Tag Archives: reading

Tea and Books for Christmas

I come to you with tidings of tea and holiday reads!

For young (and young-at-heart) readers:


Christmas with the Savages, by Mary Clive: Seen through the eyes of a prim little eight-year-old, and based on real events and people, this novel perfectly recaptures a Christmas holiday of 100 years ago, and is effortlessly funny.

This delightful story, first published in 1955, brings to mind a “Downton Abbey” Christmas, only from the perspective of the nursery children. It’s episodic, lighthearted, and lots of fun! I purchased a used hardcover, but there’s a very pretty paperback available from Amazon and other places.

The Night Before the Night Before Christmas, by Richard Scary: It’s the night before the night before Christmas, and Mr. Frumble wants to be helpful. When he stumbles into Santa Bear’s workshop and mixes up the dates, everyone thinks it’s the night before Christmas! Santa dashes off to deliver the presents, but then gets stuck in Mr. Frumble’s chimney! Find out how Mr. Frumble saves the day in this funny, topsy-turvy Christmas story.

I adored Richard Scarry as a kid and loved reading the books to my little siblings later on. I’m not sure how much Scarry actually had to do with this book considering when he died, but the characters are familiar and the story will entertain your young ones.

For fans of romance:


A Holiday by Gaslight, by Mimi Matthews: Sophie Appersett is quite willing to marry outside of her class to ensure the survival of her family. But the darkly handsome Mr. Edward Sharpe is no run-of-the-mill London merchant. He’s grim and silent. A man of little emotion–or perhaps no emotion at all. After two months of courtship, she’s ready to put an end to things. But severing ties with her taciturn suitor isn’t as straightforward as Sophie envisioned…

This is just perfect for the holidays, particularly if you’re in the mood for a heart-fluttering yet chaste Victorian romance. The author is well-versed in the era, having published various non-fiction books and scholarly articles. Bottom line: this novella is fun, romantic, and free of cringe-worthy anachronisms.

For fans of “Literary” Christmas fiction:


Mr. Dickens and his Carol, by Samantha Silva: Charles Dickens is not feeling the Christmas spirit. His newest book is an utter flop, the critics have turned against him, relatives near and far hound him for money. While his wife plans a lavish holiday party for their ever-expanding family and circle of friends, Dickens has visions of the poor house. But when his publishers try to blackmail him into writing a Christmas book to save them all from financial ruin, he refuses. And a serious bout of writer’s block sets in…

I’m right in the middle of this story and enjoying it even more than I’d expected. Samantha Silva brings to life the people and places of Victorian London and makes Dickens appealing even as she draws attention to his personal failings. It’s quite an absorbing read.

(I’d wondered if the book had anything to do with the recent film, The Man Who Invented Christmas, but that was based on a novel by Les Standiford. Anyone read that one or seen the film? Apparently there are several novels dealing with the creation of A Christmas Carol.)

And now for tea:


I made my usual ginger cookies and frosted sugar cookies, but perhaps you notice another item on the plate above. Yes, it’s a mince pie! Steve and I love indulging in these when we’re in England over Christmas, but they’re not ubiquitous here in the States. One year I made crusts from scratch and filled them with mincemeat I’d purchased at Chatsworth. This year, however, I found orange & cranberry mince pies from Walkers on Amazon! All you need do is warm them up in the oven (one at a time or all at once), and voila! Scrumptious.

As for the tea blend, I learned of Chado Tea’s Noel while reading the Holiday issue of Teatime Magazine. If you like black tea blended with cinnamon, orange zest, vanilla and almond, you’ll no doubt find this tea delicious and festive. Check out all the offerings from Chado Tea here.

***Remember that you can click the Christmas tag below for past recommendations for holiday reading, drinking, and eating!

What are you reading/brewing/baking for the holidays this year? I do love recommendations!

Tea and a Book and a GIVEAWAY for Thanksgiving: A Long Way from Verona

Quick take: Quirky and endearing.

From the book jacket: Jessica Vye introduces herself with an enigmatic pronouncement: “I ought to tell at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine.” A revered author has told Jessica that she is, beyond all doubt, a born writer. This proves an accurate prediction of the future, one that indelibly colors her life at school and her perception of the world.

Jessica has always known that her destiny would be shaped by her refusal to conform, her compulsion to tell the absolute truth, and her dedication to observing the strange wartime world that surrounds her. What she doesn’t know, however, is that the experiences and ideas that set her apart will also lead her to a new and wholly unexpected life.

My thoughts: Such a delight! This was my second reading and I’m sure there will be many more. Jane Gardam somehow captures the awkwardness and alienation of adolescence while also managing to make her heroine thoroughly charming. It is a very English sort of book, just so you know. (Among other things I had to google “viyella,” which is a certain type of dress, and now I see why Jessica was in agonies.) I’ve very much enjoyed other books by Gardam, but I will read Long Way to Verona again and again.

Scroll to the bottom for a giveaway!

And now for tea: I was in the mood for something autumnal so I made pumpkin spice cookies from this recipe at A Family Feast. They were simple enough to make, but do keep in mind that the dough is sticky even after chilling overnight. The cookies turn out quite soft–not the same chewy texture as a ginger cookie–but rest assured the flavor is excellent. For tea, I’d recommend one that doesn’t compete with the pumpkin spice–an Assam, Ceylon, or perhaps a blend of the two. I chose St. James from Mariage Frères. The “Autumn Tree” cup and plate featured in the photo are from Pier 1–soon to go on sale, I’m sure!

Other books that make me thankful because they are endlessly re-readable:
Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons
French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles
Gaudy Night (best if you read Strong Poison & Have His Carcase first), by Dorothy Sayers
High Rising, by Angela Thirkell
I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Possession, by A. S. Byatt (tho I skim Ash’s poetry)
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Winter Solstice, by Rosamund Pilcher
+ practically anything by Jane Austen or L.M. Montgomery

GIVEAWAY — I have an extra brand-new copy of Long Way from Verona up for grabs! All you need do is share the title of a book you’re thankful for in the comments and briefly explain why the book means so much to you. The winner will be chosen randomly with the help of Random.org.Open to US/CA only, please!

Geeked on Gothic

It’s mid-September and each day we draw closer to the season of ghosts, ghouls, and witches (not to mention sugar hangovers). I must confess, however, that I wrote this post not just to celebrate the season. I’m also hoping for a particular sort of redemption.

Over the years, I’ve talked at great length about Gothic with students, teachers, and librarians. For some reason, however, when I recently was asked by a very nice person — in a non-classroom/conference setting — why I liked Gothic, I FROZE.

My mind emptied of all words.

Today’s post is my way of correcting that particular brain lapse. It also strikes me as an appropriate way to kick off my 2018 Spooky Film Recs blog series. (If you’re new to this blog, click the “spooky film recs” tag at the bottom of this post to scroll through past recommendations.)


As you probably already know, the genre’s name comes from Gothic architecture–castles, cathedrals, abbeys, towers, and crypts–designed to inspire awe and fear. (Cologne Cathedral is a great example.) For the most part, Gothic literature concerns itself with these structures when in partial or total ruin, long after the Medieval period. The literary label of “Gothic” came into being with Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, which was subtitled “A Gothic Story.”

In early Gothic novels the setting was a fortress, secular or religious, located in a foreign land long ago. The villain was an evil and murderous man, the heroine was pious and prone to fainting, and more often that not, a ghost or monster made an appearance. At times, early Gothic was so over-the-top that it strikes us now as rather ridiculous. (And thus it was very easy to parody, as Jane Austen did with Northanger Abbey.) However, these stories paved the way for more subtle offerings in the 19th and 20th centuries.

What really fascinates me about early Gothic literature is how it bridges the gap between the Medieval and the Modern. I see it as a reaction both to the Enlightenment, which lauded Reason and Logic, and Romanticism, which exalted Emotion and Imagination. Gothic celebrates emotional excess while also showing its dark consequences. It offers commentary on rapid social change, the possibilities and dangers inherent in scientific experimentation, as well as the oppressive nature of institutions and mores. Gothic conveys nostalgia for the past and its traditions while also celebrating characters who break the rules and cross boundaries.


What are you hiding in the attic, Mr. Rochester?

Why are Gothic stories still so popular and accessible today? I think Sigmund Freud had something to do with that, as Gothic gave him a visual vocabulary for talking about the human mind. He coined the term unheimlich (“the uncanny,” or literally “unhomely”) to describe something that is mysterious in an unsettling way–familiar yet horrifying at the same time. The attics, labyrinths, and underground vaults of Gothic fiction provided metaphors for repression as heroes and villains struggled between their compulsions and better natures (id and superego). From Gothic literature and Freud we learned that the dark secret, terrible sin, or dead body you’re trying to hide will always return to haunt you, no matter how deeply you bury it.

For me, the best Gothic stories rely on atmosphere, mystery, tension, and dread rather than sudden shocks or explicit violence. My favorite thing about modern Gothic is that the “evil” rarely has a specific external source, and in many cases the hero/heroine may have brought into being, consciously or unconsciously, the very problem that haunts them.

***For a humorous overview of classic Gothic literature, read How to Tell You’re Reading a Gothic Novel

***Also check out this very informative blog post on Gothic Horror and Children’s Books.

My top five Gothic novels:


(Click images for more details from Goodreads)

My top five Gothic films:


(Click images for more details from imdb.com)

***Are you a fan of Gothic? If so, what are your favorite stories, novels, or films?

September Tea and a Book: Dear Mrs. Bird

Quick take: I was in the mood for something light and quirky, and Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce fit the bill perfectly.

Goodreads synopsis: London, 1940. Emmeline Lake is Doing Her Bit for the war effort, volunteering as a telephone operator with the Auxiliary Fire Services. When Emmy sees an advertisement for a job at the London Evening Chronicle, her dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent suddenly seem achievable. But the job turns out to be working as a typist for the fierce and renowned advice columnist, Henrietta Bird. Emmy is disappointed, but gamely bucks up and buckles down.

Mrs. Bird is very clear: letters containing any Unpleasantness must go straight in the bin. But when Emmy reads poignant notes from women who may have Gone Too Far with the wrong men, or who can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she is unable to resist responding. As the German planes make their nightly raids, and London picks up the smoldering pieces each morning, Emmy secretly begins to write back to the readers who have poured out their troubles.

My thoughts: I love stories about English women “doing their bit” on the home front during World War II, so this premise was particularly appealing. Emmy is plucky and sympathetic, and her narrative moves along at a good clip. Though I call it “light and quirky,” you will encounter some peril and heartache due to the wartime setting. I found one of the conflicts a bit clunky, but overall it was a very absorbing read.

If you liked Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, or just enjoy “WWII home front” stories, you’ll probably enjoy this. I’d also recommend Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart and Their Finest Hour and a Half, the latter of which was adapted into a very good film starring Gemma Arterton and Sam Clafin. And don’t forget the Middle Grade novels by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, The War that Saved My Life and The War I finally Won. (I discussed the first book here.) Also, several of Angela Thirkell’s novels are set during the war. What am I missing? I’d love to know your recommendations for “WWII home front” stories.

Now for tea: Bread and Butter Pudding seemed the perfect choice for a book set during the war because the ingredient list is short and simple (with the bonus of recycling your stale bread), and the result is wonderfully comforting.

I followed this easy recipe from The Splendid Table. I used a rather ordinary loaf of grocery store French bread, but you could use any bread you like. A friend suggested using leftover Christmas pannetone–doesn’t that sound delicious!? I must remember that during the holidays.


Here’s how mine looked just out of the oven. The next day I spooned some warm milk over it (for lack of cream) and garnished with a few berries, as you can see at the top of this of this post. Other options: add a dollop of your favorite jam or drizzle with heavy cream or custard. Vanilla ice cream would work, too!

Adagio’s Irish Breakfast, with its bold blend of Ceylon and Assam, paired well with the pudding.

October will be all about SPOOKY FILMS, so “Tea and a Book” will return in November!

August Tea and a Book: Manderley Forever

I recently finished Tatiana de Rosnay’s Manderley Forever, a carefully researched and annotated biography of Daphne du Maurier that reads like a novel. Some of you might remember my scathing reaction to Rebecca back in 2012. In short, I despised the unnamed heroine of the novel for being a “spineless cipher” and couldn’t understand why people found this story romantic. Turns out, Daphne du Maurier couldn’t understand it, either:

Even while the sales figures mount, [Daphne] feels that her book is being misunderstood. No, it is not a Gothic romance; no, it is not a corny little love story; it is the tale of an all-consuming jealousy and its murderous consequences. Is it her publisher’s fault? Victor [Gollancz] has hyped the novel up as something very romantic and commercial. Behind the story of a house, a man, and two women lurks a much darker and more disturbing truth, that of a psychological war disguised by muted violence and suppressed sexuality.(146-47)

So the story is really about Maxim and his obsession with Rebecca (mirrored by Mrs. Danvers’ own obsession), told by a young, unsophisticated ninny woman who is rather obsessive herself? I can live with that.

While reading this biography, I found myself enjoying Daphne’s own history much more than her fiction. For instance, did you know that her father Gerald du Maurier was a highly successful stage actor, and her paternal grandfather George “Kicky” du Maurier was the novelist who created the character Svengali? Perhaps you had no idea that her sister Angela also published fiction (though not so successfully) or that Daphne’s husband Tommy Browning was the man who travelled all the way to Africa to tell the future Queen Elizabeth II that her father, George VI, had died.

All that is mere trivia, however. What really kept me glued to the page was the way de Rosnay portrayed Daphne’s passion for history, her obsession with place (something with which I identify quite profoundly), and her fascination with dark secrets and twisted psychology. According to de Rosnay, Daphne du Maurier lived life like a Romantic Hero, prioritizing her creativity over family and pursuing passionate relationships with both men and women. Every experience became fodder for her stories.

The narrative style of Manderley Forever might take some getting used to — at first it seems quite presumptuous for de Rosnay to place herself in Daphne’s perspective, but one grows accustomed fairly quickly. In Part V, in which Daphne leaves Menabilly for Kilmarth and subsequently goes into decline, de Rosnay’s narrative picks up pace, sometimes glossing over months or even years. Overall, however, I found this biography compulsively readable, and I particularly delighted in passages like this:

Daphne is one of those writers who prefer looking back to looking forward, who is capable of filling entire pages with what was, a place, a trace, putting words to a fleeting moment, the fragile memory that must be bottled like perfume. (176)

Now for tea:

I kept it simple because Daphne didn’t seem very fussy on the domestic front. (In fact, I don’t think she ever cooked at all.) For tea I chose something to honor her ancestry and abiding love for France: Mariage des Frères’ Vanille des Îles, a rich black tea flavored with Bourbon vanilla. To pair with the tea I baked Cornish Fairings, in honor of Daphne’s lifelong obsession with Cornwall. These ginger biscuits make for a simple but delicious tea snack, and the spiciness is more pronounced a few hours after they’ve cooled. (To me they tasted much better the second day.) You’ll find an English recipe with “American translation” at this lovely blog post:

Cornish Fairings – An English Biscuit


I’ll conclude with a couple of viewing recommendations:

Let’s Pretend: The Make-believe World of Daphne du Maurier, a 16-minute interview/documentary filmed in 1977 at Kilmarth in Cornwall which, among other things, features footage of Daphne and her children at Menabilly, the Cornish estate she leased for 25 years and that inspired Manderley, the setting for Rebecca.

The ITV adaptation of du Maurier’s The Scapegoat (see trailer below), starring the always brilliant Matthew Rhys (whom you may know from The Americans and Death Comes to Pemberley). Daphne hated the original 1959 adapatation starring Alec Guinness, but I think she might have appreciated this one. If you’re in the US you can watch it on AcornTV. A UK dvd (PAL format) is available to purchase at Amazon.com & Amazon.co.uk.