Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Emily of New Moon - L M Montgomery

I loved the 'Anne of Green Gables' books as a child reading my way through the series a few times but until fairly recently was unaware that Montgomery had written anything else. I found a copy of 'The Blue Castle' last year though which was thoroughly enjoyable and now that her works are out of copyright it looks like there are going to be plenty more to discover. Virago released the 'Emily' trilogy late last year and have 'Jane of Lantern Hill' coming out in a few months and these being paper books from a beloved publisher are the ones I'm most interested in but it also looks like everything is available as ebooks.

I wasn't entirely sure how much I'd enjoy 'Emily of New Moon' - beloved children's authors don't always stand up to adult reading. 'The Blue Castle' was fun but specifically billed as an adult book whereas 'Emily' sounded more like something meant for children, I added it to my Christmas wish list anyway and was more than happy when mum obliged with a copy. Initially it seemed my worst fears would be realised - Emily is an annoyingly winsome child living with her adoring father in a dream of poor-but-happy domestic bliss, fortunately for the reader though he's in the final stages of consumption and soon dies leaving Emily orphaned, penniless, and in the hands of her mother's estranged family. They make her draw lots to see who will take her on which is how she ends up at New Moon farm with aunts Elizabeth and Laura and Cousin Jimmy.

When the book opens Emily is around 11 years old and the first half is mostly taken up with how she settles into her new life, makes friends, and survives all the pitfalls of childhood. Emily isn't a precisely beautiful child but she has a great deal of charm and personality as well as a burning desire to write and the imagination to go along with that. Her school teacher and aunt Elizabeth might find her exasperating but most the other people who come into contact with her are instantly and deeply charmed. I managed to be charmed too - Montgomery is good at showing the injustices that can make up a child's life - the callous way her fate is decided, run ins with her horrible teacher, the minefield that adolescent friendships are made up of - are all done brilliantly.

The second half of the book deals with more complex and increasingly adult issues. One thing I didn't much enjoy from the first half is the way that Montgomery has Emily narrate through a series of letters to her dead father complete with spelling mistakes, these slowly disappear which is a relief. In there place are a number of relationships; there is Ilse, a tempestuous and neglected child with whom Emily has a stormy friendship with just an occasionally competitive edge to it, Perry the houseboy with ability and ambitions who falls in love with Emily almost at first sight, and Teddy Kent who seems to be the boy that Emily prefers. Teddy's mother is the curious thing here, she's obsessive in her love for her son going as far as poisoning his cats when she feels he's become to fond of them. There is also Dean Priest, a sort of cousin in his 30's who rescues Emily after she's fallen down a cliff and is so enchanted with her that he decides to wait for her to grow up.

For a modern reader Dean is quite unsettling in a way I don't think Montgomery intended. He too, it seems, falls in love with something in Emily at first sight but she's only 12 at this point and it turns out that he was a friend of her fathers. They develop a friendship of their own which is all quite proper except for the lurking suspicion that Dean is waiting for something more and this is how the book ends. Emily is 13, she's leaving childhood behind, there's a consensus that she has some talent as a writer with the possibility of a career ahead of her, and there are all the makings of a few love triangles and tragedies ahead. I have ordered the rest of the trilogy so guess I'll find out what happens next soon enough.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Apricot Jam - Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

Summer homework before I started my English A level was a reading list from which we had to choose a book ready to talk about it at the beginning of term. 16 isn't an age I would want to be again but I do sometimes have a wave of nostalgia for how much things seemed to matter (and the lack of responsibility). It was a longish reading list which inevitably had 'The Catcher in the Rye' on it (I didn't take to it then and can't imagine I'd like it more now), 'The Mill on the Floss' which was the book I chose to read and which has given me a lifelong indifference to George Eliot, the only other book I remember on it was 'One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich' which had a profound effect on me and I only chose to read it as well because it was so short.

If there's one thing a 16 year old can be sure of relating to it's the crushing unfairness of life when you're on the wrong side of Stalin. I've read 'One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich' many times since and still find it a powerful book but I never got much further with Solzhenitsyn. I got a review copy of 'Apricot Jam and other stories' sometime late in 2012, read the title story and no further but recent attempts to tidy up unearthed the book and made me think about it again.

What I realised reading 'Apricot Jam' was just how much 'One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich' had coloured my view of communism - the distinction between Stalin and communism was more than my 16 year old self was likely to grasp (George Orwell didn't help either). 'Apricot Jam' expressed that same burning sense of unfairness - it was all very terrible, depressing, and Russian. Life not being fair is still something I find it easy to relate too but when I first tried to read this book it was certainly one a distraction. I'm not sure why but I don't think I expected Solzhenitsyn to still be having the same conversation, maybe because when I was 16 the cold war was journalism rather than history and because reading this no longer had the shock value that 'One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich' had for me when I first encountered it. Whatever the reasons I found it impossible to evaluate this book but having found it again it's definitely time to put it back on the tbr pile and have another go.  

Friday, January 24, 2014

Roast Figs Sugar Snow - Diana Henry (Again)

I've written about this book before back in July 2012 (it was a cold summer, certainly cold enough to make a wintery cookbook very attractive, and on a wet January evening that's not a happy thought) but to my shame I don't think I've really looked at it since. I guess for many of us with a serious cookbook habit buying them, looking at the pictures, and then routinely cooking the same old things is a common fault. In my case my eating habits are partly dictated to by my work pattern (late finishes followed by early starts encourage a love of sardines on toast and similar) and partly by living mostly alone. Cooking for one is - well everybody who does it knows exactly what it is - and sometimes it feels like to much effort. I love to cook but I far prefer to do it for a broadly appreciative audience (and that's at least half of my love of baking explained - cake is easy to share and generally enjoyed), anyway I got my audience last night. It was my mother's birthday this week and she wanted cooking for as her present which suited both of us.

Diana Henry has a new book coming out in March which not only looks great (I'm really very excited by the thought of having another cookbook top add to that collection) but is reminding me of just how much I like her food so 'Roast Figs and Sugar Snow' was an obvious place to look for inspiration. I didn't need to go any further finding a perfect recipe straight away - Danish roast pork with pickled prunes and sweet cucumber.

Unless somebody really hates it pork is my preferred meat to cook for guests, it's a particularly good tempered food in so many ways, especially when, as in this recipe, it's a cut like belly. Principally it's great because it seems all but impossible to overcook it, between the fat in the joint and the liquid it's cooked in it just gets softer and meltier in the mouth if you have to hold it back half an hour or more. I also appreciate that it behaves so well with wine, working with both red and white (depending on the seasoning and sauce of course) and I definitely don't mind that it tends to be cheaper/ better value than pretty much anything else I can think of.

This recipe sums up everything I love about this book and about Henry as a writer. I had everything to hand bar the pork and a cucumber but without this book this isn't how I would have used them. I feel like I've learnt something (always a bonus) as well as having an utterly satisfactory afternoon off in my kitchen and a lovely evening with family and friend - everything that makes cooking a pleasure to me in fact.

The pork itself is anointed in an aromatic mix of fennel and coriander seeds, salt, pepper, and oil, blasted at heat to get a good sizzle and then left to slowly get on and do it's thing at a reduced temperature whilst liberally bathed in white wine. The last time I use coriander and fennel seeds was to make a curry and I find it fascinating the way the same spices can be used to create such different results (and the fact that does fascinate me is why I'm so passionate about wine and food generally, and also fairy tales). We were perhaps all a bit doubtful about pickled prunes but they too were fantastic and are something I'll use again but the real revelation to us was the cucumber. That it was a revelation to all of us probably says a lot about my family's attitude to cucumber (we slice it into a salad and that's about it) here it us sweated with salt for a couple of hours before having a dressing of rice wine vinegar, sugar, and dill poured over it. It worked brilliantly with the sweet fatty pork and the sweet juicy prunes, and was also excellent with some smoked salmon. So basically it's good food that's perfect for sharing, not least because it doesn't demand much attention once it's under way so you can actually enjoy the people you're with.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Macsween Haggis Bible - Jo Macsween

It's almost Burns night (25th January) so is the very height of haggis season. My personal appreciation of haggis came late in life but it's something I'm quite keen on these days. Burns night falls on a working Saturday for me this year so I'm forgoing any sort of formal celebration but there will likely be haggis anyway and it will be Macsween's (easily available south of the border and by far the nicest I've found) even if it's just the microwavable slices they do (brilliant invention) with an egg and on toast, rather than with neeps (turnips/swedes) and tatties (potatoes).

My partner, who made me eat haggis until I liked it, has always been a bit of a purist concerning the neeps and tatties until a magnificent haggis in a bun persuaded him that the rules could be relaxed slightly. I bought 'The Macsween Haggis Bible' the same day in the hope that I'd find lots of inspiration in it. Truthfully I don't think it's a brilliant book in terms of recipes. Delicious as haggis toasties or haggis in a baked tattie they hardly need explaining and a recipe for haggis lasagne which is basically lasagne with a little bit of haggis added to the mince underwhelmed me. On the other hand there's a lot of information about haggis generally - how best to cook it, what to drink with it, and things that go well with it which are both useful and interesting. There is also a vegetarian section for Macsween's also do a vegetarian haggis - it tastes nothing like the meaty version but is very good in its own right and is well worth exploring for those who don't like the idea of the real thing, or of course for vegetarians.

Burns night feels like it's becoming increasingly popular in England, I have more and more people asking me about whisky for it every year as well as looking for a good wine match, the end of January is a good time for a bit of a celebration of anything so be it Robert Burns or haggis itself I'm all for it. I'm also all for celebrations of traditional foods though one of the things I like about this series is that it celebrates iconic brands as much as the actual product they make - not just haggis but Macsween's Haggis (and Stornaway black pudding which is also easily the best black pudding I've ever tried). So all in all what I'm trying to say is that this is a book that's worth having a look at and haggis is a food worth exploring.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Regrets, I've had a few...

But none greater than not buying more bookshelves when I moved into this flat, unless I count buying a flat so near the top of the property boom that it will be years before I can afford to sell it. Teetering on negative equity however is only a problem in so much as it means I can't afford to live in a bigger house (with more bookshelf space) in a part of the country with a wider range of employment options or better scenery. On the whole I really like my flat, the mortgage is basically affordable and I've been happy here. No the big problem is a lack of bookshelves.

When I got the (perfect in just about every way) bookshelves I had nine years less books to home so it looked like they had plenty of space on them, and I wanted wall space for pictures too. They came from IKEA (who damn it all stopped selling them not long after) they are far bigger than any other flat pack bookshelves I've found since, pleasingly deep, have an inoffensive plainness about them, are sufficiently sturdy to stand up despite my questionable diy skills and the considerable weight placed on them (not so my billy bookcase which is wedged into a corner and balanced on some cardboard), and were wonderfully cheap. They are also full and overflowing so I can no longer find things which annoys me and it's hopeless to try and impose any sort of order which also annoys me.

I'm not one of those people who minds having a 1000 books or so that are unread, I rest easy at night knowing that however poor the future leaves me (though I'd rather it didn't) I'll never be short of something to read. I adore books as objects and for the memories they hold quite apart from the entertainment their contents offer. I hate getting rid of books. Partly this is because although I could spend the afternoon weeding out things I don't think I'll ever read again, and in a few cases just never read, and in the process probably clear out a second hand bookshops worth of stuff who's to say I won't want it again one day. It's also because I spent time (and money) on choosing to bring these things into my home because I do want to keep them.

Never the less I've had a root round and cleared out about 2 foot of redundant books, mostly reference works and mostly because I've got more up to date versions. It makes very little difference to the overall problem and I'm left feeling more than a little sad that the Oxford companion to Wine that saw me through all my WSET exams is going but what do you do? I'm not going to stop getting books unless people stop publishing books I'm likely to want, the idea of living in a home without them appals me, but the increasing disorder makes me crazy.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Saga Of The Volsungs

Penguin's decision to package a series of epics and sagas to tie in with the interest in all things
Just looks better

Tolkien as well as the general trend to look North for inspiration has been most welcome from my point of view. I'm not that interested in Tolkien but I'm an easy sell for anything in the myth, legend, or epic line and the new jackets make these books look so much more accessible (well they do to me at any rate).

In terms or readability it's just as well 'The Saga of the Volsungs' is short - as seems to be usual there's a lot of listing of hard to pronounce (or remember) names with some intense action inbetween and occasional prophecies which would make the reader think some of the messy murders could have been avoided if only people had listened. Clearly it's true that you can't escape your fate. That it's often confusing is one reason not to read a book like this, but there are plenty more reasons why they should be read.

I had somehow assumed that these editions would strip out all the academic notes that go with a traditional 'classics' edition, they don't so there's an excellent introduction, notes, and glossary inside all of which help make sense of what's going on in the actual saga. Reading a translation of something that was written in 13th century Iceland and based on far earlier source material from probable but lost written version through to ancient oral traditions probably ought to involve a little bit of effort but it does give a much deeper understanding of a shared European culture, and especially of shared stories and traditions which I find really exciting. 'The Saga of the Volsungs' has a lot in common with 'The Nibelungenlied' (|I think it's basically the same) but there are also elements that are very similar to Celtic stories - when Sigurd gains wisdom from eating the dragons heart I was reminded of (Irish) Finn MacCool and the salmon of knowledge which in turn apparently has a mirror in a Welsh myth.

Principally though my enjoyment comes from isolated images and ideas - the difference between manslaughter and murder is intriguing - if you admitted it, it was manslaughter and by paying compensation to the victims next of kin (wergild) the crime would be atoned for. If you hid the crime it was murder and the killer (literally translated as killer wolf) became an outlaw who could be hunted like a wolf. 'wolf in hallowed places' is a phrase I particularly like in that context. The image of Gunner playing a harp with his toes to subdue adders when he's thrown bound into a snake pit is another one I'll cherish - I can understand why it was a popular subject with medieval artists. It's also good homework for the Vikings exhibition as it's done a lot to increase my understanding of the complicated and seemingly uneasy family alliances in the Viking world.    

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Vikings Are Coming

The Vikings are coming and I'm quite excited about it. The 'Vikings: Life and Legend' exhibition opens at the British Museum on March 6th, I've been waiting for this for about 18 months (it's something D and I are both quite enthusiastic about). Vikings could have been designed to make history interesting to young children; treasure, violence, great myths - what's not to love? Growing up in Shetland Vikings were quite popular, it's one of those parts of the country where a Viking heritage is quite close to the surface. You can find it in place names, in archaeology, in boat design - the list could go on but I'll wrap it up with Up Helly Aa, the fire festivals which start in January to welcome back the return of the light.

Up Helly Aa (the main one takes place on the last Tuesday of January and it should be possible to watch it live on the web, though not for me - I'll be at work) in it's current form is only a little over a 100 years old but has appropriated it's own Viking mythology. However fanciful and inauthentic the imagery they use is I cannot stress enough how damn impressive the actual procession is. The chances of the last Tuesday in January being blessed with pleasant weather are insignificant but it doesn't deter the crowds. Lerwick is a small town so when you have hundreds of men marching with burning torches it's hard to ignore, only a few are dressed as Vikings but in the dark and from a distance you can't tell that, and naff as the galley they burn is it still looks awesome when it's alight.

The Up Helly Aa galley was my first idea of a Viking long ship - not necessarily one that would strike awe and fear into the onlooker, but still enough to capture the imagination. When I first saw pictures of something like the real thing I was definitely unimpressed, and then I actually saw something like the real thing The Skidbladner is a reproduction based on one of the Roskilde ships. She was abandoned in Shetland where I first saw her parked up in a boatyard - this boat really did have an air of menace about it. A few years later on a visit to Islay we were fortunate to coincide with the Sea Stallion on her journey to Dublin. Seeing a square sail on the horizon against a foreground of suitably dramatic rocks was enough to give me goosebumps but it wasn't until later when we saw it moored at a distillery that we realised it really was a Viking ship. After all this time the chance to see what's left of a real boat is going to be a treat.

Image by David Gifford, google him, there are some great pictures 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives - Edited by Sarah Weinman

This was a Christmas present from my mother (what is it about Christmas that brings out a need for a bit of noir?) and is a particularly good collection of short stories, possibly the best collection I've read for a long time (and I've read some really good ones). In short I'm very enthusiastic about it.

At more length there's a lot to love here. It's a collection of 14 stories from the 1940's through to the mid 1970's, most of them are American with the exception of one British effort, and include contributions from Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, Vera Caspary, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (these are the writers I'd head of or read before and who initially attracted me to the book). The sub title is 'Stories from the trailblazers of domestic suspense' and mostly this means some sort of crime though there are two which break this mould; the utterly charming 'Everybody Needs a Mink' by Dorothy B. Hughes which I read rather more as a sort of Cinderella/wish fulfilment tale. There is also Margaret Miller's 'The People Across the Canyon' which was unsettling but with a super natural element which for me was at odds with the rest of the collection.

There are two long, almost novella length pieces, both of which stand out. Vera Caspary's (her 'Bedelia' is a particular favourite) 'Sugar and Spice' about two cousins - one all sugar the other less so - and their struggles over the same men. It ends murderously but who is responsible? And Elizabeth Sanxay Holding's 'The Stranger in the Car' which charts the sudden disintegration of certainties and security whilst a mother recuperates in hospital.

The one that has most stuck with me is Helen Nielsen's 'Don't Sit Under The Apple Tree' which is absolutely chilling, I keep trying to find a solution for the heroine even now a couple of weeks after reading it, but there are a couple of others which stick in the same way. Nedra Tyre's 'A Nice Place To Stay' written in 1970 feels like it could have been taken from a feature in any of the broadsheets weekend magazines - a woman finds herself with a nice place to stay in for the first time in her life and she's prepared to kill to stay there, it's just not quite the nice place you expect.

Each story comes with a potted biography of it's author and a brief introduction, there's a recommended reading list at the end, and just generally this is an exceptional collection which is absolutely worth seeking out. I can't recommend it highly, or enthusiastically enough.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Tea By The Nursery Fire - Noel Streatfeild

'Tea by the Nursery Fire' feels like an appropriate book to write about tonight - I have spent all day trying to bring some sort of domestic order to my flat, honestly I have far to much stuff to easily squeeze into a relatively small space, that I keep bringing more things home doesn't help. I've washed, hoovered, swept, and scrubbed, hung thing up, folded them away, sorted bits for charity shops, applied wax to various wooden things, produced bread, biscuits, mince pies, and even made some marmalade. I am exhausted and filled with empathy for the average Victorian servant. I think another couple of days of the same sort of activity will have things how I want them...

'Tea by the Nursery Fire' is Noel Streatfeild's reconstruction of the life of Emily Huckwell. Emily born in the 1870's left home when she was around 12 years old to go into service as a nursery maid. She progressed to under nurse and then after a scandal involving the head nurse, a gamekeeper, and quite a lot of drinking she became head nannie whilst still in her teens. The family she worked for had six children and Emily bought them all up before going on to help with their children in turn - basically her whole life was spent in service. One of those children was Streatfeild's father, this account of Emily comes from family memory.

Streatfeild knows what she's doing, her narrative is compelling (it ended in tears for me). She takes a life that is in many ways unremarkable and shows us just how extraordinary ordinary can be. Emily can just about read and write when she's sent out to earn her living, home was 10 people stuffed into a tiny cottage so money, space, and food are all to scarce to keep her at home. There is an element of luck in her early career that sends her from her first big house job as a nursery maid, to a poorer relation as under nurse. The mistress of the house turns out to be a less than maternal woman (she reads as something of a bitch) who is more than happy to put upon her staff.

Emily goes on to learn her business well, and more than that love the children as if they were her own - which in some sense they are. She clearly created a safe and happy world for her charges providing them with a childhood they could look back on with affection, they just as clearly adored her for it. Streatfield suggests that the arrangement where by the gentry saw their children for an hour a day (if they were at home) until at the age of 8 or so when they shipped them off to school sounds as strange to Emily as it does to us, but Emily is not the woman to question her place or her betters.

To an extent Streatfeild seems to question the idea class. Sylvia (Emily's mistress) comes in for a pretty hard time of it, her behaviour shown as selfish and her attitude ungrateful. Emily may be surprised at the way things change (an odd little side note is that Emily's younger sister who eventually follows her into service, albeit unwillingly, has an affair with gentry. She is summarily dismissed, has an illegitimate baby, and post war goes on to marry the man responsible) but Streatfeild isn't and she doesn't give the impression that she regrets the good old days. However what she also does is show quite clearly how desirable a life in service was to a girl in Emily's position.

Life in the cottage involves hard work, overcrowding, hunger, and a general doing without. Life in the big house by comparison provides plenty of food, adequate clothing, and relative comfort in return for hard work. As a head nurse Emily earns £50 a year - the equivalent of just over £5000 in today's money. Not a lot, but then she has no living expenses to speak of so that's basically all disposable income as well as a job for life so perhaps not so bad for the women this life suited - like Emily - though undeniably awful for those it didn't.

I've met a few Emily's in my life, people who on the surface live small lives of no particular importance and yet who leave behind a tremendous legacy of love and affection. This book is a charming memorial to one such woman as well as a fascinating record of a particular way of life.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Prisoner Of Zenda - Anthony Hope

I'm finding it hard to adjust to being back at work - basically even at my advanced age I'm not capable of getting myself to bed on time so after not even a week I'm now so tired I can hardly see straight (so please forgive me if I ramble a bit tonight). Excuses out of the way and onto the book - well most of my excuses out of the way... I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to read 'The Prisoner of Zenda' given it's high Victorian and slightly camp pedigree it should have been something I fell on years ago (also it's a pleasingly short book, and I always appreciate that) the only reason I can think of for taking so long about it was being bored by a television adaptation I was far to young for some time on the very early eighties.

Now that I'm mostly grown up (despite an inability to do homework in a timely manner or go to bed before midnight when I have to be up at 6) and have finally read it this is a book I'm prepared to be very enthusiastic about. It's pure boys own romance with swashbuckling hero's, a beautiful Princess to protect, and something rather splendid in the villain line. I fell in love with the book on the first page, the first paragraph even where the hero's sister in law is asking him when he's going to do something with his life and he replies with a why should I - Rudolph Rassendyll declares he's comfortable, well connected, has almost enough money (as he so rightly points out 'no one's income is ever quite sufficient') and is generally in the enviable position of being able to please himself in any way he sees fit.

The plot hinges on Rudolph Rassendyll's uncanny likeness to Rudolph Elphberg about-to-be-crowned-king of Ruritania. This is due to a Rassendyll lady having an illicit liaison with a previous Prince of Ruritania in 1733. To escape his sister in laws hints about getting a job Rudolph heads of to the continent for a bit of a holiday, planning to take in the coronation on Ruritania on his travels. There he falls in with the King, gets drunk with him, and after the king is drugged and kidnapped by his half brother is persuaded to step into the royal shoes to foil the dastardly Black Michael.

It seems that Hope wrote the book in just a month - it certainly has an indefinable air about it of something that rolled off the pen quickly (in a good way). There is plenty of action, plenty of humour, and just a dash of hopeless romance all of which was very satisfying reading. There is also a lot of talk about honour which makes for interesting reading. Rassendyll finds himself in a position where he could reasonably easily keep the crown (Black Michael who wants it can't expose Rassendyll without exposing himself in the process) being King means getting the girl and it is that which is the honourable Rudolph's temptation, not the crown.

Our minister for education has got himself all over the media at the moment for attacking left wing historians for the way the first world war is taught in schools (with particular reference to comedies such as Blackadder). January is a slow news month and it being 2014 WW1 is going to be topical. It seems an ill judged attack, Rupert Graves, Seigfried Sassoon, and any number of others made the point long before Blackadder did but reading 'The Prisoner of Zenda' allows a glimpse of a pre war mind set. Here is exactly the sort of attitude which must have carried countless young men off to war in a spirit of adventure, patriotism, and a sense of doing the right thing - of being honourable. 'The Lost Prince' was the book that pushed me to read this one, but 'The Lost Prince' was written during the war and it's tempting to read it's patriotic fervour as a call to arms Zenda is born of, and reinforces, a cultural code (there is a really good bit in the introduction about it which I must read properly) that existed in the years leading up to the war so if you want the other side of the story here it is. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Santa Klaus Murder - Mavis Doriel Hay

It's been my habit for the last decade or so to nab the first week of January as holiday. I hate the post Christmas slump at work and this way I get something like a proper festive season (the downside is that there's now no holiday until May) it's likely also a big part of why I end up liking winter so much. I've spent the last week catching up with old friends, drinking far to much good wine, messing around in a kitchen, and even reading a couple of very good books. Christmas itself bought a small shelf full of excellent looking books and now the New Year is all encouraging in the matter of fresh starts and good intentions - there are things to look forward to.

'The Santa Klaus Murder' came to me by way of Elaine Random Jottings and was my first read of the year. It concerns the murder of a difficult patriarch on Christmas day - apparently done to death by Santa Klaus - or at least someone in a Santa Klaus suit. A discontented family has gathered under the paternal roof, all of them with reason to want the old man out of the way, the reasons are basically all money, and there's an element of urgency added to the family anxiety courtesy of an indispensable and shapely private secretary. 

Sir Osmand Melbury isn't a very nice man, and far to many of the family are principally interested in his wealth or there own affairs to be particularly likeable either - as the chief constable feels moved to observe that they all lie far to easily and with far to little provocation. It's the lies about little things that obscure the truth of what happened, and for all the protagonists claim that they don't think they were important details they all have things to hide and people they think they might be protecting. 

Hay does a couple of things which are interesting - the first is that she writes from the perspective of seven different characters - mostly from that of Col. Halstock the chief constable who sees the family as an outsider and quietly gives the lie to their own images of themselves. It's a handy way of spreading suspicion around - the family obviously have their own doubts about each other. Hay also, I think, subverts our expectations about many of the characters; she certainly had me changing my sympathies all through the plot. As a murder mystery this is classic golden age country house stuff - a decent page turner with some real class about it, the plot is reasonably ingenious with a conclusion that was neat in so far as tying up the murder went, but just a little bit ambiguous as to the likely happiness (and characters) of some of the family. It's also interesting to read as a record of class attitudes of the time. Sometimes 1936 seems very close, other times it's quite clearly a long time ago. The Melbury's are presumably all good Tories with very fixed ideas about class and where people fit in to it. It's hard to judge on the back of one book whether Hay was simply sharing her own prejudices or if she was making a point. I'm inclined to believe that these are her actual opinions, so it'll be interesting to see if her other books reflect the same social mores.

I've written enthusiastically about the British Library publishing books like this before (back in November) I'm even more enthusiastic now I've read this. The possibilities for what they might unearth in the future are intriguing to say the least - 2014 does indeed have things to look forward to.