The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruíz Zafón

My game plan is to blog all of Carlos Ruíz Zafón’s quartet of books featuring The Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Barcelona, which is also one of my favorite cities in the world, before September, which is when the fourth and final installment of this amazing series ends. I previously blogged the first book in the series, The Shadow of the Wind, over a year ago and that was a fun time in the kitchen. Here’s my original post if you want to read it. Today, I’m taking on The Angel’s Game, which is the sequel/prequel to Shadow, and I think I like it even more than the first book. Davíd Martín is the dark hero of this very baroque tale, still set in Barcelona but before World War II. Barcelona is as much a character in this series, and particularly so here.

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Davíd is an aspiring writer whose early years are marred by violence and tragedy. As he gets older, he becomes a newspaper writer then is approached to write a series of Grand Guignol, penny-dreadful type books with fantastical characters, magic, mayhem and murder but under a pseudonym. As time goes on, he is befriended by the Sempere family (you’ll meet them in the first book), falls in love with Cristina, the daughter of his best friend’s chauffeur, also befriends the lovely young Isabella who plays a pivotal role in his life, and is taken under the ominous wing of Andreas Corelli, an enigmatic publisher who is not who he seems and commissions David to write a book.

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Davíd’s work for Corelli, which consists of  creating a new religion, takes him down a very dark path. To concentrate on his work, Davíd moves into a dark, mysterious mansion that previously belonged to Diego Marlasca, a wealthy Barcelona businessman whose son died under strange circumstances. As David continues to write his religious saga, he also begins to learn about the horrible things that happened in the house and in the life of Diego Marlasca, and finds terrible connections between his own life and writing, the life of Marlasca and the publisher Corelli, who might just be the Devil in Disguise……..that superbly dressed, smooth talking agent of darkness who initially seems harmless but then you realize just how twisted and evil he truly is. That’s Corelli.

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I fell in love with David’s darkness, but I have a very dark side myself so I’m drawn to that in people. He loves passionately, feels deeply, writes intensely and embodies the darker side of the heart that we all have inside us. Davíd is darkly attractive to many, including young Isabella. In a series of amusing events, Isabella manages to install herself as his housekeeper/companion/writing partner………even as she falls in love with him and though he will not admit it because he loves Cristina, is as enamored in his own way with Isabella. Isabella is a hilariously funny character, a good foil for Davíd’s darkness, and I was always peeved at him for not ever allowing her a chance in his heart until it was too late.

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One evening, after they have had a terrible argument, Isabella storms out and is attacked by would-be rapists. David comes to her rescue, knifing the two men before then can do too much harm. As you’d imagine, Isabella is terrified and traumatized, and David takes care of her the way she’s cared for him, sending her to take a calming bath as he puts together a meal for her, leftover from the many delicious delicacies she has brought from her Italian father’s gourmet food shop.

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I wanted to hold her arm as we went up the stairs, but she avoided any contact. Once in the apartment I took her to the bathroom and turned on the light. “Have you any clean clothes you can put on?” Isabella showed me the bag she was carrying and nodded. “Come on, you can wash while I get something ready for dinner.” “How can you be hungry after what just happened?” “Well, I am……..”   I closed the bathroom door and waited until I heard the taps running, then returned to the kitchen and put some water to boil. There was a bit of rice left over, some bacon, and a few vegetables that Isabella had brought over the day before. I improvised a dish of leftovers and waited, downing almost half a bottle of wine in that time.

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Hey, I can improvise with bacon like no one’s business. So after looking to see what I had in the way of vegetables, I decided some super-simple bacon-wrapped Brussels sprouts would be a perfect improvised leftover dish.

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INGREDIENTS
24 Brussels sprouts
24 slices of bacon
Black pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F, and wash and trim the Brussels sprouts. Let dry.

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Flatten out each slice of bacon, and wrap each Brussels sprout in a slice of bacon.

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Put the bacon-encased sprouts on a foil-lined baking tray.

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Bake for 35 minutes, and remove from the oven.

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Sprinkle over some freshly ground black pepper, and spear each with a toothpick.

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Eat with a friend at a sun-drenched winery with grapes hanging over you, drinking wine and enjoying other goodies. It’s the next best thing to being in Barcelona.

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The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

Sometimes a girl just needs an escape, and this book provided one hell of one! It’s probably one of the most fun, and possibly my favorite, of all sci-fi and fantasy novels, The Anubis Gates is a wild and imaginative romp through time, space, and history. Basically, a literature professor by the name of Brendan Doyle chosen to go back in time at the behest of an extremely wealthy and eccentric millionaire to hear a famous lecture by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Victorian England. He gets left behind – of course – in the past with no money or resources except his knowledge of the time period, and that’s when shit gets real.

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Throw in gates of time throughout the world and history, a murderous, deformed clown on stilts, tiny homunculi with knives, ancient Egyptian magicians who can also move through time, a body-jumping werewolf, a twist of romance, some Victorian steampunk elements, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a truly entertaining read. Doyle’s specialty is the Victorian poet William Ashbless, whom he intends to meet while in the past, and how this meeting comes about is one of the twistiest and surprising parts of the book, but it’s the premise on which the entire book hinges, so pay attention to the references to Ashbless.

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As with any kind of time travel book, pay attention to the smaller details, as they seemingly have no connection to anything, yet prove to be monumentally important later on. I personally loved the freaky clown on stilts, though in real life I despise clowns with a passion. Hello,  Pennywise! Otherwise,  Doyle’s grasp of history serves him well, and part of why I love this book is because you feel the Victorian environment of London so well, but without that dreary, depressing Dickensian vibe. And when Doyle is down and out and spends his last bit of money on street food, you feel his intense hunger.

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Returning to Thames Street, Doyle expended half his fortune on a plate of vegetable soup and a trowelful of mashed potatoes. It tasted wonderful, but left him at least as hungry as before, so he spent his last three cents on another order of the same.

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To me, vegetables and mashed potatoes translate naturally into one thing -shepherd’s pie. I mean, a gorgeous panful of delicious meat mixed with vegetables and topped with a creamy layer of mashed potatoes. Hello, heaven on a plate! Of course, depending on who you talk to, it’s either a shepherd’s pie or a cottage pie. I personally don’t give a damn what it’s called, just that is is soooo good. This method was based on the awesome recipe at Life in Lofthouse, is an excellent way to get rid of any random vegetables hanging around in your refrigerator, land is the perfect St. Patrick’s Day dish. Ideal for  soaking up all the green beer, Irish whiskey and whatever else booze you chose to indulge in.

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INGREDIENTS
4 large russet potatoes
1 stick softened butter
1 cup warmed milk
2 lbs ground beef
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 turnip, cut into cubes
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup frozen corn
1 cup baby carrots, cut in half
1 onion
7 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons red wine
1/2 cup beef broth

METHOD
Butter a large glass or metal baking pan and heat the oven to 375.

Cut the potatoes in half and cook in boiling water until a fork pierces them easily, about 25 minutes. Remember if there are hard parts still in your potatoes, those will translate to lumps in your mashed potatoes. Drain and let cool slightly.

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Dry-saute the mushrooms with only a bit of salt. This is a trick I got from Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes, and holy crap, it really works!

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Put the sauteed mushrooms into a large bowl and add the frozen corn. The heat of the ‘shrooms will soften and thaw the corn.

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While the potatoes are boiling, finely chop the onion and garlic and cook with olive oil until softened, about 10 minutes.

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Add the ground beef, some salt, and the Worchestershire sauce, and cook until the meat is nicely browned. Drain the meat and add back to the hot pan.

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In the boiling potato water, cook the turnip, peas, and carrots until softened, about 10 minutes. Drain and add to the mushrooms and corn.

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Sprinkle over the flour on the meat, and cook again over low heat for about 10 minutes, to ensure the floury taste is gone.

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Add the red wine, tomato paste, and beef broth to the floured meat in the pan, stirring until everything is well mixed and warmed through well.

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Mash the potatoes in a potato ricer, add the butter and milk, and some salt, and stir. The potato ricer is a totally badass kitchen gadget because it negates the need to peel the potatoes. I personally loathe and despise peeling potatoes, so it makes me happy to bust out the potato ricer.

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Mix the cooked meat with the cooked vegetables, stir to mix well, and spread into the glass pan.

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Spread over the mashed potatoes. Doesn’t that look so yum?

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Bake for 35 minutes, until the potato topping has browned slightly and you can smell all the juices of the meat and vegetables and you’re drooling. Let cool slightly before serving, although having said that, it’s much better after a few hours in the refrigerator, eaten tipsily at midnight in the company of a handsome man after an evening out at the St. Patrick’s Day Blarney Bash. 🙂

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This is the third Neil Gaiman book I’ve blogged, loving as I do his writing and the way he so smoothly moves his characters between reality and the shadowy, mythic “other” world where things are never quite what they seem. Gaiman’s books are universal no matter your age because he treats childhood with the same seriousness and attention that other writers attribute to the adult years, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane is no different. What happens to us as kids can seriously fuck us up, and when we’re in a situation where we are victims of those adults who are supposed to love and cherish and protect us, it oftentimes twists our perspective in ways we’d never want nor expect. That’s why this book is so beautiful, heartbreaking, and ultimately, satisfying.

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The protagonist, who – in a nod to Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, is never named – arrives back in his old neighborhood as an adult, attending a funeral. Memories are awoken as he visits the neighbors the Hempstocks who had such a primal influence on his youth. Lettie Hempstock befriended him after a terrifying incident with a lodger killing first his kitten (accidentally) then himself. The beautiful and hideous Ursula Monkton enters his life, representing dark magic and the power of evil, and does battle with Lettie and her mother and grandmother as they work to protect the young protagonist.

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Why this book is so beautiful is because it can be read on so many levels. It can be read as a children’s story about the power of magic and love and terror and the pain of growing into adulthood – your typical bildüngsroman. It can be read from the adult viewpoint looking back into the past and realizing how messed up adults can be and how much our parents can really screw us up. One of my favorite quotes emphasizes this perfectly. “Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometime monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t.”

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It can be read as a symbolic treatise on time and physics and other dimensions, with a nod to the concept of Maiden, Mother, and Crone thrown in for good measure. It can be read as a treatise on feminism and the dual nature of power in a woman – the beauty and the motherliness and the protectiveness contrasted with the ugliness and hatred and desire to destroy – kind of like the dual faces of the goddess Kali. Giver of life and destroyer of life. Or, if you’re a devoted foodie like me, you can read it with an eye toward what delicious dishes you can try your hand. I found these beautiful multicolored carrots – heirloom, perhaps? – at my grocery store and decided to try and reenact this touching scene.

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Above: three of my carrot-loving cooking companions this past weekend.

Dinner was wonderful. There was a joint of beef, with roast potatoes, golden-crisp on the outside and soft and white inside, buttered greens I did not recognize, although I think now they might have been nettles, roasted carrots all blackened and sweet (I did not think that I liked cooked carrots, so I nearly did not eat one, but I was brave and I tried it, and I liked it, and was disappointed in boiled carrots for the rest of my childhood.)

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INGREDIENTS
2 lbs baby carrots
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced thinly
2 tablespoons fresh marjoram
2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley
Sea salt and black pepper to taste

METHOD
Pre-heat the oven to 400F, and finely mince the parsley and marjoram. In a large bowl, combine the carrots, olive oil, garlic slivers, and minced herbs. Season with sea salt and pepper, and mix together with your hands, which are really the best kitchen tool in the world. 🙂

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Spread the herb-flecked carrots onto a large flat baking tray, preferably lined with foil or parchment.

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Roast for 30 minutes, and check to make sure they don’t burn. You want them to have that nice, dark, roasted look but not to burn. Test with a fork, and if they are still too firm, cover with foil and cook another 15 minutes.

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In the spirit of the meal described in the book, I served this with a butterflied roast chicken and potatoes roasted with olive oil and some delicious lavender-scented herb mixture given to me by my dear and most handsome friend Richard. A truly delicious and comforting meal.

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