Monday, July 30, 2018

The Case of the Constant Suicides - John Dickson Carr

What makes a good detective story? For me it's something that doesn't take itself to seriously. I like camp characters who appear to have come straight from central casting, I like authors who are prepared to have some fun with the genre, and authors who are just as prepared to have some fun at the expense of the reader (I'm thinking specifically of Richard Hull's Excellent Intentions and the long section on the finer points of stamp collecting that he makes us read - I love him for that). I also appreciate a good setting.

For all these reasons I loved 'The Case of the Constant Suicides' that Polygon have just reprinted. It's set in a dour Scottish castle which is presumably why Polygon have reprinted it, the introduction also suggests that it's argued to be John Dickson Carr's best work - which is intriguing, because I loved this, but if it's the high water mark how hard do I want to look for some of his other books? If anyone has recommendations - or warnings - I'd love to hear them.

The book opens during the early days of WW2, before air raids and rationing have taken their toll, but train berths are already at a premium... Dr Alan Campbell is heading north in answer to a mysterious summons from Castle Shira, when he finds himself arguing over the same 1st class sleeping compartment as Katherine Campbell who is answering the same summons. It turns out the two have been having a bitter academic argument in the letter pages over a review Alan has written about Katherine's book.

Because this is the kind of detail I love the book had me from the start, and the reason I love these details is that a cleverly worked out murder will entertain me until I know how it's done, but I'll happily re read something I find funny again and again.

Once in Scotland all sorts of unlikely things happen, many of them fuelled by a whisky I can only assume is the product of an illicit still, and considerably overproof, whilst the younger Campbell's try and work out if cousin Angus was murdered in a locked room (in which case his dependents come into a decent insurance pay out), or committed suicide, in which case they get nothing because he'd spent all his money on trying to invent a tartan ice cream.

As I said, I loved this one, for me it's the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy with a nice twist at the end. I thouroughly recommend it.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Diana Henry's Chocolate and Pedro Ximenez ice cream and a book find

The heat has broken, for now, and I'm fighting the urge to take a nap in the relative cool. I'm being assisted by my mothers dog who is determined to play. This may also affect blogging capabilities.

If Diana Henry were ever to write a book about ice cream it would be a happy thing, the handful of recipes she includes in 'How to Eat a Peach' are worth the price of the book alone, and of all of them the one I most wanted to try was the chocolate and PX ice cream.

This was partly because it sounded like a wonderfully rich, slightly decadent, flavour, and a lot because I love Sherry in pretty much all its forms and am always interested if I see something different I can do with it.

I'be got a good excuse for a boozy ice cream coming up, which made a good excuse for a practice run to see if it really would be as good as it sounded (it is), I'm delighted with the results. The ice cream is rich, satisfyingly chocolaty, and very boozy - the raisin flavour of the Sherry makes it taste something like a good Rum truffle and it will make an excellent end to a dinner.

Pedro Ximenez is not the cheapest Sherry, but don't be put off by that - this is a special treat kind of a thing, and there's enough wine left in the bottle for everyone to be able to drink it too. The recipe is Here along with some other useful information about Pedro Ximenez, but honestly, buy the book - it's worth it.

My book find of the day (from a very empty looking Oxfam shop) is a copy of 'The Lady Investigates' Women detectives and spies in fiction. Published in 1986 it covers territory from Wilkie Collins up to P.D. James. As I'm primarily interested in the earlier writers anyway I'm hoping this will be interesting.

And now my mother has returned and the dog has someone else to bother, so I might get that nap after all.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Spinning Silver - Naomi Novik

I don't cope well with heat, so this last week especially has been somewhat trying (I'm very tempted to run a cold bath and stay in it for the next few hours) but two cinema trips have helped a bit, and hopefully it will break tonight.

The films were 'Mamma Mia! Here we go again' and 'Mary Shelley'. 'Mamma Mia' is a safe bet for anyone who likes ABBA (which I do), but even so I was surprised at how much I liked this one. Mary Shelley was awful, there's nothing about it that I could recommend.

I really enjoyed Naomi Novik's 'Uprooted' when I read it last year, so much so that I've been really looking forward to 'Spinning Silver' which is a sort of pendant novel. 'Uprooted' (I think I have this right) borrows quite heavily from Polish folklore, 'Spinning Silver' nods to Rumplestiltskin but is based in a Russian Jewish tradition - which I'm sure I read is her husbands family background. Both books play with magic and fairy tales, both are set in a non specific once upon a time kind of a world, and both are what I think of as young adult fiction.

The sort of Russian background, and very Russian folklore figures and demons reminded me of Katherine Arden's 'The Bear and the Nightingale' - Russian/Slavic folklore is definitely getting a moment. The comparison definitely highlights Novik's experience as a writer - she has a much lighter touch, but beyond that I don't really want to make comparisons.

'Spinning Silver' is all told in the first person (which I have no strong feelings about, but I know annoys some) mostly by Miryem, the moneylenders daughter, Wanda a peasant girl who goes to work for her to help pay her fathers debt, and Irina, a dukes daughter. Their paths cross and re-cross as they try their best to make something out of their lives.

Miryem's father doesn't like to ask for the money he has lent back, so in desperation Miryem takes over the business and thrives at it - which dismays her parents, but pleases her grandfather. Wanda's father is an abusive alcoholic, working off his debt is a chance for her to widen her horizons and maybe escape - but it's all jeopardised by a deal Miryem is forced into by an ice king. Irina is the plain daughter of a powerful man, transformed by the silver Miryem has to change into gold. She has to make the best of the marriage that enchantment brings her.

What I really liked about this book was the way that Novik explores the transactional nature of human relationships - because everything is based on give and take, decisions do come with a cost attached, and so does power. The considerations which motivate the different characters are compelling, not least because they're sometimes as simple as the fear of starvation and violence.

Novik's handling of anti-semitism is masterly as well. She doesn't over do it, but there's a thread of isolation and prejudice that runs through the book, sometimes erupting into something uglier, but mostly a background sense of hostility towards Miryem and her parents.

There's a lot to like about 'Spinning Silver' (though for me 'Uprooted' has some extra spark about it that this one lacks) and whilst I'm not much interested in Novik's Dragon books, I'm really interested to see what she does next.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Jamieson & Smith A Shetland Story

I thought it would be sensible to write about the other knitting book I bought on holiday before finally trying to wrench my thoughts away from Shetland for a bit but I'm getting distracted. We have to book our next years holidays in October, and so I'm beginning to think about when I might want to go home next year and if it should be a little bit later. The white nights of midsummer are one of the things I love about Shetland, but they have an unsettling effect on the imagination, and then there's the promise of the early autumn light if we go a bit later and a whole different spectrum of inspiration.

Closer to home I'm also thinking hard about ice cream. Principally the chocolate and Pedro Ximenez ice cream from Diana Henry's 'How to Eat a Peach' that I hope is setting in my freezer. I feel like I say every summer that an ice cream maker is my favourite kitchen gadget. I say it because it's true, but they never last long. I'm on my 4th. A couple of inexpensive kenwood machines both started leaking after a while, a not cheap kitchen aid attachment did the same, and the current cheap one I have that came from Aldi is proving that you get what you pay for. It's rubbish.

I have high hopes for this particular recipe though - the chocolaty boozy custard that I poured into a tub after almost an hours churning tasted amazing. I think it's going to be just the thing for a family dinner in a few weeks, but I wanted to give it a trial run first. With any luck I'll be able to make an informed decision about it before bed.

This book from Jamieson and Smith is half a history of the company and the wool trade, and half a collection of patterns. I haven't read the history part yet - which I'm viewing as an unexpected bonus, I bought the book for the patterns. And I haven't knitted anything from it yet, though there are a couple of things I want to try once the weather is a little more conducive to it (all I want to do in this heat is sleep).

What I really like about this collection is that each of the ten designs comes from a different knitter - it has the same appeal to me as an anthology of short stories, and perhaps in a way that's what it is. Each pattern has a distinct personality behind it suggesting different lives and interests, and different preoccupations with pattern and colour. There's a kind of story in that, and I guess each knitter who comes to these patterns will add their own chapter to it - which is another idea that appeals to me.

On a more practical note, it's a collection that has something for every level of knitter from the total Fair Isle beginner, through to some great jumpers and vests, and some very fetching hats along the way. There should be something for everyone here.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Shetland - Marie Wallin

This is one of the knitting books I bought home with me. It's attraction is as much in the illustrations as in any real desire to knit the garments - although they are beautiful. There's two things about the images that attract me; the first is that one of the garments backdrops is a house I used to live in, and that would have been reason to get the book. The second is the pleasure of seeing how somebody else responds to things I'm familiar with (landscape, Jamiesons spindrift yarn, traditional Fair Isle motifs) and what they produce from them.

Authenticity in traditional knitting is a topic that keeps coming up, and one I find particularly fascinating. For what it's worth I think authenticity is more or less a matter of intent. Knitting in Shetland, in any community with a similarly rich heritage to call on, is an ever evolving craft. Fashions are set, reflected, and followed. Knitters inevitably inspire and copy each other, and are just as likely to be inspired by, or copy, ideas from other sources. That's one of the things that make it so interesting.

It seems to me to be perfectly legitimate to copy a museum piece, or anything else you might see according to skill or desire - as long as you credit the original source. (And as long as it's for personal use, doing that commercially is something different).

Wallin's collection is full of familiar motifs, but combined in such a way, and in a palate of colours, that are as distinctive as a signature. I'm reasonably happy about choosing motifs, but combining colours is something that I still struggle with so looking at how she chooses to do it is fascinating to me.

I never thought I'd be someone who collected books of patterns for the pleasure of looking at them (like looking through an album of etchings or views in the manner of a nicely bought up Victorian Miss) but it seems that's exactly who I am, and this one is proving a particular treat.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

The price of books.

After my holiday is almost over Book buying moment in Waterstones Inverness I had a loyalty voucher to spend, so on my first day off (because half a week back at work deserves a reward, doesn't it?) I went to my local Waterstones to spend it.

I was looking for the reissued Diana Cooper autobiographies from Vintage, but they weren't on the shelf, which is fine because there's very little chance I would have read them anytime soon anyway. I did find Hope Mirrilees 'Lud-in-the-Mist' which I vaguely remember reading about ages ago, and Philip Pillman's 'Grimm Tales' which I'd half wanted for ages - so I went away happy with change from £10 and a stamp on my new loyalty card.

Then I read this Article in The Guardian about booming book sales compared to falling payments for authors and got thoroughly annoyed. Booming sales in this case means a 5% increase in sales, and an eventual admmision that profits appear to be static.

It's not particularly encouraging that the average income for a 'full time' author is £11000 a year (I assume this is income earn the predominantly from book sales/royalties), and there was an illuminating, if not particularly edifying, debate about it on twitter around a month ago after a similar article.

Both articles annoyed me because neither show much understanding of the costs involved between an author parting with a manuscript and someone buying a book. That's part of a much bigger problem that covers clothes and food too - we're used to things being cheap, assume we're being ripped off somehow as a default position, and bitterly resist price rises - a situation not helped by stagnant wages at the lower end of the pay scale.

Books in this country are cheap. They haven't kept place with inflation, production values (the quality of cover design especially) are high and there's a whole lot of people involved in turning a manuscript into a book, a whole lot more involved in getting that book from a warehouse to a readers hand - and all of them deserve to be paid properly for their work.

Articles like this which pitch authors against their publishers seem utterly wrongheaded to me, much more useful to question what's happened to margin that sales are up and profits are not, and really consider what that means long term.

I don't want Amazon to be my only choice to buy books from; as a customer I get frustrated by the wait for deliveries (sometimes it's fine, sometimes it's not), and for the books I want they're not particularly cheap. To keep prices mostly low suppliers and staff are squeezed hard, and the environmental impact of next day delivery isn't encouraging. So I rarely use them.

I do like Waterstones with its friendly, knowledge, staff who don't appear to actively dislike their jobs. I like the move away from deep discounting and 3for2 in favour of a loyalty scheme that encourages me to take a chance on books I might not otherwise look at (all those hard earned £10 vouchers happily spent on obscure titles) and I love to browse. I like a good independent bookshop even more, I just don't live within walking distance of one.

I like a bargain as much as the next person, but we really do need to understand when something is a bargain and understand the real cost of cheap goods - and what that means for choice and diversity.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Holiday Books

Have you even really been on holiday if you don't buy a book, or two? Well, if you're a bibliophile than thevanswer is clearly no. I didn't buy a lot of books this time but I'm really pleased with the ones I got and have noted a couple more to look for in paperback.

These were Jon Dunn's 'Orchid Summer', which follows his search for Britains orchids. It sounds excellent but looks a bit heavy for carrying around so I'm not buying it just yet. There's also Donald S. Murray's 'The Dark Stuff' about peat and peat moors. I'm interested in the subject, it's my kind of landscape, but when I read Murray's book on herring a couple of years ago I found it a bit of a mess, so whilst I might stretch to the paperback I really don't need the hardback. 

I did buy a couple of knitting books - Jamieson and Smith's new collection, and Marie Wallin's Shetland collection. I'll write more about these in a future post.

This trip we stopped in Inverness on the way up and down from Shetland, it wasn't a quick way to travel but it was stress free, the flight times were more or less civilised, and it eased me back into returning to the city. There's also the bonus that Inverness has an excellent Waterstones, and the famous Leakey's second hand bookshop. 

I left my bookshopping to the return journey (something to look forward to) so missed the second hand copy of Edith Durham's 'High Albania' and resisted the temptation to buy yards of tatty John Buchans, eventually leaving Leakey's empty handed.

Not so Waterstones where I got Nan Shepherds 'The Quarry Wood' in a lovely new Canongate edition. Nan Shepherd now adorns one of Scotland's £5 notes - I wonder what she would have made of that or the possibility of buying her work with money bearing her image. Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading this soon.

I also got John Dickson Carr's 'The Case of the Constant Suicides' reissued by Polygon. It's set in mid Argyll, and supposed to be one of his best works. Between the plane and train home I'm over half way through and can confirm that it's excellent so far.

I gave into the lure of Westwood and Kingshill's 'The Lore of Scotland' after enjoying 'The Fabled Coast' So much and am looking forward to dipping in and out of it at leisure.

Finally I got the updated new edition of James Hunter's 'The Making of the Crofting Community'. I read this as a text book when a student and found it fascinating. I'm interested to re-acquaint myself with it and see what it has to say about the changing politics of Scotland and how they might affect crofting. 

Saturday, July 14, 2018


I'm currently making my way back home via Inverness - where the temperature is bearable, to middle England, which by all accounts is still stiflingly hot. I'm not feeling especially enthusiastic about either the heat or being back at work on Monday morning, but there's nothing I can do about either.

Shetland has been having pretty much the best summer anyone can remember. My father says the only better one he can remember was 1970, his first year there. We had glorious sunshine quite a lot of the time, even when cloud was threatened, until this morning when we woke up to thick fog. For a moment it looked like we might have to stay, but then sadly it brightened up.

There are so many things I love about Shetland, but what I miss the most when I leave is how accesable the landscape is, and the really spectacular wildlife in it (keeping in touch with people is altogether easier). Anyway, here are a few pictures of the last few weeks. I can't wait to go back.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Holiday Things

Our time in Shetland is regretfully drawing to a close (couple more days of fun to be had though) and I've been sorting out the bits and pieces I've been buying to see if they'll all fit in my case - or if I'd have to post some of yarn back.

It looks like everything is going to fit - I packed less clothes this time, and unlikely as it looks in this picture, bought less wool than I have in the last couple of years.

The indoor part of what I love about the northern isles is almost all in this picture - there's some beautiful tweed that I have plans for, a lot of even more beautiful yarn that I also have plans for, some books (about knitting) which are hopefully going to help facilitate the plans for the yarn, and a bottle of gin (Orkney gin in a very pretty stone bottle which is going to be fun to try).

Coming to Shetland provides a creative boost both in terms of visual inspiration - there's so much to see in the landscape, as well as a lot of people doing incredible things - and some raw materials to do creative things with.

The outdoor things I love about Shetland is the scenery with its ever changing light and shade, and the wildlife. Some of the wildlife has been eluding us this trip - there's a rare bearded seal that's taken been visiting the harbour in Lerwick a lot, but never when I've been in Lerwick. We spent some time on Monday following reports of Killer whales to, but they remained ahead of behind us so we gave up in them.

Not that it matters, today I've seen seals, an otter, porpoises, 2 different types of skua having an impressive arial face off, terns, swallows, red throated divers, diving gannets, hundreds of sheep, a hedgehog, almost trod on a rabbit, and have spent ages watching oystercatchers scour the garden for worms. Yesterday it was puffins and guillemots along with an abundance of wild flowers, and who knows what tomorrow will bring. Most of this has been almost from the doorstep. I love this place.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

At The Pines - Mollie Panter-Downes

Shetland is the perfect place to escape the current heat wave that's afflicting the rest of the country, the weather here has been great - mostly sunny, but in the mid to high teens, and a very pleasant breeze. It's perfect doing weather.

Because it's perfect doing weather I haven't had much time for reading (yarn to buy, people to see, beaches to walk on) but I have eventually managed to get through 'At The Pines'. I saw this mentioned by Slightly Foxed  and thought it sounded like fun - it's an account of the later life of the poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and his time living in Putney with his friend Theodore Watts-Dunton.

Swinburne had more or less run out of money (expensive diversions in St Johns Wood are partly to blame) and was drinking himself to death- a particularly unpleasant way to go, when Watts-Dunton swooped in and carried him off. He dries Swinburne out and regulates his life so successfully that they spend the next 25 years together in domestic suburban harmony.

I thought this might be fun, but it seems to be one of those books that deserves its current obscurity. Swinburne is still probably chiefly remembered as part of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, but to Mollie he's still the star poet, and she seems to share some of Swinburne's friends dismay and disdain for Watts-Dunton and the life he imposed on him.

The general opinion seems to be that he saved the man but killed the poet, which seems a bit unfair as the poet had damn near killed himself by the time of the intervention. That he should have been left to drink himself to death in the hope that a few more fragments of really good work might emerge from the chaos seems like a fairly shitty proposition.

Meanwhile Watts-Dunton, who sounds like he might be worth knowing a lot more about is continuously dismissed. A middling class lawyer who moved in artistic and literary circles, he was an attractive enough personality to be in high demand. He also seems to have tried to rescue Rossetti (who died in his arms) as he had Swinburne. I wonder who was happier living in suburban seclusion; the increasingly deaf Swinburne, absolved of all the tiresome responsibilities he'd been so poor at meeting, and seemingly devoted to the friend who had rescued him, or the sociable Watts-Dunton who gave up a considerable portion of his social life.

The biggest problem with this book though is that it's at least twice the length it needs to be, and felt a bit like wading through treacle (or manoeuvring through an over stuffed Victorian parlour). It's a surprisingly dull book.

What did make an interesting footnote however is that some of the furniture from the Pines has ended up in Wightwick manor (National Trust property near Birmingham), including a really impressive painted cabinet with a bed in it.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Holiday reading, Books v Kindle

I'm happily on holiday now, the weather is being kind, and once I've written this I might go off with a book for a bit - or for a walk, or I might make a cup of tea... all excellent holiday options.

Late last week someone who loves their kindle was asking on twitter why anybody would pack physical books. I don't love kindles (or own one), but do sometimes use a kindle app on my phone. There are books on my iPad too, but although some of them have sat there for years it's very much a case of out of sight, out of mind, and I've never read anything on it.

What was interesting about the whole thing is that people so clearly prefer one or the other and for a whole range of good reasons. Part of my resistance to a kindle is the cost. I don't want to spend money on something just to spend more money on the content. I certainly don't want to depend on batteries, not losing the device, not dropping it in some fatal way, or similar.

I don't particularly enjoy reading off screens either, it just doesn't feel the same. And then there's the memories. I generally remember where I buy a book (if it's from a shop at least) and where I've read it. Neither my phone or iPad evoke the same emotional response. For some reason I also find it harder to write about books I've read on my phone.

The big difference for me when it comes to holiday books however is the ritual of choosing them. I like the discipline that packing imposes on me - I've chosen 5 books for this trip, 2 I want to finish, 2 I thought might be fun, and 1 that I've been meaning to read for a while. I'm not sure how far I'll get, I might leave some behind for my family to read if I finish them - I might buy some more.

The important thing for me was the choosing process, it was a calm half hour in the rush of getting things done before I went away, and an always welcome chance to think about my books and happily explore them. I love that process, it's the bit when the prospect of a holiday is real. Picking up a device with a virtual library on it just isn't the same for me. How about you?