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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Murder Man: A Max Wolfe Thriller by Tony Parsons



This novel isn’t just a page-turner.  The pages will be flipping so fast you’ll feel the wind in your face.  Part of it is the blazing plot, wrapped around a horrible rape from years ago.  Life moves on, until finally, vengeance comes back to life in a murderous rampage.  Shifting the plot into high gear is a sharply etched detective, certain to become an icon.

Max Wolfe is an English cop who’s given the job of sorting things out.   He sees things clearly.  While others hesitate, Wolfe acts, regardless of politics, or personal feelings.  That can piss people off, especially Wolfe’s superiors, and especially when he’s right.

It’s not a question of shooting first and asking questions later.  Wolfe’s a thinker, a careful observer.  Nor is it ever a case of Wolfe covering his ass.  His ass hangs out all the time.  It doesn’t make him comfortable, or well liked.  And, he’s not a lone Wolfe!  (pun intended) He has a lot to lose.  No wife.  She walked out on him and his young daughter.  Those are difficult dynamics that lead to an even stronger attachment between the ones left behind.  Wolfe feels those ties that bind.  They cut into his concentration, they put his emotions to the test, but they don’t stop him.

It’s worth mentioning what I don’t like in a detective/mystery novel.  A tear dripping, double portion of angst.  Drinking problems and wife problems are such clichés that only a master writer (such as Robert B Parker) can use them to good effect.  In my opinion, even some well known craftsmen spend too much time dwelling in depths of simpering worry, like the friend we all know who can’t stop crying in his beer over the marriage that died five years ago.  We get it.  You still love the bitch who broke your heart and head.  Shift that plot into sixth gear and move our asses down the road.

The Murder Man skillfully weaves personal trials into the matters at hand:  the search for a killer who kills with a purpose and leaves no clues.  The suspects are many, the reasons a wriggling mass of snakes, and it sometimes seems Wolfe will be the next one bitten.

One of the things that draws me to this English crime thriller is empathy.  Not that I’ve wrestled with similar circumstances, but the author writes with such a keen edge that the reader is always at the center of the action, surrounded by possibilities and subject to vicious thrusts of the knife.

I began to read this book, standing in a library, waiting for my significant other to select her armload of Scottish kilted, wronged heroine, quest for ancestral lands romances.  When I picked up The Murder Man, I got lost in Wolfe’s world and had to be jogged back to reality.

“Honey?”……”HONEY?”  ….. “HELL-O!  Anybody home???”

“Oh…yeah…I mean…just one more page…”

Foot patting.  Impatiently waiting….”HONEY?”


The Murder Man is that kind of twisty-turny-mystery that lets you ignore the scary scorn of a wife who is ready to go….and I mean now! Just gotta get to the end of this chapter…

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Sip Some Tea and History at Twining’s in London




Why bother to find London’s oldest teashop?  Tea is tea.

Ah, my lads and lassies, there’s more to tea than meets the lips. History.  Romance. Wars. A clash of societies and turmoil within societies. Tea gathers the story of humanity in a tiny cup.

Think I’m overstating the case?  Take another sip and picture Charles II wooing a Portuguese bride, Catherine of Braganza.  While she may not have introduced tea to England, her own addiction to the beverage, and it’s subsequent wide spread popularity at court, made tea the drink of choice among the English aristocracy.  From there it spread, slowly, but constantly.  For a while, due to its extreme expense (a pound could cost a laborer nine months wages), only the wealthy enjoyed it.

Take another sip and contemplate the English-China tea trade and the Opium Wars.  After the Chinese emperor decreed that all foreign trade must be paid in silver, the English began importing opium from India and Afghanistan to sell in China and generate a flow of silver back to Britain.  Over the course of years (why burden my readers with one date after another?) the Chinese concern over the problems of opium addiction led to its ban.  By that time the British government had become dependent on the tax levied on tea in England.  Naturally they couldn’t sit idly by while the tea trade dried up. Hence the Britain vs China Opium Wars.

Think also of the Tea Act of 1773, which led directly to the American Revolution. We often think of it as a tax on tea, but it was not.  The circumstances are fascinating.


Since the happenstance of fragrant leaves falling into a Chinese Emperor’s cup twenty-five hundred years ago, tea’s journey has encompassed one-hell-of-a-lot more than foliage steeped in hot water.

Twining's in verse

Back to present day London and my quest.

Not sure how many tea companies there are.  Possibly thousands when you count the rivers of tea that flow through Asia.  But tea has become so associated with England that it’s hard to think of the country without picturing a teapot. Packaged in colorful tins, tea is sold in every souvenir shop. One brand you’ll find on nearly every shelf:  Twining’s.

But, popularity isn’t why I rode the Underground and strolled the slick, rainy streets of London, scurrying past the Royal Courts of Justice, and ignoring some delightful looking pubs.  I wanted to see and taste the storied beverage at the beating heart of English tea  - and the brand the Queen drinks.  Yes, Twining’s has a Royal Warrant.

The Royal Courts of Justice

The half-timbered building that looks Elizabethan, but isn't is a fine pub:  The George
The narrow tearoom, proudly sits at 216 Strand, on the original site. It’s the oldest tea purveyor in London and a success story beyond most people’s dreams.


 Thomas Twining bought Tom’s Coffee House in 1706 and began selling bulk tea and coffee in 1717.  Twining’s still sports the fabulous white and gold entrance that was installed in 1787 by Thomas Twining’s grandson, Richard Twining.  Richard also changed the name of the shop to The Golden Lyon.  It’s is believed to be the oldest company to have traded at the same place and used the same logo. 

Yes, Twining’s was purchased by a conglomerate, but descendants of the family are still involved and Twining’s is still run like a family business.  There are only nine master blenders responsible for the buying and blending of all Twining teas.  So wherever in the world you drink Twining’s, it will taste the same.  But, I didn’t want to taste Twining’s just anywhere in the world!   

On your next trip to London, try it yourself.  Walk through the door and become enveloped by wild and exotic perfumes.  White teas. Green teas.  Black teas (accounting for 90% of the market).  Fruit teas.  Teas old and young, bundled and chopped, twisted, and poured.


 Drift toward the back of the shop, passing more jars and cupboards than you can count.  Stop and sniff a few.  In short order, you’ll reach the nirvana of tea: the tea bar.  A sweet young woman will enchant you with sips of this and that.  She may ask what flavors and aromas you like, whether you drink tea during the morning or at night, and if you prefer gentleness or bone-shaking strength.


Which brings us to caffeine.  Coffee or tea?  Tea leaves have more caffeine than coffee beans, however because tea is more diluted, a cup of tea has less caffeine than a cup of coffee.  Also, different teas have different amounts of caffeine.  The longer it is steeped, the stronger and more caffeinated it becomes.  Here’re some rules of thumb:  2 cups of tea = 1 cup of coffee.  2 normal colas = 1 cup of tea.  Black tea has about twice as much caffeine as green tea.  Only rules of thumb, folks!  Teas vary greatly.

Back to the tea Barista.  Based on your tastes, she’ll happily gather any combination of teas you request.  You can take a bag home of your own special blend.  Meanwhile, I suggest you do some more tasting.  After all, how often will you visit the oldest teashop in England?



***A little known, but interesting fact:  tea bags are an American invention. About 1908, Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea merchant, sent his customers samples in small, silk bags.  You can guess the rest.

Friday, December 26, 2014

‘Tis the Season To Be Drinking!





Ok, I know there’s more to the holidays than merry spirits.  But, an opportunity is an opportunity.

I’ve got two libations to show you that thrive in this festive season.  Both are from England (sort of), but approach merriment from two different sides of the Atlantic:  Gin and Rum.

Noticed that the distilled spirit pundits have begun to edge away from Scotch whiskey and toward other ways to celebrate?  The Scotch whiskey song has been played so often the CD is thin and the ears weary.  Now we’re seeing a breakaway into more fashionable quarters.  First, vodka (mostly the bottles, in my opinion) showed new colors, new designs, and newly enhanced prices. 

I’m beginning to see the same curtains being pulled back in two more interesting areas.  Come ‘on now!  Once you’ve added lime or other flavoring to Vodka, what more can you do?  Triple distilled, quadruple distilled.  Gonna move on to completely dehydrated vodka?  For me, if you say Tito’s, you’ve said all you need to say about vodka.

Enough beating around the juniper bush!  Let’s move on to two of my new favorites, the first being The Botanist, a gin from Scotland, and more exactly from the Bruichladdich Distillery on the Isle of Islay.  Yeah, but gin is gin, n’est pas?  Oh, bite your tongue! Your taste buds have been neutered.  Traditionally, gin is a neutral spirit, flavored with juniper berries.  The Botanist goes far beyond that.  Two species of juniper go into the mix, along with twenty-two other herbs, all but two of which are harvested in the local area by two botanists.

Fine.  But, does all this rigmarole make a difference in the flavor?  Yes. 

It’s not that I can take a sip and suddenly pronounce all the Latin names, but my taste buds get a whisper of gin, instead of a hard bite.  That’s true whether I’m slow-sipping a marvelous martini, or nursing a gin and tonic.  There’s also a certain amalgamation of flavors that both calms and satisfies.  When I tried my first gin and tonic made with The Botanist, my melodious remarks were:  smoooooth, and flavorful.  In fact, The Botanist is so smooth, I normally go 1/3 to 2/3, gin to tonic.  Then I add a twist of lemon.  Then I have a second and a third.  (about $35 a bottle in England)

In the realm of rum,  I was drawn to Pusser’s because it’s a vital part of naval history.  First a word about the name.  From 1655 to 1970, a British seaman was given a ‘tot’ of rum a day and the man who dished it out was the Purser, later corrupted to Pusser.  From wooden ships to steel hulls, the Royal Navy floated on Pusser’s.

What happened in 1970?  The Admiralty Board (The Secretary of State For Defense is Chairman) decided that rum had no place in a modern Navy.  I’m thinking the blokes actually doing the fighting didn’t get a vote.  After all, Pusser’s Rum only contributed to victory after victory over several centuries.  Good reason to change.  And, what direction has the British Navy sailed since.  Downhill is a good guess.  Not the seamen, I might add, just the Royal Navy, as dictated by government rogues. Today, the once might Royal Navy has only 19 surface warships, including 1 helicopter carrier, and 10 submarines.

On July 31, 1970, referred to as “Black Tot Day, men raised their glasses as a long, unbroken tradition of the sea was cast aside.  They could have been drinking to the demise of the Royal Navy as well.

Thank god, the Admiralty Board didn’t have a say in ringing this marvelous rum’s death knell!  It’s still the only rum blended in accordance with the exact
Royal Navy specifications in place in 1970.  And unlike many rums, there’s nothing artificial about Pusser’s, not color and not flavor.

I’ve had plenty of rum, mostly from Puerto Rico, but also from various other spots around the Caribbean. Why there?  Rum is made from sugar cane.  ‘Nuff said. Haven’t had any that were  undrinkable, but neither have I had one that stirred me, made me purse my lips and scream, “Ahoy!”

Pusser’s is special.  A deep caramel color.  It’s also smooth as glass.  Often I sip it straight, as I would any other fine whiskey.  I like to let the aroma surround me, and the taste gently fade at the end of each sip.



Pusser’s Rum is bottled in Barbados, in the British Virgin Islands*, from stills in both Trinidad and Guyana.  Barbados has a strong tie to the United States.  Most planters and most of the early slaves came to South Carolina directly from that island.  There are lots of other Barbados rums and I admit I haven’t tried another.  This one is enough.  Not sure if my heart and my taste buds could handle anything better.  Pusser’s makes several varieties.  I drink the 42% alcohol variety.  ($18 a bottle)


     

   * Yes, it says British Virgin Islands on the bottle, but in fact every country I mentioned is independent, since the 1960s.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Lemon Table – A Rare Collection of Stories






Speaking of London Bookstores, which of course I mean the bookstores I painstakingly gave you a glimpse of in the last blog.  What?  Haven’t read it yet?  Fie on thee!

For my loyal followers (those that have read at least one of my blogs), I offer a book I picked up at South Kensington Books.

A disquieting book, The Lemon Tree, a grouping of stories.  Not disquieting because Julian Barnes (Flaubert’s Parrot, The Sense of an Ending) tosses out porno-erotic words like fuck and cunt – which one would think reasonably go together – but because the stories dissect one of life’s great mysteries and tragedies, growing old.  Life slipping over the edge.

There’s love, of course, sweet days of splendor-in-the-grass, as Wordsworth put it.  There’s also rapturous sex and promises of wondrous days to come, promises that slowly fade with the seasons of life, so slowly that no one notices until the promise has passed and winter is upon us.

Love.  Barnes relishes the stages of love in ways you may or may not find comfortable. Fresh blooms morphing into limp petals, petals floating idly in a last attempt to live.  The water in the bowl, a tepid, malodorous mix of the dead and dying, until the stench is poured down the drain and all that remains is a white residue of that which has passed.

Getting old.  A collection of things we did, no longer do, or no longer can do.  Ah, the pity, the depth of anguish these stories evoke.  And yet, some of them rise above the fading light and fog-like gloom.

“A Short History of Hairdressing dances in the delight of every age.  “Hygiene” sparkles with wit.  “Knowing French” sports a lyrical attitude in the face of the fading light.

I don’t often read a book of individual stories.  Not sure why.  Perhaps a book, be it novel or non-fiction, lends itself to dreams that put us aside from our selves.  Stories are a jazz riff to a novel’s concert.  When I say stories, I’m talking about short stories and short, short stories, all the way up to short novellas. An odd thing about stories is that they lend themselves to movies more readily than a book of say five hundred pages.  With a book, a writer and director are compelled to trim and chop, to turn a tree into a single branch, or even a toothpick.

Some of the tales in The Lemon Table run to twenty pages or more, some stretch to only a few pages.  With one reading you can easily imagine a movie.  A story allows you to build, to amplify instead of chop.  A good story is distilled, almost like poetry.

No matter the length, Barnes does a superb rendition of character construction.  In ‘The Revival,’ a tale of unrequited love, the description is so often simple, “But thirty miles was all they travelled together.”  And yet, you feel the aging man’s anguish and longing, love for the sake of love and the sake of living.

Barnes’ writing is so beautifully descriptive that my imagination leads me on, even when my heart screams “You don’t want to know this!”

Evocative is a word that comes to mind.  Perhaps ‘mirror’ would be even better.

A big question:  Is the book uplifting or depressing?  On the surface it’s a little of both, until you realize the tone is a call to action.  Make of life what you will.  Don’t let precious time wither.  There’s plenty to be happy about.  Don’t wait.  Use your time well.  Love.  Travel. Celebrate.  Do all those things, with people who make your life worth living.

Julian Barnes wrote a remarkable collection of stories.  Read them.  Use them well.