I’m currently reading my way through Cooked by Michael Pollan, which I’ve been looking forward to since I first heard about it and was lucky enough to pick up for half price in Waterstones recently.

I love Michael Pollan’s food writing; he takes a great deal of responsibly for slowly changing my attitude to food and grocery shopping. I highly recommend Food Rules,  for more on this. In Cooked, he turns his attention to what is actually going on when we cook;  the chemical reactions for example. I’m about a third of the way through and I love it. There are lots of moments when I think “ah, so that’s why that happens…”, and it makes me want to try cooking something a slightly different way.

More importantly, for me at least, is the fact that it’s reawaking my desire to cook. I’ve enjoyed cooking for a while but not lately. I was struggling with depression again in the later months of 2013 and since January our family life has been completely overturned. But Cooked is helping me remember how much I like making proper, tasty food and rekindling an urge to get back into my kitchen, get my lovely recipe books down and spend some time planning meals that I will enjoy cooking.

An example, to ponder: Pollan has been talking about the chemistry of onions, followed by mentioning the fact that they contain powerful microbial compounds which help make meat safe to eat.

Cooking with onions, garlic, and other spices is a form of chemical jujitsu, in which the first move is to overcome the plants’ chemical defenses so that we might eat them, and the second is to then deploy their defenses against other species to defend ourselves. (Cooked, Pollan,

2013, p145).

And now after all this talk of food, I’m starving so I’m off for some chemical jujitsu…

Kindle Fire HD

When Amazon announced last year that they were bringing out a tablet, I was very excited. I got my Kindle 2 years ago and I loved it so much that I really expected their tablet to be something special. So I was disappointed when initial reviews were lacklustre, to say the least.

This year, they seemed to have got it right. The reviews I read were good, the demonstration models in Tesco and Waterstones were very impressive. And when Beloved Husband gave me a Kindle Fire HD for my birthday on Sunday I was beyond excited!

Being Apple enthusiasts and using an iPad regularly, the Fire had quite a lot to live up to. After using it for a couple of days, I think it’s a real rival for at least the new iPad mini. The screen is beautiful with very sharp, clear text and graphics. You can scroll very quickly and there’s no lag on the graphics.

Typing is good, and one thing I really like about the keyboard is that you can press and hold a key for special characters, just like iOS, but also the top row of keys gives you numbers without needing to switch to a number keyboard, very handy if you just need 1 or 2 numbers in a sentence.

The web browser works quite nicely, though this is the one bit where I’ve noticed a few glitches and it had trouble loading a couple of pages. In general though very few problems, most pages load fine and pretty quickly. This blog post was typed entirely on the Kindle Fire HD, for example.

App-wise, yes the Amazon App Store is much less content than iTunes. Not surprising, really, it’s several years younger! All the major apps are here – twitter, Facebook, Skype, Pinterest, WordPress etc. And, of course, Angry Birds! Mail gets my gmail quickly and unobtrusively pings to let me know, bringing with it my google calendar and contacts. I think given time there will be more than enough apps for everyone!

Navigation is the most obvious difference to iOS. In the centre of the home screen is a carousel with large icons of everything on the device, the most recently used being first. Along the top of the screen is a category menu where you see all your apps/books/music etc by pressing on the category. Along the bottom are related items, depending on which icon is displayed in the centre of the Carousel. For example, if it’s an app, the bottom row will show other apps customers bought after buying the featured one. If the web is central, the bottom row shows trending web pages. If Mail is highlighted, the bottom row gives shortcuts to New Message, contacts and calendar. All of the category-view pages show either apps/books on the device or in the Amazon Cloud; when you register your device your books appear in the Cloud but it’s quick and easy to simply touch the book you want and it’s on the device in seconds. Similarly, buying an app is quick and easy. Too easy actually, it doesn’t by default ask for your password before purchasing so I’d recommend setting this up in Parental Controls! Again, quick and easy to do.

Something that keeps catching me out is the lack of physical home button. I’m not saying this is good or bad, it just takes some getting used to! To get to the home screen you need to click on the home button on-screen; sometimes you need to touch or swipe the side of bottom of the screen to get this menu, depending on which app you’re in. This menu also gives you a back button and sometimes an in-app menu and search button. On every screen there’s also a star button which takes you to apps which you have designated as favourites, very handy.

The build isn’t as posh as the iPad. Rather than the brushed metal, the Kindle Fire has the rubberised body of the Kindle. It doesn’t feel luxurious but it does feel solid and robust. I’m not going into tech specs, I wouldn’t know where to begin, but it has plenty of memory, works well and is a lovely experience. Better, I have to say, than I expected an Android tablet to be.

How about reading? It is a Kindle after all. The most obvious differences are the weight and the lit screen. The device is still light and small enough to be held in one hand, although I think the Kindle ereaders would be more comfortable for extended periods of readjng. The screen doesn’t glare too much and the brightness can be easily adjusted which is useful.

The one area I think Amazon have been a bit naughty in is the pricing structure. The HD is amazingly good value particularly given how good it is and I definitely recommend that people pay the extra £30 to get the HD rather than the Fire. BUT you then also get the option to pay £10 to remove sponsored adverts, and the only charger you get in the box is a USB to charge through your computer which takes about 10 hours longer than a regular plug. To get a plug you pay another £18 for the Fast Charge. So it’s not QUITE as cheap as it makes out but still, you do get a brilliant tablet at about a third of the cost of an iPad.

I absolutely love my Kindle Fire HD and I can see myself getting loads of use out of it for a long time!

Saved by Cake

I remember hearing about Marian Keyes having a bad time but beyond feeling sympathy for her, I didn’t think too much of it at the time. Then over the last couple of years my own problems kind of took over everything.

Marian KeyesWhen I saw a copy of Saved by Cake on the shelf in Waterstones, it drew me in first by the gorgeous cover with its retro colours and style. Then I noticed the author and remembered her having troubles, which led me to pulling the book down and reading the intro, and flicking through the recipes. I then spent the next two weeks either drooling over the pictures I had seen or feeling drawn to Marian’s brutally honest description of her depression and her warm and witty way of writing until I got the book for myself yesterday.

I spent all evening reading every single recipe (when I was allowed to; Emily shows every sign of inheriting my penchant for cakes and insisted on looking at every picture herself. Two or three times…) and trying to restrain myself from rushing straight out to Sainsburys and buying a list of ingredients and cookie cutters (do read her take on cookie cutters. I love it!) a mile long. I decided to limit myself to trying a recipe a week (well, maybe two…) and this morning bought the ingredients for the first one to do some time this week, probably at the weekend.

Then this afternoon I went to a parent and toddler group. Now, I’ve mentioned my social anxieties before. They make these groups a particular kind of torture, and I’m serious, I think I get through the entire group without more than 5 words spoken to anyone except Emily. I spend all the time I’m not talking feeling miserable and anxious about not talking and it all goes horribly wrong. Emily goes home bouncing because she’s had time with new toys and I go home ready to burst into tears, every bad feeling about myself confirmed again and again. So this afternoon when I came home, I thought ‘Why not, let’s give Saved by Cake a go,’ and did the Blondie cupcakes (white chocolate and macadamia nut…).

Now, there’s a funny thing about baking as therapy. I do have a tendency to comfort eat, but that’s the weird thing. I found baking these cupcakes (and most of the cooking I’ve done over the last few weeks) unbelievably calming. I feel much better and I’ve only had half of a cupcake (just to test, y’know). It’s not the end result that’s the point of doing this, as nice as it is; it’s completely about the process.

It’s not like I’ve just discovered baking through Marian Keyes, I’ve been increasingly keen on cooking and baking over the last couple of years and it’s picked up madly since we moved house and I got a really nice oven (my last oven was no good for baking as the flame went under the floor of the oven and burned the bottom of stuff before the top was cooked. I daresay a good cook could have managed with it; I’m not that cook). I’ve done a few nice cakes lately, mostly plain sponges with cream and strawberries, and a couple of packet mixes – highly recommended for a quick and cheap cake fix eg for Sunday tea as they’re very light and tasty and did I mention cheap? But Marian Keyes’ book has opened up a whole new world of flavours and possibilities, both classic and traditional as well as more exotic like Chocolate, Cardamom and chilli tart, and it’s totally about the process, like I said earlier. If you want a cake for the sake of eating it, buy a packet mix or even a ready made one. If you want to bake and be Saved by Cake, buy this book and start exploring.

And incidentally, her simply wonderful voice shines through and has made me into the latest Marian Keyes fiction fan. Now I’m off to snuggle down with a Blondie cupcake and a novel.


Write A Great Synopsis

2012 is the year I finally finish off my two ongoing WIPS, then begin the ordeal of putting together a submission package and sending it all off. With that in mind, it’s perfect timing that I’m helping Nicola Morgan with the blog tour for her new book, Write A Great Synopsis: An Expert Guide. This short ebook has got some brilliant ideas in for turning said ordeal into something manageable and even exciting. No, really!

Without further ado, let me hand over to the Crabbit One…

Hello, Becca, and thanks for hosting me on the Write a Great Synopsis (WAGS) blog tour. Not that, *cough*, you had much choice…

I thought a sensible thing to do for my lovely blog hosts who want an actual post would be to give each one a different extract from the book. (There will be links to the whole blog tour on my blog sidebar.) So, what will I offer to your readers? Well, in WAGS I have a whole chapter devoted to answering actual questions from writers. I thought I’d give you three of them here.

What if your novel is exceptionally long?

It doesn’t mean that the synopsis should be or even needs to be. If you’ve written Anna Karenina, leave out the farming stuff and that should help a lot. A book that is very long is usually so because there are many obstacles or incidents to get through, in which case not all need be mentioned individually: “Seraphina spends fifteen years on the ranch, working her way through a series of increasingly unsuitable men” is a perfectly adequate way to convey a whole section of your saga. If your book is long because of rich description or characterisation, or farming, that is stuff which doesn’t appear in a synopsis anyway.

Do I really have to include the ending?

Another blog-reader, Laura Mary, wondered whether this is necessary if the ending gives away a vital twist, the knowledge of which will spoil the enjoyment for the reader. Yes, almost everyone agrees that endings must be given in synopses for agents and editors. Yes, it may remove some of their anticipation while reading the book, but they are professionals and they will survive the pain. Besides, if you write your synopsis well enough, they will still get that “Ahhh, clever ending!” feeling when reading the synopsis itself.

What’s more important: content or style?

Neal wondered whether it’s a “judgement call between content and style.” He says, “I’m struggling to work out the balance between making a synopsis a proof of the structure as a viable vehicle for a compelling story, and it giving an idea of style and tone, which seems to me needs a slightly more expansive approach.”

I don’t think the two ever have to be mutually exclusive. I certainly don’t think style and tone require a more expansive approach: they can be conveyed with no extra words, just well chosen words. I do understand the question, though, and can see why writers might ask it. I just believe that a writer who is even asking the question most likely has enough skill to tread the balance and satisfy the needs for both content and style. However, you cannot hope to achieve a piece of flash fiction; a synopsis is a functional exercise, little more.

(Extract ends)

Hope that was useful!

Write a Great Synopsis covers everything about synopsis-writing, clearly and reassuringly. At the end of it I believe you truly will say to yourself, “Don’t panic – it’s only a synopsis!” That is my aim.

All commenters below (by Feb 15th) will be entered into the Big WAGS Competition, with chances to win a critique of your synopsis by the Crabbit Old Bat herself! One comment per person on each blog – though you can add to your chances by commenting on the other posts on the tour. Details of all stops on the tour will appear on my blog (Help! I Need a Publisher!) as they go out.

Thank you for listening and I do hope I can help you write a great synopsis! For details about the book, including buying options, go here.  The link direct to Amazon UK is here.

Thanks again for letting me visit!

Pleasure! Now, off to write…