Monday, April 30, 2018

The Bear and the Nightingale - Katherine Arden

I was intrigued by this when it first came out, probably because it was just after I'd read Naomi Novik's Uprooted and sounded like it might have quite a bit in common with it. I waited for it to appear in paperback, and might have waited a lot longer to read it but that the cold weather we're currently enduring (again, come in spring) made something light and fairy tale inspired really appealing.

I'm not very familiar with Russian folklore (though after reading 'The Bear and the Nightingale' I'm digging through my fairytale collection to learn more) but there's a lot of it in here, and I'm guessing that Arden knows her stuff. As with 'Uprooted' the protagonist is a young girl with some magical ability. In this case she has the sight - can see the spirits that guard house and stable, or live in the forests, lakes, and rivers, but so far that's more or less it.

The central character is Vasya, a free spirit of a girl not suited to either marriage or a convent (which are more or less the choices for a high born medieval Christian girl), which sets the scene for all sorts of tensions as she moves from childhood to becoming a woman who must be suitably disposed of by her family. Meanwhile something malign is stirring in the forest, and there are muttering in the village that Vasya is a witch.

What Arden does particularly well is create her world. It's medieval Russia, and whilst I could check the exact date from the Grand Prince's she mentions, I prefer to think in the fairy tale terms of once upon a time. The details she focuses on are mostly food and weather related - which are easy to picture, and also have a timeless quality.

The spirit figures are handled with the same reasonably broad brushstrokes, and are still familiar enough from folklore and fairytale to feel not to far away in the imagination. The time spent on character building is worthwhile too. Vasya and her family are well rounded and easy to invest in - which is just as well, because this is the first part of a trilogy, and in the end not much actually happens.

I really enjoyed this book, I'm happy to see the story through the next two instalments, but as with films that are clearly intended to be the first instalment of a franchise, I would have liked something that felt more like a complete story in itself. Not much happens for the majority of this book, then quite a bit gets squeezed in at the end which gives it a slightly unbalanced feel. The threat from whatever evil thing is gathering its strength in forest and shadows maybe also seems a bit to easily resolved - a lot of time and space is devoted to building up a menace and then suddenly it's all over.

On the whole though I found an eminently satisfying re working of Slavic folklore with a lot to recommend it. It's Arden's debut novel so it's going to be really interesting to see how she develops both the story, and as a writer.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

What's Bred in the Bone - Grant Allen

Grant Allen is one of those prolific Victorians with all sorts of interests who make me feel a) very much of an under achiever, and b) that he would be a great guest for one of those fantasy dinner parties.

I first came across him in an anthology of short stories (it might have been about Victorian lady detectives - it would certainly have been along those lines, unfortunately I'm not at home right now so can't check). A couple of his best books (An African Millionare, and Miss Cayley's Adventures) have been reprinted and are really worth seeking out, more are available as free downloads.

I've read a couple of these now, there was 'The Woman Who Did' about a girl who has, on principle, a child out of wedlock and suffers for it. Allen's attitude throughout is that its society that's wrong, not his heroine. It's interesting if melodramatic, its value now more as a record of changing attitudes than anything else.

In terms of quality 'What's Bred in the Bone' is even worse. It's something between a sensation novel and a science fiction work focused on evolution and genetic inheritance. It's startlingly un PC for the modern reader. I finished it because even here Allen's humour is a redeeming feature, and because as the current scandal about how the Windrush generation are being treated unfolds it was a useful reminder of colonial attitudes.

The plot goes something like this; a young woman (Elma) finds herself sharing a train compartment with a handsome young artist and his snake, they get trapped in a tunnel when it caves in, and almost die before rescue comes, during which process they more or less fall in love with each other. Home and safe, Elma is overcome by a desire to dance with a snake. She thinks she's going mad, but it turns out that she's descended from a long line of eastern snake dancing prophetesses and this is her nature asserting itself. It also explains her uncanny intuition.

Meanwhile Cyril the artist turns out to be an identical twin, and moreover the twins do not know who their parents are. This makes Elma's parents unwilling to consider a marriage. Then the boys father is faced with them, and overcome by some overdue remorse for the frankly shitty way he's behaved he attempts to buy them off whilst still hiding their true inheritance from them. He's doing this partly to protect a third son who doesn't know he isn't the legitimate heir. Then there's some stuff about a forgery, a murder, twin Guy and his unknown half brother (who foes know that Guy and Cyril are his brothers now, but doesn't bother to mention it, or tell Guy that he's wanted for murder) find themselves in South Africa looking for diamonds. They then get taken prisoner for 18 months and some more melodrama happens before they get home and Guy finally discovers he's wanted for murder before being tried by the very judge who actually did the murder.

Fortunately Elma's intuition means she knows who is guilty, and after Guy is wrongly found guilty she stares the judge down until he confesses. Then everyone lives happily ever after. Apart from the judge, who dies.

It's the description of Elma's father that really made me stick with this book. He's a bit of a non entity, nothing more than "a ridiculous old peacock. He was administrator of St.Kitts once upon a time, I believe, or was it Nevis or Antigua? I don't quite recollect I'm afraid; but anyhow, some comical little speck of a sugary, niggery, West Indian island...'

It's such an offensive, arrogant, dismissive, description on every level. It says so much about the world view that produced it, and quite a lot about the prejudice and outright racism we have inherited as a society, and continue to pass down.

'What's Bred in the Bone' isn't a good book on any scale, and nothing about it has aged well. My guess is that it was trashy fiction when it was written (Grant at his best is really good) and it's deservedly fallen into near oblivion. The other side of that though is that we're all to ready and willing to airbrush out less acceptable views from our collective pasts, ignore unpalatable prejudices unless we have to, as when debating Dicken's anti-semitism (or getting worked up about Georgette Heyer's for that matter).

Confronting those attitudes in books like this is a shock (I was certainly shocked by it). It's the casual dismissiveness of that 'some comical little speck' etc line that's somehow worse than all the later talk of savages and natives. The language we use, it seems, has changed far faster than the underlying attitudes about places and people. And that's something that needs to be confronted.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

New books

It was my best book friends* birthday a couple of weeks ago, and she wanted to spend it enjoying a really good browse in an actual bookshop. We flirted with the idea of going to Hay-on-Wye but (neither of us ever have) but it's a bit to far from us for a day trip, and staying over was going to take to much book buying money.

In the end we went to Nottingham which is blessed with a good size branch of Waterstones, some excellent cafes, a few other things we like, and is only half an hour away in the train. It's a while since either of us have found ourselves in a big bookshop, turns out we'd missed it a lot.

There really is nothing like the opportunity for a proper browse somewhere that's likely to have a reasonable selection of anything you might be interested in. It certainly encourages me to buy. The one book I really wanted was Seán Lysaght's 'Eagle Country' (Little Toller) which I found (my local Waterstones doesn't have it). I also found The Golovlevs by M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin (Apollo) which sounds intriguing. It's a stark portrait of the Russian gentry sapped by generations of idleness and irrelevance- and will have to wait until I have holiday time to tackle it in.

Saša Stanišić's 'Before the Feast' (Pushkin) caught my eye next. Pushkin have never yet disappointed me so I'm looking forward to this 'multi-stranded tissue of gossip, myth and memory'. It's also the sort of book that might languish for years on a wish list, but is irresistible when it's in front of you.

I think the same is probably true of Daphne Du Maurier's 'Hungry Hill' (Virago). I'd never heard of this one, but there's a castle, a family feud, and it sounds like it's set in Ireland. It's also 500 pages long and to date I've only ever managed to finish one Du Maurier. Maybe this will be book number two. It'll probably also santba holiday to get through it.

James George Frazer's 'The Golden Bough' (Oxford World's Classics) made the bookseller laugh at me (he'd correctly divined that it wouldn't end with the 4 books I'd already bought. He was right) . I kind of thought I already had a copy, but browsing through it whilst R was paying for her books  made me realise I didn't. The more I browsed the more I wanted it, I have no idea if I'll ever properly consult it, but I have excellent intentions.

*We met when she gave me a job in a bookshop, and have spent the last 20 years encouraging each other to buy more books, travelling reasonably far and wide to do so.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Belton House

Along with about half of Lincolnshire we went to Belton House, just outside of Grantham yesterday. Since joining the National Trust at the end of February I think we've visited enough places to have more or less recouped the cost of membership, and to get an idea of how the NT are currently interested in presenting our heritage.

Choosing the first really warm weekend of the year to visit somewhere like Belton wasn't a particularly smart choice if you wanted to concentrate on the architecture and interiors because whilst Belton is big, it's not huge, and a lot of the rooms confine you to walkways which don't give you much time or space on a busy day to stop and look at the details. The extensive parkland, formal gardens, and adventure playground, along with decent cafe, toilet provision, and space for picnics made it an excellent choice if you just wanted to be out in the sun somewhere nice, especially if you have young children to entertain and a dog to walk.

Belton is a treasure house, from its beautifully proportioned, golden stoned exterior through its mostly beautifully proportioned (shoehorning some bathrooms into an old house isn't always an easy job) interiors full of some really good painting, china, and furniture, and the grounds that set it off the whole thing is a jewel. It's also a particularly good example of the tensions between the different aims of the Trust.

The first of these has to be the 'For Ever, For Everyone' mission statement, because it's not cheap to visit if your not a member (£15 something for house and grounds, £12 just for grounds per adult) and whilst membership is good value if you make a point of using it, it's also a luxury that's going to be out of reach for many. If you want it to be forever you need the money, but then it's not really for everyone.

How the priorities of those visiting Belton are juggled is more or less successful - entry to the house is timed and pre booking is recommended. There's no set route around the house so you can choose your own direction and both of these things should help avoid overcrowding or bottlenecks of people.

More problematic is the changing focus of the way the house is presented from year to year. This year the NT are focusing on women. At Belton that means 'Giving a voice to four dynamic characters' creative women who have left their mark. These are Sophia Cust (watercolours) and Florence Woolward (Florence was a botanical artist), Marian Alford (embroidery), and Nina Cust (Sculpture). There's a board that explains this - after you have left the house. Marian Alford's embroidery is exquisite, unfortunately there's no information about it in the house, nothing in the display cases, and it wasn't possible to get near a room warden to ask questions. The same for Nina Cust's work.

The dining room currently has a large instillation by Bouke de Vries called 'War and Peices' which has got lots of information to back it up, which only highlights how badly served the 4 women are. There's also a general shortage of the folders (which were falling apart anyway, and might well have been replaced over the winter) that explain what the pictures are, and because I guess nobody wants to write a new guide book every year the guide book isn't tremendously helpful. It's good on the history of the family, and some of the physical changes to the house, devotes a few pages to bits of the collection not currently on display, but says very little about the actual rooms and what's in them.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

How To Eat a Peach - Diana Henry

I've been thinking about this book for weeks now, and I'm still not quite sure how to go about writing about it. There is no shortage of well produced, informative, inspiring cookbooks around, but sometimes something really special comes along, and this book is one of those special ones.

I've been a fan of Diana Henry for a while, she's everything I most like in a food writer - practical, reliable, and warm, concentrating on thoughtful food. Her books don't sell dreams of impossible life styles, rather they're a reminder of what's entirely possible with a little bit of thought. (Thought more than effort, the kind of thought that means you have useful things in the store cupboard, and consider what you might want for dinner early enough to do something about it.). It's generous, adaptable, good natured food which has an enjoyment of cooking and eating in every line she writes. It's also food that celebrates travel, people, and small adventures - and if you consider trawling through ethnic supermarkets a little bit adventurous*, it creates adventure too.

Even by Diana Henry standards I think 'How To Eat a Peach' is special though. It's a series of menus arranged seasonally inspired by places Henry has been and meals she's eaten or prepared. The introduction to each menu makes it quite a personal book. There's a combination of memory, philosophy, and occasional glimpses of insecurity (the admission that sometimes she feels she try's to hard, and not in a good way is explored in the perfect lunch menu) that turn these menus into conversations between writer and reader.

I like the menu approach a lot, planning a well balanced meal (balanced in mood, in flavour, in texture, and timing) isn't always an easy thing to do for the home cook, and it isn't discussed as much as it might be in cookbooks generally. Which is a shame because it's a useful skill, one that doesn't go amiss when negotiating restaurant menus either. A book that gives you a whole lot of suggested what's along with plenty of why is worth having.

The recipes themselves are everything you'd expect from Henry, which means I want to eat almost every one of them. I bought this book right at the end of March, there was still the threat of snow, and I spent my first evening reading it under a duvet and 2 wool blankets, with 2 hot water bottles for company, carried away by thoughts of ice cream; chocolate and Pedro Ximenez, grapefruit and basil, coffee and cardamom, strawberry and buttermilk - flavours that totally captured my imagination.

The peach of the title - a ripe one sliced and dipped into moscato wine, left for just long enough for the fruit to become a little boozy, and the wine a little peachy is another example of why I love this book so much - two good things put together to become more than the sum of their parts, it's not complicated, but just thoughtful.

Peaches in moscato have happy memories for me from early wine selling days, and that's definitely another reason I'm so smitten with this book. It's the way it's made me look back at my own food history, sent me back to favourite authors (Jane Grigson and Claudia Roden particularly), and has underlined how important wine is in how I plan a meal. (If it's in any way an occasion I start with the wine I want to open and plan from there.) What makes 'How to Eat a Peach' so special is not just what's in it, but the way it makes you think about so much more.

*I do, if I need google to translate what something is for me I'm having an adventure, even if it's on the very smallest and most domestic scale.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Tea Cosy

True to my resolution to try and extend my (very limited) Knitting skill set I resisted the urge to cast on another kep and had a look for something that would teach me something new. The Osaka tea cosy  in 'Knit Real Shetland' (15 knitting projects in real Shetland wool from Jamieson and Smith, I bought this last summer because I liked the variety of things in it, the photography, and because it was on sale - I think it's been superseded by a new collection of patterns).

The tea cosy looked like an excellent way to use up some odds and ends of yarn, have a go at putting in steeks and then cutting them (not as frightening as I thought it would be) and managing a pattern and decreases at the same time.

I could have made better colour decisions, but the cosy itself is just the right size for getting through left over yarns. Unfortunately it turns out to be not the right size for any of my teapots. One is to big, three are to small. The tea pot that's wearing it in this picture looks like it's stolen someone else's over sized jumper, and whilst I suppose it will do the job just as well I don't feel it's doing either the pattern, or my teapot, any favours.

The whole steek thing has always struck me as a bit daunting. If the term is unfamiliar it's when you add in extra stitches to a pattern forming a bridge between two sides of something which you will later cut to separate them. It lets you knit your project in the round, which is faster than doing it flat. The idea of taking scissors to something I've knitted has always made me a bit nervous, but everybody who says it's oddly liberating is right.

The bit I liked best about this though was the shaping and pattern on the crown of the cosy. I don't know why I found it so satisfying, but I did.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A New Book of Middle Eastern Food - Claudia Roden

My sister gave me this for my birthday in 2000, I think I already had Roden's book (another Penguin paperback) on Mediterranean Cooking, and might have had her wonderful region by region guide to Italian food as well (which very usefully talked about wine too). Neither of them have been as well used as 'A New Book of Middle Eastern Food'. Her 'Picnics' book is another favourite - and again, thinking about these books is taking me right back to the shop I bought them from and reminding me how much I miss it.

Reading Claudia Roden was another lightbulb moment. I know I asked my sister for this book, it's how we do presents - asking each other for small things we want but can't quite justify buying. The price of cookbooks have remained remarkably static over the last few decades, so in real terms they're a whole lot cheaper now than they were then. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not. On the upside it means these books are much more accessible, but there's so much about food and what it truly costs to get from field to fork that is undervalued. Are relatively cheap cookbooks part of that?

Anyway I was so pleased with this book. it's spine is badly cracked now, and it's pages cockled by water and stained with god only know what (honey, tahini, lamb and apricot juices, orange flower water...) it is a much loved friend that falls open at well loved recipes in such a way that I sometimes think it decides for me which recipe I'll cook.

It's because of this book that I always have dried apricots and prunes in the house. It's this book that encourages me to buy cinnamon in catering sized packs, and that has shaped my spice rack in a dozen other ways. It's this book that taught me to cook rice properly, because before this I just chucked it in a pan with water - unmeasured - and overboiled it more often than not.

It was also Claudia Roden who made me realise how far you could explore from your own kitchen and how exciting that could be. I am not good with hot spices - even a tiny bit of chilli defeats me (which is a nuisance in Leicester, where I'm very aware of all the good stuff I'm missing out on), so realising spice didn't have to mean hot was a really big deal.

Another revelation was seeing the links between flavours direct from the Middle East at the heart of things like Christmas cake, mincemeat, plum pudding. This is when I started getting really interested in food history, and began to wonder when and where we got our traditions from. The stories, memories, customs, beliefs, and legends that Roden shares bring the recipes to life as well.

Browsing through Amazon reviews tonight I see that a few people lament the lack of pictures in this book. I don't mind that at all. As beautiful as food photography uniformly is these days, I rarely find it makes the food live in my imagination in the way that 4 descriptions of how to cook rice do in this book. Also, I'm much more nervous about staining the pages of those beautiful books, this one doesn't reproach me for the mess it's in.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Revisiting Jane Grigson

I'm slowly making my way through 'How To Eat a Peach', taking time to explore the memories and ideas it raises. Food is such a central part of our lives that's it's easy to take it for granted, but what is more evocative than flavour, and how many memories are created around food?

I can't quite remember when I bought Jane Grigson's Fruit and Vegetable books, but I vividly remember where, to the point that I can close my eyes and see the shelves of a long gone bookshop again. I remember why I bought them too, I was still living in the country, but working in Leicester. It was the first time I'd had regular access to a proper market, especially one that sold such a dazzling array of things. I needed to know what they were and what to do with them.

It was also around the time I started working for Oddbins where the staff were proper foodies so there was a lot of conversation about cooking and wine. We also worked 11 hour days without official breaks which in the early days meant I was only in for three and a half days a week. I really loved the flexibility of that working pattern, and again vividly remember sitting on the bus reading through Jane Grigson, planning what to buy and cook.

Large glossy hardbacks full of gorgeous photography are all well and good, but they lack the portability of these battered paperbacks. There is so much to love about Jane Grigson's books; the range of recipes she covers, her anacdotes and history that give these recipes context, the way she imbues things that I'd previously considered slightly mundane with magic and romance, and the emphasis on a key ingredient.

I can't open these books for a quick recap as I could with yesterday's Claire Macdonald's, the temptation to keep reading is overwhelming, and not just to keep reading Grigson, but to follow the references she mentions, or find something that further evokes a mood she conjures with a few ingredients and some reminiscences.

Another thing these books really did for me was help shift a mindset that started with a plan of what I would cook and then sent me out on a hunt for ingredients, to one where I'd see what looked best on the market on any given day and then plan around it. It made shopping much more fun, it also made the idea of the weekly shop of my childhood seem increasingly unnatural.

Mostly though it's the history and life she gives her ingredients. Carrots will never seem mundane again after reading Grigson* - there are whole worlds of knowledge in these books, and sitting here this afternoon I'm struck again by just how wonderful a writer she is.

*She has lots to say about carrots and their culinary history, all of which is delightful. She also includes a recipe for Angel's Hair Charlotte which is a sublime dessert which mixes a carrot jam with cream and boudoir fingers.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Old Cookbooks - Revisiting Claire Macdonald

Specifically my old cookbooks, in this case the first ones I remember buying - Claire Macdonald's 'Seasonal Cooking' and 'More Seasonal Cooking'.

Reading through Diana Henry's 'How To Eat a Peach' has got me thinking about how own food and cooking history, experiences, expectations, and hopes. It was way back sometime in the early 1990's and I'd been working for my stepmother (who is a cook). As I remember it, it was the point where we started to take it for granted that the ingredients we wanted would be available year round and sundried tomatoes became a real thing.

Bo (my stepmother) had both of these Claire Macdonald books, and we used them quite a bit. 'Seasonal Cooking', first published in 1983 seemed somewhat out of step with newer cookbooks I was seeing, but it also made a lot more sense to me. Good quality seasonal ingredients, many of them local, and recipes mostly pitched at dinner party level - so with a little bit of glamour about them.

Both books are divided into months, each month broken down into something that looks a lot like a restaurant menu (presumably the menus of Kinloch Lodge). It feels much more contemporary now than it did in the 90's. Looking at April's puddings it's rhubarb that's in season, so you get rhubarb fudge crumble, rhubarb meringue pie, rhubarb and ginger syllabub, ginger shortbread fingers (which go with the syllabub), and a rich chocolate and ginger pudding. Other months do the same thing for strawberries, gooseberries, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, and so on.

I'm not sure I even registered it at the time but it's an approach that really hammered home the importance of getting things at their best and making the most of them. This is also the book that helped me think about how to build and balance a meal over 3 courses. That's not something that came naturally - natural was to put all the things I liked best on the table regardless of how likely that would be to cause indigestion, or how well they might compliment each other.

It was only when I started working in the wine trade and was learning about how to match food and wine that it all really began to make sense. Learning how to match food to wine, rather than wine to food, was the eye opener though. You have to choose which is going to be the focus, better wine wants simpler food, it really helps you strip a menu down to its basics.

The lemon curd pavlova in 'Seasonal Cooking' remains one of my favourite desserts of all time, I haven't made it for years - I need an excuse to make it again soon. I've tagged a gooseberry and mint jam recipe that Macdonald recommends as an alternative for red current jam with lamb as well.

There's something very comforting about the tone of this book too; it's dinner at the big house with proper silver cutlery and lots of it, getting dressed up, and using the correct wine glasses. It's the kind of food that owes a lot to the hosts garden, and possibly the hosts skill with rod or gun, or at least is a testament to their relationship with their butcher. It's generous food that takes pleasure in good things and good company - and again looking at it now I can see how deeply all of this has sunk into my own ideas of what a good meal should be.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Coping Stratagies

I can't remember a wetter, colder, more miserable spring than this in Leicestershire. I can normally turn my heating off at the beginning of March, not this year, and as the grey wet days pile up I'm starting to dread the electricity bill.

Mum and I keep having our Wednesday afternoon clay shooting sessions rained off (my gun hits its centenary this year, it wants to be treated with a little consideration and not exposed to the sort of weather that might encourage rust, that and it's not much fun us standing around getting soaked either) which is a shame. Shooting clays is brilliant for stress busting and I'm missing it.

I'm also finding it hard to concentrate when it comes to reading fiction, all I really want to do is hibernate with a stack of Georgette Heyer's, a packet of Choco Leibniz (dark, there is no better biscuit in my world), and a lot of tea, but I'm fairly sure that's a desire I shouldn't give into. Although if I'm honest the Choco Leibniz and tea have taken a bit of a hammering.

What I have been reading is Susan Crawford's 'Vintage Shetland Project', although there's a bitter sweet edge to that. A lot of the photography was done around where I grew up, and where the weather has been rather better so far this year. It's making me very homesick. It's a fabulous book, inspiring on all sorts of levels, and definitely the thing to inspire creativity on dull days - so I've also been knitting a lot whilst catching up on podcasts.

I'm not very good at keeping on top of the podcasts I subscribe to, so it shouldn't really have surprised me that there seem to be the best part of two years worth sitting there. I've been particularly enjoying Simon and Rachel's Tea & Books - it's easily the best one to knit to. (I'm not quite sure why that is, but it's meant as a compliment).

I've also been reading Diana Henry's new book 'How To Eat a Peach'. I've had it for a couple of weeks and had meant to have written about it by now. There's a lot of things I meant to do about this book and haven't though. I meant to ask the publisher for a review copy, but then I thought I'd rather have the pleasure of buying it. My local bookshops are small enough that more often than not they don't have what I want, and don't particularly reward browsing. There's a very specific sense of joy in walking in and picking up an anticipated title, then sharing your enthusiasm for it with the bookseller, which adds to my pleasure every time I open that particular book again. That said, I'd also meant to wait until I saw this one on offer somewhere - because apart from anything else there's that not inconsiderable electricity bill on the way. That thrifty intention lasted about 20 seconds after I saw the book, and felt it's fuzzy peach like cover.

I've loved all of Diana Henry's books, they've seen me through some difficult times (especially 'Salt, Sugar, Smoke' which helped me preserve my way through a grieving process one autumn a few years ago and left me with over a hundred jars of jam, jelly, marmalade, and more) provided some memorable meals, and provided plenty of food for thought as well. Even so 'How To Eat a Peach' is special. The cookbook part is a collection of menus, but there's so much of Diana's thinking about food, and more, here that it's a book that needs to be read properly before I can write properly about it. The summery is that it's brilliant.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Cruel Prince - Holly Black

Reading 'Neverwhere' and 'Anansi Boys' left me in the mood for a bit more fantasy fiction along broadly similar lines. It's not a genre that I'm overly familiar with so it was lucky that I remembered Simon Savidge had been talking to Holly Black about 'The Cruel Prince', which sounded like it might be fun.

Young Adult didn't really exist as a category when I was in my teens (or at least I certainly didn't notice it if it did) so it's a label I find quite intriguing, not least because I think I'm more inclined to enjoy books like this now than I would have done in my teens.

'The Cruel Prince' is a modern tale of Faerie - one drowsy Sunday afternoon an odd looking stranger turns up on Jude's doorstep, kills her parents, and takes her and her sisters back to Elfhame. He does this because Jude's mother was his human wife who faked her own death to run back to the mortal world with her equally human lover, and unborn half fairy child, Vivi. Fairy notions of honour make him responsible not just for Vivi, but also Jude and her twin sister, Taryn.

Fast forward ten years and the human girls are trying to find their way in the upper echelons of fairy society. It's a cruel and dangerous world where everybody seems to despise them, and a lot of things would quite happily kill them. School is a particular problem. For Taryn the answer seems to be to find romance, for Jude it's to trade on her skills as a fighter. The half fairy Vivi is much more interested in returning to the human world where she's formed a relationship with a girl called Heather. For Jude and Taryn Faerie, for all its dangers, is the place they know and where they want to make their lives.

The attractive thing about a book set in Faerie is that it calls on folk tales that go deep into our collective past, and uses imagery that's been particularly popular since the Victorian developed a love of fairy paintings. Walking around town today it was also really noticeable how mainstream a fairy tale aesthetic is (from Alex Monroe jewellery to Ted Baker flower prints). It also means that Black spends a lot of time describing her world. It's one of the things that make books like this so compelling to fans - but it's also why I'm not a great fan of the genre. Endless details of fantastical dresses and unlikely beasts don't particularly interest me.

What I did like is what Black does with Jude, who is every bit as much of a mess as you would expect of a girl who watched her parents get murdered before going off to live with the man who killed them, whilst having to negotiate her way through all the cultural differences of the new world she finds herself in. I also like the way that you can pick your metaphors here, and the complexity of the relationships Jude has with her foster father and with her Cruel prince.

The prince seen through Jude's eyes is an arrogant bully who hates her, presumably because he sees her as a lesser, mortal, being. The presumption is in Jude's part, the reader suspects it might be more complicated. Happily the tension between the pair remains mostly unresolved, with an acknowledgment that physical attraction doesn't have a lot to do with your better judgment.

A bigger problem is that the relationship between the twin sisters seems off, and is under explored, also why introduce twins only to more or less ignore one of them? What we know of the girl's parents is troubling too, and seems to me at least as morally questionable as anything else that happens in the book.

I liked this enough to think that I'll read the next part (if I remember, it's not due out until January next year) but not so much that I'm interested in looking for any of Black's other books.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Cheese and Dairy - Steven Lamb

I feel like I've been waiting for this book forever, or at least for any time in the last decade or so (it seems like only yesterday when I was eyeing the first River Cottage handbooks in what used to be the big Waterstones in town, but it was 2007, and that branch has gone) the series wouldn't have been complete without it.

It's hard to overstate my enthusiasm for the River Cottage handbooks, there is nothing that I do not love about them. The variety of writers who have contributed to the series, each bringing a distinctive voice, but always making them feel like friends contributing to a conversation, the whole philosophy behind the books, the breadth of things they cover, the way they make you feel you can have a go at anything from curing bacon, to skinning a rabbit, to making a cheese, and so much more inbetween. All of it just makes these books special, and I've not even mentioned that they fit in a pocket (particularly handy for the foraging titles) or the really useful range of recipes that don't just cover the obvious choices for any given subject. They're just great.

Cheese really isn't my passion; I will never understand the appeal of something that smells like it died some time ago, relies heavily on mould, or oozes across the plate towards you, all of which puts me in a significant minority amongst the people I know. I do like all sorts of hard cheeses, goats cheese, and other things that don't smell like socks that have been left on a corpse, but I always assumed that I'd be reading this book with a view to acquiring some general knowledge rather than in a will do spirit.

Now that I've actually got my hands on 'Cheese and Dairy' though, the desire to do is increasing. That's mostly on the yoghurt/labneh/crème fraîche/mascarpone front, and I'm not really sure how practical a proposition it is to make your own Crème Fraîche, even if you are going to turn some of it into mascarpone when you live more or less alone. That's especially true because I can't actually remember when I last bought either, but still, at least I now know how.

I'm also actually quite surprised, and excited, by the variety of cheese styles it's practical for the home cook to make - which certainly demonstrates what a lost art cheesemaking has become. Not so very long ago this is knowledge which would have been much more widespread, at least in rural areas and farming families.

What interests me most here though is the discussion about different sorts of milk and the processes involved in its commercial production (so the differences between raw milk, pasteurised milk, and that filtered stuff that keeps an unfeasibly long time) and milk from different animals. Even if I don't see myself as a would be cheese maker I do like to have a better understanding of what I'm buying. The sections that explain all this are short but very informative so you get a good overview, or a very good place to start before moving on to more detailed research.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman

It's stopped raining, which is something, but it's so bitterly cold in my flat that I'm considering getting the hoover out simply because of the warm air (albeit scented with dog hair) that it blows out. My flat really could do with hoovering from a housekeeping point of view too, but somehow that's not much of an incentive.

The cold, indoors and out, has made me even more aware of the growing number of betters and rough sleepers I'm seeing on the streets at the moment. In all the years I've lived in the city I've never known it quite like this, that it's coincided with an unusually cold and long winter makes the situation even more worrying.

It also reminded me that I haven't written about 'Neverwhere' yet. It's a book that I'd sort of meant to read for years but only got round to last month. It's another Gaiman book that has a lot to like about it, but that I didn't love.

The idea of a shadowy alternative London full of people, places, and even times, that have fallen through the cracks of reality, is beguiling. The way Gaiman plays with place names is wonderful, as is the richness of texture and detail he gives his world - and yet it hardly ever really comes to life for me. The one moment when it did was near the end when the hero, Richard, tells his friend about his experiences in London below. Gary replies "I've passed the people who fall through the cracks, Richard: they sleep in shop doorways all down the Strand. They don't go to to a special London. They freeze to death in the winter."

It's an acknowledgment that gives the book more heart and properly roots it in a fairy tale tradition of stories told to make unpleasant truths more palatable, or to serve as warnings. I believe 'Neverwhere' started out as a radio play, I know it was televised years ago (I remember half watching an episode but that it didn't hold my attention enough to get me following it). I really would like to listen to it, and can but hope the BBC will make it available again.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Happy Easter

I'm spending the day with my mother and her new kitchen. Both the dog and I have been parked (dog in her bed, me on a chair) and are being discouraged from moving much (she keeps offering me cups of tea and telling me she has everything under control).

It's very relaxing. Meanwhile the kitchen itself is to my eyes almost unbelievably tidy and well coordinated. Mine is neither, and although we have very different personal styles - my preference is for colour and pattern, I'm currently feeling slightly envious of the calm, and the space. The comparison is also making me feel somewhat like a grubby teenager again...

Happy Easter everyone.