Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Coming Soon...

It's the time of year for publishers catalogues to start making an appearance for the second half of 2016, something I generally look forward too (it reminds me a little of the Puffin book club from school days). As a modest sort of blogger I don't get inundated with these (it's always possible the shine might wear off if there were to many) and there are two in particular I look forward to. They're the Oxford University Press, and the British Library ones, and after a very enjoyable half hour with coffee, donuts, and catalogues I thought I'd share the books which have caught my eye.

With the British Library catalogue the appeal is obvious - a bonus feature is that it tends to have lovely illustrations, but essentially it's the list of upcoming crime classics that I get particularly excited by. I won't list all of these (though 'Crimson Snow' is such a splendid title for this years winter/Christmas themed short stories it has to get a mention) because inevitably I want them all. Horror A Literary History by Dr Xaviet Aldana Reyes sounds fascinating though and I'm really excited (possibly over excited) by the prospect of Lost In A Pyramid and other classic Mummy stories - that's surely going to be spectacular. The Haunted Library also sounds guaranteed to keep me happy. 

The joy of the OUP catalogue is its variety, the first things I catch my attention/go on my wish list is Gothic Tales from Arthur Conan Doyle. Helen Constantine's anthology Paris Street Tales has been earmarked for a friends birthday. Due out in August it sounds like perfect high summer reading. For myself The Mind of the Book by Alastair Fowler sounds fascinating. It explores the fine art of the title page and their place in the history of the book. Simon Yarrow's The Saints: A Short History covers a subject I really enjoy (5th century vampire slaying bishops - how could I resist?). Eleanor Barraclough's Beyond The Northlands which looks at Viking voyages and the old Norse sagas is the sort of book I want to read but take forever to get round too, so it's lucky it will appeal to D as well, another one to be filed as 'great gift'. He would probably love Caroline Shenton's Mr Barry's War about the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliment as well. We both love gothic revival architecture (we're a lot of fun to be around). 

I'm also intrigued by Peter Leary's Unapproved Routes, histories of the Irish border 1922-1972. It's something that interests me both in terms of Irish history, but also because we could still end up with a similar situation on the British mainland. Meanwhile new editions of Trollope's The Way We Live Now and George Gissing's New Grub Street are a reminder to read both, especially the Gissing who I'm definatley not well acquainted enough with. 

So there you go - some of the books I'll be particularly looking forward to over the next 6 months. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Cushion Cover

I'm very glad to be done with this project. Initially I thought it would make a nice birthday present for D, a year ago. I finished knitting it this Febuary so hopefully it will still make a nice present, at least it's done in time for his birthday this year (next week, I'm so on top of this, his cake is just out of the oven as well).

Finishing it was a definite achievement, it's the biggest thing I'd attempted, and confirmed everything I suspected about myself and the danger of losing steam half way through a thing and abandoning it for months on end. It also taught me a lot about combining colours, which I do not find as easy as I assumed it would be. So far I've come to the conclusion that you can either start with the limited palate that traditional fair isle patterns use (dictated by the colour of the sheep and I guess the dyes that could be made locally) and which I didn't have because they hadn't especially caught my eye. Or you should probably start with a particular point of reference for inspiration. I didn't do that either.

What I did have was a bag of yarn that I'd bought in the same way I might have chosen pick and mix sweets - a ball of everything that appealed to me, with no thought at all about how they might work together. The idea behind the cushion cover was that it would let me knit something sizeable with all those balls of wool and the variety of colours wouldn't be such a problem.

Mostly that's worked, and at least I now know how to make a better job of it next time - which can be summed up as plan everything properly. Meanwhile it'll be comfortable to sit on and I've become quite fond of it, faults and all.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Man I Became - Peter Verhelst

Translated by David Colmer.

I have a stack of Peirene books waiting for when I have the energy to really think about them, because they are books that demand and deserve some thought. (I'm waiting on blood tests, but the doctor thinks I'm probably anaemic which would explain the last few months of being really tired, headaches, and general crappiness - in which state I prefer something more comforting and comfortable to read.)

With time off and a train journey just the right length to be filled by a novella though it would have been positively wrong not to read at least one of them so I chose 'The Man I Became' by Peter Verhelst. It's from the fairy tale series and is narrated by a gorilla (or is it?) plucked from the jungle and trained to become human.

The introductory paragraph describes it as a mixing of Huxley's 'Brave New World' which I haven't read (and probably should) with Orwell's 'Animal Farm' which I have read and found every bit as depressing as Orwell could have intended. 'The Man I Became' on the other hand I found uplifting more than anything else, or at least hopeful (does that bode well for 'Brave New World'?).

The story starts with the gorilla's at home in the jungle (if the back blurb didn't specifically say gorilla I would have been wary of making the assumption, I don't think it's ever explicitly stated so much as implied, and that ambiguity is useful) but members of the group keep disappearing, until eventually someone comes for our narrator. After that the group is marched across a desert, caged in a ship, and then trained in boot camp conditions to pass as human, eventually some of them may even become human, but can training truly overcome instinct, and what are principles when it comes to self preservation?

On the most basic level the story races along because it's clear from the start that this is a set up that can only end up in some kind of disaster, and I wanted to know how it would play out - the answer to that question was unexpectedly satisfying, and in the end hopeful. Just under the surface the allusions to the historical slave trade, modern people trafficking - both refugees, and for those still essentially slaves - capitalism, the short comings of western culture, how we measure success, mould history, generally treat each other, and identify ourselves and others provide plenty to think about.

For me it's the history of colonialism along with its attendant fears for what assimilation of 'others' might mean that really looms large, but as with any good fairy tale there is room for far more than
one interpretation or moral. There's also a lot to consider regarding how we treat those we see as better than ourselves, and those we see as somehow less - socially, racially, educationally - pick your prejudice. But in the end all I can say is read it and see!

Saturday, April 30, 2016


Last night was the first preview night for 'Cymbeline' at the RSC and the only preview night that R and I could both make, so along we went. There are two things we like about preview nights, the most important if which is that they're considerably cheaper so we can afford to see things we couldn't otherwise justify, and see more. The second thing is the atmosphere, going on the first night means the chances of a less than polished performance are - well higher than normal, but there's generally a goodwill from the audience that more than compensates.

One thing I learnt when we went to see 'The Jew of Malta' is that an appearance from the director at the start isn't a good thing (that time it was to explain that half the cast had been struck down with flu - sick as they clearly were it was still a fantastic performance). Last night the director had a slightly more ominous message - they weren't ready. Not only had they not had a dress rehearsal they hadn't yet reached dress rehearsal stage. They were going to run through regardless, but the audience was also promised a full refund.

This was greeted by a general round of applause which seemed to surprise the director, but confirms my assumption that most of us there were on a tight budget. If it's any consolation to the RSC accountants we will be spending the money on more tickets for whatever we can get into next.

Cymbeline was a new play to us, the synopsis we read before hand so confusing, and that added to my general lack of whole hearted enthusiasm for Shakespeare meant I'd gone in with low expectations anyway. I get bits of Shakespeare but rarely feel whole hearted enjoyment watching the plays - it came as a huge surprise to find out how much I've loved the work of his contemporaries and immediate successors, that which I've seen anyway.

As it was Cymbaline, despite coming in at almost 4 hours, raced by. There were occasional fluffed lines, and clearly the production was still a work in process, but cast and crew were amazing. They worked really hard for the audience and essentially pulled it off. I can only imagine how nerve racking going on stage in those circumstances must be, but the central performances were excellent, especially Bethan Cullinane as Innogen, and Oliver Johnstone as Iachimo - genuinely chilling.

The only thing I wasn't convinced by was the effort to draw parallels between the events in Cymbeline and the current debate around the EU referendum. They're there but I feel it would have been better if we'd been left to work them out for ourselves rather than having the message hammered home. That's just quibble though, rather than a serious criticism.

What I do now want to do is read the play, or bits of it anyway. In this production Cymbeline is a woman, queen rather than king, and I can't imagine it any other way now. And that, if anything, is a measure of how good a job they did last night.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Vanilla Black - Andrew Dargue

I've been feeling a bit uninspired in the kitchen for a while now, not that I've stopped cooking but that it's gone back to quick basics and old favourites. There doesn't seem to be time for anything else (this may be because knitting is taking up much of the creative space that cooking used to) and then I've found myself out of sympathy with a lot of recently released cookbooks so there's been no spur to try new things.

Much like a garden I find a kitchen also needs regular tending too. Neglect it for a bit and all you find in the fridge are months old (dried out and unappealing) bulbs of fennel, something that was almost certainly a carrot, and an overwhelming temptation to just go out, buy a pizza and have done. There may also be a lot of half used jars of jam, some milk, and a bottle of vermouth but I'm still not feeling it. The cupboards aren't much better, discard everything that's ridiculously out of date because I was saving it for something special and I find a total lack of the useful things That are the building blocks of most recipes. Instead it's the culinary equivalent of weeds - basically a proliferation of caraway seeds (why do I have 5 jars of these?) and several different types of sugar.

I also feel like I'm eating to much meat - because it's quick and easy and everywhere, so in an effort to sort out both that and the lack of inspiration I went in search of a vegetarian cookbook. I used to have a few but they went in last years big clear out (underused and far to reminiscent of a vegetarian ex). Vanilla Black isn't the one I went out to look for but its the one that passed the flip test.

I can't remember which recipe really swung it for me - it may have been one of the cakes, but the one I'm making next is the mature cheddar and Savoy cabbage pudding, and that's what I love about this book. Charred asparagus and quails eggs with peas and lime isn't reinventing the wheel, but it sounds really good, it sounds like something I want to eat, and it doesn't sound like much trouble to put together. That's the kind of inspiration I need to get back in the kitchen.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Knitting Project

Dad gave me some lovely yarn when I saw him at the beginning of April - Jamieson's ultra cobweb in a natural white, and I thought two weeks would be more than long enough to knit a scarf for a friends birthday. I was a bit optomistic on the time scale, but after only 3 weeks I got it done, and finally gave it to her today so now I can share the details (which I'm doing because I'm really pleased with it rather than because I assume you're all interested...).

I had initially intended to try a slightly more complicated pattern but found I was making to many mistakes, so decided to go right back to basics and do something simple well. I like quick results so I'm always really pleased to finish something bigger as its a step in the right direction of taking on more interesting projects.

Half way through it occurred to me that as nice as the natural wool is to handle (so soft) creamy white isn't everyone's colour of choice, and R likes properly bright things so I decided to dip the ends in pink cold water dye, at the time I thought it would be the scariest part of the process (a lot of work gone if it hadn't worked, shrunk, felted, or done some other hideous thing) but it was fine (no reason for it to be otherwise). In fact the scary but turned out to be blocking the scarf, it stretched much more than I expected to, didn't fit on the towel I pinned it out on, and it became clear that if I made a mess of it, a mess is what I'd end up with.

It came out okay, but blocking is something I'll need to think about more carefully in future, the finishing really does make all the difference.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A day of Gin, Art, and Architecture

I'm currently enjoying a week off (really enjoying) work and today I've been to London, partly to see the In The age of Giorgione  exhibition at the RA - it was excellent, it's on until the 5th of June and I recommend anyone who gets the chance should go and see it.

It brings together as much work attributed to Giorgione as you're ever likely to see in one place (he died young, so there isn't so very much of it, but he was hugely influential) along with examples from his contemporary's and successors - mostly Venetian, but some great stuff by Dürer as well.

Before and after the exhibition I went on a gin hunt though. The first one took me to the City of London' distillery, it's not far from St Paul's cathedral which I'd never seen in real life before. I had a dramatic introduction to it, emerging from the underground to be greeted by a bolt of lightening and then a clap of thunder as I got my first glimpse. As the entry fee is a whopping £18 I opted to leave seeing inside until I have more time to do it justice. 

The City of London Distillery is just below St Brides church off Fleet Street, I wondered around a bit looking for it, walked past it once, and generally ought to have looked at the address instead of trying to make sense of a map on my phone (I'm not great with maps). What I wanted from it was a bottle of their Christopher Wren gin (bottle inspired by the cathedral, which they sell from behind the bar, with the stills just the other side of the room. The lovely man taking my money then told me that the guy next to me was Tom Nichol - the distiller. This was quite a big deal for me, though he wouldn't believe that I'd come all the way from Leicester to buy a bottle (okay it wasn't the only reason, but it was a big part of my plan for the day) said that he felt the product was overpriced (£42.50, it's by way of a birthday drink for D, so compares well to any grand marque champagne, but is the upper limit for what I'd spend on a bottle) and told me I could get it on amazon (all in the nicest possible way). 

I agreed about the price for general drinking purposes, but for what I want it for its perfect, and not excessive. Buying online means waiting in for delivery and not getting out to accidentally meet an industry hero. He promised I'd enjoy the gin (really good for martini's he says) then talked a bit about his work with Tanqueray and Gordon's (he's the man behind Tanqueray 10). What I didn't tell him was that I was also searching for a bottle of Tanqueray Bloomsbury, the last special edition he did for them before retiring. He was really lovely. 

I found my Bloomsbury bottle in Gerrys on Old Compton street, it's somewhere else I'd never been (almost as inexplicable as not having seen St Paul's before) so it was a good chance to explore Soho a bit more - increasingly sanitised, but still quite seedy. I'm really delighted with these gins, looking forward to drinking them both, and particularly after meeting the distiller behind them.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Agnes Grey - Anne Brontë

I'm half afraid to admit it but I'm distinctly ambivalent about the Brontë's; I quite like Jane Eyre but it comes with such a freight of criticism and interpretation to weigh it down that I find it harder and harder to enjoy reading it. Mr Rochester's defects as a romantic lead are as nothing to Heathcliff's though. If I'd read Wuthering Heights as a teenager I might have appreciated it more, as it is by the time I came to it in - in my 30's - however much I enjoyed it as a gothic masterpiece everyone seems do monumentally f****d up that it's hard to take it seriously.

Meanwhile there was 'The Tenent of Wildfell Hall' which has all sorts of interesting things to say, and is grown up yet subversive, so I probably should have read 'Agnes Grey' before now. Still, better late then never and after seeing something that Simin Thomas wrote about it I bought a copy on my way home on Friday night to read over the weekend. 

If the introduction is to be trusted (I'm sure it is) then it shows Charlotte in an extremely unflattering (but I'm happy to believe accurate) light, and suggests that the accounts of life as a governess closely reflect those Anne experienced.

I'm going to assume that anyone reading this will either already be familiar with 'Agnes Grey', or won't mind spoilers (there will be spoilers). So, starting at the beginning, at a time when the employment opportunities for ladylike young women were basically confined to governess we have a well educated but very inexperienced young woman heading out into the world to deal with other people's children. The social position of a governess is hard to pin down, separate from the other servants but still a paid employee, she must have all the accomplishments her pupils are expected to learn, and the right kind of accent and manners to teach them, but Agnes' so presumably Anne's experience is that she's also socially invisible. Agnes isn't a particularly assertive personality either and nor has she had any formal training to teach which undoubtedly adds to her problems when faced with deluded parents and incalcitrant children.

The first family seems to be made up of budding sociopaths (a lot of small animals are torn apart) and Agnes spends some time regretting that she isn't allowed to either box their ears or cane them with birch rods. It's impossible not to feel some sympathy for her point of view, they are horrible children, and how is someone who has neither the ability to punish or reward meant to maintain discipline in the schoolroom? Especially when the parents give the children no example of treating the governess with respect. Fortunately the job doesn't last long.

The next set of children are older and slightly less murderously inclined, and here too Agnes falls in love with the curate. He is in every way suitable - they share the same values and morals, are equally educated, have a similar class background, and no huge disparity in fortune. I wonder if Edwards extreme suitability, along with another portrait of an unhappy marriage to a rich man who drinks and gambles, are an explicit criticism of Heathcliff and Mr Rochester, or if Anne just shared my love of a reliable man.

At this stage Agnes's charges are Rosalie who at 18 is a vain and ambitious young woman, and her slightly younger sister who likes to swear and hang out with grooms. They're spoiled young women determined to have their own way, but I ended up having a degree of sympathy for their mother when she remonstrates with her governess. Agnes seems altogether too happy to loiter behind on walks whilst the girls talk to young men their mother doesn't care for, or to be sent off in errands that are more congenial to her when Rosalie is clearly making assignations, and if there's any chance of meeting Edward interest in her charges completely evaporates. It's human, but I'm not sure it's what she's being paid for.

Altogether it's a fascinating book, full of anger and frustration at the life so many unwilling young women must have been forced into, but also honest enough to leave me aware, sometimes uncomfortably so, of Agnes/Anne's deficiencies in her chosen profession. I'm so very glad that she chose to write rather than continue teaching, and sorry that she died before we could get more of her writing. Anne's work might not be as showy, but she's the Brontë who gives me some interest in the sisters and their collected novels, and provide some much needed balance to their passionate outpourings. Her books feel true, they have important things to say, and I'm sorry it took me so long to get round to reading this one. 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Serpents In Eden - Countryside Crimes

Edited by Martin Edwards.

There's nothing like a short story collection to see you through a weekend away from the rest of your books, and that's certainly one reason why I like them so much. The British Library collections have never failed me yet, and this one was no exception to that rule.

I say this every time but the series continues from strength to strength - at least I certainly think so. I loved this collection, Margery Allingham's 'A Proper Mystery' was my favourite - it's a dark tale of sabotage and vegetable marrows which manages to be as funny as it is tense, as well as a beautifully executed vision of country life -  and all without a single murder.

Leonora Wodehouses 'The Inquest' does have a murder, but also an unexpected (and pleasing) twist, it seems we really lost a talent when she died before she could really develop her literary career (she was P.G. Wodehouse's step daughter if you were wondering about the name). It's another highlight - these two alone are worth the purchase price - so the other eleven stories are quite the bonus.

It's hard to say much without either writing a list or giving a lot away, or just repeating how much I love this collection over and over again. (I really do). Which is why I've never understood why short story anthologies aren't much more popular, who couldn't get excited by the prospect of a bakers dozen of carefully chosen stories each with something unexpected to offer. For me these British Library collections are a chance to meet old friends and find new ones, which helps on those occasions when I find myself face to face with boxes of old penguin crime novels looking for a familiar name (Christine's book cabin in Market Harborough - it's in a shed at the back of a car park near the Co-Op if you're ever in the area - has just such boxes...)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Its World Book Night

World book night generally manages to pass me by, it shouldn't, I love the idea, and every year when I realise it's happening I think I'll get involved next time - and then fail too. As a keen reader this is a cause of some shame, I should try harder to share the joy of books and reading with those less keen - shouldn't I?

The important thing is that the opportunity to escape into a book is available to anyone who wants it and anything that promotes that is worth getting behind. This year I was sent a selection of author Q&A's and have chosen Ann Cleeves because - well because she loves Shetland, and so do I, but also because I found her responses interesting.

World Book Night 2016
Author Q&A
Ann Cleeves

3 favourite books of all time
This is almost impossible, changes daily and depends on what I’ve been reading most recently.
Le Grand Meaulnes (translated as The Lost Estate) by Alain Fournier is always on the list.  I love the set-up, the sense of the lonely son of a country school master and his friendship with the older boy who becomes a fellow student.  The plot is preposterous but readers are left with the idea of adventure, loyalty and mystery.
I’ve recently re-read Simenon’s Maigret novels and I’m a big fan.  Simenon can say so much with one simple sentence, and there are no monsters in his crime fiction.  I hope the recent television adaptation will bring in fresh readers.
To bring some cohesion to my choice I’ll add Side-tracked by Henning Mankell.  Translated fiction is still my reading passion.  Mankell’s hero, Wallender, is a very believable cop and Mankell does brilliantly visual first scenes.

3 books you would give to a reluctant reader
I’d suggest anything on the Quick Reads list. Quick Reads are books that have been specifically commissioned for people who are new to reading for pleasure.  The content is very definitely for grown-ups, but the language is relatively simple and the chapters are short.  The scheme has been going for ten years now so there’s plenty for people to choose from.  For instance, this year there’s a story by Lucy Diamond about pregnancy, an edited version of Malala’s story and a crime novel by me!  I wouldn’t want to recommend specific titles because reluctant readers have their own tastes and preferences like everyone else.  Part of the joy of reading is wandering into a library and taking a chance with a book.  So instead of giving 3 books, I’d give a library ticket.

3 outside places you like to read
I’ll read anywhere.  Of course we all enjoy holiday reading and there’s something wonderful about knowing that I can spend all day losing myself in a novel, without feeling guilty (though I still think I should be writing…) I don’t do beach holidays much though so often my outside holiday reading will be somewhere a bit chilly.  Luckily, Busta House Hotel in the North Mainland of Shetland has quite a sheltered garden.  I sometimes snatch time when I’m at home to read in my own garden.  A cup of tea, a lunchtime sandwich and a novel – what could be nicer?  For my 60th birthday my husband and I took an expedition through Bolivia.  He’s a passionate birder, so there were a lot of stops while he and the others tried to sort out various species of hummingbirds or to pin down the antbirds.  I did spend quite a few hours reading by the track in the rain forest waiting for them.

Favourite Shakespeare work
Othello.  I’m a crime-writer and Othello tackles very modern themes of obsessive love and jealousy. The plot could easily be up-dated to become a contemporary psychological thriller.  Iago’s a clever and manipulative villain, and Othello is a flawed hero whose lack of confidence makes him an easy target.  Desdemona is an independent woman who’s fallen love with an outsider.

Favourite Shakespeare quotation
Oberon’s speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxslips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight’
I was asked to learn this when I first started senior school and it seemed very grown up to be memorizing a piece of Shakespeare.  This is Oberon planning his trick on his wife and it’s almost like a spell.  The list of flowers and the heady language makes us feel as dreamy as Titania as she becomes enchanted.  It also reminds me of a very happy childhood.