Friday, January 30, 2015

January tea and a book: the Blandings novels

I just love a clever English comedy set between the wars, especially if it involves a country house party. After gobbling up multiple novels by E.M. Delafield and Angela Thirkell (each already featured on "tea and a book"), I decided to shake things up a choosing another English comedy involving a country house party.

Okay, so I didn't shake it up that much. But I deliberately chose a male author, and the stories are set in a slightly earlier period. Plus I have TWO books to recommend (with more to come, I'm sure.)

Yes, I am finally reading P.G. Wodehouse!

Both of these books involve the garden-obsessed and rather bumbling Lord Emsworth, who hosts weekend parties where very silly crimes are committed, crimes that are perpetrated and/or exposed by guests using false identities. Lord Emsworth's featherbrained son, Freddie, is always in the thick of the trouble, and we end up rooting for whichever pair of guests seems to be falling in love. Wodehouse tends to assign most of the cleverness to his female characters, which is refreshing. And what a surprise to encounter Psmith (the "p" is silent), who wears a monocle (see above) and talks a great deal of piffle! Was Dorothy Sayers inspired by Wodehouse when she created Lord Peter Wimsey? Or is it simply that all Old Etonians wear monocles and talk piffle? Hmmmm...

And check this out! I think the series is based on the early collection of Blandings short stories, so I'm looking forward to watching soon. Any fans of this TV adaptation out there?

Now for the tea . . .

The cup of tea on arrival at a country house is a thing which, as a rule, I particularly enjoy. I like the crackling logs, the shaded lights, the scent of buttered toast, the general atmosphere of leisured cosiness.

P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters

I've noticed in various English novels set between the wars that bread and butter or buttered toast often feature in tea offerings, particularly in those gatherings that take place before guests return to their rooms to leisurely bathe and dress for a late supper. Buttered toast is one of my favorite things to eat with tea, but I always like to add a little orange blossom honey:

The bread for the toast is from Panera -- I love their country loaf because it has generous air pockets in which the butter and honey like to dwell.

For the tea I chose Royal Breakfast from Paromi, purveyor of organic teas. (I found mine at Whole Foods, but it's also available to purchase online.) Described as "a majestic blend of hand-picked black teas from the Dibrugarh District in Assam, India and the Red River in Vietnam's Yen Bai province," the Royal Breakfast is wonderfully brisk and satisfying.

(I also bought the Coconut Almond and just now noticed that they offer a Chocolate Orange blend. Wow!)

[Cross-posted at Livejournal]

Monday, January 26, 2015

Movie Monday: PADDINGTON

Yesterday we saw Paddington.

Steve grew up with the books and cherished his very own stuffed Paddington bear. I, on the other hand, hardly knew anything about this world-traveling, marmalade-loving creature. But after seeing a few positive reviews of the film, I decided we needed a little whimsey from the big screen this weekend.

Turns out it was one of the best films I've seen in a long time!

The script is clever and funny -- appealing both to kids and adults -- and the performances are top notch. Ben Whishaw does amazing work as the voice of Paddington (so glad he stepped in when Colin Firth didn't work out), and I could go on and on about the high quality CGI and cinematography, as well as the delightful set design of the Browns' house. There's so much to gush about! But why don't I link you to some professional reviewers who had high praise for the film:

The New Yorker -- "Perfectly Captures a Particular English Sensibility"
The Telegraph -- "A total delight"
Entertainment Weekly -- "fast-paced yet unhurried, serving up surprisingly subtle ideas on melting-pot urban diversity"

The official trailer wasn't nearly as charming as the film, so I'll include this clip of the Brown family's first encounter with our bear from darkest Peru:

Please go see it, and take the kiddos!

[Cross-posted at Livejournal]

Friday, January 23, 2015

Friday Favorites: traditional afternoon tea in . . . Vegas?

Last week while Steve and I were in Las Vegas we made a special visit to the Mandarin Oriental to partake of their afternoon tea.

It was amazing! Let me show you. (Click photos for a larger view.)

First we were served perfectly steeped tea -- Steve chose the Mandarin Orange (specially blended for the hotel chain), while I went with my comfort tea, Golden Tippy Assam. You can find the latter and much more at

Next came the tea tray -- isn't that a marvelous design? Our server suggested we start with the scones in order to enjoy them warm with the devonshire cream and preserves (we had a choice of apricot or cranberry). That's always seemed the proper order to me, you know? Sweet, then savory, and then MEGA SWEET to finish. Yum.

A close-up of the savory offerings -- curry chicken in sesame cones, goat cheese tartlet with apricot jelly, Black Forest ham sandwiches, and smoked salmon and cucumber. What a treat!

The "assorted tea pastries" had a charming holiday/winter theme (the snowmen were my favorite). Due to sugar coma, I can't remember much about them except that they were delicious.

One of the loveliest things about this experience was our view -- it was such a pleasure to sip our tea and watch the sunset.

This really was one of the best afternoon teas I've had in a long time. Such attention to detail in the food offerings! And the servers were attentive without being obtrusive. Highly recommended!

[Cross-posted at Livejournal]

Friday, January 9, 2015

Friday Favorites: It started with a photograph

A couple of things to share today, and though it may seem like a stretch, they actually are related.

Favorite thing #1. More than thirty years after first seeing it, I re-watched Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), starring the late David Hemmings.

I first saw this film as a child during a weekend visit at my dad's house. Dad had that wonderful new invention called "Cable TV" and through its magic I was introduced to all sorts of interesting movies, current and classic. Unfortunately I didn't catch Blow-Up from the very beginning, but I managed to tune in at a critical moment -- Hemmings' character, an arrogant and affected photographer (parodied delightfully in Austin Powers years later) wanders London with his camera and ends up taking photos of a couple embracing in a park. The woman approaches him, agitated, and asks for the film back. But when she comes to his flat later, he gives her the wrong film. He then develops the actual roll from the shoot, and through a series of blow-ups, discovers that something sinister may have happened at the park.

The scene depicting his discovery is so beautifully shot and compelling, but the resolution (or lack thereof) was incredibly frustrating to me as a kid. I thought maybe I'd missed something at the beginning of the film, and I've been wondering for decades what it all meant. Well, in re-watching it this past weekend, I realized the film really isn't about the mystery of a possible murder. Rather, it is a fascinating character study. Roger Ebert described it best:

The film is about a character mired in ennui and distaste, who is roused by his photographs into something approaching passion. As Thomas moves between his darkroom and the blowups, we recognize the bliss of an artist lost in what behaviorists call the Process; he is not thinking now about money, ambition or his own nasty personality defects, but is lost in his craft. His mind, hands and imagination work in rhythmic sync. He is happy. (See the entire review here.)

As a kid (who really wasn't old enough for the film anyway) I wanted the story to be about the mystery, and I desperately wanted that mystery to be solved. 30+ years later I appreciate the film for its ambiguity.

Favorite thing #2, in which we come to the related topic (yes, really!) of Ghostlight and the fact that ARCs are out in the world!

First of all, Weeeeeee!

Now to the connection . . . we have a film for adults (considered nearly pornographic in its day -- take it from me, those scenes are the least compelling element) and a book for middle grade readers (& up). What could these two things possibly have in common? Well, somewhat like in Blow-Up, the mystery in Ghostlight starts with a photograph. This photograph features something it logically shouldn't, which leads to a project, a betrayal, and, ultimately, an investigation. Though this "clue in a photograph" idea is not particularly unique, I know the seed for it was planted in my brain all those years ago when I watched Blow-Up and really wanted that mystery to be solved. Also, strangely enough, I think one of the characters in Ghostlight was probably, subconsciously, inspired by the main character in Blow-Up. Julian Wayne isn't quite as reprehensible as Thomas (though he was darker in earlier incarnations of the story). He is similar, however, in that he's arrogant and obsessive and grows pretty impatient with people who don't appreciate his passion for filmmaking.

And look here -- we have official flap copy!

Isn't that creepy image of the window SO COOL? Please allow me to type out the plot blurb, in case you can't quite read it in the image:

Nothing ever happens on Avery's grandmother's sprawling farm, where she and her brother spend the summers. That is, until Avery meets Julian, a city boy with a famous dad, whose family is renting a nearby cottage. When Julian announces his plan to film a ghost story, Avery jumps at the chance to join him.

Unfortunately, Julian wants to film at Hilliard House, a looming, empty mansion that Grandma has absolutely forbidden her to enter. As terrified as Avery is of Grandma's wrath, she finds the allure of filmmaking impossible to resist.

When the kids explore the secrets of Hilliard House, eerie things being to happen, and the "imaginary" dangers in their movie threaten to become very real. Have Avery and Julian awakened a menacing presence? Can they turn back before they go too far?

So there you have it! I no longer have to ramble nonsensically about the premise of this book, for that sums it up pretty nicely. Perhaps I'll give one of these ARCs away before too long? Stay tuned! And HAPPY FRIDAY!!!

[Cross-posted at Livejournal]

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

2015 -- Reflecting on goals

So last year I set some goals for myself, and I thought it might be fun to check on my progress.

1. Journal/blog more.
I'm pretty sure I wrote in my paper journal more than I did in 2013, but a counting of blog posts reveals that I wrote fewer. However, when you take out self-promotey sorts of giveaways and "hey, look at my book!" posts, it pretty much evens out. So I didn't necessarily fall behind, but I would like to contribute more to this blog in 2015. Content-wise, I'm pretty satisfied with what I wrote. Some of it resonated with readers, some of it didn't, but it was all meaningful to me. And I think I did spend less time "blurting" on Twitter and Facebook. One specific goal: write more "Friday Favorite" posts. They're a nice catch-all review of neat things I've encountered during the week. (I already know some things I want to showcase this Friday!)

2. Read more.
GOAL ACHIEVED! In 2013 I read 50 books. This past year I read 72. Hooray! 43 were adult (this includes research books), 12 were young adult, and 17 were middle grade. I did not slog through any work of fiction just because I felt I had to. (I consider this growth from last year.) I really enjoyed my reading. And here are some favorites (starred titles were featured on the blog for "tea and a book"):

My True Love Gave to Me -- adorable anthology of holiday romance short stories.
Cold Comfort Farm -- I enjoyed the film, but the book is so very clever! And much funnier.
High Rising* -- a re-read, but this time it launched me into full-blown Angela Thirkell obsession.
The Signature of All Things* -- the most unusual book I read all year.
The Crowfield Curse* -- compelling medieval mystery/fantasy.
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? -- I love The Mindy Project, and this funny memoir showed me just how smart, ambitious, and hard-working Kahling is.
A Stitch in Time* -- my favorite Penelope Lively book so far.
The French Lieutenant's Woman* -- a very satisfying re-read.
Remarkable Creatures* -- early female fossil hunters!
Miss Buncle's Book* -- my introduction to D.E. Stevenson (I'm currently reading my 4th Stevenson novel).
The Hollow Kingdom -- I think of this as the proper resolution to my childhood obsession with Sarah/Jareth from Labyrinth.
Garden Spells* -- my introduction to the magically romantic books of Sarah Addison Allen.

3. Spend more time researching and planning my next story.
I do think I've improved in this regard. Now must endeavor not to languish in the planning stage for too long.

4. Be more like Elfrida.
This goal was about being a better friend, listener, and comforter (like Elfrida in Winter Solstice). Not sure how to measure my progress, but I probably should have been more mindful of it. Part of the goal also involved inviting more people to my house, and in that regard I failed miserably. I only had two friends to stay in the entire year! No group gatherings or parties of any sort. Specific goal: plan a gathering in my home to take place before May 1st.

5. Be more conscious of living in the moment (and detach self from phone).
Hmmmm . . . not sure what to do with this one. It's rather vague. More specific goals: take at least one walk each day. Sit in the living room without turning on the TV. Sit on the patio in warmer weather. Put phone in kitchen when working in the office.

Final specific goal for 2015 -- make a "to do" list at the beginning of each work day. It's a simple thing, and it works!

How about you? Any goals for the new year?

[Cross-posted at Livejournal]