Monday, November 12, 2018

The Light in the Dark - Horatio Clare

I like winter, more or less preferring cold to heat, and perhaps because it's the best time to live in a city. I don't miss having a garden when it's cold, dark, and possibly wet outside. I do love being able to watch the sun rise from my east facing windows over breakfast. The uglier bits of the city centre are hidden in forgiving dark on my way home, but most of the prettier bits are lit in a way that gives them a Dickensian charm. And then it's perfectly acceptable to go home and potter over nothing much instead of feeling like I should be out doing with other people.

Sometimes too there are unexpected treats; seeing a flock of long tailed tits flit between trees against a sunset sky last week, or the kites that are now a regular sight on the outskirts of town, never mind the Peregrines that seem to be spreading around the city centre. Or even the strong smell of quinces coming from the museum garden that's only a small detour to walk past on my way home (some still on the tree, obviously quite a lot rotting beneath it, there are medlars in there too, and figs which never ripen).

I've been thinking about my love for winter a lot, especially how that's tied up with how and where I live, whilst reading 'The Light in the Dark', which is more or less about how much Clare has come to struggle with it. The last couple of winters having been bad enough for him to question his sanity. 

I think we're generally getting better at talking about mental health issues, but its still a brave decision to publish a book like this about your experiance of depression, not least because it invites speculation and judgements about your life which might not be at all welcome. At least, I'm not particularly comfortable with the way I ended up wondering about aspects of Clare's life and relationships, though I think one of the strengths of the book is the way in which it made me question some of my own reactions to it. 

After a particularly hard time getting through the winter of 2016-17, Clare kept a journal for the Winter of 2017-18 as one coping mechanism against the season. It starts at the end of August, making the most of the last golden days of summer and the slow slide into Autumn, before a terrible omen for he coming months. Badger baiters set their dogs on Clare's mother's sheep. The results are horrific, and amongst other things there are metaphors here for how powerless depression can leave you, it's also a stark reminder that our vision of country life and it's reality are often at odds. 

From there it's a balancing act between work and family on the one hand, and self care on the other. Clare lives in Hebden Bridge (a little bit of North London in Yorkshire) which seems like a compromise between family commitments and preference, but there's an ambivalence to the North that runs through the book which makes it feel like an uneasy compromise at best. There are more tensions within the family that are hinted at, but not quite followed up on and in that respect the balance of the book is off. I feel that this is something that should have been explored more thoroughly or excised completely 

Otherwise the nature writing part of the book is beautiful (Clare writes sky and cloud the way Constable painted them), there is much there to take comfort from, and even to luxuriate in. When he talks about his students his anger and frustration on their behalf is infectious, and also a positive sign for his own state of mind that he still has the energy to feel like that on others behalf.

The end is important too, a final screwing up of courage to see a doctor to find out exactly what the problem is as the winter ends. Worst fears turn out to be unfounded, a palpable relief the reader can share. 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

November 11th 2018

I got up at 6 this morning to check the sky, it was cloudy. Had it been clear I would have set off to walk across the still dark city to be at the war memorial for sunrise just after 7. Leicester's war memorial is solar aligned with the rising sun, the odds of it being a clear morning are not great (once in the decade or so that I've known this) but the privacy of a November sunrise makes thin places even out of city parks.

When I was a child the First World War was still held within living memory, but it was as a distant part of long lives that had seen many other things since. Now that living memory has gone the way we remember seems fundamentally different too, a handful of images, lines of poetry, stark casualty figures, and increasingly poignant art installations.

But I keep coming back to our war memorial. A handsome arch designed by Lutyens, some of the men who worked on it would have been veterans, all of them would have known people who didn't come back, or who came back damaged. That solar alignment feels like a gift to them, a prayer for hope, and a better future, a promise that the memories remain. It certainly seems better to me to remember at the coming up of the sun, rather than it's going down.

I'm not sure about tacking on some book recommendations at the end of this - but books are one of the things that build a bridge between us, and those who experienced this anniversary that we're marking with such ceremony.

There's Dorothy L. Sayers who chose to make her detectives shell shock a fundamental part of him. 'The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club' takes place during the armistice parade. Written in 1928 her ambivalence to remembrance seems vaguely shocking now. I think it's one of her better books, and for something that's ostensibly light entertainment there's a lot to contemplate in it.

Lyn Macdonald published a series of books in the 80's that took letters and eye witness accounts from  the First World War and arranged them into a narrative history of the major battles. 'The Roses of No Man's Land' concentrates on the experience of volunteer nurses. These books are heart wrenching and shocking in turn. It's 20 years since I read them but I still remember the emotional wreck they made of me. Still, they're worth reading to understand something of what the day to day experience was.

And then there's John Jackson's 'Private 12768'. John Jackson's memoir was published posthumously, and is fairly unique in that his memories of the war, whilst not romanticised, are generally positive. The great adventure of his life. It's not a fashionable point of view, but it must have been the experience of many who fought and it's important to remember that as well.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Kingdoms of Elfin - Sylvia Townsend Warner

I am literally surrounded by excellent books at the moment (they're at my feet, piled on both arms of the chair I'm sitting on, there are more by my bed, in my work bag, piled up on every surface...) so much so that it's hard to know where to start, or to stop myself trying to start 3 things at once. The books I feel most enthusiasm for are also the hardest to write about; they demand both more thought, and work, in direct relation to how good I think they are.

Which is a long way of saying that I've put off writing about 'Kngdoms of Elfin' for the best part of a week whilst I try and expand on my over riding thought that it's one of the most perfect collections of short stories I've ever read. Which came as a bit of a surprise really, because until now I've not been overly interested in Sylvia Townsend-Warner.

I have collected quite a few of her books though, I know I bought Lolly Willows because it sounded interesting. I also know I never finished it. Since then I've picked up as many of the old Virago editions of her books as I've ever seen with genuinely good intentions of reading them one day. In the end it took committing to a review copy of Handheld Press new edition of 'Kingdoms of Elfin' to make me actually get in with one of her books.

It's hard to define 'Kingdoms of Elfin', a collection of 16 short stories more or less about fairies written in the 1970's towards the end of Warner's life. They were first published in The New Yorker before being collected into a book, I'm not at all sure how they fit with the rest of her work, but they feel like something that might be both a conclusion and a departure from what's gone before it.

There's a disconcerting quality about these stories which I think is heightened by Warner's own timeline. No dates are given, but there's a general sense that they're set sometime earlyish in the 19th century, a time about as distant from Warner's own youth (she was born in 1893) as the 1970's in which she was writing. They really feel like they've got a foot both in the past and the present, and make a specific sort of sense out of Elfin longevity in relation to her own age when writing and the changes she'd seen.

There's something dream like about these stories too, especially the later ones, were things make sense in exactly the same way they do in dreams. These fairies aren't particularly magical, they can fly, although it's considered vulgar to do so, and occasionally other gifts are hinted at, but for the most part everything seems normal enough, until it isn't which makes them work wonderfully as weird tales. Especially at this time of year - autumn makes it easy to half believe strange things, and I found I particularly reading something a little odd, but not designed to be frightening in any way.

More than anything though, I loved the humour, sly and sometimes a little wicked, mixed with a master story tellers turn of phrase. I am profoundly grateful to have read this book, it's an absolute jewel of a thing that I look forward to reading again and again.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Christmas is Coming

I work in retail, so as far as I'm concerned Christmas has been happening for a while now - though thanks to the increasing popularity of Halloween as a festival to celebrate the bulk of it is pushed back to the beginning of November these days.

I know I write this kind of post regularly at this time of year, but it all seems worth saying again. Since the clocks went back last weekend and people started to get paid it's all kicked up a gear at work - people (mostly women) are starting to prepare in earnest, and they're getting increasingly grumpy with it.

My first Christmas in the wine trade was 1999. Champagne sales were phenomenal, everyone wanted something special to drink, we had queues out the door, I've never seen shops busier, and the best thing about it was how excited everybody seemed to be part of this particular celebration. The year afterwards was just as busy, but the sense of excitement had gone, and it's ebbed further away ever since.

I guess the bar had been set high, and there's pressure to maintain that, the advertising is far more relentless now too, and our expectations have changed. There's a much greater sense of entitlement - we expect to get what we want, when we want it, and cheap. This has increased the chances of a customer having the sort of temper tantrum you'd once only have associated with a sleep deprived toddler exponentially. It's not a good look on an adult. It isn't going to magically produce the desired object either, but it will instantly destroy any desire a retailer had to help.

For me Christmas is all about the preparation anyway. It's by far the best bit, a process that helps keep the dark at bay. Walking through the city centre on my way home at this time of year it's a blaze of light and colour that only intensifies as the leaves fall from the trees. Grey, rainy, Sundays like today are filled with a sense of purpose as I tick off the things I want to do, and chance meetings with friends and acquaintances doing the same.

I know that as December wears on my goodwill will wear out, that by Christmas Eve when I finish work I'll be too tired to really enjoy anything before I'm back at work (probably for the 27th). So I'm going to get every bit of enjoyment I can now. That's why I love making Christmas puddings, the hours of steaming they require gives me time to think, as does the process of making mincemeat. I love the smells too, and the sense of putting things by for the very darkest days roots me in long traditions of housekeeping.

I've bought cards - important to do early whilst the choice is still good, and important to send because  emailed versions, or social media messages, do not touch people in the same way, they certainly don't have the same cheering effect after a trying day at work. I'm not buying into the 'gave the money to charity instead' line either. This is a once a year opportunity to reach out to the people on the peripheries of our lives and show we care enough to make this effort. The older we get the more likely this is to include people this will really matter to. Cut corners somewhere else.

As for the rest of it, it should be optional. Don't spend more than you want or can afford. Nothing is ever going to be perfect anyway, and nothing is going to be ruined by the wrong Brie or a lack of Limoncello. It certainly shouldn't be a competition (especially to spend either money or emotional labour) but genuinely a time to share what you have with those you care about.

Mostly though, just be nice to wine merchants. We work hard, the pay isn't great, but we'll do everything we can to get you something great to drink if you're nice to us.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Grape and Almond loaf cake - a Waitrose recipe

Because I have hundreds of cookbooks kicking around the place making it look untidy I normally ignore the recipe cards in supermarkets, no matter how tempting they look. Last week though, someone was tweeting about a grape and almond cake they were making and it sounded good (or at least it made me think of the vineyard cake from Ottolenghi's Sweet book which is amazing). Then I saw the recipe card in Waitrose and decided to find out for sure.

It's really nothing like the Ottolenghi cake apart from both using grapes, but it's good, and the roast grapes on top were pleasingly posh looking (very Waitrose). The grape element also feels right for late autumn/early winter, it would be good at any time, but there's something about that icing and the squishy roasted grapes that make me think of the sugar plum fairy in the Nutcracker, as well as the last of the grape harvest.

Maybe it's the thought of the Nutcracker that's tempting me to I'm see what happens if I double the quantities and make it in a bundt tin (except I don't need enough cake for 20 at the moment). I think this would be a great cake for a biggish tea party.

Heat the oven to 160°C/gas 3, grease and line a 900g loaf tin, and cream together 175g of soft unsalted butter with 150g of caster sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in 3 eggs, 1 at a time, and a few drops of almond extract. In a separate bowl combine 150g of self raising flour, 1/2 a teaspoon of fine salt and 100g of ground almonds. Fold the dry ingredients into the wet ones until combined, then stir in 200g of seedless Vitoria grapes (they're small and dark, small, seedless, and dark skins are all desirable here). Spoon into the tin, levelling the top, and bake for an hour to an hour and ten minutes, or until a skewer comes out clan.

Cool in the tin for 20 minutes and then transfer onto a wire rack. Once the cake is on the rack take another 75g of the grapes, cut them in half and put them in a small roasting tin along with 2 tablespoons of water. Roast in the oven for 20 minutes, until soft but still holding their shape. Remove from the oven and lift the grapes onto a plate. Add another tablespoon of water to the tin and scrape up the grape juices. Start adding icing sugar, a little at a time, stirring well until you have a thick enough icing. Spoon over the cake and top with the toasted grapes. Cool completely before serving.

I took this to work the next day to try, where it disappeared quickly, but my guess is that it would keep well for a couple of days given the chance.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Wirlie Mitts - Leslie Smith

I've started to many things recently, so nothing is getting finished very quickly. This is especially true of the several books I have in the go, but includes things like making Christmas puddings and mincemeat - all of which takes reading time...

One thing I did manage to finish yesterday however were the mitts I've been knitting very slowly over the last few weeks. At least, the second mitt came along very slowly, and that's one of the things I've learnt from this project. Mitt number one you fly through, keen to see how it's going to turn out. Mitt number two happens at a more sedate pace.

I am particularly pleased with this project because a pair of Leslie's mitts that I bought some years ago (and loved so much their picture has been on the side bar here ever since) were a major inspiration to re learn to knit.

I like these for a couple of reasons; the way the thumb is constructed appeals to me aesthetically, and is comfortable to wear. There are no finger holes either, which again I find more comfortable to wear - your fingers don't get forced apart so they stay warmer, or at least that's my theory.

The lack of fingers means they're much less fiddly to make too, and the pattern repeats front and back so you can wear them on either hand, which also makes them a perfect first glove/mitt project. I only used two colours for this pair because I didn't want to think to much about changing yarns (or weave the ends in at the end), not least because I'm not used to knitting on DPN's (more used to it now), and these pretty much need to be done on DPN's. By the end of the second mitt I was finding it considerably less fiddly and coming round to the advantages of using them.

Ideally the blue would have been a bit brighter, but I wanted to use up some odds and ends of yarn that were hanging around. I'm happy enough with the results, and looking forward to starting another pair.

Find Leslie and her mitts on Ravelry Here, or look for her on Instagram @takdeesock she has an etsy shop too.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Literary Landscapes - John Sutherland general editor

Literary Landscapes: Charting the real life settings of the world's favourite fiction - I couldn't resist this book when I was offered it, in fact it sounded so good I was even willing to commit to a blog tour date to get my hands on it.

There were two reasons I thought it sounded to good to miss, one is that I'll look at anything with a John Sutherland's name on it, a policy which has never yet led to disappointment with a book. The other is that I love a story with a strong sense of place. Any book that explores the geography of classic literature is going to appeal to me.

In this case there are 73 different books, along with their landscapes, to take a close look at, divided into 4 sub sections. There's Romantic Prospects which starts with Jane Austen's 'Persuasion' (it's a shame nobody wanted to tackle Sir Walter Scott, or Maria Edgeworth, but you can't have everything) and goes up to 1914. Mapping Modernism covers 1915 to 1945, Postwar Panoramas takes us from 1946 to 1974, and Contemporary Geographies takes us up to 2017 - though it's interesting to note that a few of the books in this chapter are set in the past.

Four of the chosen books are set in New York ('The Age of Innocence', 'The Great Gatsby', 'Bright Lights, Big City', and Francis Spufford's 'Golden Hill), and a few in London, so there's the added interest of being able to examine different people's version of the same places.

It's definitely a book for dipping in and out of, I found I started with the books I knew, then the places, and then noticed that the contributiors are not mentioned at the end of each essay. Instead they and their contributions are listed at the end, which sent me back to see what specific writers had to say about their chosen books. Robert Macfarlane almost makes me want to read Hemingway. Almost - and there are other books I'm now far more interested, and am much more likely to read.

And that's the best thing about this book, it comes into its own when novels you're not particularly familiar with are being discussed. The average essay length is two pages, with a few notes and anecdotes added in the margins, some are a little longer. The whole thing is well illustrated with maps, photographs, and other images which help set the scene for the time and place of the work under discussion.

For the books you know and love it's not quite enough - I'd have been quite happy if the whole thing was dedicated to L. M. Montgomery's Prince Edward Island, and the other bits of Canada she happens to mention, or indeed to the landscapes of R. L. Stevenson's Scotland in 'Kidnapped'. For the books you don't already love it's more than enough space to spark a readers enthusiasm, and provide useful context and insight for whatever is under discussion.

It's a beautiful book, obviously perfect Christmas present material for the readers in your life, or as an indulgence to buy yourself. If it's the latter, it's easy to justify as a work of reference that will undoubtedly enrich your understanding of an eclectic range of authors and their novels. There are also a couple of days left to try and win a copy - and that's most definitely worth having a go at.

Follow @modernbooks and tweet your own favourite #LiteraryLandscape for a chance to win a copy of Literary Landscapes. Closes 31st October 2018. 

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Potemkin Cocktail: Some research

I found a copy of Caroline Eden's 'Black Sea Dispatches and Recipes' in Waterstones on Thursday, which was pay day, so it made the perfect treat to celebrate the brief moment of feeling flush. It's not officially out until next week, but there's a good chance it's already in your local bookshop - if it is, buy it, you won't regret it. It's a beautiful object, and I'm really enjoying reading it.

Everything I'm loving about it is distilled into the Potemkin Cocktail. It's a twist on the fireside Cocktail which I was unfamiliar with, looking it up hasn't left me much wiser, there are whisky and vodka versions about, both of which I plan to try as soon as I've written this, because research.

I like this recipe so much forvall sorts of reasons; because it's component parts are simple - you need fine salt to rim a glass with, 2 crushed ice cubes, 2.5 tablespoons of vodka, 3.5 tablespoons of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, pink is recommended, and a sprig of Rosemary - all I had to buy was a grapefruit. That makes it tempting to make.

The method is simple too. Lightly rim a tallish chilled glass with salt, add the ice pour over the vodka and grapefruit, mix well, take the rosemary sprig and run a lighted match (long matches are obviously best for this) along it's needles to boost the scent before adding it to the glass. Drink.

Good, easy to make, unfussy cocktails - you can't have enough of them in your repertoire. The advice to take a match to the rosemary is both a handy tip, and adds a bit of theatre to the process. I'm all for the theatre element, any drink from tea upwards is better for a bit of ceremony and ritual. It doesn't need to take long, or be elaborate, just enough to turn it into a treat to be savoured.

Then there are the measurements. This fitted into my juice glasses, which are quite small - and I really like small drinks, because again it's about something being a treat, rather than something that leaves you feeling like you've already had enough before you're half way through.

And most important of all, it tastes great. Fresh, fruity, pleasingly sour thanks to the grapefruit, with the salt and rosemary evoking sea brine, and an earthy forest note respectively. It's all really nicely balanced, with those simple components becoming much more than the sum of their parts. The name Eden has given it, along with her text over the preceding pages give the whole thing an air of romance. It's exactly this which is making me enjoy this book so very much.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Shetland: Cooking on the Edge of the World - James & Tom Morton

I've been putting off writing about this book because I was disappointed by it, and generally I only choose to write about things I'm enthusiastic about. Then it sparked a bit of local controversy, the Amazon reviews behaved accordingly, and I can no longer resist the urge to weigh in.

Part of my disappointment is due to unrealistic expectations, when I first heard about this book I was hoping for something that would be as rooted in place as Gill Meller's 'Gather' was in Dorset. That was unfair, because 'Gather' was, and is, a landmark sort of book in all sorts of ways, it's recipes a series of polished gems - a hard act to follow.

'Shetland: Cooking on the Edge of the World' is a self styled love story that has some food in it, specifically it's Tom and James Morton's memories and thoughts about their foody habits, preferences, and prejudices scattered amongst a lot of  memories, thoughts, and prejudices about Shetland generally. Which brings me to the controversial part of the book.

It centres on the island of Whalsay, and the black fish scandal. The fishing industry is a big deal in Shetland, the fish that's landed in Shetland a sizeable portion of the UK quota. In 2012 it emerged that around 47 million pounds worth of fish had been landed illegally. The fish processing plant in Shetland was fined for their part in this, and so were a group of Shetland skippers - the fines ran into the hundreds of thousands.

Its a thorny subject to tackle, and a sensitive one in a book like this. The least you could do is make sure you get the figures right. The Mortons don't do that. They over inflate them, and infer that the huge pelagic trawlers are paid for outright by the families who own them (my understanding is that bank loans are involved). Then there's a poem by James that refers to unscrupulous baby seal bludgeoners and what fuels 24 hour shifts at sea. It's not surprising that it caused offence, and it all seems so unnecessary. 5 minutes fact checking and steering clear of youthful poetic efforts would have gone a long way.

Whalsay is known as a rich island, but away from the trawlers in the harbour, and a general air of prosperity about the houses, it's certainly not in an obvious way. Thanks to oil money and low unemployment across the islands there's a general sense of prosperity everywhere, so again picking on one community feels misjudged.

The result was a spate of spiteful one star reviews on Amazon, and whilst their content can more or less be ignored the upset is genuine, and not unreasonable. A series of 5 star reviews followed which are just as meaninglessly partisan. The publicity has only helped book sales.

A bigger problem for me is a general lack of recipes, and the choice of some of the things included. In fairness traditional Shetland cooking is based on subsistence farming and the fish which wasn't sold off. A foody scene is slowly emerging, though neither of the Mortons approve of it. Bannocks, reestit mutton soup, and dried fish are traditional. Reestit mutton (smoked and salted) is iconic (and pretty good). So are bannocks. The image of fish pegged out to dry on clothes lines is still iconic, I'm not sure how widespread the practice actually is though. The bits about mutton, bannocks, and dried fish are excellent.

There's quite a bit about smoking and curing salmon (salmon farming is also big in Shetland) but nothing that hasn't been well covered elsewhere. There's a recipe for lentil soup that everybody should know - and which generations of Shetland children, including me, were taught to make in home economics - because it's both cheap and good, and quite a lot more along the same lines. The chances are you already have these recipes.

Shetland also has a sweet tooth, Sunday teas, and community cafés abound, and there are still a few local bakeries going. That coupled with James baking history (GBBO finalist in 2012) makes the baking chapter a particular disappointment - and here's my prejudice. I don't want, or need, another brownie recipe (nobody has beaten Nigella's, which this one has a close resemblance too) I would very much like some good tea loaf recipes. Tea loaf is the thing I most associate with Shetland, and can't find a satisfactory version of down here. (It's a fruited loaf, bread not cake, and comes in various forms, all of which I miss.) Again, there's just not much in it.

In the end it's just not a great Cookbook, though not a terrible one either. It is a fairly thorough look at the Morton's life in Shetland, and how they cook there, and the photography is wonderful. If you like the way they write (I veered between being engaged, and alienated depending on the anecdote) you'll enjoy reading this, but if you don't it probably won't offer you very much. As a souvenir, or introduction, to Shetland it's worth buying for the pictures alone.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

13 books for getting in the Halloween mood

I like hunting out books for lists like this, mostly because I find all sorts of things I forgot I had along with the stuff that I knew I was looking for. Really horrifying horror isn't my thing, I like to be able to turn the lights out when I'm done, but something a bit unsettling is fine. And whilst I think about it - when did Christmas stop being the season for ghost stories and everything become so Halloween specific.

My collection (which is somewhat larger than just these books) tends towards the Victorian, and is mostly short stories - though I have some Shirley Jackson novels which terrify me. This particular selection is a mix of things I've read and know are reliably good, am reading, and might read soon.

The British Library have been publishing an excellent selection of weird tales, including a Christmas themed one I'm very much looking forward to. 'The Haunted Library', which I have read is a perfectly judged collection of book related haunting and happenings. One or two of them made me distinctly nervous, all of them were excellent. It comes highly recommended.

I've had 'The Face in the Glass and Other Gothic Tales' for a few years, shamefully unread, because I've really liked everything else I've read by Braddon. A new edition is due in February with a cover that ties it in to the rest of the weird series (and which is far creepier). I hope I'm going to read this soon, it looks very promising.

'Glimpses of the Unknown' is another British Library title, this time featuring lost ghost stories, and apart from an E. F. Benson, who writes brilliant horror, I don't think I'm familiar with any of the writers in it, never mind the stories. I will mostly be reading it in daylight, I don't particularly want the eyes staring out of the cover anywhere near me whilst I try and sleep.

'The Virago Book of Ghost Stories' edited by Richard Dalby is an old favourite it goes from Charlotte  Brontë through to Dorothy K. Haynes, taking in all sorts of interesting authors along the way. It's an absolute treasure trove and a great introduction to a whole range of women writers, it would be hard to choose between this one and 'The Haunted Library' for quality.

Richard Dalby's name on the cover is why I bought 'Dracula's Brethren'. I thought I had its companion volume, 'Dracula's Brood' somewhere, but didn't spot it earlier - I suppose I'll have to search for it now, despite the increasingly late hour - I can't have a rogue volume of vampire stories running feral around my flat. It would be to much like something out of 'The Haunted Library'. It's another excellent looking selection, which includes Louisa May Alcott's 'Lost in a Pyramid'.

'Dracula's Guest' is billed as a connoisseur's collection of Victorian Vampire Stories. It's edited by Michael Sims who has put together some frankly fabulous anthologies of Victorian detective fiction. As a testament to the richness of the vampire genre there is no overlap with the Dalby book.

Sims is also responsible for 'The Phantom Coach' (nicely atmospheric John Atkinson Grimshaw painting as a cover image). It might actually make for good Christmas reading - book collecting and reading are clearly worlds apart. This too looks like an interesting and varied collection of stories from mostly reasonably well known Victorian writers.

The cover of 'The Penguin Book of the Undead' is frankly terrifying, I am grateful to have been able to turn it over to read the blurb again. I think it was a bit of an impulse Halloween purchase last year, or the year before. Clever marketing aside it sounds genuinely interesting. Ghost stories as we know them are a 19th century convention, "but the restless dead haunted the premodern imagination in many forms". This book covers 15 hundred years from Hebrew Scriptures, the Roman Empire, Scandinavian sagas, medieval Europe, through to reformation and renaissance. How could I resist?

I couldn't resist 'The Penguin Book of Witches' either. If you're going to judge a book by its cover this one's a peach. I was a bit disappointed when I got this (via a large online retailer) to realise that it dealt predominantly with the Salem witch trials. It's basically an American book, it briefly looks at English antecedents in the 16th century, including James I & VI's peculiar ideas on the subject, before crossing the Atlantic. I had assumed it would be wider ranging. In the end it didn't much matter. The Salem trials and their aftermath deserve the space, and I'm pleased to have read more about them. It doesn't go amiss to have a reminder of what happens when supperstion, paranoia, and fear get out of hand.

Elizabeth Gaskell's 'Gothic Tales' are another Penguin publication (I'm unaccountably missing a collection of Edith Wharton in gothic or ghostly mood to round out my collection of spooky Victorian women. I should fix that). I haven't read this one either, although I've enjoyed her ghost stories in other anthologies. I want to read more Gaskell, so this might be the place to start.

It's not all about ghosts, vampires, and other ghouls. The long nights are a great time for fairy tales as well, especially at the moment when the trees are losing their leaves and everything seems to be transitioning. It makes it easier to imagine any number of strange things, and much easier for eye and mind to play tricks on you morning and evening. 'The Complete Fairy Tales' by George Macdonald underline the Victorian fascination with fairies. They're experimental, subversive, and worth a look.

I'm currently reading, and loving, Sylvia Townsend Warner's 'Kingdoms of Elfin' from Handheld press. Officially out on the 31st, they're as sly and enchanting as the blurb promises. These Fairies have an entirely inhuman morality, they're cruel and beguiling, and you need this book.

Which brings me to Westwood and Kingshill's 'The Lore of Scotland', a guide to Scottish legends. I've chosen this one because it's the most recent book on folklore that I've bought, and I've been really enjoying it as I dip in and out of it. There are all sorts of interesting rabbit holes to fall into in a book like this which makes it an excellent companion for either a stolen half hour, or an extended afternoon of research. And unlike some ghost stories, it's unlike to affect your sleep.