Monday, February 27, 2012

Herbs - Nikki Duffy

A river cottage handbook. About Herbs. By Nikki Duffy - whose 'Source It' column was my favourite thing about 'The Guardian'. That's the sort of hat trick that makes the pile of other books about herbs I've got quite irrelevant. Happily the River Cottage Handbooks always have something new to add (I've been comparing with  Jekka's Herb Cookbook). I've been a fan from the beginning of this series, it's full of unexpected joys and really excellent writing. The strength of the whole River Cottage thing is in its community approach, because whilst I'm a fan of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall it's in a mild sort of way and definitely enhanced by his ability to find really good people to collaborate with (John Wright's contributions have been my high points but they're all good).

I made grand plans after reading the veg patch and fruit books (Mark Diacono) but I only have access to my partners garden and I'm not there enough to make large schemes practical (he doesn't like to water, and last year hired a mini digger when my back was turned - both to the detriment of the roses). I might still get my way regarding a Quince tree (or possibly a damson...) but the great thing about herbs is that a) they're growable on my windowsill, b) plenty of them positively like dry and arid conditions, though probably not mini diggers, c) the results are pretty much instant, and d) the plants are generally cheap to buy - roughly the same for a plant or seeds as a packet of cut herbs which is quite satisfactory really. 

I'm a little bit evangelical about fresh herbs, they were my gateway plants into gardening, are my concession to the good life, and are useful, and beautiful, both to me and bees. I bought a myrtle last year which has spent the last few months sitting on a windowsill all but ignored (it seems happy though) reading about it made me go and crush a leaf - the smell was as good as it was unexpected. I could have looked it up elsewhere but the joy of a new book like this is in how it makes familiar and overlooked things suddenly fresh and obvious. I can't tell you how excited I am by this book. 

I can tell you that it's nicely laid out - the information is useful but concise, isn't overly preachy, feels good to hold (Bloomsbury's design team nailed it with these books) and read, and has lots of good advice with regard to both growing and using. The recipes are imaginative (white chocolate and basil truffles) but not to challenging for those who look askance at a few petals scattered in a salad - I plan to insert the thin end of the wedge into that particular prejudice by introducing lamb loin with lavender. This is a really good book.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Walnut Truffle Cake

Sunday afternoon is cake baking time - not every week, but it's become a bit of a ritual to try something new (and have cake to look forward to), the cake I've had in mind for the last week is Dan Lepard's Walnut Truffle Cake from last week's Guardian. Flour free cakes I've done before, but this one uses mascarpone instead of butter and doesn't ask for the eggs to be separated before whisking which saves a world of hassle in washing up and folding in of things. I'm keen on walnuts too - the slightly bitter earthy notes in them (Niki Segnit describes them as tasting brown along with cinnamon, nutmeg, maple syrup, honey, and pears) make them much more interesting to me than pecans - it's nice that they're cheaper too. 

It was Segnit's flavour thesaurus that prompted me back to walnuts after a prolonged flirtation with almonds and hazelnuts (once I cared about politics, then it was cloths, now it's baking - what will my forties bring?) and baking wise they've been fantastic; their oiliness does something good to a cakes texture and that slight bitterness balances sugary sweetness nicely. Every recipe I've used so far with them has been exceptionally tasty. 

This one was a joy to bake - the ground up mix of walnuts, cocoa, and sugar is particularly pleasing - rather like especially nice soil. The mascarpone has a nice texture too and it's all quick to throw together. I used all dark chocolate because that's what I had, but next time I'll use some milk as well - with all dark the result is very rich and voluptuous - good with coffee or as pudding, milk chocolate will mellow it out a bit. The oven temperature was spot on as well, my oven is old and temperamental with a habit of running cool or suddenly taking me by surprise and developing a hot spot but for once the cake baked at the lower end of the estimated time range, and unlike a lot of dense flour-less mixes this one showed no sign of sinking. It would have been an absolute triumph if only I hadn't dropped it.

Fortunately the fall was short and didn't involve the floor but it was enough to comprehensively b****r it in terms of presentation or even the chances of sitting down with a nice slice. Happily I'm the sort of domestic slattern who can handle her cake in bits but it doesn't feel like an auspicious end to the week...

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Brothers - Asko Sahlberg

One of my favourite jokes (partly because it's one of the few I can remember) is about two Finnish men who go out for a drink. The first man goes to the bar, gets the drinks, sets them on the table, raises his glass, says 'Skol' and then they drink in silence. Second drink same thing happens, silence, third drink and he raises his glass and says 'Skol' again at which point his friend snaps 'I thought we were here to drink not talk'. (Stay with me on this one, I'm not a natural joke teller, when I heard it, it was funny.) I've attempted to share that joke because it was the background I came to 'The Brothers' from, and true enough if you want to fit an epic of love, loss, betrayal, and family into a fraction over a hundred pages you don't want to be profligate with your word count.

This is the 7th Peirene title and each one strengthens their identity. The last two books I read both seemed to take an age to finish, and enjoyable as they were neither was a particularly challenging read, so when I picked up 'The Brothers' I was really craving something 'thought provoking, well designed, and short' - it's all three. I'm not surprised that Peirene are doing well, they have such a strong identity, it's not just that the books are lovely to hold and read, or that the covers are rather pleasing, it's more the whole hearted passion with which they get behind their books and the carefully curated choices they give us that makes them so exciting.

'The Brothers' is one of those books which ticks lots of boxes I normally avoid (historical novel, written by a man, family saga, not British, contemporary...) but I trust Peirene and it's short - both of which are important, we're traditionally not very good at reading translated fiction in the UK; I find it a lot easier to step out of my comfort zone with an elegant little volume like this than I do when a much greater investment of time is demanded. Preconceptions are a limiting thing, once the book was open I realised that it also ticked lots of boxes that attract me - short, told from several perspectives, sensual (is it only men who describe smells, or do I only notice male writers doing it?), and more than a touch of the fairy tale about it.

The action unfolds over a couple of days in a large farmhouse somewhere in the Finnish backwoods, isolated in location as well as by limited daylight and heavy snow there's an uneasy family gathering made more tense by the unexpected arrival of a disinherited older son. The narrative is shared by all the characters, each of whom shares a little bit more of the story, and much of which is concerned with the relationship between the brothers of the title - one is heavy and dark with almost unnatural strength, the other light of foot, easier perhaps to love, and the one who ends up with the girl. There's also a farmhand with a timeless mythic quality about him, and a cousin who has a touch of the troll or the wicked enchanter.

Everything unfolds quite quickly (and indeed it was hard to put the book down once started because I was desperate to see what would come next) although what's happened or is happening isn't always explicit - each character's segment feels like a statement; evidence that the reader has to try and piece together. Finally though I think this is more about the constraints family and home put on us - expectation is a kind of prison and when the family hierarchy is disturbed the results are unexpected freedoms.

Anyway it's a fine read and one I'm eager to share. I'm tempted to go on at length about the elegant spareness of the prose, the power behind so many of the descriptions (between Sahlberg and his translators we've got some really evocative images) and the effective way scent (or smell, or stink) are used to set scenes, moods, and raise tension - but the brevity of the book demands a little restraint.  

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Force To Be Reckoned With - Jane Robinson

It's taken me a shamefully long time to finish this book, I got it before Christmas, started reading it thinking all the time what terrific and rousing stuff it was, put it down for a moment and promptly got distracted. This is partly the curse of the hardback - just not a format I get on with, but I've taken to carrying a bigger bag so bigger books are less of an issue (please nobody say e-reader).

A history of the WI feels timely - I suspect most people who aren't involved in it have fairly fixed preconceptions about the Women's Institute, jam and Jerusalem aside my image involves ladies of a certain age taking their clothes off, that incident with Tony Blair, and an insatiable appetite for tea and gin (a tasting for the WI is a standard training scenario in wine sales, I've yet to be asked to do one but am always hopeful). Robinson's argument is that the WI has changed the world - and not with jam. She puts it persuasively and I'm convinced by what she says. I remember being delighted about the Blair incident - there was something splendid in the WI's refusing to have their AGM high-jacked - even by the Prime Minister. That however is only the tip of the iceberg, these women have been campaigners since the very beginning, politically neutral, but exceptionally well connected and very active on all sorts of social issues.

Without the WI it would have been nigh on impossible to evacuate children during the war (and whatever your feelings about that might be it was still a hell of a thing to pull off) they were there at the forefront of the welfare state, and have consistently been ahead of the curve on most of the big issues we've embraced over the last century. Robinson tells an excellent story, she has some good material to work with but even so hats off for doing an excellent job with it, however if I have a quibble it's this; everything is so positive. I once worked in an all female environment. Briefly. It was a mixed experience and taught me that women often don't play nicely together, there are a very few allusions to the sort of problems you might find in an institute towards the end of the book but nothing about some of the problems that might have existed at the top, at the same time the chapter that deals with Denman collage (who knew the WI had there own adult education facility) makes it clear that there have been issues, it sometimes feels like part of the picture is missing.

That's a small quibble though, I'm more than comfortable with the book being a celebration of the WI and it's ladies, it sounds like they deserve it. When the WI first came to the UK it was before women had the vote, when class was still the biggest divider of all, and when rural life could be almost inconceivably isolating, especially for women who would have had less reason to leave there farms and homes than there husbands. An institute that broke down class barriers and widened social circles with the specific aim of educating and entertaining could only have been a good thing.

Pre vote the WI would have been one of the very few places were the women who attended could look beyond the confines of family life to something altogether more public. This is the place they could learn to speak out, share ideas, campaign for better living conditions from, improve on scant education, and join in with the process of committee life. I have an impression of thousands of women starting with an attitude of 'I couldn't possibly' changing to one of 'well if I can do that, I can do this too'. I'm not sure if it's as radical as Robinson would have us believe, but it's impressive that the WI has stuck to it's own agenda - and I do agree that they are the ultimate focus group with plenty to offer in the way of community, friendship, and shared skills - no wonder they're still going strong.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Hawksmoor at Home

I would love to eat at one of Hawksmoor's restaurants, the steaks sound wonderful, the drinks even better and they seem fond of marmalade - it's a heady combination and sadly not one I'm likely to find locally. However you can still have 'Hawksmoor at Home' - this is a new kind of cook book for me in that it feels like it will be a transient visitor in my kitchen - normally when a book finds itself on the shelf it's on it for the long haul, this one gives an impression of being on a journey and when it's taught me all it can it'll demand to be passed on to someone new. 

'Hawksmoor at Home' is as much scrapbook and biography as it is cookbook. It's lavishly illustrated with pictures of food, staff, happy customers, and a whole lot of bits thrown in for ambience - everything from Hogarth prints to - well, rather more contemporary cartoons with lots in the way of Victoriana in between. It's an attractive way to share a philosophy - which is what this is. There's nothing really ground breaking; the range of recipes is pretty much limited to steaks, ribs, oysters, lobster, and reworked classic puddings (trifle, jelly and blancmange) and other things in a similar line - it's a few things done very well - which is an approach I can't help but approve of.

So far this book has helped me reach a new level of brownie making - leaving out the whole nuts (although I like to substitute some of the flour for ground almonds) and cutting down the sugar a bit you spoon 200g of marmalade over the top of the batter. (I stuck with a much loved though adapted version of Nigella's brownies when I saw that the Hawksmoor recipe which claims to make a mere 15 squares of chocolate heaven called for 8 eggs, half a kilo of sugar, and another half kilo of chocolate. Either those brownies are huge or you'll end up with rather more than 15 - and either way it's a lot to eat.) It's a revelation, never will you have a better, more fudgy brownie and the slightly bitter orangey marmalade hit is heavenly.

It's also dramatically improved my ability with a steak. Cooking steak is one of those things you take for granted as being quite simple and so often turns out to be a bit disappointing. Well in truth it is simple, but still needs to be done properly. It's worth searching out the best meat you can afford, ensuring that it's been dry aged for - well 21 to 28 days are what I managed to find on offer, 28 days is probably better, 21 days is what was left by the time I finished work and could buy my steaks. After that it's a matter of getting a pan (preferably griddle) as hot as possible, resisting the urge to season with salt or oil the pan, (if it's hot enough the meat won't stick presumably because the fat in it does the job oil would), flipping the steaks regularly, not overcooking them, and then letting them rest for 5-10 mins before you eat. The Scottish one confirmed  these as the best steaks I'd ever cooked and as good as he'd had in a long, long time. I'm sticking with what I've learned - there will be no compromise.

This is a lovely book, to look at, to read, to cook from. It still has a bit to teach me both in technique and history, and when I've finished with it I look forward to passing it on to someone equally carnivorous so that it can raise their expectations and change their table too. Highly recommended for meat eaters everywhere.  

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A new game

When I'm alone it's my habit to sit in front of the television with my laptop wasting hours of time on crap television and twitter (I would love to say I was doing something more constructive, I always mean to be doing something more constructive, but somehow that's where the time goes). Anyway that's all going to change - I've found something much better to do on-line than stare obsessively at Le Creuset and update my amazon recommends.

The Your Paintings project has crossed my personal radar a couple of times but I hadn't paid it much attention until the other day when I saw something on twitter (it's not all a waste of time...) and had another look. The idea is to digitally catalogue the estimated 200 000 oil (acrylic or tempera) paintings held in public collections, the project is just over half way complete at the moment but the catalogue is already impressive - put in your artists name and find what paintings are out there, where they are, and contact details for the gallery so you can check if something is on display.

It's all adding up to be a brilliant public resource (the result of a partnership between the BBC and the Public Catalogue Foundation) but even better you can get involved by tagging pictures. I'm hooked (I've done 8 so far) my degree was in History of Art but that was a longish time ago now and it's a while since I've really engaged with art in this way. It's not that I stopped looking at pictures, or even that I stopped thinking about what I was looking at, but skills that I took for granted as a student have rather lapsed - it's harder to describe what I'm looking at than I assumed it would be. It's also quite rewarding - a reconnection with a part of my life that I have very happy memories of, as well as dusting off old skills. I've already discovered a painting I'd love to go and see (In Aberdeen which is inconvenient to get to but overdue a visit) and feel quietly inspired. 

It's a great project and if you feel like spending a bit of time doing something mildly constructive give it a go - details here

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Life in the old dog yet

It seems to be my habit to talk about the state of Waterstones from time to time and I'm sure I've made my feelings about kindle's plain in the past (good in there way but not for me). It's a habit I'm not alone in, fellow bloggers, newspapers, and plenty of the people I work with all give versions of these things an airing - this very week in a chat with the company chairman (I say chat, but it was all very corporate...) he held forth on the death of the high street.

Having worked for a few retailers now (not many of whom are still in business - a coincidence I'm sure) I have my own opinions about this. I don't think the high street is on it's last legs, I don't think the book is in any particular danger from e-readers; books are more than just something to read, equally owning books and reading books are, alas, not quite the same thing and I think Waterstones might just have a bright future.

Admittedly I loathe shopping on-line; I don't care to share my card details farther than is strictly necessary, know too many people who have had pay-pal accounts hacked, and more than anything else hate the hassle of waiting for deliveries, missing deliveries, tracking down deliveries, missing the delivery again (why courier companies are only prepared to deliver during my work hours is a source of never ending frustration, and don't get me started on being ransomed to get my own goods at a time I might be at home) . I like going into a shop, finding something I want, paying for it, going home. 

When I do order on-line I feel a lifting of the heart when I see it's Royal Mail delivery - the Post Office has at least a pick up office in town (and not somewhere in the hinterland of Coalville or similar and unreachable by any form of public transport) that's open at reasonable hours and they don't often want to see my passport or non existent driving licence. Better yet I adore John Lewis' Click and Collect - order and pick up from the shop. Problem with your goods - that's okay they'll deal with it there and then and no nonsense about re posting and any questions can be given to a real live helpful person. It works for me.

Still an actual shop is better and Waterstones is a good example of a company that feels like it's finding it's way again. Leicester has two branches, neither of them large, both developing a distinct personality, and both full of helpful, knowledgeable, staff. It is my deep held conviction that if a business has a decent proposition (like selling books) and is confidant enough to stick with it, it should do okay. You can't always compete but it isn't always necessary, or even desirable to try. If amazon and the supermarkets can undercut on best-selling titles that's fine, let them - they can't be making a lot of money and I think there are enough people out there (like me) who find the physical bookshop offer things that amazon can't - the unlimited choice might not be there but the chance of finding something tempting by chance is (also they will let you use their sellotape in an emergency) and I'm prepared to pay a pound or two more for that.

More importantly shops are somewhere to go too, to meet people in, to look at things in. How we do business is evolving, I just don't believe it's changing as much as some pundits would have us believe. From what I can see my Waterstones' are doing a lot better than they were eighteen months ago (I'd love to ask but doubt they'd tell) there seem to be more customers, the range is better, and the staff seem more upbeat. In the current economic conditions all of that's heartening. I hope it lasts and I hope they go on to be one of the great success stories coming out of the recession. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

After years of indifference towards Mr Dickens I've had my epiphany with 'Great Expectations' - unfortunately I'm given to understand that he wrote nothing else like it but I'm prepared to try my luck with 'Barnaby Rudge' and 'The Pickwick Papers'. With 'Barnaby Rudge' it's because the background of the anti catholic Gordon riots sounds interesting, 'The Pickwick Papers' just sounded like it might be a fun read from the back cover - although heaven knows when I'll get round to either of them. 

'Great Expectations' took me a while to get through, despite coming in at a little under 500 pages there's a lot of reading in this book - it's definitely not one to rush not least because most the pleasure is in the detail. The Dickens I've read recently (Christmas short stories) has veered towards the sentimental, 'Great Expectations' has a streak of humour as well as Gothic horror that more than saves it from any tendency in that direction. It's also the humour that slowed me down, there's no point in rushing a good joke and there are so many of them to enjoy. Part of me would have like not to have enjoyed this book so much - to be able to say hand on heart that Trollope, or Collins, or Oliphant or Braddon, have done better or are as good but I have a sneaking suspicion that this is just possibly the best Victorian novel out there (though 'Lady Audley's Secret' is a strong contender).

I don't think there's anything very much I can say about plot - I imagine most people are familiar with it, though again I have to say if you only know 'Great Expectations' through filmed versions please read it - I doubt very much that any adaptation could really do it proper justice. (I'm also just a bit worried that it wasn't the best place to give Dickens a second chance, it seems likely that anything else will be something of an anti climax.) It is undoubtedly a brilliantly well balanced book - Pip's development from boy to man with all the obnoxious fazes in-between is well executed, Miss Havisham stays just this side of possible as does Magwitch. Jaggers the lawyer and his clerk Wemmick are probably my favourite characters partly because they feel nicely observed, partly  because they are among the details that make the novel so rich. 

If there was a downside it would be on the sheer amount of coincidence used to drive the plot along - but that's not the sort of thing that worries me too much and especially not here when there are so many other things to enjoy that I'm quite willing to suspend my disbelief for a while. All in all expectations of this reading experience were exceeded, this is a book I feel much the richer for being better acquainted with and that I think is destined for many re reads.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Welford Road Cemetery

A weekend off just before Valentines day and how do we choose to spend our Saturday? We went for a walk in a cemetery, it turns out we've both wanted to visit Welford Rd for a while. I've walked past it a few times  but never been inside despite a love of Victorian graveyards - perhaps because it's not the sort of thing you necessarily want to do alone.

Today however was perfect, there was enough snow around to make everything look desperately picturesque and also make it clear how many rabbits infest the place. Apparently they undermine the graves, and although we didn't see any (to much sense to be out on such a cold day) there were enough footprints around to make it look like a 'Watership Down' re-enactment had just taken place. 

There were also a lot of snow drops around too, although as we're a week or so behind London and the South they're not at their best yet - another visit might be on the cards. This cemetery is bordered by busy roads, is next to the university, overlooks both a football and rugby stadium, and has a train line running past it - it's not exactly peaceful but it's empty of people (living ones anyway) and clearly a haven for more than rabbits. Sadly there's also been quite a lot of vandalism in the past - grave stones deliberately toppled, and grave sculpture stolen - fortunately things are improving (there's a friends of group which seems to be doing sterling work in the way of restoration and general care) and this place is an oasis. It's a wonderful mix of everything from high Victorian to Art Nouveau, the graves are closely packed, many of them must have cost serious money and speak of extreme devotion and devastation. It's quite a place.

Friday, February 10, 2012

In which I have Great Expectations

Despite being the lucky recipient of a small library of books about Dickens from Oxford University Press it still came as a bit of a surprise to me that this week would have seen his 200th birthday. I knew that there was a 200th anniversary of some sort I just hadn't been paying that much attention because generally I'm not that much of a fan. When I realised that Tuesday was the big day it struck me as an amazing coincidence that I'd just started reading 'Great Expectations' (though in truth it's more likely that I'd finally picked it up because of all the background Dickens activity, I certainly bought it just before Christmas as an alternative to watching the mini series)

'Great Expectations' has turned out to be a bit of a revelation (as well as having possibly the best ever title for a 'classic') - it's funny, properly and deliberately funny, which I never saw coming. My low expectations were based on a humourless television series from some time in the late 70's which I saw when I was far to young, but also when there were only 3 channels available so you had to take your chances and make the best of them. I'm pleased that I missed this years (no doubt lavish and excellent) take on it because at least I'm coming to the book fresh and also because I have nagging feeling that no adaptation would do it proper justice.

All of which has made me wonder - have I actually read 'A Christmas Carol'? I thought I had but now it occurs to me that I might not of, I've seen several versions - the same goes for Oliver Twist, but have I read  either of them? And if I haven't how will the books compare to what I think I know of them? When I was a child and television consisted almost entirely of Delia Smith and snooker (or so it seemed) I was far more likely to discover a classic in book form and then see a film version (Jane Austen) but at some point that changed (Elizabeth Gaskell). Being by nature a reader I'm back to discovering things through the printed word and after years of thinking I didn't care at all for Dickens am being forced to consider that perhaps I just don't care for other peoples versions of him. 

Perhaps because it's late I find that a worrying thought - on reflection most of the Jane Austen adaptations I've seen have been pretty naff compared to the originals, fun to watch, but really my life would be poorer if I thought that was all there was to her writing. What else have I been missing out on? And if there's a moral to this ramble it's this - if you think you know Dickens (or any other classic author) pick up a book and make sure. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Whisky Classified - David Wishart

As I may have already mentioned several times - I love a good whisky (by which I will always mean a Scottish single malt, I accept that other people make excellent whiskey/whisky/rye/bourbon and so on but it's scotch that really works for me and I'm sticking with it) and I love reading about it just as much as drinking it. Maybe more, there is after all no hangover from reading. 

For a long time I was faithful to the Micheal Jackson guide but it does no harm to be promiscuous with books and I've been flirting with David Wishart's 'Whisky Classified' just recently after spotting the 10th anniversary edition. What grabbed my attention was the sub title 'Choosing Single Malts By Flavour' - this is a terribly fashionable way to approach Whisky at the moment (and may seem obvious to the uninitiated) but ten years ago it would have been revolutionary. Back in October I spent a whole day re arranging the malts at work along flavour profiles (defined by our buyers and I'm inclined to argue with some of their classifications - but that's another story) before this Whisky was arranged and marketed by geography which has it's advantages but struggles to accommodate the huge variations in style you can get from distilleries pretty much next door to each other.

The Jackson guide is excellent but at its heart it's a catalogue which assigns each malt a score that's purely the result of one man's personal opinion. Jackson's was a learned, generally reliable opinion, but in all the years I used the book I don't remember seeing any break down of how he reached a score. Wishart's system is different - he breaks down a dozen flavour profiles - convenient once you work out what he means (this was for me the hardest thing about learning how to taste wine, but once you break the code it's a really useful tool), divides distilleries into clusters, and uses a plethora of charts - all designed to help you identify what you like.

He also has a pronunciation guide for each whisky; Gallic is a tricky language so I'm grateful to have it confirmed that Allt A Bhainne is pronounced owlt-ah-VAN-ya or that Dailuaine is dal-YOO-in for example (also I've just amused myself and the Scottish one by confirming the pronunciation of Springbank, Longmorn etc). It's a little thing but I like attention to detail. After that each whisky gets an entry about it's history,a tasting note, and a break down of it's flavour profile. Honestly I'm impressed - there's a lot of information for the reasonably knowledgeable (such as myself) with plenty of room for debate, but for the novice I can't imagine a better place to start. I like this book so much that I'm going to phone our training department tomorrow and suggest that this is the book we should be using (it's far better than the one we have).

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Whores' Asylum - Katy Darby

The luxury of generally reading books that have stood the test of time is this; any issues I have with them are subjective and entirely personnel to me, the writer is probably long dead - I feel free to say what I like and I rarely find anything negative to say because after all a book doesn't become a classic because of it's many faults. Reading a book hot off the press is a different thing altogether, it makes me far more critical which is okay, but I find myself looking for faults which is not on the whole why I read. 

The first twenty pages of 'The Whores' Asylum' didn't entirely bowl me over but I carried on, the next twenty pages were better, and by the third time I picked it up I realised I didn't want to put it down. The back blurb bills this as 'enjoyable gothic romp for fans of Sherlock Holmes, Sarah Waters, and Susanna Clarke's 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell''. I can go along with the Holmes bit, haven't read any Sarah Waters and thought that 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' would really have benefited from some serious editing. I think there's also a bit of a debt/nod to Faber's 'The Crimson Petal and the White' and although Diana Pelham is not the heroine that Faber's Sugar is that's hardly a criticism. Initially, and this was the reason for my ambivalence until I got into the story, the language feels a bit contrived - to self conscious an approximation of  Victorian idiom but either it settled down or I stopped noticing.

The story itself is a sort of mystery with a femme fatale at the centre of a web of men. Her nemesis is Edward Fraser who plays the role of best friend to two of her victims. Edward is a prudish, generally innocent young man, who immune to Diana's charms sees the worst in her. His intentions and motives are all for the best but it's through his agency that most of Diana's misfortunes befall her. The man they're both fighting for is Stephen Chapman - a brilliant young doctor, after that things get complicated...

Edward, Stephen, and Diana all tell different bits of the story ostensibly in letter form (though I doubt that Diana's section would really have been written, as suggested, for her unborn child - it's not the kind of thing you would want them to know but that's a little niggle) which works for me. Diana initially seems to be a villain but turns out to be something else entirely, Edward is flawed but likeable - a decent but sometimes misguided young man. Stephen is the object for both their passions and it's good to find a book with friendship at it's heart with all it's complications - it's not always about sex.

I loved the way Darby played around with my perceptions of who was in the right or wrong in a situation whilst all the time exposing the double standards in attitudes between men and women, between the respectable and those who've been caught out. It's not a perfect book but it's a real page turner, and better than that, is thought provoking. This is Darby's first book, it will be interesting to see what she does next, but personally I have very high hopes for future brilliance from her. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Times

Dad's been having a clear out and has sent me the copy of 'The Shetland Times' from the week I was born - not the day because it was, and still is, a weekly paper. There's more in it these days but this one made interesting reading partly because it reflects concerns about the burgeoning oil industry and the cold war - one correspondent to the letters page asks if the public have considered how the building of an oil terminal will make the them a priority target in the event of a nuclear war - but mostly because of the small adds. Baby sitters for 15p an hour, bank accounts with between 9.5% and 11% interest, 10lb bags of salted herring ...

 Dad and I were both surprised to see the North Start Cinema advertising x rated films. In so many ways the past is  another country, but being British some things remain constant - complaints about a royal wedding extravaganza and observations on the wettest November ever have a familiar ring to them. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Shetland Ramblings

Homesickness appears to be an incurable ailment. It's quarter of a century (and far more than half my lifetime) since I lived in Shetland but it will always be where I'm from and looks like it will always be where I think of as home - it's not as if I have any illusions about island life, or if I'm even sure that it would still be for me (though give me the chance and I'd go back in a flash to try it out at least). The end of January always makes me want to head north (a desire that probably wouldn't survive first contact with the weather) mostly because of Up-Helly-Aa, although this year impressive Aurora displays are added to the siren call (I don't want to infringe anybody's copyright but have a look at some of the pictures and videos here at Burra Bears).

Up-Helly-Aa is a big deal (I think it might be the biggest fire festival in Europe) and although there are several burnings all across Shetland now the big one takes place in Lerwick on the last Tuesday of every January. When I was a child it was a hugely exciting day partly because school closed half day on the Tuesday and everything closed on Wednesday so that people could recover (this is still the case). Shetland is a small place, really large crowds are rare so the best part of a thousand men marching through town with flaming torches has quite an impact. It really is a sight to see and judging by the palpable excitement on my facebook page it's still as big (if not bigger) deal than ever. Excellent pictures here

It probably doesn't help that I'm currently reading Mairi Hedderwick's 'Shetland Rambles' - set in midsummer which is even more beguiling (there's a promise of sun and reasonable warmth). I had to put it to one side to finish a book group read but will have more to say about this one very soon. Also it's cold which makes me hanker after new knitwear, my favourite jumper is now over a decade old and has finally reached a point where repairs are ineffective. It's a long way to go for a jumper but there would be gloves and a scarf too... My Porch went to Hawaii for his island fix, arguably my parents didn't do me any favours imprinting Shetland on me - now if only I could bring myself to believe that.