Monday, January 26, 2009

I have been told that people born in the Year of the Ox are: responsible, dependable, honest, caring, honourable, intelligent, artistic, industrious and practical.
However, they are also: petty, inflexible, possessive, dogmatic, gullible, stubborn, critical, intolerant and materialistic.

If you were born between February and the following January in the years 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973,1985 or 1997 you're an Ox.


Last week I picked up a copy of A Poisoned Mind by Natasha Cooper from the new books shelf in Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution library. Even though I have a huge pile of books waiting to be read, something about this one made me get stuck in straight away, and I was immediately hooked.

On the cover there is a comment from a renowned crime writer describing the book as one of the best legal thrillers she’d ever read, and I would agree.

The story opens on a failing Northumberland farm, where a company called Clean World Waste Management have leased some land as a site for two chemical waste disposal tanks. The tanks blow up causing a conflagration in which the farmer is killed and the surrounding farmland is polluted.

Angie, the farmer’s widow, aided by members of an environmental pressure group, is taking the corporate giant to court in an attempt to get proper compensation.

Trish Maguire QC, whose sympathies lie with the widow, finds herself having to set aside personal feelings as she has to represent Clean World Waste Management. As the trial proceeds she begins to wonder what exactly has been going on, the eco-hippies who are supporting Angie may have a hidden agenda – not all do-gooders are truthful it would seem.

At the same time, Trish is coping with a troubling friendship between her teenage brother David (for whom she and her husband are responsible), and Jay, a schoolmate he keeps bringing home, who comes from a dysfunctional and abusive family.

Which situation is more poisonous, the chemical waste explosion, or the alcohol and drug fuelled lives of Jay’s family?

I had never come across Natasha Cooper’s books featuring Trish Maguire before, but joy of joys there are another eight for me to read – A Poisoned Mind is the latest – so I intend to read them in order so that I can follow Trish’s progression up the legal career ladder. She is a heroine I took to immediately, intelligent, feisty, professional and very real.

What a treat I have in store.

Rated: 4.5


If a colleague, friend, relative or loved one died in police custody, whilst serving in the armed forces, or when accidentally hit by an emergency vehicle you would probably want to attend the inquest to find out how and why they died, and who was responsible.

Citizens would be deprived of this right if this government has its way.

Last year the clause in the Counter-terrorism Act which would have allowed some inquests to be held in private was dropped, following fierce opposition from all sides. However the proposals have been included in the legislation covering Coroners Courts which has just been introduced to Parliament.

The plan is to have juries, families, and the press excluded from some inquests which would be held in secret with hand-picked coroners, on the grounds of – you guessed it – ‘national security’. I’ll bet that they will use it whenever some death might be going to be an embarrassment, or an inquest might point a finger at the failings of government departments

The whole idea of secrecy in trials or inquests makes my blood run cold – it smacks of Stalinist Russia, and of the old apartheid regime in South Africa.

Why is this Labour government so hell bent on getting this clause on to the statute books?

Yet again they are chopping away at hard won liberties which once kept this country a beacon of freedom and democracy. We must not let these rights be whittled away one by one.


This dish is a hybrid, not quite a fritatta, not quite a Spanish omlette, a bit like a quiche without a pastry crust. It takes hardly any time to make and is a great meal served with a salad, stretching two salmon fillets to feed four people.


Serves 4

8 large eggs

2 fillets salmon (300-400g)

Juice of half a lemon

8 spring onions

2 tablespoons chopped coriander

Salt & pepper

1 tablespoon (approx) butter

2 tablespoons corn oil

Pre-heat the grill.

Cut the salmon fillets into smallish dice.

Finely slice the spring onions.

Beat the eggs until slightly frothy, season sparingly with salt and pepper.

Heat the butter and oil in a medium sized frying pan, and when hot add the salmon pieces and drizzle the lemon juice over them. Stir over a gentle heat until the salmon has changed colour and is nearly cooked through, then tip in the eggs, the chopped coriander and the spring onions. Using a wooden spatula, gently mix everything together. Then let it cook for about a minute. Lift the edges gently with the spatula to let any runny egg seep downwards before placing the frying pan under the pre-heated grill for a couple of minutes to allow the eggs to firm up and brown very slightly on top.

Cut into four wedges and serve garnished with coriander leaves. A side salad of tomato, cucumber and lettuce with a tangy dressing is perfect with this dish.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Word to Husbands:

To keep your marriage brimming

With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you're wrong admit it;
Whenever you're right, shut up.

Ogden Nash


Simon Sebag Montefiore has written two highly acclaimed non-fiction books about Joseph Stalin, as well as several other books about aspects of Russia’s history.
Sashenka is his first foray into the world of fiction, and he makes good use of his specialist knowledge. He has divided the book into three sections, covering the story of one family through the huge changes in Russia from 1916 up to the present day. As a result of reading it I am determined to read more about this period of history.

When the story begins Sashenka Zeitlin is the sixteen year old daughter of an immensely rich, well connected Jewish family who live in St Petersburg. Her
father, who bought his title, is a hypochondriac banker with a more than passing interest in Sashenka’s governess; her mother is entirely given over to self-indulgence, mixing with Rasputin and other debauched friends, drinking and taking drugs at parties every night. Her elderly orthodox Jewish grandparents who have left the shtetl and now live in the rear of the huge Zeitlin mansion, make everyone feel uncomfortable with their old fashioned, religious way of living.

Sashenka has been heavily influenced by her maternal uncle who is a Bolshevik trying to bring down the Tsar. Like many young people she feels the Tsarist regime is unjust and is convinced that by becoming a revolutionary she can help bring about a new, fairer Russia. She seems impervious to what such revolution would do to her family and thousands of others. She becomes more and more involved in the underground movement of Bolsheviks and after the storming of the Winter Palace and the abdication of the Tsar she is given a job at the headquarters of the Central Committee working for Lenin, Mendel, Stalin and the other leaders.

By 1939 Sashenka is living a privileged life in Moscow with a wonderful apartment, servants, American cars and domestic equipment and a country dacha in an area of natural beauty reserved for the top comrades. Married to Vanya Palitsyn who has an important job for the Politburo, she has a young son and daughter. She is working as editor of a magazine called “Soviet Wife and Proletarian Housekeeping”, and she and her husband socialize regularly with Stalin, Beria and the other leaders. The country has just gone through a year of "purges" when Stalin had thousands of Soviet party members eliminated. Sashenka and her husband seem completely blind to the violent corruption at the heart of the regime.

“The cleansing of the Party had been a brutal and bloody process. Many had failed the test and fallen by the wayside, sentenced to death…Some of Sashenka’s oldest friends and acquaintances had turned out to be traitors, spies and Trotskyites. She had never realised so many of them wore masks, pretending to be good Communists while actually being Fascists, saboteurs and traitors. With so many comrades vanishing into the ‘meat grinder’ as it was known, Sashenka had, like all her friends, culled their photos from the family photograph albums, scratching out their faces.”

Eventually, the regime turns on her too, and she wakes up to the monster she has helped to create. At that moment she has only one desire, to save her children. And with the help of others she manages to get them spirited out of Moscow to a new life elsewhere, just before she is arrested by the NKVD (latterly known as the KGB).

The third and final part of the book brings the reader up to date. A wealthy Russian oligarch living in London hires a young historian to research his mother’s family background. She has to overcome much bureaucratic resistance and blatant corruption in order to be able to delve through the Soviet archives, and in so doing eventually uncovers what happened to Sashenka’s two children.

I felt the book really only hit its stride when it got to the second part, and from then on I was gripped, not by Sashenka herself or what happened to her, but by how thousands of intelligent, well-meaning people could allow one man to gain so much power and develop such a regime without them seeing where it was heading. In the final part of the book, Montefiore paints a picture of a country which is still evolving, and frighteningly seems just as vulnerable to totalitarianism and dictatorship as it was in the 1920s.

Rated 4*


When I was young the term “Indian Giver” was one of opprobrium – although I suspect that it is no longer politically correct and I could be hauled over the coals for using it. Everyone knew what was meant by the phrase.

Like most other parents I had to adjudicate when one or other of my kids, having given something to their sibling, or to a friend, then had a major falling-out and demanded that whatever they had given them be given back. It had to be explained that when something was GIVEN to someone, not LENT to them, that it then it became theirs and the giver no longer owned it or had rights over it. Sure this could be very vexing when at a later time (be it hours, days, weeks) the recipient and the giver had a bust-up, but learning this lesson is part of growing up.

Someone obviously never taught this to Dr Richard Batista, who donated a kidney to his wife Dawnell some years ago. The couple have now divorced, and Dr Batista has demanded his kidney back (or $1.5 million compensation) because she has left him and taken the kids with her. This is obviously not what could be described as an amicable separation.

The lawyer advising Dr Batista in his claim can't have mugged up on her Shakespeare. In The Merchant of Venice I seem to remember Shylock got himself into a bit of a legal quandary when demanding his pound of flesh. The point being that though in law he could have the flesh, he couldn’t have any blood, and you couldn’t take the flesh without the blood. Presumably Dawnell Batista’s lawyer could follow the same line and say 'have the kidney back by all means but if you take a single drop of my client’s blood we’ll sue the pants off you.'

Actually its all moot, the kidney was GIVEN to Mrs Batista, it is now HER kidney.

Thank the lord that the brief and acrimonious marriage and divorce of Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills didn’t involve any organ donations - can you imagine the headlines then?

The moral of the story is: Think before giving, because once it's given it's gone.


Given my rant, I did consider posting a recipe for devilled kidneys - but then thought that might be a little tasteless (ha ha)! Anyway, the first days of January always seem to demand warm, filling, inexpensive food so I decided to actually write down the recipe for a soup I make fairly often at this time of year. Its real comfort food, and I make it by instinct so I had to stop and note down quantities as I made this latest batch. It freezes well, and with bread and cheese and a piece of fruit is a perfect lunch or supper.


Serves 6

1 medium swede

2 large carrots

2 medium potatoes

2 sticks celery

1 medium sweet potato

1 leek

1 medium onion

1 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 Bay leaf

½ teaspoon dried thyme

Salt & pepper


Finely chop the onion; scrape the carrots, peel sweet potato, potato and swede, and cut all of them into small even dice. De-string the celery and cut it into pieces to match the vegetables in size. Remove any tough outer leaves from the leek, quarter it lengthwise and then cut across into small pieces.

Put the butter and oil into a large pan and heat gently until the butter has melted. Add the chopped onion and fry gently until it is transparent but not browned. Add all the other vegetables and cook for 5 -10 minutes over medium heat stirring regularly. Add enough water to just cover the vegetables, add the bay leaf and thyme and bring up to simmering point. Simmer gently for 15-20 minutes until the vegetables are soft, add about 500ml water and bring back to a simmer, cover and cook for about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with crusty brown bread and butter.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

I'M BACK !!!!
And wishing a belated Happy New Year to you al

I snitched this Peanuts take on New Year from fellow book blogger Sam Huston of Book Chase - thanks Sam - because just at the moment Lucy sums up my feelings exactly!

Before normal blogging resumes, my thanks to all who have emailed or phoned to ask why I have not been posting on the blog, particularly BFNorwich who made me feel that I needed to get my arse back in gear. I think a few words of explanation are needed - our trip to China was extended for a couple of weeks and became ever more hectic, so we didn't get back to the UK until late November. Almost as soon as I stepped off the plane in London I came down with a horrible chesty cold, and just as I was on the mend and contemplating everything that had to be done to prepare for a large family Christmas, I was hit with this ghastly flu that seems to have been cutting a swathe through the population. Apparently it has been designated 'Brisbane Flu' but DDF has just been out in Oz for the festive season and he never mentioned it being a big issue there. Wherever this particularly nasty virus - illustrated below - came from, it has taken ages to throw it off and I must admit to feeling pretty washed out.

Lets hope we all have a healthier year ahead.

Now for a few statistics:


  • Total Books read: 144
  • Non-fiction: 18
  • Biography: 5
  • Crime/mystery/thriller: 26
  • Male authors: 58
  • Female authors: 86
  • Books translated into English 11
Definately room for improvement : must blog about more of the books I'm reading, must read more non English-speaking authors, must read more non-fiction.