A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, with a Recipe for Sugar Buns.

Sugar bun. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Hunger is the most basic, the most primal, of human motivators. Hunger is what drew us out of our caves, drove us to hunt, to make tools, and build fires. Hunger has ploughed fields and raised revolutions. Hunger will get me out of a warm bed on a damp Sunday morning. Even the word, hunger, has become synonymous with ambition and determination, a steely grit.

I am deeply suspicious of a book which has no mention at all of food, or even the lack of food. A day in the life of a human being which didn’t include any food at all would be notable just for that. We all eat, and what’s more, the food  we eat, even if it’s just a plastic-wrapped ham sandwich from a garage, tells a story about who we are. When we don’t eat, because we have lost our appetite, or refuse food in protest, or choose to abstain from food, or simply can’t get sufficient food, tells a whole other story.

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is a book all about hunger. It’s about wanting more. It is a book which reads like the truth, perhaps because it was, in fact, first written as an honest memoir but reconfigured as fiction at the request of an editor. From its first publication in 1943, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was an instant bestseller. Almost 75 years later, this book remains relevant and inspiring and an absolute must-read. It is the story of Francie Nolan, daughter of Irish and German immigrants, growing up in the tenements of Brooklyn a century ago. It is a book about the trials of emigration, even to a land of dreams. It is about the reality, the daily struggle to get by, to push forward in the crush for cheap, day-old bread, and it is about the greater battle to carve out a more satisfying existence.

Just as Oliver Twist, “desperate with hunger and reckless with misery,” held up his bowl, Francie Nolan is a girl hungry enough to gather her courage and ask the world for more.

That there is more to be had, she knows because of her mother, Katie, and her mother’s mother, Mary Rommely. It is Mary who insists that Katie read to her children, a page every day from the bible and another of Shakespeare.

“You must do this that the child will grow up knowing of what is great – knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world.”

And it is Mary who, even though she can neither read nor write, appreciates the value of teaching children about fairies, elves and dwarfs, and ghosts and signs of evil and Kris Kringle.

“The child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe.”

These were women who saw the possibilities, women with enough imagination to see beyond the daily grind. But they were also practical, and brave, and relentless. They have devised dozens of ways to make a dinner from a stale loaf, Weg Geschnissen one day and fricadellen the next. They have saved pennies in tin cans and have imagined possibilities.

Where lesser women might have been content to merely put dinner on the table, Katie is committed to feeding Francie’s hunger.

“Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way.”

Katie wants more for her children than money. She is appalled that they might turn out like the spoilt pub-owner’s child who throws candy down the gutter rather than share it with her neighbours. She knows there must be something more than money to escaping their world.

“Education! That was it! It was education that made the difference! Education would pull them out of the grime and the dirt.”

If Francie’s hunger, nursed by her mother and her grandmother, is for a bigger life, beyond the confines of working class Brooklyn, she knows instinctively that she will find it by the power of books.

There are people for whom words are almost as vital as food, people whose eyes scan constantly for things to read, people who will scavenge words wherever they can. Francie Nolan is one of those people.

“Francie was a reader. She read everything she could find: trash, classics, timetables and the grocer’s price list.”

The library is a shabby place, and the librarian unhelpful, but Francie thinks it is beautiful. She likes the librarian’s polished desk, likes the brown bowl filled with seasonal flowers, nasturtiums that day, clean blotter and the precise stack of library cards. Everything is neat, tidy, as it should be. This is the portal to the clean, bright future.

Francie has a plan: “She was reading a book a day in alphabetical order and not skipping the dry ones.”

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Betty Smith’s references to food are subtle and yet fundamental to undertanding Francie’s drive and willpower. The very basis of the Nolan family’s being in America is rooted in starvation. Johnny Nolan, Francie’s Papa, is of Irish stock. His people “came over from Ireland the year the potatoes gave out.” Having been spared famine, Johnny has no ambition. He is a man of little substance, “a sweet singer of sweet songs” who hands over his meagre wages but keeps his tips for booze.

Johnny’s wife, Katie, knows that he’s sweet and useless; she is not bitter but often hungry.

Johnny’s fecklessness leaves the family literally on the brink of starvation. When Katie can’t buy food she invents a game in which she and the children pretend to be arctic explorers trapped by a blizzard, eek-ing out their rations and waiting for help.

All is forgiven when Johnny returns from singing at a wedding with a feast of someone else’s leftovers.  Francie and her brother, who went to bed hungry, wake up in the middle of the night to a feast of lobster, oysters, caviar and Roquefort cheese.

‘They were so hungry that they ate everything on the table and digested it too, during the night. They could have digested nails had they been able to chew them.’

Eating all that food, it turned out, by the rules of the day and the Catholic Church, was a sin. Francie had broken the fast which should have lasted from mid-night until mass time. Keeping people hungry, of course, has always been an effective way to quell any bid for freedom. Francie learns that playing by the rules won’t get you what you want. She would gain her freedom even if she had to cheat a little, or lie once or twice and she would pay for the lies with her pride.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn details the gradual unravelling of innocence, the end of a childhood and awakening of an intelligent, determined young woman. Betty Smith peels back the veil on ordinary lives, like opening the front of an old dollhouse. She lays bare the truth of her own youth in a series of intensely detailed vignettes. The reader is left with the feeling of being trusted with a confidence; it is a sensation almost of privilege. If you one of those people who craves books and feeds on the written word, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn will leave you with a warm glow of satisfaction.


Sugar Buns.

When things are good, when Papa stays sober enough to hold down a job and the Nolan family gets a stab at happiness, when they have more to eat than a variety of meals concocted from stale bread, they eat sugar buns. From their first happy married days, when they worked together on a night shift, Katie and Johnny loved arriving home to have ‘a breakfast of hot coffee and warm sweet buns.’ The piano teacher is paid in house-cleaning services, and an agreement to have coffee and a sugar bun at the end of every lesson.

When Katie feels secure, she gives Francie the five cents that might have gone to the tin can of savings and says instead,

“All right. Get the buns.”

Francie takes her time choosing four buns, the ones with the most sugar on top.

Each member of the Nolan family was allowed a cup of hot coffee from the pot. Katie considered the coffee a worthwhile indulgence. What’s more, Francie was permitted to simply cradle the warmth of her coffee, if that was what made her happy, and then throw it down the sink.

I think it’s good that people like us can waste something once in a while and get the feeling of how it would be to have lots of money and not have to worry about scrounging.’

Waste not, want not is the doctrine of those who must make do with what they have. Katie understood the value of wanting more. The sugar bun is a treat but also serves to make Francie aware of the possibilities.

“The girl felt that even if she had less than anybody in Williamsburg, somehow she had more. She was richer because she had something to waste. She ate her sugar bun slowly, reluctant to have done with its sweet taste, while the coffee got ice-cold.”

Life won’t, and can’t, be all sweet buns, but when you get one, I suggest you make a pot of good, strong coffee and take the time to relish it.

Ingredients.

1 lb (450g) strong bread flour
½ tsp salt
1 oz (30g) sugar
1 packet (7g) of easy-action dried yeast
2 oz (60g) butter
½ pint (275 ml) milk

8 oz (225g) icing or confectioner’s sugar
1 lemon

Method.

Mix the flour, sugar and salt and yeast together in a large bowl.

Melt the butter. I place it in a glass measuring jug and melt it in the microwave. Add the milk to the melted butter. The milk and butter combined should be close to blood temperature – such that you can dip your pinkie finger in and it will feel neither hot nor cold. You may need to heat it a little more to reach this point.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix to combine into a rough ball.

Turn the dough on to flour-dusted surface and knead it, stretching it away from you with the heel of your palm and drawing it back into a ball. Turn it, stretch it, pull it, push it, give it a bash…you won’t find any better therapy. Continue to knead for at least eight minutes by which time the dough should feel more elastic. It should spring back if you press your thumb into it and have a silky appearance.

Place the dough in a greased bowl. Cover it with a tea-towel or, more effectively, a shower cap. Leave it in a warm place to rise for about two hours.

Now, the best part: take your risen dough and use your hands to knock the puff out of it. You don’t need to knead it again. Divide the dough into eight pieces. Take each of these pieces in turn and form them into round buns by rolling them around between your palm and the work surface. Use a tucking under action to smooth the surface of each bun.

Place the buns on an oven tray, cover them again with a cloth or cling film, and leave them in a warm place for an hour or so until you can see that they have risen up.

Brush each bun with a little milk and bake in an oven pre-heated to 200˚C for 20-25 minutes. They should have a golden colour.

While the buns cool, mix the icing sugar with enough lemon juice to make a fairly stiff paste. This should take the juice of half a lemon, maybe a little more. Spread this icing over the buns and allow it to harden.

While you wait, make the coffee.

Sweet Buns. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

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Three Books My Small Girl Loves.

My Small Girl is six years old. She loves reading, probably more now than she ever will again for the rest of her life. She still appreciates the newness of it. She takes great pride in reading a menu and delights in telling me I’m parked under a NO PARKING sign. I watched through glass yesterday as she got left behind at the shallow end of the swimming pool because she was engrossed in reading the safety notices.

It takes patience to read with her. She wants to read for herself and wants to know what every single word means.

It is also a huge joy.

And, my Small Girl has great taste.

I want to show you three gorgeous books we have adored.

Hortense and the Shadow by Natalia and Lauren O’Hara.

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I followed the creation of this beautiful book on Instagram (@oharasisters). For months I watched in awe as characters and detailed backgrounds emerged from simple sketches to exquisite illustrations.

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The writer and illustrator are sisters, living in London, of English and Polish heritage.

The book has quite a dark atmosphere and, to be honest, I feared Small Girl might not like it.

Hortense is a young girl who lives in a cold, snowy place with ‘dark and wolfish woods.’

Though she was kind and brave, she was sad as an owl because of one thing.

Hortense does not like her shadow. It bothers her, following her everywhere, until she finds a way to escape it.

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My Small Girl, at this point, was completely transfixed. There are tiny clues in the illustrations to what’s about to happen and I could almost hear the cogs of her brain whirring as she tried to figure it out.

This is a sophisticated story, I think, but one which younger children are more likely to appreciate than those who have reached the dreaded Age of Not Believing. My daughter happily accepted that a shadow might be chased away, and might return to save the day.

Overall, a quirky and quietly empowering read for little ones.

Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson.

Somehow, despite raising three other readers, the Moomintrolls had until now escaped our notice. Written in 1948, this one was re-released last year in this sweet collector’s edition with, presumably, enough fanfare to finally come to my, ahem, Santa’s attention.

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Quirky doesn’t go far enough to describe the Moomins. The menagerie of beings in this book is little short of absurd, but completely adorable. Moominmamma and Moominpappa, together with Moomintroll, the Hemulen, Snufkin, the Snork Maiden, Moomintroll and anyone else who wanders by, live in a little roundy house hidden in a Finnish forest.

They pack up picnics and go on adventures in much the same way as The Famous Five but with far less predictable results. In this story they discover a hobgoblin’s hat with magical powers which, despite their best efforts to put the hat out of action, leads to all manner of bother and, ultimately, a dramatic happy ending.

The best laughs, and there were many, came from the mixed-up words of Thingumy and Bob, or Bingumy and Thob as we re-named them.

I found the old-fashioned language a bit of a strain for reading aloud but happily the Small Girl took over for every third page or so.

I bookmarked one paragraph which struck me as something remarkable. The Moomins are gathered and taking turns to make one wish each, for anything at all. Moominmamma wishes to remove Moomintroll’s sadness. Sniff wishes for a boat of his own… it goes on quite a bit…

Then the Snork makes his wish:

“A machine for finding things out,” said the Snork, “a machine that tells you whether things are right or wrong, good or bad.”
“That’s too difficult,” said the Hobgoblin, shaking his head. “I can’t manage that.”

In 1948, a smartphone, you see, was beyond even Tove Jansson’s imagination.

Naturama by Michael Fewer with Melissa Doran.

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This large format, hardback book is a real treasure. There was always an hour in the school week that was called simply Nature, or Nature Studies when they started to get fancy about it. We made rubbings of tree barks and stuck leaves into our Nature copy and sprouted cress seeds and all that sort of thing. Naturama is a celebration of plants and wildlife indigenous to Ireland. It’s organised seasonally and covers everything from which tree is used to make hurleys (Ash) to what year grey squirrels arrived in Ireland (1911).

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We have only read the pages relevant to Winter so far but I’m looking forward to turning back to the start of the book and beginning again with Spring.

If you live in Ireland, this is a beautiful and informative reference book to keep on a coffee table. It will draw your attention to, and put a name on, all the little wonders you pass by everyday. I love it.

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That’s pretty close to the view from my window at this very moment.

I’m up the walls at the moment, plotting and planning a big project. All will be revealed. Unless it all goes horribly wrong in which case you will all have to deal with my mental breakdown. Please bear with me if I’m slow replying to comments. Trust me, I LOVE reading them.

For My Child And Your Child Too.

A Boy Called Christmas

I came this close, this close (holds forefinger and thumb together and squints left eye in demonstration of just how close) to writing a post about sadness. Not because I’m sad, but because I’m not, and because, when I am, I can’t write, or say, or even think, anything  productive at all. Anyway, it’s all there, written on a page with a pen, and maybe we can come back to it one day. For now, ’tis the season to be jolly.

Did you know that Santa wrote a book? It was an elf-help book called How To Be Jolly. It had a very limited release but topped the charts for its target demographic. This, and much more, I learned from Matt Haig’s thrilling  exposé,  A Boy Called Christmas.

Haig revealed, at last, the true and previously unrecorded secrets of Father Christmas’s early years. You may wonder how the author learned these facts. Haig, rather honourably I think, refuses to reveal his sources. He argues that you shouldn’t really question such things. He just knows, otherwise why ever would he have written the book?

A Boy Called Christmas

Whether you call the great man Father Christmas or Santa Claus or Saint Nick or Sinterklaas or Kris Kringle or Pelznickel or Papa Noël, the important thing is that you know he exists.

“Can you believe there was a time when no one knew about him? A time when he was just an ordinary boy called Nikolas, living in the middle of nowhere, or the middle of Finland, doing nothing with magic except believing in it? A boy who knew very little about the world except the taste of mushroom soup, the feel of a cold north wind, and the stories he was told. And who only had a doll made out of a turnip to play with.”

Nikolas’ childhood was none too promising. His parents, Haig tells us, were kind and loving but very poor. His mother was a jolly soul, with red cheeks and a warm laugh. His father, Joel, was an industrious woodcutter with only 9 ½ fingers and very tired eyes. Nikolas had no brothers or sisters or friends. His only childhood companion was a small, very hungry, brown mouse called Miika who, even though he had never even seen it, or even smelled it, believed in cheese.

A Boy Called Christmas

Our first clue to Nikolas’ destiny is the fact that he was born on Christmas Day and, for that reason, nick-named Christmas by his parents. Joel even made Nikolas his own wooden sleigh and painted his name, Christmas, on the back of it.

Haig’s account introduces us to Nikolas at eleven years old, soon after his mother had died in a tragic accident. Despite determined efforts to be happy, Nikolas was a bit sad, and maybe a bit lonely, and really, extremely hungry. Little did he know, things were about to get much worse.

Lured by the promise of a rich reward from the King of Finland, Joel the woodcutter undertook a dangerous expedition to the Far North to find proof of the existence of elves. He took with him the Christmas sleigh (but at least not the turnip doll) and left Nikolas in the care of his miserable and ancient (she’s forty-two) Aunt Carlotta.

“Everything about her, even her voice, seemed covered in frost.”

Aunt Carlotta’s shocking deeds do not make easy reading. Suffice to say, Carlotta was greed incarnate, so unbearably mean that poor Nikolas gathered his courage, put his mouse in his pocket, and simply walked away.

“Then, with Miika peeking out at the road ahead, Nikolas turned and headed north through the trees, towards the place he thought he might find his father and the elves, and tried his hardest to believe in both.”

It would, I fear, be irresponsible of me to reveal what Nikolas found at the Far North. You’ll have to read the book. I won’t even whisper a word about the flying reindeer, the truth pixie or the exploding troll. I will not give credence to the miserable lies extolled by The Daily Snow newspaper, or give my opinion of the media mogul elf who believes that goodwill is just another name for weakness.

What I will tell you is this: Nikolas found food. He discovered gingerbread and sweet plum soup, jam pastries and bilberry pie. And, Miika found cheese. While those things may not constitute a happy ending, or a happy Christmas, they are a very good place to start.

This book is so good, it gave me chills. I loved it so much I crocheted a set of the characters for the Small Girl.

A Boy Called Christmas, crochet

The reindeer at the back is Blitzen. Yes, I made him last year and he has changed his name by deed poll at my request. Anyone can have a red nose at this time of year. Standing on Blitzen’s left foot is Little Kip, a very small elf with very big ears. Next to Kip and staring thoughtfully into the middle distance (what my children call the smell the fart pose) is our hero, Nikolas. My best attempt at a tiny turnip doll lies below his hand and Miika, the mouse, is on the chair. Father Topo, Mother Ri-Ri (with the plaits) and Little Noosh make up the cast. I stopped short of Father Vodol, the media Mogul. I made the decision that, for Christmas, it’s as well to believe that he and his ilk don’t exist. Also, I ran out of yarn.

A Boy Called Christmas is a fine story with a very important message, actually several vital messages:

“We must never let fear be our guide.”

“An impossibility is just a possibility that you don’t understand.”

“Humans are complicated.”
“Elves too.”

“Life is pain.”
“But it’s also magic.”

“Perhaps a wish was just a hope with a better aim.”

“…and hope is the most wonderful thing there is.”

With each new book I read from this author, I find myself believing more and more in Matt Haig. To a world darkened by fear-mongering, where fake news is the order of the day, Haig delivers a message of hope, of generosity, of inclusion, and of kindness. You might choose to believe that this book is a fairytale, written just for gullible children. You could believe that this is book is allegorical, that Nikolas’s journey reflects a pilgrim’s progress from friendless boy to benevolent father figure. If you are very brave, you can choose to simply believe, as I do, in a boy called Christmas.

Now, on to that food…(but first, Blitzen and Nikolas doing the King Of The World pose)…

A Boy Called Christmas

An Elfin Feast.

Gingerbread.

Ingredients.

3 oz (80g) butter
3 oz (80g) soft dark sugar
2 oz (55g) golden syrup
1 egg yolk
8 oz (250g) cake flour, sieved
2 oz (55g) crystallised ginger, chopped into small dice
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger.

300g icing sugar and the juice of 1 lime to make icing
Icing pens, baubles, sprinkles, jelly tots, etc.

Method.

Cream the butter and sugar together until the sugar crystals dissolve and the mixture gets pale and fluffy.
Add the golden syrup and the egg yolk and mix well.
Mix the flour, ginger, bread soda, cinnamon and ginger together and then tip the lot into the butter mixture. Mix to combine and then knead the mixture lightly into a ball.
Leave the dough to rest in the fridge in a covered bowl for at least 30 minutes.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface and cut out shapes using cookie cutters.
Bake at 180˚C (350˚F) for 10-12 minutes, depending on the cookie size.
Leave to cool completely on a wire rack.
Add the juice of a lime to the icing sugar and mix vigorously. Add more icing sugar if the icing is too runny. Allow your creative juices run riot. Failing that, enlist children.

A Boy Called Christmas

Plum Soup.

Bramley cooking apples are sour and cooking down to a mush. If you can’t find bramleys, use soft cooking apples and perhaps less sugar. At worst, cook the plums in good quality apple juice and omit the water.

Ingredients.

1 ½ lb (650g) plums
1 lb (2 medium sized) bramley cooking apples
6 oz (150g) sugar
5 oz (150ml) water
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1 orange
3 cloves
whipped cream to serve.
 

Method.

Cut the plums in half, remove the stones and place them in a saucepan.
Peel, core and chop the apples and add them to the plums.
Cut a slice from the centre of the orange, stud it with the cloves and add this to the pot.
Cut some strips of peel from the orange, as long as you can make them, and add them to the pot too.
Squeeze the juice of the orange into the pot.
Add the water, the cinnamon stick and the star anise.
Cook over a low to medium heat for 20-30 minutes until everything is soft.
Fish out the spices and pieces of orange and peel.
Whizz up the soup in a liquidiser or with a stick blender until smooth.

You could serve this soup warm but we like it chilled, with a blob of whipped cream on top and a garnish made of the cooked orange peel. We, the grown-ups, also appreciate a slug of sherry stirred in to the chilled soup.

Bilberry Pies and Mince Pies.

Bilberries are the Northern European cousins of blueberries. They look and taste almost the same. If you can lay your hands on bilberry jam, by all means use it. Blueberry jam was the closest I could find. This pastry recipe has been handed down through the generations of my family under the title “pastry for mince pies.” It makes a delicious, sweet and buttery pastry which is easy to handle and reheats perfectly.

Ingredients.

1 jar of blueberry jam
1 jar of mincemeat
8 oz (250g) flour
2 oz (55g) icing (confectioner’s) sugar
5 oz (135g) cold butter
1 egg yolk (save the white for glazing)
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tbsp ice-cold water

Method.

Sieve the flour into a large bowl. Sieve the sugar on top and mix through.
Cut the butter into cubes and add to the bowl.
Wash your hands in cold water and then use the tips of your fingers to rub the butter into the flour until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs.
Mix together the egg yolk, the lemon juice and the cold water. Add this mixture to the flour and butter and fork it through until the dough begins to clump together.
Gather the dough into a ball, pressing it together gently. Use your palms to flatten the ball into a disk shape ready for rolling out. Wrap it in cling-film and allow to rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface and use a suitably sized cookie cutter to make circles to line a bun tray or mini-muffin tin. There is no need to grease the tray as the pies will come out quite easily. Cut out stars, or any shape you like, to make a lid.
Fill the cases with jam or mincemeat and pop the lids on top.
Brush the lids with the leftover egg white.
Bake at 180˚C for 15-20 minutes depending on the size.

A Boy Called Christmas

My title, by the way, is taken from the song Peace on Earth best enjoyed in the gloriously daft and magical Bing/Bowie duet.

I pray my wish will come true, for my child and your child too
He’ll see the day of glory, see the day when men of goodwill
Live in peace, live in peace again.

P.S. The eagle-eyed will have spotted that I took the food photos while I was only halfway through the crochet project. Poor Nikolas is, literally, legless. I blame the optional slug of sherry in the plum soup.

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Nurturing Activists of All Ages: Luis Sepulveda and Arundhati Roy.

Arundhati Roy. The God of Small Things. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

By complete coincidence, I recently reviewed two books written by authors with impressive histories of political and environmental activism.

Luis Sepúlveda‘s life story is one of breath-taking courage and adventure so it’s hardly any wonder that his book for children, The Story of a Snail Who Discovered the Importance of Being Slow inspires individual thinking and heroism.

I thought this was a fine story to read to young childrem. Read my review here.

Luis Sepulveda. The Importance of Being Slow.

Arundhati Roy‘s new book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, was heralded as the most anticipated book of the decade. As one who was bowled over by The God of Small Things, I dived into this with high hopes. Read my review here.Arundhati Roy. The God of Small Things. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

What are you reading at the moment? I’d love to know.

Also, anyone know who stole the summer?

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‘The book doctor will see you now.’

Adding a final flourish to PJ Lynch's art at Lismore Castle.

That’s what they said, seriously, and Small Girl got such a kick out of it. Let me explain.

We traveled, on excellent advice from Welovelittlethings, to the Towers and Tales Story Festival at Lismore Castle.

Traditional shop front. Lismore. Ireland.

Lismore is a quiet, picture book quaint, Irish village smack bang in the middle of exactly nowhere. Apparently, the townsfolk were ecstatic in 2015 when they got a bus shelter.

Defunct shop window. Lismore, Ireland.

You do, however, get the impression that it was a much busier place in a long bygone era.

Mc Grath's butcher shop, Lismore, Ireland.

In actual fact, Lismore has a cathedral, which makes it a city, albeit a remarkably tiny one.

Lismore Castle. Co. Waterford, Ireland.

Lismore Castle is a real, proper castle, built in 1170 as a bishop’s palace before becoming home to Sir Walter Raleigh (yes, he of the potatoes, the tobacco, and the cloak on the puddle story). On Raleigh’s demise the castle was taken by Elizabethan colonist, Richard Boyle. Boyle’s son Robert was THE Robert Boyle, as in ‘father of modern day chemistry‘ and Boyle’s Law Boyle.  Since 1775, the castle has been owned by the Duke of Devonshire (not the exact same duke, well, let’s hope not). The Astaires, The Mitford sisters, Cecil Beaton and JFK are just a few of the names in the guest book. No matter what age you are, this place is built from the stuff of fantasy. I just checked out the website; you have to apply for a secret code to access an inner, concealed website where the rental prices are. I didn’t go that far for fear my credit card would have shriveled up in horror.

Lismore Castle, Waterford, Ireland.

The castle is not usually open to the public so it was a real treat to get a peek inside. It was, mind you, a well-guarded peek. While the guest writers (Michael Morpurgo, Lauren Child, Ryan Tubridy and more) were staying in the castle we lesser mortals were confined to the courtyard.

To keep us from peering though keyholes, we were encouraged to add a final flourish to some wall art by Children’s Laureate P.J. Lynch. Small Girl felt that P.J.s palate was very limited and that the vital element was, without doubt, a big pink flower.Adding a final flourish to PJ Lynch's art at Lismore Castle.

The highlight for me was the poet Tony Curtis who told stories, recited poems and sang songs to a small guitar, all inside the shelter of a tent while rain kept time on the canvas. A proper troubadour.

Tony Curtis at Lismore Festival.

From Tony, we raced to our appointment with the Book Doctor. The girls waited nervously in the waiting room while the doctor’s assistant filled in their Reading Passports and made a note of their particular bookish likes and dislikes.

Dr. Juliette then sat down with each of the girls in turn, assessed their reading temperature and prescribed the appropriate treatment. Absolutely brilliant. I so wish they had a grown-up department.

CBI passport and book prescription.

The Book Doctor is run by Children’s Books Ireland, keep an eye open for them at festivals around the country and don’t miss an opportunity to get their specialist opinion. Irish, Munster, and especially Cork readers might be interested to read their interview with Jessica O’Gara (wife of rugby legend, Ronan) about reading with their bi-lingual children in France.

Small Girl’s most memorable moment, other than a gigantic icecream cone, was an encounter with the waffleword-spouting BFG. He might not have been quite 24 feet tall in real life but he had me convinced.

IMG_6539I found out about this festival a month ago and by then all the ‘big name’ events were already booked out. Thankfully, the only event with tickets remaining was with Sarah Crossan who is Middle Daughter’s new favourite author. It feels like all of five minutes since she was obsessed with Jacqueline Wilson but, God help me, she has made the leap to Young Adult.

IMG_6549 (2)

It’s a bit scary when your child moves from reading children’s books  that you can consider safe to reading YA fiction which, it seems to me, goes out of its way to deliver all the horror the world has to offer. What’s more, the higher the quality of YA literature, the more depressing it seems to be. I must admit that I’m struggling with this at the moment.

Sarah Crossan YA books.

I’m shadowing my twelve year old’s reading but not censoring it. I have to believe that they will hear about all the shite, racism, sexism, bullying, parental abuse, you name it, one way or another and, at least, these books offer some degree of guidance on how to deal with it. Also, I want to keep her reading.

Brian Conaghan (also pictured above) remarked that one of his books, about a boy with Tourette’s Syndrome, has been banned in several regions due to excessive swearing. Clearly, I’m not alone in my confusion about what is and is not appropriate reading for this age group.

How do other parents of young teenagers feel about their reading habits? Help me out here!

I’ve about thirty pages left to read in We Come Apart which Sarah Crossan co-wrote with Brian Conaghan. So far, I’ve been by turns appalled by the gritty nature of the content and impressed by the extremely impressive writing and pure genius of the collaboration. I’ll let you know more when I’ve finished.

Sweet Pizza by G.R. Gemin.

My Cooking The Books article for Bookwitty.com this month features a wonderful book called Sweet Pizza by Italian-Welshman G.R. Gemin. I was hugely honoured that Giancarlo emailed me to compliment my minor variations on the theme of his excellent recipe. Interestingly, he mentioned that the book is sometimes pushed into the category of YA fiction simply because it contains some (minimal, I promise you) swear words. I can’t say I even noticed any swear words. It’s a truly lovely book. For the review, and the recipe, Click here.

Grow your own lunch.

Finally, on a completely unrelated note, I also wrote up an article last week which has been, quite literally, growing on my windowsill for the last two months. As we all know, I am of the most haphazard and fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants variety of gardeners so, if I can grow my lunch on a windowsill, anybody can. Read more here.

I’m off to plant more radishes. Have a great weekend.

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Soup and a good book.

I have forsworn cake for lent. It’s not that I am worried about my eventual entry through the gates of heaven (though it could be a tight squeeze) but that I am concerned with the close-fitting nature of my jeans.

I have tried re-introducing the family to salads but the family was having none of it. They complained vociferously and informed me that it’s still too chilly for cold dinners. They have a point. It is surely the season for soup.

Aztec Soup

For my March edition of Cooking the Books, I have devised the ultimate soup recipe. It was almost too easy this time. The book, Umami by Laia Jufresa, practically spelled out the recipe to me. It all came together like some sort of literary magic.

 Find the review and the recipe for Aztec soup here.

Today is World Book Day. Small Girl is very excited about finally qualifying for a free book voucher and I’m happy to have an excuse for a bookshop outing. The books look great this year. Take a look at the list on WorldBookDay.com. I won’t be able to resist the Famous Five stories and I suspect Small Girl will want the one about underpants.The gallery of World Book Day doodles by well known illustrators is also well worth a look.

I like lists. I am a maker of lists and a dedicated ticker of lists. Best of all the lists, of course, are book lists and there are some fantastic book lists out there. If the internet had been invented just for the book lists it would have been worth it. These are some of my favourites:
The Agnes Reading List. I’m blowing my own trumpet here since I compiled this list of books for teenage girls. My all-time most loved books are on this list.
The Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge. Rory Gilmore is one extremely well-read young (and fictional, by the way) lady. These are all the books she reads or mentions over the seven seasons of The Gilmore Girls. You can tick the books you’ve read on this VERY good list (SO satisfying, I’m at 64 of the 339 books).
The Guardian’s list of 100 best novels ever written in English is a SERIOUS list, developed over two years by Robert McCrum. It’s compiled in chronological order. I’ve read 25 which is hardly very impressive.
The 100 Best Children’s Books from Time.com is a thing of beauty. I could flick through this quite contentedly all day long.
The 25 greatest cookbooks of all time is calling to me. So much temptation. The only one of these I own is Moro. My birthday is coming up soon…hello, family…can you hear me? Hint, hint, etc.
My favourite cookbooks are listed here.
Barack Obama’s Reading List: The 79 books recommended by a very bookish president during his time in office.
J.K Rowling’s Reading List: The books which have most influenced the world’s most successful author.

If you don’t find what you’re looking for in any of those lists you could take a glance through the books I’ve read since starting this blog in May 2015.
I hope you find a book you love today.

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Jammy Out!

Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I’ve been fairly up to my eyeballs in books lately and, to be perfectly honest, I couldn’t be happier. Husband’s phrase of the week has been,‘you are SO jammy!’ which roughly translates from Corkonian to English as, ‘how did you get so lucky, getting paid to read the books you love!’

He’s right, of course, and I can hardly believe it myself. The latest development has been the delivery of some Advance Reading Copies from Penguin and Vintage which had me dancing reels around the kitchen table with excitement. You never saw anybody get so excited about a book lacking its proper cover!

My balancing act now will be to keep up with the list of classics I am determined to read, which won’t necessarily bring any income but will surely feed my soul, while producing timely reviews of new releases. On top of that, I have a tiny seed of an idea germinating in my head which is, I think, a good idea but would involve a mountain of reading….waahhhh… I need an extra brain.

I am loving it though, every second!

I love the variety of books I’m reading. I must credit my Middle Girl, a voracious reader, for recommending some excellent children’s books. She is a great fan of Jacqueline Wilson and it’s easy to see why. Clover Moon is a historical drama suitable for children of around 9-12 years old. You can read the full review here.

Clover Moon by Jacqueline Wilson

I bought The One Memory of Flora Banks for Teenage Daughter but, such was the hype, I read it myself first. Like all YA fiction, it’s an easy read. I was a little disappointed but I suppose that’s the danger of believing the hype. My full review is here.The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes was a Christmas gift to myself. This type of book is a real guilty pleasure for me. I know it’s not making me a better person but it’s so nice to sink into a really comfortable, unchallenging and entertaining book. I have found that it can be almost impossible to find easy books that are also well written. This is a good one. The full review is here.Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

Both Husband and I read Alain de Botton‘s The Course of Love. It cut uncomfortably close to the bone and came close to causing a riot (not the good kind)in our bedroom. I would recommend it wholeheartedly for anyone searching for a deeper understanding of marital relationships. Full review is here.The Course of Love by Alain de Botton.

One final reminder: if you are looking for a bookish Valentine’s gift or a seductive Valentine’s dessert, look no further than Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Review plus recipe here.

Coeurs a la Creme and Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

I get a kick out of putting the photos together. I wish I had a little more skill but I’m learning on the job. The light levels have been abysmal lately which doesn’t help.

I’m not a great fan of yellow/orange but these colours seem to be popping up all around me. I ordered some yarn online (I never learn) which I thought would be cream (it was labelled buttermilk) but it is quite definitely yellow.

I’m reading The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser, an absolutely fascinating book, and reading By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder to the Small Girl at bedtime. Bizarrely, both Clover Moon and Silver Lake feature the dire effects of Scarlet Fever reminding me again how grateful I am to Alexander Fleming!

Our telly went on the blink last week and we spent several hours playing Bananagrams…if you haven’t tried it, you should!Laura Ingalls Wilder.

That’s all for now. I’ll be painting pantry shelves all weekend so stand by for the big reveal!

Yep, life these days is pretty jammy, or, to give it the strictly correct Cork phraseology: Jammy Out!

Have a great weekend.

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