Garden Party: blending your own tea

A tea lover’s life is not complete until they create their own tea. I’ve tried several times but it was not until attending a blending class at Smith Teas that I made a good cuppa.

It feels like a cross between being a mad scientist and creating your own work of art…

We tasted 14 different teas in various combinations (talk about caffeine jitters!) We learned the correct words, like wine, for tea’s characteristics. Things like astringent, biscuity, strong, vegetative…

As a lover of strong black tea with milk, it’s no surprise I stuck mainly to Assams. I selected a mixture of 3 Assams, a dash of Ceylon Nimbula and a pinch of Nilgiri. With the addition of black currant and peach skin essences, it’s a delicious and strong cuppa for the summer.

I call it “Garden Party” – hearkening back to British summer picnics, croquet, and a beautiful 1920s short story by Katherine Mansfield.

I highly recommend taking a tea blending class, especially at Smith Teas if your plans take you near Portland. ☕️

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A Touch of Treachery (short story)

I’m very excited that my short mystery set in the 1920s and a mere 700 words was published by Flash Bang Mysteries. The story takes place at the Savoy hotel in London, over a cup of tea. Rose Clarke is a hatcheck girl from Tottenham, who becomes involved with a spy…

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The magazine also has lots of great short mysteries, which are fun and quick to read.

Are you a fan of short fiction?

Blyth Grove – a house untouched for 90 years

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Built in 1905, this National Trust house is fascinating — it’s a time capsule unchanged since the head of household, Mr. Straw, died in 1932. In their grief, the family kept the house completely unchanged until the last Straw died in 1991.

What a rare glimpse of life between the wars, and a beautiful example of interior decoration from 1923. Even the food in the pantry is authentic, including Bovril, a thick, salty meat extract developed in the 1870s.

For more photos and a video tour, check out the Daily Mail article. It’s moments like these that I wish I lived in England, so I could hop on a train and see these amazing pieces of history.

Behind the Lines by WF Morris

behindlines.jpg“Her eyes were shining like stars – stars in the mist.”

A moving account of a kindly, decent soldier who accidentally kills a cowardly senior officer. Instead of trying to explain, he makes a run for it, leaving behind friends and his ambulance-driving fiancee.

He ends up living among the deserters. Not unlike the military, the deserts have their own code and pecking orders. Rawley goes from a decent officer to an unkempt but decent deserter, filthy and ragged.

Between scavenging and run-ins with the military, the casual moments of horror are made all the more stark. When Rawley runs into his financee again, she wants to have the honeymoon before they are drawn apart. But Rawley is “clinging to decency” by the barest thread in refusing. She says “two weeks of happiness out of – perhaps a whole lifetime. It seems such a little to ask of life.”

But the ending, so poignant, is well worth the read.

Thanks to NetGalley for the 30-day ebook loan.

Take Six Girls by Laura Thompson

Takesix.jpgIntriguing look at the Mitford sisters in the shadow of WWII

The Mitfords traced their heritage back to the Norman Conquest and it was only due to an accident with the eldest son that their father became a Baron. Six daughters and a son must have been incredibly worrying, a real-life Pride & Prejudice trying to get them all married off. The girls grew up in country houses, barely schooled and disciplined yet always under strict supervision.

The sisters emerge as complicated and immensely flawed humans. Take Six Girls is a great book for anyone wishing to learn more about them or the atmosphere of late 1920s through 1930s England. There are eerie shadows of current affairs; the schism of political leaders, the famous for fame scandals, the plague of racism.

As nonfiction, it pulls heavily from many sources and feels well researched. But the story itself is also enjoyable, as the Mitford sisters emerge one by one — unique, but all with a consistent strain of Mitfordism. You can argue, as the book does, that the Mitford girls are products of their time and rebelled against it in remarkable ways, again for their time. Though they are remarkable, I found them narrow minded and self-centered. (Although I can’t exactly argue with the beautiful writing of Love in a Cold Climate…)

30-day ebook loan courtesy of NetGalley.

The Mirror Crack’d by Agatha Christie

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side by Agatha Christie

A bold, clever murder spirals into desperate measures. 

A clever Agatha Christie that’s lamentably too short, The Mirror Crack’d is almost like two stories. One is the classic mystery and the other is a dissertation of sorts on growing old, especially after WWII.

Set closer to the 1950s, Miss Marple is far less mobile and relies on the help of the annoyingly kind Mrs. Knight. Mary St. Mead is modernising, but not always for the better, as the townhouse style development shows. Like the last Poirot case, Miss Marple is definitely struggling with the physical indignities of growing old while her mind is still razor sharp.

The mystery itself is extremely clever, a classic Christie, where golden age Hollywood meets 1950s England. An innocent woman is poisoned by mistake when a beautiful, tragic actress was the intended victim. Who tried to kill Marina – her apparently devoted husband? The cool young secretary almost certainly in love with the husband? Or one of a slew of jilted lovers, ex-husbands or cast-off children?

This wasn’t my favourite book by Christie. My main complaint is how short it is – we don’t get as much chance to really dig into motives and personalities. The stakes could’ve been raised and the characters better explored with more length.

But there’s always the brilliant puzzle, so painfully obvious in retrospect, to buoy an otherwise decent read.

Heirs and Graces by Rhys Bowen

heirsAn entertaining historical romance blended with mystery, very Downton Abbey.

In book #7 of the Royal Spyness series we meet Georgianna (Georgie), 35th in line for the throne and rather hard up for cash. After trying to write her flighty actress mother’s memoirs, Georgie winds up being asked to help the Dowager Duchess of Eynsford.

It seems the current duke is a bit of a man’s man and has no heirs, whereas his sister’s children cannot inherit due to the entail. Eynsford will therefore pass back to the crown as soon as the current duke dies.

But the Dowager Duchess is determined not to let the estate return to the crown, so she finds Jack, a male heir in Australia. Due to his normal upbringing, his manners are clearly not that of a “proper” English duke, so she wants Georgie to help him. Also on the scene is Georgie’s unofficial and handsome Irish fiancé, Darcy.

The murder occurs halfway through the book – overall this is a tad light on the mystery angle. Although there are red herrings a plenty and a case could be made for a few suspects, the murderer is fairly obvious early on. There’s not a lot at stake for Georgie in her personal life nor as a result of the murder. But Georgie is charming and energetic, her narration comes across like the confidences of a good friend a la Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I enjoyed the readability and the bright picture painted of the 1920s.

Look to the Lady by Margery Allingham

A classic British mystery blending danger, suspense and eerieness. 

After Traitor’s Purse, this is my favourite Campion mystery. It combines just the right amount of mystery, danger and comraderie with a spookiness that remains with you even after the puzzles are solved.

The story opens with a constable handed a shilling to a poverty-stricken young man. Visible means of support was required to avoid arrest, and the constable has known the young man in his better days.

Val is homeless after being estranged from his father – it is just one of Campion’s jobs to return the young man to the ancestral home. More importantly, he must protect the Gyrth Chalice that has been in Val’s family for centuries.

Campion doesn’t share many details, even with his beloved servant and former burglar Lugg. If you’ve not read a Campion mystery, it is the chemistry between these two that makes the series so delightful. Campion’s amiable, vacuous personality conceals a brilliant mind. He’s inclined to make light of danger and act foolish, so the trucculent motherliness of Lugg provides a beautiful counterweight.

But this mystery is a doozy and puts both of them in extreme peril. The evil people seeking the chalice could be any number of vague people. What do the priceless chalice, the death of Val’s foolish aunt, a secret society and a living nightmare have in common?

These are the trials that Campion and Lugg must face, along with Val, his lovely sister Penny and a host of other well-rounded characters. In their quest to save the chalice, they must face the stuff of nightmares in a spooky old wood and survive multiple scores of violence.

This book more so than even Christie or Marsh mysteries thrusts you deep into the English countryside. Somehow it takes you deep into a tiny village in the post-war 1920s while simultaneously layering in the spell of a much older England.

Like our Sam Gamgee said that Lothlorien was like being inside an elven song, so is Look to the Lady like being transported into something quintessentially English.

Bretherton by W. F. Morris

brethA gripping account of WWI with a tragic love story and a psychological mystery. 

When officer Captain Gurney stumbles into a ruined chateau, he is mystified why anyone would be playing a familiar British tune in the middle of the war. He discovers a German officer at the piano and a beautiful woman in white beside him. Both are dead.

But even more mystifying is that the German officer is actually G.B., his old friend and British officer Gerald Bretherton. How did G.B. come to this eerie chateau and how did he die? Is he British or German?

It is impossible to tell if G.B. is German or British until the very end. An equally good case could be made for either. The story is told from many views, including other men in G.B.’s unit and the diary of G.B. himself.

This story was written by a British Major who served in WWI and his treatment of the boys on the front is touching. He captures a sense of camaraderie, exhaustion, anger and bravery. It’s permeated with a sad, typically understated humour. After receiving a medal, G.B. says “Headquarters give decorations as lightly as they give up bits of the line that have cost lives to take.”

The premise is excellent but I found the mystery’s solution wasn’t entirely credible, like Agatha Christie’s more obscure short stories where the ending is a pseduo-psychological phenomenon. It also became obvious where the story was heading, so the last few chapters of the book fell a little flat.

A worthwhile read for the account of the war and G.B.’s tragic love story, even if the ending does not hold up on the suspense angle. It would also make an excellent movie.

30-day ebook loan courtesy of NetGalley.