Sunday, July 24, 2016

On reading an Ann Cleeves Shetland book for the first time...

I've been doing some book reviews for 60 North Magazine (it promotes Shetland, and is well worth investigating), it's why I was reading so many herring related books in the spring, and one reason why I've been so immersed in textile books recently. It was also a prompt to read my first Ann Cleeves Shetland book, and that's been interesting.

I've been aware of this series since the first book 'Raven Black' came out. I have a friend who enjoys fairly brutal contemporary crime fiction at the end of a hard day who passed on a copy to me. I think she found it a bit sedate, I on the other hand prefer my crime fiction to be of the vintage whodunnit type, and didn't really click with Cleeves either to the point that I never quite got round to finishing the book.

'Cold Earth', which I've just finished is the seventh in a series that I think started out as a quartet. My copy is an uncorrected proof (it's not due for publication until October) so I'm not going to say much about it now (I will in October) but I thought I could talk about reading it.

I might not have read the rest of the series but I have watched the adaptations on television which has given me a superficial familiarity with the characters. What I've very quickly realised is that the TV version of  'Shetland' is a very loose adaptation indeed of Cleeves original books, I also knew that she hadn't had any hand in the last series (the best so far purely because it was given 6 episodes to unfold in, instead of being crammed into a couple of hours as the earlier ones had been) so that was somewhat disorienting.

It also makes me wonder how a writer deals with her characters, along with their world, being taken out of her hands and developed along somewhat different lines. There is nothing in this book that suggests to me that the TV version has crept into it, but because I'm more familiar with the TV version reading this book felt oddly like watching it.

That might also be because I'm familiar with the landscape and weather that Cleeves describes, when she mentions actual places they're often places I know (if you've read the books and visit the islands you can't miss a lot of her locations). More than that, as Cleeves has been familiar with Shetland for something like 40 years she also understands how it's changing, and I think she's caught the current moment in its history brilliantly here.

She's said in the past that she treats the landscape as a background rather than a character, being more interested in the dynamics of the community and how life works on relatively isolated islands. That's certainly bourn out by what I've read here - the complicated family relationships, communities where everyone knows each other, the growing number of incomers to the islands, and the way secrets are kept in a place where there isn't neccesarily much privacy. I do think she uses the weather as a character though, and that's something I found interesting too. This book is set in February which is very much still winter, with a few days that suggest spring. The wind is a constant physical presence (I had a real reminder of that when I was home this summer) as is the dark, and the rain, and that more than anything evoked the absolute spirit of Shetland for me.

So will I go back and read the rest of the series? Maybe. I enjoyed this one and it's certainly made me more curious about them. Cleeves doesn't go in for gory details (I'm not much of a fan of gore or gruesome ways of killing people) but police procedurals still aren't really my thing. If I found one on a bookshelf somewhere I was staying I'd definitely read it, as to picking one up in a bookshop - I guess I'll have to wait and see.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Passage of Arms - Eric Ambler

I've been meaning to read some Eric Ambler for a while, so was really excited by the news that the British Library were releasing some as part of their classic thrillers series. There's nothing like a new (to me, I know it's not strictly speaking new) book to push an author to the top of the to be read pile.

I know I've heard good things about Ambler before, certainly good enough things to mentally bookmark him, but I wasn't at all prepared for how much I would enjoy 'Passage of Arms' or just how good he would be. It was a proper light bulb/love at first read moment.

Written in 1959 'Passage of Arms' sits (apparently, this is what I read when I looked him up) in the second distinct phase of his career as a novelist (I think I've got a lot to look forward to). The late 50's isn't a time I know a lot about but there were enough cues in the book to remind me of the history I did know so I didn't end up looking much up.

The book opens in Malaya on a rubber plantation. The British army have shot some terrorists and the Indian estate clerk has realised they probably had a cache of arms hidden somewhere nearby. He's a young man with a dream that needs capitalising and a lot of patience, he manages to find the weapons and wait a good 3 years until it's safe to sell them at which point he goes to a Chinese business man.

From here things start to move, but before the arms can be sold its necessary to have a frontman for the deal, and ideally that would be an American. A suitable American is found and duped into taking part in the deal with vague talk of red China and selling communist guns to anti communists. The specific date the book is set isn't entirely clear but occasional references to McCarthyism are enough of a clue to start explaining the naivety of the American tourist who finds himself dealing with some very dodgy people in downtown Singapore.

Ambler's genius is in making the long lead up to the actual action, which mostly deals with the intricacies of setting up a small arms deal in a world of post colonial rebellions, communists, and Islamic revolutionaries, not just interesting but a gripping. It's also in making Greg and Dorothy Nilson's actions credible.

Why, after all, should a respectable, reasonably successful, middle aged American and his wife take such a risk? To answer that involves far to many spoilers, but by the end of the book all the pieces had fallen into place and it made sense.

There's something fascinating about a really bad decision, and all the smaller lapses of judgement and sense that lead up to it. Maybe it's the uneasy feeling that there but for the grace of God go I. In the end though, I loved everything about this book and can't wait to get stuck into more Ambler.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Hero of Our Time - Mikhail Lermontov

After a bit of a reading slump (and with a looming deadline to read something I'm not feeling terribly enthusiastic about) it's been a relief to find myself raving through a couple of books I've absolutely loved.

I picked up 'A Hero of Our Time' in Hatchards at St Pancras (there's something particularly agreeable about finding a reasonably good bookshop at a train station, it's as if the world is suddenly just as it should be for a moment) because it sounded like that rare thing; a Russian book that I might get on with.

I was right (and better yet it only took me a month to get round to reading it, rather than the usual gap of some years, but that's a matter of purely personal satisfaction) I did get on with it. The back blurb tells me it was the first major Russian novel, the forward says it's also the only Russian novel that truly belongs to the romantic movement. It seems it was both lauded and reviled upon publication (back blurb again) partly because it was suspected to be autobiographical. The hero is 25 year old Pechorin, he's "a beautiful and magnetic but nihilistic young army officer, bored by life and indifferent to his many sexual conquests". Some of the action takes place in the Caucasus (vivid in my imagination thanks to 'Samerkand') and there are brigands, smugglers, and Russian roulette (the promise of brigands and smugglers may have been the hook that sold me the book).

The introduction explains at length about how interesting this book is, how groundbreaking and influential, but it also stresses how enjoyable it is to read and on the end that's really what matters most to me on a sunny July afternoon. Neil LaBute describes Pechorin as 'One of the most vivid and persuasive portraits of the male ego ever put down on paper', he's a difficult character, both compelling and repulsive, but he's still a very young man in a book written by a very young man. Pechorin isn't allowed to grow old, and neither was Lermontov (it seems he was killed in a duel) so we'll never know what either of them might have been. Which as far as Lermentov is concerned is a shame.

'A Hero of Our Time' is cynical, ironic, funny, provocative, picturesque, and it mentions Sir Walter Scott's 'Old Mortality'. I can't offer any great insight into it, but I can wholeheartedly recommend it.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Polska - Zuza Zak

I'm quietly pleased by the growing trend in cookbooks that look to Eastern Europe. One reason for that is summed up in the opening paragraph of 'Polska'; "to understand a cuisine is to understand a culture. To understand a culture is to understand the spirit of a nation." Which builds on the quote that Zuza Zak chooses to start with; "The most vital attribute of food is its placement precisely on the border between the world of nature and the world of culture" ("Najistotniejsza cecha jedzenia jest jego umiejscowanie na granicy świata natury I świata Kultury", which I've copied just to see if the iPad would let me).

Another reason, especially with this book, might be that there's already a deep rooted cultural link that food enhances. The Białowieża forest is one of the last, and largest, remaining parts of the primeval forest that once covered Northern Europe, that's the remains of the forest that so many of our fairy tales have come from. I've never seen it, though it's high on my wish list of places to go, I wonder if I do get there if I'll find the same moments of recognition as I do on this book - memories of food I've never eaten but which come straight out of fairy tales.

On a less fanciful note (though half the charm of a new cook book lies in its potential romance) because the intention of this book wasn't to write a typical traditional cookbook 'but to create something contemporary, a love letter to the country I left behind.' there's little that can't easily be picked up in any polish shop or the international section of a supermarket. Lovage and lemon balm would probably be the hardest things to find, but as both are easy to grow (especially lemon balm which has totally colonised D's garden) they don't present much of a challenge. Handily the names which will appear on the packets/tins/jars/tubs are also given, that makes the Polish shop round the corner easier to use, and that's something else I like about this book - it'll take me out of Tesco's and into the community on my doorstep.

It's reassuring (at least, I find it reassuring) that these books are appearing, they're a long way from the Cold War image of queue's, shortages, and a grey uniformity (which is pretty much how I pictured life behind the iron curtain). In that sense they really do hint at the spirit of a nation, nations full of colour and flavour.

Other things I like about this book are that a lot of the meat and fish recipes serve 2 or 3 (the puddings on the other hand are designed to feed 10 - 20...). As someone who habitually cooks for only 2 or 3 people at a time it's refreshing not too have to think to much about scaling recipes down all the time. The breakfast and bread chapter has all sorts of good things in it; scrambled eggs with caramelised onions, semolina and honey porridge with raspberries (semolina pudding basically, but why not have it for breakfast?) a cinnamon apple bake which is basically a rice pudding with thick layers of juicy sweet apple sandwiching thin layers of soft sticky rice (which sounds like a great autumn winter breakfast). It's a slight readjustment of ideas towards families ingredients, and that's something that I always find exciting.

The cocktail chapter is also intriguing - a spiced chocolate martini made with cardamom infused vodka sounds very good, mulled beer has possibilities, and so does a bilberry or blackberry concoction with lime, vodka, brown sugar, and soda water. There are lots of dumpling recipes which beg to be made (I've never really cooked dumplings so this might be fun).

Finally, the photographs and bits of history, family memories, quotes, and other snippets give context to the recipes without overwhelming them. The overall effect really does feel like a love letter to Poland. It's a beautiful book.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Samarkand - Caroline Eden & Eleanor Ford

I've been in a bit of a slump since returning from holiday, there's so much going on (generally, work is busy, there are people I want to see, things I want to do) and it seems like no time to do it all in. Hours spent following the news haven't really helped with time management, and even though I could really do with escaping into a book I'm finding it really hard to concentrate on fiction right now.

Thank god then for cookbooks. I bought 'Samarkand' just before I went away (because it was irrisistable) and promptly buried it under a pile of other books. I dig it out last night and promptly got lost in it again the moment I opened it.

This is a book that explores recipes and stories from Central Asia to the Caucasus. Samarkand, in its role as a cultural crossroads is a starting point for this particular culinary journey. It's a part of the world that's mostly a total mystery to me, but it's a romantic mystery with all the associated history of the Silk Road, and just the kind of escapism I'm looking for.

My one criteria for buying a cookbook is that it pass the flick test - if the first two or three recipes found at random don't appeal then the book stays in the shop. 'Samarkand' got me on the first page I looked at - roasted peaches with marzipan and rose syrup. It's not a complicated recipe, though it does provide another pleasing hint of romance, it just sounds delicious and subtly different from anything I might normally do with a peach. (It led me to experiment with roasted apricots with a rosemary and thyme syrup with just enough butter added to make it slightly toffeed - something I can recommend...)

After that there were pages of salads and dips that sounded just as good, combinations of sweet and sour, sweet and savoury, familiar and new that were all beguiling. Even more so thanks to the beautiful photography. I'm not generally a fan of cookbooks that devote pages of potential recipe space to atmospheric images of spice markets, temples, or artfully piled vegetables, but I'm making an exception for this one. Perhaps because it sets out to give context to the recipes as well as the recipes themselves they don't feel like filler, or maybe it's just that the balance is right here, but either way it's a gorgeous book to look at as well.

For anyone already smitten with Persian, or Middle Eastern cooking, or who has encountered Georgian food (or fans of Olia Hercules fantastic 'Mamushka') the flavours and ingredients will be familiar, but the combinations here are different enough to be fresh. Or at least they're fresh to me, and there's nothing I like more in the kitchen then that moment where you take familiar things and with a minimum of effort meet them anew (a salad of grated courgette with pine nuts and poppy seeds was another flick test winner). I love this book!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Ask A Policeman - by members of the detection club

I didn't read much when I was on holiday (despite hauling a huge pile of books around the country with me), there just didn't seem to be much time for it, and since getting back I've been buried in textile books. I've already written about a few of them here (all of them should be appearing elsewhere in due course) but thought all of them on the trot might get a bit repetitive...

What I did manage to read, after picking it up at the Bodies From The Library day (it was a very well organised event right down to the chance to buy so many of the books mentioned) was 'Ask A Policeman'.

I'm not quite sure why it's taken me so long to come across this book, but I'm glad I finally have. The founding members of The Detection Club wrote a few joint mysteries, but what I loved about the idea of this one is that not only does it boast a couple of characters I'm reasonably familiar with (Gladys Mitchell's Mrs Bradley, and Dorothy L. Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey) but better yet the writers swapped characters (so Wimsey's chapter was written by Anthony Berkeley - and that's what sold the book to me).

You might think that would be enough, but no, it gets better. A newspaper tycoon (very much along the Rupert Murdoch lines which just goes to show that not much changes) is found dead, the suspects are an Archbishop, the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, and the Chief Whip. Add a liberal helping of red herrings and taking into account that nobody is taking themselves to seriously and there you have it - a book so perfect for me that I really, really, can't believe it's taken me so very long to find it.

I don't want to give anything away, but can safely say that it absolutely met my high expectations for entertainment, as well as making me want to read more Anthony Berkeley (especially Berkeley, but also Helen Simpson and Milward Kennedy - though they might be a challenge to find at an affordable price). Any fans of golden age detective fiction out there who've missed this - it's a treat.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Apricot and lavender jam is the best

I'm mostly recycling a post from last August here, but it means I can confirm that late night jam making in a Friday really has become a thing in my life and share again a recipe for what has to be a contender for best jam ever. It's not to sweet, it has the mysterious but evocative touch of lavender to lift it above the everyday, and it's a glorious colour. 

I've yet to actually enjoy an apricot in the raw (it's not much of an ambition, but there you go) the ones I buy are always disappointing, but cooked they do live up to their promise and as they're here now I intend to make the most of them...


Late night jam making, even (especially?) on a Friday is possibly one of those things that nobody tells you about becoming middle aged, though it's also possible, in so many ways, that it's just me. The crux of the matter was a kilo of ripen at home apricots which had gone directly from greenish with a consistency like granite to wrinkly, wooly, and on the verge of turning to mush with no discernible point of acceptable ripeness Inbetween.


I've learnt my lesson with ripen at home now - it doesn't, not properly anyway, and for what I assume is a sound scientific reason and not just my bad luck, fruit that's been bought under ripe like this boils like lava in the pan. I got a burn bad enough to blister (okay, so it's very small) to prove the point. That aside the jam - apricot and lavender from Diana Henry's wonderful 'Salt Sugar Smoke' is particularly good. It calls for a kilo if apricots stoned and chopped, 600g if sugar with added pectin, the juice of a lemon, and 3 heads of lavender. Everything goes in a pan and is gently heated until the sugar dissolves and the fruit is soft, then boiled in good earnest until setting point is reached when you remove the stalks and pot it. It makes about 4 pots, 3 stalks of lavender is plenty to give a distinctive flavour, more would be overpowering, and it is one of the nicest jams I've ever had.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Shetland Textiles 800 BC To The Present - edited by Sarah Laurenson

I may be back in Leicester but I'm still immersed in Shetland textiles, it's a fascinating subject not least because textiles tell us so much about social history, and to get a good overview of both the actual textiles as well as that history there's no better place to start than 'Shetland Textiles 800 BC To The Present'.

It's a chunk of time to cover, especially in only 200 (lavishly illustrated) pages, so there are a few omissions - or more specifically one omission I'd like to have seen covered - but what's really remarkable is how much is covered, and how thoroughly.

The early chapters deal with the development of the Shetland sheep (with a handy identification chart of the colours and markings (there are 63 examples given), early weaving methods, and the beginnings of a documented textile trade in Shetland. They also underline the point that thanks to being a useful stop off point for trade around the North Sea and the Atlantic, Shetland has never been as isolated as its position on a map of Britain might suggest. Trade with the Dutch, the Germans, Norway - all (and more) have been significant, and have left their mark.

Trade and the truck system are arguably what's defined Shetland knitwear - the most famous textiles from the islands. Knitting was an economic necessity for many families, and something that children could do to contribute to the household finances as well. Knitting wasn't a leisure pursuit, and as such the demands of the market have made their mark. The truck system is more problematic, and thoroughly explored here.

In short it was the practice of merchants to pay women with goods rather than money. Unfortunately the goods exchanged on this credit often seem to have been priced at a higher rate than they would have been for cash, and just as often limited to fancy goods or things like tea or sweets, but not oil for lamps or flour for bread. The most shameful thing about this practice; that although long since banned it took the Second World War to finally irradicate it.

I find myself wondering what effect the memory of truck has had on a generation of Shetland knitters. Even when the system had finally died a death and knitters were paid cash for their work it wasn't necessarily well paid work, and this is the bit I feel is missing from the story. There's something of a gap between the 1950's and the present day. What might fill that gap would also fill another book (one I hope somebody will write) the positive part of the story is a handful of interesting and innovative designers working in Shetland, often incomers, who succesfully mixed new ideas with old. The other half of the story is why a generation of women seemed to have turned their backs on knitting.

Meanwhile I've not even mentioned the tweed industry and weaving yet. A once thriving trade is now reduced to a single mill (which produces some glorious fabric). It's probably enough to say that I share the hope expressed here that it makes more of a comeback...

There are also taatit rugs, I bought back another book devoted to the taatit rug so there will be more about these to come, but briefly they're something that may well be unique to Shetland. Originally warm and durable bed covers they often seem to have been wedding gifts and unlike the patterns and motifs in Fair Isle knitwear the patterns on the early rugs have definite meaning. They're relatively humble objects which give a very particular insight into the lives of those who owned them.

Which leaves the present day; there are so many people doing exciting textile based things in Shetland that again it would be possible to fill a much longer book than this with them, its an ongoing story and one that I find endlessly interesting.

As I work through the collection of (heavy) books I hauled back in my suitcase I hope I manage to organise my thoughts properly on this, on exactly why it seems so important as well exciting (it's partly because so much of it is a story of female creativity) but for now my iPad is protesting at the length of this post so I suppose I should wrap it up.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Book of Haps - Kate Davies Designs

Like so many others I'm still struggling to come to terms with the result of the EU referendum and the stunning lack of a plan, or even any sign of leadership, from either the government or the Labour Party. Everything seems so uncertain at the moment which is not a state that brings out the best in me but it's the steadily increasing reports of racist incidents I find most disturbing as a sign of things to come.

Perhaps it's as well I have a stack of new textile books to bury myself in as a distraction, and particularly apt that the first off the pile is 'The Book of Haps'. For those who haven't been eagerly anticipating this book for months, didn't follow each design as it was revealed through late May, and might never have heard the word before a hap (and I need to be careful here because this is contentious) is something most people might recognise as a shawl. The difference is hard to pin down but in Shetland terms a shawl suggests something done in the very finest lace, a hap is a practical, everyday, working, garment.

They're apt because the original meaning of the word is 'to enfold, to cover, and to warm' - which certainly speaks to my personal desire to hibernate right now.

I did follow the previews of each pattern from 'The Book of Haps' Here by all 13 designers, and very interesting they were but most of them look well beyond my current knitting abilities so the patterns are only part of the reason I was interested in this book. (There are some stunning patterns though, so they're something to aim for.) The other reason was to read the essays about the origins and construction of something which is a particularly Shetland art form.

Davies has a nice anecdote about the difference between a hap and a shawl being about £1000 (the work in a really fine shawl is phenomenal). I have a hap that was knitted for me by a woman I think of as family, my mother has a fancier one that she was given when I was born and that my sister and I were christened in, the traditional ones are still likely christening gifts and as such for all their relative simplicity they acquire special meaning. This is something explored in a chapter that looks at one specific pattern that became ubiquitous across the world, knitted time and again for births, or handed down through generations as an heirloom these are special things that celebrate creativity and family (it was an unexpectedly moving chapter).

Altogether it's a fascinating book, as valuable for its academic contribution to how you might understand textile history as it is for the patterns and inspiration it provides. For anyone with even a passing interest in knitting it's well worth a look.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Back to Leicester

I'm back from Shetland, and to be honest not entirely happy about it. It's wet and cold in Leicester, the news seems to be uniformly grim at the moment, and I've come home to a moth invasion (the damn things are everywhere) which bodes ill for the yarn stash I've bought back. That and after all the joys of delayed flights and a long day I have work at 8am tomorrow.

On the plus side (and this is a big one) my father is a lot better. I do have a considerable wool stash to play with, and some excellent books on textiles and knitting to go with them. Bob the sourdough starter survived my absence and is now once more fed and happy, and none of the plants have died either. Being back will be a lot better when I've caught up with a few friends and caught up with myself - but the view from my flat does not compare to this...