Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Top Ten Books of 2020

I keep an appointment diary, but it's basically a combination of to do and have done lists, here is where I keep something like a record of what I'm interested in and thinking about, so coming up with this years list of best books has been a recap of 2020. January, February, and the beginning of March feel like both a lifetime ago and a different world. One where theatre trips were possible (I really miss the theatre, and the privilege of cheap rush tickets which let me see so much over the past couple of years) and a year that started with hope and a conviction that this was going to be the start pof an exciting new phase. It didn't turn out quite like that.

There was the optimism of early lockdown where it all seemed like a chance to step back and smell the roses whilst spring erupted around me in a part blessedly free of alcoholics, followed by the pessimism of never getting out of lockdown during a summer marred by a park full of alcoholics (if it wasn't so intimidating having to walk past them there would be something almost heroic about the dedication this group of drinkers have to being out in all weathers to drink cheap lager together from sunrise to sunset). And then onto our current phase of uncertainty and Covid burn out.  

I read more than I thought I had this year, but a lot of it has been old detective fiction and tales of the weird. All of those books have been excellent, and I'd recommend every single one of them, but whilst they haven't melded into one, it's hard to look back and say this one, or that one, are the ones that have stayed with me. It's also been a brilliant year for food related books with a coupe of things that feel like they ought to become classics. 

I know there's a camp that says books of the year ought to be ranked - and I might agree (I wouldn't agree) if they were all in the same genre, but they're not. These are books which have defined my year and which I've really enjoyed.

Georgette Heyer's A Civil Contract is my choice from the good chunk of Heyer I've re read this year. She's an author I find an equal mix of comfort and challenge in, and who has seen me through a variety of hard times over the decades. A Civil Contract shows her at her best - just staying within the confines of the romance genre to write a book which shows that relationships are hard work and complicated, and worse. Heyer is a snob and sometimes it grates. If you're new to Heyer and doubtful about historical romance start with the detective fiction - if you like it you'll enjoy the majority of her writing, if you don't there's no need to carry on. There's a brilliant Heyer readalong group on Twitter and some excellent Podcasts if you catch the bug. 

Sylvia Townsend Warner continues to be the gift that keeps on giving. Her novels are getting some smart looking reprints in Penguin Modern Classics so if you don't have a guilty stack of unread old Virago Modern Classics 2021 will be the year to stock up. Better yet are Handheld's reissues of her fairy stories. Of Cats and Elfins is so good I've given copies to a few people. It's unexpected, funny, sad, charming, spikey, and altogether brilliant. A really good introduction to Sylvia in her many moods and just wonderful. 

I bought David Lebovitz's Drinking French assuming I'd get a fun summer drinking Vermouth and making classic cocktails. I did not, but it's still an excellent book even if it now feels like it belongs to a part of my life which is over. I'm still not sure if I miss the wine trade or not, I definitely miss being able to sit in a summery garden with a few people chatting over something good to drink. The reality of Brexit probably won't help with this particular miss either - but I can still dream of trips to France and bringing back interesting aperitifs. 

Gill Meller's Root Stem Leaf Flower is probably my favourite cookbook of the year against some really stiff competition, including Olia Hercules' Summer Kitchens. Both are 3rd books, both feel like by far the best work from either author, both are exciting, but in the end I've cooked from Root Stem Leaf Flower more and it's quickly become a go to book for inspiration. I wouldn't be without it now and just writing this is making me think about broccoli - which no other book has ever done for me before. 

The Accidental Countryside by Stephen Moss felt particularly timely. I think it was the last book I bought before non essential shops closed, and was the perfect thing to read stuck in a city centre and really noticing the variety of wildlife - especially bird, plant, and insect life, around me. I haven't read Richard Mabey's The Unofficial Countryside yet, but it's on my list for the coming year. There's a lot to think about with this one, specifically in how we think of the countryside and the value of brown field sites. Urban and suburban places can do a lot to make space for a little wildness which is a benefit for all and everything concerned. This year has really shown how valuable that can be. 

If I could literally hoist a flag for any publisher it would probably be Handheld Press who keep producing interesting and unexpected books. Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford was an other favourite. Mostly light and funny but with real heart, I really enjoyed this book whilst recognising far to much about the world of retail in it. Mostly though it was the humour that I loved about this that made it so memorable and is also making me wonder if I should just retire for the rest of the day and read it again now. 

Patrick Baker's The Unremembered Places is the book with the concept that really caught my imagination. Baker explores parts of Scotland which haven't exactly been forgotten - the physical remains of the history are there, and findable, but they're not well remembered or celebrated either. Everywhere has places like this, I've been researching a couple in Shetland (including the first phone box my dad restored) and realizing how many stories can exist around a place, and how easily they can be lost. It's a book to question the history we remember and why. This book just wins out for me over David Gange's The Frayed Atlantic Edge and Sean Lysaght's Eagle Country only because it is Baker who made me think about looking for these stories and places on my doorstep (lockdown friendly) rather than on the grander scale. Again, all 3 are excellent books, and the latter two arguably have a lot more to offer the armchair traveller right now). 

Of all the classic crime I've read this year, Julian Symons Progress of a Crime feels like the most memorable (I guess I won't really know until this time next year). The British Library Crime Classics have been a feature of this years reading for me, and I've been lucky with all of them so far with lots of what I feel are series highlights. This one isn't so much interested in the affect a murder has on the victims family, but how it affects those around the accused. Written in 1960 it captures a moment in history that we sort of overlook now I think. Sandwiched between the war and the swinging 60's there's opportunity and prosperity for some but a hard reckoning with the recent past too. 

Miranda York's The Food Almanac is the book that's made me realise I'm convinced there should be a K in almanac. Again it was a tough call between this one and Kate Young's The Little Library Christmas both write about so much more than food, and Kate Young's book is the first Christmas one I've come across which doesn't assume a conventional family Christmas or really having a lot of money (I'm thinking of the Nigel Slater Christmas book which earnestly discusses which £80 candle to light on Christmas morning - it's a lovely book, but not quite for me). In the end it's the almanac not because it's a better book, but for the variety of writers and writing in it and the fact hat Christmas has passed.

Lafcadio Hearn's Japanese Ghost Stories are my final choice as a representative for all the weird I read in 2020. He was a writer I'd never heard of, and then found around very corner once I started reading this. If ever there was a time to take comfort in something weird or other worldly this does seem to be it and I've found it really helpful for mentally boxing up some of the uncertainty. There have been brilliant collections from Handheld, and the British Library which I've read with enthusiasm. I've a little stack of more scholarly texts on the subject which I honestly mean to read too (good intentions quail at 300+ pages of small print and footnotes when there are so many tempting stories to be read). Hearn's combination of Japanese and Irish influences has to be fairly unique and his life story is as interesting as his work.  

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The 27th of December - Seasonal Greetings

I normally write some sort of Happy Christmas post, and I hope it goes as read that I do wish anybody who's reading this a Happy Christmas - which is a season, not just a day, but this year the normal platitudes don't feel entirely appropriate.

My Christmas day was good, it's actually the first one I've spent with my partner of 14 years - he's normally with his father in Scotland whilst I'm down here with my mother, but normal plans are suspended. I really liked walking the dog with him, and being together to open presents and eat. I know that plenty of my friends and acquaintances similarly enjoyed the quieter, calmer Christmas that restrictions dictated - but equally, plenty did not. 

At times like this it's sometimes easier to be on your own, for those of us who are used to spending a lot of time in our own company there are all sorts of strategies for dealing with potential loneliness, and if most the rules around Covid tiers are made with families in mind, at least social bubbles give us some options. It's far harder to deal with a situation where you're desperate for some time and space to yourself. I can't imagine how hard it is to be cooped up with people if that's how you feel.

The last few days before Christmas bought out a lot of horrendous stories of the crap that's been happening to others as well. I have a convalescing mother and dog on my hands - both will be better before they know it (as long as they behave) but one friend who broke her ankle a couple of weeks ago had her partner test positive for Covid on Christmas eve, and came down with symptoms herself on Christmas day. They're clearly not coping well, and so many pf the normal things we do to help at times like this are off limits. 

I've always liked this lull between Christmas and New Year, and during all my years in retail missed it badly - the 2 or 3 days off after being crazy busy then going straight back to a tidy up and relative boredom always felt wrong. Even now without a job, this week for me is an opportunity not to worry, to just ignore the looming questions about my future for a brief time - although in some ways most of 2020 has felt a bit like this gap in the normal (is it a case of being careful what you wish for?). And again I know there are other people in my life who really struggle with this time, and are finding it harder than ever right now.

So yes, Seasons Greetings, I hope it was a Happy Christmas, I hope it'll be a Happy New Year, but I know it's more complicated than that for many of us at the moment.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

6 Hot Alcoholic Drinks for a Locked Down Winter

I like winter, but my feelings around Christmas are more complicated and contradictory. These last few days have been quite emotional, especially without the framework of the usual traditions to see me through. However, I've wrapped, posted, or otherwise dispatched card, and almost all the presents - I'm still working on a hat for my mother, which will be the 10th I've knitted since the end of October. I'm staying with her for the duration so as long as it's ready by Friday morning there's no need to panic. The food is bought and stowed away, I've had my own small book splurge, and my sister is winding me up. (Some traditions have made it through the hellscape of 2020).

It's time for a drink. I'm not normally a fan of drinking alone, but with mum, or at a push her dog, for company it's fine, and even when I am alone hot alcoholic drinks are the exception. The heat evaporates a bit of the alcohol, they're generally easy to make for 1, and 1 drink is generally enough for me. They also embody a combination of comfort, decadence, and nostalgia for me that's in short supply at the moment so here are 6 tried and tested suggestions.

Spiced Tea and Rum. I've seen and tried a few hot rum recipes over the years. Only one buttered rum recipe was really unpleasant (I've had okay buttered rum, I'm not a tremendous fan, but am willing to be persuaded to love it if anyone has a failsafe suggestion) but they often veer towards the overly sweet, or greasy, or otherwise slightly unsatisfactory. I'm not automatically a fan of spice tea or chai blends either. They're great for a couple of cups but then I find the novelty wears off. Any blend of tea with added warming winter spices is ideal for lacing with rum though. The tea blender has done the work, all I need to do is brew the tea, add any golden, dark, or spiced rum I have to hand and drink. You can sweeten it further with sugar, honey, or maple syrup as taste and availability dictate - or a slice of lemon if taste sends you in the other direction. If it's clear tonight it would be just the thing to take with me whilst trying to get a look at what Jupiter and Saturn are doing.

Gin Toddy. This isn't the best name for this drink, which I like to think of as an heir to an 18th century punch, but it is as good a description as any. I far prefer gin as a base here to whisky, the botanical nature of gin makes it a very amenable background to the other flavours added, it's a soothing drink if you have the suspicion of a sore throat, and is good whenever there's a nip in the air. It's simply gin, honey, a squeeze and a slice of lemon, and a grating of nutmeg stirred up with water that's just come off the boil. A demerara sugar would be a reasonable alternative to honey, and a slice of root ginger would not be an innovation to far either. Indeed experimentation with anything from the spice rack that's commonly used as a gin botanical would be good - just try them one at a time till you get the twist you want. Less is more here. 

Vin Chaud. This is the one that really is better with company, not least because it's the hardest to make a single serving of. It's a simple version of a mulled wine which is ideal for using up any decent but basic wine that's hanging around. That's all those bottles that come free with supermarket meal deals, or an unfinished bottle from a couple of days ago, or even the half bottles that you can buy more easily now. Sweeten the wine to taste with sugar (but go easy, it's easier to add than take away) heat slowly with a cinnamon stick until just before it starts to boil (do not let it boil), and serve with a slice of lemon. If you have lots left over it can go in a flask or a bottle, without the lemon, and be gently re heated later.

Sloe Gin Laced Cocoa. Just exactly what it says. Cocoa made with a bit of sugar if you like it a touch sweeter, thickened with cream if you want, and liberally laced with sloe or damson gin. It's mellows the potential bitterness of the cocoa, and takes the medicinal edge off of the sloe gin. The result tastes rich, grown up, and is the ideal end to a long walk - precursor to a good book or an episode of Murder She Wrote. For me the point of this drink is that it's more than the sum of it's parts. I'm on the fence about Cocoa and Sloe gin as individual drinks but love them together. This will not work nearly as well with hot chocolate, it needs the bitter chocolate edge of the cocoa.

Burnt Coffee. This was a happy find in Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks', and is a firm winter favourite. It's strong coffee with a spoon of brown sugar stirred in, then topped up with a liberal tot of brandy (not the very good stuff) that should sort of float on the top - not be stirred in. Then set it alight, blow it out before it burns out, and drink. I really like the theatre of this drink, even if it's just me to see it, and again it's rich, sweet but not sickly, and probably my ideal of a coffee liqueur. It's a lot like an Irish coffee but made with brandy and without the fuss of the cream.

Irish Coffee. I've lost track of where we are with Irish coffee. Is it still irredeemably naff, or is it charmingly retro again? I don't care either way because I love them when they're made well (no squirty, or whipped cream, collapsing on top into a pool of oily globs for a start). It takes a bit of time, and it's obviously better if you have actual Irish whiskey to hand. A not smoky or peaty blended scotch is an okay substitute (please don't tell my Irish family). If you have the time and inclination to make one well though it is the best drink to sit with when the weather outside is awful. 

Saturday, December 19, 2020


After feeling particularly gloomy yesterday this recipe for Whipkül turned up on my facebook feed from Taste of Shetland. It's a traditional Shetland recipe which must have been a particularly decadent treat in the middle of winter, either as a breakfast in a heavily whipped form, or as a drink.

The combination of eggs, cream, sugar, and rum is fairly wide spread and this is very close to being an eggnog - with Shetland the origins might be Scandinavian, Dutch, Scottish, German, or even come back via America (assuming sailors might have shared the recipe on their travels) but either as Osla's dessert, or my attempt to turn her recipe into a cocktail, it's really good, very festive, and can easily be made for 1 person (in a self caring way, not a get smashed on rum because it's all to much way). 

Whipkül Cocktail. Serves 1

1 egg yolk from a fresh egg,

Half a teaspoon of caster sugar

50ml of double cream

30ml of black seal rum

a grating of fresh nutmeg.

Put the egg yolk, cream, sugar, and rum into a mixing jug with a couple of large cubes of ice and stir gently until everything is well combined and smooth. Strain into a cocktail glass and grate nutmeg over the top. Drink.

If you omit the egg you have something very like a Berlin Blonde without the Triple Sec. The egg adds a silky texture and richness that's worth while if the idea of raw egg doesn't put you off. I think a dark, sweet rum is the way to go on this - it adds colour as well as a punch of flavour, it would be worth experimenting with spiced rum or golden rum depending on what you have though. Black Seal is my favourite dark cocktail rum - not so good that it feels like a shame to mix it with things, but good enough to bring something to any drink it goes in. 

The sugar can be omitted, but it's Christmas so why not have it - golden caster sugar would also be good. I'd have used single cream for this if I had it, in which case I would have shaken rather than stirred the Whipkül. The ice is to both cool the mix so it's ready for immediate drinking, and to dilute the cream a little so that it's sippable rather than spoonable. It would not be the worst way to start New Year with one of these in hand. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

A Week Before Christmas

I've hit a bit of a wall today, to much of which has been spent wandering around my flat looking for biscuits like it's the 27th of December rather than the 18th. I'm heading back to my mother's tomorrow - she's recovering from a hip replacement and is currently less mobile than she was when I left added to which the dog has sustained an injury (a bad tear to her ear which became infected) and is not handling the cone collar at all well. It makes her panic, so help is needed on all fronts.

Logically I know that all I've done whilst I'm back home is go to the post office, pick up prescriptions, and have one quick browse around a quiet Waterstones all of which I'd have done anyway, but current news coverage is having me second guess myself at every turn and I'm wondering how everybody else is coping at the moment?

We're past the point of considering if the Government's policy for Christmas was misguided or not, but I'm thoroughly fed up with the current debate (don't lift restrictions at all v it would be inhuman to keep people apart). Very few of us will be having what we think of as a normal Christmas - even if we normally spend the day alone there's the whole build up, and a host of traditions that are not fit for purpose this year. The idea that it's a simple thing, even if hard, to cancel plans is unfair. Everybody's circumstances are different, and the endless judgement of 2020 ha been one of it's least appealing features.

Spending the last couple of months in the country was a bit of a revelation about how people behave as well. My building has been quite rule compliant - with a couple of spectacular exceptions in the summer I've certainly not been aware of neighbours breaking the rules, and when the students came back their behaviour was notably modified. From my mothers window it was clear that there was a lot more casual rule breaking around her, and even people having dinner parties during lockdown. It does not surprise me that 1 in 5 have admitted to breaking the rules about going into peoples houses, it wouldn't be surprised if the actual number was higher, and this is the crux of the Christmas debate, and the thing that isn't really being discussed. There are to many people who will simply carry on regardless.

All of it has been the final mood killer, so now I'm trying to focus on boxing day and beyond. I have a lot of good books, a new 1000 piece jigsaw of Botticelli's 'Birth of Venus' (£7 bargain from The Works back in October) some festive chocolate, a stash of good biscuits that I resisted earlier, and coffee to go with them, as well as some serious knitting plans - and renewed attempts to find a job to look forward too. There are some fun things being arranged via Twitter (I'm mostly thinking of the Georgette Heyer Readalong, but it's not the only thing I've bookmarked), I'm saving podcasts and am thinking of re listening to some of my favourite Backlisted episodes, and lots of other small acts of what I'm afraid I'm going to have to term self care. 

The biggest of these will be helping mum for as long as she'll let me. Having her and the dogs company is a massive boost which I'll be making the most of whilst I can, and whilst she needs me. I hope everybody reading this has got their own program of little things to look forward to in what is otherwise promising to be a fairly miserable winter.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Thinking about January, a List Inspired by Shetland, Orkney, and Points North

A short list I promise. I did consider an entire list devoted to Shetland Knitting (lace and Fair Isle) books, there have been some good ones this year and January/February have to be the best months for hibernating with some yarn but knitting isn't everything (though seriously it's a hobby I've found that's really helped my mental health generally for it's combination of creativity and usefulness).

As it is I'm just going to recommend the Shetland Wool Week Annual 2020 and the Shetland Wool Adventure Journal for knitting inspiration. Both offer patterns suitable for every knitting level from beginner to expert. They're things I actually want to make which isn't guaranteed, especially in beginner books, and they offer a lot more on top. Recipes, articles, book reviews, beautiful photography, and something of a sense of community. They're both well worth the money (about £20 each plus postage and packing on top of that), support local jobs, and will keep a knitter busy over the winter. 

I don't re read books very often, but after lots of discussion about Christmas favourites recently I keep thinking about George Mackay Brown's short stories and have pulled a handful of them off the shelf (along with Northern Lights so I can read again about the rotten day out he had with my dad - everybody else enjoyed it, but not Brown). Winter is the traditional time to gather and tell stories, something that Brown would have been very mindful of, and there's something about his mix of nostalgia and slight melancholy that feels right for this time of year - even when he's writing about summer. 

From there I started thinking about David Thomson's 'The People of the Sea' now a smart Canongate Canon. This is a collection of Celtic tales of the sea folk - selkies, which are also an Orkney and Shetland tradition too. Reading 'Hag' is the other thing that put me in mind of this book as one of the more famous Selkie stories is retold in it. 

David Gange's 'The Frayed Atlantic Edge' came out in paperback this summer, and was the next obvious connection. This epic trip around  Britain and Ireland's western seaboard is full of tangents to explore in the way of further reading and big ideas. It's also a really enjoyable book to read, and a reminder, should we need it, that there are a lot of exciting things happening on what we think of as the edges. It might also change what you think of as the centre those edges circle as well.

When I read the premise for 'The Frayed Atlantic Edge' I thought doing that journey in a kayak was a little bit crazy - then I read Alec Crawford's 'Treasure Islands' this year. If you don't think maritime salvage is your sort of thing this might be the book to change your mind - it changed mine. It's a jaw dropping account of poor health and safety practices whilst diving on the wreck of a lifetime - and life on Foula in the process. I really loved this book and very much need to retrieve my copy from my partner before he considers it his own. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

6 Books for Last Minute Presents or Stocking Fillers

There's a distinct theme with these books, some of which I was given for my Birthday and which heavily reflect my interests in food and history. But as the news about Christmas is sounding a bit rubbish today, and I've already had to readjust a few present giving plans to postal options, books are featuring in my gift giving more than ever. 

In the normal way of things I don't like recommending, or using, the big internet giant for book shopping, but I have prime and it gives me options for getting things to my dad in Shetland (slow, but no extra charge for delivery and anyone with family in the Highlands and Islands will appreciate that), and small presents here there and everywhere. For local friends I can leave things on a doorstep, or as in one case arrange something very like a dead letter drop with parcels swapped from opposite ends of the (closed) museum portico, much to the amusement of passers by. It's all adding to the oddness of this year.

Almanacs are definitely making a come back - this is the first time I've bought Lia Leendertz's 'The Almanac'. It's small and pretty and full of interesting bits and pieces. I fell for it when I was ordering coffee filter papers (nowhere in the city centre that I can find sells the Hario ones I use) and am looking forward to reading it month by month throughout next year. It's the pocket size that I love, and with any luck might be a perfect travel companion. 

Miranda York's 'The Food Almanac' is something I bought a couple of months ago and really love. It's a nice thing to have for anybody who likes food and reading. There's a great mix of stuff in here - not just recipes, but stories, recommendations for more books, and all the distraction that I could want - and maybe you too. It's the perfect food book for the cookbook lover who already has a lot of cookbooks (like me) and who wants more tangential inspiration from new books. 

'The Women's Suffrage Cookery Book' came as a review copy from the British Library too recently for me to have done anything but glance at it. What I've seen I really like. Originally published in 1912 to raise funds for the NUWSS (National Union of Women Suffrage Societies) it's a collection of recipes sent in by women from across the world. There are household hints and tips as well. Some things sound like they'll work better than others, but the particular charm of this book is the window it throws open onto these women's lives.

Lizzie Collingham's 'The Biscuit' was a birthday present. I'd dearly love to be making Christmas biscuits right now, but common sense says not. There won't be enough people to share them with and eating all the biscuits myself would be a bad thing. I'm a little bit sad about this, but biscuits don't stand up well to being posted and it's hardly the biggest sacrifice of 2020. Meanwhile reading through this is sort of scratching the itch. It's a comprehensive, informative, and entertaining history of the biscuit, with recipes.

Pen Vogler's 'Scoff' was also a birthday present (and I'm fairly sure I have her Dinner with Dickens coming my way too). It's a history of food and class in Britain - right up my street. It's also a brick of a thing, so the perfect book for January and what looks likely to be a grim winter. An initial look suggests history that's solid but approachable (maybe like a Sunday roast?) so for once the size isn't daunting me. 

'Hag' is a collection of forgotten folk tales re told by contemporary (female) authors for Virago. It was another birthday present, and one I'm particularly pleased with - not food related either please note. The stories I've read so far (about half of them) have been excellent - not least because they're folk tales I'm reasonably familiar with - but then they are a particular passion. Short stories are another passion - and I like the dark edge of these. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

5 Women Writers Being Reprinted (and a lot more)

I had to go into town today, and as it wasn't particularly busy I had a wonder around in Waterstones which was nice, but as I tend to read more older authors and this is the time of year for shifting new stuff I didn't actually see much that really looked like it was my cup of tea that I didn't already have. It's been a good year for what I'm going to call classic women writers though, and there's good stuff in the offing for 2021 as well.

Sylvia Townsend Warner - thanks to the combined championing of Helen and Handheld Press has gone from being a writer I thought I ought to like, to one I love. She's getting handsome new Penguin Modern Classic editions for quite a few of her novels, Persephone published some of her writing this year, and the two collections of cat and fairy stories that Handheld bought out are brilliant, her titles often turn up in old green Virago's in charity shops too. Now's a really good time to discover her in all her considerable variety if you haven't already done so.  

Patricia Highsmith has her Centenary next year which Virago are celebrating - first off with a new collection of her short stories. This is my prompt to read a lot more of the Highsmith's I have on the shelf. I've read a few, but not enough. And whilst I'm thinking about Virago and books I haven't read, they've also expanded their classics list of books by black women, both in terms of the writers included and the range of their titles available. In simple terms I've gone from thinking that it's a genre that isn't necessarily for me, to wondering what I'm missing out on - that's one pf the things increased representation does. 

Nancy Spain is another author who has joined the Virago stable, with Death Goes on Skis out now and more to come. I liked this book, mostly for how awful everybody in it managed to be. In 'Death Goes on Skis' the quantity of family members who really disliked each other felt like an effective Christmas safety valve. I'm looking forward to more of her books...

Still with Virago, there's a really handsome new edition of Rumer Godden's 'Black Narcissus' out. I was given a copy for my birthday, and the first time I find myself somewhere grand enough to sell Caron perfume I'll be either spraying Narcisse Noir on the book, or on something I can use as a bookmark. I will be watching the new adaptation, but I'm not convinced it'll come close to the brilliance of the Powell and Pressburger  version from 1947. There's a few contenders for which might be Godden's best book, this one would definitely be a lot of peoples choice.

It's been a good year for Rose Macauley as well. She's another writer that I've always thought I should like but had never got very far with. Again it was Handheld press, with their edition of 'Potterism', that converted me to actual enthusiasm. They've got a few Macauley titles, Virago have more, and the British Library Women Writers series has 'Dangerous Ages'. The BL list is well worth a look and is going to be one to watch. It's a list that gets more interesting with each title with harder to find things from Elizabeth Von Arnim and E. M. Delafield and writers who will likely only be familiar to fans of Stuck in a Book who is series advisor. 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

6 Christmas Themed Books and Cinnamon Buns for Breakfast

This is my birthday weekend, late enough in December to feel like it's generally overshadowed by Christmas. For a long time I wouldn't put up decorations before this, but as Christmas has steadily been bought forward over the years it's become increasingly futile to hold out against it (you struggle to get a decent tree for a small flat if you leave it until now, and things need to go in the post, and all the rest of it). 

A tier 3 birthday in the rain isn't the most social occasion, but it still beats trying to find somewhere to go for dinner which isn't offering a Christmas menu and isn't full of office parties. I am not complaining. I've got a handful of great looking books to browse through, some very good coffee, and a collection of really pretty bracelets that a jeweler friend has made for me with charms we chose on holiday in Shetland back in freer times. 

Meanwhile it seems as good a time as any to recommend a short list of Christmas themed books. I have a growing collection of these which sort of surprises me - I don't as a rule think of myself as this Christmassy, but the evidence is all pointing towards the fact that I am. I could have done a reasonable list just of food and drink titles. 

Kate Young's 'The Little Library Christmas' is new this year, pocket sized, and covers films and books every bit as much as it does food and drink. It's one to read, maybe make plans for next year from, and generally enjoy as a festive companion. Because books are central to it, reading about the recipes is a different experience to reading cookbooks generally, so even if there's no excuse or opportunity for the big meals, at least you're lead towards some great literary celebrations. It's a s good a way as any I can think of to combat the relative isolation of this year.

Tom Parker Bowles 'Christmas and Other Feasts' for Fortnum and Mason is at the other end of the scale. It's mostly in the realms of a fantasy Christmas from my point of view, but with plenty of practical recipes mixed in. I like the lists of luxury goods that sound like set dressing for a very upmarket period drama. It's very reminiscent of the lovingly written descriptions of food that are such a feature of ration era fiction.

'A Surprise for Christmas and Other Seasonal Mysteries' edited by Martin Edwards is the most recent of the British Library classic crime collections. To be honest they're all good, as are the Christmas themed crime classic novels, but I have a particular love for short story collections and this is a particularly enjoyable collection. Why this time of year feels so right for crime and ghost stories is probably a question best left unexamined. 

'Chill Tidings' edited by Tanya Kirk, also from the British Library but this time on the Weird series backs up my enthusiasm for these genres. I reviewed both books recently (here and here) both are vintage collections that would take some beating. Chill Tidings has the added bonus of friendly and funny ghosts and is perfect for atmosphere and mood setting.

Jeanette Winterson's 'Christmas Days' is the book I bought in 2016 and still haven't read beyond the recipes that accompany each chapter. Maybe I'll start it this afternoon, maybe I'll save it for another year. It's a book so full of promise - including the charming illustrations that knowing it's waiting for me has been pleasure enough so far. Sometimes books are about more than reading.

Simon Armitage's 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' is the book I will read this Christmas. I meant to do it last year and didn't, but after enjoying Beowulf so much recently I'm really up for this, and because things are so much less hectic this year I'm less likely to be distracted. There's something about this sort of epic story telling I find very attractive at the moment too. I remember watching a tv version as a child and being a bit flummoxed by it which is very 2020.

Breakfast Cinnamon Buns. 

I made these for my sisters birthday and decided to make them for myself too - and leave some for the neighbours as a thank you. The recipe is a Signe Johanson one, I think from Scandilicious Baking and is very good. Buns are best eaten on the day they're baked. 

The night before you want them make the dough. Take 225ml of whole milk and 75g of butter and scaled them in a pan - heat the milk until it's just about boiling whilst the butter melts in it. Set aside to cool slightly whilst gathering the rest of the ingredients. 425g of plain or bread flour, 70g of caster sugar, 1tsp of ground cinnamon - or use cardamom if preferred, 1/2 a teaspoon of finely ground sea salt, 1 packet of instant yeast (or 20g fresh) and 1 medium egg. Add the slightly cooled milk and butter and mix to a dough with a food mixer - it's a very wet sticky dough. Put somewhere cool to rise overnight - either the fridge, or a kitchen as cold as mine currently is.

Make a filling out of 95g of soft butter, 50g of caster sugar, 2tsp of ground cinnamon (or cardamom) and 1/2 a teaspoon of vanilla salt - or just salt. Cover and leave somewhere the butter won't set hard in. Prepare a suitable tin for cooking the buns in - I use a 23cm springform tin lined with baking paper or a square tin which has been buttered.

The next morning about an hour or so before breakfast is wanted roll out the dough into a long rectangle, spread the filling over it, and roll into a long sausage. Cut into equal sized rounds and arrange in the tin. Leave for half an hour or so to rise, heat the oven to gas 6/ 200c /fan 180c, glaze the tops of the buns with an egg and sprinkle with demerara sugar (also optional), and cook for about 25 minutes or until done.

They'll be ready to eat in the time it takes to make a pot of coffee after they've come out of the oven.


Saturday, December 12, 2020

5 Books for a Georgette Heyer Fan

I'm missing doing a booze and books series, but towards the end of a socially isolated year when money is tight for a lot of us it doesn't feel particularly appropriate on any count so I thought I might put some book lists together instead - which is rather more like counting my blessings than drowning my sorrows.

The Georgette Heyer readalong on Twitter has been a highlight of this year, undemanding in terms of time, interesting discussions, friendly, and fun. There is a planned readalong of one of the short stories in Snowdrift/Pistols for Two for Christmas day (I can't remember which one off hand and can't find it quickly either, but as none of these are long short stories not much prep will be required).

One of the things that I love about Georgette Heyer the writer is the quantity of other writers and subjects she interested me in (there's a post about it here). This seems to be a common thing amongst Heyer readers so here's a very short selection from what could be a very long list.

Snowdrift - Pistols for Two w

as the original title for this collection, but then in 2016 it was retitled as 'Snowdrift' with the addition of 3 previously uncollected historical short stories. I'll take whatever new Heyer is going, so I bought it as soon as ever I could. Heinman/Arrow have been reissuing a bit of Heyer in very smart Christmas editions over the last few years, mostly the detective novels, sometimes renamed. They're worth a look if you like classic crime with a bit of humour and haven't previously tried her.

Jane Austen: Writing, Society, Politics by Tom Keymer. This turned up as a review copy from OUP and was an absolute delight. When I'd finished Heyer as a teenager I moved straight onto Austen. They're most alike in terms of their humour. This little book explores different themes in Austen focusing on a different book for each topic. It's accessible, interesting, and will add something to any future reading of Austen. It's also perfect stocking filler size.

The Beau Monde - Hannah Greig. Also from Oxford University Press, this was waiting for me when I got home. I started reading it last night and so far it's really interesting. Definitely at the academic end of the scale it's not big on illustrations, but it's not intimidatingly long either and I'm really looking forward to a good bit of eighteenth century history.

Rory Muir's 'Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune; How Younger Sons Made Their Way in Jane Austen's England' from Yale books is the one on my wish list. If nobody buys it for me it will be time to use some of the book tokens I've been hoarding for just such an occasion. Might it be a book that stays on the shelf unread for years? Maybe, but it sounds interesting and I can't resist it much longer.

And finally  it's an overdue mention of Slightly Foxed. My subscription needs renewing so it will be my Christmas present to myself. I started subscribing sometime around volume 16, and have been enjoying it ever since. There's a podcast, they do their own beautifully bound editions of certain books, you can buy a bag - but it's the quarterly journal that really has my heart. A quarterly journal sounds like something that would be very much at home in Heyer's regency world (I think a couple are mentioned), I love getting the post and spending some quality time with it. It's gently enthusiastic, a pleasure to handle, and a treat I've enjoyed for more than a decade. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Home and The Cursed Christmas Tree

I'm back from my mother's until Christmas - something which I've got mixed feelings about - her house is warm, the food is free (to me), the company is excellent, and it was possible to be more social (dog walking, distance observed - not least because our dog has a Reputation as a Bad Dog in the village, which I'd like to say is grossly unfair but she revels in the status) than it is in town. Regardless, I had to come back at some point and there were jobs piling up for me here, plus a Christmas tree bought in a fit of festivity last week.

I thought I'd be writing this post 3 or 4 hours ago, but having been away for 5 weeks there was more to do than I expected, and the tree has turned into something of a disaster. I normally love a real Christmas tree, I chose a beauty for mum, but I've rearranged my furniture since last year and the corner assigned for the tree is smaller than I thought when I was buying. It was also raining, very icy rain, on tree day so I didn't take quite as long as I might have over the whole selection process.

My tree is lopsided. A bit of judicious pruning hasn't helped as much as I hoped, but nevertheless I persisted and got it decorated. I had just put the last decoration on it and stood back to take a picture when it listed to one side. I don't know if you've ever tried to slide under a fully decorated tree whilst also trying to hold it up, but it is not easy, especially when it's laden with decades worth of treasured decorations. Replacing decades worth of treasured decorations would probably be an insurance job, except I doubt they're covered.

I got the tree upright again, screwed the nuts in extra tight around the base, cursed living alone and restrictions that mean you shouldn't even yell for help from a neighbour - although it's unlikely they would have heard, my phone was out of reach, and I was trapped on a dusty floor (because away for 5 weeks) under a tree. At least there were no visible spiders. I made a coffee, sat down, and prepared to phone my partner to relate the holding up whilst sliding under experience as amusingly as possible - when half way through I saw the tree gently capsize again. 

Holding up whilst getting under the damn thing does not get easier with practice. Happily nothing is broken, the tree is now wedged in between a chair and the sofa, and levered up underneath so that if it does chose to fall again it should do so into the corner of the room. I could look better, and I'm a bit concerned about what happens when the washing machine on the other side of the wall hits it's spin cycle. It is truly a Christmas tree for 2020.

In slightly better news a whole lot of 'missing' mail turned up - I had been getting really concerned that all sorts of things had gone astray, but they'd ended up with a neighbour. He normally looks out for things for me when I'm away, but he's moving any day now and I'd told him I'd asked another flat to keep an eye out for me. I thought he was joking when he said the gays would be fighting over my post, but he'd still been collecting it for me - just hadn't let me know. I should have saved all the unwrapping for my birthday on Sunday which will possibly be a let down by comparison - I've unwrapped some great stuff. 

So all in all it's sort of great to be home - or it will be in the morning when the heating has kicked in and the water is hot. Right now it's cold, I'm covered in dust and can't have a bath, and it feels a bit odd being on my own again after all these weeks. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Red Sands - Caroline Eden

I'm not going to pretend that I've read all of this yet - that's a work in process, but I wanted to write about it before Christmas because it's a wonderful book and maybe just what somebody who reads this is looking for.

Red Sands is the second in a planned trilogy that started with the magnificent 'Black Sea'. Neither book is especially easy to catagorise - 'Black Sea' sits in the cookbook section of my local Waterstones, but recipes are only a part of what it contains and not necessarily the main part. 'Red Sands' is definitely focused around food, but not really around recipes, which are more or less relegated to footnote status at the end of each chapter. Calling them travel books feels slightly reductive as well, although it's probably more accurate than cookbook. 

What I can say with certainty is that the mix of reportage and recipes works perfectly for me. I don't often choose to read contemporary travel writing - historical accounts are a different matter, but the focus on food, and that you can read the essay and then cook or drink something that brings it to life - that's compelling. 

The photography here is also compelling - all of it, be it food, geography, or people. I can't currently check if Theodore Kaye and Ola O. Smit worked on Black Sea as well, but there's a house style which suggests they did (I'm going to miss being with my mother and her dog, but it will be great to get back to my own things, especially my books). The images of food look good, the landscape looks dramatic - though not always pretty, and the traces of the soviet years are historic as well as weirdly nostalgic for someone old enough to remember the end of the U.S.S.R, albeit form a safe distance. There are other images of architecture and landscapes which are breathtakingly beautiful.

For me the real magic is in the way food and people are centered though. We all need to eat, sharing food with friends, or strangers, is a great pleasure - it's one of the ties that bind. Shared enthusiasm for a certain restaurant, cafe, or bakery. A particular recipe for a plov or a combination of ingredients which seems particularly evocative of an area, it all brings life to the words. 

And actually, maybe it's the words that are the real magic. Eden is a joy to read in a way that makes quite a large book with sharp corners my chosen bedtime reading. There's a warmth in the way places and people are described that feels both clear eyed and affectionate that I find irresistible. I would be staying up late reading this every night if it weren't for the early starts the dog demands (early starts and long walks, with the best will in the world I'm done for by 10pm), but equally it's not a book that needs to be rushed and I'm enjoying reading it slowly over the weeks whenever I want to escape to a place far from a muddy English village for an hour or so.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Chill Tidings - Edited by Tanya Kirk

A Tanya Kirk anthology is a particularly good Christmas present. Her selection for 'The Haunted Library' is a fabulous mix of spooky book related tales, and her 'Spirits of the Season' is one of my favorites amongst the weird tales collections. 'Chill Tidings' is just as good - and depending on your taste, possibly even better.

The big treat for me in this one is Jerome K. Jerome's 'Told After Supper'. I had a copy of this in the Alma classics edition of 'After Supper Ghost Stories' but wasn't particularly excited by any of the other bits in it - all amusing enough in their way, but none half as much fun as 'Told After Supper' - and I think I passed on my copy. If I haven't, I will now. This is Jerome at his best in a novella length parody of the Dickensian ghost story tradition. It's something I'd love to read aloud with a group of like minded people (in my fantasy Christmas - my actual friends would probably consider this an affectation to far, but it is a funny set of stories and I'd really like to hear them read or performed). 

'Chill Tidings' is a much better setting for 'Told After Supper' where it finds itself with like minded humorous company, properly creepy Christmas ghost stories, and a few benign ones too. L. P. Hartley's 'Someone in the Lift' is the real stinger in this lot. It's a sobering note of real horror amongst the rest - which are mostly fun. H. P. Lovecraft's 'The Festival' is classic horror in the slightly over the top mold.

Marjorie Bowen's 'The Crown Derby Plate' is a peach, as is 'Old Applejoy's Ghost' by Frank R. Stockton. I really liked Charlotte Riddell's 'A Strange Christmas Game' and Louisa Baldwin's 'The Real and the Counterfeit' (light hearted all the way through, gets you at the end), but every one of the 13 tales here has something going for it.

I feel a bit like I used to when I had to write descriptions for wines in Oddbins days - by the 5th Cabernet Sauvignon it there was nothing new to say, and by the 25th I felt like I'd gone past the point of parody - but just as every one of the dozens of Cabernets had something going for it, so has every one of the short story collections I've written about recently. My copy of 'Chill Tidings' came as a review copy, I've already bought another to give as a gift (there's really no higher compliment) and if I didn't already have it, it would have been top of the list to go in my Christmas Stocking.


Friday, December 4, 2020

The Weatherhouse - Nan Shepherd

I don't have this book with me at the moment so can't look up the actual quote I want from it, but as well as being one of my favourite books that I read last year, it's also one I've been thinking about a lot over a month of late autumn into winter dog walking.

When I first read it, it reminded me a lot of the Aberdeenshire countryside I knew as a student - it's where the book is set, and so that's how I thought of it from the urban fastness of my city flat. After 4 weeks of going out at least twice a day in all weathers for hours at a time (not fun today - we got to enjoy a particularly icy rain coupled with a strong enough wind to make sure it got everywhere and that an umbrella would be useless) I've got a new appreciation for the brilliance of Shepherd's descriptions of the countryside. 

It's also a book that starts around Christmas time - just after if I remember properly, with a young woman arranging a January Christmas party for children that didn't have one , so the initial descriptions of the countryside are spot on for what I'm seeing now.

There is one particular description I'm thinking of, and will need to look up the quote for when I can - it describes small brown birds flying up from the fields as being like bits of earth flung into the air. Even on a filthy afternoon like todays it's been a pleasure to watch them do just that. Invisible against the ploughed fields they suddenly erupt like so many leaves caught by the wind before showing agency. It really does look like bits of earth suddenly taking wing and life. 

I still don't get a sense of Shepherds two novels (not much more than novellas) are especially popular compared to 'The Living Mountain', and maybe her liberal use of dialect words doesn't help, but The Weatherhouse is well worth the time. I realised after I finished it that there's also a glossary at the back which makes short work of unfamiliar words. 

Looking at some of the more negative amazon reviews I wonder if this book is considered to feminine (it mostly explores the lives of a female dominated community in war time) compared to 'The Living Mountain' which is only really concerned with experiencing the Cairngorms, but even if you're really only interested in the nature writing 'The Weatherhouse' still has a lot to offer. I miss my books. 

Thursday, December 3, 2020

The Penguin Book of Christmas Short Stories - Edited by Jessica Harrison

 I bought this book last December full of enthusiasm for it, and innocent of all that 2020 would have to throw at us. Almost inevitably I managed to read the Angela Carter story that finishes it and nothing else. Then just before lockdown started again I saw the paperback edition in my local Waterstones an was hit with remorse.

It's another collection that I bought with me to mum's and I'm really glad I did. I have a few of these Penguin collections in smart hardbacks - they're one of the few things I actually want as hard, rather than paperbacks (still mostly unread, but they're just waiting their turn) but hand on heart I think this is the best selection of the lot.

It starts with Hans Christian Anderson, which sets a somber - if not down right depressing tone, and goes from there. It's a wide ranging selection - there's Saki and Damon Runyon who I love, my favourite Dorothy L. Sayers story. Laurie Lee and Dylan Thomas, Elizabeth Bowen and Muriel Spark, Shirley Jackson and Truman Capote - and a whole lot more. Basically Christmas in every mood I can think of.

So far I've been reading the stories by my favorites, but there's a whole lot names I'm less familiar with - some that I keep meaning to read and others which are totally new. It's a book to spend some time with and in either physical format is a sound investment for a bit of seasonal reading. The paperback might as well have stocking filler written all over it, the hardback is a really handsome affair.

Short story collections have been very much my thing for November and I don't see that changing in December. 2020 has often left struggling to concentrate on anything much for very long, I keep getting distracted by the news which has left me alternating between anger and sadness. It's also been the year of staring out the window and knitting small things so short stories have been a godsend for keeping my mind ticking over and reading new things.

Penguin have got an amazing collection of writers to choose from so all their collections are worth a good look. I have the Golden Age of the Short Story collection waiting for me at home (also a very handsome hardback, complete with gilding). It looks great, but because it focuses on a specific time period, doesn't have quite the same range of writers that this collection does - and it's that range, and that so many of them are favourites, which makes this book so special in my opinion. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Tea House Detective: The Case of Miss Elliott - Baroness Orczy

 I hadn't realised how long I'd had this book sitting on the shelf. I think I bought it when it came out - which was January 2019, and it's been hanging around ever since. I enjoyed the first collection - The Old Man in the Corner - enough to buy this one, and I've enjoyed this one enough to be surprised that I missed the third volume of Old Man stories to come out - 'Unravelled Knots', which is very likely going to be a small Christmas present for myself. 

I've been trying to work out the chronology of these stories, it's slightly confusing but as far as I can tell 'The Old Man in the Corner' stories came first in magazine form, but 'The Case of Miss Elliott' appeared as a book before they did. Unravelled Knots is definitely the last in the series. The confusion only arises because the last story in 'The Old Man in the Corner' makes the continuing friendship between Polly Burton (lady journalist, not named in this collection, but presumably the same girl and not another lady journalist) and the old man somewhat surprising. Lady journalists must have been particularly broadminded and morally flexible in the Edwardian era. 

Otherwise the stories follow a safe formula - there's a crime with obvious suspects, but then there's a hitch - an alibi, or a mystery about just how it could have been pulled off, the old man then explains the solution to Polly over a glass of milk and a slice of cheesecake in the corner of the ABC teashop. His theories might sometimes be outlandish but we can assume they're always correct.

Each story is around the same length - 20 pages or so, and nicely crafted. They're great to read one at a time, and would be ideal as a weekly column in something. Collected together like this they're get to be heavy going if you try to read the book cover to cover in one go - which is sort of the mistake I made with 'The Old Man in the Corner', and probably why it took me so long to pick up 'The Case of Miss Elliott'. However, I bought lots of short story collections with me to mum's house and interspersed with other things it's been an excellent book to pick up and put down.

That's partly why I'm thinking I'll have 'Unravelled Knots' with me for Christmas when I'll be back here. Even a small amount of family and dog are unconducive to novel reading, but this is just the thing for the odd peaceful half hour in-between all the chores, dog walking, eating, and talking. 20 page stories strikes me as ideal bath time reading too (it's as long as I'm likely to read in the bath anyway).

These books are undemanding, they're in the Sherlock Holmes mold, but without the character development - which isn't a criticism. Polly doesn't get the chance to show us anything objectionable in her character or opinions, and the Old Man is morally ambiguous anyway. He might be clever but he's no sort of hero, we're invited to share Polly's fascination and irritation with him, but not to find anything redeemable about him. It makes any old fashioned attitudes much easier to read.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Un-Discovered Islands - Malachy Tallack

An archipelago of myths and mysteries, phantoms and fakes... I had this book when it first came out in hardback with beautiful illustrations by Katie Scott. It was a lovely thing, but large, and in the end I passed it on to someone with children who I knew would actively enjoy it on a regular basis.

A few weeks ago Polygon books offered me the new paperback edition, and I said yes because I love maps, and islands, and myths. I also like pocket sized paperbacks a lot, but even so I wasn't prepared for the difference formatting would make to this book. The large hardback is the sort of book I remember pulling off my parents bookshelves to look at when I was quite young, there were only 3 channels on television, and everything was shut on a Sunday. The hours spent in those books were magical, and I doubt that children have changed that much in the intervening years, even if the jumping off point for their imaginations is more digital now. 

The small smart paperback version is full of old maps from when people believed in these phantom islands. Old maps where familiar places aren't quite the right shape, or are missing, or indeed added, are another thing I really like. There's something compelling about these maps which are presented as known fact, more or less in good faith, and yet are not. Even more compelling is how long some of these islands were disputed over for. Some even into this century - which holds out a tantalizing possibility that there are still things to be discovered. Or un-discovered.

There are other things about the layout and production of this book that really appeal to me as well - it's a beautifully presented thing, with nice details at the head of each chapter, and it's exactly the right size to fit in a pocket. It makes it a suitable book to travel with and pick up at odd moments as well as to travel in. For a year where we can't actually go very far a book that explores places that don't actually exist is perfect. 

When I first read this I was also looking at the really amazing "Scotland: Mapping the Islands" part of a two volume set which looked at how Scotland came to be mapped and understood. This year I'm hoping for the new Gavin Francis book "Island Dreams", and in both cases 'The Un-Discovered Islands" is an excellent companion to them. 

Tallack's book is full of concise chapters that impart quite a lot of information in a really accessible way. It's a gateway for further reading and research and added another layer of context to the Mapping the Islands book. I'm really pleased to have another copy, this one won't be given away, I'm keeping it to feed my own imagination.

Monday, November 30, 2020


I've been thinking about Christmas a lot over the last few days - it's the time of year when friends start asking what I want for that and my birthday. It's not a question I find easy to answer. I love getting and giving presents every bit as much as I dislike putting pressure on people to meet a certain spending expectation. This year I'm mostly directing people towards my amazon wish list. I know they're not the ideal company, but they do make things like sharing a wish list really easy and I like that for so many reasons. 

I've also been thinking a lot about the pressure we put on ourselves to make this time of year perfect - or at least some approximation of it. I suspect a lot of this pressure is something that women apply to ourselves and each other. Men aren't by any means exempt from this, but it's normally women writing about the emotional labour the season demands of them and worrying that if they delegate the other person will get it wrong. Which they well might, but the question is, how much does it matter?

Twenty years in retail made an already complicated relationship with Christmas more complicated. I came to both really dislike the excessive consumption (yes, we needed them to spend that much, but the sheer quantity of it is mind boggling at times) and really want to be the person on the receiving end of those bottles of very good champagne, jewelers bags, luxury this or that, and time off.

This year might have been shit in a ton of ways, but it's been excellent for readjusting expectations and thinking about what traditions to keep and which to take a break from. Neither mum or I are feeling particularly festive yet, although her whole village seems to have put up decorations this weekend so that might change quite fast. Her surgeon told her she could spend as much time cooking and washing up as she likes (???) so I might try and persuade her to make mince pies tomorrow as some sort of unlikely physio therapy and because she makes amazing mince pies. 

I've also been using the time to make presents for people - very handsome hats, which take an age. Turns out there are more people I'm inclined to give things to than I realised, and that buying stuff is a lot easier than making it. On the other hand I really like spending the time thinking about the person I'm knitting for - what colours they might like, if there's a particular motif that seems appropriate, the possibility of meeting up for a walk... The labour here is definitely self imposed, as it will be when I start writing cards, and making fudge I can leave for the neighbours who have kept an eye on things for me these last few weeks. 

But then it makes me feel like I'm part of a community which is something I want. My partner doesn't really bother with any of it beyond sending half a dozen cards. The sparkly bit of Christmas doesn't matter to him in the same way it does to me, but that doesn't make the decision about whether it's going to be safe or sensible to go and see his 94 year old father any easier. I might make more effort, but our priorities are much the same - it's the trimmings that are different and in the scheme of things they're much less important. 

Anyway, my December posts are likely to be full of  Christmas recommendations, whilst the conversations I'm having with friends are all about the tough decisions we're all having to make this year about balancing family needs, managing expectations, and what we wish we could do. Sometimes we can pull that off, but quite often it's impossible. There's no failure in not keeping everybody happy, and this is not the year to worry about falling short, to over extend on the spending, or let anyone make us feel bad about the things we decide not to do. 

Thursday, November 26, 2020

A Surprise for Christmas and Other Seasonal Mysteries - Edited by Martin Edwards

This is my second Christmas out of retail, and for all the crap that 2020 has bought, it's also the year that I've got autumn back. It's never been my favourite season (which actually probably is winter) but I hadn't realised how lost it gets in retail when it's heads down Christmas planning with a purpose from August onwards (and earlier for a lot of stuff around it). 

Even if I was in town at the moment, with most the shops closed the markers and mood setters I'm used to wouldn't be there. Out in the countryside where my days revolve around the hours of exercise the dog requires, and a once a week trip to the local supermarket it really does feel like a life time ago since colleagues would reassure each other that in 4 more weeks it would all be done, and surely we could cope with that?

It's also the first year in a while I haven't made a Christmas Pudding, or mincemeat - stir up Sunday came and went - and we think we might have trifle this year anyway. Traditions which acted as a life raft to carry me through a shitty job at a tough time of year for the last decade do not feel so important this year. 2020 has that going for it at least. 

I did bring a stack of Christmas themed short stories with my to mum's though, and the first one I've finished is The British Library Crime Classics offering for this year - 'A Surprise for Christmas'. These collections have always been good and this one is no exception to the rule. It's got a really good mix of long short stories, short short stories, and something novella length. There's a lot to be said for this kind of collection when you're away from home and your normal library of books (or when you're travelling a lot, or when you're stuck at home and struggling to settle or concentrate on anything. I really like short story collections for most sets of reading circumstances). 

It turns out that I'm not a huge fan of G.K. Chesterton, but even I thought 'The Hole in the Wall' was okay. I really liked the Ngaio Marsh and Catharine Louisa Pirkis stories a lot. The Novella length offering is pure pulp hokum which demands a little suspension of disbelief and was thoroughly enjoyable. E. R. Punshon's 'Dead Man's Hand' veers into weird territory, which is very suitable for the season, but it's Barry Perowne's 'The Turn Again Bell' which is far more weird than mystery that finishes the collection and sets the tone for it.

I loved this story. In previous years I've appreciated final entries that have a particular darkness about them; 'The Turn Again Bell' is the opposite of these, and is just right for a year that's had more than enough darkness in it. Nothing much like a crime happens in it, but there's an 11th century church, a legend about a bell that rings at Christmas that only the vicar can hear and means he'll be dead within a twelve month, and a beautifully happy ending. 

The British Library Shop has a  3 for 2 offer across all its paperbacks which is a lot of choice - weird anthologies, Women's fiction, Science Fiction anthologies, and all the crime classics including 4 Christmas short story collections, another handful of Christmas or winter themed novels, and more anthologies that will cover all sorts of interests. It's stocking filler heaven for me. 'A Surprise for Christmas' is a vintage entry to the canon - my copy was a treat for myself, it's put me in a much more festive mood, and I can think of a few people who would enjoy it on my present list. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Emile Zola A Very Short Introduction - Brian Nelson

When Oxford University Press published Zola's 'Doctor Pascal' this summer it completed their set of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and is apparently the first time all twenty of the novels have been in print with the same publisher in English. About 6 years ago I thought I'd read my way through the whole cycle, it's a long term project which started really well with 'The Fortune of the Rougons', 'The Kill', 'Money', and 'The Conquest of Plassans', all of which I really liked, then took a nose dive with 'Earth' and 'The Sin of Abbé Mouret'. 

I think I need to replace a very old copy of 'La Débâcle' that I was supposed to read for first year history in 1992, but didn't, with the OWC edition with it's more recent translation, comprehensive introduction, and matching cover. Otherwise my collection is complete, I only have another 14 books to read, and I know some of them will be great. 

I will admit 'The Sin of Abbé Mouret' was daunting (I found parts of it all but impossible to read - it was a word by word slog through the middle section, Zola is not his best writing about the country) and 'Earth' was as troubling as it was compelling. 

The OUP translations have been rounded off with Brian Nelson's 'Emile Zola, A Very Short Introduction' which I've been reading over the last few days. It's rekindled my enthusiasm for Zola (and is the first time I learnt that he might have been murdered, which did not help me sleep last night). I guess most of the information in here is in the introductions to the books, but there are pictures, a little bit of gossip, a really useful chronology, and this is a handy pocket sized book to keep by whatever volume I'm reading if I want to check up on specific themes. 

Not all the books in the cycle are discussed in depth, and the short introduction takes in Zola beyond the Rougon-Macquarts. It is in fact a very useful very short introduction, and I must check the list to see what other authors I might want to seriously tackle have similar guides.

I'm waxing particularly enthusiastic now because a couple of Zola's have been a feature of my Christmas stocking for the last 5 years (yes, my mother still does stockings for us even though we're in our 40's and the collection of paperbacks, lip balms, earplugs, chocolate coins, satsuma's and similar odds and ends it contains are the highlight of the day for me). OUP sent me this very short introduction, otherwise it would have been on my wish list, a final Zola contribution to the festive season.

If you have someone in your life who likes French literature, naturalism, matching sets of books, or classics in any combination something like this could solve present buying dilemmas for years. Getting the right books as gifts can be a delicate balance, it doesn't do to impose your taste on the intended recipient, but when you've got shared interests, or there's been a bit of discussion about it before hand (or there's an open wish list to look at) I love getting and giving books. A series that can be added to over the years and becomes a proper tradition is a particularly lovely thing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Lockdown Hats

This lockdown has been radically different, and much easier for me. There's a big difference between being in the city and the countryside - some of which is quite frustrating. I've been quite surprised at how many people in the villages seem to take a really lax view of lockdown compared to my city neighbours. There's a lot of traffic between houses and an assumption that you can come in for a cup of tea that is very at odds with the mask wearing care, and general avoidance of people, in my block of flats. 

It's not everybody by a long way, and as my (mums) dog has a dodgy reputation in the village, people who stop to talk to us give us plenty of space anyway. I'm loving having the freedom to walk as far as I like (never quite as far as the dog wants to go, but we're doing 3-4 hours a day which I think is enough) and the company. It has very much underlined that whilst we're all in the same storm, we're also all in different boats as we get through Covid. 

Mum, who is recovering from a hip replacement op is getting cabin fever whilst I'm enjoying the relative freedom of the same situation. It doesn't help her that she can't get comfortable enough to read for more than a few minutes, or that she's finding sleeping difficult, but recovery is going well and by the time lockdown lifts she ought to be able to get out and about quite a bit.

Meanwhile I've been knitting hats, lots of hats. They're destined to be Christmas presents and I've just started my 6th since the Cursiter Kep. I'm cash poor at the moment without a job so a bit of stash busting is very much in order and I think (hope) that people will like them. A winter hat is always useful and suitably light and unbreakable to post. 

The overall design is continuing to evolve - a pattern on the crown or plain, how quickly or slowly to decrease, how roomy to make the hat, and lots of thinking about colour combinations, but I do now see these as very much my hats. They're far enough removed from all the original sources of inspiration to be their own thing. There's an extra warm brim for keeping the hat in place and ensuring warm ears (which the dog particularly likes) and a slouchy crown big enough to bundle long hair into. Wool is reasonably rain resistant if it's not tight against the skin as well so these are good in a shower.

The patterned crowns can sit quite flat at the back of the head which I also like - the blue and orange one would make someone very easy to find in a crowd. I'm also really pleased with the hat in traditional Fair Isle colours - this one decreases into a square which gives an impression of something a bit like an old fashioned smoking cap, or night cap. It'll be finished with a tassel, I like it's relative plainness.

How decreases and hat crowns worked was something that I found easy enough to follow on a pattern, but confusing to work out for myself until hat number 4 when it suddenly made a lot more sense and now I think I'm good to go when it comes to working out more of my own motifs and combinations of designs. 

They also feel like the perfect lockdown project. Each one takes me about 5 days pottering about on, they're good for using up scraps of yarn, give plenty of scope for variation, are small enough not to get tedious, but big enough to actually clear out some of the yarn I've accumulated , and have sizable sections (ribbing and the plain bits of the crown) which don't demand much concentration which is just right for fitting around mum and her dogs routine.  

Friday, November 20, 2020


Back at the end of October, inspired by the Backlisted Halloween episode, I sorted out the two editions of Beowulf I had with a definite intention of reading both soon. I also bought my godson the Rosemary Sutcliffe version for his birthday - I rather wish I'd read it before handing it over, even if that's not how presents are really meant to work. 

Only a few weeks later I've actually managed to read (technically re-read) the Kevin Crossley-Holland translation in my copy of 'The Anglo Saxon World, An Anthology' that I've had since I was a student. It's the Oxford World's Classics edition which is still in print, and is full of good stuff. I'm fond of this book not least because 'The Dream of the Rood' caught me at an impressionable age and in it's various forms is a favourite poem, I'm also a fan of Kevin Crossley-Holland who is as good as anybody at making this stuff live.

I first read Beowulf for a History of Art course on insular art. It's not a bad reason to read it, the Anglo- Saxon world is elusive, not least because they built so much in wood so that relatively little survives. Last years 'Anglo Saxon Kingdoms' exhibition at The British Library was an absolute revelation in terms of how much written material has survived. I wish I could have seen something like that when I was a student. It's also amazing to me that really big finds like the Staffordshire hoard are still coming to light - I wonder what it would have been like to read Beowulf around the time Sutton Hoo was dug up and you could suddenly see the sort of objects the epic describes?

Thoughts of fabulous treasure aside I remember my first attempt at this was a slog, but since then I've watched the Ray Winston/Angelina Jolie film a couple of times (I quite like it), a really awful TV series that quickly got canned, as well as listening to the Backlisted podcast, and having my imagination well and truly caught by the BL exhibition. 

I still find the lists of names tedious, though I was less impatient of all the diversions it takes and less confused by them. I'm better equipped to notice how the Christian elements are bolted on to a much older narrative, and to visualize the treasures described - which do a lot to root the poem in reality.

There's a lot of treasure to visualize, which is the main thing I'm taking away from this reading. Precious heirlooms are forever being shared around, and rings constantly given as gifts - I like the sound of this. It seems to be something more complex than a simple payment - something between a gift and a payment that suggests a greater level of esteem between those in the transaction than an exchange of coins might. 

I also have the Seamus Heaney translation with me which I hope to read soon - I'm assuming that the more times, and more versions I read this, the more that will sink in, and I'll get from it, but apart from all the gold mentioned, the other big takeaway from Kevin Crossley-Hollands translation was that I actually enjoyed reading this just for the pleasure of it - a lot has changed since 1995. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Death Goes on Skis - Nancy Spain

 Nancy Spain's name rang a bell when I saw Virago were going to republish some of her books, but I couldn't quite place it. I think I must have read it somewhere ages ago under the vague context of queer writers, because no detail of her dramatic life had stuck in my mind as it surely would have done if I had actually known anything about her.

There's more in Sandi Toksvig's introduction and a lot more gossip online about Spain and her lifestyle. Reading about her makes me think she might revel in it, so do look her up. 

'Death Goes on Skis' was Nancy's 4th book (first published in 1949) and there are references to the three earlier novels throughout. I wondered if this one was reprinted first because it has a winter theme, but looking at the titles due next year, which all come chronologically after 'Death Goes on Skis' I'm guessing it might have to do more with quality, theme, and (judging from some very unimpressed amazon reviews) 'dated language'. Toksvig also mentions this, and there are some somewhat anti-Semitic jokes.

It's enough to notice, but not enough to offend me - but then it's not something I have a personal stake in. I do think it's important to remember that prejudices linger long after our general ideas about what constitutes acceptable language change. It's also true that we all have our own prejudices, some of which are more or less generational, and which it's not always easy to fully understand 70 years down the line. I don't know if Nancy is being deliberately and slyly offensive to everyone she possibly can be at times, if it's unconscious, or targeted. That slight uncertainty is part of her charm.

'Death Goes on Skis' isn't a very serious murder mystery; rather it's a series of jokes and shocks. Just when the jokes lulled me into complacency something genuinely horrible would happen, before everything pivots back to set pieces and jokes again. It 's a disconcerting technique, it took me a good 100 pages to really come to enjoy reading this book, after which I raced through it, increasingly fond of the characters, almost of all of which are horrible.

Some of the jokes have probably survived better than others, stereotypes have changed, and there are characters like Miriam Birdseye, who I gather recurs through the books and is apparently modelled on a close friend of Nancy's who does not appear as fascinating or unconventional to me as I think she once would have. This may partly be due to coming into a series mid way. 

On the other hand the shocking parts of the book have lost non of their impact, there's an edge here that time has not blunted. Underneath the humour is a plot about how much damage people can casually do to each other and how corrosive love can be - and this too is the charm. It's the way Nancy unsettles everything. This book is queer in just about every way the dictionary defines it. It will be interesting to read more Nancy Spain.