Pssst. Don’t tell the Minx, but I just bought her a colouring book for our plane ride at the weekend.
Well, to be more accurate I’ve just bought myself a colouring book, as I’m sure she would probably prefer to be plugged into an electronic device of some sort.
But honestly, who in their right mind could resist the intricate and magical pen and ink drawings in Secret Gardenby ‘ink evangelist’ Johanna Basford?
Twelve hours on a plane doesn’t seem nearly so long now. (Check out this review from the Guardian, which includes some printable pages to download).
Speaking of The Secret Garden, which remains one of my favourite children’s books of all time, check out these beautiful clothbound keepsake editions of children’s classics from Puffin, designed by the amazing Daniela Terrazzini.
As the mother of an utterly voracious and rather advanced reader I’m the finding the classics to be one of the best ways of giving the Minx age-appropriate reading material. I understand from the Internet that these beautiful books can be hard to track down, but we found ours at the weekend in Seattle’s wonderful Elliott Bay Bookstore. Some are also available on Amazon. (There are some more boy-friendly options too.)
Holly Becker of Decor8 fame has been an online friend for the longest time. I started blogging a little after she did and she was one of the very first people to comment on this blog nearly six years ago.
I’ve done her Blogging Your Way course and cheered her on from the sidelines as she has gone on to her incredible and very much deserved success.
Holly is one of those people who is always generous with her time, her encouragement and, latterly, with the enormous reach and power of her blog. She’s one of those people who always seems to have time for a friendly word or blog comment, however phenomenally busy she is and has created a huge network of friends, followers and devoted admirers across the globe. And I’m not sure whether she ever sleeps or manages to have any leisure time as her output and the number of projects she’s involved in has always been prodigious.
I find her inspirational on so many levels and have always been sad that she managed to skip to Europe not long after I arrived in the US. We’ve never been on the same side of the Atlantic for very long.
When plans for her book tour were finalised, she invited me to come down and see her in San Francisco. And at first it seemed like a crazy idea to fly down just for a book-signing and a dinner. But a little voice in my head kept saying ‘why not’ and then Virgin America was offering great deals on flights from Seattle and before I knew it I’d booked flights and a hotel and was lined up for my first night away from the family in ages.
Holly and yours truly
And, all you mothers out there, I seriously don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner. I had totally forgotten the joys of plane travel without a fidgety six-year old; of mooching aimlessly round shops without being in a terrible rush or having to march a six year old to the toilet; of eating a most amazing lunch (thanks Boulette’s Larder) without having to worry whether the Minx had brought her DS or a book. For 36 hours I was single again, and goodness it was BLISS.
Holly’s book signing was at Anthropologie (beautifully decorated with these garlands and bunting from Paper Source. Note to self, must buy for the Minx) and she was accompanied by Leslie Shewring from A Creative Mint, who had also taught on the Blogging Your Way course. I also got to meet the very charming Victoria, of sfgirlbybay fame; the delightfully effervescent Alix (who had been a very fun team mate on the Blogging Your Way course) and Dottie from Modern Kiddo; the lovely Maja Brugos from Tikoliand Crystal Gentilello of Rue Magazine among other luminaries of the San Francisco design and blogging world.
Leslie Shewring and Alix from Modern Kiddo with Holly
All in all I had a fabulous couple of days and came away tremendously inspired to work more on this blog and throw myself more fully into the design world. It’s time for this Mamma to have some ‘me’ time.
Oh and the book? Well, it’s fabulous of course. Unlike many decorating books which are all about recreating the author’s own style, Decorate is all about uncovering and developing your own personal style and vision. It is chock full of gorgeous pictures, inspirational quotes and tons and tons of innovative, accessible and eminently do-able ideas for every room in the house. The book is sitting on my nightstand and is perfect way to unwind with a little bit of pretty at the end of a long day. And my house will definitely benefit in the long term.
As for Holly herself, well, she is as warm, charming and thoroughly lovely as her online persona. But then you knew that already. And also very tall.
And now I really must stop gushing and have a lie down. All this being nice does not come naturally at all.
I set myself a low bar when it comes to mothering. If the Minx grows up to have good manners, to love books and to be able to cook then I figure she’ll probably always have friends, be passably well-educated and never go hungry. And that way it seems to me happiness lies.
Certainly I can think of few greater pleasures in life than devouring a good book or some good food. So you can imagine how much I enjoyed reading Cherry Cake and Ginger Beerby Yarnstorm’s Jane Brocket, which discusses all the delectable foods found in classic children’s literature, accompanied by scrummy-looking recipes and pen and ink illustrations from the works in question.
The Minx and I are currently on a bit of an Enid Blyton jag at present and revelling in descriptions of fabulous picnics with boiled eggs and sticky buns, Aunt Fanny’s cakes and of course lashings of ginger beer (which according to Brocket, Enid Blyton never actually says in her books).
I am amused to note that, while the plot intricacies of many of these books have completely receded into the mists of time, I can remember almost verbatim many of the food descriptions, such as this one from What Katy Did.
“.. and there – oh, delightful surprise – were seven little pies – molasses pies, baked in saucers – each with a a brown top and crisp, candified edge, which tasted like toffee and lemon-peel, and all sorts of good things mixed up together. There was a a general shout… a tumult of joy… in an incredibly short time every vestige of pie had disappeared, and a blissful stickiness pervaded the party.”
Oh how I wanted to taste one of these pies – ‘molasses’ sounded so delicious and exotic to this little British girl – and now I can, because I have a recipe.
Unfortunately the book is already out of print and quite difficult to get hold of – I suspect the market for it was rather too esoteric. American readers might be particularly frustrated as it focuses primarily on British children’s classics and old-fashioned British baking, though Little Women, Little House on the Prairie and What Katy Did all make an appearance.
But buy this book if you, as I did, grew up with the likes of The Famous Five, My Naughty Little Sister, Pippi Longstocking, Milly Molly Mandy, Paddington Bear, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and Malory Towers. Get it doubly fast if you are re-reading these books with your kids and enjoy baking with them.
What do enjoy cooking and reading with your kids? The Minx and I are sorely in need of recommendations in both categories.
Oh and speaking of the Minx, she went back to school yesterday, oh frabjous day! So now I’m back blogging properly.
Even hard-bitten and cynical little me is getting very excited. What’s not to love - London and dresses and kisses and big hats. I was even thinking of going back for it until they inconsiderately decided to hold it in April, which meant we couldn’t really combine it with a summer vacation. Instead I’m going to have to get up at 3 am to watch coverage here on the West Coast.
Or else I may just knit these and replay the Royal Wedding for myself at a more civilised time of the morning.
Here’s the happy couple. Personally I’m a little disappointed in Kate’s dress.
The Queen and Prince Harry will be the other stars of the show and there will no doubt be a lot of royal corgis running round and tripping up the footmen. Though you could’ve worn a rather more spectacular hat, ma’am.
Here’s that poignant moment when William sees his beautiful bride for the first time – just loving Wills’ and Harry’s hair here. Note you can even knit yourself a mini Archbishop of Canterbury, though I’m not sure why you’d want to.
And here’s the kiss we’ll all be waiting for – with accompanying Prince Charles, Camilla (boo!) and Prince Philip figures.
The Minx and I spent a lot of time on our recent holiday reading Finn Family Moomintroll (which was aces, just as cool and fabulous as I remembered it) and I’m wishing I had the courage to decorate my kitchen with these gorgeous wallpapers from Photowall (though it looks like you’ll need to grapple with Swedish to buy them).
As an aside, can anyone recommend good chapter books for a five year old ? We’re currently hugely enjoying Junie B Jones, who regularly makes us cry laughing, but I’m finding it difficult to find books suitable for a fluent reader, but age-appropriate in content (and no, not the vile Rainbow Magic fairies, which the Minx utterly adores, and which I couldn’t loathe more if I tried).
I found this recipe for layered cookie mix last year on the Williams-Sonoma website and the Minx and I had fun making jars to give to some of her friends and godparents.
This year we decided to make some for her teachers.
This is a great project to do with young kids as they can be genuinely helpful, measuring out the different ingredients and patting it down into layers. I got the jars quite cheaply at Ikea but they were much bigger than suggested in the recipe, so we had to stuff them with coloured tissue paper. I like the decorative effect and it means the teachers end up with a bigger jar to put the cookies in afterwards. As you’ve probably guessed the Minx chose the colour schemes for each teacher (and she had very precise ideas for each one).
You could use any cookie recipe for this though the one given in the link above works very well as it makes for some interesting layers - brown sugar layered between white sugar and flour, and layers of nuts, cherries, rolled oats and chocolate chips. Recipes for hot chocolate mix, with chocolate chips and marshmallows would also be good.
All the recipient needs to do is stir in butter, eggs and vanilla and then bake the cookies, using the recipe provided on the label. The recipe in the book tells you exactly what to write.
Next year I’m thinking it might be quite fun to decorate the jars with glass paints.
The Williams-Sonoma recipe comes from Kids in the Holiday Kitchen. I picked up the book this year as we’d enjoyed the cookie jar recipe so much last year. There are lots of fun projects for kids – including makes, not just baking , though I was a little perturbed by how unhealthy some of them food was– yes that is a chocolate brownie covered with buttercream and crushed candy canes you can see above. Also not all of the projects come with pictures, which is a great shame. But overall I think we’ll be using this book a lot.
Like everyone else in the world, I do like a good Moleskine notebook. Portland-based company Engrave Your Book produces beautiful reuseable leather Moleskine covers, laser engraved with artwork by up-and-coming artists and graphic designers, including Amy Ruppel.
Aren’t these just fabulous? I might try and get some of these in the shop. Currently available here.
In its wisdom the all powerful Random Number Generator chose Jessica from Esthetic-Eclectic (which is a very fabulous new blog BTW) as its victim and she will shortly be receiving the four pretty puzzle books.
Jessica, if you're reading this, get sorting your receipts and please get in touch with your postal address (I'll also email you)
The rest of you - go and clean out your handbags and manbags immediately.
Everyone seems to be doing pretty patterned bookcovers nowadays - I posted recently about the Virago special editions and Penguin has recently got in on the act with foiled hardbacks designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith, which I would dearly love to own. (More images here).
Each book is about the same size and shape as a Moleskine notebook but features a different, beautiful, embossed, foiled or flocked cover. It makes sense really - we take care to find pretty notebooks and pens to stash in our handbags, why should puzzle books be ugly?
To have a chance of winning all four of the books pictured, just tell me in the comments below what is the prettiest or ugliest thing you currently have in your handbag. I'll keep the competition open for a week and choose the winner using an unbribable random number generator (though you are welcome to try bribing ME). I'm also happy to ship anywhere in the world. You will need to make sure you leave an email address with your comment so I can contact you if you win.
I am so tempted to keep these for myself, as they really are rather attractive, but the chances of me finding a spare moment for puzzling, are, shall we say, somewhat remote.
I am of course the woman who has three little bowls all knitted up and ready to felt, but is entirely lacking in courage to do so. So the chances of me making a felt footstool are probably fairly remote.
Speaking of Atelier LZC, we got their new wholesale catalogue in last week and there's been a bit of debate here at mirrormirror's intergalactic HQ. We're buying in some new stuff for Christmas and I wondered what you all thought of their new stylised Eiffel tower motif. I'm also interested in any differences of opinion. by country. Do let me know what you think in more detail in the comments.
Here is are some of the Eiffel tower stuff they have in the catalogue.
In other Eiffel tower-related news, it seems that the paperback edition of Petite Anglaise is also going to feature a stylised Eiffel tower. Maybe they saw the poll we did earlier in the year.
The covers are stunning and the paper inside is smooth and expensive.
There really is nothing more satisfying than a beautifully-made book, particularly when you discover that Valley of the Dollshas somehow metamorphosed from being the trashy book you read for the sex scenes as a teenager, into a great classic of feminist literature and can therefore be read without guilt.
Here's our next look at British v. American design sensibilities.
Last time round we hugely preferred the uncluttered British approach to magazine cover design, though we did stop to note the American fondness for glitz and glamour, as exemplified by Gwyneth Paltrow in a ballgown on the cover. Immaculately groomed movie stars and celebrities are everywhere here, all over the TV and on the covers of every magazine.
The British on the other hand are notoriously bad at glamour and polish. We can very rarely pull it off and so regard deliberate attempts at glamour with suspicion, resorting instead to cheerful eccentricity which often tips over into untidiness or even dowdiness. Brits like to call this 'reality'.
I got hooked on 'petite's' blog a couple of years back, just as she was leaving her live-in partner and father of her child for someone she'd met in her comments box. The blog is hugely well-written and for a while was as suspenseful as a daily soap-opera. Petite (Catherine Sanderson) became globally notorious last year when she was 'dooced' for blogging at work - the first high-profile European blogger to whom that had happened. As a result though she managed to snag a big book deal for global publication of her story.
Until I came to live in the US I didn't realise to what extent books etc. are repackaged for different geographic markets. Sanderson writes amusingly here about how much the text has to be 'translated' from English to American. The covers are also COMPLETELY different.
Sanderson's book is half about her dissatisfaction with her day-to-day 'metro, boulot, dodo' routine, her unsatisfactory relationship and the difficulties and sometimes loneliness of bringing up a young child.
This is the half of the story which the British cover very clearly focuses on. Have you ever seen anything more mumsy and dowdy? You just know that there's going to be dog poo/poop (see how good I'm getting at this English/American translation business!) somewhere in that picture. Note the flat shoes and huge nappy/diaper bag. And I bet her nail varnish is chipped and her legs are hairy. And yes I know that's how most mothers dress, but do you really want to see that on a book cover? And no sign of the various menfolk in the book. Indeed it's unlikely, despite appearances, that the woman on the cover has ever had sex.
The dowdy, old-fashioned, feel carries through into the design. Note all the sugary pink, serif fonts and pretty pretty flowers. Though maybe the layout, aside from the fussy illustration, is, in true British style, a little cleaner.
UK cover art for Petite Anglaise
The other half of Sanderson's story on the other hand is about the illicit thrill of flirting on the Internet via blog comments and emails, meeting this stranger in real life and her subsequent mad affair. Her blog at the time this was happening fairly crackled with sexual excitement. And guess which half of the story the American cover focuses on?
US cover art for Petite Anglaise
Look at those heels! Is she even wearing any clothes? Note the cinema posterish layout. On this cover Petite has been turned into Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt is lurking behind the Eiffel Tower. This woman has sex all the time, NEVER has chipped nail polish and probably doesn't know one end of a stroller from another.
And yes, I know real life is not like this, but really, if you're feeling mumsy and badly put together, do you need to be reminded of it in a book cover? The only thing I don't like about this cover is the actual title where the curly font and fiddly border reminds us of the American love of excessive ornamentation.
I've finally got round to reading a book which has been on my list for ages but which has been scaring me a bit. I found the tweeness of the title and the cover picture tremendously off-putting, but have recently been enjoying Yarnstorm - the blog that inspired the book, and thought I'd give it a go.
It's been the subject of quite a lot of controversy in the UK, mostly from those who think doing stuff around the house, indulging in crafts and enjoying cooking is somehow a betrayal of the feminist movement. But as you know, I like to cook and potter in my house and garden and have tremendous admiration for people who can actually DO crafts, so I persevered beyond the horrible title and cover.
First the good bits. The book is sumptuously produced and a hugely pleasurable read. The chapters are short, so it's very easy to dip in and out of, and the book is absolutely chock-a-block full of photos, which are, actually, the best bit. Jane's photos are gorgeous and inspiring and I would post lots up here, but apparently I have to get her express written permission and I really couldn't be bothered, so just check out her blog instead. But it is to her enormous credit that most of the photos in the book are taken by her and not by some anonymous stylist.
Jane's prose is also utterly beautiful, she has a very visual way of describing things and writes in a very intelligent and thoughtful way. And the book is not just about knitting and baking and quilting, it also talks about domesticity in film and art and books, which is fascinating. It also contains an excellent list of 'Resources' at the back, including inspirational books, blogs and materials stockists. Oh and there are lots of ideas about how to get kids involved in crafts and domestic projects.
So what didn't I like? Well the book is very personal to Jane. It is by no means an instruction manual, it is all about how she thinks about craft, how she gains inspiration, and the creative process behind her craft projects, though with no detailed instructions beyond a few recipes. And unfortunately her aesthetic is just a bit too genteel and Radio 4 for me - the pink heart-shaped mousse on the front cover does absolutely sum it up (though the colour balance on the front cover is ghastly, there's a more subdued and nicer photo of it in the book itself). I'm a sure a ton of people will absolutely adore the stuff she makes but I'm just not an embroidered crinoline ladies sort of person.
Does anyone know of crafters out there who are doing stuff which is a bit more well, 'fierce'? Not knitting plastic bags sort of fierce, but stuff you might want to put into a more contemporary home.
On the plus side, the book has inspired to pick up my knitting again! Knitting is the only craft I can do. Here's the beginnings of a bag for the Minx. Pattern, with tweaks, courtesy of this book. Colour choice courtesy of the Minx (and only because they didn't do this yarn in bright eyeball-searing red).
One of the books I read on the interminable flight to England was The Secret.
Fortunately my personal trainer lent it to me as I really didn't fancy actually paying for it, but I was interested to see what all the hype was about.
It's a very easy read and in essence is just all about the power of positive thinking and the law of attraction, which you can find in lots of self-help books. It goes a bit further than some books I've read though, by suggesting that you just have to ask the Universe (always capitalised, natch) for something and if you fully believe that you will receive it and act as if it's already in the bag then the Universe will deliver. Apparently the Universe is just one big mail-order company.
Which is of course all a load of old drivel. Except that life always seems to go better for me when I have a positive attitude.
So, we are going to conduct a little experiment. In an ideal world, I would like to ask the Universe for mirrormirrorto be acquired over the next month for millions of pounds with me retaining overall executive responsibility and an extremely fat salary. But I think I would have difficulty mustering the necessary belief for that one. But maybe next month.
Instead I am going to request that mirrormirror achieves some sort of significant leap forward over the next 30 days - over and above what it would normally achieve (which shouldn't be difficult as September and October are usually very slow in mirrormirror land). I'm going to think and act as if mirrormirror were already phenomenally successful, weed out any negative thinking, and then on the 20th October note any great breakthroughs - such as meaningful spike in the volume of orders or visitors, a fabulous piece of PR or just links from great blogs or websites. Or any other ways in which the Universe chooses to help mirrormirror grow. I'm really not fussy.
Interestingly, since I read the Secret on the journey out to the UK and tried to think positively at all times, there has been a mini-flurry in orders and I've had two major pieces of luck, involving a handbag left behind in a taxi and an empty house with an unlocked door. Cue spooky Twilight Zone sort of music.
Claudia Roden is no more a simple cookbook writer than Marcel Proust was a biscuit baker. She is, rather, a memorialist, historian, ethnographer, anthropologist, essayist, poet.”-- Simon Schama
I am indebted to the wonderful Seattle foodie blog Seattle Bon Vivant for sending me off to a lecture last night by one of my all-time culinary heroines, Claudia Roden.
Though I'm the owner of literally hundreds of cookbooks (as I discovered when we were packing to come here), her The Food of Italy - Region by Regionis one that I reach for again and again. It is the book my aunt and nonna in Italy would have written if they had had the time and the inclination, and if you'd ever tasted their cooking, you would know that that is praise indeed.
Claudia is an Egyptian Jew who moved to England when she was fifteen when the Jews were forced to leave Egypt after the Suez crisis. Her cultured and cosmopolitan Sephardi Jewish family had roots all over the Middle East and she started to collect recipes from her family and friend in order to counter the horrendous food she found in 1950s London.
The result has been a career as a cookery writer, broadcaster and culinary ambassador which has spanned nearly forty years and focused on Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine.
I don't know very much about Jewish food and her anecdotes were absolutely fascinating - tracing the development of dishes back through time and across Continents. As an unofficial historian of Jewish food she is invited to eat and cook all over the world, and I could have listened to her stories all night.
She pointed out that when people migrate they might change everything about their lifestyles but will still cling as much as possible to their culinary traditions. A glance at our kitchen cupboards - full of Italian pasta, Parmesan cheese, olive oil (itself a product of the culinary traditions my mother brought from Italy) Green & Black's chocolate, Marmite and Nutella - shows that yes, we are clinging desperately to our European ways, despite the fact that European imports are twice the price of canola oil and Velveeta cheese.
I bought a copy of Arabesque and was starstruck enough to get her to sign it. I really wanted a copy of Jewish Food as well, but all the copies they had were nabbed almost instantly.
Next week I'll try out something delicious and report back.
There's an interesting debate taking place at the moment on Make It(a fab blog full of lots of resources for craft and other entrepreneurs).
I read the book Blinka few weeks back (what happened to all those regular book reviews you promised? - Ed). I don't think it quite lives up to all the hype - it's basically one idea padded out with lots of examples - but an interesting read nevertheless.
Its basic premise is all about gut instinct - the fact that we make a lot of decisions sub-consciously and very quickly. And that while these decisions are sometimes governed by prejudices or fears that we might not even know we have, often these decisions are more valid than decisions over which we have deliberated for a long time.
The particular example being debated over on Make It is one about a woman selling gourmet jams at craft fairs. Sometimes she puts only six different jams on the stall and sometimes twenty-four jams. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the more choice people had the more they would buy, as they were more likely to find a jam they particularly liked. Instead the opposite was true and she sold much more with only six jams, as people found it much easier to make a snap decision when they weren't overwhelmed by choice.
All of which provides interesting food for thought when buying for mirrormirror. In recent months I have been adding more choices to some of the product lines, such as more colourways or patterns. In some cases this seems to work out and lead to extra sales - additional colourways for interiors products and jewellery for example can work as people have different colouring or decor. We also offer small and large boxes of bathmelts - both of which seem to sell equally well as they come in at different price points. But quite often adding an extra choice seems to have no discernible impact on sales whatsoever. In fact I'm starting to think each product has to be very different from the all others and really earn its place in the collection - otherwise the customer just gets confused.
What do you think? Is is 'easier' to shop from somewhere which has a small strictly edited collection which appeals to your taste or from somewhere such as Amazon which offers an overwhelming choice?
My brother bought me a fabulous book the other day.
Do you ladies remember Jackie magazine? I got it every week when I was growing up and had a huge stash in my wardrobe that I would re-read constantly. Everything I know about boys (practice kissing on the back of your hand), makeup and fashion has been gleaned from its pages.
The Best of Jackie is a compendium of highlights from the magazine - fashion, advice, quizzes, Cathy and Claire's Problem Page (were we really that innocent?) and lots of pictures of Donny Osmond. It's a really great piece of nostalgia and the fashion illustrations (no photography used) are surprisingly groovy.
I hope you won't find it terribly self-indulgent if I review the books I read on this blog. I've often thought about keeping a book diary and this seems as good a place to do it as any - a sort of chronicle of my life in books (bad as well as good), albeit started a bit late.
In fact, now I think about it, how marvellous it would be to be able to look back through a list kept since childhood. Maybe I should force the Minx to start one now? 'Dear Diary, Today I read Miss Polly Had a Dolly 853 times, interspersed with the odd perusal of Knock Knock, Mr Croc(which is totally fab by the way) and the occasional run through of Baby Touch Rhyme Book complete with actions'.
But I digress. I was pleasantly surprised by Other People's Marriages. It was one of the books that you pick up in haste in order to qualify for Waterstone's 3-for-2 offer after you've been browsing for far too long and your baby is protesting grumpily in her buggy.
I don't think I read chick-lit, but I suspect this book comes very close (the front cover certainly seems to think so). In fact I'd liken it most to the literary equivalent of Cold Feet - exceptionally easy-to-read, amusing and often unnervingly observant about the state of modern marriage.
The premise is a simple one. Anna is writing what could be her breakthrough non-fiction bestseller about marriage and is using her group of somewhat clichéd thirtysomething (now that was a fab TV programme) friends as case studies. (A propos, am I the only person in the world who doesn't hang out in a group of three or four married couples who've all known each other for ever and don't have any other friends?) Cue lots of introspection and dissatisfaction about the various marriages being dissected, and speculation about perfect Anna's own relationship. As you would expect, each marriage unravels and then re-ravels in different ways, insights are gained, and perfect Anna's relationship falls apart. Once I'd sorted out the various couples in my head, I ripped through the book, wincing occasionally when it got a little too close to the bone of my own marriage, and seeing all sorts of parallels between the marriages of the protagonists and those of my friends (and no, I'm not telling).
Unfortunately I didn't like the ending much. Having successfully demonstrated that every marriage has its secrets and that marriage is by no means all its cracked up to be, Watson resolves all the various problems rather too tritely and finishes off with a wedding. But I suppose that's the genre. Don't buy this book expecting great literature, but if you're looking for a surprisingly well-written, easy-to-read book to read by a swimming-pool this summer then this book should suit very well.
In my third year at university I spent an incredible year 'teaching' (I use this term loosely) English in Perpignan in South West France. A very good friend of mine from uni was doing the same thing in Carcassonne, about 70 km or a shortish train journey to the north east, so I spent many weekends visiting her there or touring the area.
In the 1200s the region around Carcassonne was the battleground of the Albigensian Crusade, as the Northern French attacked the 'heretic' Cathars of the Languedoc in a landgrab disguised as a religious crusade. The history of that time is one of sieges, massacres, burnings alive and a land lost - the whole intermingled with stories of hidden treasure, Templar knights and, of course, the Holy Grail.
Everywhere you go in the region there are echoes of this past - in the funny old bookshops where books on Rosicrucianism and Occitan share shelf space with Tarot cards and crystals; in the sounds of the tourist industry cashing in on the romantic splendour and isolation of the Cathar castles; in the eccentric treasure-seekers who still flock to Carcassonne and Rennes-le-Chateau in the belief that the Holy Grail is somehow hidden around the next corner; and yes, in a certain wistful melancholy that still clings to some of these castles if you visit early in the day before the tourist hordes arrive.
And so, years before Dan Brown made the Holy Grail sexy, I became completely besotted with the Cathars and the history of the crusade.
Kate Mosse (sic)'s book is a timeslip novel set in present-day Carcassonne and its 13th century parallel. Its central characters are, unusually, female; it is tolerably well-written and the bits set in 13th century Carcassonne are evocative and apparently well-researched. Unfortunately the plot also features people being banged on the head every other chapter; two female heroines, without an ounce of common sense between them doing everything they can to put themselves in danger; two comic-book style female villainesses and the most incredibly fantastical and lazily-written denouement.
But, most unforgivably of all, the book is deadly dull. I didn't care enough about the heroines, the tangled plot was far too knotty for me and I kept confusing the vast cast of characters and their similar-sounding French names (and I speak French). One day I'm going to analyse how Dan Brown can write shockingly bad novels which keep me turning pages faster than a windmill on acid, whereas I plodded through this one like a seaside donkey and can't now, two weeks after finishing it, tell you much about the plot. And, oh, I so wanted to love it.
By the way, the press reviews quoted in the first few pages are EXTREMELY kind (and one of the reasons why I decided to buy the book), far kinder indeed than the customer reviews on Amazon. Could it be anything to do with the fact that the author is the co-founder of the Orange Prize for Fiction and a big literary cheese?