21 July 2014

Caitin Moran Readalong: How To Build a Girl, the Middle, but not the Middling

Welcome to the Great Caitlin Moran Readalong of 2014.  A nifty group of bloggers are discussing her novel, How to Build a Girl, almost in a play-by-play mode.  We're all thankful to Harper Collins, who is sponsoring this pre-publication readalong. This book isn't published in the US until September, but if you like what you see, we'd love for you to pre-order a copy here.  Beware: ahead, there be spoilers, so read at your own peril!

When we left off last week, Johanna had just mortified herself on live television by imitating Scooby Doo, landing her entire family in a world of humiliation and teasing.  She had just decided that she wanted to die. Luckily for us, she meant that in an entirely metaphorical way, and she spends the opening chapter of this week's portion trying to decide what name would best suit her going forward. In her own words, "It's got to work in print -- it must suit black ink -- but it also needs to sound cheerful when shouted across a bar. It must sound like a joyful yell."  Juno Jones, Eleanor Vulpine, Kitten Lithium, Laurel Canyon, Belle Jar, and Dolly Wilde.  Which one will she choose?

Hello, Dolly
Having chosen "Dolly Wilde," she seeks out her fortune amidst the goths of Wolverhampton, only to be rejected. She tries to connect with her goth cousin but that's a no-go: "I shift awkwardly. I'm pretty sure I've read this correctly -- that this is the outpost for loners. That, culturally, this is what I should be filed under...People with no upper body strength, who read poetry. These are my people. I am wearing a black waiter's jacket, black boots, black tights, and so much eyeliner that I look like a puffin. Given this effort, I thought the counterculture would just . . . let you in. I didn't know there was an interview process."
Goth fail
Later at a family reunion, though, that same goth cousin ends up giving her a piece of valuable advice: fake it 'til you make it. The rest of chapter eight is an exploration of Dolly's goth phase and the phrase "I am the bastard son of Brendan Behan," which makes no sense to me because I do not understand the cultural reference, even after doing a Google image search. Help?

Eventually she gets a second piece of valuable advice from an unlikely source: her father tells her she should write, not just talk about being a writer.  Totally obvious on the surface, but *so* much more difficult to live by.  She gives it a pretty good shot, though, and puts together a pretty impressive body of record reviews:
Yup, that's pretty much how she does it
We also get the lowdown on the history behind her father's injuries and inability to keep a job.  I'm telling you, Caitlin Moran can do more with two small paragraphs to sum up a character's backstory than just about any other author I've read recently:
"If you want to know why we're poor, and why Dadda doesn't have a job, here's why: back in our house. By Dadda's bed. A big, white pot of pills. Daddy's pills.  
Daddy was in a band, and when they didn't make any money, he got work as a fireman, and one day -- it was a very bad day -- he got trapped on top of a burning factory. And when he woke up in hospital, they told him he'd broken nearly a quarter of all the bones in his body when he jumped."
In chapter 9, we've moved forward abruptly two years, and the narrative switches (also abruptly, but just temporarily) from Johanna's first person POV to a close third person focusing on Dolly Wilde. In fact, it feels less like third person per se and more like Johanna has simply started referring to herself in the third person as Dolly Wilde.  She goes to an interview in London with Disc & Music Echo (D&ME) for a music journalist position.  She somehow flubs the interview, but in the next chapter she's got the assignment, so I think I missed something, somehow.

In chapter 10, Johanna/Dolly is back to narrating in the first person and she gets her first real gig: covering a Smashing Pumpkins concert in Birmingham.  This leads to her first review being published, her dropping out of school, and her being invited to do her first musician interview...in Dublin.  Things are clearly happening for Dolly, but are they all good?  Can she really just drop out of school like that? And is there not some UK equivalent to the GED that she could sit for?

Tune in next time, when we see what happens in Dublin and beyond!

NB: Y'all, I'm sorry that this post is so simple this week, but we had some troubles with our dog and one of our cats this weekend and the time I had set aside for reading our chapters and then responding to them was otherwise taken up by the animules...

20 July 2014

Tuesday on Anguilla: Adventures New and Old

Panorama of Barnes Bay, shot from our balcony
Another early morning on Anguilla, waking up almost with the sun.  Since it's a Tuesday, we head out to Geraud's early for breakfast and some of that eye-opening coffee. Instead of pastries, I opt instead for a breakfast sandwich this time, forgetting just how humongous they are.  The French sandwich is egg and brie on a bagel, grilled panini-style, and DH had a bagel with cream cheese. I only ate half my sandwich and had the other half wrapped to go, which probably makes this the best breakfast value on the island!  We used our Anguilla card again to save 10%, too.
They sure ain't stingy with the portions!
Back to Caribella to pack a beach bag for the day and to stop at Caribbean Silk Screen to talk with its proprietor, Philippe, about my damaged Macbook, per Jerry Bogar's suggestion. We had passed the sign on the side of the road in South Hill countless times but never really knew what was there.  Philippe has a really fascinating operation going on there, and even though he ended up not being to fix my computer, it was totally worth the stop in to browse their t-shirts and other imprinted items. The t-shirts there were of a much nicer quality (heavier, more substantial cotton) than any place else we've visited, and the value is better than Irie Life (which I like for their styles, but the prices are pretty eye-popping). They also have both the boxier-silhouette of the so-called unisex style as well as the more fitted women's silhouette for tees.

He offered to show us around a bit, explaining that he used to use Dell products for his machines but they kept breaking down, so he essentially figured out a way to reprogram his Mac computers to run his machines.  They can do both silk screening and custom embroidery. The t-shirts there were of a much nicer quality (heavier, more substantial cotton) than any place else we've visited, and the value is better than Irie Life (which I like for their styles, but the prices are pretty eye-popping). Philippe showed us his two different machines, one of which was printing several silk-screened tees for an upcoming Anguilla camp, while the other was busily stitching the logo for Meads Bay Villas onto a bathrobe.  They also have two lovely dogs in the shop.  We thanked Philippe for his time, offered him money for his trouble (which he refused), and purchased three t-shirts instead.
Embroidery machine
Silk screen machine

We have so fallen in love with The Place that when we heard that they would be closing for a few weeks about halfway through our vacation, we resolved to spend every last day that they were open at The Place.  Thus you'll see that we experienced about five ingeniously identical days there...
Interior shot of The Place
This time when we arrived, somebody else had already claimed the two day beds, so we opted for a small table under the palm trees.  These chairs turned out to be better for reading anyway, and soon we were buried in the pages of our novels. We were glad to see that Mo was working on Tuesday since we missed him on our last visit, and I have to say that he and Dave are pretty much the Dream Team when it comes to island hospitality. They frequently came by to check on us to see if we needed anything or just to chat, if their time permitted. We like these young men very much and they are instrumental to our affection for The Place.
DH, sporting his new cap from Irie Life
I now suspect that this cap, which I've had for a few
years, is the handiwork of Caribbean Silk Screen
When lunch time arrived, I wasn't feeling overly hungry since I'd eaten protein instead of pastries for breakfast, but I was definitely feeling thirsty.  Explaining to Dave that I'd like something refreshing but not overly sweet, he told me that he had the perfect drink in mind.  It turned out to be my new favorite drink for the trip and I ordered it every day after that: it's passionfruit juice mixed with club soda, with a generous squeeze of lime.  For lunch I ordered the hummus platter and DH had the coconut shrimp.  His was the better choice by a mile.  Though the accompanying green salad was quite good, the hummus itself was way too dry and not especially flavorful, and I don't recommend it unless they change their recipe. It's the only thing I've ordered at The Place that wasn't good.  The coconut shrimp, on the other hand, were among the best I've ever had.  Not too heavily battered, but supremely crunchy on the outside, they also had the most perfectly succulent texture on the inside.
Roasted red pepper hummus appetizer
Our perfect coconut shrimp
The most refreshing drink known to humankind
Since our original table under the palm tree was now in full sun, we moved to the shaded dining pavilion on the sand after lunch (you can see it behind DH in the photo of him above).  I went for a short dip in the water and made good use of the changing rooms that The Place provides (I *loathe* sitting around in a wet swimming suit) before settling back in with my book.
I simply cannot convey to you how incredibly pleasant it is to sit in the shade with your feet in the sand, on a beautiful day, with one of the world's most perfect beaches in front of you. Music plays in the background, accompanied by the ever-present rustling of the palm fronds in the breeze, and there's an excessively diverting book waiting for you the moment you grow weary of watching the seagulls and pelicans wheel on the wind. That there are two men who periodically check in to see if you're in want of anything, all delivered with smiles filled with devilish charm, is simply the icing on the cake. There was only one thing that could improve our situation, which Mo cleverly put his finger on:
Sorbet and fresh fruit: the only missing piece
And so it was that we whiled away many satisfying hours at The Place that day and in the days to come. One of the most interesting things we learned from Dave is that there are wells on Anguilla and that the island does, in fact, have sources of fresh water, albeit limited ones.  Most references I'd encountered had said there there are no fresh water sources on the island, but I reckon they meant no rivers or lakes. Dave told us the story of when he was a boy growing up in Island Harbor that he and his schoolmates would explore the caves in that part of the island--they would drink from the pools of water inside the caves. I knew that the island was formed in large part of limestone, and I know what the limestone in Kentucky can do for that region's bourbon, so I imagine that Anguilla's groundwater is pretty pure.  DH and I had one of those   moments when we realized that the name of the Island Harbour restaurant we liked, Big Spring, must have taken its name from, you know, actual springs. 
Locations simply don't get much better than this
We lingered as long as we could at The Place until it was time to settle up our bill for the day.  Our two bottles of water, 1 beer, two appetizers, sorbet, the passionfruit soft drinks,  one extra-strong rum punch (hand-modified by Dave so it wouldn't be too sweet for me), and one free sample of one of Mo's concoctions, came to a little over $50. When we stay put like that for so long, we always leave additional cash tips behind to show our appreciation.  I think we left behind a $20 bill each day to thank them for their hospitality.
Panoramic taken from balcony at Caribella
Back at home, I broke from my usual routine to take a late afternoon nap before sunset. I woke up just in time for us to walk down to our swimming cove for a dip and back again before watching the sunset from the balcony. For the first time ever, we encountered somebody else down in "our" swimming cove -- a man named Ambrose who owns the Arbron complex on Barnes Bay.  We had a nice time chatting with him.  I wonder if O.T.'s ears were burning because we mentioned her.  Ambrose said he had a customer who visits every year from the Isle of Wight, which set the wheels in motion in my mind and I asked if her name was xxx. It's a small world, among Anguillaphiles.

Neither of us was very hungry, so we canceled our dinner reservations and stayed home.  We used my leftovers from Geraud's and augmented them with a cheese omelet that DH cooked up, and we re-created the passionfruit spritzers using the juice we already had with some tonic water. We played some more Skip-Bo, bemoaned the fact that we left our Banangrams at home, and were in bed by 10:00.  Now that we're acclimated to the warm weather, we no longer put on the a/c in our bedroom. With all of the jalousie louvers open on the windows, plus the ceiling fan, it's very comfortable and I think we slept even better without the a/c.

 NB: I'm afraid I went a little crazy taking panoramic shots that day--DH had just shown me how to do it.

19 July 2014

Vacation Reading in Anguilla

To say that I enjoy reading when I'm on vacation would be to engage in the most careless of understatement. I've gotten in the habit in recent years of test-driving all of the books that go with me by reading their first 50 pages, just to make sure that they've earned a space in my luggage.  I also fill my Kobo e-reader with digital advance reader's copies to make sure that I never run out of things to read, and this year, my preparations really paid off.  Not a bad book among 'em, though some certainly resonated more than others.

They range wildly, from sci-fi thrillers to traditional literary novels, to the most perfect collection of short stories I've ever read. Here are a few of the books:

David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks was like nothing I've ever read before.  I'd never read David Mitchell (who gained some amount of fame as the author of The Cloud Atlas) so this was quite eye-opening.  This behemoth weighs in at over 600 pages, and for much of the reading I didn't know whether to scratch my watch or wind my butt.  I can't promise that I completely understood this one, but it was fascinating and complicated and weird.  And a little frustrating, too.  You don't learn until the very end just what the heck these titular bone clocks are, but it's too much of a spoiler to say here what it means. Suffice it it to say that the phrase is one of the most poetic ways of referring to XXXXX as I've ever encountered.  I'm told that if you loved Cloud Atlas, then there's an excellent chance that you'll love this one, too. The character of Holly Sykes is one of the great females of 21st century literature so far. NB: This book will be published in September.

Jennifer E. Smith's debut novel, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, is a sweet YA book that, despite it's improbable premise, offers some worthwhile lessons. It's the story of seventeen year old Hadley Sullivan and how four minutes changed everything in her life.  She's supposed to be on a plane to London where her father is getting remarried to a woman she's never met, but instead she gets into a fight with her mom and is running late by just four minutes--just enough time to miss her plane. She's put on the next flight, seated next to sweetly funny Oliver, and what starts off as the worst day of her life turns out to be, well, surprisingly awesome.  After their plane lands in London, Oliver and Hadley are just smitten enough with each other and know just enough personal information to be able to track each other down later in the day, with surprising results.

Hadley starts off as a typical teen, self-absorbed and unable (or maybe just unwilling) to see her parents as anything other than their relationship to her, but by the end of the novel (which takes place in just 24 hours) she's able to see them as adults who have lives and interests and priorities beyond being her Mom and Dad.  And she realizes that while she may not have a say in their life choices (much less like them), she *can* choose how to react to their decisions, and that maybe forgiveness is a good place to start, both with herself and her new family.

While I am not what you might call Christopher Moore's biggest fan, and while I didn't actually love this book, there is much to be said in praise of Lamb and his books in general.  For starters, Christopher Moore is one smart man, and a funny one to book, and he brings these dual talents to bear in all of his books (or at least the ones that I've read). Here he tells about the missing years in the life of Jesus, those years between being a teenager and when he emerged as the miracle-performing Christ, all told through the eyes of his best friend, Levi, aka Biff.  It's irreverent and inventive (Jesus and Biff travel the world in pursuit of the wisdom of the Magi, taking them all the way to India and then China), and I think it could have benefitted from a reduction of at least 50 pages to keep the story tight, but it was fun and light-hearted.  If you're not familiar with the mythology of Christ and his miracles and his radical philosophies, and his subsequent sacrifice as the Son of God, then I suspect that much of this novel will have little impact on you. But if, like me, you were raised with these stories (or are at least familiar with them), you'll probably get a kick out of this book.  I think I only laughed out loud once while reading this book, but I did have quite a few inward chuckles.  Think of this book as Monty Python meets Jesus Christ, Superstar and you'll have the right idea.

Full disclosure: this book is the debut novel from my co-worker.  But even if I didn't work with Chrysler, I would have thought that The Hawley Book of the Dead was fun from start to finish.  The same part of me that loves good tv like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and bad tv like The Secret Circle (gah--canceled after just one season!) would have been drawn to this book, too.  When somebody frames Reve for murdering her husband during the finale of their Las Vegas magic show, it sets in motion a series of events, both past and present, that lead her to her birthright: the grimoire that has graced generations of Hawley women.  Filled with 'real magicalism,' including a mysterious falconer, a prognosticating length of twine, and names brimming with double entendre, this debut novel is an uncanny blend of 'The Night Circus' meets 'The Crucible.'  Szarlan weaves a tale that is fun, fast paced, and eerily atmospheric. If you're a fan of Deborah Harkness's books, or if you enjoy tales that are equal parts illusion and suspense, this might be the book for you.  I read it in a day and had a great time doing it. NB: This book will be published in September.

I suspect that four mini-reviews are enough to be getting on with for now.  I'll be back (eventually) with some of the other books I read on vacation.

NB: I received advance reading copies of The Bone Clocks and The Hawley Book of the Dead from the publishers. I received a free e-book of the Jennifer E Smith book and I purchased my own physical copy of the Christopher Moore book.

18 July 2014

Anniversary on Anguilla!

On Monday morning we slept a little later than usual (which means we slept until 7:30 am). We knew Geraud's was closed, but since we were celebrating our anniversary that day (it had actually been two days ago, but we decided to celebrate that day), we wanted to go out for breakfast. Having discovered Bonjour Cafe last October on our previous visit to Anguilla, we headed to Sandy Ground with a rumbly in our tumbly.

The setting at Bonjour Cafe is so lovely, and frankly, I have no idea why there isn't more buzz about this place on the island.  The menu is limited, to be sure, but what they do serve is prepared well, and Suzan and Verlyn, the ladies who work there, are terrific. You'd think that the location on Roadwell would be a little stuffy and still, but there has always been a good breeze when we've been there. The lush trees and other foliage create a sense of privacy, and we love the entertainment that the local fauna provides, whether it's the yard fowl, grackles, bananaquits, butterflies, or lizards.

I love the juxtaposition of the bird with The Goldfinch
They also happen to serve the best coffee we had on the island on this trip, accompanied by hot milk and a small bowl of raw sugar. I didn't make photographs of the food itself this time, but we each ordered a Full House, plus one glass of freshly squeezed orange juice apiece. The juice is an indulgence, but worth every penny.

The setting was so pleasant, and our books were so good, that we lingered there for a while to read, interspersed with pleasant conversation with Suzan. But the beach was calling us, so we eventually packed ourselves up and headed out.

We had tentatively planned to spend the day at Elodia's on Shoal Bay East, but on the way out there we stopped by the computer place in the Valley. I'd left my laptop there on Saturday and hadn't heard back, so we wanted to get a progress report.  Unfortunately, the guy didn't even have the right tool to open the back of my MacBook, so all he could do was test another charger on my computer and test my charger on a different Mac. My charger worked fine on the other laptop, but my computer didn't respond to the other charger, so there wasn't anything else he could do.
One of the signs at Irie Life
Bummed out, we decided to forego our trip to Shoal Bay East and just head back home to spend the day on Barnes Bay instead. I didn't want to leave the laptop in the hot car all day, and once we got home, I didn't want to double back to the other side of the island. But on the way back home we did stop at Irie Life.  DH needed a new pair of flip-flops and of course he had to pick up another AXA baseball cap.  It would be completely unnatural for him not to.

And thus we settled in for another afternoon of reading on the balcony, interspersed with a walk on the beach down to our swimming hole for a dip.  It was just as well that we stayed at Caribella for the day, as we received some bad news from home and it was helpful to have the WiFi to stay in touch with family via email, which we wouldn't have had at SBE. Nature even provided a storm at sea for our viewing pleasure. Between brooding about my computer and brooding about the news from home, neither DH nor I could really concentrate on our books, so staring out at the stormy horizon was just about the perfect speed for us.
A balcony, an iced coffee and a storm at sea.
We always make our dinner reservations for around 7:15 when we're on Anguilla. Sunset is around 6:50, so that gives us time to see the sunset each night and then pop back inside to quickly change clothes before heading out.  Arriving at a restaurant at 7:15 instead of 7:30 also generally affords a better selection of tables. It's a cunning plan.
Just another lovely sunset
Thus it was that we arrived at Veya and were surprised to see a number of tables already filled.  Luckily, Jerry had a quiet table for two, per my reservation request, set aside for us, and we chatted for a few minutes until he was called away. DH and I had prepared for the evening by skipping lunch (though I did eat a handful of peanuts late in the afternoon); there's no way we want to show up for a 5-course tasting menu without an appetite!
Veya's signature votives
You can see why people say it's like dining in a treehouse
So after settling in with a cocktail and the complimentary johnny cakes, we chatted with Jerry a bit about any food preferences we might have.  With the tasting menu, anything goes, so if you're not specific about your dislikes, then you have nobody but yourself to blame if the chef prepares something you'd prefer not to eat.  I trust Chef Carrie's food instincts implicitly, but I loathe cilantro, so that was our only directive to the kitchen. Oh, besides asking for slightly smaller than usual portions, that is.  Last year, we were so full by the fourth course that we left a little food on our plates.

By now, Omari was beginning to play and the place was really filling up.  DH has some pretty serious hearing issues, so it was rather exciting to discover that we could still hold a conversation AND enjoy the music at the same time. (Alas, it would not be the case when we returned to Veya the following week!)

Our amuse-bouche arrived in the form of a tuna fritter with a dill sauce very reminiscent of what we call "come-back" sauce in the South.  Dill is probably my favorite herb for savory dishes, but even DH was tempted to run his finger around the rim of the plate so as not to miss even the tiniest dollop of that sauce.
The tuna fritter with dill sauce
Our first course was tuna, served raw with fried basil.  I do not generally self-identify as a consumer of raw fish, but as I said before, I trust Chef Carrie implicitly with her preps, and it was delicious.  I'd love to know how they can flash fry the basil like that to get it so crispy.
First course: raw tuna with fried basil
Our second course was sea lice, and as we'd eaten it there last year, there was no need for them to be coy when presenting it to us. As before, it was prepared with the ginger beurre blanc and grilled.  We'd been crossing our fingers that the fish delivery that day might have included some slipper tail lobster, or sea lice, as it is known locally.  (God only knows why.)
Sea lice
As above, different angle
Third course was back to tuna, this time crusted with sesame seeds and lightly seared, topped with chili threads and accompanied by a cucumber salad:

Our fourth course was the vanilla cured duck breast, which is on the regular Veya menu, served with sweet potatoes.  We'd had it before, and both of us were amazed at how well the vanilla works with savory flavors.  DH generally isn't a fan of vanilla but this was among the best duck preparations he'd ever had.

At last, dessert. The smaller-than-usual portions that we requested meant that we didn't send anything un-eaten back to the kitchen, but I wish I had specified that we'd be happy to have the full size dessert.  My favorite dessert at Veya, and one of my favorites anywhere, is their dense coconut cake with dates, served with the most sinful toffee-caramel sauce, and topped with ice cream and a golden crown of spun sugar.  We also had a sampling of their malted chocolate bars.  Both are good, but since I'm not the biggest chocolate fan, I definitely preferred the coconut.

Before we headed out, Jerry asked if my laptop was still giving me trouble (he reads the Anguilla travel boards, too), and he even generously offered to let me borrow one of his family's power cords (apparently a faulty power cord is the number one culprit for the kind of trouble I was having).  That's one of the things that I love about Anguilla and the people who live (or vacation) there.  I had so many people offering help, Googling possible solutions and YouTube videos and emailing me links to them. He had one last suggestion: that we take the laptop to Philippe at Caribbean Silk Screens.  He's the closest thing to a Mac expert on the island.

Filled with a new hope, we thanked him for the tip and for the wonderful evening and bid everybody at Veya a fond goodnight. For once, we didn't get up from the table feeling like we'd overeaten.  We'd had a simply wonderful evening, had enjoyed the music and ambience tremendously, and had been served some food that was nothing short of exquisite.  What a perfect anniversary meal!