The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

This book stared at me, slim and effortlessly attractive, from the bookshelves of my favourite Manchester bookstore. I had heard the praise for writer Julian Barnes and everyone knows that The Sense of an Ending won the 2011 Man Booker Prize, right? So I opted to at least pick it up and read the inside book blurb.

This is a story weaved around the thin line that separates memories from actual events and the impact of our actions. An ambitious endeavour that sparked my curiosity, not just as a reader, but as a writer. After all, what dexterity and skill does it take to make such a massive impact with so few words.

Needless to say, the book came home with me. I started reading it that same day. Unfortunately, past the first amazing half page that teased and tickled me on the central theme of memory, the first few pages did little for me from the perspective of character development and story expectations. If it wasn’t for the poetic prose and impeccable style, I wouldn’t have come back to it.

Looking back, I couldn’t really identify with the characters in the first few pages; a clique of teenage grammar school pupils negotiating philosophical ideals, but in the end, its literary brilliance and unspoken promise of a story routed deep in our minds fascinated me and lured me back in.

I ended up reading it in a single sitting. What appeared to be a bland and unassuming story opening with little hold, turned into a few hours of reading bliss.

The novel is written in two parts. Part 1 is the description of the narrator’s early life, or at least his memories of that life. Its tone is sometimes nostalgic, sometimes sarcastic, but always packed with emotional depth and realism as I am taken through his story; the end of his school years and through university life, his friendship and loves, betrayal and death of his old friend.

By the end of part 1, the narrator, Tony, now a pensioner, has left all that behind him and is living a quiet life, a normal life, having accepted the past for what it is.

Still, I recall that in the opening page Tony has admitted to a certain fogginess regarding what memories are actually true and what aren’t. With the beginning of part 2, I expect the story will unfold, that something in his narration of part 1 isn’t right, but a mental block on something that happened differently. A twist of fate will bring it out maybe?

Sure enough, a letter from a solicitor informs him that his ex-girlfriend’s mother has bequeathed him money and the diary of his deceased school friend, although the latter never arrives. This raises questions and it makes him re-visit the past in a desperate attempt to regain the diary.

These events of the past, brought back into focus through his contact with his ex-girlfriend do nothing to clarify why he is in receipt of the payment, and why she won’t part with the diary. The author builds tension and sets a number of fuzzy spots as his stubborn narrator assumes the emotional depth and immaturity of his teenage years – although I do not see this until the end of the novel when all the pieces slot in.

The question I am faced with is this: Is the narrator villainised or is he the villain that keeps hold of repressed guilt and need for revenge on an old girlfriend? Has he any part to play in the demise and suicide of his old school friend?

The brevity of this book makes it a great example of the art of making every word count, and it is this that makes it so emotionally charged.

The novel ends up surprising me again, with an unexpected ending that re-enforces its ability to keep me focused and to turn the pages eager to find out what’s going on.

True to its promise, the conclusion provides not only the narrator and main character, but me, the reader, a sense of an ending, worthy of it’s 2011 Man Booker prize win. 

Jonathan Cape, £12.99

Posted in Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Moussaka – An authentic recipe using home-grown seasonal produce

 

 

 

 

A Greek classic

 

 

 

 

Moussaka

Feeds 6

Calories per portion: Don’t ask

Time: 2 hours plus 45-60 min oven time

Serve with salad

 

Ingredients:

2lbs minced beef

2-3 aubergines

2-3 large potatoes

Salt / Pepper

Breadcrumbs

Parmesan

 

For the bechamel sauce:

2-3 pints milk

Flour

70 gr butter

50 gr parmesan

Egg yolk (optional)

 

For the tomato sauce:

2 tins chopped tomatoes, or passata

3 onions

Large glass of white wine

Cinnamon

1 bay leaf.

Before you start

 

Home grown ingredients that melt in your mouth

This has got to be one of my favourite Greek dishes. Every time it cooks, the distinctive smell fills the house and reminds me of walking into my mum’s kitchen every ten minutes, asking whether dinner is ready yet.

Now, I grow most of the ingredients myself every summer. The aubergines, the potatoes and even tomatoes to make my own passata and for the record, I can taste a difference.

I’ve decided to publish my mum’s recipe for it here, adapted only slightly, since I’ve seen this recipe really cannibalised over the years. So I hope to put the record straight as to the authentic way of making it.

Please, do not use ready made bolognaise sauce from a jar. Moussaka does not contain bolognaise sauce, nor does it contain garlic. And yes it really takes a couple of hours to prepare but I normally fry the aubergines and potatoes the day before – two hours is a long time to find in one day. Rest assured, it’s worth it.

And if you are going into the trouble of making it, why not make two at the same time? It won’t take you that much longer and it will freeze well for cooking another day.

Preps and Frying

 

Slice the aubergines lengthways

 

Start with the aubergines. Slice them lengthways, aiming for 0.5-1cm thick slices. Place slices in a large bowl, sprinkle with salt and cover with water. I put a plate over them to make sure they stay immersed in water and leave to soak for 20 minutes.



 

Frying the potatoes

Next, peel and slice the potatoes. Again, you need to slice them lengthways and in the same thickness as the aubergine slices. Use kitchen roll to pat dry and sprinkle with salt.

 

Get a large frying pan and pour olive oil, enough that the base in completely covered. Get it hot and start frying the potatoes, until they are cooked through and golden. Make sure you don’t burn them. I like to absorb some of the oil by putting them on kitchen roll while cooling.

Once your potato slices are fried, move on to the aubergines and do the same thing. It’s really important to also pat them dry before you fry them. You’ll need quite a lot of olive oil, as the aubergines will absorb it as they cook – so be prepared to keep adding it in. Place them on kitchen roll to absorb the oil.

Tomato sauce

 

Slowly simmer till you get the right consistency

Chop the onion finely and fry on a low heat for around 20 minutes, or until you are absolutely certain the onion is soft and cooked thoroughly. The whole beauty of this sauce is that it is meant to melt in your mouth, and this takes patience. Crunchy onions are a massive no, no and will distract from all the flavours fusing together.

Next, turn up the heat and brown the minced beef. Season well with salt and pepper. Get the pan really hot, and when all the beef is brown all over, pour in the white wine and cook for a further minute.

Pour in your chopped tomatoes or passata, add the bay leaf and a small pinch of cinnamon and mix well.

Turn down the heat and let it simmer on a very low heat for at least half an hour, stirring occasionally. Check the seasoning after 10 minutes.

Bechamel sauce

 

Whisk continuously for a perfect bechamel

While your tomato sauce is simmering, start on the bechamel. Make sure you’ve got all your ingredients around you because you will not have time to grab more milk or the flour.

Mix the butter and flour into a roux sauce and heat for a couple of minutes. Add a little milk and whisk continuously. As the sauce thickens, add more milk. Did I say stir continuously? Make sure you do, or you’ll get lumpy floury sauce and if this happens you’ll have to start it all over again.

If you find you’ve added too much milk and the sauce won’t thicken, just add a little more flour.

When the sauce is ready, season with salt and take off the heat. Add the egg yolk for colour and the parmesan and mix well.

Layering

Once everything is ready, take a large lasagne ovenproof dish.

 

Layer the potatoes first

The potato slices go down first, as in the picture.

Pour over a layer of the beef in tomato sauce to cover, then layer the aubergines.

Pour over the last layer of beef in tomato sauce and then spoon over the bechamel.


 

Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and parmesan

Mix the breadcrumbs with the parmesan and sprinkle to cover.

Bake in a preheated oven (180c) for 45 to 60 minutes or until the bechamel has turned light golden brown. Leave to stand for 15 minutes before cutting.


 

Good luck, and let me know how you get on!

Yum!

 

Posted in Gardening | 1 Comment

I’m no fun when it comes to holiday planning

Relaxing, at last...

In a few days, I will be on a plane, sipping cheap champagne costing a small fortune. No, I won’t be celebrating the beginning of the holiday, but the ending of the weeks of preparation I’ve had to put into it.

Seriously, it’s not fun to be me when you’re talking about a holiday.

First there’s finding the holiday. There’s the easy way, of just looking at a brochure and booking something that looks nice, like normal folk. Then there’s my way. The way of pain, the way of stringing it out, feeling the frustration of spending entire evenings researching suitable places, and meticulously reading reviews.

Then there’s the pre-holiday getting in shape rush. Really, I’m an intelligent woman. Why does it never click, that within the space of eight weeks I am not going to get the killer abs and shapely bottom I’ve never had?

And while I’m talking about appearance, let me also add, I have no idea why I’m always so obsessed with looking perfectly “maintained”. I go away to relax, to totally abuse my body with food and alcohol and sand and sun. Why is it so important for my nails to be manicured, the soles of my feet to be smooth and my hair to be freshly cut?

Just a week before the holiday, panic sets in. Shock horror, the house-sitters are arriving. I scurry around cleaning corners of the house that only get cleaned when we go on holiday. The fridge has to be sanitised, the oven has to sparkle and any sign of cobwebs obliterated. And I wash the sheets for the sitters bed because sheets folded in the cupboard can never be as fresh as I like them. They have to be washed and ironed, to regain that lovely crisp feeling. The freezer, cupboards and fridge are stocked up accordingly, you know, just in case a war breaks out while we are away and if I have time, I polish any streaks off the windows.

Then there’s the packing of our “bits”. For weeks, I’ll think of lists; clearing the camera of old photos and charging it, phone chargers, mosquito repellants, first aid kit, antiseptic wipes, sting relief sticks, hats, toys and books and DVD’s for Trainboy.

The three nights before the holiday are always laced with fragile nerves and inexplicable anxiety. Even when the cases are packed, I’ve ticked all my lists and go to bed, I worry about what I’ve forgotten, is there enough milk for the sitters and have I enough Euros? I get up and out of bed, repeatedly checking that the passports and tickets are in my bag (at least ten times the night before and several times before we set off) and I nearly always see the mocking grins on the sitters faces when I remind them how to set the security system if they’re out.

I mean, seriously, sometimes I think staying home for a holiday sounds so much more relaxing. Just pottering around the house and garden. Not worrying about going without something important. Sleeping in my own bed. Wearing what I want to wear, rather than what I’ve packed and not having people have to stay to watch the house and tend to the garden.

Of course, a couple of glasses of champers on the plane and all the purgatory will disappear instantly.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Writing | 9 Comments

Versatile Bloggers Award – This is me!

The lovely Clare Kirkpatrick has kindly nominated me for a Versatile Bloggers Award. What’s this? Google it. It’s fascinating and a wonderful way to get to know new bloggers. Thank you so much Clare for offering me the opportunity to share seven unknown things about me. Without further ado:

1. Fifteen minutes of fame

I took part in the TV program “Build a New Life in the Country”, while we were renovating and extending our home. Having cameras around while I struggled to juggle motherhood and builders was hard work.

I also experienced a deteriorating vocabulary (mainly consisting of expletives and name calling) and an increasingly noticeable Lancashire accent (this happens when you only deal with builders from Lancashire for two years).

Still, it’s nice to have professional video footage of our son’s first eighteen months and also making some good friends in the process. Oh, and did I say being reminded NEVER to take on a large building project again?

2. Weddings

I’m not a good guest at weddings. No, I am not. Here is the proof:

  • 1 year ago: The room is alive with people chatting and laughing and having a good time. I do not see the bride and groom standing up to toast. Everyone goes quiet, apart from me that is. “This champagne is terrible, it tastes like beer!”
  • 4 years ago: Having powdered my nose, I return to the party to find my husband eager for a dance. I hear a little boy say “Mummy, what’s that string coming out of that lady’s bum?” It should have registered but it didn’t. It takes a not so kind woman to tell me that my red silk dress is firmly stuck between my oversized buttocks. She waits till the end of the song, of course.
  • 10 years ago. Everyone is waiting for the bride and groom to emerge from the church. I grasp the confetti in my palms ready to throw it to the happy couple. I hear clapping behind me and I turn to see a man. I want to ask him, how can he hold a camera and a present and his wife’s bag and jacket but it’s too late. He slips and grabs the first thing in front of him in a desperate attempt to steady himself, my dress. The confetti does little to cover me. Thankfully, I am wearing knickers and my boobs are still pert. Did I say, the bride never speaks to me again?

3. 7-15-16

No, the numbers are not my safe combination, nor my password and certainly not my measurements (I’d look pretty weird if they were). The numbers represent the years I lived in Canada, Greece and the UK, respectively. Yes, I’ve been around. A little bit.

4. Eleven

The highest number of flights I have taken in a single week. It was my personal record, when I trained as a management consultant (we all have our dark secrets) and lived out of a suitcase for two years.

5. My 10 year curse

At the tender age of eight, I was mad about ballet. I spent hours practising. Then one day, feeling confident enough to practice the splits, I managed to get a pin (hidden in the carpet) pierce my skin and get stuck in my knee tendon.

At eighteen, I traded ballet for fast motorbikes and dangerous men. This time, a car hit the dangerous man’s bike (with me sitting behind him) while stopped at a red light. My ankle got stuck to the exhaust and we slid a considerable distance in the tarmac.

At the age of twenty-eight, having had a row with hubby (then boyfriend) I decided I was driving myself back home in my nifty little coupe. And while it’s nice tackling country roads, a rabbit jumping out was my recipe for disaster. Three pirouettes of nifty little sports car later, it looked considerably squashed.

I’ve survived all of these, albeit with some scars. And without wanting to tempt fate, I have another five months before I can say I broke with tradition.

6. Running with the Elites

I was honoured to have ran the 2006 Great Manchester 10K Run with the Elite team at the front line. I had been running for about three months at the time and being stubbornly goal oriented, I decided my goal was to do the run in under 30 minutes.

I mean how long does it take you to run just over six miles?

So I answered the question in the entry form accordingly. What I didn’t realise is that the women’s world record for a 10K run is something like twenty five minutes! Of course, my name probably helped:

This one says she’ll do it in 30 minutes!”

What’s her name?”

Elpi Pamiadaki”

Oh she’ll be an international. Stick her with the elites.”

7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I thought my life was going to end with the last ever episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I really felt I didn’t have the will to live and felt depressed for weeks. Thankfully, I survived, but I still occasionally put on a Buffy DVD to chill out. Charmed and other shows were good, but they never had the intense hold that Buffy did.

Well? What do you think? Yes I know some are a little weird. And here are my nominations for passing the Versatile Bloggers Award forward. These are all lovely people and I can’t wait to find out more about them:

Leanne Richards

Stacey Mitchell

Liesel Schwarz

James Parker

Ruth Livingstone

Shéa MacLeod

Steven Chapman

 

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Twetiquette: Why have I unfollowed you?

I vividly remember my first few days on Twitter. They were scary. There I was, having to post my first tweet to the Twitterverse, blindly. It felt like going to a party where everybody knows each other and you are left alone, standing sipping your drink in embarrassing silence while everybody else is having a great time.

Thankfully, I was quickly followed by some lovely people and they gently eased me into the whole twittering thing. It was during those first days, or maybe weeks that I remember reading a blog post by Isabel Ashdown about Twitter etiquette and her reasons for unfollowing users. She made some very good points, inspiring me to write my own Twetiquette. So here goes:

Who I follow

I’m on Twitter to connect with other writers and people that I share an interest with. Readers and book lovers, gardeners, mums/dads, food bloggers and generally interesting folk. If I come across someone that ticks one of these boxes, I read their profile, have a look at a couple of tweets and follow them.

Do I always follow back?

If you tick one of the boxes above and you are a person, then yes. If you run a building company in Hawaii, for instance, then no. I have no interest in hiring a builder in Hawaii, because I live in the UK. I don’t believe in following you just for the sake of accumulating followers.

Do I unfollow?

Of course I do. Just not very often. On the few occasions I deliberately pressed the unfollow button it was because:

  • You didn’t follow me back? My rule is, I tweet you three times. If I get no replies back, and you don’t follow me, then I unfollow. More on this later.
  • You post the same tweet, over and over again and nothing else. “My debut novel, Sunny Night, can be bought from Amazon for 99p”.
  • You have posted a sexist, racist or inappropriate tweet.
  • We have absolutely nothing in common.

If you don’t follow me back

I’m pretty cool about it, if you are super famous. Twitter is a two way thing, isn’t it? My main reason for joining Twitter is to connect with like-minded people and learn from them. I won’t automatically unfollow you if you don’t follow back. I’ll try and learn from your tweets and connect with you. But if I try and connect with you (by replying to one of your tweets) and you ignore me three times, then I will unfollow. I think that’s fair.

When I follow, I really follow

I know it’s not possible to do it all the time, but if I follow you, I’ll try and read your blog, get to know you and generally interact with you. It’s obviously not possible to do it all the time, with everybody, but I try and do my fair share.

PS: I have unfollowed a few people, courtesy of Twitter. That means, Twitter decided to unfollow a few people on my behalf for no apparent reason. If this has happened with you, and I haven’t followed back then please let me know.

 

Posted in Writing | 12 Comments

Louboutins, writing goals and addictions

This gallery contains 1 photo.

I have a dirty secret. Shoes. Call it a fetish. Or an addiction. I don’t mind. My family and close friends have already tried the whole intervention thing. It’s futile. I have over two hundred pairs of shoes, so I … Continue reading

More Galleries | 7 Comments

Loving the World Book Night concept

I’m currently reading Sarah Waters, The Fingersmith which a twitter friend sent to me, courtesy of World Book Night. I think the concept behind World Book Night is genius. The objective? Get more people to read. How? Hand out books … Continue reading

More Galleries | Leave a comment

Gardening

Here I go again. After completely going over the top on veg growing last year, I decided this year, I wasn’t going to do so much. Spring has just about started and a quick look through my seed box and … Continue reading

More Galleries | 1 Comment