31 July, 2014

Capital, by John Lanchester. Book review

Faber and Faber 2013. ISBN 978-0-571-23462-2. 577 pages.

Set mainly in London in 2007-2008. All the main characters are fictional.

Capital follows a group of people who live or work in Pepys Road, an unexceptional (fictional) street in south London. The residents include a City banker and his wife, a Pakistani family who run the corner shop, a young African football star and his father, and an elderly widow. Those who work there include a Polish builder, a Hungarian nanny and a Zimbabwean traffic warden. All the residents start receiving mysterious postcards with a photograph of their house and the words ‘We Want What You Have’ printed on the back. Who is sending the postcards and what do they mean?

From the title, I expected this would be a book about the City of London and the finance world. It turned out to be much more varied and engaging than that, because although it does feature a City casino bank and some of the traders who work there, they are only a component of a large and varied cast. Each character or group of characters has their own plot. Some happen to cross each other’s paths as they encounter each other in Pepys Road, others never meet at all. So the book reads rather like a collection of interweaving short stories. The big plus of this approach is that there are lots of tales and characters to choose from; if one narrative doesn’t catch a particular reader’s imagination, another probably will. For me, I found Zbigniew the Polish builder, Matya the Hungarian nanny, the Kamal family, and Petunia the elderly widow and her daughter Mary the most appealing characters. Smug, complacent banker Roger and his shallow acquisitive wife Arabella deserve each other, and the football sub-plot largely passed me by (although I did sympathise with the homesick father). Other readers will no doubt have their own favourites.

Capital doesn’t have an overall plot as such. The ‘We Want What You Have’ postcards form a sort of loose thread on which to hang the individual plots, but the ‘mystery’ and its eventual resolution seemed a bit incidental. This didn’t matter for me, because the individual plots were engaging enough in their own right to keep me turning the pages to find out what happened next. I did find I tended to skim the chapters about the characters I found less interesting and to hurry forward until the book came back to someone I was more interested in, but that always happens in a book with multiple sub-plots.

The writing style is warm and humane, easy to read and often wryly funny. The characters may occupy stereotypical roles – the public-school banker, the Polish builder, the Asian shopkeepers – but they are all distinct individuals, with their own relationships, dilemmas and human foibles. Even the ghastly characters have some good points.

Entertaining, easy read about a diverse group of people living and working in London just before and after the 2008 financial crash.

30 July, 2014

July recipe: Fried mackerel fillet with gooseberry sauce

Fried mackerel fillet with gooseberry sauce

July is peak season for gooseberries. They are traditionally used in desserts and preserves, and I’ve previously posted recipes for gooseberry fool, gooseberry jam, and gooseberry pie.

Gooseberries can also be used in savoury cookery.  Their sharp sweetness goes especially well with pork or oily fish such as mackerel.

Here’s a quick and simple recipe for fried mackerel fillets with a sweet and sour gooseberry sauce, ideal for dinner on a summer evening.

Fried mackerel fillet with gooseberry sauce (serves 2)

2 fillets of fresh mackerel
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) olive oil
1-2 shallots, or half a small onion
4 oz (approx 125 g) fresh gooseberries
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) demerara sugar
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) lemon juice
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) cider vinegar or white wine vinegar
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) chopped fresh herbs (I like mint, sage, or oregano, or a combination thereof)

Peel and chop the shallots or onion.

Top and tail the gooseberries (this means cutting off the stalk at one end and the remains of the flower at the other).

Fry the onion or shallot gently in olive oil for a few minutes until softened.  Add the gooseberries and continue to cook gently for another few minutes until the gooseberries have produced some juice.

Add the sugar, lemon juice, vinegar and chopped herbs. Season with salt and pepper.  Mix well.  Leave the sauce to simmer, uncovered, over a low heat while you fry the mackerel fillets.

Melt a knob of butter in a frying pan over a moderate heat.

When the butter is melted and starting to foam, make sure it is spread out over the bottom of the frying pan and put the mackerel fillets in, skin side down. Fry the fillets for about 3 minutes.

Turn the mackerel fillets over and fry the other side for 2-3 minutes.  The flesh should be opaque and a knife should slide in easily.

Remove the mackerel fillets from the frying pan, transfer to a plate, and pour the gooseberry sauce over them.

Serve with new potatoes and salad or a green vegetable of your choice.

30 June, 2014

Crowbone, by Robert Low. Book review

Harper, 2013. ISBN 978-0-00-729856-3. 369 pages

Crowbone is set mainly in Ireland and Scandinavia in 979-981. The central character, Olaf Tryggvason (by-named Crowbone) is a historical figure, as are his arch-enemies Gunnhild Mother of Kings, widow of Eirik Blood-Axe, and her last son Gudrod. Other main characters are fictional. The historical Norse Earls of Orkney and various Irish kings appear as secondary characters.

In 979, Olaf Tryggvason (known as Crowbone) is seventeen and already a veteran fighter and raider. Having quarrelled with his friend Vladimir of Kiev, Crowbone is no longer welcome in the Rus lands and is at something of a loose end when he meets his old friend Orm Bear-Slayer, jarl of the Oathsworn, in Hamburg. Orm has received a message from a monk on the Isle of Man concerning a secret that could help Crowbone make good on his claim to the throne of Norway. Orm gives Crowbone silver to hire a ship and a crew, and sends him off with the trader who brought the message. But Crowbone’s rival and arch-enemy Gunnhild Mother of Kings and her last surviving son Gudrod – who between them were responsible for the death of Crowbone’s parents – have also heard of the secret, and will pursue it and Crowbone to the death. And the monk on the Isle of Man is not all he seems... As the quest unfolds and the searchers converge on their goal, Crowbone faces battle, shipwreck and treachery, and must decide who – if anyone – he is willing to trust.

In theory this is the fifth in the Oathsworn series, following The Whale Road, The Wolf Sea, The White Raven, and The Prow Beast (links to my previous reviews of each title). However, as the focus is on Crowbone (as implied by the title), rather than on Orm and the Oathsworn, it is much more of a stand-alone. There is no need to have read the others first, although readers who have will pick up lots of references to previous characters and events.

Like the others, Crowbone is a blood-and-thunder adventure full of action and violence. The historical Vikings were part traders and part bloodthirsty raiders, and although both aspects feature here, the bloodthirsty raider aspect is very much to the fore. Crowbone and his followers are fighting men, and fighting is what they do, whether it be a duel to the death on a deserted beach, or a pitched battle among the Irish kings. Political manipulation is another major focus, more so than in the other Oathsworn novels, reflecting Crowbone’s status as a claimant to the kingdom of Norway. The Norse game hnefatafl*, referred to as ‘the game of kings’, is a recurring theme, both as the game itself and as a  metaphor for the political manoeuvring that is as essential to the would-be Norse king as the axe in his hand and the knife in his boot.

Crowbone dominates the novel. Highly intelligent, courageous and a gifted storyteller, he has more than a hint of the uncanny about him (as was foreshadowed when he was a boy in The White Raven). Not surprisingly, given his ambitions and his traumatic early life, he is not a particularly attractive character, manipulative, suspicious and ruthless. Not a man you want to be around, as Orm muses. In this novel, Crowbone is emerging into adulthood and beginning to carve out his place in history. He is often very much alone, even when surrounded by his companions, and this is in large part his own choice, recognised as part of the price he must pay for power, however much he may occasionally hunger for human warmth.

The atmosphere is brooding, with a strong sense of supernatural undercurrents – whether due to gods, Fate or seidr magic – that could erupt at any moment. The religious divisions of the late tenth century are never far away. The Oathsworn are bound by an oath taken before Odin, yet some of Crowbone’s other followers are at least nominally Christians. They encounter Christian kings, priests and monks in Ireland and elsewhere, even as they pursue their quest for a symbol of Odin’s power to a distant land renowned as the domain of a goddess of yet older beliefs. Religious tensions simmer beneath the surface, occasionally erupting into open conflict.

The writing style is dense, liberally sprinkled with Norse words for atmosphere (like hnefatafl, seidr, etc). There is no glossary in the book, but I found no difficulty as most of the Norse terms are translated or were clear from the context (caveat that I’m interested in the Norse world, so they were probably more familiar to me than might be the case for other readers). Scots dialect words and phrases seem to be used to indicate a Norse style of speech; again, I had no difficulty, but they may not be familiar to all readers. There is a map at the front that may help to follow the characters on their far travels, although it does not always give the Norse names used in the text (e.g. Dyfflin for Dublin, Hammaburg for Hamburg) and some places are not shown at all. A helpful Historical Note at the end outlines some of the underlying history.

Gripping, violent action-adventure following Crowbone (Olaf Tryggvason) on his quest for a dark secret that may be his key to claiming the throne of Norway.

*Hnefatafl is a board game of skill, a little like chess except that it is a hunting game rather than a battle game. Readers of Terry Pratchett’s Thud! will recognise it.

28 June, 2014

June recipe: Red berry fool

Red berry fool
Fruit fools involve combining a fruit puree with custard or whipped cream or both, and are some of the easiest desserts to make.  I’ve previously posted a recipe for gooseberry fool. This variant uses red summer berries.  The photo shows a redcurrant fool, but you can use raspberries or strawberries instead, or any combination thereof. Raspberries and strawberries need no cooking.

Red berry fool

8 oz (approx 250 g) red summer berries (redcurrants, raspberries, strawberries or a mixture)
1.5 oz (approx 40 g) sugar
5 fl. oz (approx 140ml) double cream

Wash the fruit.
Hull the strawberries and raspberries. Snip the stalks off the redcurrants.
If using redcurrants, put the fruit in a saucepan with the sugar.
Heat gently, stirring from time to time, until the sugar has dissolved, then cover the pan and simmer for a few minutes until the fruit is soft and starting to break up.
Remove from the heat and crush the fruit with a wooden spoon.  You can puree it in a food processor if you like, but I never do.  If you don’t like pips, you can sieve the puree, but I never do this either.
Leave to cool.
If using strawberries or raspberries, simply mash the fruit and mix the puree with the sugar. Again, if you don’t like pips you can sieve the puree, but I never do.
If using a mixture, mix the mashed strawberries/raspberries with the cooled redcurrant pulp.
Whip the double cream until stiff.
Stir the cooled fruit pulp into the cream.
Divide between four glasses and chill in the fridge for at least an hour or overnight before serving.

For larger portions, divide the mixture between two or three glasses instead of four.