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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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.

A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

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A Study in Scarlet Women is a compelling take on Sherlock Holmes, probably quite distant from what Doyle would ever have imagined for his detective. Especially since he didn’t even want to keep writing Sherlock Holmes and was forced by public demand to revive him from an early death.

I intended to read only a chapter or two, but polished off the book in one sitting. There’s so much to love about the book, especially the feminine, food-loving Charlotte Holmes with a brilliant mind who gives herself the name Sherlock. The book’s concise characters, rapid pace and innumerable twisted threads gathered expertly together make this an excellent read. The mystery’s ending is rather dark, though handled with discretion.

Personally I was disappointed by her passion for Lord Ingram, though it is well written. I was hoping for Charlotte to prove as unusual in her love affairs as she is in habits. There’s something winning about the juxtaposition of a brilliant, daring mind with a fondness for baked goods, love of ruffles and a quotient of chins she allows herself.

I look forward to reading the next installment in the series. This is a NetGalley read that I decided I needed to purchase at my local bookstore!

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.

The Affair of the Mutilated Mink by James Anderson

AffairofminkA tongue in cheek version of a classic whodunnit, but also an excellently constructed mystery.

The 1930s house party at Lord and Lady Burford’s is a very clever parody of classic whodunnits. It owes as much to PG Wodehouse’s ‘jolly good’ style as it does to Agatha Christie’s brilliant plotting.

First there’s the charming Hollywood actor, the irritable screenwriter and the movie producer determined to film a movie at their estate. But then things start to go a little sideways when there appear a distant cousin, an uninvited actress and the two rival suitors for Lady Burford’s daughter.

When a murder occurs, the gentle Inspector Wilkins claims himself to be unlikely to solve the mystery and calls in Scotland Yard. The name dropping of Lord Peter Wimsey and Roderick Alleyn finally clued me in that this was a parody.

The inspector who is called in, Mr. Allgood, is a good poke at all the classics with his disdain of the local constabulary and his stubborn insistence on “only the facts”. This book is really like 3 or 4 plots at once, I am amazed at how the author managed to hang them together.

The ending is like the movie Clue – each denouement is proven believably correct and then shown to be wrong. After Allgood is left gaping and insisting it is all a big conspiracy in Oriental Express fashion, Wilkins produces the correct solution.

All in all a very enjoyable and amusing parody that still manages to bewilder you and keep you guessing, rather like an elaborate shell game.

The Winter Garden Mystery by Carola Dunn

DaisyWinterGardenA bold, vivacious sleuth takes on the 1920’s  with style.

Daisy Dalrymple is a modern woman with incredible energy and enthusiasm. She is the opposite of Poirot, she rushes from clue to clue, place to place, with a mixture of determination and persuasion. Even the Chief Inspector is in awe of her.

She comes from wealth but chooses to make her own way as a magazine writer and amateur photographer. When she arrives at Occles Hall to write about the garden, she’s caught up in the discovery of a buried body. It is poor Grace Moss, the parlourmaid who supposedly went off with a traveling salesman.

After an absolutely bumbling investigation by the local police, who are terrified of the dragonesque Lady Valeria, the case concludes with the arrest of Grace’s fiancé. As a Welshman, he’s a foreigner and makes for an easy target, despite his grief. Unable to let matters stand, Daisy summons her favourite policeman from Scotland Yard, Chief Inspector Fletcher.

Like many recently written 1920s mysteries, Daisy had a fiancé killed in the war and she has two possible rivals for her affections – eligible and kindly Philip Petrie, or sharp but kind Alec Fletcher. But Daisy does not spend all her time feeling lovelorn, she gets right on tackling the case – complicated by the possibility of suspects right in Occles Hall itself.

The culprit was not a big surprise but nor was it instantly obvious. I was most impressed with Carola Dunn’s take on the modern woman – Daisy ends up saving the inspector herself.

The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

secretA simple murder turns into a twisted case of witchcraft, abduction and evil.

4 years after arriving to run a pub in the tiny and tight knit village of High Eldersham, Mr. Whiteman is inexplicably murdered. Constable Viney, a young’un who never dealt with worse than a drunkard, is suddenly confronted with a knifed man drenched in blood.

Poor Viney is hopelessly outclassed. While waiting for his superiors to arrive, he downs a pint and makes an effort to investigate. But luckily for him, Scotland Yard is called in and Inspector Young soon arrives.

I was a little sad not to have ‘met’ ex-policeman Mr. Whiteman other than the briefest mention at the beginning. The author captures character vignettes extremely well and Whiteman is the sort of jovial, good-natured person I’d get on with pretty well.

It soon becomes clear that High Eldersham is very odd and doesn’t care for outsiders. So why then did they tolerate Whiteman so long? And why kill him now?

The story takes a bit of a supernatural turn and Inspector Young soon calls in his “intuitive” friend Desmond Merrion. Mr. Merrion is a bit of an expert in the supernatural and agrees that something is up.

The book descends into an occult darkness that feels almost Sherlockian. It is difficult to tell how an entire village is involved from uneducated farmers to the wealthy Sir William and his pretty daughter Mavis, odd Mr. Hollesley in love with Mavis, and the cynical Dr. Padfield.

Whether truly supernatural, the plot is most certainly evil. Inspector Young and Mr. Merrion almost lose everything trying to uncover the devilish conspirator…

30-day ebook loan courtesy of NetGalley.

Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie

A classic locked room mystery featuring a bold, devious murder in mid air.

Somehow an old woman is murdered on a flight from Paris to London in plain view of several passengers. What might have passed as a death by wasp sting is foiled by the presence of Hercule Poirot.

Mr. Poirot is not just any detective. To most mystery readers, Agatha Christie is legend. Arguably her most treasured creation is Hercule Poirot, a short Belgian with a beautiful mustache and a penchant for truth and absolute symmetry. In this case, Poirot is one of the suspects (although not very seriously) when a murder is committed behind his back.

The murder by exotic blowpipe is so boldly, imaginatively executed that the Chief Inspector Japp is positively insulted. And yet, despite Japp’s insisting it to be mere luck, our favourite OCD detective Poirot says we must judge the end result. It is a successful murder.

This time Poirot is not accompanied by the sweet Hastings, who is a chivalrous bundle of passion and kindness, a Watson-like figure. Instead we have a French detective who believes in the psychological elements of a crime, unlike Japp, yet even he begins to doubt Poirot at times.

Despite Poirot’s frequent cry of ‘the grey cells’ and his disdain for rushing around, he does just that in this book. He follows and questions suspects, persuades them to do things for him, hunts for evidence, and generally gets so involved that it’s impossible to determine who he’s after. This one kept me guessing until the end.

Sometimes cozy murderers are sympathetic, especially when the victim turns out to be a blackmailer. But this murderer is pretty well heartless and ruthless, without even a shred of conscience…