27 December, 2008

Christmas fun

Sharpe’s Plot

Fellow fans of Sharpe, especially in his Sean Bean incarnation, may enjoy this sneak preview of the latest Sharpe TV movie, discovered by intrepid Hollywood undercover reporter Nan Hawthorne.

The scene opens as Wellington, sitting in his tent at his desk, discusses an important message with his intelligence expert, Snidely Malevolent. "Your Grace," Malevolent says in a knowing way, "we must find a man who is expendable but has a chance at succeeding at this suicide mission."
Wellington raises one eyebrow. "Sharpe."
--Read the rest

Historical Christmas Presents

What would some famous historical figures have wanted to find in their Christmas stockings (if they had them)? Susan Higginbotham, Nan Hawthorne and Gabriele Campbell have been finding out. Some examples below – click the links to read the rest.

Susan Higginbotham

  • Edward I: Scotland.

  • Piers Gaveston: Just something handmade. No, really! Well . . . if you insist, jewels are always appropriate.

  • Isabella of France: My jewels back.

  • Hugh le Despenser the younger: Whatever someone else is getting.

  • Roger Mortimer: Hugh on a platter.

Nan Hawthorne

  • Ethelred the Unready - a day planner

  • Alfred the Great - an oven timer

  • Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians - for Bernard Cornwell to get me right in his novels*

  • Godiva of Coventry - super hold hair spray

  • Offa of Mercia - a really butch dyke

Gabriele Campbell

  • Caligula: Shiny new boots.

  • Agricola: Caledonia.

  • Eleanor of Aquitaine: Marriage counselling for my husband. It's not my fault.

  • Henry II: Family therapy for my wife and sons. It's not my fault.

  • William Wallace: The director of Braveheart.

*If Alfred is allowed two requests, I think he'd like this one as well

23 December, 2008

December recipe: Mince pies

Mince pies appear in Britain at Christmas like some prolific passage migrant. For eleven months of the year mince pies might as well not exist. In December, suddenly these little (and not so little) confections of pastry filled with sweetened spiced dried fruit appear on every table at every occasion. Coffee after dinner. Friday cakes at the office. Tea with a friend. Pub Christmas specials. Carol concerts. Cafes and cake shops, bakeries and restaurants. Supermarkets, boxes piled high by the pallet load. Hot, cold, with cream, with brandy butter, on their own, served as a dessert or nibbled with coffee.

There are as many variants as there are cooks. Shortcrust pastry, buttercrust, puff pastry, sweet flan pastry? Cherries in the mincemeat? Almonds? Citrus peel? Suet? About the one (reasonable) certainty is that the mincemeat won’t contain any meat. Mince pies originally contained minced meat and dried fruit, a popular combination in medieval cookery, but the meat had largely disappeared by the end of the nineteenth century, with only the shredded suet remaining as a vestigial reminder of the original content.

For a month no other sweetmeat is so ubiquitous, and then in early January the world goes back to work, the reduced-to-clear stickers go up on the supermarket displays, and the mince pie vanishes as completely as Santa and Rudolf.

I make mince pies from about the middle of December onwards, by which time the mincemeat made with apples from the garden tree in November will have had a chance to mature. But the batch I make on Christmas Eve, listening to the Radio 4 broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge, is always special for me. It’s at that point that I feel all the frenetic preparations are over and the festival itself is beginning.

Here’s my recipe.

Mince pies

6 oz (approx 150 g) self-raising flour
4.5 oz (approx 125 g) butter
2 Tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoons) icing sugar
1 egg yolk (use the white to make meringue)

Mincemeat of your choice, home-made or bought

Grease tartlet or patty tins.
Rub the butter into the flour and icing sugar.
Beat in the egg yolk and press the mixture into a ball of dough.
(In theory, at this point you are supposed to chill the pastry overnight. I find it is less prone to break if I roll it out and make the mince pies straight away).
Roll out the pastry on a floured work surface. I like thin pastry so I roll mine to about 1-2 mm thick; you can leave yours thicker if you like.
Cut circles big enough to make pastry cases lining the base and sides of your tartlet tins.
Spoon mincemeat into the pastry cases. Don’t overfill them or the mincemeat will boil out and make an unpleasant mess on the baking tray. The filling should be no more than level with the rim.
Re-roll the rest of the pastry and cut smaller pastry circles to make lids.
Damp the top edge of each pastry case with water and cover with a pastry lid, pressing the edges well down.
Brush the tops of the mince pies with milk, and sprinkle each with a little granulated sugar.
Snip two small holes in the top of each mince pie.
Bake in a hot oven, around 220 C, for 15-20 minutes until golden brown.
Let the mince pies cool for a minute or two in the tins to set the pastry, then lift them out with a palette knife or pie slice. Cool on a wire rack.
Store in an airtight tin, or can be frozen.

I find this quantity of pastry usually makes 20-24 mince pies. My tartlet tins are about 6 cm diameter. If you like thicker pastry, or if you have larger tartlet tins, it will make fewer. Try it out and see. Any leftover pastry will keep, uncooked and wrapped in cling film or foil, for a few days in the fridge, or can be frozen.

Wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, have a happy Christmas, and best wishes for the New Year!

12 December, 2008

The Blackstone Key, by Rose Melikan. Book review

Touchstone, 2008. ISBN 978-1-1465-6080-7. 435 pages.

The Blackstone Key is a light espionage mystery with a touch of gothic romance, set in England in 1795 during the war with Revolutionary France. All the characters are fictional.

Mary Finch is living in genteel poverty as a teacher at a minor school for young ladies when she receives a letter from her wealthy uncle inviting her to visit him at his home on the Suffolk coast. Mary jumps at the chance, but when she arrives she finds her uncle has died and the house is being used for smuggling – or something worse. England is at war with the Revolutionary government in France, and there are fears of an imminent French invasion. When Mary discovers coded documents in her uncle’s study, she finds herself drawn into a deadly web of ruthless spies. Was her uncle part of the plot? Why is the artillery officer Captain Holland, whom Mary met by chance on her journey, so eager to be helpful? Can Mary break the code to help the charming and handsome Paul Deprez track down the spies before they betray England’s most important secrets to the enemy? Mary has to choose who to trust, knowing that a wrong choice might threaten not only her own life but the security of her country.

The Blackstone Key features plenty of period detail. If you want to imagine what it was like to travel in the days of the mail coaches, watch the workings of social hierarchy among the minor gentry, or understand the intricacies of eighteenth-century inheritance law, this novel is for you. I was particularly interested in the portrayal of the City Police in Bow Street, recognisably the forerunners of a regular police service. The prose has a rather formal style with few modern phrases, which I guess is intended to achieve a period feel, though I felt it sounded a little stilted at times. The dialogue of the upper- and middle-class characters (most of the cast) felt reasonably plausible, though I did wonder whether an army officer from a gentry family would really have used quite so much bad language in the presence of a lady, and whether a nicely brought up young lady would not have been much more offended than Mary Finch apparently was. The lower-class characters were less convincing, and some of the thieves’ cant (“Say, mister”, or “I ain’t holding out on you, gov”) sounded to me more Sam Spade than 1795. I also admit to being surprised that the pistol was the clandestine weapon of choice among the spies, even being used for assassinations. I had the impression that the typical pistol of the Napoleonic period was big, cumbersome, noisy, slow to load, prone to misfire and not very accurate, so I was expecting the cloak-and-dagger agents to use, well, daggers. However, I’m not an expert on the late eighteenth century.

The main characters are mixed, with good and not-so-good qualities. Mary Finch is lively, brave, intelligent and sweet-natured, but she is also inexperienced, na├»ve and rather prone to let her imagination run away with her. Most of the story is told from Mary’s point of view, so she is the character we get to know best. Captain Holland is a professional with an important job, but he is insecure about his lack of educational polish and his awkward social position as the poor relation of a rich family. I’d have liked to see more of Holland’s point of view. The secondary characters, such as the inept parson, the interfering matriarch, the snobbish society ladies, the slow-witted magistrate and the talkative coach passengers, are drawn in almost as much detail as the main characters. Which is quite attractive in its way, but it does make it tricky to keep track of who is important and who is incidental.

The romantic sub-plot is attractively low-key. Mary attracts the interest of two contrasting men, the rough and ready artillery officer Captain Holland and the charming, urbane and wealthy Paul Deprez. Both attract her in their different ways and she cannot help comparing the two. Her feelings develop gradually over the course of the novel as she gets to know more about each man, which I always find more satisfying than a love-at-first-sight romance.

The espionage plot is interesting, if a bit slight. I spotted the villain and the hero immediately, but that might just have been luck, and there is enough bluff, double-bluff, agents and double-agents to keep the reader guessing about the exact details of the plot. There are a few turns that rely either on coincidence (Mary happening to be travelling in search of her long-lost uncle at just that time and place) or on the villains’ carelessness, but coincidence does happen in the real world.

I found the pace of the novel uneven, and this made it hard for me to get really engaged with the book or the characters. Not very much happens for the first 100 pages, as Mary journeys to Suffolk in the company of a cast of gossipy minor characters most of whom never reappear. Things briefly pick up with an incident of excitement, action and mystery – but then the novel goes back to chattering in drawing rooms for another 100+ pages. By the time I had plodded through lengthy details about Captain Holland’s romantic aspirations and equivocal social position, and the legal niceties of Mary’s inheritance and her introduction into polite local society, all in the company of yet another new cast of talkative and mostly incidental characters, I had completely lost track of the espionage plot and its dramatis personae. When the suggestion of spies and codes popped up again halfway through the novel I had to flick back to try to remind myself what might be going on, who might be involved and why it would even matter. The cosy drawing-room world is so wrapped up in its trivial concerns about who is going to marry whom and the correct frock to wear for a tea party that the espionage plot loses any sense of real menace. Only in about the last third of the novel does the mystery start to find its stride, and by then it’s getting rather squashed for space and is resolved in something of a rush.

I would have preferred more of the mystery and less of the mild social comedy, or at the very least closer intercutting between the two so that I didn’t lose sight of the mystery for 100 pages at a time. I think this disjointed plot is a major reason why I felt the book overall felt rather “flat”.

Mix of lightweight mystery, slightly gothic romance and mild social comedy in genteel eighteenth-century England.

05 December, 2008

Paths of Exile - coming in 2009

Paths of Exile will be published by Quaestor2000 Publishing in early 2009. Paperback and large print editions, available from Amazon and through bookshops.

More information will appear on my website, the publisher’s website, and here as it becomes available.

About the novel:
Northumbria, Britain, 605 AD. The Roman Empire in the West has faded into memory, replaced by a colourful mosaic of competing kingdoms. The changing times bring great opportunities - and great dangers.
Eadwine is the youngest son of the king of Deira, guardian of a neglected frontier and the faithful ally of his eldest brother and hero Eadric. His ambition is to be a worthy lord to the frontier district, a good husband to his betrothed, and a reliable second-in-command to his brother. All these hopes are swept away when Deira is invaded by its powerful and predatory neighbour Bernicia. Eadwine reaches the capital just ahead of the invaders, having fought a fierce rearguard action, only to find that Eadric is already dead, shamefully murdered by a unknown assassin.
Eadwine survives the subsequent disastrous defeat, and now finds himself on the run for his life. The fearsome King of Bernicia, Aethelferth, has sworn an oath to the gods to kill Eadwine as thanks for the victory, and no king will dare to defy Aethelferth by offering Eadwine refuge. Eadwine must evade Aethelferth's relentless pursuit, identify and take vengeance on his brother's murderer, and rescue his betrothed. Along the way, he will lose his heart to another woman and discover a shattering secret that challenges all the ideals he holds dear.

"Carla Nayland pulls the curtain back on the little known period of seventh century Britain to reveal the fascinating world of Eadwine. Filled with unforgettable characters and wonderful historical detail, Paths of Exile is historical fiction at its most intriguing."
--Michelle Moran, bestselling author of The Heretic Queen

“Paths of Exile” is an epic tale of battle, honour, loyalty and betrayal that is at once exquisitely entertaining and utterly convincing. Carla Nayland's prose is irresistible, luring the reader from the comforts of the 21st century into the harsh and often bloody reality of Saxon England. A triumphant debut that demands a sequel”
--Russell Whitfield, author of Gladiatrix

... an exciting, tautly-plotted tale that's action-packed thriller, murder mystery, tragedy and romance all rolled into one and set in an authentic landscape I can see and touch and feel. But it's much more than that, mainly because the author has peopled her story with flesh-and-blood-characters who are both convincingly of their own time and yet, with all their fears and hopes, not at all alien to us.
--Sarah Cuthbertson (full review here)