Sunday, 6 December 2015

Eats | Bouillon Racine, Paris

On one of my recent days in Paris, I went with my fiancé (that's another story) for a dinner at one of our favourite restaurant in St Germain, the Bouillon Racine. We had been there some years ago when we first went to Paris, and now almost a decade later, we decided to return.

We booked a table online with ease and were well attended when we arrived. The restaurant itself has a unique style inside - turn of the century, belle époque, with beautiful weaving metalwork and wood panelling. Very atmospheric.

We began with two glasses of champagne - a celebration of engagement - and then had a nice bottle of Bordeaux. 

Starters (not pictures unfortunately) were snails for him and beef carpaccio for me. Both starters were delicious. Second course was duck with a fruit sauce for him and a scallop risotto for me. The duck was juicy and tasty, and my risotto was surprisingly filling. Generous amounts of well cooked scallops, well seasoned risotto with a creamy, shellfish sauce. Perfect.

Dessert was a chocolate mousse for me and a trio of berry fruits ice cream for him - definitely a highlight! We were very pleased with both desserts but the ice creams were so well flavoured and actually complemented the rich chocolate mousse very well. 

We left feeling well fed, not horrendously out of pocket, considering, and like we had had a true celebration. My French is well meant but not always triumphant, but we met with nothing but friendliness from the staff - which is not always the case in Paris.

Highly Recommended.

Bouillon Racine, 3 Rue Racine, 75006 Paris, France,

What I've Been Reading | November 2015

December has suddenly swung into view and it is time for a little jaunt around my November reading! I did quite well this month - 6 books in total, including 1 audiobook, which I was able to enjoy on the line train trip across France.

Running Girl by Simon Mason

This is a YA crime novel, where the young protagonist is a teenage boy genius - but he is also a wastrel and a truant. Uninterested in anything in his life, he fills his days with drinking and smoking in the local park with his mates, until a body is found in a local pond. That body turns out to be his ex-girlfiend, and he determines to find out who has murdered her.

I enjoyed this one despite not really seeing much appealing about the main character. It was quite a long book which was humorous but had some very dark subject matter, and the conclusion of the whodunnit is very dark indeed. It is YA, and it is concerned with teens; the adults involved are sidelined, occasionally unhelpful caricatures. Nonetheless, I would consider reading a sequel.

12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

I picked this one up on 2 for 1 on Audible, as I had not seen the film but thought it would be one to read. The story itself is horrifying - a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the southern states of the USA. The memoir style of the writing took some getting used to, and occasionally the preoccupations of the writer as not always what the modern reader would focus on; however, the story is compelling and I am very glad I have read it. 

The Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

A set of gothic and mysterious tales from the master himself; these were enjoyable as always and a very quick read.

An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson

Having read 'Fear in the Sunlight' a few months ago, I asked for and received the first book in the series for my birthday. Effectively an introduction to Josephine Tey and her regular characters in future books, this story revolves around the murder of a young theatre goer, who is mysteriously connected with Tey and her current theatre production. 

The mystery is interesting with lots of twists and turns. For people new to the series, however, definitely start with this one first; unfortunately my previous Upson book actually spoilt the big reveal of this one!

Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald

We were going on a holiday to the French Riviera so I felt it was an opportunity to pick up this novel, one I had never tried before. I actually found it more compelling than I expected, although still, I felt, a rather abrupt ending. Set in 3 parts, we see from 3 different perspectives, and in each part we see that what we thought about the characters, particularly the main husband and wife, is not what it seems. Concentrating on themes of love, lust, mental health and the nature of marriage, this book was an intriguing, if sad, read.

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

The final YA novel of the month, I confess I picked this up due to the way it has been put together. A modern, sci fi update on the epistolary novel, Illuminae is told entirely through reports, chat logs and emails. Set the distant future, it tells the story of two teens who escape the invasion of their planet, only to find themselves trapped on 2 escape vessels with a deadly virus and a potentially made AI computer. Whats more, the 2 teens have just broken up from a relationship, and are each stuck on a different ship.

The story took a while to take off but once it got going, it was very enjoyable. I did not always see the plot twists coming, although the final twist I felt unnecessary. If there are further books in this series, I may well pick them up. 

Is anyone else really getting into their reading groove with the long nights? I have a whole week off at Christmas and cannot wait to get stuck into my ever increasing TBR pile. Happy Reading!

Monday, 30 November 2015

Eats | The Yorkshire Meatball Co. York

The other week I grabbed a dining companion and went to check out the Yorkshire Meatball Co, which has opened up near me in York, at the Hotel Indigo. I was keen to try it as the menu looked pretty intriguing - meatballs every way you can imagine.

The decor was a bit hotel like (probably because it was a hotel which also did breakfasts for guests) but they had tried to spice it up with a few fireplaces and lots and lots of beer bottles. We were a little confused by the table mats (it turned out you had to turn them over to look at the menu, which was not remotely clear). Service from the one lad in there was also a little haphazard and confused, but he was on his own.

We tried out a couple of starters, honey glazed crispy pork crackling and cheesy semolina balls with salsa. Both of these were quite nice, although the crackling was a bit hit and miss (although we could not fault them for the portion sizes).

For main course my companion had a traditional meatballs in onion gravy with mashed potato and a yorkshire pudding. She reported to me that the meatballs were fairly tasteless, the pudding was nothing to be excited about and the mashed potato was unappetising, with a slight skin as if it had been sat around for a while. The food was hot and she ate it, but it was nothing to get excited about.

I had gone a little untraditional and opted for spicy meatballs in a sub with spicy salsa, mozzarella, mustard mayo and pickles, with fries. Somehow, although the sub contained all these elements, it was not very exciting to eat. The fries came with sweet chilli sauce and sour cream and they were honestly the highlight of the meal. The meatballs I had were spicy, but not very tasty.

In short, whilst I am glad we went and tried this place out, unless we both picked the wrong thing entirely on the menu it all seemed a little flat. We won't be going back to try anymore.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

October Reads | My Adventures with Your Money by T D Thornton

My Adventures with Your Money: George Graham Rice and the Golden Age of the Con Artist by T D Thornton

When we consider the Wall Street Crash of 1929, we know that behind it was wild speculation on the stock market by a large number of American citizens, who made and lost a fortune. How many of others were there, however, who thought they were trading stocks and were actually being conned by dodgy brokers? Thornton's book focusses on the history of George Graham Rice, who was vilified as the Jackal of Wall Street and became one of the most hated men in 1920s America as a result of his succession of convincing stock market cons.

Thornton's book begins at the very start of Rice's career (before he adopted the pseudonym of George Graham Rice and briefly went by his birth name of Jacob Simon Herzig) and we follow as he begins with early cons, has a couple of stints in prison before emerging - after a successful period as a crooked racing tout - as a unprincipled promoter for mining stocks.

There are some excellent stories in here about the gold rush and mining boom towns. One example is Goldfield, Nevada, where Rice organised a prize fight between 2 boxing champions as a promotional tool for the town - the resulting fight, Gans vs Nelson, holds the record as the longest fight in history at a total of 42 rounds. The narrative is evocative and a great insight into the power of promotion, illusion and creative journalism (which Rice used in abundance).

The story then moves on to the period of Rice's life when he was a more active name as a broker on the New York stock exchange curb. Whilst this section of the book is full of interesting tidbits - particularly Rice's cunning evasion of justice for significant periods, his colourful and complicated personal life and his flagrant manner of disrupting his own fraud trial - the discussion of the actual stock market manipulation sometimes becomes repetitive. This is not Thornton's fault, but occasionally made it difficult to follow and a little dull.

My Adventures with Your Money comes to a close at the time of the Wall Street Crash, and rightly so; this is not only the end of Rice's story but the end of this period of financial optimism in America. The America which lived through the period when men like Rice could make money out of paper stocks for imaginary Death Valley mining towns, came to an end as abruptly as Rice's own career. Certainly, with the hindsight we have, one can see the inevitable coming and Thornton manages to use this to advantage, bringing the book to its expected climax, rounding off both the personal story of the Rice - and of the great age of the Con Man - to a satisfying close.

An understanding of the stock market aside, this reader found My Adventures with Your Money to be a very unusual and intriguing book, focussing on the Roaring Twenties from a fascinating new angle.

This review was originally guest posted on History ASM. Check it out here.

Monday, 16 November 2015

What I've Been Reading | October 2015

Terribly belated coverage of my October reading, for which I ardently apologise - it was my birthday in late October, then I was busy at work, then I was on holiday for a week. Still, it seems that October was a pretty interesting reading month for me.

Poirot's Early Cases by Agatha Christie

I was lured into this Audible purchase because it is narrated in part by the Poirot and Hastings from UK television adaptations - Hugh Fraser and David Suchet. In my mind David Suchet simply IS Poirot, and therefore an audiobook which had him voicing the Belgian detective was a winner.

This book featured a number of short stories about Poirot and some interesting, and some not so interesting, mysteries. I love Poirot adaptations but I confess - rather blasphemously, I think - that I am simply not sold on Christie as a writer. Still, I enjoyed listening to this, for its narration as much as for it's content.

Buffalo Bill: Scout, Showman, Visionary by Steve Friesen

My Dad went on a trip to Denver, Colorado last year and brought me back a couple of books about people who are considered as sons and daughters of the city, as t'wer. One of them was this lovely book about Buffalo Bill, written by the curator of the Buffalo Bill museum. The book is a narrative of Bill's life, but also features lots of authentic photographs and pictures of artefacts from the museum, which made this a very engaging read. I know more about Buffalo Bill now than I ever expected to, and would recommend this to people interested in that period of history. 

The Figure in the Carpet by Henry James

This was a little literary mystery classic which I enjoyed a lot. It centres around the writings of a famous author, admired by the narrator, who confesses to the narrator one night that there is a secret to his writings, something to decipher. Our narrator is desperate to discover the answer and what follows is an engaging narrative which shows James' ability to keep you in suspense. Recommended.

The Old Nurse's Story by Elizabeth Gaskell

The Old Nurse's Story is a little gothic ghost story by Gaskell, featuring a nursemaid and her charge being sent to a draughty old house in the countryside, where the young girl is plagued by ghosts of the previous inhabitants. Also featuring the short story, Curious, If True, which is a strange little ditty about a man named Richard Whittington stumbling across a Chateau in the French countryside and finding himself at some sort of gathering of Fairy Tale characters - a good story but perhaps some of my knowledge of Fairy Tales meant I missed some of the nods in this narrative. An intriguing read.

I Hate and I Love by Catullus

Not much to say about this one, except for it's a collection of Roman love poetry, a lot of it stream of consciousness and a lot of it surprisingly modern. I am planning on reading more if I can.

Heir of Fire by Sarah J Maas

The third book in the Throne of Glass series and the story is becoming more complicated and intriguing now, with the introduction of a few more different characters. I won't say too much as I don't want to spoil it for anyone else reading the series, but this is a good novel for character development and also for increased exploration of the world Maas has created.

My Adventures with Your Money by T D Thornton

I was lucky enough to be asked to read and review this ARC for the history blog, History ASM. My review can be found here. I enjoyed this one much more than I expected, given that it is about con artists in early 20th century America, but I would definitely recommend.

Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford, The Thirties Socialite by Lyndsy Spence

This is another book I was asked to review for History ASM, and so that review will be up with them shortly. In the meantime, I can say this was a interesting book, but I was unsure of the writing style and my dislike of the subject herself may have swayed me a little. I won't be reading about Diana in particularly again, I think.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Eats | The Brasserie, Aldwark Manor Golf and Spa Hotel, York

As part of my recent stay at Aldwark Manor Golf and Spa Hotel, we had dinner at their Brasserie restaurant. 

Decor was not brilliant - rather reminiscent of a Travelodge - but that is down to the restaurant being used for breakfast and lunch as well, I think. Service was somewhat haphazard as well - very friendly, but not as slick as a normal restaurant. Still, the food made up for this.

To start, Alan has the chicken liver pate, which he said was very nice; I enjoyed a very interesting dish of pig cheeks, black pudding cake, celeriac and red wine jus. The dish was unusual but all the elements went very well together, and this was the highlight dish of the meal.

Main course we both had steak, which came with mushrooms, tomatoes, very nice thick cut chips and a choice of sauces if desired; I had a beautiful roquefort sauce, which made the succulent steak even more delicious. Very good.

Finally, we had dessert, both of which were well put together dishes. Alan had lemon curd with raspberry sauce, granola and dried fruit, which he said was excellent. I partook of the dark chocolate mousse with chocolate soil and toffee popcorn. I enjoyed the mousse and the soil, though the toffee popcorn was a little sticky for my taste. However, I could see how the textures were put together to make for an interesting plate of food.

In conclusion, this was good food which was somewhat let down by the surroundings and the service. Still, worth a go if you are in the area or fancy a stay at the hotel itself.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Eats | Cosy Time Cafe, York

There are a number of little cafes/coffee shops that have sprung up in York recently, one is now spoilt for choice. I recently headed over to Cosy Time on Fossgate.

The little coffee shop had a good range of teas and coffees, together with a hot chocolate option. There were also a small number of cakes to choose from. I opted to try the hot chocolate and also a slice of white chocolate and passionfruit cheesecake. 

The shop was very comfortable, with some nice sofas and good service. The cheesecake - massive and very tasty - came with cream and dried cranberries, which was an unusual touch. The hot chocolate, unfortunately, was rather on the basic side; a confection which was half squirty cream and the other half indifferent standard machine hot chocolate.

What I liked particularly about this place were the little selection of books at each table; encouraging my favourite pastime whilst serving me good cake is always a winner. However, I am still in two minds about this place, so perhaps a second visit will help with making my mind up...

Sunday, 4 October 2015

What I've Been Reading | September 2015

September 2015 was a good reading month for me, as I had a week off and was able to get my teeth into the above beauties, plus an audiobook. Read below for details.

Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas

I'm not always keen on YA books these days as they are sometimes written in a way that I find quite dull (I'm looking at you, The Maze Runner). However, having heard multiple book tubers raving about this series I decided to pick a copy up. The story follows Celaena, a notorious young assassin who was captured and forced into slavery in a salt mine. At the start of this book she is whisked away from her miserable slavery existence to compete in a deadly competition to become the chief assassin for the odious King of the country. However, in the midst of this fight to the death against other criminals, assassins and warriors, Calaena stumbles on a more dangerous magic hidden inside the royal court itself.

The book's plot is quite fast paced and whilst the characters themselves remain slightly one dimensional, it is absorbing enough to be forgiven that. I was intrigued enough to purchase the next book in the series.

Poseidon's Gold by Lindsey Davis

This is another book from the Marcus Didius Falco series, following Falco, an informer in Ancient Rome. Following directly on from the previous book I read, Falco returns to Rome to find his apartment has been abused by squatters and his mother is hosting one of his older, war hero brother's friends. This friend, however, is not what he seems and is seeking repayment of an old debt - and things become even more complicated when this friend is found dead and Falco is the chief murder suspect. 

I really enjoyed this novel as the story gave us an opportunity to explore Falco's family a bit more, particularly his absent father. Whilst keeping with the historical setting, Davis never fails to make these characters seem incredibly human. There are a couple of twists in the tale towards the end which really make this book an enjoyable and touching read. 

Crown of Midnight by Sarah J Maas

Following on from Throne of Glass above, I was pleased to find that the world building and character development, some of which had been missing a little from the first book, were improved and expanded here. Without going into too much detail, this book had some good plot twists and some important set up, I suspect, for the next books (of which there are currently 2). A decent read and entertaining.

Victoria: A Life by A N Wilson

I really enjoyed this one and offered a review of it to a history blog I guest review for. That review can be checked out here. Readable biography which didn't feel as long as it appears.

The Inspector and Mrs Jeffries by Emily Brightwell

This little Victorian mystery follows a young Police Inspector, who is not very good at solving crimes and is secretly assisted by his housekeeper, Mrs Jeffries. The plot of this book centred around the poisoning of a local doctor and follows the usual collection of 6-8 suspects. There was some amusement to be had from the premise and the story was reasonable. I enjoyed this for what it was but I won't be reaching for any of the sequels any time soon.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Recently having subscribed to Audible, one of my first selections was this novel, which has been referred to as the new Gone Girl. Having read Gone Girl and found it mildly disappointing, I was hoping for more from this one.

I was not disappointed and I would say that this was much better than Gone Girl. The story centres around Rachel, a woman who commutes every day on the train past the same sets of houses. She watches the residents out of the windows and becomes interested in one couple in particular, until the woman in the house is reported missing in the newspapers. What follows is a rollercoaster of a story, as you soon discover that all is not what it seems and you begin to question whether Rachel is as reliable a narrator as you thought.

I enjoyed this one a lot and found it particularly stimulating to have it as an audiobook. The novel has 3 narrators and so the change in narrative voices on the audiobook made it easy to follow and powerful. I would recommend this one - if you're savvy you'll work out the conclusion before the end, but it's still well worth reading.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Book Review | Victoria: A Life by A N Wilson

Queen Victoria is a figure who does not want for biographers, and when we conjure an image of Victoria, most people have a sense of a short, stout woman, dressed in black and looking out of a sepia photograph looking pretty miserable. Some of us may have a further sense of Victoria, as a complex woman who was - until a few days ago - the longest reigning monarch ever in Britain. The benefit of A N Wilson's new biography is that he approaches the subject from a middle ground - an assumption that the reader already has a certain depth of knowledge of Victoria - which is refreshing and allows for an insightful and flowing narrative.

Starting from the context of Victoria's birth to her final moments at Osborne House, Wilson treats us to a story which, relying on some previous understanding of Victoria's life, brings some more interesting tidbits out of the woodwork. I knew, for example, that Victoria's first name was actually Alexandrina - but I did not know that during her early childhood she had been called 'Drina' by her relatives and only later became known as Victoria. Wilson is also able to scotch some of the traditional myths of Victoria - some of which she wove around herself - including that of the miserable, lonely childhood at Kensington. As Wilson gently reminds us, Victoria did suffer at the hands of the 'Kensington' system and Sir John Conroy during her teens, but most of her childhood was actually peopled by half siblings - in the form of her half brother and sister from her mother's first marriage - and the devoted love of her mother, the Duchess of Kent, something which the adult Victoria failed to acknowledge and recognise.

As we follow Victoria to her accession and beyond, Wilson is able to branch out from the family saga - namely Victoria and Albert, their children, and the sagas throughout her life with the likes of John Brown and the Munshi - to also give a broad overview of the politics of the period. We are introduced to the successive prime ministers, their policies and the wars of the empire. These are covered on their own merits and also through Victoria's reaction to them, but they never feel intrusive on this personal biography. I personally felt that I got a lot more out of this overview of the political scene than I have ever done with previous books about Victoria herself.

Wilson's biography is completely chronological but occasionally allows for reflections on the future, which allow us a greater understanding of the events he is speaking about. These diversions enhance the narrative rather than detract from it - especially in a family as large as Victoria's, it is often important to know where relatives come from, and where in the future they are going. Towards the end of the book, nothing could be more interesting that the tensions between familial loyalty and national pride which beset the likes of Wilhelm, the German Emperor and Victoria's grandson.

This book is a long one, but it does not feel it; the writing is light and readable, whilst maintaining a sense of authority, excellent research and a broad approach. Wilson is affectionate towards his subject without being sycophantic; he recognises all the faults in Victoria as a woman and a sovereign whilst still acknowledging her as a great Queen. Highly recommended.

This post was originally published on a history blog, History ASM. Please check it out. 

Days Out | York Does Vintage Fair

York regularly hosts Vintage Fairs and I was able to pop along to one the other weekend. Held at the medieval Merchant Adventurers Hall, as well as snooping round some lovely vintage stalls this was also an opportunity to have a look round the medieval hall itself.

The fair had a large number of stalls, including clothes, homeware and jewellery. There were also live music acts, workshops and a nice little cafe serving tea and cakes. I picked up a nice couple of cushion covers and a 70s blouse, so I left very happy indeed.

If you fancy popping along, the next fair is on Sunday 4th October, entry £2.