Rebel of the Sands- Alwyn Hamilton

RebelThis is a ‘young adult’ novel- lent to me by Miss Oblique 1, so it must be alright. It’s a fantasy novel, and it’s very good.

The heroine, Amani, lives in a small desert town, appropriately called Dustwalk, in the middle of a large desert. This seems to be a steampunk world: there are trains, guns and bombs. There is also magic, and there are magical beings, such as Djinni, with echoes of Arab stories and cultures. It is the interplay between magic and commonplace reality that is the basis of the plot. It is also a straightforward story of a rebellion against a repressive state. The society regards women as of little worth, prone to casual violence, suited only to marriage.

Of course (why of course?) there is a love story involved.This is sensitively, not gushingly or awkwardly handled.

I sometimes got a bit lost in the names and the characters involved, but this is probably due to my inattentive or careless reading. I found it thrilling. The descriptive passages set the scene well. There were two good revelations/ twists later in the book which genuinely surprised me and did not clash or seem clumsy, as so often such a technique can. The plot move along satisfyingly. It’s clearly, straightforwardly written.

This is a ‘young adult’novel which is well worth a read by an old adult.

Boulangerie Victor Hugo, Southampton

The Boulangerie Victor Hugo is located at 50, High Street, Southampton, just a short distance away from the centre and well worth the walk. It is part of a group. However the other three locations are on Guernsey, so are a bit of a trek.

It is what the name implies: a French style boulangerie, but with an excellent café. The choice is very French: petit dejeuner, salads, pastries. The coffee is good, though I like a huge mug or cup. We have only tried the galettes, which are yummy: savoyarde (with potato, bacon, cheese etc.) and  complèt (ham, cheese, etc.) We liked the galettes so much the first time we visited that we had exactly the same the second time. The pastries are great, too. Daughter number 3 says the pains au chocolat are lovely. Sorry, we haven’t tried the bakery side of things, but the bread looks fine.

The atmosphere is lovely: it’s large, roomy, with a galleried upper section, a nice mixture of furniture  and original paintings around the place. It’s the sort of building that has you speculating as to what its original use was. The staff we have encountered seem to be largely French.

There is a piano and a bar for evenings; they put on live music. One day, when we are at last independent of children, we will be able to sample such things.

This is a very welcome alternative to the mind-numbing chains in Southampton and on every high street. Thanks to daughter number 1 for suggesting it.

(I cannot find a copyright free picture of this café and have instead posted a flyer. By the way, can anybody tell me a short way to do a grave accent like this: è? I can only do it by copying and pasting.)

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Forgotten Dishes 3: Shanghai Shark Brains

I can’t really believe this one, and I don’t recommend you try it. I can’t find a recipe or any information about it anywhere. Apparently though, a shark has a larger brain than most people think. I guess soy sauce and ginger feature in this somewhere.

However, I have eaten shark in California and it was delicious. I seem to remember sourdough bread and dry Californian white wine.)

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The Penguin Café, Lee On Solent

DSCN5572 (2)What’s not to like? (As they say.) A café with a view, with good coffee and good homemade cake.

The Penguin Café overlooks the sea, and you can generally get a table looking out to the Isle of Wight; or, indeed, sit outside. I like it best on grey days, when the wind is scudding up the Solent and yachts are speeding along, heeling over enough to make the notoriously susceptible Mrs O. seasick just looking at them. You can gaze out and ponder our maritime history, or the enormous amount of traffic going in and out of Southampton.

The aforementioned coffee is lovely, ordinary filter coffee. The cakes are comforting: scones, bread and butter pudding, rocky road, etc. I haven’t tried the cooked food, but the ice creams (available outside) are good.

It will not have escaped my keen followers that God’s house band, the Penguin Café Orchestra, share a name with this establishment; sadly I don’t think there is any other connection. But there are pictures of penguins on the walls. And the music is usually good: “Roll Over Beethoven” featured on our last visit, and there seems to be a rock and roll theme. (Hey it’s a good thing I’m not teaching any more, with this apalling sentence construction. But I’m an adult. And can do what I like.)

For the sake of fairness, I must point out that there is another great café, the Bluebird Café, with a fascinating history, a couple of doors away. I can vouch for their substantial  breakfasts. Don’t forget the Hovercraft Museum (open weekends) a mile to the West.

Life After Life- Kate Atkinson

Life after LifeI was really looking forward to this. It seemed like my kind of book. I’d enjoyed all the previous Kate Atkinson stories I’d read.

It is a novel, based around what I suppose you’d call a device or a conceit: that a life can be lived again and again, with false stops (deaths) and variations. In a way it seems to relate to ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ (Audrey Niffenegger), or maybe ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks; or, in some strange way, to that excellent novel, ‘One Day’ by David Nicholls. I suppose the central theme, that of alternative versions of the plot, reminds me of ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’. I wonder if this type of structure would have been used in anything else except for science fiction if it hadn’t been for the parallel universes theories that are popular in modern physics. Dangerous territory, but I think quantum states come into this.

The novel starts in 1910 with the birth of the chief protagonist, Ursula. She dies; then it starts again. And then again. You get the idea. After the first few pages, I thought this device might become repetitive- and by half-way through, I thought it had become repetitive. I started to anticipate Ursula’s death, so it seemed less significant. However, she is a well-rounded and believable character; even sympathetic.

Parts are very moving- the loving references to the family home, family relationships, loving yet trying. Something in the tone reminds me of E.M. Forster, although I don’t claim to be an expert on him. Perhaps it was the family; perhaps it was the setting. I was pleased to find that in her notes Atkinson says the ghost of Forster was always at her back.

Pages set in the Blitz are very good. Kate Atkinson says she has based a lot of the detail on wartime accounts, and this research was well worth it.

It is poetic writing, in a way, in its variations on a theme, and this will no doubt be cited by its champions. Personally- and remember, this is just the view of an unsophisticated reader with little literary education- in the end, I just wanted this to be a straight narrative. I have more of Atkinson’s work that I want to try, and I would recommend this book as a thought-provoking read. Opinions, anybody?

Forgotten Dishes 2: Banana Canada

It may be a surprise to some people (it certainly was to me) that there are about half a million people of Jamaican origin living in Canada. This dish apparently originated with the first of the Jamaican immigrants. There is no recipe; it’s more like a serving suggestion for bananas.

Take a banana and a half for each person. Smash it around a bit with some rum and brown sugar. Blend some maple syrup with some whipped cream. Crush some biscuits of your choice. Alternate layers of banana, cream and biscuits in a glass, finishing with cream. Sprinkle with brown sugar, chocolate or whatever takes your fancy. Chill well. Not very authentic, but certainly sweet.

DSCN5563 Sorry there’s no photo of the dish; we ate it all.