Sunday, September 27, 2020

Shetland, Phone Boxes, and Breathing Deeply

 If I still feel a bit weird about being away - it's partly because I was lucky to be a couple of days ahead of the tightening of restrictions in Scotland, so I'm both extremely grateful to be here and feeling a little bit guilty about it - I'm loving the relative freedom. It feels amazing to just be able to walk, and god knows I need the exercise. 

Meanwhile I've finally seen the finished Phone Box, which looks good, and we're trying to see if we can rescue it's sister which stands about 3 miles away. I don't think the Vadlure phone box has quite the same exciting history as the Lera Voe box does - although who knows what research will throw up, but it does (and this is saying something) have a far more spectacular view. The first step is to contact BT and see if they will allow us to adopt the box.

I also had luck when it came to a second hand book find, and got something interesting from The Shetland Times Bookshop. The Shetland Times was one of my favourite places as a kid, and is still a pretty fine bookshop. It's small but well stocked, and they have some proper bargains. There's book bundles of slightly damaged stock for sale at the moment - £5.99 and some really interesting looking stuff to be had. It's not something I've seen done before but it's a great idea.

All in all it's exactly the change of scene I needed, so here's a few pictures to share.

The Vadlure phonebox, in need of a bit of love, view not included in this photo.

The island on the horizon is Foula, scene of the Oceanic dives from 'Treasure Islands.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Knitting From Fair Isle - Mati Ventrillon

 I'm back in Shetland, the weather isn't terrible (which is a bonus for this time of the year), and it is still good to be away. I'm even getting used to the different and changing covid restrictions. It's amazing to be here in a year that I really didn't think I'd make it. I've already been knocked out by the fresh air (it makes you so sleepy!). It would have been wool week right now in normal circumstances - it's going ahead in a fashion online, and hopefully means that I'll be able to schedule a visit t the textile museum before it closes for the year. It still feels vaguely ironic that the first time I've been in Shetland at this time of year for a long time is This Year.

On the other hand I do have a copy of 'Knitting From Fair Isle' with me to review, and that's more than enough excitement to be getting on with. I had been anticipating this book for a while. Mati Ventrillon has a distinctive style that I really like. She came to Fair Isle in 2007, moving from London where she had been an architect. She joined the Fair Isle Crafts Co-Operative and spent the next four years learning how to knit traditional Fair Isle garments and motifs. In 2015 there was a row with Chanel (speedily resolved on their part) when a jumper she had designed was used in their cat walk show without proper attribution. There have also been projects with Fortnum & Mason (tea cosies, I really wish the pattern had been included, maybe another time it will be) and others.

The tag line for this book is '15 contemporary designs inspired by tradition'. As Ventrillon discusses, every Fair Isle knitter brings there own style to the things they knit, most obviously through the motifs and colours they choose. It's her distinctive use of colour that had me most interested in this book, and it hasn't let me down.

There are a few things that 'Knitting From Fair Isle' does really well. There are 3 chapters or sections - Inspired by Tradition, Playing With Backgrounds, and Past and Present, each with 5 projects. There are variations on hats and mitts which are ideal for the beginner. Scarves and neck warmers, including one which is knitted in panels and sewn together so that the patterns run horizontally rather than vertically, which are the next obvious step up, and then a vest, 3 different jumper patterns and a poncho which are much bigger projects, and because of the shaping required more ambitious.

It's a pleasing collection which has just the jumper I want to knit, and there are several of the accessories that I like the look of too. I've had this book for just over a week and have been working through a pair of wrist warmers which have made me realise the importance of swatching for any of the projects in this book. Which is also why wrist warmers are a great place to start as they act as a very effective swatch. I think my tension is a bit tighter than it could be, and I will probably have to change the size of the needles I use accordingly. 

There are 3 colourways for each pattern, and this is tremendously helpful. There are 2 tone versions, traditional colours, and then depending on the chapter, combinations called Admiral, Ombre, and Stripe. Three quarters of the way through an Ombre combination (dictated by the few bits of yarn I'd packed from the scrap bag) I had a penny dropping moment about how the colours and design tied together which have made it very clear to me just how useful this book will be. How to put colours together and make them work is one of the hardest things about Fair Isle knitting so I really mean it when I say useful. 

Something else I really love about this book is the way that the test knitters are acknowledged. Instead of a list of names, their work is credited in every picture it appears in, and at the back there are photographs of all their hands knitting. It underlines how much work goes into producing a book like this, and how many people are involved. It's not a form of acknowledgement I've seen before, which is a shame because it says so much about the collaborative nature of the enterprise, and the sense of community that knitting can bring. 

A very worthy addition to any knitting library, I really recommend this one, and will almost definitely finally commit to starting a jumper (the slash neck all over). I am 100% committed to buying the yarn for it to the point that I've almost been dreaming about it. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020


 After months in Leicester I'm away, and frankly it's confusing. Also wonderful, but definitely confusing. I'd committed to going North to see my father (and other family, including my 'baby' sister who will be 30 whilst I'm with them - we think it will be the first time I've been there for her birthday) a couple of months ago when it seemed unthinkable that Leicester would still be in lockdown.

As it turns out the rest of the country is currently joining Leicester in lockdown, but after the water failed in my building a few weeks ago I'd more or less moved out of my flat, and the city. It isn't easy living alone under local lockdown restrictions when your support bubble is out with the city limits. One of the many things that hasn't been clear is if they come under the same restrictions as I did if we're seeing each other. I also found it weird listening to endless complaints about the rule of 6 when I'd spent so long with the rule of none. But then as has been clear for a long time, lock down is not the same for everybody. My experience as a person living alone in a city that had never been out of lockdown is very different even from some of my immediate neighbours.

Anyway. Away is good. I've been in the Scottish borders, a place I love, and which isn't short on space. We're lucky in that my family has a flat in an old country house here, it feels safe for us, and more importantly for our neighbours to be here, and there was work which couldn't be put off any longer. I've been helping my father move some really substantial Victorian furniture around so that old moth infested carpet could go, and new moth proof carpet be fitted. We've also got the hot water fixed and done a few other jobs, and I'll finally be going to Shetland with him tomorrow now that we're definitely a single household.

If I sound like I'm trying to justify myself, I am a bit. This all feels odd to me. I've checked and double checked, and don't think I'm breaking any rules, even under todays new guidelines, but after so long on my own in my flat it all feels too good to be true. There have been unexpected things such as the mental and physical benefit of having really long views again. After months of horizons that are never more than a few hundred yards away, hemmed in by buildings, the nightly headache has lifted, and my eyes are nowhere near as sore as they had been. I assumed I needed a stronger lens prescription, but it turned out to be a change of perspective that was missing. 

There are have also been the expected benefits of having another person to cook for and eat with, of being able to walk for an hour or more without meeting another person and feeling safe, of fresh air, trees, and I cannot over emphasize this - space. This part of the world excels at providing big open spaces, along with small private spaces, and it feels like heaven right now.

I don't know what the next months will bring. I've already got a distressing number of friends suffering from long covid, and others dealing with the mental health repercussions of this year. I hope we can find ways to be kind to each other, to not forget those who are lonely and vulnerable, and to make peace with the rules that are put in place.  

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Ghost Stories - E. Nesbit

 I'm not entirely sure what's happening with Greyladies - I haven't noticed any new books for a while (although looking is risky when you're short of money, so what do I know) but they're definitely still sending books out even though headquarters have moved again and they're now based in Peebles (there might be a second hand bookshop too, and in happier times I would have planned an excursion). I ordered the Nesbit ghost stories and another book early in lockdown, and then put them aside as something special for later.

Later is now, I'm actually in the Scottish Borders which feels amazing after months of being cooped up in Leicester. My family has a flat here which is unexpectedly empty, and has a ton of space around it. I'm hoping this will be a stepping stone on the way to Shetland in a couple of days - lockdown situation permitting. I also wish I'd come up here weeks ago as it's taken no time flat to realise how much being in Leicester has been getting me down. The weather has been amazing today, I've had proper walks, can't go to M&S for salted caramel eclairs, and already feel better for it. 

Greyladies books feel appropriate for the house I'm staying in (built in 1914, it was a prep school for a while before being converted into flats in the 1970's, there's a whiff of a few different pasts about the place). E. Nesbit's ghost stories are perfect autumn reading. Some are dark enough to be shiver inducing, others are more gentle.

I really discovered her ghost stories through the British Library Weird series, and it turns out that I'd read 3 of the 7 stories in this book in that series (including 'Man Sized in Marble' which I have in a few anthologies*. However as John Miller's collections have shown me, context can make a considerable difference to how you read these things, and having a collection of Nesbit's tales together not only conforms how good she is, but also makes it easier to see the distinctly feminist thread that runs through them. 

The first three stories here have a considerably darker tone to them - 'From The Dead' is particularly grim, 'John Charrington's Wedding' is full on gothic melodrama, and 'Man-Size in Marble' is the sort of thing that I could all to easily believe in where I am at the moment.

'The Ebony Frame' is another version of 'From the Dead' but less horrible - all of these four tales involve people comin g back from the grave in one form or another. In 'The Ebony Frame' I was prepared for the worst but things are resolved in a way that's both sad, and probably for the best (especially if you've read 'From The Dead'). 'The Mystery of the Semi-Detached' is spooky, and the closest one I could describe to fun (it doesn't feel quite like the right word when somebody ends up murdered, but the others in the collection all go further down the horror route).

'The Pavillion' is curious, not a ghost story but a weird plant story (I first read it in Evil Roots). There's a sadness about this one which underpins it's feminist slant, and there's a similar sadness about 'The Shadow - which is genuinely creepy. Altogether it's an excellent collection which covers a variety of moods. If people still did this kind of thing they would be ideal stories to read aloud to an audience at Halloween or Christmas too. The kind of thing that won't scare you silly, but might make you jump at shadows.

I also really like the format of this book - it's a pocket sized edition, and there's something I find particularly satisfying about a book that can genuinely fit in a modest size pocket - and with print large enough to read comfortably if you did want to give a performance. 

*Some rainy day when I'm bored I'm going to make an index of all the ghost stories I have and which anthologies they're in. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Checkmate to Murder - E.C.R. Lorac

 After reading two crime classics that felt quite innovative, 'Checkmate to Murder' definitely has a more traditional feel to it, it's also full of later war time London atmosphere (it was published in 1944), and altogether it is an eminently satisfying book. 

An artist is painting his model in a studio built in the garden of a Hampstead House long past it's glory days. They have two friends playing chess in the room with them, and the artists sister comes and goes throughout the evening as she prepares supper for them all in the small kitchen. Their landlords char lady comes in to see her after checking up on the old man who owns the house, and leaves the latch key on the table by mistake. Not long after a brash special constable arrives with an injured soldier in tow. He's accusing the soldier of murdering the old man in the house.

The soldier turns out to be his great nephew, and the general idea at this point is that he's probably innocent. The special constable seems suspicious but it could be a red herring, the char is above reproach - so could it have been one of the studio party, and if so how?

The eventual answer is reasonably ingenious, and the clues are sort of all there to be picked up on, so the plot works perfectly well, but what I found really enjoyable about this book was the mood it presented. The full horror of the blitz is in the past and Londoners are sort of recovering from it, whilst also still being marked by the experience. We can surmise that some characters have shown their best in a crisis, others have been brutalized by it, some couldn't stick it from the start, some are attempting to profiteer - or at least look to the future, and others are just trying to get by.

Anything like this has taken on a whole new resonance thanks to Covid, which if nothing else demonstrates what it's like to be in a country that collectively facing a specific threat. At this point of dragging local lockdowns and ever more confusing regulations depending on precisely where you are, it's becoming increasingly easy to see how the rules get flouted on one hand, but also how the majority of people following rules makes it easier for those intent on breaking them to do so. 

It was also a reminded that the blitz didn't last for the whole of the war. I have Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang's The Spirit of the Blitz - Home Intelligence and British Morale from OUP in front of me at the moment, waiting to be read, and this book was very much a reminder that I could do with understanding a lot more about this part of our history. 

'Checkmate To Murder' is a solidly entertaining mystery set against an interesting background that's enough to have me chasing after more serious reading (and also more Lorac). The sort of comfortable reading that will see you through a hot afternoon or a rainy evening, and definitely the kind of book I want at the moment.  

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Treasure Islands - Alec Crawford

 Sometimes it's relatively unexpected books which are the most rewarding. Books about maritime salvage wouldn't automatically be the first thing I pick up, even if they are 'True Tales of a Shipwreck Hunter', but I very much wanted to read Alec Crawford's account of some of his most notable dives because the most notable of them was probably on the Oceanic, and it's what the bulk of this book is about.

The Oceanic was one of the great White Star liners, for 2 years after she was built she was the biggest boat in the world. Aclose cousin of the Titanic she sank in September 1914 off the shaalds of Foula, a reef close to the island. For anyone familiar with the west coast of Shetland Foula is a familiar landmark on the horizon. It's about 14 miles off the coast of the mainland from where I grew up, sometimes disappearing into cloud and bad weather, and far away enough to demand effort and planning to reach. Apparently we went there in a rib when I was still in my carry cot, I've never made it back since, but it hovers in my imagination the same way it does on the horizon. 

Coincidentally it seems that Alec Crawford, and Simon Martin's attempts to salvage from the Oceanic began in 1973 - which was the year I was born. We lived on the Island of Vaila at the time, which guards the voe where the Foula mailboat travels to and from with supplies (the village is called Walls, or Waas in dialect). Work on the Oceanic, and excitement around it were a background part of my childhood. You could buy bracelets made of her copper stamped with the White Star logo from a local jeweler, my grandfather acquired a port hole, dad has one of the nuts from a propeller blade (it's big) and one of the actual blades stands outside the Lerwick museum, so big it's actually hard to imagine what the whole propeller must have looked like, but it gives some sense of the scale of the ship. 

I guess Simon and Alec must have been almost local celebrities, they were certainly well kent faces in the village, and in Shetland more generally, and are remembered fondly. One of the really lovely things about this book is seeing how obviously that affection was returned and how much they seem to have enjoyed working in Shetland and living on Foula, which is the least accessible inhabited island in the UK, and almost miraculously still inhabited. There has been speculation that it would be evacuated since St Kilda was emptied in 1930.

In 1937 Michael Powell filmed 'The Edge of the World' on Foula as a stand in for St Kilda, which only increased speculation about its probable fate (the film is interesting of you get the chance to see it), but it's carried on, sadly the shop closed in Crawford's time there but the post office has clung on and the School is still open. Strange stories about the Foula Folk still abound on the mainland, and I believe they still celebrate 'Old' Christmas and New Year. I still hope to make the trip over there some time.

Meanwhile 1970's salvage operations seem to have been several health and safety lifetimes ago - the risks that Simon and Alec take come to seem crazy even to them, as by the end of the book Alec is aware that his luck is running out after a series of near misses. Diving on the Oceanic is tricky because of the tides and currents on the shaalds - sometimes they have a window of as little as 20 minutes in the slack of the tide, and the things they achieve in small inflatable boats made me shiver from the safety of my landlocked arm chair in the midlands. 

There's quite a bit of technical information in here about the operation they ran, but Crawford's style is so engaging that I could have taken a lot more of it, despite being fairly ignorant on the subject. It's something about the combination of these being both ordinary and extraordinary people. They're not exceptional divers at this stage, Simon had been a journalist and took his share out of the Oceanic proceeds to open a wine bar. They're not especially well equipped either - but they manage to successfully dive on a particularly challenging site and do things that nobody else had managed in the preceding 50 years. It's a story of genuine adventure.

My favourite anecdote though comes from a time on Barra when they'd been diving on the S.S. Politician - this is the wreck that inspired Compton Mackenzie's 'Whisky Galore' (watch the black and white version of the film if you haven't seen it, it's brilliant, the recent remake is not). They managed to find some intact bottles on the wreck, although they'd been down there for around 30 years at this time, and took them ashore. They then went to visit the artist Peggy Angus (who's daughter lives on the west coast of Shetland) with a carry out of beer and one of these bottles. By the time the beer was drunk it seemed like a good idea to boil up the whisky bottle, let it cool, and drink it. Apparently the rankness of the whisky was only exceeded by the viciousness of the following hang over.

The combination of proper adventure, sunken treasure, Scottish islands, memories of fragile communities, the affection this book is written with, and the pleasure of spending time in the company of someone who's achieved some really notable things gives this book a much broader appeal than you might initially suppose. I was planning on buying it for a few people, but I suspect most of them will beat me to it. Dad says he's picking up a copy tomorrow, after we talked about it earlier and he shared some of what he remembers from the time. Highly recommended. 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Fermentation - Rachel de Thample

 This is the 18th River Cottage handbook, number 19, coming April 2021 and also be Racheel de Thample will cover Bees and Honey. I love this series which I've been following for more years than I can easily remember now (a quick check suggests that they first started coming out around 2007). These are the books that helped me work out how o make decent jam, definitely taught me how to make a good loaf of bread, sent me foraging into hedgerows, hanker after a firepit of some sort (not easy in a flat without a garden), and so on.

With a complete set I reckon I'd be well on the way to the good life if I lived somewhere near the Dorset coast and had a small holding. They're certainly as good a place as any to start if that's your dream, or alternatively if you just want a better understanding of what it takes to raise pigs and chickens - or indeed keep bees. All of them work well as recipe books because all of them go beyond the obvious and show you more things that you can do with whatever it is that you're looking at. A whole, or even half a pig represents a serious amount of meat, it needs a bit of ingenuity and know how to deal with it all. 

'Fermentation' falls into the 'Bread', 'Baking' and 'Preserving' part of the series - these are fairly traditional cookbooks for accessible home use, and  more or less beginners guides. The 'Baking' book is nice, but I have it to complete the series, it was never going to teach me much. The 'Bread' book on the other hand is still my favourite on the subject; it's easy to follow, full of sound advice, and the sort of thing you can read in bed or carry around with you.

Fermenting is having a moment again in Britain (which makes me wonder - could we have a great British Ferment along the lines of Bake Off - it's seems like the sort of thing that might be appropriate post Brexit), and is something I keep skirting around. I'm happy with sourdough, although I don't currently have a starter. It's an easy and satisfying place to start experimenting from, but that's as far as I've got. I want to expand on that and I'm hoping this will be my gateway book, but in all honesty fermentation is a bit daunting for the woman who lives alone.

Will it be like the pickled quinces that I made last year (and loved) but 3/4rs of a jar are still sitting at the back of the fridge and I have no idea what they'll be like now - vinegary beyond belief, mushy, or otherwise unappealing? I haven't currently the courage to investigate. Sauerkraut looks like a good place to start, but I'm not convinced I like it enough to eat my way through a whole jar in a timely way. And then there are the slightly daunting warnings about carefully introducing fermented food to your diet in small quantities to start with. That seems at odds with eating all the sauerkraut before it ferments beyond my idea of a good thing to eat.

I know exactly what those warnings mean after an old work colleague made kimchi for the first time, overindulged on it, and told me in graphic detail about the results. 

I'm also deeply skeptical about kombucha - possibly because I've read too many plant based horror stories over the years, but that's my problem and something I need to get over. The upside is that the actual equipment that you need to start fermenting is minimal (jars), there isn't the same pressure around sterilization as there is with jam making, and as this book starts you with vegetables and works up there's plenty of experimenting to be done at the cheap end before you need to think about investing in more expensive ingredients. Fermented honey and fruit jams are intriguing me, but it's probably sensible to start with a cabbage...

The overall tone of the book is really encouraging with plenty of places for the novice fermenter to start, and to build confidence from. It's a mark of how much more everyday sourdough is in our lives that there are several recipes for things to do with a starter beyond making a loaf of bread. Pancakes, doughnuts, and rhubarb sourdough buns all look good. The last two are probably not ideal if you've got to eat them all yourself, but they still sound great and they're bookmarked for a post Covid world. 

The one thing I'd really have liked is a bit more information about mold and yeasts. It's touched upon, specifically Kahm yeast which is harmless but can look look like mold (or at least I'd always assumed it was mold), but my last sourdough developed something which smelt appalling. I have no idea what it was, why it struck when it did (after months of having a happy starter), or how to avoid it happening again. It's one of the single most off putting things that's ever happened in my kitchen, and seems like something worth addressing at greater length. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Weird Woods - edited by John Miller

'Weird Woods', or 'Tales From The Haunted Forest of Britain' is perfect early autumn reading. Before this British Library series, and Handheld's Women's and British weird books I hadn't really thought much about the distinctions between books I might vaguely look at, and for, in the horror section. It turns out I quite like a good ghost story, do not like full on horror, but really enjoy the weird and eerie. There's a world of difference between being unsettled and terrified. Weird seems to have more scope for humour too, which really helps with the not frightening myself to stupid to sleep late of an evening (as I regularly did in my teens thanks to Stephen King).

John Miller is also a particularly good editor - his 'Tales of the Tattooed' collection in the same series is also excellent. It's the introductions to each story that make him so good, they tie the collection together and give the reader some pointers towards specific interpretations or elements within them. If you just want uncanny stories you don't need to read the introductions, but when a book is built around a theme it's really good to have something of the reasons for each inclusion.

It certainly made me re read Edith Nesbit's 'Man Sized in Marble' again. I have it in at least two other anthologies but neither would have made me think about the atmosphere the wooded landscape brings to the story, or set it up for comparison with Mary Webb's 'The Name-Tree'. I was grateful for the prod to read a Mary Webb story as well. I have a few of her novels from when I was enthusiastically collecting older Virago Modern Classics, but have found her style - annoying is one word I want to use - approaching her in a short story is easier than trying to tackle a whole book. Considering both tales together is worthwhile.

There's a very enjoyable Marjorie Bowen entry, and one from M.R. James which reminds me I have a collection of his stories I should read. W. H. Hudson's 'The Old Thorn' is an excellent example of how ambivalent our relationship with nature can be. The old thorn of the title can be either friend or foe depending on how it's been treated. Hurt the tree in any way and you'll pay for it, it's a theme that crops up throughout this collection, showing that our unease with how we treat the environment is nothing new. Daisy Butcher's earlier collection in this series, Evil Roots, Killer tales of the Botanical Gothic expands on this theme.

It's a beautifully produced book too; there are 3 atmospheric photographs of woodland which are a nice touch. They suggest an other worldliness, or a world with more that we easily understand, that perfectly fits the mood of the collection which over all is more that forests are places to be respected rather than feared, but if they're not respected you would do well to be afraid...

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Man Who Didn't Fly - Margot Bennett

I've been particularly lucky with the British Library Crime Classics that I've picked up recently, so far they've been remarkably good, and 'The Man Who Didn't Fly' was a particularly good choice to follow Anthony Rolls 'Family Matters' with as both of them have a slightly unusual structure.

Where 'Family Matters' gives us the run up to the murder, making it clear who the victim will be, and why, but giving us a selection of possible murderers, 'The Man Who Didn't Fly' gives us four potential victims in the form of a logic puzzle. The four men had arranged to fly to Dublin on a private charter plane, but only three get on it. When the plane crashes over the Irish sea with no survivors we know the pilot was there, but without knowing who the missing man was nobody can say with any certainty who the other three were, which means non of them can be officially declared dead.

The police start investigating, but what they hope might be a simple matter turns out to be anything but, especially as the fourth man hasn't come forward. Has he done a bunk, or is he dead too? As nobody particularly noticed who did or didn't get on the plane all the police have to go on is a handful of doubtful clues gleaned from half remembered conversations. The end result is the sort of logic puzzle that has always defeated me, so I happily left the working out to the characters on the page. If you are good at logic puzzles this should be an extra bit of fun for you though.

Meanwhile more about the characters of the four men, and what had happened in the days immediately before the flight slowly emerge. The Wade family is at the centre of this, and like the four men who have disappeared the Wade's have things to hide, but one of the men was a friend and neighbour - rich but with business problems, another a romantic interest for 20 year old Hester Wade - heartily disapproved of by her father, the third is their slightly odd lodger who's erratic behaviour has to be a cause for concern, and the fourth a trusted, but not necessarily trustworthy financial adviser.

There's also the question of why the Wade's are being so cagey and what they might have to hide. Hester Wade is the heart of the book; a medical student old enough to understand her father's weaknesses, and to realise that she is the grown up of the family, young enough to find it all completely overwhelming. She is a brilliant portrait of a young woman who's having to do all the emotional labour and is well and truly over it by the end of the book.

The question of who is dead and why is an appealing puzzle with some entertaining twists, but the real strength of the book is the way it builds up the characters of the missing men and those they leave behind. What will happen to the Wade's is what had me reading late into the night.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Autumn Books

In a very small example of how off this year feels I'm fundamentally failing to get excited about the majority of this autumns book releases - specifically the 600 that are meant to have come out on Thursday the 3rd of September. This might partly be because I don't have enough money coming in to buy books with any abandon, but I think it's more to do with finding it remarkably hard to spot the books I'd normally be enthusiastic about.

Leicester city centre has a small Waterstones, a decent branch of The Works, and a W.H. Smith's with a book section. It also has the main post office on the same floor which currently means a long queue to get into it, and makes book browsing feel really antisocial. Because it's a small Waterstones it's currently full of massive piles of the same dozen projected big titles that W H Smith would have if I had the heart to make the people who need to use the post office wait even longer to do so. They're the same books I could buy for half the price in any larger Tesco's, the same books that charity shops will be full of once they're accepting local donations again, and the same books that if I wanted them at all I would be waiting for the paperbacks.

Of the 600 books that came out on Thursday I had pre ordered the River Cottage Handbook on Fermentation (which I'm equally inspired and intimidated by) and which my little local Waterstones weirdly has not yet got in stock. Found that the review copy of Elizabeth Von Arnim's 'Father' from the British Library's women writer's series that came last weekend was a September 3rd book, and have spotted a memoir about diving on same amazing wrecks (the Oceanic, S.S Politician, and Armada boats) called Treasure Islands by Alex Crawford. It's published by Birlinn, and is hopefully making it's way towards me as I speak. I'm officially excited by 0.5% of Thursdays releases.

I think this might be a sort of common problem. Because publication dates were shifted back, and because there's just so much, I haven't seen the normal buzz I would expect around certain titles despite having quite a bookish twitter and Instagram feed. The 3 Angela Thirkell's that Virago released at the end of August are all well and good, but they were paperbacks finally making it into print after previously coming out on kindle. I'm pleased to have them, but not over excited. I'm pleased to have completed my Zola collection with the OWC edition of Doctor Pascal too, though I haven't read any Zola since getting monumentally fed up with The Sin Of Abbe Mouret, and must get back on track with him.

An email from Waterstones promising their picks of the month gave me 3 titles under food and drink, and more of the same big name books - which is exactly why those emails normally get deleted without me reading them. I am really looking forward to Caroline Eden's 'Red Sands' and Kate Young's 'The Little Library Christmas' coming out later this Autumn, and Mati Ventrillon's 'Knitting From Fair Isle' is another book I'm personally excited about.

Meanwhile the British Library's Crime Classics and Tales of the Weird series are going from strength to strength (I've read the 2 most recent crime classics this week and loved them, and am just getting stuck into some weird today). Handheld press have got collections of Women's weird and British Weird coming too look great, and Philip Hensher's anthology covering The Golden Age of  British Short Stories for Penguin looks tempting too (out on the 1st of October).

Still, it feels like oddly slim pickings so if there's anything you're particularly looking forward to, I've almost certainly missed it and would love to hear about it.

Friday, September 4, 2020

The Reluctant Widow - Georgette Heyer

I've been following the #GeorgetteHeyerReadalong of The Quiet Gentleman on twitter for the last few weeks. I'm late to this series of readalongs but it's proved to be the gift that keeps on giving, not least because this week it reminded me that there us a film version of 'The Reluctant Widow'. I managed to track it down on you tube where I found a version to watch with Greek subtitles, and possibly a few minutes missing.

It's a fairly terrible film which doesn't always make a lot of sense, and even if there are minutes missing and I could find a guaranteed complete version I doubt it would make much difference. Despite it's problems, which are mostly caused by messing with Heyer's plot, it was still an entertaining hour and a half, and a frustrating glimpse of how good Heyer based films could have been. Or possibly still could be.

I hadn't read 'The Reluctant Widow' for years so I picked it up and raced through it in an afternoon after watching the film. I don't know if this is anybody's favourite Heyer, but assuming that it's probably not makes it even more ideal for dramatisation, and I'd really love it if someone like Sarah Phelps stop bothering Agatha Christie and have some fun with a book like this.

If  'The Reluctant Widow' isn't a particular favourite, it's definitely one of her titles that has grown on me. I had thought it was a fairly late work (like Cousin Kate) but it's actually from 1946. Having checked the publication date it was also really clearly a second world war spy thriller in fancy dress. I may be inclined to read to much into Heyer, but for me the mark of her genius is how well bits of her books age; there are characters that make more sense to me now against our current, less binary, concepts of gender and sexuality, than they ever have before.

The book opens with Elinor Rochdale, on her way to taking up a position as a governess, mistakenly getting into the wrong carriage after being dropped off by the stage coach. We learn that Elinor's family lost their money in a cloud of scandal 6 years before and that she has preferred to be paid to be a drudge by others rather than do it for free for a less than generous extended family. We can also gather that it's been a fairly grim 6 years.

Elinor's options are fairly grim and by the time the misunderstandings are cleared up a proper crisis is brewing, so she agrees to a deathbed marriage (it makes sense in the book) somewhat against her better judgement. By dawn her husband is dead and she's left in possession of a dilapidated mansion and a whole new set of problems - including the architect of her currant situation, Lord Carlyon, who keeps promising everything will be fine, and who she really wants to believe.

The romance element isn't really important though - there's an attraction sketched in between Elinor and Carlyon partly based on mutual sympathy and understanding which is more or less incidental to the plot. It turns out that Carlyon's one time ward and cousin, Elinor's late husband, has been involved in spying for the French. A very important memorandum has gone missing, if it gets to the French it could spell disaster for Wellington's coming campaign. With the only man who knew where it was dead there's a race to find it.

Elinor finds a mysterious Frenchman in the house, Carlyon's youngest brother gets shot the next night by the same Frenchman having another go, and after various upsets Francis Cheviot turns up. He's a cousin of the late Eustace, might be read as a parody of effeminate campness and is easily the most intriguing character in the book.

A 1950's romantic film clearly couldn't make the most of him so turns him into a womanising fop, I prefer to read him as gay, but in any reading his effete manners are an affectation designed to disguise a very dangerous individual. Towards the end of the book he's described as "Villainous, perhaps, but not, I think, the villain of this plot." It's a nice distinction. Francis gets a lot of the best lines and all the moral complexity. He's a great character; a leader of fashion, the very man to advise on tricky matters of interior decoration, the owner of an exquisite sensibility, a cold blooded plotter, and murderer. He seems perfect for the SOE, the drawing room, and contemporary television. Heyer's more manly young men may scoff at him, but the supposed hero of the book recognises him for the force he is.

So there you go, yet again I've found a Heyer with much more going on under the surface than I at first imagined, and generally fizzing with humour, tension, and somewhat unexpected takes. This book is tremendous fun as a light hearted thriller, and even the terrible film is worth a watch.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Casanova and the Faceless Woman - Olivier Barde-Cabuçon

I love the Pushkin Vertigo series, and have for the most part hit it off with every book I've read from it - 'Casanova and the Faceless Woman' is possibly the exception that proves the rule though. I didn't dislike this book, it's a decent page turner which I read over a couple of days, I'd probably buy and read more of Olivier Barde-Cabuçon series (it a case for the Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths) if they're translated into English, but I didn't love it.

The back blurb talks about 'A heretic monk, a fortune teller, a secret society...' which sounds very promising, but it's not half of what's going on and that in the end was my problem - there was just to much happening.

The monk might not be a monk, or maybe he's been a monk. the Inspector is an intriguing character but feels under developed here  - which wouldn't matter if it was easy to read the rest of the series, but it isn't yet. There is a girl who's a love interest who is even more under developed as a character, and junkets around Paris with dubious men in a way that seems unlikely for a woman in the middle of the 18th century. There isn't just one secret society but several, which turn out not to be especially secret, everybody is trying to murder one another, there's alchemy (has someone really discovered the secret of the philosophers stone?).

I'm not even sure what Casanova is doing here apart from showing off and having quite a bit of sex - which is surely part of his job description, but whilst descriptions are generally not graphic the continued allusions to his activities were tedious to me. The Marquise de Pompadour appears partly in the guise of a madam for the kings harem of underage girls (historically questionable now that I've checked up on it), and there are endless descriptions of clothes and sword fights.

And yet despite all these things and more - so many spies, so many people trying to kill the inspector for no really very good reason, it's still an entertaining enough book. I'm almost certain that my partner would be amused by the bits that I found slightly tedious, and if he had time for light reading at the moment (he's up to his ears trying to get everything ready for his students for the start of this academic year) this is exactly the sort of book I'd try and tempt him with, it just wasn't a perfect fit for me.

If on the other hand freemasons, alchemy, dark doings in the backstreets of Paris, political and religious intrigue, talking magpies, legendary lovers, sword fights, daring escapes, lots of murders, some possible supernatural shenanigans, regicidal plots, complicated love triangles, priapic monarchs, and continual plot twists appeal to you, you'll have hit the jackpot with this. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The Unremembered Places - Patrick Baker

I thought I was reading this book in a very timely way, but I see it's been sitting on my desk for almost 4 months which is another reminder - which I didn't really need - of how strange time feels this year. I saw the first Halloween things out the other day, but there are still shops with mothers day and Easter displays which haven't yet re-opened. It's the first year that I've been out of retail in decades as well, and so the first year that September hasn't been the start of a serious gearing up for Christmas. For me that's meant at home as well as at work because it was always a coping mechanism, but I don't know what I have to cope with yet.

All of this was at the back of my mind as I read 'The Unremembered Places' and have undoubtedly coloured the way I've understood it. The subtitle of this book is 'Exploring Scotland's Wild Histories', which in this case means the remains of human history in otherwise wild places, but could I think mean a variety of other things too. I find it hard to associate human and wild unless we go a very long way back, and that's often the point in the book too.

It opens with an attempt to locate some caves in Glen Loin. It's night time, and wet, the author and his companion are looking for the caves they intend to spend the night in care of some written instructions and a torch - a popular place with climbing groups in the 1920s and 30s when they functioned as a sort of hostel. They're empty when Baker and his friend arrive but are a perfect example of bits of history which haven't exactly been forgotten, but are not part of common memory either - unremembered is the perfect word for this. Places which might be widely considered remarkable but somehow have not caught the public imagination and so remain obscure.

The chapter on The Slate Isles (Islands of Industry) are an example that particularly resonated. I've been to Seil island, which I found oddly appealing, but it was an end of the road sort of stop. Somewhere that you could get a rib to see Corryvreckan from (I have no desire to do this) and to stretch your legs before the next stint in the car. I knew nothing of the flooded slate mines at the time, the way some of the islands had been hollowed out, or the catastrophic storm which hit the islands in the 19th century. A visit to Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth is another high point. It's got an interesting, and not entirely happy human history and following Baker's personal response to the place with his efforts to rationalise them are really interesting.

The 'Land of the Left Behind' is possibly the most troubling. Here there's an emotional response to a ruined village which had been cleared. You can't not address the clearances in a book like this, but sometimes I wish you could because they're still such an emotive subject, one where resentment has remained ever green - and not without reason.

I got into the beginnings of a twitter argument last week with someone far to gracious to let it descend into more than beginnings. It started with a BBC article about people moving to the highlands and islands in the search of a better quality of life in a covid world. This article was about people who had sold up and moved, but time after time that morning I saw responses hostile to second home owners and people coming in to dilute the local culture. Individually the responses wouldn't have registered, but cumulatively they became troubling.

There's plenty of talk about how to re culture the highlands, and a tension between that and re wilding them. Baker's book gently raises questions for me about re culturing - who will there be space for, who would be welcome, and who would be seen as an interloper. The answer is probably different in landscapes that were cleared, to landscapes that were abandoned, but if pushed I suspect to many people would have views about who might belong and who doesn't.

It bothers me because it's personal - I was born in Scotland but have spent most of my life south of the border. I sound English, my parents are English, pre Scottish Independence referendum I knew I was British, but it's become more complicated since then. All of which is incidental to 'The Unremembered Places' but it's the sort of book that encourages all sorts of thoughts.

Baker is an excellent guide to the places he explores, curious, honest, informative, and charming in equal measure (the chickens of Inchkeith will not easily be forgotten). He's made me think a lot about unremembered places (it's become a concept that I'm a little bit obsessed by) in Shetland, and how I respond to landscapes and evidence of human hands upon it. It's an excellent book whose relevance goes far beyond the Scottish landscape it explores, and which I strongly recommend.