Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Book review : Wrapped in White - Kevin Brooks

I can never resist the 3 for £5 crime fiction section of The Works, so when I spotted this one on the shelf with a sale sticker on it for £1, it was a no-brainer - that's even cheaper than a magazine !

Wrapped in White is the third novel featuring private investigator John Craine. I've already read and reviewed the second one, Until The Darkness Comes, but you don't need any background information from the previous episodes to fully understand and appreciate this one.

John Craine is approached to investigate the brutal murder of a young Somali man. The police are writing it off as a drug-related gang crime, but the boy's family think it's a cover-up. Before he has a chance to get his teeth into the new case, news arrives that his friend and mentor (not to mention father figure, since his own father's death several years ago) Leon Mercer has been killed in a tragic house fire, along with his wife. It doesn't take long to realise that both cases are deeply suspicious, but, as John starts digging, his nemesis - bent cop Mick Bishop - comes to warn him off. Mick may not care much for his own life, but he does have to think about the safety of his loved ones.

Although John's heart is undoubtedly in the right place, he is a very hard character to like and empathise with. He is an alcoholic and he takes a lot of hard drugs, yet he constantly drives everywhere, even when he knows he shouldn't. He has blackouts and stomach pain, but won't face up to or deal with his health issues and addictions. The same is true with the problems in his private life - both with his current and former girlfriend. He just seems to go with the flow, drifting along with no idea where the tide of drugs and alcohol will take him. I just wanted to give him a shake and tell him to grow a backbone and take control of his life. 

I felt that there were a lot of loose ends thrown out there that were never tied up or even really developed - the initial murder fades into the background (the aunt who employed him never even gets another mention), the big boss of the seedy underworld is let off the hook, his woman troubles are left undealt with ... he gets closure on a couple of thorny issues but many more are left hanging, which was unsatisfying as a reader. It's a fast-paced, action-packed read that could hit the spot if you want an exciting thriller to devour by the pool with minimum effort, but one to avoid if you're feeling depressed as it's all very bleak.

star rating : 3.5/5

RRP : £8.99

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Arrow (11 April 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 009955383X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099553830

Monday, 13 August 2018

Hastings diaries : North's Seat

When we were visiting the Madhouse grandparents last month, it was lovely to go out wandering around all my old childhood haunts with the kids. This little track which runs up the side of the fence from Hastings Academy, which was Hillcrest Comprehensive in my day, will forever remind me of muddy, drizzly cross country runs (or, more often than not, cross country grumbling walks) during school PE lessons !

We didn't appreciate the scenery back then (and, to be fair, it was an autumn/winter activity so not when it was at its best) but this is all actually part of Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve.

We didn't see any animals but there are loads of pretty flowers to look at, including lots of wild foxgloves. The manmade additions to the landscape are quite impressive too.

I love the way it's all been left wild to do its own thing, with rosebay willowherb, also known as fireweed, covering vast swathes.

Some areas have been fenced off as protected wildflower meadows.

How can these be classed as weeds?!

 Standing 575 feet above sea level, North's Seat is the highest point in the town, and you can see for more than 60 miles across the Downs and Weald in the westerly direction. On a clear day, rumour has it that you can even see the coast of France with the naked eye!

A strategically placed fence for leaning on while you take in the great views !

There was once a windmill on this spot, which was destroyed by fire in 1872, and later a look-out platform, which was used as a look-out during the Second World War, but it was vandalised and removed when I was a kid, back in the eighties.

It was replaced by two seats, with a large round direction plaque, which helps you know what you're looking at.

By now, dusk was drawing in, so it was time to head for home.

It's all well signposted, with numerous stiles and gates, and there are various paths you can follow.

Some of them are a bit overgrown though !

This was at the start of July and it was already looking dry and in desperate need of some rain.

The horses were already covered up and ready for bed, so it was time for us to head for home too.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Book review : Dark Pines - Will Dean

A little while ago, I was lucky enough to win a copy of the gripping thriller Dark Pines in a twitter competition and, along with the book, author Will Dean kindly sent me a little piece of Scandinavian pine forest to really immerse myself into the story ! With the atmospheric descriptions of a frigid Swedish village on the edge of a dark and menacing forest, it was the perfect reading during the recent heatwave, as it gave me the impression I was brushing ice crystals off my eyelashes rather than sweating my socks off !

The leading lady is deaf newspaper reporter Tuva Moodyson, currently working for a small-time local newspaper while she is staying close to home for her ailing mother, but hoping for bigger and better things. All journalists live in the hope of finding the one story that will make their career and Tuva has struck gold. Two bodies are discovered in the thick forest around the town, both presumably killed by the same murderer as they both have their eyes removed. Even more worryingly, these horrific crimes echo an unsolved murder from twenty years ago. Is it a coincidence, a copycat murder or is a serial killer back on the prowl?

You need to be a special kind of person to enjoy living almost off the grid in the remote Swedish backwoods, so as Tuva looks around for suspects, she unearths a motley crew of eccentric residents, including a pair of Norwegian troll-making sisters, a reclusive ghost-writer, a taxi-driving single dad and numerous macho huntsmen. As she uncovers secrets and reveals the darker side of life in the remote village to the outside world, Tuva seems to be annoying the locals, including the police. Is she getting closer to unmasking the culprit or are her gut feelings way off the mark?

It's a slow-paced, rather claustrophobic tale with only a handful of residents, and therefore suspects, in the village, surrounded by the sinister, unfathomable depths of Utgard forest. As Tuva constantly returns to the same suspects and the same places, you get the sense that there is no escape and the sheer size and density of the forest makes its human dwellers seem insignificant. Tuva feels constantly unnerved as she strays away from the road and into the trees and as a reader, it is easy to understand and ultimately share the intrepid reporter's sense of unease. Tuva is an intriguing character - I'm sure she has her own share of deep dark secrets hiding just out of reach - and, as this book is the first Tuva Moodyson mystery, I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series and discovering more about its multi-faceted central character.

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £8.99

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Point Blank (14 Jun. 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1786073854
  • ISBN-13: 978-1786073853

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Globecooking recipe : Blanquette de veau - creamy veal stew (France)

First things first, this is not a traditional version of blanquette de veau - the potatoes should be cooked separately and it should be left to bubble away on the hob for an hour or so with the carrots in with the meat, so if you're looking for a classic recipe, move along ! This is a #KitchenClearout version that was designed to wind down the fridge and use up all the perishables before we went on holiday. I would have loved to have added leeks and mushrooms to the meat, but I didn't have any in the fridge. If, for ethical reasons, you don't like the idea of cooking with veal, you could use chicken or pork instead and it wouldn't change the dish much.

Blanquette de veau

ingredients :

knob of butter
1 onion
400g veal/chicken/pork, cut into strips
salt, pepper, garlic granules
(2-3 mushrooms/ 1 leek if you have them)
2 carrots
4 potatoes
30cl crème fraîche
2 egg yolks
squeeze of lemon juice

It's way too hot to be slaving over a stove for hours on end, so to speed things up, I started off by chopping the potatoes and carrots into smallish pieces and boiling them in salted water for 10-15 minutes, while I prepared the meat.

Melt a large knob of butter (salted is best) in a pan and gently fry the onions until they start to go soft and translucent.

Add the meat chopped into thin strips and cook, stirring occasionally, until cooked through. If using, add the mushrooms and leeks at this point. Season with salt, pepper and garlic granules.

Whisk the egg yolks into the crème fraîche and add the lemon juice.

Drain the carrots and potatoes and add to the meat. (Or keep separate if you want to be more traditional, but reduce the amount of cream.) Toss through the meat.

On a very low heat (to avoid the eggs scrambling), pour in the cream mixture and heat through, stirring, until it just warms up and starts soaking into the potatoes.

Adding to this month's #KitchenClearout linky as it used up all my fresh veg, cream and eggs.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Hastings diaries : Park life !

Every time we go to Hastings, we always have to go to Alexandra Park to feed the squirrels. Last time we visited, there weren't many to be seen, but this time they were back in force.

They're very tame and come really close. Even when they scamper off when a dog comes running towards them, they soon come back once the danger has passed, tempted by our peanuts.

This video from a few years ago (4 years in fact - the kids have grown up so much ! And it's lovely to have special memories of Madhouse Daddy) shows them coming right up to eat out of our hands.

This time, they weren't quite so tame but they did come very close so we still got some great photos.

From here we walked up past the reservoir, which offered a slight fresh breeze in the sweltering heat.

Then on to the fishing lakes and the swannery. In one pond, there were masses of waterlilies.

We couldn't spot any frogs hiding amongst the lilypads, but there were some waterlily flowers peeking through.

This is the wilder end of the park and the shady paths were perfect for beating the heat.

We'd picked the top path, which turned out to be a bad idea, because Pierre dropped his brand new football (which he'd chosen with his birthday money) and it rolled all the way down to the lower bank.

He ran all the way round and managed to get it back though. I'm sure the squirrels were sniggering !

There were no swans in the swannery, but there were some ducks, lots of seagulls and a lone cormorant.

We commandeered a couple of benches and got in some selfie practice !

*sigh* There's always one !

We almost got photobombed by this little fella - I'm not sure if he's a rat or a vole but he was certainly not shy, coming up to a couple of feet away.

You can't have a trip to the park without going on the swings, so that was our final stop.

I like the way they've incorporated natural elements into the equipment in some places. Watch out for the alligator's teeth !

Poor old Madhouse Grandad got roped in to playing football - I was just glad it wasn't me for once !

Monday, 6 August 2018

Book review : Bone Deep - Sandra Ireland

After falling out with her family (after falling in love with her sister's boyfriend Reuben), Lucie needs a fresh start and takes a job as a Girl Friday for historian and novelist, Dr Margarita Muir, better known as Mac, in a small cottage next to a creaking, sinister, disused watermill. One of her main jobs is typing up the handwritten stories, based on local folklore, that Mac is compiling into a book, including one that focuses, uncannily, on the betrayal, jealousy and dastardly deeds of two sisters. When Reuben reappears in her life and Mac seems to be getting more and more delusional, Lucie needs to reconcile past and present, as well as fact and fiction, with shocking consequences.

Written in a dual narrative over a twelve-month period, with the two women narrating alternate chapters, the novel examines timeless human emotions, such as rivalry and possessive love, which draw together the three narratives : Lucie's, Mac's and the ancient ballad of the Two Sisters, which  is a genuine Northumbrian murder ballad that recounts the tale of a girl drowned by her sister and that first appeared in 1656 as "The Miller and the King's Daughter." I love the way the folk tale is brought up to date and linked into the contemporary tales of the two very different women.

There are no huge surprises - I did work out most of the big bombshells way before they were revealed - but it's still a tense, foreboding and enjoyable read.

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £8.99

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Polygon An Imprint of Birlinn Limited (5 July 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846974186
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846974182

Disclosure : I received a review copy of the book.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Hastings diaries : Exploring the Old Town

Whenever we come to to Hastings to visit the grandparents, the Madhouse kids always want to enjoy the seaside fun of the amusement arcades and fairground rides. The Old Town offers so much more though, and just a short walk will uncover dozens of interesting finds. We started off at Winkle Island.

The Winkle Club is a local charity that was set up in 1900 by Hastings fishermen, to help underprivileged Old Town families. Each member has a winkle shell, that they must produce if challenged to "winkle up". Failure to do so results in a fine, which is added to the charity box. There have been some notable members, past and present, including the Queen, the Queen Mum and Winston Churchill.

Just across the road is George Street, which offers lots of interesting metal sculptures of sea creatures.

There is also a giant chessboard but look out for the octopus if you play !

A new sculpture had been added to the collection since our last visit - a sailor's hat, in memory of a local character called Ron Everett, who used to dress up as Popeye and go gurning on carnival floats to raise money for the Winkle Club, until his death last year. Heading back to Winkle Island but on the opposite side of the road, we wandered past this, which I was always told is a World War II mine that washed up. (A German submarine was washed up on the beach during the First World War so it's quite probable.)

This brings us to the Fish Market, where you can buy freshly caught local fish, shellfish, jellied eels (yuck !) and prawns, sold by the pint.

From here, you can explore the narrow alleyways between the houses, known locally as twittens, which will eventually lead you up on to the East Hill. If you're feeling lazy, you can take the East Hill Lift instead. It's quite pricey though, so we stayed down below.

Hastings Old Town is famous for its tall, black net huts, which were used for storing the fishermen's nets after they'd dried them on the beach.

Hastings fishing fleet is also unique because the boats are pulled up on to the shingle beach rather than going into a harbour. These ones are next to the Fishermen's Museum but just on the other side of the miniature railway (behind the fence in the photo), you can see the current fleet.

RX designates a boat registered in Rye/Hastings and this one, the Edward and Mary, carries a Dunkirk 1940 plaque, which shows that it was one of the Little Ships involved in Operation Dynamo and the evacuation of allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk.

There are several curiosities to discover in this area. On the left, the old Harbour Light, damaged in a storm and now replaced by solar light, and Half Sovereign Cottage, made from half a boat. This is a modern creation (dating back to 1999) displayed outside the Fishermen's Museum, but it represents one of the seedier elements of local history : smuggling. Boats suspected of smuggling were "sawn asunder midship" and the remains were often converted into cottages.

You can peer inside one of the net huts to see how things would have looked, and also visit the free Fishermen's Museum, housed in the old Fishermen's Church, where you can clamber onto a fishing boat. There is also a Blue Reef aquarium next door and the Lifeboat Station (back towards Winkle Island, behind the amusements) which is open for visits with the lifeboat on display. (Entry is free but they appreciate donations.)

Sophie was pleased to discover the Instagram-friendly coloured walls, perfect as selfie backdrops !

We wandered back to Winkle Island (again !) and this time turned up All Saints' Street, which is home to many half-timbered houses dating back to 1450 - the oldest surviving houses in the town.

On the corner, next to the stern-looking lions, is a little plaque reminding us that Pulpit Gate was here - one of three gates in the town wall built in 1400 to protect against raiding Frenchmen arriving by sea.

The whole street is jam packed with well-preserved, quaint, olde-worlde houses and pubs.

The Piece of Cheese Cottage always used to intrigue me when I was a child. It's now a self-catering holiday cottage and painting this small, wedge-shaped building yellow was a stroke of genius ! It's said to be the only three-cornered cottage in England.

From intriguing door plaques to inviting alleyways, you could spend hours roaming around exploring.

Further along is Shovells, a 15th century house, reputed to be the home of the mother of Admiral Cloudesley Shovell and used as a workhouse in the 17-1800's.

Every few paces, there's something new to discover or take photos of, so you'll need plenty of time to wander.

This house looks less well-preserved than the others, but I imagine this is how the houses really used to look in days gone by, when the owners weren't trying to appeal to tourists and Instagrammers.

At the top of the road is All Saints Church (where we had our UK wedding) and the old Market Cross.

I'd never noticed this plaque on the wall of the churchyard before : "In July 1643 during the Civil War, Colonel Morley entered Hastings with a troop of Parliamentary Horse. All Saints Church was occupied by his troops and the town's guns were surrendered."

Just opposite is the Cyril and Lilian Bishop, now known as The Ghost of Dunkirk, recently rescued and renovated as a labour of love by some local residents, including the aptly named Dee Day White.

This old Hastings Lifeboat is another of the Little Ships from Operation Dynamo. I love all the links between my old and new hometowns ! This is where we stopped and headed for home, but crossing over and heading down High Street back to the seafront is another great place to explore, with oodles of quirky second-hand shops to rummage in.
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