Thursday, January 31, 2019

Vanish in an Instant - Margaret Miller

Today has not been a particularly good day. The hot water tap on my bath stopped working, the washing machine stopped working mid cycle, and the kitchen sink won't drain. The last two are certainly related in some way, but it's not clear if that's because of a blockage further down in the drain pipes or something else to do with the washing machine itself. Either way it's expensive. A plumber has been, fixed the bath tap, poured gunk down the sink (it's not drained away yet), told me to let him know what happens, and taken all my money. I like the plumber, but I'd rather not see him again too soon (I can't bloody afford it) and I'm not confident this will be the case.

At least there are books to cheer me up, and I've finally read Margaret Miller's 'Vanish in an Instant', which is every bit as good as everybody has been saying. I got so excited by this book (a more or less forgotten noir classic, written by a woman, published by Pushkin Vertigo - that's ticking a lot of boxes) that I half expected that it couldn't possibly live up to my expectations and so avoided actually reading it for a bit (which is silly, but not totally unusual).

I don't know much about Margaret Miller beyond that she was married to Ross Macdonald, who also wrote noir, mostly set in Southern California. I read a few of his books around 6-7 years ago when Penguin reissued them as modern classics. My posts on them suggest that I enjoyed them, but they haven't proved particularly memorable - but it's been a while and at least I remembered that I had definitely read him.

It feels like a curious thing to find a husband and wife both writing in the same genre and both being very good at it though. This might happen more often than I realise, but I can't offhand think of any other examples. Maybe it's a good thing I don't remember Macdonald particularly clearly, at least I'm not tempted to try and compare or contrast the two of them.

'Vanish in an Instant' opens in a midwestern airport with a vague sense of unease. Mrs Hamilton and her companion have just arrived, they're not sure if they're being met, we're not sure why they're there, but something is obviously wrong.

The wrong turns out to be that Mrs Hamiltons nicely bought up married daughter has been found wandering through a snow storm, blind drunk, and covered in blood. She's promptly arrested for the murder of Claude Margolis, who she's been running around with, and who's been stabbed multiple times.

Virginia can't remember anything, her husband doesn't know quite what to think, Mrs Hamilton is determined to handle everything, and Meecham, the lawyer hired as her defence is having trouble believing in any of it, more so when a dying man steps forward to say he did it. Is it all going to be that simple?

The answer is no, and the final twist is a clever one, but what really makes this book is the characterisation of the minor players. A caretaker and his wife, a hospital orderly, the alcoholic mother of another character, Mrs Hamilton - they're all more or less peripheral, but the attention they and many others get gives the whole thing a life and atmosphere that gives the book real depth.

Nothing feels simple, or black and white, there's a whole community here of ordinary complex people. Actions all have consequences, and by the end I shared both Meechams cynicism and his occasional compassion as he slowly unravels the truth.

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Wicked King - Holly Black

I read, and enjoyed, Holly Black's 'The Cruel Prince' last year. It's young adult fiction which is a category that didn't exist when I was a young adult, and isn't one I'm particularly familiar with now, but that's no reason not to make the occasional investigation.

What I find particularly attractive about Black is the way she uses fairies that feel like they're straight out of a Richard Dadd painting with all the unsettling darkness that suggests. When I read 'The Cruel Prince' I was new to her work, since then I've picked up a few of her books so have a much better idea of the themes that interest her. She's a much better writer than I first appreciated.

Being the first part of a trilogy 'The Cruel Prince' did a lot of scene setting, and the main characters felt more young than adult (I think they're about 17). 'The Wicked King' starts 5 months after the end of the first book and now they feel like they're really at that stage where you have to take on adult responsibilities ready or not.

It turns out that Black explores damaged and damaging families quite a lot. Her books are full of bad parents and the effects that has on their children. Not necessarily abusive parents, but neglectful, selfish, careless, uninterested parents, as well as foster families, step parents, and adopted families who are equally imperfect. This is worthwhile territory to explore especially with the relatively light touch that Black brings to it.

Twin sisters, Jude and Taryn, have had a crappy childhood and it shows. They're both a mess, making bad decisions and getting a lot of things wrong. The window dressing of fairy land aside, making poor relationship decisions, trust issues, a desire to take control, and not be powerless, and a capacity for self harm are universal issues.

Black doesn't fix things easily for her characters either, Jude (the main focus) remains emotionally immature. Constantly reacting with anger and a lack of foresight, and not at all good at understanding what motivates other people  or able to open up to them, she lurches from crisis to crisis and it all makes sense. How else could she behave under the circumstances? The question is, will she be able to gain the self awareness deal with her issues so that they don't come to define her?

The answer to that is probably yes, I'm expecting a more or less happy ending for book 3, but it will be interesting to see how Black gets there.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Grimm Tales for Young and Old - Philip Pullman

This book has been a fairly constant bedside companion for the last couple of months and has served as a helpful reminder that it's a good idea to question my prejudices every now again.

I'm not particularly a Philip Pullman fan, I read the Norther Lights trilogy when it came out along with my youngest sister who was firmly in the intended age bracket at the time. She loved them, I thought they were okay but nothing more than that, and I find his name in something more off putting than not. Still, I'd look at any version of the Grimm tales so I bought this, and now I've read it will happily admit I was wrong to be on the fence about Pullman.

With that in mind I'm writing this whilst willingly eating brussel sprouts for the first time in my life. They've never been a favourite, but I thought I'd give Anja Dunk's take on them (in sour cream with nutmeg and lemon zest) a go. Turns out they're pretty good too (though not as good as Pullman's take on the Grimm's), I'm doing well here.

'Grimm Tales for Young and Old' was the Sunday Times fiction book of the year when it came out back in 2012 so I'm a bit late to the party on this one (even when I bought this copy it sat around unread for a while) but it's now easily my favourite of the 3 versions I have.

It's a selection of fifty tales, and special because I think it would genuinely work for young(ish) and old. It's not as cleaned up as the picture book versions for children are now, or as pared back as the collections aimed at adults tend to be. Pullman adds his own embellishments as every proper story teller should - and this is the thing that I think every successful retelling of a myth or fairy tale should have - they feel as if they're meant to be spoken.

The other thing that makes this collection so good is that every story is followed by its type, source, similar stories from a variety of sources and traditions, and Pullman's own thoughts and notes about what he's done to them. It's the perfect mix of entertainment and scholarship.

It's a book that I bought ought of curiosity to add to a collection, but it's become a favourite that I've turned to again and again this winter when I couldn't settle on anything longer to read, or had a few minutes to fill, wanted to be reminded of favourite childhood stories, and more. It's also gently pushing me towards tackling some more of the collections I've gathered together.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Strudel, Noodles & Dumplings - Anja Dunk

After mentioning this book yesterday I wanted to say a bit more about it - because it's excellent and I'm feeling particularly enthusiastic about it.

I waited a long time for an inspiring looking German Cookbook to turn up, 2018 rewarded my patience with two, which between them cover a fairly broad spectrum, and which along with 2016's 'Classic German Baking' by Luisa Weiss, make me feel I've got this covered now. The baking book is excellent too, and a good companion for 'Strudel, Noodles & Dumplings' which is light on baking.

Part of the reason for my interest is that my grandmother was German. She wasn't a particularly good cook (we remember salads of cheap ham slices, iceberg lettuce, and salad cream, and Brains faggots) and didn't seem to enjoy it, but her marriage wasn't happy and she had seven children so it's not surprising if she saw it as an unending chore. My mother basically taught herself to cook after she was married, and has no particular food memories from childhood at all, so it's not nostalgia as such that I'm chasing, but I suppose there is an element of curiosity about a woman who only rarely talked about her past.

There's also a more general curiosity about any cuisine I'm broadly unfamiliar with, although there's something comfortingly familiar about Northern European cooking that I find more appealing than the traditional British habit of looking south for inspiration.

My sister gave me 'The German Cookbook' by Alfons Schuhbeck (published by Phaidon) for my birthday. It's massive, traditional, and I'm told full of treasures. I've browsed through it a bit and am looking forward to getting to grips with it properly.

'Strudel, Noodles & Dumplings' is something else. It's sub titled 'The new taste of German cooking' and reflects an altogether more contemporary attitude. The flavours might be more or less traditional, but the feel is fresher and lighter than in the Schuhbeck book. It also covers newer traditions with Turkish flavours creeping in (curiously Leicester now has a German Kebab shop - which always looks busy) reflecting how they've been assimilated since the 1960's (much as curry has in the U.K.).

Because this is a much less dense book than the Phaidon doorstop it's very easy to jump straight into it, and there are so many things in it that sound good. Especially the vegetables - cabbage, sprouts, and beetroot have never seemed so appealing. I didn't think this would be the book I'd want to turn to, to help me cut down on the amount of meat I eat - but it looks like it's going to be. Beyond that it's full of things which sound fresh, offer different flavour combinations to the ones I'm used too, and is altogether tempting.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Joy of mostly German Cooking

One of the things I had meant to do with this last week off work was to hit the cookbooks and rejig some of the bad eating habits of November and December into something more varied and healthy. What I actually did was buy a couple more cook books, including Anja Dunk's 'Strudel Noodles and Dumplings', and eat a lot of cabbage (sautéed in butter).

Try as I might I don't get very excited about cooking for one person, maybe that's partly because there are so many things I want to do with my time at the moment that cooking just for me is often low on the list. There may also be a slightly sulky element because things I want to make serve 10, and are best eaten on the day they're made. (I'm very specifically thinking about a yeasted marbled chocolate cake I saw in 'Classic German Baking' last night).

This weekend I had family to cook for though (it's my mothers  birthday tomorrow so I cooked lunch today, a nice reason to make a proper effort) and Seville oranges to deal with. I should have made marmalade a week ago when I got the oranges, but put it off. I enjoy the process once I've started on it, but the prospect of both the chopping, and the cleaning up afterwards is not entirely alluring, it also means being tied to the kitchen for hours.

For something that would be a nod towards a birthday cake as well as a good Sunday lunch pudding I had a good look through 'Classic German Baking'. I wanted an apple cake, of which there are plenty to choose from, but one which would be a little bit special. I found it in the apple-almond cake. It's special because you use almond paste in the batter, and a bit of an effort because I needed to make the almond paste. It's essentially marzipan, but commercial marzipan in the U.K. has to high a sugar to nut ratio for a lot of German or Scandinavian recipes.

I've always meant to make my own marzipan, mostly to see if it's worth the effort. The effort part came in not being able to find any blanched almonds in town so having to skin hundreds of the dratted things myself. Not that I had anything better to do whilst I was keeping an eye on the marmalade. It's not a difficult job, just a dull, slightly fiddly, slow one. Anyway, I did it, and made the paste (other ingredients, almond extract, sugar, rum, and water). Now I know what I'm doing I'd have ground it a little longer, and kept it a little drier.

My mother used to make her own marzipan when we were very small children, without the benefit of a food processor - we lived on an island without mains electricity, or neighbours, so she says she had the time. It's much easier with a good processor.

The point I think I meant to get to is that you then grate the almond paste into melted butter and beat it together for this cake. It makes an amazing texture and flavour. The almond paste gives more depth of flavour than just using ground almonds would, and a particularly nice moist but firm crumb. The whole thing feels like just the right step up from an everyday cake without going over the top. There is a recipe for it Here.

More or less everything else I cooked came from Anja Dunk's 'Strudel, Noodles and Dumplings' which is a fabulous book. I waited patiently for years for decent books on German food (in English) to come along, and finally that patience has been rewarded. This one isn't particularly traditional, but it's based firmly in tradition.

The roast pork with caraway and marjoram was splendid, buttered leeks with parsley and more caraway are already a favourite (as good as a quick supper on their own as they are a side dish), but the kale with apples, onions, and all spice was today's winner. Kale is one of those things I know I should eat, this is the kind of recipe that makes sure I do.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Winter of the Witch - Katherine Arden

'The Winter of the Witch' is the last of the trilogy that started with 'The Bear and the Nightingale' and continued with 'The Girl in the Tower'. I was going to make a sweeping statement about trends in publishing fairy tale books and the timing of when 'The Bear and the Nightingale' first came out, but realise I'm not actually to sure of my ground.

I noticed the first book based on it's pretty cover, and because Waterstones were promoting it heavily. I held off buying it until it was in paperback, and because I had really enjoyed Naomi Novik's 'Uprooted'. Since then I've become much more aware of Slavic folklore, and the general fashion for retelling fairy stories. It's a sub genre that sits on the edge of things I'm interested in - done well I find something I think is genuinely exciting, done not so well it's a bit tiresome.

Katherine Arden does it well, and as the trilogy has unfolded she's become a noticeably better writer. She keeps one foot in history, and another in established folklore which provide a solid framework for her plot. 'The Winter of the Witch' opens immediately after the events of 'The Girl in the Tower' with Vasya soon fighting for her life as a baying mob, led by the deranged priest, Konstantin, plan to burn her as a witch.

The crisis continues to build as events unfold, there is plague in the city, the dead are walking, war is coming, and Vasya needs to find ways to protect those she loves and a place, or way, to live in the world.

Arden explains magic as the ability to forget that things are other than the way you want them. If Vasya can forget that people will notice her, they won't notice her. If she can call on the memory of the fire that threatened her she can call the fire. To forget to much about reality, or to bend it to far is to risk madness. There's a logic to all this, the ability to be magical is Vasya's inheritance, it's literally in her blood but she's limited by experience and a sense of self preservation. The things she does seem only just impossible and Arden makes sure there's a price to be paid for every choice.

She also redeems Father Konstantin a little, giving him some humanity back as his story ends, just enough to make me feel a passing moment of empathy, which makes him a much more convincing horror. And that's the real strength of this last book, it fleshes out the personalities of a number of protagonists we're already familiar with making them much more complex and satisfactory.

I'm not sure I can make any great claims for the series beyond saying that if it sounds like the kind of thing you enjoy, you'll almost certainly enjoy it. For me that's partly due to the historical background detail. Both in terms of the battles that happened, and the domestic details of stoves and bath houses, smells and textures. The more prosaic details balance the fantastic ones. The other charm is how well drawn the characters are. I'll certainly look forward to whatever Arden writes next.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The London Silver Vaults

As well as the Anglo Saxon exhibition yesterday, I also went to see the Klimt and Schiele drawings at the Royal Acadamy - open until the 3rd of February, its worth seeing. The Klimt drawings are beautiful, the Schiele ones illuminating. Klimt is easy to like, but Schiele's uncompromising self portraits and awkward teenage prostitutes don't reproduce so well. It was somewhere in the gallery dedicated to erotica that the penny dropped.

His women look like they're doing what they're paid for with all the enthusiasm of any bored checkout person waiting for the next customer who's going to be an arse. There's an uncompromising honesty in them that hasn't lost any of its power to make the viewer uncomfortable. Three studies of chrysanthemums, and some affectionate portraits of friends later it was Schiele who came out the star of this show.

The other thing I'd planned to do was go to the London Silver Vaults. They don't allow photography so no pictures, which I'm not sure could do it justice anyway. It must be more than 20 years since my mother first took me here, but no matter how many times I've been it's never lost its power to impress.

The Silver vaults are just that, vaults, deep under Chancery Lane, originally intended for private hire to keep the family Silver in, they eventually became shops. The building above took a direct hit during the blitz, the vaults were unscathed. You go in at street level, have your bag checked, go downstairs and find yourself in a maze like collection of vaults - there are around 20 shops in them, some quite large, some small. I've never seen it particularly busy, the corridors have a 1970's bunker feel, the shops are everything from Very Grand to Aladdin's cave.

You will find anything you can imagine being made out of Silver, and probably a few things you hadn't imagined, in there. I was looking for relatively cheap tea spoons. I love silver, and like having a range of different sized tea spoons - eventually I'll have a comprehensive set I'll use for measuring. I found a delightful little coffee spoon sized thing with a thistle on top, and a couple of elegantly simple Georgian spoons in my price range and left happy. I also had a very satisfying conversation about grape scissors.

Grape scissors are another preoccupation at the moment. I have a nice plate pair that my father gave me, but I'd like some really opulent silver ones (it's a long term ambition, they're expensive). Generally when I ask about them in antique shops I'm told nobody wants that sort of thing anymore, yesterday I found a man who had a whole drawer full. Plate, silver, silver with steel blades (coveted, they were obviously going to cut well). Even a matching pair if I wanted. I like them so much because they're ridiculously ornamental, and turn a bunch of grapes into an extravagant ceremony.

If you have time to kill in London the vaults are well worth visiting. Its better to go in the week, I have been on a Saturday, but a lot of the shop owners are Jewish, and less of the vaults were open (this may have changed). If there's any chance you might be buying do your homework first - the prices for a lot of the things I was looking at were 3 times what I would expect to pay around here - you will not find a bargain.

What you do get is choice and quality, and there is some room for negotiation. I'm more interested in price than quality, but everybody I spoke to was very helpful when I said I wanted cheap (which was nice, it's not the case in every antique dealers) either directing me to what they had, or other traders who might have what I wanted.

Even if you have no intention of buying anything it's still worth a visit, it's the most shiny stuff I've ever seen in one place, and there are some beautiful and bizarre things to admire.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Anglo Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library

I've been in London today to see a couple of exhibitions and spend to much in Waterstones. The first exhibition, and reason to go at all, was 'Anglo Saxon Kingdoms Art, Word, War' at the British Library. For anybody who hasn't been to an exhibition there, they put on a good one, the Anglo Saxons are there for another month and I doubt anything else I see this year will have the same impact.

It was busier than I'm used to at the BL, which made the first two rooms a bit of a challenge to get around, but after that the crowd spread out a bit and it was easier to see things - regardless of how busy it is allow a good 2 hours to look around (if there are a lot of people it will take that long, if you get a quieter day you'll want to spend that long looking at things).

I spent a bit of time studying Anglo Saxon art at university - it was my least favourite module because everything seemed so uncertain and far away, since then I've found rather more enthusiasm, and some really good stuff has been dug up (I'm thinking specifically of the Staffordshire hoard, although it's not the only significant find).

Because this is the British Library though the emphasis is on the written word, and before today I hadn't appreciated how much had survived. Anglo Saxon buildings especially are thin on the ground - Leicester (for example) has Roman remains, and traces of Norman architecture but finding anything in between is hard, the evidence of these people is most commonly found in place names. Seeing so many books and documents was a revelation.

Partly that's because everything is hand written which gives these things a particular sense of life, mostly it's the sheer breadth and depth of what's on display. Religious books, law books, herbals, histories, letters, wills, surveys, riddles, epic poems, and more. I've seen quite a few of these things individually, but the scale of this exhibition is something else - it puts the objects back in the context of a society rather than seeing them as incredible, rare, individual treasures.

Looking at everything together it's so much easier to understand how people travelled, exchanged ideas, how kingdoms rose and fell, how important the great monasteries where - all of it. And now I'm going to retire to bed with the exhibition catalogue which was too big for the very small table I had on the train, and which I'm very much looking forward to having a good look at.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Christmas Card Crime - edited by Martin Edwards

My week off is going well, I've almost caught up with all the Backlisted podcasts, finished a boot topper, read a couple of books, been shooting, watched The Favourite (it's very good) and other things along the same lines. I could have been more productive (I suppose there's still time for that) but being quite lazy is a luxury I'm savouring.

Even so, it seems high time to finish up writing about the books I was reading before Christmas and get onto the ones I've read since. As with 'Spirits of the Season' I had this book well before because I'd been sent review copies, but if I hadn't they're what I'd have asked for as presents. They're the sort of book I like to be given, not least because for me the Christmas season starts on Christmas Eve and runs through to 12th night, and that's when I want to read books like this. Even more so this year when we're only really starting to get cold weather now.

Anyway, whenever you read this, it's got some treats in it. For a long time Edwards started these collections with a Conan Doyle story, this time he's gone for Baroness Orczy (she really is having a moment) which features Lady Molly. It's both fun, and interesting to read, if not the greatest bit of detective fiction ever written.

Carter Dickson's 'Blind Man's Hood' crosses over into ghost story territory and is delightfully atmospheric as well as providing a shiver. Selwyn Jepson's 'By The Sword' has something a little weird about it to, as well as a really nasty villain. Cyril Hare's 'Sister Bessie or Your Old Leech' carries on that darkness.

What I've really come to appreciate about Martin Edwards Christmas/winter selections especially is how he mixes more or less cosy crime (which is not a term I particularly like, but I don't have a better one) with something that serves as a reminder that murder is more than a puzzle to be solved. If I was describing this book in wine terms I'd say it had an excellent balancing acidity.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Spirits of the Season - edited by Tanya Kirk

Tanya Kirk is the lead curator of printed heritage collections (1601-1900) at the British Library (co-curator of one of the best exhibitions I've ever seen on the Gothic Imagination) and she puts together a fabulous anthology. I'm not sure which I find most impressive, but I'm definitely a fan.

Her previous anthology of ghost stories for the BL, 'The Haunted Library' was excellent, and 'Spirits of the Season' is every bit as good. Kirk's trademark seems to be a mix of comedy and the genuinely chilling, it's a winning combination.

I don't mind being unsettled by a ghost story, I don't want to be terrified, and I particularly like the ones which are more funny than frightening so this kind of collection works perfectly for me. It seems a shame that ghost stories have been somewhat relegated to Halloween, winter generally seems made for them, especially if they can be read aloud to susceptible family members. (They couldn't in my case, but I like the idea).

For fun F Anstey's 'The Curse of the Catafalques' and Frank R. Stockton's 'The Christmas Shadrach' are both particularly satisfying. 'Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk' by Frank Cowper, and Algernon Blackwood's 'The Kit-Bag' were the pair that I was glad to have read in daylight, and everything else is on a scale somewhere in between. All of them are entertaining- J. B. Priestley's 'The Demon King' is another favourite.

If you're thinking Christmas has been and gone now and that the season has passed for these stories, it's more of an underlying theme, something that recalls dark nights and the strangeness that disrupted routines give. 'Smee' by A. M. Burrage is the perfect example of this - a group are gathered for a house party, not all the guests know each other before hand and when they take to playing a game something between hide and seek and Sardines in a darkened house. The scene is set, the players have a growing suspicion that there's an extra person playing, but who, or what?

The genius of this particular story is that it's something and nothing - 'The Curse of the Catafalques' works on a similar principle but with added humour - with 'Smee' it's enough to make you look over your shoulder and be glad of bright lights. It's also the sort of story you could convincingly tell to an audience - which I don't think I've sat around and done since I was in my teens (do teens still scare themselves silly with ghost stories and the like?).

A brilliant collection, and brilliant addition to the Tales of the Weird series.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Footsteps in the Dark - Georgette Heyer

It's been a long week, got through with gritted teeth, but I'm now officially on holiday. I'm very much looking forward to not getting up before around 8.30 (maybe 9 if I'm feeling decadent and not to hungry), watching old films, catching up on some reading, having a bit of a tidy up, and generally catching up with myself. There might even be some jigsaws - I found one when I was putting away the Christmas decorations, and found it was an even better companion to catching up on podcasts than knitting is.

I wanted to re-read 'Footsteps in the Dark' after pairing it with a Dolly O'Dare in December's books and booze series, which in turn had been inspired by the smart new hardback edition. I haven't got the smart new edition, and probably won't update my tatty old paperback, partly because the book is actually set in the summer so the snowy scene on the cover has the air of a particularly cynical marketing ploy. Mostly though it's because it's far from Heyer's best work.

More of a thriller than a murder mystery (although there is a murder, and a policeman detecting things) it starts promisingly enough when 3 siblings inherit an old priory. The sisters fall in love with the house, the brother with the fishing and the decent ale in the village pub, so along with the older sisters barrister husband they decide to keep it as a weekend place.

Soon after they move in things start going bump in the night - skulls roll down the stairs, secret passages and priests holes appear, and the figure of a hooded monk starts haunting the place. The brothers in law are fairly sure that the hauntings have a perfectly logical and human explanation, and are increasingly determined to get to the bottom of it.

So far so good, the plot doesn't always make a lot of sense, and it's overly melodramatic - but that's the fun of a thing like this. The problem is that it's all a bit heavy handed. The romance doesn't really come alive, the red herrings are a bit much, and the whole thing is clunky. Heyer can do much better than this, even in her crime fiction (not generally considered as good as her romances, but on the whole pretty good). I think the problem with it is that it lacks the sense of humour that makes the majority of her work such a delight to me.

One thing it did mention however was a 'Bronx' which one of the sisters orders in her London club whilst she waits for a friend. It's basically a classic Martini with added orange juice - and very drinkable. I'd have enjoyed the book for that alone, never mind the gothic trappings of the priory - especially the unexpected and unwelcome skull appearing on the stairs which is just the sort of nonsense that winter nights are made for.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Paul Temple and the Kelby Affair - Francis Durbridge

My work schedule is back to normal, and last night I said a reluctant farewell to the Christmas tree (I really loved the tree this Christmas,, it was quite sad to see it go) and I've actually finished some books. The new year has started.

I read this one just after Christmas, choosing it because it was short and I couldn't settle in anything any longer. It's not a good book however you want to look at it, and is heading straight for a charity shop. It probably came in a goody bag from one of the Bodies in the Library event where most people would be familiar with Durbridge and Temple (I've heard a few radio plays which were fun, so I'm not entirely put off). But this one is strictly for fans and completists.

It was first published in 1970 at which point Paul Temple had been around for 32 years (he'd been detecting since 1938). The setting is contemporary but the overall impression is that Paul and Steve (now a designer of record and book covers) are still somewhere in their 40's.

Steve seems to dim to have survived as many adventures as she's supposed to have done, the plot doesn't make a great deal of sense, people behave in the strangest ways, and the whole thing is a mess. The biggest problem for me though was the attitude towards women generally.

Any woman who gets described is young, pretty, sounds like something off a Bond poster, and is instantly evaluated in sexual terms. It's revolting. In this case it sounds like a man in late middle age describing his seedy fantasies in an attempt to sound modern. Jilly Cooper is guilty of the same kind of thing.

A foreword says that Durbridge's last book was published posthumously in 1998, and that he was working as a stage writer until 1991, so I'm guessing that this one is something of an aberration, but I can't think of a single good thing to say about it (unless 'it's quite short' counts). It's all middle aged men chasing underage girls, domestic violence treated as a perfectly normal thing, and thoroughly dislikable characters. It doesn't raise any nostalgia for the 1970's at all.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Top Ten Books of 2018

It's been an odd year, the prospect of Brexit has loomed large across it, more of my reading time has been spent in newspapers and finding comfort in equally angry and dismayed people on twitter. 10 years ago I was made redundant twice within 6 months at the beginning of the last recession, then more or less unemployed for a year. It had taken the best part of a decade to get near to recovering financially from the damage that did. The last couple of years have been unbelievably challenging to work in retail, uncertainty about the future has bitten into sales, a weak pound has destroyed margin - my job doesn't look secure, and frankly I'm worried about what comes next.

I knew before I started looking back at the last year that I hadn't read particularly much in 2018, though I was surprised in the end by just how little it actually amounted to, and how many of the books were short stories or similar. I finished the year reading an absolute stinker which I'll write about soon, and have started a few really good things, but as they're all half finished I can't really count them into a best of list. At least they're something positive to look forward to (because I'm clearly on the verge of getting a bit maudlin here).

I've chosen Christmas and Other Winter Feasts by Tom Parker-Bowles as my food title for this list not because it's obviously the best one I've seen this year (it's not - I think that might be Caroline Eden's 'Black Sea Dispatches', but I've not written about it yet, or it could well have been Diana Henry's 'How To Eat a Peach', or quite a few others - 2018 was a vintage year for food writing) but because it's the one that surprised and cheered me the most. To open it is to fall into a luxurious dream where all is right with the world.

Susan Crawford's The Vintage Shetland Project finally appeared after a few delays in March. I was so pleased to finally see this book completed, not least because it's author had to pause writing to deal with breast cancer. It's an incredible piece of work that does a lot to further our knowledge of the history of Knitting in Shetland, specifically putting a spotlight on some remarkable women who had more or less slipped from view. Everything about it is a triumph to be celebrated.

Baroness Orczy seems to be having a bit of a moment. The Scarlet Pimpernel got the Oxford world's classics treatment in January and Pushkin have reprinted the Old Man in the Corner, with another title due soon. I loved the Scarlet Pimpernel as a child, was delighted to see it looking so respectable (my old copy had Anthony Andrews on the front as Sir Percy, and was falling apart) and even happier to find that it basically stood up to my memories of it.

Russian folklore is also having a moment, or at least it has been in my reading, Katherine Arden's Winter of the Witch trilogy (last instalment due in about a week) and Naomi Novik's 'Spinning Silver'  borrow those myths which was enough to get me to read Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platnov which had been sitting on the shelf for a while. It's an excellent anthology in every way, not least because it gave me another push towards reading Teffi.

One thing that I can say for 2018 is that it's the year I finally started to appreciate a trio of writers I'd always meant to read, but never quite got to. There is an excellent bit about Baba Yaga by Teffi in Russian Magic Tales. I'd had 'Rasputin and Other a Ironies' for a while too, a gem just waiting to be enjoyed. It's really good, and I'll definitely be reading more of her this year.

Jeanette Winterson was another writer I'd meant to read for god knows how long and finally have. Turns out she's just as good as everybody says. I loved everything I read (3 books I think) but !The Daylight Gate' with its gothic hammer horror edge (although 'Weight' from the Canongate myth series is also amazing) might be my favourite.

Sylvia Townsend Warner is my other big discovery of the year. I've always been a bit on the fence about her. I think I have all the Virago editions of her books, but I didn't get very far with Lolly Willows and left it at that. Handheld's edition of Kingdoms of Elfin was a revelation, I loved everything about it. I'm now happily working my way through a Virago collection of her short stories and finding yet more to love.

Madeline Miller's 'Circe' was a lucky strike, I readvit on my phone with low expectations and again, fell in love. Circe is one of those seemingly peripheral characters in Greek mythology who pops up all over the place. Miller has put her at the Centre of her own story to great effect. I really look forward to seeing what she does next.

After a bad early experience with Somerset Maugham it took me years to read him again, when I did it was for a book club (or I'd never have bothered) since then I've been lucky with everything I've picked up. 'Up At The Villa' is short, shocking, and brilliant. It's hard to say much about it without giving spoilers, but read it and you'll see what I mean.

Malachy Tallack's The Valley at the Centre of the World is my most personal choice, it's set in Shetland and does such a good job of capturing a sense of the place, and that feels so important to me that it's hard to be objective beyond that. I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction, or even a lot about it, so it's possible that there's a big chunk of regional, rural, literature that I'm totally unaware of - but I don't think there is. I hadn't realised how much I wanted to read books that reflect the place I'm from until I got the chance to do it. What he writes feels absolutely true, I suppose the closest I'd got to this before was reading George Mackay Brown, but Tallack is from a different generation. He's less nostalgic for an idealised past, and a remarkably promising author by any standard.