Monday, 30 March 2015

Review 2015 No. 10 | The Hobbit or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit", begins John Ronald Reuel Tolkien's The Hobbit, which has been consistently in print, and widely regarded as one of the finest high fantasy and children's books ever written in the English language, since it's publication in 1937. The Hobbit tells the story of the human-like hobbits Bilbo and Frodo, as well as others such as the wizard Gandalf (literally "Dreamer") and Thorin, and is the prequel to the magnum opus of all magnum opus', The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I could wax lyrical about its many diacritic facets, the fact that it has spawned generations of geeks and a multi-billion pound film trilogy, but I'm convinced that you've heard that all before. In many ways what is key to The Hobbit's success is its self-contained, tight prose and lucid plot. My own Tolkien story began when I was given a copy (and a hobbit house cake!) for my twelfth birthday. It picked up again along the lines of "in a student house in Canterbury there lived a girl (who hadn't read The Hobbit before)". I was enthralled and enamoured in equal measure.

I discovered a treasure (Gollum might refer to it as precious) that was entirely unique, readable, and a crossover novel for all ages. Tolkien was a storyteller, of the kind your mum became when making up stories for you in the back of the car on long journeys, and a true creative. The hobbits lived "between the Dawn of Faerie and the Dominion of Men" and Tolkien lived between the Dawn of the fairy tale and the modern world. This allowed him to create more than books. He created an entirely complete, entirely perfect world. With the diminishment of the academic, literary and social world in which he created The Hobbit, I believe it is a feat that will never be repeated again. He was a one off. It is a one off. Read it!

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Review 2015 No. 9 | Miss Marple's Final Cases by Agatha Christie

  • Sanctuary
  • Strange Jest
  • Tape-Measure Murder
  • The Case of the Caretaker
  • The Case of the Perfect Maid
  • Miss Marple Tells a Story
  • The Dressmaker's Doll
  • In a Glass Darkly

Continuing with this year's theme, which is rapidly turning into a gameshow ("How Many Old Fictional Friends Can You Revisit In A Year"), this week I stuck with Christie but this time a Miss Marple. Originally only published in America in 1924, Miss Marple's Final Cases and Two Other Stories is a collection of six short stories set, as is the case in The Labours of Hercules (see link below), towards the end of the detectives career. Two short supernaturals tales are also included at the end, sans Marple, as if an afterthought. The collection was published in the US first and then (posthumously) in the UK in 1979, and it shows. This is not the pinnacle of her work.

Miss Marple is a character you fall in love with. She's the favourite great-aunt that you will always have a place in your heart for. However she is shamelessly ill-utilised in these short stories. As in The Labours, Christie doesn't have the space for character and plot building,  the kind for which she is celebrated in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The detective is used as a mere pawn, a plot device to tie up clues that would otherwise remain unresolved. In the two supernaturals Christie reveals herself scrabbling in the deep end, lacking the stylistic flair and practice to pull it off. In short, as a Miss Marple book this just doesn't cut it. But then it has quite some competition. The Final Cases are the lifetime's notes and unpublished papers of a serial wordsmith, the kind found lingering in the back of a writing desk. But why should that make it any less masterful?

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Review 2015 No. 8 | The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie

I have put off reading much of Agatha Christie's work for far too long. Her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections have become an itch that I must scratch. Last week I decided to go on a Christie kick in order to discern once and for all what I think of her as a writer, what her detective fiction contributed at the time, and which, if any, are her masterpieces. The Labours of Hercules is Christie in her prime. She was into her third decade as a published writer when she published The Labours of Hercules in 1947. Her success led to one of her two plays, The Mousetrap, opening in the theatre five years later. Her career is mirrored in that of her egg-headed, pompous detective Hercule Poirot, who says he will take on twelve final cases before supposedly retiring in The Labours. 

The Labours are a feat of engineering. Christie designed the marathon short story collection so that Poirot's 'final twelve cases' would reflect the Greek mythical adventures of Hercules, they even share the same names. The effort is carried off with all the pluck and aplomb of a serial writer. She does for example demonstrate her intellectual prowess, sense of humour and wit in the first of the cases, when Poirot is involved in a discussion about his unique name, which is compared with that of Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional figure Sherlock Holmes

Short story collections create technical difficulties not seen in the average Joe novel. When Guy Andrews wrote the screenplay for the 2014 ITV adaptation five of the stories were merged into one, based around the dreamy Swiss Alps setting of the fourth story, The Erymanthian Boar. And that's just it. The stories are a sprint, an unrewarding attempt to do too much, too quickly, too soon. There is none of the character development, intricate weave of red-herring trails, motives and timely clues. That's not to say the reader should be deterred. It's Christie having fun, experimenting. It stands to reason that if you are a Christie fan then it's still worth the effort. For me it just doesn't work in the same way as her epic novel plots, seen in the likes of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and And Then There Were None.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Spring Citrus Sponge | Lemon Cake Recipe

I'm a cake addict. Have been for as long as I can remember. Sometimes the mood takes you and nothing but a dangerously indulgent combination of sugar and fat, in the form of cake, will do. My favourite is usually the toxic 50:50 fat:sugar ratio found in cheesecake. For those who hanker for the citrus in moments of weakness, a light lemon sponge cake is the ticket. Why not try this sponge laced with lemon zest and topped with a sugar/lemon glaze.

4 large eggs, room temperature
8oz sifted flour
8oz caster sugar
8oz unsalted butter, room temperature
Zest of 2 lemons

For the butter icing/topping
Juice of 2 lemons
100g caster sugar
50g icing sugar
100g unsalted butter

1) Preheat your oven to Gas Mark 4, 180oC or 160oC fan, and line 2 large round shallow cake tins with parchment paper.
2) Cream together the caster sugar and butter until combined and fluffy.
3) Beat the eggs together separately and add to the mixture gradually.
4) Fold in the flour and grated lemon zest until the mixture is fully combined.
5) Use a tablespoon to divide the mixture equally between the 2 cake tins and bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes.
6) When ready, take the cakes out of the oven and leave to cool on a wire rack.
7) Whilst still warm, spread a mix of half of the lemon juice and all of the sugar over the top half of the cake with a egg or pastry brush.
8) Make the butter icing by combining the other half of the lemon juice, the icing sugar (sifted) and the butter. (Be careful not to add too much lemon juice as it makes the icing runny!)
9) When both halves of the cake are cool assemble the cake by filling the middle with the butter icing and spreading any leftover lemon and sugar glaze over the top.

To see the Mary Berry Lemon drizzle cake recipe that inspired this post: