Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Shetland Fine Lace Knitting - Carol Christiansen

I have a new book and I'm very excited about it. Shetland Fine Lace Knitting is the result of a project at the Shetland Museum to asses their lace collection. The result is a scholarly overview of the art of fine lace knitting in Shetland that invites further research and a really practical book of patterns and motifs.

The original pieces are broken down into their individual elements, we get charted instructions and written ones, and excellent photographs of both the original very fine lace, and samples that have been knitted up in a less challenging modern 2ply lace weight. It's not possible to machine spin yarn as fine as the handspun used for these older shawls, and the skills to do it have gone. There are some simpler patterns in here that I'd like to use - it's good to see what I'm likely to be able to create using laceweight I can actually knit with. 


I have a cone of Jamieson and Smith's 1ply supreme lace weight which was developed alongside the museum's fine lace project - I bought it long before I had any understanding of the skills or effort needed, and the last time I tried I couldn't even knit with the stitches I managed to cast on. I might as well have been trying to knit with hair - and yet the handspun yarn was finer. I don't know if I'll ever have the patience, never mind the skill to try and make something with my yarn, but it serves as a useful reminder of the range and depth of skill this knitting requires - and that's worth having.

Meanwhile, this book is a masterpiece and a must for knitters or people with an interest in the history of fine knitted textiles. It's informative, clearly laid out, useful, and inspiring. A fine addition to my growing library on Shetland knitting and something to treasure in its own right. Don't hang around if it sounds like a book for you - all too often these books don't get large or repeated print runs and they get very expensive secondhand. 




Sunday, February 25, 2024

Hex and the City - Kate Johnson

I have a jumper I need to finish (I put it down for a minute and now it's days later and I'm going to Scotland in a couple of weeks where I'll want to wear it so I need to get a move on with that), books I need to read, and a neighbor who has set off the fire alarm at 10pm for the last 2 nights in a row, and if I find it which of the 4 flats is responsible there will be some extremely passive aggressive comments to be made. I don't know who's responsible because whoever they are is staying inside, presumably confident that it's only dinner burning and not the building. 

I also have a couple of books to catch up with here including Hex and the City which I read a while ago. There's not a lot to say about it other than that Kate Johnson is good at what she does - and a lot better than books in a similar vein that I've tried reading. Poppy is a witch with magical hair who seems to trail chaos in her wake, she accidentally sells stage magician Axl Storm a cursed necklace which leads to adventures, great sex, peril, and a happy ending. There's also friendship, found family, and guest appearances from a previous book (Hex Appeal). It's definitely at the cosier end of the current romantasy market and it's fun.


I don't know if it's because Kate Johnson is British and I just don't have the patience for the particularly American* take on this sub-genre of witchy girl messes up then saves the day, or if she's a considerably better writer than the other authors I've looked at (it's part of being a bookseller to pick up things that are popular and try and get a sense of what people are looking for - not always a fun part). I think she's a better writer. She gives her characters realistic insecurities, her heroes aren't as two-dimensional as a lot of them tend to be, and she writes with kindness and humour. 

We talk quite a bit at work about how difficult it can be to find romance writers who work for you - we're not all looking for the same things. I want a happy ending, characters I can believe in, and that are light on red flags, much more than I want smut. I don't want to be put through an emotional wringer, I'm not interested in brooding intensity, but if something makes me laugh (with, not at) I'll enjoy it. If that's your kind of romance too Kate Johnson is worth a look.

*Americans may not see the appeal of the British version either, some things just don't translate, and the US version of Halloween is one of those things for me. 

Saturday, February 17, 2024

The Undying Monster - Jessie Douglas Kerruish

This, the latest in the British Library's weird collection and, I think, their second foray into a full-length novel, has been a wild ride. Jessie Douglas Kerruish threw everything at at - do you want speculation about Vampires, Werewolves, necromancy, Norse legend, grave robbing, a hand of glory and unexpected applications of William Morris and Wagner - because if you do you're in luck. 

It is by any measure A Lot, it's also a lot of fun if you don't take the excesses too seriously, underneath those excesses there are some interesting ideas at play, and this overall is what I love about this series. The Undying Monster is a tale of the fifth dimension - it's only a very small spoiler to say that Kerruish thinks of that as the human mind and its unconscious power here. The fourth dimension is a more mundane spirit realm easily detected by dogs, cats, and supersensitives such as our heroine, Luna Bartendale. 

The Hammands are an aristocratic family of great antiquity, reduced by the War to a brother and sister. There is a curse or Bane upon the Hammonds that has lasted a millennium and more, the head of the family, if they find themselves under pines and firs on a clear frosty night see a monster - those that survive the encounter go mad, and commit suicide. The locals think that Hammonds who have died prematurely remain behind as Vamoires, for entirely unclear reasons no one has thought to get rid of any pine or fir trees in this part of Sussex. 


When Oliver Hammand survives an encounter with the monster his sister Swanhild calls in the help of Luna, the white witch - can she save Oliver from his seemingly inevitable fate? Despite throwing almost everything at the plot there's an internal logic that makes sense (mostly) and as a splendid yarn with some frights along the way it all works very nicely. 

Given the continued, if passing, references to Oliver's service in France, and that the book was written in 1922 it's hard not to find metaphors for shell shock and the deep collective trauma the war left behind. Even the spiritualist and folklore elements tie into this and the renewed interest in them during and after the First World War. It's this that I find really interesting about 'The Undying Monster' - the question at its heart is how do you reconcile a great horror in such a way that you can go on living with it?

Hammand ancestors could not, the Hammand who got through the trenches just might be able to with the right help. 

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Bride - Ali Hazelwood

This has to be the most atypical, off-brand, for Hayley book I've read in years. I don't go for paranormal romance, I didn't care about Twilight, and the vaguely kinky stuff seemed silly to me. I love Ali Hazlewood, who clearly likes all of these things, for writing it. Romance is a demanding genre, readers don't always look kindly on authors doing something a little bit different but what's the point if you can't have some fun?

In fairly typical Hazelwood fashion, Misery Lark, Vampire, is also a really amazing tech woman working in IT, although she only does that for about 5 minutes before Vampire and werewolf politics take over and she finds herself married to a tall, broad, brooding man who isn't great at communication but is obviously extremely decent, capable, and great with young children. And a werewolf (for more or less only one discernable reason - the kink that I still can't really take seriously). Like any self-respecting alpha wolf, he's also really into consent. 


As a bookseller as well as a reader the last bit is important to me. I very much dislike selling young girls books that glamourize frankly abusive behaviour (thank god young girls no longer buy Jilly Cooper). I'm much less worried about the smut element when there are no major power imbalances and everyone is enthusiastically consenting. 

When I say worried, I'm not book police, I'm not advocating for any sort of censorship, and as long as you know what you're letting yourself in for I'm happy to sell it to you - I do worry that not everybody knows what they're letting themselves in for, and have had enough parents return their children's books to feel this is justified. 

Meanwhile if you loved Twilight and were team Jacob you'll probably adore this book. I really like seeing Hazelwood do more with plot, and I liked the expanded cast of characters here. My colleague talks about books like this being a bad good time and how sometimes that's exactly what you need. She's right, and Hazelwood is likely to remain one of the handful of authors I'll return to for exactly that. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Check and Mate - Ali Hazelwood

I read this last year, but I've been slow catching up with a couple of things. At the time I didn't have much to say about it other than that while I'm entirely happy with the lack of graphic sex in what's meant to be more of a young adult read, I far prefer the older couples that Hazelwood writes to these more or less teenagers. 

Now I've almost finished her foray into paranormal romance there's more to discuss. I like Ali Hazelwood's romances - she's funny and clearly having fun, she's a decent writer and I don't find anything especially problematic in her books around consent, age differences, and power balances - all of which she discusses at length. Every so often I want a bit of romantic fiction in my life and when I do there's a fairly small list of authors who write women I enjoy reading enough to be invested in their happy ending. Hazelwood does that for me.


I also have a bit of a soft spot for a woman who started off writing fan fiction before having a break-out TikTok success with her first novel at just the point I went back into bookselling. I've been able to follow her writing career from the beginning and that's another kind of fun. Check and Mate feels a lot like it started life as some sort of chess-based Star Wars fanfic. Mallory Greenleaf is the outsider who comes from nowhere to beat the acknowledged master - who sounds like a dead ringer for Adam Driver. 

Her protagonists are authentically annoying young adults to the more mature reader, but the skewering of misogyny has both anger and a sense of purpose behind it. We sell this as an adult romance - but it's meant as YA and is entirely appropriate as such. The thorny part of the issue is that her other books are not and there's no clear way to differentiate between them - that's possibly more of an issue with Bride than some of the earlier romances.

I'm also assuming that her academic day job remains Hazelwood's primary career so she can take risks and have the fun she wants with her fiction which is a luxury for a best-seller who might normally have to keep doing more of the same - again, it makes her interesting to me because at this point who knows what she'll decide to throw into the mix next time. 


Sunday, February 4, 2024

Norwegian Baking Through the Seasons - Nevada Berg

It's been a good couple of week for exhibitions and books. I went to Oxford yesterday with a friend to see the Colour Revolution, Victorian Art, Fashion & Design at the Ashmolean. It's on for another week or so, and I strongly recommend it. I've had some very nice review copies of books come through and bought myself a couple of cookbooks along with the exhibition catalogue from yesterday.


The first of the cook books was Nevada Berg's Norwegian Baking. While I was away I saw a couple of posts on Instagram about Solboller - Norwegian sun buns, these are apparently eaten on the around the 21st of January as a celebration of the slowly lengthening days - that's also my mothers birthday and I'm taken with the idea that there's a Scandinavian bun for both of us (St Lucia buns for me). I'm not clear if it's a date specific thing with Solboller or if it's a third weekend in January thing. I also see that eating an orange was another way of celebrating - definitely easier and a treat whilst blood oranges are around. 

The Solboller are cardamom/cinnamon buns with an egg custard and sound good. I kept coming back to Nevada Berg's North Wild Kitchen Instagram and blog and in easy steps to her Norwegian baking book. There's a recipe for a sugared juniper bun, and a couple of other things which called to me even more insistently and so here I am with yet another baking book.

It's a lovely book, and though I'm not a huge fan of the very enthusiastic tone that American authors/food bloggers favour, and loathe the caramelised brown cheese that features in a cake icing here there's a collection of fabulous looking breads and cakes that look to be a good mix of contemporary and traditional. A sponge cake filled with gin infused blackberries and blueberries looks like a perfect birthday or celebration cake amongst some stiff competition, and whilst it's by no means all sweet recipes there's plenty here if you want to further embrace the coffee and cake culture of Northern Europe along with your bread repertoire. The photography is also lovely; lots of Norwegian scenes that are as mouthwatering in their way as the recipes. I suppose it;s time to go and grind some cardamom. 

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Edinburgh and the Joy of Phoebe Anna Traquair

It's hard to believe a whole week has passed since a very satisfying, if flying, visit to Edinburgh. It's a city I have a slightly love hate relationship with. It's very beautiful but the center, specifically Princes Street and the Royal Mile are over touristy and dilapidated these days. The best thing about Edinburgh for me used to be Waverly station being very much in the middle of everything which made it great for day trips, but the middle I want to be in has shifted and I'm not sure where it's gone now.

Fortunately this time around we wanted to go and see the new Scottish galleries at the National Galleries of Scotland (that's a mouthful to say). There are a lot of things I love in that collection and I've missed it whilst the refurb/move has been going on. How best to tell the story of Scottish art is a tricky proposition. Do you separate it out, or keep it in the context of international movements? They do both in Edinburgh so it's worth making sure you have plenty of time to explore at leisure.

I liked the new galleries, particularly the windows looking down Princes Street gardens with the city views in between them echoing what you could see from the windows. I loved the lighting which was so much better than in Glasgow's Hunterian - in Edinburgh, you can actually see the paintings. The use of the space is excellent as well and it's a pleasant environment to find yourself in. I thought there could have been more context and more information along with the pictures - but when we went to visit some other old favourites we found the context at least. 


Not all the Scottish art is in the Scottish galleries. There's a good sprinkling of it in the other exhibition halls and it's good to see where it sits in the overall canon of Western art. We also went along to the Open Eye Gallery and the Scottish Gallery to see more contemporary things - lots of Elizabeth Blackadder, and a couple of James Morrisons to add to the lottery win wish list, along with artists I can aspire to collect. I recommend both for their welcoming attitude towards browsers and beautiful interiors.


The thing I was most excited to see again in the National was Phoebe Anna Traquair's life-size embroidered panels of the Progress of a Soul. Traquair hasn't had the attention she deserves, these panels are amazing as both art and craft, they're also only a fraction of her range - look her up. It was fabulous to see them in a space they look really comfortable in and there's a lavishly illustrated book about her and her work by Elizabeth Cumming which I've just picked up from work today. I'm also pushing Duncan Macmillan's 'Scotland and the Origins of Modern Art' right up my TBR pile - so altogether an inspiring day. 

Friday, January 26, 2024

Knitting

Finishing all the partly read books isn't my only aim for the new year, I really want to use up some of the excessive amounts of yarn I've collected - first up has been a couple of cones of Jameisons DK that I'd already made jumpers from (Donna Smith's Peerie Leaves pattern which I made twice last year and really like). It's hard to judge exactly how much yardage I'd got left on either cone but I got a version of Mary Jane Muckleston's Lower Leogh in a grey colour I had a little bit more of. I'm using a rag-tag of leftovers and odd balls of DK to make a purple version which will hopefully be a little bit longer in the body and sleeve and narrower in the neck than my first attempt. If the yarn holds out...



Lower Leogh is an outsize, short, and boxy jumper written for spindrift or jumper weight. I'm also outsize so just switching to the stitch count for the smallest size for the body and guessing for the sleeves worked reasonably well. I'll make a few adjustments for this second go, but there's not much to change - mine doesn't have the positive ease of the original, but that doesn't really suit me anyway - a long body with short legs isn't the perfect vehicle for a boxy top. 

At the moment the colours for the Fairisle strip are causing me some concern - for jumper number 1 they worked well enough. Not what I would have chosen exactly, but when we drove through wintery Northumberland last week I could see them reflected in the landscape and I liked it. For jumper number two I'm well outside my comfort zone with a truly startling combination for me of magenta, gold/yellow, and purple. I'm not sure I'll ever love it, but I won't see it much when I'm wearing the jumper and it is achieving my aim of using things up.

The reason my stash is so out of hand is a desire to avoid exactly this situation and have enough of any colour I like for any eventuality. I don't have a lot of DK though and what I do have is mostly leftovers from Christmas stocking colour schemes. I spend a lot of time worrying about colours for Fairisle and there is at least a sense of freedom in just having to use what I've got. 

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Helle and Death - Oskar Jensen

I'm in the Scottish Borders at the moment (lovely) where I had planned on doing a fair bit of dog walking whilst I had a dog at my disposal - that worked to both our satisfaction for all the time I had access to him, and also a lot of reading and knitting. I have done a little knitting and next to no reading. Never mind. 

I'm still on a mission to finish up a whole lot of half-started books from the last year, and at least I've done one of them with Oskar Jensen's fiction debut 'Helle and Death' which I hope will be the start of a series. I asked for a review copy of this through work more or less on a whim and sort of forgot about it. When it turned up I wasn't overly excited, but started it over lunch anyway and was instantly hooked. 

Oskar Jensen is an academic currently based at Newcastle but with what sounds like fingers in lots of pies including writing an infuriatingly good murder mystery whilst working on the scholarly stuff. The immediate appeal of Helle and Death (Helle is Dr Torben Helle, a Danish art historian) is that it takes time to be a little bit funny/tongue in cheek, and for the consistent references to Golden age crime - if you know the books they give a couple of clues. 


The set up is a country house party in deepest Northumberland organised by Antony Dodd, the guests are a group who became friends in halls of residence during their first year at Oxford. It's a good ten years since graduation and they've all moved on, but Anthony made a fortune in tech before disappearing and there's an element of curiosity bringing them all back together. 

During dinner on the first night Anthony reveals he's terminally ill, the next morning he's found dead. At first it looks like a suicide, then it looks like it might not be. Unfortunately there's an epic blizzard, nobody is going anywhere, and one of these old friends might be a murderer. So far so good and even if it was just the country house set up with some mildly funny jokes and a lot of references for the Golden age fans it would be more than enough, but the relationships between the characters raises this book to something more.

Jensen does a splendid job of capturing the dynamics between a group of people who shared 3 extraordinary years of privilege before going their separate ways - the people who still like each other, and those who really don't. The tensions between them as they compare careers, the jealousies that haven't quite gone from undergraduate days, along with the new ones, and a whole lot of other old feelings for one another. The 30 something age bracket is smart too - that point where youth is definitely behind you and you really start to wonder where your life is going. It's enough to make me care about the characters which is relatively unusual and why I'm hoping for more. 


Thursday, January 18, 2024

Impossible Creatures - Katherine Rundell

I've been desperately trying to finish a jumper whilst the weather is so cold, partly to wear partly because it's nice and warm having it on my lap whilst I knit. It's currently soaking prior to going on the board and I'm looking at the pile of read books that have built up.


Impossible Creatures is one of a lot of books that I started late in December and took a while to finish - mostly because I kept getting distracted by other books and life. It is the Waterstones book of the year and has picked up a few other titles along with overall glowing reviews. I'm here to add another one to the pile. I really liked this book - not quite as much as my colleague who described it as being akin to rediscovering the excitement of reading for the the first time - but a lot. It is very definitely a children's book (9-12) but the sort that anyone of any age could enjoy if they like a magical adventure, and a really lovely book to read together with children.

For anyone old enough to remember when Harry Potter first became a thing, I got the same kind of buzz from Impossible Creatures. They're nothing alike beyond both having a collection of mythical creatures and being quest based, which is a lot of books, but there's an alchemy at work in both that pulled me in. I still like the first 3 Harry Potter books a lot, but they're very much of the 1990s, sensibilities have moved on since then. This is an excellent place to start if you want a fantasy adventure for younger readers without the baggage.

Comparisons to Philip Pullman are fair, though I think Rundell preaches less - I'm in the fence about Pullman. I admire his writing much more than I enjoy it. Overall though, she's a writer who's been around for a while, she has fiction for children, and non fiction on John Donne and endangered wildlife for adults. She's her own woman who doesn't need to be compared to anyone, but read on her own account. 

Impossible Creatures tells of a boy who is pulled into an adventure in an archipelago of islands hidden from the rest of humanity - they are the last home of magical creatures. He meets a girl who can fly as she flees a murderer. Together they make friends, evade enemies, and battle to make things better. Christopher and Mal are perfectly imperfect - easy to like, and easy to believe in. 

I've seen a few children's books hailed as instant classics, some of which I've not much liked, this one feels like the genuine article to me. I hope it's the one that makes Katherine Rundell the household name she deserves to be.