross Station (which is now really rather snazzy - the roof being a case in point, with lights that change colour constantly, not to mention umpteen shops and eateries all around.)
 It was time to put on our cultured heads and set out for the theatre to see Jeeves and Wooster, starring Stephen Mangan and Matthew Macfadyen. If you like a good farce (be careful how you say that), you would love this. It is fantastic. I was enthralled from beginning to end and cannot rate it highly enough. If you get the chance, go and see it. Immediately.
The next day it was time for us to say our goodbyes, but not before Joanne and I tracked down the elusive Platform 9 3/4 for a photo op. Unfortunately my next stop wasn't Hogwarts, rather Waterloo and the train home to the West Country.
What a lovely couple of days being a tourist!

Friday, 21 March 2014

Everything Stops for Tea (and Coffee, and Cake)

Do you remember back in the mists of time when I was made redundant? Actually, it was only last August, but it feels like forever ago. Anyhoo, when I got bored of sitting around doing nothing (actually, I got fed up of not having any money, I'm not sure I would ever get bored of sitting around) I managed to get myself two (very) part-time jobs, one in the village tea room working one day a week, the other in the village shop working one day a month (see, I said they were 'very' part-time.) 

Fast forward to mid-February this year and the lady who runs the tea room decided she wanted to move on to pastures new. Word on the street was that the tea room would be closing, cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth from various quarters; however, word inside the tea room itself was that the couple who own the building (it happens to be part of their house and was converted from what was formerly a Granny annexe) didn't want it to shut because they couldn't bear the thought of the space being empty and unused. As soon as I heard this (from the horse's mouth, as I happened to start chatting to the owner about the future plans for the space when I was in there working one Thursday), I texted hubby. We had already discussed 'what ifs?' and 'maybes' in relation to the tea room and it looked like this could be the very opportunity to put those 'what ifs?' and 'maybes' into practice. I also expressed an interest with the owner and left her to mull things over. By Saturday she had made her decision - if I was interested, then the tea room business was mine!
I won't own the building, but I shall own and run the business. Oh my goodness me! I've never done anything like this; I've never run my own business and when I started working there just a few months ago, it was the first time I had ever worked in the food/hospitality industry (or whatever you call it.) But here I am, about to become (as of 31st March) sole proprietor of a tea room!

As I'm sure you can imagine, my brain is fit to bursting with all of the things that have to be done, as well as all the plans I have for redecorating, changing the menu, selling gift items and cards alongside the food and drink.

My plan is to close for two weeks so that I can redecorate, move things around, have a good old tidy up and general titivate the entire space, and then re-open with a flourish (or perhaps a pathetic whimper) on Monday 14th April.

Currently the space looks like this, so there's definitely plenty of potential.

I'm also being given the opportunity to develop the room at the back, and the idea is to introduce comfy seating and possibly a children's corner. It might also be the ideal place for the secondhand books that are currently sold from the front of the tea room, so that space can be used instead for a range of gifts and cards.

I have so much to do and think about and paint and order and make and arrange and panic about before then; but I have at least decided what colour to paint the walls, what colour tablecloths to have, and which font to use on the menus (Maiandra, I think; or perhaps I'll change my mind...) A neighbour of mine has already made new aprons for me, so at least I'll look vaguely smart on the first day of trading, even if I don't get round to making any food...
And I've got a lot of baking practice to put in!

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Book Review No. 3: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

I'm sure you'll be relieved to hear that I'm finally done blethering on about Hawaii. Time to get back to the real world with a book review. I'm so very behind with these, having just started reading book no.8 of the year, but only now getting round to reviewing book no.3; expect a spate of book review posts in the near future!
This was the second Book Club book for 2014. I remember watching the film way back when in 1997 (I had to Google it to find out the date), but I couldn't remember what it was about apart from there was a big fancy house and Kevin Spacey played the lead role (Jim Williams). Clearly made an impression on me, not. Interestingly, having just Googled it, I see that Jude Law played the part of Williams' alleged young lover Danny Hanson; well, who knew?

So, back to the book. This is the description given on Amazon:
"Genteel society ladies who compare notes on their husbands' suicides. A hilariously foul-mouthed black drag queen. A voodoo priestess who works her roots in the graveyard at midnight [hence the book's title.] A morose inventor who owns a bottle of poison powerful enough to kill everyone in town. A prominent antiques dealer who hangs a Nazi flag from his window to disrupt the shooting of  a movie. And a redneck gigolo whose conquests describe him as a 'walking streak of sex'.
These are some of the real residents of Savannah, Georgia, a city whose eccentric mores are unerringly observed - and whose dirty linen is gleefully aired - in this utterly irresistible book. At once a true-crime murder story and a hugely entertaining and deliciously perverse travelogue, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is as bracing and intoxicating as half-a-dozen mint juleps."

The book is loosely based around the relationship between Jim Williams (the antiques dealer mentioned above) and his handyman/lover Danny Hanson (the gigolo above) - a relationship that ends with Williams shooting Hanson dead; Williams claimed it was self defence and ended up going to trial FOUR times over the shooting. I won't tell you the outcome of any of the trials, in case you want to read the book yourself.

Alongside Williams and Hanson, there is an amazing cast of outlandish, eccentric, compelling, intriguing characters, not least Savannah itself. The book acts as a travelogue, with Savannah as a much a part of the story as the people who live there. And reading this book has made me want to visit Savannah, to appreciate first hand the architecture, the historic buildings and squares and to experience the 'southern charm' for which its inhabitants are known.

Among our eight book club members this was not a popular choice; in fact I was the only one (other than the lady who suggested it) who gave it a positive review. The overwhelming criticism was that it reads like a (very, very long) magazine article; I think this is a valid point and especially so when you consider that the author is a journalist.

It took me a fair while to realise that the book is based on a true story; I was happily reading away assuming it was all fiction until something clicked in my brain and I had the sense to read the back cover and that's where I saw the 'Travel/Crime' heading. A-ha! However, because the sequence of true events has been rearranged and the book does read like a novel (or long magazine article, depending on your point of view), I think I can be forgiven for my literary faux pas.

To sum up, I enjoyed the book very much; I found it intriguing, interesting and amusing. Perhaps my love for all things American made me predisposed to liking the book, and I can understand why many people (such as the majority of my book club) would not have enjoyed it as it is definitely written in a certain style (the author's journalistic training certainly comes to the fore), but if you are at all interested in the (recent) history of particular American states or cities, or you enjoy books with compelling characters, then this one just might be worth a look.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Shopping, Hawaii-style

Anyone hoping for a post on how we bought Hawaiian shirts, ukuleles, grass skirts and bikini tops made from coconut shells is going to be sorely disappointed. For us, Hawaii was well and truly the 50th state of the USA as far as shopping was concerned.

On our first full day there we were unfeasibly happy to find an outlet mall where a number of our favourite US brands had stores - GAP, Banana Republic, Crocs; there was even a Lucky Brand, although we do find it to be very hit and miss, and this time it was definitely a miss. We also found a Safeway supermarket where we were able to stock up on a few edible goodies. Not to mention a secondhand book store where I got lucky (so to speak) in the cozy crime section. On the second day we found an Old Navy, and then of course there was the unexpected stop-over in San Francisco which furnished us with the opportunity to visit the fantabulous Williams-Sonoma (it's like a gold-plated version of Lakeland) and the fooooood heaven that is The Cheesecake Factory where I may, or may not, have purchased four slices of pure bliss from this little selection:
This is the shopping from Day One. 
And this is pretty much everything I bought during our entire trip.

We hit pay dirt in the outlet mall since Banana Republic and Gap were offering major discounts (50% and 30% respectively) off their already discounted prices. Hubby loves Gap and BR for shirts, so he really stocked up. In the photo below you can see two of the shirts I got from BR (the green/blue diamond pattern one on the left for $18.50 and the navy one with red boats at the bottom for $25); the green top at the back was $23 from Gap and the blue pj bottoms on the right were an absolute steal at just over $4 (about £2.50!)
The blue stripe (left), blue floral (centre) and denim (bottom left) tops all came from Old Navy along with a red stripe swim shirt that I've managed to miss out.

Reading matter: I picked up a couple of the US home magazines that I enjoy at San Francisco airport. Luckily our village shop orders in some other US mags that I love to read, so I don't have to travel quite so far to get my monthly fix.

And I got the five cosy crime books for just $8 in a second-hand book store in Kahalui. Reeeeesult.
Food! Ahhh, all that chocolate-y goodness! Saying that, a lot of the things in this photo were brought back as gifts. I've only kept the Reese's bars (ahem, just eight of them...), milk choc-covered Graham crackers from Starbucks (again, only eight packs...), the Goldfish crackers and the crunchy Cheetos. Oh, and the Starbucks hot chocolate. And the Milka bars (given to us on the plane - Lufthansa snacks are the best.)
The Reese's bars in glorious technicolour close up. Mmmmmmm.
Not forgetting the clothes and Crocs for DC. Two t-shirts from Gap, a zip up hooded top and t-shirt from Old Navy, and two pairs of Crocs.
And last, but not least, (please excuse awful awful photo) this wonderful hula dancing Father Christmas to add to our selection of Xmas decs from around the globe.
Mele kalikimaka, as they say in Hawaii.

Monday, 10 March 2014

One Final Maui Wowee

Our final day on Maui. Beautiful blue skies all day long. 
After breakfast (this was our view) we spent a couple of hours by the pool(s). The grounds (not just the pools, but the landscaping, etc) of the hotel really were stunning. We stayed at the Grand Wailea in case anyone is interested!

 Then it was time to finish off the packing (thank goodness for expandable suitcases) and check out. Check out time was 1pm, but our flight home wasn't until 11.59pm (precisely), so we had a lot of time to kill. We spent most of it sitting by the pool, of course. Luckily, the hotel provided us with a hospitality room later in the evening so we could shower and change before heading off to the airport.
 Final sunset on Maui, as seen from the hospitality room.
 And a final evening stroll around the hotel grounds
before a bite to eat - mahi-mahi and chips!
 Not to mention this rather fabulous dessert.

At about 9.30pm we set off for the airport. Everything was going smoothly, we boarded the plane and were all set to start our long journey home (with three flights, two of which had VERY, VERY tight turnaround times giving us just 30 minutes between one flight landing and the next taking off - yup, craaazy town) when the pilot announced that we wouldn't be able to take off. Okaaaay. Well, not until seven people got off. It turns out that the pilot had set a weight limit for the plane, taking into account wind speed and direction and the shortness of the runway at Maui. Apparently the ground crew had ignored this weight limit (reassuring, hmmm?) and so the plane was too heavy. Unless seven people got off. (Not sure how they came up with such a precise figure seeing as how different people can weigh vastly different amounts, but who am I to question the wisdom of an airline pilot?) And so the minutes ticked by, and the likelihood of us making our onward connection in San Francisco got less and less. Finally, when the offers made by the airline reached $900 per person, plus accommodation (back at the hotel we'd just come from!), food and transport, seven people volunteered. Cue the big cheers and we were able to set off, nearly an hour late. Of course, the chances of us now making our onward connection were virtually nil and, indeed, we landed into San Francisco at almost exactly the time that our flight to Washington DC was taking off. We still ran to the boarding gate, just in case, but no joy.

There ensued a rather lengthy queuing session followed by an equally lengthy discussion re the options for getting home at the United Airlines Customer Services desk. It would seem that seats on flights out of San Fran were few and far between. Finally we settled on the option of a 7.25pm flight to London and further onward flight to Manchester. That was about 9am. Yep, nearly ten hours in San Francisco (we preferred that option to the other on offer which was seven hours in Frankfurt.) What to do? Well, get out into the city and explore, of course!

There follows a very small series of not at all inspiring photos of San Fran - we didn't see the Golden Gate Bridge, we didn't see Alcatraz, we didn't see Fisherman's Wharf or pretty much any of the major tourist attractions (hubby and I have both been to San Fran before). Bear in mind that we were pretty exhausted, it's a miracle that we managed to get anywhere at all really. We did find the shops
we found Union Square
we found a fabulous little place for lunch
and we found the Cheesecake Factory. What more could we need?!?
We were also very lucky that hubby has a couple of friends who live about 10 minutes from San Fran airport and we spent the afternoon at their house relaxing and generally hanging out.

Then it was back to the airport, a flight from San Fran to London, a couple of hours layover in London and then an onward flight to Manchester, arriving at about 6pm (just about 12 hours later than we should have.) You won't be at all surprised (we certainly weren't) to learn that our luggage didn't join us. But it did turn up two days later following a further flight to Exeter airport and a courier van to our door.

The joys of travel, eh?!?