Friday, August 5, 2022

Undefeated - The Muckle Ayre Stole

I started this stole more than 2 years ago, in the first 2020 lockdown. I battled with it for months and kind of grew to hate it. At the time it was the most complicated lace pattern I'd ever tried, and it was possibly just a little beyond me. It's still the most complicated lace pattern I've ever tried but I'm a slightly better knitter now and I've just knitted 10 rows without any obvious mistakes so keep your fingers crossed for me.

Two years in a project bag hidden under my bed hasn't done the stole any apparent harm, and it seems blessedly moth damage free (unexpected holes really would mean tears). Two years break from swearing at it has also reignited some of my enthusiasm for the pattern - I wonder if that'll survive trying to dress it (or if that day will ever even come)? 

Lace is hard work, it calls for a degree of concentration that fair isle patterns do not despite how complicated they can look. At least with colour work, you can see where you've gone wrong and rip back easily enough. Because the Muckle Ayre has no plain knit rows and a lot of yarn overs and knitting together of stitches going back is really hard. 

When I started this it was the first time I'd used lifelines, and the first time that I discovered they didn't necessarily work. The theory is that you can rip back to the lifeline, where you know all your stitches were correct, and start again from there. I did it a couple of times only to discover there weren't the right number of stitches left on the needle. There was swearing. Now I'm still using them almost entirely to be able to see how many repeats I've done. 

Still, after a couple of months hiatus from knitting (mostly heat related), a bit more progress on this beast of a project felt like a good place to start again. I haven't bought any yarn this year, which has made no noticeable difference to my stash at all - busting some of it will definitely be a winter project/ambition. This was my only wip, making progress on it feels almost symbolic of a wider ambition to clear the decks (the books really need attention). It's also a measure of how badly this project got under my skin last time. that even two plus years down the line I remembered I was 8 rows into the repeat. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Best Days With Shetland Birds - ed Andrew Harrop & Rebecca Mason

I'm currently reading several books at once for various reasons, and so far have lost the only one I've actually finished. It won't be far away, but it will be well camouflaged. Never mind. One of the books is Georgette Heyer's Powder and Patch which is the current #ReadingHeyer title - and this time I'm hosting the discussion on Twitter. We only started on Sunday and if anybody would like to join in please do. The hashtag will find us.

I bought 'Best Days With Shetland Birds' direct from The Shetland Times Bookshop, because it has a Howard Towll illustration on the cover (see his Instagram here) and I am a fan. I kind of assumed there might be more Howard in the book, and maybe some of Paul Bloomer's pictures as well as his words - wrong on both counts but in the end it didn't matter. I absolutely fell in love with this odd little book - it's easily the most delightful thing I've read this year. 

I was a reasonably enthusiastic bird watcher growing up in Shetland and continue to enjoy the birdlife when I was back there, but it wasn't a hobby that survived moving to the city until lockdown made it possible to really go out and see what was on my doorstep. It helps that peregrines, egrets, and the occasional red kite have colonised these parts, but even the peregrines do not punctuate the Leicester skyline in the way that gannets, terns, and bonxies define a Shetland summer. 

Best Days With Shetland Birds is odd because it's hard to classify. It's a collection of memories from dozens of people of the best bird days they remember. Some celebrate particular rarities, others great days with lots of good spots, there are celebrations of particular birding patches, and of some less glamorous sightings - the overall theme is enthusiasm and a sense of community. The weather might be awful, the birds reluctant to show themselves, car keys lost, but eventually each day delivers. In the process friendships between the birding community come to the fore as does a sense of what an amazing place Shetland is for bird watching.

My interest is the very mild sort, my expertise at identifying birds is basically non-existent once you get away from the really obvious species, and I'm probably not going to spend time learning which warbler is which but the appeal here is also in the number of birds listed that even I could spot. That's part of the magic of Shetland; find somewhere comfortable in a likely spot and you'll see all sorts of things. My favourite would be gannets diving for food seen from a likely spot on the shore, or listening to snipe drum overhead and trying to spot them on a summer's evening. Basically this book is an absolute gem if you have even the most passing interest in bird watching and you should definitely buy it!

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Equal Rites - Terry Pratchett

A major new Pratchett biography is coming out in the Autumn (Rob Wilkins 'A Life With Footnotes') and on the back of that Penguin have been throwing copies of Pratchett's novels at Booksellers like confetti (or possibly half bricks in socks). In my case 'Equal Rites' landed unexpectedly in my letter box and I read it again for maybe the first time in 30 years.

I had a big Pratchett phase in my mid to late teens, and for a couple of years would buy those books in hardback as they came out - if memory serves they cost around £16 then - they'd cost less now and never mind inflation, which tells me something about how much I must have enjoyed them back in the day, but by my early twenties I'd lost interest in the discworld and moved on. I sold my copies of Pratchett along with my Douglas Adams and Robert Rankins - I've occasionally regretted not having The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy to hand, but otherwise, it was the right decision. 

I thought there was no such thing as Young Adult literature when I was a teen, but 'Equal Rites' has made me rethink that. Who were these books aimed at if not students who had grown up with 'The Lord of the Rings' being read to them, and watched if not read Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja? These were books that delighted sixth formers and undergraduates everywhere. They must also have appealed to a few older readers ready to have gentle fun poked at a beloved genre, and now to older readers who enjoy the nostalgia of them, but to me, they were as Monty Python had been to the generation before me. 

It took me roughly four hours to read 'Equal Rites' last night. I vaguely remember how disappointed I used to be at how quickly I could race through these books when I was 16, now it's a bonus (but this time it didn't cost me what would have seemed like a good days wages). It's still funny, I still enjoy the way that Pratchett built his world and his delight in words, wordplay, and puns is a wonderful thing, but the reasons I stopped reading him are still there too.

As a teen, he introduced me and my circle to all sorts of ideas about social justice in easy-to-understand chunks. He threw in a whole lot of stuff about philosophy, religion, history, politics, and popular culture too, all of it perfect for discussing in a sixth-form common room, but eventually there's a lack of depth to it that made the idea of following 40+ books feel exhausting. A little Pratchett can go a long way.

That said, I'm starting on the copy of  'Guards! Guards!' that was floating around the staffroom just for the fun of the wordplay (and because Grimes boot theory is possibly Pratchett's greatest moment) and it's good to get reacquainted with this particular old friend. These are serious times, and after a depressing episode of listening to the news, there's no better antidote than a writer with Terry Pratchett's kindness and humour. There's a hopefulness about 'Equal Rites' that was even a match for listening to Liz Truss be interviewed. I need that right now, as I think perhaps a lot of us do. 

Thursday, July 21, 2022

The Queen of Nothing - Holly Black

I didn't mean to take a 2-week break from blogging but it's taken me longer than I hoped to recover from covid, and that mixed with work, the record-breaking heat this week, and writing thank you letters for wedding presents hasn't left me with much energy. Basically, I've been asleep for as much time as I possibly can be. 

My reading has been patchy as well; a lot of dipping in and out of things for work but none of them have really held me - which in bookseller speak is "I've just started this one and it's really good so far...". There are a whole lot of started books next to my bed which I really need to do something about - either finish or pass on, as much to get the space back as anything else. 

Holly Black's 'The Queen of Nothing' wasn't part of that pile, I actually read it when it first came out but never got round to writing about it. It was free on audible though so I listened to it again and remembered how much I liked it (I find it's a waste of time listening to books I haven't read, I don't take them in properly, and then struggle to read them because it all seems vaguely familiar).

As someone who doesn't read masses of fantasy or young adult fiction, I'm genuinely a fan of Holly Black's work. I love her world-building, the way she uses folklore and fairy tales, her characters, and I guess her morals for want of a better word. The Folk of the Air series was fun from start to finish, and though everything feels nicely resolved I'm quietly pleased to see there's a duology in the offing that picks up the story of a couple of the younger characters a few years down the line. 

In the very best fairy tale tradition our heroine Jude, the exiled Queen of Fairy fights monsters, breaks curses, finds a bit of magic for herself, and gets a happy ever after. She also gets the character development and growth that she missed out on in the second book - because crucially it was love interest/hero, Cardan who was doing all the growing up in that book. 

I don't want to give spoilers here even though the books been out for ages, but be assured that it's suitable reading for younger teens with adult themes but not too adult, well written, and the sort of thing that anybody might like - as long as they like fairytales. Holly Black has become one of my go-to's for when I'm feeling under the weather and want something absorbing but not heavy to lose myself in.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

The Three Dahlias - Katy Watson

It's been a full-on post covid week - back to work (exhausting, but not without its upsides) and an even more full-on week in politics which I've been glued to, but now the main excitement seems to be over it's maybe time to think about a nice calming book.

In this case, Katy Watson's The Three Dahlias which I managed to read whilst I had Covid and couldn't concentrate on much else. I thought it might be fun, and it really is, a book that for me delivered more than it promised. 

I don't much like contemporary cosy murder mysteries that set themselves in the Golden Age, with so far the single exception of Martin Edwards books I find they try too hard, and there are so many great actual golden age murder mysteries I don't want to mess around with imitations. What Katy Watson does is really cleverly take all the conventions, tropes, and cliches and bring them nicely up to date with all the affection for the originals I could ever want. 

The three Dahlias of the title refer to 3 actresses who have all played the fictional, fictional, character of Dahlia Lively - creation of Lettice Davenport, the one-time Princess of Poison, aristocratic writer, and mystery woman. There are references to Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, Daphne du Maurier (if you take Aldermere to be a sort of Menabilly), and I suspect if I hadn't been full of Covid I'd have recognised more. The Dahlias are Rosalind King, a national treasure who played the lady detective in 3 films in the 1980s, Caro Hooper a 40 something actress who had a 12 year run at her in the early 2000s but isn't known for anything else, and Posy Startling a washed-up child star with a bunch of scandals behind her trying for a comeback in a new film version.

There was a nice symmetry reading about fan reactions to the fictional script whilst the fuss about the new Netflix Persuasion was in full throttle. All 3 actresses find themselves at Aldermere, the country house where Lettice lived, and set her mysteries for a convention, initially they're not impressed with each other, but then someone goes missing and bodies start piling up. The first death might be an accident but it bears a startling resemblance to a Lettice Davenport plot, and the ladies are suspicious.

As the book progresses so does their friendship. They discover they were all being blackmailed, show their professional mettle in various non-murder-related ways, and settle down to use their combined knowledge of the people involved, observational skills, and Dahlia Lively channeling to solve the crime. The police are not impressed - which is one of the clever touches; Watson lets us in on the joke. 

The ending sets up a possible second adventure which I very much hope will come to pass. I'd also love to see this televised. The idea of 3 women of varied ages having fun with this plot on screen is a really delicious prospect. For lovers of classic crime, this is an affectionate homage with a nice twist that makes for an excellent light read. It's rich enough in detail to make me think I'd happily read it again to pick up more references. Altogether I really enjoyed it. 

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Food Made in Shetland - Marian Armitage

I'm finally testing covid negative and starting to feel considerably less under the weather. My sense of smell has come back, I have more energy, and the dizziness has stopped - I think I'm probably going to feel somewhat grotty for a while, but am definitely on the mend. People, take the current varients of Covid seriously! It might be relatively mild but it's still utterly miserable. 

Meanwhile, tonight is the official launch of 'Food Made in Shetland' by Marian Armitage, the second book from Misa Hay's 60 North Publishing company. At the moment it's only available through a few local retailers and Misa's Shetland Wool Adventures website. 

I've corresponded a little with Marian in the past, mostly about rhubarb, she's both helpful and knowledgable and I'm very much a fan. I haven't got her earlier cookbook; Shetland Food and Cooking (available here from the Shetland Times bookshop) mostly because it's been stubbornly out of print whenever I've been home and thought about buying it. Now I've read through 'Food Made in Shetland' it's gone right back up to the top of my wish list.

Marian's whole professional life has been based around food, a lot of it teaching food and nutrition in schools. It's a background that makes her instructions admirably clear and that leaves me confident that even relatively complicated recipes (pastel de nata) will turn out as hoped for. More than that it reminds me of the excellent home economics teacher I had at junior high in Shetland, who more than anyone inspired my love of cooking and confidence I could do it. She taught me for a bare 2 years when I was 12/13 - good teachers really are the best.

For 'Food Made in Shetland' Marian has a series of chapters that focus on ingredients that are easily available in the islands - so fish, eggs, and dairy produced locally (milk, cream, buttermilk - nobody is currently making cheese), beef, lamb/mutton, and pork, vegetables and fruit that are increasingly being homegrown again, and home baking which is a big feature of Shetland life. Beyond that, the recipes aren't particularly traditional - which is also kind of traditional. Shetlanders travel, and bring back or send back all sorts of things, recipes and flavours included.

I was going to try and describe what 'Food Made in Shetland' was not, but got tied in knots, so I'll tell you what it is - a really good snapshot of the sort of food people are eating in Shetland, made from the really amazing ingredients that are available there. It might be light on the still popular mince and tatties kind of plain food, but it really celebrates what can be done despite the sometimes limited growing opportunities, and some of the more exciting projects happening - especially when it comes to growing more fruit and veg.

It's also a really beautifully produced book, so do check out the link to the Shetland Wool Adventures shop and consider ordering. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Book of Night - Holly Black

I've read most of Holly Black's young adult titles - certainly all the Fairy-based ones and really enjoyed them. I think she's a really interesting writer, a great world builder who incorporates all sorts of established myth, folklore and fictional sources into her work. Those books are funny, smart, complex, interesting, and entertaining. My relationship with YA is a bit uneasy, on the one hand, there are excellent writers doing interesting things, on the other I'm a bit old to want to read many books aimed squarely at a teenage audience - and that's just fine. 

News then that Holly Black was writing a book for adults was more than interesting, I bought this the day it came into the shop - and then sat on it for a couple of weeks, nervous that I just wouldn't like it that much. For the first 50 or so pages, I didn't. And then I clicked with it. The tone is definitely different; it's much darker and grittier than the already quite dark teen books, and whilst there's a supernatural/fantasy element it's miles away from the established fairy tale world I associate Black with.

Here, the heroine, Charlie Hall is a bartender and recovering con artist. She's been shot and is trying to go straight, but it's not entirely working for her. She lives with her sister, Posey, and boyfriend Vince who is himself something of a mystery. It's a contemporary world, but one where shadows can have a life of their own and confer powers on those they belong to, they can also be stolen. 

The feel of the book is distinctly noir - I'm thinking of Ross Macdonald, Margeret Miller, Vera Caspary, Sherwood King. Charlie has seen something she shouldn't have, started looking for answers, and found herself in more trouble than she wanted. She also keeps coming up against the mystery of Vince who has always seemed too good to be true.

It took me a while to care about Charlie, but when I started to the book really took off for me. Black is good on morally ambiguous characters and Charlie perhaps isn't quite the mess she first seems to be as her character fills out. There's quite a bit of world-building to get through - I think I'm right in saying this is part of a duology - which also slowed things down initially, but worked as the book carried on. Especially with the character of Vince...

Altogether it's definitely a Holly Black with a  lot of her characteristic flourishes, but distinctly different in mood to her YA books, and in the best way. One of the things that makes me uneasy about Sarah J Maas is the way that her A Court of Thorns and Roses series reads like teen fiction with a lot of added smut. Black has never really done smut and doesn't do it here either (there's some sex but she's all about the plot), but she nails the 30s state of slowly losing time to turn things around and the sense of your choices starting to define you.

It's been a really successful hardback, and if you like something a little bit dark, with a fantasy element that still feels grounded in our own world, lots of twists, and a good mystery I recommend it. 

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Got Married, Got Covid, Got Home

It's been a big few weeks - the wedding went well, I think - and we certainly enjoyed it, apart from an outbreak of Covid that seems to have hit about half the guests including me. This despite the whole thing being outside.

I have books to write about and other things, but first, there's a little bit of wedding wisdom to impart because it's still all new and exciting and I'm not quite ready to stop thinking or talking about it yet.

We did this on a fairly small scale, just over 50 people, and all very much homemade. We couldn't have done that if we'd gone much bigger (there was a lot of washing up) but as it was it worked really well. We ditched everything we're not wild about at weddings - including a photographer which I don't regret, but it would have been a good idea to draft people into taking specific photos. They may yet turn up. 

It meant we could spend the budget on things that really mattered to us - food, drink, shoes and also that there were no unpleasant surprises to stress over. It turned out to be really hard to find a good, fresh, whole, salmon - after a couple of days and a bit of hunting, I managed to get two whole fillets instead - bone-free and quicker to cook. It was the first thing to get eaten, but I could have done something else as necessary. The single best thing I bought was probably a 4 kilo wheel of stilton (about half a whole cheese) from the market in Leicester. It made an excellent centerpiece, was immensely popular, fed us through a couple of days of clear up, and is still just about hanging on back with my dad. It was a great bit of Leicestershire to take with us.

I had 3 weeks off work for this, and taking 2 of those before the wedding was every bit the great idea I thought it would be. Even better given the covid situation because we got to the big day fairly chilled and well-rested having had a really nice time together sorting stuff out before people arrived. The week after the wedding was probably always going to be a bit of an anti-climax, but with no big plans to be ruined by a positive test result being ill hasn't been the big deal it could have been.

Shoes! I always knew where these were going to come from; Pavilion Parade in Brighton. I fell in love with this pair which were happily in my size although we did also look at different bits of fabric to make a bespoke pair. They're more or less all 1 offs anyway and after speaking to a couple of friends I realise that going grass colour (chartreuse) was an accidental stroke of genius. It was dry anyway but my shoes look pristine whereas a lot seem to end up thrown away due to grass stains. I love that I can wear these again whenever an occasion presents.

And that's about it, I'm still reeling from a mix of mild fever and people's generosity; friends did flowers, played music, and put us in touch with men about tents, and breweries. My mother and sisters cooked, cleaned, and cleaned some more, and people face us lovely things and lovelier memories. I hundred percent recommend getting married - it genuinely was one of the very best days of my life, arguably the very best to date. 

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Strawberry Cup

Wedding preparations continue with the new hiccup of my youngest sister (at home with father and stepmother for the weekend) testing positive for covid. The main thing is hoping she's okay, not too miserable now, and stays free of long covid - but it does put a question mark over Shetland Family getting here in time - which is, in turn, a sign of the times we live in.

Looking for a suitable punch or cup recipe has at least been fun. After regretfully dismissing the clarified milk punch the next one we tried was a winner - Strawberry Cup. The recipe comes from Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks' first published in 1939 - a time even more complicated than our own. As regular readers will know I use this book a lot, it's full of drinks forgotten enough to feel new, is admirably simple to follow, and has provided me with some absolute gems.

The strawberry cup calls for a pound of strawberries - that's very roughly 450g, wild being best if you can get them. I can't, it's too early, and although there are plenty of them around here it would take a long time to gather half as many, so supermarket it is - the best strawberries I had last summer came from Morrisons, I don't know what type they were but they were head and shoulders above M&S and Waitrose berries.

Chop your strawberries up a bit (unless you do find wild ones in which case you're good) and put them in a bowl with half a pound (or half the weight) of sugar, leave to macerate for at least an hour. Then add 3 bottles of hock - this is the cheap, sweet, low alcohol (9% abv) German wine that mostly gets overlooked by anybody too young to remember what we drank before the 1980's. It's not got the best reputation now, and what you can buy in supermarkets is basic compared to what Ambrose Heath would have known back when German wines were better appreciated here - and this is just fine for our purposes. Put the mixture on ice and leave until needed, just before serving add a bottle of iced champagne - or as I will be doing something like a Cremant de Limoux.


We made a scaled down version of this to try - it's not overly potent and quite sweet - but in a very enjoyable on a hot summers day way, very much in line with Pimm's. I'm thinking I might add a bottle of soda water into the mix to cut the abv further, and possibly some strips of lemon peel to counter the sweetness just slightly. Borage flowers would be great if you had them, or a couple of leaves of mint would work too. If you want an easy alternative to Pimm's with its own distinct character and low enough in alcohol that you can drink plenty of it without falling over of falling asleep this is an excellent contender.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Clarified Milk Punch

This is a thing I've thought about making for a long time, and thanks to Richard Godwin's admirably clear instructions which managed to make it sound less trouble than the old versions I've seen (and came in less terrifying quantities too) I've finally done it. This was partly in search of a good wedding punch - which I'm not sure this is, and also because this week I've got the time to have a go at things like this. 

What the milk punch has going for it is that it's relatively low in alcohol, has a wonderfully silky texture, an impressive history (it's associated with Aphra Benn), and is shelf-stable. What puts me off is that filtering it through a V20 paper took hours and that on first sip neither of us were entirely sure what to make of it. Almost a glass down I'm much more enthusiastic. Doug is asleep so unable to comment. 

There are things I could change - the Lady Grey tea I used and the Star Anise (I don't hate it, Doug really isn't a fan of aniseed flavours) could go in favour of other things, and I think I'll definitely make this again but to do it in proper party quantities would mean finding a slightly quicker way to filter it. The creamy texture and the fact it's clear are both impressive things though, so if you do have the time and curiosity definitely give this a go. The link to the recipe I used is HERE and Richard Godwin is absolutely worth a follow if you're interested in drinks.

Glamorous image, I know, but this is made with Milk, and look at it!