Sunday, October 8, 2017

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

A Glimpse of Great Britain, Bryson-Style (Travel)

Notes from a Small Island is Bill Bryson’s travelogue from the mid 1990s when he made a farewell tour of the U.K. after having lived in England for twenty years. In his humorous trademark style, Bryson informs readers of his likes and dislikes of the British people, the places he visits, the culture, the food, and the architecture.  

It’s his keen observation and a sharp wit, that kept me turning page after page. I had to laugh as he pointed out how British life is touched with a kind of genius for names of prisons (Wormwood Scrubs), to pubs (Lambs & Flag) to flowers (Lady’s bedstraw), to the bizarre names of towns:  Whiterashes, Wigtwizzle, Blubberhouses, Titsey, Lickey End, and more. 

Bryson praises the Britons’ cheerfulness and uncomplaining manner as they smile and laugh easily, yet they can also been unyielding in their ways and you could be a target of their ire for merely standing in someone's usual spot at a train station.

It is evident throughout the book that Bryson has a particular love for old architecture, and he laments that the British heritage, set in “445,000 ancient or historical buildings, 12,000 medieval churches, 1.5 million acres of common land, 120,000 miles of footpaths and public rights of way, 600,000 known sites of archaelogical interest,” [1] is being nibbled away instead of preserved.

He complains about the rain—“that special kind of English drizzle that hangs in the air and saps the spirit.” [2]

And he notes how he “had never had tea with milk in it before or a cookie of such a rocklike cheerlessness. It tasted like something you would give a canary to strengthen its beak.”[3]

I can attest to the density of British biscuits, as they’re called, because lately I’ve been hooked on The Great British Bakeoff show where highly skilled amateur bakers whip up fantastic desserts that look like something from a magazine cover. I was so tempted by their creations that I broke down and bought British master baker, Mary Berry’s, Baking Bible. Just to get my feet wet, I thought it wise to start in the “kids” section.  

My first attempt at Pinwheel biscuits. 

Unfortunately, my first attempt at it didn’t go so well.  My biscuits looked more like flat potatoes than chocolate and vanilla pinwheels. The second batch looked more like that tempting photo.  But looks can be deceiving, because they tasted just like Bill described…rocklike cheerlessness.  (I did have more success with the cakes that not only looked good but tasted delicious, if I must say so myself.) 

My Hazelnut Meringue Cake and my French Apple Tart.

But just watching that show set in such a verdant, gorgeous location made me want to pack my bags and jet right over.  And I believe Bryson when he wrote “Britain still has more landscape that looks like an illustration from a children’s storybook than any other country I know.”

Crikey!  I think it may be time for a visit.

As a side note, my husband has read a lot of his books.  He particularly liked The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Neither Here, Nor There, In a Sunburned Country, and A Walk in the Woods (which I also read and loved).

Happy Reading,


Questions or comments?  Email

[1] Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island (1995; reprint, New York, An Avon Book, 1997), 84.
[2] Ibid., 107.
[3] Ibid., 19.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

Yo, Ho, Ho. A Barrel of Fun! (Adventure)

Shiver me timbers, what a great book!  This is one of thoe books that I loved from page one.  The writing is witty and descriptive; the story is original; and the book is highly entertaining.

Set in 1819, Owen Wedgwood is kidnapped by the notorious Captain Hannah Mabbot. This fierce, red-headed fiend, villain, vixen, monster, and pillar of menace orders Wedgwood to cook one delicious meal for her every Sunday—in exchange for his life. And when Mad Hannah Mabbot wants something, everyone better listen. She’s a ruthless and respected leader. “A scowl from Mabbot is like the sleet-needled wind off of a frozen lake.”[1] Before killing Wedgwood’s employer, Ramsey, Hannah roared “Tell the devil to keep my tea hot. I’m running late.”[2]

Without the benefit of a well-stocked pantry, stuck in a tiny, woefully inadequate galley kitchen Wedgwood gets creative and manages to produce some mouth-watering meals such as herring pâté with rosemary on walnut bread; tea-smoked eel ravioli seared with caramelized garlic and a bay leaf; and for dessert, rum-poached figs stuffed with Pilfered Blue cheese and drizzled with honey.  The descriptions of his meals almost make me drool. I want to sit right down and join them.

Meanwhile, the motley crew of  the Flying Rose sets out to search for the elusive Brass Fox.  The crew is a colorful conglomeration of oddities.  Conrad is the ship’s regular cook whose meals taste “like a fart boiled in a shoe.”[3]   There’s Mr. Apples, a massive man with a huge torso and little head who likes to knit in his spare time and keeps a basket of scorpions.  Feng and Bai are relentless martial artists who give Wedgwood a very unwelcome welcome on his first day. And then there’s Joshua, the deaf/mute cabin boy whom Wedgwood befriends and teaches to read.

Eli Brown managed not only to pull me in with his amusing writing style and the outlandish adventure, but also with his full descriptions.  I can just picture Hannah, the Shark of the Ocean, with her flowing red hair, long olive coat, and jade handled pistols spitting out orders.  Brown makes the scenes come alive on the big screen of my imagination. In my mind, I walk the decks and touch the railings and fixtures with gargoyles carved into them.  I wish there was a B&B on a ship somewhere, where I could stay in a replica of Mabbot’s cabin surrounded with teak walls that are crowded with fine oil landscapes and still-lifes; a bed heaped with furs (faux) and hung with silk drapes; a crowded bookshelf topped with a leaning stack of maps, braced by a skull (again fake, I hope) with an orchid jutting out of it; down to the last detail of a pheasant perched atop a great mirror.  Then I would order room service and enjoy breaded cod topped in a sauce made with madeira wine, garlic, shrimp, dried figs, and salt, thickened with a roux. I’d nibble on a walnut crisp cake for dessert while someone played a Mozart minuet on the harpsichord.  Ahhhh, sign me up.

Blimey! This book was like finding a hidden treasure. I think Cinnamon and Gunpowder would make for a block-buster movie. 

This was a book club selection and my fellow readers had this to say…..

Big “ayes” all around.  Yo, ho, ho what a barrel of fun!

Happy Reading!


Questions or comments?  Email me at

[1] Eli Brown, Cinnamon and Gunpowder (New York, Picador—Used by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux under license from Pan Books Limited, 2013), 76.
[2] Ibid., 8.
[3] Ibid., 18.