Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Winter of the Witch - Katherine Arden

'The Winter of the Witch' is the last of the trilogy that started with 'The Bear and the Nightingale' and continued with 'The Girl in the Tower'. I was going to make a sweeping statement about trends in publishing fairy tale books and the timing of when 'The Bear and the Nightingale' first came out, but realise I'm not actually to sure of my ground.

I noticed the first book based on it's pretty cover, and because Waterstones were promoting it heavily. I held off buying it until it was in paperback, and because I had really enjoyed Naomi Novik's 'Uprooted'. Since then I've become much more aware of Slavic folklore, and the general fashion for retelling fairy stories. It's a sub genre that sits on the edge of things I'm interested in - done well I find something I think is genuinely exciting, done not so well it's a bit tiresome.

Katherine Arden does it well, and as the trilogy has unfolded she's become a noticeably better writer. She keeps one foot in history, and another in established folklore which provide a solid framework for her plot. 'The Winter of the Witch' opens immediately after the events of 'The Girl in the Tower' with Vasya soon fighting for her life as a baying mob, led by the deranged priest, Konstantin, plan to burn her as a witch.

The crisis continues to build as events unfold, there is plague in the city, the dead are walking, war is coming, and Vasya needs to find ways to protect those she loves and a place, or way, to live in the world.

Arden explains magic as the ability to forget that things are other than the way you want them. If Vasya can forget that people will notice her, they won't notice her. If she can call on the memory of the fire that threatened her she can call the fire. To forget to much about reality, or to bend it to far is to risk madness. There's a logic to all this, the ability to be magical is Vasya's inheritance, it's literally in her blood but she's limited by experience and a sense of self preservation. The things she does seem only just impossible and Arden makes sure there's a price to be paid for every choice.

She also redeems Father Konstantin a little, giving him some humanity back as his story ends, just enough to make me feel a passing moment of empathy, which makes him a much more convincing horror. And that's the real strength of this last book, it fleshes out the personalities of a number of protagonists we're already familiar with making them much more complex and satisfactory.

I'm not sure I can make any great claims for the series beyond saying that if it sounds like the kind of thing you enjoy, you'll almost certainly enjoy it. For me that's partly due to the historical background detail. Both in terms of the battles that happened, and the domestic details of stoves and bath houses, smells and textures. The more prosaic details balance the fantastic ones. The other charm is how well drawn the characters are. I'll certainly look forward to whatever Arden writes next.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The London Silver Vaults

As well as the Anglo Saxon exhibition yesterday, I also went to see the Klimt and Schiele drawings at the Royal Acadamy - open until the 3rd of February, its worth seeing. The Klimt drawings are beautiful, the Schiele ones illuminating. Klimt is easy to like, but Schiele's uncompromising self portraits and awkward teenage prostitutes don't reproduce so well. It was somewhere in the gallery dedicated to erotica that the penny dropped.

His women look like they're doing what they're paid for with all the enthusiasm of any bored checkout person waiting for the next customer who's going to be an arse. There's an uncompromising honesty in them that hasn't lost any of its power to make the viewer uncomfortable. Three studies of chrysanthemums, and some affectionate portraits of friends later it was Schiele who came out the star of this show.

The other thing I'd planned to do was go to the London Silver Vaults. They don't allow photography so no pictures, which I'm not sure could do it justice anyway. It must be more than 20 years since my mother first took me here, but no matter how many times I've been it's never lost its power to impress.

The Silver vaults are just that, vaults, deep under Chancery Lane, originally intended for private hire to keep the family Silver in, they eventually became shops. The building above took a direct hit during the blitz, the vaults were unscathed. You go in at street level, have your bag checked, go downstairs and find yourself in a maze like collection of vaults - there are around 20 shops in them, some quite large, some small. I've never seen it particularly busy, the corridors have a 1970's bunker feel, the shops are everything from Very Grand to Aladdin's cave.

You will find anything you can imagine being made out of Silver, and probably a few things you hadn't imagined, in there. I was looking for relatively cheap tea spoons. I love silver, and like having a range of different sized tea spoons - eventually I'll have a comprehensive set I'll use for measuring. I found a delightful little coffee spoon sized thing with a thistle on top, and a couple of elegantly simple Georgian spoons in my price range and left happy. I also had a very satisfying conversation about grape scissors.

Grape scissors are another preoccupation at the moment. I have a nice plate pair that my father gave me, but I'd like some really opulent silver ones (it's a long term ambition, they're expensive). Generally when I ask about them in antique shops I'm told nobody wants that sort of thing anymore, yesterday I found a man who had a whole drawer full. Plate, silver, silver with steel blades (coveted, they were obviously going to cut well). Even a matching pair if I wanted. I like them so much because they're ridiculously ornamental, and turn a bunch of grapes into an extravagant ceremony.

If you have time to kill in London the vaults are well worth visiting. Its better to go in the week, I have been on a Saturday, but a lot of the shop owners are Jewish, and less of the vaults were open (this may have changed). If there's any chance you might be buying do your homework first - the prices for a lot of the things I was looking at were 3 times what I would expect to pay around here - you will not find a bargain.

What you do get is choice and quality, and there is some room for negotiation. I'm more interested in price than quality, but everybody I spoke to was very helpful when I said I wanted cheap (which was nice, it's not the case in every antique dealers) either directing me to what they had, or other traders who might have what I wanted.

Even if you have no intention of buying anything it's still worth a visit, it's the most shiny stuff I've ever seen in one place, and there are some beautiful and bizarre things to admire.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Anglo Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library

I've been in London today to see a couple of exhibitions and spend to much in Waterstones. The first exhibition, and reason to go at all, was 'Anglo Saxon Kingdoms Art, Word, War' at the British Library. For anybody who hasn't been to an exhibition there, they put on a good one, the Anglo Saxons are there for another month and I doubt anything else I see this year will have the same impact.

It was busier than I'm used to at the BL, which made the first two rooms a bit of a challenge to get around, but after that the crowd spread out a bit and it was easier to see things - regardless of how busy it is allow a good 2 hours to look around (if there are a lot of people it will take that long, if you get a quieter day you'll want to spend that long looking at things).

I spent a bit of time studying Anglo Saxon art at university - it was my least favourite module because everything seemed so uncertain and far away, since then I've found rather more enthusiasm, and some really good stuff has been dug up (I'm thinking specifically of the Staffordshire hoard, although it's not the only significant find).

Because this is the British Library though the emphasis is on the written word, and before today I hadn't appreciated how much had survived. Anglo Saxon buildings especially are thin on the ground - Leicester (for example) has Roman remains, and traces of Norman architecture but finding anything in between is hard, the evidence of these people is most commonly found in place names. Seeing so many books and documents was a revelation.

Partly that's because everything is hand written which gives these things a particular sense of life, mostly it's the sheer breadth and depth of what's on display. Religious books, law books, herbals, histories, letters, wills, surveys, riddles, epic poems, and more. I've seen quite a few of these things individually, but the scale of this exhibition is something else - it puts the objects back in the context of a society rather than seeing them as incredible, rare, individual treasures.

Looking at everything together it's so much easier to understand how people travelled, exchanged ideas, how kingdoms rose and fell, how important the great monasteries where - all of it. And now I'm going to retire to bed with the exhibition catalogue which was too big for the very small table I had on the train, and which I'm very much looking forward to having a good look at.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Christmas Card Crime - edited by Martin Edwards

My week off is going well, I've almost caught up with all the Backlisted podcasts, finished a boot topper, read a couple of books, been shooting, watched The Favourite (it's very good) and other things along the same lines. I could have been more productive (I suppose there's still time for that) but being quite lazy is a luxury I'm savouring.

Even so, it seems high time to finish up writing about the books I was reading before Christmas and get onto the ones I've read since. As with 'Spirits of the Season' I had this book well before because I'd been sent review copies, but if I hadn't they're what I'd have asked for as presents. They're the sort of book I like to be given, not least because for me the Christmas season starts on Christmas Eve and runs through to 12th night, and that's when I want to read books like this. Even more so this year when we're only really starting to get cold weather now.

Anyway, whenever you read this, it's got some treats in it. For a long time Edwards started these collections with a Conan Doyle story, this time he's gone for Baroness Orczy (she really is having a moment) which features Lady Molly. It's both fun, and interesting to read, if not the greatest bit of detective fiction ever written.

Carter Dickson's 'Blind Man's Hood' crosses over into ghost story territory and is delightfully atmospheric as well as providing a shiver. Selwyn Jepson's 'By The Sword' has something a little weird about it to, as well as a really nasty villain. Cyril Hare's 'Sister Bessie or Your Old Leech' carries on that darkness.

What I've really come to appreciate about Martin Edwards Christmas/winter selections especially is how he mixes more or less cosy crime (which is not a term I particularly like, but I don't have a better one) with something that serves as a reminder that murder is more than a puzzle to be solved. If I was describing this book in wine terms I'd say it had an excellent balancing acidity.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Spirits of the Season - edited by Tanya Kirk

Tanya Kirk is the lead curator of printed heritage collections (1601-1900) at the British Library (co-curator of one of the best exhibitions I've ever seen on the Gothic Imagination) and she puts together a fabulous anthology. I'm not sure which I find most impressive, but I'm definitely a fan.

Her previous anthology of ghost stories for the BL, 'The Haunted Library' was excellent, and 'Spirits of the Season' is every bit as good. Kirk's trademark seems to be a mix of comedy and the genuinely chilling, it's a winning combination.

I don't mind being unsettled by a ghost story, I don't want to be terrified, and I particularly like the ones which are more funny than frightening so this kind of collection works perfectly for me. It seems a shame that ghost stories have been somewhat relegated to Halloween, winter generally seems made for them, especially if they can be read aloud to susceptible family members. (They couldn't in my case, but I like the idea).

For fun F Anstey's 'The Curse of the Catafalques' and Frank R. Stockton's 'The Christmas Shadrach' are both particularly satisfying. 'Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk' by Frank Cowper, and Algernon Blackwood's 'The Kit-Bag' were the pair that I was glad to have read in daylight, and everything else is on a scale somewhere in between. All of them are entertaining- J. B. Priestley's 'The Demon King' is another favourite.

If you're thinking Christmas has been and gone now and that the season has passed for these stories, it's more of an underlying theme, something that recalls dark nights and the strangeness that disrupted routines give. 'Smee' by A. M. Burrage is the perfect example of this - a group are gathered for a house party, not all the guests know each other before hand and when they take to playing a game something between hide and seek and Sardines in a darkened house. The scene is set, the players have a growing suspicion that there's an extra person playing, but who, or what?

The genius of this particular story is that it's something and nothing - 'The Curse of the Catafalques' works on a similar principle but with added humour - with 'Smee' it's enough to make you look over your shoulder and be glad of bright lights. It's also the sort of story you could convincingly tell to an audience - which I don't think I've sat around and done since I was in my teens (do teens still scare themselves silly with ghost stories and the like?).

A brilliant collection, and brilliant addition to the Tales of the Weird series.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Footsteps in the Dark - Georgette Heyer

It's been a long week, got through with gritted teeth, but I'm now officially on holiday. I'm very much looking forward to not getting up before around 8.30 (maybe 9 if I'm feeling decadent and not to hungry), watching old films, catching up on some reading, having a bit of a tidy up, and generally catching up with myself. There might even be some jigsaws - I found one when I was putting away the Christmas decorations, and found it was an even better companion to catching up on podcasts than knitting is.

I wanted to re-read 'Footsteps in the Dark' after pairing it with a Dolly O'Dare in December's books and booze series, which in turn had been inspired by the smart new hardback edition. I haven't got the smart new edition, and probably won't update my tatty old paperback, partly because the book is actually set in the summer so the snowy scene on the cover has the air of a particularly cynical marketing ploy. Mostly though it's because it's far from Heyer's best work.

More of a thriller than a murder mystery (although there is a murder, and a policeman detecting things) it starts promisingly enough when 3 siblings inherit an old priory. The sisters fall in love with the house, the brother with the fishing and the decent ale in the village pub, so along with the older sisters barrister husband they decide to keep it as a weekend place.

Soon after they move in things start going bump in the night - skulls roll down the stairs, secret passages and priests holes appear, and the figure of a hooded monk starts haunting the place. The brothers in law are fairly sure that the hauntings have a perfectly logical and human explanation, and are increasingly determined to get to the bottom of it.

So far so good, the plot doesn't always make a lot of sense, and it's overly melodramatic - but that's the fun of a thing like this. The problem is that it's all a bit heavy handed. The romance doesn't really come alive, the red herrings are a bit much, and the whole thing is clunky. Heyer can do much better than this, even in her crime fiction (not generally considered as good as her romances, but on the whole pretty good). I think the problem with it is that it lacks the sense of humour that makes the majority of her work such a delight to me.

One thing it did mention however was a 'Bronx' which one of the sisters orders in her London club whilst she waits for a friend. It's basically a classic Martini with added orange juice - and very drinkable. I'd have enjoyed the book for that alone, never mind the gothic trappings of the priory - especially the unexpected and unwelcome skull appearing on the stairs which is just the sort of nonsense that winter nights are made for.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Paul Temple and the Kelby Affair - Francis Durbridge

My work schedule is back to normal, and last night I said a reluctant farewell to the Christmas tree (I really loved the tree this Christmas,, it was quite sad to see it go) and I've actually finished some books. The new year has started.

I read this one just after Christmas, choosing it because it was short and I couldn't settle in anything any longer. It's not a good book however you want to look at it, and is heading straight for a charity shop. It probably came in a goody bag from one of the Bodies in the Library event where most people would be familiar with Durbridge and Temple (I've heard a few radio plays which were fun, so I'm not entirely put off). But this one is strictly for fans and completists.

It was first published in 1970 at which point Paul Temple had been around for 32 years (he'd been detecting since 1938). The setting is contemporary but the overall impression is that Paul and Steve (now a designer of record and book covers) are still somewhere in their 40's.

Steve seems to dim to have survived as many adventures as she's supposed to have done, the plot doesn't make a great deal of sense, people behave in the strangest ways, and the whole thing is a mess. The biggest problem for me though was the attitude towards women generally.

Any woman who gets described is young, pretty, sounds like something off a Bond poster, and is instantly evaluated in sexual terms. It's revolting. In this case it sounds like a man in late middle age describing his seedy fantasies in an attempt to sound modern. Jilly Cooper is guilty of the same kind of thing.

A foreword says that Durbridge's last book was published posthumously in 1998, and that he was working as a stage writer until 1991, so I'm guessing that this one is something of an aberration, but I can't think of a single good thing to say about it (unless 'it's quite short' counts). It's all middle aged men chasing underage girls, domestic violence treated as a perfectly normal thing, and thoroughly dislikable characters. It doesn't raise any nostalgia for the 1970's at all.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Top Ten Books of 2018

It's been an odd year, the prospect of Brexit has loomed large across it, more of my reading time has been spent in newspapers and finding comfort in equally angry and dismayed people on twitter. 10 years ago I was made redundant twice within 6 months at the beginning of the last recession, then more or less unemployed for a year. It had taken the best part of a decade to get near to recovering financially from the damage that did. The last couple of years have been unbelievably challenging to work in retail, uncertainty about the future has bitten into sales, a weak pound has destroyed margin - my job doesn't look secure, and frankly I'm worried about what comes next.

I knew before I started looking back at the last year that I hadn't read particularly much in 2018, though I was surprised in the end by just how little it actually amounted to, and how many of the books were short stories or similar. I finished the year reading an absolute stinker which I'll write about soon, and have started a few really good things, but as they're all half finished I can't really count them into a best of list. At least they're something positive to look forward to (because I'm clearly on the verge of getting a bit maudlin here).

I've chosen Christmas and Other Winter Feasts by Tom Parker-Bowles as my food title for this list not because it's obviously the best one I've seen this year (it's not - I think that might be Caroline Eden's 'Black Sea Dispatches', but I've not written about it yet, or it could well have been Diana Henry's 'How To Eat a Peach', or quite a few others - 2018 was a vintage year for food writing) but because it's the one that surprised and cheered me the most. To open it is to fall into a luxurious dream where all is right with the world.

Susan Crawford's The Vintage Shetland Project finally appeared after a few delays in March. I was so pleased to finally see this book completed, not least because it's author had to pause writing to deal with breast cancer. It's an incredible piece of work that does a lot to further our knowledge of the history of Knitting in Shetland, specifically putting a spotlight on some remarkable women who had more or less slipped from view. Everything about it is a triumph to be celebrated.

Baroness Orczy seems to be having a bit of a moment. The Scarlet Pimpernel got the Oxford world's classics treatment in January and Pushkin have reprinted the Old Man in the Corner, with another title due soon. I loved the Scarlet Pimpernel as a child, was delighted to see it looking so respectable (my old copy had Anthony Andrews on the front as Sir Percy, and was falling apart) and even happier to find that it basically stood up to my memories of it.

Russian folklore is also having a moment, or at least it has been in my reading, Katherine Arden's Winter of the Witch trilogy (last instalment due in about a week) and Naomi Novik's 'Spinning Silver'  borrow those myths which was enough to get me to read Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platnov which had been sitting on the shelf for a while. It's an excellent anthology in every way, not least because it gave me another push towards reading Teffi.

One thing that I can say for 2018 is that it's the year I finally started to appreciate a trio of writers I'd always meant to read, but never quite got to. There is an excellent bit about Baba Yaga by Teffi in Russian Magic Tales. I'd had 'Rasputin and Other a Ironies' for a while too, a gem just waiting to be enjoyed. It's really good, and I'll definitely be reading more of her this year.

Jeanette Winterson was another writer I'd meant to read for god knows how long and finally have. Turns out she's just as good as everybody says. I loved everything I read (3 books I think) but !The Daylight Gate' with its gothic hammer horror edge (although 'Weight' from the Canongate myth series is also amazing) might be my favourite.

Sylvia Townsend Warner is my other big discovery of the year. I've always been a bit on the fence about her. I think I have all the Virago editions of her books, but I didn't get very far with Lolly Willows and left it at that. Handheld's edition of Kingdoms of Elfin was a revelation, I loved everything about it. I'm now happily working my way through a Virago collection of her short stories and finding yet more to love.

Madeline Miller's 'Circe' was a lucky strike, I readvit on my phone with low expectations and again, fell in love. Circe is one of those seemingly peripheral characters in Greek mythology who pops up all over the place. Miller has put her at the Centre of her own story to great effect. I really look forward to seeing what she does next.

After a bad early experience with Somerset Maugham it took me years to read him again, when I did it was for a book club (or I'd never have bothered) since then I've been lucky with everything I've picked up. 'Up At The Villa' is short, shocking, and brilliant. It's hard to say much about it without giving spoilers, but read it and you'll see what I mean.

Malachy Tallack's The Valley at the Centre of the World is my most personal choice, it's set in Shetland and does such a good job of capturing a sense of the place, and that feels so important to me that it's hard to be objective beyond that. I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction, or even a lot about it, so it's possible that there's a big chunk of regional, rural, literature that I'm totally unaware of - but I don't think there is. I hadn't realised how much I wanted to read books that reflect the place I'm from until I got the chance to do it. What he writes feels absolutely true, I suppose the closest I'd got to this before was reading George Mackay Brown, but Tallack is from a different generation. He's less nostalgic for an idealised past, and a remarkably promising author by any standard.