Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Book Tokens

probably because I work in a bookshop nobody ever gives me book tokens, which is a shame because I love them. They're something we sell a lot of at this time of year, but they're also something I find myself recommending a lot to harrassed present givers who almost all have the same light bulb moment, so I'll add them to my gift suggestions here.

National Book Tokens can be used in any participating shop, but only for books. As far as I'm aware in the UK The Works doesn't take them, but any independent book shop will and it's a great way to support them. The only reason I wouldn't buy them is if they were for youngish children who might really want toys or stationery - which most bookshops also sell because disappointing small children isn't fun for us. 

If you have a good independent local bookshop, or know that your intended recipient has, that does its own gift vouchers it's a great way to support them and whilst I work for a national chain I strongly believe we all do better when there's more choice and good local competition - or perhaps more accurately, the independent shops around us can do things we can't which means a richer literary scene for everyone if we support them. The local bookshop scene across the English and Scottish borders is fabulous, and a testament to what supportive communities will get. 

The advantage of buying a voucher for a big chain are that most people will be reasonably close to a branch in Mainland UK and you get a wide range of games, jigsaws and other bits to choose from if you're not entirely sure books are what will be wanted. 

I like getting tokens because it's something to open, and then there's the anticipation of what I'll buy, followed by my final choice - it's nice to have something that can only be spent on a self-indulgence with no thoughts of saving or using it for a sensible cause (my front door apparently doesn't meet current fire regulations and will need work done to bring it up to code in the new year). 

I like giving gift tokens because I can direct the spending of whoever is getting it - normally the children of friends who have given me instructions - whilst still providing the excitement of getting a choice. Or because I know I'm passing on the same pleasure I get from them. 

Monday, November 27, 2023

The Iliad - Emily Wilson

This is a mildly embarrassing confession, but although I've read The Odyssey, I haven't read Emily Wilson's translation yet - despite having had it on my shelf for a while. I was reminded about this last week when someone returned a copy because they didn't like the deckled edge. A quick look on Wikipedia suggests they're not alone and that the misconception that it's a printing error instead of a design choice is a common one. I'm not overly fond of deckled edges either, but I do like it here with it's nod to our historical obsession with the Greek and Roman classics. 

Wilson's Odyssey was, and remains, a hit. The youth are also really into Marcus Aurelias, and locally I'm pushing Ovid's Metamorphoses because I really enjoyed it and it's so relevant to a lot of the very popular mythology retellings around at the moment. It's not really surprising that Wilson's Iliad would fly off the shelves either, and yet I don't know that I ever expected to see young women come in for a £30 hardback on publication day and leave with it and Bea Fitzgerald's 'Girl Goddess Queen' under their arms - but I did. 

The Iliad is currently being reprinted so it's not easily available online if you want a physical copy (that big website doesn't have it) but there are plenty around in actual bookshops and this might be on more teen wishlists than you imagine. And just generally on more wishlists. I got over-excited and bought my copy straight away - now I really need to make sure I read it before it comes out in paperback...

Girl Goddess Queen is a funny and smart take on the Hades and Persephone myth appropriate for teens and above - as an adult reader there were some repetitive bits I thought could have been cut, but that's most YA books for me. I really liked the combination of banter and historical detail on ancient Greek buildings and customs. 

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Stir up Sunday

I'm finally beginning to feel like all the meds are doing some good and that I might be able to leave not just my sofa, but even my flat for longer than it takes to collect my post - which will be nice. 

I had planned to spend this weekend doing pre-birthday and Christmas things including starting some biscuit baking. None of that has happened and whilst in the greater scheme of things it doesn't really matter it's something I look forward to; a tradition that reclaims a bit of Christmas spirit from the madness of Christmas in retail. 

It's probably why I have such a weakness for books about Christmas - I have the River Cottage one, Nigella Lawson's take on it, Kate Young's Little Library version (a definite favourite) a Gingerbread cookbook bought for £3 in The Works a long time ago that's surprisingly good, Annie Rigg's Gifts From the Kitchen, Anja Dunk's Advent, and a whole lot more with Chrismas chapters. 

I have never hosted a Christmas - although I've helped with a few, and maybe never will for more than 2 of us, and have very mixed feelings about the day itself. There's never enough time to enjoy it properly, it really should still be a 12 day festival season, and it brings up a lot of complicated memories. This year it's the absence of my friend Lorna who discovered she had cancer in January. The last things we did together before we knew she was ill were Christmas shopping and present swapping. I have just finished the coffee she bought me and have almost burnt through the candle she gave me with it. She's very much on my mind as is the family she left behind.

The mixed emotions Christmas brings as we get older are part of why I've found making my own traditions around the season so important. Puddings were made at the beginning of the month, a little earlier than actual Stir Up Sunday - and it's not too late to make one yet if you want a crack at it. It makes your kitchen smell amazing. 

Not that it matters what the traditions are so much as that we make time to share good things with the people we care about whilst we can. The specifics evolve anyway as life keeps changing and maybe my biggest constant will end up being to buy myself another Christmas-themed book each year and daydream about the perfect celebration whilst reading biscuit recipes. Lizzie Collingham's The Biscuit, The History of a Very British Indulgence is therefore my recommendation of the day. 


Saturday, November 25, 2023

Renard Press Christmas Cards

This week went seriously sideways on Thursday when I ended up in A&E and then admitted to gynecology. A month ago, or 5 weeks on Monday, I had a hysteroscopy (it's a camera shoved into your uterus with a whole lot of fluid) and biopsy. I've had very heavy bleeding ever since, so I'm now noticeably anaemic, very run down, and blood tests showed infection markers. I've had a hysteroscopy before, the aftermath was nowhere near this dramatic, I'm very fed up with being told that what's happening is normal. If it is then I certainly didn't give informed consent. I'm also fed up feeling useless at a busy time of year.

I feel like a case study from Caroline Criado Perez's Invisible Women, or a sofa bound side character in a Victorian novel. Peri-menopause is giving me a very different perspective on that stereotype. I'm not sure that Invisible Women, which makes me literally want to set fire to the patriarchy, is the best Christmas present, although it's an important book that I'd encourage anyone to read. Winter is a very good time for Victorian novels though, and if you're lucky enough to have down time between Christmas and New Year, Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs Oliphant, Anthony Trollope - all sound choices. 

Today's recommendation though is Renard Presses splendid Christmas Cards this year it's Hans Christian Anderson's The Fir Tree, beautifully printed and ready to disturb anyone unfamiliar with Hans Christian Anderson's storytelling. Renard have a really interesting list of older oddities and gems along with great contemporary fiction, especially if you're looking for queer voices, but I particularly love the Christmas book/card. It's the perfect thing to send that's more than a card, but isn't quite in full on present territory with the obligations and expectations that can bring. Also, they're just a really cool bookish thing that people like me really love getting. 


Wednesday, November 22, 2023


Twelve new stories, twelve great writers, one Agatha Christie. This is another book that did well last Christmas in hardback and is now doing quite well in paperback for this autumn. I managed the rare self-restraint of waiting for the paperback to come out, then entirely predictably did nothing about reading it until this week. 

Now I am reading it I really like it. I'm not exactly scaling back on present buying this year, but there's not much that many of my friends want or need that they haven't already got. I'm opting for things like well chosen (I hope) paperbacks and good quality coffee, biscuits, and other small indulgences (if anyone wants to give me a Terry's chocolate orange I'm very fond of them). 

Marple strikes me as an excellent small gift too. I'm more of a fan of Agatha Christie on the screen than in book form - she's amazing at plots, but not, in my opinion - though I'm not going to fight anyone on this, so good at character, but she's the Queen and I do enjoy her. I don't generally love other people taking on an author's characters but the detection club did it back in the day, and Christie's characters have long taken on their own lives. 

The 12 writers here are interesting, and not necessarily obvious choices either which really helps - they come from across genres so although there are a few crime writers on the list there are also names that I associate with science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction. And then I've really enjoyed the stories I've read so far - so this should be a winner for crime lovers, curiosity lovers, and fans of classic crime. 

I also recommend looking up the Detection Club titles, Ask A Policeman is particularly fun in that the writers involved swap their detectives and write some splendid pastiches of each other's work. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Brutto - Russell Norman

It's a terrible admission to make, but not only do I not own a copy of Polpo, I've never even really read it. Brutto came in briefly at the beginning of the month and then disappeared, it turned up again today and after a very brief glance bought it, then spent my lunch break looking at it in more depth. 

It looks amazing - it had me at Cucumber, Mint, and Celery leaf salad, and sealed the deal with a BaccalĂ  recipe - because yes, I have some salt cod to use and a lack of a good Spanish recipe for Bacaloa. I didn't realise it was an Italian thing too so this is lucky. 

Basically, the book is exactly what it says - a (simple) Florentine cookbook - full of food that sounds exactly the kind of thing I want to eat and is entirely accessible to the home cook. There are drinks too. That's everything I want from a cookbook. 

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Lost Realms - Thomas Williams

Amy Jeff's Storyland (lovely children;s edition now available) was a big hit in hardback my first Christmas back in bookshops, and then a bigger hit in paperback last year. Thomas William's Lost Realms feels like an obvious choice if you want to follow that interest in the early medieval world, it's ticking over at the moment, and I think that by the end of the year it'll prove to have been a considerable hit.

I haven't read my copy yet because it was immediately claimed by my husband - he says it's excellent. It concentrates on the forgotten kingdoms of ancient Britain - the ones '..that hover in the twilight between history and fable, whose stories hum with gods and miracles..' That was enough to sell me on it. Reviews have been excellent as well which is also encouraging, and what little I have read suggests that there's plenty of the sort of vigorous debunking that's always fun to read. It probably doesn't hurt that it's Anglo-Saxon adjacent given my current enthusiasm either. 

Saturday, November 18, 2023

The Winter Spirits; Ghostly Tales for Frosty Nights

I love a good ghost story, and as I've said (more than once) they're not just for Halloween - or perhaps it's more accurate to say that spooky season is from when the clocks go back and until they jump forward again.

The Haunting Season is a shop favourite for us, and Winter Spirits looks set to follow it. There are three (at least) excellent reasons to buy this - there's the great cover, shallow - but it looks splendid and that's a consideration for a potential present. Then there's the fun of a dozen contemporary ghost stories - this is not an anthology that's going to have any of the usual suspects in it. And finally it's a great way to sample the work of writers that might be on your radar but you haven't quite committed to.

I've been on the fence about Kiran Millwood Hargrave since really disliking Julia and the Shark - this is a good place to try again. There's a couple of other writers I've meant to read for ages as well so altogether this book makes me feel the same way as I do when I win approximately £9.20 on the lottery - thoroughly pleased with the world. 

Friday, November 17, 2023

A. S. Byatt

A very long time ago the friend I lost to cancer this summer gave me a collection of A. S. Byatt short stories as a Christmas present - I think we were still at school. I loved them, I read Possession and I loved that too, and I kept on reading her. 

I'm not sure what's in print at the moment, but if you've never read her seek out her short story collections and work from there. It's the best tribute to a wonderful writer I can think of.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Good Drinks - Ambrose Heath

I thought this book was out of print, but apparently it isn't and I highly recommend getting a copy. I have a decent selection of cocktail books that I really like, and though this one might not technically be the best of them it's definitely my favorite. I love the Edward Bawden illustrations, the mix of hot, cold, hard, and soft drinks, the inclusion of punches and cups, and most of all Ambrose Heath's writing.

A good drinks book is an extremely useful thing to have around as Christmas approaches, there's a strong argument for saying that a single cocktail is better than opening a bottle of wine, and even stronger argument in favour of soft drinks. Punches and cups are not as fashionable as they should be, but they're easy to scale up or down, and to keep relatively light on alcohol as desired - so the perfect party drink. They're also easy to adapt so that you end up with your own signature drink which is also a fun thing.

After years in the wine trade, one thing that frustrates me about bookselling is how resistant my customers are to buying good cocktail books - they buy the gimmicky ones, or the cheap ones, or the over complicated ones, and as a bookseller that's none of my business so I have to hold back on the lecture each and every time.

The lecture is this: if you're making drinks at home keep it simple, buy good quality but not over-expensive ingredients - pay attention to the ABV, it matters, get the balance of ingredients right and you're all good. Once you've got the basics you can start adding little twists - Alice Lascelles The Cocktail Edit is excellent for this. Or keep it really simple with something like Sipsmith's Sip - 100 gin cocktails with only 3 ingredients in each. Richard Godwin's The Spirits is another excellent and underappreciated book, and so is Kate Hawkings Aperitif - all are full of classics and good advice for making them perfectly. 

I couldn't say any of them have quite the wit of Ambrose Heath though, and if not all his drinks are drinkable - do not under any circumstances be tempted to make the Mahogany, it's a hellish combination of gin and treacle that I found absolutely unpalatable - most of them are. The number of hot drinks and soft drinks is also a bonus that most modern guides don't have - unless you buy a specifically alcohol free cocktail guide, and there are a lot more of those around.