Tuesday, October 4, 2022

The Last Graduate - Naomi Novik

My plan to whittle a few books out of an entirely beyond-my-control TBR heap by picking on the vaguely spooky-themed ones is sort of working. I think this comes under the umbrella of Dark Academia, a sub-genre I know very little about). I bought 'The Last Graduate' as a shiny new hardback, it's been lurking by my bed ever since last year when it came out, and now I've read it just as the final part of the trilogy has landed.


I'm definitely a Naomi Novik fan and she didn't let me down here. I still think that this series possibly belongs in young adult fiction, mostly because of its school setting and young protagonists - but I'm not going to get hung up on it, especially as her characters develop. It picks up immediately after the events of A Deadly Education. We're back in the Scholomance with El and a growing band of friends, the school still seems to be trying to kill her and she's still a bundle of barely contained teenage anger. 

Having friends that she cares about is changing El though, she might be just as angry with the system that allows certain kids a better chance of survival (the already privileged ones) but they're becoming people that she cares about, or she's just starting to care about people more - either way there's a lot of growth for her character.

Her insistence that she's destined to be the darkest of dark witches begins to look a little shakey too. I don't want to go overboard on spoilers - the book may have been out almost a year, but whilst it's a moderately popular series it's still got time and room to get a lot bigger - so read on with care, but... It's possible the school hasn't been trying as hard to kill her as she thought, and probably not just for spite. We learn more about Orian and what makes him tick too, and that also gives pause for thought. Why are El and Orian the way they are?

'The Last Graduate' also brings in a few more characters and gives them a chance to shine. Presumably, they're going to be important in book 3, but as El becomes less of an outsider everything goes from black and white to shades of grey. The end is a terrific cliffhanger too, with no obvious way of being resolved, so that's another thing to look forward to in book 3 when the Scholomance kids will erupt into the real world.  

The series is still a scathing attack on capitalism, and now more than ever on the benefits of collectivism in the face of both danger and an increasingly uncertain future. The whole message of the book is that to survive we might have to work against our own individual interests for the common good - but that it has to be done willingly, and presented to us as an honest choice. 

As a political message, it's not overly subtle, which is another reason it feels like a young adult book to me. But then maybe if you've hit 30 and still can't see why constant selfishness isn't sustainable subtlety is probably wasted on you anyway so maybe Novik is right. 

Either way, this is a decent series, entertaining on its own terms, with terrific world-building, and a great main character who manages to be appealing because of her constant bitching, rather than despite it, which is a neat trick to pull off. For an American, Novik also nails British swearing which impresses me too. 

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Horseman - Christina Henry

A second vaguely spooky book for October, but unlike the absolute delight that is 'Strange Relics', 'Horseman' is a mess which really disappointed me. I've been trying to expand and update my reading a little bit for work purposes, with mixed results. Horseman is one of the most irritating books I've finished in a while. 

Christina Henry is a steadily popular writer in the shop, not a bestseller but definitely a regular seller, the covers are great and the starting point of popular fairy tales and stories is exactly the sort of hook that I'll take a bite at. 'Horseman' takes place in Sleepy Hollow about 30 years after Washington Irving's story and picks up with Brom and Katrina's grandchild, 14-year-old Ben who along with a friend sees the headless, handless, corpse of a village boy their own age deep in the woods where wise people do not go. 


The problems with the book start with Henry's endless repetition, tidy that out of the way and you might just have a novella left because there is virtually no point made only once and many which are made dozens upon dozen of times. The next issue is that there isn't really much of a plot, thirdly is that what plot there is doesn't make much sense partly because there's a lack of internal logic. Then there's the depressingly common issue that something being sold as an adult novel is very much young adult. A younger audience might get more out of this.

My final issue is around Ben's gender identity - so please ignore the next bit if you don't want spoilers. Ben is Bente, the daughter of Bendix, but she doesn't want to be a girl, she's a boy. Girls are easily frightened, weak, creatures who live constrained lives in this world, whereas boys get to be strong, have to be fearless, and are spared learning female accomplishments. 

Apart from the reductive stereotypes, I dislike this because what Ben seems to most desire is freedom outside of gender so the endless statements about being a boy lack conviction. Couple that with Brom's choice to bring up his grandaughter as a replacement for his dead son, right down to the name, and Ben's absolute devotion and much-repeated hero worship of their grandfather and the message gets further mixed. Ben is also the only heir of a wealthy family, in the fullness of time she can afford to live as she'll see fit which makes the fights over the female accomplishments and the need to find a husband seem somewhat redundant.

Then we're repeatedly told that Sleepy Hollow is a magical place, with magic in the air, and monsters in the woods. Things will come true there if people believe them - but there's no explanation as to why, or why anybody is believing in a monster that takes the hands and heads of teenage boys in a place where that could become an actual thing. Even when we do find out something, and another massive spoiler here - it turns out the monster does what it does just because. 

Nor does it help that Ben is an irritatingly selfish character who manages to be wrong about just about everything. Instincts say stay away - Ben dives in. Ben doesn't believe anything could happen in Sleepy Hollow without everybody knowing about it - it turns out that Ben doesn't remember, or notice, several pertinent plot points has only the sketchiest idea about who's who in the rest of the village, and has totally missed out on knowing anything about his own family. 

A teen wondering about their own identity might find something to relate to in here, and wouldn't be unduly frightened by the horror bits which occasionally emerge from the endless repetition, but for anybody else, I'd say it's a hard avoid. Amazon reviews are mostly positive, Goodreads much more mixed. I'm firmly in the 1 star camp, and probably won't try Henry again, though I do note several people who were also disappointed by Horseman rate her earlier books. 

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Strange Relics - ed Amara Thornton & Katy Soar

It's October, which I'm reluctantly going to accept is now considered 'spooky' season - I do at least like a good ghost story or a bit of weird and have plenty of examples to catch up on this month. I'm also hoping to blog a bit more regularly again. Events this year have caught up with me more than I anticipated, but short of work being exceptionally full on between now and Christmas I hope there won't be much to distract me. 


I certainly won't be able to afford to go out, and if I've got the heating on I'll be staying home to enjoy it thank you very much. I've even put proper curtains up after almost 18 years of living in this flat (there were not great blinds before, even a couple of hours in the curtains are making a discernable difference). But back to the book...

Strange Relics is a collection of 'Stories of Archaeology and the Supernatural, 1895-1954' and it's an excellent place to kick off from. Recently published by Handheld Press it's a satisfying collection of uncanny, although Handheld is the sort of press that makes me want to use unheimlich instead. 

The book starts with Arthur Machen's 'The Shining Pyramid' which reminds me of  John Buchan's 'No-Man's Land which appears in British Weird in that they both imagine an ancient and malevolent race that's somehow survived in an out of the way pocket of land. It's a theme that crops up in other bits of fiction from the late 19th and early 20th century and still sort of persists anywhere people half believe in the little folk or trows. It also recalls the way we like to still half believe in the possibility of a Loch Ness monster even now.

John Buchan is represented in this collection with Ho! The Merry Masons, which for my money is one of the scarier entries (based almost entirely on my deep antipathy for Roslyn Chapel which is both a virtuoso display of the master masons work and deeply unheimlich). I absolutely go with the mood in this one. Roman Remains by Algernon Blackwood, Rose Macauley's Whitewash, and Eleanor Scott's 'The Cure' have the same effect.

It's altogether a really strong collection of stories that work well together thematically with several tropes reappearing in ways that underline their significance in the decades they're being written in. In turn, this reflects our corresponding preoccupations of the times. It's also just excellent as a collection of the weird - with Pan getting some significant outings (he's having a moment, there's a British Library collection dedicated to him). So either as a work of academic interest or just for the fun of it I absolutely recommend 'Strange Relics'.

And now I have to go and dispose of an extremely large and drapey spider's web that's appeared very quickly over my desk if I'm to sleep at all tonight without nightmares. All the activity around putting up those new curtains has obviously disturbed Something... 

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Inverness

Once again I've been absent longer than I meant to be. This time it's due to a very busy week at work (we were very short-staffed), and then heading up to Inverness to see Doug's dad whilst we have a brief window of opportunity. He's currently in hospital after a fall which is worrying given his age and our distance from him. 

It's also the first chance I've had to get back to Inverness since before lockdown, and I've fallen for the place all over again. Inverness isn't a flashy place, but it's got a lot going on to recommend it. It's an excellent base for exploring from, especially if you like whisky (Speyside is right there) and you don't have to go far to find beautiful scenery. The town centre is a little dilapidated, but there are hopeful signs of regeneration and a few favourite places still going strong.

There's The Castle Gallery and Leakey's Bookshop. I really like the Waterstones here for new books, there are a couple of decent independent wine and whisky merchants including WoodWinters who give reliable advice, stock some good stuff, and are fairly priced. The food and drink scene also seems to be quietly improving all round since my last visit - there's a very promising addition of a new food hall to the Victorian Market anchored by the new to me Bad Girl Bakery. 

I saw their book first (in Waterstones) and it looked good, delicious even, and then came across their new cafe minutes later (exciting) which only opened here about 2 weeks ago so we're lucky with our timing. The coffee was great, the cake to go with it even better so now I need to buy the book. The food hall itself is a real asset to a city that has its share of cold and wet days - a decent open space with plenty of seating right in the centre of town with browsable under cover shops is a definite plus. 


I feel like this book flew under the radar a bit, it came out late last year but I totally missed it. A flick through shows some great stuff though with plenty of vegan and gluten-free recipes - the coconut, cranberry, and chocolate flapjack I had today was easily the best flapjack I've ever had. It's just as well there's a 500-mile drive separating me from them on a daily basis. 

Other Inverness highlights have included the museum which has got some great Pictish stones and a really spectacular outfit thought to have been worn by Bonnie Prince Charlie, a shopping centre with a stunning view over to Ben Wyvis, and the walk along the river to the Marina is decent too.

Friday, September 16, 2022

A Near Miss

Yesterday delivered more than I bargained for when about 30 tons of masonry fell from the roof of the building across from us at work, missed smashing our windows by millimeters, and genuinely made me think a bomb had gone off. Almost miraculously only one person seems to have been injured in the street, and then not seriously (I hope this stays true). 



Several tons of sandstone and stucco hitting the road makes a hell of a noise, and creates a lot of dust, which looks for all the world like smoke - hence the bomb assumption (and that's a thing that takes you back to the IRA attacks of the 80s and 90s) so there was quite a bit of running and screaming outside the shop which added to the confusion. When fire alarms didn't start ringing there was a moment to reassess before customers started to complain that they wanted to pay for their books. 

When I say it was a near miss, there was a brick the size of War and Peace less than an inch from our staff entrance/exit - exactly where we stand to unlock the door every morning and evening - it seems like the building could have gone at any time and the fact that it didn't earlier in the day when people were arriving for work with deliveries in full swing is another small miracle to be grateful for. 

What I'm less grateful for, but no longer surprised by is the amazingly snotty attitude of so many people in the shop at the time, and after. They did not want to be evacuated to safety until they'd got what they came for despite the very real likelihood that the rest of the building was set to come down, and if it had, we were the only thing between it and gravity having its way. 

Years ago I stood across the street from another shop I worked in whilst alarms rang and 2 fire engines full of firemen assessed the situation watching a man bang on the door to be let in, and argue with the firemen about getting out of the way. Later we found that not only had he complained to head office that we were closed when opening hours clearly stated etc, but he also turned up in person to shout at us. Apparently the sirens, appliances, alarms, arguments with firemen, and smoke hadn't sufficiently communicated to him that the building was in fact on fire (small, quickly contained, and not serious, but still burning at that point). The lights had been left on and he wanted what he wanted. 

This morning I listened to people standing by a barrier complaining that shops stated opening times were X and now it was Y and yet they were still closed. Complaints, they threatened, would be made. Had they seen the local news about the falling building, just visible behind the barriers? Yes, they had. Could they put this together to understand why shops weren't yet open? No. Not without extremely patient explanations. 

I'm old enough to remember when shops closed not just on Sundays, but had half-day openings and closed for lunch too. When I first worked in retail very little opened on a Sunday, we always closed on Bank Holidays, and even when that started to change it meant double pay. Not anymore - it's just part of a normal working pattern. There's also the regular 5.59 debate with somebody that refuses to believe that we close at 6, and will make a point of walking out as slowly as possible, through the exit at a maximum distance so we all have to hang on, unpaid, a little bit longer. 

I try not to dwell on the smug customers who explain they're breaking the spines of books and generally thumbing them because they like to have a good look before ordering on Amazon who are so much cheaper. Awesome. Point out the shitty employment conditions and tax-avoiding tactics that fund those low prices and you're So Rude - they'll never come back. Sadly, a lie - because they're a dead loss, the sort of delights who leave their unpurchased from us books lying around any old place in the shop so we can't find them again for actual paying customers. 

The same people are naturally outraged at the number of places closing up for the day of the Queen's funeral, although they themselves will not be at work either - but who will serve them whilst they complain to each other about how we should be a republic and state everybody is equal? 

Yesterday was a very near miss, and it was frightening. It's left me with very little patience for people who can't see beyond their own convenience. I'm back at work tomorrow - wish me luck. 



Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Shetland Wool Adventures

It's almost Shetland Wool week which means there are a whole lot of Shetland themed knitting publications to look forward to - this is a quick round up. 

Shetland Wool Adventures journal volume 4 has been out for a few weeks and is the normal collection of patterns I genuinely want to knit, book reviews (by me), recipes, walks, and articles relating to the islands. I genuinely love this journal, which I think is going from strength to strength. The piece on Tom Kidd's photos was a particular pleasure to see. His books are currently hard to find but are a wonderful record of life just as the oil industry really started to change Shetland. Available Here



I have pre-ordered my Shetland Wool Week annual and am really looking forward to it arriving, I might not be able to get north for the event but I've been following on insta and the patterns look great this year so at least I'll be able to enjoy from the comfort of my own sofa. To order the annual and check out the rest of the merchandise have a look Here

Previous wool week patron Donna Smith has her first book of patterns coming out in the next few weeks too. Donna's designs really hit the sweet spot between timeless, traditional, and contemporary so I'm excited to see this - it's called Langsoond, same as the yarn that comes direct from her sheep, and will be available to pre-order from Friday the 16th Here

And finally, I might be most excited about a couple of reprints from The Shetland Times. I've been one of the chorus of voices calling for these to come back into print over the last few years, and although somebody very kindly sent me a copy of 'A Shetland Pattern Book' a while back, being able to easily buy it again for the first in 30 years is something to celebrate. What I like so much about this book is its size and simplicity. The same size as the squared jotters we had at school for putting patterns in. It's maybe not the most exhaustive collection of patterns and motifs but it's probably the easiest to use. The original even has pages at the back included for making notes and jotting down your own patterns.

Maggie Smith's companion volume A Shetland Knitter's Notebook is also getting reprinted and I haven't yet read that and again, I'm looking forward to it. The availability situation on The Shetland Times website isn't entirely clear, for the pattern book it's saying sold out as I type this - and I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that the whole print run had been snapped up - or it might mean copies haven't come in yet. Either way, keep an eye out for it Here and again, lots of other great books to browse there too. 

Monday, September 12, 2022

Post After Post-Mortem - E.C.R. Lorac

I have so many books to write about at the moment and post review at work, my stint as host for #ReadingHeyer done, and almost being finished with wedding thank you letters I think I might actually have time to get stuck into some reviewing here. If only it would cool down a bit!

I read Post After Post-Mortem a while ago but hadn't found the opportunity to write about it until now. In some ways that's been a blessing, I thought the book was okay whilst I was reading it but with time to reflect there's more to it than I originally thought. 

The Surrays and their five children are a prolific and successful family of writers and professionals, the youngest daughter has just got a 1st class honours degree from Oxford, and is worried that the family doesn't need a 7th author - though she possibly fancies writing a thriller. Her older sister, Ruth, is a respected author and reviewer whose championship can make a career and who seems to have the literary world at her feet.


It's Ruth who is found dead, apparently due to suicide, an event that shocks her family to the core - and then a letter arrives from Ruth to her brother Richard. It's been delayed by having a miss-written address and both the time it was sent and the contents suddenly raise questions over the suicide verdict. 

The family and Ruth's friends are wary of police intervention, in an effort to protect her name they've not been entirely honest, but their white lies and omissions have muddied the waters, and they're even more hostile to the idea of murder than they were of suicide. Everybody suddenly appears as a suspect, and there's the possibility the murderer isn't done yet.

I didn't warm to some bits about a woman's place and cod psychology early in the book, but the examination of a family that seems outrageously successful on the surface, but still has their problems is interesting.  Early on Mrs Surray worries that they have tempted fate, and so it seems to be. In the end the motive for murder is almost an inconsequential one, except to the murderer of course, which seems more believable somehow than plots about killing a spouse for the love of someone else or murdering for a large inheritance. 

It's an interesting and thoughtful mystery that seems timely against the growing cost of living crisis - Mrs Surray's worry that the good things of the world have come too easily to them and there will be a price to pay seems like it might be prescient as most of us find we're struggling a little bit more, and the politics of envy is rife on social media.



Thursday, September 8, 2022

Queen Elizabeth II 1926 - 2022

 The news that the Queen had died this afternoon broke just as I got home tonight, I didn't expect to be quite as sad about it as I find I am. My earliest memories are around the silver jubilee celebrations, this years Diamond jubilee is something that I'll always associate with preparations for getting married. In between those events, there's a lifetime of memories punctuated by royal appearances and occasions. 

I've managed a lot of near misses when it came to seeing her, my favourites being a toss-up between ducking behind a pile of grit for a much-needed wee as a very small child just at the moment her car went past and catching a train to London which left at the same moment the queen got off her train in Leicester on the opposite platform. Not significant life moments maybe, but my parents split when I was young, those early jubilee fragments are a significant part of the family life I remember before that happened so they're precious to me.

However we feel about monarchy we surely all have memories like this - of days out and excuses for village get-togethers, going to see a spectacle with friends, buying tacky memorabilia and loving it anyway. This really does feel like the end of an era, maybe more so as we're looking toward a difficult winter anyway, so for now I'm going to make a cup of tea, drink it from my jubilee mug and reflect on a life of duty and the passing of an icon. 



Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Guards! Guards! - Terry Pratchett

The read books are beginning to stack up on my desk, but the time to write about them is proving hard to come by. The last week has been big on damsons and dog sitting. My workmate bought me the last of the fruit from her tree - she is an absolute star for this, they're really lovely fruit and now I've got 2 kinds of damson jelly and a damson and vanilla jam. I am sharing this with her.


My mother's dog just considers everything that doesn't revolve around her is a waste of my time. I'd say that she's not wrong but this goes up to and includes sleeping - she thinks we ought to be up and walking by 5.30 so when I was still in bed at 5.45 she was very vocally put out. The combination of dog and mother is still the best way to put a hard week behind me that it's worth the early starts. It's even worth the general impression that the dog gives that one of them needs to keep me in sight at all times in case I go off with the spoons or something. 

I started reading Guards! Guards! immediately after Equal Rites and then stalled halfway through - a reminder of why I stopped reading Pratchett altogether back in the day. The book was fine I just got bored with the joke and had to make myself finish it. I might not have bothered but that I wanted to exorcise the horror that was the BBC adaptation a couple of years ago. 

In the end I'm glad I carried on. I have happy memories of reading Pratchett through some difficult times. He was a warm and funny guide to some of the complications of the adult world that I was beginning to negotiate in my late teens and if my reading taste has changed considerably since then, the essential decency of Pratchett is still a constant.

None of my younger colleagues at work have read him, so I'm going to try and persuade them to have a go - they're around what I consider to be the right age to discover him (early 20's,  younger would be a bit better). I have found that I really enjoy listening to Pratchett via audio books, more of which in my next post, so I'm not just trying to palm off unwanted review copies onto them. It's very much that I want to see what they think of him. 

When I first read these books it was in a recession, the one that saw Leicester lose great swathes of its textile industry, and a time that seemed quite bleak (halcyon days by current standards). At times like this a writer who can make you laugh and maybe believe that things will sort of work out has to be a good thing. 


Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Gallant - V. E. Schwab

I've set myself the goal of reading through a chunk of the books that have been hanging around for ages and that I'm not overly excited about (not necessarily the same thing) in the hopes of clearing some serious space before peak season brings lots of unmissable new books through the door. 

Quite a few of these are proofs from work picked up with the intention of widening my reading range so I can better recommend things. Honestly, it's a lot easier in the wine trade where you just have to taste something, a process that takes a couple of minutes including the time to make a more or less intelligent note about whatever you've just tried. 


It maybe doesn't help that I'm old enough to know my reading tastes fairly well, and also to have limited tolerance for what I consider bad or lazy writing. 'Gallant' didn't fall into either of the latter categories, and I've been curious to read Schwab for a while. When I actually got down to it though, this will likely be the only book of hers I ever read. 

The blurb promised that it's great for fans of Neil Gaiman, The Secret Garden, and Holly Black. I more or less like all of those things, but I rate Holly Black by far the highest on the list and Schwab was more at the Neil Gaiman end of the scale for me. I enjoy his storytelling but I haven't loved it since I was a teen reading The Sandman. If you wanted a dark fantasy that explores issues about family and belonging that mixes the gothic with the Secret Garden though, you'd definitely get what you paid for.

It's an easy book to read too, once I'd decided I'd finish it, it was easy to read 100 or so in what felt like no time at all (a little over an hour maybe?) and I got through it fast. Olivia, the main character is compelling, the story was sweet, but in the end, it made very little impact on my imagination. In part, this was because as intriguing as I found Olivia, nobody she interacted with really came off the page. Not her newfound friends, or foes, and the ending fell flat for me too, there just wasn't any depth to any of it.

On the other hand, there will be people who quite rightly love this book, but I think they might be younger readers. And this is something I find mildly annoying about how a lot of fantasy fiction is currently marketed - this book is about a 16 year old girl trying to find a family and a home - to me that's teen/young adult fiction. Schwab writes books that are marketed in both categories - this one goes into the adult section which I feel does it a disservice.

Or maybe our current classification system no longer adequately describes books - possibly science fiction and fantasy need to be split, certainly, a lot of the books that involve young women in fairytale or gothic settings having fairly chaste adventures seem like they should have their own category. Oh to have a bookshop of my own where I could get really granular about how things should be shelved.